Today, Tumblr user @adevinecomedy made my recipe for lemon meringue pie (featured on this site under the tag “recipes”
As usual, if you make any of my recipes, please send me pictures so that I may post them!
I just received this image from Tumblr user @philosophy-and-coffee, who this evening, made the spaghetti recipe from my book! The one with the blood in it!
Well, done my friend! I do love to know that my tinkering has paid off!
And if any of you make any of my recipes at home, do please send photos my way, so that they may take their place here!
I give you…
The zombie egg! A tentative recipe
This take on a deviled egg consists of a Thousand Year Egg, or Century Egg:
Then spoon the modified yolk back into the white, and serve in half a plastic Easter egg. The relatives to whom you serve this delightful zombie egg will either never return…or will demonstrate their quality.
If they can eat it, keep them around. They’re worth the trouble.
By the way, it is delicious. Very complicated taste. Freshly shelled, they smell strongly of ammonia, but you can soak or cook them to remove this. I found it dissipated very quickly. The finished product is very spicy, slightly bitter, creamy, a trifle sour, and has the scent of a brand new cheap shoe. Lovely!
The following is a continuing collaboration between Folklore consultant Ruth Gibbs and the author of this site.
Welcome back to monstrous myths everyone! Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, paralyzed with fear from nightmares? Have you ever felt a crushing weight on your chest as the darkness closes in on you and something slowly, slowly, creeps over the floor towards your bed? According to the Slavs, you might’ve had a run in with a Mare.
Just the Lore
It is fairly safe to say every person who is reading this has either had a very bad nightmare or knows someone who has had a very bad nightmare. It is part of being human, overactive brains stressed from a long day or week filtering all that pent up emotion, finding a way to release it all in a relatively harmless way. These range from a slight dread and no memory, to something that haunts your waking hours for years to come. We have brain scans nowadays. We can see what the brain is doing when it is asleep, and while the substance of a dream is open to interpretation, the mechanism of it really isn’t anymore.
However, if you lived in ancient Germany, Norway, or various parts of Eastern Europe, that stress nightmare would likely have been caused by a Mara, a small demon creature who sits upon the chest of sleeping people, “riding” them and causing asthmatic fits, thrashing, injuries during the night, and horrific nightmares that awaken the afflicted person with apoplexy and screaming…if they wake up at all. These sleeping-demons tend to be lumped in with the likes of succubi and incubi, but they don’t appear to actually do anything to their victims beyond terrorize, while those other, more well known monsters have serious consequences.
These little beasties didn’t limit themselves to humans, though. In Sweden and Norway they were known to ride horses to sweating exhaustion, causing horrible frustrating knots called marflätor (mare-locks) or martovor (mare-tangles), or ride trees that cause the knots and gnarls in bark. If something looks twisted, exhausted, and upset in the morning… the usual source was a Mare having a fun night out on the countryside.
Physical descriptions of Mare vary from place to place. Mare’s cousins in Romania, the Moroi, are said to be the resurrected souls of the dead seeking revenge on the living for poor burial, while over in Catalan the Pesanta takes the shape of a huge cat or dog. Mare’s can be anything from foot-tall fuzzy gnomish things to ghoulish gangly things with heads scraping the ceilings. Whatever your brain creates that is the most strange, and terrifying, the Mare is, providing whatever it is you are frightened of is humanoid.
In Russia, the Mara are said to be relatives to the more friendly but no less odd looking Domovoi. Normally the Domovoi are benevolent house spirits who help with housework and scare away mice, and can get a little uppity when left without milk or a little food. However, if the Domovoi goes without appeasement, it will retaliate with more and more violent outbursts, sometimes even killing people. In some parts of western Russia Mara are corrupted, twisted Domovoi who have been separated from their homes or families long enough to forget their nature of helpfulness.
It is worth noting that in Germanic lore, Mare are specifically female. They only cause strife and misery, but they do have a slightly more charming male counterpart, the Alp. Where Mare appear to be doing what they do for pure entertainment value, the Alp seems to gain some sustenance from his nightly terrorizing, drinking blood from the nipples of men, women, and young children in the night, and even stealing milk from nursing women’s breasts.
Relation to Simon’s Species
Many people who experience night terrors of sleep paralysis and make the mistake of opening their eyes during this debacle, often describe strange, wriggling things at the corners of their vision, crawling closer and closer every time the sufferer blinks or moves their eyes. Any observant or clever creature could take advantage of that and use the opportunity of a terrorized awake-but-immobile person to have a little fun at their expense.
For the most part the terror that is Mare’s and their ilk can be attributed to sleep paralysis and the ensuing hallucinations that occur, though I believe not all. If we link all these similar creatures by what they do…we can then look for a more distinct description that may tie in to some footing based in Simon’s physicality. The mare, lietuvens, moroi and pesanta as a “familial group” have striking physical similarities. While the Mare do have a very wide range of possible ways they can look, the other three do not.
Always gaunt, always pale, usually wearing the clothing of the deceased relative they’re meant to be, they are otherwise borderline unrecognizable, similar in many ways to the emancipated zombie in one of Simon’s earlier articles in this series, the Obur.
Simon has told stories of grave robbing sometimes being a necessity to obtain clothes and sustenance, so it’s not entirely infeasible that other Cousins might do the same to avoid having to prey upon living people, thereby avoiding arousing suspicion in local communities. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if some managed to survive decades on freshly buried corpses alone, assuming the cousin in question correctly scheduled their nighttime grocery collecting and didn’t take too frequently from the same cemetery.
It’s also worth noting that all of the listed creatures in this article also tend to correspond with similarly-timed animal attacks. Missing or dead livestock stripped to the bone is a popular and common sign that a pesanta has been roaming your farm, and the wild-eyed, sweating horses probably were positively terrified at the predator sneaking past them and into the home of whoever it was they were hunting.
