The word ‘languorous’ deliciously depicts the sultriness of a summer’s laze. Here, now, sunlight wakes and caresses me, the ecstasy of its warmth perfecting such a lethargy. Lying still, eyes closed, I allow the heat to bring life to sleep-locked limbs before opening my eyes and stretching. A stretch is art: extend your neck, arch your back, lengthen your legs – and relax. It is delicious; Ra has blessed me.
Then pain kicks in again and I wish I had not indulged myself so.
It would be too easy to lie and doze and let the sunlight ease my throbbing hips but I need to break my overnight fast. At my age, there are other things that need urgent attention, too. Fortunately, my house-slave has been with me long enough to know my routine; a glance is enough for her to rouse herself. She slides off the cushioned foot of my bed where I permit her to sleep.
‘Shall I make breakfast, my lady?’ I lower my head to the blankets so I can savour the sunlight a little more. Of course she should get breakfast, she knows that.
She – Alice, I think – heads towards the Chamber of Preparation, her heavy footsteps sounding a fading drumbeat along the corridor from the Hall of Repose. I remain still, refusing to allow such gaucherie to disturb my silent prayers to the great sun-god, Ra.
Though Alice is competent she, like many slaves, lacks a little in comprehension. However, she has come to realise that there is reward in the knowledge of a task correctly accomplished. I even trust her enough to massage me from time to time, allowing her the privilege to lay her hands upon my body.
The patch of sunlight streaming through the window edges onto the floor. My bed falls into shadow and the warmth fades; my time for worship is over.
I wash my hair whilst listening to Alice noisily preparing food. I love my hair: such a dark brown that it is almost black with scarcely a trace of grey. It complements my green eyes and softens what some dare declare is an overly narrow face – I see it as a regal sign of my oriental heritage. My nose has perfect lines, straight, well-defined and not too prominent. I admire myself in the floor-length mirror Alice had installed for me, resting to recover my strength.
It was in my private Closet of Cleansing that the pain really struck, shivering lances of fire along my legs and back, a ripping claw into my belly. I unceremoniously complain aloud at the agony and am unable to finish what I intended. Discomfort grows, adding to the torment, so I totter onto the rug that covers the floor of the bath chamber and collapse in a heap. I curl around my belly and close my eyes in anguish.
There is nothing I can do so I utter a silent prayer to the great physician Imhotep, hoping he might relieve my pain. At least Shai or Isis grants me favour such that Alice does not see my indignity; even in such torture I cannot cope with the humiliation of being seen in such an inelegant pose. I rest a few moments, gathering strength and allowing the pain to subside.
Finally, I am able to walk, though slowly. Halfway to the Chamber of Preparation is a statue to Bastet the Protector, one Alice thought beautiful though it is a curious chimera of human and feline. It sits high on a pedestal, Alice declaring it gives us both an opportunity to thank her for our easy life and acknowledge our good fortune. Despite the temptation to knock it off I indulge her; why would I, a descendent of royalty, pay obeisance to a flawed depiction of such an ancient god that was no real ka? But Alice is strange sometimes, believing in so many different practices. I have seen her cross her fingers, touch wood, avoid ladders, count magpies and go to great lengths to save ladybirds.
Maybe one day she will realise that the gods can help were she only to ask properly. For now that is my secret, the worship rightfully mine. It will go with me into the afterlife.
I gather my strength to step lightly and gracefully into the Chamber of Preparation. Alice is sensitive to my condition so has prepared a medicinal mixture of whisked eggs and cream, though has added something else, a crumbled powder. The smell of the concoction is rich, almost overwhelming, so I sit and she places the bowl before me.
Barely two mouthfuls have gone down my throat when I gag. My body heaves, my chest strains, the muscles on my neck stretch and twist as the imbibed preparation spews from my jaws. It stinks on the floor and I stumble away, stomach heaving. Alice is beside herself as she mops up the mess. ‘Oh, Queen’, she said, sobbing. ‘Oh, my poor Queenie. Can I get you anything else?’
I hate her for debasing me so. Queenie? It is a familiarity that I suffer within my own demesne but refuse to answer to in public as I hate its casual assumption of equality. For now there is nothing I can do to berate her: the retching is too violent, too physically exhausting. Weak with nausea, I wash my dirtied face and run through the invocations to life and health in my mind, praying to Bastet that my ordeal will end.
I glide as serenely as I can to the quietness of the Chamber of Withdrawal, though Alice looks on my limping walk with concern, even pity. In the Chamber, the gorgeous brilliance of Ra shines through the tall windows and I stand in the warmth for a few moments, thanking him for easing my agony. But I have eaten so must purify myself to maintain my purity before the gods. I barely finish before Hathor drains me of energy and I collapse onto the cushions of my daybed.
I fall asleep.
* * *
In my pain-wracked dream I am moved. My Chief Bearer has been exceptionally careful or my slumber is deeper than I think for it is the odour of food that wakes me. The smell would be delightful in previous years but now such odours cause my stomach to roil and I am immobilised by the pain once more. I almost cry out but avoid the humiliation and offer a prayer of thanks to the mother, the Great Lady of Isheru.
