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Child of the Morning
By Pauline Gedge
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 1977 Pauline Gedge
All rights reserved.
Although the north wall of the schoolroom opened onto the garden, the prevailing summer wind did not blow between the dazzling white, color-splashed pillars. It was suffocatingly hot. The students sat cross-legged on their papyrus mats, knee to knee, their heads bent over the pieces of broken pottery, laboriously copying out the day's lesson. Khaemwese, his arms folded, felt sleep steal into his head, and he cast a surreptitious glance in the direction of the stone water clock. Almost, midday. He coughed, and a dozen little faces were turned up to him expectantly.
"Are you all finished? Who shall read back to me today's wisdom? Or should I say, who has the wisdom to read back to me today's lesson?" He beamed at his witticism, and a polite ripple of laughter ran around the room. "You, Menkh? User-amun? Now I know that Hapuseneb can do it, so I will not ask him. Who will volunteer? Thothmes, you will."
Thothmes struggled unhappily to his feet while Hatshepsut, sitting at his side, poked him and made a face. He ignored her, holding the pot in both hands and peering at it in distress.
"Begin. Hatshepsut, sit still."
"I have heard that thou — that thou —"
"Yes, followest. I have heard that thou followest pleasures. Turn not thy back on my words. Dost thou give thy mind to all — to all —"
"Manner of deaf things."
"Oh. To all manner of deaf things?"
Khaemwese sighed as the boy's voice droned on. It was certain that Thothmes would never make an informed and enlightened man. He had no love at all for the magic of words and seemed content to drowse through his lessons. Perhaps the One should consider putting his son into the army early. But Khaemwese shook his head at the vision of Thothmes, bow and spear in hand, marching at the head of a company of hard-bitten old campaigners. The boy was stumbling again, waiting, his finger under the offending hieroglyph, a dumb bewilderment in his eyes as he watched his teacher.
The old man felt a spark of anger. "This passage," he said waspishly, stabbing at his own scroll with petulance, "refers to the judicious and wholly deserving use of the hippopotamus whip on the posterior of a lazy boy. Perhaps the scribe is thinking of just such a boy as yourself, Thothmes? Do you need a taste of my hippopotamus whip? Bring it to me at once!"
Several of the older boys began to snigger, but Neferu-khebit put out her hand in distress. "Oh, please, Master, not again! Only yesterday he was beaten, and father was angry!"
Thothmes flushed and glared down at her. The hippopotamus whip was an old and well-worn joke, being only a slender and springy willow switch that Khaemwese carried under his arm from day to day like a general's staff of office. The real thing was for criminals and malcontents. To have a girl speak out on one's behalf was salt in an already throbbing wound, and the boy muttered under his breath as the master peremptorily motioned him to sit down.
"Very well. Neferu, seeing that you wish his sentence commuted, you may take upon yourself his task. Rise and continue."
Neferu-khebit was a year older and considerably more intelligent than Thothmes. She had just graduated from the old, fragmented pots to papyrus scrolls, and she finished the lesson with ease.
The class ended as usual with the Prayer to Amun. The students rose as Khaemwese left the room, and then a babble broke out.
"Never mind, Thothmes," Hatshepsut said brightly, rolling up her mat. "Come with me after the sleep, and see the new gazelle in the zoo. Father shot its mother, and now it has no one to love it. Will you come?"
"No," he snapped. "I do not want to go running all over the grounds with you anymore. Besides, now I have to go out to the barracks and practice with the bow and spear every afternoon with Aahmes penNekheb."
They walked to the corner and laid their mats in a pile with the others while Neferu-khebit signaled to the naked slave waiting patiently by the big silver ewer. The woman drew water for them and presented it, bowing.
Hatshepsut drank deeply, smacking her lips. "Lovely, lovely water! What about you, Neferu? Would you like to do that with me?"
Neferu smiled down at her younger sister. She ran her hand over the smooth, shaved scalp and straightened the tousled youth-lock so that it hung decorously once more over the left shoulder. "You have ink on your kilt again, Hatshepsut. Will you ever grow up? Very well, I will come with you if Nozme gives permission. Just for a little while. Will that do?"
The little girl hopped in delight. "Yes! Come for me when you get up!"
The room was empty of all save the slave and the three of them. The other children were drifting home with their slaves as the heat increased to a solid weight of stifling air that seemed to bend their heads and fill them with the desire for sleep.
Thothmes yawned. "I am going to find my mother. I suppose should thank you, Neferu-khebit, for delivering me, but I wish that you would mind your own business. The other boys find the spectacle amusing, and you humiliate me."
"Would you rather be beaten than made to look silly?" Hatshepsut snorted. "Really, Thothmes, you have too much dignity. And it's true. You are lazy."
"Hush!" said Neferu. "Thothmes, you know that I only acted out of concern for you. Here's Nozme. Behave yourselves. I will see you later, little Hat." She dropped a kiss on the top of Hatshepsut's head and drifted out into the glare of the garden.
