“… a Pharaoh’s cartouche is of the utmost importance…”
Words and phrases broke into and out of my concentration in a repeated fashion while I scanned the library lazily, eyes finding remotely intriguing papyrus scrolls in their slots every so often. Every time I saw something that seemed unique or different, I fixated upon it until I realised that it seemed familiar.
“… what he will be remembered as after his ascent to Ra’s side…”
When I finished gazing at papyrus scrolls, my eyes drifted to the clean sheet of pressed paper resting on a tablet of limestone. My peers were all hard at work, shifting their attention between the carved cartouche at the front of the ‘class’, and their papyrus sheets on which they were copying the collection of symbols.
“… attention to detail is of paramount importance…”
It had taken a few years, but I had since learned to ignore most of what Menes drawled while he paced at the front of the library. He had a very… lengthy description and method for everything he ever taught, which was probably why he was regarded as the Master Scribe to the Pharaoh and his administration. Even so, I could not help but feel as if there were easier ways of describing what he lectured about.
This sharp contrast in tone, followed by an audible ‘crack’ lashed across my shoulders, regained my mind’s eyes in a millisecond. Pain followed horrendously swiftly, much to my dismay.
“You think that this behaviour is permitted in our school, Nenet?” My teacher asked me, to which I winced and straightened my seated position. “There grows no wheat where there is no grain. How many times must I tell you this until you permit yourself to listen?”
I could tell without looking at Menes that he was scowling, and I scrunched an eye shut while the stinging agony burnt across my back. This was going to leave a goodly welt in its wake.
“My apologies, teacher.” The apology in question was delivered meekly on my part, and I chewed softly on my lower lip while enduring the lasting pain of his reprimand. “My full attention will be on our lesson from now.”
With both my formal apology and assurance that I would work alongside the others, Menes exhaled a sigh and lowered the wooden rod held taut over my upper back. “You are no longer a dissident child. This behaviour is unacceptable, and will not be so easily forgiven next time.”
What a lovely threat. In spite of how this thought made my facial expression sour, I nodded once by way of showing understanding. He moved from where I was seated, back up to the front of our little school gathering. His disciplinary rod was hung back on the wall, and he continued his lectures about cartouche. I felt a few lingering gazes from my peers until I turned in their direction to show them my less-than-impressed expression. That hastened them to start working again; being reminded of what punishment looked like set them swiftly to their task.
Since my mother’s death, this whole profession had become that much harder to swallow. She was the one who encouraged me to look at the positives, and the intricacies of my future profession that many others would not have the benefit of knowing.
Everything had a sour taste to it when it involved my father’s dealings.
I adjusted my work tablet atop my crossed knees and steadied my pallet, its ink swirling briefly in the two indent spaces. Pressing the frayed end of my brush to my bottom lip, I moistened it slightly before dipping it into the sooty liquid. I already knew from my studies that a cartouche was written and constructed in a certain way: the hieroglyphics were written first in a vertical method, and the containing ‘loop’ was drawn afterwards.
This way, it removed a lot of estimating when it came to thinking about how big one should draw the magical rope containing the individual’s name. If the symbols were written first, the protective rope could be drawn around it without fear of missing any phrase or glorious addition to the Pharaoh’s (many) titles.
I was just finishing the ‘Thut’ collection of symbols when the heavy oak door to the library was hurled open. The art of a steady hand allowed me to complete what I was doing before raising my brush and looking at the open entrance. Why the urgency? Was something amiss?
I almost choked when I saw father standing in the doorway.
Why was he here? And why on earth did he look capable of smiting anyone with his gaze alone? I swallowed deeply and laid my pallet aside, my brush rolling off its flattened wooden surface. Whatever he was here for, it was far from a celebratory occasion.
“Apologies, Great Menes. But I must ask for my daughter to come with me. Immediately.” He did not even glance at my teacher once, and his eyes all but bore holes through me instead. My mind was immediately filled with possibilities of what I could have done wrong, no matter how slight they were. Did I leave wet linens in a washing jar too long? Perhaps he realised that I had eaten the last of the dates yesterday evening…
Menes looked visibly baffled, but he slowly nodded as he turned to look at my father. “High Priest Yuia. Of course, Nenet is not bound here if you request she be removed. May I ask what the reason is?”
Why did my teacher need to know that? When the High Priest demands something, no matter how personal it may be, people were not supposed to question it in such a flippant manner as this. But father did not cease glaring at me, apparently not fazed by this breach of privacy whatsoever. Was it out of respect that he did not retaliate to Menes’s comment?
