PRINT May 1989


“LET’S SIT DOWN,” Johnny said. “It’s too hot to walk.” So we sat in the cafeteria in the Valley of the Kings and drank water out of plastic bottles. A vendor came along, eyeing us sideways, and Johnny asked if he had any mummy skulls that Johnny could buy to use in his pictures and stuff. Johnny felt inspired to plunder. But oddly enough the vendor seemed both to ignore Johnny and to back away at the same time. A little later, strolling to the car, Johnny asked the driver the same question. He pretended not to know what Johnny was after. But Johnny knew what he was doing. On previous trips he’d been offered both hands and feet. (On the boat, a Bedouin type approaches, unwrapping a little paper—a hand’s inside . . . .)

Johnny had a cassette of Oum Koulsoum wailing over the desert dunes at all times. While Oum wailed, Johnny asked the driver if maybe one of the local merchants might be interested in the proposition. Driver took Johnny to curio shop. Inside the shop, discussion ensued about the heads.

Curio man pretends he thinks Johnny is after a fake head. Johnny explains it’s real skull he wants. Cash money is offered. Johnny can’t help it—he keeps upping the price. Hands are offered—no problem with hands. “Fifteen years ago, skulls possible easy; fifteen years ago, police not interested; everything easier fifteen years ago; I’m a simple man, I just sell these curios. . . . ” Johnny ups the price again—still less expensive than medical-supply houses, he figures.

Skull-salesman mentions three days to do the deal. Johnny’s in trouble, time is collapsing on Johnny. Three probably means five, Johnny thinks, and he’s gotta leave in a day. Johnny is lowered to the ground by the weight of time. His head spins. Suddenly he feels dread of the skulls. He’s not sure he wants them after all.

Abandoning the headhunt, Johnny feels happy. He flirts with a girl and picks out dirt bricks. Dirt bricks will be Johnny’s art instead. He spends half an hour looking for the dirt bricks by the road. Finds two perfect bricks, so to speak. Carries them in his two hands. Tries to barter the bricks for the boat ride back across river. Says they are valuable, ancient. . . .

TAXIDRIVER TAKES JOHNNY TO LOOK for scarab beetles. Only live, working ones will do for Johnny. He finds some at dawn by a pyramid. They stride about on his palm as he throws back his head and laughs.

Johnny becomes a scarab handler. He worries about the health of his scarabs. He carries them in a leather bag and displays them darting slowly around in it. He keeps them at night in a golden wastebasket. He calls scarab room service every day. He keeps one in his pocket and likes to show it without request.

But after a while Johnny loses a scarab in the gold bar of the Mena House hotel. He keeps looking through his pockets all night. Maybe the scarab crawled from one pocket into another, he thinks. What pocket is the scarab in now? He keeps looking through the pockets he looked through a moment ago. No scarab.

Finally, at dawn, shaken and sobered, Johnny escorts the other beetle back to the pyramid.

Johnny’s dreams changed after a few days in Luxor. He heard wings beating behind him, and didn’t think he was the only one who heard them. One night, Millions of Years knelt and extended his hand over a pool from which an eye was gazing. Johnny sat bolt upright in his bed. Later, after Johnny had dozed off again, Great Green Water extended his right hand over the Pool of Natron and his left over the Pool of Salt, and, Johnny imagined, smiled at him. Johnny just knew this had to be a mummification dream. He felt constrained to reflect upon the afterlife.

The transmigratory view, the eternalistic, the infinite regress, the oceanic abyss, the Bridge of Souls, the white cypress tree, the Lake of Memory, the cycle of redeath, the boats, the thirst, the dogs, the snakes, the fire—Johnny reviewed them all. He didn’t know which one to choose, or if he could. But he was attracted to the body of light that feeds on light—he had read of such things in a scary story called The Book of the Dead.

One night Green Water hid and his place in the Boat of Millions of Years was empty. Enter Johnny. Suddenly he’s sitting in the boat. What’s going on? Johnny sees a door, and it’s opening. Inside, a crocodile-headed woman is waiting. She holds a whip in one hand and a knife in the other. Johnny’s hair stands on end. He’s excited.

Mistress of destruction, who rejoices on the day of darkness; lady of the knife, who dances in blood; lady of the storm, who destroys with flashings and fires; lady of terrors, lady of flame; lover of slaughter, who judges the baby gods. . . .

Johnny wakes up uneasy in the darkness. His soul comes meekly forth and makes inquiry in the still hour. (Unbeknownst to Johnny, he is possessed by a prayer five thousand years old.)

“May I remember my name,” Johnny prays, “in the House of Fire, on the night of counting the years, in the darkness of slaughter.” The night sky comes in suffocatingly close around Johnny, on a hotel balcony overlooking the Nile.

“May I gain the power to do whatever my terrifying soul desires,” Johnny gasps. “May I give birth to myself upon my mother’s lap.” Johnny’s not sure why he feels like sobbing.

“May I rise out of the egg in the hidden land,” he sings. “May I rise again in all the forms that I desire.”

Johnny in Ray-Bans goes in and out of the divine flames.