I am Miw: “Cat,” if you are a human who speaks the language of Egypt. For others it is just a name, or perhaps the meaningless cry of one of the smaller cousins of the great lion. Among my own people I am called Daughter of Fire.
Into every generation of humans a few are born who can understand the speech of animals. This gift is stronger in some than in others. Similarly, among animal kind some are born with an extraordinary ability to communicate with these rare humans. Were it not so, those who run upon four feet and soar in the sky on wings might already have vanished from the earth. Humans understand little of the Great Balance.
I am such a cat. Perhaps my understanding was deepened by my contact with the child Yeshua ben Yosef, but it is hard for me to judge. Cats don’t spend their lives in self-reflection as humans often do.
I was born within the precincts of the Great Temple of Bubastis, built by humans to honor their goddess Bast, she of human body and cat’s head. My mother was the one humans call the Cat Who Is Bast, a cat honored in the temple as one in whom the goddess dwells, although to the temple cats she was merely Mother and Grandmother.
Being a cat, I never bothered with the ways of humans more than necessary—that is, until they were forced upon me. Now I know little else, for I have come to a place where few cats dwell. Many seasons have turned since my early days in the temple. I grow old. So I speak these words to a human friend before I sink into the Silence and wake to the light no more. Everything I once loved has disappeared, and worlds I never dreamed of have swept over me like the great Nile in flood.
I tell this story through my own eyes, as well as through the eyes of those I have loved, human and cat alike. Sometimes what I describe I saw in dreams, some of it was described to me by others. The story’s ending is hidden from me, since the life of a cat is little more than the brief iridescence of a hovering dragonfly compared to a human lifespan. But even though the story may be incomplete, the Mother of Cats—or the One, as Yeshua calls her—has pressed upon my heart the need to tell it.
Chapter 1: The Great Cat Who Is Bast
On a cold winter’s night when the heavens almost seemed to reach down and touch the earth, a child was born in a stable lit by the guttering flame of a dim lamp. The stable was warm and close with the shaggy bodies of beasts, and no one turned away from the wonder of the birth to notice the star that bloomed in the sky as the child drew his first breath. But magi from the stony wastes of the eastern deserts saw and followed it, bringing gifts of gold and spice. And many miles away, as her last kitten struggled into the world, the Great Cat Who Is Bast saw the star and wondered.
I stirred in my sleep and curved my body more closely around my kittens. A predawn chill lay on the temple island, even inside the clay walls of the House of Birth. After a moment I opened my eyes, puzzled that I should have awakened at this hour. Raising my head slowly, I touched each kitten with my nose, satisfying myself that all was well. Their sweet milky breath reassured me. They were growing fast now. Soon they would be weaned and ready to join the others in the kitten compound. Perhaps this time the priests would allow me to keep one with me when I returned to the temple. I didn’t understand how they decided such things, but yes, perhaps this time.
Ears swiveling, I listened for any alien sound, but I heard only the soft snores of the other mothers and kittens sleeping in their own chambers around the sides of the birthing house—and of course the rustling of mice in the woven reeds of the roof. I was fully awake now. Unease flowed on the heels of my waking, and I strained to listen, but still I heard nothing, not even a breath of wind in the tall sycamores shading the House of Birth. Neither did I scent the presence of an intruder. I opened my mouth and drew the moist air through my nose. Only the fetid odor of the receding marshes penetrated the building.
Starlight filtered through chinks in the reed roof, reminding me of the wide world outside the walls of the birthing house. But I was content. No happiness could be greater than the warmth I shared with my kittens in this peculiar prison the priests had forced upon all the temple’s breeding cats.
I laid my head down on the soft hay strewn for our bed and closed my eyes. I was being foolish. All was quiet. Not even the priests had risen yet to prepare for the coming of the light. Yet I couldn’t escape the dread that filled my heart, creeping over me as relentlessly as the rising waters of the Nile. I lay quiet, resisting the urge to run, to flee the House of Birth. Flight was impossible. My kittens were too young to run with me. The first stooping owl would catch them up in his claws. The crowned serpent would swallow them. The great lizard would lunge up out of the mud and snap them in his jaws. I quivered with misery. The need to escape became an itch in my body as well as my mind, like a thousand biting flies under my skin.
