Hapu continued to visit the Ankhkhaf house every day, causing his mother and father to start making preparations on the quiet. He would usually ask to play a game and get Heni to include her potted sister, but as the elder sibling was now starting to get a little jealous – and was expecting a little more intimate time with her lover – she would often think of reasons not to include her and Hapu knew that he had to be careful so he did not push the matter. He did, however, always manage to see her, if only fleetingly, making sure that he drank lots of tea so that, after an hour or so, he was in need of the toilet. Ducking into the shrine room after one such visit – and after being denied Seni’s presence in the sitting room for three straight days – he kissed his friend on the forehead and then whispered to her, “This is awful! I really want to see you but she keeps making excuses.”
“She’s getting suspicious, Hapu. We’ll have to stop meeting.”
“But that would be awful! You’re the dearest female friend I’ve ever had and the thought of coming here and not seeing you is too terrible to contemplate. Isn’t there another way?”
Seni closed her chocolate-coloured eyes for a moment so that it looked as if she were asleep. Then a wide smile spread across her face and she opened them again. “I’ve got it! The window in the shrine room is left open every night by Teo so a breeze flows through and I don’t overheat. If you climb over the back wall into the garden, then it is right above the banana palms. Climb the one underneath it and sneak in. No one is awake between eleven and seven, and this room is on the opposite side of the house to all the bedrooms so, as long as we are quiet, we can talk to our hearts content!”
“Really?! Then I shall come, tonight! I cannot wait!”
Hapu left and returned to his fiancee with a smile spread across his face. “I suppose you want to play a game again,” she said with a sulky pout on hers.
“Not at all. I was thinking that maybe a stroll around the garden might be in order, if you’d like to, of course.”
“Like to? I’d love it! I know some nice bushes that we could sneak behind where no one can see us and I can tickle you rotten… or more…”
And so they did go for a walk around the garden although, curiously, whilst Heni did manage to lure Hapu behind the bushes briefly, he seemed to be far more interested sitting on the very public bench by the fountain that overlooks the banana palms….
That night, dressed in black like a robber, Hapu used his climbing skills to scale the two meters or so up the wall surrounding the Ankhkhaf residence and then descend down into the moonlit garden. He silently made his way along the paths, keeping to the shadows, before heading for the large banana palm beneath the open window. He climbed the tree as quietly as he could and then squeezed himself through the narrow aperture. He was in the corridor leading to the shrine room. On tiptoes he crept down and opened the door. Inside, the candles on the shrine provided a faint, warm light and the smell of incense hung in the air. On her shelf stood Seni in her pot. Her eyes were closed and her breathing deep. Well, deep for a potgirl. He crept up to her and whispered her name. Immediately, those beautiful eyes opened and that perfect smile spread across her face. “You came!” she whispered in delight.
Hapu left the shrine room as the sun was beginning to peep its sacred face over the eastern horizon. He did not want to depart, then or ever, but above the hushed sounds of their two voices, Seni heard a bird sing its song. “It is the lark!” she whispered. “Morning is here; you must go now!”
“No, no, it is the nightingale,” Hapu replied, but he knew and, after a promise to do the same again the following night, he was gone before any of the household members were awake.
They talked about everything, all those questions that had been burning in Hapu’s brain ever since he had met this captivating potgirl. Why had she been potted? What was it like? How did she feel? Did she regret it? What was her future? Patiently, she answered them all and, in return, he told her the answers to all her queries about his life.
She had undergone potisation only six months previously, although had known for years that it would probably be her fate. “It is customary for families of standing like mine to pot a daughter and send her to the Temple of Isis. It guarantees good luck, standing and respect. The only question for our house was which one of us would have the honour.”
“I understand that. If I had had a sister, she may well have undergone potisation too; as it was, I am the only child. But why you? Why not Heni?”
“Do you want the official reasons or the real ones?”
“I’ll have all of them,” replied Hapu, who simply liked listening to Seni talk far more than what she talked about.
“Well, officially, it is because I am the younger sister, thus of a slightly lower status than Heni which can count during marital negotiations. On top of that though, I have always been the more pious and responsible and so I was deemed more suited to the role.”
“That’s the story I heard from her, but that’s terrible! Like you are being punished for being a better person than she!”
