Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

Bit-U-Men

Made clean, kept clean, wrapped dust-proof.
An Energy-Rich Candy Made in the Great City of Chicago!
Don’t confuse us with the competition!

***

“Chet,” bellows someone from the factory floor. “Chet, you got a package and Miss Klein’s signing for it, but you gotta come and pay the freight, ‘cause your dad went and sent it COD.”

Chet looks up from the label copy on his desk, and groans. It’s 1924, and he’s twenty-six-years old. Green as goat milk. Got a cavity in one of his teeth. He pushes his tongue into the problem. This is his father’s factory, the family fortune at stake, so he’s here, paper-collared into confectionary. He’s sick of gellies and chocobars, and sick of sweet. He snaps his suspenders against his flat stomach, a creation of calisthenics. His dad’s stout as Santa Claus, but Chet’ll be double-damned if abdomen will be his inheritance.

Chet Savor’s a poet. He could be the next Keats, but no: Here he is, doomed to vats and batter. The only comfort is that Hart Crane’s father is a candy maker too, the inventor of Life-Savers: For That Stormy Breath! It doesn’t keep Crane from writing the poems over which Chet pores at night.

It’s winter, and the factory is a sieve open to the winds of the Arctic. Workers skate on sugared shoes. There’s an ice storm coming over the Great Lakes. The ink keeps freezing in Chet’s pen, and in any case, there’s no inspiration here. He could be in a speakeasy dancing the Charleston for all the writing he’s getting done.

Below him, there’s a swarm of workers in unladylike coveralls, scarves and woollen sweaters. Business is booming. Everyone wants a bite of the bars made here: The Three Bears and The Chicken Dinner, The Old King Tut and The Abba-Zabba!

Chicago, as far as Chet’s father is concerned, is a Duat of delights, and the factory is a candyland of nougat and nuts, condensed milk and pots of crystallizing honey, and even a coop of chickens, egg-laying amidst heat lamps. Chet has to be vigilant: The factory girls constantly try to warm their hands on the hens.

He deserves a secretary, he does. He’s got no one to help him. His older brother died in France, and what should have been Chet’s post-collegiate bohemia became a sticky servitude. SAVOR’S SWEETS SINCE 1892 IN THE CANDY CAPITOL OF THE WORLD! Chet’s got no girlfriend, and isn’t likely to get one, even though this factory is full of girls. None of them are poets. None of them are muses. They’re forbidden anyway. His father, for all his eccentricity, has rules.

Chet grimaces: forbidden girls bustling, forbidden girls on coffee-break. Women suddenly think they can work their own hours. Dippers and piece-workers, packers and wrappers: None of them see him as boss. Certainly not Miss Klein, his dad’s secretary. He could dictate such poems to her if she’d give him his due. He could.

There’s a great, battered wooden crate in the loading bay, plastered with paper that shows it’s been around the world. The delivery service toe taps, waiting for Chet to pay for the postage, and it’s not cheap. He has to ferret around in his dad’s desk drawers, finally emerging with a handful of crumpled bills. Some kind of mixer, maybe. A marble slab, or a copper bathtub with a giant whisk attachment. He kicks the crate, but it doesn’t budge.

“Kicking won’t open it,” says Miss Klein, her voice an ice cube chilling the blood of idiots. “It’s nailed.”

“I’m not trying to open it,” lies Chet. His big toe feels broken.

Miss Klein’s hair is pinned with pointy black combs into two tight buns over her ears. Her glasses are leftovers from Queen Victoria. Her dress is bluish-black and jet-buttoned. She might as well be in mourning. She’s paid $19.45 every week, and this irks Chet into a fret. He makes exactly the same amount. As well, she calls him “Young Mr. Savor.” He can’t protest. In principle, the title is perfectly correct.

“Is my dad coming home this week?” he asks Miss Klein. “He didn’t mention this delivery.”

The Senior Mr. Savor (né Savorsky) buys things without trying them. Devices fill the factory’s back room: lolly engines, vacuum kettles, twist-makers and chocolate smashers. Chet’s dad travels by ship and train, posting confection innovations home for Chet to suffer. He appears in person every few months, unannounced, stouter and happier than before, his waistcoat and cases stuffed with saffron taffy, suets made of sesame seeds, chewy lumps of lemon zest pulverized with maple sap, tiny blue eggs filled with candied yolk presented together with a repulsive jar of Chinese bird’s nest jelly made from the filthy nest of a swiftlet. Chet shudders at the memory of the texture, the gloppy sweetness, the knowledge that he was eating something wrested from the interior of a cave.

Miss Klein clicks away from the crate, her black hips twitching. He can see the lumpy buttons of her garters through the dress. There’s something insect about her. The pinched waist, the long fingers. She’s too tall, and he’s not a small man. He’s had to invest in a new pair of shoes, with discreet lifts in their soles.

When Miss Klein types, she clacks and pings so quickly he feels his heart trying to align with her staccato. She’s his age, but seems a thousand. She could be a pretty girl if she’d smile, but she never does. She could be anything but this. She doesn’t even like candy. She doesn’t paint her face. She’s knife-boned, her eyebrows like licorice whips.

“Where are you going, Miss Klein?” he asks. He clears his throat. He’s been alone in the upper office too long, speaking the obscure rhythms of wrappers.

“To get a hammer,” she says, and clicks her tongue. “You’re just as useless as your dad said you’d be, Young Mr. Savor.”

