In the Valley of the Kings, the two women, one older, mild aged but well preserved, and the other younger, pretty, blond, yet with a slightly sad face, rode in the tram to the tomb of Seti I. In front of the tomb, they sat in an appointed dining area – a little stall with small metal tables and collapsible chairs – to await the tour. Rene tried, for the hundredth time in this country to get them to put something in her coke to make it cold, but it was handed to her tepid, the bubbles scratching at her throat. She sipped the liquid through a straw, watching the whirls of sand and dust spiral up into the air and brush against the limestone banks.
Her much younger companion, Chloe Bruce, pulled her glass bottle of water from her backpack. The top of her head was decoratively banded with a wide headscarf and her neat dark blond hair tucked into a low ponytail. She was travel chic, a Talbots model look, though Rene was sure whatever the child wore this is the impression she would make. Also, there was the coolness in her eyes, the pert mouth that almost never said anything.
How unlikely it was Chloe had pursued morturary science though the young lady did have a kind of remove with which she gazed upon the world, a sort of mask. Maybe that attitude and demeanor was well suited. And maybe something about the keep of the dead had fascinated her because her parents had passed in a car accident when she was in college. Rene took her in during summers and holidays and gave her a place to be when she was home.
Rene didn’t have children of her own. She had helped watch Chloe when she was a child, she had been good friends with Chloe’s parents. She had taken her to see the opera Hansel and Gretel when it was playing downtown. She bought the child a record player and a vinyl recording of the classic Englebert Humperdink masterpiece. Rene remembered fondly the lullaby from her childhood: “When at night I go to sleep, fourteen angels watch do keep.” She hoped the lullaby and the rest of the recording may come to mean something to the young woman one day.
“I want something to eat,” said Chloe, “I’m starving.” She pulled out a 5 pound Egyption note from her Channel bag and ordered a falafel sandwich from the little cart. Apparently the man who worked the cart kept the warm sandwiches from the drinks, in their own compartment, though Rene doubted her coke had been insulated at all. Nothing seemed to matter here. You could order all you wanted and there would be smiling and nodding and you would get exactly what they wanted to give you.
Chloe ate hurriedly, shoveling stray bits of cucumber and tomato into her mouth and licking the excess tahini from her fingers. At least the camels were not here like they were at the pyramids, their handlers pressing hard to sell rides around the ancient structures, flattering, wheedling, offering to take “American dollar.” And the Valley of the Kings was fairly quiet and clean because of this, and had probably been an ideal place for the ancient people to hide the riches their pharaohs would need in the afterlife. The tombs were tucked into the folds of the white and pink cliffs where the earth held the ancient secrets of a civilization and a deep faith their leaders would meet with the eternal.
How crass we are now, thought Rene, enjoying a cigarette while Chloe threw away her sandwich wrapping and reapplied her lipstick. We no longer give the same care and attention to our lives, much less our deaths. Groups of tourists passed, desperate figures, some wearing socks with sandals, mounds of white flesh, fanny packs.
When David was alive, he used to hold her hand when they sat out on their back patio every evening, drinking wine. “My queen,” he would say. And they gazed upon the opulent garden they had built within a budget, but still, there was a fountain and tall swaying bamboo, tropical flowers. They took turns making dinner. Maybe it was not having had children that made their devotion and relaxation possible, she wasn’t entirely sure, but she didn’t understand when her other married friends complained. They had only been through one bout of desperate fighting and despair, when he had wanted children but she had not. She could not explain her feelings and he had left her alone one night, enraged, aggrieved. He returned the next morning, held her, and they never breathed another word about it.
She and Chloe descended the stairs of Seti’s tomb, the elaborately decorated walls with carved figures and mythological creatures paralleling their descent down further and further beneath the ground. In the huge room where Seti’s sarcophagus would have lain was a deep blue star filled domed roof. The artists, said the tour guide, had provided Seti with a view of the gorgeous night sky, while the many workers preparing his tomb filled his rooms with furniture, gold, food, wine, linens, jewelry, statues, furniture. The deep blue of the domed ceiling inspired Rene to think of Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer. To think these ancient people really believed they needed to give their dead kings something to gaze upon.
The guide also said that a raid on the tomb orchestrated by the priests seeking money to gain political power stripped the pharaohs of their sacred and eternal powers.
In the cool ride back to the motel, in the nice car they had hired to treat themselves, Chloe said, taking off her scarf and rubber band and shaking her hair: “I’ve stolen from a dead person before.” The comment jarred Rene, as if the car had suddenly ridden over a sharp dip in the road.
“I was starting my internship at the morgue. This girl no one had claimed was being handed over to the city. She was wearing a necklace with a ruby.” Chloe pulled her hair back and secured it again with the rubber band. “I wasn’t sure how she could have afforded it. It looked like she stole it so I slipped it off of her and wore it out that night.”
The tour guide had said it wasn’t just the priests who had stolen from the pharaohs with their organized raid. Little by little, the common people, the ones who supported the afterlife preparation industry, took from the tombs in order to make enough money to support their families. They worked themselves to the bone and often were paid an insulting amount. Resentment had built up given the disparity.
Rene observed her young friend. She seriously doubted she was committing Hansel and Gretel’s evening prayer to memory if she ever listened to the record at all. What was death to her. What was life. What was dignity. She wasn’t quite sure. She had always wondered what it would have been like for Chloe to deal with death so much having lost her own parents but her mentors said she always handled the loved ones of the deceased with such poise and grace. And yet, the coldness of an act like this, although on the other hand it had a strange logic too, like that of a child.
As the car bumped along, Rene ran her fingers through Chloe’s long ponytail, something the young woman still allowed her to do. She was not her child, and yet, in some strange way Rene had been a kind of mother. She was not sure she had guided her or made any contribution. Then again she thought, what are we but masses of colliding particles, even to our own offspring.
That night she closed her eyes and imagined the faith of the Egyptians and their ceremonies.
She heard the crinkling of a chocolate bar wrapper. Chloe, getting into the candy they had collected at the market. “Would you like a piece of chocolate, Rene?”