Sutekh and the Black Land

To the west were the great spires of stone, black and grey and red, scraping at the sky with their great peaks.  To the east were the great swamps and the vast woods, stretching off to the sea, spanned by vast rivers and marked by their own green hills.  Between them was a wasteland, an endless expanse of grass; the vast desert plain that brooked neither stream nor tree, where the great herds wandered far and long for good grazing, where the eagles soared over leagues of yellow sea.

The wasteland was not always so, and would not always be, for it was full to bursting with potential, there where the swamp and wood ended, but the sun dipped low there and scorched away the water, and the great table lands were flat, so every rain that fell ran off their edge into the sea, or seeped into the ground to be locked away in the great vaults of bone-made-stone, to rest above the blood of the earth.

There were few who lived in that land, and those few who did live there did not live well under the merciless sun.  And while the hare and the vulture and the bison roamed, while the armadillo rooted at the fringes of the plain, while the coyote howled under the blanket of the dark night, it was the Hawk who held dominion as he did over all lands, and in his long flight bearing the sun, he would ever dip lower over that plain, riding easy to catch the great winds that would bear him over the western spires, and beneath him the land would bake and be lifeless.

Below, Coyote, whose name was Sutekh, was jealous of that dominion, wanting his own place in the world.  He had thought to himself once before to breathe his cold, mournful breath into the sky and block out that sun, but Lion had thwarted him, and he lay cursing the heat once more, bathing himself in the dust of the earth.  While he lay there, a small rain came, and as he relished its cool touch he watched as the water ran on the ground, slow and uncaring in the direction of the far-off sea, knowing that it would never reach the end of its trail before the sun’s heat devoured it, knowing that the earth would scarce sip of its life before it was burned away in fire.

And so, as he was wont to do, Coyote began to think.

On the next day, he waited low in the grass, waiting for Hawk’s passage, his tail tucked down, his ears folded low, his eyes upward.  When Hawk drew near and the sun was at its ever-inadequate height, Coyote leapt up with all of his strength, hoping to bite at Hawk’s feet and cause him to draw up higher, but he found himself face-down in the dirt a few seconds later, blinded by the sun’s light and not near high enough in his jump besides.  He cursed to himself, and he began to think rather a bit harder.

Some days later, a somewhat more elaborate scheme in mind, he set out toward the west until he found the great Ram who built the hills and dug the rivers to the west, and he said to him,

“The great plain could ever be more than it is, but the earth is dry, the sun sails low and all is flat and barren.  Would that I were as skilled as you, River-maker, so that I could bring life to it, for all the land is red and dead.”

And Ram said, “Long have I shaped the west, I have raised up the mountains from the scorched earth, I have tilled up the great trenches that irrigate the world, and I have thrown soil upon the stone that the forests might find purchase for their roots.  Long have I worked, and I have grown tired, and yet you would ask me to work more.”

Sutekh said, “What might I give that would ease this burden upon you, that you would lay a course from hill to sea and let the rains fill it?”

“The finding of the path is the worst of it, for my strength is vast, but I am weary before I begin from the long journey to mark the river’s course, for it must be just or else not be at all.  If you would mark the way for me, I would do this for you.”

Coyote nodded, but he thought to himself that this sounded like a tremendous amount of work.  So he went down from the hillsides and he found a prairie dog, and he said to it, “Friend, I need your eyes.”

The prairie dog was friend to no coyote that he could remember, and the request left him quite alarmed.  He barked his warning to his kin who all fled beneath the ground at once, and he made for the burrow himself only to find himself trapped beneath Coyote’s paw.

“Tell me how to see as you see, for your eyes are sharp like the cactus’ spine, and I will teach you to smell as I smell, and you will know danger in the dark below as you know it in the bright above. And when your scent-eyes are open, your burrows shall be ever the safer and all the plains will be opened to your kin.”

And so the prairie dog made the exchange, because frankly, he had little choice in the matter as it was.  Coyote learned to see sharper than he’d ever seen before, and all the vast nothing seemed to take on a certain precise luminescence he’d never known.  For all of that, though, the problem remained that the task before him seemed like a great deal of work.

Rather than doing the walking himself, Coyote spotted a comely female some distance off.  He went to her and wooed her with all his considerable charm and he set himself upon her with voracious intent, for that was one matter in which he was never loath to work his hardest.  When he was spent, his mate bore him a son, whose fur was fine and grey as a wolf’s, and whose eyes were open at once and bright as stars upon the moonless night.  And he named the pup Wepwawet, and he said to him, “Your eyes shall ever see clearly, you are the tracker, the hunter and the scout, and you must chart the course from mountain to sea, and when you have done this you must return to the great Ram, and he will dig for us rivers.

And so the pup went, and he saw the unseen paths and he marked the shallow ruts and the tiny springs that might feed the rivers, and he knew them all within his mind as though he was born to all he had seen, and when he was done he went back to Ram.  Once he arrived, they set off at once and he guided Ram along every path, the great beast’s horns pushing paths through the shallow soil and hard stone, and the rivers were etched.

The rains came, and the streams filled, but the sun swooped low and the soil was parched and the streams burned away again.  Cursing, Coyote pondered again, and he thought back to the rivers he’d crossed in the west and the rich soil along their banks, moist and cool.  Pushing a paw through the banks of his own streams, he snorted at the bone-dry dust, and he set off west once more.

