Our Alice's trip down the rabbit hole takes her out of Boogie Wonderland, but lands her in a place - not quite home...
by Anna Patricio
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The thirteen-year-old girl trailed alongside the other priestesses in the inner sanctum of the Temple of Atum-Re. They had just finished one of the daily rituals, and were now making their way through the sacred near-darkness.
Torches cast a flickering red-orange light on stiff, two-dimensional portraits of the sun god in his many forms: the hawk Re-Horakhty, the scarab Khepri, and the man Atum who sailed upon his glorious Boat Of A Million Years each day. Around the portraits were marble altars bearing offerings: flowers, plates of food, and bowls of bittersweet incense.
The priestesses then passed through the forest of lotus columns, which separated the god's sacred home from the world of rekhit - the common people. A sudden flash of sunlight nearly blinded them, their greeting back into the ordinary world. They then descended the temple's wide marble steps and dispersed throughout the courtyard.
Asenath waved a farewell to her parents, the high priestly couple of Heliopolis, before heading towards her litter, which waited to take her home. She was looking forward to a quiet afternoon in the garden, with just her pets and scrolls of poetry.
A little while later, she had just finished her lunch of beer, onions and bread and was about to take up some scrolls to read, when she heard a rustling outside the garden pavilion. She ignored it, thinking it was merely a bird or a gardener. But then, the rustling grew persistent, followed by a human's voice, "Oh!"
Asenath's head jerked up. She then rose and headed towards the edge of the pavilion.
Sprawled out on the grass below her was a girl with a face as pale as those of the Libyans, or even from those who dwelt in lands across the Great Green Sea. Her dress was the strangest Asenath had ever seen - it was not a straight sheath dress if the Egyptians, neither was it one of those colourful woolen cloaks that the people from Babylon or other such lands donned. She could not figure out what origin it was from.
The pale girl looked up and shrieked, startling Asenath as well. "Oh, I'm sorry.... I'm so sorry...." the girl stuttered.
Asenath relaxed, seeing that as strange as the girl looked, she was harmless. "It's all right," she said.
She descended the pavilion's steps and approached the girl, who was struggling to her feet. "Are you all right?"
"Yes," the girl said. She leapt up and brushed some grass from her skirt, which ballooned as if propelled by some great wind - though, to Asenath's fascination, it never deflated. She stood to her full length, almost the same height as Asenath.
"Who are you? What is your name?" the girl asked.
"I am Lady Asenath," Asenath replied. "And what is your name? Where did you come from and how did you get here?"
"I am Alice. I fell through a rabbit hole and... er, never mind. It's a long story."
"Rabbit hole?" Asenath echoed, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes. Er, well it was a magical rabbit hole."
"Ah." Asenath nodded, understanding somewhat, seeing as the priests of Ancient Egypt practised magic arts. This girl must have been sent by the rabbit god Unas.
Alice gasped. "Is this Egypt?"
"Why, yes," Asenath said, a bit baffled. How could the girl not understand where she was...
Alice let out a squeal of delight. "Ohhh, I have always wanted to go to Egypt! Are the pyramids close by?"
"Sort of," Asenath said, now amused by Alice's enthusiasm. "As a matter of fact, we have a view of them from the roofdeck. Would you like to have a look?"
Later, the two girls stood on the roofdeck, looking towards the great monuments rising in the distance. In the heat, the pyramids and sphinx seemed to dance slightly.
Alice shaded her eyes. "They're glorious," she said.
She then turned to Asenath. "How wonderful it must be to wake up every morning to the pyramids."
"It is, quite," Asenath said. "I haven't always lived here though. I mean, I have lived in Egypt all my life, but not always in Heliopolis."
"Oh?" Alice said.
"Yes. I am originally from a fishing village by the Nile. I was orphaned when a group of invaders raided the village and murdered my parents."
"I'm sorry." Alice lowered her eyes in sympathy.
"My best friend and I were then brought here to Heliopolis. I was adopted by the high priest and his wife, and my best friend went to study magic arts in Thebes. Now, I serve as a priestess of the sun god."
"The sun god, I see...."
Speaking of which, Asenath knew she had better offer the utmost hospitality to a god's messenger. "Would you care for some sherbet and dates?" she asked her strange guest.
"Why certainly!" Alice replied. "That would be lovely."
As the girls reentered the garden, Alice said, "I can't tell you how thrilled I am. Egypt is such an ancient, fascinating place and..."
Suddenly, the ground opened up and Alice fell in. Asenath reached out to help her, but the hole immediately closed up.
Asenath blinked at the strangeness of this all. Then she closed her eyes and murmured, "Hail to you, great god Unas, for sending me your messenger."
As she returned to the pavilion, memories of her happy childhood by the Nile returned to her......
AN EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL, ASENATH
Egypt 1554 B.C.
The Nile had just flooded, leaving the ground moist, rich and black. The children of our riverside village, I among them, frolicked about in the cool, gooey earth. In the distance, the ancient river circled the land, glittering with a thousand tiny dancing lights from the sun-god's Boat of a Million Years. A breeze blew, rustling the branches of the palm trees that surrounded our home.
