We’re out this week, but we’re re-posting some of our favorite pieces from 2011 while we’re away. We hope you enjoy—and have a happy New Year!
For generous donations in support of their preservation, the animal mummies wish to thank the Institute for Unforbidden Geology, the Society for Extreme Egyptology, the Secret Chambers of the Sanctuary of Thoth Club, and President Hosni Mubarak, who may seem to have been around a long time, though not from a mummy’s point of view. They wish to thank the visitors who make it to this often-skipped corner of Cairo’s Egyptian Museum, which bears none of the treasure of King Tut’s tomb. And to the British colonial government, without whom the animal mummies might still be at rest, deep in granite tombs, cool and silent.
They would like to thank Hassan Massri of Cairo, Alistair Trembley of London, and Doris and Herbert Friedberg of Scarsdale, New York, for their support of climate-controlled cases to house the animal mummies for the rest of time. The animal mummies will admit they are somewhat surprised that this is what the afterlife has turned out to be: oak and glass cases, Windexed daily; a small room, tile floor, chipping paint; the smell of dust and old wood. Even for the permanently preserved, the future is full of surprises.
The animal mummies wish to thank their mothers—and their fathers, but mostly their mothers. Gauzy now, two thousand years later, they still remember being licked and suckled. The vole mummies remember the feel of their mothers’ teeth grazing—painlessly, absentmindedly—across small, tufted cheeks. To be a vole like this, forever, unendingly as the vole mummies are, is to know humility. No one asks to be born a vole. No one dreams of millennia of voledom. The vole mummies would like to thank everyone who, through these drawn-out centuries, has not confused them with moles, muskrats, mice, or shrews. They would like it noted that they are proud to have been small enough to hide beneath the bed listening with their soft round ears to the pharaoh and the queen rattling toward a different kind of eternity. In their memories, they are a mighty brigade, moving soundlessly through the kingdom, pawing tubers on the banks of the Nile.
The snakes assume that someone would like to thank them for being so easy to enshroud.
The museumgoers wear shorts and hats and T-shirts with names of places on them: Kenya, Paris, Cleveland, as if they are trying to communicate their origin to the dumb natives. We do not care what dirty modern city you sleep in, what sad vacation you once took, the cat mummies think. Where they came from? Where they lived? At the feet of queens; on the banks of the mighty river. The cats were a million gods. In those days, when a cat died, its family shaved their eyebrows in mourning. If a man killed a cat, whether he meant to or not, he was sentenced to death. Those were days of justice.
Last week, when the squat man in a blue suit clomped up the stairs to their dusty little museum tomb and hung a plaque on the wall stating The Animal Mummies Wish to Thank the Following, with a list of donors, the cat mummies thought, Do we? Do we really? Doris and Herbert Friedberg? Next, they figured, they would be told to bow down to a group of ten-year-olds and their imbecilic drawings of pyramids. You’ll have to find a vole to do that, the cat mummies snickered. If the cat mummies must be grateful for one thing, it is that they are forever-cats, and not forever-rodents. The cat mummies can think of nothing so embarrassing as that—the great gift a vole gets is, finally, to die. If he is very lucky, his toothy little life comes to an end at the paw of a stealthy feline.
The Nile crocodile mummy would like to thank the egg from which she hatched, though she does not remember such a time. She would like to thank the Nile, for obvious reasons. She would like to thank the ship full of sailors that ran aground, for those lovely thighs and buttery, soft drumsticks, and also for their bracelets and jeweled rings, which she has kept in her great preserved belly since. Life now, and death, are given meaning by the cold weight of those treasures in the center of her lengthy body. The crocodile mummy would not like to thank whoever it was that stitched her jaw shut to keep her from biting in the afterlife. If only she was not staring for all time at the small nugget of a vole, unable to open her giant jaws and clamp the bite-size creature between her knife-edged teeth. She dreams of meeting the man who mummified her and ever so carefully running a silk thread through his upper and lower lips.
The baboon mummies would like to thank their owners for having the foresight to remove the baboons’ canine teeth so that the apes, forgetting their master’s fragility for a moment, could not bite off a little finger and chew on it before the fury of guilt and regret kicked up like a storm.
