I picked a scarab up once.
We spent our first wedding anniversary in Egypt, touring the ancient sites. There are a lot of them, too. Egypt is a country that is so weighed down with history, it’s probably several feet further below sea level than it should be. With such a glorious wealth of things to look at, obviously we didn’t see everything. Even all those years ago (and no, I am not confessing how many) it wasn’t safe for westerners to go into the Fayoum, so I had to content myself with the mummy portraits in the museums rather than see any in situ. But even with that bit of Egypt closed to us, we saw so much.
Luxor, with columns still bright with paint and a mosque within its old walls. Karnak at dusk when bats flew overhead and herons boomed and called in the reeds beside the Nile. The guard who took us into a quiet room at the back of Karnak, where lion-headed Sekhmet still stood – the Devouring One, the Terrible One, the One Who Reduceth to Silence, the One Who Travels in Lightning, Lady of the Bloodbath, Lady of Flame, Lady of the Tomb, Empowerer, Self-Contained, Sovereign. He took my hand and put it on Sekhmet’s breast, then mine, then hers three times – to give me strong sons, he said (thankfully not a ritual that works on infidels – I remain gratefully childfree). Tombs in the early dawn before the sun hammered down onto the bare rock of the Valley of the Kings, with the walls of the empty, dusty chambers of Tutankhamen’s tomb
still bright with the paintings of gods in reds and blacks and yellow ochre. The reconstruction of Abu Simbel and laughing together over the door that led into the artificial hill behind Ramses’ statues, and its key shaped like an ankh. The statue of Horus at Edfu, its head worn smooth with the number of hands that pressed down on it. The narrow dark tunnel up into the King’s Chamber in the Great Pyramid. Riding a camel under the Sphinx’s very nose. The fishermen out on the water, the sails of their boats inky black against the sunset. The way the sun trembles in the sky for an instant at sunset, then falls down into the Nile like a stone. The geese, the wonderful wonderful geese from the tomb of Atet in Meydum. The knowledge in the eyes of Anubis, the dark and shining one, he who is on his mountain, Lord of obsidian and gold… the Dog who swallows millions.
I loved Egypt. It’s the sort of place that if it hadn’t really existed, someone’s creative imagination must have invented it. A place of bright light and shadows, desert and the Black Land, gods who walk with jackel heads or lions’ or hawks’.
And, of course, of scarabs.
Out on Sakkara, after walking around and touching the Djoser’s step pyramid, laying my hand on five thousand years given physical shape; after the cool of the Serapeum where bulls were once feted as gods and mummified like pharaohs, there was
a tomb. I don’t remember now whose tomb it was. Some Old Kingdom noble whose coloured statue still sat in the niche where once his family laid offerings of food and wine. In the doorway to his tomb, in a shallow depression in the sand, the scarabs ran and scuttled. They’re big and black. I was the only member of our group who picked one up and let it sit there, filling the palm of my hand. And when I set it down again, and tilted my hand to let it run off back onto the sand, its legs and feet tickled, and I remember I laughed.
I’m in poetic mood tonight, for some reason. I’ve been thinking a lot about that trip to Egypt and how much of it stays with me now, and how the highlight of it was a big black beetle that consented to sit on my hand for a minute.
You know, I’m not surprised that so much of my writing has a scarab running through it: Shield, with the Heart Scarab that symbolises so much of Bennet’s old love and the new; and the gilded scarab with scarlet wings that hangs on Rafe Lancaster’s watch chain. Scarabs are fun. Scarabs are about rebirth and new chances and starting again. Scarabs are about never giving in and how each morning, as the scarab lifts the disc of the sun up on its wide wings, is the start of a new day.
And their feet tickle. You can’t ask better than that.