The Unwrapping

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    The Unwrapping

    London, 1897

    Emma and Jasper sequestered themselves in a corner of the main hall Merril’s mansion so they could hear each other talk over the din of the party. The walls were covered in feathered Zulu headdresses, delicately painted Chinese opera masks, vividly colored silk tapestries from India, and sculptures from various primitive cultures depicting acts enough to offend the sensibilities of any sensible person.

    Emma shifted her gown’s hem around the plethora of exotica and emptied her wine glass in a single gulp. “I don’t know why I come to these things. If Merrill wasn’t a leaf on the fruitful branch of the family tree, I’d have pruned him from my life long ago.”

    “For me, it’s curiosity,” said Jasper. “I need some relief after hours of reading medical books and cutting up cadavers.”

    “Remember that time he served bowls of live clams and pots of boiling water and told us to cook our own dinners?”

    “I swear he invited me so I could bandage up all the blistered fingers.”

    “Are you going to finish that?” Emma took the wine glass from Merrill’s hand. “How about that come-as-a-work-of-art costume party? He wore nothing but chalk dust and called himself Michelangelo’s David.”

    “Anatomically speaking, he left much to be desired. Still, it’s a night we’ll never forget.”

    “And his last party, before he left for Africa. He brought down that Scotsman, McDoggerel or whatever. Everyone pelted him with herrings and tomatoes as he rattled off the most dreadful verses I’ve ever heard.”

    “Mister McGonagall probably earned more from his poetry that night than you did from yours all of last year.”

    Emma put her empty glass on a Zulu shield. “For a surgeon, you really know how to touch a nerve.”

    “McGonagall chose to come down. We chose to abuse him. He chose to endure it. You chose to throw fish along with everyone else.”

    “I was drunk.”

    “On our host’s wine. Merrill’s father is a great explorer who plundered every corner of the British empire for profit. So many people would do anything to be invited to one of his soirees.”

    “Most people won’t put up with someone so ostentatious.”

    “Then why did you come? I want to see what he brought back from Africa and am willing to endure whatever ordeal he sets forth to see it. What are you here for? The free drinks?”

    Emma looked out the window. “I guess. I don’t know.”

    “I think you do,” Jasper said. “You should try being honest. It might make your poems better.”

    “What’s that supposed to mean?”

    Jasper answered, but Emma couldn’t hear him over the applause that thundered from the main hall. Merrill entered on the far end, a tight grin spread across his plump face. His billowy white sleeves flopped as he stepped in front of a black velvet curtain.

    “First, I’d like to thank you for coming tonight,” he said. “There’s nothing I like more than seeing a gaggle – or is it a flock? Maybe an unkindness? Well, anyway, a lot of friends, both fair-weather and fine-feathered, and fancy pants, sycophants, frauds, quacks, and,” he looked at Emma, “talentless hacks under my roof, soiling my rugs, drinking my wine, eating my food. I jest, of course, enjoy yourselves. No one appreciates the finer things in life more than people who can afford them but would rather have
    someone else pay.”

    The assembled partygoers laughed. Lacy fans fluttered and wine glasses were raised with a mocking, “Hear hear!” Emma said nothing and didn’t move an inch.

    Merrill said, “I’m so glad to see I wasn’t forgotten during my sojourn to the dark continent. If anyone said anything ill about me while I was gone, you’re forgiven, because I certainly slandered all of you to anyone who would listen! Oh, but don’t look so glum, remember there’s only one thing worse than being talked about …”

    Emma whispered into Jasper’s ear, “And that’s listening to an idiot steal jokes from Oscar Wilde.”

    Merrill said, “But enough about us, let’s talk about me. Like most travelers to Africa, I came down with a most horrible affliction shortly after disembarking. No, it wasn’t malaria, nor the sleeping sickness, and it certainly wasn’t one of those bloody foot-long worms. Rather, I caught that most virulent of viruses, the highly contagious condition known as – well, perhaps doctor Jasper knows the Latin term for what the rest of us call, ‘love.’”

