Celebrating the Unpopular Arts
 

‘All Hail Gemrilza’

Leopold always was a bit grim, even as a child. We used to call him “Lurking Leo,” because he didn’t walk; he lurked through life. He was deadly serious about schoolwork and never joined us when we played baseball or football or suicide. I wouldn’t even have been friends with him if he hadn’t lived next door and my mother hadn’t been having an affair with his mother. I always knew there was something about those two. My poor dad never caught on until they split when I was fifteen.

Ironically, clandestine lesbian relationships helped bring Leopold and I together. The idea of his mother leaving didn’t sit well with his world-view, and he turned to me for support. In my high school years, as Leopold sank deeper into academia, partly because he loved it and partly as a way of dealing with the topsy-turviness of his own life, we forged a bond that somehow survived, even after graduation and his disappearance into Europe. I never knew where he was, but I would receive postcards from him, scenes of exotic places with strange, unintelligible postmarks on them. He always seemed to know where I was — I received five cards in four years while studying celestial mechanics at Buford State University: the first from Oxford, where he apparently studied for a time; the second from Timbuktu six months later; the third from Cape Town a year after that; the fourth from Homer, Kansas, home of the world’s largest flapjack; and three days after I graduated, one from Jukkasjärvi, Sweden, with a picture of the Ice Hotel on it. On the back of the card was written: “Every winter they remake this hotel from scratch completely out of ice. Aurora borealis spectacular here. Congratulations on your commencement.” How he knew I was graduating I never did find out.

I went to work after school at the Institute for Developing Industries of Outre Technology in New Alexandria, and had a pretty good career there. I started in the psychic surgery department because they didn’t have an opening in nanotech, but I soon got promoted there. My boss, Horatio Kinswiver, was a cool guy, and we had a lot of fun, even though we worked long hours. By the time I was thirty I thought I had it all — good job, good friends, a semi-steady relationship with a beautiful woman. I was thinking about getting married and having kids.

Leopold was never far from my thoughts. I would get the occasional postcard, and sometimes even a letter. Leopold was never very good at expressing himself, and his letters were usually ten pages or so of semi-unintelligible gibberish. He would write stuff like, “There is a god who sits on a throne, beard clinging raggedly to his sunken chin, eyes on the nightstand next to him. I have sipped Tanqueray with him — he cannot hold his liquor.” I would nod and marvel at my old friend, then check the postmark — always someplace different and exotic. He never told me what he was up to.

Three days after my thirtieth birthday (Leopold’s card had a picture of a man in an old military uniform sticking his tongue out; on the inside was written Frühlich Geburtstag sagt Otto von Bismack!; where the card makers found a photo of Bismarck with his tongue out is beyond me), my boss called me into his office and asked if I knew a Leopold Schwesterficher. I told him he was a friend, and his jaw dropped.

“I meant by reputation,” he said. “But you actually know him?”

“He’s an old friend. We grew up together.”

That statement put me on the next zeppelin to London. Leopold was a famous name in certain circles, and the men I worked for were in those circles. They wanted me to convince him to come work for them. His work in nanotech, demonology, faster-than-light transportation, and Egyptology was revolutionary, and he could, they believed, unlock the secrets of creation for them.

I knew it was a futile attempt. Leopold was a loner, and I knew that whatever he was doing, he wouldn’t want to do it for a big corporation like mine, especially because of their government contracts. Leopold had distrusted governments ever since Bush put bar codes on convicted felons.

I met him at the Aerodrome outside London. He looked remarkably like I remembered him, but then I had to remind myself that he had always looked old. He had a face out of 1880s photographs, sagging a little at the jowls and almost perfectly oval. He smiled wanly, like he had forgotten me, even though his birthday card had been postmarked less than two weeks previously. The card, incidentally, had been sent from Lhasa.

We hugged; I felt him flinch a bit as my arms encircled him. Leopold had never liked to be touched, and had never dated in high school. People speculated about his sexual orientation, but I always thought of him simply as asexual. I assumed nothing had changed since then.

