Wednesday, May 26, 2010

I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert!

Our book today is Eve Bunting’s superb 1997 childrens title I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert, with rich, glowing artwork by David Christiana. The book is told in a very loose, lovely verse, as a young girl from thousands of years ago relates the remarkable story of her life and afterlife:
I am the mummy Heb-Nefert,
Black as night,
Stretched as tight
As leather on a drum.
My arms are folded
On my hollow chest
Where once my live heart beat.
My ears are holes
That hear no sound.

Bunting unobtrusively weaves many authentic details of ancient Egyptian life into her story, always with the stress on how natural everything was to the people who were living it all. Young Heb-Nefert catches the eye of the Pharaoh’s brother – she dances for him, and they fall in love:

Handmaidens dressed me every day.
They kept my head so sweetly shaved,
Pumiced and polished till it shone.
They painted me with yellow dye,
Darkened the lashes of my eyes with kohl,
Shadowed my lids with blue,
The color of the evening sky.
My nails were hennaed red as jasper beads,
My flaxen wig was jewel woven.
And on the top
A cone of scented fat
Melted to liquid in the summer warmth
And smelled of flowers.

In bright colors, we’re given elegantly chosen scenes from their life together:

We sailed upon the Nile,
My lord and I,
The wildfowl rising from the reeds
Along the bank,
The ripples of the sacred river
Soft against our boat.
Sometimes we saw a hippopotamus,
Great jaws agape,
A crocodile.
But we were ever safe.

We’d wander in the gardens, he and I,
Beside the pleasure lake
Where lotus blossoms grew.
The servant girls would come
On soundless feet
And bring us fruit – grapes, dates, and figs –
The baskets balanced on their heads,
A cloth of linen spread
Beneath a canopy that kept us from the sun.
And we would feast
While harpists played.

Time eventually passes for the pair, and while still young, Heb-Nefert dies. She floats above herself and watches the complex process of her own mummification. And soon enough she watches her loved one approaching the afterlife as well – and their shared journey toward the incomprehensible:
My Noble One grew old
And also left that life
To lie at last beside me
In the night that followed night.
Time passed and time,
Dark time and years,
Till we were found,
Our bodies moved,
Placed in glass coffins
Under lights
In quiet rooms.
I rose above myself and watched
As people came,
They peered into the cases where we lay.

They spoke,
The words unknown to me
But understood as they were said.
“This was a person? This … and this?”

Heb-Nefert was no wise woman in her own time, no prophet or seer. Nevertheless, her words as she becomes aware of these awestruck museum gawkers are suffused with a serene wisdom that utterly, wonderfully preserves the weird, imperative dignity of the ancient Egyptians. The concluding line of I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert never fails to move me in its quiet, knowing way:
How foolish that they do not see
How all things change,
And so will they.
Three thousand years from now
They will be dust and bones.
I am the mummy Heb-Nefert,
Black as night,
Stretched as tight
As leather on a drum.

Once I was beautiful.


Rohan said...

That sounds--and looks--like a wonderful book.

I've been feeling sad that both of my children have now outgrown 'picture books.' I guess I'll have to start getting them just for myself!

Do you know Sleeping Dragons All Around?

Top 10 Picture Books » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism said...

[...] lovely post at stevereads on I am the Mummy Heb-Nefert had me thinking all day about children’s picture [...]

Rohan said...

I found it in a local used bookstore today! And in perfect condition, too! Lovely...

In Brief: I Am the Mummy Heb-Nefert | Children's Book Browser said...

[...] Steve Reads [...]

Jenny said...

I purchased the book & cut it up to be used as a story telling tool, putting the words on the backs of the pictures. I finished all of my cutting and gluing before I realized on page had copied poorly and now I can't read the first line of the page! Can someone help me out by emailing the line to me? (
It is the page discussing the golden falcon statue and the first line is:
"_____________golden Horus, Falcon in the Sky,"
Fill in the blank?

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