“O Mother of Cats, protect them,” I breathed.
Then I opened my eyes and stared fixedly at the tiny window facing my chamber. “Mother who formed my claws to rend, my teeth to bite, and my milk to flow, hear me now. The breath of Silence is cold on your daughter’s heart. Lend me your wisdom. I am afraid.”
But my mother was across the island in the temple, as much a prisoner of her sacred status as I was of my kits.
I closed my eyes again and curled around my family, releasing my growing terror into the keeping of the Mother of Cats. Then I sank into an uneasy doze. I could do no more.
Inside the chamber of the Great Cat Who Is Bast, Tikos, wet nurse to the Cat, also lay awake. The split palm branches of her bedframe creaked under her weight as she tossed, almost like the voices of the tiny frogs that sang among the lotus. At last she threw off the covers, slipped through the mosquito netting and rose to her feet, reaching for her linen shift. The tiniest hint of stubble on her head caught the fabric as it slipped down over her body: tomorrow she must shave. No servant of the Strong Mother profaned her presence with hair.
Tikos wondered if her restlessness had disturbed the lady Cat, because she found the Cat sitting in the window of appearance, silhouetted against the false dawn like one of her golden statues. But of course the Cat wasn’t gold, she was huge and black like a leopard from beyond the cataracts, her spots and stripes barely visible, like tiny schools of fish caught in a dark wave. Not like me, her daughter—a small cat with thick fur that spoke of yellow sun and spotted shade.
Why would She Who Is Bast be watching the sky with such intensity? Any servant of the great goddess knew that this was the moment when she would be battling the demon Apophis for Ra’s safe passage into the dawn sky.
“Pray the goddess that her battle for the light is won!” Tikos breathed. Then she added a few words of her own to her prayer and turned uneasily to the Great Cat.
“Great One, is all well?” Tikos sent the thought wordlessly across the room.
“I am anxious about Daughter of Fire,” came the answer, in neither words nor images, but somehow compounded of both. “She is afraid, and I share her uneasiness. Something is out of balance.”
Daughter of Fire, Tikos smiled. Surely she was still safe in the House of Birth, with her kittens at her breast. Of all the sacred cats sprung from the Great Cats over time, Daughter of Fire was her favorite.
I had been only half-grown when Tikos and I crossed the temple gardens together, sent by the Great Cat my mother in search of a missing kitten. The evening glowed with the brilliant light of the setting sun. I followed Tikos, leaping at her ankles and chasing butterflies as she searched. Since I was young, I had not yet been named; Tikos called me Miw (cat)—and for that matter, she still does.
She had just parted the tall flowers growing against the lake wall when the noise began, a dreaded sound like water sizzling on a hot kettle, followed almost immediately by sudden movement and shadow. She fell backward in terror, certain that death had found her in the very moment of Ra’s sinking beneath the horizon to begin his journey into the underworld. But I leapt between her and the darkness, beating the snake’s head aside with the force of my spring. Tikos scrambled away. I slipped silently into the shadows, becoming one with the ancient rhythms of the lethal dance between cat and snake.
Tikos told me later that it was a black viper, deadliest and most feared of snakes, snake of Apophis, servant of chaos. It was unthinkable to her that he should be there, on the temple island of the Queen of the Gods, she who slew the serpent of darkness nightly.
Her cry brought others running, and soon many stood with her, witnesses to this battle of light and dark. But I paid them no heed. I pummeled and scratched the snake, leaping aside before he could strike. Again and again I battered his head to the ground, always trying to get a grip on the back of his neck, but always his dark body thrashed away, pale mouth and fangs gaping wide, seeking my flesh. He struck, I leapt aside, I beat him down and he coiled away, the dark bars flickering along his white belly.