    The partygoers murmured as Merrill continued. “Yes, you heard me. While in the Valley of the Kings my father introduced me to the most regal queen outside of Buckingham. Such a lovely thing, light as laugher with a wit drier than desert sand, and her fashion sense is nothing less than timeless. Of course I had to have her, and since she didn’t say ‘no’ that was good enough for me. Tonight, I will introduce her to London society.”

    The partygoers clapped as Jasper whispered to Emma, “I can’t wait to see what sort of woman would settle for him.”

    The applause ended as Merrill grabbed the curtain. “In her language her name is eye, bird, cane, sideways man. To us she is the lovely Amisi!”

    The curtain fell with one yank. Behind it was an open stone sarcophagus containing a slender figure wrapped in dusty strips with its arms crossed over its chest. A single line of yellow teeth showed through a gap along one cheek.

    Everyone was silent. Even Emma released her scowl long enough to let her jaw drop.

    “What?” Merrill said. “It’s the age difference, isn’t it? Oh, it’s fine and good when an old man courts a young woman, but when a man is stricken with a lady a couple of millennia his senior it’s wrong? Or is it her appearance? Well, you fine and enlightened lot, I can assure you that true beauty is on the inside. Hers is just better wrapped than ours.”

    Merrill pulled a shiny knife out of his pocket and put the tip to the mummy’s lips. “Don’t believe me? I’ll prove it.”

    Memphis, 430 B.C.

    Remmao touched Amisi’s lips. They were still warm and soft, although no breath passed between them. Her cheeks, once tan and round, were now gray and pulled tight against her cheekbones. Her eyes, once as brilliant as the limestone coated pyramids, were now as cold as stars.

    “Goodbye, my love,” Remmao said.

    The hairless priest on the other side of the bed said, “We taught her the necessary spells from the Book of the Dead. Soon she rest in the field of reeds.”

    Remmao clutched Amisi’s hand.

    “No one could have done anything more for her than you,” the priest said. “You hired the best physicians. You provided her with a bed that would make a pharaoh jealous.”

    “And still, the gods took her from me.”

    “The gods have given you so much. You are one of the richest men in Memphis.”

    “I feel I have nothing.”

    The priest rubbed his smooth scalp. “We should start preparing her for the afterlife immediately.”

    Remmao stroked Amisi’s hair.

    “You did all you could for her in life,” said the priest. “Now we do all we can for her in death.”

    “Which will last until thieves rob her tomb and desecrate her body.”

    “Well … the gods will watch over her …”

    Remmao loomed over the priest. “The gods failed to protect queens.”

    “Maybe it was their will that …”

    “For thousands of years we’ve been embalming our dead, but for all the veneration and sacrifices we make the gods forget to protect them very quickly. I can’t bear the thought of Amisi suffering anymore than she did from this sickness.”

    The priest stepped back. “Calm yourself.”

    Remmao closed the distance. “She never hurt anyone. There has to be a way to protect her. A spell to punish any robber foolish enough to open her sarcophagus! A curse so powerful that anyone who damages her body dies! All your knowledge of magic and the stars and the ways of the gods is useless if you can’t protect one good woman!”

    The priest shrank.

    Remmao breathed deeply. “I should go. Do what you must, I will pay for the best service.”

    Remmao had almost left the room when the priest whispered, “Khanti.”

    Remmao stopped.

    “If you mean what you said,” the priest said, “visit the exiled sorcerer Khanti in the caves outside of the city.”

    Remmao turned. “Why are you telling me this?”

    “Because he will demand a steep price. I don’t think you will be willing to pay it. ”

    London, 1897

    Merrill cut the wrappings over Asimi’s mouth and tore them open, sending a cloud of brown dust into his face.

    “Ugh!” Merrill said. “My dear, what is that scent you’re wearing? Eau de rancid nuts? All the same, you have lovely cheekbones as well as other bones. How many ladies here tonight would eat tapeworms to get this thin?”

