Prelude to the Great Tsunami of July 21, 365 A.D.
By Lukman Clark
Papa taught me to count in the Roman ways and told us to always speak Latin, in or out of the home, though it was Momma who gave us our Egyptian names.
True, day to day, it’s Roman things that get you by. Measures of weight, distance, money. Numbers of things possessed or wanted. Then there is time, with divisions of minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and so on. Each of these has a name; the name fixing it and making it more real somehow. And everyone knows the Latin words for such things.
Papa was always telling my sister and me that knowing numbers and the names of things is more valuable than anything else, especially if one day he could not be here with us. I did not, could not, know what he meant by that, but I think he was right about this. I mean, mostly Papa was right but other things are good to know, too. I’m pretty sure that even what is Roman has to be part of something bigger.
Besides numbers, Papa taught me a little how to read. Then I learned some more on my own. People in the marketplace have come to know I am good in this way. They ask for my help with reading and writing, despite my age.
My name is Tuya. My sister’s is Tem. Our Momma named us this way because she never wanted us to forget that we were Egyptians – that we are Egypt. The land. That’s what she told us when we got older.
Tem and I were born in the Year 70 A.D., anno Diocletiani∗.
Diocletian is dead now, along with a couple of other imperators that came after him. This is what Papa said around the time me and Tem turned eleven just a while ago. I remember he looked at each of us then with sad eyes below his short haircut and, with his voice breaking a little, said the world was changing too fast, but for me it seems time moves too slowly and I will never grow up and I will always be in this place where I remember having lived my whole life with my twin sister.
Oh, yes, my sister and I are twins. She came out of our Momma just a short time after me. Momma says Tem almost didn’t make it because she didn’t start breathing right away. Tem has that extra finger on her left hand though and the midwife told Momma maybe that’s what finally helped her, but that she should try to not let people know about it.
As though the midwife herself wouldn’t talk. I know she did because people stare and whisper. Even about me. Twins, you know. Or maybe it’s something else, but I don’t mind.
I’m glad I have my twin sister. Funny, even though we are twins, we have always been opposites of each other. I am lighter. She is darker. My hair is reddish brown. Hers is brownish black. I talk a lot. Tem is the quiet one. Those who know both of us say I am the more practical, too.
Over a month ago, like I said, we passed our first decem anni by one year more. Ten years plus one together. Me first. Then Tem. But together.
Many children do not get as far as us, I know. Women are always losing their babies here and it must be the same everywhere. Papa told me how he was the third baby his momma had had. One came out blue and dead; the other came out with too many arms and legs, so was taken at night to be left on a hilltop. That really made Papa the first, like me; the oldest brother, like I’m the older sister. But he had four more after him. Three sisters and one brother. I just have my sister Tem. I love her and am glad she was not left out on a hilltop – but I think she’s enough.
Papa says he is more than four tens old. Quadraguinta. That seems a really long time to me, but somehow I can’t think of Papa as old. I mean, he doesn’t seem old to me at all. I just wonder where he is though.
“Back before your mother and I met, I was just a foot soldier. The army came through our village in my father’s land of Macedonia – the birthplace of the Great Alexander – looking for conscripts. You remember where Macedonia is, right?”
“Across the big sea!”
“Yes, Tuya-miau, across the big, big sea. Mare Nostrum. Good girl. Well, then they shipped myself and another hundred or so conscripts off to serve under the Dux Aegypti. Tem-Tem, it’s your turn to tell me what that is.”
Tem only stared at the floor and didn’t say anything, so Papa continued his story. I don’t know how many times he had told it to us, but I never tired of hearing it.
“Well, Dux Aegypti is the Egypt Command. So, having never been at sea before, I got terribly ill –“
“And you barfed your guts out over the side but it was OK because it fed the hungry fishes, right?”
“Exactly right. Unfortunately, our sea passage was not without incident. A few men fell overboard but the ship’s pilot would not change course to find them. Then after the third sunset–”
“You all tried to take the ship and turn it back!”
“My Tuya, you know your Papa would never do something like that! Nor would most others. Nevertheless, the few experienced soldiers on board quickly got matters under control and the leaders of the rebellion were dealt with severely.”
“They were dragged behind the ship in the water so the sharks could eat them up! Right, Papa?”
