A JASMINE-SCENTED NIGHT BREEEZE carried the distant buzz of an enthusiastic if slightly off-key hurdy-gurdy through the open half-door of Prosatio Silban’s galleywagon, ending and re-beginning amid a cloud of applause and children’s laughter.
The small umber man – a saucemaker by trade who, like the rest of his curious people, bore no formal name within his community and only a vocational one among outsiders – put down his fork with a happy sigh. “Delicious as always, my friend, and many thanks. My people know how to cook, but only yours elevate food to the level of worship.”
Both laughed at the old joke, and Prosatio Silban pushed back his folding stool with a soft creak. His guest was built much like the beefy cook, though perhaps a bit more slender and barely three cubits tall, with skin the color and texture of chestnut shells. His deep green eyes seemed to absorb anything which entered them, including another’s gaze, and they watched with amusement as the cook cleared the table into a large wooden washtub already containing evidence of their dinner’s preparation.
“It occurs to me that I have never, in a dozen years, seen you wash so much as a spatula,” he said.
“Nor will you,” the cook said. “It is not seemly for a master cook to be seen with his hands in the dishpan. In any case, some trade secrets must remain exclusive to the trade. But that is another tale, and more bitter than I wish to bring to our occasional visits. Please allow me instead to sweeten the evening.”
He placed two small white earthenware mugs on the red tablecloth. “For dessert. Something I acquired last week from yet another Soharis trader anxious to sell me the next great culinary wonder. This time, I do not believe it to be overstatement.”
“If I may let one ear listen until the pot’s boiling,” Prosatio Silban said, “the other shall be yours for the duration.”
Prosatio Silban opened the pantry cabinet over the honeywood sideboard and took out a small, leather-covered box which he placed on the table. Unwrapping the lid revealed a number of dark brown, thumb-sized nuggets whose aroma tickled the nostrils with a rich come-hither sweetness.
The small umber man grunted softly, his mouth watering. He looked up at Prosatio Silban, who shook his head.
“The trader said it came from the rainforest near abhorrent Khum, where it is refined by the natives from great tree-clinging pods which they also use as currency,” the cook said. “He translated its name as ‘bitterwax.’ Properly prepared, its name more than belies its flavor.”
“And what is that preparation?” asked the small umber man.
“I shall demonstrate,” said Prosatio Silban, rooting through the cabinet and placing various containers on the sideboard. He fed fresh fatberry oil into the small cookstove abutting the galleywagon’s opposite wall, retrieving from the cluttered hanging rack above a small, wide pot which he placed over the stove’s mounting flame.
The small umber man watched with great interest as Prosatio Silban placed two nuggets into the vessel and covered them with water from a nearby jug, then added a large measure of cane-sugar. Next, the cook broke some cardamom pods into a mortar and ground the seeds fine, adding them to the pot. A bright fragrance bloomed as the cook rasped cinnamon-stick dust into the mixture. He stirred the pot once with a wooden spatula, noted a curl or two of steam kissing the surface, then turned to his guest.
“When it comes to the boil, we swiftly reduce the flame to a simmer, stirring often until it’s as velvety as a lover’s promise,” the cook said. “Unlike the lover, this only takes about a quarter-hour.”
“Excellent,” said the small umber man. “To pass the time, allow me to entertain us both with a tale from my people’s past – one which, as a former servant of your gods, you may find interesting, and I hope not distracting from your task.”
“If I may let one ear listen until the pot’s boiling,” Prosatio Silban said, “the other shall be yours for the duration.”
“Gladly,” said the sauce-maker, and began:
“My people have not always carried the reputation for steadfast tranquility by which other nations proverbially measure their own. True, we have always been simple folk, but at the time my tale is set – many generations gone – serenity was a rare quality among us. Our chief interest lay in fathoming and conforming to the whims of our gods, for we were hedged on all sides by the thorny maze of divine fear. Now we live in peace; They to Their cycles, and we to ours. What I will tell you is how that came about.
