Isis in Old Age (story)


Originally published at Bold+Italic

It was one of those across the room things, even though the women were both old and long past love, and weren’t even one another’s type. Isis was back at that pub over in Bayswater, the kind chain restaurant London had that served English food to tourists: the interiors dark wood and the walls covered in framed maps or front pages from the war years, all dimly lit and vaguely medieval. She preferred such a place because it reminded her that she didn’t belong here, and was still a traveler. After Egypt there had been dozens of cities for two thousand years, most recently Vienna and Paris, but she had come to love London for how easily she disappeared there, a tall ageless woman with almond skin that few found any reason to speak to.

But there was another old woman in the corner, drawing her in a small blank-book. She’d been given one of the back booths as well, and Isis smiled. This is what restaurants did with the elderly who dared enter their doors, hiding them in the far corners. Isis had seen her around during the past few weeks: she was an American named Mary, a widow whose son had just died. She was slight and her glasses weren’t too thick and her hands were obviously still steady enough to draw, and Isis had overheard Mary say drawing was easy to take up anywhere, easier than knitting. Someone had mentioned letters, and Mary immediately replied that there was no one left in America to read them. All of her friends were gone.

After Isis caught Mary’s drawing eye a second time, she went over to her table. They began and then never stopped talking. Both were staying in one of the long streets of Victorian apartments and hotels around Leinster Mews and Porchester Terrace. They both admitted to having seen each other around, here or in the park, or on the bus late in the evening.

“I tried to talk to you once before,” Isis admitted, “but you were always reading.”

“That’s just my rule, drawing or reading,” Mary said, “to always have a novel in my purse, doesn’t matter what or who by, so long as it’s slim enough to fit in there.”

“Poetry would do as well.”

Mary smiled. “At my age, I only have so much patience.”

Isis had everything from her table brought over to Mary’s. They shared some wine and continued. Isis used another name as she always did, and gradually made it known that she was also a widow, and that her son had also died, but she couldn’t admit that she still dreamt of the red land and the black land, still dreamt of the desert and the long burial rites, still dreamt of her son the bird and her husband the dismembered god, and so she listened to Mary mourn her own son.

“Charlie was his name, but so was his father’s.” She smiled. “First mistake, there. Don’t force a boy to be his father right off that bat. Because he won’t.” Charlie the father had been a strict man. If he had cared for sports, he would have attended baseball games in a proper suit and tie, like when he was a boy. But he hadn’t cared for sports, or for much actually besides business and Mary. They had met before the war and promised themselves to each other, and when he returned they had moved perhaps too quickly, and she found herself pregnant. “He had never wanted children,” Mary said, “but when I wanted to keep him, Charlie was too good to object. Now Charlie my boy, he was the sensitive type. He would cry at the downed bird’s nest, that kind of boy.”

“Yes,” Isis said, “that kind.”

When he went away to college Mary didn’t see him for years. She had never been overseas, and her husband only had when he’d served in the war, but Charlie the boy went everywhere he could. “We would get letters with different postmarks every few months,” Mary said. She was still proud, if baffled. “I don’t know where he got that bug.”

Isis could safely tell Mary how she and her own son had traveled together, up and down the Nile in the slow bark. She left out the faces and prostrate bodies of the hundreds—soon the thousands—of farmers who lined the banks, some openly weeping to see them, some terrified, these living gods somehow draped in human flesh. But the way she told it, they could have been tourists from thirty years ago, Baedeker in hand. “We loved all the temples,” she said, restraining herself, “they were everywhere along the river.”

Mary didn’t know much about Egypt and would only nod and say, “A grand old civilization, I’ve always heard.”

Since Mary wouldn’t know the here or there of the details, Isis realized she could tell more stories. “My son didn’t know his father.” There was no way to mention how he had been murdered and dismembered, how she had gathered the pieces of him and become impregnated by riding his mutilated body. “He only got to know him in pictures.” She had been practicing that line for more than a century, and she loved that photographs finally made it sound natural: little Horus on her lap, his fingers plunging into the sunken relief of some carved likeness of Osiris, severe green-black body and straight back and a royal beard. “His family—our family—had their disagreements.” She tried to find a way to put it and finally said, “His brother had him killed.”

Mary stopped eating. “Oh, isn’t that awful.”

“Thankfully I had my boy soon after, I don’t know what I would have done if I hadn’t.” She diverted herself again. “You at least had many years with your husband and your son together.”