By now, Tem was faking being asleep. She woke up soon enough though when Papa paused to drink from his cup, then jumped off his lap and ran to the kitchen where Momma was making preparations for tomorrow’s breakfast.
“Things went smoothly after that trouble. No one dared try anything again. Once back on land in the port of Alexandria, I quickly recovered from my sea-sickness. Then, as luck would have it, I was marched here to Heliopolis with a detachment of other soldiers. All of us part of the 5th Macedonian Legion, mostly patrolling the streets and alleyways of the city. Just our being around usually keeps the peace during the day.
“Night patrol though always has been the worst. Drunken men and women in and out of the taverns brawling and screaming. People killing each other in the streets and on rooftops. Spouses who normally did not have to face each other by day, quarreled once both at home after dark – too often with evil effects for one or the other and too often for any children they might have.”
In anticipation, I stayed quiet. The best part was about to come.
“Thieves did what thieves always do, too; especially the bands of roving youths, brigands who as often as not would taunt and attack us soldiers. It was while dispatching one infamous gang cornered in a dead-end alley – something we had well thought out and planned as part of a night round-up – it was then that I found your mother.”
So, because of my smart soldier Papa – now optio, not just munifex — that’s how I know a lot of what I know. The rest I find out for myself.
I can keep track of how more than ten tens or so kinds of different birds live around our river parts. For each kind though, they number too many to count. I mean, if you could even count them when they all fly up so beautifully together. Their wings glint in the day sky like the stars do in the night sky. I think sometimes the way they group or cry must have some hidden meaning. Really, I think they do talk to us in their way. Some people say they are messengers and that we just need to learn how to listen or read their signs.
Tem says that birds are just birds.
Still, despite her crankiness, I try to follow what kinds of birds come and go with the seasons, wondering where they go and why they return. I watch for the long-legged ones like the diver birds, the Great Cormorants, the pink-backed pelicans and cranes that come in winter. Usually they don’t lay eggs here, but they come back with young birds, so they must make babies in the other places they go off to. Some kinds of geese and ducks, quail, kingfishers, shrikes and kestrels do all nest with us though. Some stay here all the time; others take their surviving children away across water or desert when seasons turn.
One bird, a dusky-shaded brown and green ibis, flies in to visit its cousin called Pharaoh’s Ibis with its striking, black-fringed wings. I like pretending that our stay-at-home ibis invites its distant relative in for lotos and beer in exchange for stories of far-away lands.
Like I said, many other birds stay here all the time, just like we do. The benu, egrets and bitterns; doves and pigeons; cuckoos, owls, crows and bats; black kites, Horus falcons, vulturinum – all seem to like it here well enough. But, like the ibis, they have winged cousins calling on them year-round, while no one ever comes by to see our family.
The way I remember the different kinds is like this. I might make one kind of nest for one kind – in my mind, of course – and another sort of nest for a different bird. Or I see them moving in a particular way in the sky in my mind’s eye, individually for some and in flocks for some others. Certain birds I remember by seeing them doing a showy mating dance, or challenging one another with puffed out chests and ruffled feathers, or fluting a few sad notes of a song, or swallowing a frog.
This is all useful because along with what Papa gets from the army, birds provide part of the livelihood of our family. Me and Tem have been coming out with throw sticks, hoop nets and small ground nets to catch them since we were old enough to sit quietly in boat or blind – first with Papa; later with Momma when Papa started getting called away more and more. Because Momma has other things to do, later it was just me and Tem going out on our own.
Other birders, either singly or in groups, hunt with arrows, javelins, slings, clap-nets and long net fences. Some use tethered bitterns with their eyelids sewn shut to trick curious apedu with the decoys’ pitiful cries.
I do well enough without such deceits.
I say this because in recent months, Tem has come out less and less. When I ask if she will accompany me in the reed boat that Papa made for us to cover more of the river bank, she stiffens her back and shoulders, saying she needs to stay home to help Momma. She says seeing that I am the one who likes sitting out under the hot sun with the flies, gnats and crocodiles, why don’t I just go by myself? Then she turns and walks away. I don’t know what has gotten into her, but if all she’s going to do is complain and scare the birds off, she can stay home sweeping the dust from the floor and washing down the walls with that nasty natron.
