Bird in a Snare

Beneath the prow of the little reed boats slipped the water, as bright as colored glass with the reflection of a cloudless dawn sky. Pearly mist still clung to the tall grasses, like the pristine light of the first morning of creation. Only the ripple of the servants’ paddles in the stream and the melodious distant call of a blackbird disturbed the resounding silence of the Great River. Hani breathed deeply, filling his lungs with the purity of the early hour. If only he were here alone and not in the company of his foreign visitor, who, like most men, loved nothing better than a fowling party. Hani was maybe unique in Kemet, the Black Land, in that he did not like to hunt. Not that he didn’t—perhaps hypocritically—relish a succulent roast fowl. And, with his wife a chantress of Amen,  he was well enough trained in theology that he understood the power to subdue chaos that a hunt in the marshes represented. But Hani loved birds. They fascinated him, awed him, evoked his tenderness, tickled his humor. The thought of the admirable and unsuspecting duck sitting out there in a wicker cage on the beach to lure its comrades down to roost filled him with a vague sense of shame.

Hani could hear the grumpy honking of a pair of storks even before he saw them through the tall marsh grass.

“Not them, my lord,” he said quietly to his companion, who had stirred beside him. “We don’t hunt them. They aren’t good eating. There will be ducks, I promise you.”

His guest, the hapiru leader Abdi-ashirta, nodded and hefted the throwing stick in his hand. He might look like an old man, but there was a predatory agelessness about the manner in which he weighed his weapon. Hani suspected that Abdi-ashirta was not so harmless as his gray beard and humor-crinkled eyes might lead one to believe. It was precisely Hani’s duty to watch him and observe. He couldn’t complain; a morning on the River was one of the pleasanter assignments he had served for the living Haru, Neb-ma’at-ra Amen-hotep Heqa-en-waset.

The boats silently breasted the water, nosing between the reeds that grew close together like a kind of curtain wall as the vessels slid nearer to the island. A hubbub of avian voices resounded from ahead. Sure enough: ducks, a great society of them, of all kinds—black and brown and blue-banded, striped and barred and dotted—gabbled and splashed beyond them where the grass opened out again. The islet’s sandy little beach was seething with their feathered bodies, and their quacking rose as loud as the streets of Waset on market day as the birds negotiated their places, their mates, their share of the frogs. Others circled overhead like flies.

Without warning, Abdi-ashirta rose on his knees, his lean body arced, and sent his stick slicing into the air. A bird plummeted heavily into the lapping water along the shore. The rest of the ducks ascended, flapping and squawking, awkwardly thundering into flight, betrayed by their cage-bound comrade. From the second boat, Hani’s servants hurled their sticks after the stragglers. Victims dropped with thunks onto the sand or splashed into the water.

Hani poled the boat up on the beach of the island with his paddle. “Well done, my lord,” he commended his guest. “You’re a born fowler. We’ll eat well tonight.”