The Pithex

12 Oct

No one in Memphis of the Pharaohs had the knowledge of baboons possessed by Heni.

He was in charge of the mummifying of apes imported up the Nile from sub-Saharan Africa. Egyptian religion defined them as instruments of the god of wisdom, Thoth. Popular belief drove people into deifying and praying to the embalmed animals.

Baboons were kept, slaughtered, and turned into mummies in a special section of the great temple dedicated to the god of creation, Ptah.

It was Heni who supervised the operations of this baboon compound.

A problem that arose there drove him to seek the aid and advice of the High Priest named Iken.

A tall beanpole from the Upper Nile, the chief of the temple had dark, shining eyes in a narrow, tawny face. He received Heni in his personal apartment in the rear of the complex dedicated to Ptah. The two men stood gazing intently at each other.

“What is it that brings you here with such urgency?” inquired Iken with burning curiosity.

The mummifier, small and agile, focused his green eyes on the priest.

“I must first explain the source of the problem confronting me. For many generations, we have obtained our baboons through trade with Nubia. I myself have made several trips south in order to inspect the animals available for shipment down the Nile. It was on one such journey that I came across a strange-looking ape similar to the baboon.I learned that the name of it is the pithex. Since it resembled the customary baboon so closely, I decided to purchase it. That is where the trouble began.”

“What trouble are you speaking of?” impatiently demanded Iken.

“Let me first describe the pithex to you, and how it differs from our traditional baboon, as we have bought it till now.

“The new beast is larger than any baboon ever seen in Memphis. Its head is large and there is no hair whatever on the face. The arms are much larger than those of the baboons and its ears are much smaller.The pithex has long, brownish red hair. It lacks the cheek pouches seen on every baboon and the large muzzle and teeth as well. There are no large calluses on the buttocks, as on the animal we are familiar with.

“So far, we have only a single pithex in our temple. I have observed it closely, and noted that the ape is slow and crafty.The baboons fear and avoid it.”

“It is causing a problem?” asked Iken.

Heni drew a slow, long breath. “The pithex disturbs my sleep,” he whispered softly.

The priest gave a look of surprise and disbelief.

“How can that be?” he nearly shouted. “What are you imagining to be happening?”

“My heart thinks clearly and sanely,” replied the mummifier. “My dreams have become horrendous nightmares. They center on the pithex and what it itself sees.”

Iken became visibly excited. “Describe for me what you experience,” he commanded.

The one making the report closed his eyes and concentrated on what he had seen while asleep.

“It was so dark! Nothing could be seen except a number of points of light that had to be eyes. Creatures unseen and unidentified were staring at me through an absolute night. They did not move or change in any way. How many they happened to be, I never learned because I failed to take a count.

“Eyes in a thick forest peering at me!

“Somehow I recognized it as a vision of the pithex in its native home.

“When I awakened, there was terrible pain throughout my body, but especially where my heart was.”

He stopped and looked directly into the eyes of the Head Priest.

“I do not understand why you attribute what you saw to this new ape,” said Iken.

Heni bit his thin lower lip. “I realized at once what its source was. The nightmare has recurred again and again. I fear that others may be suffering from it as well.”

“Why is that?”

“There are old tales of dream broadcasting by unusual wild beasts. Usually these are desert creatures. But I do not see why they could not originate from a strange animal like the pithex.”

“Are you the only one receiving the visions, or are there others?”

“I have been out to the burial grounds in Saqqara, where crowds of people come to consult with fortune-tellers, astrologers, soothsayers, and dream-interpreters. It was astonishing to me how many of them have heard of dreams exactly like mine, and nightmares even more frightening and horrifying.

“What I saw was not unique to me. Not at all.”

Both of them fell silent for a spell.

Finally, it was Iken who addressed the problem of what to do.

“If necessary, you shall have to kill the pithex,” he muttered.

Heni appeared shaken by the statement of the High Priest and attempted to make a retort to it.

“Not now, I fear. No, we must be completely certain before acting in any way. What if I am wrong about the source of the dreams? That could be disastrous. Anything might result from taking the wrong step now. I would prefer to obtain permission from you for a test.”

“A test?” reacted Iken.