Speaking of crocodiles, I don’t know what Tem is so afraid of. They never have bothered me. It’s like they don’t even hear or smell me. I am less than a shadow to them, I think. Besides, there are a pair of hawks who always seem to fly low overhead as a kind of warning for me to get off the river and, sure enough, then something you don’t want ‘round comes around. One time, one of the hawks dove right down to the back of my skiff and took off again. It happened fast but when I turned to look all I could see was the hawk flying off with a cobra in its talons.
Another time I thought I heard something coming from the papyrus thickets and though both hawks tried to warn me away, I went in to have a look. What I found was dead bodies of people. I didn’t think animals had killed them, because no animal I know of puts heads on stakes. After this, I always listened to my hawk friends.
One day, as usual, I had been out since before dawn. That’s the very best time of day. I was on the alert and gliding downstream in the reed boat along the thick stands of papyrus growing down to the river’s bank and into its shallows. The boat is like a second home to me. Though small and narrow, I feel safe in it. Protected. So much so that I sometimes nap in it under the shade of the tall reeds. At such times I might dream that the river is a path snaking warmly through a shadowy forest like those Papa speaks of. I am very familiar with this path. Just as I am with the river that dreams along with me.
But, as much as I like to daydream, I do have things to do. Things like checking the simple traps I have learned to make and set from watching birds’ habits; putting up nets; trying to locate nests by the hungry cries of young birds.
Like I said, sunrise is the best of times to be out and about on the river. Life there is stretching, shaking the night off and getting ready for the new day. The birds are waking to sing praises to the sun. They are hungry from their night fast and tend not to pay much attention to a little inops-girl, quietly drifting with the current.
So, as the sun stretches its arms out, its hopeful rays warming the air and chasing away the river mists, I unwrap a piece of bread to chew on to quash my belly rumblings. From around a weedy sand bank, a coot family – the mother bird and seven grey, not fully fledged young – come up to my boat, curious, I think, about my breakfast. I break off a corner of bread and toss it on the water, whereupon the adult snatches it up. I throw several more pieces a little forward of my skiff, while slowly taking up the handle of my hoop net. By now the chicks have joined the fray for my bread, which gives me the chance to bring my net quickly over the lot.
I’m not fast enough due to nearly losing my balance. I succeed in catching only four of the young. The mother and the rest of her brood run across the water’s surface in a flash, beyond my reach, splashing and squawking noisily along the way. All that commotion puts an end to any sneakiness I may have enjoyed, so I quiet the little birds, stow them and turn about to pole back upriver toward home.
On the way, I think it’s too bad that I didn’t get the mother. Besides being plump, her black feathers seemed especially shiny and healthy. I could sell them to the clothiers to dress up their wares.
Or use them myself.
I collect feathers of different birds and have used these to make a cap that is formed tightly to my head. By gradually bending the longer feathers from falcons and the like, I can shape them to my head without breaking the spines. The way I wear the cap is with the notches to the front and the quills in the back. I use the smaller fluffy feathers to fill in and cover the quills like a fringe. Tem wants me to make her one, but says she wants one where the feathers stand up – not laying flat like mine.
The day is warming up quickly, so I need to unload my morning’s catch, which has grown with the addition of a huge, sharp-jawed turtle, a clutch of dozens of round, white turtle eggs, and three quail from my set traps. The heat will spoil both birds and turtle eggs, already attracting an army of flies to the basket where I have stored them – the seven birds with their necks wrung. Also, though the turtle hides in its shell when I rap it sharply with my pole, it keeps coming out to try to escape over the side of the boat, making it all the more necessary to hurry back.
Quayside at the town market, I climb the embankment and am happy to immediately sell the turtle for its meat and shell to a fish broiler my Papa knows by the name of Felix. As two of his helpers carry the creature from my boat and away to slaughter, he laughs with his hands on his hips, saying, “You must be a child of Anukis to be able to subdue such a beast without losing all your toes and fingers to its rapacious jaws!” I smile up at him, sweat dripping down along my nose, and reply, “My Momma prays to Dedwen to accompany me at market, so that I may be paid well for my work.”
I cock my head a little to one side and give Felix the Eye, just to see if this has any affect on him.
With that, he bursts out with a guffaw and puts a generous sum into my outstretched palm.
