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Historical Fiction Sad Drama

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

EGYPT, 

CIRCA  1350 BC


Wearing the mask of the jackal-headed god Anubis, Darius entered the ‘ibu’ tent with a heavier step than usual. The woman whose body lay naked and thoroughly cleaned before him on the embalming table was not just anyone. For a few seconds he caught his breath, half-expecting Zara who’d been a close family friend, to rise up and tease him about his big feet like she’d done when he was a boy.


Darius had never minded her teasing. Having lost his own mother at a young age and with a father who was engrossed in important work, Zara had taken on a motherly role, letting him into her home, fussing over him and treating him like one of her own children. That was how he remembered her in life.


In life… what a thought. If only she were alive!


Now in death, she must undergo the trial all humans ultimately face. Before long, she would start the journey into the after-life and it was Darius’s job as priest and chief embalmer to help make the transition from the earthly life to the next one as smooth as possible. It was his duty to prepare the body properly and follow the correct rituals. Only by doing that, would Zara’s soul be free to re-join her body so that it could be carried to the sublime paradise that was a continuation of the present life in the Field of Reeds beyond the sky.

***

In life, Zara had been a lovely woman inside and out. She was always laughing and often had a kind word for others. She had been the wife of a mason who, alongside their sons and later one daughter, had worked for many years on a project building the Great Pyramid for the mighty Pharaoh. For a while, the family had lived on the edge of the desert in a compound with other Pyramid workers where Khufu had been eventually been promoted to chief mason. 


When the project was over and Khufu retired, the family settled in Zara’s childhood village a few miles outside of Egypt’s capital. They were able to do this after being given a plot of land by a senior official as an acknowledgement for years of service. Darius, now a priest and chief embalmer, was one of the first people to visit the family when they returned. Zara had welcomed him into their completed new house with open arms.


Darius’s hand went up to his mouth at the memory. It was hard to believe he would never see Zara again – at least not in the present life. 

***


It was evening and the hot air was starting to cool. As a prelude to embalming, Darius had thoroughly washed and shaved. It ensured he was ritually clean to perform the task that lay ahead. He also hoped it would put him in the right frame of mind to undertake this most sacred of earthly rites.


He was used to being surrounded by the paraphernalia of death, but the scene that hit him was stark. There were sharp metal instruments which included scalpels, hooks and blades, china bowls, pots of fluid, bottles containing essential oils such as cedarwood and myrrh, boxes of a special desert salt called natron, carefully stored layers of of wrapping, along with stone jars of varying sizes that would store human organs and eventually be sealed and placed inside the burial chamber. All these rose up before him. It was as if he was seeing them for the first time.


But they were the tools of his trade and he intended to use them well.

***


Rallying, he inhaled deeply, and picked up one of the sharp scalpels from a makeshift shelf. Without hesitation, he made an incision into the left side of the abdomen and opened up it up. He squeezed a tube that was attached to a drain in the floor so the blood and other fluids could be collected.


For the moment, he was determined to think of Zara as nothing more than a lifeless corpse. In one sense, that was exactly what she was, but he had the power to make her so much more. Either way, he forced himself to think of her in purely detached terms, otherwise he would never do what needed to be done.


Normally the correct procedure would have been to remove the deceased person’s brain first, but it was a job he’d always disliked so he decided to leave it for his son. Fearful of making a mistake, he hoped the slight departure from tradition would not be viewed unfavourably by the gods. He kept telling himself he was only doing what Zara and her family would have wanted. He could not make a mistake.


Darius laid his hand on Zara’s still heart, more aware than he’d ever been of his burden of responsibility. He remembered hearing it once as she had gathered him to her chest when he’d hurt himself as a boy. The rhythmic beat had been a comforting sound to his young ears. He clasped it now with the utmost care, respectfully wrapping it in a special cloth that contained preserving fluids. 


