A Matter of Personal Taste, by KR Smith
“Dr. Wickham?” the old man asked, poking his head inside the tent. “Your guest, Prof. Moretti, has arrived.”
“He’s here? Thank you, Amenzu. Please show him in.”
Dust swirled through the opening as the Professor entered, his hand extended in greeting.
“Francesco! Welcome!” Wickham said, smiling as he clasped Moretti’s outstretched hand. “I’m glad you were able to join me here in Egypt on such short notice.”
“It is my pleasure, Jeffrey. Your message intrigued me. I cannot wait to hear more about your discovery.”
“Thank you, Amenzu.” Wickham said, dismissing the old man with a nod. “And you will, of course,” he continued to the Professor, “but first, some refreshment after your long journey.”
“That would be wonderful. I haven’t eaten since yesterday. Needless to say, my route wasn’t on the tourist maps.”
“I can only imagine,” Wickham replied while pulling another chair over to the table. “There’s not much, but I have a bit of prosciutto, some bread, and dates, of course, being so close to the oasis,” he added as he poured them both a cup of tea.
“A feast fit for a king,” proclaimed Moretti graciously. “So tell me, Jeffrey, what is it that has you so excited? Your message was rather cryptic.”
“Yes, I know. I didn’t want word getting out until I’ve had someone else confirm what I’ve found.”
“I understand completely. But tell me, what led you to this place?”
“It was Amenzu. Shortly after I arrived at the oasis, he approached me and told me there were tombs to the southwest of Siwa. I was a skeptical, but he showed me several artifacts that indicated it was possible.”
“So you played a hunch?”
“Yes,” Wickham laughed, “but I never expected a find like this. He led me to the entrance in the hill outside, only then it was mostly covered by sand, with pottery and such laying everywhere. The shaft was only accessible for about five meters, the rest being blocked by loose rock and a huge slab that was simply impossible to move.”
“It could not be broken up?” asked Moretti while plucking a few dates from the bowl.
“The entrance is too unstable. Any shaking might collapse the opening completely.”
“Which explains the winch I saw?”
“Yes. It’s rather large. I had to use an old military truck to get the bloody thing out here. I hope it’s big enough. If we can pull the slab away from a safe distance, at least we won’t be inside if the entrance does come down.”
“An excellent plan. But you’ve mentioned nothing so unusual as to justify all this secrecy.”
“Ah! But there is! In the entrance I found the remains of two mummies, mostly destroyed, but with enough tissue left to do a rudimentary analysis.”
“The graves had been robbed?”
“No, it appears some sort of animal had gotten to them. They were chewed up rather severely. And yet, what was left was in astoundingly good condition.”
“The tissues were in a most remarkable state. They were actually pliable.”
“Pliable? That is unheard of in specimens of the age this site would suggest.”
“Exactly. And if there are more, there may be undisturbed tombs from which uncontaminated samples could be taken.”
“To try to determine the method of preservation?” offered Moretti.
“Yes. I want to send samples back to Dr. Strasser in Germany.”
“Dr. Strasser?” Moretti asked with a smile. “You mean your friend Bethanne from back at university – don’t you?”
“The same,” Jeffrey replied, returning the grin. “But she has the skills needed to determine how these tissues have been so remarkably preserved.”
“Have you contacted her?”
“I sent a letter some weeks back detailing what tests might be needed, though I haven’t had a response. I suppose that’s not unusual out here.” Wickham took a sip of tea, then added, “I do hope she’s received it. I didn’t want to chance someone overhearing me on the radio. It’s far too important to risk damage by scavengers.”
“Which leads to my next question,” said Moretti, placing a piece of meat between his bread. “The workers here – are they trustworthy?”
“I’ve had no problems thus far. Why?”
“The theft of artifacts on these digs has become nearly epidemic. What do you know about them?”
“Well, they are a bit odd. They don’t seem to follow any particular religion or practice. They mostly speak Berber, with a few words of what I think is Coptic. And Arabic, of course. But we’ve always been able to work out what needs to be done. Fortunately, that old fellow, Amenzu, speaks English rather well.”
“The one who led me to your tent?”
“Yes. He tells me his people have been here since the time of the pharaohs. I could swear he’s old enough to have known them personally,” Wickham added with a chuckle. “The rest – they’re a curious bunch, almost protective of the site. The fact that we’ve been able to work out here unfettered is nearly a miracle. Whether it’s the reputation of these workers – well, I can’t say. Then again, the area around the Siwa oasis has always been unique.”
“They seem to be distrusted by the locals at the oasis. They believe the workers, or at least their leaders, practice dark rituals, whatever that means.”
“The old superstitions, they die slowly, no?”
“Very slowly, I’m afraid. Everything changes slowly out here,” Jeffrey said, lifting the pot and shaking it slightly to determine if it was empty. “More tea?”
The following morning, Wickham was up at first light, Moretti rising shortly thereafter. By the time the Professor had joined him, Wickham was finishing the inspection of the winch and cables to be used to move the stone slab blocking the shaft. Mounted on a large truck, it was powered by a gasoline engine, with heavy steel cables attached to forged eye-bolts inserted into holes drilled in the stone.
