“What is it Bastet ? It’s too earl…”
Before she could finish her phrase, the rays of the dawning sun going through the window of her bedroom had already dazzled her. Her cat sat on the little place she could find on her mistress’s bed next to the pillow where she laid her head. “Always the same with you, never letting me oversleep a little, but you still get to sleep whenever you like while I have to heal our patients during the day.” Bastet seemed more interested by Bounefer’s locs than her remarks and reached towards them with her paws. Bounefer didn’t give the little creature a chance to get to the prize as she started stretching her arms and was now sitting while still yawning. Bastet’s disappointment was not for long, as she jumped straight on her mistress’ thighs and sat there. Bounefer started caressing the black cat behind her pointy ears. She named her Bastet in honor of the Netjeru Bastet, often represented as a female cat, and who brings joy in one’s home. “You can’t get enough of me carrying you like a baby every morning”, said Bounefer as she stood up to get out of her room, “you must be hungry by now, but first let’s thank the ancestors and the spirits for this new day.”
As she walked through the corridor, with the mewing Bastet on her arms, Bounefer could occasionally hear faint snores from patients of the hospital. “We’ve had a lot of patients lately, far too many”, Bounefer thought. “Keeping the city healthy is our duty, teach the people how to eat well and stay healthy, the less patients we have in this hospital, the better”, she would often tell the nurses working with her. Those above normal numbers of patients were due to the recent troubles made by the rebels of the Tehenu people, whose ancestors were defeated centuries earlier by the great pharaoh Djehutymessou Neferkheperou, who extended the empire of Kemet to its largest size, successfully defending it from the aggression of both the Tehenu of the east and the People of the Sea from North and West. The Tehenu seemed to never have forgotten or forgiven this defeat, and now even though those integrated could do business or own land for many generations, some of them were now attacking innocent civilians, looting and causing insecurity in Denderah, the town of the Netjeru Hathor. The day before, Bounefer and her nurses had to welcome and treat 15 people wounded in an attack caused by bandits. For Bounefer, the claims of the rebels were merely a pretext. She indeed recently treated a lot of innocent Tehenu who were wounded by similar senseless acts of violence, which to her was proof that all this violence was committed for the selfish interest of a few among the Tehenu. Just like many people in Denderah, she suspected Psammetic, a fat rich cupid merchant, as the instigator of those acts, in the shadows of course, as such a man would operate. Psammetic’s wealth made him want more and more, like rising to political power by taking office as governor of Denderah. However the authorities had reasons to believe he had ties with the Assyrians, an enemy kingdom. “Yet they do nothing”, would Bounefer often complain. This and the fact that this man had the nerve to offer money to her in exchange for spending a night together was enough for Bounefer to be filled with disgust at the thought of Psammetic.
“How can the authorities fear one traitorous man so much, the Assyrians are indeed strong, but we are Kemet! Well at least they understand the necessity of maintaining this hospital secure.” At that time she had accepted to take the money from the merchant. “With all his wealth, he must definitely give back to the city!” Bounefer cunningly thought. However the night when Psammetic sent his men to escort his “prize”, those were met by the hospital guards who beat some manners into them so hard that they never dared coming back. Psammetic felt that as a humiliation, but since the hospital was guarded on the governor’s orders, he couldn’t just take Bounefer by force. This daring act gave much satisfaction to Bounefer, but now she felt annoyed by the fact that the guards insisted on accompanying her whenever she went out, either to the market or to get some other business done, or to simply have a walk and get some fresh air. She wasn’t naïve though as she could clearly sense some were attracted to her. “As if the two of us needed security from men who wouldn’t even dare to face a fat cupid merchant and rid our city from those rebels, this is ridiculous, isn’t it Bastet?” said Bounefer while kissing Bastet’s on her tiny head. The cat simply mewed back as to show her agreement with her mistress.
