The Legend of the Destruction of Kash
In a period long past of Kordofan, of Darfur to the west, Ethiopia eastward, Nubia to the north, and Darnuba to the south, four kings at that time ruled an empire in this realm: the first king dwelt in Nubia, the second in Ethiopia, a third in Kordofan, and the fourth in Darfur; but the richest of the four was the Nap of Napata in Kordofan, whose capital stood near the village now called Hophrat an Nahas.
The Nap of Napata was the possessor of all the copper and gold of the region. His gold and copper were carried to Nubia, to be sent to the great kings of the West. Envoys arrived in his court from eastward, by ship, from over sea. And to the south he held domain over many peoples: these forged for him iron weapons and furnished slaves by the many thousand for his court. But now, although this king was the richest man on earth, his life was the saddest and shortest of all mankind, for each Nap of Napata could rule but a brief span of years.
Throughout his reign the priests every night observed the stars, made offerings, kindled sacred fires. They were not to miss a night of these prayers and offerings, lest they should lose track of the stars and not know when, according to practice, the king was to be killed. The custom had come down from time out of mind. Night by night, year after year, the priests were to keep watch for the day when the king should be killed.
And so, once again, as so many times before, that day arrived.
The hind legs of sacrificial bulls were slashed; the fires of the land were extinguished; women were locked indoors; and the priests kindled the new fire. They summoned the new king. He was the son of the sister of the one just killed, and his name, this time, was Akaf: but Akaf was the king in whose period the ancient customs of the land were changed, and people say that this change was the cause of the destruction of Napata.
Now the first official act of every Nap of Napata was that of deciding what persons should accompany him on the path of death. They were to be chosen from those dearest to him, and the first named would be the one to lead the rest. A slave named Far-li-mas, celebrated for his storytelling art, had arrived in the court some years before from over sea, sent as a gift by a king of the distant East. And the new Nap of Napata said: “This man shall be my first companion. He will entertain me until the time for my death; and make me happy after death.”
When Far-li-mas heard, he was not afraid. He only said to himself: “It is God’s will.”
And it was, moreover, the custom at that time in Napata that a flame should be kept burning perpetually, just as today in certain secluded places in Darfur; and for its maintenance the priests were to designate a young boy and girl. These should watch the fire, be absolutely chaste throughout their lives, and be killed, not together with the king, but immediately after, at the moment of the kindling of the new flame. And so, now, when the new fire had been established for Akaf, the priests chose as vestal for the coming term the youngest sister of the new king. Her name was Sali, Sali-fu-Hamr. But she was afraid of death and, when she heard how the choice had fallen, was appalled.
The king lived, for a while, happily, in great delight, enjoying the wealth and majesty of his domain. He spent each evening with his friends and with whatever visitors may have come as envoys to the court. But one fateful night God allowed him to realize that with each of these joyous days he was moving one step closer to certain death; and he was filled with fear. He was unable to turn the dreadful thought away and became depressed. Whereupon God sent him a second thought: that of letting Far-li-mas tell a story.
Far-li-mas, therefore, was summoned. He appeared, and the king said: “Far-li-mas, today the day has arrived when you must cheer me. Tell me a story.” “The performance is quicker than the command,” said Far-li-mas, and began. The king listened; the guests also listened. The king and his guests forgot to drink, forgot to breathe. The slaves forgot to serve. They, too, forgot to breathe. For the art of Far-li-mas was like hashish, and, when he had ended, all were as though enveloped in a delightful swoon. The king had forgotten his thoughts of death. Nor had any realized that they were being held from twilight until dawn; but when the guests departed they found the sun in the sky.
Akaf and his company, that day, could hardly wait till evening; and thereafter, every day, Far-li-mas was summoned to perform. The report of his tales spread throughout the court, the city, the land, and the king presented him, each day, with the gift of a beautiful garment. The guests and envoys gave him gold and jewels. He became rich. And when he now went through the streets he was followed by a troop of slaves. The people loved him. They began to bare their breasts to him, in sign of honor.
Sali, hearing of the wonder, sent a message to her brother. “Let me,” she asked, “just once, hear Far-li-mas tell a story!”
“The fulfillment goes before the wish,” the king replied. And Sali came. Far-li-mas saw Sali and for a moment lost his senses. All that he saw was Sali. All that Sali saw was Far-li-mas. The king said: “But why do you not begin your story? Do you not know any more?” Removing his eyes from Sali, the storyteller began. And his tale was first like the hashish that induces a gentle stupefaction, but then like the hashish that carries men through unconsciousness to sleep. After a time the guests were sleeping; the king was sleeping. They were hearing the story only in dream, until they were carried entirely away, and only Sali remained awake. Her eyes were fixed on Far-li-mas. She was filled completely with Far-li-mas. And when he had finished the tale and arose, she, too, arose.
