Readers, I hope you enjoy this story I wrote for my collection, Rest in Fleece. The first part about my family scarab is absolutely (partly) true. Read on, below:
My mother had a scarab, a real one. Her parents had gone to Egypt in the ‘thirties and brought it back for her. It was set in gold in a signet ring, opening to a hieroglyph used as an official seal. The scarab was green and small, no more than half an inch long.
Strange things used to happen around the scarab. It affected everyone with whom it came in contact. People would jump, thinking they’d seen shadows. Their sleep would be filled with dreams of a disturbing nature. They heard things: often, a sound like a soft crunching of eggshells.
I took to wearing the scarab, it made a pretty ring. I got compliments. Sometimes, I took it off so my friends could see the inscription, but when they held it, sometimes it jumped, or gave the holder a small electric shock. We wrote that off to static, at the time.
One of my friends, I’m sorry to say, was a bit light-fingered. Kelly had periodic kleptomania, and one day while admiring the scarab, she made off with it.
The next day, we all heard she had been in an accident. She had been walking home from her twelve step meeting when she was hit by an out-of-control car: the driver had had a heart attack. It was quite tragic.
Because of the obvious nature of her injuries, there was no post mortem examination of any kind. We attended her funeral and at the burial, we each dropped a rose into the grave. We thought we heard chanting, in some foreign tongue, muffled by time.
The next day, the scarab reappeared on my bureau. Perhaps Kelly hadn’t borrowed it. I’d been known to misplace things.
I wore it for awhile. It had a penchant for falling off my finger. It was mysterious, because the ring wasn’t loose, and I only took it off at night. But I’d notice it gone, only to see it across the room on the floor, or a colleague would hand it to me at work, saying he’d seen it on a desk, or on the front steps. It was peculiar.
I’d been intrigued by scarabs since childhood, when I read a collection of Edgar Allan Poe stories which included The Gold Bug. Scarabs were symbolic: in old Egyptian mythology they represented the sun, and rebirth. But there were also connections to more ancient beliefs, and to the roots of eastern and other religions. Darker magic than I then knew.
Inexplicable things kept occurring. The scarab fell off onto our large front lawn. Its green color blended it with the grass so that it was impossible to find. We all looked. One day, several months later, we got a postcard from the people in Egypt from whom the scarab had been purchased. On that day, the scarab reappeared, on the front porch.
At the university (I was taking some graduate courses in history then) I went to see an anthropologist, Hammond Ray, who had spent time working in the pyramids. I shared my scarab stories, and he found them interesting.
“That’s not the first time I’ve heard of wandering scarabs,” he said. “They move about. It’s mysterious.
“I knew of a particularly egregious case. One of my assistants, Anwar, was half Egyptian, from a very old, aristocratic family. He had a scarab that had been passed down the generations for as long as anyone could remember. It was part of inheritance inventories of generations from centuries past. The family always took special care to keep it in its place: a box in which it had come, it was said, from the tomb of one of the oldest of the pharaohs.
“One day, Anwar said, it was stolen, along with other valuable belongings, from the family home. Everyone was quite distraught and no one knew what had become of it and other treasured items.
“In the news a few days later, there was a story of a particularly gruesome accident. A thief had been sitting by the Nile when he had been attacked by a voracious crocodile and devoured. No one else was disturbed, as they breakfasted at a resort near the water. The beast had had only one target. Nothing much was left of the thief, but his identity was known, and from the remains of his wallet, police were able to obtain enough clues to locate Anwar’s family’s missing items. The scarab was unfortunately not among them.
“However, a week or so later, it simply appeared in its box. One moment it was gone, the next, it was as if it had never left. The family accepted this, and associated it with many other odd stories that had been told about their scarab.
“But that wasn’t all. Anwar said his sister was being pestered by an ex boyfriend, who stalked her and refused to leave her alone. She became quite anxious, but nothing could be done. The boyfriend had stayed barely within the boundaries of what was considered legal, so he had not been detained or even cautioned by law enforcement.
“One day, the ex boyfriend was dining out. He was fine one moment, the next, he started choking, loudly. He flailed about. And before long, he was dead. There were many witnesses: those at neighboring tables and wait staff all saw it. A woman who had been seated close by remarked that it looked for a moment as if he were being strangled: the reddened marks where a hand might have grasped his neck did appear for a short time before fading.
