I find Anubis about a mile past the Amtrak rails, where the sawgrass of the New Jersey salt marsh turns to swaying reeds of papyrus. He stands on a muddy creek bank holding a fishing pole and, though eight years have passed since I last saw him, he looks the same—a slender youth with the head of a jet-black jackal.
Anubis catches sight of me and morphs into fully human form, the most difficult shape for him to maintain. He turns away and begins pulling in his fishing line.
“Anubis,” I call out. “It’s me, Grace.” At that he looks up and gives a short bark of surprise.
“Grace, a thousand pardons,” he says, striding toward me, jackal-headed once again. “I did not recognize my little princess, all grown up.” We embrace, and I inhale the scents of sandalwood and sun-warmed fur.
“Where is Matthew?” he asks, gazing over my shoulder, searching for my brother.
My throat tightens. “Hospital,” I whisper. “Car accident.”
Anubis holds me at arm’s length and stares into my eyes, then nuzzles my face with his slender muzzle, casting about for the scent of death.
“He’s not dead,” I say.
“No,” Anubis agrees. “Not dead.” He releases me. “Come, I need help with these fish.” He kneels and pulls a string of perch and mullet from the creek, then we push through the reeds to a clearing atop a slight rise where Anubis has created a camp out of detritus dredged from the tidal creeks. Plastic chairs sit near a rusty metal drum that serves as a fire pit. I set to work gutting the fish, splitting their cool slick bodies from anus to operculum and drawing forth the entrails.
As children, Matthew and I spent long summer days with Anubis in the marsh, away from the chaos of our daily lives. He taught us how to set a bird’s broken wing and mend a terrapin’s cracked shell, gave anatomy lessons using the bodies of egrets and voles. Little wonder I’m now in med school and Matthew is—was—a science teacher. But one thing Anubis never taught us, despite our pleas, was mummification. “It is not a trick,” he’d said. “It is a sacred ritual, an honor for the living and the dead.”
Anubis stirs the ashes in the fire pit, uncovering smoldering wood and coaxing forth small flames. I sit listening to crickets and songbirds as he grills the fish. Feral cats gather around us, half-hidden in the vegetation, their eyes flashing green-gold in the shadows. Anubis breaks our silence. “It is good to see you, little one. That day you chased Matthew into the marsh is a treasure in my memory.”
As usual, Matthew had forged a path and I’d followed. Three years older than I, restless and curious, he’d snuck out of our tiny apartment one Saturday morning while our mother slept, exhausted after another 60-hour workweek laboring at two menial jobs. I’d watched through the kitchen window as Matthew trotted across the parking lot, ignoring the group of men who gathered to smoke and drink no matter the hour. He’d clambered down the sloping concrete side of the storm water ditch that marked the boundary between asphalt and tidal marsh and disappeared from view. I hesitated, trying not to care, then grabbed a sweatshirt and ran after him.
I caught sight of my brother at the end of the ditch, where a trickle of dirty water spilled into the marsh. Matthew, hearing my sneakers slapping along the concrete behind him, sprinted into the grass and I followed, not knowing to stay on high ground. I floundered along the twisting creek beds and soon became mired knee-deep in mud exposed by the receding tide. Disoriented and panicked, I screamed for Matthew. When he found me, I was on the creek bank with my arms wrapped around a lean black dog who smelled of sandalwood and dust.
Anubis lifts the fish off the grill and begins singing in a low voice, summoning a dozen cats in from the sedge for their dinner. Grey, tabby, ginger, black—each one is sleek and elegant, wearing a collar made of bone and glass beads. While they eat, Anubis and I trade stories about Matthew. Even as an adult he found the time to visit the marsh, while I stayed away, succumbing to the demands of med school and the seduction of living in Manhattan.
“And what of Matthew now?” Anubis asks.
“He’s on life support.” Irreversible coma, to use a medical term. A gomer, in the slang of residents and interns. I start crying.
Anubis leans forward and licks at the tears on my cheek, though his amber eyes remain dry. Jackals do not weep. “Matthew was not afraid of anything in this life,” he says. “You need not fear for him now. When his heart is weighed in the afterlife, it will be lighter than Maat’s feather, filled with good deeds.”
“But they want me to make the decision, to stop the ventilator. To let him go.” I swipe my nose on my sleeve like a child. “And I still need him.”
“It is no kindness to keep him in a world he cannot fully inhabit,” Anubis says, “alone and apart from all he knows.” A smoke-gray cat with green eyes leaps into his lap. Anubis strokes her head and adjusts her collar.
“Anubis, I’m a fraud,” I blurt out. “How can I become a physician, how can I presume, if I can’t handle this?”
