Neferet shuddered in the cool morning breeze, clad only in a student’s linen dress, with no cloak about her shoulders. Yesterday’s heat had disappeared overnight and now at dawn she sat on a litter held by the priests, dressed in colorful regalia, who stood before the great doors of the temple at Karnak. This morning she was to be installed as God’s Wife of Amun, and the pageantry made her ready to swoon. All about her, many of the priests’ retinue held staffs with streamers in red, gold, and lotus blue. They hummed a soft chant with a trance-like quality. As the rising sun focused its rays on the massive portal of the temple, she began to tremble, not from the cold, but from the majesty of the moment. As a young apprentice and princess, she had been inside this sacred place before. However, this time the priests of Amun would lead her into the inner sanctum, the Holy of Holies. This was the small inner chamber where the stone embodiment of Amun reigned. The space opened only for the high priest and the God’s Wife. She was the elected one.
Nebhotep, the highest priest in the land, stood at the gates, a leopard-skin draped around his slumped shoulders and hanging down one side of his glittering, pleated robe. He had shaved his head, as all of the priests. They bathed daily in the temple’s sacred pool to purify themselves, and hair was considered impure. Neferet herself had bathed in the darkness with her childhood nurse, Anhay. But woman spared her hair. They did not shave the God’s Wife’s head for reasons that were unclear to her. Instead, he wore a heavy and deftly braided wig that took the wig-maker three days to complete. Layers of complicated plaits were wound with gold thread. They moved like a curtain of silk when she turned her head. If only the weight of the wig didn’t make her head throb so.
Nebhotep moved forward and presented a jewel-encrusted bowl to her. It contained the amber-green didi, a sacred drink that would open her eyes to the realms of the divine. She drank the bitter liquid and handed the bowl back to the priest with a nod. It was done. The initiation could start.
She made no sound, watching the sun’s rising rays reach up to the lock of the temple door. A lesser priest took up a walking stick and pounded three times upon the entryway. As if by magic, the mighty wood panels swung back, revealing the colored antechamber with its paintings and statues of battles won by the past pharaohs who had petitioned for Amun’s aid. Neferet peeked side to side and saw several files of celebrants lining either edge of the vast hall, all waving palm fronds and singing a soft hymn to the god. The litter bearers propelled her forward until she reached the end of the cavernous space. Her nose tingled at the intrusion of frankincense and other sweet burning oils.
All about her were lamplights that flickered and danced in alabaster holders, looking like starlight in the grand space. The choir voices, full-throated and tuned to intricate chords, sang out from the deep gloom. Neferet felt her bones vibrate in resonance. As the music reached a crescendo, dancers popped in front of the procession. They lifted their arms in reverence to Neferet and her mighty office.
A small, lithe boy of about ten years old, spun about as if he were on fire, twirling and sometimes dropping a hand to the ground to propel himself higher. Three maidens stood in back of him, and when he had danced out every bit of energy his young body contained, the girls took their turn, arching and stretching in acrobatic forms she recognized from the entertainment at state dinners at the palace.
When the performers finished their silken movement, the sun appeared through the temple’s windows. The lamplights began to gutter out as natural sunbeams streamed through the enormous chamber. The frenzy of colors on the painted walls and ceiling woke up, and the vast chamber was awash in reds, greens, blues, yellows, and purples. The pillars, decorated like the revered blue lotus, shone an enchanted form of turquoise blue—an effect of the didi she had imbibed earlier.
The priests moved the litter forward, and Neferet felt her moment of glory arriving. She hoped she could behave as a royal spouse and not as a befuddled teenage girl.
Progress to the Holy of Hollies involved moving on through progressively smaller chapels, each darker than the next, columns getting closer together and the space more intimate. When the procession paced only halfway through. It put her nerves stood on edge. She sat facing the next set of doors leading to a dense chamber occupied by priests. As she remembered, she called out several words of power and the doors swung to. Inside, torches lit the intimate space. It reminded her of a primeval swamp with its papyrus-shaped columns and pictures of woodland scenes painted on the walls. The sun had not penetrated here, but the hymns and music flowed in from the larger chapel behind her.
