The cat showed up just as the sun had set. An early evening desert breeze made the heat bearable before it cooled off completely. Not wanting to disturb any snakes that might snap at her heels or provoke a scorpion by accidentally stepping on it, Zara made her way to the shadiest part of her garden. Sitting on a stone bench beneath her palm, she observed a moon that was bright and full. A sky which not long ago was a blend of golden pink and blue had deepened and was now lit up with stars.
Zara missed her family. Her daughter had recently married and was settled in the next village, a walk of several miles, but not far on a donkey. However, the donkey was out of sorts and the family’s other donkey had been used to carry her husband and sons some twenty miles north where they were staying in a compound reserved for workers building the Pharaoh’s Great Pyramid. The monument which would one day house the great one’s remains, was going to take more than a decade to complete and they were only half way through. How Zara missed them! The last time she’d visited the site had been a family occasion. Her daughter and son-in-law had joined them and it had been a magical moment. Bathed by the rays of the sun, the Pyramid seemed to hold them in a golden glow.
Of course, Zara could have joined her men on the compound, but the conditions while adequate were basic and it would have meant leaving her home. Keeping the livestock and tending the crops was a full-time job in itself So while the men earned their living working for the Pharaoh, she contented herself preparing for their imminent return.
Soon, they were to be allowed a few weeks leave so they could celebrate the festival for the goddess Hathor which involved music and dancing and feasting. Till then, Zara was satisfied they were well-cared for. Right now, they’d probably be tucking into the evening meal of stew, dipping bread into various dips and drinking the nutritional beer which was brewed to give the workers the strength to shoulder their burdens. Her husband was one of the stone masons on site and her sons were also learning the trade.
Zara was distracted when something rubbed against her leg. She breathed a sigh of relief when a dainty cat with black fur and mysterious blue eyes stared boldly up at her, mewing loudly. Although many kinds of cats existed in ancient Egypt, it was the first time Zara had come across a black cat with such unusual eyes. Before then, she’d only ever seen ones that were tabby or spotted, the kind that had long limbs and green eyes.
Instinctively, Zara bent towards the animal and stroked its fur. A few seconds later, it was making a bed in her lap and purring away. While the cat accepted the attention given it, she had the impression it required something more from her. If the creature had been able to speak, she was sure it would have said,
“You belong to me always. There will be no others.”
It was a strange idea, but the cat was clearly very special and Zara felt as if she’d been selected in some way.
When the cat decided it had enough, it stretched, scratched its paws on the grass and preened itself. Then, before she could blink, it had disappeared, making her wonder whether her loneliness was causing her to imagine things. For a while, she had been utterly captivated. It was as if the creature had come from another world entirely..
In ancient Egypt, cats were revered. In the Land of Two Kingdoms as upper and lower Egypt became known, anyone who harmed a cat, whether accidentally or deliberately, was believed to be cursed and risked punishment.
The Egyptians had always depended on their bountiful river to sustain them. When the Nile flooded every year, it left a layer of silt that replenished the earth resulting in abundant crops and a land that flourished.
The sun god Ra was a key player in a country where gods ruled through the power of nature. Certain animals were believed to represent qualities possessed by the gods and this was certainly true of cats. Humans benefitted when cats kept dangerous pests such as vermin away from the grain. Cats were self-sufficient, not reliant on humans, but willing to live alongside them. They symbolised luck and fertility and were welcome in any household. So much so, the wealthy gave them the best food from their tables and even adorned them with expensive jewellery.
When the black cat hadn’t visited the garden for several weeks, Zara grew anxious. At the time, she hadn’t decided whether the creature was male or female, but now she suspected the latter.
She was left in no doubt when the beautiful feline slipped by one late afternoon, depositing two tiny furry creatures on the grass close to the hut where the family stored grain. Zara gasped as the kittens snuggled up drinking their mothers milk. Deeply honoured, she took it as a sign of good things to come. A few weeks later when the kittens were becoming more independent, the mother cat allowed Zara to place a necklace round her neck on which hung an amulet of the cat goddess Bastet, protector of women. Zara thought she looked very regal in it.
“From now on,” Zara said, “I’m going to call you Bastet, queen of cats,” to which the cat raised no objection.
Her husband and sons returned from their work in good spirits, bringing plenty of grain, fruit and trinkets - payment in kind received for work in a land that lacked hard currency.
“I’ve been promoted,” Zara’s husband said as he sipped his wife’s freshly brewed beer. “I’m now one of the senior masons on the project. It means we will be soon be able to live in a better house – maybe even one with a pool.Wouldn’t that be something?”
“Congratulations,” Zara said, delighted. “That’s great. I can’t believe how well things are going for us!”
It was true. A family who could afford to own a pool was indeed going up in the world. Only the nobility or rich could afford such luxuries. The majority had to make do with swimming in a river that was sometimes polluted or had to tramp miles to get water from the nearest well.
It was the topping on the cake when Zara discovered she was pregnant with her fourth child.
“I’m going to get a local girl to help you,” her husband promised. “And I’ll make sure I’m back well before the baby is born. The most important thing is you won’t be alone. Now, you’ll have someone to help you while I’m gone.”
For the next five years, the family thrived. It seemed as if everything they touched turn to gold. Zara was looking forward to having her husband back for good. He had finally done enough to be able to retire in comfort.
One day Bastet, bored of hunting mice and rats near the homestead, went wandering near the river’s reed banks. She had never been afraid to stand her ground with alligators, hissing and even swiping, until they backed off, but she failed to see the eagle as it swooped down and lifted her in its talons. Even then, Bastet snarled and twisted and fought until the eagle dropped her..
The eagle flew off in search of easier prey. In the distance, the maid who had been planning to rinse her clothes in the river, watched the scene in horror. As soon as it was safe, she went to check the cat.
