"Sacmesamin, you are special."
Nathifa sat cross-legged on a reed mat in the garden of the royal palace. She crooned and sang to the little baby she cradled in her arms. She wanted to remember this moment. Just in case this baby was the last she had. The moment where all was peace and bliss. Life was about her baby, with nothing else to worry about. She knew her baby was special.
He gazed up at his mother, eyes round and wide. Nathifa swept over the baby’s face, noticing the pink blotchy birthmark in the centre of his forehead.
It’s very subtle. And not terribly discoloured, either. Maybe it’s even a special mark from the gods. One never knows…
She dismissed the thought, absently playing with the baby's necklace charm. She remembered the nurses and midwives giving him the necklace ceremonially, to protect him from harm.
Nathifa took her gaze from her baby to the sky and thanked the goddess Tawaret for blessing her with such a beautiful and healthy baby boy. She hoped the goddess Seshat had decided on a long life for her newborn son. It had taken her so many years to bear another child after the first that she had thought she was barren.
A curious feeling of safety and reassurance spread over her. She felt that her boy would be strong and prosperous one day. This must be Seshat, letting her know that she had done well and that her son would live a long fulfilling life.
She closed her eyes and remembered the last time she had given birth.
She had felt so honoured to be the bearer of the first child of the pharaoh. She had arranged a special ceremony for the day after the child was born. It was customary for the ruler of each district of Egypt, the nomarch, to come to offer gifts to the child of the pharaoh. And the Egyptians took every opportunity they got to arrange a grand banquet. But, the banquet served a far more important purpose: to honour all the gods for providing the pharaoh with his first-born.
But, once the child had arrived, Nathifa knew that the ceremony, the banquet – all would have to be cancelled. All 42 nomarchs would need to be informed of the cancellation. Nathifa cried in despair the whole evening. "Why this child? Why? What will become of this poor child? Must we abandon it, the first child of the pharaoh? Why must I carry such a child? I love my child! I won’t let it be drowned, yet it cannot be known. Oh, what shall I do?"
Nathifa did not remember experiencing a feeling of reassurance from the gods with her firstborn.
Around the same time as the birth, a young girl of about 13 years arrived on the doorstep of the royal palace. She was rather petite under her loose dirty white shift. Her feet were bare and blistered, and she clutched a bundle of linen to her chest. Anyone might look at her clothes and say she was Egyptian, yet her hair and skin were a peculiar pale shade and her cheekbones stood high upon her face, depicting her clearly as a foreigner from the North.
A servant, who heard her knocking faintly, opened the door and noticed the girl, but could not see her face, for she stood hunched over, looking down. The servant gathered that this girl could not possibly be any kind of threat, and so she reached out to the poor girl. The pale face moved and the chapped lips opened, but no sound came out. Her head lifted, allowing the servant to see her eyes, wet with tears, but then her eyes closed and she collapsed to the ground before the servant could catch her. The linen wrap she had been carrying fell from her arms in a heap.
“Halima!” the servant cried out to Nathifa’s nurse with a note of urgency. Halima came running to the doorstep in great alarm. Nothing was said while the servant and Halima helped the girl out of what looked like an uncomfortable position on the ground. The servant helped Halima support her before Halima shooed her away. While she attempted to drag the girl into the house, she called the servant back to help her. Unsure of what to do with this unexpected girl, she ordered for someone to fetch Nathifa.
But the servant knew exactly where Nathifa was and was afraid of Nathifa’s reaction if she disturbed her. She politely informed Halima, “Nathifa is mourning her father at the moment.”
"Tell her it is extremely urgent!" Halima hissed.
Nathifa strode purposefully into the room, her pleated gown flowing behind her, bringing sweet smells with her. "Whatever is the matter?" It was then that her head turned and she noticed a figure on the ground. Her mouth hung open for a second, but then she shut it promptly and demanded to know “What is the meaning of all this?”
