Excerpt from CRUX ANSATA

A Novel

The rain was cold, although the evening air still had a hint of summer warmness. Ansata sprinted for the narrow street. She breathed deeply through her nose as she went, feeling the energy of her breathe. She needed this centering.

As she came out the other side of the street, she was on Hecate Road. Hecate Cross was the crossroads where it intersected with the avenue that led to the University. As she walked, she didn't see any clue as to where she was to go, but then she saw a figure cloaked in rain gear motioning to her from the steps to a house. Ansata wished she'd had rain gear on. Nothing like having a dripping wet Death Priestess to do one's final rites. But she doubted the one who was about to have them done cared about her state.

She stopped before the figure.

"Hello, I'm Ansata Wist from the Bureau."

"Thank you for coming so quickly, Priestess. This way," the figure said. She was a woman, and her voice had a thick grieving sound to it. "It's my brother. The healer's with him right now, but she says it's time to call you. He's in a coma now."

Ansata was about to ask from what - although it was in some senses irrelevant to her duty, she still liked to be prepared for what she was about to encounter. But they entered into the house right then, and Ansata saw that the place was chaotic with grief. Several others were in the main room with startled and teary faces. A healer, in her white robes, stood in a doorway and held a beckoning hand out towards Ansata when she saw her.

"This way," the healer said, and Ansata thought how much the woman looked like Dr. Jacinth, but then, Ansata supposed, Death Priestesses probably looked much like each other, too.

There was one question Ansata needed to ask. She turned to the sister. "Was he devoted to any particular deity?"

"No, not really. He wasn't very," she hesitated. "spiritual."

"That's all right. Is there anything else I should know about him before I begin?"

Bewildered, she shook her head. "No. I can't think of anything. He was a good friend," she said and broke out crying. Ansata squeezed the woman's shoulder as she made her way to where the healer indicated.

Ansata entered a room that smelled like sickness. The room was dark, candles lit, and incense burned but didn't mask the sickroom smell. Frankincense, Ansata thought. A figure lay prone beneath a thin white sheet. They had covered half his face with the sheet, so that only tufts of blond hair flowed out from beneath it. His breathing was shallow, but yet, in the darkened room, the rhythm of his breathing could be seen as the sheet slightly moved up and down.

"I will leave you in private," the healer said. "Blessed Be, Priestess."

"Blessed Be, Priestess." Ansata replied.

The door shut, leaving her alone with the nearly dead as always. Even when the ceremony, by necessity, had to take place in public, the Death Priestess always had to work alone. Ansata raised her arms and intoned:

"By all that is pure, by all the Goddess gives, sanctify this space." By all that is pure, under the guide of the jackal Anubis, sanctify this space, she thought.

She went to the body and took it into her arms, gathering the human figure up with the sheet. As she picked him up and let the inert body roll back into her arms, she saw his face. She would have gasped, but she was too well-trained to betray that kind of emotion during a ritual. She felt her pupils dilate, though, or she imagined them to. In her arms was the boy she had first seen just barely a month before at the Wist's Summer Solstice party.

They hadn't spoken that night of the party, but she felt a bond with him through the eye contact they had made. Through the course of the evening, she had tried to wind her way to him, but the Wistian parties were always big frenzied affairs, and she had been distracted more than once from her mission. Still, she remembered how he had looked at her and how he had smiled shyly. They would have known each other given the chance. They might have loved one another-she had thought of that and of him a few times since the party and was looking forward to another chance encounter. This, though, was not what she'd meant.

She looked down at his fever-racked face and wondered what had happened to him in the space of a month. He wasn't contagious now, she knew, otherwise the healer would have given her precautionary garb to wear. She was glad he wasn't contagious so she didn't have to wear the inhibiting mask. Her rituals always seemed stilted when she was covered with such clothes, although it was, of course, common sense to protect herself.

She cradled him in her arms. His face was gaunt. His head listlessly fell back, his blond hair spreading and tangling over her arm, forming a surreal crown around him. She could feel his weakening state, sensing how close he was to going. Her assessment of how close he was to death was in no way scientific, but after years of doing this job, she was very good at guessing. There had been times when a healer had called her in to do the ritual, but she had known the person was coming back from death's edge. She wasn't always right, but more often than not, she could ascertain a person's life force in the sound and touch of their pulse.

