From the January/February 2005 issue
Hear the author read his story
The Thief of Bubastis
see the illustrations for this story
Kysen ran stealthily and silently to the temple as the chilly night air whipped around him. His black hair and dark clothing let him blend into the night, and his blue eyes scanned the road ahead of him. The buildings of Bubastis were dark, the people sound asleep, dreaming of the festival just four days away.
But Kysen could not think of the festival. He had to think about survival.
It seemed to him like just yesterday when his father grew ill. The expert carpenter could no longer work, and they did not have enough money to support the two of them. Kysen had to steal for them to live. So far, he had been stealing little things: bracelets, scarabs, and even a small sculpture. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough. So tonight he was going for something that would sell for hundreds of deben, deben that would pay for a doctor.
That item was the necklace of Bastet.
I’m only twelve, Kysen thought to himself ruefully, and I’m stealing from the gods.
Maya’s eleventh birthday, about a full moon ago, was not a happy one. It was the day her mother died. Her father, Khay, was so depressed that he locked himself in his room for much of each day and prayed to Osiris, god of the dead. Even when Khay was not praying, he paid almost no attention to Maya and burst into tears all the time.
Of course Maya was very sad, but not as sad as her father, who had been married for thirty years. So Maya decided that he needed help.
One night, when Khay had been crying more than usual, Maya crept out of their large house and walked quickly to the temple of Bastet, which was nearby. Cats, which were sacred to Bastet, ran everywhere in the temple, and green candles, Bastet’s sacred color, flickered in their holders.
Maya walked down a long hallway, with the cats rubbing against her legs. Ever since she was little, cats seemed to like her. That was what made her go to Bastet’s temple instead of praying to another god.
Soon she saw the statue of Bastet. The god of happiness was portrayed as a large, black cat. It had golden earrings, a scarab carved on its chest, and a beautiful silver necklace hanging from its neck.
“Bastet,” whispered Maya, kneeling, “please make my father better . . .” Her prayer was interrupted by a chorus of hisses. Maya whirled around and saw a boy, little older than her, kicking away the cats.
“Who are you?” she called to him suspiciously. She didn’t like the fact that he was wearing all black clothing. The boy had been so preoccupied with the cats that he hadn’t noticed her at first. He froze and turned to Maya, his blue eyes full of surprise.
Kysen realized that she could report him to the priest and he could be killed. Without thinking, his mind a flood of panic, Kysen leapt at the girl and knocked her to the stone floor. She blacked out. Then the young thief wrenched the necklace off the statue and ran into the black night faster than he ever had.
Sunlight streamed through the temple doors and with it came Pure One Rahotep, the priest of Bubastis. He saw the unconscious girl on the floor and the bare neck of the statue.
“Bring water,” he commanded a servant, and walked through the cats to Maya. The servant returned with a bowl full of water.
“Here you are, sir,” he said. Rahotep took the bowl and dumped the water over Maya’s head unceremoniously. Her eyes flickered open, and she mumbled, “Where am I?”
“In the temple of Bastet where you stole her necklace last night, you fool!” he answered harshly. This shook Maya fully awake, and she stood up. Then she remembered what had happened the night before.
“But it wasn’t me! It must have been that boy. He came in and knocked me out,” Maya argued.
“You have no proof of that,” said Rahotep, “and no one but you was here this morning. Therefore, you must have stolen the necklace. And stealing from the gods can only be punished by execution.
“But there is an alternative. If you can return Bastet’s necklace to me before sunset tonight, I will spare you. I’ll bet you hid it somewhere. Oh, and don’t try to escape: soldiers are posted at every gate.” Then he and his servant turned and left.
Maya collapsed into tears: the boy was long gone, and she was going to die at sunset.
The work of a thief was never over. Kysen had done the hardest part, but he still had to find a foreign merchant who would buy the necklace (if the merchant was from Bubastis, he would recognize it), get a good price for it, and pay a doctor to help his father. Most importantly, the soldiers could not capture him. That would mean both he and his father, who would never get a doctor, would die.
People were everywhere in the marketffplace of Bubastis. They were trading, shouting, laughing, and thieving. Hiding the necklace under his cloak, Kysen hurried through the crowd to the stalls of the merchants. They called their wares into the crowd, claiming that they had the lowest prices in all of Egypt. Most of them Kysen recognized; they were the local merchants. But there were some others, too, from Cairo and other Egyptian cities. Kysen read the signs: Food, Fabric, Toys. None of those merchants would buy Bastet’s necklace.
Finally, Kysen came to a merchant who had no customers. His sign read: Jewelry, Riches, and Other Oddities. Kysen eagerly stepped forward.
“Hello there, son!” cried the merchant cheerily. “I’m Osorkon. Who are you?”
“Kysen,” answered Kysen, but instantly regretted it. If Osorkon recognized the necklace, he could tell the soldiers exactly who had it.
“Well, Kysen, would you like to work with me? I just happen to need a helper like you.”
“Maybe later,” answered Kysen, even though he longed to accept the offer. Before his father had grown ill, he had made Kysen begin training to be a scribe because scribes earned much more than carpenters. But the training was boring. Kysen wanted a more exciting job, one like Osorkon’s.
“Now, I’d like to sell you this necklace.”
Kysen peered suspiciously around the marketplace, and handed over the jewelry. Osorkon looked it over.
“Hmmm, how about 300 deben?”
Before Kysen could agree, though, three soldiers strolled to the center of the marketplace.