“We need to know the purpose behind the dream broadcasting. It may have an aim that none of us human beings are able to understand. That could be a riddle to solve.

“So, I want you to give secret orders to all the priests of the Memphis temples of Ptah and Thoth. They must find out what nightmares are troubling the people and report that to you.”

“And then I can report to you on the nature and origins of the night visions?”

“Yes, sir,” answered Heni.

With the agreement of Iken to this scheme, the mummifier left.

The names and descriptions came in from the capital’s many priests. Both Iken and Heni were surprised at the amount and extent of the pithex’s reach.

A new, second dream disturbed the sleep of the embalmer. He brought it to Iken at once.

“Dawn broke on the forest landscape, and I could make out the figures with the strange eyes. But they were not wild animals as I had supposed the first time. No, they are coffee-skinned soldiers carrying long Nubian javelins and slowly moving forward.

“It was an invasion from the south that the pithex was envisioning and broadcasting all about. That was what the ape was prophesying and foreseeing. Since the animal was now in Egypt, the view that it had was from a northern position, looking south.

“The nightmare was one of military defeat for the Pharaoh. That is what the beast’s heart is warning us of.”

Shaken to the bone by the new revelation, Iken considered what he was going to say before making any response to this. At last, he began to speak in a low voice.

“All that you tell me that you dreamed makes me most fearful about what is to come. In a short while, we shall know whether what you experienced has been shared with all the others who dreamed what was sent to them, whether it was a general warning.”

“That should become evident soon, I believe,” said Heni. “The priests will be informing you about what they pick up around the city.”

“Yes,” nodded Iken, “we will be finding out in a short time.”

Indeed, there had been widespread reception of the Nubian invasion nightmare. In all sectors of Memphis, even the Pharaoh’s palace, there were psychically sensitive persons who dreamed the vision of the pithex.

A diffuse form of unrest was starting to haunt the affected population.

No one was able to give specific meaning to what was presented to them in sleep. Strange new feelings arose, unfamiliar to the people experiencing them.

Heni found himself at a loss as to what he could and should do about the ape at the center of the whirlpool that was spinning faster and faster. He often made trips to the pen where the animal was kept.

The pithex has long recognized me, Heni said to himself. No other human being is as familiar to the beast as I am. He looked into the dumb, almond-shaped eyes. What is it seeking to say as it observes me so closely? wondered the mummifier. Is it consciously sending out its nightly communications?

Heni was unable to devise any answers to such puzzling questions.

Late that night, a multitude of slumberers shared the identical images in dreams.

A half dozen shapes, short and squat, seemed to be approaching. What were they? Some kind of apes? Or an unknown variety of man?

The body hair was visible but very rare compared to that of the pithex.

Long arms stretched downward, nearly touching the ground.

Were these creatures the ones described by ancient legend as knuckle-walkers?

Faces that expressed fierce anger could be made out as the manlike animals slowly walked forward. What was their goal and purpose? What danger might these forms pose?

Large brows hung down, threatening round eyes peered with visible ire and hatred. The faces of these animals on two legs seemed to be the ominous masks of killers.

Slowly the attackers moved nearer.

There were frightening spots of red on the hairless area about each of their mouths.

Had anyone ever seen such a menacing sight anywhere in the Nile valley?

Then, in less than a moment, the view disappeared as the knuckle-walkers rushed forward in attack.

Many of the dreamers, including Heni, awakened in sudden panic.

What had happened? What was the target of the dream’s assault and invasion?

Heni, with a strong suspicion, rose from his pallet and hurried out of his room with a night lantern.

He had to see the pithex and confirm what he suspected.

The baboons in their pens continued to sleep, undisturbed by the passing light carried by the man in charge of the embalming and mummifying.

He reached the box that contained the pithex and stopped, extending the lantern as far out over its edge as he could.

The animal lay on its back, blood flowing out of its strangled neck.

Had the dream ended in the violent death of the pithex at the hands of maddened knuckle-walkers?

Can a nightmare result in murderous mayhem such as this? wondered Heni.

Or had a terrible memory buried in the heart of the ape returned in the form of a dream?

The mummifier doubted he would ever discover answers to what had happened that night.

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