The Little Priestess by Macy Harrison


As the grandfather clock in the hall finished striking the eleventh hour, Thomas returned to the parlor where his guests were drinking sherry over a game of whist—all except Miss Hines. She was not drinking and was sitting by herself near the fire. He wondered whether she belonged to one of those dull, new religions that didn’t allow people to drink or smoke or play cards and decided he didn’t care enough to find out. With a broadening grin, Thomas clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention. They all looked to him, eyes glossy with drink and excitement.

“Ladies and gentleman,” he began. “Friends and family. First, let me say how pleased I am that you all came tonight. This place can get rather lonely at times and it’s nice, every now and then, to see the old dame shake out her cobwebs and catch a few live ones for dinner.”

“Really, Thomas,” Martha said. She had already had a few too many drinks, as per usual, and was beginning to slur her words. “You’re speaking as though you’re readying to drink our blood.”

“I’d like to keep all of mine, thanks,” Garrison said, patting his large belly and glancing at his wife to see if she'd smile. She did.

“Nothing like that,” Thomas said. “I assure you. But the hour has arrived to introduce tonight’s special entertainment.”

He paused a moment to let the women titter at this new amusement. Miss Hines alone did not titter, nor did she look amused. In her seat by the fire, she had half-turned to listen and watch him from the corner of her eye. It was spooky, being watched like that.

He felt a chill beginning to run up his spine, but he quickly shook it off and continued his speech.

“My two colleagues and I racked our brains for weeks to come up with something extraordinary for this extraordinary night,” he said, nodding to Caruthers and Garrison. “Though our combined brain power is considerable, it wasn’t until last week that inspiration finally struck. And so, with a little planning and a lot of carrying heavy crates up and down stairs, I do believe we have managed to put together a most unique entertainment for this most unique of nights.”

“What is it? Ices?” Mrs. Garrison asked her husband, the dimple in her chin growing more pronounced when she smiled. She was as round as he was but, where his hair was dull and growing thin, hers was thick and golden—the color of harvest wheat.

“Please don’t keep us in suspense,” said Mrs. Caruthers. She was a tall woman with a sharp, angular face and dark hair going iron at the crown. Her eyes were bright, though, and intelligent.

“If you will all follow me to the study,” he said, stepping backwards into the hall, “then I shall show you what we’ve cooked up for this—the final night of the most glorious century the world has yet known.”

It was cold in the hall: colder than usual, though only Thomas seemed to notice. He also seemed to be the only one to detect the hint of mildew in the air, and he hoped his guests did not think that his house always smelled so dusty and unclean. He glanced over his shoulder to see if any

of them had noticed the strange odor. If they had, they didn't say. They chattered amongst themselves as he led them down the hall, and their excitement made him forget the strange chill and the mildewed smell. They made him feel giddy, almost like a child.

“I must warn you before we enter,” he said, pausing at the study door. “What you are about to see may be strange, even shocking. Please, take a moment to prepare yourselves and, if anyone begins to feel faint, do let me know. It wouldn’t do to have anyone pass out and miss ushering in the new century.”

“I don’t think it’s ices,” Mrs. Garrison whispered to Martha, who rolled her eyes in response.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Thomas said, turning the doorknob and slowly opening the door. “Please, step this way.”

He let them file past him into the room. Martha barged in first, as per usual. The married couples went next, the women clutching their husbands’ arms. Miss Hines came last. Her head was bowed but, just as she stepped over the threshold, she looked up and for the briefest second, met Thomas’s eye. Her gaze was dark, and it sent a jolt through him. As children, he and Martha had played a wintertime game where they would sneak up on each other and stuff snow down the back of the other’s shirt. That was what her gaze felt like. It felt like snow against his skin.

“I hope you’re enjoying yourself, Miss Hines.”

“Indeed,” she said, a little distant. It wasn’t really an answer and Thomas knew it.

As he followed her into the room, he heard his guests gasp and whisper to one another as they appraised the shape on the table.

Mrs. Garrison hung back, clinging tightly to her husband’s arm, refusing to be led closer to the form. Mrs. Caruthers, older and braver, ventured closer. Thomas saw her eyes light up as she bent over the table, and he knew that she was delighted by the turn the night was taking. Martha, who alone had brought her sherry glass, extended her index finger and used it to lift one corner of the sheet.

“Patience never was your favorite virtue,” Thomas said, knocking the sheet away from her.

“Well, if you would get on with it,” she replied, arching her eyebrows. Though nearly forty, she was still a handsome woman with delicate features and rich, mahogany hair. She had never married, and Thomas had never been entirely sure if that was by choice, or because she had never met a man willing to put up with her whims and vices.