“Will you please just call me Mr. Savor?” he asks for the hundredth time.

“That’s your father’s name. And you know he’s not coming in this week. He’s visiting the nougatiers.”

Nougatiers. His father speaks a dictionary set’s worth of invented terms for candy-making. Cherrinators for the people who make the marinated filling of the Red Rose bars. Pollinificators for the honey-suppliers.

He fiddles at one of the boards, pinching a finger beneath it. He thinks he hears something moving inside. Surely not. His father wouldn’t arrange delivery of a cow or goat, would he? And if he had, it’d be marked with caution tapes. The crate is large enough to contain a piano. He indulges thoughts of a rhinoceros or yak.

“Now, then,” Miss Klein says, flipping the hammer to the claw side, and prying a nail free. “Let’s get you open.”

The sound again, a scratching.

“Do you hear that?” Chet is suddenly nauseous. It’ll be bugs. There’ll be an infestation. They’ll pour out into the candy factory, a million roaches and tarantulas, and Miss Klein will wriggle her fingers and make the swarm obey. He feels an exquisitely painful poem rising inside him. A villanelle on the skyscraping height of Miss Klein, a few lines regarding spiders soaked in caramel. He finds a stub in his pocket, licks a pencil tip.

Miss Klein wrests a plank from the end of the crate.

“I hear it, of course I do. I’m not deaf, am I? Something’s in there. Open the letter and make yourself useful, why don’t you?”

Chet sees the envelope pushed beneath that plank, the gaudy monogrammed stationary, his father’s distinctive hand.

CHET!!! Always the double underlines and strings of exclamation points. He sighs and breaks the seal.

Chet—Met this in Cairo and found it terrifically interesting. BE WARY when you open!!!! Happy Returns, Your Dad.

Unbearable man. Chet sucks his tooth. Soon he’ll be nothing but an absence.

Miss Klein has managed to remove another five boards in the time it took him to read the letter. She pushes hair off her face, bends at the waist, and buries her top half in the crate. Chet assesses her from behind, and sighs. No manners. Any proper woman would ask for help. She’s nearly somersaulted into the crate. She flings out handfuls of excelsior. They drift down around Chet, and he sneezes.

“Well? What’s it say?”

“It says: Be wary when you open it,” Chet says, and sighs. “Maybe he’s sent us a tiger. He says he got it in Egypt.”

“There aren’t any tigers in Egypt,” Miss Klein says, her voice muffled. Chet looks around, making sure there are escape routes. Last time his father sent a package, it contained some arcane artificial sweetener that burst into flames, and scalded off Chet’s eyebrows, just after he’d stupidly put a spoonful of it in his mouth and swallowed. He was doomed to days of quelling internal explosions with Dover’s Powder.

That scratching again. And a knocking. Knocking in a rhythm. The sound reminds Chet of his mother, the way she’d knock when they were paying a call to someone’s house. A knock with an accusation of bad directions included in it. A knock to say: “Where is the butler, then, and how have you failed me?” And Chet, always skulking beside her, trying in vain to convince her to join the modern world. Of course, now she has. She’s been in India for three years, and he’s heard nothing from her. Nor has his father. “Your mother,” his father says fondly, and that is all he’s ever said about it. Chet’s mother is having his Bohemia.

“Maybe we should wait for my dad to get back into town,” Chet says. “I’m not sure what this is. I don’t trust him. It might explode again.”

Miss Klein pops up, one whole cinnamon bun of hair now unpinned, her glasses askew.

“For heaven’s sake, Young Mr. Savor,” she says. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you were scared.”

Her eyes are the color of the butterscotch candies his father makes to trick Prohibition-pained consumers into thinking they’re getting a sip of something better than syrup. Her hair trickles down from its pins like dipping chocolate drizzling onto a slab. He must be delirious, but suddenly he thinks Miss Klein is more than meets the eye. A chocolate-covered ant. That’s the vision he has. The crunch of a carapace, just beneath a melting richness. The ooze of caramel beneath that crunch. Oh, what is he inventing? What horrible confection?

He gags again, and Miss Klein looks sharply up at him. Oh, dear. He’s coming down with something. Likely, he needs a tonic.

He takes off his jacket, rolls up his shirtsleeves, and bends into the crate to avoid looking at her. There’s a smell there, as he digs in the shavings, a deep and earthy sweetness, something quite different from the rest of the factory’s sweet smells, and at last, his fingertips graze something hard.

Scratches from the inside, as he scratches at the outside.

A sharper scent now, and he inhales it in a delirium before he realizes it’s her. Miss Klein, her own perfume, sweat, warm woollen stockings, secrets. He breathes through his mouth, trying to forget he ever smelled it.

The ground in the delivery bay is covered in wood shavings and planks. Before him, in the rubble, is something he hadn’t at all expected, though he should have.

“Oh dear,” he says. Should he send the workers home? Stop the dipping and the wrapping? Unfondant the crèmes?

“Hello,” says the sarcophagus. It’s a quiet voice, a polite one.

“Miss Klein,” Chet says, not looking at her.

“Chet,” she replies. It’s the first time she’s called him by his Christian name.

“Hello,” repeats the something inside the sarcophagus, and then knocks more forcefully at the inside. “Have I arrived in Chicago? The train was very uncomfortable, and before that, the ship. They kept me in the hold, though I was promised First class passage. I shouldn’t be asked to endure rough seas. I’m not used to travel.”

