What's for Dinner?
December 09, 2019
They must have found me at the front of the building. Half-dead and unconscious. I think I blacked out. I don’t remember when I arrived, nor can I recall the final leg of the journey. All I do remember is dust and heat. Near the end of it, I was covered in grit and filth. It was in every orifice. Stinging my eyes, clogging up my ears, burning my throat. I blindly stumbled on for days, outside in the desolate wasteland. Trudging under the beating heat of the sun, fighting against the never-ending wind, choking on poisonous fumes. I had run out of water miles before. I hadn’t eaten in days. I must have been pitiful when they found me at the door. A shell of a man. Hollow and broken.
Anyway, here I am. I have woken up in a plain yet comfortable bed. I have no idea how long I’ve slept. It could easily have been days because I feel refreshed, but now I’m finally awake I find that I’m starving. An animalistic urge to eat overcomes me, purely primal. Curiously, I’m not thirsty though, they must have gotten liquid into me somehow, but the hunger is intense. It clouds all else.
I weakly climb out of bed to find I’m in a spartan room with no window. Plain to match the plain bed, but clean and tidy. My shabby clothes rest on a chair in the corner. They look to have been washed. I quickly pull them on over my thin, skeletal body. Whoever had put me into bed must have seen me naked, but I have no shame left, not after so long in the wastes. It takes longer me for me pull my clothes on than it should do due to my weakened state, but I feel more human now that I have them on.
I open the door. I feared it would be locked, but it swings open with ease. I find myself in a short hallway. Once again, empty but clean. There is a window here, but I don’t bother to look outside. Why bother? It's only the barren wastes. I don’t care about the view, though. I’m distracted by the smell. It fills my nostrils. My mouth salivates almost immediately. Food. Wonderful, beautiful food. The aroma is unmistakable. As quick as I’m able, I hobble along the hallway to find some stairs leading downwards. I take them two at a time. My legs shake, but I don’t care. I need to find the source of that pleasing odour.
Downstairs, I find another similarly sized hallway. There are a few rooms here, but the doors are closed, save one. This must be the source. I quickly walk down the hallway but hesitate at the open door. Is this okay? Can I go inside? I don’t want to offend anyone. What should I do? Should I knock? The decision is taken from me. I hear someone call from within. “Come on in! Don’t be shy now.” I do as I’m told. I’m too hungry to hesitate.
I walk in to find myself stood in a large high-ceilinged kitchen. It looks like it has regular use. Not that it's unclean, far from it. It’s just that it’s filled with the remnants of activity. One of the many cupboards that are fixed to the walls is wide open. I can see tins and boxes filled with foods, herbs and spices. Another side of the kitchen is filled by glass cabinets which reveal a multitude of different plates, glasses and cups. There’s a sink to the side filled with steaming, soapy water. Next to it is an oven with four hobs on the top. One of the hobs is turned on. It boils a simmering kettle. There’s a window, but the white curtains are drawn, leaving only a small gap where the sun beats through. A small green spike-covered cactus resides in that gap, feeding on the sun’s powerful and dangerous rays. The smell of food is overpowering in here.
In the centre of the room, there is a wide wooden table with one chair. On it sit five similarly shaped bowls. This must be the source of the wonderful aroma. My mouth fills with saliva once again. I’m so enamoured with the bowls that I fail to notice the woman standing to my right. She clears her throat, and I nearly jump out of my skin. She laughs heartily at my reaction. It’s a deep and throaty chuckle. She’s short and round with fantastically rosy cheeks. Her long hair is brown but speckled with grey and tied back in a ponytail. She wears a dark brown apron over a white frilly dress. She stands with her arms folded. I can see a wooden spoon in her right hand. She smiles warmly at me, and I immediately feel at ease.
She seems to appraise my appearance, tuts, unfolds her arms and points the wooden spoon at me. It has a rough end as if it has been used many times. Her voice is playful, yet it commands attention. She speaks with undeniable authority. “You look like you are wasting away. Come on. Let’s be having you.” She strides towards me at a frightening pace, takes me firmly, but gently, by my arm and marches me towards the chair. She pulls it out and nods her head for me to sit. I do as instructed. This close to the smell of the food, I would do anything she wants. I try to get comfortable as she strides around to stand at the other side of the table right next to the sink. I smile uncertainly and stare hungrily at the table. I was right. There are five bowls positioned before me. I lean forward and take in the scent. Whatever it is, it smells incredible. The kettle suddenly begins to whistle. She tuts again, winks at me, turns and flips the hob off before returning to face me.
