On some dark passage I lay down. My head resting on clammy concrete smeared with soot and expired event posters. It is peaceful, actually. The printed faces on the walls stare back at me and at each other in frozen glee and tease at euphoria. If only I’d been laying here months ago. missed opportunities... Where was I? Actually, where am I? These walls are new to me. The rushing street behind my head is a loud blur. Any fact there is to be found is certainly not laying on the ground here. But, is true knowledge worth losing all of my smiling paper friends? I consider this. Something drips. Time returns, and I consider how long I have been considering. This isn’t like me at all.
I get up. One of the frozen faces flutters out, my abrupt standing disturbing the posters placid lifestyle and pulling it into my focus. I accept my bright new friend and slide their image into my pocket to get more acquainted with later.
But It’s not alone in there. I explore further, probing each jean pocket and the pouch in front of the frayed hoodie that I’m wearing. Two permanent markers; black and red. My wallet is gone, but I probably still have enough coins to get by on. My room key hangs around my neck. Dead phone. In the pocket I slid the flyer in, I find a large ring that I’d never seen before. It’s heavy. Maybe old? Hand-worked with a bronze glint to it and an angry flat stone. This stone is turquoise. Ancient protection. I think I read that somewhere. Millenia-old civilizations spanning the equator collecting as much of the stuff as possible to ward off ghosts and hexes and plagues unknown. It’s not mine. But it is entrancing. And it was in my pocket so... maybe it is? Not the sort of object that just slips the mind though. Shit. How did I get here?
My brain starts to spin again, inner ear trying to get out, and I will myself to a discarded milkcrate to melt on. I sit down with my head in my hands, staring into my shadow.
Shit. Where was I?
The smell of moist earth along the spilling river beds, whistling reeds in the air. Content in the knowledge that while this river flows, I will never go hungry. I lean back against a palm, hugging my arms against my tunic. Yesterday, our god king was buried in a way that should guarantee that he is now communicating with Ra and Osirus the needs of our wide valley and all that surround it. Because of this, the river should continue to flow, and I’m pleased that even in my small way I was able to contribute to that.
Pharoh Tutt died suddenly, we were told. He was rumored to be ill, but it was assured that the gods would not let such a young king pass so swiftly while still in the midst of completing his great work of restoring our empire from the mistakes of his father. But humans are fallible, and perhaps our pharaoh can work more efficiently in direct communication with the sun. Omet, the pharaoh’s high minister, had gathered us simple laborers to assist his clerics in ensuring that Great Tutt’s spirit is able to leave with the sun’s chariot. The nature of his death has complicated things, Omet tell us, and a special ceremony is required that replaces the usual pomp and public celebration with speed and discretion. We are sworn to secrecy and the tasks of ritual commence. Chiefly, we are there to ensure that all of the objects needed for the next life are in their correct places when the pharaoh is ready and in need of them. It is exhausting work, but for a great good, and we are paid well for it. The clerics say their words and Tutt begins his next journey for all of us.
After nightfall, I returned to the chamber’s entrance to reflect over the previous day and the weight of all that is now sealed within the rocks. I did so covertly, afraid that my selfish introspection would betray the location of His sacred vessel. I was not seen. The emptiness of the of the narrow rock canyon is palpable, even His ghost has left. If any other soul was near it would have stood out like torchlight. I step towards the door. I would have expected guards to see him through the night, but there is not one. I reason to myself that the presence of a guard would reveal that there is something here to be taken. A protection by absence. I touch the door of cool limestone with my palm. Barely a seal in the rock façade.
Good that Onet chose such honorable men, that this place will remain a secret, unlike so many past tragedies. I step back, anxiety bursting again. I shouldn’t linger or my absence will be noticed. I breath out a quick prayer and retreat along the canyon steps. My sandal kicks something smooth. Alien on the rocky ground and glinting in the moonlight. I pick it up, and slide it into my clothes, not wanting to linger and quietly hurry back to my dwelling.
It is only when I return to my bed that I look at the ring. That is what the strange object turned out to be. A regel piece of jewelry, that must have dropped during the burial ceremonies. The eye of bluish green stares up at me with the shaft moonlight of my small window. It feels correct. I polish it’s surface with my thumb.