Of course! A prank. His dad must be here somewhere, watching, shaking with laughter.

“What is it?” he asks Miss Klein. Who knows what his father might have put inside that case. A tiny crank-powered Peter Pan record player? “A parrot? A phonograph?”

His dad can only have stolen the sarcophagus. The gilded face, the smooth contours, the perfect and brilliantly painted beetles and animals. The news has been all Tutankhamen for two years now. Chet runs a finger over the carved face, the high cheekbones, the pursed lips. The sleek eyelids over wide black eyes. He can’t tell whether the face is male or female.

“It’s very cold in Chicago,” says the sarcophagus, conversationally. “I wasn’t expecting such cold, but I can feel it even in here. It’s better for me to be warmer. I’d like something boiling hot to drink.”

The claxon of the lunch alarm, and a surge of girls emerge from their stations, each with her waxed-paper provisions. Chet’s sweating through his shirt. The wind is coming in off the lake, and he sees the ice storm beginning. He tugs down the rolling door between the delivery bay and the factory, and as he does it, he wonders at his urgency. He wishes, not for the first time today, for a drink. What kind of prank is this? His father’s normal methods are itching powders and coiled paper snakes.

He hears the clicking of Miss Klein’s heels. When he turns his head, she’s on her knees before the abomination, hammer in hand. He wonders at how he hesitates to look.

“Well,” says Miss Klein, standing up, wiping her hands, one, then the other, on her skirt. “Well.”

She giggles, and startles at the sound, but then the noise of her own laughter sets her off into peals. After a moment, Chet laughs too, though he controls his mirth. It doesn’t do to laugh with a secretary. Miss Klein is nearly levitating. He takes another stop toward the sarcophagus, toward whatever hilarity she’s uncovered, and then stops.

Something is sitting up from inside it, slowly, as though unused to moving.

Someone wrapped entirely in bandages, and filling the air with the scent of honey. It’s as though they’ve been transported out of the city’s ice and into summer. The smell is overpowering, and Chet’s mouth waters. He grew up surrounded by sugar. He’s immune to it. This is more than sugar. This is ambrosial, desert flowers, white petals and spice, and when he inhales, he feels dizzy.

The someone’s head turns toward him. Bandaged hands testing fingers on the sides of the case. One bandaged leg extends gracefully into the air and stretches its toes.

Chet sits abruptly on the floor.

“Hello,” says the mummy. He can see eyes, black and gleaming, through an opening in the wrappings.

Miss Klein is still gasping with laughter, laughing and crying at once.

“Hello,” says Miss Klein. “I’m Shira.” She lifts the thing from its case.

“Thank you,” says the mummy, its voice soft and sweet. “It was close in there.”

Chet feels his temples throbbing, his neck pinched at the base of the skull. Starving for nothing he’s ever tasted before. “What is this?”

“I met your father in Cairo. He said I’d be welcome here, and that he’d send a letter of introduction,” says the mummy. The bandages are old and crackling.

Miss Klein is cradling the mummy in her arms like it’s a bandaged bride. Her hair is now unpinned and falls to her knees. She is panting, slightly. Miss Klein’s dress is hitched up, and he can see, yes, a cameo of jet on the garter button, which spontaneously unbuttons, and flips down onto the floor, a tiny child’s spinning top, catching the stormlight for a moment. Miss Klein seems neither to notice nor care that her stocking slips down, showing her long, white thigh. He measures it in his mind. He measures the mummy too. The mummy is petite, unless Miss Klein has gotten larger.

“I’m going to get our guest a hot drink,” says Miss Klein. “It’s freezing here, and our visitor isn’t used to the cold like we are.” Her tone shifts into the usual peremptory. “Give me your jacket.”

Chet tucks it around the mummy’s shoulders. The mummy gazes at him, its lashes long as spider legs—no, why would he think that?—and he’s broken by the scent of heavenly honeycomb. Chet can see a damp place in the bandages where its mouth must be. He wonders about its mouth.

“Why did my father send you here?” he says. “Did he buy you? Did he steal you? What are you? Who are you?”

“He sent me to be of use,” says the mummy, looking over Miss Klein’s shoulder. It wiggles its fingers. “I was alone in the dark. He found me there, and I came out. I was lonely. I’d been listening to the living a long time. I’m seeking employment now, in the light.”

Employment?

Chet staggers back into the factory, feeling his blood freezing in his veins. He sends everyone home and by the time he’s done, Miss Klein is gone too, and with her, the mummy. The sarcophagus sits empty in the delivery bay. Chet considers reclining in it, but it’s too small. He runs his finger along the edge, and then puts his finger in his mouth. He can’t taste anything but dust.

He marches up the stairs, and into the office files. He flicks until he finds a card with Miss Klein’s address neatly typed, the first version care of her father, that one crossed out, and the new one typed below it, a rooming house for unmarried, respectable women. He stares at the card for a long time. He opens a book kept in the shelf beside his father’s desk, takes out a bottle resting in a carved cave in its bindings, and drinks a slug of Canadian whiskey.

He wipes his mouth, stows the contraband back in its safe, and goes out into the freezing wilds of Chicago to search for hothouse flowers.

***

Miss Klein is in her room, unwrapping the mummy, gently. It’s dripped a little, where it’s warmed against her body. She’s marched back down the stairs to the kitchen and fetched a pot of boiling water for tea, and now the mummy has had some through a small opening in the bandages, lapping like a kitten fed with a dropper.

