As you spot your third grey hair in the bathroom mirror, you realise that soon the day will come when you stop counting them altogether. Your initial response to this information is a slightly larger helping of mashed potatoes, but the thought lingers, stowing itself away in a sunless alcove of your head. Even though a quarter-life crisis has always sounded ridiculous, there you are anyway, feeling like you’ve somehow fallen a lap behind.
That night, alone on the internet, you find yourself buying a return ticket to Egypt. You regard the foreignness of your actions as a good omen, lest they be the opposite. Two days and several plane-swelled cuticles later you arrive in Luxor. Unsure of what to do, you locate a bar and lean against a wall for a while. The foolish, broke sensation, you tell yourself, is jet lag. Exhausted and unable to sleep, listening to an indecisive bathroom fan, you hope to awaken in your own bed with familiar boredom to look forward to rather than this strange, new variety. It doesn’t happen.
With no plans for the next week except dodging calls from your parents, you join a bus tour run by your hotel. The driver is brusque and the air conditioner strictly ornamental, but it feels good to be heading somewhere. In the cool, crisp gloom of tomb KV5, you are very almost happy. Hanging back from the sharp-elbowed muddle, you stare at a carving of a crouching jackal and remember your first trip to the British Museum: the expressionless stone faces, the jasper scarabs, your grandparents’ hands holding yours, the slice of carrot cake they bought you in the café. That world is gone, too, you reflect, just limbless statues in your memory now. You don’t notice the tour group turn a corner.
Deep beneath the baking Nubian earth, dread kicks you in the throat. You have been inadvertently abandoned. A lope becomes a sprint, and within minutes you are yelling loudly enough to raise the dead. There is no reply except the echo of your own panic. One wrong turn begets another and you trip into a room not marked on your map. The chamber has been long ransacked, but you – once a child devoted to any sort of story with a secret passage in it – are quick to spot that an apparently sealed doorway is a folly. Sucking in your stomach and hoping for the best, you squeeze into the darkness.
It is difficult to hear what the man says over the sound of your ears rushing with blood, but you do learn that he is, among other things, the High Priest of Ra in Heliopolis, the sixteenth son of Ramesses II, and definitely not dead. Unfortunately you don’t pick up his name, and it passes the point where it’s socially appropriate to ask him to repeat himself. Perhaps it sounds like Merry. In exchange for helping him pass on from this world, Merry says, he will answer any three questions about the universe. His English is excellent for a 3,000-year-old Egyptian prince, you think, but decide not to mention.
Merry fingers an amulet in his left hand, while you wonder if this is some kind of ruse. If it is, then he has found the perfect bait; the unknown has always held an ambrosial fascination for you. When you were of carrot cake-eating age you used to carry around a book that documented famous unsolved mysteries: ghosts and man-eating trees and those two Mexican students who accidentally time travelled in their car. Although most of those stories seemed silly even back then, the promise of answers was endlessly tempting. Is Bigfoot real? Have extraterrestrials visited us? What did Lewis Carroll write in those missing diary pages? Did Spring-heeled Jack actually stalk Victorian London? Mystery was an ellipsis at the end of a sentence. It made the world feel more alive.
You are swamped by the enormity of the prince’s offer. It exceeds the eccentric and touches upon the divine. Is there a god? How do you cure cancer? How did life on this planet originate, and how will it end? Is there a way to be happy, or at least to start feeling like you’re living in the right direction? It is a trap. It has to be a trap. It can’t not be a trap. You are stepping, almost certainly, into disaster. Tremendous relief washes over you as you realise that you mind hardly at all.
What three questions do you ask Merry?
Originally published in Oh Comely Issue Thirty-Three.