The timelessness of the sacred dance caught the watchers up into a moment where only heart and breath measured the flow of life. Then at last, the viper struck with blinding speed. I heard the watchers gasp, fearing that I had delayed a second too long. Yet when the snake emerged again I was clamped to his neck, grinding my teeth into his spine, my claws piercing deep through the loose skin into the flesh of his thrashing coils, my body battered against the earth with his death throes.
When I finally staggered away from the viper’s twitching body, Tikos plucked me up, her careful fingers searching for any sign of a bite. But I squirmed free and jumped back to the ground. All I wanted was a chance to clean the bitter snake-scent from my claws and fur. I applied myself to my bath with intense concentration. The gaping humans standing all around I ignored completely.
I had suffered only one small wound: the snake had torn my ear with his fang in that last lunge. But if venom had flowed, it was no more than poisonous seed cast on dry ground. I washed the ear carefully, rubbing a damp paw over it again and again until I was satisfied that all lingering contamination was gone. The wound’s only consequence would be my exclusion from the role of Great Cat in my turn: I was no longer whole and unmarked, as the Great Cat my mother had told me the Cat must be.
I knew that Tikos treasured the memory of that evening. She still spoke of the debt she owed me for saving her life. It was so: she did owe me the life gift, but it meant little to me. My action had been no more than a sudden necessity, accepted and accomplished. Mostly I remembered it because the Great Cat my mother had given me my name that very night. “Daughter of Fire,” she named me, in honor of my triumph over what the humans believed was a demon of darkness. My mother told me later that my name was also drawn from her memory of the star that had blazed in the sky at my birth.
I suppose I became a favorite with the temple humans, priests and common people alike, after my battle with the snake. I was a good omen, a daily reminder of the goddess’ power in a time when the might of foreign armies was grinding Egypt’s people into the mud of the Nile.
Tikos brought her attention back to the Cat, who was regarding her in the greyness that was not yet light.
“There is a rottenness in this temple, Maidservant of Bast,” she spoke into Tikos’ mind. “The priests have lost their vision. Stripped of their great lands, their hearts turn toward gold, forgetting the glory of the Mother. My children are no longer honored. Their blood stains the earth, even on this holy island. I fear that the darkness my daughter senses is that of the black viper overshadowing us all.”
Then She Who Is Bast was silent. It had been a long speech for the Cat. Tikos knelt in response to her speaking, but the Great Cat’s words drew the warmth from her blood, leaving her trembling in the center of the many-colored carpet that covered the stone floor. This, then, was the shadow that had disturbed her sleep.
reflections of a temple cat
I don’t know how long the ancient temple at Bubastis has stood on its island. Length of time is not a thing cats care about. For me, as for every cat, each day is simply Day, and each night, Night. But humans seem to place value on great cycles of passing seasons, as if two or three days together possess more meaning than one day alone.
Peace and calm filled my days in the temple of Bast. I ate poached fish from a glass bowl, and at special seasons I wore a collar of precious stones. The humans who served in the temple treated me with careful respect. If misery existed in the world, it was no more to me than a sour breath rattling in the reeds beyond the walls.
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Chapter 6: Scorpion
I stretched and climbed out of the basket onto Tikos’ shoulder to examine the tower’s distant silhouette. To me it looked more like a fortress than a possible home. But Tikos broke into a trot, her sudden hope masking the pain in her legs. When at last she stopped to catch her breath, the light was growing, and we could see that high walls encircled the tower completely, even cutting across the great staircase midway up their rise. And both tower and walls lay across the Nile from our path.
Cautiously we climbed out of the fields and onto the road that crossed the river. Only a short distance back down our path we had passed the place where the Nile divided to create the borders of Bubastis, so the river was broader here. To Tikos’ great relief, and I suppose to mine, since I’m not a swimmer, a small raft lay tied to the dock where the road met the river. Balancing carefully on the unfamiliar surface, she set my basket down and picked up the pole. The river lay so low that we could hardly feel its current. I was grateful that it should be so, because even in the calm water, the raft swung around her pole like stringed beads around the face of a small hand drum. Without the man’s strength hidden in her woman’s arms, we would have drifted spinning back down the river.
