I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.
The daughter of Fu Manchu laid her hand on mine. Her perfume produced a strong abstract sensation—where had I breathed that dark sweet unearthy scent? She pointed to the empty mummie case, her jade gaze on my face. My senses reeled.
“I’ve got a love Jones for you,” she said.
Her insidious Dacoit poisoners, her foul Thugee stranglers, her vacant Assassins, all of the others bored her. They had no radiance. That’s why she needed me. She fed on it, my love light.
“So?” I said.
She fixed me with a glance. I looked into the eyes that had watched so many men die. I felt her hand on mine, the hand that had poisoned many cups, plunged many daggers and yes given much pleasure as well. The hand was soft and cool.
“Let’s get it on,” she said.
Although I could not refuse I didn’t want to.
Much later at her place we were smoking clove cigarettes and listening to the Cairo station. They had just played “Happy Radio’’ by Edwin Starr, “Disco Inferno” by the Trammps, and “Suzie Q” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. Suddenly the DJ came on in English.
Usually they come on in an official Arabic few speak; sometimes on the disco station they use the language of the people. This particular DJ would often interject ridiculous English phrases. That night it was, “Good evening our chap, are you making mummies to standard?”
“Let’s go to some raw dive,” said the daughter of Fu Manchu. I nodded.
Once I asked her if it was true that Lord Carnarvon died from a mosquito bite. She said it was true.
“So poison is ruled out,” I said.
“A mosquito has poison,” said the daughter of Fu Manchu tapping her blood red nails on my semi-erect penis.
“What I mean is, that rules out human poisoners. I thought that if there were a curse it would have human executioners.”
“Some mosquitoes acquire a taste for human blood,” she said. “They’ll touch nothing else. They live apart from other mosquitoes. But it is well known that some of them are in human service.”
“Don’t be ridiculous Fah Lo Suee,” I said.
She smiled a rare smile.
“I myself have had them on loan from their master.”
I laughed and she looked offended.
“You’re scale mad,” she said.
She laughed a little.
“Yes, scale mad. Breton was an idiot, but even he realized that if aliens from the stars arrived you and all the rest would miss them entirely due to magnitude prejudice.”
She paused her eyes closed. Opening them she said, “Is not one of your Christian devils ‘Lord of the Flies?’” She grinned.
Fah Lo Suee cleaned the syringe in the finger bowl. As I struggled to remain conscious, no longer able to struggle against the neckties that bound me to the chaise lounge, I felt strangely like a man trying to sleep rather than the opposite. I was counting things—not sheep but objects around me, green things, red things. All the while the exquisite wanton kept up her end of the conversation and mine.
Her eyes glowed like an Asian cat’s but they focussed on nothing as she spoke:
“The stone seals quarantined words that would live—a virus in hieroglyph.
I struggled to speak: “A what?”
She ignored me: “—how do you know a dead language is really dead?”
My mind tended to float away with each image and I struggled desperately to retain the train of thought. To slow her down I echoed her last words: “—How do you know a dead language is really dead?”
I could not tell if she had heard me. She continued as if in a trance or speaking on the radio:
“The air was harder then. Men were men, cats were cats but—” she hesitated one second and blinked her wide open eyes, her large inhumanly beautiful eyes: “—but not like water is water or fire is fire. As sounds change meaning so does substance. Nourishment turns to poison: poison turns to nourishment.”
I began to drift off—to see things. I could no longer tell if I were asleep or awake, if it were Fah Lo Suee’s voice that I heard or the voice of my own thoughts. Suddenly I was in Egypt, or Egypt was in me. The room fills with sand. The sun blinds me. I am looking down on a crowd of men, some in djeballa and burnoose, men in fezzes and suits, men in pith helmets and khaki. The dig is at a climatic moment.
“Taboos protect the consumer; superstition is the opaque surface of a law—”
Tanned fingers whisk a camel’s hair brush over stone revealing a character in the stone, a symbol. Some of the illiterate labor gasp and run off. The pink men laugh.
“Is it I or Fah Lo Suee who speaks?
“Viruses obey the law. They cannot do otherwise. Only men can break the law—”
Pith helmets doffed they drink a whiskey. Spirits drink the vapors.
Fah Lo Suee’s lab coat was white linen, cut in the Chinese style, closed by white frogs. The surgical mask over her nose and mouth made her eyelashes seem even more unreal though real they are.
