Aphelion Issue 272, Volume 26
May 2022
 
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Cooking with Könyve

by Simon Smith




Welcome to Cooking with Könyve and another forbidden recipe from the soul-rending pages of A Férgek Könyve! This week we’re going to make an easy and very meaty version of a traditional Pasta e Fagioli; or, if your ingredients just flew in from the New World, Pasta Fazool!

And if your ingredients did just fly in from the New World, boy, their arms must be tired!

This is classic comfort food, whatever the weather: real stick-to-your-ribs goodness that’s perfect for those days when the black sun rolls across the sky and the outer darkness echoes with the screams of the dying and the damned, or even just when it’s cold and grey and nobody gets you. No matter how piteously the howling demons howl, a big ol’ bowl of Pasta Fazool, or e Fagioli, is guaranteed to make you feel better.

Now, everybody who still has a body knows that the key to mastering a great forbidden recipe is preparation. You don’t want to be stuck chopping onions while the smell of burnt meat fills the air. After all, it’s not time to welcome the Watcher Who Guards the Gate just yet! So, get ready to risk your immortal soul and cook this totally amazing Pasta e Fagioli, or Fazool, just like your ancient ancestors did when they bound themselves in their eternal destiny to Féreg! Awesome!

******

“Awesome?” András frowned and tapped the screen. This latest translation of The Book really was very different from the one he had grown up with. The attempt to create a more “accessible” text—whatever that meant—was clumsy and confusing; worse, it sounded silly in places. Grimacing, he finger-flicked the page back up to the start. “Soul-rending?” Good grief. It sounded like something from nineteen-twenties American pulp. These lapses into jaunty informality and modern colloquialism were disconcerting, to say the least, particularly for someone who had been reared on the majestic 17th Century translation. Exactly why his father had thought it necessary to commission a new one was a mystery. De vermis mysterium, in fact. András smiled to himself. He had very little of the Latin and what he had was not strong; something about his coinage didn’t sound quite right. Much like the new translation, he thought, wondering vaguely if the commission had anything to do with the new babies: twin boys, as usual.

It was just a mercy that Aunt Ilona had vetoed the YouTube channel. All that remained of that bizarre proposal was a handful of script treatments, one of which András was reading now. For some reason—the living god alone knew why—a few of them made it into the final text. Seriously though, a YouTube channel? Who did they think was going to watch?

Whatever the reason for its commissioning, András did not like the new A Férgek Könyve. Superficially, it was easier to read, but as went the King James literary stylings, so too went the mellowness, the maturity, the antediluvian dignity of the thing. Emotionally and psychologically, the book was now missing something important. He couldn’t imagine anyone being driven to paroxysms of shrieking insanity by it. Even his cousins—many of whom were certified “highly strung:” clinically in most cases, criminally in some—even they would struggle to reach the heights of chthonically incestuous, orgiastic auto-cannibalism they once had. No more black-bile baying and wail of the fleshfang-toothtalon-tearing blood-drowning darkness for them. Thursday night by candlelight would never be the same.

András stopped rummaging among the spice jars in the cupboard for a moment. “Fleshfang-toothtalon-tearing?” Now, where did that come from? The Book, yes; but not this version, that was certain. Somewhere deep in the bone, rather: marrow-talk. Perhaps an ancestor, someone who had been here before him. He shuddered a little.

The power of The Book had been diminished, that was the point. He couldn’t help thinking that much of the real meaning had gone too. If you don’t have the words, he muttered aloud, you can’t think the thoughts, that’s what Garrett would have said.

András would speak to his father at the weekend. Turning back to the cupboard, he quickly found the almost empty jar of oregano and a little yellow box of chicken stock cubes. The tomato puree was right at the back, mangled by careless squeezing, cap vilely scabbed at the root like a broken tooth. Not that it would do any good. It wasn’t as if there was anyone they could complain to. The people at the publishing company were all gone now.