I slip the coins unobtrusively into the leather wallet held at my side by a rawhide string across my bare chest, just as Felix scrunches up his nose while looking down at my other hand holding the covered basket with the dead fowl. He raises his eyebrows as though to ask about the odor insinuating itself over that of the fish, cooking oil and offal in his sector of the market. I advise him that my luck did not stop with turtles, so I had better move on to where people eat real food. I’m not quick enough to dodge a light slap to the back of my head that knocks my cap askew.
Our market, like most run by the Romans, is laid out in a grid fashion with different numbered sectors, each with its assigned products. Papa had explained that this made it easier to control what was sold by whom. Because the Prefecture also set the prices for every type of commodity, it makes it easier to locate and fine cheats, largely because sellers keep their eyes on other sellers in their sector. The aisle ways crisscrossing and joining the sectors are wide and vendors are supposed to keep them clear of their goods. Papa also told us this is so that soldiers can move with speed through the market when there is any trouble.
As many vendors, not just fishermen, bring their wares by boat, quayside is Sector One. It is from here that I then walk east, away from the river, through the vegetable sector. Onions, radishes, leeks, cucumbers, figs, grapes, cabbages, turnips, melons all reach out with their fresh scents to grab at my growling stomach as I pass. I walk fast to get through to the fowl and poultry sector to finish my business.
Farmers and market workers I have known for years call out their greetings to me. Customers haggle, despite the administration’s price controls. Small groups of squatting men drink tea, play with their 20-sided dice and natter. Women laugh and scold their children.
Drool slips from one corner of my mouth as my stomach rumbles and I wipe it away with the back of my hand. The dank, gamey smell of the river on my hands puts my hunger down.
My straw basket is lighter; my purse heavier. The leavened barley bread smeared with olive oil, bean paste and garlic sits well in my belly. A small belch serves as a flavorful reminder of my well-deserved meal.
Just as I am heading for one of the latrine areas outside the market perimeter, a commotion starts up in the poultry and fowl sector behind and to my left. Although the spice sector and prepared foods sector are between me and it, I see shoppers and shopkeepers alike drifting that way and crowding around what is beginning to turn into something more than a scrap. I know this will quickly draw soldiers to keep the order, which means people are going to get hurt.
Later, I found that Timothy the live goose monger had gotten into an argument with a customer over something. The customer at one point pushed Timothy hard, saying that Christians like him were just brainless goose shit and ought to be thrown into the river for the hippos and crocodiles. Timothy then slashed out with a short-bladed butchering knife, cutting the man’s arm, while calling him a pagan son of a temple whore. At this point, others in the crowd began taking sides. Christians against pagans. Pagans against Christians. Jews in it just for a good argument, like so many others looking to have a little sport to spice up their dull lives so they might brag in the taverns.
Papa says it doesn’t pay to stick around to watch brawls like this because you never know how big they will get or how violent.
That would be soldiers coming at double-time, telling people to get out of their way. There are just two of them, each strong and grim-faced; each carrying his light, round catra shield and short sword, with a puglio on his belt. The crowd will be no match for them and I know that this promises to be yet another of what Papa calls “bone-breaker containments.” Although necessary, in the end it will give fuel to rabble-rousers to stir up more hatred against the Prefect and his soldiers.
The pair jogs along the aisle where I am, so I jump off to my right side. A baker’s apprentice – an older boy I have seen before called Peter – trips me and follows that with a shove while calling me “bird brain.”
I try to keep to my feet but can’t. Falling, I want to yell something at him but my first angry flash gets instantly crushed when my head hits the edge of the baker’s wagon.
The ceiling I see is the one I see every night before falling asleep and every morning when I wake up. The bed feels like my own and that I’m under my favorite linen coverlet with animal pictures on it. Cooking smells tease my nose and stomach, drawing me from muddled dreams.
Tem’s voice. “Momma! Her eyes are open!” Then quieter to me. “You’re going to get it now!”
“Daughter! What you done? People say you fight again in market! What me tell about wrestling market boys? Letting them put hands on you! Just wait! I tell you Papa!”
Momma says that I snuck into the house while she and Tem had gone out to do the laundry. She says I was asleep when they returned; that I didn’t wake up all the rest of that day and slept the night through, as well. She found me in my bed and says nothing she did would stir me. Tem says she even sat on me and pinched me, but that I didn’t notice that either.