“But you must have been so young dear,” Mary said, and grabbed Isis’s hand. Their leathery veins pulsed and flickered under the tea-lights near the edge of the table, and they squeezed each other’s hands in affection. They felt the weakness and the elasticity in the others’ palm and fingers, as if the bones there weren’t even attached. It was the kind of full and warm gesture, amid plates that needed taking away and a pile of napkins and glasses of wine, which made Isis cry, and she did so again now.

Mary brought her other hand over and said, “Men aren’t easy, I’ll tell you that! I don’t mean that my husband should have died when my Charlie was just a baby, but men aren’t easy.”

“Nothing is.”

“No.” Mary paused. “My Charlie and I didn’t become close until after my husband’s death. I could already tell he wasn’t partial to women, he never was, and so I wasn’t waiting around anymore for him to get married, but I still hardly knew what to do about him. But after my husband’s funeral, he up and says I needed to see things, and we began travelling together. We did many countries, but we started with London first.”

Mary remembered being terrified of the maps, of the buses and the Underground. Charlie had brought her to Bayswater right then, to Queensway Street, since just that stretch of road itself seemed like a city on its own. Mary immediately forgot about Hyde Park and the whiff of royalty, what with Kensington Palace over on the edge; instead, Queensway had the kind of ratty shops and lived-in smell of some Saturday afternoon in the Midwest, the pavement of Pittsburgh or Cleveland or Detroit. There were young people about, but young people without their parents’ money. It felt like home to her.

“Charlie knew just what I needed,” Mary said, “but he became sick a few years later.” She distracted herself from the memory by picking up a spoon and touching the dessert they had ordered, sticky toffee pudding and two scoops of ice cream. She saw that Isis’s face was still wet with the memory of her own son, and thought she should go on. “AIDS, you know.” She looked at the dessert and broke away a piece of it. “An awful way to die.” She took a bite and had her courage: “An awful way to die, an awful way to die in front of your mother, an awful way for a mother to see you go.”

Isis thought of Horus, the two of them hiding from her brother and his uncle in the marshes of Khemis in the delta, a little boy on a lotus with a finger in his mouth. “My boy died in war,” she finally said. “He lost an eye in the fighting, the men who fought with him said he was a monster, he was so strong, he was so angry about what happened to his father.”

“Boys and their fathers,” Mary said.

“Boys and their fathers.” The last time she saw him, Horus had taken the form of a falcon and refused his human shape for good. He had found it too limiting. Isis had thrilled to take other forms too: the sow, the mourning kite and its wide wings, or just a nourishing tree. But the skin of each was unlike that of a woman, and she had given birth to Horus as a woman. That made a difference. But Horus couldn’t know this difference, and what he became was already in his name: the lord of the sky, the distant one with the left eye the sun and the right eye the moon, his wings the sky and the speckling on his breast the stars. He had dreamt of flight once as a child, and woke to tell her how he had seen the Delta from above, and he exploded in anger when she told him he could assume the form of a bird if he wished, although she’d never told him before. From then on, he preferred the advantages of a godly life, and he would have had very little to do with a knockoff English pub in Bayswater, with the smell of piss or fried food following him down the pavement. While Isis appreciated the epithets which made her the lady of heaven and of earth and of the underworld, it was the middle one she most loved. She loved the earth and she loved cities, and as a goddess she had taken the attributes of so many other divinities that once her temples were all closed, she still found other masks to wear, other characters to be.  

Outside the pub the two of them walked among the garish shops whose glaring lights spilled out onto the street with their unending supply of kitschy magnets and t-shirts and coffee mugs. The Olympics was about the land in London, and every shop was overflowing more than usual with themed trinkets. One shirt Mary came upon seemed out of place: it showed a saluting Hitler with the title European Tour 1939-1945. Twelve countries were listed, with the dates for England and Russia crossed off as cancelled. The two old women laughed, but still found it inappropriate. That was when Isis had fled Paris and come to London the first time. “Charlie would have laughed at that,” Mary said.

“Which one?”

Mary thought for a second. “Both.”

It was the kind of humor that brought them to the point, they both thought, of their meeting. Mary had mentioned earlier in the evening that she had only returned to England because Charlie had been buried here after he died, and she wanted to see his grave at least once. “I’ve been here almost a month now,” Mary finally said, “and have made a good run at avoiding it. But now that I’ve met you—”

“Of course I’ll go with you.”

They hugged, still unsure at just the kind of friendship they had found, and Mary went off to her hotel. While Isis lived nearby, for millennia now she had never wanted much for sleep and in London she often rode the buses and the Underground late into the night, by herself. She tried not to think of this American woman’s dead son, her dead husband, or her brief American life—a bizarre kind of fleeting existence Isis barely understood—that had only brought the two of them into contact so close to Mary’s own death. While a connection had been made, Isis spent the evening as she usually did, alone on a bus and a train looking through catalogues of Egyptian art, or guides to Egyptian belief, to see what was said about her.