Anything that scares humans could be the inspiration for the Mara. Simon’s species has spent millennia creeping into the corners of our psyche, inspiring and being blamed for the deepest and darkest of our fears. Perhaps it’s only a coincidence that the shape our brains decide is the most frightening when we are paralyzed with terror looks strangely like the creatures that live in the forest and sometimes eat human flesh. Or, just maybe, it’s a little bit of primordial fear left over from a time when we weren’t actively ignoring the threat hiding in the trees.
While the above draws inescapable similarities between creatures of previous articles, I would like to point out the dissimilarities. In the case of the Mara, the creature appears to be something of a trickster. It likes to torment and instill fear. Now while I may be a “nice” creature now, as some have so often framed me, I would like to say that I have not always been.
I know it seems terribly silly to humans, who judge an ancient and secretive species dwelling in secret alongside their own with human eyes and human standards, but allow me to give you a notion from our perspective. For a moment, strip back all your human assumptions of what is odd, what is timely or “worth it”. Imagine you are perhaps somewhat on the border between sentient and insensible. I’ll make a comparison, because I know it happens to you humans often – have you ever been about to say a word, and forgotten the word itself? Have you stood there mutely unable to speak further because you were looking for that one word that escapes you? Imagine living in that place, when all your thoughts are wordless and everything is an uphill approach without the corresponding gravitational pull toward self-expression, or indeed, any closure of an idea at all.
Now imagine you live on the border of a tiny village. In the ancient areas of Eastern Europe farming communities were usually clustered around rivers upon the edges of forests, and we’re overseen by some sort of land baron. These plots were scoured for resources, the families on them eking out a living while tithing their goods. Imagine you are watching these creatures live out the strange lives, pulling their livestock in and out at different times of the day, dragging metal through the ground to make rows, chopping wood, riding animals, singing songs…
In that hazy in between state of mind…what might you make of them? Would you come closer? Would you wonder why they hang things over their lintels? Would you find their little babies fascinating? Would you be amused and take a dish here, a tool there, and then amuse yourself with their reactions? And the closer you got, the more they stimulate thought, and the more that happens…
The hungrier you get.
Man creates the monster, just as stress creates the nightmare. Perhaps in some tiny little village, a Cousin watched, was tempted, stole ever closer. Perhaps he found reason to be angry. I don’t like to pattern my own psychology onto those of my species, but I know whereof I speak, and I know that I have always been protective of certain things – trees, smaller creatures. I despise injustices on a deep level, such that it feels integral to my nature.
It seems easy to imagine, for this not-to-creative soul, a Cousin of mine, waiting until nightfall, when the man habitually went indoors, stealing inside and having a look around, disturbing a man from sleep at just the right moment to interfere with the paralytic of sleep, to spring him to uch a degree of fright and confusion so as to utterly paralyze him, and then to lean over his prostrate and petrified form with a menacing and prophetic leer.
“Don’t cut down anymore of my trees, Mr. Human. I am not to be trifled with.”
On a more amusing and personal note, to go back to the oft heard argument “if you’re really that old, then none of those things would matter to you,” I would like to say that I am a trickster. I have many times taken revenge on humans I find insufferable. And to my doubters I say, I bored! What else am I going to do besides toy with you mayflies? A man beats his horse? How much will I enjoy stacking every single piece of furniture from the roof while he is off in town? He cheats at cards? Well…how much will I enjoy replacing all his coins with pebbles? He abuses his fellow man? How much will I enjoy watching him sleep…while I pluck every hair from his powdered wig and strew it over the floor?
Is it petty? No. I view is as as much a natural force as you are, and all things in Nature achieve an equilibrium. Where would human character be without its tricksters? Where would you be without your nightmares? You would would be flat and two- dimensional without your shadows, my friends.
We’re only helping.
I thought we might try something a little different this time. I do so dislike proving myself, and think that perhaps it isn’t up to me to demonstrate how human mythologies intertwine and overlap. It seems far better to turn it over to you to hash out. So for the foreseeable future, I will turn this series over to two colleagues of mine: an antrhology student and an artist. Perhaps they can make sense of this far better than I.
Hello and welcome to another entry of Monstrous Myths! Blow off the dust and settle in, we’re going for a fun ride.
In a previous post Simon went over the Gorgon, which is a very specific sort of snake monster. Today I’m going to be talking about her distant cousin the Lamia and her place in folklore and ties to Simon’s kin.
Just the lore
The Lamia. A snake bodied seductress best known for her lust for flesh of children. As the purported mother of the famous Scylla of the Odyssey, she is a far more specific beastie with a pedigree. According to myth, Lamia was once the beautiful daughter of king Belus of Egypt who, like every other beautiful woman in Greek myth, fell prey to Zeus’s charms.
This is where her story gets interesting- compared to Stheno, Euryale, and Medusa, there is some historical evidence supporting Lamia being born to actual human parents who were entirely real people. Her father Belus is recorded as having founded a colony on the Euphrates river in Diodorus of Sicily’s Bibliotheca Historica, and while he probably wasn’t exactly as he’s reported (specifically not the spawn of Poseidon and Libya), there is a very good chance he was real and very likely did have at least one daughter. A daughter whose real story has likely been entirely lost to history, though her strange myth lives on.
After being seduced by Zeus, Lamia bore him many children over the course of several years acting secretly as the king-god’s mistress. Eventually Hera discovered their tryst and slaughtered all of Lamia’s children. All but one, a girl cursed into the shape of a hideous creature sent to guard a narrow sea channel with Charybdis. Most myths agree to all the points up to here, but her appearance has been cause for much debate.
Lamia’s now-signature snakelike appearance isn’t mentioned in older Greek stories, and it has been speculated that this deformity is the result of a Christian lense being put over classic myths, specifically with regard to her seductive nature. Lamia’s original deformity is her wide, strange, staring eyes with no lids, said to be a symptom of her guilt over her children’s deaths, and the ability to remove said eyes. Interestingly enough, the second bit isn’t part of a curse, but a blessing bestowed by Zeus to grant Lamia temporary reprieve from her horrible visions and, perhaps, give her the gift of future site. If this is the case, it’s a mythological blessing she shares with the Graeae.
