A Little Mummy
Enclosed in a Plexiglas case on her back as strangers conversed in a language she didn’t understand, the child couldn’t move. This didn’t feel like the afterlife she expected. Where were her toys, family, and food? The priest had preserved and mummified her body after he removed her organs except for her heart, which he protected with a large amulet. Her throat was no longer sore and her arms and legs wrapped in linen centuries ago had no feeling. A sudden jolt shook the installation where she rested. A middle-aged woman had fainted and bumped into the display. The guard walked over and bent down on his knee to help. Legs of visitors to the gallery walked past her as she sat on the floor and recovered. The child's raspy voice coming from the mummy shocked the woman. The mummy, three feet long, was the smallest she’d seen, with a painting on wood placed where her face once had been. Linen wrappings secured the body. The painting's large black kohl eyes looked back at her and the woman blacked out.
“Are you all right?” The guard asked.
“I’m fine,” she said. The guard laughed when she told him the mummy spoke to her. A cluster of old people, emanating the familiar scent of onions, garlic, chicken fat, and buckwheat groats, and speaking Russian stepped around the woman on the floor.
A child’s early death and her removal from a family tomb for public viewing disturbed the woman, though it contradicted the excitement she’d experienced visiting the museum as a child. She led her mother to the mummies first and then the armour court on her Saturday trips for drawing classes. Later that day, when she told her daughter how she reacted to the exhibit, she knew how she might respond.
“It’s history. How else can we learn? Historians and scientists have to dig and explore.”
“No one should disturb the dead,” she said to her daughter without repeating the tale only she had listened to as she studied the object label on the wall.
The girl hadn’t obeyed when her mother asked her to mind her baby brother while she bathed. Instead, she wandered to the market. She desired a toy one of her male cousins had tempted her with but didn’t share. He boasted a harmless wooden reptile; unlike the ones her father had warned her of near the river. They snapped children in two. Dazzled by the jaws of the toy crocodile which opened and closed, she had to have her own and left her brother in his basket for the Bazaar. Along the way, she wiped sweat from her brow and protected her eyes with her hands from the harsh sun. As she neared the market, the hot air stirred, the sky darkened and rain pelted the ground.
Under the tents of fruit and vegetables, she stood and waited for the rain to stop until she could wait no longer. Into the downpour, the girl searched among the stands that held baskets, tools, and toys. When she found the merchant with toys spread out on a piece of rough cloth, the air had cooled. Her teeth chattered and her wet body shivered. A crocodile capable of opening and closing its jaws, with tiny teeth filed but not sharp enough to even scratch a finger laid on its side next to several spinning tops. With a nod of her head and focused eyes, she showed the man what she desired.
Before he handed the carved treasure to the girl, he told her how much it cost. She reached deep into the pocket of her skirt and showed him a coin. Swiftly, he lifted the money from the girl's palm. She could have bought many toys with the coin she offered. Pleased with her toy clutched against her wet clothing, the girl started home in the rain. Sand and mud stuck to her feet and slowed her journey as night fell. Suraya, Suraya, Suraya... her name echoed and bounced off the walls of the village, and her father’s voice startled her when she approached the gate to home.
He frightened his daughter when he placed each of his large hands on her shoulders and shuttled her into their courtyard. Her mother, fearful the girl had drowned in the river, stopped crying when Suraya stood before her unharmed.
“Where’ve you been?”
“Forgive me, mother," she said as tears flowed over her cheeks.
When she saw the wooden crocodile, she screamed, took the toy and placed it in the folds of her robe.
“After you dry yourself and change into warm clothing, come to my room."
Suraya trembled and cried while she changed into her nightclothes. Her mother waited on a chaise holding the baby. She placed the swaddled infant on a pillow, and then she held Suraya close. The girl settled into the goodness she’d missed since her brother's birth and sunk into a deep sleep. In the morning she woke in her own bed under many blankets.
A painful throat prevented her from eating that night, the next day, and the next. In her sleep, she murmured sweat and shook. Her mother sat beside her sleeping daughter for seven nights and days. On the morning of the eighth day, the little girl didn’t awaken, and the family mourned when the priest embalmed their treasure. A disagreement ensued between the mother and the father whether the toy crocodile should be buried with their daughter for the afterlife. After a brief discussion, the toy burned in the ovens. Years passed, and the mummified mother and father joined the daughter they had missed.
The family stayed underground until scientists discovered the mummies on a dig. With care, they dug and transferred the smallest mummy to a museum. After consultations with specialists, the museum’s conservation department removed the soil from the wrappings. The painting over her face intrigued the curators of the museum. Some argued to remove the painting and mount it on the wall in an array with the others from Hawara. Another historian demanded that it should stay in place. The eyes of the face paintings arranged on the far wall of the exhibition added to the woman’s discomfort when she left the small mummy. Drenched in sweat after her fall, the woman needed fresh air and found the exit to the acclimatized gallery. She zipped her jacket and pushed the heavy door of the Art building open. A strong wind coming from the Lake made her eyes water. Murmurings of the mummy played through her mind as if on a loop further frustrating the woman, as she could not soothe the child's displaced soul.
Jo Goren is a writer, mom, wife, artist, sister, friend, gardener and community volunteer for the YWCA of Cleveland. She has a BFA from Ohio University and has attended writing workshops at the Cuyahoga County Public Library, the Chautauqua Writer’s Festival in New York and Literary Cleveland.
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