In the Heart of the Pyramid
This time Bara wasn’t surrounded by darkness, and after her last two journeys Bara thought it was a nice change.
On the other hand, she was surrounded by water.
This is so gross, Bara thought as she looked about her. She was standing in water up to her knees, and could feel she was up to her ankles in mud. Tall, three-sided green stems grew thickly on every side. The stems were taller than her head, and up to three meters high. Unlike bull rushes they had no leaves, but just a kind of green crest at the top. The shape of the crests reminded her of the glittery ends of the little sticks they put in ice-cream sundaes in garden restaurants, together with paper umbrellas and other frippery-frappery, as Dad called it.
With grass as tall as this perhaps I’m back in the age of the dinosaurs, thought Bara. Back then there were horsetails as tall as telegraph poles, and brontosauruses chomped on them, and so did other sauruses. Except, she reasoned, if this was the age of the dinosaurs I wouldn’t have anything on.
She was definitely wearing something. It was a narrow white dress in light material, and quite tight-fitting. Basically it was a sort of tube which ended under her armpits and had two wider straps sewn onto it. Bara didn’t know how long the dress was because she was standing in water.
She was annoyed that the strange rushes were so thick, making it impossible to see where she needed to go. It was also swelteringly hot and not a leaf - or rather not a crest - was moving.
Bara took a deep breath and set off following her nose. When she tried to take a big step forward she found right away that the dress was very narrow. But a merciless tearing sound immediately informed her that the material was quite thin, and suddenly she could take a big step after all. She wasn’t entirely sure she was glad about that, though, because the dress had ripped almost up to her bottom on the left side.
It was hard work getting between the stems. Lower down they were as thick as her arm and difficult to bend, and wading knee-deep in water was tiring in itself. To make matters worse, there were various roots or bulbs in the mud and Bara couldn’t see them. She stumbled on them, sometimes it hurt and sometimes she sank into the mud to above her knees and had a lot of trouble getting out of it again. After a few meters the sweat was pouring off her and she felt like crying from fear that she might end up drowning in the swamp. There was nowhere to stop and rest, because even if she had been able to find enough free space to sit down in, only the top of her head would have stayed above water. She was scared of stopping to get her breath back; she didn’t know how much time she had left before evening fell and it would be terrible to be still in the swamp after dark. .
Stupid Atlas, she grumbled furiously in her head. Why on earth has it chucked me into a marsh? Why not somewhere on dry land? It did it out of spite! Once I get back I’ll get even, she promised herself vengefully. I’ll tear a couple of pages out of it so it knows what it put me through! There’s no system in those maps anyway so it doesn’t matter if I tear some out. And then I shall slowly, very slowly, burn them one after another over a candle, so the Atlas can see what I’m doing. Serve it right.
Absorbed in her plans for revenge on the malicious Atlas, she didn’t even notice that the stems were beginning to thin out. Yet at the same time the water was getting deeper. Now it was almost up to her belly, and when she stumbled, she got wet all over. It was too hot for this to matter much, but because she was already so tired she almost burst into tears. She stopped to rest and gazed around.
She was out of the thicket, but another thicket started just a few meters away. On the other hand, when Bara looked to the right through the thinning stems she saw open water and beyond it – to her intense relief - a river bank and little houses on the bank. The houses were dazzlingly white in the sun. Beyond them were immense looming walls. It looked as if there was a castle in the middle of this little town, for it was definitely a little town. But the castle had no tower. You could see walls, but they weren’t crenellated at the top.
The bank was quite a long way away, but when Bara looked to the left, the open water soon ended and there was nothing but another thicket mockingly waved its green crests at her. There was no point in going in that direction. The only way of getting to dry land was to wade or swim to the town. She set off. The water was up to her waist now, but there were fewer roots in the mud and so the going was slightly easier. She told herself that once the water reached her chest she would start to swim, but she was dreading that moment because when not held back by the strange triangular stems, the water was clearly not still but flowing. The river was wide, and though it flowed lazily Bara was scared that the current might carry her away. She was just about to start swimming when she heard a warning cry behind her:
“Quick, get in the boat!”
