Egypt - 600 B.C.
“And if you take the wrong fork of the Nile beyond the city of Asyut, you might find yourself at Crocodilopolis, where a hungry crocodile can gobble up a girl your size in two bites.” Extending his arms toward the girl, he abruptly clapped his hands just inches from her nose, in imitation of a crocodile’s jaws.
She laughed. “Oh Ahmet, you don’t scare me with your fanciful tales. My father has made this journey many times; he knows the way to Bubastis, and I really think I’m old enough to go along, but he says maybe next year. Tell me about the festival again.”
“How many times can I tell the same story, Mina?”
“Until I get to see it with my own eyes.”
“Very well. There will be many boatloads of worshippers traveling down the Nile to Bubastis, to celebrate the festival of Bast, the cat-goddess. You well know how much Egyptians revere their cats. Worshippers who can’t travel to Bubastis gather along the river bank to greet the boats as they pass by. There is much singing and dancing and drinking, which is where your father comes in. He will sell more of his wine during this one festival than he does the whole rest of the year. At Bubastis, thousands of people gather and form a procession to the temple. It is a joyous occasion. There will be dancing girls, not much older than you; musicians playing flutes and lyres; women shaking sistrums and singing the praises of Bast. Many will bring statues of cats to leave at the temple as offerings, in the hope that Bast will protect them against diseases and evil spirits in the coming year. Some will bring their dead cats, which have been mummified, for burial at the temple. It is believed that Bast will guide the cat spirits, insuring their safe passage to the afterlife.”
“Ahmet!” It was Mina’s father. “Enough storytelling. If you don’t get the wine loaded we will be late for the festival. And if I don’t sell my wine, you will not be paid.”
“Ah Mina, you’re always getting me in trouble with your father. Now go and play, and let me finish my work.”
Mina and her beloved cat retreated to a hillock from which they could watch the loading of her father’s boat. Rows of large earthenware jugs containing the precious cargo of wine were carefully placed on board, and tied securely for the long journey. Food and drink enough for the two weeks they would be gone. Clothing and blankets. Gifts for friends and customers in Bubastis. Everything was to be in place by nightfall, so they could depart at dawn.
Mina had been, for the whole of her young life, an exceptionally obedient and respectful daughter. She realized that her father worked hard to provide his family with comforts and luxuries unavailable to most people, and she was appreciative. But on this day, for the first time, she had an overwhelming desire to disobey her father, to somehow accompany him to the cat festival that so excited her imagination. But she knew, in her heart, that her father would be disappointed in her if she defied him in any way. She resigned herself to waiting patiently for permission to go, maybe next year.
Mina awoke very early the next morning. She looked about the room for her constant companion, her orange tabby cat. There was no sign of her. Mina changed into her favorite dress, made of fine ivory-colored linen with a lavender sash, and her new papyrus sandals. She walked to the garden where she found her cat sleeping beneath a safflower plant.
“Wake up, my pet. We must see father off on his journey.”
The cat lifted its head, gave a long, lazy stretch and presented itself to Mina for a scratch behind the ears.
“Is this why you’re so devoted to me? You need someone around to scratch your head?”
The cat rubbed against Mina’s leg, purring contentedly.
“I think we should help with the morning meal, my pet,” said Mina, as she turned back toward the house. But instead of following her mistress, the cat raced down toward the water’s edge, up the loading ramp, and onto the boat.
“Wait, come back!” cried Mina. “What’s gotten into you?”
Mina hurried down and scampered onto the boat.
“Come out, my pet. Where are you?”
She searched behind the stores of food and under the clothing and blankets.
“Father will be leaving soon. Come out from your hiding place, mischievous cat.”
Mina noticed a channel that ran behind the back row of wine jugs. It was just wide enough for her to crawl into, which she did. And there, curled up at the far end, was the cat.
“Come now, this is no time for your silly games.”
The cat was oblivious to her demands.
Mina heard footsteps on the ramp. She peeked out and saw Ahmet crossing the deck. He seemed to be taking inventory, making sure that all the supplies were on board.
As he approached the rows of wine jugs, he noticed the end of a lavender sash just barely visible behind the last row.
“What a fine day to begin a journey,” he said, as he pushed a blanket into the space behind the jugs. “I hope that all who embark, however inexperienced they may be, are prepared for the pleasures and perils that await.”
So begins "The Cryptic Cat"....