We talked as we rode in a cab, and he told me more than he had ever spelled out in his letters. Over a decade of history came out of him, years of wandering and studying, visiting holy places and teachers, performing experiments and writing down observations. I marveled at his verbosity, not because it was unprecedented — Leopold and I had, in our adolescent years, many stimulating conversations — but because it was so full of wondrous things. He would be perfect for our group, I thought to myself, even as I knew it was a hopeless quest. Still, it was exciting to picture him on our team.

We drank Sock Puppets at a pub in Islington that he knew from years earlier. We discussed our hometown and the continuing relationship of our mothers, who now ran a sprout farm in Alberta. Nostalgia slid drunkenly into confession, until it was like the previous twelve years never existed, and we were back in school, testing Leopold’s synthetic mushrooms in his basement and getting violently ill even as we saw Jesus and Calvin Coolidge wrestle in the corner. At half-past two I broached the subject of employment.

“They’re excited that I know you. I’m the pipeline.”

“I never told you this,” he said. “The boys at IDIOT were after me from the beginning. Even before I graduated. Maybe they hired you because of me.”

“They were genuinely surprised that I knew you.”

He didn’t answer that. We drank until dawn, and then the pub owner finally had to kick us out. We walked back to the hotel and ordered room service. It was all on the Institute.

“They think your work in nanotech could be a big boost,” I said as I cut into my steak. Leopold was eating ostrich and eggs greedily. He looked at a forkful.

“I first ate this in Lima,” he said. “Not the typical place to get ostrich, but it was brilliant. Filled with energy and protein, I went up to Macchu Picchu and masturbated as the sun set. Then I cured AIDS.

“I would be a boon to IDIOT,” he said after munching down his portion. “You can’t imagine the possibilities of nanotechnology. The cure for AIDS was just a start. Complete genome re-engineering in the womb. We could change a seven-month-old fetus from a boy to a girl, or vice versa. We could make ourselves immortal. Gods on earth.”

He looked at me with sadness in his eyes, and I shivered. My bosses might think that a fine idea, but I didn’t, and I could tell Leopold didn’t, either.

“And psychic surgery,” he said. “Don’t get me started. Can you imagine? The assassinations? The pain we could cause?”

“But all technology is like that,” I said, playing Devil’s Advocate. “Look at nuclear power. And the solar laser. Or didn’t you get to Shanghai in your travels?”

Before he could answer, I pressed on. Seeing him again brought back all the good feelings from my youth, and I really wanted him to come and work with us. “Accessing the Van Allen belts seemed like a pretty good idea, didn’t it? And what happened in ’12, when the poles reversed?”

He chuckled, and I thought maybe I had him. “They never did find Tonga, did they?”

“See?”

He sighed. “There’s a very good reason why I can’t come to work with you, why I always keep on the move. It has a little to do with your bosses, but not completely.”

I waited while he bowed his head, apparently working something out in his head. Finally, he said, “I have no friends except you. Have you ever wondered why I haven’t visited? I will tell you, and tell you my reason for not working with you, even if I wanted to work for the Institute.

“Everyone I work with dies.”

This simple statement fizzled the tension in the room. It sounded so absurd and demonic that I couldn’t keep from giggling. I saw disappointment on Leopold’s face.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s just … difficult to believe.”

“It started six years ago,” he said, as if I hadn’t spoken. “I climbed the Great Pyramid after bribing the guards. I stood on the summit and watched the sun split the sky. A restored Sopwith Camel flew out of the light and dived toward me. It was a glorious sight.

“I was in Egypt to find the tomb of Mar-tenakhon Gemrilza, the ur-pharaoh. Fifteen thousand years ago, he supervised the building of the Sphinx and the pyramids. He set the Sphinx facing Leo in the eastern sky. He aligned the pyramids with the belt of Orion. He ruled an empire that stretched from the fertile banks of the Nile to the jungles of the Yucatan. He was the basis for all mythic heroes from Gilgamesh to Herakles. And I had discovered his tomb.

