When I put that stale bread to my lips it entered my soul. Every stiff crumb melted into me, dragging death from my frail body and feeding me with life. It was an experience like none before or since, an epiphany. We had fallen one by one until only myself and Luke remained. Mother had sold everything and put us all on the road when father was killed, but it wasn’t until winter set in that our situation became desperate. In part, we had always lived off the land, but that requires collecting food during the summer because the pickings are so slim in the colder months. On the road we dug for roots and ate whatever meat we could get our hands on. Rats, dogs, ravens and some fish staved off the inevitable for almost a month but in the end mother went first. My sisters both froze to death in their sleep during a storm. I can still see them, like dolls, their little hands clung together. Luke and I had no hope. No chance of survival. But one day, staggering barefoot through drifts and thawing rivers, we came across a hunter’s cabin. Little more than a shack, it was like stepping into heaven. It wasn’t warm at all, but to us it was like a sauna.
I wrapped the one blanket in the cabin around Luke and scavenged the bread that changed my life forever. Giving him the first bite I watched as he gnawed off a clump then I chewed off a piece of it for myself and put it in my mouth. Luke and I just looked at each other as we ate. He had such horrible desperation in his eyes, like I have never seen. I can still see him, shivering and pale. A waif.
Us two wounded animals sat their all night, side by side in the dark. Luke never said a word, nor I, but we both knew that we had been spared. At least for one more day. I didn’t dare light a fire for worry that we would have been noticed, but we took the blanket with us and two traps, hoping to survive just a little longer.
Three days later we ran into a cadre that took us to a camp. When it was all over we came back to our village and life almost returned to the way it was before. But I never forgot that moment when I ate that stale bread that brought me back from the dead. I can still taste the glory in its dulled texture, the magnificence of reprieve as an actual flavour. That taste, that impossible sensation, it possessed me and would not let me go until I recovered it. It was the reason that I studied the culinary arts and the reason that I worked without rest for so long.
I know now that no matter what I did, no matter what exotic or rarefied the ingredients I used, I would never capture what I sought. It took me a long time to admit to myself that the secret ingredient was not in the food, but rather, it was in me. It was death. Or to be more precise, it was my proximity to death that made that bread’s beauty so excruciating. I hadn’t wanted to admit this fact to myself, in part, because of my vain mortality but also because I had already committed myself to recreating that moment of epiphany in my own cooking. I knew at once what I had to do.
Finding the right compound proved to be as hard as surviving that winter during the war. I searched and searched and found only sudden or slow releasing toxins that didn’t serve my purposes. Then, in the capital, I found a man who could cater to my needs. A former doctor of the regime that had claimed the lives of my mother and my sisters. Of course he had no idea what I had been through, nor had I any inclination to tell him, but when he delivered my colourless, scentless serums to me I shook his hand and walked away even more dead inside that my fallen kin. I felt like I had betrayed them, like I was no longer worthy to call myself a man. But my drive to do something great knew no bounds.
To be continued…
© Stephen Fahey