“Running water never grows stale…”

Short story: Merit’s Story


by Eve Birch

Chapter One

Merit awoke early on the day of her new life as an adult. Today was the day that she was going to the Temple to learn about what went on there on a daily basis.

Quickly she rolled off her couch in the colonnade, lifted off her little tabby cat, called Miu, folded up her light bedding and went into the house to wash and complete her ablutions. Nefta, her nurse, had let her sleep for one last time in the open air, as she had done as a child. However, now she must put away the childish habits and act as a grown up. She was just fourteen, and many of her friends were in fact already married, but her parents, who were very fond of her, did not want to lose her yet and suggested that perhaps she might train to be a priestess in the temple of the Aten, which was not far away.

The family to which she belonged had moved, along with many others, from their home in the old city of Thebes to follow the new King Akhenaton and his court to the new city of Akhataten which he was building on the East bank of the Nile. The King had differences with the priests and religions of the many gods of Egypt and decided to worship only one god – the Aten. To this end, he and his followers set up home further up the Nile toward the South and created a new life there.

Of course, all trades were needed there, and as Ramose, Merit’s father, was an experienced tomb designer, he realised that his talents would be of great use, as all the Royals and Nobles would need to be buried somewhere one day. So he decided to go with the court, taking his little family with him. The family was composed of Ramose, his wife Bekhet, Merit, and their only son Nefru, who was the younger child, aged ten. He was destined to become a scribe at the temple school, as he was already showing great promise at his studies.

Nefta, who had been nurse to both of the children had also come with the family, but as her services, as a nurse were no longer needed, and because of their ages, she now looked after the household, acting as a cook and general help. As Bekhet worked in the Temple as a Handmaid of the Divine Wardrobe which meant that she worked on all the robes and linens that were produced in the temple workshop.

Ramose was often away working and supervising the tombs that were being dug in the Northern Wadi but tried to return to his home at intervals. He was away at the time of Merit’s first introduction to life in the Temple but had sent his wishes that she would be happy there.

After a quick breakfast Bekhet and Merit set out to walk to the Temple – but after a few yards they had to turn and take Miu back to the house – she was Merit’s constant companion, and thought she could go with her everywhere!

Having firmly shut the gate to the garden, they continued on their short journey to the Temple, passing on their way, the stallholders laying out their wares for sale. There were vegetables, spices and herbs, bolts of linen for clothing and many others, all laughing and happy in the new light of the early day. Later, the fishermen would return from their fishing trip, and fresh fish would also be on sale, as would bread when the bakers opened their ovens, in which the bread had been cooking since dawn.

Soon, ahead of them, the tall pylons and enclosing gates could be seen, and Merit and Bekhet passed through a smaller gate cut out of one of the big ones, and entered the main courtyard of the Temple. The first thing that Merit noticed was the smell, which was a combination of baking bread, incense and the sweet smell of ripe fruit. Ahead of them, she could see a large table, on which was laid fruit and flowers, and in the air the blue curling smoke of the incense which had been offered to the Aten as the sun arose earlier. The smell of the fresh baked bread was coming from her left, where the bakers were busy at their craft, and some of their earlier produce was also on the offering table.

She had never been inside the courtyard before, and before proceeding, Bekhet explained what she was looking at. The plan of the Temple was quite simple. A large courtyard lay ahead of them, open to the sky, and straight in front of them was the offering table, facing East, so that the priests could revere the sun as it arose at dawn over the horseshoe-shaped gap in the hills behind. To the left and right, two colonnades were laid out, with both having a row of columns in front of them. The spaces behind were laid out as walkways, and behind them were, on the left-hand side the workshops of the Temple, where Merit was to spend time, and on the right, three openings covered with drawn curtains which looked rather mysterious to her eager eyes.

She had thought that she was only going to train as a priestess, and was quite surprised when her mother told her that first, she would be working at all the trades about the place. Then to learn a little about the actual aspects of being a priestess, and eventually be allowed to decide what she would do with her life.