She was so startled she nearly went under. Turning round she saw a reed boat, which must have floated noiselessly out from behind the crested water wood she was trying to avoid. At the prow of the boat was a man with a completely shaven head and a white skirt that ended above his knee. He held a dagger in his right hand and he was just at that moment hurling himself into the water.
In a film this sight would have been followed by a sequence in very slow motion with dramatic background music. The hunter flies through the air with outstretched arms, and falls onto a grey-brown log, which Bara had not noticed because it is almost completely submerged in the water. As the hunter falls on it, the log rears and writhes, revealing that is not a log but a crocodile. Gripping the crocodile firmly between his legs, the hunter wraps his free left arm around its jaws, his fore-arm only just escaping the snap of its teeth, and tries to stab it through the heart with the dagger. There is a tremendous thrashing above and below the surface, and water splashes dramatically into the camera lens… The light yellow croc belly and the bronzed back of the hunter roll in and out of shot. In the background to this frenzied struggle the person being saved, Bara, is trying to get to the boat but stumbles and falls right into the water. Naturally she is gasping, and choking and spluttering and has no breath for screaming and squawking, however much she wants to.
In the end Bara made it to the boat, but this hardly meant that she was safe. She still had to get into it. Anyone who has ever tried to get out of water onto an inflatable mattress knows how difficult it is, and this was a boat with sides not a mattress and so even harder to clamber into. All the same, her terror at the crocodile was so great that at this moment Bara would probably have been capable of running up a perpendicular glass wall to escape. A few moments later she was sitting in the boat, grasping the sides tightly because it was rocking about. She was coughing out the water she had breathed in a minute before, and weeping from fear, so her eyes and her nose were both running. She was also dribbling, which was not exactly dignified. Not that dignity was on her mind. She was anxiously watching what was happening in the water.
It was hard to see much. The water was white and foaming and all that could be heard was a furious splashing. The crocodile’s massive tail armed with two rows of pointed scales lashed the water as it spun around its axis in the effort to shake off the hunter, who was still firmly grasping its back. Bara was unable to make out anything more in the waves.
But then the foam turned red.
Bara’s heart was in her mouth, because she didn’t know whose blood it was. The crocodile was still thrashing about with the same verve. All the nature films Bara had ever seen about crocodiles flashed through her head. Not that she was especially mad on films about crocodiles but she enjoyed documentaries about animals, and crocodiles were animals too. Or they had been until now; now they were horrible monsters. She couldn’t help remembering that the sea crocodile was the biggest of all crocodiles and could grow as long as 8 meters. But the water here was fresh, as Bara knew having just had plenty of opportunity to taste it, so this one couldn’t be a sea crocodile and was certainly nothing like eight meters long. Bara remembered that crocodiles hunt by catching hold of their prey, dragging them under water and drowning them. Sometimes they store them away under a root and leave them as a reserve for hard times. They can’t chew, so they swallow pieces of their prey whole. They portion them out by biting into them and then spinning round and round until a piece of flesh or maybe a leg breaks off. And then they swallow it whole. The pressure exerted by crocodile jaws was unbelievable. On TV they said it was as much as 2,400 kg. Bara had asked Dad whether that meant the crocodile’s head weighed 2,400 kg? Dad had rolled his eyes and said that when both her parents had been to university their daughter really ought to be capable of a little elementary thought…How on earth could Bara believe that the head of a crocodile weighed 2,400 kg when a moment ago they had been saying on the TV that a three-meter crocodile weighed around a hundred kilos. Insulted, Bara had retorted that it seemed strange and she was just asking. Dad had sighed and said that a 2,400 kilo bite meant that if a crocodile got her leg between its jaws it would be as if 2,400 kg were standing on her leg. Bara still didn’t understand because the head surely didn’t weigh 2,400 kg when the whole crocodile weighed only 100 kg. Dad had refused to explain anymore, because on the TV they were just saying that though the crocodile had a strong bite, a man could hold its jaws shut with his bare hands because the muscles a crocodile uses to open its jaws are very weak. This information had appealed to Dad and he had declared he would like to try it sometime and they could go to the crocodile farm in Protivin. Mum had retorted that the last thing she wanted was a permanent invalid as a husband, and it was quite enough for her that Dad occasionally went off with the boys on mountain bikes, usually spraining his back but at least coming back with the standard number of limbs. Dad had taken offence and they had watched the rest of the film in silence.
