The boat rocked beneath his feet constantly, cold seeping through the papyrus and tapping at his fears. The journey across the endless sea had been arduous, and each night, he had prayed to the goddess of the two kingdoms. He prayed for an extension of her fierce beneficence over they, her straying citizens. He prayed for his wife, who would have borne their child so many months ago, unseen. And he prayed that the sea, vengeful and destructive, would cool just as she had, into a sleek, disinterested companion.
He stumbled onto the shores of the unknown lands, his lips cracked and bleeding, his heart thundering in his chest. He fell to his knees on the gritty sand and thanked Bast, over and over again.
Bast draped herself in feathers and coins as she wandered the new landscape of dreams. Her first landing was quickly too damp for her tastes, criss-crossed with rushing waters and littered with greenery. The dreams here were different as well, humid and more enclosed than she first understood. The sky was closer in this new land.
She watched her first followers as they mingled with the land's inhabitants, sketching their elaborate tombs for these new gods, hewing blocks and bleeding into the damp, dark dirt.
Blood tasted different here, or maybe it was the atmosphere. Her first followers died out, by sacrifice and disease, but her name lived on, pinned to jaguars that lurked in the trees.
She appreciated the likeness, let the unfamiliar limbs shape her as she prowled. Her claws scraped against wet bark, and her call made adults crouch and children quiver.
They gave her emeralds for eyes. They gave her blood and she stretched into their dreams and made impressions, but no promises.
Her influence spread northward, and she met her brothers in a desert land, in the shadow of more bloodstained pyramids. Anubis feasted every month; she recognized him by his howl, not his visage.
The farther they traveled, the wider the sky cracked. She grew to enjoy the play of this land, unbound by her old rituals, her temple confines. She shaped herself small, like a desert cat, and meandered through these new dreams. In time, she met new minds, ones that built against the wind and felled the trees without ceremony.
They knew her not. Her jaguar-self dimmed, just as her lion-self was a dim speck in the centuries of her shape. She grew sleek and fat, worshipped in long strokes and whispered confessions. She pounced on the small worries of her petitioners; they dreamed so small, these travelers and children.
There were others that drew on her in other ways, that lolled and writhed and wished. She skimmed her hands through their desires, and they clutched at her and wanted.
at least for the moment
they cannot touch the land or the water and like
me, can only take their place
Esther's earliest memories were of the bazaar and the endless sand. Her father was an archaeologist--not a famous one, not a tomb-buster, but a methodical student of hieroglyphics and pot shards. Her mother was the granddaughter of a diplomat, and Esther ran loose as they did, wild and clever.
She grew up on stories, told by her playmates as they kicked rocks through the dirt, about curses and scales and wiggling, wiggling eyes. She heard stories from her tutors, dressed as dry recitation of pharaohs and dynasties. Temples and tombs and prayers for the yearly inundation.
The best stories, though, were those weaved by her parents. Her mother, swathed in silks and perfume that tickled Esther's nose, would sweep Esther up in her skirts. They'd stare at the sky and her mother would whisper about Nut in the sky, her eyes glittering as she watched them. And her father, tamping tobacco in his pipe, would chuckle at their fancies. Esther's mother would snort at him, and he would puff a ring of smoke at her and Esther would hide her face and giggle.
Her father's stories were, Esther's mother said his stories were entirely too terrifying for a little girl. She rolled her eyes at him, and he stuck his tongue out, and then told Esther the stories anyway. Esther snuggled into her mother's arms, and listened to her father as he told her about Amun-Re, and Osiris, and Anubis, and Thoth, and Bastet. She breathed deep of the perfume and the smoke and the dry night air, and as the star's light poured down, she believed.
When the time came for university, her family brought her back to America. They whirled through Boston and New York, and left Esther in the care of an aunt before sailing back across the sea.
When university started, Esther found a boarding house close to the campus. She felt out of place at parties, where she was altogether too tan, too bold, and her laugh was too sharp, her smile too wide. She found herself more comfortable with dark ale than champagne, and awkward in the face of any conversation that wasn't academic. She became "the Egypt girl," and her classmates would ask her about mummies and snicker.
She missed Cairo like she missed her mother and father, like she missed coffee as thick as honey and bread that didn't squash like cotton in her hands.
One night, as she studied, a cat sprang through her window and hopped onto her desk. Its fur was a brown deeper than chocolate, and it had green eyes and a starburst of white on its chest.
Esther set her book down and lifted a beseeching hand. The cat knocked its head against her palm and purred. She scratched behind the cat's ears and thought, idly, of the sun beating down on her skin, and cats yowling at echoes in the small canyons of her childhood.
That night, she dreamed of the bridge stretching across the harbor like a spider. A woman leaned against the railing, her black skirts whipping around her thighs. Esther shivered in the wind, and the woman beckoned her closer.
Who are you? Esther asked. The woman smiled at her, and her lips dipped against Esther's throat. Esther blinked, and opened her eyes to the midnight blue sky draped over the pyramids. What--
The woman's teeth nipped Esther's collarbone. You dream for me, little one, she murmured. Her voice was everywhere, everything. Your every breath is mine.
The sky over Egypt was just how Esther remembered it. She raised her face to the woman's ministrations, and every kiss tasted like a prayer.