From the mind of Megan Arkenberg

March 1, 2013

The Dangers of Kafka in Cairo

Posted by Megan Arkenberg with No comments
First published in 10Flash Quarterly, July 2009.
* * *

It was divine retribution, I decided, for recommending Atlas Shrugged to that group of middle-schoolers.

But no, that had been an honest mistake; they said they wanted a good mystery. Les Miserables for the divorcees’ book club? A bad choice, but not entirely inappropriate; it did have “miserable” in the title. But there must be some literary sin on my soul—and a damn awful one at that—to make me deserve this.

“Well?” the mummy on my suitcase said. “Are you going to help me?”

I stretched my neck and winced at the ensuing pop of my shifting vertebrae. Sixteen hours on planes and airports from Chicago to Cairo—Egypt, that is—and now this. Yes, I was being punished for something.

“I guess,” I sighed. “Why don’t you explain it from the beginning?”

“There’s not much to tell. I was sleeping quite soundly, and then all of a sudden some obnoxious twit with a magnifying glass is peeling away my wrappings. It’s indecent, that’s what it is, a nice young lady like me being subjected to that.”

“Um,” I said. She may have been a nice young lady back in the reign of Artaxerxes, but now, with dirty gray linen hanging like cowl neck sweater below her purplish-brown face, I couldn’t imagine her being a nice young anything.

She gave a very dry sigh and arranged the linen around her shoulders with tangled, boney fingers. “I need to be laid to rest,” she said. “And since you were awake and not doing anything—I mean really, darling, there are much better uses of your time than Kafka—I thought perhaps…?”

I looked at the tattered copy of Kafka on the hotel bed, still spread the way it had fallen when my unexpected guest appeared in the doorway. I didn’t know what had kept me awake reading it, but I was wishing now most desperately that I’d just left it in my suitcase and gone to an early bed.

“All right,” I said. “If you tell me what to do and where to do it, I’ll help you.”

“Good!” she said—dare I say brightly? Her empty eye-sockets seemed to take on a hopeful gleam.

I took my jacket from the suitcase and followed her into the hallway. Everything was silent—eerily so, for a quality hotel in a large city. Then again, I didn’t particularly want to be caught wandering the halls with a mummy as a companion.

We tiptoed through the lobby and out into the street. The Cairo Tower was a beautiful checkerboard of lights in the distance, but the streets around us were dark, with no sign of cars or people. I gave the mummy a questioning look, but she seemed unconcerned—as unconcerned as a linen-wrapped, dehydrated human corpse can seem, anyway.

The Nile was somewhere in the darkness to our left. I could feel it like a physical presence, something that had never happened to me in the waking world.

Only I didn’t think “waking”—I thought “living.”

We came to the strong red façade of the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities. The mummy led me in through the front door without a sign of hesitation or protest.

“I’m guessing you don’t belong in the Royal Mummy Room,” I said. She made a motion that might have been a shrug. “I mean, you aren’t a pharaoh.”

“Of course not—but it will take them a few days to notice. And in the mean time, the pharaohs have more comfortable beds.”

We entered the room, and she took the nearest pharaoh out of his case as if he weighed no more than a paperback novel. The she settled herself into the vacancy, pulling her linen up over her throat like a child with a blanket.

“What do I do now?” I asked.

If there had been more flesh to her expression, it would have been a smile. “Read to me.”

I made a frustrated noise in the back of my throat. Naturally, I’d left all my reading material in the hotel room. There was a stack of brochures by the door and I padded across the room, hoping against hope that they were written in a language I could speak. For once, luck was on my side.

I knelt down at the edge of the mummy’s case, brochure in hand. She drummed her fingers expectantly. I took a deep breath and began: “The Royal Mummy Room is home to twenty-seven mummies…”


The constellations were different.

I tucked my hands into my pockets and looked up from the museum porch at the distant night sky. Polaris glittered strangely at the tip of Ursa Minor, twisted ninety degrees and set in the southern half of the sky. I smiled as several things clicked into place at once. The ancient Egyptians were excellent astrologers—what better way for the Realm of the Dead to present itself than through the sky? I walked down the steps, tapping my heels together jauntily like Dorothy from...

...from that book I never read. The one I was assigned in eighth grade but never found the time to read. The one I faked a book report on by trading Mary Ann a bag of cookies for a plot summary.

That was my literary sin. I plagiarized a book report.

“Wow,” I said aloud. “Glad to get that off of my conscience.”

And I walked down the streets of Cairo, back to Franz Kafka and the world of the living.


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