He turned to the huge cavity he had created, working quickly and cleaning it out with palm wine. After filling up the space with crushed myrrh and other aromatic substances, he returned the heart to its rightful owner. The liver, lungs and other organs were placed in large bowls and covered in salt. Later, they would be added to canopic jars and permanently sealed.


It took care and attention to sew up the entire incision with neat stitches. All the time Darius was thinking of Zara’s heart. He hoped he’d returned it quickly enough to the body. It would have been a desecration to have permanently cast aside an organ that was considered to be a vital part of the nine components that made up a person’s soul and was regarded as the source of wisdom, emotions and memory. 


The heart, now in abeyance, was where Zara’s true personality resided.

***


Darius’s son Adel entered the tent cautiously. Like many sons, he was expected to carry on the family traditions and he was certainly a dutiful young man. He was also aware that the lifeless woman laid out on the table had held a special place in his father’s affections. 

“Do you want me now, father?”

“Yes, come in. Don’t hang about.”

Adel held out a pair of smooth, perfectly proportioned hands. “I’m ready. Anything I can do to help?”

“I want you to deal with the brain. Whatever you do, try to avoid damaging her nose. I don’t need to tell you how important it is to keep her intact. There must be no obstacles when it comes to her soul being able to recognise the body when she enters the afterlife.” Darius had no doubt Zara would enter the afterlife as she had been a good person. He also had every faith in his son’s abilities. 


Everyone knew the worst punishment a person could receive was being burnt because it prevented entry into the Field of Reeds. It was a place which was a continuation of the life lived on earth after death, albeit in a more ideal form. The Egyptians believed the earthly life was so precious, it should carry on in the next one. That was why they went to so much trouble to give the soul every chance of succeeding. The deeds in the present life would be judged by Osiris, the god of the underworld, aided by the goddess Maat. In the Hall of Truth, the heart would be put on a scale and weighed against Maat’s feather of truth and justice. If it was heavier than the feather, the soul would be devoured by a crocodile god and cease to exist, a truly dreadful fate. Aside from good deeds, for a person to gain eternal life, the body and soul must be reunited at burial, hence all the preparation and care taken with mummification.

“I’ll do my best not to harm her.”

Adel deftly picked up something that resembled a crochet hook.

“Not a job for the squeamish,” Darius said, averting his eyes. “It’s a comfort to know the brain is a useless organ, of little value, but the least damage we do the better.”

“Perhaps not entirely useless.” Adel was interested in medical matters and would have liked to have been a doctor and helped cure the sick if he’d had the opportunity. “We know the brain plays a role in various ailments such as epilepsy. We know it has hemispheres and a membrane and is encased in mucous. And there have been reports of successful brain surgery in some cases.”

“That may be true, but for our purposes we need to remove it quickly before it decays.”

“Yes, that’s always a good reason.” Adel took a deep breath and inserted the metal hook into the corpse’s nose. It wasn’t the first brain he’d removed, but even without emotional involvement, it was a taxing procedure. Whatever the current debate on the brain’s importance in the body, it had to be done in stages and therefore required a strong stomach, as well as a steady hand. 


His father was sweating profusely and it wasn’t just from the heat. He took off his mask and handed it to Adel.

“If you can manage without me, I think I’ll leave you to it for a bit, son,” Darius said. “I’m popping home, but call me if you need me.”

“I should be fine, but before you go, do you want me to cover her over with natron, or shall I leave you to do that?”

Darius swallowed. “If you don’t mind doing it yourself, that would be helpful.”

***


Darius walked the short distance from the tent to his house where he was met by his wife on the rooftop, the coolest part of the house.

“You look a little pale. Can I get you anything?” she asked.

“A beer would be good.”

“Coming up.” 

The beer which came from a nearby brewery was surprisingly nutritious. It was also a necessity in a land where getting hold of clean water could sometimes be a problem. Unless you were poor, it was advisable to use the Nile for fishing and washing clothes rather than drinking its water.

“Ah, that tastes good,” Darius said, supping thirstily.

His wife’s eyes rested on him. They were kind - like Zara’s had once been. 