But at last Tikos managed to steer us to the far side, where she retied the raft. We climbed up the docks and peered across the raised roadbed. From this new vantage point we could see a small town lying in the shadow of the tower hill. Lamps were beginning to flicker in the windows. Without pausing to explain herself, Tikos leapt up onto the road and started toward the village at a run. Caught off guard by her sudden movement, I almost toppled from her shoulder, but I dug my claws in and managed to keep my place.
The road ran through an open square, where Tikos stopped beside a well overhung with large sycamore trees: our water bag was nearly empty. But both our heads came up together at the sound of several women’s voices approaching the well from the village. With no time to think, Tikos plucked me from her shoulder, pushed me into the nearest sycamore, and scrambled up after me, mantle flying and wig askew. Quietly we crept higher into the tree, where the spreading day would not expose us.
Once her pounding pulse slowed, Tikos joined me in peering over a massive branch to study the women gathered at the well. To me they were only women, but their appearance puzzled her. Neither their clothing nor their speech was Egyptian. Long woolen robes tied at the waist hung loose on their bodies. Mantles covered their heads, hiding their hair. Tinkling coins were strung across their foreheads. We could see little of their faces. Tikos said that even their houses were subtly different from those of a typical Egyptian town, although they were built with the same mud brick.
Tikos listened to their conversation for some time before she realized who they must be: “Jews!” she smiled. She was familiar with their speech from the long-ago visit of a Jewish scholar from Alexandria who had come to the temple to study our healing texts. No doubt these people were part of one of the many Jewish communities scattered across the delta. She looked at them with renewed curiosity. Many Egyptians believed Jews to be evil, even god-hating, although in her brief acquaintance with that elderly scribe, he had seemed to be neither of those things.
Then as she watched, everything fell into place. She had read of an abandoned temple of Bast rebuilt as a Jewish temple almost 200 years before by an exiled priest of the Jews. The pharaoh of the time had given them land for the temple and for the building of their own town. Drawing deep into herself, she recalled her dream: the gods offering gifts to one who might be said to resemble a Jew. She had dreamed of this place, then—and this temple, although its significance still eluded her.
The sun rose above the temple hill as we looked down into the square. We could feel the growing heat even through the tree’s heavy foliage. Women were still arriving to draw fresh water for the day, and children scampered around their feet, laughing and playing whatever games human children played. They seemed a friendly group, but I had no doubt that their demeanor would change if we climbed out of our tree to join them. Tikos nibbled idly at one of the tree’s slashed figs.
A flash of movement caught my eye, and a small boy came running straight for our tree, wrapping his arms as far as they could reach around the enormous trunk, hugging it with obvious delight. He seemed to be talking to it as well. Tikos guessed that he couldn’t be more than four, although she admitted she had little experience of children. I had none. Still, I was prepared to like this child; anyone who hugged trees must be of some interest.
Then almost like a gift dropped to a friend, a fig fell from the tree and rolled erratically toward a brick wall, coming to rest at its base. The boy laughed and ran toward the fallen treat. But as I watched, a shadow stirred beside the wall, and a black shape moved rapidly toward the ripe fig.
“Lady Mother, protect us,” Tikos breathed at the same moment. “Black scorpion! Man-killer!”
In that moment the child bent to reach for the fruit, and his mother turned and screamed.
Tikos hissed, “Miw!” and I leapt from the tree.
The boy cried out in pain, and sat down suddenly in the dirt. The scorpion rushed closer, tail aloft.
“Mother of Healing, let it be a dry sting!” Tikos cried, and launched herself out of the tree.
I reached the boy before she could. His mother was still on the far side of the well. Sensing my approach, the scorpion turned and danced toward me. I feinted, and then knocked it sprawling away from the child.
For Tikos, I suppose watching me was like reliving my battle with the snake, only now I was no longer a half-grown kitten. Again and again I pounded the scorpion’s body with my paw, always avoiding the tail, confident of victory. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Tikos hurry toward the child.
