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Historical Fiction Speculative


Until air, moisture, earth and sky emerged out of the deep, a formless mass existed that looked a bit like a pyramidal mound. It was called Nu. At some point in the mists of time, the sun rose like a goose breaking through the still waters to spread its life-giving light to the earth. In ancient myths, Ra was the Egyptian sun god, the creator of all that followed.

Without creation, we do not exist. 

If we do not exist, what is there?

^^^

As priests, everything we do, every act and speech we make, every ritual and spell we perform is designed to prevent a return to the primordial chaos. 


A restless night broken by a throng converging on the temple grounds. Just after dawn, the sun peeks its amber face onto a waiting world. Risen blazing and transcendent, a throbbing ball of radiance, it rests a while, bobbing on the horizon, before gradually receding behind a line of distant palms, trailing ribbons of red in its wake.

^^^

I’d know that knock anywhere. Canet, the priest who grappled with reading hieroglyphs and now acts as a kind of servant, hovers outside my chamber. 

“What shall I do, Master? I must do something!” Dark patches betray a night as disturbed as my own. I send him off to gather information. Half an hour later, he reports of people stricken by fear and hunger. “They want to know whether our land will ever be blessed by the gods again.” Parents with children ask why their sun god has turned against them. All their lives, they’ve seen him arise after his sunset descent into the underworld; now they fear he will be annihilated by Apopis, the serpent of chaos and the world will end. Everyone longs for Ra to ascend the skies on his magical barque and once again warm the earth in a golden glow.


As the day wears on, others arrive. Their fear is palpable for many are spiritually as well as physically hungry. 

^^^


In a bid to stave off a return to chaos, the priests burn wax effigies of Apopis at night. 

^^^

It was only seven months ago when the serpent taking on the guise of a demon, fought to block out the sun permanently (the last major solar event). In this exact spot, the people cried and clutched one another as light was extinguished and the land was covered by a dark mantle. And now, if my calculations are correct, the sun will be blotted once again in exactly three hours time.

^^^

If my fate is tied up with that of the Pharaoh, his is tied up with the land and its people. Whilst training to be a priest, I studied astronomy, mathematics and matters of state. Having charted the progress of the stars and other celestial bodies over many years, I have more understanding than most of a phenomenon I may be the first to describe as – no irreverence to Ra intended – a “solar eclipse.” According to my projections, this will take place when the sun is within 21 degrees 41.


I’m fascinated rather than appalled by the idea of another eclipse, but in times of uncertainty many see it as a bad omen. They view it through a lens of fear, especially as shortly after the last one a plague of flies came and feasted off the skins of cattle resulting in a shortage of food. In spite of numerous priestly spells and incantations, the flies persist in their destructive course. To add to the misery, for the past two years famine has strangled our crops with the Nile holding back the annual flood needed to replenish the soil. We’ve also had to contend with drought and an ailing Pharaoh who has not been seen in public for months. 

^^^

My daily walk to the Sacred Room seems interminable. Along the way, temple workers bow respectfully, according to their status. All except Abet, who after me is the most senior priest in this part of Egypt. We were taught the same subjects, but unlike me he struggled to grasp the finer points of mathematics and astronomy. As the Pharaoh’s nephew, the highest position in the temple hierarchy seemed assured, but his uncle broke with tradition and appointed me instead. Resentment oozing from every pore, Abet manages only a curt nod as I pass him en route to the Inner Sanctum.


Robed in fine white linen, complete with shoulder strap, leather sandals and an emerald and turquoise neckpiece, I bestride the Hypostyle Hall, an enclosed area of the temple with many pillars. I never tire of the sight of the cobalt blue ceiling with its multitude of stars, that portal where the dead go if the final judgment weighs in their favour. As High Priest, my purpose is to maintain order (maat) in the universe through the practice of rituals. I must offer undying devotion to the semi-divine Pharaoh, the representative on earth of the Egyptian deities.


