The sky was like an enormous table, spread with the fruit of the great god Ra: the reddest grapes, the yellowest lemons, and the orangest oranges. The magnificent god was descending from the heavens in his solar boat, slowly drawing his colors away from our world and pulling them down for the holy lord Osiris to paint his underworld.
All of us children (I’ve forgotten them all by now) were returning home before nightfall. We passed in front of my house, where Horus was busy eating grass. He lifted his head as I passed by, and his eyes met mine. Ignoring the other children, they regarded me: two vast and innocent eyes, shining like the celestial rain that I never tired of playing with—then my mother struck me and pulled me inside.
The clarity of his eyes washed over me, and in that moment I knew that he was my twin and my soul’s companion. I made the first wish of my life: that when I grew older, I would see the world with eyes like his, wide enough to take in the world with a single glance.
“The clarity of his eyes washed over me.”
This memory of my brother Horus is my oldest memory, its seeds buried deep in the silt of my mind. My mother Isis told me stories about what happened before then, like how she was tormented, on Horus’s account, while giving birth to me. Because the attacks of childbirth struck her and her she-donkey at the same time, she had been forced to hire our neighbor’s maidservant to look after the she-donkey in exchange for a basket of wheat from our share of the harvest. The Nile’s flood was meager that year, and so my mother’s screams were not only from the pain of childbirth, but also from the loss of so much wheat in that season of hardship.
Some say that my mother didn’t begin nursing me until she could rejoice in two things: the safety of the she-donkey, and the health of her foal. Leaning on the maidservant, she got up and went into the cattle pen (which was just another room in our lowly house, built of sunbaked earth). When she saw the she-donkey nursing her foal, she came back in and began nursing me.
The spiteful ones also say that my mother named me Horus after the girl chose Horus as the name for our donkey foal. They say that my mother wanted his name for me because to her, he seemed to bear the blessing of the god Horus, whereas I was a tiny infant on the verge of death.
If that were the case, however, my brother Horus did not disappoint her thinking. I nursed and held on and survived. And my twin did a wondrous thing: he timed his own development with mine, slowing the growth of his body parts to match my own. And for reasons only he knows, he accompanied me as I crawled, guarded me, and played with me.
His delayed development caused excitement throughout our village. It upset my mother, who had wanted to sell him a few months after I was born. Had he grown like other donkeys, the proceeds from his sale could have bought enough wheat for us to store and eat throughout the flood season. But she was happy to discover, when she returned later than usual from her work in the fields one day, that when I was hungry I would crawl with the donkey foal to his mother, and we would nurse together. And so my mother conserved her milk and weaned me early. I ate my fill and my mood improved. I stopped crying at night, and slept a peaceful sleep, with a curious smile that other breastfeeding infants did not make.
As I grew older, my problem was that, unlike me, my brother Horus did not learn to talk. But although he never spoke, he did answer when I called him, and he understood me even when I didn’t utter a word. Little by little, I began to understand him, too, even though he did not speak. We were content to play together. Whenever I played with the neighbors’ children, I’d think of him and look towards his wide eyes, alone and staring at me from afar. I took no joy in playing with the others, who ganged up on me and kicked me out of their group. They didn’t understand me.
Once, I sat on my hands and knees and tried the grass that he grazed upon, but I didn’t like it. I used to watch him while he ate, his two eyes hanging on me. As we grew older, he began to spend much more time grazing, and I grew bored of it. I began to ponder the grass instead, and imagine it in my mind in different shapes and figures.
Then I discovered that his small golden droppings could lend a deeper dimension to my imaginings, enriching them with more detail. One morning, his dung was piled at random on a corner of a tablet of mine. Using a dried stem of papyrus, I moved it around in the shape I saw in my mind, and an exquisite and lifelike image emerged from my imagination. I grew happy, wrapped up in a joy whose secret I did not know—and which still seizes me whenever I set down my brush to consider my work.