The next morning when she left her flat, she found Mary in the drizzling daylight by the bus stop. The maps and schedules that had terrified her with Charlie more than thirty years earlier were now old hat. They laughed to ascend to the top level of the bus and sit in the back, so no one would bother them; years of neglect in restaurants had taught them that the back was the safest place for them. For different reasons they also both felt above the old women who reeked of perfume, or the ones who went around with pocketbooks counting every small amount they spent. Together they didn’t feel so old, and as Isis guessed, the hour it took to get to Highgate Cemetery felt like only a few minutes. In her own company it seemed to last the entire day, lost as she was in memories of the desert; but with Mary there was an immediacy to her life she rarely felt anymore.

Mary was also smart enough not to ask where her son was buried; instead, they took this pilgrimage to Charlie’s grave as if to Horus’s as well. They were commemorating both boys. As they walked in under the gates of the cemetery they linked arms, and even as Mary knew where her son was buried, they wandered for a long time. The pathways unrolled before them as the streets of the London once had, somehow both new and well-known at every step. Instead of buildings, however, there were terraced layers of standing stones, mostly crosses; Isis had long since gotten over the ascendancy of the Christ, and she found herself nodding in respect towards many of his symbols.

The oldest graves were overgrown with greenery and color, and seemed to prefer being hidden under high grass, purple flowers, white buds, or the explosion of a creeping bush or vine. There were fresh flowers, plastic lanterns, and paper cards at many of the graves, while in front of the tombstone of a writer someone had placed a cup that was slowly filling with pens. As the two of them passed this grave a young couple each paid their respects with one pen each, and Mary smiled and hugged Isis close when she heard the couple talking as they went off. “Americans like me,” she said. “Come all this way to leave a pen.”

Some paths were completely obliterated with undergrowth, but the two of them trudged on, encouraged by the peeping head of a carved angel, or a leaning cross, that said they were still on a regular trail. But all at once Mary went on ahead of Isis and turned a bend and gasped. There a rectangle of stone stood, rising on its tall end perhaps three feet. Its shaft was pecked and flaked to look undressed, but the pattern in the stone was too beautiful to Isis to have been an accident. Attached to the front of the stone was a modest plaque bearing Charlie’s name and years, and the words, Beloved Son of Mary. Atop the stone was a carved book, open halfway, and it already had stray leaves cluttering its inner spine.

Mary went and knelt before her son’s tomb, and as Isis went to kneel with her she nearly fell at her friend’s feet because of what she saw. There, between the trees further ahead, she could make out a small marble mausoleum. Mary suddenly saw it too, and seemed to give her permission to go there. Ducking vine and branch with her old limbs, Isis came to it: a small white building buried among the trees, some early twentieth-century homage to an Egyptian temple. Without even steps or a porch, its entrance was flanked by two columns carved like lotuses, and above the door was a sun disc sprouting wide wings. The door itself was bronze, its borders covered in hieroglyphs and topped with three falcons all gazing down at the main figures: three elongated and deeply serious bodies: Osiris to one side in full pharaonic regalia; Horus between them, still an infant and seated on raised plinth; and Isis herself, wearing the horned crown with sun disc between. The hands of Osiris held the child’s shoulder, while those of Isis supported his back and rested on his head.

It was nothing anyone in her own time would have made, it was more imaginary Egyptian than anything else, but it was still her family. Isis turned at Mary’s footsteps, and felt the American’s hands going to her shoulders. Surprised to hear herself say the words, Isis whispered, “I hadn’t thought I would see them today.”

“When you were all young, and the baby was new,” Mary said, and smiled.

They stayed there a few minutes longer, and Isis’s hand rested on the bronze face of her boy, and her husband; and they lingered again at the grave of Mary’s son. How strange, Isis thought, that two such old women should meet, and walk arm-in-arm through an English cemetery, and find a kind of human warmth their own homes and their own times could never give them. They could each blame the ambitions of their sons, and the erratic lives they had both perhaps chosen to lead. But the reason she and Mary had met had all been their own doing: drawn lonely and mourning to London, they were the only ones their affections and understanding could be communicated to; and for Isis this was a matter of most of history, where she had wandered solitary, all since Alexandria burned. To anyone watching, their shared slow gait seemed to presage their own deaths, but for Isis, and for as long as the moment lasted, it was a new beginning.