“It took a lot of work to get this equipment out here and in place,” Wickham said, checking the equipment visually. “I hope our efforts are worthwhile.”
“As do I, Doctor.”
“It’s best we stand back,” Wickham yelled, waving his hands toward the workers to move them away. “These are strong cables, but you don’t want to be around should one let go.”
With that, Wickham and Moretti moved behind a pile of smaller cut stones, just their heads peeking over to see the entrance. Wickham gave one last look around, then called to Amenzu to start the engine on the winch. Once it was running smoothly, he nodded for the old man to engage it. The cables reaching into the opening tightened immediately, the truck shaking under the load as if it were unsure whether the stone slab or the vehicle would be the one to move first. The engine wavered and there was a scraping sound from within the entrance as the cables began to wind slowly onto the drum of the winch. After a few moments, a loud crack echoed from inside the entrance, the cables going slack for a moment before tightening again, an indication that the slab had indeed moved, whereupon Wickham motioned for Amenzu to stop the winch.
Once the dust settled, Wickham made his way to the entrance, with Moretti and Amenzu close behind. The slab had toppled over and moved enough that he could see the shaft extended much farther into the hill. Stepping inside, he shined a flashlight down the tunnel, the dust-filled beam unable to reach the end of its length. On each side of the wall were large alcoves, with all except the closest covered by a thin slab of sandstone.
Wickham climbed over the debris to the exposed alcove, aimed his light into it, and illuminated the unmistakable shape of a sarcophagus lying in the recess.
“By God, it’s untouched. Very plain, like many of those at Siwa, but pristine. And who knows how many more there are.”
“This is you’re lucky day!” Moretti said, putting his hand on Wickham’s shoulder
“Yes. But it will have to remain here until I can prepare a suitable workplace in order to properly examine the contents. Amenzu! Have the men clear out the tent by the generator while I update my notes and determine what to do next.”
“As you wish,” Amenzu replied with a smile.
Less than an hour later, Moretti, looking puzzled, entered Wickham’s tent and asked, “Jeffrey, hadn’t you had requested that the sarcophagus remain in the tomb for now?”
“The men – the workers – have moved it into the tent.”
“What? I had expressly asked that it not be moved!”
Wickham ran to the tent where Moretti had seen the workers carry the sarcophagus, stopping immediately as he entered, shocked by the sight of the lid shattered on the floor, the few inscriptions on it beyond recovery. Looking up, he saw the workers sitting around a table, some with knives carving up the remains of the mummy and passing pieces around to others who were busily chewing on their portion of the grisly feast.
“My God!” was all that Wickham could get out as Moretti entered behind him.
“Jeffrey, I have heard of such things,” said Moretti while shaking his head, “but I never believed them to be true.”
“Doctor!” Amenzu called out. “Welcome! You’re just in time for lunch.”
Wickham stood frozen, unable to grasp what was before him.
“This is worse than I could have imagined! We must leave this place,” Moretti whispered.
“What?” Wickham responded as though snapping out of a trance.
“Doctor, I really do think we should leave.”
“Leave? And allow them to destroy all my work?”
“I don’t believe it would be wise to remain,” said Moretti, watching the workers nervously. “I wish you luck,” he added before backing out of the tent.
Amenzu turned slightly and called out, “Amalu! Many illa?”
A man at the table nodded, then slipped out the side of the tent as a couple of the workers moved to block any further chance of escape. Amenzu returned his attention to Wickham, a broad smile on his leathery face.
“We want to thank you for providing access our larder.”
“Yes. The collapse, the sand storms, all had placed our stores beyond reach. We had to make do until you were so kind as to provide the equipment needed to reopen the tunnels.”
“But how – how can you do this?”
“We find the flavor of fresh meat to be so unsavory.”
“This isn’t meat! This is, or was, a human being! I may study them, perhaps take samples, but like any civilized person I treat them with a degree of respect and dignity. You’ve destroyed irreplaceable archaeological artifacts all for this – this revoltingly ghoulish ritual!”
“This isn’t a ritual, Doctor.” Amenzu stated calmly, “This is how we survive. What preserves them also preserves us.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“Quite serious, Doctor. The cool, deep catacombs of the ancient tombs, with the salts and herbs we use, provide for a most perfect curing of the meat.”
“And you expect me to believe this grotesque meal somehow extends your life?”
“I am much older than you might believe. In any event, why do find our repast so unusual? Is it not strikingly similar to the prosciutto you and Dr. Moretti shared the other evening? Only the animal is different.”
“It’s not the same at all. You’re little more than a filthy bunch of ghouls.”
“I prefer to think of myself as an educator,” Amenzu said with a slight shrug. “Your educator.”
“You? An educator? That’s the most abominable use of the word I could possibly imagine!”
“On the contrary, Dr. Wickham,” retorted Amenzu while unsheathing a long, silvery blade. “As you will soon see, nothing provides a greater understanding of history than experiencing the customs of an ancient people — first-hand.”
K. R. Smith is a full-time Information Technology Specialist and a part-time writer, frustrated by his inability to get any meaningful programming code to rhyme and still function properly. While mainly interested in writing short stories of the horror genre, he occasionally delves into poetry, songwriting, and the visual arts. His escapades may be followed by reading his blog at www.theworldofkrsmith.com.