When my mother was satisfied that I was old enough, she felt safe leaving me with only my brother Horus as a companion. She began going out early each morning with my older sister to work in the fields of the retired Roman commander Niger. She returned before sunset to prepare our meal and to bake out in the front yard. Then my mother and sister would pray, bidding farewell to the great god Ra as he crossed the celestial Nile and steered his boat to the lower Nile and the land of the departed, to shine upon the dead and warm the mummies.
As soon as she arrived home, my mother would look for me anxiously, kissing and embracing me, and thanking the great goddess Isis that I was still human. The old women of the village, once they had discovered that I had been nursed with the milk of a she-donkey, had assured her that someday—nobody could know exactly when, except for the goddess Isis—she would return to the house to find that I had become a donkey foal myself.
My mother wailed and cried out and struck her face. The women demanded that she pray to the goddess Isis, and present offerings to her and to the god SetIn the belief system of the ancient Egyptians, the symbol of the god Set was the donkey.. My mother could not come by much in the way of offerings, so she increased her prayers to the two gods instead, and visited Isis’s temple in the nearby town of KaranisKaranis was one of the towns of the province of Arsinoite (present-day Fayuom). The province was one of the most important in Egypt because of its rich agricultural production.. She presented Isis with a roasted goose that she had been fattening for months.
The women also advised her to keep me from being exposed to evil spirits, and they told her to spare no kindness to my brother Horus. Because he was pacing his growth along with mine, he had become a sort of kaAccording to the ancient Egyptians, the ka was a part of a person’s spirit or soul. particular to me, linking us together: if he were struck by calamity, I would be as well.
And without advice from anyone, my mother bought several small statues of the god Harpocrates,Harpocrates was the god Horus as a child, and a god of health and healing to the ancient Egyptians. to whom she prayed for my protection. She hid one of them among the sticks of papyrus and straw in the roof, and buried another in front of the door of our house.
But as my mother made her offering of a lone roasted goose, she worried: would one goose satisfy the holy mother enough for her to deter her son Set from harming me? So she came home to me anxiously every day, astonished and joyful that I was still alive.
That was the only way she expressed her love—along with the occasional piece of fruit, when the overseers on the estate where she worked were heedless enough for her to smuggle an apple or a pomegranate out in her clothes. Out of her fear of spirits, she never sent me out to learn any trade or craft. I began waking up whenever I pleased; I’d find a jug of milk, if we had a goat (which was not often), or a little water, or I’d chew a stalk of papyrus and toss the pith on the pile that would become our firewood once it dried.
Sometimes I would amuse myself by sorting through the pile of reeds, setting aside the ones that my mother had chewed, the ones my sister had chewed, and the ones that I had chewed. The reeds that had been chewed to a pulp were my mother’s; she didn’t like to waste anything, regardless of how hungry she was. The well-chewed reeds were my sister’s, who toiled all day long. As for those that had only been lightly chewed, they were mine. I only ever ate them when I first woke up.
If the milk we had wasn’t enough to drink, I would leave it to harden into cheese for my mother and sister to eat during our one meal, at sunset. We would eat it with bread baked from wheat or barley grains during times of plenty, or from grains of the lotus or papyrus plants at other times. Sometimes we would dine only on roasted or boiled papyrus stalks. As for duck or goose or chicken or goat, they were for the temple, as offerings either for the feast day of the goddess Isis in the springtime, or at the end of the flooding in summer.
On her way back from work, around sundown, my mother would keep an eye out in hopes of spotting a young fowl that had strayed or tarried from its nest. Whenever she saw one, she would catch it before it strayed into the fields and hide it among the straw in Horus’s room. She’d let the bird roam around the house to eat worms and bugs, and bathe itself in the irrigation canal, until it grew as big as possible. But we never so much as tasted them. They were presented as offerings on the feast day of the goddess Isis, in the name of our whole family.