Now Bara was getting the chance to watch a crocodile in real life, not on TV, and she wasn’t finding it much fun. As far as she could see, if the crocodile managed to kill the hunter, it would certainly be setting him aside for lean times. It wouldn’t devour him immediately because first it would be keen to grab a second course, meaning Bara. And Bara would probably not be able to fight it off with just the wooden paddle, which lay in the boat with a net, bow and quiver. Maybe she could do something with those arrows …not that she would be able to fire them from the bow, but she might be able to poke the crocodile in the eye with one when it started trying to climb onto the boat,
The foam became ever more red and the waves less wild. The crocodile and the hunter – or at least one of them - was getting tired. But it was still impossible to guess which of them was bleeding.
And then the fight ended.
The surface grew almost calm.
There was no sign of the crocodile or the hunter.
Bara started to panic.
Because it was just like in horror movies. The calm before the storm. The croc was going to rise up in some completely unexpected place. Perhaps behind her or smashing through the bottom of the boat and catching her by the leg. Bara gazed about in terror. For safety she grasped one of the arrows in her hand, ready to throw it at anyone, in any direction.
Then she let out a cry, because breaking through the surface in a geyser of water came the hunter.
He stood gasping for breath. He could scarcely stand upright. He had been under water too long and the fight had been exhausting.
Bara wanted to jump for joy, but the lesson of the films was clear – don’t be happy too soon! Just when people think they’ve won the monster always comes back again, unexpectedly. So she stayed crouched in the boat and it didn’t occur to her to take the paddle and push the boat towards the hunter. Apparently he did not expect her to do so. He waded over to the boat, took it by the stern and dragged it over to the spot where he had killed the crocodile.
“Jump out,” he told Bara, in a weary voice.
“But that crocodile’s there!” Bara protested, appalled.
“It’s dead,” said the hunter. Bara was very reluctant to get back in the water, but the hunter waited in silence until she felt she had no option but to leave the safety of the boat. The hunter gestured her to climb down over the side. He tossed the dagger into the boat, pushed the paddle into Bara’s hand and instructed her to stay beside the boat. Then he dived under the surface and a moment later Bara’s blood ran cold as a toothy jaw appeared above the surface. Drawing on her knowledge of horror movies, she assumed that the croc had come to life, had devoured the hunter and was coming for her. Fortunately the hunter had killed it properly and was just heaving the dead body out of the water to get it into the boat. Bara guessed that the crocodile measured a little over two meters, and so weighed about as much as the hunter. He was certainly having a tough job hauling it out; he fell and had to drag the reptile back up several times before he succeeded. Without a word he took the paddle from Bara, put it down on the crocodiles’ back, grasped Bara around the waist and lifted her into the boat. Then he swung himself up onto the bows with the ease of habit but every sign of fatigue. It didn’t escape Bara’s attention that he was trembling with exhaustion.
It was only now that they had a chance to look at the other.
The croc lay in the bottom of the boat with its head towards her, which made her uneasy, because her toes were dangerously close to the jaws full of cone-shaped white teeth. In its gold-flecked eyes there was the empty look of stuffed animals in museums. Several rows of pointed scales grew on its back, narrowing to two high dragon ridges on its tail. On TV all this had looked quite pretty, but in reality it was truly terrifying.
The hunter continued to say nothing and sat motionless with his head hanging down. He was very brown, and with the sun glittering on the droplets of water running down his body he looked as if cast in bronze.
Finally he raised his head and took a good look at Bara.
