by Nancy Means Wright
The rest of this month KRL will be publishing several short stories, mostly mystery, that have a scary or Halloween feel or setting to them. A Time To Bury The Past by Nancy Means Wright is set in a cemetery which seemed like the perfect place to start! It was originally published in 2005 in Windchill, an anthology of mystery shorts from Level Best Books.
Little about the tombstone, I admit, fits its rural Vermont setting. A Christian cross in the marble center, but then a mysterious pair of Egyptian symbols. An ankh, symbol of life, a crudely drawn human with outstretched arms; a ba, representing the soul; a bird with a single eye staring out at the viewer. Below the engravings, the inscription:
Ashes of Amun-Her-Khepesh-Ef.
Aged 2 years. Son of Sen Woset
3rd King of Egypt and his wife Hathor-Hotpe.
And then the astonishing date: 1883 B.C.
So one warm summer evening I wasn’t surprised to see a stranger in head scarf and long, dark-purple smock over black pants, standing by the mummy’s grave in West Cemetery where I’m sexton. Middlebury is a tourist town, and we’ve frequent visitors to this curious site—not to mention the local youth, who are all too often drawn to the stone. I’m drawn to it myself, I allow, for the ashes belong to a boy the age of my own child who drowned in a mudslide in Haiti, where my husband and I spent a heartbreaking two weeks. Molly’s ashes still lie at home, in an urn—though it has been over a year now since she died.
I made my way down the ten rows from the family plot where my own will ultimately rest—and halted, surprised, to see only the woman’s bent head. So I moved on, not wanting to disturb her prayers—if indeed they were prayers—for this long lost Jizo child. But no sooner, it seemed, was I back in my tiny office when she appeared in the doorway, a tall slender figure with dark honey skin and black penetrating eyes that recalled the ibis on the tombstone. I felt shabby beside her, in my worn jeans and workboots—the small jade earrings my husband gave me for my fortieth birthday, my sole ornament.
“I want you should tell me how this mummy came to be here.”
Her voice was almost accusatory, as if to ask what right had we to acquire a sacred mummy, and then to bury it in a Christian cemetery! I pulled in a breath, and blurted out the story: How in 1886 Henry Sheldon, an eclectic Yankee collector and founder of our local museum, acquired the mummy from a New York supplier “for just ten dollars, because it was damaged in transit.” I heard the woman gasp.
How the young prince, I went on, although wrapped in wire screen to hold him together, could not withstand our northern climate; and when the sarcophagus began to disintegrate, it was stored in an unheated attic. How forty years later, in 1945, it was rediscovered in ruinous condition.
“With the humidity and fluctuating temperatures,” I explained, “the embalming resins used for preservation had leaked through the swathing bands onto the board that held the poor little mummy. So they felt the time had come, to dispose of it.”
Oh, dear. Poor choice of words. The woman let out a plaintive wail, and wrung her hands. I recalled the concern earlier expressed by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, regarding the proper and respected treatment of Egyptian mummies. Perhaps this woman had come all the way from Egypt to inspect our child prince? And what, I wondered, might she do now?
“But the museum chairman, George Mead, was a humanitarian,” I said, raising my voice a decibel. “He hired experts to translate the Spanish words on the mummy’s board, and discovered that, in 1850, it had been taken from the family tomb in Dashur by grave robbers, and sold to Spanish traders. It made its way to the New York City mail-order company and finally, to Vermont. Mead realized the time had come to lay the past to rest; he had the body cremated in a neighbor’s furnace. Then he buried the ashes in his own family plot.”
The woman cried out again, and I felt my cheeks hot and moist. But I drove relentlessly on: “Buried them beautifully, I have to say—he was a sensitive fellow! He kept in mind, you see, that the mummy was once a small human being. Wait, I have his own words here.” I wheeled about to shuffle through papers, held one up to read: “’I opened the sod on lot number 62, held the ash container rather high and poured the ashes into, and mixed them with the earth. Some drifted away on the air over the lot and fell beneath its surface.’ So you see…” I said, hearing my voice hoarse with feeling, and I turned back to confront her.