Bekhet told her that the right-hand side, where the closed doorways were, were the domain of the ordained priests and priestesses, and did not concern her at the moment, then, turning to the left, she led her through the columns and onto the walkway to the workshops where the day’s work was beginning.

They walked up to the far end to start the introduction, and the first workshop was the Scriptorium, where the scribes learnt their trade, but Bekhet only pointed it out, as it would not concern Merit, as, her mother pointed out, only boys became scribes. Next to this was a section devoted to the looking after of hair and wigs. The next section was divided roughly into two smaller ones and was where herbs, spices and dyes were made for temple use. Next to this was the bakery, from which the smell was emerging, and finally, a larger area which dealt with the weaving, dying, spinning, etc. of all the cloth that was used in the Temple.

Having seen all these places, Bekhet took her into the area where she worked and introduced her to the other people who worked there. After meeting these colleagues of her mother, she was then taken out of the back entrance to the workshops and found that behind the working areas were the gardens where a lot of the necessary materials for their daily work were produced. At the back of the textile house, for example, flax was growing, for use in the production of linen.

Next, and behind the bakery emmer wheat and spelt were growing, both were use in the production of flour for the bread. Further along, various herbs and plants from which dyes could be extracted.

The last area, behind the hairdresser and the scribe school, was laid out as a communal garden which all the workers could use as they wished, perhaps to eat their midday meal. Here also was a necessary house, and there was another one at the other end of the colonnade, which by custom, the women usually used, the men and boys tending to use the one in the garden.

Merit was quite awed at the amount that went on, on a daily basis, and so Bekhet, who did not have to work on that particular day decided that she had seen enough for the time being. She then suggested that they should return home, and could have a little talk about which area Merit would like to start in, as there was no definite order in which she would learn each art, as long as they were all completed before she tried the priestess training.


Chapter Two

After a little thought, Merit decided that she would like her first placement to be in the section that dealt with hair. Her mother agreed and suggested that she should start on a particular day as that was the day that the King was coming to see their temple which was now finished, except for the painting on the outside.

So, on the appointed day, Merit, Bekhet and Nefru set out just before the sun rose. They took Nefru with them, as he had to go to the scribe school.

The moon was still visible in the sky, and they were able to see their way quite clearly. All was very quiet at the spot where the merchants set up their stalls, but they could smell the bread from the bakery – the bakers were always the first up in the mornings.

As they approached the temple, they were aware of a murmuring coming from within, and it was obvious that some people had arrived already. Passing through the little gate, they found that this was so and that the earlier arrivals were in fact mainly the other people who worked in the temple. Taking their places behind the others, they waited quietly for what would come next.

The sun had not yet risen, but a pinky lemon light appeared in the U Shaped dip in the hills in front of them, which heralded the sunrise.

The offering table in front of them was covered already with fruit and flowers and as they watched a baker appeared and placed some loaves of bread on the table to accompany the other offerings.

The murmuring of the crowd suddenly became louder and more excited as the high priest, wearing his leopard skin, appeared from the middle doorway in the right-hand colonnade. Following him and wearing the double crown of Egypt came the Pharaoh accompanied by a lady wearing an unusual headdress – a tall, straight-edged, flat-topped blue crown, which they had not seen before. Behind them followed the priestesses and priests who were on duty that day.

“Who”, said Merit quietly to her mother “is the beautiful woman with the king”. “That”, said Bekhet “is the King’s great wife – her name is Nefertiti, and as you remarked, she is indeed considered very beautiful by all the court. He has four children already by her, but they are all girls, with whom they are rather disappointed, as girls cannot inherit the throne. Of course, he has children by other women, as he has more than one wife, and I believe there is a son by a lady of the harem called Kia, but we don’t know his name. There are other offspring as well, but nobody seems to know anything about the others, but we must be quiet now as I sense something is about to happen any moment.”

The sky in the East now had a rosy glow, and Merit and Bekhet saw that the King had lit the incense cones, as pale blue tendrils of smoke rose into the sky above them, and a sweet smell pervaded the air around them.

The King raised both arms above his head, and the gesture was followed by the Queen, as he began to intone the short hymn to the Aten as the sun rose quite quickly in front of them.