He had a finely formed skull, and Bara had to admit that he was one of those rare men who look good with a shaved head. It accentuated his already striking eyes, which were so dark that you couldn’t make out his pupils and were fringed with unbelievably long thick lashes. If a woman had eyelashes like that – Dad would have said – she would need a weapons license for them, while Mum occasionally used tweezers to try and make her eyelashes curve in just the way the hunter’s did naturally. It simply wasn’t fair that men should have such eyelashes, when they didn’t need them, while we women try to stick artificial ones on, thought Bara. Above his eyes arched thick eyebrows, black and crooked like raven’s wings.
The huntsman had a handsome face, but above all what is called charm. He certainly fell into the category grown-up but he definitely wasn’t as old as Bara’s Dad.
On his chest there were several bruises most probably caused by those scaly ridges on the crocodile’s back; little ribbons of blood flowed down from them and were soaking into the white skirt. He had a few cuts on his legs, the marks of the crocodile’s claws, but none were deep. He had emerged from the battle exhausted but without serious injuries.
The silence lasted a terribly long time. Bara began to feel that hours were passing, but the shadow thrown by the crocodile back had not crept forward much, and so it couldn’t be hours.
‘”Where have you come from?” The hunter spoke at last. He had stopped trembling but his voice was tired.
Another fine mess I’ve got myself into, Bara thought. What could she tell him?
“You are not from round here, or anywhere else in Takemet,” the huntsman informed Bara of the results of his observation. “You don’t look like the people living in Tadeshret. You’re dressed like our women but you wear your hair like a man. Who are you?”
In the language they were speaking Takemet meant Black Land and Tadeshret meant Red Land. But these names rang no bells with Bara. And even if they had meant something to her she would have had a hard time inventing an acceptable story about how she found herself in the middle of a swamp.
“Bara”, she said, because that was true. She didn’t expect it to satisfy the hunter but at least it gained her half a minute’s time.
“Ba-ra?” the hunter leaned forward. He pronounced the name a little differently, with a very open a at the end, so it sounded a little like Ba-re.
“Yes”, Bara nodded.
“Where have you come from?”
“From the Czech Republic,” said Bara. How was she supposed to invent anything when she didn’t yet know where or when she was?
“I have never heard tell of such a land,” the hunter shrugged, indicating not that he thought Bara was lying but just that he didn’t know the country, “Do you belong to anybody?”
The hunter regarded her with curiosity. With curiosity but not suspicion. Then he grinned and shook his head, as if he found it all utterly puzzling but had no urgent need to get to the bottom it if now. He had an infectious grin, his white teeth shining from ear to ear in his golden-brown face, and Bara automatically grinned back.
The hunter picked up the paddle and the boat started to move, slowly and without hurry, towards the bank.
“I went out to hunt geese”, he remarked, “But I’m bringing a much better catch home”.
Bara was about to be offended at being called a catch, but checked herself. The hunter clearly meant the crocodile and if it hadn’t been for him she would indeed have been a catch. The crocodile’s.
“I forgot to thank you,.” she piped up.
“For the crocodile…It would have eaten me,” The idea brought a lump to her throat and big tears to her eyes.
“Yes, he was heading for you,” the hunter nodded, “But Bastet brought me in time”
Bara wanted to ask who Bastet was, for there was no one in the boat or around it who could have brought the hunter here, but before she could open her mouth she remembered. On her last long visit to the past she had been a slave in ancient Pompeii, and made friends there with another slave, a young Egyptian girl. Her owners called her Syrinx but her real name was Bastethotep – Bastet is pleased . Bastet was a goddess with a cat’s head.
It dawned on Bara that she was in Ancient Egypt. The Egyptians don’t call it Egypt but the Black Land. And this river is the Nile, because there is no other river in Egypt and never has been.
Heavens, I’m sitting in a boat with a real genuine Egyptian! Maybe this is Tootincarmoon, I mean Tutankhamun…Hey, this is cool. Egypt is amazing.
Well, apart from crocodiles – she remembered the toothy jaw by her bare toes.