Far-li-mas moved toward Sali: Sali toward Far-li-mas. He embraced her: she embraced him, and she said: “We do not want to die.” He laughed into her eyes. “It is yours to command,” he said. “Show me the way.” And she answered: “Leave me now. I shall think of a way, and when the way has been found, shall call you.” They parted. And the king and his guests lay there asleep.
That day, Sali went to the high priest. “Who is it determines the time when the old fire is put out,” she asked, “and the new one kindled?”
“That is decided by God,” answered the priest.
Sali asked: “But how does God communicate his will to you?”
“Every night we keep watch on the stars,” the priest said. “We do not let them out of our sight. Every night we observe the moon and we know, from night to night, which stars are approaching the moon and which moving away. It is by this that we know.”
Sali said: “And you must do that every night? What happens of a night when nothing can be seen?”
The priest said: “On such a night we make many offerings. If a number of nights should pass when nothing could be seen, we should not be able to find our stars again.”
Sali said: “Would you then not know when the fire should be extinguished?”
“No,” said the priest, “we should not be in a position, then, to fulfill our office.”
Whereupon Sali said to him: “God’s works are great. The greatest, however, is not his writing in the sky. His greatest work is our life on earth. This I learned last night.”
“What do you mean?” said the priest.
And Sali answered: “God gave Far-li-mas the gift of telling tales in a way that has never before been equaled. It is greater than his writing in the sky.”
The priest retorted: “You are wrong.”
But Sali said to him: “The moon and stars, these you know. But have you heard the tales of Far-li-mas?”
“No,” said the priest, “I have not heard them.”
She asked: “How, then, can you pronounce a judgment? I assure you that even you priests, when listening, will forget to keep watch of the stars.”
“Sister of the king, are you quite sure?”
She answered: “Only prove to me that I am wrong and that the writing in the sky is greater and stronger than this life on earth.”
“That is just what I shall prove,” said the priest.
And the priest then sent word to the young king. “Allow the priests to come to your palace tonight and listen to the tales of Far-li-mas from the setting to the rising of the sun.”
The king consented, and Sali sent word to Far-li-mas: “Tonight you must do as you did before. This will be the way.”
And so, when the sun was approaching the hour of its setting and the king, his guests, and the envoys were assembling, they were joined by all the priests, who bared the upper parts of their bodies and prostrated themselves on the ground. The high priest said: “It has been declared that the tales of Far-li-mas are the greatest of God’s works.”
The king said to him: “Y o u may decide for yourselves.”
“Y o u will pardon us, O King,” prayed the high priest, “if we depart from your palace at the rising of the moon, to fulfill the duties of our office.”
And the king replied: “Act according to God’s will.”
Whereupon, the priests took their places.
The guests and the envoys took their places. The hall was filled with people and Far-li-mas made a way between them. “Begin,” said the king. “Begin, my dear Companion in Death.” Far-li-mas looked at Sali, Sali at Far-li-mas; and the king said: “But why do you not begin your story? Do you not know any more?”
Removing his eyes from Sali, the storyteller began.
And his tale commenced as the sun was going down. It was like the hashish that beclouds and transports. It was like the hashish that induces faintness. It was like the hashish that sends one into a dead faint. So that when the moon rose, the king, his guests, and the envoys lay asleep, and the priests too lay in a sound sleep. Only Sali was awake, drawing in with her eyes sweet words from the lips of Far-li-mas.
The tale was ended, Far-li-mas rose and moved toward Sali; she toward him, and she said: “Let me kiss these lips, from which come words that are so sweet.” She pressed close to his lips, and Far-li-mas said to her: “Let me embrace this form that has given me the power.” They embraced, entwining arms and legs, and lay awake among those that slumbered, knowing such happiness as breaks the heart. Rejoicing, Sali asked: “Do you see the way?”
“Yes,” the other replied, “I do.” And they left the hall. So that in the palace there remained only those that slept.
Sali came to the high priest the next morning. “So now tell me,” she said, “whether you were right in your condemnation of my judgment.”
He answered: “I shall not give my reply today. We must listen once more to Far-li-mas; for yesterday we were not prepared.”
And so, the priests attended to their prayers and offerings. The fetlocks of many bullocks were slashed, and throughout the day, without pause, prayers were recited in the temple. When evening came they arrived in the palace.
Sali sat again beside the king, her brother, and Far-li-mas commenced his tale. So that once again, before the dawn had come, all slept, the king, his guests, the envoys, and the priests, enwrapped in rapture. But Sali and Far-li-mas were awake among them and sucked joy from each other’s lips. And they embraced again, entwining arms and legs. And thus it continued, from day to day, for many days.
But if there had gone out among the people, at first, the news of Far-li-mas’ tales, now there went out among them the rumor that the priests were neglecting their offerings and prayer. Uneasiness began to spread abroad, until, one day; a distinguished gentleman of the city paid a visit to the high priest.
“When do we celebrate the next festival of the season?” he asked. “I am planning a voyage and wish to return for the feast. How long have I got?”
