Cat and Mouse
A growl of frustration came from deep in Jabari’s stomach as he eyed the mouse that had secreted itself in a hole in the mudbrick wall. The little beady eyes and quivering whiskers hovered just inside the recess, seeming to be mocking him. He paced and growled again, trying to be menacing, although he didn’t feel like it.
“It will give up eventually,” purred a deep voice with an alluringly feminine tone. “Stay strong, Jabari.”
Jabari’s ears pricked up and a chill ran through him, which always happened when the great goddess Bast manifested. His ears flattened and he lowered himself to the floor in a gesture of supplication. “Please help me catch this elusive mouse, O great Bast.”
“Oh do get up you silly tom, that’s what I’m doing.” The irritated voice seemed to come from within his own head, but when he looked to his left, Bast looked like a normal cat, albeit extremely beautiful - sleek, papyrus-coloured, with large brown almond-shaped eyes. He knew not to look too long, or he would be transfixed by her radiance.
A morsel of cheese materialised on the other side of him. The mouse’s whiskers thrummed with greater ferocity and Jabari could practically see it salivating. It was the most succulent cheese to be found in the Lower Delta, and Jabari had to restrain himself from gobbling it.
“Now, we wait. He will not be able to resist for long.”
But Jabari didn’t feel like waiting. He was getting old, and wanted nothing more than to curl up and sleep in a patch of warm sun. What did it matter if he let one mouse go? Cats were so revered in Egypt that he was hardly likely to be thrown out on the street, but he didn’t want to lose face in front of the goddess.
As if sensing his thoughts of blasphemy - which he knew she was - her voice rang out in his head again. “Patience, Jabari. You will win over this puny creature.”
Now Jabari was getting annoyed. He glanced again for a second at Bast - who was watching him with an expression of faint disdain - and at that moment the mouse dashed out of the hole, snatched up the cheese under one front leg, and scrabbled up the wall on the opposite side of the room. Jabari snarled, crouched and lunged, but it was too late. The mouse was clinging onto the wall near the ceiling and rapidly devouring the cheese, and two thoughts hit him at once.
Since when could mice climb up walls?
And this mouse had not only climbed the wall, but had committed a heretical act. He had dashed up the mural of Bast in her glory days, as a woman with the head of a lioness, and was actually sitting at the open mouth of the painting as if defying her to snap down her jaws.
A terrible yowl from Bast made him claw at his own head in a hopeless attempt to stop the noise. “Witchcraft!” she shrieked. “Blasphemy!”
Jabari looked open-mouthed from Bast back to the mouse, which had finished the cheese and seemed to be sneering at them. A terrible heat was coming from the middle of the room, which had been hot enough to start with. Jabari turned and shrank back, shielding his eyes and trying to curl into the wall. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Bast also looked subdued, her front legs stretched out in front of her and her chin touching the floor.
The sun god Ra had manifested; the creator of all living things, he was also Bast’s father. A giant, muscular man with the head of a hawk and a blinding image of the sun disk atop his head.
“Your powers are weakening, Bast,” he intoned. “Why was this mouse able to outsmart an experienced hunter so easily?”
“I... I do not know, father,” said Bast, her formerly authoritative voice sounding meek compared to Ra’s booming tones. “It has been happening more and more of late.”
“Yes, I know,” said Ra. “The balance of power is shifting, which is why a new member of my celestial family has arisen. Allow me to introduce you to Nantor.”
The great god held up a clenched fist; when he opened it, a brown mouse with piercing eyes and a tiny head dress like the one worn by Ra materialised and stood proudly.
“You are relieved of your duties as a deity,” went on Ra, as Bast’s eyes widened in horror. “The mice have grown in number and intelligence, and Nantor shall be their idol. A new temple is to be built in his honour at Bubastis, site of your own shrine which houses thousands of mummified cats. Although they will be left in place, the temple will cease to function as a place of worship.”
The sun disk on Ra’s head seemed to expand until it filled the entire room, and Jabari was forced to squeeze his eyes shut. When he opened them, Ra and the new mouse god had disappeared. Bast was still there, but... diminished. She stretched, and paced in a circle a few times. Jabari realised what had happened. Ra had removed her status as a goddess, but allowed her to remain as a mortal being. She was trying out her physical body for the first time.
She stopped, and sat down, and they both watched blankly as the mouse ran down from the wall. It brazenly crossed the floor in front of them, climbed the opposite wall, and disappeared out of the window. Jabari couldn’t process what was happening, so what must it feel like for Bast?
His owner came into the room and paused, brow creased in confusion, as he stared at the feline newcomer. Did he know what had happened? Would both of them be thrown out to starve?
“Where did you come from?” he said, glancing briefly at Jabari before walking past him to pick up Bast. She let herself be tickled under the chin and Jabari heard her purr. “Let’s see if we can find you some food.” He put her down again and walked to the door. “The kitchen’s this way.” They both trotted after him, and Jafari could sense some kind of relief coming from Bast. Being a goddess was a lot of pressure, after all. She’d never had an owner to give her any affection, and Ra was probably too busy to spend any quality time with her. So cats weren’t going to be worshipped any more, and he wouldn’t end up being pickled and wrapped in bandages, but that was okay with him as long as he still got fed.
There might be a problem with mice eating through stores of grain in their new found position of power, but it wasn’t his problem. Maybe mice would be kept as pets and fed on cheese so they wouldn’t have to eat the grain. The pressure was off him, as well. He had never quite enjoyed having to kill them.
Nick Wilford is a writer and stay-at-home dad. Trained as a journalist, he now enjoys creating new worlds and getting to know his characters better. When not writing he can usually be found spending time with his family or cleaning something. He also works as a freelance editor and proofreader. He has four short stories published in Writer’s Muse magazine and is the editor of Overcoming Adversity: An Anthology for Andrew, a fundraiser for his stepson's college fund. You can find him at his writing blog, Scattergun Scribblings.
I give Kyra permission to use my story in the anthology.
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