He wasn't supposed to be out by himself. His parents had been adamant. It wasn't safe for a small boy to wander around alone in Egypt's desert.
He had spent the cool morning hours with his mother at their dig site. He'd played happily all morning in the shady corners of the tomb his parents were excavating. With his brush and small spade he had helped his mother to unearth some small artifacts, bits of potshard, a painted bowl, and even a small statue of Bastet the cat goddess. He had found them himself, carefully removed the top layer of earth as he'd been taught since babyhood and then brushed the clinging bits of sand from the fine lines of carving on the objects.
After several hours of devoted work, mother and son had returned to the coolness of their tent and had a fine lunch. Afterwards, the woman had catalogued and documented their new prizes and where they had been located according to the grid map she and her husband had created. The boy had watched her for a while, but the lettering was boring after looking at hieroglyphs all morning. So he, having a full tummy and being tired from such a busy morning, had grown sleepy. He curled up on his pallet bed and began his afternoon nap.
After a while had passed, his mother remembered that she had to go and meet with her husband and their patron from the Cairo Museum of Antiquities. The woman started to wake her small son, but decided that he would be sleeping for several hours. She and her husband should be back well before the boy awoke from his nap. He had worked so hard that morning so she thought he deserved better than to be dragged from pillar to post while they played host to their sponsor while persuading him to finance their next expedition.
So she had left him in the care of their young maid and gone off to her business meeting. He wasn't supposed to be left by himself but Missy had decided to go into the next village to get some fresh fish and bread for the evening meal. She told old Abdullah to watch him, but the aged one had started talking to Fayed and together they had gone to drink the strong Egyptian coffee at the local marketplace. So the youngster had been left alone to sleep through the long hot afternoon.
But, the boy had awoken from his nap after only an hour or two to find he was alone and thirsty. So he had gotten up and went in search of a cool drink. He had gone into the kitchen tent and the kindly cook had given him delicious rich camel's milk to drink and fed him fresh date bread slathered with rich butter and sweet honey until the youngster could eat no more.
Now energized by the rich treats, the youngster was too restless to lie down again so he decided to explore. When he looked about for something to do, there was nothing readily available in the confining tent area, so he went in search of entertainment. His attention was soon caught by the laughing voices of women. He followed the sound down to the narrow sandy path that led to the great river Nile.
The village women were washing clothes in the shallows of the muddy flats. Some of them were singing old folksongs, some were gossiping about the happenings in their small community. 'Fatima was pregnant again', 'Shaheen was going to be wed in the winter', 'Did you hear about the boy taken by the crocodile just a short way down the river?', 'There was an adder seen at the dig site. The old god Apophis was angry. He didn't want the bones of this followers disturbed.'
An old woman, seeing the curious white boy in their midst, shushed them while casting her eyes at the small fair-haired child. Another woman who knew the boy shook her head at her worries and smiled at him fondly. 'He is as one of Egypt's own,' she told the old lady, 'a sweet child with no harm in him.' So they watched him as they washed their clothes and he played in the river's shallows with their own dark skinned, black haired children.
A small, dark-eyed girl child caught his eye. She was shyer that the others and had stayed apart from the more energetic children. The boy approached her and she turned away, as if afraid of the golden-haired child. When he sat down next to her, he saw that one of her hands was crippled, the fingers bent back upon themselves. She hid it shamefully at first, but he stayed with her and they talked in the musical language of the people of the land. He told her stories of the old ways of her kind.
He spoke of the great kings and the royal courts of ancient times. How the Pharaohs built the great monuments with her ancestor's labor. He told her why the Nile is the mother of civilizations and acquainted her with stories of the old gods of Egypt. He spoke of Ra, the sun god, who sailed his solar boat across the sky; of Hathor, the cow-headed goddess of love and music; of the great stone pyramids and the Sphinx.
In turn, the girl told him of her life and she repeated the stories her mother told her of their own great religion. She spoke the great prophet of Allah, Mohammed, and the holy shrine of the rock at Mecca. How great Allah took the wind and formed it into the Bedouin people's wonderful horses and how the camel was made as man's servant. She described the great storyteller, Scheherazade and her One Thousand and One Arabian Nights and her tales of Ali Baba and his forty thieves. Soon the other small children, and some of the women, were gathered around the two young storytellers listening in awe of the two small ones as they told story after story.
But all good days pass on into the afternoon and the hot desert sun began to make itself felt in earnest. The women had finished their tasks and had to return to their homes. They collected the clean wet garments and their dirty tired children. They called to the boy to accompany them but he only smiled and shook his head shyly. He knew that he must get home also.
After the others had left, he turned and started back to the encampment. But the walk was long and the sun hot on his shoulders. So, when he passed a long-deserted dwelling that offered him cool shade, he stopped to rest.
