Commissioned by editor Jared Shurin for Jurassic London's The Book of the Dead, an anthology of new mummy stories, BIT-U-MEN is an alternate history of the 20th Century told through candymaking, mummies, and a bizarre love triangle. It's a tongue in cheek cannibal tale of mellified man, a particularly intriguing type of (apocryphal) mummy made by eating honey until one dies of it. This notion reminded me of the Bit-O-Honey bar, and what could I do but write a story in which a candy bar is made of mellified man? At The Speculative Scotsman, there's an essay I wrote about the politics of mummy stories.
Chet 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.
Published in The Book of the Dead and simultaneously reprinted in Lightspeed. 8668 WORDS.
A shikari returns to the scene of his greatest deeds and misdeeds, employed by a village in Kumaon province to hunt and kill a maneating tiger. As he hunts, the tiger begins to feel increasingly familiar to him. This is my take on a Great White Hunter story, though in this case the hunter is not a great man and perhaps the wild beast he's hunting isn't an animal. It's set in post-Raj India and inspired by the memoirs of Jim Corbett - though it goes far afield to both science fiction and horror.
All the adults in the village were dead by the time we heard of Naini Tal, and only children remained. The tigers had taken over the town. They swept through the narrow passages between the huts, their golden bodies glinting in the starlight, their chins lifted to scent the air. It was as though the cats meandered through a night market, from stall to stall, sampling wares. There were twenty-six of them, and what had been a thriving village had become a place of terror.
Henry and I arrived to a place in shambles, tiger’s marks before each door. The children were packed into one hut, and they’d left the rest of the village to the man-eaters. The pond where water was collected was half-dry, and all around it were the marks of claws.
When we arrived, the children came cautiously from the hut. They were all skin and eyes. There’d been no forage, and their livestock were dead. Each of the children had about their neck a locket containing a piece of tiger: red fur or black fur or bone or claw, but the charms had done nothing to save them. I argued to remove them from their village. I’d never imagined so many man-eaters in one location.
Henry, though, had grown up in the region. This was his territory. He knelt at the pond, treading on the tracks of the cats. He searched for a moment in his camp sack, and then brought forth an empty can, along with clockworks from my own recently smashed watch. I hadn’t known he’d saved them.
After a few minute’s work, he’d made of these materials a tiny creature. As the children came closer, fascinated by the toy he made, trusting him, he finished it, a sharp-edged bird made of metal. He twisted something beneath its wing.
It fluttered, and then, miraculously, took flight into the trees. It circled, swaying and wobbling in the air, and then landed again in his hand. The children looked at him as though he was a god, bringing animals to life out of broken things.
Henry shrugged when I asked how he’d made it, and told me it was nothing, a children’s game. I never saw the bird again, though I thought of it often, the part of me that was still a child as enchanted as those children had been.
Subterrean Online Fall 2012 (10,922 words.)
Locus 2012 Recommended List
The Year's Best Dark Fantasy & Horror 2013 ed. Paula Guran
Subterranean's fall issue, as has become usual for them, is full of longer stories: a couple of novelettes and a couple of novellas. Maria Dahvana Headley's 'Game' is the most impressive...the route has some curious twists, especially the revealed nature of the tigers he is supposed to deal with, and the ultimate revelation of the truth of his past.
- Locus Online
"In Maria Dahvana Headley's "Bit-U-Men," a reanimated mellified man (or not a man—its gender is ambiguous throughout) allows for its body to be used in the production of American confectionery..."Bit-U-Men" is probably the strongest story in the collection, both in the ways it harks back to and interrogates the traditional mummy story and in its fittingly thick-as-honey prose."
- Strange Horizons
Above image by Garen Ewing, from
The Book of the Dead
THE VIRGIN PLAYED BASS
A riff on the Town Musicians of Bremen, The Master and Margarita, and a few other things, this is a dark novelette about a band touring in a warzone. It was inspired by a story told to me by an accordionist friend, and I went a lot of places with it. Commissioned by editors Michael Damian Thomas, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michi Trota for Uncanny Magazine.
The first time Lazarus Mary resurrected, we found her crucified and hanging from a tree. We heard her shouting, and when we found her, she was very angry, her hands nailed to the branches with iron spikes. She was only a little girl, but her voice carried. Beside her there was a scroll that said something about trumpets and about angels, something about how proper miracles never happened in this world we lived in now, and how there was only black bread to pray over, never any fishes.
“Who will come out of the cave?” That’s the line I remember best from that screed. There were shreds of old religions all over the place, and some of those religions included the worship of plastic spoons, and others included the worship of witches.
“Somebody grabbed me from behind while I was pissing,” said Lazarus Mary. “I didn’t do any damage to them. I didn’t even see them. I regret it. How many lives left, Cat?”