    Emma shook her head. “This is wrong. Even for Merrill, this is wrong.”

    Jasper shrugged. “Fascinating. Look at the skin. You can see it decompose rapidly with exposure to air.”

    “I’m glad you’re having a good time.”

    “If you don’t like this, you can go,” Merrill said. “You’re choosing to stay here and suffer. To steal an Oscar Wilde joke, we are our own devils and we make this world our hell.”

    “I should leave, it’s just …”

    Merrill coughed. Amisi’s jaw fell from her dried and eyeless face and shattered into a thousand brittle brown pieces. “So much for a kiss. Maybe there’s still time to sneak a peek at your Nefer-titties.”

    Jasper said, “It’s just … what? This is what I was talking about when I said you weren’t honest.”

    “I thought you were saying my poems were bad.”

    Your poems are flowery enough, but there’s nothing more to them. No insight, no feeling, nothing. You’re not honest in your art, and I’m starting to think you’re not honest with yourself. Merrill wants attention, he gets it. I want to learn. You can’t even tell yourself what you want. If you did your best to be honest, I’d bear in mind you’re trying something new.”

    Merrill coughed furiously. The nearby partygoers also coughed. Someone at the back of the room shouted, “Must be the curse.” Merrill managed a smile.

    “You want me to be honest?” Emma said. “Fine. I’ll start by saying you’re an ass.” She made her way to the front of the hall. “Merrill! I am sick of your stupid parties where you abuse and disgust us! I know you think of yourself as the rogue everyone loves to hate, but you’re wrong. We just hate you!”

    Merrill kept coughing. His face turned bright red as he reached out for Emma. She took a step back as he fell. The other partygoers began coughing so loudly Emma could barely hear herself shout.

    “You don’t know when to stop, do you? You’re the most contemptible …”

    Jasper grabbed Emma’s arm and pulled her back.

    “We have to get out of here,” he said through the handkerchief held over his mouth. “That smell! Don’t you know what that is?”

    Memphis, 430 B.C.

    Drops of yellow juice streamed down Khanti’s straggly gray beard. “This peach is so sweet, so soft, so moist. It’s like devouring a summer day.” He wiped his mouth with his ragged robe’s sleeve.

    Remmao said, “Did you hear what I said?”

    “Yes, I heard you the first two times.”

    “Then can you help me?”

    “Why should I? Would you tell another man you loved your wife than he did his? What makes your loss more painful than a mother who loses her son? Everyone in Egypt loses someone they love at some point in their lives, none but you have made the effort to see me. Why should I use my magic for you when so many others are just as deserving?”

    “Name your price. I will pay it.”

    Khanti laughed. “What good is money to me? I can’t go to the city, so I can’t buy anything. The priests bring me food so I’m not tempted to return to the city and whatever else I ask for. To me, gold is nothing but a symbol of a man so used to getting what he wants he doesn’t care what other people want.”

    “What do you want?”

    Khanti took another bite from his peach. “A moment of happiness, when I can say, ‘this is pretty nice.’ Can gold give you that?”

    “No, but my wife gave me many,” said Remmao. “I won’t leave until you tell me how to protect her for eternity.”

    “My magic can make a curse powerful enough to protect her, but it will mean taking much energy from the universe. As a rich man, I’m sure you’re used to taking what you want, but the universe doesn’t work that way. If you want to take, first you must make a sacrifice.”

    “What do you want me to do?”

    “You must give each person in Memphis a moment of happiness.” Khanti bit his peach.

    “How can I do that?” asked Remmao.

    “Buy everyone a peach. It doesn’t seem fair these delicious fruits are so rare in Egypt that only the wealthy can afford them. But if anyone, man or woman, old or young, pharaoh or slave, were given a peach, they would say, ‘this is pretty nice.’”

    “You were exiled from the city. Why would you want to do anything for them?”

