by Celia Neri
I was spending the night sitting on the fly-over in Gizah, watching the cars never-ending flow, like a river of rust and exhausts, punctuated by the concertina of horns. A couple of men were on my right further on, sitting at the edge of the road, heads bent in worship to their mobiles. They were probably waiting for a collective taxi or a client. Neither ever came. The slums below were teeming with night life—those who hung together watching TV and drinking tea in a makeshift courtyard; those who crept around, going for a theft or looking for a fight; night workers going late to work; day workers leaving early.
Yasara came to me with dawn. It was a greenish morning, like a viridian band emerging from the Nile delta and tinting every red brick block in mud colours.
“You’re always here, aren’t you, Śūnya?” she told me.
“Metaphysically or rhetorically speaking?” I said in return.
She barked a laugh.
Yasara and I have an understanding. I stick to the in-between, as befits my role as zero, the void made tangible by a sign. Mine are the slums and its million of refugees, lingering neither here nor there, not really being part of Egypt, and still a physical presence in it. Hers are those who possess their names; who have a family or friends; those who build their tombs during their lives, preparing for their unlife. The unlife itself still belongs to the old gods and neither Yasara nor me venture there without a good reason.
That’s why I flinched when she told me, “I need to cross over to the unlife and I need you to help me.”
“Why in the name of queens would I help you?”
“I think I’ve found someone like you,” she said.
Now, that piqued my curiosity. There’s no one like me. Literally. I am nothingness incarnated and my presence itself is a paradox. You can’t have two signs indicating nothingness. That would presume two distinct natures of it, which is what I tried to explain to her while rolling a cigarette.
“… So,” I concluded, “It’s only because I respect you that I don’t entirely dismiss the idea out of hand. It’s not exactly your style to say something that isn’t.”
“Both is and isn’t, in this case,” she replied.
Well, that was worth rising from that comfortable stretch of asphalt and following her down into the city.
We walked along the canal for a while, its banks littered with plastic bags, the concrete arches of the fly-over dotting the way. Someone had had their little joke numbering them with black paint: ٥ , ٤ , ٣ . The starting point was a 0 under the stretch of asphalt I usually haunted on the fly-over. The slums inhabitants knew who to contact when they had a problem: I could arrange for things, things that would be lost, that would disappear, not gone, but somehow an embarrassed official just couldn’t find them back—eviction papers, visa refusals— in exchange of a bit of their sun-touched skin.
Some of the men we passed greeted me with a nod; the rare women acknowledging me with their eyes.
At some point, we turned into a leafy street. We had left the slums and we were now in Yasara’s realm. The people in the streets were hurrying along, men and women, their eyes focused on the mobile in their hands. The driving seemed slightly less anarchistic, slightly less noisy. Here, no one knew me but I garnered a few smiles from people. Probably trying to score a liberal gold star for being friendly to a non binary person whose appearance conforms to their stereotype of us. Yasara passed unnoticed, just another woman in a pair of jeans, her black hair knotted, a scarf at her neck.
She led me to Tahrir Square and the Museum of Egyptian Antiques. We stopped at the high black iron grilles.
“Are we going to steal a statue, make a fortune and move together to Heliopolis?” I asked, sarcasm in my voice. I started rolling another cigarette.
“Someone is going to let us in.”
“At this time?” I looked at the morning sky—the sun was still hidden in the east, but the colours had now turned to gold. Sand was in the air.
“Djemil. The man has expensive habits. He agreed to this in exchange for a bit of help.”
I knew what kind of help she provided—a wife who would be too busy with her job to look too closely at the bank accounts for a little while; a mother who would decide to sell jewellery and share the money between her children. All the little accidents of life, windfalls and warts alike, were within her province. She was born with the name Al-Zahr but she changed it when she transitioned to a woman. Yasara is the answer to probabilities.
Someone moved towards us from the other side of the grilles, crossing the garden.