“What you are doing can’t be easy. Not when you’ve known her. She was such a nice lady,” she said.

“She was and it isn’t.” Darius examined his feet. They didn’t seem so large now he was a grown man. “I just want to do my best for her. Make sure she’s given every chance.”

“You will. You’re the finest embalmer in the area. The only person of merit you haven’t worked on is the Pharaoh.”

“I think that particular honour will have to fall on our son. This is going to be my last embalming.”

“Are you sure? You have a great reputation and there are so many grateful families; you are respected far and wide.”

“I’m getting old, love.” He examined hands that were becoming arthritic. “My joints are starting to hurt. I don’t want to slip up.” Darius sighed. “It’s time for our son to take up my mantle. He’s more than capable.”

***


Later, when Darius returned to the embalming tent, the entire body had been covered with natron salt to dry it out. Zara was barely recognisable as the woman Darius had known and loved. He looked forward to making her appear more human by stuffing her with sand and pieces of linen. 


His son bore an air of satisfaction. “Now, we just have to wait seventy days for the salt and everything else to work its magic.” 

“I will personally perform each stage of wrapping the body before the funeral,” Darius said earnestly. The process of bandaging could take a week or longer as resin was added between each layer to give strength.

***


By the time Zara was ready to be placed in a sarcophagus and make her way to her final resting place on the other side of the Nile, Darius had every reason to feel proud. He didn’t know it, but his dear friend was wrapped well enough to be preserved for thousands of years. Not only had her shell of a body been soaked in the finest oils making her smell divine, he had also tucked in various amulets between the wrappings to offer extra protection during her final journey. Throughout every stage of the ritual, he had added spells and incantations from the Book of the Dead to reawaken her in the afterlife.


Satisfied there was nothing more to be done, the embalmer allowed himself to cast one last professional eye over the corpse. To his mind, Zara’s face radiated the same contentment she had worn in life. She lay motionless, a seamless work of art, without flaw. Only now did Darius allow himself to feel the first simmering of peace. He had done everything he could to prepare Zara’s body for the final stage of her journey into the afterlife. By doing so, he had freed her very soul.


She, who had once been like a mother to him was now the perfect mummy.


He could ask for no more.

***



July 03, 2023 16:27

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46 comments

Michał Przywara
20:39 Jul 04, 2023

Definitely an appropriate take on the prompt. Every culture has rituals surrounding death, as it's such a profound part of living. I think this is one we're much less familiar with. Nowadays mummies are archeological finds or horror movie villains, but the creation on them was vitally important to the people of the day. Just a story about an embalmer would have been interesting (indeed, reminiscent of Sinuhe's story in The Egyptian) but there's an extra dimension here with the personal history. It's no wonder he found it hard to serve Zara...

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Helen A Smith
06:20 Jul 05, 2023

Thanks Michal I’m so glad you appreciated it. I’m really interested in the culture and history and wanted to humanise it. I have heard about The Egyptian but never read it. I must take a look.

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Michał Przywara
20:46 Jul 05, 2023

Definitely a book I recommend :) It took me a while to get into it, but I find myself still thinking about it often, a decade (decades?) later.

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Aeris Walker
18:24 Jul 07, 2023

I’ve always found ancient Egypt an overwhelming time period to try and study and channel into fiction, but you did a great job with this. When you began listing out all the accoutrements for embalming, the story felt very real and unsettling, and my stomach did a little flip. I love how you weave in the drama to show why this specific death was so difficult, and Darius’ emotions came through strong and clear. Well done :)

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Helen A Smith
19:26 Jul 07, 2023

Hi Aeris Thank you. I wanted to humanise the story even if at first sight such rituals might be be difficult to relate to in the modern world. I wanted to try and show how it was meaningful to the people of the time.

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Delbert Griffith
12:35 Jul 06, 2023

The penultimate paragraph was fantastic, Helen. Mother - mummy. What a great way to encapsulate the tale! The mummification process is very specific, and for reasons that make sense to the ancient Egyptians. You did a fine, fine job in connecting the human to the spiritual. We don't really do that nowadays in our death rites. Wonderfully-told tale, my friend. Great writing. Cheers!