“I’m trying to,” he said, shooing her away. The smell was much stronger in the study, and it tickled his nose, the feeling trickling down to his throat. He had to clear it before speaking again. “Everyone, allow me to introduce our guest of honor.”

With one fluid movement, he pulled back the sheet, sending a cloud of dust billowing into the air. It took a few moments before the coughing and sneezing ceased, and then he heard his guests gasp—even the men who were already in on the surprise. Draping the sheet on an empty chair, Thomas turned to face the figure that lay waiting for him.

She was small, even by Victorian standards, though surely the centuries in the desert had done much to wither her frame. The smell of the desert and the tomb still clung tightly to her linen bindings—a dusty, almost oaken odor that reminded Thomas of a long-vacant house. He didn’t know where the musty scent in the hall came from, though; her body was far too dry to allow mildew to cultivate.

Despite the great number of her kind that he had seen in his life, the sight of her lying there still sent a sharpness shuddering through his stomach and bladder. The wrappings made it easy to forget that it was a body on the table. A dead woman. They made her seem almost like a doll or statue: something that had never breathed the air or walked the earth. When his mind did return to the fact that it was a corpse resting near him, it made his hands feel cold and unsubstantial, like they were filled with air instead of bones and flesh. He flexed his fingers to get his blood moving again.

Mrs. Caruthers was the first to step forward. She asked, “Are we going to unwrap it?”

“We are,” he said. “But first, a few words about our guest: As you can see, she is an Egyptian mummy. She dates to the Thirteenth Dynasty and was found in a burial pit near Thebes. We know that she is, in fact, a 'she' because her sarcophagus bore markings indicating that she was a priestess of the goddess, Isis.”

“Most unusually, we don’t have her name,” Caruthers added, stepping forward. He was tall like his wife, with an impressive handlebar moustache that he had waxed to perfection for the occasion.

“Do they normally have names?” Mrs. Garrison asked.

“Oh, yes,” Caruthers continued. “If a family was going to go to the expense of commissioning a sarcophagus for their loved one, then they would naturally want that person’s name engraved on it for posterity.”

“Then why doesn’t she have a name?” Martha asked from the settee where she was trying not to seem too interested.

“She did at one time, to be sure,” Caruthers said. “But it appears that, at some point, someone went through the trouble of chiseling her name off her sarcophagus.”

“Why ever for?” she asked.

“There’s no telling. Perhaps someone held a grudge against her and wanted to erase her name from history. Or perhaps it was merely vandals doing what they do best. The cemetery in which she was found had been targeted by graverobbers in ancient times. Though luckily, our little priestess’s mummy was not disturbed,” he replied.

“How sad that she doesn’t have a name,” Mrs. Caruthers said. “When will the unwrapping begin?”

“Right now,” Thomas said, grinning. With a penknife in hand, he began searching for a good place to start. When he found one, he paused for a brief moment, thinking that it was rather a shame to be undoing so nice a binding. The little priestess was one of the best-looking mummies he had ever seen. Her wrappings were so neat and tidy and regular. Someone must have loved her very much, Thomas thought, to have hired such a skilled professional to perform her mummification.

He gave the linen strip a tug, but age had cemented it in place. Using his penknife, he sawed through the binding, careful not to cut through to the mummy beneath. Once it was finally loose, he gave a triumphant little “Hah!” and began peeling it away.

“This is so exciting,” Mrs. Garrison said to Mrs. Caruthers. “None of my friends will be doing anything like this tonight. I can’t wait to tell them.”

On the settee, Martha rolled her eyes again and finished off her sherry, but no one noticed. Everyone’s focus was on the unwrapping.

Caruthers and Garrison helped shift the mummy from side-to-side as Thomas unwound the bindings. The linen was stiff and fragile to handle, and the ancient ointments in which it had been soaked left a grimy, sticky residue on his fingers.

The bindings were several layers thick, and the linen sometimes snapped off in his hands. But, by the time the clock read a quarter to midnight, she was nearly free. Her legs became visible first. They were … remarkably well-preserved.

Thomas had seen many mummies in the decade and a half that he had worked for the museum. Some were preserved better than others, but none had ever looked anything like the little priestess.

Her skin had withered some and had turned a sickly grayish-yellow color but, all in all, she looked more like someone who had been dead a week, not thousands of years. The only mummies to which Thomas could compare her would be those that had been preserved naturally in peat bogs. But the process of creating bog mummies was much different than the process that the ancient Egyptians had used. Thomas didn’t know how to account for the little priestess’s appearance.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Caruthers said, breathless.