With all to play for and the much-feared chaos threatening to break out, everything hangs in the balance.

^^^

The delicate patter of feline feet warms my stony heart. Tail high in the air and wearing a necklace of lapis lazuli, Smudge follows me down the long aisle to the temple’s inner room where the most selective food is kept. I took the cat under my wing after she hissed at an alligator who had got too near for comfort in the pool used for ritual cleansing. 


After removing my sandals, I break open the seal to the sanctum door. One of Canet’s daily duties is to place a clay seal upon it before he retires, a task he performs assiduously. Inside my nostrils are assaulted by the overwhelming smell of incense. As my eyes adjust to the dimly lit scene, I focus on the statue of the goddess Hathor facing north in the central alcove. She gets carried out during festivals and other special occasions when the priests raise her up on the rooftop for everyone to see. 


Smudge may not understand the current rumblings, but her feline senses detect something is amiss. She growled when she heard Abet’s raised voice in the corridor the other day. Other than the Pharaoh, few would dare to question the actions of a High Priest and the present one is incapacitated. Unless he recovers soon, I suspect his ambitious son will overturn all his father’s decisions.

^^^

Smudge winds herself round me, mewing loudly. Bending to pat that noble grey head, her emerald eyes melt into mine.  As a stray who came to me not long after my wife died, her appearance felt providential. In spite of having been a gifted pharmacist my wife had been unable to prevent her own death. She was studying the effects of bacterial poisons in a bid to cure tumours. My sons did their best to comfort me, but it was Smudge who saved me from wracking despair. 

“Ah, Smudge, if only you could advise me now …”

For which I receive a loud clicking purr as she nudges her way past me into the Sanctum. Although cats are highly regarded in Egypt, giving Smudge a portion from the votive offerings might be seen as a step too far, possibly even sacrilegious, by the priestly elite. Licking her lips demurely, she savours the choice morsels and retires to her favourite spot.  

The cat sleeps with one eye open as I hurry through the intimate rituals of washing, cleansing, and clothing the goddess that only I or another senior priest can perform. I then ‘offer’ the statue food. The fact that Hathor has never actually eaten anything is besides the point – these are merely symbolic gestures – and therein lies my problem. The one man in Egypt whose faith in the gods should be unquestioning, is beset by doubts. I’ve always struggled to believe in things I cannot see.


Outside, my two sons who are training to be priests, watch the sky for signs. 

^^^

What is it about cats, I wonder? 


After the ritual with the goddess, I devote myself entirely to Smudge, tickling her under the chin and whispering secrets into that sweetly twitching ear. Maybe I love her because she’s the only one who cannot betray me. Even with my sons, I have to be careful, in case of indiscretion. 

^^^

All I want is to spend time double-checking my charts in the library. All the training at the temple school, all the preparation for my role, all the scaling up the slippery pole, my position so envied by ‘lesser’ mortals (other than Canet who dotes on me) – for what? Only to have lost my faith. And now, what if the present Pharaoh’s soul passes and his son takes over? I would not wish to cross this young man with the beaky nose and hooded eyes. Will I once again be forced to run through hoops like a young man? My anxiety makes long to escape the temple for good. 

But where would I go? What else is there?

Sighing, I gently scoop up the cat and carry her out of the room. 

^^^

Other than my bedchamber where I can close my eyes to all earthly machinations, the library is the place I feel most at home. There, I devote myself to my astronomical charts, study old transcripts and pour through papyri texts inked by the reed pens of my predecessors.

^^^

Abet’s dark shadow breaks my concentration.

“I see you’re engaged in your charts.” He makes charts sound like a rude word.

“Yes.”

“I need to talk to you.” His haughty tone rankles.

“This isn’t a good time, Abet.”

He’s close enough to smell his unpleasant breath, something that natron, the salty mixture we use to clean our teeth, fails to disguise.

“What is it?”