Propping the iPad against the cardboard box of tea bags on top of the microwave, next to the lacquered tea caddy his mother bought him last year, he scrolled down the recipe, eyes scanning the ingredients. Tin of cannellini beans, check; dried macaroni pasta, check; red pepper flakes— ah. He’d almost forgotten them. Back to the cupboard. Pushing the little jars back and forth, as though in a game of high-speed chess, he noticed that the lid on the turmeric said “Garam Masala”. Turning a few more, he found the garam masala. The lid said “Garam Masala”. So where the hell was the turmeric lid? No red pepper flakes. He wondered what kind of red pepper he was supposed to use. Nothing too spicy, he guessed. Habanero was almost certainly too much, likewise the new jar of ground chipotle. A shake of cayenne, a good shake, would have to suffice.  Maybe some thyme and a whisper of smoked paprika too? No. András’ family had been cooking from The Book for more than six hundred years. It was best not to muck about with tradition too much. He could get away with substituting an ingredient here and there if needs be, but it didn’t do to start adding things. There was, his mother had warned him, no telling how things might react. Whether, by “things”, she had meant the other ingredients or­—or something else, he didn’t know. When it came to culinary matters, however, it was generally best to listen to mother. Half a teaspoon of onion powder couldn’t hurt though.

Ghoul! Chewer of Corpses! Garrett would have said that too.

No Garrett! Let me cook and let me eat!

Not that the family, or its traditions, were particularly hidebound. Hence the iPad. The real thing, the last remaining copy of The Book, was not the sort of thing one could keep on the shelf among the other cookbooks: Italian, Mexican, West Indian, A Férgek Könyve, Thai.

The Book was a hefty volume, something like Atlas Folio size, with iron hasps, an ornate gilt lock, and a binding that looked and felt like the very softest leather. On the front, etched or worked somehow into the skin, were the words, in his grandmother’s native tongue, A Férgek Könyve. Underneath, in English, The Book of the Worm, which he supposed was only an approximate rendering. In the centre of the cover, nestled between the titles, was an illustration of what he now knew to be a nematode worm. Obviously, it didn’t look like a nematode worm, not a real one anyway. Nematodes were, on the whole, rather nondescript creatures; notoriously so, even among researchers. The image on The Book was anything but nondescript. With its length coiled beneath it, the creature reared up, sinuous, serpentine. Its head looked like a deformed hand, with a stunted thumb and pinkie finger poking out. Between the stubby little members curled a ring of thick tentacular appendages and in the middle of the ring, a wrinkled, fleshy mouth from which protruded a pair of jaws, long and shallow like a beast’s. The jaws were lined with curved teeth, the kind used for tearing flesh. Not a bad approximation of polynoidae, the scale worm, as it happened.

Of course, what the worm looked like was entirely beside the point. It was what it did that mattered.

Crouched in front of the fridge, András found half a large onion in a blue sandwich bag and the remains of the celery. Two stalks in his fist drooped unhappily: one left, one right. He threw left back and put right on the counter next to the onion. In the end, he hadn’t been able to get Swiss chard, but the recipe did say that any green, cabbagey vegetable would do so he’d picked up a bag of pre-shredded spring greens. He hoped that would be all right. He hoped that things wouldn’t react badly. He had, however, managed to get some real Parmigiano Reggiano. It wasn’t a very big block but neither was it the cheap, pre-grated, sawdust he usually used. He looked sideways at the bag of spring greens on the counter. It would be fine.

He had first seen the image of the worm, a copy that is, when he was a little boy. Naturally enough, it had terrified him utterly, giving him nightmares for some weeks after. He hadn’t known then that it was a nematode; no more, he supposed, than did the artist who created it. That, according to Aunt Ilona, had been many centuries ago, so there was no possibility that anyone could have seen the real thing, as it were. András himself hadn’t seen one until he began studying biology at university. That’s when he first learned about the experiments on the digestibility of memory. It had been quite alarming to suddenly realise the implications of biological fact: that the ancient traditions of his family, the myths and fairy tales they had brought from the old country, were essentially all true. Not that he’d ever really doubted them, but it was odd to know they were true in this new, more formal way.