Djemil was a slip of a man who looked shifty, the shadow of a moustache under his nose. I thought he seemed as flimsy as a partition wall in a cheap apartment.
He nodded to us and opened the grilles slightly so we could slip in.
“Isn’t there a less obvious entrance than the one for the tourists?” I asked him.
“Too many people there at this time,” he said, looking nervously behind him.
He led us to the shop at the back, and then through a door that brought us on the main floor of the museum.
I shivered. All these pieces, taken from tombs and gathered, all still sun-touched, eternal life made light, clinging to them. I was hungry but I refrained from feeding. These belonged to the long since departed to the unlife. The old gods don’t take it kindly when I try to feed on them. They claim them and their possessions, even if they are scattered throughout the museum or in private collections all over the world.
“You know where to go, right?” asked Djemil. “Because I must return…”
“Sure, leave. Your case will be taken care of,” said Yasara, heading upstairs without a backward glance. I climbed after her. The sound of our feet resounded on the wide steps of the immense marble staircase.
We passed the entrance to the mummies room and the Tuya and Yuya artefacts faster than a group of tourists. Yasara led me to a small dusty room on the left of the main corridor. Sun was coming in from a high window, the golden ray kissing the small statues shelved behind glass doors. It fell squarely on the sign on which was written in Arabic, in French and in English, ‘Gods’.
I hesitated in the doorframe. I like doorframes—neither here nor there. I felt safer in this doorframe. Tourists may contemplate delightfully at those statuettes but the representation of the divinities in their various aspects isn’t something void incarnated enjoy. They are the whole of the human experience—aspirations, hope, grief, pain, chance, the quest for justice. All sun-touched and worshipped for centuries. The gods may reside in the unlife, but these avatars were doorways to their power and selves.
Yasara turned and looked at me, a frown on her face.
“Come on!” she said impatiently. “You need to see it.”
I’ll never deny I’m a bit of a coward when it comes to the divine. From what I’ve heard, they fear me too. This kind of situation where we avoid each other suited me entirely. Considering it had been more than thirteen centuries since I last encountered one of them, I think it suited them just fine too.
But I try, from time to time, to impress Yasara. I couldn’t stand there and find yet another excuse—not after the disastrous event at the mosque back in 1972.
I came inside the room and she pointed at a shelf holding a bric-a-brac of statuettes. It took me a minute or two to find it. Hidden behind an avatar of Bastet and one of Sobek, there was a statuette representing a divinity I had never seen. It wasn’t one of the ancient ones, from any pantheon I knew; it wasn’t one from the modern faiths either. It looked like an antique, in dark basalt, not higher than fifteen centimetres. The figure was androgynous; the face smooth, barely hinting at nose, lips and eyes; the hair knotted tight, in a very uncharacteristic fashion for such an old object.
“Who is it?” I whispered, my voice stolen by awe and curiosity.
“At first, I thought it was you,” she said. “But then I looked at it closer.”
Taking that for an invitation to do the same, I peered at the statuette. I saw what she meant. At eir wrists and ankles, e wore what could only be shackles. I noticed that the card next to it considered them bracelets, and the lack of gendered details had been interpreted as vandalism, suggesting it was a statuette of Aton. I knew better. If I had statuettes made in my effigy, humans would represent me like this, minus the shackles. Not that I need a statuette. I have a sign made in my effigy—or maybe I’m made from the sign—and it dances in every spreadsheet, in every international transaction, in every marketplace, all over the world at every second, a dot signifying nothing and meaning everything.
“Look at the shackles. The markings suggest e has been imprisoned by Seth.”
I groaned. Seth is a bastard, nothing but brute force. And he resides in the unlife. Apparently Yasara was suggesting a rescue party to the unlife, to steal a prisoner of Seth, and bring em back here, on the assumption e is another me. Worse and worse.
I didn’t reply and made a gesture to nervously roll another cigarette, but she took my hand and dragged me out of the museum, back into Cairo.
Seizing the chance, grabbing the opportunities… Yasara always lived in urgency. I only followed reluctantly.