Because of all the scrapes on my face, chest, arms and legs, not to mention a huge red knot on the side of my head, Momma says it’s proof I’d been fighting. And most likely met my match this time. While I do fight when I have to, most boys know to leave me alone. But I remember that I hadn’t fought with anyone, just that I’d been pushed down.
I try telling this to Momma – Tem is standing behind her and looking around at me like I’m some kind of fool – but she is having none of it.
“All time you on river make your brains cook. You lie to me all you want but me not your fool. So! Get dressed and eat something. Least you show some good sense putting wallet under big bed. Looks like good day you had from what you bring home. Just lucky no one steal all.”
Money always has a way of softening Momma’s anger.
She brings me a thick, hot porridge and a handful of berries to eat. I sit on the edge of the bed trying to collect myself, with the bowl in my lap and my feet on the floor. I stir the berries in with the porridge and start eating. With the first taste of warm food in what I guess is a couple of days at least, I close my eyes and take a deep breath. Momma sits with me and gently rubs some of her calendula ointment onto my chest. I yelp when she touches my left nipple and looking down it looks like it has been practically scraped off.
I should be fighting mad about this. But instead of thinking of how to get back at Peter, I’m feeling suddenly that life is really good. I tear up and clasp Momma’s forearm.
Sitting with Momma beside me on the bed, I think of how Tem and I each have a bed of our own, which is more than most kids we know have. The beds are just plain wood frames with short, squared legs, but they get us off the ground. Leather straps interlace and fasten to the side rails and a double layer of rush mats helps make the beds more comfortable. We use wood blocks with a cushion to pillow our heads.
Momma and Papa have a bigger bed because, of course, there are two of them. The legs are much heavier and turned by lathe. They are higher than mine and Tem’s, too. It also has a pluteus or headboard with horses’ heads carved on each corner. Papa loves horses. They have a down-filled mattress and a long down-filled bolster as their shared pillow. It’s nice to lie on their bed when they let us.
I think it is safe to change the subject now.
“Momma? Is Papa back?”
“No. Soldiers at garrison hear nothing yet. Eat. And stop you worry about him. None of that make him get home any sooner. And Tuya – just so if there speck of truth in lies you tell, me tell you stay away from boy who hit you. Momma forbid you go back to hit him. Next you know, you kill someone. Then what? You understand me?
“Tem! That two times as much for you, so stop eye-rolling! One day eyes go fall out of oh so pretty head. Then roll right out door. Bye!”
Momma pulls Tem to her.
“You both sweet desert foxes of mine. I love you. Tell Momma you going stay clear of market boy.”
Momma gets up and leaves me alone on the bed. Tem follows her out like a young coot.
My Momma comes from far up the river, from a place called Kush. I like when she tells me and Tem about what it was like for her growing up and how different river life is from so far away. She says she was much poorer there, so I’m sure that’s why Momma likes the extra coin I bring in. It helps the family, along with what she makes as a medicine woman, especially when Papa is away on patrol like he has been now for half a season. When he is away like this, we have to wait for what the soldiers call their salary.
Momma first came to Heliopolis when she was “fourteen floodings old,” as she says. Her father brought her along on a trading expedition that was supposed to make his fortune but he took ill with vomiting and diarrhea. A river sickness that killed him within just a few days. His partners said nothing when grandfather first complained of fever and tremors. They installed him at a cheap inn and bade Momma stay to put cool compresses on his forehead. A day later, grandfather’s cousin and their new leader – for grandfather had been the master on the journey downriver – told Momma they would carry out the trading and once finished come back for her. That was the last she saw of them.
Momma was kicked out of the inn the same day her father died. She had no money and no idea what had happened to her father’s body.
She would never say what she did to get by after that, except that some time later she met Papa.
It’s the third week of May, what some of Momma’s friends call Opet. She went out with them to visit their dead relatives’ sepulchri. Though Momma doesn’t know what happened to her father’s body, she says she honors his spirit at one of the cemetery shrines. She brought lots of perfumy flowers home.
Tem started her menses. Not so very sweet smelling. She had been complaining for some time about how her nipples hurt and I thought for sure she was just looking to take attention from me because of the way I had gotten grazed up. Now that she has started bleeding, I do notice that she also has a pair of walnuts beginning to pop up.
