My heart remembers how I once loved you…
I’m out running, looking for you...
If I ever return, Love, there’s so much time to finish…
Papyrus Harris 500: Song Cycle II
Monday, January 30, 1996
EgyptAir Flight 627
Is your heart lighter than a feather?
I always dream in late Egyptian, but the question and the nightmare never change. Anubis, the jackal god, plucks out my heart. No pain. No blood. I’m dead. He drops my heart in a gold pan on one side of a balance scales; a white feather rests in a second pan. He cocks his head, waiting for a verdict.
Is your heart lighter than a feather?
Ammut, the Devourer — a goddess with a crocodile head, a lion’s torso, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus — poses the question again. Crouched at Anubis’s feet, she’s ready to spring when the Scales of Justice renders a verdict. She’ll either escort me to paradise or devour my unworthy soul with her razor-sharp teeth before hurling me into the infinite void. Her preference is not in doubt.
The scales wobble between heart and feather. The time for excuses is long past. Ammut pants in anticipation; her breath reeks of rotten meat. The hair on my neck prickles. Immune to time zones and lines of latitude and longitude, she’d followed me back and forth across the Atlantic from my homeland to hers. I twist my hemp ring until my flesh burns. Ammut crawls up my leg, settling on my chest, impatient for the feast of souls.
Is your heart lighter than a feather? Will it soar or descend?
The heart answers for itself, sometimes not in the soul’s favor. I’d memorized a prayer from The Book of Going Forth in case my heart proved fickle.
Oh, heart which I had from my mother. Do not stand as a witness against me; do not oppose me in the tribunal; do not be hostile in the presence of the Keeper of the Balance.
The seat, not in its locked and upright position, creaks with the weight of expectation. Ammut’s. Mine. I dig my nails into her smooth flank. Her bulk shifts.
The intercom’s crackle dragged me from the dream. “We’re beginning our initial descent into Cairo, Insha’Allâh. The local time is 4:15 PM. The temperature outside is thirteen degrees Celsius, that’s fifty-six degrees Fahrenheit.”
A woman pried her handbag from my grip. I blinked. With her coiffed hair, pearls, and ladies-who-lunch-twin-set sweater, she was my mother on New Year’s Day. There’s no need to go all the way to Egypt, Destiny. You could teach at St. Genevieve.
“I. Am. So. Sorry.”
Twin-set Lady scanned The Book of Going Forth on my lap; the cover depicted Ammut the Devourer gobbling up a hapless soul. She and Ammut had the same curled lips. Maybe I hadn’t been dreaming.
She muttered under her breath, mimicking my mother on New Year’s Day.
I have a fucking PhD in Egyptology. Once upon a time, I would have shouted it. But I was done explaining myself. To Mother, Father. To all their friends. To Twin-set Lady.
People around us shoved their cameras toward the windows, threatening fellow passengers with a fat lip. After seven trips, I’d never once seen the Pyramids out the window when the plane descended.
The plane barreled down the runway and juddered to a stop. Egyptian passengers leaped to their feet, ululating like the judgment deities when a heart weighs less than a feather.
Twin-set Lady arched her eyebrows. “Good heavens! Is that necessary?”
“ Well, I never.” Queue up a snarky comment. Something along the lines of what can you expect from a country that produces the like of Sheik al- Rahman, just sentenced to life in prison for his involvement in bombing the World Trade Center.
My tongue vibrated against my teeth, delivering a long, wavering, high-pitched trill. Enough to slough off ten time zones or blast expectations and Ammut right back to where they belonged—the other side of the world? No, but gratifying.
I shoved The Book of Going Forth into my backpack alongside the ThinkPad laptop and a Motorola StarTAC cell phone my father insisted I needed and shuffled to the terminal shuttle.
Outside Customs, a man held up a cardboard sign with my name scrawled in black marker. He took my suitcases and led me to the car. I slid into the back seat beside Oswin Day, my mentor — no, my boss. Oswin looked grander than a pharaoh, the upshot of a successful book, funding for his latest mission, and his elevation to full professor. We kissed air and brushed cheeks.