Plucking the boy from the dirt, Tikos sucked as hard as she could on his finger and spat. Then drawing her knife, she cut around the sting and sucked and spat again. The boy cried out in surprise, but seemed to realize that she was trying to help, and sat quietly, watching her with huge eyes. The lingering bitterness on her tongue filled her with dread.
By the time his mother arrived, Tikos was tying a tourniquet around his arm and chanting softly, “You are powerless, you are flown, you have retreated, poison of the slayer! Lady Isis and Horus the savior, I have spoken your words of healing! Let the child live and the poison die!”
Tikos lifted the child from her lap and handed him to his mother, who appeared ready to faint. Rocking the boy in her arms, she began murmuring what were surely prayers to her own god.
Then Tikos turned to look for me. She smiled to see me crouched by the scorpion’s severed tail, crunching on its body. It made a juicy treat after a long night’s travels.
Ducking her head to straighten the wig and replace her mantle, Tikos stood up and approached the child and his mother. She stretched out her hand and looked a question at the woman, who nodded. She examined the boy’s hand, sucked the finger again for good measure, and smiled into his eyes. To her amazement, he laughed and twisted around in his mother’s arms, clearly saying the equivalent of, “Put me down!” Like a woman sleepwalking his mother set him on his feet.
I moved away from the remains of what might be a distressing meal for a human child and considered him as he ran toward me. I could see no effects of scorpion’s venom in his movements. What I did feel was an odd warmth spreading out from his small body, a glow of homecoming where surely no home could be. I rubbed against his legs, and even allowed him to pick me up. He laughed and wrapped his arms around me, burying his face in my fur. To my surprise, I enjoyed it. I nuzzled his face in return and purred loudly.
“Honored mother,” Tikos said to the woman beside her, “do you speak the tongue of the Greeks?”
“A little,” the woman replied.
“Your son,” Tikos said carefully, “I think he is well. I see no sign of poison in him. Perhaps I reached him in time to draw it out.”
Even as she spoke the words, she knew they were false. Never had she seen scorpion’s venom sucked from a child quickly enough to save his life. The healing words had never stopped its spread. Yet this child was neither drowsy nor clumsy, and clearly he felt no pain.
But now the mother had dropped to her knees, clasping Tikos’ hands in hers. “My house is yours, healer of my child. My life is yours! Please, come and share my roof, you and your beast.”
The other women had all gathered around to see the miracle of the child’s recovery, and to stare at the strange woman who had dropped out of the tree with a cat, but their looks were not hostile.
And so it is accomplished, thought Tikos. We have found shelter.
“Miw,” she called to me, “let us go.”
I squirmed free of the boy’s arms, and leapt to Tikos’ shoulder, feeling unaccountably bereft.
“Mother,” the child called as he ran to join us, “the cat’s name is Miw, and she’s going to come and live with me!”
I simply stared.
reflections of a temple cat
Now that I have been out in the world beyond the temple walls, I see that my gift of speaking with humans is more rare than I had thought. Perhaps the servants of the temple nurtured this gift when they protected the lineage of the Great Cats. However this may be, since I left the house of the Great Cat my mother, I have met no other creature able to hear the thoughts of humankind, except those born of my own body. I have met more than one human who can touch the thoughts of beasts, but no other beasts who could reach out to them. I fear for the future of animal kind if a day should come when none walks the earth who is able to carry our thoughts into the mind of the human juggernaut.
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Chapter 17: Child of Light
“We seek a safe path to Jerusalem,” Yosef said to our host.
The man called Zaidan had welcomed us to his tent with dates and fresh camel’s milk, and now we were reclining against soft cushions laid on rugs as thick as any I had seen in the temple. Of course, when I say “we,” I do not include myself. I was still hiding in Tikos’ basket, although she had carefully concealed her cup of milk in the basket with me so I could share in the bounty.
“A safe path to Jerusalem?” Zaidan echoed, one hand stroking his moustache. “Why, all men know that the Philistines’ Way is the easiest road from Egypt to Jerusalem. Or of course you might seek passage on a ship.”
“That may be so, but the Philistines’ Way is closed to us, as is the sea,” Yosef replied. “Yosiah believed that you could help us find another way.”
