In The Garden

Fiction
Fiction
01.09.2016-in-the-garden-590x400.jpg

© Illustration by Jenny Reynish

My princess is playing in the garden. In a grove of cedar trees she is searching for her companion, an aristocratic girl chosen for her loveliness, for my princess must have nothing that is not fine in her presence. This girl, who is soft and smooth and sleek like a baby seal, whose brown body the ladies of the court adorn with turquoise and gold each morning, has buried herself in a feathery bed of cedar fronds for my princess to unearth, and my princess, leaning her brow gently against the trunk of a tree as if it were the chest of her father, closes her eyes and counts to ten.

At the edge of the grove stands a band of attendants. My princess will play for no longer than a half hour, but still, here stand the musicians with their lyres and oboes, filling the sultry air with music for my princess’s pleasure; here stand bronzed boys like statues, holding censers of balsam and incense aloft, perfuming that same air; here stand handmaidens holding silver dishes of fragrant rosewater should she wish to cool her childish fingers; here stands the nurse, who watches my princess anxiously, whose dark nipples, two shadows beneath her linen shift, still smart from my princess’s once-aggressive feeding; here stand two robust Syrians who, should she tire, will lift my princess into a palanquin stuffed with pillows of Chinese silk; here stands a venerable wizard of Memphis, foul-smelling from his magical ointments, who as a boy blinded himself with a burning stick and is now whispering urgent incantations against snakes and scorpions, for death by such creatures is more probable than nature would suggest, and, though my princess is the middle of a litter of six, still there are those who ask, what will she grow into?; here stand two noble and haughty Abyssinian ladies of the court, one of whom cradles a mewling lion cub with milky eyes that – when it suckles honey off my princess’s thumb – sends her into fits of laughter, the other guarding a cedar chest lined with melted pearls and filled with amusements befitting my princess’s royal divinity: a pale blue shard of shell from the egg that hatched Helen, tiny clay figurines representing every race under the empire and so lifelike that each took a year to fashion, a burnished pine cone (still fragrant) from the thyrsus of Dionysus, an albino crocodile hatchling (stiff and preserved, with Indian rubies for eyes), miniature plates and cups of beaten gold with which to hold play banquets; here stands the Scythian cook, a gift from the king of Mathura, famed for his temper, and his kitchen boys, whom he beats mercilessly, and who now submerge pitchers of milk in cool river water, who hold forth platters of pomegranate seeds like heaps of rubies and bunches of grapes translucent with sunlight, and who have spent hours decorating in intricate detail a hundred tiny cakes, each with a surprise inside (a toy, a silver ring, a fat fig) on the chance that my princess, who is indifferent to all food, is moved to eat. Here stand I.

We are assembled as we are every morning, but today my princess is in a state of disquiet. There is, as there has never been before, a restiveness in her. She is a great lover of games, of pranks, but today the hunt seems to leave her dissatisfied. She glances around at us, at her nurse, at the pink and blue and yellow villas that dot the palace grounds, as if she suspects us of disappearing when her back is turned and she wishes to catch us in the act. Rosewater, pomegranates, silk – none of it would soothe her. I know my princess’s moods; I read them as effortlessly as I read the scrolls in the library. My princess is the tenth of the languages in which I am fluent, of the languages in which I have been reciting and writing poetry since I was a boy. The slackness of her limbs as she moves about the cedars, the wilful toss of her lank hair, the nervous twitch of the corner of her mouth – these are as clear to me as the marks I make on my own papyrus, in my own steady hand. I watch as she stops, lifts a knee, and leans forward to pluck off a sandal. Her nurse gathers her skirts in her hands and makes to move towards her, but my princess says, ‘No!’, a harsh word in Egyptian, a language that of all her family only she has learned to speak, since they hold in high esteem their Greek heritage and disdain most things native, apart from a ceremonial titbit here and there. The nurse – who cannot read my princess as I do, even though my princess has never said a word to me, and so for me she is like the lost language of some forgotten tribe, I read her without the benefit of conversation – hovers, an anxious gadfly. My princess shakes a surplus of cedar feathers from her small gold sandal. Then she pulls it back on, slopes over to the cedar pile, and points at it, and when the pretty companion leaps up and we all applaud her cleverness, Cleopatra sighs.