I always thought I’d be the first, like I have been in just about everything else. But, no, Tem is getting hit with the titty stick before me and is really letting me know about it. All she has been doing is marching around the house as though she is leading a procession down the temple avenue, flaunting her greening womanhood.
The scent of her blood at first made it hard for me to fall asleep at night. That and her moaning from cramps.
Momma gives her a borage tonic for the cramps and has shown her how to make cloth pads for catching the blood. I will make sure I am out on the river on laundry day.
Eight days after Tem’s menstrual blood has stopped flowing, several of Momma’s friends come by to visit. Momma explains to Tem that the women want to give a special Moon Ceremony for Tem to help her crossover to being a woman. They say it is a kind of celebration just for young girls like her and that it is very, very secret.
Why hadn’t we heard of this before? I mean me and Tem? We know all about cunni and tits and how to make ourselves feel good, and how could we not know about bleeding when every woman around us has had her monthlies while we were growing up. We had watched Momma wash out her rags and put them up to dry, while telling us all about the pestis. So it was like something you never wanted to happen to you, but still you looked forward to it just to know what it was like and be able to tell your own stories about it.
Poor Tem. Now she knows. But she is getting something special now, too, and I am not going to be a part of it. We’ve always done everything together, so this is hardly fair. I go back to my bed and when I am sure I am alone, I lift my linen and try to see myself down there and talk to whatever spirit might live there to tell it that it is time for me to join my sister, so we can do this Moon thing together.
Instead, I have to watch as the women come for Tem and Momma in the dead of night. All of them, including Momma and Tem, are painted with strange markings on their faces and everywhere else that I can see. I wish now I had made that feathered hat for my sister. She tries to keep a solemn look on her face, but I can tell she is very excited. I am told I have to stay behind and that I had better not try to follow. My time will come, they say.
After dawn, when Tem returns, she’s crying and groaning in pain, while holding her lower abdomen. Maybe this is not such a good thing after all.
Momma gives Tem something to drink that puts her to sleep, but she still moans and pumps her legs slowly, like she’s trying to get a foothold on to something solid. Meanwhile, Momma busies herself in the kitchen. I go up to her quietly. Tears are running down her cheeks, so I cough a little to let her know I am there. She turns and when she sees me, she opens her arms so we can hug.
Now I’m crying and I ask Momma what happened? What did they do to my sister?
Momma takes a few moments to compose herself, then takes me to a bench where we sit side by side. After a few deep breaths, she starts talking, not looking at me just yet.
“Thing start so beautiful! Tem your sister excited so. Me, too. All walk for hour to place of trees. Secret place where women already make safe circle. Circle have special magic showing earth, air, water, fire. Tem told stand in center then all we women stand around holding branches of fire. We sing for gods to bless Tem, we all, we families and world. Was such celebration just like we say.”
“It sounds nice, Momma.”
“Was nice – but then all changed. One woman from me home, upriver, go by name of Saka’aye, after olden times queen. Everyone call her Saka and have much respect for all know she able speak direct with gods. So. Saka drink magic water from Look-Ahead Gourd, she fall to ground, no hear, no see no one. All we think Saka must be talking with spirit and we pray she come back, bring good news and bless our Tem.”
Momma is breathing in fast, little breaths by this time, so she stops to get herself together again. I already know that things could not have gone well or Tem would not be in the state she is in, still fretful in sleep.
“What did Mother Saka say, Momma?”
“Such bad luck for our Tem! When Saka come back, she say because of Tem’s number six finger on left hand, she must do special work as kahin –“
“What’s that, Momma?”
“Oh, me think it what some around here call manti. Someone like Saka herself.”
“But that doesn’t sound so bad. Aren’t they healers, too? Like you are with all that you know about herbs and medicines?”
“Yes, dear Tuya, like that. This not the bad news though. Saka go on and say spirits no want our Tem bear any children. Ever. So, it then Saka tell us hold Tem down and she reach inside one hand, pushing down outside with other – and she break Tem’s womb neck. Bend it so no man’s seed find place.”
I can’t speak. I’m nearly exploding inside. Things are moving too quickly. I want to run away. Instead, I cry.
