The odd thing about her was that she was a beekeeper. A woman who should have been the mistress of a house, taking care of her family. She could have grown old among her loved ones, content in the certainty that one day her children would perform burial rites for her, to guarantee her soul a happy afterlife. But instead she had chosen the lonely life of a beekeeper and spent her life among her “children” as she called them. If anyone thought of it as odd, they did not say so to her face. After someone talked with her for a while they understood her deep wisdom, and chose not to mock her.
My earliest memories were of watching her tending to her bees. Mother never seemed to mind leaving me together with Mut-Bity. That was not her real name, she never revealed it to anyone. Not even us. But I called her that because I thought she was the Mother of Bees.
I sat in the shadow, under a small tree, wrapped in a big linen cloth, and paid attention to Mut-Bity’s work.
“These creatures should always be revered,” she said to me solemnly, staring at me under her eyebrows as if she needed to be angry with me.
“Yes, Mut-Bity,” I replied as was expected of me.
“Do you know why?” she kept on looking at me with solemn eyes.
“Yes, I do,” I said and pulled my toes under my wrap so the sun would not touch them. “They give us honey!”
That was an easy one, as Mut-Bity was just kneeling in front of the beehives, smoking the bees with a burning piece of dried cow dung. She did that when she wanted to check how they were doing, how much honey her children had gathered. The smoke calmed them down.
There were nine hives in all that she carried with her. They were of burnt clay, so they were much finer than many other hives I had seen elsewhere. Those were usually made of dried mud of the River. Mut-Bity’s were stronger and better than most, and she took great care of them. She had put them so that there were four on the bottom row, three on the next and two at the top. The tubes tapered slightly towards the other end.
“Now that was easy,” Mut-Bity repeated my thoughts, “But there is more, tell me.”
I looked at the bees buzzing around her, mesmerized by their hum in the heat. They seemed to gather around her whenever she approached the hives, and I had never witnessed any of them stinging her. I was lost in the hum of the bees for a while and my thoughts wandered.
I almost jumped back to reality.
“Women can demand honey jars in their marriage contract,” Mut-Bity said, “And believe me – a woman’s lot is not enviable, so any sweetening to it is much recommended! That is why I preferred just the sweet part and did not get married.”
We shared a companiable laugh. Her cheeks were baked dark in the sunlight and laughter created long thin lines that curved over her cheekbones. Still she did not look old. Just sun-baked. So different from the delicate skinned fine ladies of the nobility, who spent their days indoors, weaving and supervising servants. And also very different from the servants and slaves who were aged by their hard work. I never really wondered about Mut-Bity’s age. She was old like all adults were and that was it.
“Tell me about beeswax,” she asked me.
I looked down the field towards the River. Little boats were sailing there. I saw a burial boat with mourners on the way to Abdju. Someone who had not made the trip to the burial place of Osiris in their lifetime, probably. So the family took them now on that trip after they had been prepared for death, before burial.
I recognized one other boat – it was another beekeeper with whom we often travelled. The bee-season was almost over here, and soon we would move downriver towards the north, to new fields that needed the bees. It was time to ask for the local peasants for donkeys to get the hives to the riverbank and into the boat.
“The priests and magicians need beeswax,” I said, but not being in the mood to concentrate too much, I added, “Tell me the story of the wax crocodile!”
Mut-Bity rose and wiped her hands on her dress.
“Now why would you like to hear that story? It is scary, no?”
She snapped her fingers in front of my face, holding the fingers tight together and opening and closing them against her thumbs, as if her fingers were crocodile jaws. I giggled.
“No it is not! The bad man got punished!”
“How do you know he was a bad man? What if he loved her? What if her husband was mean to her? You never know, so do not judge!”
I looked at Mut-Bity questioningly, trying to see if she was angry with me. The sun made my eyes water. Mut-Bity smiled and wiped the tears from my cheeks, knowing they were caused not by sorrow but by the sun. She pulled my covering over my face so that she disappeared from sight and I could only see her feet. Strong feet, with surprisingly delicate ankles. And thick soles. I looked at her toe nails, wondering how she kept them so neat and clean, walking in the dust and mud barefoot like the rest of us. My own toes, peeking out again from under my covering, were very dusty and dirty. I think I had stepped on donkey dung on our way to the field.
“Very well. I shall tell you the story of the wax crocodile,” I heard the smile in her voice.
She sat down next to me and pulled me closer with her strong, thin, wiry arm. I loved being held by Mut-Bity. Her touch was so soothing.
“Aba-Aner was a great magician who lived a long long time ago, during the times of the great king Nebka. Aba-Aner was a priest and knew of the hidden powers of magic. He found out his wife had a lover, a young man from the king’s retinue, but did not tell her he knew how she had ordered their country house by the pool to be made ready. She then met this young man there, and they ate, drank and enjoyed each other’s company – and bathed in the water.
“No, Aba-Aner did not tell her, or anyone else, that he knew. Instead he created a crocodile of beeswax, seven fingers long. He recited certain magical spells over it and gave it to his steward. He knew his wife’s lover would come and bathe at the pool the next time they met. And so he did, and the steward threw the wax crocodile into the water.
“The crocodile turned into a real crocodile, seven cubits long, which attacked the youth and pulled him under water.”
I held my breath. I knew the youth had done the same for he was still alive in the next part of the story.
“Aba-Aner was with the king for seven days, and after those days he was summoned before the king. He said: ‘Your Majesty would like to see a prodigy which has happened in the time of your Majesty.’ And so they went to the pond. Aba-Aner summoned the crocodile to bring up the youth, and the crocodile obeyed. It had to, because Aba-Aner was its creator and knew its magical name. And he then told the king what the youth had been doing with Aba-Aner’s wife.”
Under my cloth, I covered my eyes with my hands. This was a bit too scary, really, but it was daylight and so I could hear the rest as well.
“The king said to the crocodile: ‘Take what is yours and go down.’ And the crocodile once more took the youth and pulled him into the depths of the pond, and he was never seen again. The young wife of Aba-Aner was taken and burned and her ashes were scattered in the pond… “
I couldn’t help but let out a little squeal.
“And so they both died and were no more,” Mut-Bity said in a deep storyteller’s voice. “And they had no bodies their souls could return to after that… They were doomed.”
“But they could have lived on…” said a strange voice behind me.
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