Unlike their countrymen who lived in the delta, much farther down the river, the people of the farthest cataract were neither concerned with an afterlife nor attached to material possessions.
They had the same ability to cut into the plateau of rock that marked the desert's edge, but they hollowed out chambers deep within the earth not for religious purposes but as receptacles for rain.
They did not drink water from the river, which was known to be impure and haunted by vapors. Instead they collected water that rose up from springs among the hills, or that fell from clouds sweeping in from mountains far to the west.
The well of any oasis, too, was holy to them, as was any place, any moment, when pure water appeared, like a deity, of its own accord. Without it, they and their animals could not have survived.
Over many centuries the channels and cisterns with which they gathered rainwater became efficient and sophisticated. Some were carved into rock, others were built of stone or brick. A system of aqueducts and underground channels connected them, and as new conduits were constructed, the outmoded ones were put to alternate use.
The people of the farthest cataract were a practical people. They did not care for ornament or display, nor did they measure personal worth by ownership. When a tool failed, or a worker’s blouse wore thin, or a pot used for cooking happened to be dropped and broken, such things were said to be in the early stages of their “vanishing.”
Such items might be helped along in this process by being buried, reduced to ashes in a fire, or placed on a raft and allowed to float down the river. The language of these people contained many words and phrases to describe the ways in which these tools and utensils finally arrived at the proper way to eradicate themselves.
Nothing could be left on the ground or out in the open where it might be seen. Piles of discarded objects were not allowed to build up. The idea of a midden, or trash heap, was unknown to these people, and would have offended their sense of order. In time, certain abandoned cisterns, no longer suitable for holding water, became repositories for objects assumed to be in the early stages of vanishing.
The cisterns were never used as graves or tombs. The deceased in this culture were left on temporary platforms above ground until they were reduced by the elements or their remains carried away by vultures. The tools and artifacts placed underground in the cisterns were considered to be, like the deceased, what the universe no longer had need of. Unlike a torch that can be put out instantly, they were that which can not immediately find its way back into the realm of the nonexistent.
Nothing was intentionally broken. Nothing was cast down in anger or with contempt, nor was ceremony involved. Inscriptions on certain stele indicate that these people believed such material objects were in a process of forgetting their own existence. Other passages held that the artifacts were in fact beginning to remember whence they had come, and the pathways of their returning.
Yet such understanding would require many years of meditation on the part of the objects themselves. Additional decades would pass before they no longer appeared in the dreams of those who now consigned them to the darkness. Accidentally broken lamps and jars, discarded ladles, worn loom weights, and cast-off spindles were carefully placed in the underground chambers, in preparation for their long transformation.
Millennia later, when such items were discovered—preserved almost intact, except for a coating of dust—they seemed a rich find, indeed. Plundered at first by unscrupulous robbers and local brigands, the cisterns were soon protected by the government, their contents meticulously diagrammed and excavated by professional archeologists.
The rescued artifacts were plain and without ornament and seemed to have no ritual significance, but they were admired for their great age, and for the simplicity of their design. They were immediately transported to distant museums and centers of learning. A brisk international black market rose up for those smaller items that could be stolen and smuggled out of the country.
In time the underground chambers, which were located in inaccessible parts of the land, and which were bare and functional and had nothing written on their walls, were gradually forgotten by all but a few specialized scholars. The larger cisterns that might have posed a hazard to the curious were sealed off by governmental decree. The rest were abandoned, their entrances obscured by vegetation and by occasional slides of falling rock.
Thus it happened that a group of people living near the farthest cataract came to be judged and even admired, centuries later, on the basis of things in which they had little interest, and which had never really concerned them. The watery places they believed to be life-giving and holy, and around which their stories and songs and their daily lives revolved—such places were entirely empty now. But they had endured, and they would remain.
All of this would have made sense to the original inhabitants of this world. As they looked up from their fires at night and gazed at the stars, and as they followed the sun’s progress by day, and studied the sky for signs of approaching rain, this was exactly how they imagined their universe to be. The holy places would abide, and all that passed through them would become, in time, as clear and changeable as water.
First published in Bohème Magazine, December 2005.