The darkness was deep. Yet I had no doubt. I was in an underground chamber ten paces in length by half in width, and I even knew (just as quickly as a bat) that the room was all but empty. Stone was the surface of the walls and the floor. As if I could see with my fingers, I had only to wave an arm to feel the size of the space beyond my reach. It was exactly so remarkable as to hear voices by the hairs of one’s nose. For that matter, I could smell the scent of stone. Say that an absence was in the air, some hollow that dwelt within another hollow. Now I was aware of a granite coffer near to me, as aware, indeed, of its presence as if my body had walked within—it was huge enough to be my bed! But a step away, as if on guard, were some aged droppings on the floor, pellets from a small fierce animal who had managed like myself to find its way here, and left its deposit and gone. For there was no skeleton to speak of the beast. Just the scent of some old urine-cursed dung— But where was the passage by which the animal could have entered? I breathed in the horror that comes when the air is close with an animal’s mean excrement. That has its own message to give!
Yet, I could also recognize a pure bouquet of fresh night air that had chosen to enter this chamber. Had it come from a shaft in the rock used by the cat?
In the dark, between two blocks of stone, my fingers soon found a niche not much greater in width than a man’s head. Still, by its fresh breath, it must lead outside. The air that arrived through the shaft was only a whisper, not strong enough to stir one hair on a feather, but it offered the cool of the desert when the sun has been down for much of the night. Toward that cool murmur, I stretched, and to my surprise was able to follow my arm up the niche. It was a long shaft between great blocks of stone, and in places seemed no wider than my head, but it went in a straight line at a steep angle upward, a filthy trip. The dead shells of countless beetles cluttered my way. Ants went by my skin. Rats piped in high terror. Still, I climbed with no panic, only in surprise at the narrow dimensions of this passage. Surely I was not able to make my way through—it was hardly larger than the burrow of a snake—yet I might as well have been without shoulders or hips. Cunning was in my touch as if, like a snake, there was no fear of being caught in the passage ahead. I was capable of becoming narrower. But that is no better than to say I traveled with my thoughts through the long narrow shaft, my body sufficiently supple to obey—a most peculiar sensation. I felt altogether alive. The whisper of the air before me had phosphorescence. Particles of light glowed in my nose and throat. I was more alive than I could ever remember and yet felt no yoke of muscle and bone. It was as if I had been reduced to the size of a small boy.
When I lay at last near the mouth of the passage, my view was of the sky at the end of the shaft and moonlight slanted over the edge. As I rested, the moon passed full into view and anointed me. From orchards in the distance came a scent of date and fig trees, and the clear refreshment of the vines. The air on this night gave intimations to me of gardens where once I made love. I knew again the smell of rose and jasmine. Far below, by the riverbank, the palms by the shore would be black in outline against the silver water of the river.
So I came out at last from the end of the shaft in that great hill of stone. I stuck my head and shoulders into the open night, pulled through my legs, and gasped. Beneath the light of the moon was a long white slope of stone with the earth far below, but out there on the plateau of the desert, mute as a mountain of silver, there at the end of my gaze, was a Pyramid. Beyond it, another. Nearer to me, all but covered in sand, was a stone lion with the head of a man. I was perched on the slope of the Great Pyramid! I had just been—it could be nowhere else—in the burial chamber of the Pharaoh Khufu.
Harsh as the sound of a man’s snore was the name of Khufu. He was gone a thousand years, and more. Yet, at the thought of having been in His tomb, my body was too weak to move. The sarcophagus of Khufu had been empty. His tomb had been found and robbed!