“Such was our trepidation that no man would venture past his door without first consulting knucklebones, barley-stalks, coins or aught else which might shed light on the day’s future fortunes or failures; no mother would dress herself or her children without a battery of amulets or significant knots; no farmer would cast a single seed without adding a breathless entreaty against unseen and unknown catastrophe. We were expert in the use of such gestures and verbal formulae as might let us speak of misfortune without invoking it, and you may justly wonder that our endless litanies of avoidance left us neither time or room for actual living.
“Our chief holy day has always been Autumn Eve, and in those days, that festival’s ritual centerpiece was the broaching of a cask of a specifically brewed ale. We used to foretell the coming year by the appearance and flavor of this First Cask, believing it to express in some measure our people’s will and spirit – bearing the community’s collective handprint through its contributions of plowing, sowing, tending, and water-drawing, and by the slow magic of mash and malt, wort and ferment.
“While that magic is known to many, its prophetic variant was the sole provenance of the ale-priestess: one devoted to her people’s welfare, and whose skills had been passed from mother to eldest daughter since we settled this land. Not only did the ale-priestess collect the first ears of grain and flowerings of hop from each family’s holding, but she also captured its less-tangible qualities – had happiness or distraction ruled the household? Had there been plenty, or want? If the latter, what was needed for repair? The ale-priestess, wrapped in a hooded and all-concealing black flaxen robe, conveyed each ingredient and its attendant aspect to the vat in the lonely and windowless brew-house at the village’s edge. The month preceding Autumn Eve found her sequestered behind the barred and locked brew-house door, whispering and singing into the nascent brew her people’s needs and desires and infusing it with her own personal and protective essence.
Prosatio Silban raised an interrupting hand, indicating the russet foam which had begun to collect with a rising hiss on the surface of the pot’s contents. He turned down the flame, stirred, tasted, and nodded.
“The particular year of which I speak had been a bleak one, despite having been forecast with a sweet brew following a year of exceptional plenty,” his guest continued. “But that year, Death played among us like a bored child with a sharp stick. None were untouched by sadness – if locusts spared one family’s crop, their cattle fell prey to wolves or wasting sickness. Children died in the womb, or shortly out of it. Our previously sweet life turned more bitter by the day, and our prayers more frantic. Only the ale-priestess seemed undismayed, and she continued her rounds with patience and equanimity.
“Those qualities were long held by our ale-priestesses in great abundance, but this particular woman was an exception among exceptions and had displayed since her youth a demure and unalloyed happiness. Though severely tested by our communal catastrophes, she somehow found great strength; and though none could see the warmth which lit her eyes, the voice from within the shadowed hood was unfailingly gentle. To each soul marred by misfortune she would say, ‘It’s the bitterest ale which refreshes the best,’ in a tone like a mother’s bedtime kiss.
When the time came, nearly the entire village accompanied her to the brew-house. Stepping through the door, she bade them be at peace, repeating her proverb – ‘It’s the bitterest ale which refreshes the best’ – and urging us quietly but firmly not to abandon all hope. The door was shut and its locking-bar slid into place. After milling about for a time, the people drifted homeward, comforted somewhat by the soft singing that wafted from the brew-house.
“Without the ale-priestess’ constant consolation, the people’s sorrows seemed doubly insupportable, and the brewing-month crawled through slow thickets of pain and sorrow until the morning of Autumn Eve – which seemed at best a hollow formality and at worst a cruel mockery. Nonetheless, preparations went forth, and with brows wreathed in garlands and worry, the people assembled at sunset in the village square. Festival torches were lit and, while the crowd waited in expectant quiet, an honor guard of sturdy farmers set out for the brew-house to retrieve the ale-priestess and roll her casked handiwork into the square.
“They knocked on the brew-house door, but received no reply. Hurriedly they unbarred the portal and pulled it open. Inside, a single flickering candle revealed a shocking tableau: the ale-priestess, dead and clad only in a wheaten frock, knelt clutching the First Cask in rigid embrace; her lifeless hands clutching hammer and tap, her pallid face illuminated by a gentle smile.
When all had filled, from the youngest child to the oldest grandmother, they raised their portion, mumbled the ancient benediction, and drained their vessels as one.
“The farmers gaped in numb silence. How and when had the priestess met her end? Who would now perform the ritual augury? And how to explain the situation to the potential mob now waiting in the village?