“Officially potisation is an honour, not a punishment. People respect me more because of it and Heni is jealous of me, not the other way round… officially.”
“Indeed. But there were other factors at play here, never openly stated, but far more influential. The first was that our father had two wives; my mother and Heni’s mother. And Heni’s mum, Aunt Meryetamun, is both the first wife and, crucially, still alive. My mum died giving birth to me.”
“Oh, Seni!” cried Hapu, trying to imagine what life would be like as a child without a mum. “Our goddess Shai has dealt you a rough hand…”
“Shhh! Keep your voice down; we don’t want them waking up. Yes, I suppose I have, although never having had a mum, I’ve never missed her, although countless times I have imagined what it would be like. Aunt Meryetamun was never bad with me; indeed, we get on very well, but she naturally favours Heni and when the potisation issue came to the table, there was no one to argue my side or, officially, to push for giving the great honour to Heni. So, that was one unacknowledged reason, but there is also another: Heni has always been the pretty one and it is well-known that a pretty face can attract a good husband. So, Papa made the choice, and I got the great honour while Heni got you.”
“Well, you’re wrong on two counts there: firstly, I’m not engaged to Heni yet and, secondly, you’re far prettier than she is!”
“And you’re full of lies, Hapu! I know I’m the plain one; Heni is gorgeous; she has a beautiful face and a tempting, curvy figure. Now, I don’t even have a figure, but when I did it was nothing special, just straight up and down, whilst my face is just everyday and normal.”
“Well, I must prefer everyday and normal girls then.”
They looked at one another with the unsaid allegation that he had just transgressed an unseen red line into a dangerous place. “And, to continue what I was saying, Heni has got you. After all, why would you keep on visiting here every single day if you were not thinking of marriage? If you did not propose now, then it would be most irregular and could cause both of you great shame and loss of face.”
Silence fell upon the room and this time Hapu did not transgress the boundary. Instead, he changed the subject: “So, tell me what it was like, being potted I mean?”
“The short answer is that there is not much to tell. I had the process explained to me in detail beforehand, so I can give you a medical explanation – what is removed, how infection is avoided, how the pot is fitted and so on – but, in all honesty, I saw nothing of it first-hand. I remember the great ceremony in the Isis temple where I shall later live, the incense, the chanting, the fine robes and headdress that I had to wear which made me feel like Queen Merytaten-tasherit. And then, I remember going to the inner sanctum and drinking the sacred tea, but after that, I naturally blacked out. My sleep was dreamless – some girls have vivid visions and dreams, but I can’t recall any – and when I woke up, I was like this. The tea did not keep me drugged, of course, that was done in the hospital over the week or so that I was out cold. When I awoke I had already been taken home and so when I opened my eyes I saw the view before me now: this shrine room. Unlike some girls I had no complications,so I just had to adjust to my new state; not the easiest thing in the world, but I’d had training which helped a little.”
“Heni mentioned that. She still has to undergo it she says. Something about having her arms immobilised behind her back.”
“Yes, and she absolutely hates it! Since the age of twelve, our arms were trained to accept the monoglove, a kind of leather sleeve that keeps them immobile behind your back – very soon they deaden and you can’t even feel them. It is seen as essential for future potgirls, as it gets you used to not being able to use them, and so become dependent on others to feed you and help you with the toilet and turn the pages in a book, and so on. It was embarrassing at first, but as all girls of standing undergo it, I didn’t mind that much. It was normal. And for those girls who are not destined for a vase, then it is said to improve posture which it probably does since it makes you thrust your breasts out and keep your back arched. Preferable for marriage, I’d say. But has she mentioned the legbinders?”
Hapu just shook his head.
“Oh, those were similar leather pouches that restrained my legs. Each leg was folded back on itself and then laced tightly into its own leather pouch. Wearing them, I could do nothing with my legs save open and close them for toilet purposes. I was usually put in a stand with two holes for each pouch that could be wheeled about by Teo. Straight after my potisation was announced, I started spending more and more time in them until, by the end, I was never out of them and could hardly remember what it was like to have legs to walk around with. Heni was meant to wear them too, to help her empathise with my situation and to encourage discipline – young ladies are not meant to wander about at will, ‘they may get into trouble’ as we were told – but she soon wheedled out of it through some heavy doe-eyed pleading. Anyway, due to that training, when I did eventually wake up as a fully-fledged potgirl, whilst it was still an almighty change to get used to, I was somewhat prepared.”