After a few slow breaths, I am able to stand again; exiting the comfort of the alley and onto the street. Straße. This is Berlin, It abruptly clicks into memory, though I don’t recognize the neighborhood. Viertel? Nachbarschaft? One of those words, I mean. But I figure that I can’t be that far from familiar ground. It is a big city, but the Germans are supposed to be organized. I feel the weight of the jewelry in my hand and start to walk. There are busses everywhere, I tell myself, Stadtbusse and U-Baun, and they all lead back to the center.
The street crowd around me is thick on the sidewalk, and I’m forced along it’s flow to avoid falling again. This must be a busy section of the city for so many people. The signs around me are all in German of course, and barely helpful to my American eyes, but I think I’m getting an idea of where I’m at. Car horns blast in distinctly European accents and multiple sets of breaks painfully shriek. I tense instinctively as the tightly packed pedestrians around me suddenly reverse direction like a frightened school of fish. Fisch. I chuckle internally with anxious humor. I’m on the ground again, for the third time at least. Thankful at least that crowd didn’t trample me outright. Then I look up, focusing. I see the dog, no... wolf, too lean for a wolf, are there coyote here? It’s a jackal. It stares at me. I stand up for the third time. At least. The jackal waits.
I wake up to screaming. The sun has still not risen, and my mind remains sluggish and grey. The ring is still in my hand but Its stone has turned black. Is it the lack of light? The jewel face is now a deep glaring maw opened wide on the bronze ring. I close the thing in my fist and roll off my cot seeking garments.
The scream comes from my neighbor’s wife. Lateef, my neighbor, is missing. His own bed is disheveled and there are splashes of drying blood on the floor. His wife doesn’t answer my questions. She has stopped screaming and is only silent now.
I’m at a loss as well. Lateef was a solid man. We had worked together on many projects, including yesterday’s heavy work, and despite my own night wanderings, I could not imagine where he might have gone. For all of his merits, he was a simple man, not as prone to sentiment or whimsical acts as myself.
And that blood.
I attempt once more to calm his wife and promise that I will do what I can to find out where Leteef had gone. Ra peeks over the mountain, and if we have done our jobs well, Tutt should be with him now. I leave the grieving widow’s chamber to follow up on a sudden unpleasant thought: the price of secrecy.
Not finding a place in my mind to rationalize how an African dog is wandering a German city, I do the next best thing and dart into traffic. More horns. More breaks. I feel the eyes of the jackal follow my back. I am near enough to a crossroad make it across without injury and find a buss waiting at the other side. I mumble something at the driver, hand him a few weighty coins and sit down. The jackal is gone. I don’t care. The bus starts to move. I glance at the route directory. Spreeinsel. The island of tourist magnets. Seems ideal for now.
One by one, I visit the homes of Sem, Midu, Jabari, and Pilis. My other work companions at the ceremony. Blessfully, none of these men were with wives, as their dwellings were as empty and disrupted as Lateef’s had been. I let my imagination go wild as my suspicion emerges to be truth. Why was I not taken as well? I’m now unsure of what my next path should be. I have no satisfying answer for the widow, (for she is almost certainly a widow now), and my own dwelling could be as dangerous as these others had been to their masters. I also have no work assignment today that ties me to the ground, and it might be wise to keep to places that I am less expected to be found in. At least until that satisfying answer can be found. My heart is grim, but the weight in my hand seems to lighten. I make my way to the crowds of the marketplace and continue to think.
I let the bus carry me past German office buildings and storefronts. I remember my name, my birthday and phone number, the year, the president, and I’m reasonably sure about my social security number. Why can’t I remember this morning? And this ring ...? My missing wallet is probably not a disaster, I certainly didn’t keep my passport in it. Which, I hope I left hidden with my luggage. Yea... One crisis at a time. I wonder if there is a German word Amnesia.
I get closer to one of the great sightseeing hubs of the Germany, an artificial fortified island on the Spree River that use to be where the LORD OF BERLIN lived. Although now the ancient palace is long gone and been replaced with a cluster of art and history museums. One of the prides of civilized Europe! Shit, world trivia I can remember, yet I’m still struggling over breakfast.