“Light me a cigarette darling,” she said.
She slit the cobra end to end with a scapel in one motion. It flinched once then did not move.
While she performed some operation on the snake I lit her cigarette and placed it on the golden ashtray near her work table. She spoke while she worked—I didn’t know what she was doing, but I could tell that she did it quite expertly. She said:
“Whenever my father would run into Aleister Crowley at a convention ‘the great boar’ as Dad called him could quiz him for hours about our ideas on the hereafter. It amused my father greatly to be circuitous in such matters. I don’t know how he did it. Anyway Crowley was greatly embarrassed by his followers who all thought they were reincarnations of some Egyptian or other. ‘When I was a boy it was the Romans,’ The Beast would sigh: ‘The French fancied they were reincarnating the Greeks. A thankless task.’”
“I should have thought the English would have fancied the Greek way,” said Dad, winking.
Fah Lo Suee scraped something from the innards of the snake, depositing it in a glass dish. I could tell she was smiling under her mask. She loved Dr. Manchu.
I loved her. Of course it was the only way to survive, but that never occurred to me then.
She began to stitch the snake back up.
“Dad believed in the ancestors all right,” she said. “But I’m not sure in what state he thought they exist. In some seperate state or in the personal and collective consciousness of the living. He was ambiguous on the subject—I think to cover his own doubts. Sometimes he would vex Crowley and others by recalling his previous incarnations—something quite against his alleged beliefs. Lately I’ve not been too sure about that. His fake recollections were startlingly realistic.
“It particularly irritated Crowley when Dad claimed to have been Ovid.”
“More likely you were Caesar’s wife,” Crowley would say.
She looked away from her work for a moment, looking off into space.
“I myself have a great feeling for Rome,” she said.
“You know,” she continued deliberately “when we were noble Romans, you and I, man was vir and what made him a man was virtus—manliness. What was often his undoing was virus.”
“Virus?” I echoed.
“Poison,” she said.
The sinister seductress continued: “Today a virus is a so-called pathogen, a core consisting of a single nucleic acid coated with protein which reproduces only when inhabiting a so called living cell.”
“I say so called pathogen because who knows whether it is sickness or health that they bring.” She had finished sewing up the snake. She picked up a syringe and inserted it into an ampoule containing a chartreuse liquid.
“Viruses can kill their hosts or live with them” she said, removing the needle. The snake slithered off the table and out the door quickly. Fah Lo Suee removed her surgical mask and smiled.
“Excuse me, I must put on lipstick.” She was nude beneath her surgical gown. I caught a flash of her ivory body as she vanished behind a screen—a green mother of pearl dragon emerging from a black enamel sea.
“These decisions are made very deep down. Sometimes they are unilateral, sometimes they are mutual. The decision of life or death is always mutual I’d say,’’ she said.
She draped her dress over the screen.
She emerged from behind the screen wearing lipstick and jewelry.
“You’ll learn to live with it usually,” she said with a vague throwaway solemnity.
She is undoubtedly the most beautiful woman in the world. I could never guess her age. Naked, she walked toward me, suddenly the cat leapt into my arms.
“Pussy!” said Fah Lo Suee sternly, “Don’t be afraid of a silly eunuch cobra!”
The cat looked at its mistress and mewed humbly. Then it looked up in my face and blinked.
“I’m allergic to cats,” I said.
“Precisely,” said the Daughter of Fu Manchu.
“What?” I wondered.
She looked at me in annoyance.
“Men and cats began living together quite a long time ago. There was significant viral exchange a millenium squared ago. You have shown yourself to be quite primitive.”
I blushed. She seemed not to notice.
“The Egyptians had a funny word for those allergic to cats although it slips my mind. At any rate that’s why they shaved off their eyebrows when a cat died.”
This was an extremely puzzling exchange and I was full of questions but the next thing I knew she was all over me in her ebony bed.
She shrieked like a panther. I shook her violently calling out her name. She stopped the shrieking and looked up.
“What is it?” she asked, irked.
“Is it safe?” I asked.
Sneezing, I brushed cat hair from Fah Lo Suee’s comforter. She looked at me without expression then blew cigarette smoke in my face.
“I think your allergies might require some disciplinary measures,” she said softly.
