The Sickness of Cats

9 Jan

The medical priest was named Kneph was new to the Nile Delta and the city of Bubastis, where everything seemed strange and unfamiliar to him. His hope was that the Chief Priest of Re, the old and venerable Aau, would orient him as to what he should expect.

The tall, spare young man in blue robe was ushered into the work office of his superior. The latter invited him to take a low stool opposite his own. “How was your journey here from Thebes?” asked the elderly cleric. “I trust that you have rested enough to take up your new duties treating our many patients with ills and complaints.”

“I am eager to start as soon as I can,” beamed the medical therapist. “I suspect that sickness is pretty much the same, regardless of where the suffering person may be located.”

All of a sudden, Aau frowned. “Our Temple of Re is not the only important center for healing in this city. As you have probably learned by now, Bubastis is sacred to the goddess of all lions and felines, divine Bast, mistress of the cats.”

“Yes, I heard much about the importance of Bast to the inhabitants of this city. Nowhere else in the Kemetic Kingdom is that goddess held in such high regard and turned to for aid by worshipers. The temple that was built to her here is the greatest one ever dedicated anywhere to that particular goddess. It is a special, unique shrine surrounded on all sides by an artificial lake. There is a deep, fanatical devotion to Bast by both her faithful priesthood and the general population.

“There happen to be a large number of sacred cats bred and maintained at her temple in Bubastis with the belief that these animals possess occult powers of protection and healing for the followers of the goddess. It is claimed that as a daughter of Almighty Re, that goddess deserves to be called the Eye of her father, the god of the sun and the sky. There appears to be no limit to what these devoted followers are willing to do for the woman with the head of a cat. They have placed her statues and images throughout our city, you will see for yourself, my son.”

“Yes,” nodded Kneph, “I have already seen many signs of this fervor for Bast and her cats. There are large, extensive cemeteries where only cats may be buried. I have noticed these on the approaches to the lake-surrounded temple of the goddess.”

Aau seemed to look away for a moment. “There will soon be held the annual festival dedicated to the divine cat. The streets of Bubastis will be filled with music, dancing, and drunken revelry. Thousands of pilgrims from throughout the Nile Delta will be traveling here for the occasion. In generations past, the Pharaoh was known to have come to this city for that particular feline holiday. You will be a witness to the wild madness that prevails in our streets on such occasions, Kneph.”

The latter said no more, but withdrew, leaving the old Chief Priest to his memories and shadowy thoughts.

Kneph had never witnessed anything as uninhibited as the celebration of the festival of Bast in the region of the temple in the lake.

Joyous, drunken crowds lined the columns of trees that led to the entrance of the grand structure made of imported pink granite.

Flutes, drums, and cymbals filled the evening air with music dedicated to the “Sacred, All-Seeing Eye of Bast”, “the Goddess of the Rising Sun”, the “Lady from the East.”

Songs told the legend of how Bast accompanied her father Re on his daily journey through the sky, into the underworld of the Night. Kneph listened to the tale of how she rescued her parent from the evil serpent named Apep who wished to destroy him and the light of the Sun.

The newly arrived priest accompanied the veteran Aau to an elevated spot from which the two of them viewed the procession of the priests of the cat goddess. All of them were dressed in bright, glowing green robes. Aau pointed to the tall, massive figure with the ensignia of the Head Priest of Bast. “That is their leader here in Bubastis,” he groaned. “He goes by the name of Mshai, and is a man full of treachery.”

Kneph realized that he had never before seen such an evilly ugly face on a living, moving human form. This man had a hideously distorted visage that held ominous threat to anyone standing in its way.

The parade of revelers continued till late into the night.

The new medical priest began to see patients at the Temple of Re.

Many of their ailments were unique ones that he had never come across before. A particular disorder that surprised and stumped Kneph was one that appeared to result in a growing green color in the skin of the sufferers.

The young doctor-priest decided to ask Aau for advice and guidance on how to treat those with this unusual change in their epidermis.