During our one meal, at sunset, my mother would offer a short prayer—either one that her grandmother had taught her or one that she improvised, depending on her mood—and tell us a story while we ate. Usually, she talked about the Roman commander Niger, who owned the big estate in Karanis, and his days as a mighty soldier, back when she used to wash his clothes and bake his bread.
Bitterness would flood her as she spoke of the wealth and riches he had now. Sometimes she would say that, no, sorry to say, I did not resemble the Roman, despite what people claimed. I looked just like my father, she said. But the spiteful villagers ignored her words.
In my mother’s view, the real resemblance was between Niger and my father: both men were tall, and both abandoned her. My father had joined the peasants that were revolting against the Romans and had never returned. She still knew nothing of what had happened to him. She had expected that he and the peasants of Karanis would enter the town’s Roman quarter and expel the Romans with an uprising, forcing them to flee, and that we would bring our few belongings and take over their homes. We’d divide their possessions, claiming them as our own, and live in peace. When neither my father nor a single one of his companions returned, she waited and waited, until one morning—as she sat chewing a stalk of papyrus, trying to yield a little milk for me—she knew that it was all over.
Years later, the Roman soldier Niger finished his military service as commander of an entire Roman district and was compensated generously. It was then his right to marry, in accordance with Roman law, and despite the promises to my mother that dripped from his mouth, he married a wealthy girl from among the notables of KaranisRoman law forbade soldiers from marrying, but they often married local girls informally, concluding a marriage contract after the end of their military service (twenty-five years), formally … Continue reading. Whenever he and his son passed by in his regal carriage, surveying his lands, and he saw my mother drowning in her own sweat, he would immediately avert his eyes towards his two enormous horses and become absorbed in contemplating their rear ends until he passed her by.
He was despicable.
Usually, my mother would conclude dinner with a lengthy supplication asking that disaster and the curses of Set befall the scoundrel who entertained his child at the expense of the peasants, gaunt creatures melting away under the sun. They dreamed only of what was permitted to them by their overseers and tax collectors, who beat and whipped them, along with their wives and children.
My mother missed no opportunity to curse that child, and to pray that he be sent down with the setting sun to the world of the dead in the west. She never stopped imagining me in his place, bouncing along in the carriage under Niger’s arm as he entertained me with fruits or sweets or drinks. After all, that was why my mother, after my father’s demise, had wasted her youth pampering and serving the cursed Roman. And then it all slipped through her fingers like water, and he left us with nothing but papyrus stalks filled with mud.
My mother was an irascible woman. She was quick to anger, and her anger was severe. What curses she would let fly at whatever went through her head in the moment! And then, how swiftly her serenity and her ringing laugh would return. My mother was under the god Amun, and always recited prayers to him that she had memorized from her grandmother. I heard her once, late at night, praying in a humble voice, “For although the servant is ready to do wrong, the god is always ready to forgive. Because the master of what is good never spends the whole day angry. His anger ends in the space of a moment, and then nothing remains.”Selim Hassan, Mawsūʿa Masr al-Qudama’. 16 vols. (Cairo: The General Egyptian Book Organization, 1940-610)
I knew that my mother was godly, a woman of holiness.
Praise to the great Osiris; I no longer sleep in my mother’s arms. The poor thing was so deeply afraid for me that, for a time, she only slept while clasping me in a fierce embrace, thinking it would protect me from evil spirits. Her scent tormented me to the point of nausea, and I slept wishing that the evil spirits would see me and that I would become a young donkey foal and sleep in the same room as my brother Horus. If that happened, of course, there would be a problem: how would they tell us apart when they called us by name?
And so I passed my youth playing with Horus, or sitting on the grass creating my pictures while he lost himself grazing. He always spent so much time eating that my mother would curse and insult him: how could he consume so much vegetation and yet never grow larger, or produce offspring, or work, like the she-donkey that belonged to our neighbor Bawwus? She had been born shortly after Horus and was already the mother of a donkey and a small she-donkey, too.