The priest was embarrassed; for it had been many nights since he had seen the moon and stars. He replied: “Wait only one day; then I shall tell you.”
“My thanks,” said the man. “I shall return tomorrow.”
The priests were summoned and their chief inquired: “Which of you, recently, has observed the course of the stars?”
They were silent. Not a single voice replied; for all had been listening to the tales of Far-li-mas.
“Is there not one among you that has observed the course of the stars and position of the moon?”
They sat perfectly still, until one, who was very old, arose and spoke. “We were enchanted,” he said, “by Far-li-mas. Not one of us can tell you when the feasts are to be celebrated, when the fire is to be quenched, and when the new fire is to be kindled.”
The high priest was terrified. “How can this be?” he cried. “What shall I tell the people?”
The very old priest replied: “It is the will of God. But if Far-li-mas has not been sent by God, let him be killed; for as long as he lives and speaks, everything will listen.”
“What, however, shall I tell the man?” the high priest demanded.
Whereat all were silent. And the company, then, silently dispersed.
The high priest went to Sali. “What was it,” he asked, “that you said to me on that first day?”
She answered, “I said, ‘God’s works are great. The greatest, however, is not his writing in the sky, but the life on earth.’ Y o u rejected my word as untrue. But now, today, tell me whether I lied.”
The priest said to her: “Far-li-mas is against God. He must die.”
But Sali answered: “Far-li-mas is the Companion in Death of the king.”
The priest said: “I shall speak with the king.”
And Sali answered: “God dwells in my brother. Ask him what he thinks.”
The high priest proceeded to the palace and addressed him self to the king, whose sister, Sali, now sat beside him. The high priest bared his chest before the king, and, throwing himself on the ground, prayed: “Pardon, Akaf, O my King!”
“Tell me,” said the king, “what is in your heart.”
“Speak to me,” the high priest said, “of Far-li-mas your Companion in Death.”
The king said to him: “God sent me, first, the thought of the approaching day of my death, and I was afraid. God sent me, next, the recollection of Far-li-mas, who was sent to me as a gift from the land eastward, beyond the sea. God confused my understanding with the first thought. With the second he enlivened my spirits and made me, and all others, happy. So I gave beautiful garments to Far-li-mas. My friends gave him gold and jewels. He distributed much of this among the people. He is rich, as he deserves to be; and the people love him, as I do.”
“Far-li-mas,” the high priest said, “must die. Far-li-mas is disrupting the revealed order.”
Said the king, “I die before him.”
But the priest said: “The will of God will give the decision in this matter.”
“So be it! And to this,” the king replied, “the whole people shall bear witness.”
The priest departed, and Sali spoke to Akaf. “O my King! O my brother! The end of the road is near. The companion of your death will be the awakener of your life. However, I require him for myself, as the fulfillment of my destiny.”
“My sister Sali,” said Akaf, “then you may take him.”
Heralds went out through the city and cried in every quarter that Far-li-mas, that evening, would speak in the great square before all. A veiled throne for the king was erected in the large plaza between the royal palace and the buildings of the priests, and when evening came, the people streamed from all sides and settled everywhere, round about. Thousands upon thousands assembled. The priests arrived and took their places. The guests and the envoys arrived and were seated. Sali sat beside her brother, Akaf, the veiled king; and Far-li-mas then was called. He arrived. His entire retinue came behind him, all clothed in dazzling garments, and they placed themselves opposite the priests. Far-li-mas, himself, bowed before the veiled king, and assumed his seat.
The high priest arose. “Far-li-mas has destroyed our established order,” he said. “Tonight will show if this was by the will of God.” And he resumed his place.
Far-li-mas removed his eyes from Sali, gazed about over the multitude, glanced at the priests, and arose. “I am a servant of God,” he said, “and believe that all evil in the human heart is repugnant to God. Tonight,” said Far-li-mas, “God will decide.” And he commenced his tale.
His words were at first as sweet as honey, his voice penetrating the multitude as the first rain of summer the parched earth. From his tongue there went forth a perfume more exquisite than musk or incense: his head shone like a light, the only luminary in a black night. And his tale in the beginning was like the hashish that makes people happy when awake; then it became like the hashish of a dreamer. Toward morning he raised his voice, however, and his words swelled like the rising Nile in the hearts of the people: they were for some as pacifying as the entrance into Paradise, but as frightening for others as the Angel of Death. Joy filled the spirits of some, horror the hearts of others. And the closer the moment of dawn, the more powerful became his voice, the louder its reverberations within the people, until the hearts of the multitude reared against each other as in a battle; stormed against each other like the clouds in the heavens of a tempestuous night. Lightning bolts of anger and thunderclaps of wrath collided.
But when the sun rose and the tale of Far-li-mas closed, unspeakable astonishment filled the confused minds of all; for when those who remained alive looked about them their glances fell upon the priests, and the priests lay dead upon the ground.
To be continued…
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