“What should I do for these dozens of cases of skin greening?” inquired Kneph with desperation in his voice. “I have never seen anyone with this condition back in Thebes. It is totally a mystery to me. I cannot determine what the cause of it may be, nor do I know of any remedy for this strange coloration. The patients whom I have seen do not complain of any ache or pain due to their situation. But I have recently noticed signs of ulceration and crusting of the upper skin. I fear that blistering is beginning in the most severe cases of greening. What should I do with these individuals with the skin condition, sir?”

Aau thought for a while before he replied. “What you tell me is very troubling. As far as I know, we have never had such a widespread skin infection here in Bubastis before. Have you found any reference to such strange greening of skin in any of our archive scrolls or reference sources, Kneph?”

“No, I have found nothing, although I have spent many hours searching for anything like this in our temple’s records. There is no information there that can explain what we now face.”

The Head Priest furrowed his brow. “We will need to use our usual, standard salves and ointments on the skin of the sufferers.”

“That has not affected the spread and the severity of this condition, sir,” sadly admitted the young therapist.

The patients with the new malady began to present ever more serious complications. Blisters of the skin turned into cysts, sacs, pustules, and hideous lesions. The eyes of those afflicted with greenish skin started to suffer infection of some sort. Kneph grew worried at where the illness might end as it spread to more people in Bubastis.

Aau slowly reached an alarming conclusion about its origin. He revealed it to the young medical priest one evening in his private chamber as the troubled Kneph reported his frustration to him.

“I believe that this disease is unlike anything that has ever before descended upon human beings,” declared the Chief Priest of Re. “Do I dare tell anyone what it is that I suspect? Increasingly, my attention has focused upon the sacred cats that are kept and maintained at the Temple of Bast. Those creatures have always been wrapped up in a thick fog of mystery for me. I do not have much knowledge of them or their strange feline character, but I have come to believe that they have certain invisible powers for either good or ill.

“It may be that we are witnesses to the hidden evil that these pampered, protected cats are capable of producing. The reason for their malice is completely unknown to me, of course. But I have a plan that I wish to carry out, my son, and I wish to have you work with me in finding an answer and solution to this green illness. My judgment is that we must name it as chlorosis, the greening sickness.”

Kneph began to become excited. “What do you intend to do? And how can I be of assistance to you, sir?” He gazed at his superior expectantly.

“I suspect that the answer lies with the sacred cats, and that they have to be examined and studied. My wish is that you accompany me on a visit to the High Priest named Mshai at the Temple of Bast. Arrangements will have to be made and an excuse devised to justify our appearance before him. But once we are there at the center of their lake, we will have an opportunity to look about and learn what we can about the colony of cats that is maintained there.

“The major responsibility for examination will fall to you, Kneph, as I shall be busy in conversation with Mshai, the one in charge of the entire complex of cat worship and dedication to Bast.

“Your task will be difficult and contain much danger. Are you willing to undertake it for the sake of rescuing those who have fallen ill?”

“Certainly, I am,” pronounced Kneph in a firm, solemn tone.

The two priests from the Temple of Re passed the cemetery fields where legend said that over 300,000 mummified bodies of sacred cats had been buried over the ages.

They walked slowly over the wooden entrance bridge that took them past the two separate, deep channels that carried water from out of the nearby Nile. Each of these courses circled the island holding the Temple of Bast from an opposite side. They were said to run over ten furlongs in opposite directions. Tall trunks of towering palms lined both edges of this entrance bridge.

Kneph was emotionally impressed by the pink granite walls of the building ahead, with their finely carved images of cats staring down on them. The young medical priest caught sight of the enormous statue of the Goddess Bast high above the gate into the high temple. He had heard from Aau the ancient legend that the divinity had once been cooled down from fierce anger by these waters from the Nile, into becoming a calm, gentle protector of those who worshiped, obeyed, and adored her.

A pair of priests in green gowns met the two visitors and told them that they were to accompany them to the chamber of the Head Priest, Mshai. Aau explained that he would proceed into the temple and leave his companion to wait for him there at the entrance gate.

As he watched his superior go into the interior of the pink stone structure, Kneph turned back toward the bridge, on the look-out for any of the sacred temple cats that he hoped to take hold of and examine for signs of chlorisis and greening.

