Escape from the Predators
Abi sprinted toward home. Papa would be glad traders were approaching Meroe. He’d thank her. As she bounded ahead, the sun warmed her skin until she glistened. She outran the goat stampede.
Papa wouldn’t tolerate an interruption from the business at hand. Providentially, Melech was safe from a thrashing about the loss of a goat.
As her fingers lifted the latch, she yelled over her shoulder. “Papa, men are riding up the road on the Candace’s camels.”
He showed no surprise—no reaction. Did he expect the men? He must have known that, since the water had risen high enough to smooth the rough rapids, the time had come when merchants could sail with the winds from the north. Had someone else told him the traders were coming?
Out of breath, she fumbled with the latch. As she stepped aside, the goats thundered through the gate.
“Don’t rush the goats like that. How many times have I told you and told you again? Running overheats them. It keeps them from letting down the fat in their milk.”
Why was Papa fretting over the goats’ milk when the season of business was ripe? During the years she was trained in the court, Abi had received instruction about traveling on the Nile. Meroe, the gateway to African wealth, served as a trade corridor between Egypt and the tropics. If the traders returned before the waters receded, the Nile would take them back north with its current. Traveling farther south than Egypt was risky, but merchants made the hazardous trips because of the richness of ebony, ivory, steel, and gold.
“Papa, merchants are coming.” Did he hear her yelling?
“Okay.” He was sitting in front of the house on his stone bench across from the big rock where he had sat earlier that day. His lean legs were crossed, with his feet tucked underneath him.
“Jews,” she said.
He spit out a wad of chewed brown nuts. “Wash yourself well. You’re dripping with sweat.” His snakelike eyes darted at her. With his slender fingers that reminded her of reptiles, he centered his black turban on his head and stroked the immense gold-encased emerald.
“You smell rank.” Papa leered at her.
“Let me help take care of the goats.” She skidded past him. “Then I’ll wash.”
He sprang to his feet.
Slap! Struck the back of her head.
Shove! At the same time he struck her, his raised leg became a barrier she failed to step over. Although she lost her balance, she managed to lessen the intensity of the blow by yielding as a willow branch. Curling to protect herself from the ragged pavement of rocks, she fell.
“Look after yourself.” He growled. “Melech cares for the goats.”
Raising herself to a standing position, she held her head and grimaced so her father would know the punishment was sufficient.
“You filthy pig. Wash yourself and come back to me. This is your last chance.”
“Ouch.” She cowered toward the front door.
“You’re a worthless girl with no distinctive quality. So ordinary you make me sick. My biggest regret is that I didn’t dash your brains on a rock when you were born. It may not be too late.” His crazed eyes frightened her in a new way.
“I’m sorry.” With a gentle hand, she patted her injured head.
“If I make a smart trade, I can rid myself of you today. And maybe even turn a profit.”
At the wash table, she untied her laced leather bib at her neck and at her midriff. Next she yanked off the short garment made of braided leather straps and decorated with shells strung from a sash hung low from her waist.
She lathered with a creamy bar made from ashes and the fat milk of the goats, rinsed, and patted dry. With shea butter, she polished her skin to a glow. After the oil absorbed, she slipped into a flowing shift.
Her stepmother, holding oil of frankincense in her hands, stood before her. Abi had never worn frankincense, something her father considered too precious for his daughters. She stood with a serene pose as the stepmother dipped into the fragrance and dotted it behind Abi’s ears and inside the folds of her wrists, elbows, neck, and knees.
Abi set her mouth in a fine line. The lavish investment was something she would tolerate but not enjoy. It came not to honor her but to send her away. For the moment she assumed her role as the royal cousin of the Candace instead of the rejected female her father despised.
She returned to Negasi and stood unblinking before him. The loose bracelets and rings with which he adorned her weighted her arms and hands.
He fastened more bracelets onto her ankles. “Lace your sandals tighter. Don’t waste time.”
Careful with her flowing garment, she bent to tighten the sandals and stood in front of him. Was she growing taller, or was Papa stooping?
