"The fuel [Egyptian railroaders] use for the locomotive is composed of
mummies three thousand years old, purchased by the ton or by the graveyard
for that purpose."
Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad
On the night spur
between Kharga and Kena,
the old locomotive
chuffs in the cool desert air,
iron lungs awheeze with belched
steam and smoke the color of parchment.
By now the reserves of coal
have long been exhausted; powering
the train for the remainder
of its journey is backup fuel,
bought by the plunderload
from those who made their living
excavating the tombs.
Tiny flakes of the stuff float
about the car,
evading the boilerman's shovel—
probably no residue of boy-king or priest,
but more likely ordinary human
by the mortuary alchemists of Ancient Kemet
from common reserves
and in all likelihood
designed to serve the Pharaoh
in the afterlife.
Wrapped in cerecloth, the fragments
sputter and crack, readily taking flame.
Soon giving way
to tiny conflagrations of blackened
skin and blood-tar, they
emit, in addition to the smell
of burnt linen (which reminds
the boilerman of a fire in Cairo's
slums when he was a boy),
a mixed perfume of frankincense
and charred bone.
So, after clacking hieroglyph
and hieroglyph of rail, the transit
continues, more or less on time.
Finally exhausted, however,
the shoveler decides to take a break,
stepping between the two cars
to let his sweat be drawn off.
A cigarette is rolled from paper
and tobacco; as the train chugs
on, a retrieved ember from the firebox
provides him the light he needs.
Inhaling deeply, the boilerman
is drawn to a common observation—
how the desert at this time of night
resembles the umber flanks of a sphinx—
even as he studiously avoids
looking to the far side of the sky,
where smoke meets morning clouds
and ka evaporate like bubbles in asphalt.