THE FIELD OF REEDS

 

Fenella ran a small department in a Midlands university. She became convinced that her staff were slackers. They displayed a stubborn desire to write on unfashionable topics, and they nodded off in her meetings. Once she called a  staff away-day in a local hotel, and was aghast to find some backsliders lurking in the jacuzzi: “and pissing in it too, I shouldn’t wonder”, she said to herself. She inaugurated plastic tokens for use in the photocopier and doled them  out monthly.

She was outraged when the staff found that Waitrose green charity tokens worked just as well, and ran up a photocopying bill of over £1,000 in just one week. One member of staff, Janice, was particularly troublesome. Large, funny and clever, she was an excellent mimic, and Fenella caught her giving an impromptu rendition of her own “state of the department” speech to an admiring crowd in the staff-room. Clearly, something had to be done.

 

But first, she needed to recharge her batteries. She decided to go to Egypt to soak up the culture and some sun. She always fancied the image of herself as a sage, a priestess almost: and here, in the Cairo Museum, she found thousands of cartouches which struck an eerie chord in her mind. These cartouches had many  functions according to their period, but it seemed that primarily they conferred status on the recipient, and gave them a name once and for all. Equally fascinating was the notion of “the field of reeds”. This was a mythical place, not heaven exactly, but a paradisal terrain, open and sunny, ruled by Osiris. It was a place  to hunt and farm, not to rest. In all the accounts of the field of reeds that she read in the guide books, there was not one mention of ease or amatory activity. So much the better. 

 

When she got back to the university, Fenella decided to put these discoveries to work. She purchased  some clay and a small kiln, and painstakingly learned to fashion cartouches. They were crude, to be sure, but their function was to inspire terror rather than admiration. She rolled the edges of each cartouche up, and inscribed the names of each member of staff on them, with a description of their current status and mode of behaviour. “Tony: Slacker par Excellence” was a good one, as was “Janice: I know Where You Have Been”. She was proud of “Ben: Pulling the Wool Over Everyone’s Eyes But Mine.” She attached the cartouches to the door of their individual rooms with a particularly gelatinous glue, so that it was hard to remove them. When the staff did manage to break the cartouches, she replaced them with ones bearing even more rigorous messages.

 

Of course, the staff were terrified. Fenella noted with satisfaction that the incidence of sick leave increased. She had taken the precaution of making friends with the head of the Complaints Department, who took pleasure in passing on to her the names of staff who came to whinge, and of those on tranquillisers. It was time  for her to begin the second of the Plagues of Egypt.

 

Fenella besieged the staff with emails about the idea of the Field of Reeds. She emphasised the importance of a  departmental shared vision: not of the Summerlands, but of a place of labour. The Field of Reeds was  admittedly in sunlight, but like ancient Egypt itself, it was organised in a hierarchical manner. The researchers would toil in their archives, but they would produce 10,000 words a week: the teachers would clock up 30 hours a week contact time: the administrators were only allowed two toilet breaks a day, and had to leave a list of their accomplishments at the end of every week. Once a month, Fenella harangued  the entire staff about her policy of the Fields of Reeds: a harmonious, productive, inspirational place. To be sure, the occasional member of staff would leave the room hurriedly, and return smelling of vomit. But they were weaklings. The important thing was to make wild promises which might excite them, but which she had no intention of ever fulfilling.  

 

All went quiet for a while. She noticed that her underlings would not meet her eye. It was time for the Third Curse of Egypt. Fenella developed an interest in mummification, in order to fashion  a visible symbol of power, and she read up about natron baths and sharp hooks. Practice makes perfect, but there were no human corpses to hand. So she roamed the countryside looking for roadkill. First she started on  foxes and rabbits, then she had the great good luck to find a badger. These corpses she had to lug up to her office at work (she had no laboratory at home) and soaked them in a baby’s bath filled with Epsom Salts. After some amateurish attempts at disembowelling, she wrapped the little bodies in bandages. Round and round.

 

Of course, the smell was soon frightful, as the bandages were unequal to the task and were inadequately absorbent. The cleaners were too afraid of her to complain. She bought them surgical masks to wear.  Nothing loath, Fenella made jokes about cyclical renewal and the eternal life of ideas, but the staff were not impressed.

 

After several malodorous months, something odd started to happen. Little figurines appeared outside her room, in her pigeonhole, on her desk, in the pocket of her coat. The word USHBATI was scrawled on her door. These, she knew, were little models that were buried with Egyptian mummies: figures doing tasks to make the deceased comfortable in the afterlife. In the vitrines she had seen in the museum, the Ushbati were grinding the wheat, making the bread, feeding the dogs and hushing the children: the tiny boats  were rowed along to transport and entertain the dead. But the little figures Fenella found were far from reassuring. They looked vengeful. They wielded axes and knives, nooses, and occasionally pens. They did not smile beatifically, not they: their faces screamed and scowled in a rictus of fury.

 

More and more of the Ushbati appeared, and she was seriously unnerved. She went so far as to practice smiling at the staff,  but they seemed  to have forgotten this skill. Besides the smell of rotting bandages, another odour crept along the corridor: a resinous stink. And she could hear a muffled hammering, whose source she could never locate.

 

After some weeks, a key was pushed under her door, attached to a note: “this key is for you.” Fenella tried every door in the corridor, and it fitted none of them. But there was a store-room she had forgotten. The key fitted, and the door swung open. Inside was a brightly-painted sarcophagus, admittedly made of balsa-wood, but looking solid enough. She pushed at the lid, and inside was a huge doll swathed in bandages. Onto the head was affixed a facsimile of her own face, and on its breast was a paper with the word MUMMY inscribed on it. It was fixed there with a carving knife.

 

Things happened quite quickly after that. Fenella’s shrieks could be heard in the car-park  far below, and the burly uniformed attendants tried to calm her own. But to no avail. She could not be quietened: and in the end an ambulance took her away screaming, with her arms crossed on her chest in a crude likeness of the figure in the sarcophagus. She never came back to work, and  after that the department was run in a casual and ramshackle way by Janice, who ironically referred to herself  as “the Wife of Osiris

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© 2020 by Sue Harper

feminist gothic literature | tales of the macabre | fantastic and supernatural | gothic fiction | written by women | gothic literary tradition | gothic fiction | supernatural | fantastic and paranoia | literary female gothic | gothic narrative | stories of transformation and surprise | sue harper | short stories | feminist gothic literature | The Dark Nest | portsmouth university | emeritus professor sue harper | feminist gothic literature | tales of the macabre | fantastic and supernatural | gothic fiction | written by women | gothic literary tradition | gothic fiction | outstanding achievement award | british association of film, theatre and television | professor of film history at portsmouth university | film, media and creative arts | british academy and the arts and humanities research council | stories of transformation and surprise | sue harper | short stories | feminist gothic literature | The Dark Nest |