The pavement was spilling into the street, drivers and pedestrians navigating each other as if in a ballet swirl with strange rules, the ever present honking providing a partition sheet to the affair.
“Now what?” I asked Yasara as we walked in the flow, weaving our way among pedestrians and cars.
“Now we cross over,” she answered and there was no room for discussion.
Ours tend to be a symmetrical relationship, but from time to time, she gets something into her head and I have no other choice but to do as she says. She’s the only one who’s been around about as long as I have. Immortality tends to create bonds. Sometimes I imagine us, sitting atop the pyramids—as if I would ever attempt such an arduous climb—and watching centuries and civilisations passing by.
We caught a bus heading back to Gizah. Sitting on the faux-leather-really-knifed seat, I was gazing outside, contemplating life of Great Cairo—young women wearing brightly coloured hijabs, school books in their hands; people selling trinkets to strayed tourists; others carrying groceries home, a mobile to their ear, their hair flying in the breeze; men sitting on the pavement, sharing tea or a hookah; young persons on motorbikes, zooming in and out of traffic, three, four on the bike; friends holding hands.
The cross-over site was at the Pyramids plateau. When we reached it, we bought a ticket and lost ourselves among the tourists who were taking pictures of eternity made stone. We passed the time until the site closed. Patrols started their rounds as Yasara and I, invisible to them, headed down, past the Sphinx, to the temple at the bottom of the hill.
It had a literal route to the unlife, built by I don’t remember which pharaoh. A narrow steep slope of stone between two high walls, leading towards the pyramids, the route the spirit was supposed to take to reach the unlife. Egyptians from that era weren’t big on metaphors. It suited us since it created a permanent way to cross over to the unlife.
As soon as Khonsou rose in the sky, we ran up the slope, our footsteps echoing between the walls until the sound faded, the walls faded, and we found ourselves in the unlife.
As glamorous as the unlife may sound, I find its dominant shades of green and blue extremely unnerving. I like the bright colours of life—the blue of the sky, the yellow of a stone polished by sand and time, the pink of a sunset, the green of the acacias fronds. In the unlife, it feels as if everything is incomplete.
Of course, those who have prepared for the unlife would tell you the contrary.
The unlife is as full of people, rushing here and there, as Cairo. A powerful minister from the Third Dynasty was riding in his chair, carried by his slaves, eating sweet and sticky dates. A powerful minister for Health was riding in his Mercedes-Benz, snacking on cognac and movie stars. The street was full of unlives, each in their own bubble of idealised untime.
Except in Al’s case.
Al wasn’t called Al. But the first time he met us, he thought Al was Yasara’s name and Zhar her family name. Yasara and I sniggered for a couple of decades about his mistake. Al is a white American and no one has any idea how he got caught here. He built no tomb during his life; he didn’t believe in the ancient gods nor followed Egyptian traditions. The man was on holidays when he slipped on a sandy path in Abu Simbel and cracked his head open on a stone. He hung around, a sorry sight in his beige costume while around him people cavorted in material riches. If there ever was a lumpenproletariat in the unlife, Al would be it, in its entirety.
“Yasara! Śūnya!” He waved furiously at us as soon as we entered the unlife.
We reached him with a couple of steps.
“I was hoping you’d come back at some point and I was waiting,” he said.
Yasara put on her pity face. I could almost hear the “Aww” in her head. She feels too much compassion for Al, methinks.
“Wanna come and see Basset Aziz? He’s been gigging every other day lately. Must have been buried with half a dozen different guitars. And a support band. And a choir.”
Al sounded mildly enthusiastic, which was a refreshing change from his usual moping. But Yasara cut him short.
“Have you seen any of the old gods recently?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. “I crossed paths with Anubis hardly a few Râ revolutions ago.”
I looked above us. Anyone mentions Râ in the unlife, and it’s a Pavlovian reflex for me: I check. And there he was, as always—a luminous disc hanging in front of a blueish-green backdrop; a giant scarab floating above us was pushing him towards the mouth of a woman encompassing the sky. A sight from nightmares. I shuddered.