Cats made me sneeze, I never thought of it as an illness, merely an antipathy. Fah Lo Suee had a more metaphysical and physical explanation. Now she was threatening me to control my allergy, another of her games. I’m sure she wouldn’t have made the same fuss over goldenrod or a plant allergy but I think that she found it difficult to decide which of us would have to go if one had to go. I’m sure there was really no question at all.
The cat jumped up on the bed.
“Here puss,” enthused Fah Lo Suee.
“I think we are going to have to do something about that sneeze,” said the Daughter of Fu Manchu.
When I awoke I found that I could not move. For a horrible moment I could not determine whether this was from paralysis or external impediment, so perfect was Fah Lo Suee’s bondage, or rather packaging.
She later claimed that this was not a torture at all but a health measure designed to cure me of my cat allergy. But I have developed such a distaste for them that the cure is rarely tested.
As I contemplated the question of paralysis vs. living entombment a third possibility occurred to me. Perhaps I was dead. Perhaps the soul has to stay within the body in the ground. “Uh oh,” I thought. I nearly died of dread. Then I came to my senses. Something was tickling my foot. It felt like a caterpillar wiggling against the sole of my left foot. Perhaps it was the first worm coming to devour my corpse. “Well, here goes” I thought. Instead of boring into my sole the worm fur began to tickle even more. Then a sense worse than the dead paralysis set in, I realized I was going to sneeze. If I was in fact alive, completely encased, a sneeze would surely kill me, blowing my brains out out my ears.
I sneezed. Therefore, I realized, I am. The sneeze burst open a moulded sarcophagus and I emerged into a blinding light and an incredible din. I could move. When my eyes adjusted to the light the first thing I saw was Fah Lo Suee laughing with extraordinary animation.
“Did you have a nice rest my love?” she cooed in her fake German accent.
“I thought I was dead,” I said. “Or worse.”
“Don’t sell yourself short my darling,” she hissed. “But did it give you any ideas?”
I wondered. The cat left the room.
Sometimes, laying next to her, I would feel my body enter a strange state of muscular, skeletal, sanguinary, and cellular democracy. Sometimes, when I entered this state I felt as big as a house or as small as a Cheerio.
I vaguely remembered this state from childhood. I wondered if she triggered it in me now.
One night I felt it setting in. She said, “What are you thinking about?”
For some reason I lied. I thought back to an earlier conversation and asked her what she had meant when she said that a virus might be benefic or malefic.
“Is a virus always poisonous?” I asked.
She grunted as if she knew this was not really what Id been thinking about when asked.
“You’re always catching cold,” she said.
“You can catch a cold but could you catch Harry?”
With that the phone rang; she went to answer it and I drifted off. I never learned who Harry was, or at least I have yet to learn.
She stood behind the bar in the solaruim mixing a Ramos Fizz. She whistled loudly and a huge blackamoor appeared. He took the cocktail shaker and shook the drink rapidly, first over one shoulder then another. He shook the drink so rapidly that beads of sweat appeared on his black skin making it glisten.
“Carnarvon was not a well man,” she said.
“He came to Egypt searching for a tomb but I suspect all along he knew it was his own.”
“I prefer this room at night,” said Fah Lo Suee interrupting herself. She dimmed the lights in the room so that the vast dome of stars was visible through the glass.
She lit a black cigarette, ran a hand through her hair and continued.
“The ‘Curse of the Mummy’ was quite sensational from the start. At the moment of Carnarvon’s death all of the electricity in Cairo went off. It is also said that at that very moment his dog, back at the baronial seat, howled himself to death. You know the English—I’m sure every dog dies that way. Anyway the coincidences were just too much. The Egyptians loved the dog story because the seal of the tomb was imprinted with a dog, said to represent the dead king in the final stage before rebirth.”
The blackamoor staggered with exhaustion.
“That’s enough Jim,” said the daughter of Fu Manchu. She poured our drinks and the giant disappeared. “I suppose we have a viral relationship with dogs as well?” I wondered out loud, seeming to interrupt her story.
“I suppose so,” she said. “That’s why the Egyptains shaved their eyebrows and their scalp when the dog died. Anyway, I find it interesting that the seal of the tomb was broken about 3265 years after it was put in place since that’s about the time period they believed required to complete a full cycle of reincarnations.”
“Did anyone else die of the curse … ” she said.