But the woman was gone.
I went home and straight to bed, too exhausted to even brush my teeth or remove my earrings. We’d had two burials that day, and burials dredged up memories. And I worried about this angry woman. I was restless much of the night, recalling what I’d read about ancient Egyptian belief: that the physical body must be preserved, in order to allow a place for the spirit to dwell in the afterlife. And this young prince had been cremated? Cremated, I recalled, without even the burial certificate and autopsy required by Vermont Law.
Some time deep in the night the old nightmare came back: of digging and digging in that Haitian mudslide, after a devastating hurricane. Tons of mud, water, and stones, pouring down off the deforested hills, swallowing up roads, homes, crops, animals—people. Our daughter, caught up in the swift moving current! Afterward I dug and dug with a spade, then with my hands, my scraped and broken fingernails. I dug and dug and dug. But I couldn’t find her…!
The dream came again at dawn, only this time it was that foreign stranger digging in the mummy’s grave and I heard myself scream, “No! Don’t take the stone. Don’t take the ashes! No, stop!”
My cries woke my husband, who usually slept like a dead man. He put his arms around me; held me until my trembling quieted. “You must stop this, Kate,” he murmured, thinking it just Molly I was dreaming of—“we must see a counselor.” He had long wanted an end to our grieving.
The next morning I went directly to the grave. The stone was still there, and I sighed with relief. But below it, was a gaping hole! Not even a pile of dirt, as though the digger had wanted the earth itself, and still more devastating, the ashes that were part of that earth.
I went straight to the police. I told the chief about the foreign female. He smiled and held out his empty palms. What could he do about a dug hole? How could he recover stolen earth? Disturbing the gravesite was an invasion, yes, but without something material—an urn, a body—his hands were tied. I couldn’t even give an address for the mysterious woman. Perhaps, he allowed, I should speak to the born-again woman who’d written a half dozen letters to the editor, protesting the “pagan” grave.
“It was probably a schoolboy prank,” he said, shrugging, as if to say ‘These kids, they’re impossible.’ He named a pair of high school boys who’d been dancing about the law of late—he was keeping a watch on them. One of them, Jake Hooker, lived on my street. I would go to see him, I thought, as I left the police station; I would put that red herring to rest. I would contact the born-again person—I’d been offended by her letters. As sexton I’d come to think of the cemetery as my cemetery, her complaint was a slap on my wrist. I’d even written an impassioned letter back, but I might as well have dropped it in a black hole.
But first I wanted to find the woman stranger. I was obsessed with her, I could think of little else. Why was she here asking questions? An Eygptian woman, or so I assumed from the face and accent. And wasn’t it coincidental that the digging had occurred the very night I found her kneeling by the grave? Had she begun the digging even then? Had she piled the earth in a sack? What would she do with the precious ashes? Surely not return them to the empty tomb of that long ago King Sen Woset and his wife! What was her name? Hathor-Hotpe, yes. I envisioned a honey-skinned woman with heavily charcoaled, tear-shaped eyes. A queen yes, but a mother, too, like myself. She would understand my mania.
I shut my eyes tight, squeezed back our mutual grief. I would recover the ashes, I told Hathor-Hotpe. I would find the Egyptian stranger. Who was she, anyway? She could be a terrorist, for all I knew.
The chamber of commerce man recalled a woman of her description. He had recommended several motels and B&Bs to her. No, he didn’t know where she’d come from. But the head scarf pronounced her Arabic, Islamic. He stuck a tongue, thoughtfully, in his cheek. Everyone was unfairly suspect these days.
My dirty workboots, I saw, were unfit for a visit to this elegantly dressed woman, and so I pulled on clean white pants and shoved my feet into sandals. I inquired first at the Middlebury Inn–but she wasn’t there. I visited the Inn on the Green, the Waybury Inn, three local motels—all of them dead-ends. Discouraged, convinced the vandal was that woman stranger but needing to move forward with my quest, I looked up the born-again female in the phone book and asked for an appointment early that afternoon.