“I caught that cat if yours sicking up something in the corridor. I hope you haven’t been giving it something you shouldn’t. That would be most unwise.”

I’m determined to nip his insulting inferences in the bud – even if they happen to be true.

“How dare you speak to me like that! Your attitude to our beloved cats is most strange. They are known harbingers of fortune.”

“Maybe so, but they cannot rank above our goddess Hathor. They may be sacrificed when resources are scarce – as they are now. We cannot afford to allow the sentiment of keeping animals as pets prevent us from doing what is right.” His habit of grinding his teeth sets my own on edge. “Our deepest beliefs should never be flouted.”


I’m about to tell him where he can stick his advice when theres a knock at the door. A temple dancer comes in bowing gracefully.

“Excuse me interrupting Master, but the Pharaoh’s son is here, may he be worshipped and praised. He wishes to see you in the Appearance Room.”

“Right.” Having only met the young man once before, I compose myself accordingly. Upon leaving, I catch the tail end of a smirk from Abet.

“We will talk later,” I say.

“We certainly will,” he replies ominously.

^^^

In the Appearance Room, the Pharaoh’s son sits on a throne, fanned by two maids. Beneath the regality, he appears strained. Stretching out his hand for me to kiss his ring, he addresses me pompously.

“The mob outside grows hostile. What are you planning to do about it, High Priest?”

I can hardly say it’s more his problem than mine. 

“With your permission, my lord, I think what the people need most is reassurance.”

“Hmmm. My father rewarded you well. Made you Chief Astronomer, as well as High Priest. I’ll leave that to you.”

“Of course.” I clear my throat. “According to the alignment of the stars, the sun will soon become invisible – at least for a short while. If my predictions are correct, the land will be thrown into complete darkness.”

The royal countenance pales. “You should have said something before.”

“I didn’t want to disturb you. I know how busy you’ve been with preparations for the Pharaoh’s pyramid.” I tactfully omit to mention his own costly and extensive funeral preparations. “I didn’t want to cause unnecessary alarm – after all, once Thoth, the god of learning, restores the moon eye of Horus that was stolen by the god of chaos, all will be well. It’s a case of keeping faith.” I’m surprised by the strength of my conviction. Perhaps I have a smidgin of belief after all?

“Hmmm. This is all most vexing. Not what I need at all.” Like a child ready to throw his toys out of a pram, only far more dangerous.  “The kingdom is restless. Even the pyramid workers talk of striking! It’s disgusting.”

I take a deep breath.

“My lord, the people are struggling. Would it be possible to reduce taxes – at least until the crisis has passed?” His glare is enough to make a sphinx shrivel, but I hold firm. “Perhaps if the most recent program of pyramid building was halted until…”

He raises his hand.

“Enough! How royal funds are spent is not your concern. I expect you to deal with things closer to hand.” He raises himself with an ornately carved stick. “While I visit Hathor’s shrine, I expect you to attend to the crowd. If your speech fails to calm them, I will hold you personally responsible.”

“I believe they will listen, my lord.”

“Let’s hope for your sake they do. My father always says pride comes before a fall. There are others who would willingly take on your role.”

So, Abet had already spoken to him. 

The very idea makes my blood run cold.

^^^

There is no turning back. In just ten minutes, the moon will go into a strange orbit and cast its shadow over the sun. 

Leant courage by desperation, standing on a stone plinth in the courtyard, I persuade the crowd that in spite of evidence to the contrary, all will be well. Going by the shadow clock’s readings, I explain how the earth will be temporarily clothed in darkness. Hearing this, a few people begin crying, someone faints, but most wait silently. Expectantly.

“Don’t be frightened. The eclipse is a natural phenomenon. It does not mean the gods have abandoned us. If my predictions are right, it will only take seven minutes for the light to reappear.”

“Does this mean the flood will come?” A voice cries out from the crowd.

“There’s every reason for hope. If you look now, you will see the great star Sirius has risen to its most extreme point. It’s a sign the river will flood and that will lead to a harvest. Things will improve.”


