The Strange Tale of Samuel Winchester, by Andrew Nicolle & Samantha Hendersen

Art by Lee Copeland: http://www.leecopeland.com

Art by Lee Copeland: http://www.leecopeland.com

“I’m here to see M. Gaston Maspero,” I told the guard.

He looked dubious, and glanced at his similarly turbaned, similarly armed companion.

“I assure you, it is a matter of import,” I said, handing him that morning’s missive.

He examined it, motioned me to sit at one of the benches arranged against the marbled walls, and departed to confirm my appointment.

The remaining guard watched over me, wary and agitated. I was certain that his restless fidgeting would cause his firearm to discharge. Apparently the gravity of the situation–whatever it could be–was more serious than I imagined.

For the hundredth time I wondered what Maspero wanted with me. It was hardly likely that he wanted, at this early hour, to discuss one of the dozen or so monographs I’d published in the last decade upon the hieroglyphs of the Pyramid Texts, or the proto-language of Kush. Or my work with E. A. Wallis Budge on his translation of the Papyrus of Ani–more popularly known as the Egyptian Book of the Dead.

But . . . there was the matter of the Fotheringham Dig.

I met Clive Fotheringham at Cambridge during my student years. Some time later he visited me at my family estate in Australia, and I was able to show him some fascinating Aboriginal cave paintings. We subsequently corresponded, and when he heard I was in Egypt he very kindly offered me the limited hospitality of his latest dig. Of course, I had accepted with alacrity, as word had reached me of the intriguing finds he had already made at the current season’s site.

Fotheringham had secured the right to excavate in a dry gulch just west of the Valley of the Kings — an unpromising spot, it seemed at first, away from the rich caches of the pharaohs. But he had been uncovering wonderful artifacts, objects rarely seen in tombs, imported or captured from countries the Ancient Egyptians encountered. It was also an older site, I had heard, than those currently being excavated, and most exciting to me, they had found chest upon chest of scrolls and other documents.

Clive welcomed me to begin with, giving me the run of the site. I assisted his crew in their labors for some days, and was looking forward to studying the documents they’d discovered.

But I awoke one day to find that the demeanor in the camp had changed considerably — why, I knew not. Clive was cold towards me, his assistants all but rude, and the native laborers hired from a local village avoided me entirely, standing at a distance and making surreptitious signs against the evil eye. Uncomfortable and disappointed, I made my excuses and returned to Cairo and the comforts of Shepherds’ Hotel.

That morning Maspero’s message arrived.

A gaunt, rat-faced Frenchman interrupted my ruminations.

“I am so very sorry,” he said. “Monsieur Maspero has been detained elsewhere today. I am one of his colleagues, Louis Montet. Please, follow me.”

Before I could utter a word in response, he turned and strode away.

I followed Monsieur Montet through corridors and down stairs into the basement of the building. He ushered me into a small office situated near one of the many storage rooms.

Wasting no time, he directed my attention to a fragile wooden box on the floor next to the table. Although worn, the box was in far too good condition to have been crafted in the time of the Pharaohs. If pressed to estimate its age, I would’ve said it was no more than fifty years of age. There were a number of queer symbols carved into the lid that I could not decipher.

“Where did you find this?” I asked.

“At the Fotheringham Dig, of course.” He frowned. “Were you not there? When Monsieur Maspero received word that you had been present at the site, he sent for you immediately.”

“Yes. Yes, I was there.” I said. “What do you have in the box?”

“You would know better than I, Monsieur,” he said with a sardonic smile.

He carefully removed the lid from the box, revealing the artifact contained within.

I sprang to my feet, toppling my chair.

M. Montet stared at me, amazed. He had the grace to recoil when I glared at him.

I growled at the Frenchman. “What game are you playing, you and Maspero?”

As mentioned, I had the privilege of working with Wallace Budge during his translation of the Ani Papyrus. Say what you may about Budge’s scholarly shortcomings — and I admit there are many — his translation paved the way for subsequent Egyptologists. I cannot claim credit, nor do I desire acknowledgement for my small part in Budge’s accomplishment. I am a private man, and the adulation of hoi polloi is never something I desired. Respect of other scholars in the field and access to digs is all I ask, and happily my small private fortune liberates me from the necessity of earning a living.