I am one of the many scribes of the palace. Of all of the palace’s unseen machinery – its cooks and guards and servants and pages and gardeners and keepers of the royal roses and keepers of the sacred crocodiles and handmaidens and stable boys and soldiers and laundry-maids – we are the least noticed, for we do nothing but watch and record. One scribe records the king’s diet and his bowel movements, another the utterances of the royal astronomer, another the portentous dreams of the ladies of the court. I could have been the scribe of the graceful Berenice, three years older than Cleopatra and groomed for the throne, or I could have been the scribe of the younger, headstrong Arsinoe, who commands with a pointed finger. Instead I am the scribe of Cleopatra, her father’s beloved, wedged between her sisters. There have been Cleopatras before her, hundreds of them, but only she is mine.

I have known my princess all the eight years (almost nine, it will be her birthday soon) of her life, from the time that her mother dropped her wailing onto a wooden plank carved with magical hieroglyphs, to now, where she stands alert, her body small and solitary against the great dark mass of cedar trees. Let me say, in the name of the truth to which I am devoted (for what am I but the most faithful chronicler of all of my princess, her delights and pleasures, the contours of her mind, what she conceals, and what she allows to be seen?), that my princess has not yet achieved what the common people would call loveliness. If she were not divine, if she did not wear the white silk ribbon of a descendant of Alexander upon her brow, if her father were not king, she would not, perhaps, be chosen as her own companion. But pretty girls are as transient as the multitudes of apple blossoms that bloom from green branches for a single, spring day, and by nightfall are browned and bruised on the ground.

Her handmaidens tell me that at night my princess howls with pain, as the hollows behind her knees and the crooks of her elbows ache with growing pains, that she will not sleep unless, as if she were a teething infant again, they rub an ointment of fly dirt and poppy juice on her gums, and I believe it, because my princess grows day by day not into loveliness but into clumsiness. She is a series of sharp angles that will not accede to her will: in the mornings when her nurse brushes her hair she accidentally elbows the old woman in the stomach, and when she runs down the walkways of the palace, which are cool in the shadows of Corinthian columns and lofty palms, she inevitably trips and falls, so that her already embittered legs are further bruised and her nurse must seat her on the edge of her bath each evening and pluck the pebbles and grit of out of her poor, scarred knees. She bites her cuticles, my princess does, she carves tiny cruciforms with a torn fingernail into the mosquito bites on her arms – I have seen flecks of blood on the white linen of her play-dress – she picks at the corners of her mouth until the skin bleeds, and when it does, as she sits with her tutor and practises her Greek vocabulary (abdominous, whelp, hircine) she worries at the sores with her unconscious tongue. Of late, she blushes, as if someone has dipped a brush into coloured ink and touched it to her cheeks. A blush of shame, I believe, at her body’s constant betrayal.

Rising, she let out a cry of horror. A viscous substance, for a moment utterly mysterious, was stuck to her thigh

I am to keep a record of her days: here did Cleopatra, daughter of Auletes, appear in a procession at the palace at Memphis and pay honour to the gods, her sisters by her side; here was Cleopatra presented with a dress of fine-spun gold by the society of silk merchants; here was Cleopatra presented to the visiting King of Mauretania, who praised her pretty manners. These facts give the shape but not the colour of my princess’s days. And I am a poet, not a keeper of kitchen accounts. Great rivers of scrolls we scribes produce, to be poured into the thousands of cubbyholes of the library of Alexandria, and there they collect dust, for the library contains every text in the world, more than can ever be read even by the scholars that toil there constantly, and to their burden we daily add more. The dutiful diary I file alongside the rest, so that in time it will serve to cross the eyes of some future scholar with boredom. The real work I keep for myself. My secret pleasure: the reams of papyrus that I fill each night alone in my scribe’s chamber, with every detail of my princess’s day, accounts of her shifting moods as one might record the changing weather. What I do not see I gather, for I am trusted all about the palace, and what I do not gather I imagine.

