What the Mummy Told Me

His soul cried out in terror unknown to man, but his lips could not move an inch to save him.

“‘I am waited for in Egypt,’ said the Swallow. ‘My friends are flying up and down the Nile, and talking to the large lotus-flowers. Soon they will go to sleep in the tomb of the great King. The King is there himself in his painted coffin. He is wrapped in yellow linen, and embalmed with spices. Round his neck is a chain of pale green jade, and his hands are like withered leaves.’” *

I had read The Happy Prince many times, captivated by the tale of the little bird who gave his life for the love of the Prince. The winds of Egypt had blown the sands of the hourglass of forever, to inspire the sad poet who had lived his own tragedy.

From Alexandria I had journeyed to Cairo, the city of the Pharaohs. I had felt so disturbed by my recent ordeals that I decided I would have to take deliberate steps to ensure that I had as non-threatening an experience as possible while still enjoying the sights of Cairo. To that end, I found a club close to my hotel so that I might meet fellow travellers. As it turned out, it was the worst thing I could have done.

The early prayer calls were echoing from the minarets, but the morning was already hot and uncomfortable. The club was called 'The Ibis'. It would have been too dirty to be allowed to trade in England, but it seemed de rigueur in Egypt. The furniture was shabby, the ceiling fans squeaked, and the stench of the streets pervaded in through the latticework screens. I settled in an armchair with a black coffee, a cigar and my Oscar Wilde omnibus.

The fellow in the armchair in front of me looked over his newspaper. He was a man like any other Egyptian, dressed in grubby, sweat stained clothes. He was small and slightly built - if not for his beard one might have mistaken him for a boy. He had a large nose, few teeth and he wore several large, ugly rings on his fingers. He nodded and said,

"Good day to you, sir."

"Good day."

He looked at me for a moment or two.

"You have the air of a man who is out of place."

"Do I, indeed."

"You look like a man who wants to learn something of the wonders of Egypt, but is afraid."

I said nothing. His paper fell to his lap.

"You must let go," he said. "You must go where fate leads you, without question. We are all bound by the will of Allah."

That this fellow had the insolence to tell a stranger what to do, and yet at the same time seem to read my innermost thoughts, was so unsettling that it took me some moments to think of a reply.

"Look here, a man cannot go blindly through life... there are always risks - one must prepare for them the best one can."

He nodded slowly, then spoke again.

"No matter how well we think we have our lives in hand, we must also have the courage to face the unexpected. Tell me, sir. Did you see the statue at the top of the stairs? That is King Djoser, Pharaoh of the Third Dynasty. Let me tell you a story of a man who thought he controlled the universe, but who ultimately was a prisoner of fate, like us all."

The Egyptian folded up his newspaper and set it aside. It seemed I could not escape the conversation without being colossally rude, and was, for the present, very much a prisoner of fate.

"Djoser lived almost fifty centuries ago. He grew up with all the glory and riches which were the birthright of the son of the Pharaoh. By the time he was eighteen, he commanded two thirds of his father's armies.

"Djoser saw the need to go to war against the people of Mafkat, for the mines of turquoise which lay beyond their homes. But his father did not agree, so Djoser poisoned his father's goblet with the venom of an adder, then took the throne. His mother fled the Kingdom with some of his father's bodyguard, but he sent his best warriors after her. They soon overtook her, and she was brought back to him tied to a bamboo frame. She was executed by divine fire within hours of her arrival in Memphis. The bodyguard that she had fled with were disembowelled and left in the desert to suffer forever the wrath of Set.

"Djoser's armies were loyal, but there was still unrest among his people. His enemies had evil tongues and continued to cause dissent and bickering with his ministers. Many of them were found out, and their suffering was terrible. But this had little effect. He had to show his people that he was strong, that he was great. He called on his vizier, Imhotep, to begin construction on a great pyramid near Saqqara, and all the men in the land who could work began construction of this great monument. It is still standing today. The mighty pyramid took two generations to build, and many thousands of lives were lost, in the greater glory of King Djoser. The day it was finished, he and Imhotep turned to each other and congratulated themselves. Then after ten days, he had Imhotep taken far into the desert, had his eyes gouged out, and left him for the vultures.

