Upon the Wings of Horus
The past has been rolled into a scroll I shall not see again.
- Book of the Dead
The sun set the air on fire.
Incense permeated a dry midday wind. The land lay voiceless as death until the first cries of mourners pierced the silence. A sarcophagus passed into sight, gilded in gold and resting upon a funeral barge pulled across the land by a pair of brown oxen.
A bald man in a white robe escorted the procession. The skin of a leopard hung over his back. His hands gripped a silver ankh-the symbol of everlasting life. This newly-appointed high priest walked on, solemnly leading his predecessor's mummified body towards its house of eternity.
Behind the funeral barge trailed the mourners: women who wailed above the prayers and chants uttered by the priests. They tore at their hair, shed tears of sorrow, and threw ash upon their bodies. Servants followed closely behind. They carried a chest upon which sat a statue of the jackal god Anubis, guardian of the dead and their tombs. Rays of sunlight pounded the statue's sleek ebony and gold casing. Within the chest were personal items of the deceased and canopic jars containing his preserved internal organs; all were meant to last forever.
Upon a rooftop sat a cat. From her vantage point she watched the funeral. Her pupils had reduced to mere slits to keep out the harsh glare of the sun. Like the surface of the Nile, her green eyes glistened. A powerful river of memories flowed through her mind and touched her heart. She could see the high priest Akhotep as he was in life, the temple he had served in, and the cats with whom he had shared his life.
Her memory rested upon the image of a cat named Sahu, whose fur held a sheen of tarnished silver. The words 'I promise I will always be there for you' echoed in her mind. Swiftly she shut out her affections and focused instead on the funeral procession. The sarcophagi of mummified cats came into sight. Neferure turned sharply away, bitterly wondering if the promise of 'being there' included resting in a dark tomb far beneath the earth.
Onwards strode the procession, toward the Nile where the priests, the mourners and the servants would all board boats and make their way towards the West Bank of Thebes. There the sun would set, behind the tombs of the dead. Akhotep's spirit had already been taken upon the wings of the god Horus and judged before Osiris in the realm of Amenti, the land of the dead. His heart had been placed on the scales in the hall of Two-Truths and by the power of Anubis weighed against a single feather. The same had been done with the hearts of the cats to be buried with him.
Neferure knew tales of the lands through which the departed passed on their quest for eternal life. The afterworld was filled with peril and hardship before one reached peace within the reed fields of Aaru. Sahu had always been a survivor, but would he pass the tests of the gods? Would the scales tip to his demise? His fate was a secret that dreams would not tell.
She reached for his presence, always just beyond her grasp. It never left but was never seen, as though lying in a tomb of buried hopes. She could have passed through all the gates of Thebes and none would have led to where she needed to go. It was as though she were living in two worlds. Dying where there was no death, living where there was no life.
She had paced the ruins of Akhotep's house after the fire, not knowing what she searched for. An explanation, perhaps. Why had the gods torn Sahu away so suddenly, so unjustly? Among the cold ashes she had found no answers. The shadow of Sahu's pain and fear as he burned alive or suffocated in smoke had caused her to shudder.
A noise below refocused her attention.
Neferure looked down, swivelling her ears, surprised to see the pharaoh and his guards. Ramesses III stood still and silent, intensely watching the funeral procession. A striped nemes cloth draped over his head, gathered at the back and ran down behind his ears. It made his face a mirror image of the gold cast cobra rearing upon his brow. An intricate usekh collar, with its many rows of coloured and golden beads, rested upon his broad shoulders. His muscles, forged through years of war, stood strong despite years of extravagance. His face was lined by the cares of a kingdom to rule.
A man unknown to Neferure approached the pharaoh. His pleated white linen garb and finery suggested he held high social standing. The captain of the guard blocked his way until the pharaoh waved the stranger through.
The stranger stopped and bowed before Ramesses. 'My king, may life, health, and strength be given unto you.'
Ramesses bade the man to rise. Concern etched into the pharaoh's strong features. 'What is it that brings you from so far, Qetu?'
Qetu rose. 'I know you have always respected my decisions as the vizier of Lower Egypt; thus you must also understand my method of reasoning. I would not have come in person had I not felt it necessary. Words take too long to travel up and down the Nile.'
Neferure, with her keen feline eyes, watched the frown upon Ramesses' face deepen. 'Does this deal with the problem you wrote of earlier?'
'Yes.' Qetu met Ramesses' hard gaze. 'It is spreading.'