The hunter paddled in silence and looked stand-offish. In fact for the whole time, apart from that one charming smile, he looked stand-offish. At first Bara thought he was cross with her for wandering about the swamp where she obviously wasn’t allowed, and so forcing him to fight the crocodile, or else because she hadn’t told him what she was doing in the swamp. Actually she was rather over-estimating the hunter’s interest in her. He was simply concentrating on guiding the boat safely through the shallows, where they could have got stuck, and he was also watching the surface like a hawk in case there was another croc lurking there. He was tired too.
Finally they reached dry land. The prow of the boat knocked against the bank and the boat rocked a little. The hunter jumped into the water and moored the boat to a stake that was stuck in the bank for the purpose.
“Take the things out of the boat and follow me,” he told Bara, when she had clambered out with a splash and was knee-deep in water. She dropped her original intention of climbing straight onto the bank and waited. The hunter stared thoughtfully at the crocodile for a moment. Then he bent down, grasped it and slung it across his shoulders like a sheep. Not that slung was quite the right expression; it would be more accurate to say that he heaved it up with great difficulty, succeeding only on about the fourth attempt. Then he stood still, gasping for breath, before shifting his weight and carefully testing out how to keep his balance with a two-meter reptile on his shoulders. He held it by the head with his left hand and by the tail with his right hand. He looked as if he had a huge scaly boa round his neck. (Boa means a boa constrictor, a snake, but also a long fur or feather scarf). Then he advanced, taking every step very carefully. If he had fallen into the water with the crocodile, he would probably have lacked the strength to lug it out again
Bara leant over the side of the boat to pick up his things. This made her feel sick, because there was a sticky pool of crocodile blood in the bottom and the net, dagger, bow and arrows were lying in it. She used her finger tips to fish them out by their least bloodied parts, and then carefully rinsed them in the water. As she washed them, she noticed oddities.
The arrows had tips of bone not metal.
She took a closer look at the dagger.
It had a black blade, polished as a mirror, and when she held it up to the sun she saw that the slender edges were a translucent brown. It definitely wasn’t metal. It looked more like some peculiar stone or maybe black glass, but who would make a dagger out of glass?
She put the dagger into the quiver with the arrows, gathered everything up with the paddle and set off after the hunter, who was now mounting the bank with slow careful steps. As she followed she discovered that the rip in her dress now almost reached her waist. She was glad to be carrying an armful of things and above all that she could let the net hang down and so keep the dress from flapping open in front if any mischievous breeze should want to play with it.
The hunter headed along a trodden path into the small town. As soon as they were between the houses, people started to run out to them with cries of admiration meant for the hunter, and curious glances in Bara’s direction.
“Maimosee has caught a crocodile!” the voices rang in the alleys, “May Bastet bless Maimosee! Maimosee you’re a hero!”
So now Bara knew the name of her savior. It interested her because she understood it. It could be translated as Lion-born. He that was engendered by the lion. She realized that the people were over the moon about the crocodile, and of course she didn’t begrudge Maimose his glory, but the interest they were showing in her was unpleasant.
“Who’s that girl? She’s not from here! Where did Maimose find her? What pale skin she has, it’s almost white! And the hair – why is she wearing her hair like a man? Where’s she from? Look at those greenish eyes, like Meritbastet! But Meritbastet has completely green eyes… this one’s eyes are more like river mud, brown and green!”
Yuck, so I have eyes like mud, do I? Bara was insulted, for the comparison was not very flattering. Not flattering at all. She tried to ignore the people around her and keep close to Maimose, but some pushy locals thought nothing of reaching out and touching her, even though she glared at them.
More and more people appeared, until Bara and the hunter had quite a large retinue. Bara felt like an exotic animal.
It wasn’t just the uninhibited staring that made her uneasy.
