For my third Halloween post this year, I decided to eschew the werewolf-vampire-zombie-Frankenstein’s monster tack, and take up the merely eerie things that sometimes happen just when human beings think they have everything under control. My choice of story topic is Jack Lindsay’s “Judgement in the Underworld,” which takes place in the Valley of the Tombs in Thebes.
In the middle of a hot day in the East, two erstwhile friends, Iseri and Paibes, hunters in other times, are making their way steathily towards the Tombs, with something other than wildlife and bows and arrows on their minds. These two hunters are instead planning to plunder Sety’s tomb of its gold, and make themselves wealthy and powerful with the proceeds. Iseri has a secret, however. “He loathed Paibes more than anyone else in the world. Always he had been overtopped by him, beaten as a hunter, a runner, an archer, a drinker, and now, last and worst, as a lover.” It’s easy to see why Iseri at least resents Paibes, reading the dialogue between the two; Paibes is always putting Iseri down and gibing at him, making fun of him for his mistakes, and mocking his faults and hesitations. He’s a bit of a psychological bully, and very prideful about his own superior traits. “They had been good friends once, till Paibes had shown the full of his overbearing temper, taking arrogant possession of the younger man who admired him so frankly.” Lately, Paibes has even been courting Iseri’s understood betrothed, Zenra, and Iseri realizes that if Paibes proposes, Zenra’s father will accept on her behalf, regardless of the fact that Iseri and Zenra have a firm arrangement between the two of them. Little does Paibes realize what awaits him in the tomb, however: Iseri plans to kill him once the gold is found, and thus he himself can make his way back out both rich and favored by Zenra’s father as a suitor, while Paibes rots in the bowels of the earth, forgotten.
Because they have been making their way through the heat of the day to the tomb, the sun is slowly lowering toward the hills as they reach their destination, and they exchange the extreme heat of the valley for the breathless air of the interior of the tomb, Iseri with murder and the right moment for it on his mind. All the way through, as Iseri experiences first a chill in the heat and then shudders, knowing what he himself is thinking, Paibes mocks at him, thinking that he is afraid. The air grows heavier and staler as they descend into the earth. “Iseri clenched his hand to stop it from creeping to his dagger….Inside the tomb things would feel differently. Along in the sweaty darkness he, Iseri, would feel power nerving his arm; he would strike. Therefore he could bear with Paibes’s sneers for the moment.”
Just as the sun sets, the two hunters find the tomb entrance. They clear away a boulder and some rubble, and enter the tomb, Paibes leading the way impatiently, Iseri behind him, waiting for his moment. He wants the gold for the dowry for his marriage to Zenra, and so wants to find the inner chamber before striking Paibes down. He sees himself as an “instrument of judgment,” and is no longer bothered by the paintings in the tomb, as he has been in other tombs in the past. Once they find the stairway down to the inner chamber, Paibes turns and looks at Iseri, only to jibingly tell him that he would never have been able to find it by himself. “On again, and more steps to descend, and at last the burial chamber was reached. The great sarcophagus of alabaster gleamed nobly before the tired, stinging eyes–and things of gold, furniture and cups, all that a man might need, left here in the deep, buried silence like reflections in the mirror of death, to enable living men to view their life undistorted, to value it all at long last, if they had the courage to look; but into the terrible mirror of death none dared to look. There, encased in alabaster, lay the mummied king awaiting his releast and justification, his resurrection, living his life in the mirror, dead.”
After Paibes puts the lamp down and starts to sort through the precious objects in the tomb, Iseri thinks to himself that he must wait for an omen, that he will know when his time has come to kill Paibes. “His hate was so final that the gods must be on his side, as they were on the side of all things final and fated.” Suddenly, the omen comes. Out from behind an alabaster jar, a huge cobra, often seen as an Agent of Fate and a Messenger of the Gods, comes. Just behind Paibes it rears its head, ready to strike. But Iseri is ready to strike, too: to his own surprise, he kills the cobra just as it rears to strike Paibes! Paibes whirls back in his astonishment, looking first at the cobra, then at the man with him, who has acted the part of a friend. “[Iseri] did not know why he had done it. When one had hunted for years with a man, it was not easy to stand by and watch a cobra strike him. What had happened, Osiris? Was it the judgment?”
Paibes takes Iseri by both hands and thanks him, confessing, astonishingly enough, that he is sorry that he has tried to take Zenra away, and says that she has already rejected him. He also confesses that he himself has been hating Iseri too, and might have killed him in the night himself. He says that Iseri can have Zenra, which causes Iseri to feel, on the sudden, that he himself doesn’t want Zenra either, but wants his old friendship with Paibes back! But then, he admits that he wants Zenra, also. He cannot admit to Paibes, however, that he himself was planning to kill too, and it makes it hard for him to get back on their old terms without a clean confession. He finally admits weakly that he “would rather” be friends. Paibes says they will, and that he only meant that he was angry, and says he is no longer enraged. He again reiterates that Iseri can have Zenra.
“The two men stood indecisive, afraid. Suddenly the whole weight of the hills seemed to be pressing down on them, tons and tons of stone; and there was all the long passageway, sculptured with the indecipherable meaning of things, through which they must run the gauntlet of the multitudinous abiding eyes. Gold, why did they want gold?” As they collect bits and pieces to take with them, they watch each other “suspiciously,” neither wanting to be the one to go first on the way back out. Yet, they each know that they will not be able to strike the other: “They were both too frightened and weary, heavy-lidded with the heat, and wanted nothing but the night air of the open. In the open, perhaps, they would be able to draw close together again. After all; perhaps they would hate one another worse than ever. It didn’t matter as long as they got out.” Thus, two friends learn the price of meddling with Fate and the Underworld, and find themselves praying silently for the merely human terms by which they normally live.
For those of us reading their story, Halloween is an excellent time to reflect on life-and-death (and breath-beyond-the-grave) decisions: if it’s bad to kill people at any time, we should all try to be especially careful of how we treat them around All Soul’s Eve, when the dead are said to walk. And any other bad decisions we may have made in the past (even just making fun of old Aunt Ernestine, who’s now one of the dear departed) should be carefully pondered. Enjoy your Halloween fun, but be sure it’s really good clean fun, and not malice, or you may find yourself being tracked by a ghost or goblin (or trapped by a cobra, ready to spring!).