He entered the dilapidated mud brick hovel and immediately felt better in the cool shade of the interior. As he looked around he could see that no one had lived here in a very long time. The shelves were all tumbled down with dust and spider webs, and there was an old faded carpet crumpled up against the far wall. Though it was also dusty, it looked soft and inviting to the weary boy. He shuffled across the floor, yawning hugely. Today's earlier activities had tired him out and he wanted badly to take a nap but he was far from home and Poppa and Mummy. He would just lie down for a little bit, and then he would go on quick before they came back from the meeting.
As he settled back against the soft surface, he thought that he could just barely hear some funny squeaky noises coming from behind one of the fallen shelves. The curious lad got to his hands and knees and crawled carefully over to the corner. When he reached out and pulled a brick away from in front of the angle of the board's corner he could see several small squirmy bodies. They were tiny little kitty babies moving around in the soft warm dust and they were peeping and crying.
He gently reached into the nest and touched the first little kitten. He was a dark charcoal gray with darker stripes and a white nose and feet. He had two sisters, one was gold as the sand and the other black as the night. They were very soft and very warm. The boy thought that the babies were probably hungry, just like he was, and wanted their mummy too, just like he did; but he knew that the kitties' mummy would be along very soon because they were where they were supposed to be, unlike himself who had gone in search of adventure. He crouched by the sandy place and watched the kitties as they rolled around, playing with each other's tails, until he heard a sound at the doorway.
The noise was a deep rolling growl and it was coming from a very gaunt multi-colored Queen cat. She saw a human thing within her territory and it was between her and her babies. This would not be allowed. The human must leave now.
But the young boy was wise in the ways of mummies and he read her warning easily. So he scooched his way back to his own nest and lay down to watch the Queen as she checked over her offspring carefully. She took a moment to wash his human smell from her first son then, finally satisfied they had come to no harm, she set about the business of feeding her children. As the little mouths closed on her nipples, she began to purr sensually. The comforting sound permeated the small hovel and the boy fell asleep to its melody.
He didn't know how long he had been asleep when another sound woke him to wide-eyed alertness. The purring was only a memory. Now, the feline warrior matriarch was screaming her battle cry into the still air of the interior arena. The spitting hissing howl was loud and harsh. It caused her own children to huddle up into small balls of fear and fluff. The Devil had come to call and Her Highness was at arms.
A desert Asp was in the center of the room, coiled up in its striking posture. It had been drawn to the tiny kingdom of cats by the smell of milk, warm flesh and possible prey. The snake was of such a size that it could easily kill and swallow every one of the Queen's tiny heirs apparent. But when the serpent had entered the place, it had also discovered the sleeping man-child, the sworn enemy of his race since Eve and the Garden. Though the kittens might have been his dinner, the presence of the man-child was a deadly threat to snake- hood.
However, the Queen had determined that the human-child was also under her protection. She would not allow the cold-blooded creature to have its way with any subject in her dusty realm. She had long held this citadel by fang, claw and blood. Nothing transpired here without her permission and it had been decidedly not been given.
So the two eternal foes danced the deadly dance of the hunt and of killing. The boy and the kits watched in amazement and fear as the Warrior-Queen leaped and spun and the Snake coiled and struck. They hit by inches and missed by split seconds. The battle lasted only moments in time but was endless in suspense. Then, in an eternal instant, the royal heroine won the field and caught the serpent behind the neck, breaking its spine with fangs and talons. But though victorious, she was not unscathed. The snake's long tail had whipped itself around her, bruising her ribs and causing her to land wrong from her final leap, wrenching her shoulder. As victor, she would eat the snake but for several days hence, hunting would be lean and her milk less for her children. But all the young in her care had been protected. She was satisfied.
As she limped back to her kits again she was aware of the boy child's eyes upon her. She hadn't chosen for him to witness her skill, but there was nothing she could have done to prevent it. She was, after all, only a sacred cat of Egypt.
Suddenly, from outside, there was another sound of danger to the little family. She turned to face the unknown, spitting false promises of death and destruction. Then, the old wooden door was forced completely open. The Queen recognizing her new enemy hurry- scurried to her nest to hide from the noisy intruder.
"Danny? Danny? Are you in here?" The man called out. "Danny! Where are you? Are you here, son?"
"Poppa, poppa, poppa." The boy cried out and clambered to his feet. "Poppa, where have you been?"
The tall strong man lifted his son up in his arms and hugged him tightly to his chest. "Daniel, son, where have you been? Oh God, are you all right? What are you doing here?"
"I'm fine, Poppa. The Queen saved me from the snake, Poppa. She was wonderful!"