“I assure you, lady, this girl just knocked on the door, and then fainted. I have no idea how she got here!”
Nathifa checked to see if the girl was still alive, and found her breathing very weakly. When Nathifa opened her eyes with her thumb, she thought her eyes resembled ink stains spattered on a linen-white face.
“Why does this happen to me?” Nathifa muttered, while glancing toward the ceiling. “She might be a spy, Nurse! Oh, but she might not be, either. We can’t just dispose of her like one.”
“She’s a Moswen by the looks of her. Look at her hair! The colour of dead grass, it is. But, I don’t think she’s a spy, lady.”
“One can’t be so sure. But, she obviously does not understand the concept of hiding from one’s enemy. First her hair is not even dyed black, and second she just knocks on the door! I don’t understand, Nurse.”
“Oh, don’t worry yourself, lady. She poses no threat. Look at her. Still as a tomb.”
“What if there are more like her? Others just outside listening to every word said… No. No, that’s not very likely. But we’ll send someone out to check the area and ask if anyone else was seen.”
“A wise decision, lady. I’ll take care of that right now, if you like.” Halima left Nathifa alone with the strange girl and the heap of cloth the girl had been carrying.
This just adds to my stress. Too much has happened lately. Well, at least the King’s First Child Ceremony won’t need to be planned anymore, thought Nathifa, bitterly.
Halima reappeared, seeming deep in thought. Nathifa was about to demand if there was any news, any suspicious activity outside. But Halima’s calm but strange expression puzzled her. Halima slowly said, "I know how upsetting it is for a child to be lost. I, myself remember that experience. This poor girl here carries with her a treasure, who will not be able to look after itself."
Confused, yet aware of Halima’s purposely discreet tone, Nathifa inquired, "What do you mean, Nurse? Why, it is unfortunate, this young girl’s circumstances, but we will see to it that she is properly looked after. Tell me, Nurse, what is this treasure you speak of that this girl carries?"
But, Halima only replied, "I will take care of this girl. And I will look after her little treasure, just as I would have looked after yours. Go now, back to your mourning, for this house has lost a child today and gained one."
Nathifa nodded suddenly. "I understand you," she replied, as she picked up the fallen bundle of linen lying next to the girl and carried it to the baby's room. She hurriedly wrapped the baby girl in the empty bundle, and then called for a scribe to write a letter to her husband, who was on a quest to the South.
Baniti, the scribe school master, arrived alongside another servant of the royal house. The scribe looked nervous, and kept peeking sideways at the messenger who had followed him all the way to Nathifa. Nathifa looked expectantly at the messenger, who promptly informed her that he was sent by Halima.
“I assure you, lady, that there is no cause to be alarmed. A few people saw a pale girl walking through town unaccompanied. That is all.”
Nathifa was relieved. She dismissed him and turned to the scribe who was waiting patiently next to her, calmed down now. She took a minute to phrase her message, then said, "Write a letter to each of the nomarchs and the king. I miscarried…” The scribe’s brows arched unwillingly at the unexpected blunt statement. “…and a young woman arrived at the palace, starving, carrying a baby girl. The woman will join the servants when she has recovered, and her baby will be called Aziza. The banquet and Pharaoh's First Child ceremony is hereby cancelled. That is all. And remember these letters are urgent and must be delivered as soon as possible."
The scribe took notes on a piece of pottery, then began to write the letter on a single sheet of papyrus. He showed the letter to Nathifa, who nodded absently, but in acknowledgement. The scribe left the palace to go to his school, where he would give the nomarchs' letter to his students to copy out 42 times. He would write the king's letter himself.
Halima had gone to the birthing shelter in the garden. Nathifa was there waiting with the newborn girl. She knew this child would not become pharaoh in place of her husband when he journeyed to the afterlife. She was not the right kind of child. She would be well looked after, however.
Sacmesamin started to cry in Nathifa's arms, bringing her back to reality. She tried to calm him by rocking him lightly in her arms.