Bertha was a short, plump, heavily made-up woman with fuzzy black-dyed hair that only magnified her wrinkles. She sat me down in a red velvet overstuffed chair and thrust a cup of weak tea at me. I saw her frowning at my unpolished nails, my windblown hair that needed trimming. Despite my own letters to the editor, she evidentially had the impression that, as cemetery sexton, I was on her side; and waving a spoon, she sullied the air with her complaints. If she had only known there was a pagan mummy in that burial ground when she laid her sainted mother to rest, she’d have gone elsewhere. “And those unholy symbols—right next to the Christian cross. It’s unthinkable. It’s blasphemy! They should be removed, oh yes. The stone itself should be removed! And the ashes. The women in my church are getting together a petition…”
“A petition?” I cried, slapping my cup into its flowered saucer. “Why, they’ve already dug up the ashes. Someone—you, perhaps you, Bertha Ashcroft! went there last night with a spade. A two-year-old prince? An innocent child? He was once a human being, had you thought of that? A child born centuries before Christ. Blasphemy, Bertha? It was blasphemy to remove that child’s ashes!”
She came at me with a pot of tea in her hand. I feared she was about to hit me with it, or throw the boiling water in my face. She howled her protest; her cat tripped me up as I escaped the apartment. Anyway, I thought, as I reached the sanctuary of my blue Subaru, it wasn’t Bertha who did the digging. For one thing, she wouldn’t want to soil her plump white fingers, break her pointed red nails.
I sat in the driveway for a time, nursing my wounds, cursing the cat who’d bloodied an ankle. Then I drove toward home, stopping at the far end of the street where Jake Hooker lived in a small gray house that needed painting. It was almost three-thirty, already the yellow school bus was lumbering around the corner. I waited for the boy to climb down, and beckoned him over. He had mowed our lawn one summer when my husband was recovering from back surgery—a soft-spoken fellow, with spiky red hair and a perpetual grin.
He wasn’t grinning when I pointed an accusing finger at him. I made my case. I reminded him that he and a friend had trespassed only last month on my cemetery grounds, had drawn unflattering graffiti on old Homer Foote’s grave, and I’d given him fair warning. He looked guilty all right, and I wondered if I’d been wrong about the Egyptian woman. He held up his arms as if declaring a truce; his baseball cap tipped back on his head.
“Okay, okay,” he said, beads of sweat beginning to pop out on his temples. “We dug there once, me and a friend. We wanted to see the mummy, was all. We never seen one before.” When I made a sound, he raised his voice. “But there was nothing there. Nothing! No friggin’ mummy.”
“The ashes,” I murmured.
“Okay, yeah, I guess. But it looked like plain old dirt to us. It wasn’t any mummy. But we shoveled it back. We did! Honest to Jesus we did, you can ask my buddy. We put it all back, nice and neat like. We didn’t take any dumb ashes.” His voice squeaked at the end of his sentence. He had his cap gripped in his hand like a peace offering; his hair was standing on end in the stiff breeze.
“Go home,” I said. “Your mother’s in the doorway. She’ll think I’m abducting you. Go on in. And stay out of my cemetery.” His mother was staring at me, her lips pressed firmly together. I waved feebly at her, and went.
I drove around aimlessly for a time, too full of adrenalin to go home, or even back to the cemetery. I drove up Route 7 toward the town of New Haven, past the Sugar House motel. Someone was loading luggage into the back end of a black rented car. I gave a shout. It was the Eygptian stranger.
No, she said when I accosted her. She had not dug up any ashes. How could I think such a thing! She stiffened her shoulders under the eggplant-colored smock; her cheeks burned a dark blood red. She was a relation of the late Anwar al-Sadat, she announced in her smooth, silky voice, she was carrying on his charge. Travelling to museums in the states that harbored mummies.