Perhaps the most tragic part of Lamia’s curse is her mad unsated bloodlust for the flesh of small children. Why is debated, but the most popular interpretation of the myths claim that Hera cursed the woman to consume other’s children as punishment after killing Lamia’s offspring, or that Hera stole or killed Lamia’s children and the loss drove Lamia insane. Her madness caused her to steal and devour the children of others, and this eventually turned her into the strange malformed creature of myth.
Relations to Simon’s Species
With a first glance at the modern interpretations of Lamia, its easy to dismiss her as just a silly morality tale and another sexy clone of the snake in Eden. However, as with most myths, the further back you go in time the less recognizable they get. Lamia’s physical appearance is the first tipoff that she’s a relative of Simon. The strange eyes, gaunt appearance and man-eating appetites are especially obvious.
But let’s not forget that there seems to be evidence the Lamia was a real woman.
My humble theory is that the original Lamia was in fact a flesh and blood person with a name and a life, who got unfortunately involved in some sort of politically dangerous romantic tryst. Maybe it was an affair with a married statesman, maybe she was wed and took a lover, maybe her husband died and she was blamed, maybe a lot of things, but in the end her children from whatever sort of union she had were killed by someone involved in the ensuing dramatic episode. My theory is that the killer was Lamia herself, out of shame or guilt to conceal her crime. It’s probably that the number of children was very small and has been gradually inflated over the years for dramatic effect.
Either soon after or during all of this, a local cousin was probably hunting people without much discrimination in age. It’s feasible to guess that a few children went missing due to the monster’s hunger or from other natural causes. People get emotional when children vanish or are mauled by wild animals, and will blame just about anything to avoid confronting the harsh and painful truth. Regardless of how the people vanished, Lamia was likely exiled, executed or managed to escape and her sudden public disappearance poured fuel on the fire. Rumors of her killing her own children trickled down to the general population as they tend to, and one thing led to another. Assumptions were made, connecting this murderess with the disappearances. I can’t imagine this did good things for the local cousins larder.
Everything about Lamia screams “thing that consumes humans”, even her name. Aristophenes claimed the name came from the greek word “laimos” or “gullet” in reference to her insatiable hunger.
One of the most frustrating things about Lamia is her gradual evolution from tragic figure to sexy seductress. Placing the two characters next to each other, neither looks like they are in any way related. Even her propensity for eating children has faded as time has gone on. Modern tellings of the myth have overlapped her with Lilith, and erased any possible sympathy the character might have. A creature who has become an interweaving of a woman who committed a historical crime and a cousin in the wrong place at the wrong time has twisted, as many myths do, to fit the moral narratives convenient to the era of a story’s telling.
Simon’s Take On Things
I think it very possible that Ruth is correct in her theory, with one possible alteration. I will draw attention to the things that I discovered about my species, specifically that we appear to be somewhat incensate when not consuming human flesh. We have a natural state, and while we are clever, we are of the earth. Eating people does something very specific for us. So it seems to me that with this knowledge, several possibilities exists for the evolution of Lamia.
It could easily be true that Lamia either murdered her own children or was the victim of some archaic form of justice. But if any children did go missing in the vicinity, it is unlikely to be the responsibility of a cousin. Sheep, yes. Children, unlikely.
What is most likely?
Well, let us look at the very reason that Laamia is remembered at all. If her father really did found a colony and there is evidence that he did in fact exist, then it is likely that he did have a daughter. If he had a daughter her name would not have been Lamia, as this is her mythical name. Lamia was the monster. And like the gorgon, Lamia was linked with the sea and the serpeant.
But why would anyone care about this young lady? What about her specific story withstood the test of time, even as it twisted and transformed through eons?
Perhaps because there was a local monster, a cousin of mine. Perhaps there were a few in Ancient Greece. Perhaps they were related, or not, but the Greeks seem to have taken an inordinate amount of notice of them, don’t they? Far more than the modern human does. Perhaps because they weren’t so secretive as they are now. Perhaps there was a girl and there was a Lamia, and perhaps they were friends.
Perhaps the story exists today because of the bizarre association they formed. Perhaps the girl had a bargain with the Lamia, and the two became forever tangled. If the mercenary Lamia did the girl’s bidding, and the girl was driven away or put to death, it is a certainty that the Lamia would putlive her, and if the Greeks believed them to be the same individual, the Lamia would forevermore have been confused for the girl and her controversy.
Be careful making bargains with monsters, my gentle readers.
Ruth Gibbs is an anthropology student at the University of North Texas on her way to a PhD in Folklore with a focus on stories and their cultural impact on society. Her interest in the study of stories started very early in life and has blossomed into what promises to be a very interesting academic career. Special fields of interest include Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Germanic and Eastern European stories and their origins. You can find her at email@example.com or on her Tumblr
Recently, I was asked to describe the funniest thing I had ever seen. This is a difficult prospect, as I have seen a great deal and it largely depends upon the onlookers sense of humor.
Dark humor, someone has requested.
Therefore I will tell you the very first story I recall — that of my awakening on this earth (obviously it was not the first time, as my books record, but it is the earliest memories I have that provides the beginning of all the contiguous experience of my mind from thence to now. This is the beginning of “Simon” as it were, for I knew nothing else until recently, after some 7 centuries). Please recall, that because this is my first memory, it is jumbled, is pieced together from a great deal of hindsight, and really was quite a conundrum to me until I had experienced another hundred years of that certain mingled human stupidity and cleverness that alternately undermines and composes your condition.
Some of you recollect that I have mentioned awakening on the shore of the Black Sea in a pool of bloody ooze. I haven’t been much more specific than that, because I don’t know how to be. It is simply what happened. I opened my eyes, and there I was, and I was naked, and there was dirt and blood and I was covered in it. I have mentioned stealing clothes from a plague victim, and that is true, but I haven’t exactly said how that came about. So here we are.
