A lifelong fascination with all things dead and mummified begins somewhere on the third floor of the Carnegie Museum, when the boy, not quite ten, casts his eyes on a bandaged body now four thousand years expired.
Earlier his teacher laid a handful of pennies on his desk and told him that each represented a year of his life. His life was only as high as his thumb, the age of the class combined stood six inches high and America itself was about a foot old. But when he asks for the mummy’s age in currency, she points at the ceiling, and the image of slender shaft of copper twenty feet high finally makes the theoretical real.
He’s hooked from then on.
It’s nothing serious, his teacher assures his mother. Just something kids go through. She counts off on her fingers. First they get into dinosaurs, then ancient Egypt. An astronomy phase follows, and things go normal after that.
“He was into dinosaurs last year,” his mother says.
“See?” His teacher replies. “The worst is over.”
So his mother buys books with the pictures and pop-ups. She steers him toward the children’s section toward books with pages designed like scrolls and comic books. He sneaks to the adult area instead and deciphers the history through dusty volumes with imposing covers like a wizard’s spell book. The myths merge and the ancient gods blur together: Ptah, Atum, Amun, Aten, Ra, Re, Atum-Ra … they roll off his tongue and his laughter breaks the hush of the library.
His teacher searches online for extra credit. She passes cardboard headdresses, lessons in hieroglyphics, and finally finds a worthwhile project.
“You want me to mummify a chicken?” his mother asks. “Seriously?”
“A Cornish game hen, actually,” his teacher replies by way of apology. “They’re much smaller.” On the other end of the phone comes the flapping of pages in the supermarket circular. “Most supermarkets have them,” she adds helpfully.
“Mummification” in this case means covering the hen’s plucked, cold body in salt and sealing it in a Ziploc bag. After a few days the salt sucks moisture from the body and blood-colored juices run to the bottom, “chicken water” his mother calls it. They drain the juices, the chicken gets a new coating of Morton’s, and the basement gets a new air freshener. His mother worries the dog will eat it, because the dog will eat anything, provided it smells less pungent than garbage in the summer.
After a few days, the dog won’t eat it.
The boy reads about the process, some details still lost to time. Egyptians pulled the brains through the nose, placed the organs in jars, and covered the body with salt for 40 days. (He checks the instructions. Sounds about right.) Then they covered the body in spices (Cinnamon? he wonders,) and finally the bandages.
Egyptians planned their deaths from births, he learns. Their lives were short and dangerous. Magic raised the sun in the morning, magic kept the sickness in check, magic grew the grain. Only the pharaoh kept order with his visits and incantations, and the markings on his tomb contain the spells that assisted his afterlife passage.
The world would have fallen to chaos without Order. They preserved Order through celebration of the gods, they celebrated the gods through rituals. And when a pharaoh died their rituals on earth made him a new agent of Order—and back to the beginning again. And the Sun could sail safely across the sky in a boat manned by dead pharaohs.
That’s why death was so serious. The world depended on it.
His mother is shocked when he changes the Ziplocs with care. But sometime later she catches him copying ancient painting onto the chicken’s funerary shoebox and says enough is enough.
“You could just bury it in the backyard,” his teacher protests.
“Oh no,” his mother says. “This one’s on you.”
The teacher summons the principal. He rolls his eyes, but under pressure he finds a suitable spot of school grounds. The class is called outside for the burial. The janitor cocks and shakes his head at the job and grabs his shovel.
“Anything you’d like to say?” His teacher asks the boy. Then she thinks better of it and the digging commences. The boy isn’t listening anyway.
The Cornish soul would venture through Duat, the underworld, past the mountains on which the sky rests, past savage baboons and venomous snakes, through seven gates and the dozen ziggurats to the gods of the underworld and death, with the god of wisdom watching close by. The god Anubis would weigh its heart against a feather of Ma’at, the order of the universe, and feed it to demons at the first sign of imbalance.
Tell us your sins, the gods would demand in chorus. The spells cast beforehand would let the deceased lie appropriately.
All was in place, all the preparations made, the spells had been cast. The apes would be pacified, the fangs dulled, the gates unlocked. The chicken would face the rulers of the underworld, squawk the truth, and be saved.