“Sanctuary,” Miss Klein keeps repeating to herself. She’s not at all sure what she’s done. “Respect for the dead.”

But that is not quite what this is. Dead isn’t this. She considers feeling anxious, then decides that anxious is beside the point. Her heart pounds. Her skin feels prickled. Her mouth waters. Her fingers are sticky.

The mummy’s skin, crystallized in the cold, warms nearer to the radiator, and becomes pliant. The mummy is like a grape, or a balloon full of syrup. There is something brittle about it, but it’s the sort of brittle that anyone would know needs sucking.

“I was swimming in honey,” says the mummy. “I ate only honey, until I was made of it. My heart was with me, kept in a jar of honey. But that, I gave away long ago.”

“To whom did you give it?” Miss Klein asks, but the mummy will not say. “Is it in a museum, or is it still underground?”

The mummy is half-unwrapped now, parts of its flesh visible, smooth and glowing, seeping with sweetness.

“I was lonely,” says the mummy. “I came to be of use.”

It beckons Miss Klein. “Unwrap yourself,” it says.

Shira Klein flushes. She’s never taken off her clothing in front of anyone but her sisters. A drop of honey runs down her throat, left from where the mummy was resting.

Miss Klein unbuttons the same long black dress she wore to her father’s funeral. She stands barefoot, dressed in her only concession to modernity, a set of the thinnest triangles of black silk, each of them embroidered with flowers. They were a trousseau at one point, and she hand stitched their borders in preparation for a marriage.

The mummy is recumbent and careless.

The mummy offers itself to the tip of Miss Klein’s tongue.

Five flights below, Chet Savor waits, clutching a bundle of funereal lilies.

“To be of use,” he murmurs to himself. “Seeking employment.”

But Miss Klein refuses to come down. She does not respond to the bell. Chet is forced to leave the lilies as a delivery. He scrawls a note in his lovely pen. It bleeds brown ink onto the paper.

“Dearest,” the note says. Chet stalls. “Dearest.”

He underlines it twice, Dearest, and adds three exclamation points. The pinched woman at the desk looks at him.

“I hope you don’t imagine Miss Klein to be that sort.”

“Of course not,” he says. There’s something odd in him, something he doesn’t understand. He feels shaky. “They’re not for Miss Klein. They’re for her friend. The one staying with her.”

The woman looks harder at him, and sniffs the air. “This is not that sort of establishment,” she says. “Single ladies only. You, sir, would do well to rinse your mouth of whiskey, before you encounter anyone else who might report you for public disorder. You might also do well to button the top of your shirt.”

Chet feels for the buttons, but they’re gone.

The rooming house woman smashes the lilies and the love note into a wastebin.

He flees into the street, and as he stands, trying to imagine which of the windows might belong to Miss Klein, he hears a cry of rapture coming from the building, a singing spiral of bliss. He can’t tell which window it comes from. He stands helpless in the ice storm, looking up, hearing again and again, the cry, the moan, the gasping delight of someone in the thrall of someone else.

***

“What in heaven’s name did you think I meant, Chet?” his father says in exasperation. He’s just off the train, scarcely taken off his coat, not even unloaded his cases full of candies, and he’s already demanded to see the mummy. “What’ve you done with my mummy? I told you to be wary when you opened it.”

“Miss Klein took it,” Chet says, and bites his inner cheeks savagely. He tastes blood. It helps, a little. “She’s been out sick for a week, and I’ve been to her rooming house over and over again, with no success.”

“Well, you’ll have to fetch it back. The mummy’s a volunteer, you know. It came to be of use.”

Chet wants to strangle his father. “Of use,” he says. “What use can you mean? Did you hire it to be my secretary? It didn’t care to be. Miss Klein’s absconded with it and taken it off to her den of sin.”

“Miss Klein is incapable of sin,” says Chet’s father calmly. “As for the mummy, it’s mellified man. Old technique. Not usually found in Egypt, but the mummy tells me this is the ticket. It drank honey, ate honey, nothing but honey for a year before it died. It’s body mellified. It became honey, bones and blood and all.”

Chet thinks woefully of the sounds he’s heard coming out of Miss Klein’s window.

Chet’s father smacks his lips.

“Said that the last few weeks before it died, everything tasted sweet, and it nearly ate its own fingers. I’ll tell you, Chet, it cost me dear to get that mummy out of the country, but it’s worth its weight in whatever you got. Grind it up and it’s medicinal. A little dash into batter, and it’s the sweetest thing you ever tasted. Secret ingredients. It’s a fortune waiting to happen. We’re making a new candy bar. The mummy’s an ingredient. I sampled a little in Cairo. I’m too old for more, but the memory of it will last me. It wasn’t cheap, no, it wasn’t, but who needs cheap? Besides, the mummy wanted to leave town.”

“Whatever the mummy is,” Chet says, “The mummy isn’t mellified man. The mummy’s a woman.”

“How do you know? Have you checked?” asks Chet’s father, and raises an eyebrow at Chet, who has to look away.

The mummy is the sweetest thing, the dearest thing, and the mummy is in the possession of Miss Klein. There is only one thing to do. He doesn’t like it, but it will serve.

“Your secretary,” he says to his father.

“Miss Klein,” his father says. “Miss Klein, the lovely, the competent, the proper.”

“Shira Klein,” Chet counters. “She’s unmarried.”