Suddenly, as if echoing my message, the clouds burst open, and rain pours down. Children let go of their parent’s hands laughing as it runs down their bodies, an exquisite feeling. Others weep openly, thanking the goddess Hathor for her goodness.

^^^

But when I return to the temple and call in the usual places, Smudge fails to appear.

I haven’t checked the Sacred Room!


When I get there, I’m assaulted by the cloying smell of burning flesh on the altar. Abet’s hands are raised in a parody of supplication, his mouth twisted in a sickening grin of triumph.

“While you were out addressing the crowd, the Pharaoh’s son asked me to take on your duties. In any way I saw fit.”

“How could…?” Rage and pain tear at me, crippling speech.

“Where-is-the prince?”

“The prince has departed, but not before making it clear he expects things to change round here. From now on, I will be the one serving the blessed Hathor. You ought to be pleased. You’ll get to spend more time with your precious charts.”

“If that is what he wishes.” I almost choke on my words. “I will leave you to attend to your… rituals.”


Somehow I force my legs to move. I plan to read my wife’s records on poisons in the pharmacy, a place I haven’t visited since she died – in case they vanish. I’ve never had a reason to examine them before, but now I intend to study every detail. If I have to, I will spend the rest of my life searching for a way to wipe the smugness from my enemy’s face.


But first, I need to grab some air.

^^^

“Master?” Canet’s slight figure stands at the temple entrance. I cry out when I see him holding Smudge in his arms.

“She hasn’t been well,” he explains. “She’s eaten something that doesn’t agree with her. I didn’t want her around that man, so I’ve been looking after her for you.”

“What? While I’ve been speaking to the crowd?”

“Yes Master. I didn’t want Abet to find us.”

“So, she hasn’t been with Abet?”

“No. Why would she be with him? I know he doesn’t like her.” He spits into his hand. “He shouldn’t be with the goddess. You should be. He’s been in there sacrificing animals.” Canet gently strokes Smudge’s soft fur, and she whimpers. His eyes are pools of deep brown. “Why? What were you thinking?”

“Nothing. Nothing at all.”

“Oh yes … I heard about your speech. The Pharaoh will be pleased. They say he’s turned the corner at last.”

“Really?”

“Apparently, he’s started eating again.” 

“That is good news.”

“It’s good about the rain too, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Truly wonderful.”

Canet’s smile lights up his face. “Maybe the chaos will come to an end.”

“Or at least be averted. For now.”


As I watch the rise and fall of Smudge’s chest, I tell myself the crisis has passed. Apopis has not beaten the sun god by bringing the eclipse. The earth will not revert to its former chaos. I tell myself the sun will shine tomorrow as it always does. 



April 10, 2024 20:12

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38 comments

Marty B
22:17 Apr 23, 2024

I loved the historical background to put two very modern characters battling for power in a a changing time. The Prince Abet wants the power he doesnt deserve, but will do anything to get. This does seem to be a part of a larger story, and I look forward to further chapters, because we all know more 'crisis' will come, they always do- Thanks! Smudge the cat is a great character!

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Helen A Smith
04:48 Apr 24, 2024

Thanks Marty. I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I like Smudge too. Based on a neighbour’s cat that likes to hang round here and likes trying out my garden seat.

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Howard Halsall
18:59 Apr 23, 2024

Hi Helen, I really enjoyed ‘The mound of Nu’ for its complex world building, delightful descriptions and insightful thoughts on the nature of power and control within an ancient theocratic regime. I recall being surprised when I discovered how many people died during the construction of the pyramids, so I wasn’t entirely surprised when the Pharaoh’s son raised his hand and said, “Enough! How royal funds are spent is not your concern. I expect you to deal with things closer to hand.” The contempt for his subjects is palpable at that point...