Anubis stares across the marsh at a bank of thunderclouds massing on the horizon. “Perhaps, on this day, you should think of Matthew first.”
My sorrow turns to anger, quick as the silvered turn of a minnow. “Do I disappoint you?” I stand abruptly, causing cats to scatter and dart back into the reeds. “Forget it. Forget me. I don’t know why I thought the noble Lord of the Necropolis would have sympathy for one mortal’s struggle. All you care about are dusty old museum pieces.”
“Those are the remains of people who worshipped me. You would do well to show respect.”
“Dust,” I shout. “Why are you even here? Hiding in a makeshift camp, keeping company with feral cats and stray children?”
Anubis goes still. His fur darkens beyond black, draining the light around him and creating an inky nimbus. My rage dissipates and I fear I’ve gone too far. As children we never questioned Anubis’s presence in the marsh, accepting his stories of following sacred treasures plundered from Egyptian tombs and dispersed to collections across the world—including, of course, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Antiquities.
“You are correct,” he says. “What remains is dust. I escorted their spirits to Osiris and set them on the path to the afterlife. My work in this world is done.” Anubis exhales slowly, still gazing at the horizon. “My child, do you know what happens to gods when they are no longer revered?”
I shake my head and stay silent.
“Old gods are replaced by new gods,” Anubis says. “Roman, Greek, Byzantine, each in turn with different ways of life and death. And now I am trapped.”
I hear a subtle shift in his tone, a longing that pierces his customary reserve. “Trapped? Why are you trapped?”
“Because I have forgotten. I no longer remember how to pass between worlds and step upon the pathway. I do not have a tomb illustrated with maps, filled with inscriptions and incantations for my soul. No one builds a tomb for a god.”
Three days later I return to the marsh carrying a daypack and a canvas shopping bag. Anubis sits cross-legged on the ground, plaiting a basket from slender blades of sea grass. When I up-end my bag and dump out tins of supermarket cat food, he raises an eyebrow and, though the sun is still high overhead, begins singing home the cats.
“I apologize for my words and behavior at our last meeting,” I say. “I showed disrespect when you were trying to guide me.” Anubis nods and returns to his basket-making while I dole out whitefish and tuna to the milling cats. When each has been served, I settle on the ground and pull from the backpack a heavy book, its cover embossed with the insignia of the Museum of Antiquities.
“What is this?” Anubis asks. His ears prick with curiosity. Matthew and I had often brought books to the marsh, both textbooks and novels, but I’d never thought to ask what Anubis wished to see.
“We call it the Egyptian Book of the Dead.” I hand it to him and he rubs a finger over the raised lettering.
“A strange gift.” He flips quickly through the introductory pages, baring his teeth at the photographs of mummies and sarcophagi, slowing when he reaches glossy reproductions of fragmented papyri and peeling murals. “It is the Spells for Going Forth by Day,” he says, “and fragments of the Book of Caverns and the Book of Dark Waters.”
“Can it set you on the path to your afterlife?”
He places the book in his lap and resumes plaiting the seagrass. “I think not. These are fragments from versions written centuries apart. Fragments out of context cannot, unfortunately, compensate for centuries of forgetting.”
“There’s more. Look at this.” I extend a brochure advertising the Museum’s newest exhibit: a full-sized recreation of a Fifth Dynasty royal burial chamber, one that had remained sealed and untouched until the last decade. “It’s not the real thing, but with laser scanning and digitizing and I don’t even understand it all, they recreated every surface down to the smallest detail—all the murals, every prayer and incantation.”
Anubis reviews the brochure, then places it carefully inside the book and returns to weaving, his face impassive. The cats finish eating and begin cleaning their whiskers as the first evening star appears. Soon it will be too dark to hike safely out of the marsh, yet I remain sitting until Anubis puts the finished basket aside and I can no longer hold my tongue. “If I get you to the museum, to this tomb, is it enough?”
“I believe it might be,” he says. “However, your duty is to Matthew, not to me.”
“Let me help you. Please. Then I will be ready to help Matthew, I promise.”
It is well past nightfall when Anubis finally responds. He hands me the basket, so tightly and perfectly woven it will hold water. “A gift for my princess,” he says, and in the giving and accepting of this gift our agreement is made.
I spend the night in a chair by the fire pit, slapping at mosquitoes and dozing fitfully. Anubis, in the form of a jackal, curls on a bed of rushes with the Book of the Dead by his side. At first daylight I kneel and massage the muscles in his neck and shoulders, a familiarity he tolerates only when in jackal form. He yawns and blinks. “Every dawn is a victory,” he says. “Remember that, Grace. Every day of life a triumph over the chaos of night.”