And my translation of the Papyrus was based on an earlier version, one that predated the Pyramid Texts, even the Coffin Texts. One that had made its way, fragmentally to such far flung places as South Africa, or Tibet, or my own beloved Australia. Naturally I kept this information from Budge, and from anyone else in the field. Such knowledge was not intended for the general public.

My private translation of the Papyrus, my only copy, was safe in Sydney, locked in my private study.

How was it possible, then, that a second copy, bound in gold and decorated with strange, uncouth symbols, with my own name on the cover, should be in this ersatz-pharonic coffin, save that a monstrous practical joke was being played on me?

It was inconceivable that such a man as Maspero, or my late hosts on the dig, should be part of this. But what else was I to think?

I turned on the bewildered Montet.

“Well, sir,” I demanded. “What is the meaning of this?”

He shrugged. “We were hoping you could tell us, Monsieur.”

“Did you not just say the box was found at the site of the Fotheringham Dig? Why was I not informed then?”

M. Montet spoke carefully. “There were other artifacts. No doubt M. Fotheringham thought the shock would be too great for you.”

I struggled to maintain my composure. M. Montet probably was not aware of my status as a decorated veteran of the Boer War. And the Boer was a most brutal conflagration of which I am reticent to discuss, especially with a Frenchman.

My leg is burning.

Halfway up my left thigh, on the inside, a poisoned coal glows white-hot, and heat and dull needles flow in waves up and down my body.

When they move me, it feels like my bones are glass, shattered inside my skin. I try to run away inside myself, but the pain chases me up and down the passages of my mind, my body.

A blur of blue sky, and Dingane’s face hovers above me. Black as pure, virgin coal, not this coal that burns me and becomes ash, as my leg becomes ash, as my blood boils away and my veins become ash.

Somebody touches my forehead. Somebody is arguing. Their jumbled words twist, angry and serrated.

No — that is the poison.

Montet’s voice came from a long way away. “Monsieur?”

I forced myself to focus.

“I am not so easily shocked as you may think. What are these other artifacts?”

He paled visibly, and a shudder twisted his slight frame.

From his pocket he removed several photographs, placing them in a neat pile on the table. The first and second showed the queer carvings in the lid of the box, and the bound volume bearing my name.

The rest, though . . . the rest chilled my very marrow.

I remained silent, pondering the implications of this frightful discovery.

My leg is burning, but that fades quickly.

There is heat, and weight. Warm weight. Something heavy and sticky covers my face; I am embedded in it.

I can’t breathe. But I don’t have to breathe; I never have before.

For a long time, I sleep.

I dream about fields covered in stubby bush, and sheep grazing, and waterholes, and trees with long, ribbonlike leaves…

Men on horseback, and ash-grey men with lines painted on their bodies, spears in their hands, and a ship . . .

The feel of a hot rifle, greasy in your hands, and the tarry smell of it, and eating roasted meat by a campfire, and a flicker in the bush, a green flash at my thigh . . . boomslang . . .

I must focus. “You were right to summon me here. I presume Monsieur Maspero is at the site now?”

“He is. I received word via telegram that you are welcome to join him, if you so choose.”

Again, I grimly considered the sepulchral scene in the photograph: the withered, yet curiously preserved corpse slouched against the wall of its tomb, its left hand gripping a bejeweled dagger held outstretched over the carved wooden box; the curious carvings on the walls, stygian horrors rendered in frenzied strokes; the tattered remnants of an Australian mounted rifleman’s uniform hanging about the corpse’s lean frame; the face, oh especially the face, for I recognized it well.

For, you see, the face is one I have glimpsed many a time in my own bathroom mirror.

That face, frozen in a rictus of terror, was my own.

I can hear Dingane’s voice, hoarse with chanting. The pain in my leg has faded to a fierce itch.

All of me itches, beneath a crust of dirt and sweat.

Now I have to breathe, and I can’t through the thick mass of stringy, stickyness that presses me down. Desperate, I tear at it, burrowing through stinking corruption. And then — air, so sweet, and light. The mass gives me up reluctantly, as if it would feast on me slowly.

I stagger away as far as I can before collapsing, breathing raggedly. I blink to clear my eyes and look from where I emerged.

Under hot African skies, a pile of oozing flesh, here and there black with flies. Underneath it’s dull pink. I recognize a leg, marbled in softened fat. There a shoulder, with the bone melting through.

A rotting pile of skinned oxen.

I look away, and see a tall black man standing near me, holding a short stabbing spear. He looks familiar.

He beckons me away and I follow.