“The only other way is through the deep desert, where only our camels can go. Not small donkeys pulling carts.”
I had a suspicion that he was playing with us.
“Yes, we know this,” Yosef answered. “We wish to buy passage with your caravan. We have money to pay our way.”
“It would take a great deal of money indeed to buy transport for four passengers—or is it five?” Zaidan smiled, staring pointedly at my basket. “You would literally have to pay your weight in merchandise, to make up for the cargo you would displace.” He laughed at some joke he shared only with himself.
“Then you will not help us?” Yosef asked.
Zaidan grew serious and looked directly at Yosef.
“I did not say so. I am indebted to Yosiah—a debt of honor—and if there is any way that I can do for him what he asks, I will do it. But there are things you have not told me. Why is the pathway in the north closed to you? Does danger ride behind you? Would your presence endanger my men and my camels if you rode with us? And what of this woman?” He nodded toward Tikos. “Surely she is not your wife. She has the look of an Egyptian. These and more things I must know before I can give you my answer.”
The tent was silent for a long time then. The sounds of men and camels faded away in the noontime heat. A pervasive smell of camel filled the air as the sun heated the tent fabric. They must weave camel hair, I mused, like our temple weavers weave linen—and maybe goat as well, I decided, after sniffing the heavy air again.
Our meeting seemed to have reached an impasse. I couldn’t imagine that Yosef would risk sharing our secrets with this alarming man.
Then, just as the pause was stretching beyond all comfortable limits, Yeshua stood up and crossed the tent, stopping directly in front of Zaidan.
“We need your help because our friends are in danger,” he said. “I don’t believe you will betray us, so I will tell you what you wish to know.”
“Yeshua!” hissed his father, but Maryam laid her hand on his arm.
“The woman is named Tikos, and she was a priestess of the temple of Bast at Bubastis, until she discovered that people in her temple were killing the temple cats for money, selling them as offerings at a temple festival. She ran away from the temple with a cat they wished to kill, a cat who is the daughter of the temple’s Great Cat. Tikos followed a dream, and they came to our village. The cat killed a black scorpion and saved my life.”
Yeshua walked over to my basket and pulled me out, holding me against his chest.
“This cat is Daughter of Fire. She is our friend, like Tikos. We need your help to get them safely out of Egypt.”
Now I could see Zaidan very clearly indeed. I struggled to squirm out of Yeshua’s undignified stranglehold and reach his shoulder. I watched the man closely. If I had to flee, there were gaps at the base of the tent, and a world of stony mountainside beyond.
The smile that had touched Zaidan’s mouth when Yeshua first began to speak was gone now, replaced by a look I couldn’t understand as his gaze moved to Tikos and to me, and then back to Tikos. I could almost have said it was a look of hunger. After a long moment he seemed to come to a decision. Then he spoke again.
“I have heard reports of this woman, how she killed the high priestess of her temple and stole a cat sacred to the goddess. But as I am a judge of men, I can sense no evil in her.”
Then he rose to his feet and approached Tikos.
“Lady,” he said in Egyptian, “I am honored to welcome you to my tent. Long have I revered your goddess, the Mighty One of the Morning. You and the daughter of the Cat Who Is Bast are under my protection, and the protection of my house, for as long as you desire.”
He took Tikos’ hand in both of his, bowing deeply, and then backed away.
“And you, my son,” he said, turning again to Yeshua, “you are a discerning child, wise beyond your years. I thank you for your trust. But I fear I have no space for your family. The priestess and the cat I can hide among my own women, but I would have to free two or three of my camels to carry you and your goods. How would a Jewish laborer without even the cost of a ship’s passage in his purse afford to pay the value of the several hundred pounds of fine linen and perfume he would displace? No, my friends, without the priestess, your way lies open. Retrace your steps and take the Philistines’ Way.”
Yosef replied with unexpected force. “Zaidan, son of Oqbar, I gave my word to my sister Tikos that I would see her safely out of Egypt. I will not leave her so easily in the hands of a stranger.