There is only one knife and fork on the table. I must look confused because she addresses me again. “Aren’t you cute! You don’t have to worry. You can eat.” I lean forward and grab the utensils in each hand. My stomach is growling in apprehension. I’m unsure where to start. I finally ask her the question that has been on the edge of my lips since I arrived. My voice sounds weak, feeble. “Which one is mine?” A mischievous smile spreads across her face. She puts her spare hand on the table and leans forward with the spoon in the other. She points it at me when she speaks, wagging it with every third or fourth word. “Now, that’s up to you. You need to make a choice. You can have one, but only one. That’s the rules. You have to be very careful how you choose. I can help you a little bit, but I can’t influence you in any way. The choice has to be yours and yours alone.”
I stare at the bowls. Now that I have a moment to think about it, I notice that they are different. They aren’t all quite the same. They are different colours. Also, they are spaced out strangely. My gaze strays from right to left. The one on the far right sits much further out than the rest. The bowl is multi-coloured, a jumble, the only one that isn’t solid colour. It’s striped with Blue, White, Yellow, Purple. Three of the bowls sit relatively close to each other in the centre of the table, practically in front of the chair. The one on the right is plain Blue. The one directly in front of me is Orange. The one after that is Red. Then finally the one at the end is Green, it occupies a space a little further to the left of the centre bowls.
A frown creases my forehead, she chuckles and retracts her spoon. “I know it’s all a bit overwhelming, isn’t it? Don’t worry about it. You can take your time, but I would suggest not leaving it too long or else it’ll get cold. My advice? Stand up and give each of them a look. You’ll be able to tell what you need from that.” She smiles once more and turns away again. She drops the spoon in the sink and proceeds to plunge her hands into the soapy water. She begins to sing a song in a language that I can’t understand. It’s a jaunty tune, almost playful, like a lullaby. For some reason, it soothes me. I leave her to it and focus my attention on the bowls.
My stomach begs me to hurry. My mouth is practically dripping with saliva. I need to eat and fast. I feel a little frustrated about this whole process. I would prefer to eat the lot, but I don’t want to offend her. It seems overly complicated, but I’ll just do as I’m told. If I break the rules, I may not get any, and that’s something I’m not willing to comprehend. I delicately stand and walk to the one on the far right. It seems as good a place as any to start. The wide, deep bowl looks impressive with its many colours. For that reason alone, it’s quite tempting. Apprehensive but excited, I stand over it and look inside. Despite my hunger, my stomach rolls in disgust. The bowl is filled with maggots. They roll and frolic in a seething mass. I don’t understand. I didn’t smell anything putrid, and yet this bowl is filled with these disgusting creatures. I shudder and turn away from it. Clearly, that one is not for me.
Turning away from that bowl, I hurry towards the three clustered in the centre. They sit neatly spaced. The Blue on the right, the Orange in the centre and the Red to the left. Each bowl is identical except for the colour. I lean forward and take a look inside each one in turn. To my surprise, they are all filled with rice and nothing else. The Blue one has white rice. The Red one has brown rice, while the Orange has a mixture of both. Even in my state, I don’t really think they look particularly appealing. Of course, I would eat the entire contents of each bowl without a question asked, but I have to say, I’m a little disappointed. The smell had tricked me into thinking there was something wonderful inside. The way they have been positioned as well seems like a ploy. Right in the centre, so that they can command my attention. Strange, as what they offer is just bland, boring, identical even.
This isn’t working out the way I thought it would. With a suppressed sigh, I move on to the final bowl. The Green one. It’s further to the left than the centre bowls. I’m not sure what to expect in there, not after what I’ve already seen. I hesitatingly peer inside. My stomach growls once again. I hope that it will be something that I can really get my teeth into. To my utter amazement and joy, it’s filled to the brim with vegetables. Carrots and green beans. Broccoli and potatoes. Peppers and corn. Others that I don’t recognise. The bowl is packed with food. The bowl steams as if just recently cooked. The kind of food that I haven’t seen out in the wasteland for months on end. My stomach loudly growls once again as if to tell me that this is the one.
I jump in fright as the women suddenly appears by my side. I didn’t even hear her approach. She leans over and lightly puts her hand on my shoulder. Up close, she smells like a meadow or a forest, not that such things exist anymore, but it reminds me of my youth. Of the earth, of the ground, of nature. Her scent is intoxicating. She smiles that mischievous smile. “Have you made your choice then?” I nod my head firmly and try to contain my excitement. She smiles again and squeezes my shoulder. “Go on then, lad. Fill your boots.” She releases me with a laugh and turns away with a swirl of her brown apron and white dress. I don’t need telling twice. I hold my utensils firmly in my hand and pull my chair up to the Green bowl.
