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The Afterlife.

Oh shabti allotted to me, if I be summoned or if I be detailed to do any work which has to be done in the realm of the dead ... you shall detail yourself for me on every occasion of making arable the fields, of flooding the banks or conveying sand from east to west; 'Here am I,' you shall say.

--The Book of the Dead
1.
 They're looking a little parched after millennia standing side by
side in the crypt, but the limestone Egyptian couple, inseparable on
their slab, emerge from it as noble and grand as you could ask of people
thirteen inches tall.
The pleasant, droopy-breasted wife smiles hospitably in her gown (the
V-necked sheath "a style popular for the entire 3,000-year
pharaonic period"). Her skin is painted paler than his: a lady kept
out of the sun. Bare-chested in his A-line kilt, her husband puts his
spatulate best foot forward, so as to stride into a new life.
Not mummies; more like dummies. Not idols, yet not merely dolls. Stocky
synecdoches of the ruling class, they survey an entourage of figurines
at work providing necessaries for long days under the reigns of
dynasties still unborn.
To serenade them, here's a harpist. A dwarf even in life-- a mascot
to amuse the court whose music must not be cut short. A potter modeling
vessels that seem, like him, already fired in a kiln. Six silos of
wheat, imaginary granaries. A woman of stone grinding grain, as she
would have, on a quern of stone. A woman winnowing grain in a pan.
Another on her knees, kneading. A brewer mashing a vat of beer, a
butcher slitting the throat of a heifer for the hereafter.
2.
What had it felt like, a credence in the afterlife of art? To die, as
the departed did, comforted by the guaranteed incarnation of a
statuette; to feed then on that slaughtered meat?
To take a leap from the stock-still tyranny of the literal? To see the
miniature, the fiction as a grow-in-the-dark depiction of the soon-to-be
actual?
3.
Aboveground, thought was evolving. So many lords and ladies died; not
everyone could be supplied with a finely sculpted retinue of laborers to
keep them living.
And how were the high ones to keep so many minions at their task? The
overseer with his whip became a smiling, bland convention: one foreman
for every ten or so farmers with a hoe.
It wasn't only math. Something unforeseen transforming
transfiguration-- a canny, efficient faith that less detail might well
stand in for the stand-in; a simplicity of encryption.
Hundreds and hundreds of years passed. Alabaster, faience, wood, the
scale of the factotum-totems dwindled as numbers multiplied; jostled in
the mass graves of toy-box coffins, they were transported by a
procession of living slaves a little distance, and slipped into their
niches in the crypt for the shelf-life of eternity.
Thumb-sized effigies wrapped in bandages of holy script, the
hieroglyphed Book of the Dead
.
Words. The nominal vow to work, not the enactment of work. The shabti
 held one stylized tool,
barely identifiable-- and were serene as Christian saints with their
hatchets and wheels, the instruments of a recurring martyrdom. In time
they grew more mummiform, cross-armed at the chest or armless. Finally,
curiously, at rest--
like zeroes who were something in being nothing, place-markers of their
own as much as of the master's soul.
4.
And on the wall of a vault, an artist has drawn himself-- or a cunning
substitute-- at work, shaping a life-sized shabti
designed to be his twin: a goateed dandy that our mute, vainglorious
ventriloquist settles on one knee.
Profile to profile, they stare into the mannered mirror of the other.
In whatever kingdom this was (by now, the blink of one kohl-lined,
almond eye), what did people think was the lifespan of the stunt man who
betokens man? The shabti
 sent to make shabti
?
But the question too has shrunken, eroded to vocabulary-- one fine old
potsherd of a word to be carried from the museum like any other item in
the museum shop: a replica necklace, a postcard.
The visitor is illiterate. What did that stone scroll say, meant to
convert someday to the thing it represents, papyrus? Even the scribes
couldn't read. Something about the god Osiris who came back from
the dead.
She must be going. Feels for the gloves in her pockets, empty hands for
her hands.
Opens a door to Chicago, where a fine dust is ticking coldly onto
everything; where she is still alive, and it's snowing. 
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Style as Performance/Performance as Style
Author:Salter, Mary Jo
Publication:Southwest Review
Article Type:Poem
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jan 1, 2010
Words:833
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