Eye of the Moon
y story begins in the Temple of Sobek in Thebes on the day I thought my brother would die.
There was a moment of absolute stillness. Then my brother’s scream. I can still hear it. The worst scream I’ve ever heard.
I ran down the path to the crocodile pit. He clung to the edge of the stone wall.
“The stick, Kara! Get the stick!” Katep bellowed.
His eyes were glazed with terror. A crocodile held his arm and was wrenching and tossing its head in a fury. Inside the pit, the other crocodiles were thrashing and snapping in their eagerness to get at my brother as well.
I searched frantically. The forked crocodile stick that usually stood next to the wall wasn’t there. Nothing was in its place. I had no weapon. Not even a branch to shove between the beast’s jaws or poke at its eyes.
I stood paralyzed. I knew how brutal crocodiles were. One thrust of its tail, one quick arch of its body, and it would throw Katep into the air and then catch him again in a stronger, more fatal
I spun around frantically. Grabbed whatever I could. Sand and more sand. And flung it as hard as I could straight at the eyes of the reptile. Again and again, I sent a hailstorm of sand into the air.
Suddenly, with a wild, angry snort, the crocodile shook its head viciously. Then it lost its grip on my brother and sank back below the wall into the pit. Katep fell limply to the ground at my feet, blood streaming from an arm so torn that it no longer looked like an arm.
There was so much blood. I thought he would die. How could anyone live when there was so much blood everywhere?
But he didn’t die.
The crocodiles are kept in a pit at the temple for sacrifice. Katep was responsible for feeding and caring for them. My father makes sacred offerings of them to appease Sobek. At certain times of the moon the crocodiles are ritually washed, and then one is chosen, killed, and embalmed as an offering.
Katep’s work is to look after the crocodiles. My work is to help my father with embalming. To mix the resins and prepare the linen mummy wraps. Crocodiles are cumbersome and difficult to wrap. The bindings have to cross over one another and make a woven pattern. Afterward eyes and teeth are painted on the mummy.
That’s the part I enjoy most—painting the ferocious eyes and terrible teeth. But I can never manage to make them as frightening in death as they are in real life.
The mummified crocodiles are placed in special sacred vaults below the temple to keep Sobek
company. Row upon row of them, they line up on the stone shelves like so many loaves of bread. Food for the gods.
Since Katep’s accident, the job of caring for the crocodiles has fallen to me.
Katep’s wound has healed to an angry stump, but the healing of his heart has taken longer. He’s restless. The accident has left him silent and resentful, with a smoldering anger. You see, Katep is a hunter . . . was
a hunter. He can . . . could
bring down any wildfowl with the flick of his throw-stick and stop any hare in midspring with his arrow.
But no more. The loss of an arm is a terrible misfortune, especially for a hunter like Katep. Without being able to hunt, Katep is no longer Katep.
“I’m leaving!” he announces one morning.
He shrugs impatiently. “I have no place here. Everything
I do requires the skill of both hands. I feel trapped. I have
I stare back at him. He knows that I know he is looking for the impossible. “Where will you go?”
“I’m not sure.”
He shrugs again. It seems his shoulders have forgotten there is only one arm to move. “To the camel dealers’ camps in the desert. Or to find gold and amethysts in Nubia. Or to the turquoise workings of Sinai.”
I eye him. He might as well have said he is leaving this earth and going into the Underworld. “So far?” is all I say.
His silence tells me he knows what I’m really saying: How will you manage anywhere with only the stump of an arm?
“I’ll never see you again,” I blurt out. “Nubia and Sinai are all far beyond Egypt’s borders. They’re our enemies
He gives me a fleeting smile. His face is handsome, despite his anger. “Egypt’s enemies, not mine, Kara!” Then he shakes his head. “I can’t
stay here. I can’t be a priest or even a stonemason as Father wants me to be.”
I kick the sand with my bare foot. “Why not?” I ask, even though I understand his determination to leave. I know he will
go—no matter how much I plead.
He brandishes the stump of his arm. Beats the
air with it. “Have you heard of a stonemason cutting stone with something like this?”