“What about Seth?” asked Yasara.
“I’m not sure…” Al looked thoughtful. “I know at some point he was dwelling near his own statue in the temple, but I don’t think he’s still there.”
The good thing about the unlife is its flexible geography. I feel entirely at home with it. To postulate space, you have to postulate time. It doesn’t exist in the unlife, therefore travel doesn’t exist either. You just translate from one place to the other. Back in my early days, I had tried to see how far the unlife extended, but after a while, I’d hit only the desert or the sea.
Yasara looked at me in a pleading way. She likes what is or could be; the unlife geography gives her headaches. I knew it meant I’d have to provide transport for everyone. I grabbed her hand and Al’s, and we found ourselves in front of the temple. Its walls of stone rose higher than we could see, lost in a haze of dark blue unsky. A smooth face of solidity, affirming its power and its presence.
I hate this place. It’s like it’s vibrating slightly, always, giving off a sense of things cut short and never achieved. Like decimal numbers. I always feel hopeless in front of them. But there was something more today. A sort of echo.
I stopped moving. Beside me, Yasara looked at me and whispered, “Can you feel em?” I nodded.
I had never gone inside the unlife temple. As a principle, I avoid temples, mosques, synagogues or churches. Religions say that what isn’t in the material world exists nonetheless whereas I’m the materiality of what doesn’t exist. Whenever I’ve set foot in place of worship, it was almost as if the stones themselves were trying to push me out.
The unlife temple was a forest of colossal columns rising out from the ground and onto the sky, in a mad perspective. Column after column, each a giant, each a weight on your body, your mind, your senses. Here and there, statues represented the gods.
Yasara and I moved forward. I could hear the stones whispering the song of water caught between them. It was a warning to heed. I kept expecting the guardians to show up, but no one was here. This absence was as unnerving as their presence would have been terrifying.
“Remind me again why I’m doing this?” I said to Yasara.
“Because I told you to,” she replied. Irrefutable logic.
The stones whispered and sang and hissed as we progressed through the hypostyle hall. In a chamber to our left, we finally found Seth’s statue. The god himself was nowhere around and I sighed in relief.
Yasara stood in front of the statue. She was barely reaching to the ankles of the god’s effigy and watching it intently.
“It’s deep matter,” she said. “I think it leads to the eleventh region of the subterranean world.”
Realm of the fiery pits and beasts. Definitely another place I’d love to go to.
Yasara took a step forward and disappeared inside the statue. She had apparently not heard my internal sarcastic remark. I supposed I was meant to follow, though I briefly entertained the idea of staying outside to keep watch, or whatever excuse. I stepped inside and I felt sucked downwards until I found myself in what seemed to be a small dark cave.
In front of me, in the obscurity, I could barely glimpse Yasara. She was kneeling and I could see she was examining a human form lying immobile on the ground. E was in shackles.
Drawn by I don’t know what instinct, I approached and touched eir hand.
It was an explosion. Sounds and colours and wind and tastes and smells all collapsed and expanded, ravaging the darkness, ravaging the world, ravaging the universe. Until it all rushed back to rage inside of me. I fell to my knees holding my head as the world around me regained its shape.
Zero and sum again.
In that instant, Seth was in front of us. He was towering above Yasara while I impotently watched them, made useless by the explosion I had been the cause and the receptacle of.
“It took you long enough to find em”, he said.
With gods, you never know what they think. It’s not only because of the animal aspect they favour, it’s also because their voices are falling like slabs of stone into your head, expressionless and weighing a ton. The fact that they also prefer to be several meters high doesn’t help either with reading their facial expressions.
I would have been trembling had my body not already been shaking with after shock tremors.
“Why are you holding em?” shouted Yasara, full of righteous anger.
