by Michelle Ross
Bea presented to her classmates a drawing of an ancient Egyptian priest inserting a long bronze hook through a corpse’s nose. The task of the hook was to smash and dislodge brain matter. Like removing clumps of hair and sludge from a clogged drain.
Ancient Egyptians believed that the brain was nothing more than a snot factory. The heart was, in fact, the only internal organ that they left intact.
The idiom Bea had chosen to present on was “broken heart,” as in the following examples spoken by her mother: “Your father broke my heart,” “A broken heart never really mends,” and, most recently, “My broken heart can’t take one more blow.”
“Of course,” Bea said to her peers, “we’ve known for several hundred years now that the Egyptians had it all wrong. The brain is the center of intelligence and feeling. But still people go on and on about their broken hearts. Why broken?”
She showed the class a second image, this one the hieroglyph for heart. It was a jug with handles. A piece of pottery.
Not long after Bea’s father left, her mother had said one morning, “Now you’re breaking my heart, too.”
Bea had said, “How can I break your heart if he already broke it?”
But now she pictured scattered shards of clay crumbling into grit beneath her sneakers. The pieces could be ground smaller and smaller until they were molecules, then atoms, then subatomic particles.
Ancient Egyptians believed one’s heart was one’s admission to the afterlife, but only if it passed a test: The heart was to be weighed against the feather of truth. If the heart was lighter than the feather, then Osiris deemed the individual worthy of the afterlife. If the heart was heavier than the feather, then Ammut, a demoness who was part lion, part hippopotamus, and part crocodile, would crush the corrupt muscle between her crocodilian teeth.
Crocodiles chomped down with as much as 16,000 newtons of force, Bea had read — the strongest bite ever measured by scientists. To compare, a lion bit down with only about 4,000 newtons of force. The ancient Egyptians had given the demoness the most fearsome chops they could imagine.
As a finale to her presentation, Bea triggered the mousetrap she’d set up earlier, a pottery shard the prey. There was a loud snap. Pieces flew from the table. A few of her peers screamed.
Her teacher held out a dustpan.
What Bea didn’t share with the class was that hieroglyphics always showed Osiris welcoming the deceased into the underworld. She couldn’t find even one depiction of Ammut gnashing hearts in her powerful jaws.
Of course, no human heart was really lighter than a feather.
The journey to the afterlife was like the corn maze Bea’s parents had taken her to one Halloween. The entrance had been flanked by a dozen signs warning of treachery, but other than Bea’s parents nipping at each other like brute beasts, the maze had been tame as a goldfish.
Michelle Ross is the author of the story collection There’s So Much They Haven’t Told You (Moon City Press, 2017), winner of the 2016 Moon City Press Short Fiction Award. Her fiction has recently appeared in Cream City Review, Knee Jerk, New World Writing, TriQuarterly, and other venues. She is fiction editor of Atticus Review. She lives in Tucson, Arizona.