“From the primeval nothingness, came Amun,” was the chant. Fewer people waved them on this time, but she sat firmly, with her back erect on the unforgiving wood sedan chair, balancing the wig with expert grace. This they had taught her over her weeks of training.
Door after door gave way to the procession until they faced a hut-sized entrance with a red door that would allow passage for only one or two persons at a time. Only she and Nebhotep were allowed to touch it. She descended from the litter, aided by the priests, and stood before the portal. She pounded once upon the wood and the priests all bent forward prostrate on the floor. The way opened. She drew herself up, facing the blue icon of Amun, who sat, life-sized, on a granite pedestal. His eyes, of the most uncanny stones, that followed her every movement, even the shift of her eyes.
As instructed, she placed an armful of flowers at the god’s feet. Priests, bent over and mumbling apologies to the great Amun, handed her food to lay at the icon’s pedestal. Then, at the door, they covered Neferet with a great, gold-flecked robe and crowned her wig with a diadem. They sang a song of matrimony and Nehotep joined her hand to that of the great statue. The priest read a long statement, detailing the lands and properties that the temple afforded to her, now that she was the bride of Amun. All through these declarations, the heady incense threatened to knock her out. The sacred drug didi was working, because now the room was full of blue—the same color as the faience beads on her full collar necklace. She felt a relaxation but didn’t reel from wooziness, and she couldn’t get her eyes off the Amun effigy.
As quickly as they had brought her into the chamber, the priests left. Closing the door behind them, they abandoned her with this husband of rock. In the moment his jewel eyes fastened into hers, she knew her life was no longer her own.
She began the ritual dance.
Two thousand years in the future…
Jump, two, three, pas de bouree, lunge, leap. Jump, two, three, preparation, pirouette. Forward, five, six, seven, side lay-out. Jump.
Rebecca kept track of the intricate movement, promising herself she wouldn’t forget a step. Her breathing kept time to the music. One, two, three, leap, breathe, five, six, seven, lunge, breathe. With the music blaring away–the triumphal chorus from Verdi’s opera—the rhythm soothed in a natural way, flowing and sensuous, exactly as she imagined Egyptian dance would be.
Hips turn right, swivel left, full circle, fall to knees.
With an abrupt clap of the hands, the jazz teacher, Conrad Waldron, called all the dancers to a halt and turned off the music.
“That’s great, fantastic. I urge every one of you to read up on ‘Aïda,” because you all will be dancing the parts of the courtiers, the priests, and the crowd. This is a colorful scene of immense pageantry. It’s most important that you understand your part in the event.” His eyes flickered over the class and he lowered his voice a notch. “Except, of course, for Rebecca.” He sent her a beneficent smile, and he felt the curious eyes of the entire class boring through her slight, sweating body. She wished she were a speck of dirt on the floor.
“That’s because Rebecca is our princess.”
More looks, only this time filled with wonder, others with varying shades of envious hostility. Lenore Stillman shot the most vicious glare of all, eyes squinting, big, pouting lips sticking out like balloons.
Rebecca continued to catch her breath, leaning forward with her hands on her knees. The fabric of her leotard was spongy from the sweat of her body, leaving her clammy and oddly cold in this hot room. She straightened and smiled at the group, her thigh muscles starting to quiver from over-use.
Waldron continued, completely unaware of the uneasy reception that Rebecca faced. He had no idea that Randy hadn’t released the cast list yet.
“She will be our Aïda and will be performing different dances entirely. In this number, she will actually enter the stage in chains.” He stopped to chuckle at the imagined vision. “But it’s essential, Rebecca, for you to understand the style that Emmylou Sailor has choreographed for us. Most dancers will be meeting with her to make sure we get her method down.” Then Conrad winked, turned his head and snapped his fingers.
“Back to work. From the knee crouch, you will wait three beats and then spring up on six, arms wide in second position…”
As he rattled off the varying positions, Rebecca tried to mimic his demonstrations, but kept falling behind. Conrad had gone gray at his temples, but few of the younger dancers could match his signature verve. He barreled through a complex set of steps and gave it all polish, even on the first go. Rebecca knew he had only learned this complex dance yesterday when the famous Ms. Sailor glided into town. What a memory he demonstrated.
