Tuesday, January 7, 2014

A Little Egypt

Wiki Images
by Robert Giles

It was coming down to the wire and I still hadn’t started my assignment.

We were studying ancient Egypt. The assignment was to make a papyrus-like scroll displaying hieroglyphics. It was due Friday. Tuesday and Wednesday had come and gone. Now it was Thursday evening. I hadn’t even started.

There was a picture of hieroglyphics in our book but I didn’t want to copy it. Wouldn't all the other kids do the same thing?

Where could I find some other hieroglyphics to copy? Mrs. Piper surely didn’t expect originality. Hieroglyphics were the Egyptian alphabet, after all. Little pictures were substituted for letters and words. If the scribes went in for originality, no one would be able to make heads or tails of what they were writing. That’s what an alphabet was – a standard set of symbols to be understood by others over time and distance.

What if I suddenly created a whole new alphabet and wrote a story using it? No one would be able to read it. No, originality was not of great importance to this assignment.

All this tortured thinking was making me anxious. I looked across the kitchen at my mother, washing dishes at the sink. No, better leave Mom alone. Egyptian hieroglyphics were not something I wanted to bother her with. Grandma sat sphinx-like in her rocker. I could wrap her in cheesecloth and turn her in as a genuine Egyptian mummy, but that wasn’t the assignment. Dad was at the mill as usual, missing out on all the good stuff at home. Dad always headed out the door just as we were headed in. Maybe he planned it that way.

Maybe I could just explain to the teacher that I suffered one of those creative “blocks” and had sat paralyzed all week, unable to get the traction to move forward. That would be truthful … and a poor strategy. I could just hear what Mrs. Piper would say --

“In my class, Bobby, blockheads always get an “F”.

Just then my older brother came in the front door. I was on him before he could take off his hat and coat.

“What do you need, an Egyptian scroll with hieroglyphics?” (I had caught him in a good mood. He had actually listened to what I had said.)

Chuck went to the refrigerator and made himself a sandwich and poured himself a glass of milk. I stood patiently by while he ate.

Chuck wiped the milk from his lip with his shirt sleeve. “OK, Bobby, get me one of those brown grocery bags from underneath the bread drawer.”

Chuck cut the bag down the sides and laid it out in a long rectangle. "Get me a couple of those carpenter pencils from Dad’s work bench. I need a tin of water colors while you’re up.”

“What do you think, Bobby, should we start out with an entreaty to Isis and Osiris?”

That sounded good to me. When you get in trouble, always pray.

Chuck soon had filled up the rectangle with a lot of squiggly marks and little pictures that looked to me like genuine Egyptian writing. I could make out a rabbit, a snake, a tombstone, and something that looked like a hybrid giraffe and lion.

It was all done in dark pencil with dashes of red and green water color.

“Bobby that looks like a good start, but essentially what we have now is a brown paper sack from Isaly’s with some scribbling on it. We need to give it an ancient look.”

Chuck rounded off the corners of the rectangle and tore little pieces out of the sides so that it looked like it might have had a life other than as a grocery bag.

“We need to age it a little.” Chuck looked towards the gas burners on the stove but after one glance at Mom, he went to Plan B.

We descended into the basement. Dad thought he had hidden his propane torch but Chuck knew where it was. He screwed the brass nozzle onto the thread of the canister.

Chuck turned the knob. We heard the hiss of the gas. Chuck struck a match. There was a pop as the gas ignited.

I held the paper to the floor as Chuck brushed it with the flame. He moved quickly over the surface so that the paper scorched and didn’t kindle. In a few spots he lingered to get a good brown glow.

Now Chuck took a sliver from a board and set it on fire. He let it burn until the tip had turned to charcoal. Then he finished off the scroll with a few flourishes of the blackened wood.

“OK, Bobby, now roll that up into a tight ball so we get a little wrinkle. Don’t worry. We’ll flatten it out with Mom’s iron.”

Chuck cut a dowel to fit and blackened it with charcoal. We glued the two halves of the dowel to the ends of the ironed and furled “papyrus”.

We took it back upstairs to get a good look at it in bright light.

“Don’t worry about Mrs. Piper being able to read it Bobby. She can’t read hieroglyphics any better than we can.”

It was a complete fake but after all, that was the assignment, wasn’t it? It looked pretty darn good to me.

The following Monday, Mrs. Piper returned the graded assignments. I sat there for a moment wondering where mine was.

“Class, I want to show you something really special. Here is Bobby’s scroll. I’m going to keep it. Every few years, someone does something truly wonderful and I put it in my private collection.”
I sat at my desk in silence, with a mixture of pride and embarrassment, mostly embarrassment. I didn't have the heart to tell her my brother had done the assignment for me.

Sometimes I dream that someone from Duluth brings an ancient artifact to the Antiques Road Show. I am among the hangers-on. The appraiser carefully unrolls the papyrus. “The provenance is doubtful but …  

The TV audience waits with bated breath. Dollar signs appear above their heads.

Wait a minute … I can clear that up. I have personal knowledge of the artist. He is my brother Chuck.

The appraiser clears his throat and swallows. “I’m sorry. In that case, it is worth … twenty-nine cents.

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