“After some thought, a solution presented itself. The Autumn Eve ritual called for the chief of the honor guard to drive home the tap with three firm strokes. The ale-priestess would catch the first gush in a crystal tankard, view it by torchlight, sip, and pronounce the augury before sharing the remainder with the assembled people. She would remain hidden within her hooded and all-concealing robe while the cask was tapped and the omen proclaimed…
“Thus, after a hurried consultation, the slenderest and highest-voiced of the farmers donned the ale-priestess’ robe while the remaining honor guard commenced the First Cask’s long roll through the village to the center of the square. The mock-priestess walked slowly behind, mimicking the missing functionary’s gait as best he could. The cask was rolled into place atop a dais of oak trimmed with mistletoe and stood up on one end. Three hollow thuds of the tap-hammer, like earth-clods on a coffin-top, and the cask was broached. The tap was turned, and a thick dark liquid oozed into the crystal tankard.
“The honor guard exchanged glances. The mock-priestess raised the tankard to a proffered torch, but could see no hint of flame through the dark contents. He raised the tankard to his quivering lips, took a sip, swallowed – and revealed the deception with a great retching cough.
”Chaos ensued swiftly, but when the angry crowd had settled somewhat, the tapster confessed the deed and pleaded for understanding. ‘Our light of hope has gone out, and at the hour when we most need her,’ he said. ‘What would you have done in our place? Let us drink, and perhaps we can touch her in spirit.’
“The tapster’s argument could not be easily gainsaid. Knowing nought else to do, and determined to preserve what of the festival they could, each villager filed silently past the First Cask to receive the black brew in whatever container they had brought. When all had filled, from the youngest child to the oldest grandmother, they raised their portion, mumbled the ancient benediction, and drained their vessels as one.
“The gagging was terrific, but not nearly so much as the fear which descended minutes later when the mock-priestess crumpled slowly into a motionless heap. Soon, the villagers began to feel an icy sleep creep into their bones; stumbling, sobbing, they sprawled in street and square, crawling into each other’s ebbing embrace. Wailing filled the village, dying into eventual and chill silence.
“The morning mist rose with the sun, unveiling a curious scene: all lay prostrate as the night had left them, but each face wore a gentle smile! The mock-priestess’ eyes were the first to open, and the first sound in his ears was one not heard for a year.
Laughter. His own.
But not alone for long – soon, each awakening soul stretched, chuckled, looked around, and joined in the general mirth. No mere giggles, nor yet the polite tittering of the socially amused, but the full-throated roar of one who partakes of the cosmic joke which Death plays upon Life and, in accepting it, can laugh alongside and unafraid. Arms were joined, backs were slapped, and someone suggested a communal breakfast.
“‘The bitterest ale refreshes the best,’ the ale-priestess had said; and her words contained a truth beyond her hearer’s guessing. For the delight my people found that Autumn Eve did not ebb, but was imparted to the children who were born thereafter, and they to theirs – though exactly how, we are not wise enough to say.
“But in that delight, we also found the immortality which we once hoped to achieve after death – for what is immortality, but the wordless knowledge of who and where you are now?”
Prosatio Silban had been reflexively stirring the pot throughout his guest’s narration. He had a grudging interest in divine matters, especially in the way nations and individuals ordered themselves thereby. But the sauce-maker’s tale had troubled him, and he didn’t know why. He felt somewhat abashed on behalf of his own people, so committed to chasing their endless and self-created fashions. Compared to the serene umber man sitting at the folding table, the cook’s folk and their endless pursuits seemed as transient and insubstantial as yesterday’s dinner fire.
But as the tale ended, he noticed the cardamom-husks littering the sideboard. His thoughts turned to the small and exact pleasures which had flowed through his patient hands over the years, and whose essences had become part of his own.
Something about this made him smile. He looked at the pot, where a velvety sheen now rippled on the surface of the rich brown liquor, and his smile deepened.
Wrapping a thick towel around the pot-handle, in one fluid motion Prosatio Silban lifted the vessel from the fire and poured an unerring mahogany arc into his guest’s mug.
The small umber man laughed and lifted his brimming cup, inhaling the musky vapor. He blew softly, took a cautious sip, then sighed.
“Oh,” he said. “That’s good.”