Nozme was allowed quite as many liberties with the royal children as Khaemwese. As Royal Nurse she scolded them, wheedled them, occasionally spanked them, and always adored them. She was answerable to Pharaoh for their safety with her life. She had been hired by Second Wife Mutnefert as wet nurse when the little boy twins, Uatchmes and Amun-mes, were born, and Divine Consort Aahmose had retained her for Neferu-khebit and Hatshepsut. Mutnefert herself had nursed Thothmes. He was her third son, and she watched over him like an eagle, for a son was precious, particularly a royal son, and her two little boys had died of plague. Nowadays Nozme was acid-tongued, hatchet-faced, and so emaciated that her thick, businesslike linens hung loosely on her gaunt frame and flapped around her bare ankles as she flew here and there, screaming at the slaves and admonishing the children. They no longer feared her, and only Hatshepsut still loved her, perhaps because, with the fickle selfishness of childhood, Hatshepsut was loved by everyone and so feared no check to her desires.
Seeing Nozme come sweeping in from the dimness of the hall, Hatshepsut ran to her and hugged her.
Nozme returned the hug and shrieked to the slave, "Get rid of that water now, and wash the basin. Sweep out the floor for tomorrow's lessons. Then you can go to your room and rest Hurry up!" She glanced sharply after Neferu-khebit, but now that the young woman wore the sheath of adulthood and her head was no longer shaved but covered in shining black tresses that hung to her shoulders, Nozme's authority had almost come to an end. She contented herself with a muttered "Where is she going at this time of day?" Taking the little girl by the hand, Nozme led her gently through the maze of pillared halls and dark porticoes to the door of the children's apartment, adjacent to the women's quarters.
The palace hung in a drugged, hot silence. Even the birds were quiet. Outside, beyond the gardens, the great river flowed on, burning silver. No boat moved on its surface, and below, in the cooler, muddy depths, the fish lay waiting for evening. The whole city slept as if under a spell. Beershops were closed, markets were shuttered, and porters nodded in the shade of their little alcoves under the protecting walls of the nobles' great estates that bordered the river for mile upon mile. On the docks nothing moved except the little beggar boys who hunted for the gleanings of spilt cargoes. Over the river, in the Necropolis, the City of the Dead, the temples and empty shrines shimmered in the haze, the heat making the brown cliffs beyond dance and shake. High summer. The wheat and barley, clover, flax, and cotton standing tall for the harvest. The irrigation canals slowly drying out despite the frantic, backbreaking efforts of the fellahin to keep the shadoofs in motion. The dusty green date and doom palms, the march of trees along the riverbank, and the ripe green of the reedbeds all turning slowly brown. And always the white-hot, eye-searing glory of Ra, pouring down eternally from a cloudless and limitless deep blue sky, mighty and invincible.
In the apartment of Her Royal Highness the Princess Hatshepsut Khnum-Amun there was a stirring of air. The wind catchers on the roof funneled down whatever breezes there were out of the north, making little eddies of hot, stale air. As Nozme and her charge entered the room, the two waiting slaves sprang together into obeisance and picked up their fans. Nozme ignored them. As she removed Hatshepsut's white linen kilt, she barked an order, and another slave appeared bearing water and cloths. The nurse quickly washed the wiry little body. "Your kilt is covered in ink again," she said. "Must you be so messy?"
"I am truly sorry," the child replied, not sorry at all. She stood sleepily as the blessed water ran down her arms and trickled across her brown belly. "Neferu-khebit also frowned at me for my dirty kilt. Truly I do not know how the ink got spilled."
"Did you have a good lesson today?"
"I suppose so. I do not like school very much. There is too much to learn, and I am always waiting for Khaemwese to jump on me. I do not like being the only little girl there, either."
"There is Her Highness Neferu."
"That is quite different. Neferu cares nothing for the smirks of the boys."
Nozme sniffed. She would have liked to reply that Neferu seemed to care nothing about anything, but she remembered in time that this bright-eyed, handsome youngster, yawning copiously as she walked to the couch, was Great Pharaoh's special joy and doubtless prattled to him every word spoken in the nurseries. Nozme disapproved of any break with tradition, and the idea of girls, even royal girls, studying with boys was a continual source of irritation to her. But Pharaoh had spoken. Pharaoh wanted his daughters to be educated, and educated they were. Nozme swallowed the heresies rising on her tongue and bent to kiss the little hand. "Sleep well, Highness. Do you need anything more?"
"No. Nozme, Neferu promised to take me to see the animals afterward: Can I go?"
The request was as usual, as predictable as the child's constant appetite for sweetmeats, and Nozme flashed a rare and gentle smile. "Of course, if you take a slave and a guard with you. Now rest. I will see you presently." She signaled to the silent, stiff figures standing in the shadows and left the room.