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Helen A Smith
20:13 Apr 23, 2024

Hi Howard, You’re right about the cat. I feel I want to include her in a longer story. I think I want the whole thing to be part of a longer story, but obviously I entered this as a short story in its own right. I just needed to gauge if it’s something that a modern audience can identify with because I’m really into it, but needed a bit of guidance. Kind of testing the waters. I sometimes end up wanting to “resolve” things in other stories. Kind of mini novels. Thank you. What you say is helpful. Thanks for reading it.

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Howard Halsall
21:48 Apr 23, 2024

Hi Helen, I think the idea of a modern audience identifying with your story or any tale in an unfamiliar time or place is a really interesting issue. I think the key is to highlight all the cultural similarities and allude to universal needs and desires. The more we recognise ourselves in your protagonists, the more emotional connection and empathy you will engender in the reader. Hence the need for characters and situations that we recognise. For instance, it’s likely that there’d be someone outside your Pharaoh’s palace who might be stirri...

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Helen A Smith
04:49 Apr 24, 2024

Hi Howard, Some great ideas here. Thanks for taking the time.

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Howard Halsall
05:02 Apr 24, 2024

I hope that’s useful :)

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Helen A Smith
05:02 Apr 24, 2024

Yes, very.

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Jack Kimball
15:23 Apr 21, 2024

Hi Helen, You write, " “According to the alignment of the stars, the sun will soon become invisible – at least for a short while. If my predictions are correct, the land will be thrown into complete darkness.” Yes, there are some eclipse stories, but only because Isaac Asimov led the way with "Nightfall", a 1941 science fiction short story about the coming of darkness to the people of a planet ordinarily illuminated by sunlight at all times. It was adapted into a novel with Robert Silverberg in 1990. If you haven't read it, it's wonderful, ...

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Helen A Smith
15:47 Apr 21, 2024

Hi Jack, “Nightfall” sounds a really interesting read. I probably stretched things somewhat, but my story is based on the fact that ancient Egyptians studied the stars, albeit with simple instruments. Based on hieroglyphs it seems to have been a mix of astronomy, astrology and spells. Ancient people seemed to view an eclipse fearfully- not surprising considering how important the sun and moon was to them and their beliefs. The cat is based on one that comes in my garden. A real heartbreaker type. Just seen her before I read this and was t...

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Jack Kimball
15:58 Apr 21, 2024

Well, I for one would keep the cat and add it to Kurt Russell's 1994 science fiction action-adventure film Stargate, which features humans who worship the god Ra on a planet that resembles ancient Egypt. Sound familiar? In 1968, the Science Fiction Writers of America voted Azimov's short story, "Nightfall" the best science fiction short story written prior to the 1965 establishment of the Nebula Awards and included it in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume One, 1929–1964

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Helen A Smith
16:13 Apr 21, 2024

You’ve got me curious to read it. I’ve decided to order Nightfall. I actually haven’t read a lot of sci fi. Most of my ideas come from my interest in ancient Egypt or life experiences. Thanks for the recommend.

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Jack Kimball
16:31 Apr 21, 2024

I wouldn't suggest it so strongly if your story, "The Mound Of Nu" wasn't well written, including many elements of "Nightfall", like myth, the eclipse, and mobs of rioters. "Nightfall" is dated in my view, but well worth the read, given your story hits on the theme and you obviously made a real effort in writing it.

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Helen A Smith
16:40 Apr 21, 2024

Thanks Jack. Sometimes the classics are the best. The forerunners I call them - everything else springs from them. I have read “Do Androids dream of electric sheep?” Look what came from that. In my opinion, Bladerunner is a top film and look how it stands the test of time. Incredible!

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Kristina Lushey
18:51 Apr 20, 2024

Loved this Helen. Thank God Smudge is safe. I also liked the world you created for us as readers. Super!

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Helen A Smith
19:29 Apr 20, 2024

Thank you Kristina. I’m happy you liked the world I created. I loved writing it.