“She believes that rebellion right under my nose will not be identified and quashed.” Father spat viciously, reaching into his robe’s sash and pulling out a papyrus from within it. He brandished my handiwork to my teacher, signed by me, and detailing…
“Tell me, daughter of mine, how long have you been scheming to enter the priesthood of Osiris in Abydos?” He snarled, and it felt as if everything within me dropped into oblivion at that moment.
That was when the sniggers started.
All of the boys around me started to hide their mouths with their hands, as if this would make me believe that they were not laughing at my expense. My head was pounding while my blood pumped painfully around my body; every beat of my heart forced this deep-seated shame through me. It was not enough that father had intercepted my letter, but he had to come to my place of learning to embarrass me to such a degree that it was physically agonising…
Heat built up in my cheeks as I got to my feet, head bowed. The urge to say something clawed at the back of my throat like some insane animal, but keeping my better judgement in mind, I kept it restrained. Instead, I walked over to my father with my irritatingly fragrant hair shrouding my eyes.
“I expect to see you back tomorrow, Nenet. First light as always. And bring examples of your work on cartouche writing for me to see if you absorb any amount of information from my teaching.” Menes spoke as I reached the front of the classroom, and I nodded resolutely to show my comprehension.
For once, I wanted nothing more than to sit down with sheets of papyrus and copy out old documents of our history. Even records of crop intake would be something I would snatch up the chance of re-writing.
By some miracle, father chose not to say another word. My peers still found the whole situation absolutely hilarious, but did not want me to see how funny they thought it all was. The sound of muffled laughing became the accompaniment for my walk of shame to exit the library, with my father’s frantic sandal-clad strides following me.
I worried that he would catch up to me and find more reason to shout, so I picked up my pace ahead of him, leading the way through the southern palace corridors. I had barely opened the High Priest’s sanctuary when he stormed inside after me, whirling and slamming the oaken door after us.
“Have I not made myself perfectly clear, daughter of mine?” As he often did when he was angry with me, that phrase was laced with poorly hidden irritation. “This seed of dissidence within you… it has finally bloomed! And to think I had quashed it in your formative years.” He started pacing, my handwritten letter clutched tight in his fist.
I could only stand, barely inside the chamber and just in front of the door, with my fingernails digging harshly into my palms. Father kept pacing, muttering curse after curse as he screwed the letter in his fist tighter and tighter.
“It is true what they say! The plant reveals what is in the seed… you have grown into, despite my efforts, a decayed plant!” He roared, whirling on me with his pointer finger jabbing in my direction with clear accusation. “What, do you take pleasure in defying me, in tarnishing our good family name?” He pressed me further when I did not respond, and this only made the mixture of emotions whirling within become… irate.
Father only ever cared to think about how we appeared. He never stopped to think about how I, as a person (let alone as his only daughter), might feel after some of his ‘laws’ laid upon me. He wanted me to be somebody that I was not: bound by respect of him and this ‘order’ that he preached to me so often.
He was strict and unrelenting even when mother was still alive, and she was supposed to soften his jagged, harsh edges. For once, I thought not of the words she would always tell me; of the excuses she made for him. I thought only of how he found new ways to shackle me, ignore me, and stifle my voice.
Whereas I had fought to stay silent in the library, I could not speak soon enough while father continued to pace and curse me.
“You are not the Gods themselves, father!” I screamed at him with every decibel I could muster in that moment. For what seemed like forever, my own voice echoed back at me as I raised my head and saw my father, High Priest Yuia, stopped in his tracks as if he had seen a kheft.
To be exact, he saw me to be one.
“You only relay their messages, their teachings! How can a mortal man… even if you are my father… decide my whole life for me?” I could not stop after my initial scream of defiance, but even as I spoke, my body trembled as if I had been struck with cold. “I never understood what you told me about our ‘natural order’; our Ma’at. I comprehended it, of course, but that does not equate to understanding and accepting.” These feelings had been restrained for so long that, with my fuse officially alight, everything was burning bright at once like a fine candle.
Only, I knew that my father would certainly not see it in the same way.
“What is so wrong with me wanting to understand? I meant to write to the Temple to learn from them, and to-…” I stopped myself. The well that was my speech dried up, and my tongue felt like sandpaper in my mouth. In that pause, I could see that father had already heard enough.
“Get you home, impudent child.” His rage had boiled down to the quiet, scathing variety, and the amber jewels of his eyes were cast down as he swept past me to exit the chamber.
No more was said. He brushed past me as if we had been conversing about something nonconsequential, and shut the heavy door behind him. Left alone in the ‘sanctuary’, a wetness dripping from my cheek to my exposed collarbone startled me. Had I been crying for the entirety of my outpour?
If I had been… why, that would make it quite literal indeed.