“That’s true,” says Chet’s father. “By choice, as I understand it. Miss Klein is a real find.”

“I’ve decided to marry her,” Chet says.

His father looks at him. “I should have known.”

“She’ll do it,” says Chet, though there is an urgency inside him, a panic that she won’t. But the mummy won’t like it at the rooming house. The mummy will be cold.

“She’ll have to agree,” says Chet’s father. “And that isn’t likely. Tell her, though, that she’ll have to bring my mummy back. She can’t keep it locked up in the dark. That’s where I found it, in the dark, calling out that it was looking for light.”

And for just a moment, Chet’s father looks quite unlike himself. There’s a question in his cheekbone, a shifting tic. Chet looks at his dad. His dad looks back.

“How is mother? How is she finding India?” Chet asks, attempting to shame him.

“You can try your luck,” Chet’s father says. “You can try your luck, Chet. Maybe an old man wasn’t what that mummy was looking for. But I doubt it will be looking for you either.”

Chet’s father pops a green lolly into his mouth and sucks at it, ruminating. When he removes it, Chet sees that it contains a little insect of some kind, an earwig, stuck there like a ancient in amber.

Chet leaves his dad’s office and goes back to drafting his official letter, in which he reports Miss Klein to her rooming house for having a male visitor in her rooms. He encloses cigar ash and a rumpled shirt, procured from his own closet. He signs it “Anon.” and waits.

He is still waiting when Miss Klein comes down the five flights of stairs, her suitcase in one hand, the mummy in the other, curled into the crook of her arm. Miss Klein looks at Chet.

“I got your proposal,” she says. “It seems convenient at best, irritating at worst. I’ll still work at the factory. We’ll have separate rooms, of course.”

“Of course,” says Chet.

“If it’s no bother,” says the mummy, crooning, lolling against Miss Klein’s shoulder, “I’d like a hot drink. It’s cold here, and I’m crystallizing. I’ve been very cold in Chicago. Perhaps a fire? Perhaps a laprobe?”

Miss Klein turns her head, and Chet looks at Miss Klein’s cheekbone as she runs her tongue along a slice of the mummy’s jawline. Miss Klein is looking sleek. Her hair shines, and her skin glows.

The mummy moans, and Chet moans too. They drive directly to the courthouse. Miss Klein wears a wreath of white flowers. The mummy witnesses the wedding.

***

“I was lonely,” says the mummy. “I was in the dark, for a long, long time. They say the dead don’t dream, but I dreamed of this. I have a higher purpose.”

The mummy stirs its finger in a cup of boiling tea, and then offers it to Miss Klein to lick at until part of the fingertip is gone. It unwraps a bit more of its finger, and casually crumbles it into a dish. Miss Klein, her hair unbound, eats it.

The mummy looks at her and smiles beneath its wrappings.

The place where the bandages meet the mouth is always damp.

***

The oldest—and most splendid—traditions!
You’ll love BIT-U-MEN, a crunchy-munchy sweet treat!
Conveniently cut into pieces for sharing,
This treasure of a bar is the chewiest, mouth-meltiest confection,

perfect for young and old!
Almonds, nougat, honey, and special ingredients.

***

Squares of wax paper, cut precisely to fit, drifting from the wrapping section, along with labels, inked and drying. Orange and blue. Swooping letters. A picture of a hive, a border of bees. An eye lined in kohl, discreetly placed on the back.

The candy itself is vat-mixed, poured onto cold slabs, and then into molds, hot squares solidifying, soft but slightly resistant, texturally similar to a shoulder blade kissed through a chiffon dress. The bars are pale white-gold in color, peppered throughout with black.

“Bit-U-Men is an inaccurate name,” says Miss Klein, who has been doing research. “A mistranslation of mummification methods. The Arabic word for bitumen is mumiya. People thought it meant bitumen and mummy were the same thing. They thought bitumen was medicinal, and then they mistook it for medicine made of ground up mummy.”

She glances up from her book.

“I’m not saying they’re medicinal,” Chet says. He licks his fingertip where it’s touched one of the new candy bars. “I’m saying they’re commercial. Or my dad’s saying that.”

Miss Klein looks at him, her lips tight. “If people knew,” she says.

“People don’t need to know,” Chet says, and he sticks his finger wholly in his mouth. “Special ingredients. And the mummy is a volunteer.”

He can feel the remains of a Bit-U-Men square dissolving on his tongue. He’s brought a small jar of mellified man to the office, meant to shake into the batter for the new shipment of bars, but he’s already taken an entire greedy spoonful and eaten it in secret, door closed, his hands shaking.

Miss Klein sighs.

“The mummy is a volunteer,” she repeats. “Surely there are other mummies.”

“Not like this,” Chet says, and feels his stomach drop at the possibility of a shortage. Still, though, there is plenty left.

***

Chet listens from his room, his monogrammed robe tightly tied at the waist. Miss Klein’s hair is sometimes sticky. She smiles at breakfast. She dresses in her black, and goes into the office, and she takes dictation from Chet’s father who shows no sign of ceasing speaking.

One day, Chet looks at a letter and discovers that she’s not taking dictation at all. She’s writing a romance, a page at a time, sealing it into envelopes, and posting it to the far corners of the world.

