Djamose wasn’t sure what to make of Ba-baht’s comment, but managed to convince himself it meant something good. Bib-useka removed a small, lidded fish-grass basket from his sack and bowed low to Ba-baht, confirming for Djamose’s his opinion of the man’s importance.
“What’s your business in town today?” asked Ba-baht, not appearing to care.
“Do you remember that canal we re-lined last Bastet? With any luck today’s pay-day.”
“The only thing Geb-shu-ef hates worse than spending a deben is spending it on a dung-eater,” Ba-baht grunted.
Bib-useka looked sideways at Djamose to see if he’d caught the insulting reference, but the boy didn’t look particularly offended. In fact the boy had caught it, but it was the first time he’d heard the term and he simply couldn’t imagine it had anything to do with him. Bib-useka bowed to Ba-baht again.
“If it’s okay with you, I’ll leave Djamose here for a minute and let you two get acquainted.”
“You leave him right here with me,” Ba-baht crooned. “This is my big chance to get in good with the next High Priest of Bibleb!”
Djamose didn’t get the joke and was almost alarmed when Ba-Baht started cackling like a chicken laying an ostrich egg. Bib-useka flashed a smile that looked more like pain and excused himself, retreating across the path to the pyramid. Djamose waited several moments while Ba-baht finished appreciating his own wit.
“That’s quite a name you have, Djamose,” observed Ba-baht, sinking back onto his side, exhausted by his cleverness. “”The Storm Gave Birth to Him.’ I’ll bet you’re quite the troublemaker.”
“I am not!” cried Djamose, surprised and displeased. “I’m the first-born son of Bib-useka and the strong right arm of Bibleb.”
“Easy there, boy, I’m just making conversation.”
The boy wasn’t entirely mollified, but decided to give the peculiar stranger the benefit of the doubt. A bowl, a jar and a fresh loaf rested on the papyrus mat next to Ba-baht. A blanket was thrown over his legs and a broken, but serviceable, wooden headrest sat within easy reach.
“Do you live here?” the boy asked.
“Nope,” said Ba-baht. “I just work here.”
“Did you build the house?” asked Djamose.
“That would be a trick, seeing as how I got my hooves from Set himself.”
Ba-baht pulled the blanket away from his legs to reveal two withered vines, shriveled and twisted and shorter even than Djamose’s.
“You could say I’m not really suited to the building trades.”
It was an uncomfortable sight, but Djamose was enjoying his interrogation of Ba-baht and instantly steered the conversation back along a more pleasant avenue.
“Who lives there?”
“Nobody lives there. It’s a shrine.”
“No, not to Bibleb!” barked Ba-baht. “To Sobek.”
“Are you a priest of Sobek?”
“Hardly. I like to think of myself as Sobek’s ambassador to Bibleb-Akhet.”
It was clearly a favorite joke and he started laughing again, so hard that he appeared to be in real danger of choking. Djamose used the interruption to check on his father’s whereabouts. Bib-useka knelt under the shrine’s porch in a familiar posture of supplication, which seemed to Djamose strange and a little troubling. Gathering himself, Ba-baht continued.
“So your job is to collect the offerings?”
“No, that’s more like my pay. My job is to keep track of who’s offering what and let everybody in Hawat-ha know if somebody isn’t giving their share.”
“Sobek lets you to keep the gifts from his altar?” asked, Djamose, aghast.
“I think Sobek would be insulted if I didn’t,” Ba-baht said. “The trash you people leave isn’t fit for a great god of Egypt. It’s barely enough to keep me alive, and I don’t live much better than a dung-eater.”
Djamose fleetingly wondered who the poor dung-eaters were and how they’d come to be so disfavored by the gods and Ba-baht, then returned to the perplexing topic at hand. He had received that morning a new perspective on the proper commerce between gods and men, and while he could accept that one might in all piety eat bread upon which a god has already fed, he didn’t believe for a moment that any god would sit still for the wholesale looting of his treasury.
“You’re not a priest of Sobek, but you take all of his offerings?”
“From here, I do. I sell them in town for whatever I can get, which isn’t much.”
“And you don’t think he minds?”
“I know he doesn’t.”
Djamose’s next question asked itself.
“Then why does anybody bother to leave offerings here?”
If Ba-baht could have stood, he would have. Instead, he pushed himself up to a seated position and straightened his crooked back until it felt like somebody was driving a hot knife into his spine.
“Because they’re not offerings to Sobek, you young idiot. They’re the price of admission. If you filthy dung-eaters want to do business with honest Egyptians you have to pay for the privilege. You stink of foreign spirits, and you should be grateful we Shai-nefer-Sobek let you clean our latrines.”
This time there was no escaping the indelicately direct allusion. He means me, thought Djamose, with a jolt. He thinks I’m a dung-eater. He thinks the Children of Bibleb are dung-eaters. It seemed impossible that such an idea could exist in the world.
“Look, Djamose,” continued Ba-baht, more gently. Ba-baht wasn’t a good man, but he wasn’t exactly a bad one, either, and as a cripple he understood what it meant to dwell outside the margins. “Your dad’s a nice guy, and you seem like a nice kid. I don’t have anything against you personally, or against anybody in Bibleb-Akhet. But you’re about to find out that I’m the closest thing to a friend you’re going to find in Ta’ Sobek. That’s just how it is.”
For Djamose, his grand adventure was starting to feel like a most uncertain enterprise. He was very keen to take leave of the misshapen liar, proceed into Hawat-ha and disprove everything he’d just heard.
“My father isn’t a dung-eater, and neither am I,” he declared with all the dignity and force he could marshal. “And the People of Bibleb don’t steal from his house and sell his things. If you were smart you’d build a shrine to Bibleb right next to that one and ask for his blessings. Then you’d see who is the greatest god.”
Ba-baht smiled indulgently. Djamose found it deflating.
“I’m sorry, boy, but there’s just no profit in Bibleb. There’s no market for him in Kemet, you see. And there never will be.”
Bib-useka hustled up just then. Hearing his son’s outburst, he’d rushed over hoping to stifle Djamose before he offended a man who could make no end of expensive trouble for Bibleb-Akhet if he felt like it. He was relieved to find Ba-baht in an agreeable mood and Djamose tractable.
“I was just telling Djamose about my little kingdom here, and how much I like doing business with the good folks of Bibleb-Akhet.”
“I thank you for that kindness, Ba-baht.”
“Well I thank you for that kindness, Bibi. And now, if you’ll pardon me, all this talk has tired me out.”
Bib-useka bowed low.
“Sobek’s blessings upon you, Ba-baht. And what do you say, Djamose?”
Djamose wanted to say that Ba-baht was a crazy, broken devil and he would hate until death.
“Blessings upon you, Ba-baht. Your shrine is nice.”
Ba-baht eased back on his mat and closed his eyes. Bib-useka took his son by the hand and the two began walking. A few moments later, and with all the suddenness of walking through a door, Djamose stepped out of the barren and bankrupt desolation of Bibleb and into the rich green plenty of Sobek.