Sacmesamin quieted, and soon Nathifa was wondering where her husband was, how life inside the palace was, and what Aziza was doing at the moment.
She must miss me, she thought. I miss her.
Then she remembered that she didn't have to worry about anything except her baby and herself. The nurses, midwives and nannies would look after her household for her. She had another two weeks of peace ahead in the garden.
She began to feel uncomfortable, and stood up to sit on the lounge. She glanced around the garden trying to distract herself from her life for a moment by trying to remember all the plants in the garden. There was a wide variety of flowers, berries, fruit, spices, and vegetables, some of which had been imported from far away. She loved her garden and the pond with lotus flowers floating on top. She peered down at the turquoise water, staring at her own reflection.
She lost herself in the ripples, letting herself be carried away with her daydreaming. These free moments felt so odd. She felt dizzy, as if she were intoxicated. She felt as though she existed in the world and the netherworld simultaneously. It seemed as though the world were growing in size, while she did not change. This made her feel insignificant and even more lost.
Suddenly, her reflection changed and she became the goddess Isis.
Isis held up the large golden ankh in her hand, as if showing it to Nathifa. She blinked slowly with a content expression on her face. Waves rippled across her body. Her eyes appeared sad for a moment, but it was just the water's illusion.
An outline of another figure was barely visible next to Isis. The outline of a king’s royal crown stood proudly on the figure's head, as well as the ceremonial pointed beard. He nodded in the direction of Isis. When the figure turned his head, two black circles appeared in the center of his face. They seemed to grow until they were cat-like, great and wise. The figure then disappeared, but Isis kept staring up at Nathifa.
Isis now held a child. Nathifa couldn't tell if the child was a girl or a boy. The child turned its head to gaze at Nathifa. Its eyes seemed to grow in the same mysterious way as the figure's did. Nathifa felt a once-suppressed feeling of guilt grow, but she couldn't place it. She suddenly snapped herself out of her daydreaming.
She grew restless and her mind kept floating back to what she should do once the two weeks were over and she would have to resume her place in her household, as the king's chief wife.
No, she thought. I am no longer the king’s chief wife.
Nathifa's mind drifted back to the day her husband returned with another wife. The king of Egypt, Rathabit II, had heard of his first baby's death and had brought back a wife who could bear a son to take his place on the throne once he passed away. She had not been of a noble family, yet she was strikingly beautiful, although in an unusual way. She had pale skin that contrasted with her dark features and ebony-black long straight hair. Her timid dark eyes would always drift to her powerful husband, who would smirk confidently back at her. Rathabit called her Mandisa, meaning "sweet".
She had soon produced a handsome baby boy – the first-born male – who is destined to be king. In honour of the sky god, and for his handsomeness, they named him Horusani.
How unfair, thought Nathifa. If I had had Horusani, then I would be the chief wife. Mandisa isn't as qualified as I am to be the king’s chief wife.
At that moment, she saw a lithe, hazel-eyed cat with light and dark ticked fur trotting toward her, successfully distracting her.
"Isis, my kitty," she called, softly, holding out her hand.
Isis blinked up at her and flopped down beside her on the reed mat.
The garden was so quiet that the only sounds were Nathifa's breathing and the cat's loud purring. Sacmesamin, who had fallen asleep, stirred, wondering what the sudden noise was.
Nathifa knew that during these two weeks of solitude with her newborn, no one was permitted to go near her in order to help prevent illness. Even animals were not supposed to come near. But she enjoyed the company of this little feline, who was rubbing against her legs now.
She glanced inside the house, hoping that no one could see Isis. Isis had been pregnant for quite a while now, and Nathifa began to notice that Isis didn't look as rotund anymore.
"Why, you've lost something, Isis. Where are your kittens?"
The cat got up and walked to a nearby bush with small black berries on it. She lifted up a kitten by the scruff of its tiny neck. It looked to be only a day or so old, but it was stiff and cold.
