I first saw the Pharaoh when I was seven years old, down by Buck Creek on a bright April morning. He was in the creek, actually, up to his calves in water still swollen by snowmelt. His footing seemed unsteady, and the current was catching at the off-white linen wrappings as he struggled to make his way across. The Pharaoh was so engaged in his task that I don’t think he even noticed me, but I hid behind a tree anyway. It overlooked the gully that Buck Creek ran through, so I saw everything, though I could scarcely believe my eyes.
Around his neck was a collar of gold and brass, and even from that distance and angle, I could tell his face was a ruin beneath the bandages. Black liquid had flowed from his eye sockets and congealed on the linens in streaks that ran down to spatter spots on his emaciated chest. His jaw was twisted at a slight angle. His headdress, a tall semi-cylindrical affair, was crooked. He looked like a wreck to me, even in my terrified seven-years-old state, and he looked like he was having trouble with the creek. I watched him take another step. He tottered for a moment with his arms jutted out and windmilling to regain his balance, but he stayed standing. As he progressed across the creek, I grew bolder. I slipped a little down the slope to hide - he was crossing to the far side of the creek, so I thought that even if he saw me, I would have more than enough time to get away.
He planted one foot on a rock that jutted from the water and attempted to heave himself out of the current. I was only eight feet from the water’s edge when he paused. The Pharaoh hesitated as he balanced on the narrow stone, then slowly craned his whole body around to look back in my direction. The hollows of his eye sockets somehow seemed to focus right into my own eyes. I didn’t even shake, I was that petrified. I could see the broken teeth of his lower jaw where they snaggled through the linens. I could see the dappled sunlight playing on every contour of his royal adornments. He pointed a dessicated hand at me.
When I stopped running, I was on the sandy back-alley on the reverse of Main Street. My legs and lungs were all on fire, and I had to settle myself against a fence for a half an hour before I marshaled myself. I hadn’t been looking for the Pharaoh that day. I’d just hoped to go poking around for salamanders or crayfish. It struck me as uniquely unfair that I’d found him without expecting it, when all the previous summer I’d been out with my mummy-hunting gear, but I hadn’t seen so much as a puff of sand.
The Pharaoh had long been a curiosity-cum-urban-myth. He’d first shown up back in the 40’s, or so people told me. There were a couple of explanations that folks had furnished for his arrival and continued presence, but the one I liked best was that he’d come chasing an archaeologist who’d desecrated his tomb. However, before the enraged mummy could mete out the proper prescription of post-mortal justice, said explorer had choked to death on a cherry stone. Now the Pharaoh, with no means to satisfy the terms of the curse, was forced to simply stick around.
“I saw him. Promise I did.”
“Liar! You’re lying!”
“He had a big hat, and a gold necklace.”
“Stop lying. Stop it!”
Charlotte and I were huddled in the hollow space under my front porch, debating the finer points of my encounter with the Pharaoh. The light through the trellis-ed walls cast us in a theatrical glow, amplified, perhaps, by the flashlight I held to my chin.
“He looked like he was crying.”
“Mummies don’t cry! And if he saw you, how’d you get away?”
“He was trying to cross the creek. He looked slow.”
“Liar!” she shouted, and leapt to her feet. She cracked her head against the lower beams of the porch and we adjourned our meeting until we’d properly commiserated over cookies inside.
My father came down the stairs and stopped to squint at us. “Hey. You haven’t been fighting?”
Charlotte spoke first, through a mouthful of raisin-oatmeal. “Terry’s lying that he saw the Mummy.”
“Are you?” my father asked, adjusting his spectacles.
“I saw him!” I proclaimed. “Swear I did! Down by Buck Creek!”
My father frowned a little, but nodded. “You didn’t bother him, did you?”
“He’s lying!” said Charlotte.
I shook my head no.
“Good,” he sighed. “That poor Pharaoh’s been through enough without you guys messing with him.”
“Fay-roe?” I asked.
