A few preliminary words about Tutankhamen, the king whose name the whole world knows…
So opens the first chapter of The Tomb of Tutankhamen, Howard Carter’s account of the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1922. I stumbled across a copy of this little gem in the public library a number of years ago, and it kindled my intense love of all things Egyptian. Carter’s book, as well as many others, was used as a guide in writing The Wishing Cup. However, and, oh my, is this a big however, an astute reader of this novella will very quickly realize that facts about pharaohs, queens, and expeditions (among other things) in the Valley of the Kings were willfully and knowingly manipulated. It is my hope that despite this, readers will enjoy my flight of Egyptian fancy—and forgive my transgressions. Oh, and while I received some excellent guidance on Egyptology, I can assure you, all errors are my very own.
Journal of Dr. David Jameson
10 November 1922
It seems fitting that today I open a brand new journal and write upon a fresh page, for after two years of systematic searching, we have finally made a discovery worth recording. As I have stated previously but put down again just for sake of this new record, we have been working in a corner at the extreme end of the Valley of the Tombs of the Kings, in the triangle of ground between the tombs of Rameses II, Sherentah, and Rameses VI. The work has been tedious and fruitless, and frankly, if we had not found the cache today, I think Collins would have had us packed and back in England inside a fortnight.
Though we have been working at the northeast corner of Sherentah’s tomb, looking for just such a break, Collins almost dismissed today’s findings as a pile of broken pottery, linen, and other oddments. However, just as everyone was beginning to stop for the day, Maris lifted a rock and found a cache of vessels of the type employed to contain oils used in final preparations before the burial of a pharaoh there amidst the rubble. They called me to the find with strident voices, wanting my input on the hieroglyphs, if nothing else. As I knelt there in the limestone rubble, I saw something that made my heart begin to race. A faience cup lay nestled in a heap of tired, worn-out jars. However, unlike the clay dockets, which bore the names of Sherentah, Sif-re, and Ahmentap, the chalice bore only one name, that of Sherentah’s queen, Sif-re.
DAVID was tired and bleary-eyed, and his back ached from combing over pottery shards beneath the hot Egyptian sun. Still, as he stood in his tent, squeezing lukewarm water out of a sponge so it ran down his bare chest, he knew it would be hours before he got to sleep. Moving the sponge down his right arm to his hand, he scrubbed briefly at the ink stains on his fingers. Though he scrubbed hard, they dulled only slightly, and he knew from experience that they would never completely go away. With a sigh, he finished his ablutions and went to his desk. The small faience cup sat right in the middle, where he had placed it earlier. When he had gently wiped away the grime to see the hieroglyphs inscribed on it, the milky white alabaster had shone with a luster that took his breath away. Under the harsh Egyptian sun, the words inscribed on the cup had stood out in bold relief, a wish for a long and blessed afterlife.
David reached out and touched the lip of the wishing cup gently, almost reverently. Turning away with some reluctance, he sat down on the camp cot that served as his bed. It was late, but the camp still buzzed with the excitement of the day’s find. More than buzzed, for he could hear the steady slap-slap of flesh on flesh from the occupants of the tent next door to his own. Stewart Reginald and his wife, Maris, were celebrating in the age-old manner of husbands and wives everywhere.
Unfortunately, David could picture what was going on quite vividly, for he had held slim, lovely Mrs. Reginald in his arms countless times when she had come crying from that very tent looking for solace. He’d held her as she sobbed prettily on his shoulder and vowed never to go back to the boor. But she did, always, to David’s amazement. And then one night two months back, as he’d comforted her, she’d slipped her small hands inside his dungarees. He had stopped her, and she’d asked why in a soft, sweet voice. When he’d reminded her that she was a married woman, she’d laughed and said, “Is that all?” She’d left him alone, but her contemptuous laughter as she walked away had cut deep.
Eventually, the sounds rose to a crescendo and then abated entirely, for which David was heartily grateful. He flopped back on his cot, almost, but not quite, missing the pillow.
Distractedly, he stared at the peak made by the center pole of the tent. Today they had found a bit of that for which Edward Collins, his guardian and the leader of the expedition, had spent so many years searching. Thirteen calcite vessels, a bit of gold foil, and a faience cup. Yet when David had told the small group clustered round him that the jars bore the name of Sherentah’s queen, Edward turned his back and spat in disgust. As David well knew, it would be contrary to all custom to find a queen interred alone in the Valley of the Kings. What the team hoped to find was the tomb of Sherentah’s successor, the young king, Ahmentap.
Under Edward’s thunderous gaze, they had continued to dig and found one more thing—a step cut in the rock, which, after a short amount of extra clearing, revealed a sunken stairway entrance so common to tombs in the Valley of the Kings. Quickly, and with as little fanfare as possible, they re-covered the step, and Edward set some of his most trustworthy workers to keep watch over their find. Tomorrow they would continue excavating the entrance in hope that it would lead them to what might be the greatest find of the century: the tomb of one of the missing kings, perhaps that of Ahmentap.
But David didn’t think so.
Reaching down to pick up his new journal off the dusty floor, he opened the leather-bound volume and reread his own first entry. Sif-re. She who was said to be so beautiful Re could not take his eyes from her. Legend had it that she had refused the sun god’s attentions and remained true to her brother-husband, Sherentah. Thus she died an untimely death and was cursed to be forgotten ever after. As it turned out, the curse was not strong enough, for there were some who did not forget.
Closing his eyes, David pictured the last time his mother read to him. It was this very story, from a small, very old book with brittle pages. She would not let him hold the fragile volume of Egyptian myths, though, at almost eight, he could read the French for himself. So he had protested, but only mildly, for he loved to listen to his mother’s soothing voice as she read aloud. That night, he remembered, they had all been together in the family room, and his mother had read to both David and his father. He’d sat curled, leaning against her chair, while his father had rested in his favorite rocker. Once, when his mother had paused for breath, he had seen his father give her a gentle, loving look, and his mother’s usually solemn mouth pressed up into a tiny smile before she bent her head to read again.
Two days later, both his mother and father were dead, and David was on a steamer to England to live with a man he had never met, an old school chum of his father’s. A month after that, all alone in an upper-crust boys’ boarding school in Northwest London, he had turned eight years old. He had celebrated fifteen more birthdays since that time, the last one only a week before.
The journal had been a gift from his guardian, of course. Edward gave him one every year, and David had faithfully recorded in them. This one was a tad finer than the rest, and it seemed fitting he had such wonderful news to put in it. Still, he wished fervently for someone to tell the news to, some friend or companion with whom to celebrate. For some inexplicable reason, David felt he was at the beginning of something even better than the discovery of the century. He couldn’t say what exactly, but he knew somehow that he was on the brink of some grand venture. He only hoped it would hurry up and happen.