A museum is good though. This ring could be ancient. Maybe I can smooth talk some quiet bespeckled researcher who just spits out all the plot I need like a bad Hollywood thriller. I mean, what else are these giant public attics for? Expositional scenes and heist set pieces. I grin a little self-consciously and continue to stare out the bus window. Calm down, let the road carry me.
At the marketplace, there are a thousand strange things lined up in as many stalls, most of which are but carefully painted clay, but even so, there are wonders to be found for the patient and lucky. For today’s market, I’m a casual seeker, a browser of rumor, careful to keep moving within the safety of the crowd. I make few specific stops; Begit’s Spot, Blue Spice Stand, attempting to linger unobtrusively in the places where I’m known. Some of the absences have been noticed. No one specifically has been accused, but the coincidences are starting to show. I hear myself counted among the mysterious dead at least once and grimace, quick to slip several stalls away. The guard presence also seems higher than typical, though this could be my own paranoia. Onet has been crowned regal protectorate of Egypt and is said to soon be pharaoh of the joined kingdoms as Tut’s predecessor. His sacrifices have borne fruit. Maybe he will not see a need to chase down any remaining living ends. I feel the heaviness of the ring in my inner pocket and sink deeper into the shadows of the surrounding shoppers.
My fellow passengers and I pass over one of the bridges spanning the Spree River. Looking down into its muddy turbid flow strikes me with a sense of intense... nostalgia? Not for this river, but another ... of reed boats and banks swarming with violent life... the scene vanishes from my mind as I watch what might be an entire six pack of empty lager cans bob past my field of vision and I am solidly in the present once more. My stomach twists and I have to pull my eyes away. With nowhere else to look, I pull the ally event flyer from my pocket, and fall into another strikingly familiar face. An ancient death mask. The British Museum has loaned a collection of artifacts to the Neues/ the Egyptian Museum of Berlin and I am mostly certain that I’m looking at the final portrait of the infamous King Tutt. Right. Right.
A hand grasps my shoulder as I back through the archway, and I hear the syllables that form my name crash through the air in a crackling unfamiliar voice. I am lost.
“You were not at home,” the crackle tells me. His grip is like the jaw of Sobek. I am unable to turn and see his face. “He will see you now.”
I slide the ring into, praying that the movement is subtle enough.
A tall, grey-robed figure separates from the marketplace crowd and comes towards us. The shape of a grin distorts his shadowed face. He grabs my other shoulder. “Let’s go then,” and I’m taken away.
Stepping off the bus at the museum square, I enter a very different sort of crowd compared purpose fueled mob of the business district. The sightseers of Museum Island lack any sort of singular cohesion; small groups and pairs starting and stopping at unpredictable intervals, darting in every direction. It is a relief in its way. I try to make the most of this time away from mysterious foreign beast dogs or the tickling tendrils of uncertainty.
I’m not build for drama. I sit on wooden bench and work to slow my breathing. but my reptile brain won’t let it happen. It can sense some sort of impending end and keeps my pulse racing against my will. My mouth is cotton and I feel hung over. I resist fidgeting with the ring out of fear, and, Inevitably, I give up and force my feet towards the Egyptian Museum. I am just as convinced that the Tutt exhibition is exactly where I am supposed to be as I am that inner klaxon is yelling at me to get right back on that bus.
He three of us end our awkward shuffle in a small windowless room built into the wall of the city. My captors remained largely silent until now; the robed man forcing me to a chair against the wall and bidding my continued patience while we wait for our ‘mutual benefactor’ to arrive. The still unseen man that was leading me from behind, I presume, has gone off to locate him, implying that the robed man and I are now alone. This doesn’t make me feel any easier. His grin has a toxic quality.