Holding the lifeless creature in her arms, the maid began to cry. Very gently, she carried the still warm animal and brought it home to a mistress that was so disconsolate she went into deep mourning and shaved off her eyebrows as a sign of respect.
Zara gave the cat full honours, making sure it was preserved correctly for the afterlife. The cat was mummified using the most expensive cedar wood, myrrh and bandages the family could afford. Just before she died some years later, Zara asked for the mummified cat to be buried next to her in her casket.
An incredible three thousand years later, Sara Amin, a young archaeologist whose father is an Egyptian professor at an English university, leads an expedition in search of an ancient settlement some distance from Cairo. As always, she’s inspired by the man who has encouraged her in everything she’s ever done. Sara loves his tales of how he met her mother when she toured Egypt as a young woman. Before long, Sara’s mother had fallen in love with both the country and the man and when she found out he was visiting his family, but worked in England, her fate was sealed. It was a meeting of cultures and minds and Sara loved her rich heritage.
It is every archaeologist’s dream to do something that will change the lives of themselves and others forever. To make that elusive discovery – whether it be in the Valley of the Kings, or somewhere else in a land that holds so many secrets. While Sara is no exception, she considers herself lucky to be involved in a more humble, but equally interesting expedition that will reveal the lives of less prominent people.
It has been a long day of toiling in the sun, but worth every second. Sara’s group have uncovered a tomb belonging to an ancient family high on a hill. Before them lies the opened sarcophagus of an intact female mummy. Judging by the carvings on the walls and various artefacts in the tomb, the woman seems to have been the mother and wife of a skilled craftsmen. She lies buried in fine wrappings and jewellery. In the air, there is still a faint trace of the oils used to preserve her. The group have only a short time to examine her, but even after all this time, it’s evident she once had a lovely face. But for Sara, the most striking thing is the mummified cat pressed close to her.
“She must have loved the cat dearly,” Sara murmurs. “Usually, pets were placed in pet cemeteries.”
To the outside world, this investigation into the lives of people who lived so long ago might seem strange, even a little creepy, but to Sara, the mummification rituals in Egypt were a way of respecting the dead. Not only did they ensure a smooth journey into the afterlife for the deceased, it meant they were able to continue the best of what they had loved in their earthly lives. For this reason, it was common for people to take the daily things they valued to their graves. Familiar objects which would comfort them when they were resurrected for their final journey across the sky to the Field of Reeds.
The trip which has been a great success moves Sara deeply. Flying back home, she can hardly wait to tell her father all about it, especially about the cat.
But it isn’t possible to relate her adventures because her father dies just hours before her flight home. In the event, Sara’s mother decides there’s nothing her daughter can do and wants to spare her unnecessary pain.
Sara knows the worst has happened when her mother meets her at the airport and falls into her arms. It’s the worst day of her life and she cannot share it with the person who’s always been there for her.
Several months pass and it’s Halloween. Late that afternoon, Sara opens an old vanity case where she keeps mementoes. She treasures the keepsakes her father has given her over the years. Before long, she selects a miniature paper boat he made for her when she was a little girl. Smiling at the memory, she carefully places it in her bag. Downstairs, she leaves a note for her mother. “Popping out. Won’t be late,” before scurrying out of the house.
Feeling like a young girl, she sniffs the damp air which smells of charcoal. The pavements have transformed into carpets of golden-brown leaves which crunch beneath her trainers. With her father gone, it feels a little hollow to be out celebrating Halloween, but she needs to do something to mark the occasion. A memory flashes of him all misty-eyed when she dressed up in funny clothes and waved a toy broomstick in the air. When her mother carved a pumpkin and placed it in the front window, his smile lit up the room like the candle it contained. What a great time they had – even though she sensed Halloween wasn’t really her father’s scene.
No, she realises now with adult clarity, he was always more interested in celebrating the ancient Egyptian Wag Festival. His face lit up when he talked of people creating tiny boats out of paper and sending them to float along the Nile. Others had carried them to graves, making sure to set them west, the correct orientation needed to help the departed on their final journey. He once told her the Festival was a kind of precursor to Halloween because food would be left out for any wandering spirits who happened to be without families. It was a bit like trick or treat.
Sara considers visiting the town’s river and releasing her boat, but somehow finds herself heading to the cemetery where her father is buried. She won’t linger long on this full-mooned night, but it doesn’t take long to find the grave. Delving into her bag, she produces a compass to ensure the correct position and lays the tiny boat on the grave. Only then, does she light her candle.
“I miss you so much,” she says closing her eyes and remembering her father’s many acts of kindness.
Suddenly, the silence is broken by a cat mewing. Sara bends down and is enchanted by the sleek black fur, dainty features and the most brilliant blue eyes she’s ever seen.
“Where have you sprung from kitty?” she asks gently stroking the cat which she decides must be a female. The cat responds by purring loudly and allowing Sara to feel her collar. She is burning with curiosity. Who does this bewitching creature belong to? Perhaps there will be a contact number. It seems odd to find such a well-cared for creature out wandering like that – it can’t be a stray. But what really blows her mind is that while there is no contact number on the collar, there is an amulet of the ancient cat goddess Bastet attached to it!
The cat arches its back, honouring Sara with its presence. She hovers patiently while Sara collects her dazed thoughts. Hardly knowing what to think, Sara turns back to her father’s grave for one last look. She spends a few minutes remembering him before blowing out the candle. She mustn’t worry about the cat. It seems so independent, she feels sure it will be alright with or without her. There is something about it.
But when Sara finally turns around, ready to leave the cemetery, the cat has vanished into the night, leaving no trace of footsteps along the mossy pathway.