A certain evening in July, 1835
Bunting drapes the walls of the rented Masonic Lodge. Lamplight glitters across brass spittoons. Oblivious to sweltering heat, wide-eyed locals stream inside. They come at twenty-five cents a head for Michael Chandler’s farewell exhibition of four threadbare Egyptian mummies.
Propped up on makeshift stage, four mummies lie in cheap pine boxes. Chandler, a beefy man in frock coat and mustard waistcoat, points with proprietary pride at center mummy. “This little runt of a fellow,” he oozes, “was a great man in his day — Necho, Pharoah of all Egypt!”
Chandler’s glib patter is as practiced as it is fictious.
That mummy is female. Mayati she’d been, wife of a minor scribe. Her and husband executed. Mummified. A Pharoah’s whims are absolute and terrible in their totality.
Chandler, thumb hooked in waistcoat pocket, points at me. “And this sleeping brute was Pharoah’s Vizier!”
No Vizier I, but mere scribe Ptahshepses.
A fool who’d listened to Hebrew slave stories of Abraham and his God. A fool who’d believed them true. A fool who’d written down those Truths on papyrus, that there is but one God in Heaven and Earth and His name is not Pharaoh…a Truth no Pharaohs can abide.
Chandler — preening and pontificating on stage — sees himself a latter-day pharaoh.
Some pharaohs crave power, some riches, and others fame. Chandler might love money — he’d wrapped and unwrapped us a dozen times in his unshakable delusion that all mummies were encrusted in diamonds — but fame drives Chandler.
The moment Chandler had finagled and connived his way into possession of Lebolo’s mummies, he’d ceased being just one more immigrant farmer and became A Man Who Owned Mummies. Reporters and politicians hung on his every word; learned and unlettered alike clamored at his feet.
Mere money cannot buy that.
Sweat-glistened audiences follow Chandler’s every move. They come for him as surely as they come for mummies. His theatrics, his boasts, his entertaining lies. No matter last night he claimed the tattered papyrus scroll he brandishes — an inventory of granaries — told of building pyramids and tonight he brays it speaks of serpents walking on four legs. Pharaohs tower above consistency and mere Truth. Those who prostrate themselves before Pharoah share Pharoah’s reflected glory.
Chandler unrolls another scroll — my scroll — and its familiar bland and red hieroglyphics. The scroll vengeful Pharoah affixed to my mummified chest as delicious jape. To ensure I enjoyed that jape throughout eternity, Pharoah had me embalmed with menfe’tan’a leaf oils, pinioning me between life and death.
For millennia I lay thus, watching through sewn-shut eyes the ages pass away, knowing I could move but moving would burn away the menfe’tan’a and kill me proper. Men fear true death too much to leap into its abyss.
A Pharoah’s whims are indeed terrible in their totality.
Only once have I ever thought to move: this morning.
Chandler lives like a Pharoah and spends like one. At the end of his debt-ridden tether, he had to sell us to a man named Smith.
I thought Smith just another would-be Pharoah wanting to own mummies. Smith barely glanced at us, but ran his fingers along my scroll. “The words of the Fathers,” he breathed. “Abraham.”
In my surprise, I nearly turned my head and spoke.
Oh, Chandler fleeced Smith for all he could. Forcing him to settle on a price ten times the collection’s worth. But Smith instantly agreed, as if he decerned that only a sum that high would pin Chandler into selling.
And now, tonight, as Chandler winds down this final exhibition, it sinks in: when Smith comes for us tomorrow, no longer will Chandler be a Pharaoh strutting on stage.
Chandler’s patter falters, his swindle wormwood in his mouth.
The lights of the hall dowse. Chandler locks us up for the night. Another night staring upward through my wraps at the darkness.
Then, in those dark hours of morning-night when men sleep heaviest, Chandler staggers in, bottle in hand. “No!” he slurs. “I won’t go back to being nothing. If I pack now, I can be across the state line before they catch me.”
He picks up a tack hammer to fasten the travelling lid of my box.
“No!” I croak, mouth-stitches popping open.
I lurch upward, heedless of the cost. The sticky sap of the menfe’tan’a burns as my leathery fingers clamp around Chandler’s throat with superhuman strength.
I squeeze enough to choke off speech, but not enough to kill. The fear-maddened Chandler struggles.
As well strike onyx stone as strike my arm, fool!
My other hand slips in the pocket of his coat and extracts his pepperbox derringer. I jam it into his ribs.
I cock the hammer back. “Keep deal,” I command. “Or die.”
Chandler slumps quiescent. Batting aside my arm is one thing. A chambered bullet is inescapable death.
And so we wait, an unmoving tableau: I, conserving the last dregs of the menfe’tan’a in my system; Chandler, conserving air in his lungs.
Dawn rises. Breakfast-time passes. The agreed time arrives. Smith’s party enters the hall.
Chandler’s back conceals me from their view. I release his throat and sink back into my box. The derringer remains cocked in my hand, pointed at Chandler’s heart.
“Remember,” I whisper. “Deal. Or die.”
Chandler deals. Money rustles. Chandler slinks off history’s stage.
Smith’s men begin loading Chandler’s collection on their waiting wagon.
Burning the last of the menfe’tan’a, I let go the pistol, let it fall to floor unnoticed.
As they lift me up to set me in the wagon, I am lifted up at last into the waiting arms of my beloved Mayati, lifted up into the bosom of Abraham’s God, a God who twice blessed me:
To write the Words and to ensure they make it into the hands of the man foreordained to proclaim them to the world.