“I thought he was a Mummy.” Charlotte said.
“I guess he is now,” my father scratched his stubble. “Used to be a king, though. Ruler of most of northern Africa. He had a hotline to the gods, I guess. Egyptians called him ‘Pharaoh.’” He shook his head. “Not sure what he thinks about all that these days.”
My father stepped out of sight into the kitchen, and Charlotte turned to me to expand on her earlier points when he stuck his head back around the doorframe. “Damn it, how did you guys get the cookie jar?”
It would be years until I saw the Pharaoh again. He was good at keeping out of sight, I guess, or maybe I was just never in the right place at the right time. I made it to middle school, high school, the best that the hamlet of Martinville could offer. I was sixteen. It was late autumn, and most of the leaves were down from the trees, which lent a certain grimness to my late night walks that I appreciated a little too much. I shuffled along with my hands in my jacket pockets, aiming a kick at every knot of wet leaves along the way. I was hugging main street, down the long shallow slope towards the river. I punted an empty soda can cross the street as I passed the shoe store. It was the perfect kind of evening for the high-quality brooding I had in mind.
I almost didn’t realize it was him when I saw the Pharaoh shambling through a pool of lamp-light, a block and a half down. The orange glow shone off of his collar and necklaces, and shimmered off his corroded headdress. I froze when I realized what I was looking at.
His gait was irregular and pained, like his left ankle wouldn’t work right. As I watched, he staggered against a trash can, but caught himself before he fell. The clattering echoed up the street and confirmed, in my mind, that I wasn’t imagining him. I broke into a run.
When I got within thirty feet or so, I pulled up short. The Mummy had halted, and seemed to be struggling to pivot around on his right leg. He twisted his neck around, and I got another look into those hollow sockets, dug like caves out of his shrunken skull.
My heart was thundering. I wanted to leap, to sprint, to fisfight the Pharaoh. Instead, the two of us just stood there, a couple of car lengths apart, staring. He looked worse than the last time I had seen him. Some wrappings had come unwound from his arm and chest, and he looked overall more stained and slump-shouldered.
It’s difficult to describe the way people thought of the Pharaoh in Martinville. For some, he was an established part of life whom they’d seen several times, and long since made their peace with. To others, he was a tall tale, and not a particularly convincing one, at that. People interested in phenomena of that sort came through every so often, but they never found anything. At best, they’d get questionable accounts from those who’d claimed to have encountered him.
“uh… Hello?” I called out.
The Pharaoh remained silent. Instead, he turned more completely to face me. The wind shifted, and I got a strange whiff of sickly sweet - the congealed embalming fluids in his bones, I guess.
He ponderously tilted his head to one side, and a tiny rivulet of something viscous and black ran down an unblemished portion of his cheek, soaking into the ancient cloth.
“I, uh…” I felt stupid. I felt like such an idiot. No camera - this was before cellphones were really a thing - no idea what to ask him. I’d almost convinced myself that I had lied to Charlotte and my father all those years before. I would have thought I’d be smart enough to have some question for an ancient, undead king. “You’re… I mean…”
The Pharaoh shook his head. It might have been in disappointment, or confusion, or what have you, and he started to turn away, back to his path down main street.
“Do you miss Egypt?” I blurted.
He paused. He cocked his head back towards me, with the cylindrical headdress at a jaunty angle. I saw his ruined jaw shudder open, and thought that I heard a wind rushing over his teeth. He extended an arm towards me, and I took an instinctive step back. The Pharaoh’s shoulders slumped. He turned awkwardly on one foot, and walked off down the street. I was left standing there alone in the deepening november darkness with questions I didn’t know stuck in my throat.
I didn’t tell anyone about that meeting at first. I was embarrassed by it, really. I’d only been out there to brood about Charlotte moving away, and instead what I got was an inscrutable sense of disappointment and dissatisfaction. What could I have asked him, I wondered. Could he even answer? I’d never heard of him actually speaking to anyone. Could he understand English?