“She looks almost alive,” remarked Garrison.

“I maybe wouldn’t go that far,” Thomas said, continuing to unwrap her. “But, certainly, she does not look like someone who has been dead as long as she has.”

“Why might that be?” Mrs. Caruthers asked. She had been slowly circling the table during the unwrapping, trying to see all that could be seen.

“It’s quite clear that whoever performed her mummification was a professional,” her husband answered. “But even so, there must have been special conditions at play in her tomb which helped minimize the decomposition process. It will require further investigation to know for sure.”

Thomas only half-listened to the exchange as he continued unwrapping the little priestess. He was having a hard time processing what he was seeing. He did not understand why she had not dried out like the other mummies he had examined. Every so often, his fingers would graze her body and, though her skin was hard and leathery, the flesh beneath still had some give. It made him almost ill, and he wished that he could stop unwrapping her. It felt suddenly wrong, dirty, like he was defiling her—that was the word that kept coming to his mind. Defiling. But they were all watching him and he could not stop. Even if he did stop, one of the others would step in and continue the job.

He glanced at Caruthers and Garrison, hoping to find some trace of his own reticence and discomfort on their faces, but saw none. Even Mrs. Garrison, who had previously been afraid of the mummy, now watched it with keen interest, like she was watching a play. They all wore the same expression, and Thomas could only describe it as lascivious.

Are these really my friends? he thought. His hands were beginning to tremble slightly; he willed them to stop, but they would not stop.

He glanced up again and, this time, his eyes found Miss Hines, but she did not share the expression of the others. She looked serious. Enraged, even. And she was not watching the mummy, either. She was watching him. The tremor in his hands grew worse.

As he began unwrapping her torso, he no longer attempted to keep the coils of linen in neat little spools. He let the long strands tangle around his feet and a few times, he tripped, stumbling first into Garrison and then into Mrs. Caruthers. Neither seemed to give his sudden clumsiness much notice.

Only thin strips remained crisscrossing her body. One breast had been exposed by his handiwork, and it remained round and shapely, the nipple dry, dark, accusatory. The mummy had a mole beneath her collarbone, and it gave Thomas pause. It was a coincidence, he told himself. Nothing more than a coincidence.

Finally, all that was left was to uncover her face. Thomas did not want to do it. He considered stepping back and telling Caruthers and Garrison that they would have to continue without him, that his hands were growing tired, that he was beginning to feel ill. But his throat was dry, and he knew his voice would crack if he tried to speak. Besides, he felt responsible for the whole thing, and he didn’t want to abandon the little priestess now. The unwrapping party had been his idea. The selection of the mummy had been his responsibility, too. Sir Creston’s team had brought back a veritable cache of mummies to choose from; the little priestess’s crate had simply been the easiest to access and the lightest to carry.

He pulled the first strip of linen from her face and a thin piece of skin along her jaw came away with it. Beneath, the flesh had turned dark brown, and it rippled like a scar from a bad burn. He tried to be more careful from then on as he lifted the linen away. He was so intent on his task, on preventing any more damage to her countenance, that he did not notice her features until the last of the wrappings fell away and, when they did, he screamed.

As Thomas Bankhead retreated in a panic, stumbling backwards, and falling heavily into his desk chair, the others crowded around the mummy to see what had so horrified him. The Caruthers and Garrisons looked to each other in confusion. The little priestess’s features had been wonderfully preserved, and they could see that she had been a pretty woman. Not stunningly beautiful, but certainly pretty. There was nothing horrifying about her that they could see.

Martha alone understood what had frightened her cousin. She saw it immediately and from the pure shock of the realization, dropped her empty sherry glass on the floor, snapping the stem in the process. She pressed her palms against her cheeks and shook her head back and forth, wholly rejecting the scene before her.

“My God,” she said. “Oh, Marion.”

As the blackness crept into the corners of Thomas’s vision, the grandfather clock in the hall struck midnight. The new century was born, and from outside came the sounds of his neighbors cheering and singing and popping off firecrackers. Inside the flat, only silence.

Thomas had always had a problem taking things that did not belong to him. As a child living in a small village in Sussex, he had stolen eggs from his neighbor's henhouse and palmed small items from Mr. Baker’s dry goods store. He didn’t do it out of greed, though, or because he thought that, as the vicar’s son, he was entitled to certain things. No, he did it out of boredom. Pure boredom. The other children were dull, uneducated. They didn’t understand the things he said and didn’t want to play with him. The grownups were not much better. His mother, bored with village life, went to live with her sister in Paris when he was eight and never came back. His father, by contrast, hated the city. He liked the simplicity of the country, liked being an educated man among farmers and laborers. That way, he did not have to work very hard to impress anyone yet was still impressive. Intimidating, even. Only young Thomas saw through his vestments to the man inside: lazy, arrogant, and capable only of parroting information that he had heard from someone more intelligent and creative than himself.

