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"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.
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