One day, or night, a man arrived in to me carrying a bone. The bone was a large knee joint, as would befit the leg of a cow or a horse. But it belonged to neither of those. I did not recognise the animal of origin, and I do not like to guess. The light was as poor as it usually is where I am standing, so how could anything be defined and categorized with any confidence? To tell you the truth, this once, I was not troubled. It was a bone. That was all. It would do. I did not recognise the man either. He didn’t belong to our group. But so what? Members of other groups often drop by without any hostile intentions, and they sometimes approach me with an offering for the stew, thinking to get some stew for themselves in return. You may be sure, if they have come to see me, and they are carrying a bone, they are hungry.
You may believe a bone to be a poor offering but it is not. Bones are brittle honeycombs at the core of every animal. They are the core material of any decent stock, stew, soup or broth. So much flavour is held in the marrow of every bone, awaiting heat and a pot and a cook to release it.
Having said all that, of course it’s not possible to accept any old bone, from any old hand. Each ingredient for the stew, bone or no, must be properly inspected and found free of all threats and defects.
I am the person in our group with sole responsibility for the stew. I have to stir it, all day long. I have to ensure it is evenly and continuously heated. I have to add ingredients, with all necessary prudence, as they become available to me. I have to proportionately distribute the stew to the members of my group, and occasionally to members of other groups who, for one reason or another, find themselves in our location.
Distribution of the stew is a complex affair. It must take place according to custom and practice, of which, by custom and practice, I am the interpreter. But also according to need. The hungriest has gained a certain priority. They have often done the most work, whether or not they have been successful. But not the fattest. I do not feed according to girth. Lastly, I do have to factor-in merit. It is possible to deserve more or less than the average helping of stew. I am the agreed and only judge of this deserve. I would say I try to be objective but that would be obvious gibberish.
As you can imagine, my position as the Stew Custodian, a position I have held for quite some time now, means I have a great deal of influence and power within the group. But it also makes me feel very vulnerable and nervous. Bacteria can run riot anytime. So, anyone could accuse me of poisoning them. In a week of thin stew, when hunger gnaws away like saw teeth at the tensing bonds of our mutuality, many tempers can flare simultaneously. A catastrophic riot is not an unlikely event. This, by the way, is how I came to be guardian of the stew. Hunger is the great catalyst in human affairs. I am not sure anyone but me remembers the previous Guard, the awful grimace which was his last contribution when I skewered him. This group is not given to remembering. I have belonged to other groups who were obsessed with record, ritual and recall. But in this current group there are no record keepers. We do not speak to each other of our yesterdays. There are no rituals or customs to speak of outside of those to do with the stew, and these are not ornate. The stew consumes our energies and satisfies our wants. That is its purpose of course. We hunt therefore we eat. We eat therefore we hunt. We stir the stew and the stew stirs us.
So far then, I have not been seriously challenged for the stew. The overarching reason for this is simple: the power vested in me by the group to ration or even entirely deny the stew to offenders against the stew. If you offend me, you offend the stew. If you offend the stew you offend our entire group, simultaneously. The offense multiplies among us until it becomes capital. It is not taken lightly. So far, in the heart of each individual member of our group, and in their collective heart, the fear of not getting any stew atall has prevailed over the desire to win control of the stew.
+ + +
I pass the time childishly, as if there were right and wrong, by imagining myself in certain pantomime roles. The wicked witch or conniving wizard. The pirate cook in the South Sea galley. A vicious washerwoman in fairytale from the black woods. A dubious prophet or prophetess stirring the stew as if the stew were time itself, full of whirling meat and scraps.
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It is also true that the consistent and regular stirring motion and noise are conducive to trancelike states and hallucinations, to which I have never been averse in first place. I can retain certain lucid leverage over these stew visions, or I can let go and see what happens. The one danger is falling into the stew, which would ruin both it, and me. I seem to instinctually know when this is about to happen and to snap myself aware again.
Lucidly, my favourite stewdream is to watch the faces of old friends and relations rise up to the surface of the stew and bob and revolve awhile there, each in their turn. They are always clean shaven and I like them to have their mouths open so I can look down into them. I have always found looking down into people’s mouths a great distraction. There may be a gold tooth to be spied, gaps and fillings, or a tongue that unfurls into a dragon.