He had never actually seen The Book in which those myths and fairy tales were written down, not in the flesh, as it were. Aunt Ilona insisted that he only see copies: copies of the cover and title page—another image of the nematode, a rather crude woodcut this time; and underneath, the legend, “You Are What You Eat.” Just what German philosophy had to do with any of this was anybody’s guess. Besides these images, there had been copies of stories and, naturally, a few recipes. The original Book, the real thing, was kept in a box made of bone—according to his aunt—hidden away in the family vault, unseen and untouched for more than a hundred years. As a child, he had imagined this meant that The Book was lodged among the corrupt and decaying corpses of his ancestors in an ancient and crumbling crypt beneath a storm-girt mountain somewhere far, far away. It had been quite disappointing to learn, some years later, that “the family vault” was just a large strong room in one of the cellars under the house in Suffolk.

András opened the cannellini beans and pulled a face. They would need rinsing and rinsing well to get rid of the gloopy white stuff that always settled at the bottom of the tin. He didn’t know what that stuff was, but he knew he did not want it in his supper. It looked like human seminal fluid. He dumped the beans into a sieve and put the sieve under the cold tap for a few minutes. It was time to deal with the exquisitely, agonisingly delicate challenge that was the macaroni packet. Slowly, trying to control his breathing, trying even harder not to rip the flimsy plastic, András split the seal. It was like trying to open a two-thousand-year-old papyrus. Gingerly, he scooped out about a third of a cup, at which point, the plastic haemorrhaged violently and disintegrated. An exodus of dried pasted skittered across the counter.

“Bollocks,” he muttered, scowling and scooping up the fallen pasta before shovelling it, and the remaining shreds of plastic wrapper, into another blue sandwich bag. The bag disappeared into the back of the cupboard, there to wait for an eternity, behind a bag of flour mites. “Buggery-bollocking cheap shitty plastic packaging.”

To say that The Book, the original that is, remained unseen and untouched would no longer be entirely true, of course. There were the people who created the e-book that András was currently reading, for instance. They had scanned The Book, translated the text, designed the new layout. They had all seen it and read it, bits of it anyway. Father and the others had dealt with the whole crew, but not until the invoice had been paid. They were not, as his father never tired of pointing out, thieves or brigands anymore.

The account manager at the publishing company, the scanning supervisor, and the e-book binder had been the first to go. They had gone to meet the old gods who live in the forest. It had all happened quite quickly. Within a very few days of the invoice arriving, considerable sums of money were transferred to both personal and company accounts and everyone was happy. Then the black vans turned up.

A week or so later, the rest of the employees had gone too, along with the CEO. Translators, editors, production managers, graphics designers; anyone and everyone who knew or might have known about the commission. For reasons he still didn’t understand, they had even taken the entirety of Human Resources with them. His brother referred to them, presciently, as it happened, as the “Human Remains department,” and had insisted on taking them. After the senior production team had been whisked away, the others were less urgent. Consequently, their journey had also been rather more comfortable, more civilised. Limousines collected them; a brief jaunt on one of the superyachts; and the last leg by private train; all ostensibly for a week of luxury, relaxation, and serious partying: a kind of “thank you” for everybody’s hard work on the new translation of The Book; which it was, in a manner of speaking. The people from the publishers weren’t the only ones being thanked, however.

Flicking the screen of his iPad, András scrolled back up the recipe page to the picture of the finished Pasta Fazool (or e Fagioli). The chef—whoever that was—had garnished the dish with a sprinkling of chopped greenery, Italian parsley by the looks of it. András turned back to the fridge, sucking his teeth. The undersized salad box in the bottom looked grimy. It also contained, in perpetuity, just under half an inch of grey-brown water. Condensation probably, runoff from the tiny icebox at the top. He could imagine his brother’s disgusted reaction: lip curled, hand clasped to the pantomime-gagging mouth, nauseated gurgling; a finger pointed dramatically at the watery box and opining sententiously, as he had done so many times already, that it was as sure a way to get food poisoning as any he could imagine.

“You don’t just get botulism from sixteen-year-old beauty therapists, you know.”

A little disquieted, András suspected brother got something quite other than botulism from sixteen-year-old beauty therapists. The admonition would conclude, patronisingly, with the usual rhetorical query of the “what-do-they-teach-you-at-university-these-days?” type. That was his brother’s speciality. That and the Second Gallowstone Invocation.