“I am come here,” she declared, “to see that the mummy you have is indeed cared for. I did not know he is ashes only, and at first I am angry with that.” Her voice softened. “I am sorry I’m running away from you last night—I am—was—overwrought.”
“But I explained that the sarcophagus was in—”
“Poor condition, yes, I understand now. I am calmed down afterwards, having my supper. So I go back to the grave to give it prayers. So the boy’s spirit will continue to have its needs met, you see. So it can get food and drink in the afterlife. That is the old belief, and we must honor it.” She clasped her hands together against her breasts, and closed her eyes tight, spreading out a radiance of lines.
“And everything was all right when you returned to the grave? It was undisturbed?”
“Of course,” she said, opening her eyes again. “And why should it not be? But someone has been digging there, you said?”
“Oh, just a little, yes. But we’ll smooth it over.” I didn’t want her to know the full extent of the digging. Not yet anyway, until we located the missing ashes, for surely the digger would want them whole, for whatever reason.
“At the Fleming Museum in Burlington they treat their mummy with the deepest respect,” she said, looking hard in my eyes as if she might suspect something after all. “I am there this afternoon, and now I drive to Boston. I leave Amun Her-Kepesh-ef in your most caring hands.” She placed her palms together as if in prayer, and lightly bowed.
Confused, even duped, I drove back to West Cemetery and went straight to the gravesite. Maybe, just maybe, I told myself, the Egyptian woman—or someone—had put back the ashes while I was running around town. I was breathing hard with excitement. With hope.
But I found the hole still empty, and I felt the old despair. I’m not a particularly religious person, but I uttered a prayer—no, an impassioned plea—that I might return tonight and find the ashes restored to their resting place. “Please, please, bring them back!” I whispered, gazing upward, and virtually staggered over to my cemetery office.
On my desk I found a note from a board member of the Sheldon Museum. He had been to the gravesite, he wrote: he was horrified at the vandalism, but relieved that the barbarians had not defaced the stone. Look to the local boys, the note read. But not boys only, for I found this earring by the stone. A bit muddy, I’m afraid—it rained sometime in the night. With luck you’ll discover its mate.
I put a hand to my left ear. The jade earring was still there. But the right one, I noticed for the first time that day, was gone, and I sucked in a breath.
No, not gone, it was now on my desk where the board member had placed it. I held it in my fingers; then saw to my dismay that the dirt was packed deep under my nails. I recalled the born-again woman’s frown.
I raced home, there was something more I needed to see. I found my boots in the entryway, where I’d kicked them off—and oh, the clay mud still clung to the bottoms. Upstairs in the bathroom, my nightgown was hanging from the door hook–its hem brown with dirt. Why hadn’t I noticed?
Feeling light-headed, out of breath, I ran outside to my car and threw up the rear hatch. And there it was. A black plastic sack filled with earth. Earth mixed with ashes. Earth and ashes I’d been driving around with all day! I was in shock. I stood for what seemed hours, just staring at the sack, feeling dazed, numb. Then, slowly coming to my senses, I went back to the study and picked up my daughter’s ashes, held them for a moment against me. I took them out to the Subaru, placed the urn in the rear beside the plastic sack, and drove to the gravesite.
Luckily, no one was near. I emptied the sack of ashy earth into the dug hole, then sprinkled in a handful of Molly’s ashes. Working furiously now, on my knees, I covered over the whole, patted it down fiercely—lovingly—connecting two children born almost four thousand years apart.
“You’re safe now,” I told the two-year-olds. “You’re home. Sleep well. We’ll hold you in our hearts.”
“We,” I’d said—then realized. Yes, Hathor Hotpe. The bond between two mothers, two cultures, deepened across the centuries.
Later I would see my psychologist—or as my husband had long advised, a sleep disorder specialist; I would talk it over with him or her. But this evening, I thought, when my husband comes home, we’ll place the remainder of our child’s ashes, in our own family plot.
There comes a time, as George Mead once said—to bury the past.