How best to tell it? From the vantage of newly awakened me? Or from the all-seeing eye of modernity? I think perhaps, the funniest way to tell it is how it was lived, though at the time, there was nothing humorous about it. In fact, it was utterly confounding.
I stood up. I had a good sniff. After a bit of sussing, I felt I could tell that there were other living things around me. I felt I knew that there was a limit to my movements. I don’t know how else to explain it but as the mental equivalent of standing at the bottom of a steep hill and looking to the summit in that sensation of resignation that yes, you will have to climb the hill (this happens to monsters too. We haven’t any stamina.) As I stood there, looking around with more than just my eyes, I don’t recall thinking in words. I thought in feelings, impressions. I considered the feelings I was encountering- that notion that there were boundaries that had to be obeyed. For example, when I made to follow the coastline- it was obviously impossible in that direction, but what of the other? No? Oh. How nice.
So I did. I picked my way through a very lovely green terrain, until I came closer to the water. From where I was, I had an excellent vantage of what was a harbor. Of course to my eyes at the time, it was simply a busy place bustling with human life. I hid myself away and watched, for a great long while, learning furiously.
There were moving creatures on boats, and moving creatures on the shore. There was a city with high walls, not the highest I have since seen, but at the time quite formidable. A steep rampart made climbing to the foot of the wall a challenge, and several barricades had been constructed to lean against this. Creatures stood on them looking up at the other creatures on the top of the wall, and there was a curious exchange happening. Some shouting, but mostly, a calm conversation. This was my first experience with speech. I don’t rightly know what was being said, but it was clear that the creatures on the barricades wanted something, and the creatures on the wall were telling them to piss off.
On the ground, especially on the water’s edge, there were many creatures simply lying there, unmoved. I decided that I wanted to look at the still ones. So I snuck closer. This was the first time I remember seeing a dead body, and the hunger hit me with such force and sharp need, that I don’t remember much, except that I was on my knees and digging my hands in before I could blink. The body in question was…ripe. It was at least a day or two old, bloated and purplish. Its time in the water had done it no favors, and it had massive blackish splotches on its skin. To me, these seemed odd, but I did not poke at them. I ate what I could. It did not taste all that nice, but it made me less hungry, which was the point. As I ate, I looked back at the city and I watched what was happening. Every so often, a group of creatures would huddle at the wall overlooking the water, and they would toss a dead body over the side.
What an odd thing to do.
I watched the bodies hit the water and slowly sink. Some were wedged between boats. Some rolled in the tide and were knocked about like buoys. It occurred to me then that the creatures on the wall were not eating the meat if they were tossing it over the side. They didn’t eat the dead, and so how odd I was for doing so. Like Adam and Eve having tasted the fruit of the tree of knowledge, I looked up from my meal and knew my nakedness. I stole the clothes. But having no understanding of how to put them on, it all happened in a rather comedic fashion. I removed the clothing with tugs that tore the fabric, and found that when I put my own limbs in, the things hung on me like sacks and stank of death. It didn’t bother me, per say. It was simply a little blinding.
I wandered along the harbor area in my ill-fitted, tangled clothes. I found that the people around the city seemed to avoid me, rather pointedly, but there was no malice in it. They simply glanced my way in expressions of wide eyes and open mouths (what of them had blank faces, as most were wearing cloths over their noses and mouths). I had no idea why they were not hostile to me, in fact they seemed as if they didn’t mind me at all, which was somehow comforting. I was nevertheless keen to stay away from them, but none came any closer than about thirty yards.
Then a curious thing happened. I looked on what I can now describe as an encampment of men. Many bodies were lying on the ground moaning. Some of them were dead, but most were either quite obviously alive and suffering, or were comatose and seemingly presumed dead, as they were unceremoniously dumped in piles. I could hear their hearts, mind you. It seemed obvious to me that most of these things were simply lying there, as if they couldn’t be bothered to move. I did not know about sleep really, but knew I had been on the ground but hours before and so they must also find themselves on the ground occasionally. The ones moaning and groaning were seeping all sorts of liquids, and some of them were splotchy. Their still-ambulating counterparts were paying them no heed. No one even came near them, except me. With one eye to the other men in their shiny bits and padded garments and one eye to the bodies beneath me, I picked my way through. Suddenly, several men stomped up to the edge of my little crop of bodies and plucked one. This one was still alive, as will become quite evident.
Faces averted as best they could, expressions of disgust in place, the men took hold of this comatose body and heaved it up. They carried it down the shore and came abreast of a large wooden…thing. I had looked at the thing before, but it wasn’t moving. I thought it some other construction, like a piece of the city jutting out. It wasn’t. It was a trebuchet – a catapult.
Up went the slumbering sick man, into a little bucket. Men worked at the wheel as the winder went. There were odd clicking sounds and a soft humming to my ear, deep and low. After a long while, someone shouted a word, and instantly, with astounding percussive compression and force, something triggered, the great arm swiveled, I crouched instinctively, and with movement like the wind, the poor- now awake- dying man was hurtling through the air, screaming like a terrified comet.
What the devil? thought I, though not in so many words.
Why should these creatures build such machines? And why would they throw dead or dying counterparts with them? What sort of madness was this? What is the point of hurling a dead animal at someone else?
Then I decided it was best not to come any closer.
I backed out of the bodies and retreated to a small copse of trees. It had been hacked to bits, it seemed, by the groups of creatures stocking along the ramparts and swarming near the ships- pieces of lumber and splinters of wood were everywhere. I sat down and watched in stunned fascination as body after body was hurtled over the city walls, and body after body was retrieved and tossed over the wall into the water. It was all a terribly amusing recycling process and I remember wondering what it could possibly accomplish except to give flightless things a chance at soaring heavenward in their final moments, before being dashed into the water to rinse off their dust. I wondered if the cycle would repeat, or if it was something they only did to fresh bodies.