In fairness to his brother—the pompous old fart—Garrett would likely have agreed, and Garrett was rarely wrong about things like that. He had developed a nose for the perilously inedible while they were undergraduates, sharing a kitchen with a dozen or so other students. His twitching nose, ever alert to the hazards of thickly bearded cheese and imprudently reheated rice, had saved them both from more than one very, very bad day.

The hospitality bestowed upon their guests from the publishing house was impeccable. The family took such obligations very seriously since to do otherwise could so easily prove fatal. Such are the lessons of history. Thus, for several days, everyone enjoyed the best of everything: delicacies prepared by Chef Julius; the very finest of wines, including several cases of exceedingly rare Tokaj rescued from the cellars of the Winter Palace, a last favour from a distant cousin. When appetites had been sated and the wine drunk—stress, as Aunt Ilona always said, was bad for the meat—the guests followed in the footsteps of their senior colleagues.

In the heart of the forest, the great stone altar, roughhewn and ancient, was bathed in blood. More blood, in fact, than it had seen in almost a century; since the communists first came, András’ father remarked, and had to be taught the error of their politically presumptuous ways. As then, so now, for gratitude can be as messy a business as education. The creatives (the word elicited another sneer from his brother) were bled and butchered; liver and lights burned on the huge bonfire that roared and danced at the centre of the sacred grove; and all around, the trees were watered with blood. Human Resources were separated from the others and hung—hanged, rather—from the ring of crosstrees around the grove’s perimeter; skin flayed, ribcages cracked open, the hot, steaming meat inside left for the devils that lived in the caves to feed upon.

Afterwards, talking with his brother, András wondered whether the whole thing—the old gods, the sacred grove with its bonfire and altar, the human sacrifice, the bat-winged devils—whether it wasn’t all a bit clichéd. His brother, ever the pragmatist, shrugged, observing that there’s usually a reason clichés become clichés. András nodded. His brother was, he supposed, quite right.

With a glittering professional eye, Chef Julius had picked over the remainder of the flesh and sent the choicest cuts up to the house. Aunt Ilona was particularly partial to kidneys fried in butter with salt and pepper, a whisper of cayenne (micro-seasoning, the Chef called it), and a slice of black bread to sop up the juices. The rest of the meat, and there was an awful a lot of it this time, was sent down to the village, that the people might partake in the thanksgiving after their own fashion. Such traditions were important, as András’ father told anyone who would listen. They bound them all together, family and villagers, as a community, he’d said, raising his hands and interlacing his fingers to illustrate his meaning. After all, it was no longer the Middle Ages; you couldn’t just string them up from the castle walls and sacrifice their children to Csütörtök úr and Szélkirálynő. That sort of thing inevitably led to bad feeling.

In reality, it had been a great many years since any children had been taken to the grove in the forest; and even then, only when there was very good reason to do so. Naturally, the parents had understood. Despite his brother’s theatrical wincing at the word “community,” relations between the family and the villagers had always been friendly. The village itself nestled comfortably in the lush green hills below the family estates. It was rather pretty, if a little remote, and it was not at all “ill-regarded” as one commentator, in a rare moment of linguistic economy, averred. There had been that spot of trouble back in the 1920s, when an American poet had turned up—Godfrey? Jeffrey? Something like that. Wild-eyed and evidently stoned or stotious or both, he’d flung himself noisily about the place demanding to be taken to the grove, to be told about the family, and so on. The good-natured villagers had taken him to a doctor, who diagnosed a combination of severe nervous exhaustion, too much booze and drugs, and being a bit of an arsehole. So they packed him off back home to America where he checked himself into an “asylum,” which was actually a very expensive health spa, and declared himself insane. Entirely by coincidence, no doubt, he had just published a book—some dismal volume about people on a monorail—which hadn’t been selling very well.

Emptying the gluey brown water into the sink, András scribbled an instantly forgotten note to, “!!Clen Salda Box!!” and surveyed the contents. One remaining stick of celery, something grey and furry which might once have been a jalapeno pepper, and two soggy looking spring onions. No parsley. Never mind. Rinsing the onions briefly under the tap, he flung them on the counter and slid the box back into the fridge.

