Isetnofret was correct. The little girl panicked when she awoke the next morning to find the mau gone. The girl had claimed Isetnofret and Isetnofret had allowed her to. There were numerous strays all over the city, each as important as the next and all worshiped and cared for by the people. The girl thought of Isetnofret as her own cat, and had gone as far as giving her a name which was unheard of. The mau didn’t mind. Isetnofret knew the girl would likely name her kittens as well. That was fine. She would also protect them.
By mid-morning the girl had found the litter and set to putting together a cage of sorts. She fashioned it out of a large wicker basket to protect them from any nightly predators that might come along looking for a free meal. She took to coming out twice during the night to make sure they were safe.
Isetnofret was still tired and felt sick most of the time. Her five kittens did little more than eat and sleep, especially the seventh, who seemed different from his brothers and sisters. The little black runt ate very little and slept three times as much as the rest. Isetnofret nudged him frequently to make sure he was still alive. When he slept he was restless and made a lot of noise. The wicker cage the girl had fashioned was a comfort and Isetnofret slept through the night as the kittens woke and suckled and slept some more.
The burning Egyptian sun drifted and set and drew all color from the day until everything was cast in a pastel blue glow. The new family clung together in the relative safety of the wicker cage as a warm rain began to fall. The girl had come out to check on them when the first drops began. She laid more reeds over the cage before retreating back into her house for the night.
From the second outcropping down the alley a small black oval head appeared. It flicked its tongue twice sniffing the air. The rain pelted the ground all around it turning the dust and dirt to mud and dulled the scent, but the black thing new of the feast just ahead. The sizzling sound of the rain dulled the snake’s approach. It reached the wicker basket that covered its next meal and slowly arched up. It peered through and sniffed, flicking its tongue as it stared at the newborn litter.
The six occupants all lay asleep. The snake was only concerned with the five newborns. One of the male kittens lay with its mother’s nipple half in its mouth and intermittently suckled and released as it dozed, a small trickle of milk dribbled out of its mouth. Being little more than a baby itself, the snake would pursue what it could handle. It focused on the smallest of the group.
The problem was, this perfect little mouth full was nestled up near its mother’s head and happened to be the furthest away of all the kittens. Had there been no cage the snake could simply have slipped around and snatched the thing, but no. The next smallest was still a manageable size and was asleep right by the edge of the wicker cage.
The snake sniffed the rain soaked air again with its tongue and reached its head into the cage. It began to lean in then it paused. It turned towards the sleeping mother. It looked past her to the little one up near her head and for some reason it considered risking everything to go after it. There was something about that little thing, something intense and powerful and the snake wanted to consume it.
It saw the mother and thought better of it. It turned and looked down at number four, tender and innocent. It flicked its tongue and did not pause for the thump that it could see beating in the small kitten’s chest. It hovered while its body slipped inside the cage and coiled itself around number four. The sound of the falling rain was all the noise there was in the dark glow of the alley.
The little girl screamed the following morning when she discovered the snake with the bulge in its belly. She called her father who promptly chopped off the snake’s head with a small dagger.
It had been three days now and Isetnofret allowed the girl to approach. The rest of the day was spent watching the four surviving kittens as they nursed and began exploring their new surroundings. The runt was already starting to get bigger. It was certainly dark and didn’t look like its sisters and brother. Isetnofret could not be certain now, but one of the others, one she had eaten, was also that color. Number three she thought, the one that had lived for a moment and expired. She wasn’t certain. The alley had been dark and she had been in a frenzy of duty. It all seemed forever ago.
The little runt’s coat began to lighten as the days went and slowly spots began to show. It grew yet remained small and like the unique blackness of its coat, its spots did not form in the same way as the spots of the other mau. In fact, the runt, in certain lights, looked completely different from any mau in some respects. The spots on the little black runt’s coat had an almost hieroglyphic look to them. It was certainly lucky to be alive, being so small.
The girl took to playing with the runt more than any of the others. She named it Khamet which meant friendly. The other three, in order from biggest to smallest, she named Femi, Nebibi and Shepsit. But Khamet was not like his brother and sisters. Khamet did not frolic and play like the others did and once he was able to climb, took to perching himself atop the highest point of the dwelling. From the second story wall Khamet would watch the family, the city, the street, his brother and sisters, his mother, even the girl. When she called to him he would simply stare down at her.