Eventually, I left the area, but not before eating a few more times.
Much later, I realized the complete meaning behind what I had seen. What I witnessed was a full scale siege – that of the Genoese city of Kaffa. You see at this time, the Tartars of the Golden Horde had allowed this conquered territory to rule itself through commerce and capitalism. Italians had made many monetary investments and purchases in the region, stimulating growth and lining pockets. In a neighboring town, a scuffle broke out between Italians and Tartars, resulting in a Muslim death. The Italians at fault fled to Kaffa, and to the shock of the Tartars, the Genoese refused to let them in. The military showed up and laid the siege…never realizing they had already been infected with the new dread scourge- the Black Plague. When the army began to die off, the commanders made a shocking decision – to hurl the bodies of the plague victims over the walls of the city. The inhabitants tried to hurl the bodies back out, but the plague caught.
Enter me – wearing a dead man’s clothes, looking every inch the modern zombie, wandering the plague victims in vague, goo-covered ambivalence. Those who saw me were probably accustomed to the sight of staggering half-dead mean (that was then the natural course of many diseases), but I dare to guess that some probably thought me some sort of omen. They avoided me because I probably looked like the pale rider. The men of the day, especially the Tartars, were notoriously superstitious.
This artists’ rendering of the siege of Kaffa is inaccurate in most respects, but I thought you might enjoy it, anyway.
Eventually the siege broke and the scant remaining Tartars buggered off. The Italians ran as fast as they could to escape the plague with which they’d been confined. When their ships left port, I snuck aboard. We stopped at a few places. I got off at one. And by a skipping means, traveled my way across the Italian peninsula, and then on to France.
The year of this arrival to France was 1348. The year the Black Death came…in fact, it likely came from the very ship in which I rode. One of the reasons why my memories of Marseilles are not so fond.
This is a very horrifying thing, yes? But to me at the time it was completely ridiculous. I have laughed at the feelings I had that day more than once since then. I laughed again when I read an article written by a specialist in communicable disease that said there was no feasible way that a corpse could spread plague by being flung through the air. Dead bodies don’t carry the plague, parasites do, and parasites leave within an hour of death. And so it is more likely that the Golden Horde brought death-carrying rats and fleas with them, and that these somehow found a way into the city, breaking the siege much faster than the catapulted corpses ever would.
I can still hear that poor man’s yelp as he shot through the air. What a rude awakening. One is utterly spent, aching, feverish, bleeding from orifices, resigned to death, and then whoosh! One is shooting through the air as a cursed missile and one’s final moment is as blunt as the side of a building.
To me, at least, this is very funny.
Just after the war, the ports were full of returned soldiers, they were scarred and lost, but the great enemy was gone, and we were victorious. In my youth, I thought war a fine end, an end unto itself, but I was stupid. I hadn’t seen death properly then. It is easy to be brash, when your look around and realize that there might be a chance you’ve escaped all that withering business. Until it really begins to make that dire and skeletal impression upon you…that no one else will.
If every person around you is an open space, an adventure, as Rebecca says, a path to walk with a companion — well, death is the fallen bridge, the twisted trees and brambles across the trail. Death is a door that slams shut, and all that lies beyond it is forever lost. The death of one man, however vile, is the death of an entire world.
I say this, knowing full well what I am, and what I do several dozen times a year. I am lethal, but never is the undertaking given one smidgen less concern or contemplation than it deserves, provided I am fed. Which is, of course, one of the myriad of reasons why I keep myself so well fed. Death, in all the irony of my condition, is my loathed enemy, for all that it has taken from me.
It was summer when we first met. Uncommonly warm as I recall it. I had finally dropped the lovely-lady-with-arms-built-for-the-shipyards act. I had taken up a watch cap and waders — fishing. It is a noble profession. A biblical profession even. And so I found it somewhat amusing when I was cordially invited by a woman with a pamphlet to the potluck celebrating the opening of their new church. I had seen them standing there long before I received said missive. I was avoiding them, with my head turned to my feet, carrying my gear and a lunch pail. But I remember her laugh, and how friendly she was. When she handed me the paper, she seemed far too delighted to meet me.
I turned up at the church. Churches and I are old comrades in this confrontation with death. I on the side of defeating the tyrant, and The Church on the side of good grooming and organization. Well…that and door prizes and merit badges. Monsters never turn down free food. Not even terrible potlucks.
Those days, I spent several days at a go doing stints of heavy labor, sometimes a few days at a time away from shore. I carried a stockpile of meat, but I was always hungry, and though I had some money, I was not in the position to spend it. I lived in a very small apartment in the area near the docks, and I made do by butchering my kills in my bathtub. The trick is to let them sit a bit. Then they don’t spurt everywhere. Arterial spatter is the dickens, but one can…
Ah, pardon me.
I arrived at the door, and there she was, all light and sunshine. Late twenties, I think. Prime age for a young lady in those days. I can see her dress clearly in my mind, a pale lavender A-line, with a collar. It complemented her skin nicely. She appeared to recognize me at once, and swung herself over to me.
“I am so glad you could come! I think I’m the one who gave you the brochure!”
“My name is Grace.”
I tapped my throat, as was my general custom. This is the age of science. Though I could never expect to obtain a high-paying position due to the usual fears, I could at least be assured not to be met with horror or revulsion. There were many veterans, after all. Some with grievous injuries.
She dipped her chin in appropriate recognition and to my surprise, hooked her hand over my elbow and gave me a tug. “You just have to come this way. Come see the spread! Isn’t it swell?”
And indeed it is, a long set of tables lain with all manner of thing, most of which looked frankly odd. Casseroles, fried foods, colorful salads, pasta, and nearing the end of the table, a faintly orange baking dish of some sort of mildly disconcerting stuff. Heedless of my dubious glance or the hunger behind it, Grace took up a plate.