Time to survey the ingredients spread out beside the cooker. He checked them off against the recipe as he did so. No doubt about it, in thirty-five minutes or so, he was going to be facing an awful lot of Pasta e Fagioli (or Fazool). Besides the vegetables—to which he was, somewhat rashly perhaps, adding half a green pepper and a largish chunk of red—there was also the meat. In spite of everything, it helped to think of it as “meat” rather than as “Garrett’s brain”. 

Until recently, András and Garrett had been good friends. András still felt close to Garrett and not just physically; although now he would have to admit that their relationship was rather one-sided. They had originally met at the Fresher’s Fair during their first few days at university, bumping into one another at the fencing club stall as they simultaneously reached for the sign-up sheet and chewed biro-on-a-string. Chatting nervously, the two students had experienced a sudden flash of self-awareness. In a moment of gilded clarity, they knew with utter certainty that, should they live a thousand years or more, remaining undergraduates for entire the span, they would never attend any of the clubs on whose sign-up sheets they had scrawled their own and occasionally other people’s names. Not the fencing club, not the debating society, not the drama group, not the film club: not any of them. They had, they knew with arithmetical inexactitude, come to university for one thing and one thing only: beer and fanny.

The acquisition ratio of those two commodities being entirely predictable, the campus bar became a second home to András and Garrett for the duration of their studies. Uncle George, the curate, was like a second father. His ears were large and sympathetic; his advice, sparing but reliable; his pouring skills, impeccable; and his willingness to accept a hastily scrawled cheque for a variety of illegal narcotics, unwavering. On the inaugural occasion of their attendance, just prior to becoming as drunk as a couple of boiled owls, the pair had discovered that they were taking the same biosciences courses. From that moment forward, they were rarely seen out of one another’s company. Genial Uncle George soon began referring to them as “the terrible twins,” even while everyone else preferred the more accurate sobriquet, “those pissed twats in the corner.”

They completed their first degrees in the usual time and manner: three years accentuated by a combination of stumbling alcoholism, malnutrition, and final exam panic-sweats. Having done so, and being unable to think of anything else to do, they heard and obeyed the siren-song of postgraduate study. Their chosen fields were neuroscience and theoretical neuropsychology. Garrett was always the stronger student, the one with the real brains, so to speak. He had, on several occasions, ensured that, not only did his friend pass his exams, but he also understood what he was being examined on.

András looked sadly at the plate of grey-green stuff. Ringed as it was by a glossy glaze of navy-blue flowers, scratched and chipped by years of shoddy washing up, the remains of his friend looked oddly at home. Mentally, he shook himself and turned his attention back to the meal he was supposed to be preparing. There was almost half a kilo of meat waiting to be cooked here, with another kilo sealed in a plastic box in the fridge. Far too much for one person and it wasn’t even as though he could share it with anyone; although he knew that Prashant, his neighbour next door, was presently motherless and desperate for real food. Nevertheless, András didn’t especially relish the idea of having Garrett for dinner every night this week either. After supper, he would text Aunt Ilona and ask whether The Book said anything about freezing left-overs.

After many years working side by side, the final step was before them. The work was done: data gathered, analysis complete, write-up written. All that remained—he glanced again at the plate—was the viva: two gruelling hours in the crucible of scientific debate; two hours to defend four years of work and three hundred pages plus notes. In facing this last great challenge, András could fairly claim to have a sound grasp of the material, of its strengths and weakness, and of the arguments that would substantiate it. Even so, he knew very well that, if he wished to really succeed, he would need Garret’s help one last time. If the freezer was an option, it might be two.

With the end of their academic apprenticeship rapidly moving into view and anxieties mounting, András and Garrett had decided to get away for a few days. They opted, at the former’s suggestion, for the countryside, hoping that the peace and beauty of nature would be dull enough to calm the nerves and drive them back inside to the studies awaiting them. The location for this retreat was easily decided upon. Again, at András’ suggestion, his father’s house in Suffolk would suit them perfectly.