She quieted her mind and pushed from it the fact that she was glad, even under these circumstances, to have a chance to hold him. That thought needed to go right away. The ritual must be pure and unbiased. She had to forget her connection, however tenuous it was.

This was hard, though.

"Blessed be those who go through the door for it is a long and arduous journey. Blessed be the incarnation that draws to its close. The door is now open for you." She paused. At this point in the ritual, those who were conscious generally spoke a few words. Most people had some words prepared for this edge of death, whether it be an informal and simple plea to a higher force or whether they had memorized a complicated and specific litany. Ansata would hear their final prayers and join them because she was versed in almost all the usual death prayers. In cases like this, though, where there was no specific goddess or other philosophy chosen and there was no way to question the dying, the door was Ansata's responsibility alone, a responsibility she never took lightly.

"The door is open for you," she repeated. "At the threshold, you must pause and you must remember. Who you are comes from what you think. What you think becomes who you are. The threshold is a time of trembling, but remember that trembling is excitement and not fear. Tremble and know. Tremble in strength. Do not think of the petty thoughts of your life nor of what wasn't. Know and feel what can be through that door. Open that door with the expectation of a child looking for presents. Go through that door and look. As you wish, so shall it be. You will not be alone. There are those through that door, waiting to guide you, to show you. I am but the first guide, and I show you but the first door."

She pointed to the door she saw in her mind's eye. "They are close now."

The boy's breath had become severely labored. There were more prayers Ansata could have said, many more words. Generally, she would repeat several different sets of words for an hour or so or until the person actually passed through the door. The boy was about to go, though.

Launching into the final phase, she drew several banishing shapes in the air above his head with her right forefinger. As she made the shapes, she said:

"Blessed be knowledge for knowledge is strength.

"Blessed be strength for strength is beauty."

He stopped breathing. He stopped being.

She continued and finished:

"Blessed be beauty for beauty is mercy.

"Blessed be mercy because mercy is understanding."

"Blessed be understanding because understanding is knowledge.

"Blessed be."

Then she lent over and kissed the air above his mouth. She did not actually touch the flesh, but the kiss was an intake of air, a ritual taking of his breath. She placed his body gently on the bed. From her pocket, she took out two drawstring pouches, one black and one red. From the black one, she drew out a yellowish clear stone. She blew the breath onto the stone and put it in the red bag. Later, she would turn the stone in to the Bureau. Breath stones were collected and later given to midwives.

The ritual was over, but she lingered in the room. She stared down at his face for several minutes before drawing the sheet up over his head. She snuffed all but one candle out with her fingertips.

She left the room, closing the door gently behind her. Several pairs of eyes leapt at her. She had an unwelcome urge to laugh. That was not like her, although she'd felt that way before.

"It is done," she said softly.

There were some wails, and blurred movement before her eyes as people fell into each other's arms and cried out. The healer touched Ansata's shoulder.

"May he be with the Goddess."

"May he be safe through the door," she said. She wanted to slap the healer soundly on her back and say "What say we pack it in and go get a beer?" but that would hardly be decorous. Instead, she bowed slightly to the assemblage, uttered her condolences, and asked if she might be shown the washroom.

Some of them looked startled. She wondered if they'd ever seen a death priestess at work before. Most of them were young-perhaps they were students at the University. The healer answered Ansata's request, though, and showed her the way.

She washed up quickly and then came back into the main room to say her farewells. She felt old and stilted, although she was only a few years older than any of them. She bowed formally.

The woman who had fetched her in from the rain ran to her, trying to press some money into her hand, but Ansata refused. It was customary to offer the Death Priestess something and customary for the Death Priestess to refuse. The woman, though, really seemed to want to give Ansata something. She was pointing wildly at the tea cakes, coffee, and beer they were all fortifying themselves with, but Ansata said no and no again.

She bowed again and left.

Then she found herself out in the rain. She drew her beeper out and pressed the code that would signal them the ritual was completed. They'd send a van out for the body.

It was raining hard now and had become colder. Ansata hadn't worn proper rain gear since she'd been in the van or inside all day, and now walking through the rainy dark streets, she felt chilled. She knew this part of town fairly well, though, since it was not that far from where she had grown up.

At the end of the street, she saw a blood-red neon sign "Hail Sekhmet Ale On Tap." The place, Den of Iniquity, she'd never been in before, but the name sounded just right and the ale was a welcome sight.

"Hail Sekhmet," she said and went inside.

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