IT WAS A COMMON ENOUGH skillet: two-thirds of a cubit across, three finger-breadths deep, of simple cast iron with a carved maplewood handle. The dreams, however, were anything but common; mad reels of dissolute frivolity, the raw taste of cheap spirits, a seething anger, an unfulfilled lust.
Prosatio Silban had bought the skillet in stony-hearted Tirinbar, the northernmost of the Three Cities of the Uulian Commonwell, situated at a mountain’s foot on the northern shore of the Inland Deep, and one of the beefy cook’s least favorite locations due to the unfriendly materialism of its population and their policy of enslaving the Exilic Lands’ indigenes. He was on good terms with the Xao, who had lived in the Lands long generations before the Uulians strode onto the stage of local history. He liked their simplicity, honesty, and sense of both honor and humor, and he looked with pity and angry sympathy upon Tirinbar’s slave-market and the cruel treatment of its human wares.
As he was in Tirinbar solely for economic necessity (a generous noble had obviated his near-poverty and lured him hither to cater a lavish, hundred-guest feast), Prosatio Silban used part of his otherwise copious spare time and coinage to browse through a curio-shop not far from where his galleywagon was parked, near the granite city’s main market. I’m sure there must be something here I can use, he thought as he leafed through the old books, cast-off clothing and mysterious gadgets offered for sale. Ho ho, what’s this?
“This” was the aforementioned skillet. It was in excellent repair; no rust or baked-on detritus, with only the handle showing any evidence of age or use. He weighed it in his hand. It felt good – not too heavy, not too light – and the handle perfectly matched his grip.
At first, his transformation was gradual – a nip of cooking-wine here, a swallow of finishing-brandy there.
“I can see you’re a man of fine distinction,” the shopkeeper said, apparently materializing out of nowhere. “You are holding a piece of history. One of our city’s best chefs, Bolan Su, used this almost every day until his premature death. It has cooked up meals to please diners famous and moneyed for many years. As you can see, it is suitable for both stovetop and oven – frying, roasting, braising, or just adorning the wall of your kitchen. And it can be yours for ten in copper.”
“That’s all?” asked the incredulous cook.
“That’s all,” replied the merchant.
Prosatio Silban fished in his coin pouch. “Sold,” he said.
That was bare weeks ago, but it seemed like longer on account of the dreams – and the urges. Due to an incident in his youth, and despite using alcohol where culinarily appropriate, the cook was a firm teetotaler. But ever since he had bought the skillet, he suffered the compulsion to drink whatever intoxicants he could find.
At first, his transformation was gradual – a nip of cooking-wine here, a swallow of finishing-brandy there. For the nerves, Prosatio Silban told himself, and for the digestion. Soon, however, he was taking drinks without self-justification. His personal appearance, too, began to change; though previously fastidious, his usual dress now included an unbelted tunic, stained vest, and sloppy kneebreeches (on which he had been wiping his hands instead of an apron or shoulder-slung towel).
His marketplace customers noticed these little differences, and slowly dropped away. Prosatio Silban told himself he didn’t mind – he didn’t much like the Tirinbarians anyway, and welcomed the additional time in which to drink. As his coins dwindled, he took to soaking his sorrows with increasing frequency.
And yet, each time he used the skillet he was astonished at its beauty and efficiency. Its nonstick surface made easy work even of fried eggs, and it responded to the smallest heat adjustment as though it were made of some much lighter metal. It was the first utensil he picked up when he began his day, and the last one he laid aside when that day was done.
Despite his dislike for the city and its inhabitants, he found himself putting off his departure. Every day he would either clumsily unsling a table-and-chairs from the galleywagon’s undercarriage and display his painted menu board to the indifferent market-going public, or simply lollygag in his bunk in the vehicle’s rear. And it was only with the strongest willpower that he packed up at the day’s end and resolved to depart – but the next day’s dawn would find him no closer to leaving.
What’s wrong with me? he asked himself over and over again. But the days wore by in a haze, and he was no closer to an answer.
One day, while obtaining wine elsewhere in the marketplace, he overheard two idlers indulging in reminiscent gossip. “Bolan Su, now there was a study in self-destruction,” said one.
Prosatio Silban caught his breath and listened.
“Always messing about with other men’s wives and ladyloves,” said the other.