I thought my heart would strike its last sound. My stomach had never felt so pure a slop of cowardice. Yet I was a man of valor, as I seemed to remember, perhaps a soldier, renowned for something—so, I could swear—all the same, I could not move a step. In shame I shivered beneath the moon. There I was, on the slope of our greatest Pyramid, moonlight on my head and heart, the statue of the immense lion below, and the Pyramids of the Pharaoh Khaef-ra and the Pharaoh Men-kau-ra to the south. To the east, I saw the moon on the Nile and far to the south, I even saw the last of the lights in the lamps of Memphi where mistresses were waiting for me. Or were they waiting for another by now? I was so reduced as to think it did not matter. Had I ever had a thought like this before?—I, whose first fear used to be that I was too ready to kill any man who looked at my woman? How exhausted I felt. Was this the price I paid for entering the tomb of Khufu? In gloom, I began to make my way down, sliding from crack to crack in the limestone, and knew some foul change had taken place in me already. My memory, which had given every promise (in the first glow of moonlight) that it would return, was still a sludge. Now the air was heavy with the odor of mud. That was the aroma of these lands, mud and barley, sweat and husbandry. By noon tomorrow, the riverbank would be an oven of moldering reeds. Domestic animals would leave their gifts on the mud of the bank—sheep and pigs, goats, asses, oxen, dogs and cats, even the foul odor of the goose, a filthy bird. I thought of tombs, and of friends in tombs. Like the plucking of a heavy string came a first intimation of sorrow.
I was in the most peculiar situation. I still did not know who I was, nor how old I might be. Was I mature and powerful, or young and in the beginning of my strength? It hardly seemed to matter. I shrugged, and began to walk, taking, for whatever reason, a path through the Necropolis, and as I meandered, I began to explain to myself what I saw, or so I would put it, for I felt in the oddest position, and like a stranger to my own everyday knowledge.
Before me, I must say, was no more to see than the straight streets of this cemetery in the moonlight, a view without great charm, unless there is charm to be found in high value. Cubit for cubit, the city of the dead had the dearest plots in all of Memphi, or at least that is what I certainly remember.
Wandering down the alleys of our monotonous Necropolis, sauntering past the shuttered door of one tomb, then another, I began—for no reason I could give—to think of a friend who had died recently, the dearest of my friends, this memory seemed to say, and the most absurd and violent death. Now, I had no more than to wonder whether his tomb was anywhere near about, and was visited with more recollections. My friend, I was ready to think, came from a powerful family. His father, if I could recall, had once served as Overseer of the Cosmetic Box—I would die, I thought, before lusting after such titles myself. Still, that was not a career to be sneered at altogether. Our Ramses, if I remembered correctly, was as vain as a beautiful girl, and detested any flaw in His appearance.
Of course, with such a father, my friend (whose name, I fear, still eluded me) was certainly wealthy and noble. Poor entombed bugger! He must be, at the least, a descendant of the great Ramses, yes, the one, I could recall, who died something like a hundred years ago, our own Ramses the Second. He had ended as a very old man with a great many wives and more than a hundred recorded sons and fifty daughters. They produced ancestors in such numbers that today you cannot begin to estimate how many officers and priests are Ramessides by at least half of their line. For truth, hardly a rich woman in Memphi or Thebes will fail to offer one bona-fide cheek of her buttocks, royal as the Pharaohs, and she will not fail to let you know. To be descended from Ramses the Second may not be exceptional, but it is indispensable—at least if she wants a family plot in the Necropolis. Then, she had better be, at least by half, a Ramesside. In fact, you cannot even buy a tomb in the Western Shade if you are not, and that is only the first requirement in such commerce among Memphi matrons. There are not enough plots. So they go to great lengths. For instance, the mother of my dead friend, the matron Hathfertiti, was always prepared to trade. If the price was good enough, the sarcophagus of an ancestor could be transferred to an inferior tomb, or even shipped downriver to another necropolis. Of course one had to ask: Who was the deceased? How substantial was his curse? That was the unspoken part of the transaction—you had to be ready to take on a few malevolent oaths. But some were ready to welcome them if they were terrible enough to bring the price down. For example, Hathfertiti had been bold enough to sell the tomb of her dead grandfather. Concerning this dead relative, her husband’s grandfather (who happened incidentally to be her own grandfather since she was certainly her husband’s sister) it was told to the buyer that old man Menenhetet had been the kindest and most benign of men. His vice was that he could not harm his enemies. His curse need hardly be feared. What torture of the truth! In secret, it was whispered that Menenhetet had been known to eat fried scorpions with bat dung—just so great was his need to protect himself against the curses of the powerful. He had had a mighty life, I seemed to remember.
Excerpted from Ancient Evenings by Norman Mailer. Copyright © 2014 by Norman Mailer. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade Paperbacks, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.