To get to the shrine, Bounefer had to walk across the large courtyard of the hospital under her responsibility, coming from the building where both nurses and patients would sleep. Bounefer took a left detour to get in a smaller building. As she entered through the door, she walked past the medicines room where her assistant Heqet stood, not noticing yet Bounefer’s presence. Bastet dropped from Bounefer’s arms as she continued to get to the kitchen in the next room. There she filled a jar with some milk, then filled a smaller one with water. Taking a filled jar with each hand, she moved back towards the medicines room. Heqet, who had not noticed her at first, was now fully aware of her presence thanks to Bastet sitting next to her feet. The young woman’s hair stood up on her whole head, holding somehow a wooden comb which handle rested on her forehead. She looked at Bounefer with her brown eyes full of excitement.
“Hotep Seba, have you slept well?” Seba is a title of respect given to one’s teacher.
“Shemhotep Heqet, I have, thank you. I could have slept a little more though, but I guess Bastet is the one who decides about that!” Bounefer replied with a chuckle, to which Heqet replied herself with an endearing smile looking at the cat playing with her white linen dress. “I see you’re still working on those plants mixtures, I hope Bastet hasn’t distracted you too much”.
“Oh not at all, I enjoy having her around, besides I finally found the right dosage of bissap and nebeday powders to make the already treated patients recover faster and have their immune system as good as new.”
“You’ll never cease to amaze me, keep up the good work then, is our patients’ breakfast ready?”
“Yes it is, as soon as they wake up, I will take it to them”
“Good, I’m going to the shrine, then I will go check how well our stubborn soldier is doing. If there is anything wrong, don’t hesitate to call me”
“I will, by the way you and Shemai have been rather close lately, that’s unlike you Seba ”, teased Heqet while still smiling.
“Come on don’t be silly”, laughed Bounefer, then turning to Bastet, she whistled, which made the cat follow her.
Heqet was her most reliable and gifted nurse. Bounefer had appointed her as her personal assistant for that reason. Not only was her knowledge of medicinal plants incredible for her young age, her sensitivity and compassion towards patients stood out compared with the others and Bounefer herself. Some former patients came back offering her gifts of gratitude after being cured due to the little things she would help them with like walking around the courtyard and letting them lean on her for those whose legs hurt. Some male patients would even go as far as to suggest something beyond her nursing duties, which she would often take as a joke and laugh about. “You’re sometimes too kind for your own good, don’t encourage patients’ foolishness ” would Bounefer often say to Heqet. Despite these admonitions, Bounefer had great trust in Heqet. Bounefer had received a substantial amount of gifts herself, and those weren’t only to give her credit for putting this hospital in place. Her dazzling beauty was renowned in Denderah, as many men would tell her beauty rivaled that of the Netjeru Hathor herself, which she served. Her smooth and very dark skin and her piercing black eyes had hypnotized many. But still all her suitors were met with a more than clear rejection.
Getting back to the courtyard, Bounefer noticed a black muscular man with bandages on his chest doing what appeared like acrobatic dancing moves. With a sigh, she continued walking towards the shrine while Bastet ran to get near the acrobat.