The scars on the stump of his arm are still raw and red. Dreadful to look at. But at the same time fascinating. I know each scar as well as the moles on my own arms. I’ve cleaned them, smeared the wounds with unguents, and bound them daily, ever since that day I’d had to hold him down while my father injected the arm with scorpion venom to numb it and cut away the shreds of flesh before stitching the skin together.
Now the scars of the wounds make hieroglyphs across his flesh. The hieroglyphs tell their own story.
I know Katep cannot bear to look at them. It’s a burden for him to carry this stump around. No wonder he wants to run away. It’s not me or Father that he’s running from. It’s his arm.
I know this in my head but my heart makes me speak out differently.
“Don’t go! Please
don’t go! I’m begging you. You can’t leave. You said we’d go away together
one day. We made plans. Remember? In the fork of the mimosa tree the day we watched the crocodiles laying eggs in the sand.”
He gives me a look. “We were children then.”
I flick the side plaits of my wig back from my face and squint back at him. I feel like a chastised child. “Is that all
your promise counts for?”
We had pricked our thumbs with mimosa thorns. I had put my thumb hard against his and mingled our blood. It was a sacred vow. There hadn’t been a need. Our blood is already bonded. We share the same thoughts. Between us there is a thread as fine and silvery as a spider’s web. Invisible but strong. It’s difficult to break.
“Half the boat belongs to me!” I snap. But he knows I’m really saying, Who will catch fish with me now? Or trap and roast frogs? Or dare me to walk along the wall of the crocodile pit?
He stares back at me. He has read my thoughts. “Promise not to walk on the crocodile wall.”
I pull a face at him. “Ha! You never bothered about anything dangerous before! You
were the one who dared me to enter the tomb labyrinth the first time!”
“That was different. There were two of us. Don’t go into the tomb labyrinth alone, Isikara!”
Why is he calling me Isikara instead of Kara? Already I am no longer his sister.
I give him a hot look from between the strands of my hair. “Don’t leave me!”
“Then join me.”
I shake my head. “By the white feather of Truth, you know I can’t! I can’t
break the vow I made our mother on her death pallet. I promised I’d care for Father. Be his temple assistant. Weave the linen. Help boil the resins for embalming. Look after his embalming tools.”
I kick the sand again and swallow hard, fighting my tears with anger. “Now I have to look after the crocodiles as well!”
“Don’t trust them even if they seem asleep.”
“I don’t need your advice!” I squint through the sunlight at him, daring him to change his mind.
“Kara, don’t be so cross.”
Good. He has called me Kara. I’m his sister again.
For a moment he forgets his own anger and grabs me around the neck with his good arm. I sense the other arm wanting to hug me as well. But the stump waves about without direction. He puts on a deep, fierce voice. “Be careful! I am Sobek! I seize like a beast!”
“Stop it! Don’t mock Sobek!” I push him away.
My hand flies to the moonstone amulet at my neck. Quickly I draw the Eye of Horus in the sand with my big toe to ward off the evil eye and keep Katep protected.
On the morning he sails, I hand him a small linen bag to hang around his neck. Inside are the bodies of a dried lizard and a frog, as well as a lock of our mother’s hair, to keep him safe. I give him a sack of pomegranates and some shelled beans and two loaves with some potted meat of wildfowl. I’d killed the bird myself with my throw-stick to prove that I could manage without my brother.
I hold out a small amulet of blue glass that I’d bartered for at the market. “It’s the scorpion goddess, Seqet—to help ward off evil. Watch out for scorpions under the rocks of Sinai.”
He laughs. “In Sinai, men are specially employed as scorpion charmers.”
Something jabs at my heart as sharp as a scorpion’s sting. He hasn’t left yet, but already he knows things I don’t know. I eye him. “What if their charms don’t work?”
“Stop worrying! The scorpion goddess, Seqet, will protect me.”
“Then remember to touch her stone.” I thrust the blue amulet at him.
He sails down the silver ribbon of water that joins the Great River. I race along the mud bank trying to keep up with his boat. I will that the burden of my running might drag him back like an anchor to the shore. But no . . . his boat travels lightly forward and my feet remain stuck to the bank.