“Splendid you rise, o living Aten, eternal Lord,
You are radiant, beauteous, mighty,
Your love is great; immense rays light up all our faces,
Your bright hue gives light to heart,
When you fill the two lands with your love.
August, God who fashioned himself,
Who made every land, created what is in it,
All peoples, herds and flocks,
All trees that grow from soil,
They live when you dawn for them.
You are father and mother of all that you made.”

The King and Queen remained standing with their arms up stretched to the solar disk as it rose in front of them, and the priests also did, but the rest of them knelt in adoration of the Aten.

The sun was rising rapidly now, and as the hymn to the Aten was concluded the King turned and left the centre of the courtyard followed by his retinue, and disappeared into the central curtained door in the colonnade, from where no doubt he would return to the royal palace in his chariot.

The rest of the worshippers rose to their feet and began to leave the area to go to their various places of work within the temple. As Bekhet and her children did likewise, they noticed the reappearance of a priestess, who went to the offering table and removed some of the offerings – some fruit and the bread. These would be used for part of their meals for the day. She was followed by a priest who gathered up the remainder and took it to the temple door where he proceeded to hand it out to some poorer people as a gift from the gods.

The little family walked diagonally over to the left side of the temple, and Bekhet saw her son into the scribe school, reminding him to wait for her and his sister after they had all concluded their duties.

As Merit and Bekhet moved toward the next booth, they were greeted by a tall man who came forward and said “Welcome, Bekhet” and turning to Merit said “Your mother, of course, I already know, so I presume that you are Merit. I am Ra Hotep, chief wig maker and hairdresser to the court, and while you are with us, I will be teaching you the craft of working with hair and particularly the making and maintenance of wigs. We will only be working in the mornings, as it gets too hot after midday, so some inside and we will make a start.” At this point, Bekhet said she would have to leave to start her work and would collect Merit later.

As she followed Ra Hotep the first thing that Merit saw was a rather sad looking wig on a stand. Ra Hotep said “This wig belongs to Setneb, one of the priestesses who lives in the temple, she was at a party last evening. The festivities got a bit out of hand, and some of her friends got a bit too merry and put one too many perfumed cones onto the wig, which explains the sticky mess you see before you. Our task now is to get it cleaned as soon as possible… Setneb particularly wants it back quickly, so that she can take part in a ceremony planned for a few days time. There is a rumour that the princess Kia is to take part, and as she has never seen Kia, Setneb wants to be there. People are curious about the princess as she has given birth to a prince, and Nefertiti has only borne girls.

The wig itself was of the usual design – shoulder length with a fringe and made of human hair. At puberty, girls would have their hair cut, and it would be given to the wigmakers, who would make them a wig, and after that, they would shave their heads as it was much more comfortable in the extreme heat of Egypt.

Some of the ladies liked to personalise their wigs by decorating them with various items, and Setneb had chosen to have hers plaited and, at intervals, it had little gold tubes inserted into the plaits and was finished off with gold caps on the ends of the plaits.

“First of all”, said Ra Hotep, “we must get the plaits undone and then remove all the decorations, and then we start the cleaning.” He gave Merit a little bag to put the gold bits in as she slowly started to de-plait the wig. Finally, they were all undone, and the cleaning could start.

“I think if we shake it about a bit, some of the wax will come off by itself and then we can comb the rest out gently. After that, we will wash it a few times in a solution which I have used before, but we may have to have a few goes at it before it is completely clean. After that, we will leave it to dry naturally and finally replace all the ornaments and Setneb will have her wig back in good time”. It took a little while, but eventually, it was cleaned and left to dry.

After it was dry, it was ready to have the gold ornaments replaced, and Merit was given the task of plaiting and then finishing it off, and the wig was soon restored to its former glory.

Ra Hotep said he was very pleased with her first work and that she seemed to be a natural at hair work. He gave her the job of taking the wig back to Setneb in her Priestess’s quarters.


Chapter Three

One day, Merit and Ra Hotep were working on another wig when Ra Hotep suddenly stopped working, stood upright and bowed low to someone who had appeared behind Merit.