The father kissed his boy on the forehead and hugged him close again. "Your Mummy and I were so worried. Are you hurt?"
"No, Poppa, the Queen saved me! See, she killed the Asp!"
"What are you talking about?" The relieved man finally looked into the dust close by the rug where the boy had been sleeping and his expression changed from relief to one of worried horror. "Oh, God! An Asp! Did it bite you? Tell me! Let me see!" He put the boy down and started searching his son's small body for any marks.
"No, Poppa, the Queen saved me and she saved her kittens too... see." He pointed to the crevice where the little family huddled. "She fought the snake and she killed it to protect us."
"What Queen, Danny? I don't see...oh, the cat." the man paused from examining his son to look carefully into the small hidden den. "Yes, I see. The cat killed the snake." He hugged his son again with tears of relief in his eyes.
"Yes, Poppa. She's very brave." The boy nodded, "She fought him all alone to save us."
"Yes son. She's a wonderful kitty, isn't she?" He couldn't keep his hands off the child, so grateful was he to have found him safe and sound. "She's a brave mother, but you, you scamp...your poor mother is beside herself and has sent everyone in camp out looking for you. And Daniel, you shall make me gray before my time."
"I'm sorry Poppa, I woke up and there was no one there so I went exploring." The serious blue eyes gazed up at him. "I went to the river, I made some new friends, and told stories and then I got tired and I came in here to rest. I found the kitties and the Queen came home and I fell asleep and she fought the snake and then you came." The little head nodded. "See, I am perfectly fine."
"You are perfectly fine until your poor Mummy gets hold of you my lad, then I'm not sure you will be so fine." He laughed in a funny quivery chuckle.
"Is Mummy very angry?" His son asked, realizing for the first time just what he had done to his parents. He knew they must have been very worried about him.
"She's very very frightened for you, my lad, and there will be hell to pay indeed." His father rubbed the boys head, tousling his hair even more.
"Poppa, I'm hungry." He looked up at his father. "Do you think she'll make me go to sleep without supper?"
"No, I think not...but we should be going...it's almost supper time now." The man started to pick up his son but remembered something. He paused a moment to reach into his pocket. There, he located a rind of goat cheese and a bread crust from his morning's breakfast at the bazaar. The grateful father unwrapped the food and laid it just outside the cat's den on a fortuitously located crumbling brick."Here you go, kitty. A little reward for you and your children for saving mine." Then he picked up his son and walked away to the outside. He paused a moment and pulled the door partially shut behind them, leaving plenty of space for a cat's ease of entrance and exit.
The Queen watched the large human and her small human acolyte leave her domain, then she delicately stepped out of her nest to examine the gift left at her altar. She saw it was good, and she ate of the food. With it she could suckle her young and rest her shoulder from hunting. Tomorrow, she could eat the snake.
That night in the tent home of the Professors Melbourne and Claire Jackson, the two parents were listening to their son's story of his journey. He told them how he awoke in the early afternoon, and the kindly cook had fed him sweets, why he went to the river and how he made new friends amongst the villagers. Next, he told them why he had gone into the house and how he had found the kittens, that then the mother cat had returned and finally how she had bravely defended them all against the ancient enemy of their two kinds.
Mel and Claire listened carefully to their little son, oohing at the proper times and aweing at the proper places, both amazed at the boy's luck, daring and foolishness. They did not tell him of their panic when they discovered him missing, how Missy had cried and old Abdullah had sworn. That the village women had worried and sent their men out along the river to search for a small fair body and that the men had returned at late evening telling tales of crocodiles that had been large enough to eat a boy of five years and never see a body. Mel Jackson didn't speak of how he had followed tracks of a barefoot boy and then found his son in a broken down mud brick hovel being protected from a venomous snake by a feral mother cat.
The long Egyptian days proceeded apace. Daniel had been punished for his misdeeds of escape and flight. Missy had been censured for her laxness in attention and old Abdullah was mocked by the men for his carelessness in losing the Professor's son.
Melbourne Jackson had also changed his evening habits, however briefly. He didn't mention to his family or his workers that for several weeks afterwards, he made a regular habit of visiting the fishermen's anchorage on the great river. He didn't explain why he would purchase one large Nile perch from the nets of the men. No one noticed when the Professor took an evening constitutional along a narrow sandy track that led to a decrepit hovel. And there was no witness to see him leave a heartfelt offering on the mud brick altar dedicated to the service of a diminutive Royal Cat-Goddess in thanks for his only son's life.
And the Queen would come forth from her royal palace of tumbled down shelves to her sacrificial altar of crumbling mud bricks to accept the humble offering made by the man. Because you see, she was after all, a Sacred Cat of Egypt.
The End of the cat's tale.