This morning Cleopatra awoke at dawn. The city of Alexandria was turning from ivory to rose, the sun touching sweetly the columns of the great white marble palace, the limestone sphinxes that line the avenues, and the pearly domes of the Greek temples, bathing in vermilion the wide expanse of the desert and the crumbling tombs of the kings. Cleopatra lay in her bed in billows of lambswool and panther skin, her eyes lifted to the sky above her balcony, where birds of prey swooped and dove, and beneath which Alexandria turned aureate, roseate, alive. Rising, she let out a cry of horror. A viscous substance, for a moment utterly mysterious, was stuck to her thigh.

Then the realization. She had gone to sleep with her favourite pet, a white mouse who would scurry in panicked bursts over her childish arms and tremble in her cupped hands, and some time in the night she must have crushed him, because there in the chaos of her sheets was now only the approximation of a mouse, a bloodied piece of fur, pathetic and small. Cleopatra wept. Three times. First, with the shock of disgust, like any healthy young girl. Then, with a tender, biting remorse, for she loved her pet, loved him as she does all things that love her and bring her pleasure. But what of the third time? I see her there, in her white bed, as a small thing lost in drifts of sand, weeping, and I imagine that at some point as she wept the second time, her grief slowly began to clear, like mist dissolved by sunlight, and there emerged the world around her. The cloying scent of roses and lilies from the bower above her bed, the soft brush of panther fur against her childish ankles, the buzz and rattle of a dying beetle in some corner of her chamber, the rising heat from the city beyond the balcony, and beyond that the great untamed world, and above it all, the pleasing resonance of her own sobs, echoing off the marble columns and rising in high, pure notes to the ceiling. And so the third time must have been an experiment: above the pulpy body of the now-forgotten mouse Cleopatra would have twisted and turned her girlish body and practised varieties of despair, modes of sorrowful repose: now she was Achilles, wild with grief over the slain body of Patroclus; now Demeter, lying in anguish in a field of poppies. Oh, how she wept! What good are tears if they are not beautiful? How much more lovely is one’s grief, when it is known to be seen?

Her nurse, fetched by an anxious handmaiden, pushed her way into the girl’s chamber, and I – who had been waiting outside the door with the rest of her faithful retinue – followed. As with kings, no door is closed to a eunuch, especially one still a limp, docile boy, with the pallor of a scholar. So I saw what they did: the wretched figure of my princess kneeling on her soft bed, her head bent to her chest, and her hands fixed as claws in her hair, as if she would tear it out. As they rushed to save my princess from her despair, I saw what they did not. There, between her knees, was a mirror. A small, still pond, in which an ungainly girl might admire the comeliness of her own tears.

This morning, as every morning, her nurse led her out of her chamber, scented and aglow from a bath of precious oils, satiated on milk and honeycomb. Then it was time for her lessons. Before playtime in the garden, she had lessons for three stifling hours. Her tutor’s room is small and exhibits the most irritating kind of false modesty – he has a simple cot that one cannot help but notice when walking into the room, but that upon closer examination reveals itself to be of the finest ebony. He is Roman, the type who stumbles through Alexandria speaking only Latin and Greek, believing the common languages beneath him, and as a result being cheated every day in the marketplace. He is short with the servants, annoyed at the smallest of crimes (the wine too sweet, the drapes open when he wished them closed), and so they fear him. He is a large man, ox-like, with hair like a sheaf of wheat atop his big round skull. His teeth are rotten. He is famous amongst Alexandria’s many scholars for his poetry, which he is ready to recite and hold forth about at a moment’s notice, without even an invitation or the excuse of drunkenness, and which I have always thought pointlessly ponderous, much like his body. He takes up so much space, hunching broad-shouldered through doorways, and yet he never seems concerned by it, never considers how he may be crowding the rest of us. His eyes unsettle me the most: eyes like two grey pebbles protruding, watching everything, interested. When he considers Cleopatra’s answers to his questions (Who are Aphrodite’s parents? Is it better to be the lover or the beloved? Why do the Romans believe that the Egyptian seasons and the Nile run backwards?) he lifts his gaze to the ceiling, rolls his big wet eyes, and pushes the septum of his nose upwards with a thick forefinger.