Wrong question, Yasara, I wanted to tell her. The right question is ‘who is e?’ But I was still reeling from the effects of my touching eir hand and speaking required a focus and an energy I didn’t have at the moment.
“It is a better question indeed,” said Seth, speaking to me. Blasted gods and their almost omnipotence. “You have the answer to it,” he continued.
I tried to think. It seemed as if Seth was expecting me to. Better not disappoint, I mean, not after I had been found sneaking into his own little space of subterranean world inside his statue.
E couldn’t be me. I am zero incarnated in a body, with a spirit, and… Oh, sweet queens! It hit me, like only the revelation of truth can.
Human beings are five fold: they have a body, a spirit, a heart, a name, and a subterranean double. I may not be truly human, but I’ve been incarnated for more than seventeen centuries now, ever since the first dot of a brush was traced upon paper to represent a void. Humanity gave me a presence, a body. I supposed I had developed over time a spirit and a dark double too, just like I had developed a habit for cigarettes.
These kind of things seem just to wait to happen—spirit, dark double and nicotine addiction alike.
“E is an unzero…” I managed to croak.
Yasara looked struck, lining the dots to reach the revelation I had had.
“But you can’t have an unzero. Unzero is existence,” I said to Seth.
“If you have the absence of absence, do you have a presence?” he replied.
I don’t know why people keep throwing at me moral dilemmas and philosophical problems. It’s not as if I had a record of solving them.
As I was slowly working my way towards a Fields medal—probably would be unrecognised—other gods had appeared next to Seth. I recognised Maât, Horus, all the nine first gods.
“Will you take em with you? Are you claiming em?” Seth asked me.
“Of course, e is!” shouted Yasara.
I was slightly less enthusiastic.
“What does that entail?” I asked.
“The end of life,” said Seth.
Yasara looked crestfallen. As for me, I could understand. After all, universes are made from these kind of encounters. Void meets unvoid, void wins. Another big-bang, and for me, back to nothingness until a new creature appears and reinvents algebra.
“What about you? What about humans?” I asked Seth.
“The unlife remains. It is beyond life. Life as you know it, on the other hand, disappears.”
It’s not as if I would cry over the disappearance of the human beings.
But… But I’d miss some of them; I’d miss some pleasures of this existence—tea and a hookah with Mustapha near the bazaar; the light of sunrise on the pyramids; the olive trees near Alexandria; a meal at Faya’s; Yasara appearing unexpectedly with a mad scheme; a cigarette at 3am on the fly-over in Gizah, when no one is around and the night is deep. I’m not sure any other new creature would reinvent hookahs and tea and fly-overs.
Sweet queens! I really hate moral dilemmas.
“Can’t you just unshackle em and let em be in the unlife?” I asked.
I mean, Yasara would be happy with that, wouldn’t she? E could go to Basset Aziz’s gigs, that would be a definite improvement in eir life—unlife, whatever. Not much, mind. But still.
“E is an aberration,” said Maât. “You’ll never die. Your dark double will never lead you to the unlife. E has no purpose. E is chaos. Eir free presence in the unlife would create an imbalance.”
I tried not to roll my eyes. There’s something as too rigid values, and if you ask me, Maât has some kind of obsession with order.
“Excuse me…” said a tiny voice.
We all turned. Al was standing there, in his beige suit. Despite being a tall man, he looked as if he was trying to appear as small as possible. Maybe it was all the gods dwarfing him. Or maybe he was just terrified by the amount of divinities present. Nonetheless, with his hand raised, he seemed intent on speaking. He cleared his throat and began in a hesitant manner.
“Not that I want to impart a lesson in mathematics to all you, noble entities before me…”
Oh, queens! I had forgotten Al used to teach mathematics. We were going to have a lesson, with added grovelling. Great!
“Cut it short, human,” growled Seth. I nodded in approval, for once.
“OK, cutting it short. Basically, negative numbers.”
Eleven faces looked at him blankly.
“You need the zero to properly have negative numbers, right?”