As he choked, something flew from his open mouth: to the waiter, it looked like a green insect. It scurried away, so quickly that no one caught it and few noticed it, in all the furor that followed. The paramedics came, and he was taken to the hospital, even though it was apparent that nothing could be done.
The doctors examined his throat, and there they saw a series of peculiar scratches and rips in the flesh. They hadn’t seen the like before. They attributed the wounds to, perhaps, a piece of bone that may have lodged there before it was expelled. What else could it be?
“Then too, I had a strange experience of my own. I work around many ancient artifacts, and quite a few are the subject of legend. This was nonetheless exceptional.
“I was at the museum preparing an exhibit of the jewelry of ancient Egypt. I noticed that one of the scarabs was not where it had been placed in the display. I opened the case and moved it back. Then I locked it up and left for the day.
“That night, an alarm went off at the museum and I was called in. The case which contained the scarab was closed, yet the scarab was gone. Nothing else appeared missing or even disturbed. As it was a rather famous scarab (you’d know the one if I told you), everything was kept quiet as we searched (in vain).
“There were a series of deaths after that. The team which had discovered the trove in our exhibit were one by one picked off (I’m sorry; there is no other way to put it). The lead archaeologist became quite ill, some kind of fever (like that which claimed the life of Lord Carnarvon). His assistant met with an accident: he was bitten by an asp and died within minutes. He was, it turned out, quite allergic to the venom.
Although the Egyptian workers went unharmed, all the foreigners who had entered the tomb were gone within weeks. An anthropologist was found lying on the floor in his hotel room. He had apparently stopped breathing, but for no discernable reason. He was only thirty-six years of age and in excellent health.
Another team member died strangely. He was sitting on a patio at a rooftop café, having a coffee, when he was seen to step right off the edge of the building. Witnesses said it was all quite sudden. One moment he was reading the paper; the next, he looked quite terrified and got up, walking quickly and looking over his shoulder. No one else saw anything, but they were convinced he did. He died of fright before falling to the ground.”
This was a lot to take in, but it was precisely the kind of information I’d been seeking. I thanked the professor and left for the library. It was then that I noticed the scarab was missing.
Professor Hammond Ray packed up his books for the day and took off in his car for the civic center, where he was to give a presentation later. He was setting up his slide show, his artifacts, and some literature when he began to sense he was not alone. He thought, for a moment, that a large shadow loomed over the room. He heard, he thought, a sound like the soft crunching of eggshells. Then, it was gone. He went on with his work.
His presentation was well-attended and was going swimmingly. When the scarab slide came up, however, there was a rumbling heard across the hall. Everyone was quite startled by it, but after a few moments, people realized it was an earthquake.
The professor was an experienced pubic speaker and after things settled down, he continued (but rapidly clicked to the next slide: it might be best to bypass the scarab tonight, he thought).
On the way home, he continued to feel observed. It was eerie. He’d felt something like this while unearthing holy relics in Iran, as a student. It was as if some ancient, powerful force had been somehow disturbed. Some things are best left alone, he’d concluded, although only after a lifetime of doing just the opposite. In his career, he’d dug up more holy sites than he’d care to add up: especially now.
He looked in his rear view mirror and saw a pair of venomous, crimson eyes glaring back. He was not unused to the outré, but he was now quite terrified. He pulled the car over. He looked back in the mirror; but now, the eyes were gone.
I kept digging. I learned of a mysterious volume in the university’s rare book room. One would need special permission to be admitted and allowed near these valuable tomes. I made arrangements with the history department and was given an appointment to view the book I’d heard of.
It was one of few extant copies, and not in pristine condition. But few knew of it, and in the time it had been at the university, it had been requested only twice. The first one to see it, back in the forties, was an adjunct professor of geography. He read it, and then left on a field trip to the Middle East, from which he never returned. He was assumed to have got lost in the desert, like Bishop Pike. The second was Professor Ray.
On the appointed day, I appeared at the rare book room and was escorted in, the door carefully shut behind me. I was briefed about the rules and how to handle the books. I was given gloves and a ventilated mask, and led into a reading room, with the book on a table, covered in cloth. There was a magnifying glass there, if needed. There was a chair and overhead, soft lighting.
An assistant came in with me and gently unfolded the protective material around the book. He opened it, and then left me.
