The curator was a nice man and – yes, he could read Greek. It was a useful thing to know, he said, if you handled ancient artefacts, because two to two-and-a-half thousand years ago, Greek was kind-of like English is today: everybody spoke it.
He could also read Egyptian hieroglyphs. He peered at the piece of paper Spookie showed him and said, “Hotep-di-nesu.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Hotep-di-nesu. ‘By the munificence of the King’. It’s a standard sort of inscription found on statues put in tombs.” He then read out the rest of the hieroglyphs.
I am Puss purr-Miau, the Last of the Nine Cats of Eternity. I am He that lays bare the secrets of what has been, and what is to come, so that men may know these things and judge what is best to do. For this reason I set out on my long journey into the hereafter, which will become the heretofore.
“What does all that mean?” said Spookie. “What were the Nine Cats of Eternity?”
“Nobody knows. You can also say: the Time Cats. The Egyptians were great fortune-tellers, so the Time Cats may have been used for divination: for fortune-telling, like the sacred bulls.”
“How on earth do you use a bull to tell fortunes?”
“Oh… lots of ways. If the bull won’t eat his food, or he stamps his hoof, then that means something – and you have to ask the priest what it means. But the most popular way is to whisper your question in the bull’s ear, then cover your ears and rush out the temple. The first words you hear when you take your hands away are the god’s answer.”
“Oh,” said Spookie. She thought she’d try it with her statue back at home.
“So what is this long journey it talks about? Surely the cat was going to be buried in a tomb, so it wasn’t… going anywhere?”
“Quite right. But the Egyptians thought of death as the beginning of a long journey. A journey to the fields of the afterlife. If you could preserve the image of a man in an everlasting form, like a mummy or a statue, then you got him to live on, in a sort of a way. Life, Spookie, but not as we know it.
“Now your statue has clearly come from the grave of an important official. Lots of valuable things were buried along with rich people, especially ushabti figures, which were little statues of the dead man. They held picks and shovels for doing hard work in the fields of the afterlife, presumably to save the owner being called up to do the hard work himself.”
Well, thought Spookie, that sounded all very plausible. Nothing out of the ordinary, if you were an ancient Egyptian.
“So this is an ushabti figure?”
“No, I’m not at all sure it is. There’s something funny about it, quite apart from all that about the Nine Cats. The picture on your phone doesn’t hold a pick or a shovel, or anything humble like that. It is clearly meant to show the owner of the tomb in all his power and influence.”
“Did cats have their own tombs?”
“Not as far as I know. But it’s not uncommon to find mummified cats in tombs, put there as grave-offerings. But they’re never given their own names. They were just – well – votive offerings, like you light a candle in church. Only a bit more expensive. Egypt was a great tourist destination, even back in the time of the ancient Greeks. There was a whole souvenir industry in mummified cats. There were special cat farms to supply the trade, and Greek tourists bought them by the thousands.”
“So you could buy a mummified cat and take it home as a souvenir?”
“Oh no, they were never taken home. You left them in Egypt, in a temple. There was a great big tomb in Bubastis stuffed full of mummified cats. It was supposed to be a good thing to do while in Egypt, to offer up a mummified cat. Maybe it answered your prayers, or simply brought you good luck.”
“But,” said Spookie, “this particular cat couldn’t have been one of these cat-offerings, could he? He had his own name, and was buried in his own tomb.”
“Yes… It’s all very strange. His name, Puss purr-Miau, means Puss son-of Miau. Two very common names… for cats. Now cats were highly prized in ancient Egypt, because there were a lot of mice and they didn’t know how else to keep them down. But Puss wasn’t a household cat for catching mice, oh no. Nor was he a temple cat. The Time Cats were something else entirely. They were high officials of Pharaoh – his trusted servants. So your statue is not a cat-offering – and it’s not a mere statue either. I’d stick my neck out and say it’s a real cat… and the cat is the actual owner of the tomb.”
“So it’s a cat: a real live cat? Wrapped in gold?”
“I’d think you’d say it was a dead cat. But it’s almost certainly not a statue, because those were generally solid gold right through. You said this object sounded hollow when you tapped it. I could get it x-rayed for you, and if it was a mummified cat we’d see the bones inside.”
“That’s all right,” said Spookie. “I’ve got an x-ray machine at home. Now tell me: The hereafter, which will become the heretofore. What on earth does that mean?”
“That’s a total mystery. But just suppose the future could somehow become the past… what a brilliant way of fortune-telling that would be! You never know what’s going to happen in the future – but you can find out what happened in the past.”
“Hmm,” said Spookie. She was a quantum cat, and she knew something about quantum theory. What the curator had just said reminded her of its key principle, called decoherence. It asks whether a cat shut up in a box was really alive or dead, if you couldn’t see inside the box. The very experiment Professor Schrödinger had done on her.
Now just as she had been shut up in a box, so Puss purr-Miau had been shut up in a tomb. If only he could come to life, he and Spookie might discover they had a lot in common.
Next Spookie showed the curator the piece of paper with the Greek writing. He read out: “Do not put batteries in this cat.”
They looked at each other in bafflement. The curator said “Are you sure you copied it down right?”
“Well here’s another mystery. Back in the olden days they didn’t have batteries. Everything had to be wound up by hand.”
“So it can’t be a real antiquity?” said Spookie. “It’s just a modern novelty, made for the tourist trade!”
“That’s certainly what it’s starting to look like,” said the curator. And Spookie went home all disappointed.
…to be continued.