The eggs wish to thank the idea of life, which has reassured them over the centuries that they were preserved in earnest, not simply because the priests mummified anything they could get their hands on. The eggs have been waiting for three thousand years to find out what they will hatch into. Will they become crocodiles or hens? Surely, when the egg mummies finally crack, it will be a god who has broken them.
Gratitude is not what the dog mummies wish to give. Their museum tag explains, “In Abydos, Upper Egypt, dogs were buried in the same area as Women, Archers, and Dwarves.” The dog mummies are insulted. Is there some through line, a theme, they do not understand? Once the thin-nosed guardians of young kings, they now find themselves in a permanent state of death, crusty and gawked at. What an honor, the dogs snicker. Life, that single luminous moment, would have been enough for the dog mummies. They remember their names: North Wind, The Fifth, and Useless. They remember stalking the night-dark graveyard where the stones were still warm from the day. Caught rats and voles flicked their tails against the dogs’ noses. Children moved aside in the market when the dogs passed. When they died, old and tired, full of the memories of the long walk their lives had been, they were ready for that to be the end. So who, then, would the dog mummies like to thank? Each other, because they were a living pack and now they are a pack frozen in time, each with one front leg bent, waiting for the right moment in this eternity to make a run for it.
There are also bodiless mummies, shaped mostly like cats. Empty spaces, preserved forever. They wish to thank their mothers, though they have none. Instead, the nothing mummies would like to thank the priests who made them, carefully as they did, as if what was inside was sacred. As if to wish for a cat is to create one. Before these priests, they were just cat-shaped gusts of air, invisible. Now, they can almost remember what it might have been like to be alive as such a beast. The voles they would have caught. The golden collars they would have worn. The real cat mummies are filled with bones and a heart. The nothing mummies are filled with prayers written on slips of papyrus, organs of faith. If scientists came and cut them open, the nothing mummies wonder: would the little piece of hieroglyphed papyrus rolling out be any less beautiful than the dried raisin of a heart? Aren’t they not only the container but the prayer itself?
Enshrouded and encased, the animal mummies are trying to be patient. They did not expect the afterlife to be lit with flickering, fluorescent bulbs. Darkened sarcophagi, woven boats rowed across the heavenly river, glimmering, gorgeous night—that was what they thought would be in store after they died and priests washed them with palm wine and pulled white linen tight. Voles imagined their emergence into the next life, a place filled with nuts to paw, holes to hide in, secrets to keep. When the newly mummified eggs dreamed, they could almost feel something inside them begin to peck. But time has no ending and forever meant forever. Someone’s fingertips prepared these animals for the farthest of journeys—their noses were stuffed with peppercorns, their bellies with lichen, and their eyes were replaced with onions.
The cat mummies allow themselves one fantasy: if only there had been no such thing as an archaeologist. To think of the day they were dug up makes the cat mummies sick. Awake for the first time in thousands of years, they peered out, wanting to see, finally, the afterlife. Instead: the inside of a crate, the inside of a canvas tent, and then someone began, with fine tipped tools, to dissect them. If only they had remained entombed in the cool earth with their kings. We were not afraid of eternity, of forever, they think. They would have made the journey to the other side, no matter how long it took. No matter how furiously, how magnificently long.
The museum at night is tomb-like and comforting. Without the lights, without the visitors, without the plaque on the wall, the animal mummies can almost believe they are in their right place. A clay cave. The very center of a pyramid. Maybe, the voles hope, it is not the end. This could be only one of the worlds they must visit before they reach their true destination. Perhaps, the baboons pray, the animal mummies have much to look forward to. This place could be nothing more than a test of their faith. No matter how many disappointing days begin with the hesitant blinking of a fluorescent bulb, there is always another night on the way. The time to dream is plenty. What if, the eggs imagine, they have not yet left the shore, the tossing waves of the Nile are still ahead, and beyond them the true afterlife: kings and queens wait to receive rodents, apes, falcons, and cats, their royal arms open, welcoming home their great, delicate slaves.
Ramona Ausubel is the author of the novel No One Is Here Except All of Us, forthcoming from Riverhead in 2012.