"Aw… Your poor baby! Poor Isis."
Isis let down the kitten gently. She licked its fur and lay down beside it. It lay still, not breathing. Soon, Isis gave up and left it, getting another kitten from beside where she had picked up the first one.
This kitten had its eyes closed but looked otherwise healthy. It started mewing at Isis, who began licking it. Isis purred, glad to have a healthy kitten.
Nathifa wondered where all the other kittens were. She moved toward the bush and saw two other kittens lying there. Isis started to lick one, and then the other.
Nathifa checked each kitten's sex. One was female and two were male. She decided to name the kittens after the gods. The female would be named after its mother, Isis. The other two would be named Osiris and Seth. Nathifa tried not to look too much at the dead kitten. It was so sad looking, lying there, all stiff and cold. Nathifa knew it was probably too weak to live in this world. But, she noticed a leaf of the berry bush, beside the cat family, half chewed by something. The kitten must have eaten part of the leaf of the black berry bush, she thought.
"You silly kitten! You shouldn't have eaten that leaf, you poor thing."
She wanted to make sure the other kittens didn't suffer the same fate as their sibling. What should she do? Move the kittens or move the bush? She couldn't very well move the bush because she would have to dig it out of the ground, and then where would she put it? She felt she shouldn't disturb Isis and the kittens by moving them, but it was important.
She called inside the house for someone to come to her. Onuris was at the door to the house so quickly, Nathifa wondered if he had been there watching the whole time. Onuris was the king’s vizier and also a fine architect. Nathifa had thought that he was out on business while Rathabit was away. He approached the birthing shelter, then halted halfway between the garden and the house because he knew he mustn't get too close. He asked Nathifa if she were hungry or if she needed something.
She beckoned for him to come a bit closer, for she didn't want to shout all the way across the garden to him, and, in doing so, wake Sacmesamin. Hesitantly, he took a few more steps and asked, "Yes, lady?"
"Isis, the cat, has had kittens and I would like them to be looked after well. They are here," she replied.
"Yes, madam. Would you like me to bring them inside the house?"
Nathifa was torn between keeping them with her and having them taken inside, away from her baby so they wouldn't spread diseases.
"Inside is fine. Oh, and one kitten has died."
"That's too bad. I shall be right back with some cloth for the dead kitten."
Nathifa was shocked at first by the bluntness of his words, but then she re-listened to them in her head again, and they didn’t seem as cold as she thought they sounded originally.
Onuris returned to wrap the kitten in linen and then took all of the kittens away, much to Isis's irritation. Isis hissed a few times at Onuris, but he managed to get all of the kittens away safely. Isis followed the last of her kittens and Onuris to the house.
Nathifa was once again alone with her baby.
She stared at the leaf and wondered why a newborn kitten would want to eat a leaf.
Maybe the kitten was lost for a while and hungry so it tried to find food for itself, she reasoned. Still it should have known not to eat something poisonous. Perhaps because the plant was imported from the North.
Then, as she kept staring at it, she shifted around and suddenly saw a rat underneath the half-eaten leaf. It lay on its side, still as the dead. She was shocked at first, then she thought herself to be acting silly, childish.
But what of the kitten? I suppose the kitten must have simply not been strong enough to live. It's just nature's way of taking the weak and the sick – and those dumb enough to eat a poisonous leaf. May Seshat decide on a long life for the poor kitten's siblings.
Her mind drifted back and forth between reality and memories, all washed together in a huge mixing bowl. She couldn't focus on one or the other for very long. She tried to make sense of everything that had happened since she and Rathabit had married.
Nathifa remembered the previous day, when Sacmesamin had been born. He had arrived much earlier than expected, though he seemed a healthy weight. Rathabit was out seeking raw materials from the South. He planned to arrive in three days time. Nathifa had hoped he would arrive in time for his son’s birth, but Sacmesamin was born too early.