Many of these people were almost or completely naked. All the children, including boys and girls her age, were running around entirely without clothes, wearing no more than some beads around their necks, and they all had shaved heads apart from one lock on one side. The men were mostly dressed in skirts like Maimose, but out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed a man with a donkey on a rope and he had nothing but a short apron around his waist, and that was tied behind. Luckily there were no other men like him. Most of the men wore make-up too - a heavy black or green line painted around their eyes, and some had wigs with fringes reaching to their eyebrows. Most of the women, who had painted their eyes just like the men, were wearing dresses similar to Bara’s - a white cloth tube with one or two shoulder straps. The difference was where the tube ended: some dresses went up to the armpits, but others only under the breasts. More than one woman wore just a skirt from waist to knees. Obviously they had hurried away from some kind of work that might have soiled or torn any more elaborate outfits. It seemed to make no difference whether these woman were young or grannies. They just dressed as it suited them, and clearly no one thought anything of it. It was just poor Bara who didn’t know where to look.
Maimose strode up to the huge wall that Bara had already seen from the swamp. It was less a wall than a huge earthwork clad with bricks. Several times as high as the little two-story houses, it rose above them like a mountain, dominating the plain around them. Yet another building could be glimpsed behind the mound.
They passed through a grand gate and found themselves in a large courtyard.
Bara had to stop, because she had never before seen anything so splendid.
Directly ahead of them loomed a structure she was unable to name. It looked like the front wall of an immense building, even taller than the mound walls around it. In the middle it was pierced by a gate taller than a bus stood on its end. It was decorated with reliefs of gods and goddesses with animal heads and kings bringing them offerings and leading captives. All of this was in larger than life-size and bright colors. Dazzling white, blood red, grass green, sky blue - these colors in the richest hues made the scenes on the battlement wall – at least it looked like a kind of battlement - an unbelievable spectacle.
Besides the tall middle gate, closed by very solid timber doors, there were two others leading through the wall and Maimose led her through one of them. A few people who had come this far with him had run ahead, and so when he entered another, smaller courtyard, he was already expected.
In the middle of the courtyard, which was lined to right and left with vividly painted decorated columns, stood a group of men who looked as though they had been through chemotherapy. It wasn’t just their heads that were shaven, but their eyebrows and chests and armpits and legs and every visible part of their bodies and probably the invisible part as well. One of them wore a leopard-skin across his shoulders. Among them stood a small, slim elegant woman with hair and eyebrows. Like most of the people here they all had eyes outlined in green or black. It immensely suited the woman, but Bara was still finding it odd on the men. The people who had overtaken Maimose were eagerly explaining something to the man in the leopard skin, and waving their hands excitedly.
“He’s here!” cried one of them - Bara somehow thought of them as villagers, but in fact this was a town however small, and so they had to be townspeople - when he noticed that Maimose had come through the gate. Hurrying over to greet Maimose he almost tripped over a black cat. It made not the slightest attempt to get out of his way, but just stopped washing its fur and gave the man and indignant look. And the man actually apologized to it! The cat went back to washing its paw. Bara noticed with wonder that it had a golden ring in each ear. Nor was it the only cat here. There had to be at least a dozen or even fifteen tabby and black pusses lying in the sun. Some were sitting in the shade of pillars and about four little kittens were trying to catch a beetle, and many of these cats, particularly the black ones, had earrings in at least one ear. Everyone left them alone respectfully, and the cats looked as though they expected nothing less.
Even Maimose with the crocodile on his shoulder walked carefully round a black moggy, although it would have been easier for him to push it aside with his foot and so save a few steps.
As she followed him Bara hopped from foot to foot, because the square white marble tiles of the courtyard paving were so hot from the sun that she couldn’t stand on them for long and indeed tried to alternate between her heels and the balls of her feet. The problem seemed not to bother Maimose, or anyone else, even though they were all barefoot apart from the shaven man in the leopard skin and the woman standing beside him.
Maimose halted at a respectful distance from the assembled baldies.
“You come in peace, Maimose.” Although Maimose appeared to be looking to the leopard-skinhead for a reaction, it was the woman who spoke. The black lines around her eyes, extended almost to her temples, emphasized the unusual color of her eyes, which were a golden green like ripe grapes.
“In peace,” responded Maimose. This seemed to be the local form of greeting. “I bring Bastet a gift.”