All Chet wants is to have the mummy to himself, to gorge on its sweetness, but he is forced to take what the mummy gives him, a tiny piece here and there, crumbled on a breakfast biscuit. A lick occasionally at the corner of the mouth, the humorously quirked mouth, so dear and yet so cruel. Sometimes he hears the mummy moan, but never when he’s with it. Only Miss Klein makes the mummy cry out. Only the mummy makes Miss Klein gasp.

Neither Miss Klein nor Chet pretend interest in anything but the thing they share.

Chet looks at men dressed in their waistcoats as he strolls home from the factory. He looks at tight vests and at cuff buttons. He looks at wrists and forearms. He thinks about the mummy, and he swallows. The mellified man. Mellified woman. Mellified neither and both.

He looks at the sharp slant of the mummy’s jaw, the thin and wiry arms he sometimes sees laced around Miss Klein. He looks at the mummy and imagines it wearing a properly starched and pressed shirt, the vest buttoned. He finds another loose button on his own shirt, and tugs it impatiently into the crystal dish where he keeps all the unspooling buttons.

Sometimes he sees a man looking at him from across the park. He can smell honey wherever he goes, but when he looks back, at dark eyes, at a well-brushed hat, he thinks of the mummy at home. He can’t let go.

***

“Conversion,” says Chet’s father. “Bones to nougat. Blood to honey. We’re all sugar in the end,” he says, “you and me both, old boy, old boy,” and Chet twitches his collar studs out in annoyance. The company’s doing well. This is a white tie evening.

Bit-U-Men bars are shipping from side to side of the states, and the mummy sits peacefully in the chair at the end of the room, dressed in the usual bandages, white silk, this time, with beaded fringe. Part of the mummy is missing. The left arm. The other arm is decked in bangles, fat gilded things. Each bandaged finger wears a ring. The mummy’s mouth is revealed now, painted red. The lips are plump and drenched, and in the mummy’s mouth, there is the sweetest syrup.

Sometimes, the mummy stands up. Sometimes the mummy sings a line or two in a language no one living speaks. Chet knows what it means, though, he does. He sympathizes.

I was lonely in the dark.

There is a brass band. There is a trumpet. There is Miss Klein sitting beside the mummy, decked in cobalt silk, a string of ever-living scarab beetles around her throat, a gift from the mummy.

Here is Miss Klein sitting beside the mummy, leaning over to whisper to the mummy, adjusting the mummy’s diamond headband. Here is the mummy sweetening the punch with a drop of honey here, and one there, until Chet rushes over, and stops the mummy from giving the milk away for free.

***

It’s 1928, then ’29.

Chet’s father spontaneously combusts while sitting on a train in Belgium. He bursts into flame, and runs out into the aisle, arms pinwheeling, skin shivering like paper rising up from a fire. No one can explain it, but Chet knows. Miss Klein knows. They look at the mummy. The mummy is quiet, but the mummy is often quiet. The mummy only shrugs.

“I was lonely in the dark,” says the mummy at last, sipping at hot tea, “but the dark was where I belonged. I don’t make the rules of religion. I gave my heart away and I’ll never find it, a honey heart in honey jar. Mr. Savor was there when the rock was pried up. He offered me passage to a new country.”

Chet imagines his father tromping into the tomb slightly behind the archeologists he’s bribed on candy earnings. He imagines his father running fingers over the drawings instructing him not to touch the sarcophagus. A drawing of bees. A drawing of honey dripping from a comb. A drawing, no doubt, of something else, of punishments promised for those who’d thieve from the dead. But Chet knows the kind of man his father was, and he imagines his father moving the wrappings aside, convinced of his sway over sugar.

***

It’s 1932.

It’s in the papers. Hart Crane, son of a candyman, who sometimes signs his name Heart, and whose name was once Harold, kills himself jumping off the back of a boat, and Chet Savor’s poems aren’t worth publishing anyway. He’s stopped writing villanelles. One morning the mummy unexpectedly kisses him and he feels its sharp teeth on his tongue. He jerks back, but for a moment, he wants to lean in and have it over with.

The mummy reads a book in the upstairs library, an old book in a leather binding:

“That mummy is medicinal, the Arabian Doctor Haly delivereth and divers confirm; but of the particular uses thereof, there is much discrepancy of opinion. While Hofmannus prescribes the same to epileptics, Johan de Muralto commends the use thereof to gouty persons; Bacon likewise extols it as a stiptic: and Junkenius considers it of efficacy to resolve coagulated blood. Meanwhile, we hardly applaud Francis the First, of France, who always carried Mummia with him as a panacea against all disorders; and were the efficacy thereof more clearly made out, scarce conceive the use thereof allowable in physic, exceeding the barbarities of Cambyses and turning old heroes unto unworthy potions. Shall Egypt lend out her ancients unto chirurgeons and apothecaries, and Cheops and Psammiticus be weighed unto us for drugs? Shall we eat of Chamnes and Amosis in electuaries and pills, and be cured by cannibal mixtures?”

The mummy looks up, eyes black and wet as ever. The mummy has only one hand with two fingers left. The mummy is earless and missing slices of the rest of its body. The mummy doesn’t mind. This body has been around a long time.

***

1938, 1941. Airplanes over Europe. Marching. Guns. Sugar rationed, but in Chicago, there is one place to find sweetness.