No sooner had I looked than a mud ball pelted me hard across the stomach.
"I'll get you for that, Menah." I bent down to gather mud in my hands when another ball landed on my back. He was a quick one, my best friend.
I had just formed a mud ball and was about to raise my arm when Menah suddenly charged forward and pounced on me.
"Now you'll get the tickle torture," he said in a mock evil voice.
"No, Menah. Please, no." But I was overcome by uncontrollable laughter.
"Menah! Kiya!" voices called out, interrupting our playful wrestling.
Our mothers approached.
"Come out now," my mother called. "It is time to prepare for the Feast of Hapi."
Covered in mud from head to toe, Menah and I scrambled toward them.
Mama shook her head, smiling. "You're such a mess."
She led me back to our hut.
"What is going to happen tonight, Mama?" I asked. "I mean, after we pray to Hapi? Will there be games?"
Mama's blue eyes twinkled against her brown skin. "I see no reason why there shouldn't be."
"And lots of food?"
"All the food you could ever want."
"May I wear my lotus necklace today?"
Years ago, when I was very young, Mama had given me a beautiful carved lapis lazuli lotus pendant strung on a simple piece of coarse rope. She told me it had been in her family for many generations and that her grandmother had received it from Hapi himself.
She ruffled my hair. "Of course. Today is, after all, a special day."
As we entered our mud hut, which had been my home since birth, I saw my father mending one of his fisherman's nets. When he saw me, he pretended to cower in fear.
"A mud monster has entered our house."
I laughed. "It's just me, Papa."
He leaned forward and squinted, as if trying to get a good look, though the gesture was comically exaggerated. "Is it? Let me see. Ah yes, it's my little Kiya."
He leapt to his feet, picked me up and swung me around, ignoring the mud that soiled his hands. I squealed with delight.
"Nakhti," Mama said. "I have to get her ready."
"Yes." Papa set me down. He gave me a gentle slap across the back, motioning for me to return to Mama.
"I get to wear the lotus today, Papa."
He smiled. "I am sure you will look very pretty."
Later that afternoon, four priests from a nearby town passed by our village. They shouldered on poles our patron god's idol, which nestled upon a bed of water lilies. A ray of sunlight bounced off the golden image and it flashed with brilliance. Behind the god was a small train of dancing priestesses. They rattled sistrums and twirled around, their white dresses billowing out like clouds.
My fellow villagers and I were assembled outside our village, awaiting the god's arrival. When he appeared, we fell to our knees and touched our foreheads to the sandy ground.
"Glorious Hapi," my father intoned. "We thank you for once again allowing your water to flow and give life. We thank you for nourishing our land and our people. We pray your sacred pitchers never cease to flow. We thank you, great god of the Nile."
My heart swelled with pride. Papa was the most renowned fisherman in our village. Though he was quite an old man - many years older than my mother - he possessed skills and strength that surpassed even those of the younger generations. Everyone thus hailed him as the favoured of the river god.
"Praise be to you, Hapi," I echoed along with the rest of my fellow villagers.
As the idol trailed away, we rose to our feet and gathered up the amulets and flowers, which we would be tossing into the Nile as offerings. It was sunset now and sheer red-orange skies cast a fiery glow upon the river's rippling surface. From a distance, we heard the warbling of river fowl and the screeching of monkeys.
We approached the riverbank. It was still soft and muddy from the inundation. We tossed our offerings in. All the while, Papa chanted hymns of praise. Afterward, we returned to the village for what we children had been anticipating the most - the games.
A kind, respectable widow named Mekten, whom everyone called "Village Mother", held a game called the "statue dance." She played a reed flute while we danced and would stop at random moments without warning. We had to freeze as soon as the music stopped. Those who were still dancing were out of the game.
My friends and I loved it so much that Mekten held several rounds of it. Unfortunately, I always lost, as I always got so caught up in the liveliness of the game. However, she awarded me a small spinning top as a prize for being the best dancer.
I danced so much that I could barely keep my eyes open as we later sat down to the feast. Papa picked me up and carried me back to our hut. I was too tired to protest. As soon as he lay me down, I fell into a deep sleep.
That night, I dreamt I was on a great winged barque sailing along the Nile. It was a bright day, with the white-golden Egyptian sun shining gloriously and flocks of ibises and herons gleaming against the clear blue sky. A group of friendly monkeys, like those who usually wandered near my family's hut, kept me company on the deck, entertaining me with their hilarious antics.
Suddenly, the skies darkened and the water began to thrash against the barque. The monkeys leapt up and down, screeching frantically. I grabbed onto the rail.
Thunder rumbled. Fierce white waves threatened to haul us overboard. The barque tipped to a dangerous level and I began to scream.
Guest post created for YA Faeries & Fantasy event by Anna Patricio, author of Asenath
© 2012. All rights reserved.
by Anna Patricio
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