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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Khufu’s Funeral Ceremony Is In Progress
Khufu’s funeral ceremony is in progress. This is the ninth time since Christmas vacation. Maryanne and Louisa carry Khufu’s organs into the middle of the auditorium in a big plastic container. The organs are really just oranges and apples and grapes, fruits that get slimy the longer they are left out. Earlier that morning we had to decorate the container with special hieroglyphics, pictures of women weeping, large eyeballs that are open day and night to ward off dangers. Judy drew a dick onto one of the pictures of a man worshipping a jiggly cow, but it was so small and lumpy that she didn’t get caught.
Mr. Draknid is the one who teaches us about Pharaohs and pyramids and also about death rites and mummies. When a Pharaoh dies they rub salt all over his body to get the water to come out and then they wrap him in special cloth. The trick is to get his skin to live forever. Sometimes they rub him with baking soda to get him nice and extra dry. But we never rub our Khufu with anything because that would be against the rules.
Today David Shablansky is Khufu. We are all going to get a turn to be Khufu, whether we want to or not. Mr. Draknid believes that death is an important part of our education and so we need to practice. Soon we will be in junior high school and death will be everywhere, surrounding us always, until we are old enough to actually die ourselves.
While Khufu lays in his coffin on the auditorium stage, the rest of us wail our mourning song and beat our breasts. “Oh Khufu!” we cry. “Oh, Great Khufu! What will we do without you?”
David Shablansky doesn’t want to be Khufu. David told Mr. Draknid that he has a cold today. He also had a cold yesterday and the day before that. He shivers in the coffin, which is made out of cardboard. It should have a tighter fit, but we didn’t have time to rebuild it since the last ceremony, when a larger Khufu received his rites and we had to let the coffin out.
During the funeral, Mr. Draknid sits in the middle seat in the front row of the auditorium. His hair curls around his ears. He holds his coffee mug close to him. Every few minutes he writes something down in his notebook, which he balances on his knee. Mr. Draknid tells us that grown-ups have it wrong, that he’s here to learn from us, not the other way around. He smokes cigarettes after school but he also soaks his fingertips in lemon juice and when he hands you your homework back, the papers smell of both.
It is time to say our final goodbyes, before the boys carry Khufu in his coffin out to the playground and lay him on the basketball court for future generations to find. The rest of us assemble ourselves into a line, from shortest to tallest. I go last, as I always do, the biggest, strangest one of all.
David Shablansky is lying in the coffin, his feet towards me. David is a soft sort of boy, the kind who might help if something mean is being said. He is shivering and his nose is running, circles of shinny snot gathering in the red corners of his nostrils. He has on a rust colored turtleneck underneath his checkered shirt. His entire body is bound in ace bandages, mummified. I look down at David’s face, which is supposed to be peaceful and remote. Instead it is red and blotchy. I lean in to let him know I’ll see him in the afterlife, when the funeral rite is done and we can all be reunited. David looks up at me, his eyes big and shiny.
“Melanie. Help me,” he whispers.
Nobody is supposed to get out of the coffin. That is against the rules. I shake my head no. I will surely get in trouble, which could involve going to the principal’s office, and then a call to my mother, who will be upset at being hassled in the middle of the day during her personal time. Bothering my mother is something I try never ever to do, because it will involve consequences. I can see my mother shaking her head and crying and asking “why me?” a question to which I will never have the answer.
“Just get me out of here,” David says. He wriggles his fingers. His nails stick out from the bandages. I could help him up and unwrap him. I am strong enough to do it. David looks up at me and in spite of myself, I lift my arms as if I am going to reach in to begin the unraveling. I hear David let some air out that he had been holding in his throat and I let some air out myself and it feels good, like a little pebble moving to make way for something better.
But I am too late. The boys have come to carry Khufu to the burial site. Jim Lantern shoves me aside and Joey McLean and three others help to pick up the coffin. A mousy little noise fizzes up from inside the coffin as David is lifted away.
And then they are gone, headed out of the auditorium. We all follow the coffin through the back hallway. We are wailing and banging our tambourines and pulling on our sweaters. Mr. Draknid walks behind me, making no sound. I think of the sadness that David feels being stuck inside, unable to move and I begin to truly weep and my face feels hot and strange. There are so many more Khufus to go before spring and one day I will be one of them, and I will be carried outside and laid under the broken basketball hoop, surrounded by howling all afternoon, which is a little like forever.
Sarah Karlinsky has been writing short fiction for many years in the privacy of her own home. By day she is the deputy director of an urban planning public policy think tank where she writes and speaks frequently on urban planning topics.While she loves stories about cities, much of her fiction is set in the lonely streetcar suburbs of her youth, where the joys of city life remained just out of reach. In 2012 she won the Portuguese Writers Colony’s live writing contest for her story about a woman with an unusually close relationship with her pet gerbil.