We arrived at the site of the Fotheringham dig late afternoon. I stepped down from the motor carriage, grateful to have arrived in one piece, for M. Montet’s handling of the infernal contraption had left much to be desired.

While we unloaded the box and the book within, M. Maspero emerged from his white canvas tent and hurried toward us. The cruel desert winds were blowing, and M. Maspero was clearly anxious to return to his tent.

He ushered us inside, and closed the entrance flap. The wind whistled through the gaps in the canvas, but it was still a good deal quieter inside than out.

“I am glad you decided to come,” he said, his forehead creased with concern.

I merely nodded, not entirely sure that I had made the decision at all. My faculties had seemed greatly impaired after M. Montet had shown me the photographs of the tomb and its unfortunate inhabitant, and I felt passive, almost sleepy. I hoped that what had seemed utterly mysterious back in Cairo would in fact turn out to have a simple explanation.

“I can tell you now, Monsieur, it was quite a nasty shock for us, as I imagine it was for you, too. I could barely credit what I was seeing. I had to ask M. Fotheringham several times if you were still living, and he assured me that you were.”

“Has Clive regained his composure?” I asked. “He made it clear that I was no longer welcome here, for reasons that quite frankly mystified me at the time.”

He clapped me on the back. “Oui, Monsieur. In fact, he suggested we invite you back here to help us with the investigation. Come, we shall inspect the tomb, and you can discuss matters further with him. He has been very busy these past few days.”

Leaving the box and book in the tent, we stepped out into the maelstrom of stinging sands, and M. Maspero led us down the ravine to the site of the macabre discovery. Some of the laborers looked away as we passed, and others glared, their faces harboring barely concealed malice. No doubt there was talk regarding the uncanny resemblance of the body in the tomb and myself, and I wondered what local superstitions had been piqued.

Clive Fotheringham and his laborers had been busy indeed, for the tomb itself was now almost wholly excavated. It was hewn from the sandstone wall of the ravine in a rough pyramidal shape, six feet per side, with one corner jutting from the wall, and only two sides visible. On one side, the likeness of Anubis was crudely etched beneath a carving resembling the Eye of Horus. A boulder had been shifted away from a crawl space near the pyramid’s base. The iconic images triggered a glimmer of recognition in my mind. I vaguely recalled a passage in the Unas text describing the connection between Anubis and the Eye of Horus, although what it could mean in this context I could not fathom.

When we came upon Clive, he was in the midst of a heated argument with an Egyptian who, seeing our approach, cursed and made the sign of the evil eye. He was draped in a broad white cloak and his turban was spotless.

He stormed off along the other side of the ravine.

M. Maspero cleared his throat. “I trust you have not offended the Imam?”

“No,” Clive sighed. “We just had a difference of opinion. I’m sure he’ll be back.”

Clive brightened when he saw me, and extended his hand. “Awfully sorry we parted on a sour note, Samuel. When I found what was inside the tomb, I thought it best that you leave for a few days. Please understand.”

We shook, and after some discussion of trivialities, I gestured toward the tomb. I thought it best to first discuss the tomb itself, for I had not yet the fortitude to inquire of the denizen within. “What can you tell me of it? It’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen in the Valley of the Kings, and it seems a good deal cruder even than the smaller tombs elsewhere.”

“One of the laborers tripped over the pyramid’s peak where it protruded from the sands,” said Clive, leading us to the odd construction.

It was apparently quite recent, possibly no more than a few years old. Clive believed that it might be a contemporary of the box containing the gold-bound book. It was clearly not the work of skilled Egyptian artisans — in fact, it was even crude for modern work. The most glaring indications were the tomb’s uneven shape and the nature of the carvings adorning its exterior, both amateur work.

The interior was accessible by moving the boulder from the crawl space on the side. It had been wedged in such a way as to prevent it from being moved from within the tomb. Rather than keeping would-be grave robbers out, the intent had clearly been to keep its unfortunate occupant trapped inside, with no possibility of escape.

“I have been speaking to some of the workmen and solved part of the mystery, at least,” said Clive, over a light luncheon that afternoon. “There was a sandstorm four years ago. I remember it myself: it affected travel for some time. Here it obliterated several villages and drifted deep enough to bury that tomb. But that doesn’t answer the pressing question . . . .”

“The identity of the man is no mystery,” I said. Clive and Maspero stared at me, open-mouthed. “Although the circumstances of his death certainly are.”