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Helen A Smith
14:26 Jul 06, 2023

Thanks Delbert I appreciate your generous words. They mean a lot.

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David Ader
02:03 Jul 04, 2023

What I love about this story is weaving an element, mummification, to the human side. When do we ever connect the mechanics of death to the role of the “technician “ involved and their emotions? Well, you just did and did it well. The accurate details are almost overlooked as they fit so well; it flows. Mummy vs mother-clever language.

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Helen A Smith
19:47 Jul 04, 2023

Thanks so much David I appreciate your great comments and so glad you saw beyond the surface.

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Mike Panasitti
14:39 Jul 09, 2023

By weaving this touching depiction of an embalmer's life in ancient Egypt you've done several things: first, you've humanized a culture that most archaeological texts render unrecognizably alien. Second, you've piqued the reader's curiosity for accuracy in historical fiction. As I read on I asked myself, "was anyone but royalty eligible for the spiritual and ritualized process of embalming?" Also, "did wives offer husbands beers when they got home from work?" Historical fiction must tread the difficult line between undeniable past d...

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Helen A Smith
14:57 Jul 09, 2023

Thanks Mike As far as I can make out, there were different levels with embalming. Obviously, a Pharaoh would have got the “ultimate” treatment, but the less wealthy would have been likely to receive some level of embalming. The embalmer in this case was fairly high up the social structure, therefore would have wanted to give his friend the best treatment. There was a worry that if the deceased wasn’t given the best a person could afford, at least according to their means, they might be haunted. The nutritious beer seems to have been someth...

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Mike Panasitti
15:13 Jul 09, 2023

Doubtless. Poetic license is granted,...not abused, here. Take care.

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Dennis Haak
07:20 Jul 09, 2023

Great mix of drama and history (learned a lot about the balming process in Ancient Egypt). The story made you wonder as a reader why the woman was so important to Darius. And then that reveal at the end; powerful stuff.

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Helen A Smith
09:11 Jul 09, 2023

Thanks Dennis for your critique. I’m glad you liked the ending and felt you learnt something from my story. I

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Chris Miller
12:48 Jul 08, 2023

An excellent choice of period and ritual for the prompt. I have always been fascinated by canopic jars. Really enjoyed it, Helen. Thank you for sharing.

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Helen A Smith
17:39 Jul 08, 2023

Thanks Chris I’m glad you enjoyed my story.

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07:55 Jul 08, 2023

Interestingly written and described the rituals of mummification and then converted it to a spiritual reality. Excellent.

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Helen A Smith
17:38 Jul 08, 2023

Thanks Syed I’m glad you enjoyed it.

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Unknown User
21:29 Jul 06, 2023

<removed by user>

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Helen A Smith
11:43 Jul 07, 2023

Thanks Joe. I’m so glad you liked it. Will be reading your story as soon as I get a chance

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Luca King Greek
16:51 Mar 26, 2024

I sense a lot of research went into this story!

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Luca King Greek
16:51 Mar 26, 2024

I sense a lot of research went into this story! Great stuff

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Helen A Smith
17:11 Mar 26, 2024

Thank you. Glad you liked it. Yes, lots of research. I’ve written a novel about a family in ancient Egypt - not the same people as in the short story. I’m writing a prequel but get bogged down. Just visited a museum with a friend, but too late for the previous prompt. 😂 There’s never enough time in the day once I’m working. Thanks for reading. Look forward to reading another of your stories soon.

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Ken Cartisano
06:51 Dec 01, 2023

Mummy dearest.

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Helen A Smith
08:03 Dec 01, 2023

Scary! Fortunately this one was a good mother figure. Thanks for reading.

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Graham Kinross
11:10 Nov 29, 2023

The way you wove the relationship between Darius and Zara with the mythology and the practice of embalming for mummification is brilliant. The relationship was real. The details let me picture it without being overkill. Well done.