The two women came forward, sweat shining on their black skin, and their fans began to dip and sway slowly above Hatshepsut's head, making no sound.
Small ripples of air moved over her body, and for a moment she watched the feathers quiver and swish as a feeling of security and peace stole over her. Her eyelids closed, and she turned onto her side. Life was good, even if Nozme snapped at her and Thothmes scowled a lot these days.
I don't know what he has to be so grumpy about, she thought dimly. I would like to be a soldier and learn how to shoot the bow and throw the lance. I would like to march with the other men and fight.
Above her, one of the Nubians coughed, and from beyond the doorway she heard Nozme climb heavily onto her couch with a long sigh. Hatshepsut's small ebony headrest felt smooth under her neck, and dreams began to wash her mind. She slept.
When she awoke, the sun was still high but had lost its bite. All around her the palace shook off lethargy and began to lumber to the end of another day, like a great hippopotamus rising from the mud. In the kitchens the cooks chattered, and the pots clanked; and there was laughter and the scurrying of many feet in the hallways. As she stepped outside, clean and fresh and eager, the gardeners were already back at work, their bare backs bowed, weeding and trimming the acres of exotic foreign flowers and watering the hundreds of sycamores and willows that made the royal confines a sun-dappled, sweet-smelling forest. The sudden bright flash of gay birds on the wing was everywhere, and the sky was as blue as her mother's eye paint. She began to run, slave and guard striding to keep up. Wherever she passed them, the laborers rose and bowed before her, but she hardly saw them. From the time she could toddle, the world had worshiped her, the Daughter of the God, and now, at the age of ten, the image of her destiny flowed undiluted with her blood, a natural and unselfconscious certainty of the rightness of her world and everything in it. There was the King: the God, her father. There was the Divine Consort, her mother. There was Neferu-khebit, her sister, and Thothmes, her half brother. And then there were the people, existing solely to adore her, and beautiful, beautiful Egypt somewhere beyond the towering walls of the palace, a land that she had never seen but that surrounded her and infused her with awe.
Once, a year ago, she and Menkh and Hapuseneb had hatched a plot. They would leave the palace and run into the city instead of sleeping. They would go to Menkh's house a mile upstream and play in his father's boat. But the porter, lurking in his cubbyhole by the great copper gates, had caught them. Menkh had been flogged by his father, Hapuseneb had been beaten also, but she herself had simply been reprimanded by her father. It was not time, he had said, for her to leave the safety of the palace. Her life was precious. It belonged to all the land and must be protected, he had told her. He had then taken her on his knee and given her honey cakes and sweet wine.
Now, a year later, the adventure was almost forgotten. Almost. One thing had then been brought home to her. When you are grown up, you can do anything, but you must wait. Wait.
Neferu was standing by the enclosures, alone. She turned and smiled as Hatshepsut came up panting. Neferu's face was pale, her eyes strained. She had not slept. Hatshepsut slid her hand into the older girl's, and they set off.
"Where is your slave?" Hatshepsut asked. "I had to bring mine."
"I sent her away. I like to be by myself sometimes, and I am old enough now to do almost as I please. Did you rest well?"
"Yes. Nozme sounds like a bull when she snores, but I still manage to fall asleep. I miss having you on the next couch, though. The room seems so big and empty."
Neferu laughed. "It is really a very small room, dear Hatshepsut, as you will see when you are moved into a big, echoing apartment like mine." Her voice held bitterness, but the child did not hear it.
They went through the gate and strolled down a wide, tree-lined path flanked on either side by cages, most of which were occupied by an assortment of animals: some local, such as the ibex, the family of lions, the gazelles; some brought back by their father from the foreign lands where he had campaigned in his youth. Most of the beasts were asleep, lying quietly in the shade, their smell a warm and friendly thing that enveloped the girls as they passed. The path ended right against the main wall, so close to them that it seemed to rear up and cut off the sun. At its foot was a modest, two-roomed mud-brick house where the Keeper of the Royal Zoo lived. He was waiting on his porch, watching for them. As they approached, he stepped out and went down on his knees, touching his forehead to the dust.
"Greetings, Nebanum," said Neferu. "You may rise."
"Greetings, Highness." The man struggled to his feet and stood with his head lowered.
"Greetings!" Hatshepsut said. "Come on, Nebanum, where is the baby gazelle? Is he well?"
"Very well, Highness," Nebanum replied gravely, his eyes twinkling, "but always hungry. I have him in a little pen behind my house, if you would care to follow me. He is a very noisy baby. He bawled all night long."
"Oh, the poor thing! He misses his mother. Do you think I could feed him?"
"I have prepared goat's milk if Your Highness would like to try. But I must warn Your Highness that this baby is strong and might knock Your Highness over or spill milk on Your Highness's kilt."
Excerpted from Child of the Morning by Pauline Gedge. Copyright © 1977 Pauline Gedge. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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