At ten, he stole a neighbor’s horse and rode it at breakneck speed through town. Did it just to see if anyone could catch him, and what they would do about it if they could. His father was the one to catch him. What he did about it was send Thomas to live with his Aunt Hester and Uncle Oscar in London. Far from being a punishment, being sent away turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to him. In Martha, he finally found a playmate who could keep up with his shifting temperaments, and his desire—his need—to discover and explore. In his aunt and uncle, he found the parents that he had never really had. They were even-tempered, warm. They were intelligent and cosmopolitan without being arrogant or cold. They were the first to introduce him to the museum where he would one day work.

Uncle Oscar was old friends with one of the governing board members and, after Thomas had completed school, he had helped him get on with the archeology department.

At the museum, he felt as though he had finally found the place where he belonged. There, his love of adventure and discovery was not laughed at or challenged. Instead, it was encouraged. Nobody thought him strange or called him a troublemaker either. He finally felt accepted, and that his life, previously so aimless and turbulent, had a purpose after all.

And it was at the museum that he met Marion. When he first saw her, he had been confused by her presence. He rarely saw women at the museum because an invitation was needed to be allowed in, and women were rarely awarded invitations. Curious, he had approached her and asked if she needed help.

“I’m quite alright, thank you,” she said sharply, but not unkindly. “I know this room well enough and don’t require a guide.”

“Ancient Greece,” he said, glancing around at the statues and broken amphorae that surrounded them. “Are you a student?”

“No,” she said simply, moving away from him.

He knew that he should let her be, that she was signaling to him that she didn’t want to be bothered, but he couldn’t help himself. There was something about her that drew him in.

Most people would have called her pretty, but she had a way of carrying herself that made her more than that. She was a small woman—slight, with brown eyes and dark blonde hair. Her clothes were current, fashionable without being flashy. Her voice was light, but firm. When she spoke to Thomas, she looked him straight in the eye.

“Are you a writer?” he asked. “Perhaps you’re writing a novel that’s set in ancient Greece. Or, maybe it’s set in a museum much like this one.”

“No,” she said, and when she said it, he caught her trying to suppress a smile. He considered this encouragement.

“Oh, I know! You want to be an archeologist. Like me. Dig up old lost stuff out in the desert and then make up something impressive to put on its plaque for a museum.”

“Does it look like I get my hands dirty?” she asked, holding up her gloved hands to show him how neat and tidy—and expensive—they were.

“Certainly not,” he said. And then, unable to stop himself from being at least a little cheeky, “But maybe you’d like to try.”

He half-expected her to storm off, maybe call him something uncouth. What he did not expect was for her to grin. Not a big grin, or a long one, but a grin nonetheless. And then, almost as soon as it was there, it was gone. Her face settled back into indifference.

“Since you clearly will not let me be until I tell you why I’m here,” she said, drifting over to a display of ancient coins, “I am waiting on my husband.”

“Your husband?” he repeated, hoping his voice did not betray his disappointment.

“Yes, my husband. Sir Creston.”

Sir Creston. Even as she said it, he could not believe it. Sir Creston? He was more than twice her age and a fool. Everybody knew he was a fool too, and the worst kind at that. The kind that didn’t know what he was and carried on as if everyone looked up to him, thought him wise and judicious. Thomas tried to picture the bumbling old man, with his bushy mutton chops and bald, babyish head, strolling arm in arm with the woman before him. He could not imagine it. His mind rejected the image as false and incongruent.

“Surely not,” he said, smiling nervously. He thought she must be having a laugh at his expense. “He’s nearly seventy and you’re—”

The look she gave him then told him not to finish his sentence. He felt his stomach sink to the floor. The smile quickly disappeared from his face, and he cleared his throat.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to speak out of turn.”

“It’s quite alright,” she said, releasing a breath that sounded as if she had been keeping it in a very long time. “I’m not simple. I know what you think. I know what people think, what they say behind his back. Behind my back.”

“You don’t know what I think,” he said quietly.

She turned to him, a look on her face that was both pitying and sad. It was then that the old man himself entered the hall. As he sauntered over to his wife, Thomas saw that his shirt was stained with the remains of his lunch, and that his waistcoat was misbuttoned. He could not help but feel embarrassed for the woman who called herself his wife.

