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Thebes is the color of chalk—a mixture of sand swirling up from the desert and dust billowing down from the ancient limestone mountains. It sifts down over the city like fine bread flour. And this morning hordes of people with handcarts and donkeys pushing their way through the narrow streets were kicking up even more dust than usual.
I felt a shiver of excitement. This was going to be the best market ever. Traders were coming from far-off Syria with exotic oils, woven cloths, spices, and nuggets of precious stone as large as duck eggs.
It didn’t help that there was no ferryman waiting on the west bank of the Great River. The crowd was restless. Children squalled and mothers scolded. I pulled the rough cloak around my head and hoped no one would recognize me.
When a boat finally came, the crush was so great that an old woman fell from the quayside and disappeared under the water.
“She’s not coming up! Quickly, do something!”
“Perhaps a crocodile’s got her!”
“Oi! You! If a crocodile’s got her, you won’t be coming back either,” someone shouted as a boy teetered on the edge of the ferry, ready to jump in after her.
He dived all the same and came up dragging the woman. They were hauled back onto the ferry. People laughed and teased as they picked off strands of waterweed from the old woman’s hair and tunic.
All this took time. Eventually on the east bank, I was carried along by a surge of people like a bit of debris swept down by the flood. Men, women, large and small, old and young, all mingled with loud shrieks and yelps as carts were overturned, a child fell, and a dog was trodden underfoot. In the midst of this some geese escaped their cages and were honking and hissing and snapping at passing feet.
A pestilence of flies! My tunic hem was dragging in the dirt, and through some fresh donkey droppings as well.
There was a loud curse behind me. “Oi! Mind where you’re going, stupid girl!”
I had barely time to save myself from falling under the wheels of a handcart piled high with onions and leeks, when someone held out a hand to steady me.
“Watch out! They’ll flatten you as quickly as oxen trampling through barley,” he shouted over the noise of the geese. “Come to the side of the road. You’re limping.”
I glanced at the boy as he examined my foot. He looked familiar.
“Your sandals are ridiculous with those upturned tips! No wonder you tripped! You need strong leather sandals on market day!” He pressed around my ankle.
“Ouch! That hurt!” I snapped at him.
“It’s only twisted. But it needs to be bound.”
I pulled away and tried to stand. “I’m fine, thank you!”
“You’re not! Sit down. I’ll bind it for you.”
I looked back at him. Smooth, freshly shaved cheeks. No formal wig. His hair falling in damp tendrils against his neck. “Aren’t you the boy who saved the old woman?”
He shrugged. “Saving old women or princesses, it’s all the same to me!”
He raised a dark eyebrow and grinned at me. “Your rough cloak doesn’t fool me. I can see by your fine linen tunic you’re no country girl come to town on market day. You don’t belong here, do you?”
I glanced quickly over my shoulder in case anyone had overheard.
“Don’t look so dismayed. Your secret won’t be told. It’s safe with me.”
“I’m . . .” I left off and brushed his hand from my foot, eager to get away. He jumped up just as abruptly and pulled me against his chest.
“Huh?” I gave him a sharp jab with my elbow. “What do you think you’re doing? Let go of me!”
“I will, as soon as that donkey has passed. You almost got yourself knocked down again. Now sit calmly while I bandage your foot.” He grinned at me. “I know what I’m doing. This isn’t the first time I’ve done this. Trust me.”
He drew a dagger from his girdle, stuck its point into the linen of his tunic, and deftly tore a strip from the hem. Then he removed my sandal and began winding the strip firmly under my foot and around my ankle. I eyed him as he worked. His hands were quick and seemed practiced at bandaging. His forearms were crisscrossed with pale scars, and the fingers of his right hand looked as if they’d once been badly broken. He was about the age of my brother. About fifteen or sixteen.
He glanced up and caught my look.
I felt my face grow hot.
He smiled with perfect even teeth. “You’re not from Thebes, are you?”
“How do you know?”