“He should have known better than to involve himself with the local High Sacreant’s consort.”
“Such dalliances always bear a curse.”
“True enough. They never did discover his killer, though, did they?”
“Not officially. Just the body, and the weapon. Bludgeoned to death with his favorite skillet. Poor fool.”
“Where do you suppose that skillet is now?”
With me! With ME! the hapless cook screamed silently.
Prosatio Silban smiled, for the first time in forever. He knew what he had to do.
By that time, he was frantic. He had become a prisoner of his own worst intentions, and although he could clearly see his misbehavior, he lacked the will to exert himself toward repairing it.
The backbreaking straw came when Prosatio Silban caught an image of himself in his mirror: half-dressed, slack-eyed, with a bottle’s mouth to his own. Is that really me? he asked his reflection. Is this what I have become? Hot tears flowed down his face.
He knew he had to do something. But what? He considered returning the skillet to the man who had sold it, but when he revisited the site it had changed hands to become a glassblower’s shop.
Of course it did, he thought. And just what I need – more empty bottles.
Not long afterward, the cook found himself lying prone on his galleywagon bunk, sobbing quietly. I am lost and alone, he thought, and will likely die here if I don’t do something. And fast.
Prosatio Silban cleared his throat. He sat up, closed his eyes and bowed his head.
“O Penteget, Goddess of Just Desperation, and Bohoran, Giver of Strength Where None is Felt, hear my plea and grant my boon,” he prayed. “I have nowhere else to turn, no one else to turn to. Help me out of my own self-created hell. Teach me how to break this apparent curse, and restore me to a life of happy industry. Aid me in working Your will in this world below. This I affirm.”
Silence. The cook sighed, and opened his eyes.
Before him, on the galleywagon’s ornate rug, a soft globe of shimmering light was manifesting. Within it he could see a seated man engaged in some sort of exercise. The image became more distinct, and he saw that the man was rowing a small boat on a vast, cobalt-blue lake. While he watched, fascinated, the figure in the boat raised a hand. It was holding Bolan Su’s skillet. With one fluid motion the man pitched it into the depths. As the skillet sank beneath the surface, the scene began to fade. Several loud heartbeats later, it was gone.
Prosatio Silban smiled, for the first time in forever. He knew what he had to do.
* * *
The oars in their locks squeaked with each stroke, and Prosatio Silban sang to himself to keep up both the rhythm and his mood. Although he was unaccustomed to the work, the strain in his muscles felt good. Clean. Purposeful.
The Inland Deep was surrounded by tall mountains, but no reflections could be seen on its glassy surface. It was well-named; its cold blue waters were allegedly clear to the bottom, but the cook’s vision couldn’t reach that far. Small fish darted here and there as he passed over them.
He had obtained the boat with the last of his meager cash reserve. Fortunately, the man from whom he rented it had only one question. “What d’ye want to row out on the Deep for?”
“Exercise,” the cook replied. “I’ll have it back within two hours, on my word as a gentleman.”
“Very well,” the man said with a disapproving grimace. “Your word – and six in copper.”
And now, he had arrived at his destination: close enough to shore to return in the paid-for time, yet distant enough to enable the task at hand. Prosatio Silban drew in the oars. He fumbled with the leather bag lying in the boat’s bottom, and removed from it Bolan Su’s skillet.
The cook hefted it in his right hand. It truly was a fine piece of making. He almost hated to be rid of the thing, and at the same time he despised the very sight of it. He raised himself into a crouch, and stretched his right arm behind him.
The word formed itself in his mind like the quiet uncoiling of a snake.
We could be so happy together.
“No,” he said aloud. “We couldn’t.”
I could make your life easier.
“You have made it harder.”
Please. Don’t leave me.
Prosatio Silban hesitated. It was just a tool, after all; could it really be responsible for all his ills? Why discard something so well-crafted, so easy to use? Surely the weakness must lie within him instead of this beautiful utensil.
And then he remembered the image in his mirror – a slovenly drunk with nothing that his greedy thirst could hope for but the next swallow. A bolt of loathing shot through him, and with one resolute motion, he hurled the skillet far away and watched it tumble handle-over-body into the Deep.
It sank without a splash, and with the echo of a fading cry in his mind.
Prosatio Silban set the oars, then straightened his shoulders for the clean and purposeful haul back home.