Monday, March 22, 2010

Stillwater: A Memoir of Boyhood Part 6

King Tut’s Mummy

(for Chris Sherwood)



I remember a time, so long ago, that affected me for the rest of my life. I was about nine years old. The Tutankhamun exhibit came to Vancouver. We lived in Squamish. I was this beautiful blond lad with a brylcreem flick at the front of his hair, large front teeth, the future world my oyster. I was going to become an archaeologist. (There’s a bright idea --actually no dumber than what I ended up doing with my life, truth be told.) My parents always being supportive, said, we had to go to the exhibit of the treasures of the boy pharaoh’s tomb.

It was in downtown Vancouver, what is now Skid Row, but was then the home of Woodward’s, the town’s biggest department store, which also had a major food floor and hence was a very decent area. My dad, Charlie Wiseman, only went to Pierre Paris on Hastings Street for his shoes and I believe he ordered the caulked boots for the M&B logging camps and was thus a somewhat important fellow to Mr. Paris.

In those days, there were no more drunks than a usual downtown, a few junkies, but they were quiet and sophisticated and hung to clubs like the Smilin’ Buddha. Most of all, there was no crack and what that causes, and no crystal methedrine.

Every Christmas, we’d drive Highway 99 to Hastings Street and park the green Mercury Montclair in the fabled Woodward’s parking lot (on the enclosed downward spiral Dad used to like to lay on the horn and delight me with the echoes, while my mother gave him the evil eye) and go visit Woodward’s proscenium. This was the seasonal stroll of young Vancouver and by young, I mean children. Woodwards had a walk-through that had huge Christmas displays behind glass. Fake snow, big sleighs, polar bears, penguins and reindeer - plus a Santa - that moved. In these days of CGI, that might not seem like much, but robotic marionettism in 1961 was quite the crowd puller.

Mom, in her gloves and fur coat, that I nestled in to sleep on so many car rides, would move me awestricken from giant window to giant window along with most of Vancouver and its whelps. Dad, with his fedora and pipe smoking, sportjacket and open collar, would stride along -in Pierre Paris shoes, no doubt. I felt so secure. (I recall that 20 years later I told my mother that I had a perfect life as a child, “And it wasn’t until I moved out on my own that my life went for a total shit.” Language aside, it was an anecdote my mother would often bring up, vindicating her upbringing skills.)

Another sidebar: At Krak-A-Joke, purveyors of fine plastic dog doodie and vomit, in the 500-block Seymour Street, my dad, brother and I had found a plastic pipe -black stem and brown bowl, just like Dad’s.

While we would walk the street, I’d ask Dad to fill up my pipe with smoke. Which he would do, covering the bowl to not allow the smoke to escape and handed it back to me. Then, two roués on the town we would walk the street. I was always heartily pleased when proper ladies would look shocked and lift their gloved hands to their lips in shock as this insouciant youngster puffed his old briar while perambulating with his obvious corrupter. Dad enjoyed it, too. All ladies wore gloves in those days.

But, back to the point. On one of our trips to Vancouver, we went to see the Treasures of Tutankhamun exibit, which was housed in the Carnegie Centre. Through high-ceilinged corridors cordoned with scarlet velvet ropes, we walked and peered at gold and stone sarcophagi, hammered gold necklaces and bracelets and all manner of Egyptiana. Yessir, this was to be my destiny, to roam the sands of Egypt, to enter the chambers of the pyramids that no one had entered for thousands of years. My destiny, face to face.

We came to the mummies and they really looked like hell, all wrapped or partially unbound to reveal sepia and black leathered skin. Their eyeless, noseless faces grinned in a dehydrated rictus, their teeth charred stumps. I knew what I was getting into; one day I would be unwrapping these guys myself.

Then we saw the mummified remains of a baby laying in a rotted wooden coffin. I remained cool, but something inside me snapped quietly. Oh God, the poor little thing was all wizened with a bald head barely the size of a hardball. Small shreds were torn out of the scalp revealing the bone beneath and little whisps of reddish hair sprouted haphazardly from its head. The same leathery smile as all the others on its black, torn lips.

I was quiet on the drive home. Just snuggled into Mom’s fur coat and watched the raindrops on the windshield race and merge.

That night, snug in my bed, my faithful stuffed lion, Lambert, and his best friend an ocelot named Simba, tucked in my arms I drifted off to a place that would never be the same again.

I was running along the twisting corridors of Carnegie Centre. I was alone and it was dark. Behind me came the click clop of something following. That dead leathery baby, its arms unswaddled and reaching out for me. The coffin clomping along the floor, swaying from side to side as one would presume the standard form of locomotion for vertical square-bottomed coffins in a hurry. I knew its touch would instantly tranform me into something similar, tight, black, knotted skin tugging at my bones. I could feel the tension of my skin pulling tighter into strands and blackening, dying. No moisture, only eternal darkness, trapped within that little immobile body, stuffed under thousand of tons of stone for millennia. Shoved in a slot, stone on all sides, tight as a bullet in a barrel, there to hear my mind scream for all eternity. Urgently, that little child was trying to catch up with someone to be its friend, to keep it company in the dark where it was trapped, afraid, desperate.

Night after night, though I’d struggle to stay awake, that child would chase me down those darkened halls wanting me to join it in its forever damned fate.

I overheard my mother once recounting to a friend about the exhibit, “The mummy of the baby quite disturbed Leslie.”

And it still does, it still does. To this day, I can hardly look at that page in the souvenir book that we bought at the exhibit. Like the mummified child, that book lies packed deep in boxes, surrounded by masses of other books, pounds and pounds of books, paper, screaming to get out, wanting me to open it to its page and share its horrible fate. It waits in terror and desperation. Waiting for me.

Epilogue: A few years back, I was recounting this tale to some of the ladies in the art department where I worked. My friend Chris Sherwood listened intently and with brow furled, said, “You know that mummy from the Tutankhamun exhibit is at the Museum of Man at UBC. It stayed here. If you wanted to go out and see it....”

Truly, the hair on the back of my neck stood on end and I felt dank, entombing blackness pour into my skull. It hadn’t left. It was waiting still.

-- 30 --

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