The Cat and the Lioness
Cairo. It was dirty; it was dangerous. From the ancient sphinx with its missing nose to the darkened back alleys that wound around the busier streets, it was a mystery to solve and a puzzle to unlock all at once. Cairo: it was home.
Fareeha Amari leaned back in her chair, looking out at the dusty city through the window before her. On a low table nearby, a tea glass stood empty, the faint scent of mint leaves lingering in the air.
She rarely came back to Cairo, now. She still had a house here – if house was the right term for the dingy bedsit she rented – but she spent most of her time in her Giza quarters. The gleaming, hi-tech environment of the AI research facility compound was a far cry from the sands and smog of Egypt’s capital.
Tariq had forced her to take some time away in the end.
‘The team need you rested and at your best,’ he had said gently. ‘Go, spend a few days at home, come back next week.’
And with that he had turned and walked away, ignoring her feeble protests.
Maybe he was right. She worked hard – too hard, some might say – and ever since she had received an unexpected letter, Fareeha had not allowed herself any time to think and reflect.
Abruptly she stood, almost knocking the little chair over in her haste, and threw a crumpled purple banknote on the table to pay for the tea. Rushing from the tiny ahwa, she barely noticed the intense heat that washed over her as she stepped outside: a lifetime spent in Egypt’s embrace immunised you somewhat against her discomforts.
Fareeha’s feet took her where her mind dared not wander, and she found herself standing out the old Egyptian Museum of Antiquities. That this ancient façade had survived the many crises and wars the years had brought was in itself a miracle. It had been crumbling for decades, but still provided a safe haven for the unearthed treasures of her beloved land.
Fareeha ducked inside the entrance, and headed towards the heart of the building. There, the rooms she had begged her mother to take her as a small child: those housing the deities of ancient Egypt. Fareeha had not reflected on these memories for a long time now.
Ana Amari had held little Fareeha’s hand as they walked along the glass cases of gods and goddesses: wise Thoth with his reed pen, terrifying Ammut and her ravenous maw, falcon-headed Ra holding up the sun. Ana had told Fareeha the stories, and Fareeha would point to Horus with excitement. Her mother bore a tattoo of his eye, the wadjet eye. A symbol of wholeness and unity, of protection.
In the present day, Fareeha stood alone with her forehead resting on the cool glass of a case, her fingertips tracing the lines of the faience wadjet eye in front of her. She too had marked herself with the eye of unity, a symbol that she too would uphold the promise to protect the innocents.
She sighed and stepped away from the case. Her mother had made the same promise, but then had wilfully abandoned her own daughter, letting Fareeha believe she was dead for so many years. A belief Fareeha had held until the crumpled letter had been delivered to her. A crumpled letter with achingly familiar handwriting. How was that protecting the innocent?
Fareeha angrily spun on her heel and began to march out of the display rooms, when she was stopped by the sight of another familiar goddess.
A statue of Bastet, glimmering copper in the muted light of the museum, looked beseechingly out at her. Fareeha hesitated, then reluctantly turned to the case. The cat-headed goddess was the protector of the hearth and home. And the guise of the goddess had been taken on recently by an unnamed vigilante, destroyer of Hakim’s criminal syndicate, and even now was spoke about in hushed voices in the back streets of Cairo. Bastet: the protector.
Ana had told Fareeha the stories of Bastet when she was little. She wasn’t just the protector of the home, but the protector of women and children. Ana had given Fareeha a little Bastet to play with as a child, and had told her that the goddess would always protect her children. Could it be…?
Turning from the statue of Bastet, Fareeha was greeted by another familiar feline face.
This was Sekhmet.
The lioness-headed goddess of war and destruction. Bastet’s martial alter-ego. Where Bastet was the guardian, Sekhmet was the hunter. She fought alongside the pharaohs in the battles, always ensuring they won and went on to defeat their enemies and conquer their lands.
Bastet and Sekhmet: two sides of the same coin, both protectors of Egypt and her children.
Egypt had always needed both. Would always need both. And how would it help Egypt if the two protector goddesses ever found themselves opposing one another?
Fareeha smiled to herself, and for the first time in months felt a spark of hope blossom in her heart.
It was time to see her mother again.