Al looked around, searching us to see a glimmer of understanding in our eyes, but I urged him with a gesture to go on regardless.
“Right… Negative numbers can only exist because the zero exists. For instance, in China in the 2nd century befor…”
Al caught me frowning and shaking minutely my head.
“Moving on. Some people argue that zero is apart, neither a positive or a negative number. But other people argue that zero is the only number which is both positive and negative.”
He beamed at us as if his little exposé had solved everything. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was confused because Horus clacked his beak in annoyance. It’s not the kind of sound you enjoy when you’re made of soft flesh.
“Wait…” said Yasara. “I think I’ve got it.” She looked at Al. “What you’re trying to say is that zero has itself a double aspect. Both Śūnya and… unŚūnya?”
Al raised his arms and his smile grew even wider, as if a star pupil had solved a particularly complex equation.
“That’s exactly it, Yasara! Well done!” he said.
The rest of us immortals looked at each other without a word. Egyptian divinities tend to think literally rather than metaphorically. I wasn’t sure any of them would agree to that.
Yasara walked to Maât and pointed at the ostrich feather tucked in her hair.
“You are Maât and this feather is Maât too,” she said.
She turned towards the others divinities.
“You all have many aspects, and yet they are you. Humans have their dark double who is them too. If Śūnya is both positive and negative, then e too has a double aspect who is em. And e is entitled to remain in the unlife. Free.”
The gods weren’t speaking but they fell even more silent. It felt as if stone had engulfed them and they had retreated in mineral. It seemed to last for an eternity, but neither Yasara, Al or I dared moving.
“We can accept that,” finally said Maât, lifting her chin.
The shackles fell from my double’s wrists and ankles and e gave a groan. Yasara was instantly by eir side to help em.
Lucky em. E is now facing eternity in the unlife. I’ll stick to rolled cigarettes on the fly-over in Gizah and hookahs with Mustapha, thank you very much.
As always, Yasara came to me with dawn. She sat near me, on the asphalt.
“Can you roll me a cigarette?” she asked.
My fingers accomplished the ritual of their own volition as I contemplated Râ rising and his light advancing on Gizah’s slums. I handed it to her and lit it.
“Pah!” she coughed after her first drag. “It’s like breathing in the fumes of the harbour in Alexandria!”
I laughed quietly.
“Last time I went there, it was in the 1940s with you. I’ve tended to stick to Great Cairo lately.”
“The city has changed. We should go back together one of these days. A road trip through the desert and the olive groves. It could be nice.”
I nodded. It would be.
“Do you think e enjoys being stuck with Al and Basset Aziz?” she asked.
“From my point of view, it’s only marginally better than being shackled in one of the pits. But… ” I shrugged.
The flow of cars had intensified. The concertina of horns was playing the First Movement of Modernity by Fiat and Toyota for a full orchestra of minibuses and compacts. The golden light of Râ crept over my feet, my legs, until Yasara and I were basking in his radiance.
Divinities, the old ones, the new ones. All wanting to impress the humans with their power and majesty and absolute.
I looked at Yasara. Her black hair tied in a knot. Her scarf around her neck.
As much as I wanted it or not, I knew I was in there somewhere with the divinities. Absolute. When the universe itself would end, I’d be there somehow. But Yasara, now Yasara… Which other race would ever leave so much to chance, would ever love so much playing with possibilities? She was as good as cigarettes and hookahs. Something truly human. Something I’d regret losing.
Sometimes, there’s nothing like the present.
I rose and gestured her to do the same.
“Fancy stealing a car?” I said. “I feel like going to Alexandria today.”
Celia Neri was born in 1978 on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea in a multicultural family. They studied Comparative Literature in Paris before coming back to Southern France where they now live.
A lifelong science-fiction and fantasy reader, they realized in early 2017 they also had stories to tell and started creative writing, often with an emphasis on characters who reflect aspects of their own identity.
Their short stories have been published in Apex Magazine, Three Crows Magazine, and The Café Irreal, among others.