“Here is my purse,” he said, flinging Yosiah’s bag onto the low table between them. “Take it all. It should cover your costs.”
Zaidan picked up the purse and upended it on the table. Silver coins spilled out into a small pile.
“You have no way of understanding the value of the cargo I carry across the desert,” he said, more gently now. “These small coins would not purchase even one camel’s load. I am sorry, Yosef, son of Yacob. Keep your money and make your own way back to your homeland. I give you my word that no harm will come to the priestess or the cat. I will defend them with my life.”
Again he looked at us. I was growing puzzled, because with each word this strange man spoke, I understood his meaning more clearly.
“We have more,” Yosef said abruptly. “We have gold, frankincense, and myrrh, surely enough to satisfy your hunger for profit.”
“Yosef, no!” Maryam whispered, grasping his arm. “We must not!”
I watched curiously as Yosef strode out of the tent and returned with a bundle wrapped in an old shawl.
“These are my son’s, given to him at his birth by three magi from the eastern desert. I think he would find them well spent in protecting our friend and keeping her close to us.”
Yosef looked at Yeshua, and he nodded quickly.
But Zaidan had risen to his feet, his eyes fixed on the bundle. With a shaking hand he reached for the cloth covering Yeshua’s treasure and flicked it aside. Three small golden chests encrusted with jewels lay before us. Zaidan covered his eyes with his hand, and staggered backward, reaching for his seat. We all watched in confusion as he overbalanced and collapsed heavily among the cushions.
“The child of light,” he whispered in a harsh croak. “You are the child of light!”
He drew his hand away from his eyes and stared at Yeshua.
Yosef and Maryam watched with concern. No one spoke. At last Zaidan continued.
“One of these chests is an heirloom of my house, filled with precious spice by the brother of my mother. Not five years past he left Rekem in search of the child of light whose birth-star had appeared in the sky. Two other elders of Rekem accompanied him, and together they journeyed north into Judea in search of the child. They never returned. Our seers believe that they fell prey to violent men who were also seeking the child, but who wished to kill him before he could grow to manhood, before his light could shine abroad upon the earth.”
He stared at the chests for a moment longer. Then he forced his gaze toward Yeshua, who stood unmoving, I on his shoulder.
“You are the one who will bring light to all the Earth?” he asked.
“It may be so,” Yeshua replied slowly, “but I am a child, and much of the road before me is unclear.”
“My Lord!” the trader whispered, and rose to his knees, bowing his head to the carpeted floor of his tent.
“No, do not bow!” Yeshua exclaimed. “I am no one’s lord. The One merely speaks to me, and calls others to my side in their time. Perhaps this time is yours.”
No one moved in the tent for the span of many long heartbeats. Yeshua and I stood before the proud trader who had not yet risen from his knees. Like images carved in stone Tikos, Yosef, and Maryam watched from behind us. At last I leapt to the floor, and touched my nose to Zaidan’s hand—it was the only part of his skin that I could reach, with his mantle spreading out from his head and shoulders and covering the floor around him.
Slowly he raised his head and rocked back against his cushions. Then holding his hand out to me, he spoke without words.
“Will you honor me with your presence, holy one?”
My eyes flared, and my body tensed.
“You speak, O man of the desert?”
“Yes, I speak, daughter of the Great Cat. Will you rest on my shoulder?”
I considered his offer and then walked slowly along the extended arm, settling carefully on his broad shoulder. I felt his body trembling with suppressed excitement as he watched me from the corner of his eye. His eyes were almost black, and his eyebrows very thick. His nose jutted out from his face like the beak of the great falcon.
“Please return the child’s birthright to its place of concealment,” he said softly. “I will accept no payment for your passage.
“Be welcome among us, my cousins,” Zaidan said to Maryam and Yosef, inclining his head toward them as he sat. “As my honor is my life, my tent is yours. I pledge my life and the lives of my family to see you safely to your home.”
Then he clapped his hands and spoke rapidly to the man who entered. I jumped away in alarm and retreated behind Tikos’ back. Zaidan’s eyes followed me with regret.