I have been laid upon some cushions and pillows draped with soft cloth and blankets. Alice is before me and she smiles and bows. ‘I have arranged a treat. I’ve put up new decorations, pictures of the gods.’ She paused before announcing the obvious. ‘And we have visitors.’
Supplicants are seated in the chairs along the walls of the Hall of Receiving Audience; others are seated around the table that demonstrates our generosity. They are eating and it is from their plates that the aroma has arisen. The fragrance of delicately spiced dishes of salmon and chicken mingle with the cloying odour of pork and other food suitable for less regal tastes. I try to disregard the smells, try to suppress the retching and roiling of my stomach. To distract myself I inspect the changes to the Hall Alice has supervised.
The lighting is low, drapes drawn to block the baking sun, making the high-ceilinged Hall feel cool, soothing and protective. The walls, however, are now decorated with painted friezes of worshipful deities, not only Bastet but those from all time. I see Sekhmet, Neith, Mut – the mother, Miuty and even Ra appearing as Mau. Beneath them all are cartouches with their names in the language of the gods as well as that of the slaves. It is pleasing.
But then I am dismayed to see Alice’s idolatry has overcome her, risking the destiny of our souls. In between the icons of the Great Ones are gross, comedic depictions, no cartouches to their images. Names such as ‘Mayu’ or ‘O’Malley’ figure amongst others but I dare not read them all. I am overcome with shock and must flee. I see my palanquin resting in one corner of the Hall, the protection of its sheltered sides offering somewhere to hide from the wrath that must surely come. I run, but my legs will not carry me. I fall and must crawl towards it, crying out in pain and degradation. I reach it and collapse into its cushions, hiding my face from the penitents who have come to gaze upon me, to perhaps beg favours or intercessory invocations.
There can be no such intercession today – Alice shepherds the penitents from the room. I close my eyes and weep inside with shame and pain. May all the gods deliver me from this agony, from this degradation.
I fall asleep.
* * *
Once more my sleep is disturbed, this time by Alice crying. Though I normally welcome sympathy, the display is so excessive I withhold my murmur of solace. Besides, I am unsure I can offer any comfort: my belly is tight, my stomach still roiling like a flood-surge on the Nile.
Alice sets my palanquin down in our Chamber of Withdrawal. My legs are too weak to lift me so I lie still, watching quietly. Alice kneels before me and, as if I am a child, tries to tempt me from my palanquin with treats. She is foolish: it is the knowledge of Imhotep and Hesy-Ra that I need, not toys. Though my last visit to the Physician-Priests of Sekhmet was not a moon ago, another visit is necessary.
Alice bows her head to the floor and makes obeisance. When she raises her face towards me it is streaming with tears. ‘I’m sorry, Queenie,’ she says, ‘I’m so sorry.’ She crawls out of sight. I hear her talking to the Physician-Priests but I am too exhausted to investigate, too relieved she has gone.
I fall asleep.
* * *
I wake to find myself moving once more and glimpse buildings and trees through the front of my palanquin. Alice informs me she has arranged an appointment at the Temple of Sekhmet with the Physician-Priests but there is a catch in her voice. I am relieved she has seen sense so ignore her emotion.
The outer forum of the Temple is a distasteful place. It is, as always, full of commoners, slavering beasts that fawn over their loyal slaves. Such adoration and appreciation is excessive, uncomfortable to watch, but I am saved embarrassment by a High Priest who realises I am waiting and beckons us into the inner sanctum.
I say a prayer to Amen as I am carried through: I adore your name and prostrate myself to you; may my physician drive all pain from me. I wait to see its efficacy.
It is quiet in the inner sanctum. The smell is sharp and slightly sweet mixed with the faint odour of soap from the Physician-Priest. He beckons Alice and the palanquin towards the high black dais in the centre of the small chamber. We are set down so I rise and walk regally onto the obsidian slab.
The journey has taken its toll and the pain is too great. No more can I step onto the dais than my legs crumble beneath me, elegance impossibility. I lower my head with shame. At least I do not cry but Alice understands how I wish the pain away and tears cascade down her cheeks. I forgive her lack of decorum for, in many ways, her tears are an appropriate accompaniment to my indignity.
‘She can’t take her medication any more. Everything just comes back up.’ That is far too intimate a declaration, even in the Temple of Sekhmet. I give Alice a look of reproach.
The Priest of Health nods sympathetically. ‘I heard. Queen is in a bad way – her pain must be unbearable.’ He hesitates then looks at Alice with sadness. ‘Would you like to hold her?’ He turns away.
It is an impertinence to hold me without permission but I am too weak to protest. Thankfully, Alice’s arms around me are warm, helping relieve the pain. I suffer the indignity in silence. When the High Priest turns back he has a purging syringe in his hand, though with a needle on its head. I hate being purged but cannot raise any complaint. Strangely, he plunges the needle into my shoulder and I cry, though only briefly.
A languorous lethargy once more spreads throughout my body. Alice sobs; the pain fades; Sekhmet-Bast-Ra appears.
I fall asleep.
* * *
[Photo: Egyptian Mau Cat (C) Andreas Photography,
https://www.flickr.com/photos/sheepies/2916343766/, Creative Commons]