“I get the impression,” the man starts, “that you have noticed something of a pattern this morning that you felt the need to disrupt.” The man is standing right in front of me, looming, and caught up in his own oration. I’m too frozen to use this open, but feel the stabbing pulse of the jewel in my pocket, urging itself to my hand. “It’s understandable,” he goes on, “No goat is ever eager to see the spit, but the feast must still go on despite the whims of such minor attendees.” The man takes a moment to finally step back and appraise me. My hands are clenching pale the sides of the wooden chair. In part because I’m terrified, but also to hide the large ring now on my hand under the seat of the chair. “And here you are now, so it doesn’t especially matter anyway. You even gave us a touch of entertainment in the process. Now, as the la-“
The man jolts suddenly, one hand bracing the wall and coughing disks of black blood on my tunic. He seems to grow with some sort of black haze materializing from with the folds of his clothing and shaping into an armored carapace with eyes and mouth of purple fire. The grin remains, and a limb, many times its original size rears back to strike me down.
I’ve been to this museum before. Once or twice, I think. Around when I first came to Berlin with the student program. It’s an impressive place, though then I was only really focused on the colors of the things than any sort of historical or cultural impact. Reds and blues and greens applied by hand ten thousand years ago. Few people have made marks on anything with that level of immortality. I remember the place feeling crushingly old and yet completely outside of the passage of time. On that visit though, the impression was basically metaphorical. Walking up the three steps to the front entrance now, I feel like metaphor has become reality. Time has less weight to it, and for a popular tourist destination in what is probably the afternoon, I think I’m on my own.
The door stands open. There is no heavily accented senior volunteer to acknowledge my attendance or hand me a map. Dim archival safe eco-friendly lights seem to flicker and spit.
There is the jackal.
I think it might be a friend? It stands motionless in the entry corridor past the turnstile and public restrooms (with baby changing facilities!). I nod absently to the empty entrance desk and admit myself through the turnstile. The jacket follows me with its eyes as I near it until, satisfied with my progress, it quietly lopes off to the left. Following a sign to the special exhibit hall. My echoing footsteps against the hard tile are the only thing I can hear until the loudly scrapping crash of the front door far behind me. Outside of time, and alone.
I instinctively catch the blow with my hands. The impact splits the cheap chair I had been sitting on into kindling and my body impacts bare sandstone several hands above the floor. Gravity takes me just as quickly and I crumble painfully to the floor. But I remain breathing.
Blinking sense back into screaming muscle and bone, I lift my head to see my attacker in a mirrored position, a writhing fetus on the opposite side of the room. The black and purple smoke swirling off his body and rapidly.... entering the ring on my finger. I remain kneeling, transfixed at what I’m seeing until the ring itself begins to writhe, its turquoise face now stained sooty black. Everything in this dark and forgotten room begins to scream.
My silent companion leads me to a hall below the main floor of the Neues. I expect it to be the underground passageway that connects this building to the four others on the island, but it doesn’t seem to actually connect to anywhere. Public minded accommodations and discreet exhibits recede into narrow corridors of bare concrete and low ceilings. The light is getting less reliable and I’m regretting not finding a place to charge my phone. I feel like we have been walking for an hour at least fulling realizing how impossible that is, until finally we step through a doorway into a room blazingly lit with actual torches on fire and arranged with mirrors to throw light around room much larger than the building’s dimensions should allow. It’s not actually big though. I stand in the doorway as the jackal makes a circuit around the chamber. It is like some sort of divine storage locker, with all manner of ancient looking and gaudily decorated things beyond identification lining shelves and stacked up in rows and absolutely overwhelming my senses. I think I even see a boat made of gold.
The jackal completes his circuit and stops in the center of the room standing next to a large wooden wardrobe, also painted gold. It again looks at me with patient expectation. I enter the room. I can’t avoid it.
The front of the wardrobe creaks open, some force pushing from inside. The jackal remains patient. A human-shaped figure steps out. Small, the size of a child, and limping on a deformed foot and laden down with layers of linen wrappings and gilded metal plates. It takes its time. The jackal gives a short bark, and I can feel the refocused stare of the figure’s covered face burn into me. I finally meet the pair of them in the center. The inside of the wardrobe reeks of clove and some other spices beyond me. King Tutt raised his hand, extending an exposed finger. I take the ring out of my pocket, and flecks of dust and time scrape away when I slide the stone back onto it’s owners hand. Overwhelming calm surges up my arm and, like the evening sun, consciousness fades.