“Now you must have some of this,” she said, heaping it with little mountains. A range fit for any hungry monster to climb. Finally, in the center of the plate, she plopped down a generous heap of the cheese-laden potatoes and stared at me.
I blinked out my gratitude, possibly seeming a bit stunned or overwhelmed.
She handed me a fork wrapped in a napkin. “The one in the middle is mine. Let me know what you think, won’t ya?”
And off she went, to highjack some other defenseless soul with her pretty face and boundless charms. I walked to the corner of the great room, and backed a chair to it. I sat huddled over my food like some sort of rodent, shoveling it in in sequential order, bound and determined to escape before any sort of church service could be put into effect with a ritual designed to tell me what an abomination I am.
I worked in a spiral, through the macaroni, the jello, the whipped cream, the chicken, the vegetables, and finally found the Sinai at the center — the cream cheese potatoes, though I had no idea that was their name.
I took a bite, and largely forgot what I was doing. Suddenly all things sang in a harmony of soulful depth and glory. Compared to most meals I had had of late, this was a symphony. Sea catch and tack, spare parts and sour beer, this was a glorious, perfectly seasoned, the potatoes that texture that defies logic — at once both soft and firm. The cheese sauce seemed a mixture of things, some bouillon, herbs. What herbs? Flavors all muddled. I picked them out, but could not name them all. not mixed like this. The crumble over top was crunchy, but nothing so simple as the ones to which I was accustomed — they too being seasoned. Tiny chunks of ham and bacon were littered throughout in generous portions. Neither too moist nor too sticky. Simply delicious in every way.
I rolled it around my mouth, eyes closed, completely oblivious to the world. And then there she was again, right in front of me. With an eye like a falcon hunting down approval for what she must have known was quite the achievement.
Hands on her knees, she bent low and caught my eye. “What ya think? Good, Isn’t it?”
I nodded, very happily, I might add. She stood up and clapped her hands. “I just knew I’d gotten it right. Knew it. Everyone is so pleased. There won’t be enough to take home, at this rate! Be sure to try the cheesecake. That one was my mother’s.”
And there she went. I left the party then, with a long and lingering look at the potatoes. I tried to impress the food on my memory, as I often do with foods I rather like. I wanted to be able to manifest it in my mouth on command.
Years separate this moment from the next, as is so often the case in my life, which I string together for you in a way I never lived it. To you it looks decorative and balanced in aesthetic. To me it is a jumbled mess of a thing, but ah me, it is what it is.
This time, I was a woman. A solitary soul, living on the outskirts of town, I kept my neighbors well, so that they found me pleasant, if a trifle shy. The times were changing. Women were living alone. Feminism and Civil Rights were a subject on every radio broadcast or television program. I had a modest house and I liked it well. Its kitchen was quite good. Even now, with my industrial gas range, I miss that rounded, pastel monstrosity on which I attempted and failed to recreated Cream Cheese Potatoes. I plied my goods on the poor neighbors, one in particular — let us call him Mr. Haskel — whose wife had passed away. Sometimes I would lie awake and listen to him shuffle about his house. His leg had been somewhat mangled in the war. He walked with a cane. He talked a big talk, but his heart was weak from war with the Germans and war with Death. That is how it always is.
On the third attempt at the potato concoction dropped unceremoniously on his welcome mat, he answered the door and caught me placing my offering. I did a little curtsey in awkward silence as he looked me over. A cuss, he was, but a kindly cuss, if such a thing is possible.
“It’s okay,” he said. “But you know, I’ve got a friend you ought to meet. She makes this potato thing that would knock your socks off. Brings it to every church dinner. Told her that if I die, she better serve it at my funeral or else no one will come.”
He laughed, but there was a harshness to it. I helped him inside. I plated my creation and waited to see. I knew at once that it was another failure, and so had a bite myself. No, not nearly half so good.
With a hand across my mouth, I thanked him, reminded him to take his medicines, and then scurried back home.
Less than a year later, he was dead.
I was sewing. Counting the rhythm of my machine, listening to the cadenced zip of the electricity and the thump-thump of something else. Until the something else fell silent and I noticed it was gone. I laid my pattern by and got to my feet. I peeked through his window. He was lying on the floor. Walking to the nearest home with a telephone, as I did not have one, I summoned aid. They didn’t hurry; he wasn’t going anywhere.
His executor invited me to the wake and gave me a box of all the old man’s cookware. Something about it being my gift. When I turned the largest pot upside down, my name and address were scrawled on a piece of paper that had been gummed to the bottom.
Grace made good on her promise, and there was a triple-sized avalanche of potatoes on the long table. I knew her at once, though she was older, and a married woman. She wore a long black dress, and a lovely hat. As we ate and stood around in general mourning, I tucked in to the potatoes. By heaven, I was going to use this opportunity to mine them for detail. But such is the nature of the thing— that when caught in the passions of enjoying it, one fails to perceive anything with the rational mind.
She approached me, still glowing but far more tactful in her maturity, introducing herself. With my head bowed, I gave my name.
“His nephew says you found him. I’m very sorry you had to see that.”
I shook my head, chewing overtly.
“I think…” she stared at his mounted photograph and floral decorations, “I think we all expected him to go a lot sooner. After his wife passed…well, I cannot imagine what it must have felt like. I don’t think I could do without George. He’s my everything.”
Mouth still full of the cheesy stuff, I sighed. Humans always say this, but they underestimate themselves. Thousands of times over, I have watched the old curse fall upon someone else’s head. Always I feel it like a kind of shared pain. Always we two — the survivor and me. It is a glance or a raised cup. A fond story or a nod. Always the same, and then life goes on.
“Are you married?”
Shielding my mouth with my napkin, I feigned a chuckle. “I’m not the sort. One of these new-fangled women.”
With a suddenly sly grin, she tipped her cocktail at me. “Good for you. Be independent, but don’t ever overlook a good thing just because it changes your plans.”
“Say, you wouldn’t be the neighbor who’s always bringing over the baked stuff, would you?”