Once she reached the shrine, she kneeled and placed the jars next to her. She bended over touching the grass with her head thanking the Creator, who had many names such as Atoum, Ptah or Neith for implanting her/his vital force on everything in this universe. She straightened her back, repeating the same movement, this time thanking the spirits or Netjeru as they were called, for their involvement in maintaining balance in the universe, the essential role of Ma’at. She particularly thanked Hathor, Bastet and after some hesitation Sekhmet, those Netjeru who she felt the closest to. While straightening her back yet again, she looked at the little wooden statue of Sekhmet put on the shrine. The Netjeru was depicted as a woman with the head of a lioness, her eyes seemed to penetrate into Bounefer’s soul, which made her feel uneasy. Sekhmet was as much feared for her uncontrollable ferocity and murderous bloodlust as she was praised for her ability to heal diseases. Bounefer knew about this complex duality all to well. “Why me? Why do I have to carry such a curse?” She thought, while looking at Sekhmet. She then proceeded to greet the Ancestors, both from her family and those renowned in Kemet for their wisdom and knowledge of the medicinal art. Among the latter, there was of course Imhotep, the greatest of them all. After properly greeting all those spiritual entities, she then proceeded to pour libations as offerings to them, with the milk and water she had brought in the two jars. She poured all the water and half the milk on the grass just in front of the shrine. As usual, the last drop of milk honored her grandmother, “To you, my protector Nefertari Bounefer!” The other half of the milk would be for Bastet. In a curious way, Bounefer considered this milk for Bastet as an offering to Hathor, in her joyful feline form, due in no small way to the special nature of the cat she had received from her grandmother. “You will endure a lot of hardships, let her be your faithful companion through all of those”, the old lady had told her while putting the tiny black kitten on her little arms when she was still a young girl. The black cat was born on her seventh birthday. Bastet had never left her since, outliving all other normal cats. They were twin souls, their fates tied forever.
Bastet ran in circles around the acrobat. The unusual movements attracted her attention. Shemai had with him a little red ball he threw to the cat for her to play with. Bastet, always ready for a new distraction, started moving the ball back and forth between her paws. Shemai moved left and right, his legs leaving a cross shaped imprint on the sandy, yet hard ground. He moved his hands according to the position of his legs, placing the elbow at the side of his rear leg almost in front of his chin while the other arm would keep him in balance in a guarding stance fashion. He would adapt the rhythm of both his movements and his breathing to the imaginary rhythm of drums that played in his head. From time to time he would launch a kick with a stretched out leg drawing a circle in front of him while changing his stance, and chain it with another similar kick with the other leg and in the same direction. Or he would simply change his stance as to dodge some imaginary attack coming from both sides. As he followed one of those dodge stances with a cartwheel, Bastet’s ball unexpectedly flew towards his head when he already had one leg in the air. Bastet’s overexcitement with her new toy made her throw it towards the intriguing dancer. Shemai skillfully stopped his cartwheel motion, maintaining himself balanced on his hands and with a little headbutt, threw the ball back to his feline playmate. He was now doing pushups with only his hands touching the ground while arching his back and successively bending and stretching his legs.
Bounefer witnessed the whole spectacle while heading to the high statue of Hathor in the middle of the courtyard. The statue represented the Netjeru Hathor with two horns on her head carrying a disc representing Rê, the sun. On her left, the sculptor had placed a tall cat in a sitting position and whose head was at the level of the woman’s generously curvy hips. On her right stood a cobra at the same height as the cat. The cobra probably suggested the role Hathor could take as Ouadjet, protector of Rê and all pharaohs, the latter would always put her on top of their forehead. The cat of course symbolized the two feline aspects of the enigmatic feminine entity, the cute playful and protective Netjeru Bastet, and of course Sekhmet, the dangerous lioness whom, according to the legend, Rê unleashed to punish the unruly men, in the beginnings of humanity. Bounefer took a little bowl at the feet of the cat statue, filled it with the rest of the milk, and went towards her cat, still playing with the red ball. Bastet immediately stopped her little game as soon as she felt her mistress approaching, somehow remembering she had to fill her belly. She already started drinking when Shemai finally stopped his pushups. Crouching next to her cat, Bounefer stared disapprovingly at Shemai, her current patient.
“You haven’t fully recovered yet, I told you to rest, you were barely alive a week ago”
“Hey I can’t help it if you’re a good healer Nefri” replied Shemai with a sardonic smile.
“How did you call me?”
“Nefri, it’s a cool nickname isn’t it?”
“No it’s not, and stop it already with these moves, your breathing is already getting irregular” scolded Bounefer, while Shemai put himself back in his guarding stance.
“I think that may have less to do with my training than your presence, and it’s called ginga by the way” Shemai retorted with a teasing smile. He then walked and sit on the bare ground right next to Bounefer and Bastet.
