Dead writers & candy

Ernest Hemingway tries a Japanese candy bar

There are three long lakes at the top of Wisconsin where the woods come rushing up to the Michigan border and the trout run fast and thick in the spring. Nick rowed to the shore of the longest lake. Bamboo rods and boxes of silver tackle and fish dead since noon lay piled to the gunwale. Nick plowed the oars through waves that rose and fell in the moonlight. The moon was full. The hull of the rowboat met the sand of the thin beach and Nick got out and sat beside the fire that he had banked in the morning.

From his pocket he took a candy bar covered in a black wrapper. It was black chocolate. He held it and looked at the fire and looked at the moon. The night was big and black and Nick knew that this was the moment to do the terrible thing.

Meiji black chocolate

The candy bar had become his on a hot night in Paris after the great war, when men worn down by fighting walked or limped or crawled to the city from the East and the South. Nick sat at the zinc bar of the Cafe des Écrivains drinking anisette and reading the evening papers from Barcelona.

“Well, there’s a pretty sight!” said Paul, who was a newspaperman from Chicago and a veteran of the trenches of the Western Front and a good drinker.

“You put the paper to bed, then?” said Nick.

“Told it a fairy tale, sang it a song, and didn’t it just drift right off,” said Paul.

Paul ordered a brandy, then a whiskey and soda, then a saucer of anisette.

“Getting tight tonight?” Nick said.

“Only just,” said Paul.

“It seems like a fellow could buy another fellow a drink when he owes him eight francs.”

Paul shook his head and smiled and reached into his pocket.

“I’ll give a fellow a treat instead,” he said.

He took out a candy bar wrapped in black paper. He put it on the bar where it blocked the zinc starbursts and sucked up the yellow light of the gas lamps.

“What kind of beast is this?” said Nick.

“A Japanese beast,” said Paul. “And now it’s yours.”

Nick didn’t want the Japanese candy bar. It weighed on him. It weighed down his pocket when he went home drunk that night and it weighed down his luggage when he left Paris to watch the bullfights in Málaga. He stood in the callejón with his shoulders pressed against the shoulders of aficionados of the corrida de toros. He offered the candy bar to every stranger who met his eyes, but every one of them refused. Then the bulls came pounding over the smooth cobbles, goring small boys with their white horns and lowing like elk in the autumn rut back home in Wisconsin. Their thick hides were as black and polished as the wrapper of the candy bar, and Nick forgot to think about the chocolate as he ran from the bulls.

When Italian soldiers marched through Málaga three months later, Nick tried to give them the black candy bar but they only wanted cigarettes and women. Their hair was black and they slicked it back with gun grease and made it gleam in the sun until their heads became easy targets for the Austrian gunners, and every one of them was shot dead.

When the Austrians were finished with Spain, the Japanese came. Nick was taken to a camp and strung up by the wrists with the other Americans. He thought of boyhood summers spent fishing in the longest lake on the border of Wisconsin, and the trout with their tin scales that flashed under the cool water, and his heart was heavy.

“Look here,” he called to his captors, who stood in twos and threes beside the rifles of their enemies that they had heaped up to the height of a man.

“Look here,” he called again. “Chocolate. Cut me down.”

The oldest soldier came to Nick and stood before him and looked at him.

“In my pocket. It’s yours. Cut me down and it’s yours.”

The soldier reached into Nick’s pocket. He drew the candy bar out like a sword and held it high and read the wrapper.

“Warui chokorēto,” he laughed.

He put the bad chocolate back in Nick’s pocket and turned away and left Nick to hang for three days until his wrists broke and he was cut down because his screams were disturbing the commander’s sleep.

The candy bar melted and became solid many times during Nick’s journey through Africa, where the soft snows of great mountains mocked dry savannas burned by the sun, and the nights grew thick with cold that clotted a man’s blood and caused mosquitoes to fall out of the sky like the Luftwaffe over London. He went to Africa to shoot lions, but the lions were in the Maasai Mara and only rangy wildebeests with stringy legs and shaggy coats loped across the dun plains.

Nick sighted a calf and tensed and squeezed the trigger, but his rifle jammed. He threw the candy bar at the hindquarters of the sprinting calf. It fell to earth a foot from his blind and his gun carrier picked it up and gave it back to him.

“Keep it. A gift,” said Nick.

The man shook his head and said, “Chokoleti mbaya.” Late that night, the village medicine man came into Nick’s tent and stood over him shaking a devil bag and chanting until Nick packed up and set out for America.

Now he was home. Now he had to do the terrible thing.

He tore the wrapper. The Japanese chocolate was brown and dull and divided into rectangles. Nick bit the chocolate. He swallowed. He threw the candy bar into the fire.

“Bad chocolate,” he said.

He drank a bottle of Scotch and slept a little and in the morning birds sprang from branch to branch above his head and he felt better.

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