The Bit-U-Men bars with the Unique Flavor and the Marvelous Name sell and sell, to children and to soldiers, to housewives and to workers, to teachers and to Army medics in their kits. The mummy has one leg, and now none. Miss Klein carries the mummy up the marble staircase. Miss Klein stretches beside the mummy, and the mummy unwraps. Miss Klein unbraids her hair, puts out her tongue, licks gently at the mummy, and the mummy arches, eaten. Miss Klein is still Miss Klein, though when she goes with Chet to fancy dress balls in Chicago, she spins around the floor, her hair pinned with scarabs, her dress emerald green, and some men tell him they envy him his wife, and others look at him too long.

Chet walks in the park, looking at the men and longing for a flavor other than simple syrup. He walks the halls in his slippers, to hear the moans from outside the bedroom door.

He longs hopelessly for salt, for spice, to bury his face in someone with a pounding heart. At night, he sees Miss Klein walking in the long hallway of their house, her silk robe sweeping the floor, her hair loose. He feels the mummy waiting, and sometimes he looks into the room where the mummy sleeps, a small bundle beneath bedsheets. He thinks about its heart, preserved in a jar of honey, given away to someone long dead, and then he thinks about his own heart. He feels it swelling, swelling, with a love that has never made sense.

All over the country, the bars stick in teeth, press against gums, pull out fillings.

Chet touches his stomach and finds it rounded. He pats his pockets. There are no wonders in them, no pulverized lemon, no candied cricket. The factory is all Bit-U-Men Bars now, and the things his father brought, the sweetmeats from secret stashes, the fenugreek seeds and the balls of Turkish Delight are stale in their jars. The newsreels are salutes and stars.

***

It’s 1943. On the radio, a voice talks about orchestrated hell.

Chet climbs the stairs in his wonderful house and finds Miss Klein taking dictation. The mummy and Miss Klein look at him, and he stands there a moment, in the doorway, before he sighs and turns away. In the bathroom, he finds first one silver hair, and then another. In his chest, he finds a cluster of silver just over his heart, threads unraveled from a spun sugar machine. In the factory, Bit-U-Men bars flip from their conveyors, and into their wrappings, winding themselves up, tightly bound and safe for future generations. Twenty-four bars in each box, each box sealed perfectly for shipping, each box full of bits of the mummy and the world the mummy came from.

In the bellies of dead American soldiers in the jungles of the Pacific Front, there are bits of mellified man, slowly dissolving. In Germany, a bar is smuggled into a camp, and analyzed. A new experiment is done, a quiet death in a tank of honey. Everything that has ever been thought of in the history of horrible is tried again.

***

Then it’s 1945, and the commander eats a slice of newly mellified man, a prisoner converted into confection, and feels nothingness surge through him, the casual curse of a volunteer. He raises his pistol to his temple, and pulls the trigger.

The soldiers come home. All around the country there’s a craving, a sweet tooth. All around the country, babies are conceived, a generation born in fear of the lonely dark. Babies fill maternity wards, and ticker tape mixes with candy wrappers, men returning from the war, factories filling again, cars spinning down the roads and women in yellow dresses unwrapping bars full of unbearable sweetness.

The mummy gives the company its hollow chest. It gives its crackling spine.

Chet Savor stoops to pick up a button and feels something unbuttoning deep in his body, a ping in his ribcage. He goes to the doctor, who listens with a stethoscope and recommends less drink, less meat, less everything. In the park he watches a returning soldier embracing his bride. Savor’s Sweets supplied the war effort with sugar, but Chet never fought. He claimed injuries preexisting. Now he has regret.

Miss Klein, naked but for her scarab beetles, braids her hair, and twists it on top of her head, extends a long leg and rolls her stockings up it, inch by inch. The mummy watches her, and says “Now unwrap.”

She unrolls her stockings, unpins her hair, and brings the mummy a sip of hot milk. After a moment, she kisses the mummy on the mouth, and the mummy kisses back.

***

The 1950s are glass jars full of Technicolor jawbreakers, glittering colored candy, bars dipped in chocolate and filled with marshmallow nothing. Children look skeptically at the Bit-U-Men, and the label changes, to look more fetching, less worrying. Black bits in a golden field. Children begin to feel they are eating ashes, when they want to eat red dye. Bit-U-Men bars sit stale in candy counters.

***

It’s 1961. The Bit-U-Men brand becomes an uncertainty, despite the bees on the label, now dancing, despite the eye on the label, now winking. Chet hires an advertising company, and attempts to make it into a beach-blanket staple, a singing teenager with a guitar, a bunch of girls in bathing suits, all giddily twirling around a Bit-U-Men like it’s a campfire. Chet sits morosely in a corner watching the teenagers shimmy in the center of a pile of shipped-in sand. The boy with the guitar eats a bite of the bar, and Chet observes as mellified joy fills him. Chet watches the boy, his tanned skin, his white teeth, and considers saving him from a life of sugar.

The boy turns to Chet and says “Can I help you? Aren’t you Old Mr. Savor?”

***

Miss Klein carries the mummy wrapped in a warm blanket. It is only a head and throat now.

Chet Savor dies of a heart attack, his buttons bursting and flying off into the sky, each one turning as it goes into something with wings. There is a small swarm of locusts, but it isn’t long before they die too, falling into the streets where cars crush their wings. Chet Savor’s last words, written in a dark brown ink, are “I was lonely in the dark.”

The mummy smiles, but says nothing. Chet Savor’s pen has been left on his desk next to a dry jar of the ink called Mummy Brown.