The Missing Ingredient
November 12, 2019
I sigh and fold my arms. My apprentice looks at me expectantly. “Another failure, master?” I don’t bother to answer his stupid question. Of course, it was a failure. The boy often asked the obvious. The same banal questions. Did it work, master? Did it work, master? Did it work, master? Is he an idiot? Does he not have eyes to see? I unfold my arms and begin to drum my fingers on the tabletop. I can see the vial. It rests in the holder. The liquid looks inert and dull, not what I was hoping for at all. I sigh again, lift the thing and throw it, contents and all, against the wall where it smashes into pieces. The fluid slowly creeps down the surface. It will do no damage, that I know for certain.
Ignoring my useless apprentice, I stare out of the window at the darkening sky. Why won’t it work? I know the instructions by heart. I’m sure I’ve followed them correctly, but in the end, it is always the same result. I know that it can work. I’ve had seen my master do it with my own eyes many years ago. Back when I was as young and useless as my own apprentice. How did he do it? Is there some trick I’m missing? If only I could ask him. The old fool is long gone, died in his sleep and taken all his secrets with him. Selfish to the very end. One of those secrets being the trick to this potion. Everyone in the village needs that concoction all of a sudden. They line up day and night asking for it. I send my worthless apprentice out every day to tell them to piss off, but still they return.
I hear a creak. My apprentice is still stood in the exact same spot. I had all but forgotten he was there while I was lost in my dark thoughts. I peer at the boy for a moment. What is wrong with this simpleton? Why can’t he think for himself? Clearly, the experiment is over. He can go about his business until I need him. The boy looks nervous under my gaze. I almost enjoy the power I can exert over him just by looking at him, but this is a waste of time. “Well, don’t just stand there, boy. Be a good apprentice and clear that mess up!” The boy must be thankful for the distraction as he races to grab his dustpan and brush. At least he is good for something. I turn my attention back to staring out of the window. The sky is now dark. The moon is beginning to peek out of the clouds. It will be a cold night, I think.
Back to the problem at hand. What am I doing wrong? Is it the ingredients? I list them off in my head.
The head of the Blanver Beetle
The blood of a Shenff
The semen of a Clapitumus Whale
The buds from a Tubula Zaf
The dried-out penis of a virgin Han
Everything is there and thoroughly in order. I scratch behind my ear. Maybe I have missed something. I abruptly stand, which makes my apprentice flinch. I tut at the boy’s weakness as I walk past the table and head to the bookshelf. Ten thousand years of knowledge is kept within these manuscripts. All the great Master Alchemists have used these mighty tomes, many of them wrote them themselves. I have not begun to contribute. My master died too soon to fully complete my training, the stupid old cretin. I only have these books and some decent guesswork. Still, I’m the only passable Alchemist in the region, so I will get by for now.
I pull the book down that I need. It’s heavy in my hands. I huff and puff as I walk back towards the table and drop it on to its wooden surface with a thud. Master Clem’s Guide to Potions and Powders. I open the book and quickly flip through the pages. They are filled with Master Clem’s spidery handwriting. A great Master of Alchemy he was, a master of grammar and spelling he was not. He seemed to have been a particularly messy individual, even for this profession. The pages are speckled with who knows what. I find the page I need and open it. I skim through the lines. What have I missed? My apprentice momentarily breaks my concentration when he drops some of the glass. Useless idiot. Maybe I should get myself a new apprentice. Someone who isn’t a blithering idiot. I ignore him as best as I can and continue to scan down the page slowly. I’m determined to find a mistake somewhere. I reach the bottom. The dried-out penis of a virgin Han, a species of bat native to the steaming jungles of the northern hemisphere.
Nothing. It’s exactly as I expected it to be. Back to the drawing board then. Another sigh escapes my lips, and I begin to close the book. But wait, what’s that? I open the book back up and lean forward to get a better look at that bottom ingredient. I practically press my face up against the page. There is something on there, a lump of something. I scratch at it very carefully. It breaks away on my finger. I give it a sniff. Is that peanut butter I smell? I straighten up and wipe my finger on my gown. Now I can see the final ingredient correctly — the dried-out penis of a virgin Man. My heart stops. I have been reading it wrong this entire time. I cannot believe it! How could I have made such a stupid error? All that money wasted on those damn bats! Now, the truth of it has come out.
A delicious idea slowly takes root in my mind. I turn toward my apprentice. He has finally finished cleaning. The boy nervously stands when he realises that I’m watching him. His dustpan and brush are in his hands. I can see the whites of his knuckles as he grips the utensils. “Ca…” The boy's voice breaks. I wait while he clears his throat. “Can I help you, ma… master?” A smile plays on the edge of my lips. “Have you ever known the pleasure of a woman, boy?” The idiots face turns scarlet and his head lowers. The smile on my face widens. I beckon the boy to me as I turn to head towards the storeroom. “Come with me, boy. I have something wonderful to show you.”