The house was, predictably, very old: a rambling and tumbledown affair, timbered in black and white cage-work, from sometime around the fifteenth century. András’ father referred to it as “a plague house,” meaning one built by the nouveau riche, those waged labourers who emerged after the Black Death danced its merry dance across the English countryside. Much of the house was in a poor state of repair but it was still very habitable. It had many rooms with large fireplaces and old-fashioned décor, all of which were surprisingly cosy and very comfortable. The windows looked out on sun-dappled orchards and cool walled gardens, outbuildings in a condition of picturesque dilapidation, and, occasionally, deer ravaging the vegetable plot next to the large and well-stocked kitchen.

The entire plantation was buried somewhere deep in the woodland between Rendlesham and Dunwich, which, to Garrett’s surprise, was—and presumably still is—a real place. Garrett’s surprise quickly soured into disappointment, however, when they visited the little village a day or so later. Instead of squalid slums, they found a pretty little seaside village of early Victorian redbrick houses with tall, gothic chimneys, and white-walled thatched cottages. The village folk were, it seemed, even worse. No single trace of gnarled and furtive degenerates, slowly descending the evolutionary ladder towards savagery and bestiality, could be discovered. Annoyingly, everyone had been very friendly.

András slid a good-sized pan over the front ring of the cooker and turned the heat to medium-high. He tugged pensively at his lower lip. That would be somewhere between three or four on the dial. Reaching for the oil, he considered briefly using sesame instead of the recommended olive then decided against it. Sesame oil, or any nut oil for that matter, would be much too strong a flavour. More to the point, the mere mention of nut oil would have been too much for Garrett. He would immediately begin snorting with gloriously infantile amusement. “Wish someone would oil my nuts,” András murmured softly to himself, smiling sadly.

He splashed a glug, something like a tablespoon, of olive oil into the rapidly heating pan and gently slid the meat in after. While it browned, he gingerly tried to break it up into smaller pieces. The last thing he wanted was for it to break down completely and turn the whole thing into some kind of weird brain soup. On a whim, he threw in a teaspoon of fennel seeds, then another hefty shake directly from the jar. It would be fine. He tried not to think about it as, after approximately 5 minutes, he added the onions, celery, and peppers, all diced, but not too finely. For a moment or two, he debated silently with himself about whether to add a big pinch of salt as The Book commanded. András didn’t generally like to cook with salt, preferring to add it later, at table. However, as the aim was to help bring out the moisture of the vegetables, he decided to try it just this once.

In addition to childish humour, Garrett had also been quite partial to strong flavours. As a result, the two of them had spent much of their retreat in the serious business of looting his father’s drinks cabinet. They settled, in fairly short order, on the Ardbeg: a fine Islay single malt, the partaking of which, in small sips, was comparable to being stuffed inside a sack of smouldering seaweed and vigorously sexed by the Wild Man of Orford. So much, András’ father loudly declared every time he attacked a fresh bottle, which was about twice a month. The two friends wholeheartedly agreed, it was exceptionally good; and to demonstrate the point, they enjoyed a quantity of the stuff such as to leave them thoroughly scuttered.

Reasonably enough, András had wanted to delay the final moment as long as possible. Nevertheless, three or four days later, Garrett accompanied him down the six thousand steps. He did not entirely do so willingly or of his own accord. Fortunately, Aunt Ilona had added something with a sweetly herbal smell to his last glass of Ardbeg; something to help him relax, she said. In days gone by, András and his brother would have had to carry a loose-limbed Garrett the entire way, stumbling and tripping and cursing as they went. But a body was no easy burden and his father had, in recent years, found a better solution. Now, they simply strapped Garrett into one of the softly cushioned, high-sided  chairs—being sure to keep his hands and feet inside—and let the stairlift do the work. The electric hum of the mechanism echoed eerily in the shivering dusky gloom of the staircase. The others had taken the rest of the chairs and most of the torches and gone on ahead, leaving András to walk beside his softly snoring, slowly descending friend.