'Could it be a plague of the goddess Sekhmet? Have we angered the great lioness goddess, the eye of Ra?'
'Quite possibly. This plague is linked to the spread of vermin. If it follows the same pattern here as in the delta, then we will see the cats affected first. It won't take long to pass to the people.'
Neferure perked her ears and drew her head forward. Her muscles tensed at the thought of disease spreading among her kind. She wished she could question the vizier further, yet few could converse with animals. Being a representative on earth of the gods, the pharaoh could do this, but Neferure doubted this was so about the vizier.
'Very well,' Ramesses replied. 'Increase the offerings and hymns at all of Sekhmet's temples.'
'I have already done so.'
Ramesses looked away and towards the horizon. For a while he was silent, as if waiting for an answer to come from the mouth of Amun-Ra himself. 'This problem will not be so easily solved. Such a poor time it is for these evils. I have repelled all foreign invaders, but funds are low and the crops are failing. Many of the tomb builders of the West Bank have gone on strike, and those who deliver their rations are not doing so as promised. Qetu, the gods surely are angry at us. We must find out why. Perhaps I am to blame, for I may have sought too hard to be more than Ramesses the Great. The gods may have judged me as overreaching.'
'I assure you, my king, that you are loved and respected among those in Egypt and in Amenti. This plague is surely not of your doing.'
'Very well. Return to your proper place and oversee further offerings to Sekhmet. I will speak to the gods, and when I find an answer you will hear of it.'
Qetu paused for a moment before replying. To Neferure's eyes he seemed irked. 'I shall depart in a few days, when the boats are ready.' He paused again. 'If I may ask, why did you not lead the funeral yourself?'
'I decided to give that chance to Khesef-hra.'
'Does he not make a fine high priest?'
'Yes,' Ramesses said, 'so far he has done admirably.'
Qetu broke it. 'My lord, I will help make Egypt healthier and more prosperous than ever before. You may put your full faith in that.'
Ramesses looked at him and gave a slight smile. He then dismissed the vizier. Qetu bowed and nodded his head, then headed towards the river.
* * * * *
By the time Neferure returned to her home, the pale glow of twilight had enveloped the land. She wondered when the plague would strike in Thebes and how it would affect the lives of cats. Surely it would hit the strays before the housecats. They were always first affected by any disease or hardship. The high priest Akhotep, who was meant to cleanse the land, had died just prior to the plague. Coincidence, or something more sinister? An ominous feeling haunted her, telling of a deeper evil lying beneath the surface of recent events. Her mind raced searching for answers, desperate for a morsel of reason for the high priest's death-and Sahu's. All she found were doubts and a world that had moved on while she was left behind, wandering between the lands of the living and the dead.
She sat in her garden, on the edge of a grand rectangular pool. Lotuses rested upon the still waters, their blue and white flowers submerged for the night. Ornamental fish swam beneath the surface, amongst the lotus roots, taunting her to catch them.
An evening breeze wafted through the garden, laced with the scent of the many jasmine flowers bordering the pool. Sycamore and pomegranate trees were planted in rows, their shade greatly revered during the heat of the day. Two willow trees stood before the pool; their many thin branches hung like a living curtain over the water and earth. The soil here was rich with memories of Neferure's youth.
The next morning she would visit Heqaib. He would surely have something to say about the plague. More importantly, she wanted to know what he thought would happen to Sahu's spirit. Heqaib had known Sahu even before she had. It was he who had come to her, some forty days ago, and told her what she never wanted to hear. Neferure wanted to visit Heqaib that very night, but he was getting on in years, and he was odd in that he preferred sunlight over moonlight. He was an unusual cat in many ways.
Neferure passed through the garden, her paws deftly trotting over grass and dirt, until she came to the entrance hall of her home. It was the estate wherein lived Ta, the vizier of Upper Egypt.
Only the palaces of the pharaoh bested the estate. As with all houses of the living, it was built of mud brick. Only the dwellings of the gods or the resting places of spirits were built of stone. The house walls were plastered white and bore colourful images of marshes with fish and lotuses, flying birds, deities, and events of day-to-day life. Wooden columns supporting the ceiling were carved at the top to resemble the lotus flower-the symbol of Upper Egypt. Furniture was sparse and elaborate, inlaid with gold, silver and electrum, and crafted by some of the finest artisans of Egypt.