Cleopatra is nothing if not talkative, particularly during her lessons, which she attends to with fervent devotion. Like anyone she has occasion to speak to, from her nurse to the woman who braids pearls into her dark hair and asks if they’re arranged to her liking, she interrogates her tutor on subjects beyond the remit of the occasion: his childhood, if he has nightmares, his favourite foods, the name of this fruit or that colour in the language he spoke at his mother’s knee, why he has chosen to wear a blue robe today rather than the red one. He does not have the will, or perhaps the imagination, to answer; he sticks to the lesson plan. If her mind is a river, quick and lively, he is the great stone that sits in the middle of it, interrupting its flow and rebuffing its touch. He never notices me where I stand every morning in the corner of the room, a mute witness to the lesson, placed like an ornament between the nurse and the servant who carries a pitcher of watered wine. But I have seen him often. This morning, in those three stifling hours before playtime, I watched him as carefully as I did her. Just as the memory of the warm, febrile mouse against her thigh must still have been on her mind, he too held a mystery, for I had seen him the night before, in circumstances I had still not yet come to understand.

I have never been able to sleep, not since I left home. As a boy in Samaria my father had a vision that I should be a priest, and so he sent me away to Jerusalem, where, with six other boys to whom I could not speak, all of us having different languages, I was carved into perpetual virginity and trained, from dawn to dusk, in letters. When they could not make a priest out of me, I went to Tyre and found a job on a merchant ship, tallying goods. Then one night, like all young men of the empire, I found myself, inevitably, in Alexandria, alighting under the fierce eye of its great lighthouse, which winked at me slowly, as if to say, I have been expecting you.

Even for someone who will always be a boy, Alexandria has its pleasures. At night I walk its streets and, I confess, I imagine Cleopatra at my side. I talk to her, I show her what she will never learn from her tutor’s questions about units of grain and the migratory patterns of the ibis. Leaning as she does against the parapet of her balcony in the day, she sees an Alexandria of sunlight: silk banners shining and rippling proudly in the breeze, streets shimmering, sphinxes and statues of the gods glowing nobly. But at night, my ghost princess, whose slight, small frame hovers at my right-hand side, sees the statues awash in moonlight, spectral and strange, and the palace shining like a distant, white tomb. In the inky gloom we move along the streets, two inkier shadows, and I say, Cleopatra, please observe: the smell of charred and burnt meat mingling with the scent of the sweet, rotten water pumped from the perfumeries along the river; the laughter and soft music drifting from the brothel windows, lit pink and green, behind whose gauzy curtains all men of the empire are rendered equal, the centurion and the slave aligned in their desire; the rancid stink of the tannery; the hup, hup, hup of the Nile as it laps its banks and the whimpers of lovers hidden in its rushes; the yelps and growls of feral dogs fighting over scraps in the alleyways; the stink of urine at every street corner; the soft chants of the eastern men in saffron robes behind the high walls of the monastery; the wailing of infants from the house of the woman who takes the babies of unwed girls to raise in exchange for weekly payments of grain and fruit and whose dirt floor is a graveyard; the beckoning and cajoling voices of the women whose work can only be done at certain enchanted hours, who for a small sum of money will perform spells or mix love potions for nervous brides; the nasal songs of snake charmers and the cheerful songs of street performers; and the agitated chatter of mongrel languages from low houses and gambling halls, for in Alexandria all the world is absorbed and blended together.

Last night, the last night that Cleopatra’s little mouse would feel her adoring hands encompass him, before her indifferent thigh would kill him, I went to one of the brothels. Not all comfort is of the basest kind. In a brothel even the lowliest person can be seen, can be, for a moment, a master. I picked out a Judean girl with dopey, sleep-filled eyes, and let her lead me with clammy hands to her lamp-lit room. There we went through the usual routine of surprise and explanation. She reached an unenthusiastic hand under my robe; I pushed it away; she was willing enough to let me lay my head in her lap so that she could stroke my hair and engage in small talk. She feigned wonder when I told her I am a scribe and asked a few uninspired questions about life in the palace, all of which I declined to answer – I do not tell anything, I do not betray my princess. Just as we had settled into amiable silence, just as the girl had begun to emit a soft, whinnying snore, her hands still lost in my hair, we heard a cry, then a cacophony of shouting. We raced into the corridor, which was already filled with whores and their clients: a sudden assembly of various states of undress and rapidly deflating states of arousal. There, at the centre of the drama, was my princess’s tutor. He was hurrying away from a naked older woman with an elaborate knot of hair above her head and hundreds of tiny scars down her back, who was alternately wailing and spitting curses at him, and reaching out long arms to grab him, her bangles jangling like alarm bells. He stumbled, tripping over his own thick legs, a stupid look of bovine panic on his face as he bent to gather the bunch of clothes he had dropped, undressed and surprisingly hairless, his little worm jiggling pathetically against his testicles, beneath the overhang of a disconcertingly smooth belly (how grateful was I, in that moment, to have been spared a lifetime of attending to such an absurd appendage), the whore bellowing to the women holding her back to let her go and kill him. I could not get the story out of anyone, and the Judean girl, clearly animated by the fact of someone else’s incoherent tragedy, had forgotten me altogether, and so there was nothing else for me to do but walk home in the gloom, for once my imaginary princess not by my side, but rather, irritatingly, her tutor’s face instead at the forefront of my mind.