“I see I have much to learn about the ways of cats,” he said sadly. “I merely ordered two tents to be made ready for you—one for you, child, and your parents, and one for you, lady, and the sacred cat. Women will be waiting there to see to your comfort.
“Now, forgive me, but I must tend to the more ordinary concerns of business. Rest in safety here, as if you were in your own home.”
Then he bowed deeply and left the tent. It felt smaller for his absence.
Women appeared from behind the curtains at one side and led us to our tents. Tikos and I were in the tent next to Zaidan, and Yeshua and his parents beside us. Yosef unloaded what they needed from the cart and staked the donkey in the shade of their tent. None of us mentioned the drama that had played itself out in Zaidan’s pavilion. Before long, we all slept.
Tikos awoke to women arriving with a round metal tub of water for her bath. When she was clean and dry, they dressed her in the garments of a wealthy Nabataean woman, laughing with her as they blackened her eyelids with kohl and covered her short hair with a heavily embroidered mantle. She looked almost beautiful—at least as I understood human beauty.
As for me, two painted bowls stood waiting, one filled with goat’s milk and the other with fresh meat. There was also a large box of sand.
I think for both of us it felt a little like coming home. If I weren’t a cat, I might have been shamed to recall my despair, and the distress I had caused my friends. But since cats don’t concern themselves with regrets, the thought didn’t cross my mind.
I was merely content.
After a time we went to the other tent to return Maryam’s coins to her. I could see that the clothing Zaidan had provided for them was as handsome as Tikos’ own. Even Yeshua wore a brightly embroidered tunic and a small gold band around his dark curls.
Yosef gestured toward the cushions, and Tikos sat and accepted a cup of sweet tea and a handful of nuts from a silver bowl.
“This day has taken many strange turns, my sister,” Yosef began. “We had hoped that in time our ways might become your ways, and our God your God. But instead we find ourselves in the hands of a man who seems to value you only for the authority you once held in your pagan temple. It seems to me that he hopes to hold you to your earlier course, and perhaps even offer you a similar place in his own country.”
Yosef paused and studied his hands, frowning in his thoughts.
This was a curious turn of events. I hadn’t anticipated such a response from Yosef and Maryam—for clearly she was in agreement with him—and Yeshua as well, from what I could see of his expression.
I watched Tikos, wondering how she would respond.
“One can never go back,” she said at last. “I am no longer the same woman who lived a priestess’ life in Bubastis. I have walked long roads in the light cast by a dream. I have seen death and life and heard unexpected words of wisdom from the mouth of a child.
“No, Yosef, our host may see me as a priestess of Bast, but I am no longer merely that. I am also your sister, and a woman adrift in the power of gods I have never met—and, oddly enough, a disciple at the feet of your young son.
“I will allow Zaidan to see me as he chooses, for our lives lie in his hands. Yet I will promise him nothing but gratitude in return for his kindness.”
Tears stood in Tikos’ eyes as she finished these words, and I leapt to her shoulder and rubbed my whiskers against her cheek. She pressed my head against her neck, and stretched out her other hand toward Maryam and Yosef, who clasped it in their own. Yeshua’s expression was unreadable, his eyes turned inward.
reflections of a temple cat
I’m not sure what I felt after that meeting. Part of me agreed with Tikos: you couldn’t bring back what the river’s flood had swept away. But what changes did she speak of? Certainly the world around us had been transformed, and I could see no sign of the changes slowing, but did we ourselves change? Was I not still Daughter of Fire, born of the Great Cat my mother? My days lay in the paws of the Mother. What else was there? Nothing could change these things.
Perhaps humans were different. I had always imagined that in her essence Tikos was wet nurse to the Great Cat and priestess of the goddess Bast, she who held Tikos’ days in her hand. Yet Tikos had spoken of herself changing—no longer being a priestess, or a wet nurse, no longer even resting in the hand of Bast.
Could the gods change? Could we choose new ones? Could a living being change the essence of who she was? And this child that I loved—was it possible for one so young to lead his elders? I had no answers.
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