“Out in the desert was the ghost town of Gozer. Five miles south of that was an oasis, the remnants of a once great lake. Mar-tenakhon had been buried in a tremendous tomb in the middle of the lake, which had sunk when the sands covered it. No trace remained; nothing that would even indicate a tomb was there. Nothing but three dates tress, and small puddle of water, and scrub brush.”

“How did you find it?”

“An insane holy man in Chad whispered the secret to me one night after drinking too much ouzo. He claimed to be six thousand years old, but I think he was no more than three. The secret was an acrostic that took me only a month to decipher. After that I traced the answer to Dar es Salaam and found a copy of the original book of Genesis — the one that tells the true story of the Flood and Mar-tenakhon’s role in it. After that it was child’s play. The ur-pharaoh’s gravesite was written on signposts in Ghana, on gum wrappers in Rome, in comic books in Tokyo, on calendars in New Zealand. It’s all in how you read them.”

“So you found the tomb.”

“After months of digging. It was buried deep, and I dared trust the secret with only my mentor at Oxford, Professor Hume Thurston Bogglewiggle-Thorne, who preferred to be called Lefty. We dug a thirty-foot hole before striking water, and another ten feet before we excavated the door. All that was left was to go inside.”

“Did you find the pharaoh?”

He held up his left hand. “We found more than that.” The last two fingers were missing. Leopold scowled at me and said, “I was the lucky one. Lefty is still there, covered the the sand of fifteen centuries.”

“What happened?”

He told me that once inside, the two men found treasures beyond their imagination, far surpassing anything yet found in Egypt. The tomb stretched underground for half a mile, and the archaeologists were like children in a toy store. At every turn, they found something else, and they descended deeper and deeper. The final prize lay in the tomb room itself.

“Mar-tenakhon was most proud of his architectural achievements,” he said. “Surrounding his tomb was a scale model of the Giza plateau as it existed at the time of his death. Not only pyramids and the Sphinx, but also complexes of baths, towering skyscrapers, something that resembled a train station, a huge dock on the Nile, what appeared to be solar energy collectors, and houses right to the edge of the model. His capital city.

“We shone our lights on the walls. Carved into them, in pictograms easy to read, were the plans for all these buildings. Blueprints! Even today, with the most modern technology, we cannot build even a small-scale pyramid to Khufu’s proportions. It just collapses in on itself. But … in the tomb, Lefty and I found exact instructions on how he did it! His engineers were years ahead of us even now. I still don’t know how they did all they did …”

His voice grew quiet as he explained what happened next. Leopold said it felt like an earthquake, which would have been unusual so far out in the desert, but not completely unprecedented. The room tilted and he and Lefty slid into the farthest corner, wedged in between the wall and the tomb. Leopold said the lid of the tomb slid just slightly, and dust from inside blew outward, choking them and obscuring their view. He was crazed with fear and breathlessness, and tried to drag the Oxford don upward, toward the stairs. The sand seemed to grow, and he looked directly at the tomb.

“I swear I saw a face,” he said. “The face of the pharaoh. I knew I was delirious, and it may even have been Lefty’s visage, but there it was, hovering above the lid, cruel and haughty and not at all like Ozymandias. This was a pharaoh who was still powerful today.”

Leopold never joked. I prodded him verbally to continue.

“I lost Lefty. In the dust and wind. I couldn’t hold onto his hand, and he slipped away. I was thrown, physically, up the stairs and out of the tomb. I was missing two fingers. I don’t know how I escaped; I don’t know why Mar-tenakhon spared me.

“Because I’m convinced his spirit was in that room. And now I’m convinced he follows me everywhere.”

“A mummy’s curse?”

“Ever since that day, I have roamed the world. I have discovered bits and pieces of information about the ur-pharaoh, and become an expert on demonology. Whenever I stay too long in one place — usually a few weeks, sometimes longer, sometimes shorter — someone, or usually many people, start dying. Hideously, mysteriously. No one has ever connected them to me, because they were all accidents beyond a shadow of a doubt, and I was nowhere near any of the victims. But I knew them or worked with them. In one instance I had a drink with a colleague in Prague. It was three weeks before the curse got him.”

“This can’t be true, Leopold. Mummies’ curses are things out of pulp fiction. It’s coincidence.”

