Size / / /

"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

bitumen, transmuted

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.




Robert Borski works for a consortium of elves repairing shoes in Stevens Point, Wisconsin. You can read more of his work in our archives.
Current Issue
29 Nov 2021

It is perhaps fitting, therefore, that our donor's choice special issue for 2021 is titled—simply—Friendship.
The year before this, the girls at school had called her Little Lila .
Pictures of me that day are kept in the ship’s files, sent back to Earth to be used in my captors’ eventual war crimes tribunals.
Perhaps a new urban system of star navigation is needed
This world, covered in spectral ebullience, was tied together by bows of light
Are you a good witch / or a bad witch? / as if there’s an answer earned, inscribed in bubbles reflecting an inverse crown.
When does the pursuit of pure thought, pure idealism, pure escapism become detrimental?
Wednesday: The Best of World SF, Volume 1, edited by Lavie Tidhar 
Friday: Anti-Life by Vee Tat Lam 
Issue 22 Nov 2021
Issue 15 Nov 2021
By: Madeline Grigg
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 8 Nov 2021
By: Allison Parrish
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 1 Nov 2021
By: Liam Corley
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Podcast read by: Liam Corley
Issue 25 Oct 2021
Strange Horizons
Issue 18 Oct 2021
By: K. Ceres Wright
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 11 Oct 2021
By: Lisabelle Tay
Podcast read by: Kat Kourbeti
Issue 4 Oct 2021
By: Anthony Okpunor
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
Issue 2 Oct 2021
Podcast: Fund Drive 2021 Poetry 
By: Michael Meyerhofer
By: Wale Ayinla
Podcast read by: Michael Meyerhofer
Podcast read by: Ciro Faienza
29 Sep 2021
Opening to fiction submissions for the month of November!
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