A new short story by novelist Rosie Garland, inspired by an unnamed mummy at Bolton Museum.
One of the most beautiful items in Bolton Museum is the 3000-year old coffin of a woman called Tayuhenet. However, it contains the body of a young man. This Nameless Mummy was donated to Bolton Museum in the 1920s – until then, he had been decorating a lady’s drawing room. At some point in the past, he became separated from his name.
The first thing to leave me is the light. The sun sets and does not rise again. Anubis, God of the Dead, presses his muzzle to mine and sucks the air from my lungs. Slathers the glue of his tongue across my lips and seals them.
With knives, embalmers prise me open and fillet all my secrets. They pluck the flower of my stomach, unravel the ropes of my gut, drain the goblet of my stomach. Shrivel them in salt and pack them in jars stoppered with the heads of beasts. They swaddle my limbs in finest linen, trim my nails with gold, shutter my eyelids with lapis lazuli. I am perfumed with myrrh and sandalwood, anointed with oil of cedar.
Nothing is left to chance: a jar of honey to sweeten slumber; little men patted from mud to answer each command; a book of magic rolled tight beneath my chin. See: the gods’ names are spelled right, and on the scales of Truth and Damnation my heart swings in perfect balance with a feather.
I lie quiet. Wrapped in long sleep, dreams shed their leaves. I remember the mouth of my lover tasting of dates, the laughter of friends, the scent of wine and bread. And always, the song of my name to gather memories together.
Light breaks through the door. Welcome Ra! I cry, rubbing sticky eyes. I am here, Father! I stretch out my arms, but thieves shred my bandages, fumbling for gold. They tear away my jewelled collar, rip out the amulets, steal the ointments. Smash the pots they cannot carry, splay beer across the floor. The sand sups on my spillings. I am a shattered house, door kicked in by bandits when the master is gone.
I cling to prayer. But with the turn of centuries, the language of my people fades. With no-one to remember, the words that keep flesh moored to soul snuff with a hiss. I live with echoes. All I have is my name. I bind it tight around me, a cloak to warm against the ice of non-existence. The offering table heaps with rubble. Dust chokes my tomb. It is a kind of peace. A hundred years pass. A thousand. I lose count.
Light flares again. I am unshovelled. Hauled out by new hands that pick clean what the thieves forgot: a scrap of gold leaf here, twist of papyrus there. They strip my bandages, toss me into a cart like a heap of sticks.
I see my name flutter and flap away, a bird with a snapped wing. I cry out after it, but my tongue is wood and clacks inside my mouth. I am a hollow pot; a bag of dried meat, a rag tossed on the ash-heap. My memory is mud that cracks in the dry season. I have no brine for weeping.
Without the lamp of my name to guide me, how may I pass safe through the pitch dark of Amduat and come forth by day? How can I stand before the gods, when I don’t know who I am? How can I swear to The Devourer I committed no sin, if I don’t know what I did?
I am shipped north, across the Great Green and further, to a country where the water turns to stone. Propped in the corner of a room, strangers gawp at my nakedness. I hear voices, but they lack meaning; see faces, but know not who they are. I have no anchor to what I am, or have been. What am I without the story of my name?
Then I am laid in this new sarcophagus; honoured with a Pharaoh’s tomb far greater than my first. Around me drift pale creatures, breath ghosting the window of my coffin. I hear them whisper through the glass. The names they call me! Ugly, skinny, chopfallen. They call me Yorick, Old Boney, Rawhead and Bloody Bones. Call me Spindle-shanks, Skellington Joe, Rumpelstiltskin, Mr Cabbage-Knees. Call me Ginger John, Jackrabbit. Call me Al-nahifu, Al-qabihu, Al-nahilu. Koroi ‘Yuurei, Shin’dai-sha. Hasslich, Dunner Mann, Denti di coniglio, il Duce.
Insults? Pah! What are words when I’ve been gutted, robbed, split open, tossed about like trash! I am still here, and centuries of peril have made me cunning. Come, I say: lean closer. Give me everything you have.
I take their words and patchwork a coat of many names. New for old, to flesh these bones. See, how I grow fat. I had one name. Now I have a hundred and a hundred more. More than any man; more than the gods themselves.
Come Amun! Spindleshanks is calling. Come Isis! Yorick summons you. Come Hathor, Nephthys, Osiris! Al-Nahifu is waiting. Attend me, Horus! Approach, oh Set, oh Sobek! Il Duce desires your attention. Hear me, gods! Raise high the banners, sound the trumpets! Rub perfume into my limbs, clothe me in perfect garments, cast palm leaves beneath my feet. Breath flutters my nostrils. Laughter swells my lungs. My night sky is sheafed with new constellations. The man of many names is crossing to the West. Prepare the feast! I have a thousand mouths, and I am hungry.
Rosie Garland is a novelist, poet and sings with post-punk band The March Violets.
With a passion for language nurtured by public libraries, her work has appeared in Under the Radar, The North, Mslexia, Ellipsis, Rialto & elsewhere. The Times has described her writing as “a delight: playful and exuberant”.
Find out more about Rosie: www.rosiegarland.com
Find out more about the exhibition at Bolton Museum here.
This digital piece has been commissioned as part of our Arts Council funded Let The Artists In! project, which aims to connect artists and audiences with the collections in museums, libraries and archives in new and exciting ways. Explore our other digital commissions here.