“Bastet thanks you,” the baldie assured him, and the woman gave a charming wink, like the flutter of a butterfly’s wing. Evidently this all meant that Bastet was accepting the gift, because the greatly relieved Maimose let the croc drop to the ground, with a heavy thud. Freed from his burden, Maimose looked as though he could have flown like a bird. Behind him and Bara the crowd let out an admiring oooooh and started to press forward for a closer look at the crocodile. Of course they took care not to bother the sunbathing cats, who were rather put out by the clamor in the courtyard but mostly not disturbed enough to move. The shaven-headed men, with the exception of the one with the leopard skin who managed to maintain a cool expression, also went over to inspect the crocodile.
Maimose stepped to one side, and so did Bara. In fact she tried to hide behind him because she felt out of place in this crowd of half-naked people. It was only now that she noticed that Maimose had blood all over his shoulders and back. It was the crocodile’s blood not his own, but it still looked horrifying.
“You are covered in blood, Maimose,” remarked the green-eyed woman, who seemed amused at the mixture of fear and curiosity with which the group around the crocodile were examining the beast. “But you’re steady on your feet and have carried the crocodile here, so I assume you have no more than a few grazes.”
“You are right, Meritbastet,” Maimose nodded.
It was another name that Bara could understand. Meritbastet means Beloved of Bastet.
“This crocodile,” Maimose continued, “intended to attack a girl who was wading in the middle of a swamp. Bastet led me there at the last minute. The girl does not come from Takemet and I do not know what to do with her.”
“Where is she?” Meritbastet asked.
“Hiding behind my back,” said Maimose. This annoyed Bara, because in the first place she was not hiding, but just avoiding the gawpers who were gathered round the crocodile, and in the second place she hadn’t known that Maimose had noticed her.
Meritbastet leaned down to take a look at Bara behind Maimose’s back, and it was a movement as graceful as a rush stem bending in the breeze.
“Here you are”, she laughed.
“She wouldn’t tell me anything about herself, only her name,” Maimose added. He was not complaining, just reporting. All the time Bara kept jumping from one foot to the other in a rather humiliating way, because she couldn’t stand on the burning tiles for longer than she could count to ten.
“And what is her name?”
“Ba-Re,” said Maimose,
“Bara.” Bara corrected him emphatically.
“Bara? Ba-Re?” Her green eyes were glittering like emeralds. Meritbastet gave Bara a look so searching that Bara felt she was being read through and through. And that when Meritbastet spoke she would recite Bara’s permanent address, date of birth, telephone number and parents’ telephone number, latest school grades, email address and maybe even shoe size. She undoubtedly knew who Bara was and how she had come to be here.
But Meritbastet did not betray Bara’s personal details. Instead she turned to the baldie in the leopard skin and said:
“Bastet desires to speak with her.”
Maimose didn’t even try to conceal his amazement, and even the man to whom this was addressed looked surprised, although up to then he had given the impression that only a meteorite landing in the middle of the courtyard could discompose him.
“Bastet? Bastet herself desires to speak with her?”
“Yes. This girl is not here by chance. Lead her to Bastet, Khenti.”
Khenti meant Leader, and Khenti did indeed look like a man who gave orders and was really not accustomed to obeying them. His features tightened a little at Meritbastet’s command, but he swallowed his pride.
“Are you sure that Bastet wishes to speak with her immediately? Does she not perhaps wish to see her tomorrow at morning service? To open Bastet’s shrine outside the appointed time is…” Khenti hinted that Bastet might be furious if they disturbed her.
“I fear,” Meritbastet regarded Khenti gravely, “that there is no time to lose. Bastet is in haste.”
“So we must not upset her by wasting time,” Khenti concluded, and gestured to Bara to follow him.
Bara put Maimose’s things down on the ground and reluctantly took a step forward, or rather hopped forward from foot to foot. She glanced up at Maimose, as if to ask if she really had to go, and saw in his eyes something like wonder at what he had pulled out of the swamp. And also something like a spark of respect or admiration.