When he arrived, he knew he would gain no further favor from Ram, and so instead he found the great herds grazing in the shadow of the stone spires.  He tread carefully, that they would not fall upon him with hoof and horn, until he found the great white bison who led the largest herd, and he went before her, head ducked, humble as could be, or at least, as humble as he could manage.

“To the south and east I have heard the earth shake at the herd’s march, faint as a hare’s heartbeat.  Ten million hooves at once could shake the ground like thunder shakes the sky, would they not?  What stories would be told of the great quakes of the bison if they were to stomp upon the world as one?”

But the mother buffalo had temperance, at least a measure of it, however great the tales of her wrath might be, and she stomped with but one hoof, horns lowered.  “Some scheme, no doubt, you’re planning here.  My children and I will not be a part of it, lest you tell me of your plan and it be worthy of us.”

Coyote grinned a guilty grin, and another stomp sent him running, for the tales of the White Bison’s wrath were indeed great.  He went and he found his son, and he said to him, “The rich soils of these hills must be brought low, else the rivers shall never flow.  You are grey as a wolf, and with the two of us, we will shake loose the skin of the world, with Hathor’s help or not.”

And Wepwawet went along, for he had more than just his father’s wild eyes, but also some part of his wild heart.  They waited for a great storm to build, in no small part thanks to Coyote’s cold breath added to the warm winds, and when the night came and the clouds grew high, Coyote waited for the perfect time.  As the clouds darkened the stars, Coyote stole the moon’s light and clad himself in it, his fur as silver as his son’s, and they stalked through the grasses of the plain.

They came upon the sleeping heard and Coyote loosed a long, piercing howl, which stirred the bison awake.  Two flashes of silver fur in the long grass and panic gripped them, bellows and frantic hooves battering at the sky, the thunder responding from the mountains.  Deft as jackrabbits, Coyote and his son sprinted, darted and ducked low, driving the herd, and the pounding of hooves rattled the mountains.  The stormwaters came down, and the soils came loose, and they rushed from the hills out through Ram’s riverbeds, and once it had begun, Sutekh and Wepwawet cried off and returned to the plains.

They followed the rivers down, and they flowed true, out into the sea, painting the soil of the eastern plain a rich black.  Grass sprang up green and flowers bloomed, and the world drew a deep breath at the rush of life.  But when the sun came, the heat was still too much, only the slightest bit, and Sutekh cursed for he had come so close.  He was, in truth, near enough to a wolf by now from his labors, even those he had attempted to avoid the burden of, his strength built from the long walks and the frantic herding and the flight back to the sea.  He began to suspect that his first plan may yet be enough to turn the tide, though he expected it may need refinement

The following morning, before dawn broke, Sutekh began his trek up along the river bank, marveling at how many creatures skittered away from him in his passing, come in the night to drink from the newfound waters.  He came upon an armadillo, who was not quite so skilled with his eyes as to see the Coyote before he was upon him.  In surprise, he curled into a ball, and Sutekh rolled the creature onto its back, prying it open.

“I mean to snap my jaws at the Hawk’s feet,” he explained matter-of-factly. “I’ll teach you to see a bit better, as well as those little eyes can hope for, if you lend me some armor from your face, lest I scorch myself.”

Armadillo agreed, being in little position to do anything else, and scurried off into the grasses while Sutekh clad his visage in plates of bone.  That task done, he thereafter stalked the grasses until he found a hare, whom he caught as easily as the armadillo, for Wepwawet had not come by hunting all on his own.  With the hare, he bargained in an altogether more savage fashion.  “I have come for your ears, to keep me cool as I draw near to the sun.”  Smiling a savage smile behind his armored plates, he added, “And I have come to fill my belly as well.”

Looking perhaps a bit absurd, Coyote returned to the place where he had first waited for the sun’s approach, there at what was now the very edge of the new black lands.  He flattened out his new, comically overlong ears, and he scrunched his cramped snout, and he drew the wind about himself as he had done when he breathed winter into the world.  The air churned and the bare earth, grasses washed away in the silty deluge days past, churned with it, and the sands whipped wild in the air, a storm of red fury as the sun drew ever closer.

When Hawk came near, he looked with some surprise at the great, raging sandstorm at the edge of the curious, increasingly fertile land below, and that surprise burgeoned further at the sight of a huge, powerful, bone-faced, hare-eared Coyote leaping up through the storm at him.  Giving his wings a hurried flap, he banked upward, drawing the sun higher and changing his to avoid that belligerent beast.

The wind thrust down by Hawk’s wings buffeted Sutekh, and the sudden pitch of the great bird and his fiery charge brought to light a certain flaw in his plan.  Cringing away from the heat as he barreled toward the sun, Coyote cringed down, hunching his shoulders, yelping in pain as the bones adhered to his face curled to their intended shape.  He felt fire in the tips of his ears as they brushed the sun, and then felt nothing at all in them as they were singed away, his fur catching alight in turn.  Tumbling down, he crashed into the earth face-first, then tumbled into the river of his own design.

Downstream, Wepwawet sat as his father climbed from the water, his fur burnt short and charred black, his oversized ears squared off where he’d scorched away the tips, his nose bent from breaking and shaped by the armadillo plates he’d worn, looking foul with anger and gagging water onto the rich black soil.

“Good news, Pa,” Wepwawet said, his tail swishing against the green grass as he sat.  Sutekh glared at him, searching, wondering whatever could be good about his present predicament.

Grinning a wild grin, his son’s eyes were bright as the stars.

“River’s full!”

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