When I let the stew take over anything can happen, as in dreams. A child visits an elderly lady on her deathbed. White linen everywhere. I mean the bed, the room, the child, even the old woman are all made of white linen.
+ + +
Onions, of course. Root vegetables. Salt and pepper—strictly rationed, meticulously apportioned. Meat: various beasts, various cuts. Nettles. Dandelions. Berries. Mushrooms and toadstools. Toads. Lilypads. Whatever can be picked, plucked, gathered, murdered, salvaged. Almost everything still abroad and edible finds its way into our stew.
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Sometimes they are not faces of the people traipsing down the long tracts of my memory that I conjure up in the stew, but faces of stars and planets and comets that I have invented and can busy myself in naming and forgetting.
+ + +
Where did you get the bone?
I found it.
You were alone?
Far from here?
And the rest of the beast?
What was it?
Some new animal?
Perhaps. Perhaps it was a new kind of man.
Or an old kind we haven’t heard of. There used to be so many kinds. Long ago.
Really. You know so much.
It is a bone. That’s all I know.
Bring it over here.
It’s as smooth as a basin. You have picked it clean.
That was how I found it.
Open your mouth.
(He opens his mouth.)
You have kept all your teeth.
And no one else’s.
You know someone who wears another person’s teeth?
I know of no such. But I can imagine it.
I have heard it is done. I knew a man once who wore a crown of ears. He had subjected them to some process. They were as hard as marble, and glistened like it too.
Have you a use for it in the stew?
I’m not sure. It has so little perfume to it.
Because it is clean, and fresh.
You think it has any flavour?
More than likely, yes.
I prefer them to be older.
Well, lay it by then.
But the stew is losing substance.
Then use it immediately.
You are too quick to find solutions.
I prefer not to solve things so quickly.
It is easier that way. Never solve one problem until you have another one ready.
Without obstacles I would malfunction.
How do you avoid it?
I just put things off and keep stirring. Time passes, without a resolution.
What do you make of time?
It is an infinite womb.
Or a birth canal from which there is no exit.
What’s inside it never truly sees the light.
Imagine the void that awaits us at the end of our troubles.
Imagine. I can’t. Impossible.
We should have no excuses left then.
At the end of our appetites.
There would simply be new appetites, new senses, new lusts upon us.
If only hunger and lust could both be satisfied with the one bite.
That doesn’t add up. Hunger ingests, lust expels. Sex is a kind of excretion.
I can’t argue with that. I thought that up myself, ages hence.
I’m getting mixed up. Did we decide to put the bone in or not?
We hadn’t decided.
I’m putting it in. I might as well. There.
Do you think it is trying to speak?
Yes, like all things.
What is it trying to say?
It is trying to say thank you, to pay tribute, surely.
To what? To whom?
To us both, and, for allowing it to speak, to the stew.
Most of all to that. Let’s join it then. Let’s toast. Your cup?
I thought I might take a sip from yours.
I sip from the ladle.
You drip-feed yourself?
You won’t share?
There is only one solution.
There is a solution? Don’t terrify me.
I will enter the stew.
You will not.
(With that the second, unrecognised man leaps into the pot and disappears whistling and bubbling beneath the steam)
+ + +
Because I do not sleep while I am stirring the stew does not mean I do not dream or wake up from my dream in which there is an almostcorpse. A person who has suffered some terrific mishap and is now lying unconscious in a private room in an ultra high-tech hospital attached to complicated and impressive life support machinery.
This near-death individual does not know where they are nor what has happened them to be in such a state. In fact, when he or she occasionally opens his or her eyes it is always to a slightly different gleaming room with slightly different gleaming machinery keeping him or her alive. Perhaps he or she is in a different room on a different floor or ward or in a different hospital altogether each time.
Varying levels of insurance cover are implied, and even different incidents or accidents as the cause of the hospitalisation.
+ + +
Was it fields that gave war its start? I mean, how could there be war without fields?
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Hear Dave Lordan read an excerpt from “A Bone:”