Recessed into the wall to Neferure's right was the typical household shrine. It held statues of the gods worshipped by the house's inhabitants. One of the largest statues was that of a cat. Ta's wife, Hatia, was a patron of the goddess Bast, and her strong devotion was evident in the elaborate gold statue she had commissioned.
Neferure took a long look at the seated, proud, and dignified image of the feline goddess-an image that bore such a likeness to herself. Hatia often spoke of seeing the essence of Bast shine through all cats and how some carried themselves as though they were deities on earth.
Now Hatia was standing before her prized statue of Bast, holding a small child bundled in linen in her arms. Black kohl lined her eyes, matching the colour of the sleek hair that framed her face and fell just short of her shoulders. Her arms and neck bore gold jewellery of serpents and winged scarabs. The soft candlelight from the shrine danced upon the faces of both mother and child. Hatia was asking for protection for herself and her newborn son.
'Bast,' Hatia said in a whisper, 'great goddess of the sun, protectress of cats, of children, and of Egypt, please guard my new child as you would your own.'
After placing an amulet of a cat around the boy's neck, Hatia retreated from the entrance hall. Neferure had already asked Bast for any dream of significance to the answers she sought, so she now followed the wisps of linen trailing behind as Hatia walked. Soon they entered a stately room filled with carved columns, murals, and exquisite furniture-the grand hall of the estate.
Grooming herself upon a chair was Takhaet. She was of a fine and delicate build. Hardly ever did she choose to set foot outside. Neferure attributed this to the wind: she figured it would both ruffle Takhaet's fur and pick her up off her feet. Takhaet's markings looked as though they had been washed away by the annual flood, giving her a muted, yet elegant, pastel appearance. Contrasted against Neferure's bold markings set upon fur coloured like aged gold, one would never guess they were sisters. When Takhaet finished grooming her left shoulder, at last seeming satisfied with her appearance, she looked over at Neferure as if knowing what was on her sister's mind.
'He was born a stray,' Takhaet said, referring to Sahu. 'Just be thankful he didn't die as one. I hear a cat of Per-Maahes will be arriving here in Thebes tomorrow, by boat. That lineage is supposed to be-'
Neferure narrowed her eyes. 'Don't you realize there's something wrong with all of this?'
'Yes, strays, even former ones, should not have proper burials.' Takhaet looked at her paw, scrutinizing its appearance. 'Strays are strays because they must have angered the gods. The gods can see what is in their souls. If they were ousted by the gods then surely they should be ousted by us as well.'
'I speak of the human they're burying. When I last saw Akhotep he seemed oddly worried. Both Sahu and I noticed it. Sahu said he would follow Akhotep around the temple to see if he could find the source of his unease. Now, both are...'
'Yes.' Neferure looked down.
'Then you're connecting these two events?' Takhaet asked, in a tone suggesting she didn't care to hear the answer.
Takhaet straightened out a single hair on her paw. 'You don't think you're simply trying to give Sahu's end a just cause? I find Akhotep's death quite plausible. Simply, he died because it was his time to die. Being old, and likely forgetful, he left a lantern burning as he fell asleep, and one of the cats, maybe even Sahu, knocked it over while chasing a moth. A fire started, and Akhotep died of smoke inhalation while trying to escape. End of story.'
Exasperated by her sister's incessant careless attitude towards the suffering of others, Neferure repressed the budding reprimand she knew would fail to change Takhaet's ways. 'I don't believe it was that simple. When I went to investigate, I did see a lantern, but I did not see any remains of a scroll, nor could I smell any burned papyrus. I doubt Akhotep would have left the lantern lit if he hadn't been reading. The doorway was scorched the most, as if the fire started there. And why was Akhotep rushed to be mummified in only forty days when he could have afforded the full seventy-day procedure? Now I hear talk of a coming plague. The vizier of Lower Egypt himself came to deliver the news. He said the plague will hit us first and then the humans. Doesn't it seem odd that all these events are coinciding? There is some deeper evil behind it. I know there is.'
Takhaet swished her tail in annoyance. 'As usual I don't agree with you. Although I will accept your opinion as your own, I ask you to promise me one thing: to not waste your time trying to solve mysteries that aren't there.'
'I can't make that promise. I would be betraying Sahu's memory if I didn't find out what he died for.' Neferure stood proud and narrowed her eyes. 'Unlike you, I couldn't live with that.'
'Suit yourself. You always have.' Takhaet straightened her posture, jumped off the chair and daintily walked away with her head and tail held high in the air. A few paces from the doorway she looked back. 'You know, curiosity will be the death of you.'