“You know who it is? Would you care to illuminate us, Monsieur?” said Maspero, putting down his glass of cold tea.

“It is my cousin, William. Although there is a difference in our ages, we have always so resembled each other that we are frequently mistaken for twins. One of those tricks of genetics, I suppose.”

Maspero reddened. “And is there some reason that you did not choose to tell us this when you first saw the photographs?”

I felt my face flushing in my turn. “Obviously, Monsieur, I was stricken at the sight. I thought it better to see the body for myself before confirming the identity.”

But Maspero was right — I should have mentioned William before. But there, in the Cairo Museum, I hadn’t even remembered my poor cousin. In fact, much of my past life had devolved into confusion. And chanting. In the back of my head, the eternal chant, the eternal dance, where even death may die.

Now, clarity. I remembered why.

“Of course; you were quite right,” said Clive. Maspero flashed him an irritated look.

“But Samuel,” continued Clive. “We were at school four years together — I have met your father more than once, before his death, and I never understood you to have a cousin.”

“Nor would you, Clive. Until the last few years he has never left Australia. And I am ashamed to say that, like the rest of my family, I never mentioned him for the simple reason that he is . . . was, I should say . . . a little mad. He was not unintelligent, and shared my interest in mythology, especially that of the ancient Egyptians — but he was obsessed with them past the point of all reason. And he was prone to episodes of mania — to the point of having to be restrained for his own safety.

“A few years ago he eluded his keepers and made his way to the continent — I can only surmise for the purpose of continuing his studies in Egyptian Mythology at the source. I was not aware that he had stolen my private copy of my own translation of the Book of the Dead. I came to Egypt to find him as well as to further my own researches — I had hoped to keep him by my side while we pursued our studies together. It is shocking, although perhaps not surprising, to find him dead.”

“My condolences, Monsieur,” said Maspero, as Clive patted me on the shoulder. “But your story, while illuminating, leaves intact the mystery of how he met his fate.”

“Indeed,” I replied, sipping my tea.

That night, Clive came to my tent. He spoke of nothings, at first — mundane observations from his digs of the past year, the difficulty of finding trustworthy workers, the legendary disorganization of the Cairo Museum.

Finally he worked himself to broach the subject of his visit.

“The Imam says you’ve been here before, Sam. Four years ago, in fact.”

“Of course he would. He mistakes William for myself. Countless people have.”

“He insists not. He says you were here together, built the tomb together. Hired workers from the village for the purpose. And in the end, you left alone, leaving a sealed tomb.”

“Nonsense!”

“He says for a night and a day unearthly cries came from behind that boulder. He thought, like the rest of these superstitious peasants, you were a mighty wizard who had imprisoned an evil ifrit, a demon, and none would go near.”

I opened my mouth but nothing came out.

Then, filling me up like the cool tide, lucidity: the clarity of my terrible purpose.

Clive sat on the campstool opposite, and leaned quite close.

“Did you do it, Sam? Did you seal your cousin in that tomb? Did you kill him?”

I studied Clive’s face. Sun burnt as he was, accustomed to hard labor in foreign lands in search of knowledge, he remained quintessentially English, naive, a beef-fed student shocked at the arcane.

“I had to, Clive,” I said, reasonably. “He was my responsibility, after all.”

Beneath the sunburn, Clive went pale. “What?”

I felt cold and calm, calm as Horus carved in basalt.

“You’ve never served at the pleasure of Her Majesty, the late Queen, did you, Clive? Or of His Majesty, either. No –- I mean no reproach. But there was a certain pressure on Australia’s son’s to show their patriotism. I’ve always been a crack shot, so I joined the South Australian Mounted Rifles and went to Africa to fight the Boers.”

Clive’s brow creased. “All very commendable, Sam, but what . . . ”

I rose and went to the canvas-flap door of the tent, and checked outside. All was quiet. The full moon filled the camp with a hard, white light and sharp shadows. Thoth, the moon god, full of dark wisdom. But go back further, and we know what the moon really is, don’t we? The Eye of Horus, watching, waiting. Waiting for me to act.

“I saw things there, Clive,” I said, still looking out the flap. I felt him shift impatiently behind me. “Things you never heard about back home. Foe against foe, rifle against rifle — that isn’t pretty, but it’s straightforward. It’s something a warrior can understand. But the camps, Clive. No one at home cared much to hear about the camps where the natives, the Zulu –- many of them women and children — were herded. The things I saw . . .”