Her states of crying and wailing did bring my mother great benefit; she would lay bare her heart and place her trust in the compassion of the goddess Isis, who heard her lamentations and was satisfied with even the least of offerings from her. Had she not already lost a husband after giving birth to a girl whom nobody married and a boy who resembled a baby donkey? Had not Niger betrayed her, and illness shown her no mercy, either? And then there was the ill-fated donkey foal who ate and never grew . . . because of all this, when my mother made her supplications, she never forgot a single thing. And for this reason, she told us, the mother goddess Isis never forgot her, either.
The land we owned, which encircled our house, amounted to a tenth of an arouraA unit of land, equal to approximately thirty thousand square meters.. My mother planted it with wheat before we were born, irrigating it by way of a channel dug from the banks of the canal. After our birth, my mother let it go to grass and papyrus, as Horus was always eating the young green wheat shoots whenever she went away, and in any case, she wanted to let the land lie fallow from planting for a while. She left its fertilization to Horus and his dung. She also made a point to relieve herself on the back part of our land, rather than in the latrine, to help with the fertilization. When I objected, she retorted: why give the latrine the blessing of the great goddess? Had she not fertilized the earth with such blessings? I was forbidden from drawing on that part of our land, so that her waste not be mixed with water or formed into pictures.
I continued to work on mastering my compositions when my brother Horus was preoccupied with eating. On a rainy winter afternoon, I discovered something new about water. Noticing how the traces of rain dissolved parts of the compositions I’d made of earth and dung, I took a stalk of papyrus and drew with it, coloring with the new watery paste. AmshirAmshir or Meshir is a month from the Coptic calendar, corresponding to parts of February and March in the Gregorian calendar. was so harsh that year that my mother almost perished from the cold, but I kept working, drenched by the rain and warmed by my rapturous elation. I found a discarded piece of pottery and filled it from the village canal. At first, I tried soaking the grass in it, but that only muddied the water. But then I used my fist to pound and crush the grass with a few drops of water, and it turned into a soft green paste.
Then one sunny morning, as I broke the surface of the canal while filling my piece of pottery, a breathtaking image of my face appeared as if drawn in the water. At first, I didn’t know that it was my face, because I didn’t yet understand how it possibly could be. But then I moved my hand above the water, which made the picture on the water move, and I knew that the image on the water was my own. I realized then the secret of the water: an element of the sacred god Habi, it draws everything that it seesHabi was the god of the Nile among the ancient Egyptians, and the most sacred of their gods..
From then on, I only drank water from my own jug, which I filled myself. Whenever I filled it up, I stretched my hand far away from my reflection. I didn’t want my image to flow into the jug, lest I drink it and drown in the water and end up like a fish in the canal, fearing the fisherman’s net all day and night.
I began to notice how the water also drew the shores and the trees that overlooked it, and I made another wish: that I, like the water, would draw things that moved.
|↑1||In the belief system of the ancient Egyptians, the symbol of the god Set was the donkey.|
|↑2||Karanis was one of the towns of the province of Arsinoite (present-day Fayuom). The province was one of the most important in Egypt because of its rich agricultural production.|
|↑3||According to the ancient Egyptians, the ka was a part of a person’s spirit or soul.|
|↑4||Harpocrates was the god Horus as a child, and a god of health and healing to the ancient Egyptians.|
|↑5||Roman law forbade soldiers from marrying, but they often married local girls informally, concluding a marriage contract after the end of their military service (twenty-five years), formally recognizing the marriage and any offspring it had produced.|
|↑6||Selim Hassan, Mawsūʿa Masr al-Qudama’. 16 vols. (Cairo: The General Egyptian Book Organization, 1940-610)|
|↑7||A unit of land, equal to approximately thirty thousand square meters.|
|↑8||Amshir or Meshir is a month from the Coptic calendar, corresponding to parts of February and March in the Gregorian calendar.|
|↑9||Habi was the god of the Nile among the ancient Egyptians, and the most sacred of their gods.|