“Yes, assuming the diabolically directed mosquito … ”
“Interestingly,” she said with relish “it was only the chief plunderers who fell, Georges Benedite of the Louvre and Arthur Mace of the Metropolitan … ”
“In New York?”
“Yes. Of course from what I’m told by my friend Madame Ingomar who was present neither of them were in tip top either. All of that heavy food in that sun, not to mention the liquor. For me the most ominous event was what sent them to Thebes in the first place.”
“Yes, originally Carnarvon and Carter were digging at Sais but they were stopped.”
“By the authorities.”
“In a way,” she smiled. “By the river first, then by snakes, quite amazing horde of cobras.”
“Cobras?” I asked, feeling the drink.
“Didn’t you see Raiders of the Lost Arc?” asked Fah Lo Suee.
I found her on the telephone. She spoke softly with her back to me, gazing out over the garden. She knew I was there. When she hung up and turned around I saw that she was wearing wrap around sunglasses. I wondered if she had been crying although I never saw her show such an emotion.
“Bad news?” I ventured.
She smiled. “No, I was just talking with my old friend Orson Welles.”
“You know Orson Welles?”
“Yes, do you? … I thought not. You know he was my choice to do the original mummy film.”
I don’t know what she expected me to say. I’m not stupid. That film was made more than 50 years ago and Orson Welles was 16 at the time. I said nothing.
“Boris Karloff was awfully good though. Better than Joseph Cotton would have been. But really the film was awful. Karl Freund was a marvelous cinematographer but as a director … well the script was ludicrous. Mummies are never nobodies but in this the mummy is just the stooge of some rug salesman guild or something.”
“But Karas has to obey them to get the tanna leaves that keep him alive.” I said.
“He needed more than tanna leaves my dear,” said Fah Lo Suee. “By the way would you like some Tanna leaf tea, I have some.”
I felt my sanity slipping but held on.
“Thank you but no.”
“Or perhaps you’d rather have some mummy tea?” She grinned an insane grin.
“Yes, made from the best mummies. It will cure anything if it doesn’t kill you.”
Months later I found out that she had been feeding me mummy all along … even those fizzes had mummy powder in them. I couldn’t taste it, although now I know the taste … a sort of moldy malt flavor. It gives me a chill to think of it.
Actually I confronted Fah Lo Suee on the mummy eating over dinner. She poked at the live lobster sushi … the feelers of the creature were still moving feebly.
“You must try the brain,” she said.
“Will it make me smarter?” I asked.
“No but it will teach you secrets of the depths.”
“Like your mummy tea?” I joked.
“Perhaps,” she said slyly. Mummy seems to agree with you but lobster may suit you better.”
That was my tip-off. She wasn’t poisoning me really; she took it herself for her health she said.
I knew little of Fah Lo Suee’s father’s interests in Egypt. She told me that he owned a Szechuan Restaurant in Luxor but I came to know something of the truth. Dr. Fu Manchu also owned the largest commercial laundry in Luxor and every restaurant with lines had to do business with him.
As to what he had hidden in the Tomb of the Black Ape I would never know … or at least I have yet to find out. I have heard many theories; Tax records and receipts, atomic secrets or an actual nuclear device, tons of drugs, and of course powdered mummy.
Now I know what Fah Lo Suee meant when she held a glass of red wine to the light and said, “… aged an entire reincarnation cycle.” I had thought it was some kind of Chinese toast. I am still amazed by the price the stuff commands despite the fact that its true identity is impossible for the buyer to verify.
“Even souls have a certain, how do you say, shelf life,” said Fah Lo Suee. “There’s a time for the cellar and a time for the glass.”
She excused herself and left the table.
I never saw her again. At least I haven’t seen her since, though sometimes I feel that she is watching me.
I remember watching her practicing mummywrapping with mannequins she had bought in Paris. I can see her in her ‘work clothes’ wrapping limbs with great precision.
“For a mummy this size you need a linen strip at least 1000 yards long,” she said. She held the linen out to me. “They don’t make it like they used to. There shouldn’t be a single joint in a strip like this but I’m always finding them.”
“The whole figure is one long line. Of course it looks like many pieces, but it’s only one. You can’t see the beginning, and if its done right you can’t see the end.”
She never looked more beautiful or at least I haven’t seen her more beautiful.
I find the idea that we write alone laughable, even egotistical. Poetry is a palimpsest that has been endlessly rewritten—it’s a social space we share with others.