Now, from stage right, a new action commences. The crowd surges forth like a wave from one side, kicking a man onto the steps, raining blows upon him

This morning, as Cleopatra recited verses from Ovid and he corrected her Latin, I searched carefully for any detail of the night before in his passive face but, like stone, he gave away nothing, and so neither did I. Following the nurse and the servant meekly when the lesson was done, I took my place in the playtime assemblage. I kept his secret unwillingly – if it is one – as silently as I keep my own.

In the garden, which has now grown too hot to bear, playtime is finishing. The nurse is wiping away dirt from my princess’s face and fingernails with a cloth doused in rosewater. The kitchen boys are being herded along to the hot ovens over which they must suffer, the untouched cakes in their hands. It is high noon, and Alexandria is at its most brilliant. In the marketplace the stalls will be shuttered against the relentless beating of the sun’s brightness for an hour or two; the sacred cats that stalk the palace gardens and for whom the cook prepares special, costly dishes of delicate songbirds will declare a truce with the cobras and retreat to dusty beds beneath the rose bushes, where both dwell, to nap; in the library the scholars will sit down to plates of bread and chickpeas and let the words in their brains subside to a dull roar; in the brothels the whores and musicians will just now be getting to sleep, curling up in shaded rooms, their bodies and instruments for a moment at rest. It is time too for Cleopatra to retreat to her cool, cavernous chamber, eat a dish of cucumber and radishes soaked in cold vinegar, and rest on a bench of marble until the sun has been driven into a more forgiving afternoon sky.

But something is not right. The world, which should be melting into soundlessness, is suddenly filled with crackling noise: there, over the balcony that edges the palace garden, something is happening on the broad avenue and steps that lead up to the ivory monolith of the palace. The shouts of a crowd, an evolving spectacle, the air crackling with some terrible possibility. Etiquette dissolves. Cleopatra’s retinue, all of us in the garden, we are all led by the swelling clamour: the Syrians first who, alert to any risk to the princess, rush over to the parapet. The kitchen boys, too, hesitate, paused mid-march, and then one breaks away to see the commotion and the Scythian cook is suddenly powerless to command them: the others follow. The handmaidens cower together, the Abyssinian ladies hold fast the princess’s treasures and try, in a panic, to command the palanquin to take them into the safety of the palace. The musicians, eager to show that they are less impressed by drama, exchange curious but measured banter, and slowly drift over to see what gives. The wizard of Memphis attempts to direct us, threatens to curse us if we do not listen, but his voice is lost in the surging noise, which has now become so loud that into the garden are vomited servants and scribes and astronomers and chambermaids and builders, all of whom rush to line along the parapet, pushing each other aside. The nurse alone stands beneath a cedar tree, my princess’s pretty girl companion clutching her around the waist. My princess is nowhere to be seen.

I walk to the parapet, shove an oboist aside, and look down to the palace steps. The crowd is in its hundreds now, and I recognize, in flashes of crimson and emerald and gold, the city’s whores, who have assembled en masse, along with a distinctive smattering of white and blue – the robed priests – and a dingy lot of market sellers and street boys who, seeing such a strange stream of the profane and the divine flowing along the avenue, would have been unable to resist joining it. A woman in red is halfway up the steps, a priest’s hand on her wrist as he pulls her along, urging her towards the palace, and at first I think she has done something wrong, because she stands still, resists him, but then I realize she is pausing to pull something out from the folds of her robes – something small and orange, which the priest takes, lifts into the air above his head, to the roar of the crowd. The breeze carries up to us the oniony tang of sweat from the bodies below, and I feel disgusted. The priest lays the orange thing reverently on the steps, and the whore falls to her knees and lets out an agonized wail. She is tall, and only now do I notice the elaborate knot upon her head – it is the woman from last night, the one who chased the tutor from her room.