Although her menses had ended before her dedication, Tem bled for several days after her “celebration” but it has stopped now. I have been helping Momma nurse Tem along. Actually, once she could talk, she yelled hoarsely at Momma and told her to go away. Tem is better today but is still shaky, so I hold her up sitting to give her broth and medicines to drink. I wash her and keep her clean in other ways. She lets me brush her hair and asks me to sing to her, which I do in a low voice while stroking her head.
I think Tem is going to be all right. Some things are going to take longer to heal though. Momma says she has known of women who had this done to them, but they had asked a midwife to do it after already having a baby. Tem did not ask for this but now it’s done and that’s that. After a while, I’ll talk with her to get her to talk to Momma. It sounded to me like Momma could not have done anything to stop what Saka did and I see that she feels really bad about it. Tem’s tears have dried up but Momma’s haven’t.
Because we’re well into the month of June, I tell Momma that I need to get back out on the river. Caring for Tem has kept me away from my work and, besides, I need to be by myself to think about all that has happened. I don’t remember anything every being this bad in our family before and don’t see how they can get any worse.
Usually we do not see vultures this far north. Papa says they stick to the deserts east and west of Heliopolis, or farther upriver where it is dryer; though I have seen them on the ground a couple times before, making dinner of dead animals. Mostly crows take care of such things. That’s why I was surprised to see a pair of them making wide circles over this area. They stayed pretty high up in the sky, going around and ‘round, shaping an invisible snare over the city. Because they did not come down, they must not have spotted any remains. It was more like they were waiting for something to happen, for something to die.
This is on my mind as I make my way home from the river and the market. I only made a little money today as a result of my mind not paying attention to bird sounds and what they mean. There were some dead birds in my traps, but those that had not been mostly eaten by other animals were too far gone to even think of selling. I did reset my traps and I will go out tomorrow to check them.
Coming up to our house, my shoulders slump down and I am feeling tired. I don’t feel like seeing anyone, not even Tem or Momma – but there are people standing outside our gate. One of them is holding the bridle of a horse.
Papa has always talked about finally being able to buy a horse of his own. He says this would make him an eques, so that when he retires in a little while he could become someone important in the city, letting him make more money than his military pension will give us.
Did Papa finally get a horse when he was on this last patrol? And is he home now?
I go through the gate, with a quick look over my shoulder at the beautiful horse; then through the main entryway. Momma is sitting with a strange man, while two other men stand close by. These two glance my way briefly, but go back to the conversation between Momma and the stranger. He is military and from what Papa has told me about insignia and uniforms, he looks to be high ranking. Probably a centurion. That means the horse belongs to him, not Papa.
Though I have to pee, I hold it in and listen to what the man is saying to Momma.
“…so, you see, you are not really a Roman citizen. The one you call your husband was and your two daughters are citizens by birth, but Kush is not a part of the Imperium. I am sorry to have to be the one to tell you this.”
“But I tell you, I married to citizen. To soldier like you and two men here.”
“Yes, that is all well and good, but you see the laws say that soldiers cannot officially marry. Of course, we realize that they take up with local women all the time, and in your case, a foreign woman.”
One of the standing soldiers smirks and makes a knowing nod to the other at this. I want to kick him.
The centurion continues, “That is why I have to tell you that you may no longer live in this house. Legally this property belongs to the army. It was requisitioned for use for our officers when the 5th Macedonian Legion first came to this province. ”
That was nearly a month ago. Everything has changed since.
Papa is missing and the army says that if he did not desert, he must be dead. The centurion told Momma that he had ordered Papa and a few other soldiers to go to the army fort at Dionysias to oversee equipment distribution as a result of some irregularities. As this fort is at an oasis in the Western Desert, it is known that there are bandits and Bedouin in the area. At the time, there also had been rain storms and at least one big dust storm. Only one man from the group Papa led made it to the fort. He reported that he thought the others had drowned when water suddenly washed down a wadi to their night encampment. It missed him because he was squatting behind a bush and some distance from the others in order to relieve himself.
When word had gotten back to the centurion, he gave the surviving soldier a field promotion, directing him to take Papa’s place.
We spent the next several days sleeping in friends’ homes, usually on the floor because we had to leave our nice beds behind. When I think about those… those novi sleeping in our beds, it makes me feel hot and broken inside.