With a tiny dip, I took my acclaim. She shook her head in wonder.
“Now, you see, that’s something special. I had one of your apple fritter things the other week. You have to share that recipe with me!”
Sensing the opportunity, I spoke into my glass. “Would you trade it for the potatoes?”
Like the bird of prey she was, Grace wheeled in mid-breath and made a low hooting sound. “Oooooh no, young lady. That is mine and mine only. Hell, if I gave that to everyone, no one would ever talk to me again! But how about this,” she added, noticing my crestfallen face. “How about I invite you to our women’s social group. We meet once a week, and we trade off bringing the goods. We have coffee and tea,” she leaned in, “and brandy and gin.”
Chuckling, I accepted and shy though I was, found myself something of a hobby. Bazars and socials, congratulatory feasts and general get-togethers — I was Grace’s go-to gal. I counted the days until the next stab at that pile of white-orange cubes. For several decades I worked at that woman for her recipe, but she was the Fort Knox of Feel-Good Food.
I bided my time and I met some wonderful women in the process. They were my first conversation partners when I got my first set of teeth, which were so bad, mind you, that upon seeing them, they never again questioned why I tended to cover my mouth when I spoke. They were all lovely people, each with a unique life, and I grew very fond of them. So much so that I endured the tuber torture again and again.
I knew it was over when we sat in one of their parlors. I was the “youngest” in the room, my given age at that time being 40, I think. The eldest of us waved her hand around her head as she completed her long diatribe against “blue-haired old biddies”.
“But here I am, with all this ugly mess.”
Grace laughed, her own hair streaked with a lovely thin stripe of shimmering silver. “That’s kids for you. They’re off playing keyboards and wearing traffic reflectors as clothes and here I am with another inch of gray.”
The others all nodded or mumbled. Suddenly all eyes were on me.
“How do you do it?”
I blinked in surprise and gave a shrug.
“You haven’t a single hair out of place. Not one single twisty.” She peered at me in what was probably well-meaning accusation, but stung with that familiar heat.
Dutifully, I covered my mouth and swallowed. “I think it’s called ebony number five.”
And the room went up in a roar of laughter. Breathing a sigh of relief, I realized that I had yet again become comfortable, and that it might be time to consider another change. I “moved” only a few years later. That was when I became me. This me. Simon.
I put them out of my mind, though I would see one of them time and again. Grace rushed by me one day near the Ugly Monument with a brood of small creatures I can only assume were her grandchildren. One day, I was trotting from my parked car, hurrying to make a shop before it closed, when I caught a smell on the breeze and forgot about it. The church was a bit built up these days, crowded, a little shabby, but the side door was open as it once was, and the smell was distinctly that same heavenly, blessed chorus of potatoes, cheese, and pork.
Forgetting myself, I poked my head in and took a lungful. God, how I had missed that smell. A woman appeared and made an apology.
“The soup kitchen doesn’t open for another hour, sir.”
And one final time, the opportunity pulled from the raw material of the universe itself became evident and shone with a holy light all its own.
“I can honestly say I am not here to eat! Do you need any help?”
Her face lit up, and at once, I recognized her. The Eldest, Mary Beth, all grown up. She shooed me in and tossed an apron at me. “Do you know how to cook?”
“My fine lady, I am an absolute expert at cooking.”
“Thank god!” I was dragged into the opening to the kitchen and placed in a corner. “My mom usually does all the cooking, but she’s not as spry as she used to be. She can’t stand for very long on her knee, and she has trouble with her hands.”
“But her ears are just fine!” Grace shouted.
Mary Beth gave a pained look. “Mom, I found you a helper!”
“Yes, I heard!”
I was presented, feeling as if I’d been mustered by some hellish general. She eyed me all over and for a moment, I worried. I truly did. Until she tapped me with a spoon and gave me a list of commands.
Chatting elbow to elbow, I peeled and cubed the potatoes for the second batch, while she went about the other foods. When I had finished, I turned to her to show off the pot.
“So, then, what do we put in next?”
Her face twisted on a shrewd leer. “Oh no…you won’t trick me! All you thieves! If I give you this, it’s all over for me. Might as well bury me out back next to that ugly shrub.”
Chuckling, I shook my head. “Family secret?”
“My secret!” Her face took on a wicked cunning as she jabbed a finger at the finished casserole on the counter top. “That recipe has been my ticket to every single hoity-toity shindig since 1950. The only reason I get to go to Serena’s Christmas party on that boat of hers is because of these taters. And they have the fancy drinks. There is no way in hell I am ever telling anyone!”
Admiring her stubbornness, this shield maiden of the cast iron clan, I resigned myself to my fate — to forever be at odds with her. We made the food and served it. I watched the people come back for more and more potatoes. The amount in the pan dwindled. When it was all over, she made me a cup of coffee and let me escort her to a table. Mary Beth scraped the dregs of the dish out and clapped a plate down beside me. Praising all that was sacred, I tucked in.
Just as good as ever.
“What ya think?” Her self-satisfied eyebrow nudge was worth every agonizing second. “Good, isn’t it?”
“It is splendid. Utterly splendid.”
She patted the table in triumph. “Where are you from, if you don’t mind me asking.”
“Oh, a little of everywhere.”
“You have an accent, is why I ask.”
“Yes, a bit.”
She swirled her coffee. “Where’d you come from tonight?”
I tipped back in my chair and tried for a direct assault. “To be honest, I was just walking by and I smelled the potatoes. Do you have to sacrifice Seraphim to make them, or is it just garden variety black magic?”
With that same, if a little coarser, laugh, Grace shook her head. “The Lord works in mysterious ways. I tell you what. I will give you the recipe.”
My ears pricked and I would be lying if I said my “hairs” didn’t give a little wriggle of anticipation. “Oh?”
“If you marry my younger daughter. She’s becoming a spinster.”