Nathifa had experienced contractions two days before, leading up to Sacmesamin's birth. It was around this time that she experienced many emotional changes. She became even more worried about the sex of the child than she had been previously, even after speaking with her husband. The king always expected a male to inherit the throne of Egypt. If the first child was female, a banquet was still held, as it was still the first child of the pharaoh. But, the first male child automatically inherited the throne.
Nathifa had accepted the fact that if something happened to her first child, then Rathabit would most definitely find a second wife to be his chief wife. Even more wives would soon share a roof with Nathifa in the years to come, as Rathabit was still young, but she did not look forward to those days.
It was quite an honour for the mother of the first child of the king to be the king’s chief wife. If only Nathifa had had the first child.
Mandisa was the one to lead the ceremony after the birth of Sacmesamin. Nathifa felt a bit tired after giving birth, not quite able to subtly intimidate Mandisa with her witty comments, but was still able to participate in the ceremony. She stood next to the birthing shelter while holding her minutes-old baby close to her.
The ceremony would help to cleanse mother and child of evil spirits, which are likely to have followed the baby from the previous world, and could make them both sick. A stool was placed between Mandisa and Nathifa. All the adult females in the palace stood around the mother, and some also carried gifts for the newborn. Mandisa, hoisted on the stool, poured water from a jug onto Nathifa, who shielded her son from the water. Then, with the remaining half of the water in the jug, the baby was cleansed while Nathifa once more shielded his face.
Afterward, each person with a gift offered it to the baby. Many women brought offerings of food, including many types of breads and cakes, fruit, and vegetables. Of course the baby wouldn't eat this food yet, but these gifts symbolized each person's respect for the baby. Some brought finely-woven shirts, while others offered figurines made from bronze and clay and wooden balls and expensive faience tops. The hundred or so female servants placed the food offerings on a separate tray from the other offerings.
The whole while, slaves played music and sang holy tunes nearby, to provide the proper religious atmosphere for the ritual.
Some brought amulets and jewelry. Halima, recently made Sacmesamin’s wet-nurse, brought Nathifa’s favourite offering: a solid gold scarab beetle charm necklace, inlaid with lapis lazuli and jasper and jade.
"May Sacmesamin live long and father many children."
Sacmesamin received as much jewelry as he did food. There were necklaces inlaid with lapis lazuli, feldspar, jasper and amethyst, jade, and many other exotic stones. Some were plated with gold, depicting the god of the sun, Re, and many animals such as the falcon and the cobra. Ankh charms were also included as well as seals with intricately carved designs, which were meant for use when the boy was older. Sacmesamin wore anklets and bracelets and necklaces from the ceremony, while the other amulets and gifts were placed all around the birthing shelter. Some amulets were hung from the roof of the shelter and some were placed on the ground on the corners of the mats, as much decorative weights as they were protective charms.
Nathifa removed all the necklaces but her favourite because there were almost a dozen around Sacmesamin's neck after the ceremony. She kept on an anklet on each ankle and a bracelet on each wrist. She herself donned a golden ankh, outlined in dark blue lapis lazuli.
Nathifa was pleased with the many protective charms he had received. She remembered seeing her baby's face so still right after he was born that she had frozen in shock.
Why am I remembering this now?
It wasn't a pleasant moment until she heard Sacmesamin's first gasping breath of life. Then she realized that every moment was important. She would keep every moment, good or bad. Then more details of that distant yet recent day started coming back.
Something else happened then… something strange. A flash. A blinding flash and a jolt of energy rippled through the air, just as I heard his breath. Strange that no one mentioned anything unusual like that. They only mentioned how lucky it was that he was finally breathing.
There was more… I saw a glow on his forehead. As if he were born with the sun embedded in his skull. But then it disappeared. It almost seemed as if the flash had come from his forehead. From him, Sacmesamin, my baby.