March 16

The Smiling Mummy


I wanted to call her Mona Lisa, the Egyptologist says from the confines of his bed.  The smile, the mysterious smile.  We all wondered what caused it.

The 4,400-year-old mummy, he explained, was discovered on March 16, 1989, in a newly excavated pit outside the Great Pyramid of Cheops.  Her ornaments — a bronze crown, jewelry around her neck, a fine gold chain around one ankle — indicated she was of noble class.  Remnants of garlic had been placed near the body, presumably to ward off insects.  Her teeth had been collected in a clay pot buried beside her head.

And still, she smiled.  Not a rictus grin, but a genuine smile preserved in her death mask.

I assisted with some of the analysis, the old scholar continued.  X-rays.  Chemical tests performed on slivers of thread.  We were so curious about their embalming process.  Many of the ancient techniques remain elusive, even with todays more sophisticated equipment.

 The oils on our fingertips could cause damage, but I touched her once, like this.  He rubs a hand gently over his arm, remembering the sensation.  The texture of the cloth seems rough to the eye, but it was actually quite soft.  Not like my own skin, now.

As he removes his fingers, flakes of skin slough off like patches of brittle bandage, revealing a redder dermis beneath.  Oh, I have to be careful.  These times bring new challenges for someone as old as I am.

His son and his grandchild are in the room with him.  They have heard the story before, seen the old scholar brush layers of skin from his arm at this same moment.  The skin on their younger bodies has a similar brittleness, with patches of exposed red and even spots of fatty tissue or muscle visible on their arms, legs, and face. 

I think I know why she smiled, the Egyptologist says, as he always says, when he considers his own body, the poorly preserved bodies of his remaining family.  Its because she didnt have to live to see this, to see things get this bad.