The class groaned collectively, complaining that the run-down had been lightning fast. They begged Conrad for another demonstration.
“Okay, I’ll do it. But understand that we intend you pick this up quickly. Ms. Sailor isn’t going to give you second and third chances.”
He dropped down into kneeling position and ran through the steps again. “Try to feel elation as you dance. You are the Egyptian citizens celebrating a great military victory. This is a dance of exultation. Imagine your linen robes, your best jewelry. You haven’t partied like this in years.”
An assistant turned the music back on and the class sprang back to life, but this time smiles replaced the frowns of concentration. All except for Lenore, who still turned to shoot angry looks at Rebecca.
Jump, swivel right, swivel left, step, five, six, pirouette. Rebecca’s muscles performed on their own. She knew that if she thought too hard, the entire dance would break down into myriad isolated movements: twists of the neck, turns of the torso, feet moving forward and back, arms straightening and then folding. Think too much and the smooth, powerful dance would become nothing but a set of meaningless gyrations.
However, concentration was difficult. Rebecca’s muscles screamed with each jump, each lunge, each pelvic thrust. And she knew her solo numbers would be much more intricate if the vaunted Ms. Sailor had anything to do with it.
Waldron ended class, and the dancers piled into the dressing room, some ripping off their leotards before the doors were shut. Rebecca found a seat but was distracted by the force of an angry stare.
“So how did you pull that off?”
The voice was unforgettable. A Midwestern twang with the added touch of a stuffed-up nose. Lenore.
Rebecca turned from her seat on the dressing room bench and glimpsed her nemesis. Only five-feet tall and sprouting spiky blonde hair with violet streaks, Lenore stood with her hands folded, little brown porcine eyes fixed on Rebecca’s face.
“I found out yesterday,” Rebecca said, slipping off her leotard and reaching for a towel. Standing there in her bra and tights, she fought off feelings of vulnerability. She was open to attack in the dressing room and Lenore knew it. Damn that little brat. Yet Rebecca moved deliberately, toweling off and reaching for her t-shirt.
“But I bet you had to put out some major favors for Randy to choose you.” Lenore stood with her arms folded across her chest. She simply refused to let go. Jealousy shot out of every pore. No one had to guts to tell her she never would have the talent to be chosen for a featured role, anyway.
“Randy just picked me. I’m as surprised as anyone else.”
“Yeah, sure. After that stunt you pulled in ballet class when you were wiggling your hips…” Lenore illustrated by grinding like a burlesque cutie. Titters of laughter filled the close quarters. Tights flew in the air landing in lockers. The soggy smell of perspiration assailed Rebecca’s nose. A major-league baseball locker room probably smelled as bad. “I’m sure you had some idea of what was coming. You were just trying to rub it in. Make us all feel bad.”
“You know that’s not true,” Rebecca slipped off her tights and hid her nakedness with a towel. “I’d never try to show off in front of class.”
“But you did.”
“I didn’t. I was…” Rebecca blinked. “I…”
“What? Say it, Pet Princess.”
Rebecca stared at the floor.
“Blacked out.” She quickly snatched some panties from her locker and then slid into a pair of shorts. She grabbed her dance bag and whirled toward the door. Lenore planted herself in the way.
“Sure.” Her little pug nose wrinkled in distaste. Rebecca wasn’t sure how she was going to pass by this woman without starting a fight, but she had only twenty minutes to eat and then be ready for the first “Aîda” rehearsal with the demanding Ms. Sailor.
A hand clamped down on Lenore’s shoulder.
“Let’s all ease down and get to our next classes.” Raven to the rescue. Tall Raven Ring looked down at Lenore, all sincerity and smiles. Raven gazed with black eyes gleaming and her wide mouth uttering soothing phrases in a deep, earthy voice.
Lenore gave way by backing up. Rebecca swept past her.
“See you in rehearsal,” she called to Raven, who nodded with solemnity. Randy awarded her the part of Amemnis, Aïda’s rival. It would be a fascinating test of their friendship.