Although he hadn’t exactly felt up to it—eviscerating his friend during the Rites of Féreg was very upsetting—András had worn the Red Robe. The Robe, which was more of a deep tan colour nowadays, had been in the family since before even The Book was written. According to tradition, it had been made from the very first sacrifice. András didn’t completely believe this, although he would never say so out loud; his father would have been terribly upset. But it was so difficult to take seriously. The “material” from which this allegedly ancient robe was made showed no signs of stiffening or drying out or cracking. In fact, it showed no signs of age at all. Far more likely, to András’ mind, the Red Robe was actually made anew now and then, when the old one began to show signs of substantial wear and the one he currently wore was only the latest in the series. In any event, his father regarded the Red Robe as an important part of the ceremony and so András suffered it to be draped around his shoulders and the deep hood pulled up over his head.

After four or five minutes, the onions had begun to soften and turn translucent. Turning down the heat to three, in went the macaroni. This seemed like an odd move, given that the chicken stock wouldn’t be in play for several minutes yet. According to The Book, however, the pasta would still absorb some of the flavours, even while dry. Two minutes later, pepper: a shake of cayenne and a grind of black joined the rest of the ingredients, quickly followed by a quarter cup of tomato puree. He dumped in a quarter teaspoon of oregano and then emptied in the last few skin-grey flakes from the jar. Picking up the onion powder, he squinted thoughtfully at it for a moment before putting it back in the cupboard, unopened. There was enough going on with this Fazool (or e Fagioli) as it was; best not risk it.

It had been the first time anyone had descended the steps in several months. The forbidden place below had been off-limits since someone—András suspected his brother—had read from The Book of the Four Winds. Or rather, misread. The howling demons had been so confused that, instead of summoning the Blackseer, they brought the Black Goat of the Woods, the Goat with a Thousand Young. The pit had been completely overrun with Young and it had taken weeks to round them all up, a task made more difficult by the fact that they didn’t all exist in the same dimension all the time. Their ordure did though and, frankly, the smell was beyond horrifying.

The ceremony hadn’t lasted very long in the end; a couple of hours, two or three at most. Several cowled figures, bleating and chittering, carried the limp and softly snoring Garrett to the altar stone. His brother had seen to the chains, rolling his eyes when András had asked him not to fasten them too tight. Despite the sardonic sneer, however, he left enough slack to prevent them from biting into Garrett’s flesh. In any case, there would be time enough for biting later. Once the chains were fast, András’ father stepped forward to recite the first of several invocations. In his usual brisk and business-like manner, he drove the long, curved blade made of fire-blackened bone into Garrett’s sternum. The hands and feet were then cut off and flung into the pit, while inner organs were pulled out and strung around the conical pyre that had been carefully constructed by the cowled figures. András thrust a torch of pitch-soaked rags into the base of the pyre and, as the flames began to dash up the sides, listened to Garrett’s intestines hiss and sputter wetly in the heat.

Two or three minutes had gone by; the herbs and spices would be wide awake by now and he could smell the tomato puree gently caramelising. By the time he was ready to stir in two and a half cups of chicken stock, a nice fond was forming on the bottom of the pan. Leaving the whole thing to a simmer for five minutes, he rinsed the bag of spring greens and left it to drain in a colander. The e Fagioli (or Fazool) was starting to thicken up quite a bit, so he turned the heat down to medium-low and threw in another half cup of stock. Happy with the consistency, he watched his supper come up to a simmer again and carefully, deliberately, stirred in the spring greens.

The whole event wound up when the cowled figures began to bleat louder and louder and Féreg had come from the black realm where Samael, the blind seer, guards the gate of thorns. Hazy and grey at first, the giant form slowly solidified, coiling obscenely up and out of the pit while the three hundred howled. Taking her cue, Aunt Ilona stepped smartly forward and cut the heart from Garret’s body while his father cracked the skull with one swift blow from the bone blade.

Send us bright one, light one, Horhorn and quickening!

And that was pretty much it. The brain was removed later, wrapped in the skin of an unborn lamb, and carefully packed in a Tupperware box. Chef Julius took care of all that, along with the rest of the carcass. He had an incredible selection of Tupperware boxes: one for all occasions and every organ; he also knew how to minimise cell damage when extracting the brain from the cracked skull. A few days later, promising to clean the box before he returned it, András went home with what was left of his friend. 