Merit turned and standing behind her was the lady Kia. She said that she had been to visit Setneb who was very pleased with her refurbished wig and had told her that Merit had done a lot of the work on it. Lady Kia said that she had come to ask a favour of Ra Hotep and Merit. “As you all know,” she said, “I am also a princess, but not the King’s main wife. I notice that Nefertiti has a special crown, which is very different from any other that has been used before, and I too would like a crown made for me so that when I am seen in public, people will know that I am Kia, who has born the King a child.”

“Have you any ideas of how you would like it to look?” asked Ra Hotep. At this point, Lady Kia turned to her handmaiden, Nefer, who produced from under her gown a handful of golden disks. “Wherever did you get those?” said Ra Hotep. Lady Kia replied that they were a part of her dowry when she married the king and that these were only a sample. She had a lot more at the palace. “Well,” said Ra Hotep, “We are going to need more than these to make a headdress for you. Can you bring me some more and we will see what we can do?” He asked again what sort of headdress Lady Kia might like and she confirmed that she would do a drawing and bring it with her when she next visited.

“When you do come,” said Ra Hotep “We will have to make a model of the exact measurements of your head. I presume you have been using the wigs which are freely available in the palace. From these measurements, we will make a proper copy of your head, and then it will fit only you.”

A week later, Lady Kia arrived with a veritable sack of golden discs (carried off course by Nefer). “Goodness,” said the wig master, “I had no idea that there would be so many, but let’s get on with the measuring to make your model head.” Very carefully, he used a piece of string to measure the length of her head and its circumference, allowing for the shape of the bottom of her face. It would be an exact replica, and he would carve it out of wood. “Come back as soon as you can,” he said “and bring your ideas with you. Then we can start to think how we are going to use these discs to good advantage”.

When Lady Kia arrived with her idea, Ra Hotep said: “I think we can make something along these lines, but you will have to leave it up to me to actually design it as it may be a little difficult.” “Of course,” said Lady Kia, “I will leave everything in your capable hands, and I am sure that you will do a very good job”. Ra Hotep duly carved the wooden head and showed it to Merit the next day, saying to her, “now we have to work out how we are going to do this. First, every single disc will have to have a little hole drilled into it, and the base must be made to fix each of the discs into. The usual mesh will not be strong enough to take the weight of the gold.” Merit had an idea and said, “Could we use fishermen’s net as it is much stronger?”

“Good idea,” said her mentor, “Can you get hold of some after we have drilled the discs? Now set to and start the boring task of drilling the holes. They must not be too big but still big enough to take the thin gold wires which I propose to attach them to the mesh with.” It took quite a long time to do this work, but Ra Hotep eventually decided that they had done enough to enable them to start fixing the little discs on to the base. They draped a piece of the mesh, which they had acquired, over a block of wood to get a rough shape to start with and they then cut it to size. It took hours of work, threading the wire through the holes, but eventually, they had done enough for Ra Hotep to say, “we can stop now, drape it over the block and see if we have to make any major adjustments to fit.” This they duly did, and they found that they had to remove a few discs, particularly around the shape of the lower part of the face and the chin, to enable the headdress to follow the curves of the jaw.

“Well,” said Ra Hotep, “I think that Kia will like this, but there are so many little discs unused that I think it would be best to use them rather than just leave them lying around in the palace. Do you have any ideas?” Merit replied, “Why don’t we ask my mother, who works in the textile department, to make a simple shift dress and we could attach the rest of the discs to the garment, as there are so many of them.”

“What a good idea,” said he “it will be a lovely surprise for Kia, and when worn together, she will look like a column of gold and everyone will know who she is, as that idea has never been used before.”

Bekhet agreed to make the dress and once again, Merit started the drilling and fixing of the gold discs. It did look really good when it was finished and when Lady Kia saw it, she was delighted. She said that the next time she took part in the dawn ceremony, she would wear it as a surprise for the king, which she did…

Everyone present there said that she did indeed look like a statue of gold.

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