Miss Klein attends the funeral. The mummy wears black wrappings and travels in a handbag. The mourners think she’s lost her mind with grief when she holds the handbag to her lips and whispers to it. She is still tall and thin, and her hair, now striped with silver and gold, is twisted into complicated patterns. Her mouth is covered in red lipstick. Her dress, beneath the black, is a red silk slip embroidered with hieroglyphs.

“Of use,” says the mummy when they return home, up the marble staircase, into the marble bathroom where Miss Klein washes honey from her fingers.

“You have been of use,” says Miss Klein.

“Sweetness doesn’t last forever. Other things do. That ink,” says the mummy. “What is it made of?”

“They don’t make it anymore,” says Miss Klein. “His father used it too. Nothing lasts forever.”

She unwraps the mummy, and looks at the mummy’s smooth, sleek face.

“I’m lonely,” says the mummy. “I want to see the world.”

Shira Klein inhales, exhales.

“The world isn’t so much,” she says, and for the first time in forty years, her voice wobbles.

“I’m not so much either,” says the mummy. “I’ve been in Chicago a long time. Come see the world with me.”

Miss Klein looks at the label on the ink bottle. She nods. She takes out a small notebook and writes down the name of the company. She dials an international operator in London, and connects with C. Roberson’s Colour Makers.

Miss Klein dresses in a traveling suit, and takes an airplane to Rome. The mummy, now gone below the lips, travels with her, in a soft bag made of snakeskin and lined in silk.

“I loved the light,” the mummy whispers, over and over throughout the flight. Shira Klein feeds it as she did long ago, this time a mixture of hot water and whiskey administered with her finger, a drop at a time.

In Rome, the mummy looks up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. In Venice, they ride in a gondola. In Paris, they see the Eiffel tower and at a small café in the dark, Shira Klein drinks a glass of sparkling wine and the mummy sits across the table, gazing.

In London, at the factory, Shira Klein settles the bag on the desk of the managing director. He looks apologetic.

“We might have a few limbs lying around, a finger, a hand,” he says. “But it’s been at least twenty years since we’ve been able to get an entire mummy. It’s frowned upon now. That ink’s discontinued. It’s in paintings and old correspondence all over London, though, if you’d like to see it. Edward Burne-Jones buried a tube in his garden when he realized he’d been painting with the dead.”

He laughs.

Miss Klein opens the bag, and there it is, the scent of honey, white flowers, forgetfulness, heaven.

The mummy looks up at him.

“I want to be of use,” says the mummy. “I want to be painted onto canvas. I want to be written into books.”

The managing director looks flummoxed into the eyes of the mummy.

“I want to be a portrait,” says the mummy. “A portrait of my wife.”

Miss Klein looks at the director. The director smiles uncertainly. Miss Klein shakes out her long silver, black and gold hair. She smiles back at him. There are tears running down her cheeks. Her traveling suit unbuttons itself, and stretches its arms on the chair she’s sitting in.

“This is what we want,” says Shira Klein.

The mummy whispers. “Oh, I’ve loved the light.”

“We can make a batch of ink for you,” says the managing director, uncertain, bewildered, why is he doing what he’s doing? He can’t say. “The last batch of Mummy Brown.”

***

Now, the portrait of Shira Klein hangs in a museum in New York City. It has a creamy background, and the portrait itself is done in a chocolate-colored ink. It’s skillful, in a style unusually abstract for the time in which it was painted, crosshatched precisely, but the woman’s hair is done in messy pools of spilt ink. There are several sticky prints along the border of the paper. The ink is sweet-smelling and even from across a room it can bring to mind things no one has ever seen.

Shira Klein’s mouth, the only part of the portrait that is painted in a different color, a dark red, is quirked at one corner. Around her neck, there is a strand of scarab beetles which look intriguingly alive.

Miss Klein lives in an apartment near the museum, and walks a circuit of the city every day, her hair straight and white and falling to her ankles now, a pair of red Lucite glasses balancing on her face like some kind of butterfly. She does not look her age. Her spine is straight, and her waist is encircled with her scarabs, and when she hails a taxi, she whistles in such a piercing tone that every driver in the city finds himself halted against his will.

In the room next to her gallery, the funeral portraits taken without permission from Egypt are in glass cases, these papyrus faces painted to show souls, all in a row of the dry dead, but in the room where Shira Klein’s portrait is displayed, the light bounces off the mysterious object painted into her left hand, a large carved insect, which, if looked at from a slightly sideways angle, is revealed to be a heart, the ink still wet with something sweeter and more complicated than blood.

© 2013 by Maria Dahvana Headley.

Originally published in The Book of the Dead, edited by Jared Shurin.

Reprinted by permission of the author.

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Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley

Maria Dahvana Headley is the author of the young adult sky ship fantasy Magonia, from HarperCollins, the novel Queen of Kings, the internationally bestselling memoir The Year of Yes, and The End of the Sentence, a novella co-written with Kat Howard, from Subterranean. With Neil Gaiman, she’s The New York Times-bestselling co-editor of the anthology Unnatural Creatures. Her short fiction has been nominated for the Nebula and Shirley Jackson awards, and has recently appeared at Uncanny Magazine, Tor.com, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Clarkesworld, Shimmer, Apex, Subterranean Online, The Lowest Heaven, The Book of the Dead, and many more. It’s anthologized in Glitter & Mayhem, Rich Horton’s The Year’s Best Fantasy & Science Fiction 2012 & 2013, Paula Guran’s 2013 The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, and Laird Barron’s The Year’s Best Weird Fiction.