William Max Miller
During the summer of 1965, Chiller Theater on WIIC-TV
Pittsburgh (hosted by the one-and-only Chilly Billy) began
showing the Kharis series. I had waited for what seemed like
3,000 years to see these films, and their week-end appearances on
the tube heralded a transformation in my awareness of things
I grew up in a small Pennsylvania town about as far removed from the Land of the Pyramids as one can get. And yet, when viewed through the lens of some old Universal classics and focused sharply by a ten year old's imagination, my home environment could take on a surprisingly Egyptian look. The river that separated Saltsburg from Westmoreland County became the Nile, and the imposing Kiski cliffs that dominated the western horizon loomed like the cliffs of the Valley of the Kings. I populated their caves and crevices with hidden tombs and sleeping mummies, and dreamed of adventurous excavations.
I was not alone in my fascination with the mummy. My friend Todd also shared my obsession with Kharis and Ananka, and helped me laboriously wrap and bury two tiny figures in an underground brick tomb that we excavated under the sand pit in my back yard. We vowed to leave the figures untouched for one whole year, and swore an oath of secrecy never to reveal the location of their hidden tomb. We even placed a mechanical curse in the form of a rat trap, set to go off at the slightest touch, inside the brick sepulcher, just in case defilers poked their greedy little fingers too far into the hidden resting-place of our mummies! True to our word, Todd and I left the miniature burial untouched for one entire year, although we frequently visited the gravesite to perform rituals and check for marauding infidels. Although slightly mouldy (much to our delight! ) our diminutive mummies survived their year underground quite nicely. I still have them today!
But of all the flights of Egyptian fantasy I embarked upon that summer, the adventure of the tana leaves stands whole obelisks above the rest. Of course, as Saltsburg's fledgling High Priest of Karnak I had to have tana leaves, and so the search for a suitable looking leaf began. But the local Pennsylvania foliage was singularly uncooperative in providing anything remotely resembling the tana leaves seen in the movies. Luckily, a certain bush growing by the kitchen window seemed to supply a reasonable facsimile of what was needed, and so I began plucking and drying leaves in earnest. I kept them in a special box covered with hieroglyphic texts copied from my Wallis Budge translation of The Book of the Dead.
Finally having equipped myself with a suitable quantity of tana leaves, the next logical step formed quickly in my Egyptologically-inspired mind. I had to brew the leaves in order to make tana fluid. But this process had to be conducted according to strict ritual specifications: I had to brew nine of the leaves on a night of the full moon.
Consulting my parent's Farmer's Almanac, I discovered that the moon would be full in only several days, so I quickly began to lay my plans. I obtained an empty glass perfume vial from my mother's nightstand in which to store the magic fluid. Next, I selected an old cooking pan from the back of the kitchen shelf, a pan I hadn't seen my mother use in years. If this was to become the sacred brazier of the Priests of Karnak, I didn't want to risk her borrowing it from me someday to hard boil eggs!
The next few days were filled with suspense. I planned my little tana tea party for around ten o'clock at night, a time my mom and dad were usually busy in the front room watching television. I didn't want them around while conducting the ceremony. Parents have a nasty way of fouling up a kid's well-laid plans to perform Egyptian magical rituals. But what if they had different plans for that night? I'd have to wait a whole extra month for another full moon!
The special night finally arrived. As the full moon rose round and luminous, mom and dad settled down in front of the TV, and I knew the kitchen would be mine for at least an hour. I quickly gathered my box of leaves, tin cooking pan and glass vial and headed quietly for the kitchen. Blackie, our large black cat, greeted me as I entered the room, and began pawing at the tana leaf box as I laid it on the table by the stove. " Pesky cat!" I thought as I picked the animal up and shooed her out the back screen door. The cat slunk silently into the moonlight like Bast, the Egyptian cat god, and disappeared into the shadows. No good having a cat around to knock over a boiling pan of tana fluid!