“There you are, my dear,” he said, the sound of his walking stick striking the marble floor, almost deafening. “I see you have cornered Mr. Thomas Bankhead, one of our junior archaeologists.”

“It’s a pleasure to formally make your acquaintance,” she said, holding out her hand. When he took it, she pumped it up and down like the Americans did. Before releasing her grip, she gave his hand a quick squeeze that he did not understand.

“Ah, Marion. Marion,” Creston said, shaking his head in amusement. “You spent too much time with those Yankees in Cairo. I tell you, Mr. Bankhead, you really must get out to old Cairo if you want to get on in our field.”

“Of course, Sir Creston,” he said. He had already been to Egypt twice, both times on expeditions funded by the old man, but he wasn’t about to contradict him.

“Come along, my dear,” he said, drawing his wife’s arm over his own. “We don’t want to be late for dinner.”

“I’m sure we will meet again, Mr. Bankhead,” she said, allowing herself to be led away. “Until then.”

“Until then,” he repeated. He watched them until they had left the hall.

After that day, Marion became a regular visitor to the museum. Sir Creston would often express his surprise and delight that his wife finally seemed to be taking an interest in his passion. But it soon became clear to Thomas that she had no more interest in the old bits and pieces that her husband dragged back from dusty, faraway lands than she had ever had. She was coming to the museum to see him.

When the affair began, he felt the same thrill he had experienced as a child, raiding Mr. Brooke’s henhouse and splattering his spoils across the face of his father’s church. But soon, he began to grow anxious. Not that Creston would find out—the only thing he noticed or cared about was how many plaques in the museum bore his name. Nor was he anxious that his colleagues would find out. He realized that he didn’t care if they did, even though it would almost certainly mean his termination. A part of him wanted them to know, just like how, as a child, he had always really wanted to get caught.

His anxiety stemmed from the inescapable fact that he loved Marion and didn’t know what to do about it. He had never really wanted any of the things he had stolen as a child, and so had never cared when they were inevitably returned by his father, destroyed, or lost. The only thing he had cared about was the thrill. But now, the initial thrill was gone, replaced by the gnawing agony of knowing that he wanted Marion desperately, and that there was nothing he could do about it.

He took refuge in fantasy, imagining how they would escape Sir Creston. They would run away to France. That was where people always went to carry on affairs uninterrupted, wasn’t it? That was what people did in plays and novels. It was what his mother had done. Or, they would flee to America, take up assumed names. Move out west. He could pan for gold or something. People still did that, didn’t they?

Eventually, he began sharing his fantasies with Marion, speaking of them as if they were real plans. As if they could really escape. Marion put him straight.

“People like me can’t run away,” she told him blandly one afternoon. They were at his flat, in his bed. “If someone like me disappeared, then they would have my picture in all of the newspapers. We’d be found before we could ever even reach our destination.”

“We would travel in disguise, naturally,” he said, brushing a finger over the mole beneath her collarbone.

“Naturally,” she mocked. “And what would we do when we got wherever we were going?”

“I would find work and provide for you.”

“You? Work?” She laughed, but it wasn’t a kind laugh. “I know you think what you do at the museum is work, but it isn’t. You could never make enough to provide for yourself, let alone for me.”

“I could try.” He sat up against the pillows, trying to impart that he was being absolutely serious. That he wasn’t playing games. “Wouldn’t that be better than how things are now?”

“No.”

“You don’t mean that. You don’t like this any more than I do.”

“You don’t understand what I mean,” she said. “I should get dressed.”

He grabbed her arm, tried to keep her from leaving the bed, but she wrenched herself free. Picking her things up off the floor, she began to dress herself. He watched, staying where he was, knowing that he had to say something, do something, before the moment was lost.

“Leave him,” he said, hearing the desperation in his voice and not caring.

“You know very well I can’t do that.”

“You can.”

“On what grounds?” she snapped, throwing her blouse against the mattress. “He’s never beaten me. He’s never strayed. I don’t think he’s ever even said a harsh word to me. Oh, he has grounds to leave me, certainly. But he never would. He hates change too much.”

“How could you ever marry someone like that?” he said, matching her heated tone. “How could you be such a fool?”

He regretted it as soon as he had said it but, by then, it was too late. Her face crumpled, and he feared she might cry: that he had made her cry. But instead, she only furrowed her brow and glared.

“You don’t know anything about the life I lived before you met me. Don’t pretend as if you do.”

“Then tell me. Please. I want to know, Marion. I want to know everything about you.”