The streets of the city were narrow and from the limited distance Khamet could observe some task being done. He noted that the humans seemed to repeat the same tasks over and over each day. The only time Khamet came down from his perch during the day was when the girl’s mother was inside their dwelling or downstairs doing something he could not see. The strangest of these times was when the father would be home and the girl would be away. Khamet observed a strange ritual they would perform which involved lying about and making noises. When this was performed, Khamet would tilt his head in an effort to understand the significance and wonder why they seemed so eager.
The streets were mounds of garbage that sloped to the houses leaving a dip in the middle. Every family dealt with this in their own way. One family had taken to placing their garbage behind their dwelling to reinforce a section of wall that had cracked and was crumbling. This in turn added to the wall and sloped so high that a rear entrance was created from outside one of the second story rooms.
Few of the feline strays had little girls that handled them quite so much or gave them names, but all the families set out community bowls of food and water for the cats. When nothing was happening on the street or the routine became too familiar, Khamet would let his eyes close. The sound of the flutes, the drums and sometimes the singing caused him to lull. His tail would swoosh and his green eyes would drift closed in the hot sun. And if deeply asleep, he would dream.
…darkness… little glowing things in brilliant color running on the ground like beetles… fear… darkness and alone… a forest and something is chasing and I am frightened and scared and too tired to get away from it… darkness but I can see… the teeth, those sharp teeth… my tail is bleeding and gone, they snipped it off in one bite… eyes, so many eyes… dark and alone… why am I here… how am I here… a break up ahead and a glade of wonderful grass… the moon is not full, but everything’s blue… there is a growl and the black forest has eyes… at the far side there are more, they stare at me and wait… they don’t like the light… I must wait for day… I am alone… why am I alone?
In the morning he moved quickly to find the end of the forest… the land stretched to the horizon… the sun shown down just as it always did… not quite so hot… the land was brilliantly green… hungry… so hungry… nothing to eat…. afraid and lost… so very alone… lost and alone with no name… no identity… nothing to identify… a stub of a tail that had healed… something had eaten it and wanted the rest, it terrified him. BERRIES… berries that didn’t snap or attack… he nibbled a bit, then ate voraciously… he wept in fear… he wanted his momma…
Khamet would wake from these dreams sometimes scratching the air, leaping up and running or jumping to get away from the terrifying images that bombarded him and plagued his sleep. Several times he had fallen off the wall, but the garbage was only feet below and he was notoriously good at landing on his feet. The dreams made no sense compared to anything else he knew and the ones at night were worse. He would observe his brother and sisters, even his mother when she slept. They gave no indication of dreams like his at all.
The girl’s name was Umayma, a name which meant little mother. This could explain why she was so caring of her maus. Her father, Anum didn’t like the extra care his daughter took of the cats, afraid the Goddess Bast would be offended that they did not care for all her mau in such a way. To single out some mau beyond others was not right. However Neith, the girl’s mother, saw nothing wrong with it and as Anum was gone to work the mines for many days at a time, he was not around to complain.
Khamet and his siblings didn’t leave the dwelling much as kittens and Isetnofret seemed to realize the good thing she had with a steady family, and a little girl that cared for her rather than allowing them to stray. She went back to sleeping at the foot of Umayma’s bed once the kittens had stopped nursing. Khamet slept alone in a corner because he scratched and made too much noise when he slept. Umayma observed this and set some linen out for him.
In the night, Khamet squirmed as the dreams continued. He would wake in the middle of the night frightened and terrified. Sometimes he was unsure of where he was. It was as if a piece of him was stuck somewhere else.
The kittens grew up fast. Shepsit joined a pack of strays one day and never returned. A week later Nebibi did the same. Umayma didn’t seem to care much for the loss of the others, but she did take to playing with Femi a great deal more. She would have liked to play with Khamet as well if he came down from his perch more often.
Khamet remained extremely curious about the goings on of everything he could see from his high spot, but wanted to venture out as well. He spent weeks watching and following Neith around the tiny dwelling, observing her routines to fetch water from the well and food from the bazaar.
One thing Khamet became extremely adept at was stalking and catching. He was small, actually miniscule compared to some of the other maus running the streets, but he was extremely fast. He could attack with the precision of an older cat. Moths, beetles, anything which decided to scurry about, didn’t get very far if Khamet had a mind to catch it. He took to leaving gifts for the girl and her mother when he found something particularly juicy, but neither seemed very appreciative of his offerings and simply tossed them outside to be mashed into the road.