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Helen A Smith
11:55 Nov 29, 2023

Hi Graham, So pleased you liked it. I’ve almost finished writing a novel about it, though not based on these people - so over the moon if you thought it worked well.

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Graham Kinross
13:27 Nov 29, 2023

It was well balanced between the historical facts and the fiction of the story.

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Rebecca Miles
19:10 Sep 12, 2023

Hi Helen, finally got round to reading this- sorry it has taken me so long. You know it is so funny, I also attempted a book with ancient Egypt as the background (well it's partly the context; the other half is modern times and a shabti figure unites the two) so I know the pull- and the pitfalls- of the premise! There is so much that intrigues in the culture isn't there: the gods, the afterlife, the rituals and other evocative things like the Book of the Dead etc. That definitely comes across from your story. I was fascinated by the period, ...

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Helen A Smith
20:25 Sep 12, 2023

Hi Rebecca Thanks for reading it. How strange! I know exactly what you mean. It’s difficult not to get bogged down in the rituals and telling a story that ends up sounding like a history lesson and a description of peculiar things that appear to have no relevance now. To me, being concerned with the afterlife is as relevant now as it was then (due to my background) but we live in a secular age. Also, too much description seems to turn a modern audience off. I guess people have limited time and want to become engaged quickly. I’m working ...

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Amanda Lieser
04:09 Aug 05, 2023

Hi Helen, Oh gosh, what an interesting topic. I had a friend who, in our freshman year of high school, proclaimed she would become an Egyptologist. It was a career none of us thought she’d actually obtain. We all have crazy dreams at 14, but she did it! And this piece made me smile and think of her. I can’t imagine the level of research you had to do for it. I loved the way we truly jumped back in time and reminded ourselves that humans have always been human-through the ages. Nice work!!

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Helen A Smith
06:58 Aug 05, 2023

Hi Amanda So glad you appreciated it and got the main point which was the human angle. That was what I was aiming to get across. I did research it and wow about your friend!! Thanks for reading.

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Marty B
20:47 Jul 16, 2023

I loved the details of embalming, and the beliefs of what the brain is for vs. the true personality in the heart. Which makes sense- the brain just sits there, numb and mute where the heart beats, pumps and feels. I hope someone spends as much time caring and remembering me when I have passed. Great lovely story!

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Helen A Smith
05:29 Jul 17, 2023

Thanks Marty I love that you got it about the brain and heart.

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Mary Bendickson
18:19 Jul 12, 2023

A job well done. Both mummifying and writing. Thanks for liking my public speaking.

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Helen A Smith
19:26 Jul 12, 2023

Thanks Mary It was a thorough business (strange to modern day thinking), but it must have meant everything to the people at the time.

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Shahzad Ahmad
19:09 Jul 11, 2023

Beautiful story Helen. The descriptive detail of the ritual is complete and thorough. The process of mummification is explained in graphic detail with a dash of emotions. Like Jane Austen you manage to do full justice within the confines of a particular subject. You carry on the tradition of greatness.well done again.

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Helen A Smith
19:47 Jul 11, 2023

Thank you Shahzad for your kind words. I love Jane Austen’s works so if I managed do justice to my story even a little like she did, I’d be very pleased.

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Sarah Saleem
12:49 Jul 10, 2023

I love how you have described the whole process of embalming and covered life in Ancient Egypt, a very beautiful and poignant story!

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Helen A Smith
14:01 Jul 10, 2023

Thank you Sarah. I’m so pleased you liked it.

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Kevin Logue
18:52 Jul 09, 2023

Weaving that line between historical and fiction is a difficult one, and have done it here with absolute grace Helen. Was totally drawn in with your opener and engrossed throughout, then the gut punch at the end. Brilliant take, brillantly written. Well done.

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Helen A Smith
19:49 Jul 09, 2023

Thank you Kevin for your kind words. I’m so glad you liked my story.

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