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24 September 2014
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The Mummy's Tale
Picture of an Egyptian mummy in the style of a medieval manuscript
The Mummy's Tale
We are giving Chaucer's Canterbury Tales a modern Geordie makeover. The first of our Tyne Tales is a specially commissioned story by Rosie Garland. It tells the tale of the mummy who ended up in the Hancock museum.
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I am Irt-irw, daughter of Pedamenope!

I remember a soft mouth smelling of new dates. He kissed my hand four times; one for each finger, called me his plot of ground planted with flowers, a lovely place to wander in. We ran amongst the incense trees in my father’s garden, their thirsty feet sunk into muddy pits. You are my vineyard. Let me drink from you. The sand warm beneath my feet. His hand on my belly. The daughter I bore. I remember this.

One morning it grew dark and did not lighten. I heard him say, she fell. I could not wake her. The sky lifted the corner of her skirt and I plunged my face into its dark folds, cried for my mama. She buried me in the night of her monstrous thighs. My thumb crept towards my mouth, and I found it warm and comforting.

The Goddess hushed my weeping for the seventy days I lay with the embalmers: their hands were busy in every part of me. I would have blushed if I had not been dead. They cut me open, scooped out my entrails; my liver and my lungs, packed them into jars stoppered with the heads of beasts. They whisked my brain to cream. I would not be needing it: but my heart they left me. I coffer it between my ribs. Now I can only recall things I loved and things I hated. I can not measure time, nor the length of my arm. So forgive me if my memory is selective.

Then they laid me in a crib of salt till I was parched, swaddled me in linen, cradled me in this pretty box. My tears dried up. My family dragged me to my tomb, waving flowers beneath my chin; but their scent had been taken into a distant room. In any case, I was drowsy enough. I did not need lotus blooms. I heard hair torn out, like barley ripped from the fields by robbers. The weeping of my children; it sounded like laughter, and I grew cold.

The priest struck my wooden lips, but the mourners’ wailing was so loud no-one heard me shout I do not want to leave you! They bricked me in, smoothed plaster on the door. Left bread. A bowl of meat. Cheap beer in good jars. I gulped it all. Tasted grit between my teeth.

They left me food a short while. I grew hungry. Around me, fat ducks quacked in the reed thicket daubed on the walls. I could hear the painted offering table creak with its weight of loaves fresh from the oven. Another table groaned beneath its load of roasted lamb; another heaped with jars of beer, and cakes, and figs, and dates, and fried garlic and grilled chicken.

Ghost water fluttered in my mouth. I was surrounded by food I could not reach. I scrabbled at the inside of my box until my Soul showed me how to break free and leap up through the lid. I staggered through watercolour marshes, grabbed a squawking bird, crammed it whole into my mouth and did not stop to pluck it. I licked the pictures off the walls, swallowed every mouthful quick as a jackal. There was no time to chew.

Still I couldn’t sleep.

In my continual night I heard my husband whisper, you are my vineyard. Let me drink from you. A strange voice answered: his new wife, fingers sticky with dough. My fury beat against the door of my tomb, found its way through and swept across the river to the house that was once mine. I filled the mouth of the wind and blew sand into your flour so that your teeth ground down; sharpened the teeth of the desert and bit your new son’s heel with scorpions. Feasted on your sorrow. I became hard as wood.

Then there was the day light fell through the bricked-up door. I thought, he is sorry: he has sent her away. He cannot live without me. Has come to lie down at my side. But they were robbers, all nervous hands fumbling for my bracelets, the carved beetle I carried over my heart. I saw how thin they were. Hungrier than me. But I’d bribed important demons to stand at my head and feet.

This is Irt-irw, daughter of Pedamenope!

Their shrieking sent the thieves away with nothing but my jewellery.

Sand choked my tomb. I lay quiet, counted my fingers, made do with silence. The river was always there, coiling round the edge of the village, bright as a knife blade. The passing of a hundred generations dimmed my taste for anger. I forgot your name, as did everyone on earth. It’s hard to stay furious with a man whose name you do not recall. Now there’s not a splinter left of your lying body. And I’m the one telling this story.

Light flared again. Perhaps the Gods had come to fetch me? But these men were worse than my two-thousand year-old hunger, worse than the embalmers, worse than the thieves who at least said prayers to turn away the demons.

I am Irt-irw, daughter of Pedamenope!

These robbers did not hear me, did not believe in curses, did not tremble. There was not much left to steal, so they took my body, the box I lay in. Scraped the ointment from my feet, tore the flowers from my breast. Chipped the paintings from the walls. Could they not see I’d sucked out all the marrow?

They hauled me from my tomb. Packed me like a crate of pickled fish and shipped me north, across the Great Green and further, to a country where the water turns to stone. I had no Gods to protect me, because they could not sail this far. These men unravelled me from my wrappings. Hung me from a hook like a hide waiting for the tanner. They think I am too old for modesty, but they are mistaken. See how I clutch myself where life begins. I rediscovered anger, and how sweet it tastes.

This is not like sleep: let no-one ever tell you otherwise. You poor ghosts nibble at the edges of my dreams, your distant voices the sound of bees caught in a pot, and of as little consequence. You are watching me now, comparing my breasts to leather satchels, how my eyes are shrivelled up like last year’s grapes. I will not even lift my eyelids to glare at you. You are so pale; wrapped up against a cold I never knew.

I am too busy smiling to talk to you. My tongue is wood and clacks inside my mouth. You cannot take my name.

I am Irt-irw, daughter of Pedamenope.

I shall live forever. Not you. I’ve watched one hundred of your thieving generations turn to slime.

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