It was strange the way we left. The new soldier’s family just barged in and took over, bossing us around and telling us to get out. As we went out the gate like beggars, Tem turned around and stared at the house for some time. As though called, the family all came to the front doorway and seemed to be waiting for Tem to say something. And she did have something to say – but I have no idea what she said or in what language but it sounded like a curse. More than that, she said it so loud that passersby made a wide arc around us, a couple of Christians crossing themselves as they did so.
I have a new respect for my sister and told her so.
Momma had saved some money, so she found us a small, single room to the north of our old home. She said she did not want to live near our old place for fear that she would burn it down in the night and the army would know who to come looking for. She also said this is just temporary, until she can arrange for us to go upriver back to where she came from. Despite the betrayal by her uncle years ago, she is sure that there are cousins who will take us in until we can get back on our feet.
Meanwhile, we are making do here in this tiny room. The man she rents from says she can use the courtyard to cook in, as long as she keeps it clean. Fortunately, he is not around much but there is a woman he keeps that looks in on us every now and again. She seemed sympathetic when Momma told her our story but has not offered any real help.
I keep hoping that Papa will show up and take us away from all of this. It won’t matter if he is still in the army or not. I don’t give a cockroach’s ass for the army at this point.
What with Papa missing, losing our nice house and Tem’s agonies – these are just part of our troubles, it turns out. Though Momma has money saved up that she keeps well protected, I still need to help out with supporting the family. The walk to my skiff is now longer, given where we have relocated. All of my traps and snares had been damaged or taken, so I have had to redo all of them. The worst thing though is when I bring my day’s catch to market, people act like they hardly know me. Even Felix.
I always thought that we were good friends because of the way we joked with each other. When I saw him for the first time after everything bad started happening, he said he had heard about Papa and that he was really sorry. The thing is, he said all this in Greek. We always spoke before in Latin. Papa encouraged us to use the Roman tongue and learn Roman ways. Of course, there are a lot of people here from around where Papa came from and they use mostly the language from there – as do most others for that matter. So it’s not like I grew up not being able to understand Greek. But now everyone in the market, including Felix, only speaks to me in Greek.
Not only that, they don’t pay as much as they used to for what I bring in to sell. I’m still trying to figure all this out. Meanwhile, I speak Greek. Even at the place we now call home.
Momma sighs and shakes her head, but her gaze is hard and determined when she thinks I’m not looking. All in all, I wonder how she can stay as calm as she does. A lot calmer than me, for certain.
Because the river waters have been rising, Momma says we must leave for the south soon. Her plan is that we will travel by boat as far as Thebes; from there joining a caravan to Meroe. She says we have to be ready to leave quickly, so we find a cheap inn close to the water where the river people stay, for once a boat has its cargo loaded the craft master does not wait around.
It has been several days since we came to the inn. I go every morning to talk with the boat owners, craft masters and crews because I want to know what the river is like to the south. It’s hard to say who’s telling the truth and who’s stretching it just to scare me or impress me, but I’m getting an idea of what we can expect. It will be different.
Momma comes down to the docks later in the day to check with the progress of a certain boat and its cargo. She has made a small advance to its master, who is dark like Momma, and has agreed to take on cooking and cleaning chores once underway. He assures her that the material he is waiting for is likely to arrive any day.
Momma says this man’s word is good.
It is the twenty-first of July when Sirius the Dog Star joins the Sun at dawn during these hottest days. Before we go, I feel the urge to visit my old river haunts one last time.
I run towards the market quayside in hopes of finding the old reed boat Papa had made for us. It is there, hidden still in the papyrus reeds, so I climb in and catch the current to float downriver.
On the water, I begin to relax. By the time I catch my breath the eastern sky begins to brighten and a few birds are making their morning songs. This day I feel like they are singing not just to make the sun rise but also for me. I am as much a part of this place as are the birds. They are letting me know that just as they nest here, drop their still supple eggs to warm them beneath soft-feathered breasts, then greet the blind hatchlings into the world of the river, that this place has been my nest in a way, too. Though I may be curled inside a shell of my own and my eyes may yet be closed, light begins to penetrate my lids.
I think: It must be time for me to hatch, to learn to fly, to soar on my own. Things will be different now. They have to be.