The Sleeping Lady

The Sleeping Lady

Kurgan the potter squatted in the gloom of his hut with his hands hanging loosely between his knees, they had buried Melit as the sun had dipped below the edge of the world and sunk into the sea. Kurgan had cut the niche into the back wall of the cave himself and, as the priest had muttered the appropriate rites and incantations, he had placed Melit’s body, with the child that had killed her into it. Then he had placed one of his finest pots next to her, straightened out her favourite shell necklace and kissed her farewell. Now he was alone.

Melit was old – she had seen enough summers to count on the fingers of both hands twice – before she had fallen with a child. Kurgan was slightly older, but with luck they would both live long enough for their child to be able to survive on its own. They had been content with each other’s company, but now they felt complete.

When the time came for the child to be born the wise woman was sent for. Kurgan had the distinct feeling that she had been waiting ready for him when he had arrived at her hut and pulled back the door flap. She had picked up her bag of herbs and followed him out leaving her eldest child in charge of the other three. Melit did not look well when they arrived back; the wise woman examined her and started to fuss like a mother duck over her brood of chicks. The other women of the village were sent for quickly. Kurgan found himself expelled from his own home, there was a problem announced the wise woman, the baby was lying across Melit’s belly and could not be turned although she and all the other women had tried every trick that they knew.

There followed a nightmare of screams, muffled sobbing and blood. So much blood! The wise woman had used every herb and poultice known to her, but nothing would staunch the bleeding. Kurgan was finally allowed back in just before the end. Melit lay on the couch, pale and sweating, she had managed only a brief smile and a feeble squeeze of his hand before she was gone.

Moping, thought Kurgan, would get him nowhere he must do something. He found a lamp, the bowl already full of fat and the wick neatly trimmed – Melit always kept the lamps full and trimmed – and lit it with an ember from the hearthstone. Shadows pulsed and shifted in the flickering lamplight. Kurgan looked around the hut’s interior; at the storage jars stacked neatly against the wall, the bundles of herbs and nets of vegetables hanging from the roof beams. Its tidiness spoke of Melit and her absence was like an ache in the pit of his belly. Kurgan wept.

He awoke next morning full of purpose. Melit had come to him while he slept; he had seen her shy smile, heard her whispering and felt the soft touch of her hand on his arm. Now he knew what he needed to do.

He went to his store of clay, took a lump and began to knead and work it with his fingers. Under his deft manipulation it began to take shape – Melit lying on her side, her right arm extended and her head resting on it as she slept. He exaggerated her features that he had found most pleasing, the soft curve of her hips and buttocks, and took great pains to realistically model the pleats and folds of her skirt and the braids in her hair. At last he sat back on his heels and admired his handiwork; it was small but exquisitely formed. He would fire it with the next batch of pots.

A week later Kurgan was outside the burial cave in the middle of the night, a chill breeze seemed to flow from its mouth and he shivered despite the warmth of the evening. The thought of so many dead lying in the dark so close to him made his flesh crawl, but he dare not kindle a light until he was deep inside. If he was found here without an accompanying priest he would be in deep trouble. It was cool in the cave, but still the smell of death and decay hung heavy in the air. Once inside he took a lamp from the leather bag he carried over his shoulder and lit the wick from a glowing ember he had taken from the fire and packed into a container filled with moss.

At the entrance to Melit’s niche he knelt down and began to hack at the floor with a flint hand axe. The stone was soft and crumbly and he had soon excavated a pit big enough to take the figurine. Putting his hand into his bag he pulled out his ‘offering’ which he had wrapped in raw wool taken from Melit’s stock. Kurgan looked at the figure for one last time before placing it in its pit with a whispered prayer and covering it with some of the material that had come from the hole. Packing the stone chippings down firmly, he disguised the top of the pit with a layer of stone dust, the larger chunks were put into his bag for disposal outside.

Muttering a final farewell, Kurgan crawled from the cave. Melit may now be in the arms of the Great Mother, but she would not be forgotten.

***

In 1902 Maltese workmen in Paola uncovered a series of natural and man-made caves, (now called the Hypogeum), which were used in the Neolithic and Bronze Age as a place to bury the dead. In a niche was a tiny pottery figurine of a sleeping woman. No one knows why it was left there or what its significance is. This is my interpretation.

The Sleeping Lady, Valetta Museum, Malta.