It was the change in Hennie I noticed first. Her paleness, her hunched shoulders, the way she stopped to catch her breath after even the shortest walk. She leaned against the doorframe as she watched me inspect the vegetable garden. It didn’t need weeding or digging as whoever had been looking after it — Nef and Seti presumably — had done a good job, but I was accustomed to being busy. In truth, I wasn’t yet strong enough to do much myself, but I could at least occupy my mind with planning what needed to be done.
I pretended I wasn’t watching Hennie as I waited for her to speak. She held one hand to her belly as if it hurt. Her face was tight and her eyes shadowed.
“Hennie.” I gave up pretending to work when it became clear she wasn’t going to speak first. “Sit down. What is it?”
“I am so pleased to see you again,” she said. “I had to come out and look at you. Make sure I had not imagined you.”
“That is not what I mean. What ails you?”
“Oh, Tey.” She gave a heavy sigh and took a long time to answer. “I am glad you have come back now. I don’t think I have much time left.”
“Don’t say that.” In my surprise, my voice was louder than I intended. “Hennie, tell me. What is it? Are you unwell?”
“I have a pain in my belly. At first, it was not so bad, but now it hurts all the time. Sometimes it is hard to breathe through the pain.”
“Have you seen a healer?”
“Tuthmose asked around, but couldn’t find one who spoke Egyptian, or the language of the Sand Dwellers, or even Akkadian, which the girls tell me they can speak a little. There didn’t seem much point in a healer I couldn’t understand.”
It had surprised me to find Tuthmose still here. By the message on his windowsill, I figured he had travelled with them, but I hadn’t expected him to stay once he saw them to safety.
“Besides,” Hennie continued, drawing me from my thoughts. “There is nothing a healer can tell me I don’t already know. Something eats away at my insides. I can feel it. I will be on my way to the West very soon.”
“What about the knowledge you learned when we lived with the Sand Dwellers? You were learning about herbs and medicines. Can that help you?”
“It might perhaps if we were living in the desert. But the herbs I know are different from the herbs here. I don’t know these plants so I cannot risk trying to make myself a tonic.”
“I will find you a healer,” I said. “There must be something that can be done.”
“Have you ever thought about your judgement, Tey dear?”
“I cannot say I have.”
“It has been on my mind a lot. I picture myself entering Osiris’s Hall. Seeing the row of baboons, the forty-two judges. Osiris on his throne, green-faced and wearing his tall white crown. Anubis, Thoth, the scales bearing the Feather of Truth. Ammut waiting to learn whether she will be permitted to eat my heart.”
“You will not face judgement any time soon.” It was as if she had already given up. “I will go out now and find a healer. You will see, Hennie. There will be a treatment, some tonic or potion to fix whatever ails you.”
“Tey, dear.” Hennie reached for my hand and squeezed it. “Don’t fuss. I know this is new for you, but I have had some time to come to terms with it. My journey to Osiris’s Hall draws near and I have accepted it. I am only pleased you have returned in time to care for the girls. Tuthmose promised to look after them if you didn’t find us in time, but it is not the same. He is not family, no matter how kind he has been to us.”
He had found a house for them and purchased it with a gem Hennie gave him. It had two chambers of a reasonable size and he built a third so the girls would have the bedchamber of their own they had longed for. An unnecessary extravagance, in my opinion, but it was already done. I wondered at his motive. Why would any man take responsibility for children who were not his own? It wasn’t like he and I… My mind shied away from thinking about the possibility of what might have happened between him and me. If I wasn’t so stubborn. If I didn’t already have too much responsibility.
“I hope they don’t grieve me too hard,” Hennie said. “You must remind them I am not really their grandmother. But wait until I am gone. Let me pretend they are my own for a little longer.”
“They are yours, Hennie. You and I are the only family they have, and you must not give up. I will go out right now to find a healer.”
“Leave it be, my dear.” Hennie squeezed my fingers again, then tucked her hands into her lap. Maybe she hoped I wouldn’t notice how her hand trembled. “We all go to the West eventually and this is my time. I have been so thankful to spend these last few years with you and the girls. It has been like having a second chance at life and I never expected that. So thank you, Tey. Thank you for arriving on the doorstep of a lonely old woman and pretending to be her daughter-in-law.”
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