The book (I dare not name it) had an odd odor, a slightly smoky scent, as if it had been seared by flames at one time. It felt almost alive. I carefully turned to the section about scarabs.
I was not completely surprised, I must admit, to see a scarab almost identical to my own, peering out at me from those pages. It was said of these scarab that it would do whatever it could to return to the tomb from which it had been taken. That people who had owned these often lost them. That they seemed to move about most unaccountably. And that, if they were angered, the scarabs would retaliate. There were a trail of the dead and damaged to attest to this. Their power came from an unknown source. An evil old deity, a daemon, an elemental? Something used these scarabs as lightning rods, with most unpleasant results.
After more time, I finally came across what I sought: an antidote. It was at the end of the chapter on a page that was almost unreadable for age and wear. But I got the gist of it. In typical folkloric fashion, the scarab had to be “put back,” wherever that might be, to quiet it. One could not kill the force that animated it but one could bind it. Old magical formulae were put forth. They varied from culture to historic period, but they all shared two parts: salt and holy water.
By this time, Hammond Ray was quite unnerved. As soon as he got home, he left a message for me to see him at my earliest convenience. We met at a Starbucks the next morning, where he shared his misadventures. I told him that the scarab had gone missing. We looked at each other, alarmed.
I added that I had located the ___ Book (really, for your sake and my own, it’s best that I don’t name it), and shared what I’d discovered therein. I mentioned that the other person who had had the book had vanished in the desert, never to be heard from again. Did the Professor know him?
Hammond Ray had indeed known the geographer. The geographer was a scoffer par excellence. He believed in nothing and even when warned about customs and beliefs, he’d sneer and continue to put down the locals and their ideas. Hammond thought it not unlikely that some locals had got back at him.
Except that he had heard more: a friend of a friend of a friend had intimated that the geographer came to a very bad end indeed. He may well have been lost: but he had also been disemboweled alive by some fearsome, glistening creature. It was large, had many legs, and it could be heard, softly munching on his remains.
(The witness, the geographer’s assistant, stayed hidden and did not emerge for hours, horrified. He never recovered, really. He was put on medication for anxiety, but still he gave up his work and joined a monastery, where he prayed and drew maps. But never of the Middle East).
Hammond did not wish to be devoured alive, nor to be further hounded by this beast. He said he thought perhaps the origin of the curse (for accursed is how it felt) had been the discovery of the tomb of that unknown, early pharaoh, near Thebes. His resting place ought never to have been disturbed, Hammond now thought.
The hieroglyphics had spelled it out clearly, and they had an interpreter with them who could convey the meaning. There was no mistake. Yet, in the name of possible glory and gold, they’d pressed on. Even the local help had warned them: there had been omens. A greenish halo round the moon; dead fish floating in the river.
But he and the geographer had heeded them not, feeling superior and rational. But where had all that rationality, modernity, and flush toilets got them? Progress had blinded them to ancient wisdom, to the old ways, to the rhythms of nature, to the beat of the heart of the earth. More’s the pity.
We resolved to stop the scarab. We had salt of course, and stopped at St. Jude’s parish for holy water from the font. I had some words copied from the ___ Book. And we had, most importantly, our conviction, our complete belief that we must do this, that this was real, and that it must be stopped at all costs.
We met again that night, Hammond and I, at his office, where the scarab had disappeared last. We put out some Egyptian items he owned, thinking of the magical principle “like attracts like.” We took out some old Egyptian religious texts and began to chant (he had printed out phonetic pronunciation so we could read the words in unison). Of course I was unfamiliar with the language. To be fair, most linguists wouldn’t have recognized it: a bastardized ancient Coptic tongue, used mostly for secret ceremonials by only a select few of the high priestly caste.
We lit candles, meditated for a few minutes, and then began. We repeated a beckoning chant. And after a time, with no forewarning, the scarab appeared, squatting on Hammond’s desk, appearing inanimate and harmless to the unknowing eye. We said the final chant and tossed salt and holy water at the scarab.
There was a shimmering in the air. It glistened, reflecting the light of the candle. It grew large, casting a gigantic and menacing shadow against the wall. And then all was black.
I awakened to a sound like the soft crunching of eggshells, and saw Hammond being devoured by an enormous dung beetle. It was a dead ringer for my little scarab.