Now, from stage right, a new action commences. The crowd surges forth like a wave from one side, kicking a man onto the steps, raining blows upon him. From here I make out his sheaf of wheat hair, his great mass, being rolled onto the steps like a stone. He is cowering in a ball, an arm over his face, as they kick him towards the orange thing. From all of the incoherent cries and shouts, one word rises, again and again, above the rest: cat. It becomes clear, now, what has happened. My princess’s tutor killed the woman’s cat. It must have happened last night, an accident I am sure, but now I understand it, that dumb panic on his face. In Alexandria, cats are sacred. The killing of a cat is met by death.

From up here, the crowd seems to move as one, like a great sluggish beast rolling and heaving, basking in sunlight. Those at the front have spotted something, and word of it travels through the crowd like a spine rippling. Someone is emerging from the palace. A figure, walking briskly, flanked by two men in white robes. The king! It is Auletes, Cleopatra’s father, a soft little man who prefers to spend most of his day playing his flute, sitting in a tub of scented water, while handmaidens dance about him. I imagine that was what he was doing now, before he was disrupted. Cool water probably still clings to the nape of his neck, the pads of his fingers are likely pruned and wrinkled. He must be thinking of how quickly he can put this commotion to sleep and get back to his bath. He has never been one for statesmanship. He is hustling on short legs towards the crowd, his pate glinting gold in the sunlight. When he reaches the top of the steps, he raises his hands. He is speaking. We all lean over the parapet to listen – I wonder if it will hold or if we will all come crashing down. In this brief, subdued moment, I hear the distant cry of the nurse behind us, like an anxious seabird, calling yet for Cleopatra.

Illustrated by Jenny Reynish

We can hear very little from here. Auletes moves his hands as if conducting music, I catch a few words in Greek, which only a few in the crowd will understand, they turn to each other confused: this man and hasty and peaceful and stay and gods will judge and why and at one point a loud go home! But it seems to have an effect. The timorous Auletes seems to have done something, the crowd is quieter, though not quite still – the people shuffle around, a sense of puzzlement hangs in the air, a mild current of chatter and debate. Every now and then there is an outraged comment, and a few people at the edges of the assembly drift off. But the woman is still on her knees, proffering her cat to the king, her head bowed in submission. He does not acknowledge her. Cleopatra’s tutor is curled up like a fat grey snail at the bottom of the steps, where the crowd left him. Go home! Auletes shouts, again, a tremor in his voice, though also, I detect, a note of satisfaction. The crowd murmurs – they seem persuaded, if dissatisfied. The tutor moves his arm from his eyes, peeks at the king.

But now. The palace doors flash open, and something comes forth. A little streak of blue. I’d know that gait anywhere, that enthusiastic run that usually ends in a fall, but now she stops, and begins to walk deliberately towards her father, each step incredibly slow, as if she were in a trance, as if she were a bride taking measured steps towards her groom. The ribbon upon her brow shines white and dazzling – as if Helios, at the helm of the sun, has finally found the thing most worthy of his brilliant caress. My princess moves, unhurriedly. Somebody shoves me aside, a warm bulk at my elbow – Cleopatra’s nurse. She murmurs the princess’s name softly, sounding disappointed.

Cleopatra is now in front of her father. With those slow steps, she descends towards the woman, who has yet to lift her head, but, I think, or perhaps I imagine it, is trembling with anticipation. When she gets to the orange offering Cleopatra kneels before it. She is silent. The woman bends her face lower to the ground, touching her forehead to the marble steps. Cleopatra is still, and somehow all the fervour, all the emotion of the crowd seems to have become condensed in that small figure, that dot of blue against the blinding white steps. There is an expectant pause. Everyone is waiting and no one speaks. All eyes are on my princess, and I feel as if I have been joined by a host of people, as if the crowd looks with my eyes, as if, in my looking, every soul in Alexandria is behind me. There is no sound.