"Djoser was a mighty King, and he held the Kingdom in his steel fist. All bowed down before him. He was great Pharaoh for many years, and had many wives and many sons. Egypt became an even greater nation than before. But he showed always that he was a cruel and vain man. It was said that every night he took a virgin to his bed, who was then sacrificed in the Temple of Isis as the sun rose. It was said that he had the six emissaries of Nubia impaled because he had a headache, and they spoke too loudly. It was said that one of his daughters stole a ring from his treasury, so he had her thrown to the black mamba in the pool before the Palace of the Queen.

"Then he grew old. One day he knew that the end was near, and that soon he would be taken to the tomb in his pyramid with all his greatest belongings, so that he could be a mighty Pharaoh in the world of Osiris. He called all his wives and all his children to his side, and talked to them, consoled them with words describing the glorious Kingdom of Osiris, then he took his eldest son in his arms and gave him much advice about how to hold the Kingdom after him. Later that night he was lying on his royal litter, thinking how much glory he would soon have under the eye of Osiris, when his most skilful alchemist came to discuss the manner of his transmogrification.

'Oh great one, the time is drawing close. We must prepare. Take this draught.'

"He drank from the cup the old man gave him - the liquid tasted of honey, but with spices unknown to him.

'It is done. Mighty one, we have come to know you, to respect you, and to fear you. Now the time has come where we must part. But your fate will not be what you had expected. You will cease to move and breathe, as if you were dead, yet you shall live. Your body will be taken and embalmed in the process which is familiar to you, then you will be taken to your tomb and locked in there for all eternity, alive. This is the punishment for your wicked crimes that has been decided upon by the denizens of the Great Kingdom of Egypt.'

"Mighty Djoser had been betrayed! With a roar of fury he leapt at the old man, only to realise his body had also betrayed him, and he collapsed to the ground like a papyrus doll.

"The old man had spoken truly. Djoser's priests took him from his Palace and proceeded to embalm him. First his organs were removed and placed in earthen jars of preservative. His brain was removed through his nose, and tossed to the jackals. Then his body was washed with water from the Nile. He was covered in natron for forty days, then washed clean again with Nile water. He was stuffed with dry materials and wrapped in linen strips glued with resin. The whole time he watched the priests as they worked. His soul cried out in terror unknown to man, but his lips could not move an inch to save him.

"And so Djoser lay in his tomb near Saqqara. He could not move, he could not see anything, he could not hear anything. All he could do was feel his bandages dry and crumble, as the centuries crawled by outside in the sun. His soul went mad, and then went more mad, and then went madder still. Forever and forever, insanity in the darkness."

The little man shuddered, as if he himself had suffered the fate of the Pharaoh. The acrid smell of his body was persistently asserting itself. I wondered if my irritation at having to listen to such poppycock was apparent to him, but I continued to hold my peace.

"Then, who knows how many lifetimes later, Djoser heard something. But his shrivelled ears had heard nothing for so long - perhaps it was a phantom born from his madness. But the light burst into his tomb, and he was dragged from his pyramid by thieves. They took all the riches which had been placed beside him in the tomb, and sold his body. For generations he was bought and sold, like a cheap trinket. Then, he was bought by an apothecary in Cairo. For nine years he sat on top of a cupboard in the back room of the apothecary's shop. One day the apothecary came in with a man who carried a round onyx jar. The apothecary said,

'I was very fortunate to come by this mummy, Hawthorpe. I cannot perform experiments on him lightly. Do you understand me?'

'Of course, Beb. This is nothing, a tiny smear of this balm on his brow, to see if my hypothesis is correct, that's all.'

'Very well. I will take him down for you. But first show me your shilling.'

'Here, take it. I trust you!'

'Thank you. Wait one moment.'

"The apothecary took the mummy from the top of the cupboard, and placed it lying on the ground. The other man then applied the balm to the brow. The two men waited.

'I think your experiment has failed, Hawthorpe.'

'Let me try some more, Beb. I have money.'

'This mummy is very valuable to me, please, Hawthorpe.'

'Beb, I have gold. Look at this!'

'Where did you steal this from?'

'Keep it!'

'But what is it you are trying to do?'

'This jar is said to be one of the lost treasures of the shrine of Neferefre, Pharaoh of the Fifth Dynasty. It is said that it contains a balm that brings life to the bodies of Kings. Now I don't expect your mummy to wake up, but it was made by the same priests who were familiar with embalming practices for many centuries, and it must have some restorative effect, if only to rehydrate the tissues. And look at this - the jar was sealed so well you can still see fingerprints on the balm... prints of men who lived thousands of years ago!'