I turned back to Clive, who sat still and sweating. “There’s not much to do against the brutality of undereducated, over-armed men, at once bored and frightened. But once I was put on guard duty, and I saw a woman — she was a tall, handsome creature, by the way, reminded me of that unfinished sculpture of Nefertiti that was found not long ago — and her son . . . well, let’s just say that the boys were determined to have their fun that night. I’d seen enough, and I wouldn’t have it, so I escorted them both to my quarters and had a chat with the camp commander in the morning. And as my family are not without their influence, I was allowed to take her back to her husband.

“His name was Dingane, and he was grateful. In fact, due to his status in the tribe — he was the local witch doctor, with just as much power as the chief — I was welcomed as an honorary Zulu, of sorts. After the war I went back and lived in the tribe for a time — I’ve always been interested in the mythology of primitive peoples, and even went walkabout with some of the Aboriginals at home, near my family’s estate, and I learned much from Dingane about his tribe’s more arcane practices.

“One day I was out hunting, and I had the misfortune to be bitten by a Boomslang. Ah, yes,” I said, as Clive frowned. “I see you’ve heard of them.”

“But Sam,” he said. “A Boomslang — that’s one of the most poisonous snakes in the world, if not the most. The victim has a bare hour to live, from what I’ve heard. It’s impossible to survive its bite.”

I smiled. “We have more poisonous snakes in Australia. And it is possible to live two hours with a Boomslang bite. But, in the main, you are correct.”

“Then how . . .”

I sat. “My memory is dim. Fortunately I was not hunting alone. By the time Dingane’s men carried me to his hut I was burning with pain and fever. He told me, later, that he should not have done what he did but the blood debt between us was too great.

“You must understand that Dingane was no ordinary witch doctor. His people had come, long ago, from the lands of the North. From Egypt, in fact — or from those ancient lands that had become Egypt. They had borne with them a great secret.

“The Papyrus of Ani — the Book of the Dead. Modern mystics make much of it, but it is simply, as scholars agree and you and I know, a series of spells to assist the soul of the deceased in the afterlife.

“But have you ever studied, or even wondered about those texts that precede the Papyrus? The Coffin Texts? The Pyramid Texts? The writing in the Tomb of the Pharaoh Unas? The infamous Cannibal Verse? After I returned from South Africa — after Dingane told me his dark secrets — I studied them in depth. And I found they were a grim passageway to what had been written before, and lost to time — save that which had been smuggled south.”

“This is madness,” breathed Clive, but I could see his interest was piqued.

“I would have agreed with you, Clive, before I knew. But study them as I have, and you will not be able to deny their grim provenance. A Grimoire obliterated by the ages — and by the efforts of the Pharaohs’ scribes, for I have no doubt it was they who took the secrets of the people who dominated this land before them and translated them into the tamer spells we see today. Who could blame them — for the original texts must have been terrifying — spells to raise the dead, to twist them to one’s own ends, to summon creatures fearsome enough to drive sane men mad. But we see hints of it, do we not, in the texts that came after? The Voynich Manuscript? The Necronomicon? The Greater Key of Solomon?

“I do not like to dwell upon those hours of madness, so I will tell you quickly. As I burned with poison, Dingane slaughtered a half-dozen of his own prize oxen. And when I tell you the value oxen have in their culture . . . well. He more than paid his blood debt.

“Buried under the bodies of the oxen was an effigy in wood, complete with my hair and smeared with my blood. Dingane refused to tell me how else he prepared the figure, or the words of the spell he chanted over me all day and night. Suffice to say that in the morning I woke, weakened but alive, and by my side sat Dingane and — myself. Or at least a creature so like me I could not tell the difference.

“He was, Dingane explained, a tsi-rennit, a death-twin. By his creation death was deflected away from me. He was an empty vessel with my form. And after three days passed, when my safety was assured, he would die by Dingane’s spear.

“This plan disturbed me greatly. I had occasion to speak to the tsi-rennit, and while he was simple and unresponsive — an empty vessel indeed — I saw no evil in him, and no reason to kill him. I was alive and growing stronger; surely my life did not depend upon killing this innocent. Dingane would not listen to my pleas for his life.

‘He must die, my friend, he said. He exists merely to distract death from you. He is not meant to live in this world. To complete the spell I must kill him.

‘How can you, Dingane? I replied. He is an innocent!