    “I was exiled because the high priests feared what I am capable of. But I do not hate them, they are right to fear my magic being abused by tyrants. Maybe I was angry at first, but after much meditation I saw the wisdom of their ways.” Khanti sucked the peach’s pit. “These are a problem, though. We can’t have the streets littered with seeds, can we? If you have any money left, pay the beggars to collect the pits.”

    Remmao shook his finger at Khanti. “If you’re mocking me, sorcerer …”

    Khanti dropped the peach pit. “If you don’t want my magic, don’t come back with tens of thousands of peach pits and your late wife’s wrappings.”

    London, 1897

    The partygoers stood or sat on Lincoln’s Inn grass, some of them still coughing. Emma sat on a bench with her head in her hands. “The last thing Merrill saw was me shouting.”

    Jasper put his hand on her shoulder. “If you weren’t shouting, you probably would have inhaled. They would have sent you to the hospital with everyone else.”

    “I appreciate you getting me out of there, even after I called you an ass.”

    “It was appropriate. I was being an ass.”


    “Because I’ve been coming to these parties for a year, and you were the only one who complained about Merrill as if you wanted to be overheard. I was curious how far I’d have to press you to take action.”

    “So this is about your curiosity?”

    “Yet I’m ending the night with more questions than I started with. One of which is that I never found out why you kept coming to these parties if you hated them so much.”

    Emma sat back. “Honestly, I came because I didn’t have anywhere else to go tonight. I wanted to be a part of something, if only for a moment. Even a bad experience can be remembered fondly if you share it.”

    “How fondly can you remember a moment you spent the whole time complaining about?”

    “Not real well. But it’s still enough to forget that there aren’t that many people in your life?”

    “So you were lonely.”

    “You can say that. But in a roomful of people, the only person who talked to me was the one who saw me as an object of curiosity.”

    “At least I listened.”


    “The same reason I watched Merrill’s show, the same reason I went into medicine. I’m curious what’s beneath the outer layers.”

    Emma sat up. “Then the whole time, you were unwrapping me.”

    Two policemen carried a covered body past Emma and Jasper.

    “Goodbye, cousin Merrill,” whispered Emma.

    A well-dressed man with a detective’s badge dangling from his pocket hailed Jasper. “Your diagnosis was correct, doctor. By moving the people into fresh air, you saved their lives.”

    “Your diagnosis?” Emma asked.

    “I recognized the scent after you started towards Merrill,” said Jasper. “He called it rancid nuts, but it was more like bitter almonds. Everyone near it was coughing, the first sign of respiratory failure.”

    “For those of us who aren’t doctors, what was it?”

    “Powdered cyanide.” Jasper looked to the night sky. “That mummy’s wrappings are full of it. How could people so backwards they still believed in gods and magic synthesize such a chemical in a lethal concentration?”

    “How backwards could they be?” Emma said. “We’re the ones who thought it was a curse.”

    “So often we say that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic. Is it also true that advanced magic is indistinguishable from science?”

    Memphis, 430 B.C.

    The last time Remmao came to the canyon outside of Memphis, he wore the silk robes of a successful merchant. Now he wore rags as he led a donkey train to Khanti’s cave.

    “I did as you asked,” said Remmao. “The high priest said Asimi’s body will be brought to you when it is ready to be wrapped.”

    Khanti opened one of the barrels. “These seeds are the heart of the fruit, and the heart remembers all secrets. Each is imbued with the memory of kindness from a man with a heavy heart. I will break these open and soak the wrapping in them.”

    “How will that protect Amisi?”

    “Inside each pit are a few drops of a bitter poison. Extracted from thousands and mixed with fine sand, it will kill anyone who molests your sweet wife.”

    Remmao nodded.

    “If we have no further use for each other,” said Khanti, “I suggest you start earning your fortune back. Many people in Memphis will want another peach. A man could get rich selling them.”

    As Remmao returned to the city Khanti covered his mouth and set to work grinding the peach pits. He was content that soon peaches would be so plentiful the priests would bring him all he could eat. A simple pleasure created by complex magic was enough for him.

    Herr D

    This is excellent work. More stories, please?

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