Marta was dying.
She could feel it, inside her, all the scattered knots of pain. Individually, barely noticeable; combined, they were almost more than she could bear.
She hadn’t picked up on the early clues. She’d put the fatigue and the headaches down to the thin air of the high desert. Even the blurring vision had been a distraction she could work past. Sifting through the dig, she’d used her sense of touch, the brush carefully teasing away grains of sand. From the ancient, knotted cloth; from the ceramics, and the goldwork; and from the desiccated thing that had once been a princess.
But now she was back in Santiago, where everything from the dig was being preserved. Everything except her.
There was nothing anyone could do. It was too advanced, the doctors said. It had spread through her body, pervading every part of her. Radiation couldn’t burn it out. Chemo could only slow its progress, nothing more.
She was thirty-one years old, and she was going to die.
She walked the museum halls, late at night. She loved the silence; it felt like something sacred. It let the past speak to her, unsullied by modernity.
The exhibition was not yet open. They were still printing labels, assembling cases, recording audioguides. Marta stood, there at the centre of the hall, where the princess lay in her glass case. The dehumidifiers preserved her as the desert had done. Once, water meant life to this woman; now, it was her enemy. Only its absence preserved her.
Marta looked at the mummy’s face. The eyes were gone, the skin drawn back over the skull, but there was still so much detail to be questioned. Was she angry? Resigned? Sad? There had been no sign of injury. Had she, too, succumbed to disease? Had she known what was to come?
The farewells were not easy. How could you tell your own mother that you were going to die? How could you tell colleagues you had worked alongside for years?
How could you tell your husband, and your children?
But they had to be told. She had accepted it. They had to know, and accept it, too.
“Chica. There must be something the doctors can do. Maybe not here. Maybe in America…”
She bowed her head, unable to meet Roberto’s eyes.
“The doctors here are just as good as the ones in America. They say it’s too late, so it’s too late.”
Roberto shook his head, like a stubborn bull.
“No. There must be something.”
Time. He would accept it, she told herself, in time. But there was not much time left. Two months; three, perhaps. More, if they put her in a hospice and filled her with drugs until she was a husk, a dry and shriveled thing from which all life had fled.
“It was that dig,” he said, suddenly. “That last dig. It wouldn’t have been too late, if you hadn’t been out there in the desert!”
“Roberto, please. That’s not fair.”
She didn’t tell him it wasn’t true.
“That place has taken you from us! I always had to look after the children. And now… now you’re leaving me. Leaving them…”
His voice cracked. She held him, then, and let him cry, and said nothing, because he was a man, and his tears were a shameful thing to him, that he would never speak of to anyone.
Miguel and Juanita didn’t cry. She suspected that was because they didn’t, truly, understand. After she had told them, she was the one who cried, in the bathroom, with the door locked and the shower running, where no one could hear.
It was the last time she cried.
The exhibit had opened. “Mummies Of The Atacama”, the banners read. The halls were crowded with people. Tourists; school parties; students. Marta watched as they pointed and stared at the princess, lying in her personal desert, her public grave. When the museum closed, Marta stayed behind in the hall.
“I think perhaps we have done a terrible thing,” she said, softly. “I think we have stolen your dignity. All my life, I have brought back things from the past. But perhaps… perhaps some things should be left alone.”
Her farewells had been made. Whether they had been accepted was beyond her control. They had been made.
All that was left to her, now, was to wither away and die. She did not want Roberto and the children to see that. She did not want them to come to her bedside, day after day, watching the life evaporate from her, until there was nothing of her left.
There was no dignity in that death. Not if it was public.
She still had the strength to catch a train, up to the north, and then one bus, and another. She had the strength to walk. She set off into the desert very early in the morning, hoping that no one would see her. She was not naïve enough to believe that she would not, eventually, be found. But she very much hoped that she would be found too late.
She reached the site of the dig after two days. The tents had gone, but the tracks in the sand remained, and the pits, and the marks where they had laid out the grid. She climbed down into the pit where she had found the princess.
The sun was unbearable. The air sucked water from her skin. The desert was lifeless; it was the antithesis of life.
But there had been water here, thousands of years ago. Once, the desert had bloomed; vicunas had grazed, and people had come, and made it their home. But then the rains had stopped, and the people had left. Left, or died.
I am the water, she told herself. I am the water that abandoned this place, and now I have returned. We took a body away from here. Now, I return one.
She lay down, on the lifeless sand, under the thirsty sun.
Brian Dolton‘s fiction has appeared in Abyss & Apex, Flashing Swords, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and Intergalactic Medicine Show, among others. He has been writing for many years, and will continue until they pry the keyboard from his cold, dead hands. PS If any of you know who the “they” in questionare, he’d love to hear from you, so he can make suitable preparations.