“Welcome back, Dessie.” He gestured toward the trunk. “Did Fatima make the trip this time?”
Fatima was the cloth doll my Grandmother Kittredge bought when she took me to Egypt after high school. She had occupied a place of honor in every dorm room, apartment, and field school cabin. Fatima was legendary among my colleagues. “She’s in the third duffle bag.”
“What, she didn’t get her own seat?” He chortled.
Fatima, the size of my three-year-old nephew, deserved respect after being dragged all over the world for the last decade. I changed the subject. “I didn’t expect to see you here.”
He dropped the Supreme Council of Antiquities Foreign Mission Application form in my lap. “I’ve been working on this. Approval came through this morning.”
Oh my god! There. On the form’s third line, it said Mission Assistant Director: Dr. Destiny Kittredge Westfield. So much better than a photo of the Pyramids from an airplane. A job. An actual job. In my field, not at St. Genevieve’s. A mission to restore a tomb. If we were lucky, it might belong to the fabled Smenkhkare and establish who he (or she) was. A hundred post-docs would sell their soul for the opportunity. I pinched myself, hoping this wasn’t part of a dream where Ammut hurtled out of the darkness.
“Hope you have a penchant for sunburns and felt hats, but if it’s fortune and glory you’re after, kid, you should have enrolled in the MBA program over at the Harper Center.” Oswin’s Harrison Ford imitation left much to be desired.
He told the Indiana Jones joke the first day of every class. He expected serious Egyptologists to get the joke. James Henry Breasted, our department’s founder, inspired the Indy character. My fortune and glory illusions had melted long ago, but if the great man made a wisecrack, I chortled as if my future depended on it. Because it did.
“I booked a midnight flight to Luxor,” Oswin said. “Sorry. I’m sure the last thing you want to do is hop on another plane, but tomorrow is booked. Damn tourists. Instead of moping about the airport, I thought we’d pop over to Mena House for drinks. Well, not pop. It’s Ramadan. Every damn car in Cairo is heading home to break fast. You mind?”
My wrinkled khakis and the traces of stale sweat and airport lounges emanating from my jacket didn’t scream cocktail hour. Screw it. Rumpled, jet-lagged, and bogged down in traffic, I responded to the siren song of the renowned hotel. “Not at all.”
“I invited our Antiquities Inspectors,” he said. “Wanted you to meet them before they make your life miserable.”
That wasn’t terrifying.
“Oh, another thing to keep you busy.”
Because if he didn’t keep me busy, I would do what? Loll about and polish my toenails?
“Remember Gerard Kelly?”
“The English professor?”
“He prefers to be called a poet.” Oswin cracked his knuckles. “The lucky bastard got a Maggarity genius grant.”
“No!” Every year around this time, faculty and grad students tittered about the Oscars of Academia. Five hundred thousand dollars, no strings attached, to continue the work that made you a genius. Oh, what Oswin could do with that money! Like employ me for the next ten years.
“Why in god’s name would they give him the grant?” Oswin reflected on the injustice. “You know his wife?”
Everyone on the University of Chicago campus knew Veronica Kelly and avoided her like the plague.
“Apparently, she remembers me flapping my gums about how cheap Egypt is and nagged him into early retirement. Said he could write poems here without the university looking over his shoulder. Nice work if you can get it.” Oswin shook his head. “Anyway, they rented a place, sight unseen, on Cleopatra Street.”
“Idiot doesn’t know what he’s getting into. Like those British widows settling in Luxor to make their money go farther.”
Except Gerard, unlike those widows, wouldn’t be on the prowl for a young Mohammed to keep him company.
“If you could get them settled and keep that woman off my back, it would be grand.”
“Sure, no problem.” Grand? More like an uncomfortable confirmation of my father’s prediction; I’d be Oswin’s glorified go-fer. I’d be the best go-fer in the go-fer-history if it meant a permanent position on his mission.
Our car swung into the traffic amid a medley of car horns. The Mother of Cities teetered on the edge of twilight, which hid its shabbiness. I sank into the seat. My last thought before my eyes closed, I’m home.