Watching the shredded green leaves sink slowly into the soup—was it a soup or stew? András worried that he had added too much. After a minute or two, however, the greens began to wilt and descend into the depths of the pan, mingling with the pasta, the herbs and spices, and a portion of Garrett’s gently simmering brain. He watched the Fazool (or e Fagioli) for another minute before stirring in the well-rinsed and entirely semen-free cannellini beans.

The recipe said it would take four or five minutes for the whole thing to finish cooking. In the end, it was more like ten or twelve before the pasta was properly done. Pulling the pan off the heat, he vigorously stirred in about a quarter cup of grated parmesan. One last taste for seasoning—another grind of black pepper, a pinch of salt—and supper was ready. Spooning plenty into his favourite red bowl, András topped it off with another sprinkle of parmesan and a scattering of thinly sliced spring onions. Instead of slicing the onions straight across in rings, he had cut them on the bias. It never hurt to show off your cooking chops. As Chef Julius would have said, he was the John Bunion, of his thinly sliced spring onion.

Pushing aside books and files and piles of notes, András made space for his meal at the table and sat down to eat. The e Fagioli (or Fazool) was very good, if he did say so himself. Garrett’s brain was surprisingly tasty; it carried the other flavours well without being overwhelmed. The extra fennel definitely helped.

Garrett had been quite relaxed in the end. That was something to be thankful for, at least. He had not begged or screamed or cursed the day they had met the way his brother’s friends always did. Not that he would have minded if Garrett had cursed and sworn. People often said hurtful things, things they didn’t mean, when they were upset or angry. András understood that. He looked at the food dripping off his spoon. Knowing it was utterly unfair and not very likely, he still hoped that Garrett might have understood.

He spooned up another mouthful of the spicy, sweet, swampy soup into his face. Pulling a ring-binder with a picture of a dolphin on the front towards him, he began leafing through the contents. A moment or two flipping back and forth and there was the revision plan he and Garrett had drawn up. What next? His finger slid down the list of ticked-off items, stopping at, still unticked: “Neuroendocrinal transactions, non-experiential learning, and the motability of digestional memory in Chromadoria (Nematoda)” by C. Elegans, B. Ursilla, P. Oikilomaius, and R. Hitis: he knew this crew slightly, having bumped into them at conferences in the last few years. The article was unlikely to contain anything very new or exciting; besides, it had all been known to his family for centuries. The language in which The Book was written might have been archaic, but the basic idea was there. Not just the part about memories, obviously. There was so much more to be gained than that. You are what you eat, after all; and Garret had been so very, very clever.

Elegans et al. could wait until after dinner. For now, this looked more interesting: “Don’t Eat Grandma’s Brain! Prusiner’s Ignoble Prions and Progressive Digestional Dementia” by J. Tiberius Beauregard. He reached for a pile of plastic envelopes, each containing one of the many articles he and Garrett had downloaded from completely legitimate sources that in no way infringed copyright law. Most of them would go unread but having them there had made the two students feel serious and productive. The plastic envelopes shlipped softly, flatly onto the table as he shuffled through them. Beauregard was near the bottom of the pile. Scrawled across the top of the first page in big red pen and Garrett’s appalling handwriting, the words, “Ha! Cannibalism is SUCH a bad idea!!” Given that Garret’s soul would spend the next ten thousand years burning in the belly of The Worm, this seemed fair. On the other hand—he slurped Fazool (or e Fagioli)—it was really a matter of which end of the spoon you were on.


THE END


© 2022 Simon Smith

Bio: Not currently famous, Simon Smith is a writer, philosopher, and habitué of a medium-sized university library. His publications, which previously consisted of book reviews, articles in philosophy journals, and a monograph, now include short stories. Before the plague came, he was also the editor of one academic journal and two essay collections. These days, he spends most of his time thumping on about how great James Joyce is. He recently began work on what might eventually be a book about Ulysses.

E-mail: Simon Smith

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