He extracted a small journal from his coat pocket. Opening it, he showed me his itinerary for the past six years. I was briefly swept up by the global scale of his wanderings, until he stern look forced me to focus. Newspaper clippings accompanied the itinerary. Some were from major papers, others from cheap weekly broadsheets. All described a gruesome death in each spot he had visited, none more than four weeks after the date he was there, many within the week after he had left a place.

“I didn’t start keeping track until about six months later. I stayed too long in Jerusalem, and terrorists blew up a bus I was on — I was the only survivor. There were other incidents, and it began to dawn on my that I was near death a lot. I began studying the black arts, and learned that Mar-tenakhon was a practitioner of the oldest and blackest arts. Something I would have scoffed at before I visited his tomb, but now … I was convinced of the veracity of the claim.”

“There’s no way to stop it.”

“None that I have found. It’s not as bad as you might think. I was never one to stay in one place very long, and I don’t have many friends. You are one of them, and I don’t want to be responsible for your death. I hope seeing you tonight hasn’t cursed you.”

I waved his concern away. I still didn’t fully believe him. “You say that IDIOT has been tracking you. Could they be responsible for these deaths? They certainly have the capability. They make you desperate and turn to them for help?”

“They were tracking me before Egypt and didn’t kill anyone. Maybe they decided to turn the screws, but I doubt it.”

“Would you like to find out?”

**********

I returned from my six-week leave of absence to find Leopold gone and eight of IDIOT’s vice-presidents dead from various rare and/or usually non-lethal diseases, including cholera, measles, scurvy, bubonic plague, and something that was only identified after the doctors read Thucydides’ account of the Athenian blight in the Peloponnesian War. Four of my co-workers were dead, too: one had a hangnail that refused to go away, one accidentally knocked his toaster into his bathtub, another looked the wrong way on a one-way street and was hit by a 96-year-old woman in a Lincoln Continental who couldn’t see over the steering wheel, and the fourth went into a for routine dental exam and had a large piece of medical equipment fall on her. The executives at the company had read enough about demon lore to know it probably wasn’t wise to poke around too much into the causes of this sudden sweep of the scythe, and when I asked Horatio how Leopold worked out, he sprinkled some dragonberry seeds around in a counterclockwise circled and walked away. Leopold was never mentioned again.

I did, however, continue to receive cards from him. The latest is from Belize, and on it was written: “Decided the gin is best when added to fermented mare’s milk. Death stalks the land, candle held high, grin carving a universe. Idiots rule the town square. Beautiful sunrises here. Say hello to Kinswiver.” The picture is of Jesus, holding a bleeding heart. Behind him three pyramids rise, each with a large blue eye at the summit. I pinned it to my wall.

[Hey, Greg’s Fiction Corner is back, albeit briefly! The last time we were here, I mentioned that I wanted to post two stories that didn’t fit into the world I had created with the other ones, but I couldn’t find them, so I’d hold off. Well, I decided to clean up my office recently, and I found them! Huzzah! So today and tomorrow I’ll post them, and you can enjoy them … or, you know, hate them if you must! Anyway, the two stories are of the “weird tales” variety, as you can tell, and I invented a new city – New Alexandria – which is basically Portland in a supernatural universe. I even drew a map of the city, because I dig me some maps! Tomorrow’s story is much more a part of the city, and an unfinished one that I will probably never return to delves into the town much more, but this one is set there, too! I wanted to do some “weird tales” but try to do a fresh perspective on them, because I’ve never been good at plotting, so I’d have to work on the characters and hope the plots kept up. Whether I did a good job with the traditional “mummy” story is for you to decide! This is a bit more mean-spirited than I remember; our unnamed narrator can guess that his co-workers are going to die horribly, but he doesn’t care, but I guess if you work at the Institute, it’s an occupational hazard. And yes, I’m pretty proud of both the Institute’s full name and the last names of Horatio and Leopold. I can be overweening if I want to be! Anyway, I hope you enjoyed this, and come back tomorrow for another “weird tale” with, I hope, a decent spin on a traditional monster story!]

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