“Come, maiden,” Khenti instructed her, having turned round and gathered that Bara was still dancing back and forth on the same paving stones. There was nothing for it but to catch up with him.
Khenti led her to an entrance to a large building opposite the gate they had passed through earlier. On each side of the gate was a huge statue of a cat, and both cats had necklets of turquoise and orange-black beads and ear-rings. Just like the columns and reliefs the statues were painted, and these were black cats. After walking between them Bara found herself in a great shadowy columned hall. In fact the hall contained nothing but columns decorated with reliefs and colors. They opened like flowers by the ceiling. Here and there a pair of little green lanterns shone out of shadowy corners. They were cats enjoying the cool, and two tabby cats blinked and stretched luxuriantly in a strip of light that fell through the entrance. Bara would have liked to stroke them but Khenti led her in a straight line to the opposite door. This led to yet another columned hall, which was smaller, lower and darker than the one before. Beyond that was an even smaller room with an even lower ceiling and this time without columns. By the scant light that penetrated this far from the entrance to the first columned hall, Bara could see that the walls were adorned with colorful paintings.
They went through yet another door into an even smaller room where it was almost pitch dark. Bara had the feeling that she was in the heart of a cave – an impression produced by the way that each room had been progressively narrower, each ceiling lower, and each floor slightly but perceptibly higher. It was like a gigantic funnel drawing them in and directing them to just one single point. This was the door at which Khenti was now chanting invocations as he ceremonially broke its seal and opened it.
The very last fading rays of light that had managed to find their way here from the distant entrance stroked the golden statue of a woman with a cat’s head.
Khenti fell to the floor before the statue, prostrating his whole body. Then he sat back on his heels for a while, softly uttering a formula that Bara did not understand. From inside the tiny chamber, which was more a tiny chamber than a room, she caught a sweet, intoxicating scent.
“Bastet is waiting for you,” Khenti stood up and turned to Bara.
“Am I supposed to go inside?” Bara asked.
“Yes, because Bastet desires to speak with you,” Khenti nodded.
Bara’s heart started to pound.
People say humorously that although ghosts don’t exist it’s still stupid to annoy them for no reason. Gods with animal heads also don’t exist – they are just inventions for movies in which mummies come alive and run around in pyramids, but all the same - provoking them might not be a great idea. Bara was overcome by fear at the idea of crossing the threshold and entering the shrine where the gold statue lived. Or Bastet. The goddess with the head of a cat.
“Is she really and truly there?” She was trying to put off the inevitable moment.
“Certainly,” Khenti smiled. “Her ba has descended into the statue, and so Bastet can dwell here among us.”
So that meant there was another ghost called a ba there, Bara deduced. This made her even less keen to go inside. A ba might do worse than go boo!
“What will happen if I don’t go in there?” she found the courage to mention what was probably a completely unthinkable option.
“Bastet will be enraged”, replied Khenti, as if that were obvious, “and will punish us. There is no reason why you should not enter. She invites you, and it is a great honour, possibly greater than you can imagine, oh girl from a foreign country where the gods do not dwell.”
So there was nothing for it - Bara sighed inwardly as she reluctantly, extremely reluctantly, went through the door. Khenti shut it behind her and Bara found herself in utter darkness. Her first thought was to start kicking the door so that Khenti would immediately let her out, but then she realized to her amazement that as soon as the door had shut, her fear had vanished. Once inside she felt completely safe, as if nothing could harm her and someone loved her deeply. It struck her as natural – after all, sweet Syrinx, whose parents had called her Bastet is pleased, could never have been named after an evil goddess. Bastet was a cat, and cats are affectionate and endearing… Suddenly Bara felt immensely tired, which was no wonder after her adventures in the swamp. She sat down on the ground with her back against the door. Although her eyelids were drooping she tried to stay awake because she knew Bastet wanted to speak with her and Bara didn’t want to make Bastet angry. The trouble was that the intoxicating scent was too powerful. She curled up on the ground. The last thing she was aware of before she fell asleep was the touch of silken fur on her knee.
Translated by Anna Bryson