And then, a singular noise. Like a high note on a flute, it emerges, silvery in the air, gaining strength, until we realize it is the sound of weeping. Cleopatra is crying over the cat’s body. Her sobs intensify in pitch, and the crowd begins to murmur, begins to swell once more. ‘No!’ – her one Egyptian word, rising high above the noise of the crowd, the purest sound. ‘No, no, no!’ Her voice sounds younger than it does in her tutor’s room or in her chamber, the voice of a little girl in a nursery. Her small hands move along the orange body, as if feeling for something inside it, as if she might discover life hidden in that pitiable heap of fur. The woman presses her forehead hard against the marble steps in supplication. A man standing over the tutor brings his foot down on the soft part of his flank. A priest lifts two arms into the air, and issues a rallying cry. Up here on the parapet, people put their hands over their mouths, murmur to themselves. I glance at the nurse, looking for some reaction, but her face is uncomprehending: she does not yet understand. A noise that one might mistake for thunder is rising from below: the communal growl of the crowd, as they descend upon the tutor. He is rolling along the ground – now and then we see flashes of his hair or some tender part of his big body – until suddenly, as if all at once, there is not one whole piece of him left, or rather, parts of him are everywhere at once. A man lifts a sheaf of hair high into the air, another emerges with blood on his face and stumbles away. There is the raw smell of meat in the air, the smell of blood baking in the hot sun. The smell of a charnel house, of the skinned bodies of goats and sheep that hang grotesque from the butcheries at night.

I turn my eyes to the blue figure on the white steps, who bends over the orange cat, still lying intact on the palace steps. The crowd no longer have their eyes on her, their mistress, as they move before her, heaving and convulsing, a great beast. But she is unmoving, fixed in a position I have seen before, just this morning, like a statue, her hands frozen as claws at the side of her skull in a perfect attitude of anguish, as if she would tear her hair out – and I am quite sure, beneath that dark hair, she is smiling.

✽ ✽ ✽

I do what I have never done. I go to my scribe’s room, which has no prospect and looks out upon the marshes, and which is in a part of the palace long forgotten, somewhere between the kitchen and the stables. I ignore my desk, and lie down instead on my cot, which is made of the plainest wood. The heat in my room is suffocating. I stare at the gloomy corners of the ceiling, watching a fly buzz halfheartedly, unaware of me. He is missing the great party on the steps of the palace, which is now emptied of people, and where the flies and the beetles now sit down to a banquet.

At first I do not know how to read what my princess has done. I had felt, as I watched her, the confusion I once felt as a child, in a room full of children just like me, who babbled in other tongues, who looked at me with dark eyes, who pointed and spoke to me and seemed to need to tell me something urgent, but whose sounds remained just that: incoherent sounds. But I lie on my bed and I think the mystery through, just as I would if in one of the library’s many untouched texts I were to come across some obscure word in a language that I otherwise know well, in which I otherwise dwell comfortably. If I know the context, I can discover the meaning.

She wept to show that she wept – I understand the shape of her tears. I know that in that moment she felt torn between two possibilities: that of her father, the small sunlit figure behind her; and that of the rippling sea of humanity before her, the people who exist solely that she might one day rule over them, who yearned for something terrible, whose outrage will turn easily to lust. What she did was, I think, an act of something approaching love. The way one might allow a beloved dog that scents a hare to spring from your side and bring it down for the sheer joy of it; the way one might allow a favoured servant to sing as she makes the bed, disrupting the stillness of a morning. She granted them her favour. She let them unleash their fury in her name. She said, I am one of you. She said, I love you.

‘When Cleopatra was nine… a visiting official had accidentally killed a cat, an animal held sacred in Egypt. A furious mob assembled, with whom Auletes’ representative attempted to reason. While this was a crime for an Egyptian, surely a foreigner merited a special exemption? He could not save the visitor from the bloodthirsty crowd.’ From Stacey Schiff’s Cleopatra.

‘In The Garden’ comes from The Daily Assortment of Astonishing Things: The Caine Prize for African Writing 2016. For more details see Windows on the world, our world fiction titles.

mag cover This article is from the October 2016 issue of New Internationalist.
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