“Enough,” said The Pet, and pried out the spikes with his claws, splashing Lazarus Mary’s wounds with vodka as he went.
(Published at Uncanny Magazine, Issue 8. 8694 words.)
THE THULE STOWAWAY
An imagining of events in the life of Edgar Allan Poe, specifically the session that resulted in the "Ultima Thule" daguerreotype. More importantly, though, this is a story about Poe's women, and an exploration of the way they converged into one. Commissioned by editors Michael Damian Thomas, Lynne M. Thomas, and Michi Trota for Uncanny Magazine.
There are certain stories, any reader knows, that recur in towns boundaried by water. A captain’s wife stares into a gale, and suddenly her husband’s face appears in that green–gray miasma, a vision of his wrack and ruin. Ghostly sailors struggle from the waves, only to fall back again. Ships are found adrift, crews missing. Messages in bottles are discovered ten years after their sender’s drowning, inscribed with predictions of futures unlived.
I need not remind the reader, gentle or no, that these tales are fictions made of desire, that the act of missing a beloved may conjure miracles. For myself, I never held with such. I held with hope, and so I came to Providence for a worldly version of Salvation, in the year eighteen hundred and forty–eight, carrying an umbrella and wearing a long dress, my hem draggling in the mud.
No one turned head to look at me when I emerged from my carriage. I was no longer a girl, but a woman of nearly thirty–five. I’d had money, and then I had none, or at least none in hand. A cutpurse I never saw, and that was gone, though in the hem of my skirt I’d sewn enough to carry me. I was no innocent. By all accounts I was a lost cause and a fallen woman.
(Published at Uncanny Magazine, Issue 14. 11,567 words.)
THE ORANGE TREE
Commissioned for THE WEIGHT OF WORDS, edited by Dave McKean and William Schafer for Subterranean Press. This is my favorite thing I wrote this year - though it took me nearly three years to write. The first draft was written in 2014, after I received a golem as a birthday gift from China Mieville - or rather, two paragraphs about an 11th century female golem made of wood and hinges. I credit the giver, because he could easily have hoarded this golem for himself. Instead, I got to turn her into this story, which is full of the history of Andalusia, golem lore, and large quantities of fury about being mistaken for a creation of someone other than oneself. I fiddled with the story for awhile, but I couldn't get it right.
Then, in 2015, I got an email inviting me to an anthology based around art by Dave McKean, and I picked a beautiful piece involving a woman, a violin, and a tree. The art gave me the missing pieces of the story - until I had it, I didn't understand that this was a story about recovering one's voice.
The golem isn’t alive, and then she is.
The first loneliness is the loneliness of birth. The golem opens her eyelid hinges, delicate doe leather. Her eyes are cold and dry, but she can see the man she’s been created to serve, standing over her.
“You,” he says. “You.”
The golem has pale yellow-brown skin, smoothly sanded. Her hair is made of creamy white flowers with canary streaks, and there are shining green leaves throughout it. She smells of biting honey. She’s small and slender, her waist narrow. No taller than he is. Her arms show the tracks of the tools that made her. There’s a gouge between her breasts where there was a knot in the orange tree’s trunk.
The poet has hammered one of the secret names of God into her palate, and this is what has brought her to life. She tries to speak but she has no tongue. There is a pain, a stabbing where the silver tablet is. She can’t tell what it is, only that it hurts.
It stretches inside of her body, a tentacled name. There is a loneliness in this too, the two-hundred-sixty-seventh, the loneliness of the only name one can speak being unspeakable.
“My name is Solomon ibn Gabirol,” the man says, and blinks nervously. “You are my wife and servant. You’ll help me write. I’ve need of someone to keep my words contained.”
She examines the man before her. His hair is turning white, and his skin is red, black and yellow. His cracked flesh bleeds. Salt water runs from his eyes.
Solomon, she mouths. There is no sound.
“Yes,” he says. “You’re a thing made for me.”
The man feeds her a piece of paper, on which is written a line of a poem, and then he feeds her another. They taste like termite, wasp, worm. A hinge creaks in her jaw.
She’s never seen a man before, not from this angle. She wants to take his tears and use them for some purpose. A ship, she thinks, catching a bewildering taste of his old thoughts. On a salt sea. An island where they have never seen a woman.
She tries to make a noise, but only a rattle comes out. There’s a lock on her lips, a bent metal hook through a bent metal eye, and he has latched it. He takes her through his house, showing her its rooms.
“You’ll clean for me,” he says. “You’ll rid my house of dust.”
She understands. She begins to shovel with her hands. She buries her fingers in the mess, and thinks of rooting there, falls to her side and stretches, planting herself, but he pulls her up, telling her he wishes her to sweep the dirt, not roll in it like a sow.
She learns quickly. She’s made to learn.
(Published in THE WEIGHT OF WORDS, Subterranean Press. 10,016 words.)