In his hand he held enormous gold hoops. The holes in her earlobes, seldom used, had almost closed.
“Let me do that.” First her right ear. She pushed the metal into the spot sealed by new skin. She could handle the discomfort if she repierced her own ear. Sparks of light flashed before her closed eyes.
Little Hadassah fetched a rag from inside.
“Quick.” The pain had ceased, but blood trickled down her neck.
“Right there. Let me help.” The little sister blotted the drops before they could reach the top of her shift.
“Now, the left one.”
Perched on a low stool while Hadassah embellished her hair with ivory combs from her father’s stash of merchandise, Abi waited. Although she had questions, she held her words.
“Sister, you look like a princess,” Hadassah whispered.
Abi stood tall. It would have been gratifying to go to the little pool where she sometimes studied her reflection.
“Come here.” The stepmother shoved her to the wall where hung a sheet of polished bronze big enough to produce a dim reflection of her face.
“Thank you for letting me look.”
Papa stood in front of her again. “Come with me. Move with the elegance of a fawn.”
Humming a song too soft for Papa’s ears, she followed. Music helped.
He turned so fast she dodged to avoid a collision with him. “Where is your flute? You forgot it, didn’t you?”
“In my bag.”
They mounted the two mares that Melech had saddled for them. Abi trailed behind Negasi along the Arabica-lined lane to the abode of Amantitere, the Candace.
“Pay attention. Do as I say.”
When they arrived at the front entrance of the stone palace, he spoke softly to the gatekeeper and dropped a coin in an outstretched hand.
“Dismount your horses,” the gatekeeper said. “Enter through the gate.”
The chief steward looked passed Negasi and into Abi’s eyes. “Yes, the Candace will receive a foreign dignitary. After dinner she will expect entertainment. She might welcome your daughter.”
Abi and Papa passed into the vestibule.
“Abi, remember this is your chance.” He jerked her elbow. “Do your best. You must attract the attention of a rich man. You should find at least one such fellow in the group. Never mind how old he is. Don’t consider his looks.”
Silently she focused wide eyes on the stone tiles at her feet.
“When the festivities begin, stand near the wall with the damsels of the court. If you are lucky, Amantitere will call for you.” To her relief, Papa moved away and mingled with the palace staff.
Abi looked for her older sisters among the guards. “Lisimba,” she called out. “I thought I saw you.” Her face felt hot. “No, I was mistaken.”
While she waited for a signal to go farther into the palace, she surveyed the grounds through a window. Camels and horses delivered the travelers.
An official assigned the travelers their quarters for the night. Servants from the Candace’s court rushed forward, but the strangers raised stiff arms with palms turned outward. As two of the travelers stood as guards, the others unloaded their own baggage from the camels, cart, and donkeys.
Milling through the crowd, Papa gave the staff and foreigners sidelong glimpses. They eyed him with stern expressions. Any time he’d start approaching people and introducing himself as Negasi, cousin of the Candace. People would look at him with amazement.
Before the usual could happen, Papa left, holding his head high. Abi sighed with embarrassment because people laughed at him, and she was sorry she didn’t honor her father.
The aroma of poultry, vegetables, and fruit wafted through the air. Clay dishes thudded, signaling the preparations of the royal meal.
|Pigeons, (Public Domain, Project Gutenberg)|
Where were her sisters? She couldn’t divert her attention from her mission and look for them. If she failed to find a husband, she’d receive a larger portion of Papa’s wrath than ever.
Finally a female attendant escorted Abi to a tiny chamber. It seemed to be fashioned from a slot of leftover space crammed between larger rooms.
On her way to the bedchamber assigned to her, Abi studied each face in the gathering of young women filling the corridor. She needed to talk to Lisimba and Malaika for a moment. Too late, she realized she’d failed to greet her former companions. She must have appeared cold and indifferent.
No longer invited to share the sleeping hall with the others, she regretted being an outsider, although the matron housekeeper had honored her with the private chamber.