“Listen, all of you!” cried one of the soldiers. “Bastet’s necklace has been stolen by a girl. She has hidden it and is thought to have an accomplice. If she will not return it to Pure One Rahotep before sunset, she will be executed. Keep your eyes out for it.”
Kysen panicked. He snatched the necklace out of Osorkon’s burly hands and ran pell-mell through the crowd and out of the marketplace.
Maya picked herself up from the temple floor and stumbled to the street. There was still a chance that she would find the boy. She had to try.
“Excuse me,” Maya called to a passerby, “have you seen a boy with black hair, wearing dark clothing?”
“No,” answered the man, “and I don’t think I’d want to see him, either. Sounds like a thief to me.”
“He is,” muttered Maya under her breath, as the man walked away.
She searched on, asking whoever she saw. Unfortunately, the answers were always, “Sorry, I haven’t seen him,” or “I’ve never seen him in my life.”
By a little after the middle of the day, Maya had searched all over town. She ended back at her house and sat down. Maya considered telling Khay about the necklace, but decided against it. He was already depressed because of her mother, and this added sadness would make him feel even worse.
Suddenly, she felt a comforting hand around her shoulder. It was Pakhet, Maya’s family maid. Pakhet was a slave, but Maya and her father treated her like she was a member of the family.
“What is wrong, child?” asked Pakhet in her smooth, soft voice.
“Pakhet,” cried Maya, and started crying again. “Oh, it’s terrible. Rahotep thinks I stole the necklace of Bastet, but I didn’t! And now he’s going to kill me if I don’t bring him the necklace by sunset. I’ve looked everywhere and can’t find the real thief.”
The slave stood up, and said, “Have you looked at the market? A thief would have to sell it somewhere.”
Maya’s eyes lit up. “Of course! I forgot the market because I almost never go there. And Pakhet, you do most of the shopping for us, so you would remember.” She hugged Pakhet and hurried away.
Run, Maya, thought Pakhet, as she watched the setting sun.
Checking for pursuers, Kysen forced his tired body onward into the deserted streets. He ran another minute, and collapsed, his chest heaving.
Kysen lay there for a long time, and thought about what had happened. After he took the necklace, the Pure One must have found the girl and thought she was the one who had stolen it. He told everyone that she had hidden the necklace with a partner in crime, and decided that she would be executed at sunset if she didn’t return the necklace by then. The only problem was that Kysen had the sacred object.
The ethical thing to do would be to hand over the necklace. But without the money it would provide, Kysen’s father would not get a doctor. And he seemed sicker than usual. Who did Kysen care more about: some stranger girl or his father?
Kysen had a guilty conscience as he stood up and walked back to the marketplace, but he told himself that a guilty conscience was better than a dead father.
Time was not a luxury that Maya had. The sun was close to setting, and she hadn’t gotten the necklace yet. Maya anxiously ran along the darkening streets. She pushed past people and jumped over the many street cats of Bubastis, making her way to the marketplace. People grumbled at her pushing, but they didn’t have a clue that her life depended on it.
Finally, when the sun was on the rim of the horizon, Maya burst into the marketplace and looked around.
It was deserted. There were only a few sleepy-looking merchants hoping for late customers. Everyone else had already packed up and left. The boy was nowhere to be seen. Maya was too late, and going to die. She was too stunned to cry, so she sat down on the ground, waiting for Rahotep to find her.
Someone did come to the marketplace then, but it was not Rahotep. It was Kysen. The thief slunk to Osorkon’s stall (thankfully, Osorkon was still there) and was about to give up the necklace, when he saw Maya.
She was sitting on the ground, depressed and demoralized, and her expression was of someone who knew she was going to die. Kysen looked toward Osorkon, who whispered, “Do the right thing.”
Then Kysen had an idea, a simple, wonderful idea.
He walked over to Maya and dropped the necklace in her lap. She looked up, amazed.
“I’m sorry,” said Kysen, “I did it for my father. He’s ill and he needs a doctor. I didn’t know they would . . . kill you.”
“Y- you’re giving me this?” Maya stuttered. “Even though your father needs a doctor?”
“I think I have a better way to get money,” smiled Kysen, glancing at Osorffkon. “But you’d better get going. It’s almost sunset.”
Maya looked at the sun. “But I won’t be able to make it to the temple in time! It’s too far away.”
“Then leave it to me.” Kysen took the necklace. “I learned to run from my thievery.”
Then Kysen took off in the direction of the temple, going faster than Maya could have ever run. What a strange boy, she thought. He almost gets me killed, and then he turns around and saves my life.
Just as the sun fell below the horizon, Kysen walked through the temple door. Rahotep was waiting. Kysen bowed before the Pure One, and handed over the necklace.
“You’re not the girl!” he frowned. “Who are you and how did you get that necklace?”
“I am her personal servant,” lied Kysen, “and my mistress is now safe from execution.”
“Fine,” answered Rahotep. He ceremoniously placed the necklace around the statue Bastet’s neck. The former thief could have almost sworn he saw a glint of thanks in the statue’s eye.
Bastet had answered Maya’s prayer. It was three days since the incident, and the festival of Bastet was happening all around Maya and her father as they walked through the marketplace to Osorkon’s stall. Maya’s father (who was smiling for the first time in a long time) chatted with Osorkon, while Maya paid Kysen (Osorkon’s newest helper) for a mini-statue of Bastet. Kysen’s father (healed thanks to the doctor Kysen was able to hire with his earnings) looked down proudly from the upper window of his house. Rahotep walked past them, talking to a friend about the almost-lost necklace.
And all of them knew that Bastet was watching them.