“So what is it like, living in a pot?”
“Good and bad, I suppose. The biggest problem is boredom. You can’t do anything, nothing at all, for yourself. My neck is even stiffened. I mean, I can look around, but not like before… of course half of looking is turning your chest, which is now rooted in here. If I sneeze I cannot even wipe my nose. That was a massive thing during my training – being unable to scratch itches was hell early on, especially under the binders – but you get used to it; it is part of the spiritual dimension of potisation. Unable to solve the problem yourself, like a meditating monk, you work out ways of blocking it from your mind. That works well with itches, although with snot its harder. But Teo comes around regularly to wipe my face.”
“You’ve mentioned Teo several times; is she your maid?”
“Yes, and much more. Teo is my handmaiden but also my best friend in all the world. We are like sisters: far more so, I am afraid to say, then I am with Heni. It is not that Heni and I do not get on, but instead that Teo understands me far better. I could never see her as a mere servant, she is the most beautiful and wonderful person alive! Our family took her in as a young girl and we played together as children. She has made a vow dedicating her life to looking after me and she never agreed with me undergoing potisation; it really upset her. We share everything.”
“Have you told her about my visits?”
Seni looked to one side. “No, not that. Not yet. She may try to stop it. She would fear that we may get too attached as friends and that would both poison my relationship with my sister – Heni can be prone to jealousy, I’m afraid – and cause me too much hurt when I enter the temple.”
“Why? Couldn’t I still visit you there?”
“Visit, maybe, but only as a devotee I imagine; brief and in public. We could never get to know one another like this, intimately and alone.”
Again, silence descended on the room as something unspeakable had almost been said. This time it was Seni who changed the subject:
“I was telling you about what it is like; well, the helplessness, yes, but worse than that is the boredom. I mean, what is there to do all day but just stand here? And I say ‘stand’ almost in jest! I am beholden to my sister or father or aunt to order me moved or included in family activities. I have religious programmes to occupy me, and my prayers, but one can only pray so much. That is why I enjoy your company, Hapu; it is such a refreshing change!”
“So, that’s all I am? A change from religious indoctrination?”
“No, I didn’t mean that. Even if I wasn’t potted and could walk about and do things for myself, I would still love your company. You’re the first guy I’ve ever met – not that I’ve known many in this way – who can talk to a girl on her level, who is interested in her life and does not try to dictate everything. You’re really sweet and special.”
“As are you, Seni, as are you. Even though we’ve only just met, I feel like you’re my best friend.”
“I know, it’s weird isn’t it?And yet I feel exactly the same. I’ll hate it when we can no longer talk like this, although I do hope you’ll still visit me in the temple, even if it is only to offer supplications.”
“Of course I will, although you do realise that you are providing me with every incentive I need to delay marrying your sister.”
“I know.” They giggled together as the candles on the altar flickered.
“Carry on with your tale, please.”
“So, there is the boredom and the helplessness, but those I did anticipate and was trained for. What my training did not prepare me for though, was the overheating. Covered and contained as I am, I can no longer control my body temperature easily, and so I quickly become overheated in the daytime. That is why I am usually left in here as it is the coolest room in the house, open only slightly to the shaded side, but even then Teo has to come around regularly to flannel my face with a cold cloth. It is really hard, the heat, being unable to even cool myself down.”
“Are you hot now?”
“Feel for yourself.”
He put his hand on her cheek. It was slightly warm. “Seems ok.”
“Try the other cheek,” she whispered, gazing into his eyes.
Hapu put his other hand up and then moved his face forward until he was only centimetres away from hers. “What about your lips? Are they warmer or cooler than the rest of you?”
“I can’t tell, try them too.”
He leaned forward and placed his own lips on hers. No cheeks or foreheads, lips. They met and their mouths opened involuntarily. Before they knew it, their tongues were intermingling. Then she jerked her head backwards, only as far as she could manage, but enough.
“What is it?” he asked, shocked.
“You are due to marry my sister and I will enter the temple,” she replied coolly, a tear trickling down her cheek.
They sat for a while in silence as the tear dried in the balmy night.