‘Friend Samuel, he is a tool. I should never have used the spell. The book it came from is forbidden, for all my ancestors have been its keepers. But you were dying, you who saved my wife and children from the English death-camps. What was I to do?

‘And I am grateful. But you cannot kill him!

‘I must. At dawn I will.

“But it was not to be, for I was stronger than the tribesfolk knew. I took the tsi-rennit and fled to Capetown, soon after embarking by ship back to Australia. By then most of my family was dead, and I the sole heir; it was easy to pass William, as I named him, as an eccentric cousin.

“The only ones who were not fooled, who avoided him and me from then on were my old friends the Aboriginals. But they too bear wisdom from beyond the beginning of recorded time. It would not surprise me to know that certain of their ancestors had knowledge of the ancient text Dingane’s ancestors bore.

“William learned quickly, and I found that we had memories in common. As time went on I found he remembered every important event in my own past life. He shared, as well, my interest in mythology, and together we researched the source of the Papyrus of Ani.

“As time went on he became less stable. He would insist that he was me, that I had usurped his position. At these times I would have to restrain him for his own good. Afterwards, during his periods of lucidity, he was as meek as a lamb.

“He did escape and flee to Egypt; I told the truth there. But I confess now I did find him. He had descended further into madness, but now it took a different form. Instead of insisting that he himself was Samuel Winchester, he said his further researches demanded practical application. He wanted to build a temple and invoke the ancient powers there. Only then, he said, could our lives and destinies be truly separated and he could live his life as my cousin and trouble me no more with his periods on instability.

“I humored him — it seemed the least I owed him. We found this remote spot, and hired laborers to build the tomb-temple you found. When the work was completed to his satisfaction, he asked me to accompany him alone to the structure. I did not suspect he wanted to kill me.

“He must have stolen the dagger from the Cairo Museum — their methods of inventory are atrocious. He took me by surprise but I managed to evade the blow, knocking him to the ground. I should have shot him there, I suppose, but still I could not. While he lay there, dazed, I ran to the entrance and with much effort rolled the boulder to block it, wedging it tight. The dry desert heat mummified him, as it does chance corpses. And that, Clive, is the story.”

He shook himself. “It’s murder, Sam, murder pure and simple. If you’d shot him in self-defense . . .”

“Oh, I did make a mistake by leaving him so, I concede that. For my further researches into the Cannibal Text told me what I should do.”

Clive stared at my face with a peculiar intensity. “Do you remember, Sam, when we were out without leave that last quarter at Cambridge, and I dared you to climb the gates? And you slipped and cut the side of your face?”

“Of course I do,” I said, wondering at the change of subject.

“It’s been bothering me since your first visit to the dig, but I only really realized now. You bore a scar since that time — a small white scar just under your chin. I doubt you yourself could see it in the mirror. You don’t have it now. And that means –- you’re not Samuel Winchester.”

He never saw me coming. I shall never forget the astonished look on his face as I sprung for his throat, knocking him clean off the campstool. A clean twist of the neck, and the job was done. His face retained its frozen expression of surprise

The Cannibal Text invites the Pharaoh Unas to eat the gods and his enemies to gain power. It seemed clear what I should do. I bent to my task.

My fingers are skinned raw: still I heave at the boulder. It is almost in place. The drug has worn off now. The man inside flings himself at the other side of the rock.

“Will! Will! What are you doing!”

But I am not William: I am Samuel, am I not? I have always been so.

“Will, you don’t want to do this! Let me out and we’ll talk!”

This is better than killing him with the dagger. He’s always been kind to me; I don’t want to strike him down myself. I’m glad I left it for him so he can make his own decision.

I run towards the camp, hearing the noises fade in the distance.

Remember I am Samuel.

Anubis spreads the feast
Anubis guards the doorway
The doorway to the Eye of Horus

The Feast is spread,
the thighbones split for marrow,
and the white fat

Coal-black, natron-black, the jackal-headed god stands impassive behind a table laden with the feast of first fruits. Incongruous amidst the heaps of figs and pomegranates and sheaves of wheat is a silver salver with a domed lid, identical to the one that graced my mother’s table at family gatherings. Anubis — or is it Dingane? — reaches out and lifts the lid. My own head gazes back at me, pale, boiled, reproachful.

I jerk awake in the hot dry night, cold and wet with sweat.

Rising to light the lamp, I stumble over something on the floor. The light gleams wetly on the bare skull, the eviscerated torso that was Clive Fotheringham. I study it, reflecting.