With a loud guffaw, I tipped back. A fine dowry indeed. What a matron, to pawn off her children in exchange for small potatoes. Small…delicious potatoes.
“I am not the marrying sort.”
“Is your husband here?” I looked around. George was a very smart man, and funny too. When I glanced back, her dismay was all the information I needed.
“My George passed away two years ago.”
With a sigh, I gave her my condolences. “He must have been a very happy man, if you made that for him regularly.”
At once, her grin was in full swing. “You’d think he’d get tired of it, but the man would eat it morning, noon, and night, if I made it. That’s how you know a good recipe — when people want to keep eating it. That’s the secret, you see, to being everyone’s friend.”
“Well, then I shall have to pry it out of you if I ever mean to crawl my way out of my solitude.”
Cackling, she leaned on the table and asked after my profession. When I told her I dallied in antiques, a spark flew behind her eyes. Before long, I had a personal invitation back to her home and suddenly confronted a stunning reginaphone she had recently inherited from her aunt. The thing was broken, but lovely, and I knew at once that I could give it a good scrub up and a new home.
We were fast friends for the third time, it seemed. And I regularly got calls from her, inviting me to luncheons, parties, anything involving food, really. Then one day, we were cooking as per our usual back and forth of one part wit to two parts insult, when I smelled it. She steadied herself on the counter, breathing heavily suddenly.
My soul collapsed in on itself. I sat her on her stool and excused myself. Mary Beth was in the broom cupboard. I dropped my voice to a whisper.
“How long has she been having these dizzy spells?”
“What dizzy spells?” She stared at me in astonishment.
Uncertain if I should tell her, what to say, how…I took a deep breath, all potatoes and cheese. “You need to take her to the doctor.”
“She just went to the—”
Mary Beth’s face turned gray. “How do you…know that?”
Shaking my head, I left it to the mysticism of intuition. “Promise me you will.”
The diagnosis was not ideal. Grace fought it valiantly, and there were many highs and lows, to which I was only cursorily privy. I know only that i did not get my usual calls to join in the home-cooked fun. But being suddenly cut off from humans I knew is nothing special to me. My gentle readers will tell me it is not something to which I should become accustomed, but it is how I have lived, and attachments are not something to which I…well…become attached.
Several days ago, I received a call.
“Hi, is this um…Simon?” came a timid voice.
“Yes. Who is this?”
“I’m…um…I’m Mary Beth’s daughter?”
“Hello!. What can I do for you?”
“My mom said I should call you and ask you to come to the hospital to see Grandma.” She sniffled. “I guess she wants to see you.”
My phone promptly went dark. Leaving it, a brick plugged into a wall, I drive over, my thoughts untethered from time or place. I find her by paging Lisa, who accesses the computers. Mary Beth is outside the door, talking softly on her phone. Spotting me with bloodshot eyes, she clasps my hand and squeezes.
“What’s the prognosis?”
She shakes her head. From her pocket, she draws a small folded list and tucks it into my hand. “She has…um…this stuff she wants you to look at, after…”
While she catches her breath, I look through the window. Other family members are preparing to leave. Grace is very small against the bed, dim compared to the lantern she had once been. I can see the pain in her brittle expressions, feathered by that loss of cohesion that often comes with sheer exhaustion.
“I think they’re all antiques that she thinks you might be able to sell. She wants to put it into the college fund.”
I look it over with a distant nod. They are small items, not terribly valuable, but I can add the reginaphone to them. I have never sold it. With all its discs, it ought to be worth at least a year.
“is it…is it okay?”
“Yes. I’ll take care of it.”
She takes back her hand and chafed my arm. “She does really want to see you. Will you go in?”
My voice has left me. I stand in the doorway as the tiny human breezes blow past me. When I am alone, I slip quietly into a chair and wait for her to come to.
She drifts back in vague mutters and heavy sleepiness. Her medications are strong. I can smell the chemo even now, the way it stains the air around her, darker even than her natural aura. That a disease like cancer should exist fills me with rage. Slowly replacing the ones we care for, turning them into these frail shells while it carves out their innards. It is insidious. It is wrong. I am what I am, and I say this.
She turns her smile on me as always — a wattage so high it puts the sunlight to shame. But it is unfocused, in and out of lucidity.
“Well…here you are.”
With a swallow, I nod. “Here I am.”
“Did you see the list?”
“I did, yes. I will take care of it.”
She gives a happy breath. “Good. I feel better knowing there’s a little cushion.”
She slips away again. When she returns, I have not moved at all. “You’re still here.”
“I like you, Simon. You have an honest face.”
This cuts in ways she cannot know, as most of my face is a lie, stuck in place like a ghoulish Mr. Potato Head. “I like you too, Grace.”
“I didn’t want to go this way,” she murmurs.
“Oh shut it, old woman. You’re not going anywhere. Not that easily.”
A ghost of a smile passes over her chapped mouth. “No?”
I stand up and give her an ice chip from her cup. “No. You’re not stepping one toe in the afterlife until you give me the recipe for Cream Cheese Potatoes.”
I manage a smile to match her bemused one. There is a long pause, as her glassy eyes work over my words.
“I’m sorry, dear…I can’t…quite remember what that is right now.”
The world grows cold around me. Shadows creep up over the walls. She falls back into slumber, while my self, this soul, such as it is, plummets from heights it never knew it had attained. I have crashed to the ground and I am broken.
Hunger flashes for a moment, but self-control and the sickening smell of the place prevails. I grip the rail so hard I cannot feel them and the alarm suddenly triggers. I am quietly ushered from the room.
In the hallway, I am a stone. People move around me, but I am stuck there. I look up and Mary Beth is beside me and the curse echoes.
I have had a several days to think. I know now that this is best. This is the way it should always have gone. No one should ever wield such power as Grace held, for no one could do it half so well. My one regret is that my contribution to her funeral potluck will be such a poor imitation.
But then again…these guests will not be coming because of the Cream Cheese Potatoes. They will come because of Grace.