The odd thing about her was that she was a beekeeper. A woman who should have been the mistress of a house, taking care of her family. She could have grown old among her loved ones, content in the certainty that one day her children would perform burial rites for her, to guarantee her soul a happy afterlife. But instead she had chosen the lonely life of a beekeeper and spent her life among her "children" as she called them. If anyone thought of it as odd, they did not say so to her face. After someone talked with her for a while they understood her deep wisdom, and chose not to mock her.
My earliest memories were of watching her tending to her bees. Mother never seemed to mind leaving me together with Mut-Bity. That was not her real name, she never revealed it to anyone. Not even us. But I called her that because I thought she was the Mother of Bees.
I sat in the shadow, under a small tree, wrapped in a big linen cloth, and paid attention to Mut-Bity's work.
"These creatures should always be revered," she said to me solemnly, staring at me under her eyebrows as if she needed to be angry with me.
"Yes, Mut-Bity," I replied as was expected of me.
"Do you know why?" she kept on looking at me with solemn eyes.
"Yes, I do," I said and pulled my toes under my wrap so the sun would not touch them. "They give us honey!"
That was an easy one, as Mut-Bity was just kneeling in front of the beehives, smoking the bees with a burning piece of dried cow dung. She did that when she wanted to check how they were doing, how much honey her children had gathered. The smoke calmed them down.
There were nine hives in all that she carried with her. They were of burnt clay, so they were much finer than many other hives I had seen elsewhere. Those were usually made of dried mud of the River. Mut-Bity's were stronger and better than most, and she took great care of them. She had put them so that there were four on the bottom row, three on the next and two at the top. The tubes tapered slightly towards the other end.
"Now that was easy," Mut-Bity repeated my thoughts, "But there is more, tell me."
I looked at the bees buzzing around her, mesmerized by their hum in the heat. They seemed to gather around her whenever she approached the hives, and I had never witnessed any of them stinging her. I was lost in the hum of the bees for a while and my thoughts wandered.
I almost jumped back to reality.
"Women can demand honey jars in their marriage contract," Mut-Bity said, "And believe me - a woman's lot is not enviable, so any sweetening to it is much recommended! That is why I preferred just the sweet part and did not get married."
We shared a companiable laugh. Her cheeks were baked dark in the sunlight and laughter created long thin lines that curved over her cheekbones. Still she did not look old. Just sun-baked. So different from the delicate skinned fine ladies of the nobility, who spent their days indoors, weaving and supervising servants. And also very different from the servants and slaves who were aged by their hard work. I never really wondered about Mut-Bity's age. She was old like all adults were and that was it.
"Tell me about beeswax," she asked me.
I looked down the field towards the River. Little boats were sailing there. I saw a burial boat with mourners on the way to Abdju. Someone who had not made the trip to the burial place of Osiris in their lifetime, probably. So the family took them now on that trip after they had been prepared for death, before burial.
I recognized one other boat - it was another beekeeper with whom we often travelled. The bee-season was almost over here, and soon we would move downriver towards the north, to new fields that needed the bees. It was time to ask for the local peasants for donkeys to get the hives to the riverbank and into the boat.
"The priests and magicians need beeswax," I said, but not being in the mood to concentrate too much, I added, "Tell me the story of the wax crocodile!"
Mut-Bity rose and wiped her hands on her dress.
"Now why would you like to hear that story? It is scary, no?"
She snapped her fingers in front of my face, holding the fingers tight together and opening and closing them against her thumbs, as if her fingers were crocodile jaws. I giggled.
"No it is not! The bad man got punished!"
"How do you know he was a bad man? What if he loved her? What if her husband was mean to her? You never know, so do not judge!"
I looked at Mut-Bity questioningly, trying to see if she was angry with me. The sun made my eyes water. Mut-Bity smiled and wiped the tears from my cheeks, knowing they were caused not by sorrow but by the sun. She pulled my covering over my face so that she disappeared from sight and I could only see her feet. Strong feet, with surprisingly delicate ankles. And thick soles. I looked at her toe nails, wondering how she kept them so neat and clean, walking in the dust and mud barefoot like the rest of us. My own toes, peeking out again from under my covering, were very dusty and dirty. I think I had stepped on donkey dung on our way to the field.
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