“I’ll never see you again!” I call after him, and murmur a quick silent prayer to Hathor to beg that it won’t be true.
“Of course you will.”
I call out instructions. Anything to hold him back. “Send me signs that you are safe. Say incantations to keep the crocodiles and hippopotamuses away from the boat. Have you remembered your spear and your throw-stick?”
To all this he nods and smiles back at me.
“And beware of crocodiles. If the boat lodges in reeds, don’t climb out into the water. Even if it is only up to your ankles!”
He laughs. “Must I remain in the boat for the rest of my life?”
“Just be careful, Katep!”
“Don’t worry, I won’t be caught again. I’ve given Sobek my arm as an offering.” He grins. Then he tucks the sail rope under his chin so he can raise his left arm in a salute. He gives me his last look. Then he turns his back and begins paddling with his one good arm.
When I can’t keep up with him any longer, I stand and watch his reed boat beat against the wind and the choppy waves. I touch the smooth, cool moonstone of Hathor once more and feel for the knots on my plaited reed bracelet. I call upon all that is evil to remain tied up and out of his reach.
I watch his back and the sail grow smaller and smaller until they are nothing but a moth skimming across the water to an unknown place. I blink and narrow my eyes against the breeze to prevent moisture from being squeezed out of them. A lump rises up in my throat like a bloated, angry toad.
With that sail goes my heart. I never thought Katep would take the boat and leave without me. I stare after him and wish with all my heart that my own life will change. But wishing is dangerous. Wishes have a way of coming back to you.
It’s said that those who sail the Great River either
look forward or look back. That morning when Katep left, he didn’t look back. He stood stiff-backed to the world he had left behind. I’d stared after him, willing him to turn around.
But he didn’t! Not once!
The next morning I dragged a slaughtered goat by its horns to the crocodile pit and cursed Katep for leaving me to do his work.
It was a she-goat. I could see by the swollen udder. The goat’s kid would be searching among the other goats now, nosing for the full udder of its mother. But my father believed in sacrificing only she-goats to the crocodiles. Male goats were too precious, he said. They carried the seed of the future herd.
What about she-goats? Weren’t they the true future of the herd? But my father was impatient with me. Katep’s leaving made him more impatient than usual.
The goat was limp and heavy. My father had slit her throat. Flies were already buzzing around the gash. The track left in the sand by her dragging hooves was spattered with drops of blood that glistened like garnets.
I was glad she was already dead. Offerings are usually made alive. But I had begged my father to kill the goat first so I wouldn’t have to listen to her bleating.
The nearer I got to the pit, the tighter I clutched the forked stick.
The crocodiles were moving restlessly. They could sense the scent of the she-goat’s blood and the warm, sweet smell of her milk. There were the sounds of jaws snapping and angry hisses as they lashed at one another.
“Be careful of their tails!” Katep had warned.
I didn’t need his reminder.
My father had been distraught the morning he’d discovered Katep’s empty bed. “Why did he leave without bidding farewell? There was no need for him to go. He could have learned the art of embalming from me.”
I gave my father a dark look. “Am I not your helper? Is my work not good enough? Katep was never interested in learning to embalm. Besides, it’s not his fault he had to leave. It’s the fault of a crocodile!”
“Hush! Hold your tongue! To be eaten by the
most sacred crocodile, Sobek, is the greatest honor.”
“I’d rather die without honor.”
He shook his head. “Kara! Kara! You’re too headstrong. It’ll get you into trouble yet. You need a mother to groom you in the ways of women. You must learn to think before you speak.”
I understood my father’s anger and hurt. We both missed Katep more than we could say. The house was quieter with him gone. Our meals were taken in silence opposite his empty place. The day Katep left, my father inscribed these words above the arch that led to the crocodile pit: To be devoured by the crocodile god, Sobek, is to be possessed forever by divinity.
Now, as I passed under those words, shivery bumps came up on my arms. They weren’t a comfort. I had no desire to be eaten by a crocodile.
I stood ready to heave the goat into the pit when I suddenly realized that when Katep had left, he’d snapped the thread between us—the thread that I thought could never be broken.