The director ordered us to be at the mountain at 4am. He said we had to keep it secret. He said we had to pull something out of the ice.
Ours was a strange museum – officially a museum, officially funded from the arts and history fund, but as most things in Austria that wasn’t really the way we worked. We had an alibi exhibition with rather uninteresting items found on the glacier – shoes and ice axes from Roman times were the highlights – but the main purpose of the museum was research. Glacier research to be precise; and climate change monitoring.
The director was a bit ahead of the time; he had specialized on glaciers early in his career and then was one of the first loud proponents of what was back then called ‘climate change theory.’ He was right of course, and the director’s research and stop-the-idiocy campaign was part of what led to the Green renaissance in Europe – the founding of Green parties, the mainstream acceptance of environmental concerns into policy making and so on.
But I don’t want to bore you with the details of all that. When I began to work at the museum climate change was already broadly accepted as a fact.
We, in a way, were the benefactors of climate change. While people like the director were horrified by the fact that glaciers are shrinking year after year, there was also excitement in the air. When glaciers retreat they expose things that haven’t been seen for many years, often hundreds or thousands of years.
That’s where our shoes and ice axes and the many other artifacts came from. They were a side effect of glacier research, a side effect of our regular and systematic trips on top of the frozen crust. Most objects were old trade goods or simply old tools, often made of stone and wood. There were the occasional frozen birds or deer; individuals of extinct species.
And then, of course, there was the find of the century: Ötzi.
You might have heard of him, the man that lived more than 5000 years ago and died on the glacier from an arrow wound in his shoulder.
It was the most exciting discovery ever made in a glacier. A body so well preserved that even his blood cells, cause of death, and last meals could still be identified.
We missed Ötzi. A university was quicker at staking their claim. The director protested, he said that we were the experts, that we should have Ötzi – but there is nothing a small museum can do against a well-funded university’s claims.
That’s why the director demanded secrecy when the second body was found – not even two weeks after Ötzi. While we were hiking up to the glacier – not a safe route during the night – he joked that we had probably found Ötzi’s brother.
No machinery, no helicopter; just five scientists with ice axes, saws and backpacks.
A friend of the director had found the body during a hike. The hiker took a wrong step and slid half-way into a crevasse; nearly he ended as an ice mummy himself. But he managed to get out and right away rushed down the glacier and towards our museum. Down there, while he was inside the crevasse, a leathery brown face had grinned back at him.
I was only one of the safety men. Three of us were on the glacier with their feet dug into the ice and two were dangling down into the crevasse – one to free the body, one to prevent it from sliding further down.
I heard them moaning and cursing occasionally, but I didn’t see anything happening in the crevasse. My legs were shaking under my body from the cold and strain when we finally pulled them out.
I’ve never seen anything like it; I can’t even describe it – the moment when one man in a red jacket pulled himself out of the crevasse. Then a second one, with a brown object on his shoulder, was pulled out of the dark gap in the ice.
If not for the head I could have confused the body with a long and thin leather handbag. The body was bent forward, the arms aligned with the body.
I only saw the back of his head; the dark brown skin and sparse blond hair. And of course the back with the ripped fur coat and the darker areas. Crusted blood, like on Ötzi. Another violent death.
I remember thinking that the director might be right; that it could indeed be Ötzi’s brother.
We were back in town by around 8am. A car was waiting – but not big enough for all of us.
The director and Bennetio went along in the car; the rest of us got the day off. It felt strange to let the mummy out of sight after the whole ordeal. I knew that I was giving up on something important and unique and incredible, but my exhaustion prevented me from being upset. I was looking forward for another few hours of sleep.
I helped pack Ötzi’s brother in the car. That was the only time I ever got to see his face. There was no sign of the grin that the director had talked about. The lips were pulled back and the teeth exposed, but certainly not a grin. If anything, Ötzi’s brother looked angry.
His eye sockets made me uncomfortable; his eyelids were pushed inwards as if the eyeballs had just disappeared. The nose and other areas on the face had small cuts. But the strangest thing was the way his expression and face, even his whole body seemed to be frozen in time. His hands were still clinging to the thin, wooden bow, the fur and leather clothing was still wrapped around his body and his face still seemed as if he wanted to say something.
He looked so normal. Not like a mummy, not like a thousand-year-dad man; he looked like a modern man whose face had from one moment to the next been transformed into leather.
The car began to drive; then the door shut. The remaining three of us hiked into town in silence, but on the other’s faces I saw the same fusion of excitement and exhaustion that I felt myself.
The exhaustion grew with every step. Waiting at the bus stop I fell asleep with my head against the advertisement. The sound of heavy rubber tires on gritty cement woke me up.
On the bus I grabbed one of the hand rails to keep myself from falling; then sank down on one of the empty seats.
The old woman next to me looked concerned.
“Are you okay?” She asked.
“Sure, just tired,” I said. “Long night.”
“I think you cut yourself,” she said.
Her fingers were pointing at a dark red stain on the hand rail.
At home I examined my hands and arms closely. No cuts.
Frozen blood. 5000 year old frozen blood. It must have stuck to my glove when I placed the body in the car.
I slept a deep, dreamless sleep. It was evening when I woke up and turned the radio on. I was expecting to hear news about Ötzi’s brother, but the director had kept it all under wraps. He really wanted to make sure that he would be the first to examine the body; he wanted to make sure that his name would be the one attached to the find.
The next morning I went to work early – only to find the main entrance locked. I had to go all around the building to the staff entrance. A few other people were already standing outside.
“The director said we have to wait here.”
The door opened. I heard my name and went inside. Two others followed me.
“Look,” said the director. “We have to search this place. A mummy doesn’t just get lost.”
“The cold rooms?” I asked.
“All rooms.” The director said.
“You lost the mummy?” Asked one of the other two.
“I think Bennetio stole it,” said the director. “The driver is already on the way to Bennetio’s house; you are the only other ones that know about Ötzi’s brother. We can’t have this leak to the press.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“I examined the mummy during the day,” said the director. “And asked Bennetio to guard the room for the night. I would never have thought he would do such a thing; to take the mummy and run. But there’s nothing on the tapes; he must still be in the building.”
We went as teams of two. I went with the director to check the smaller upper floor; the other two went to check the spacious exhibition areas downstairs. The director and I looked in every possible room, shelf and wardrobe, even under desks and in personal lockers.
“We should call the police,” I said.
“They would close us down,” said the director.
The scream came while the director and I were going through the offices a second time. We ran downstairs to find the two others standing near one of the large windows in the back offices.
Two steps to the right of the window a broken arrow was lying on the floor. The director picked it up.
“This is ancient,” he said. “Bennetio must have lost it.”
The window was pulled shut, but not completely closed.
In six years of working at the museum I only heard the director curse once.
The director reported the “theft of artifacts” to the police and we searched the rest of the building, but Bennetio as well as Ötzi’s brother were gone.
More than one and a half years after we recovered and lost Ötzi’s brother, deep in a crevasse of the same glacier where Ötzi had been found, they discovered another mummy with leathery skin.
An arrow was stuck deep inside his chest.
Still, the coroner concluded the blood loss was not significant. Bennetio froze to death.
This is my story, originally I published it on Reddit.