“Whatever!” Bounefer couldn’t help it as a faint quick smile changed her normally stern looking face. It was barely noticeable and by the time she turned towards her sitting patient, she already shifted back to her serious face.
“Was that the dancing martial art you told me about?”
“Yes, exactly, I usually practice every day, it helps me stay fit, and I feel less nostalgic about being far from Kush.”
“You put too much weight on your front leg whenever you’re doing this ginga thing, that puts too much stress on your knees, practice long enoug and they’ll eventually wear off.”
“Really! It’s true sometimes my knees hurt a little” nodded Shemai, “that’s very perceptive of you, it’s only the first time you saw me practice, and you’re already making remarks just like my former master”
“I can’t help it if I am an experienced healer!” teased back Bounefer.
Shemai chuckled, “Sure you are, I bet there is even more to you, there is something mysterious about you Nefri!”
“Stop calling me that!” sighed Bounefer, and after a brief pause “Let me check your wounds”
She then proceeded to examine his torso. When it came to diagnosing patients through touch, no one could rival Bounefer. Her heightened senses allowed her to even understand internal organs malfunctions. This skill revealed extremely helpful for holistic healing, as she could somehow see through all the connections between the body’s organs. This way she saved many patients, who apparently only had benign symptoms, from potentially very dangerous diseases, as she dialogued with their body to trace the real source of their problem. In the case of Shemai however, it was quite simple, he was in rather good health now as his handsome appearance would suggest. The only reason he was brought to Bounefer is because an arrow had pierced his lung, while he was fighting singlehandedly a group of Tehenu scoundrels threatening to loot and wreak havoc in a near district. One of the locals brought him to her, and Shemai had been very lucky that day, since the arrow pierced merely an inch away from his heart.
“You’re really blessed to have been brought here in time” she told him, while checking his bandages
“Indeed. But things would have turned out differently if I were not the only one fighting though. I think you Kemites are a little too kind with those Tehenu rebels. In Kush they would have been dealt with by now.”
“Well that’s definitely an insult coming from someone who confuses dancing and fighting!” said Bounefer mockingly.
Shemai started laughing heartedly, but a brief pain struck him right on his chest wound, “Ouch!”
“Easy, easy now, breathe calmly”, Bounefer whispered, still checking the lung wound for any possible complication.
“Tsk, don’t be fooled by appearances, this dance as you say can be very useful in real situations”, he said after taking a deep breath. Besides, you of all people should know one thing could be many at the same time, as you are a servant of Hathor of the thousand forms.”
Hearing those last words, a shadow went across Bounefer’s face as unpleasant memories went through her head.
“Did I offend you?” asked Shemai, a little worried.
“What? No, not at all, it’s nothing!”
“Okay, then. Are you done with checking my health, or do you enjoy having your hands on quite a handsome man’s chest. Not that I have any problem with it.”
“You’re impossible” laughed Bounefer, “Go back to your room now, order from your healer. I’ll come back later to change your bandages they are all wet with your sweat.”
“All right, all right! I’m going back.”
Bastet had already finished her milk, and as usual she took the bowl with her mouth and placed it right under the cat statue. Afterwards, the cat ran back to her mistress, mewing happily, and was welcomed with a tender smile. Taking her cat in her arms, Bounefer watched as Shemai walked away from them. “What a brave man, unlike most in this city”, she thought to herself. As she brought Bastet closer to her breasts, facing her, the cat simply started playing with one of her locs. “The two of us can’t have a normal life, can we? No man in this world would be safe with us” Bounefer whispered, “At least I can share the burden of this curse with you, I would have gone insane otherwise.” Bastet didn’t seem to pay attention, focusing on her new game. Bounefer stood there for a while, remembering the words of her now dead grandmother : “You can only be with a man who can stop Sekhmet herself.” “Grandma, there is no such man”, Bounefer thought with a sad look on her face.