I filled the pan about half full with tap water and put it on to boil. It seemed to take forever for the water to heat and bubble! Finally, I opened my magic box and carefully added nine dried tana leaves to the boiling water, reciting the special words from the movies: "Three leaves to keep Kharis' heart beating...nine leaves to give life and movement to Kharis...but never more than nine leaves." As steam billowed around the pan, I couldn't help but think of the fate of Professor Norman, who ended up being strangled by Kharis when he preformed this very same experiment in The Mummy's Ghost!
Just as thoughts of Kharis' withered hand crushing Professor Norman's throat reached their peak in my mind, I heard a distinct rustling in the bushes outside the kitchen door. My body stiffened and I held my breath, listening intently to the sounds in the moonlight outside. More rustling noises followed by a singularly familiar and unpleasant dragging sound. A short silence, and then another dragging, definitely coming closer toward the kitchen door! The third dragging sound galvanized me into action! I knew with an atavistic certainty that I was hearing the drag of the mummy's cloth-bound foot on the sidewalk outside! By some amazing coincidence, the bush outside our kitchen really did sprout actual tana leaves, and Kharis had been summoned to my doorstep! Abandoning my pan of boiling leaves, and giving up all hopes of controlling the mummy, I let out a yell for my mom and dad and sprinted into the living room.
"There's something outside the kitchen!" I shouted frantically. "It's the mummy! He's real, and I brought him back with tana fluid!" My parents once more gave themselves the look that meant "He's been watching too much Chiller Theater again," and Dad went out to investigate while mom tried to calm me down. Soon I heard Dad calling for me to come out back and meet the mummy. Cautiously, I reentered the kitchen, where dad stood holding the screen door open. Since he thankfully didn't have any moldy handprints around his throat, I knew he'd avoided an encounter with Kharis. I crept to the open door and peered out.
In the glare of our porch light I saw the body of some kind of animal draped over the top step, our large black cat sitting next to it, proudly licking blood from her paws. She'd gone hunting after I'd banished her from my little ceremony , and, as usual, had brought the kill home to show off her skills. This time she'd nailed a pretty large possum, and that's what I'd heard being dragged slowly toward the back door!
"What stinks in here?" my Dad asked, suspiciously eyeing the boiling pan of ersatz tana leaves bubbling away on the stove.
I quickly turned the gas off. " I was just making some tea," I explained rather lamely. Mercifully, no further questions were asked.
I cooled my tana brew in the 'fridge and poured the chilled liquid into the glass perfume vial. I still have this stuff today, sitting on my bookcase next to my fez, my box of tana leaves, my autographed letter from Ramsay Ames, and my Aurora model of Kharis. And every once in a while I stop and wonder about one small detail of the story that I've never been able to satisfactorily explain. On that night thirty-five years ago, I had filled the pan half full with tap water. It had barely started boiling when I'd heard the dragging sounds and fled from the room . Only another minute or so had elapsed for my Dad to check out the situation, and then he'd called me back into the kitchen. That pan couldn't have boiled for more than three minutes. But when I turned off the heat and finally poured the remaining fluid into the small bottle, there was not even enough liquid to fill it completely. Where had the rest of the fluid gone? Surely it hadn't boiled off that quickly!
Maybe me and Dad and Blackie all had been extraordinarily lucky enough that night to miss an encounter with a thirsty Kharis, who quickly gulped down a tana fluid fix and then limped back out into the night, just missing every one of us. Or maybe he did bump into at least one of us, because Blackie could never come near my tana leaf box after that night without arching her back and hissing in terror....
Here's a picture of our good friend, Sam Eckenrode,
who has stumbled across many a lost mummy that
Todd and I buried in my old back yard in Saltsburg!
Some of these have been the mummies of pets who
were salted for 70 days, wrapped in gauze, and given
good old fashioned Egyptian burials. If you don't
believe me, just ask Sam.
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