Anubis huddles in the back seat of my rented car, his jackal head hidden under a blanket. He has spent the past weeks poring over the Book of the Dead and has become solemn and aloof. He no longer speaks, communicating instead by nods and glances. I maneuver through Manhattan traffic and pay an absurd amount to park in a garage adjacent to the museum. When Anubis shrugs off the blanket, he is fully human, though his face remains oddly canine, with deep amber eyes and pointed ears. Appearing in public is risky; in moments of emotion or stress his jackal head can unexpectedly re-assert itself. He wears a sweatshirt, lose khaki pants, and tennis shoes. No belt. Nothing metal that might set off a detector and incur a pat-down. I doubt he could maintain his form if touched disrespectfully. I hand him sunglasses and a hipster fedora to complete the costume.
We arrive in the museum’s ornate 19th century entry hall a mere ten minutes before the final visitors are admitted, an hour before the museum closes. A guard rises from her chair behind the security table and points to my backpack. Instead of handing it over, I upend the bag and spill out a confusion of books, cosmetics, and keys, chattering inanely all the while. At the same time Anubis holds up his hands, palms outward, to show he carries nothing. The guard nods and Anubis saunters through the metal detector while I recover my belongings. Our plan is simple, based on clichéd movie tropes: wait until closing time and hope we are the last visitors in the Hall of Ancient Egypt, so that Anubis can enter the replicated tomb alone. If needed, I will create a diversion to distract any lingering visitors or nearby museum staff.
I rejoin Anubis on the far side of the rotunda, behind the massive skeletons of a T. rex and a triceratops locked in eternal battle, and we head toward an exhibit on fossils from the Gobi Desert. We’ll wait to enter the Egyptian display, to avoid upsetting Anubis and drawing unwanted attention. In front of us, a toddler carried by his mother stares at Anubis over her shoulder. “Doggy,” he says, and Anubis smiles a pointy-toothed grin and morphs for an instant to jackal-head, causing the child to shriek with laughter and allowing me, for a single breath, to see once again the old Anubis, my patient teacher and friend.
But the momentary shift in his head sends the fedora and sunglasses tumbling to the floor. I crouch to fetch them and, when I rise, Anubis is disappearing into the Hall of Ancient Egypt through a wide doorway flanked by granite obelisks. I mutter a curse and follow. Thankfully, the exhibit is nearly empty. One couple remains, busy posing next to burial masks and golden amulets, intent on documenting their visit with selfies. Beyond them, the recreated tomb occupies an elevated platform, dramatically lit by hidden spotlights. Velvet ropes delineate a pathway to the tomb’s entrance steps.
Anubis has stopped in the middle of the room, in front of a large glass enclosure containing a Middle Kingdom mummy case, the lid removed to reveal the time-ravaged body. Canopic jars holding the dead man’s lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines rest on wooden pedestals nearby. Anubis presses one hand against the glass, his head flickering rapidly between man and jackal. The light in the room dims. Shadows creep from under display cases and stretch over the marble floor toward the tomb.
The couple, startled, turn to see the Lord of the Necropolis striding toward them—jackal-headed, clad in loincloth and golden headpiece, trailing folds of darkness like a ceremonial robe. They run for the exit and Anubis follows, toppling the granite obelisks behind them to block the doorway. Alarms blare.
Anubis moves toward the tomb, barely visible now in the deepening shadows. I think he pauses and looks back at me before stepping across the threshold, but I cannot be certain. The darkness withdraws like a receding tide and the light returns, hazy with dust created by security guards clambering over granite rubble. They find me sobbing on the floor and, assuming my grief is fear, kneel to comfort me.
The tabloid headlines are campy and awful: Nightmare at the Museum and Mummy’s Revenge! The stories describe the toppled obelisks and provide unofficial photos of the wreckage, as well as a single blurry photo of the masked figure who chased visitors from the exhibit. The museum, no surprise, declines comment and refuses to release any security camera footage.
I read each article to Matthew as I sit by his hospital bed holding his limp hand. When the stories are done, when there is nothing more to tell Matthew about Anubis, I summon the attending physician and watch as she disconnects his respirator. There are no canopic jars waiting for his organs; they will be dispatched with equal reverence to patients in need of transplants.
I leave the hospital and drive to the marsh, where I walk for miles beyond the Amtrak rails. The reeds remain reeds. There is no papyrus. The feral cats I glimpse are skinny and skittish, and none wears a collar of glass beads. Anubis is gone from this world. What is lost can never be replaced, yet the sun still warms my face and the creeks still pulse with the tides. I am at peace in this narrow space between earth and sky, once again willing to endure the chaos of the night for the promise of another dawn.