I studied Egyptology that winter, after Charlotte and her family left. I had a lot of free time. It didn’t turn up much. I never even figured out what Pharaoh he might have been, or anything solid on the archaeologist who supposedly disturbed his rest.
“Did you know that the Egyptians thought that when you die, your heart gets weighed against a feather?”
We were eating dinner in front of the TV. Chili. My father gave a distant smile. “I think I had heard that, yeah.”
“And if it’s heavier, it gets eaten by a crocodile?”
He peered at me over his glasses. “Is this about something, or…?”
“Uh… no, not really, I’ve just been reading a lot about it lately.”
I groped for an explanation for a moment.
He nodded. “You saw the Pharaoh again? Where?”
“It was, uh, just on Main Street. I was out walking, and I saw him out there, too.” I didn’t tell him that I tried talking to the mummy. I don’t know why. “Apparently, the Pharaoh – I mean, like, back in Egypt – was supposed to help maintain the order of the universe. The Maat.”
“Maat. M-A-A-T. Like the way the Nile floods every year. Everything moved in cycles, to the Egyptians.”
“Terry. I’d really rather you didn’t mess with the Pharaoh.”
I looked away. “I know.”
“He’s never been dangerous, as far as I’ve known. But don’t mess with him. I don’t want to explain that to your mom.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure.” We ate the rest of the chili in silence, just seeing the news without really watching it. A year later, we found out he had bone cancer.
I didn’t see the Mummy of Martinville for twenty more years. Give or take. Though that was my fault as much as his. I went through the steps, graduated, went to college, met a girl, didn’t graduate, got married, had Carter and Howard a few years after that. I’d been back to Martinville a couple of times, but after my father passed, there wasn’t much point. Up until last year, I mean.
I wanted – a getaway. Just me and the kids. No work, no cleaning, no sharing organization with Melissa – just me, the kids, and the old neighborhood. She had a conference down in Memphis, so I thought, why not take a road trip? It took some convincing, both her and the boys, but in the end, we settled on it. It was the middle of August. I was blasting the air conditioning on full – it was a heavy heat, that wasn’t even paired with a blue sky. We were approaching the edge of Martinville, coming in out of the woods and the fields that I hardly even remembered anymore, down towards the river.
“Dad,” said Carter. “We’re hungry. Is it dinnertime yet?”
“Sure,” I said. I glanced back at the two of them. Howard was asleep, lulled off by the gentle rocking of the county roads. I hated taking the freeway. “We’re almost in town. I know a place that makes good sandwiches.”
“For dinner?” Carter scrunched up his face. Eight years old, and firmly aware of his principles. “Mom wouldn’t like that.”
“What? Okay, I’m sure we can find something else if we really -” I slammed on the brakes, and the car very nearly fishtailed off the road. Howard gave a yelp as he was startled awake.
“What? What?” asked Carter, craning his neck around all directions.
“Just -” I had seen a thin figure, off through the trees. “Stay here, I want to go check…” It had just been a flash, we’d already passed too far to see it anymore. “Just stay here guys, okay?”
“In the road?”
I didn’t answer. I undid my seat-belt and got out of the car, almost-jogging back the way we’d come. I recognized the pale birch that had framed my view of the figure, and slid down the short embankment into the treeline. The undergrowth was thick. Some of them were thorn bushes, but I shoved through as best I could. Already the heat had my shirt sticking to me, I could tell my beard and hair were a mess, I just had to get through this patch to see –
I tumbled through into a clearing. It wasn’t the Pharaoh. I stared for a couple of seconds at the remains of the scarecrow. Anger welled up in my chest. Misguided, unreasoning anger. I’d probably scared my kids. Could have wrecked the car. Ruined this shirt. Why would someone even put that there? I’d thought –
“Dad?” Carter and Howard were up on the road. They did look scared. “What are you doing?” Carter shouted.