“The stupid upturned sandals. The braided style of your wig. Are you Syrian?”
I shook my head.
“Perhaps from Tyre, or Byblos, or even Kadesh. You’re not Nubian.”
I shook my head again.
“From where, then?”
“What’s it to you? You ask too many questions.”
He laughed, released my foot, and stood up quickly. “There. The way is clear now.” He bowed slightly as if giving me permission to leave.
“Clear?” I turned to look at the people brushing past us, almost wishing another trail of donkeys could delay me. “I’m from Mitanni. The people here call it Naharin. But I prefer its real name.”
He inclined his head and smiled. “So you are a princess! A princess sent from Mitanni to Thebes as a gift to the king.”
“I’m not a princess!”
“But you are from the palace?”
I glanced sharply at him. “What makes you say that?”
“Why else are you wearing a peasant’s wrap over a fine linen tunic? You’ve sneaked out and you don’t want anyone to recognize you. But mysterious girls with cat tattoos are easy to recognize.”
“Cat tattoos?” I snatched at my cloak. I’d forgotten the tattoo on my shoulder. A blush crept up my neck. This boy was a flirt. Yet even though I knew he was flirting, I was still charmed.
“I have to hurry,” I said quickly.
“Go, then, Little Cat Girl.”
“That’s not my proper name.”
He smiled and held my eyes. “Beware of carts and donkeys!”
And boys with dark, flirting eyes, I almost blurted out. But he turned before I could say anything and slipped into the crowd and disappeared.
My sandals were nowhere to be seen. Standing barefoot in the dust, I really did feel like a proper country girl. A pestilence of flies! I’d have to walk barefoot through the muck, and my ankle would slow me down. The sun was stinging hot. And now I was late. And Kiya would be impatient for her length of cloth.
“Fine linen, woven with gold thread, with tasseled edges and a pattern of turquoise beads caught into it—is what I want, Ta-Miu,” she’d said.
“How can you be sure I’ll find such cloth?”
“The traders are from Syria. Everything at the market will be wonderful.” She had sighed heavily. “I wish I could go with you.”
“You can’t, and that’s that! It’s too dangerous.”
“I promise to behave. Please, Ta-Miu, let me go.”
But all her flouncing and flopping about on her bed hadn’t convinced me. I couldn’t risk it. Kiya was too impulsive. She’d have drawn attention to us.
When she’d seen that nothing would make me change my mind, she’d pouted and said, “Bring wool cloth as well.”
“Wool? This isn’t the Khabur Mountains, Kiya. We don’t need wool here.”
“It’s not the wool I need but the comfort of it. I miss the feel of it beneath my fingers. Three years in Thebes haven’t cured me of longing for things that remind me of home.”
I had sighed. Sometimes Kiya—Princess Tadukhepa to others, but Kiya always to me—seemed such a child. How would she ever cope with her position as wife to the new king?
By the time I eventually reached the stalls, the market was seething with people. Over the stench of donkey droppings came aromas of sizzling goat meat and perfumed wafts of cinnamon, caraway, coriander, saffron, mint, thyme, and every other conceivable herb and spice. Hawks whirled overhead trying to snap up entrails, and were shooed off by angry stallholders. The hawks’ screeches added confusion to the sound of foreign tongues, donkeys braying, voices arguing over goods, and volleys of slaps and curses as tempers flew and the day grew more and more stifling.
I kept a lookout for the boy. But in the mass of people pushing me this way and that, all I could do was edge my way forward and curse myself for not asking his name. He had come close to guessing mine. Little Cat Girl, he’d called me.
In a city as large as Thebes, I’d probably never lay eyes on him again. Who was to say he was even Theban? He might’ve been passing through for market day and be gone by tomorrow and on his way to another place.
I came to a stall piled high with woven fabric and trimmings, and I rifled through them. When I saw a cloth that I thought would make Kiya happy, I bargained as hard as I could and shrugged off others who tried to grasp it from me. Eventually a small sachet of ten orange carnelians tipped into the trader’s hand did the trick. With the cloth firmly bundled under my arm, I shouldered my way through the crowds and came to a space where I could right my clothing and breathe freely again.
