THE RHYTHMIC RAPPING OF STEEL on wood filled Prosatio Silban’s cozy galleywagon with the sharp tang of garlic, and he marveled – not for the first time – at how easily the aroma sliced through a quarter-century of cooking smells.
Having stopped for the evening in the shadow of haunt-rumored Mount Tenebro, the Cook For Any Price had seen to his great dray-beast’s dinner and was now preparing his own to suit the clammy evening chill. The area, mostly bare basalt rock with a scattering of curious boulders, did not readily retain the day’s heat; and he paused in his chopping to close the galleywagon’s carved and windowed door. He latched it, turned, and regarded his portable haven with fond familiarity.
The floor, slightly outslanting walls and arched ceiling – from which two bright oil lamps dangled amid a friendly tangle of pots, utensils and slow-cured ingredients – were of unpainted honeywood, its natural reddish-gold glow now tinged by a long accretion of cooking-smoke. On his right, under a small lozenge-paned window, a large silver-edged cube of what looked like glacial ice nestled against a ceiling-height pantry crafted, like the tall service cabinet and massive chopping-counter opposite, of deeply grained stone-oak. A spigot sprouted from the wall over the chopping-counter, beneath another window bordered by racks of bottled spices. A four-burner fatberry-oil stove to his left, its pipe slightly dented with unremembered incidence, sat under a corkboard thick with tacked and yellowing recipes. At the galleywagon’s rear, a black silk curtain concealed his sleeping berth.
Smiling to himself – No ghosts here! he thought – the beefy cook separated four more fat white cloves from the knobby braid hanging over the counter and continued chopping.
There really is no such thing as too much garlic, Prosatio Silban thought, especially when spirits are purportedly about. He filled a copper pot with water from the spigot, set it on the stove, added a large measure of sea-salt and lit the burner. The cook’s eyes took on a far-away look as he began halving a handful of small yellow tomatoes.
Let me see, he pondered. As I understand it, there are four types of disembodied souls vexing the living: the Moaners, whose noisy ululations keep awake even the deepest sleepers; the Shakers, who terrify folk by moving their belongings about – sometimes through mid-air; and some of the most inconvenient are the Takers, who steal small objects and either return them at a later time and different place, or not at all. And then there are … and then …
He lit a second burner under an iron skillet slick with olive oil, and glanced out the chopping-counter window. Frowning, he put a large sailor’s-cap mushroom on the chopping-counter and closed his eyes. An old recollection was bubbling up from deep in his mind, some folk-legend or other he had learned long ago, warning against “the unattended dead” … something he had smugly dismissed as superstition and foolishness ….
He opened his eyes. “What am I trying to remember?” he asked the mushroom.
“I do not know,” croaked a voice to his left.
Were he a younger man, Prosatio Silban might very well have jumped or screamed. But he had long ago learned the folly of unconsidered motion. He turned his head slowly, holding the knife in as inconspicuous a manner as possible.
Against the galleywagon door the cook could discern a slender man-shaped shadow of impenetrable blackness. No features were visible, yet he somehow knew the apparition was watching him intently.
Prosatio Silban considered the knife in his hand, briefly regretted its irrelevancy, then remembered the proverb: “When cornered, act with boldness.”
“Who are you?” he barked.
The specter regarded him for a half-dozen rapid heartbeats.
“I no longer know, if I ever did,” it rasped. “Nor do I know who I was. Or indeed, if I was, or am still, or will be again.”
Ah, Prosatio Silban thought, as the fugitive memory clicked into place. He lowered the knife, doused the burners and adopted a tone of casual but erudite authority.
“I understand, but do not share, your despair,” Prosatio Silban said with growing certainty. “You are, unless I am much mistaken, one of the Liminal Dead.”
The apparition cocked its shadowy head. “Am I?”
“Yes. It is an old legend, one ill-known in these cynical times,” the cook explained. “If the soul remains unparted from the body by a proper and immediate funerary pyre, it becomes more and more diffuse, and is doomed to wander aimlessly amongst the living. I had thought such a tale was only intended to communicate moral or spiritual lessons. But here you are.”
“’The Liminal Dead.’” The beetle voice chirped a pitiable imitation of a sob. “Must I languish in this interminable intermediacy for more of an eternity than I perhaps have already?”
“Not necessarily. Tell me, if you can – what is the first thing you remember?”
“I do not have any clear remembrance, but vague impressions only, without precedence in terms of time, and cannot say whether or not they are ‘mine,’ whoever that may be,” said the spectre. “Dim glimmers of experience pass around and through me like drifting windows: a small girl feeding a restive horse; a young boy playing on the edge of a cliff; warm wind caressing the bare skin of entwined and illicit lovers; a newborn’s first and last taste of air; a householder worrying over her family and funds; the smell of lonely roads; the crackling of fire under an enormous baobab.
“As swiftly as these impressions come, they go – with less substance than a passing dream. I cannot fully describe all that I am experiencing, nor the indiscrete spontaneities which enfold it, nor the despair at my utter and paradoxical anonymity.”
“Identity is simply an arbitrary frame through which to view life,” Prosatio Silban said, much moved by his guest’s discourse but not knowing what else to say. “And not everything experienced can be easily described. Everybody tastes, for example, but I haven’t met anyone who could adequately describe the sensation – though none doubted they tasted. Words need not alloy certainty.”
“I have no certainty to alloy,” whispered the visitor.
“You did once,” the cook said gently. “Can you remember what it was like?”
“No!” grated the spectre with window-rattling vehemence. “I know only frameless vistas with no perspective – nameless, gripless, forever alone in a silent churning crowd.”
Prosatio Silban nodded in meditative empathy. He was recalling a time in his own life, when he was a young man wandering the Exilic Lands in search of himself, or at least of some role by which he could connect to those around him. It is not good for a man to drift so, he thought, no doubt less good when he has no body – no container for his essence.
And then, all at once, the solution struck him.
“Perhaps your answer has been with you all along,” he said slowly.
“What do you mean?” rasped the spectre. “Do you know who I am?”
“Perhaps,” the cook said. “Perhaps … you are simply the one who says, ‘I.’”
A warm gust banged open the unshadowed galleywagon door, prompting a sleepy bleat from the cook’s startled dray-beast.
“It’s alright, boy,” said Prosatio Silban. “It’s only me.”