I could still make out the remains of a smile stitched on the scarecrow’s burlap face. “Nothing.” I called back. “Nothing. Go back to the car, I’ll be up in just a minute.” They hesitated, but they moved out of sight. I turned to follow them, pausing only long enough to grab the scarecrow and toss it out of the clearing. It fell apart as it flew, so rotted that it was feather-light.
The car door slammed, and I sat there in the driver’s seat for a moment before saying, “I’m really sorry guys. I didn’t mean to scare you. I -” I choked on my next words. I was going to tell them about the Pharaoh.
Neither of them said a word in the backseat.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated, and started the car. “Let’s go get some dinner, okay?”
Martinville, of course wasn’t like I’d remembered it. I understand how these things work. Things change, but what really happens is that you change. You look at things differently, and you blame the place and the people for the time that affected you just as much. Smaller, dirtier, weather not as nice, stores not as warm or friendly. Sandwich shop closed down. We checked into our motel and I went out to get burgers. I told the boys stories about the trouble Charlotte and I got up to when we were their age. I still didn’t tell them about the Mummy.
I went out on the balcony – the walkway outside our door – to smoke and brood. I looked out across the highway to what little of the rest of Martinville I could see. I imagined where the old house was, sold years earlier to people I didn’t know. I guessed at where Buck Creek was, and counted the streetlights to main-street. The motel was right on the river, so I got a good view of the promenade along the waterfront, such as it was. On the hills across the river, a couple of lights twinkled – recently built houses. I tried to discern the sound of the water from the sound of the cars barreling past the motel, but just gave up after my cigarette burned down. I pictured the river bursting its banks, swallowing up the promenade and the bridge and the highway and the motel, blue waters eddying around my ankles to bring life back to the valley, to make things the way they used to be.
I became aware of a presence at my elbow. I expected that one of the twins had come out to check on me, but somehow I wasn’t surprised when it was the Pharaoh instead. He looked the worse for wear. His headdress was dented, and almost as filthy as his wrappings, and the brass parts of his jewelry had corroded blue and green on his chest. He wavered there in the light breeze and the orange light, and we stared at each other without speaking. Guy could move quietly when he wanted to. Part of me was a rabbit hearing a predator, going crazy inside my ribcage, but the rest of me felt that this was right. The right time. The right place.
I turned back towards the railing and leaned on it, pulling out another cigarette. He came up next to me. His empty eye sockets, streaked with blood or tar or tears, loomed enormously in my peripheral vision.
“Do you miss Egypt?” I asked, lighting the cigarette.
He nodded. I swear, I could hear the vertebrae in his neck creaking.
Nobody on the highway noticed us. Nobody looked up to see the three-thousand year old king sharing a smoke with a thirty-eight year old father of two. “Why don’t you go back?” I asked. “You got here somehow. You could go back the same way.”
The Pharaoh opened his mouth a fraction of an inch, and warm, fetid air came hissing out. He paused. He closed his mouth and shook his head.
I gave a wan smile and waved off his seeming embarrassment. “Forget it. Sorry,”
I said. “I promised someone I wouldn’t bother you.”
We stood there in silence for a time. I had all kinds of questions from my high school Egypt research. I didn’t ask any of them. We just watched the lights change. Listened to the river rolling past. I finished my cigarette. He straightened up, and I knew it was time for him to go. I wanted to wish him good luck or something, but anything I might wish him seemed inadequate.
“Dad?” I looked over, and the door to our room was open just a crack. Howard was peering through, shaking. He was looking right at the Pharaoh.
“It’s okay, Howie,” I said. I turned to the Mummy. “I think you’d better go.” He nodded, and shifted around with a bone-aching pivot. I pushed open the door, and Howard latched onto my leg, burying his face in my jeans. I tousled his hair.
I poked my head around the door before closing it, and got a final glimpse of the Pharaoh. He was just shuffling off toward the stairwell, off into the sweltering Martinville night.