Ghost story / A wine bar / A teddy bear / 937w
We sat and stared at each other, soaking in the silence, for a long time. The young waiter came to fill our glasses, and left quickly at the sight of two dusty, grim-looking foreign expatriates, one handcuffed to the chair, locked in a wordless study of one another. On the table between us, the stuffed bear regarded me with a crooked button gaze.
“We thought,” the man began, unsteadily. “We thought he might want a toy. To replace what was stolen.”
I waited, saying nothing. It wasn’t typical for me to listen to their stories, but I had a feeling he would spool it out for me.
“But he wasn’t a child, was he?” He reached to finger the bear’s left paw; the links of cuff chain clinked against each other. “We say ‘the boy-king’, but he wasn’t, was he? He was a young man.”
I noticed a fluttering at his throat–was it the ghost of a laugh? I took a mouthful of wine. It tasted of minerals.
“We didn’t do any research,” he continued. “It didn’t seem like a situation that…called for research.”
“The men whose site you broke into would probably disagree,” I said. This was a well-practiced line, and it flowed from me like a breath, without much thought. It felt good to say something so familiar.
“It isn’t their site,” he said, quietly, drawing his hand so quickly from the bear that it fell sideways with a puff of its sawdust innards. I moved my glass out of the way, wanting to think. I had brought him here and now I was beginning to feel uneasy. He had none of the usual excuses.
“We were desperate,” he went on. It was hard to see him. The window near our table, creped over with cellophane, let in a murky light that licked at his glasses but left the rest of his face in shadows. “Stalked.”
“You’re saying that a ghost did it.”
The man uttered a rasp of a word that I didn’t understand.
Was that a tear I saw on his cheek? “Tut?”
“Tutankhamun. But the old Egyptian pronunciation. Nobody says it right anymore.”
“How the fuck would you know how to pronounce the name?” This anger was not familiar. I checked it with more wine; the flavor of the local limestone seemed to have grown even more pronounced.
The typical Tut hysteric—the kind of person I was paid to remove from the premises—worked from months of documentation, reading, sleuthing. What I wanted was a sign that this man was one of these: an obsessed scholar. But instead, he started crying. He took his glasses off, and even in the dim light I could see the pulse of animal fear in his eyes. Seizing the teddy, he hugged it, pathetically, to his chest and began to sob.
I told myself it was overstimulation. An impressionable mind could easily fall prey to the alienness of it all: the crowded glyphs, the low chill odor of old stone, the weight of the crushing mountains above. Children often cried. A visit to King Tut’s tomb, hastily constructed due to his unexpected death, was not at all like visiting the soaring monuments of ancient Greece or India. It was a poor testament to the Egyptians’ worship of all things funereal.
In the first few years after Tut’s discovery, Europeans had bandied about the notion of a pharaoh’s curse. It was good for headlines and movies and trendy clubs that exhibited stolen stele. But decades later, no evidence had ever surfaced to substantiate the possibility of curses or reanimated mummies. It was the kind of spell the human mind simply put on itself, as only the human mind could possibly do.
But none of these things explained what I had seen in that doorway.
Across from me, the man I had decided to take for a drink before bringing him to jail was gripping the teddy bear fiercely and wiping at a snotty nose. Had he seen it, too? Did I want to hear a yes, or a no?
I had learned a lot in my career working for the archaeologists. Contrary to popular belief, Tutankhamun was not a striding, long-limbed warrior king. He was the product of generations of incest, which left him with a severe overbite, a cleft palate, and a clubbed foot that stunted his stature. Plagued with genetic diseases, he had dragged a deformed body through a short, brutal life, into a death that erased him behind a golden mask.
Framed in the low entrance to the antechamber—waifish, insubstantial, kohled at the deadened eye—he had looked somewhat like a child. Perhaps this was the couple’s mistake.
I finished my wine, refilled my glass from my companion’s, and drank half. He noticed the tremor of my hand.
“You’re not insane,” he said to my shaking fingers.
While he held the teddy bear physically, I held it mentally, held onto what it signified—the difference between him and me. Between veteran devotee of fear, and virgin newcomer to it.
“The bear did give me an idea,” he murmured. I was drinking almost helplessly. The kohled eye, lazy in its socket, bore down on me.
“We took it there, but it didn’t work. I thought maybe it wasn’t some object he wanted.” He stroked a reddened paw. “He had followed us for a year. Killed our animals. Stood while we slept and rattled through that split mouth of his.” He gave me a knowing look, almost indulgent. “It was company he wanted.”
In the wine, I tasted the tomb.
This story won 3rd place out of 35 in the second round of the competition. I was pretty freakin psyched, since that let me move on to round three. I was also pretty proud of this story, being my first ever attempt at a ghost story. I still think it borders on being more like horror. To plan it, I put this song on repeat while running, since it was the creepiest, most off-putting song on my iPod.
I used to be obsessed with Ancient Egyptian civilizations, so I have more than the average person’s knowledge on Tut.
Feedback from the judges included commenting that my choice to go with the classic Tut story was “bold;” that the history of Tut should be introduced earlier; and that it wasn’t clear why the couple were a couple (I don’t think I made it explicit enough that the man murdered his wife).