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Kathryn Kahn
20:00 Apr 19, 2024

I love this story. There are so many eclipse stories out there, but this one has a real freshness for me. I love the imagery -- the sun rising like a goose is something I've never thought of before, but it's perfect. And the tone and voice is also perfect -- it gives the story a sort of ancient, ceremonial feeling without slowing down the story. Wonderful.

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Helen A Smith
20:08 Apr 19, 2024

Thank you Kathryn, I so appreciate your kind words. I put a lot into it so it means something when someone sees what I was trying to achieve.

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Peter Bradford
06:26 Apr 19, 2024

Great story, with so many carefully placed historical references. You had me worried about Smudge, very happy he was OK. I hope a suitable poison is found soon to sort out Abet!

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Helen A Smith
06:35 Apr 19, 2024

Thank you Peter. I’m glad you enjoyed it. Abet is indeed a horrible character.

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Darvico Ulmeli
04:47 Apr 15, 2024

I had feeling like I was there. Beautiful.

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Helen A Smith
11:12 Apr 15, 2024

Thank you so much Darvico. I can’t ask for more than that.

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Joe Smallwood
18:44 Apr 14, 2024

I just read some of the most beautiful writing, that I think I have read in a long time in the first part of your story. Your description makes me want to describe more! Thanks!

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Helen A Smith
20:15 Apr 14, 2024

Thank you Joe. You’ve just made my day! Thanks for your appreciation. I work hard at my writing so it means a lot.

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Joe Smallwood
20:23 Apr 14, 2024

👍

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Isabel Jewell
18:23 Apr 14, 2024

Wow, I could imagine this as vividly as a film! Thank you so much for sharing. Even as a dog person, I absolutely loved it ;) Amazing context and interesting twists!

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Helen A Smith
20:13 Apr 14, 2024

Thank you so much! I generally love dogs more than cats, but since a family of cats have been regularly visiting the garden I’ve become attached to one with a similar character to the one in my story. Where would we be without animals to love?

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Trudy Jas
16:45 Apr 14, 2024

Someone paid attention in class. :-) Lovely story. Glad Smudge made it through.

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Helen A Smith
17:00 Apr 14, 2024

Thanks Trudy. In the end, I just couldn’t allow the cat to come to serious harm. Thanks for appreciating.

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Viga Boland
16:41 Apr 11, 2024

Wow…that’s a lot of writing! How do you do it? I read this and can’t help but think what a limited imagination I have compared to you. Well done, my friend 👏

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Helen A Smith
17:08 Apr 11, 2024

I love your writing and don’t see you having a limited imagination.. When I was about nine a great teacher came and spoke about ancient Egypt and I’ve never forgotten it. Years later I’m still intrigued. I just think of people I know or have known and imagine their characters in that context. How would I feel and what would I do if I was living then? I’m glad you enjoyed it because I’m passionate about the subject.

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08:26 Apr 11, 2024

Really enjoyed this. Excellently written, as always.

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Helen A Smith
09:49 Apr 11, 2024

Hi Melissa, Thank you so much for your kind words. I work really hard on these pieces so ir means a lot.

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Mary Bendickson
03:56 Apr 11, 2024

This excellent story sounds familiar to me. Did you use it once before or have I developed extraordinary senses due to the moon covering the sun this week?

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Helen A Smith
04:45 Apr 11, 2024

Hi Mary, I reckon the latter 🌞 I have written about a priest with a cat before, obviously not surrounding a solar eclipse. The cat is based on one that regularly visits my garden. I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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Mary Bendickson
14:47 Apr 11, 2024

🤣 Thanks for liking 'Because He Lives '.

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Ty Warmbrodt
01:51 Apr 11, 2024

Excellent story, Helen. I was angry when I thought Abet sacrificed the cat. Glad he didn't - lol.

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Helen A Smith
04:48 Apr 11, 2024

Thank you Ty. I’m glad you liked it. The cat is based on a real one who visits the garden.

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