Clive was neither my god nor my enemy. This fixes nothing.

I know what I must do.

At the door to the tomb there are a few native guards, who back away, muttering, at the sight of me. They know they must not interfere.

Anubis guards the door and speaks with Dingane’s voice. No — he does not repel me. He is there to welcome me. He is there to show me the way. The way to the Eye of Horus.

“Madness.”

Maspero fingered the document nervously. The light of a single candle flickered across the paper and the writing that went from neat, straightforward lines to jagged, blotted scribbles. Crazy shadows jumped back and forth on the khaki canvas of the tent.

Montet wondered if the guards and night-strollers could see them from outside, black silhouettes sketched on canvas, bent over an innocuous-seeming paper. Despite the warmth of the night, he shivered. He wondered if he would ever forget the sight — Clive Fotheringham’s body with its skull gnawed clean, or that gibbering creature they found in the tomb that morning, chanting in an ancient language over the crumbled remains of its unholy feast.

“Mad, yes. The man is certainly mad. But his research . . . fantastic as it seems, Monsieur, his research is solid. I have compared his analysis of the earlier hieroglyphic forms, and he makes some bold assumptions, certainly. But they hold up. I cannot but say they warrant further examination.”

“That’s impossible.”

“But sir! A text that predates the Coffin Texts — perhaps the common source material for a multitude of Shamanistic cultures? That might have been carried south to the Kingdoms of South Africa, north to the pre-Druids, east to the sages of Tibet? How can we ignore that?”

Maspero raised his hand, cutting him off mid-stride.

“Already, Montet, the field of Egyptology is being polluted by soi-disant mystics and mediums — those that claim to be reincarnated Goddesses and Queens, those that seek to exploit bad translations of scholarly texts and foist them on a gullible public. Do you comprehend the damage this story would do to legitimate scholarship? No — the poor gentlemen went mad, never having recovered from his experiences in the war, and in a fit of madness killed a respected archeologist. It is best the world remembers it thus.”

“And what of the cousin?”

“What cousin? An unknown, modern corpse in an ersatz tomb. Little to concern us there.”

“I suppose we could send to Australia for confirmation of William Winchester’s existence . . .”

“I think not,” said Maspero. “And as for this document . . .”

Before the startled eyes of his aide he placed the papers in a shallow dish and lit one corner on fire.

“. . . it is best, sometimes, that forbidden texts lost to history remain so.”

Andrew NicolleAndrew Nicolle is an Australian expat, now living in the USA. He works as a software engineer by day, and writes fiction and apps by night. His short fiction has appeared in Spacesuits and Sixguns, Pseudopod, and A Field Guide to Surreal Botany. Follow his adventures online at andrewnicolle.com.

Samantha HendersenSamantha Henderson (www.samanthahenderson.com) lives in Covina, California by way of England, South Africa, Illinois and Oregon. Her short fiction and poetry have been published in Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, and Weird Tales, and reprinted in The Year’s Best Fantasy and Science Fiction, Steampunk Revolutions and the Mammoth Book of Steampunk. She is the co-winner of the 2010 Rhysling Award for speculative poetry, and is the author of the Forgotten Realms novel Dawnbringer. Her poetry chapbook, The House of Forever, was recently released from Raven Electrick Ink.

If you enjoyed this story, let Andrew and Samantha know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Lee Copeland.

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8 responses to “The Strange Tale of Samuel Winchester, by Andrew Nicolle & Samantha Hendersen

  1. Nicely done, but I have to admit, at first I was waiting for this to be the Sam Winchester with his brother Dean off on some “Supernatural” quest… lol.
    Anyways, great story, loved the mystery involved. Good work to the both of you.

      • Guess I need to watch more TV – I wasn’t aware of this until now! I still wouldn’t change his name, though. I’m glad you enjoyed it regardless 🙂

  2. Magnificent build up that keeps you guessing the whole way. And I have to say, it’s very nice to see a Sub-Saharan setting. We need more of that in the horror genre as a whole!

  3. I enjoyed the story very much. I too was waiting for Sam’s brother Dean to make an appeareance in a Supernatural fashion.

  4. I enjoyed the twist of identities and the Anubis/Dingane scene was a nice touch. I agree, the Sub-Saharan/Desert theme aside from mummies is ripe material for writing – I’ve always been a fan of that setting. Hope to see more of your work here.

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