Soped-hotep and the Cat

The young priest cursed under his breath as he entered the gateway to the deserted temple grounds. He was moving quickly, but halfway through the doorway he caught himself and jumped backwards a couple of steps. The bloody light of sunset shone on the sandstone temple columns, illuminating Her face and reminding the intruder that he was on the threshold of holy ground. He began to mumble a prayer for absolution. The goddess faces atop the columns gazed down with unblinking eyes and carved half-smiles; perhaps the Lady had already forgiven his indiscretion. He shuddered and focused his mind on the purification prayer. With the last drops of water from the rock carved tank Soped-hotep gave himself a hasty bath, washed out his mouth, and dried himself off with his linen shirt. Leaving the shirt and his sandals beside the tank he moved quickly into the empty courtyard and began searching for the cat.

"Come here, little cat, little cat!" He sang out, but only stony silence answered him. The temple shrines had been de-consecrated the day before and the gleaming electrum goddess image was already aboard a ship on Her way back to the Two Lands. Still, he felt Her presence among the stones like some great bird, ready to plunge back into the nest without notice. The young man glanced up at the darkening heavens and hoped his perfunctory ritual had been acceptable. Then, in the shadows below the Pharaoh's pylon, he saw the sudden flash of a spotted tail. He watched as it quickly disappeared into one of the many crevices among the ancient temple blocks.

"Come here, little cat, little cat..." the youth continued to sing as he approached the pylon. The eerie light from the west left the eastern walls in thick purple shade, but the fierce features of the carved Pharaoh were still discernible. Soped-hotep passed the warlike figure on the temple relief and pressed against the wooden doors. They weren't locked but he had to break the round clay seal away from its braided copper strands to gain entrance to the building. The priest carefully placed the clay disk and wire in the dirt in front of the door frame and ventured inside.

He was certain that Tabubu had found Her way inside the Pharaoh's Shrine but he couldn't see his Mistress in the thick shadows which filled the outer chamber. Through the open ceiling the servant of Hathor could already make out the first stars twinkling like distant, flickering lamps in the twilight sky. If he didn't find the cat quickly he'd never make it back to Sycamore Oasis through the dark that night. And by sunrise the last of the metal workers and mining engineers would leave the oasis to trek down to the sea and board the final ship home. He simply had to find Tabubu at once; failure to retrieve the lost feline would bring disaster to Soped-hotep's priestly career.

--==( O )==--

As he waited for his eyes to become accustomed to the dark, the Egyptian let his mind wander momentarily to thoughts of the ship and his passage back to the good black land. For nearly two years Tabubu and he had made their home among the Turquoise Terraces; he as Her human companion and keeper and She as Protectoress of Kings, Her August Majesty, and feline manifestation of the Great Goddess Herself. They both had arrived with the Seventh Year Expedition to the Terraces and had stayed on through two lonely summers in that terrible foreign furnace. It was already five days into the new year and finally the last stragglers of the Eighth Year Mining Company were on their way back to the valley of the eternal river and the yearly beer festival. It had been over a year since Soped-hotep had finished the last of his sweet delta honey, and six months since he'd bit into a juicy, yellow onion. His mouth watered at the thought!

The cat-keeper's vision of cool beer and freshly baked sweet cakes was broken by a sudden loud hiss. Tabubu was there. He could just barely trace Her shape near the sanctuary portal. Soped-hotep moved softly across the hot pavement stones and bent down before the dark cat shape. But what he found there was not the haughty serval he'd raised from a kitten and carried to this distant place; it was only an offering figurine that some careless priest had left abandoned on the chamber floor. He reached for the fragile statuette, intending to move it to some safer place in the building. But again the cat's hiss broke the silence and this time the Egyptian saw two points of light blazing like fire coals in the temple gloom. The cat was perched on the offering table an arm's length away, glaring directly at Her keeper.

"Ah!, Tabubu. Why are you so angry? Come to me, little cat. Come and we'll find you a dish of goat's milk and a big, fat mouse for dinner!"

His "little cat" was a full-grown flesh-eater, well able to tear Her loving keeper to shreds, should She so desire. Soped-hotep froze at the sight of Her fierce sneer and bared teeth. The serval cat's chin and whiskers were dripping blood and the same ruddy color ran in streaks up the long forepaws and slender, spotted legs. She'd been off hunting again, but She didn't look at all happy with Her adventure. He'd never seen Tabubu so enraged. She was staring in anticipation, ready to strike. For the first time he was deathly afraid of his half-wild Mistress. What on earth was happening?

The lightening lunge and blur of furry spots sent Soped-hotep head over heels on the pavement. It took him a few moments before he could summon the courage to look for broken bones and slashed flesh. But when he checked himself he found only a few gritty bruises; the cat had barely touched him. His eyes searched frantically about the chamber to discover what had happened but all he saw was a broken figurine, its many shiny blue fragments spread in a long swath across the floor behind him. Then, at the far end of the glassy destruction, he saw Tabubu. She was resting comfortably on the floor with a look of immense satisfaction stamped distinctly upon Her feline countenance. Between Her bloody paws was the limp curl of a serpentine kill. Only the tip of the snake's tail, making a few final twitches, broke the other-worldly spell. For an instant, Soped-hotep was certain he had witnessed the cat reclining before him as a dazzling, golden idol.

--==( O )==--

She was mortal again, his own little kitten from the delta swamps. The poisonous serpent from behind the lifeless figurine was no longer a danger. The other-worldly illusion had faded to nothingness.

The keeper swept the heavy cat up into his affectionate embrace and carried Her out of the temple. He only paused at the Pharaoh's doorway long enough to fasten the seal back in place with a tongueful of dust wet by his spittle. It was a crude job, but it was the best Soped-hotep could do under the circumstances. Once outside the courtyard he flung the deadly viper far into the rocky wastes and rattled off a hasty prayer of departure. Then he began making his way down the narrow path to the dry stream bed below Hathor's Hill. The flattened solar disk disappeared below the horizon, leaving only the pylon tops lit with dying fire. Then they too faded from sight.

All the way down the trail Tabubu kept up a steady purr, a bee hum that was music to Her keeper's ears. The youth forced the temple epiphany from his thoughts and tried to concentrate on making a path through the thornbush near the bottom of the steep hillside. The two Libyan bearers would be waiting at their resting place beyond the brush, guarding his meager luggage and Tabubu's cage-bark. He'd seen their campfire from the temple hilltop. There was just time to put the cat in Her portable jail, tie together a few torches and get on their way. There would be time enough for reflection when he and the feline goddess were safely aboard the ship and on their way home.

--==( O )==--

Story and graphics by Dale R. Broadhurst

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last updated: Feb. 1, 2006