"The apothecary stared idiotically at the man, then took the gold ring the man had given him and returned to the front of his shop. The man knelt beside Djoser and applied more balm to his brow and the joints of his arms and legs. Djoser could feel his limbs beginning to loosen. The man's magic was working! Djoser could feel it coursing through him! He sat up. He stood up! Djoser grabbed the man by the throat, and with the desperate strength of a released prisoner, he strangled him in less than a minute. Then he ran to the front of the shop, where the apothecary was examining his new possession. He turned toward Djoser and screamed! Djoser grabbed a large mortar and with three brutal blows he smashed open the apothecary's skull like a walnut shell. Then he rushed outside, only to be greeted by the screams of the people in the street. He ran through the streets of Cairo until he found a place of concealment.

"So King Djoser was finally released from the torment of his ancient sentence. Yet he was still an outcast, a man made prisoner by his ghastly mummified appearance. His centuries of entombment had made him fear confined spaces, so he would rarely go indoors. He lived in shadows, in places where the eyes of mankind never looked.

"During his nocturnal wanderings, Djoser took to murder, indiscriminate, cruel and horrific. Who knows why? He was always a tyrant, and he had lost an empire, then had many centuries of imprisonment to stoke his rage. Perhaps it was inevitable. And after some time, Djoser came to notice that from the acts of taking life, he was becoming physically rejuvenated - each time he killed, the flesh on his bones filled out a little, his organs were renewed, his lungs drew breathe again. Was it the influence of the balm in the onyx jar? He gave it no thought, it only spurred him on to more bloody deeds. Within the space of a few years from his liberation by the unguent, he had become a man again. But a man who needed to kill to maintain his physical well being. Slowly, Djoser regained his place in the world, but a much humbler place, learning the ways of life of ordinary men. And whenever he began to feel the weight of the centuries on his bones, he would go out at night and take the life from another.

"One night, Djoser was almost undone. A young girl had stepped outside of her house to empty a bucket of waste into the street, and Djoser crept up behind her to strangle her with a rope. She was a small girl, but spirited, and she decided to fight back! After a nasty struggle, she escaped his grip. She yelled at the top of her lungs, and he was forced to flee. He found a hiding place, and was cursing his bad luck, until he looked down at his shaking hands - once again, the flesh was fuller, the blood moved more strongly.

"So it seemed that it was not the taking of life, but only physical contact that Djoser needed to restore himself. But he made a discovery that further fuelled his sadism. The story spread that the girl was found that night dead, wasted, struck by the ravages that only come with extreme old age. Djoser came to realise that his touch took many years off the life of his victims, as if those years had transferred over to him. And even in a city as old as Cairo, where murder was commonplace, he knew that he could not keep on killing forever. So he satisfied himself, and perpetuated his life, by rapidly turning men and women (preferably young and beautiful) into the old and senile, wherever he went. A mere brush of the bare arm of some hapless girl at a bazaar, or perhaps exchanging coins with the waiter in a coffeehouse, and the usurpation of mortal years was done. They still lived, but they had so little time left to them that they really had no life at all. No more dreams, no more love, no sweetness to be found in life through the years. They were as dead as if he had strangled them and dropped them to the ground. And even if one of his victims gained a vague awareness of why they had aged a lifetime in a day, what could they do? Who would believe them? What crime had he committed? Djoser knew that he had nothing to fear, that once again he had the power of Kings, and this gave him the freedom to be as cruel a man as he had ever been."

The Egyptian paused for a moment, watching me. Then he smiled, as if he was finally admitting that it had all been an elaborate and preposterous fiction. I wondered if he was expecting a gratuity for his tale. I was about to reply, but he continued.

"I don't know what became of him after that. Who knows, perhaps he is still living somewhere in Cairo. One sometimes hears of a horrid disease that infests the dirtier streets of this ancient city, some withering sickness that cannot be understood. Perhaps it is the hand of the King..."

The little man turned around and waved to a waiter so he could settle his bill, then turned back to me.

"Now Saqqara is not far from here. If you should decide to travel there, and see the tomb of Djoser, you will easily find someone to act as your guide. Well, sir, it is time for me to attend to the day. Your company has been most pleasant. I hope you have enjoyed hearing my history lesson as much as I have enjoyed telling it."

The Egyptian leant over, and held out his hand for me to shake.

July, 2006. Revised September, 2013

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