Aau entered the great hall of the Bast Temple, finding the Head Priest, Mshai, seated in a large, high throne-like chair. The visitor made a courteous bow, then waited for the other to speak first.

“I seldom see anyone from your precincts, my brother cleric. What is it that brings you here for a personal consultation with me?”

Aau pronounced the words that he had many times rehearsed to himself in private.

“I and my subordinates are worried and concerned about a recent outbreak of an undefined illness among the civilian population of our great city. It is unlike anything experienced in the past, and our archives of old documents possess no mention at all of anything similar to what people are at present suffering from.

“It is a strange skin disease, and the fear of our medical therapists is that it may develop into something as serious and dangerous as ancient leprosy. No one is now able to predict what the final total of illness or death may turn out to be.”

“Why have you come to me? What can I be expected to do about this troubling situation among the general masses?”

Aau forced himself to smile at Mshai. “I would like to send some of my medical priests to look about the outside of this temple, because they fear that the waterways about this island may be locations where the unknown disease may be germinating. No one as yet knows how it began, so we are eager to study conditions everywhere, including the environs of the Temple of Bast.

“Would you be willing to grant us permission to inspect and look around the surroundings of this magnificent temple of the cat goddess?”

What occurred next surprised and shook the priest of Re.

“No, I cannot permit such interference and trespassing into the sacred territory of divine Bast. It has never before been allowed, nor shall I authorize anything so outlandish. My answer to you is an absolute refusal, and that is my final word.”

His face reddened with angry emotion, the Head Priest of Bast rose to his feet and stalked out with unforeseeable speed, leaving Aau alone in the great hall.

The embarrassed visitor made his way out of the temple, looking about for the young priest who had accompanied him there.

When the pair returned to the inner precincts of the Temple of Re, the younger priest had a surprising announcement for his superior.

“I did something secretly on my own responsibility, sir,” said Kneph in a whisper. “Under my robe, I carried a sac of potent soporific, and I made use of it when I located a sacred cat that appeared to have symptoms of the illness that we are treating our human patients for. So I tempted and deceived the most likely candidate to become my victim and swallow the sleep-inducing substance in the leather container. I then tied the slumbering sacred cat into a cloth belt that was wound about my chest, under my priestly robe.

“I now will remove that somnolent animal from the belt holding it. We can now make a complete examination of the condition of the skin under its dark fur. As far as I could determine with my original, superficial look, the signs of coloring and chlorosis that are visible among the diseased persons also appear in this individual feline as well.”

Aau suddenly grew very excited. “Let me see for myself what the cat’s inner skin is like,” he said with visible anxiety. “We must determine whether the suspicions that we have any basis in reality or result from our fears about the power of the cat goddess, Bast.”

Kneph pulled out the dormant cat from under his robe and set it on a table before the two of them.

A night of sleepless thought and consideration brought the High Priest of Re to a fateful decision about what course had to be taken in the growing medical emergency in Bubastis. He related what had to be done to the man who had become his closest collaborator and assistant, the neophyte named Kneph.

“This desperate and critical problem demands a drastic, radical remedy. You and I must uproot the source of the difficulty. Only by destroying all of the cat colony at the Temple of Bast can we hope to free the city from the terrible scourge made visible by the discoloration of skin. It is a horrible action that has to be taken, the poisoning of all the cats about this community. But I can see no other possible remedy that will halt the further spreading of the disorder from the felines to human beings.

“The cat population must be sacrificed for the sake of our human health.”

Kneph felt his head shake as if rattled upon hearing these words.

“There is no hope of winning any agreement from Mshai to cooperate in a joint effort to deal with the divine cats?” he inquired with hesitation.

“The man is a stubborn tyrant who never listens to reason,” declared Aau. “I regret to say that any arguments from us will only make him more resistant to what has to be done with all the cats.”

The two of them stared in silence at each other for a short time.

“I know of some quick, effective animal poisons that will rid us of all the feline population alive at the present time,” said the Chief Priest of Re. “I can obtain a large supply of it from suppliers elsewhere in the Nile Delta. You must take direct control over the practical portions of this operation, my son.”

Kneph answered with an affirming nod, knowing that he was soon to become the one who destroyed all the divine cats in the city of Bubastis.

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