The cloth was woven with a pattern of fine red thread and was hung with tassels but had no beads of turquoise or gold. Not exactly what Kiya had asked for, but perhaps I could sew on some beads. I knew why she had to have something unusual and exotic for the banquet. This was the first proper gathering of all the royal wives since Nefertiti’s marriage to Amenhotep the Younger. Kiya, being the youngest of all his foreign wives, wanted to make an impression.
Suddenly someone grabbed me around the waist and held a hand over my mouth. There was a whisper at my ear. “It’s only me, Little Cat Girl!”
I spun around. “Are you following me?” I snapped.
“Only for your protection.”
“Well, don’t! I don’t need your protection! I’ve traveled across the deserts of Syria on my own.”
He smiled knowingly. “Not entirely on your own. You were accompanied by hordes of fierce horsemen as protectors.”
I looked over my shoulder. “You think you know everything. Keep your voice down!” I urged.
“In this hubbub no one will hear us. Here. These are yours.” He held up my sandals with a smile that seemed to mock the upturned toe. “I found them alongside the road. The market is thirsty work. I know a place where we can get something to drink. Come.”
He gripped my arm and guided me firmly down a tangle of narrow streets into a small alleyway. At the end of it I could see a glint of green as the river flowed by. An old man was sitting in a dark doorway. The boy handed him a bag of dates. In return the man poured out two horn cupfuls of pomegranate juice and pushed two honey cakes toward us.
The juice was bitter but cool. I was thirsty. The boy gulped his and was left with a pink mustache. It was difficult not to smile.
“I can’t stay long,” I said. “Tadukhepa is waiting.”
“Princess Tadukhepa . . . my mistress.” I wiped the crumbs of honey cake from my lips. “Although she’s three years younger than I.”
“The real princess!” His eyes glinted in the shadowy light. “So I was right! You traveled from Mitanni with a princess. You did have fierce horsemen as your protectors. The finest and most valiant of horsemen. The Mitannians are famous for the way they train horses. Even the Hittites are jealous of them. And now you live at the palace here in Thebes.”
“Are you asking or telling?”
“You don’t have to be secretive. I can keep secrets.”
“Perhaps another time. I must hurry now.”
“Meet me again. Here tomorrow at the same time?”
Hmm. No “please” or “will you” from this boy. I shrugged. “Perhaps.”
“Perhaps is good enough! Hurry, then, before you’re missed. You’ve a banquet to attend.”
I gave him a sharp glance. “How do you know?”
He smiled. “In Thebes it’s not only dust that fills the air.”
I took the less crowded route back to the river. Next to the new Southern Opet Temple a smell of myrrh drifted in the air. In the sunlight slanting through the columns, I caught sight of priests making offerings before the altars. They swung censers and mumbled incantations that echoed against the shining blocks of stone and newly carved papyrus-shaped columns.
Apart from the priests, there was no one. Not even the temple cleaning women, or the urchin boys who usually hung about pelting one another with pebbles and pestering people for a loaf of bread.
I hurried as quickly as my ankle would allow down the avenue of sphinxes that guarded the east and the west horizons between the Southern Opet Temple and the Temple of Amun. Along the way I stopped to touch the seventeenth lioness facing east. She was the one I always touched, the one with the strange expression that made her look wiser than the rest. Her body was warm under my hand, as if power were trapped in her stone lion muscles.
“So . . . what do you think about this boy?” I asked.
Her expression remained as wise as ever.
Then I hurried on down the long avenue. And as I passed through the shadows cast by the lions, with bands of sunlight between them, I felt I was zithering across the strings of a giant lyre. An inaudible vibration seemed to float upward. My feet were as light as air. My heart sang.
© 2008 Dianne Hofmeyr
Posted January 14, 2012
Posted January 29, 2012
No text was provided for this review.