Food Of The Gods
The door opened smoothly into the dimly-lit restaurant; a sad bell jangled in protest. Joe and Liza brought humid air and street bustle into the much cooler building with them, along with the remainder of the conversation that they had been having.
“… may as well grab a bite here before heading back to the hotel, then, sweetheart.” Said Joe, and even if it was the first time you’d ever met him, you’d be able to sniff something shifty in his behaviour, even as you decided that he was a good chap. Liza, knowing him much better then we could, gave him a longways look.
“This is a bit sudden… Why this place?”
“Oh, no reason. Just caught my fancy.” He tried very hard not to meet her eye, busying himself gaining the attention of the lone waitress. She was already heading over to them, mind you – this early in the day, the long, thin room was all-but-empty. Only one other diner was there, seated near the back – a leathery old local who didn’t acknowledge their arrival. Joe nodded in his direction anyway, and continued, “Besides, you said you were hungry.”
The waitress seated them, the whole process conducted in broken English and phrasebook Thai.
Joe ordered a bowl of Sato, and made a big show of settling into the small chair, and taking in his surroundings. He relaxed a little, but the second the waitress left them, Liza jumped right back into the conversation, her voice hushed.
“I said I was hungry two hours ago! Before the market, and before you dragged me around looking for … whatever it was we were looking for!”
“That’s right…” Joe said, calm and infuriating, “… two hours ago, you said you were hungry, and I heard you. And now we’re sitting in a restaurant, about to eat.” He reached across the table and patted her hand, which was curled into a fist on top of a napkin, until she relaxed her grip on herself. She let her lips slip back from the vicious pout that they’d adopted, into their more familiar and comfortable patient smile.
“Fine.” She said.
As Joe let go and slid his hand back to his side of the table, he deftly lifted the small laminated menu that sat next to her place setting.
“I’ll order.” He said, and began an examination of the listed items. Liza left him to it. When he was like this, it was generally better to. She assumed there must be an English translation on the folded A4 sheet, but knowing Joe, there might not be. He had a knack for reading menus.
When the waitress returned, she was carrying their bowl of rice wine, and two small cups. Joe spoke to her for a few seconds, pointing out something on the list. She looked up at Liza shyly, then back at Joe, and smiled briefly. Then she went back, past the other patron, and through a door, which Liza assumed led to the kitchen. There were muffled sounds coming from back there – metal things, clanging off each other – and when the girl opened the door to bring them dining bowls and a fork and a spoon each, the roar of intense flame, cut across with the sizzle and hiss of extreme cuisine could be heard.
They chattered for a couple of minutes about the various things that they had seen during the day. After a while, Joe looked around the room again, and said, “I think the decor in here is a bit much, though.”
Liza looked around. The room was kitted out pretty much how you’d expect a Thai restaurant to look. Lots of red material, and gold leaf. Green plastic shades on the lights, to look like jade.
Actually, thinking about it, it was more like you’d expect a Thai restaurant back in Southerton to look. In Thailand, the place was actually a little out of place.
“Hmm.” She agreed. She noticed, for the first time, that there was music playing. After a few seconds, she recognised the tune: It was an instrumental version of “I Will Always Love You”, the version off that film, played on flute. It was shot through with the twang and chime of unfamiliar instruments.
“A bit, I don’t know… a bit stereotypical. Racist, almost.” He sipped at his wine, scrunched up his face, and then sighed appreciatively, before carrying on. “I mean, I happen to know for a fact that the owner is from Coventry, and the chef is a frog.”
Liza sucked air, and made a worrying noise in her throat. She hacked for a few moments. When the convulsions slowed, and she managed to collect herself, she admonished Joe, her eyes still watering.
“Bloody hell! Why’d you have to say that for?”
“Oh, blimey, I’m sorry, sweetheart!” He said, leaping out of his seat and rushing around the table to rub her back. “I wasn’t thinking. I’m surprised it still upsets you so much…”
“Of course it does!” She said, glaring at him. He backed away, finding his way back into his seat.
“Well, you said you’d quite like to try it…” He muttered petulantly.
“No, I said I wouldn’t mind eating it, if it would make you happy. And I agreed to frog’s legs. Legs!” She swigged what was left in her cup, dipped it back in the bowl, and made a start on the refill, grimacing the whole time. When she was content that she had cleared the ghost from her palate, she continued. “Legs. Not heart, or brains or stomach.”
“It was a delic…” he began, but a look at her expression made him tail off mid-sentence. After a long minute, she relaxed again, and suddenly his face, the subtle mix of fear and indignation, made her giggle. He sulked for a moment longer, and then he started to laugh as well. Laughing was, after all, what they were good at.
Suddenly, a high-pitched noise broke in over their guffaws. Joe ignored it, but Liza snapped quiet abruptly.
“What was that?” She said, shaking his hand across the table, bringing him round.
“That noise? It sounded like… a scream?”
“I didn’t hear anything…” Said Joe’s mouth, but his eyes said something else. She looked at them, hard, as her brain, heavy and slow from the day’s humidity and the rice wine, started to grind through a few things.
“Hang on… what did you say?”
“I said I didn’t hear anything.”
“No, earlier. You said… about the chef here. And the owner.” She looked over in the direction of the door, the one that the waitress had gone through – where Liza was now almost totally convinced that the noise she had heard had come from. “Oh, bloody hell. You know this place. You already know about this place.” She looked at his face, as he tried on a reassuring smile, and failed dismally, his eyelid twitching slightly.
“That’s why you practically dragged me through the door…” Liza said, her voice eerily calm. Joe knew what that meant – and it didn’t really make him feel any more safe.
It meant that she had got a handle on the situation, which meant that he’d end up paying, down the line. She wasn’t one for outbursts, or grudges, because she had a sure sense of their love, and a pragmatic attitude towards everything else.
But what Liza did was, she remembered things. And if he took a liberty, she normally found a way to balance things out. You know, just so that she didn’t feel like the cliche, the girl whose fella forever runs rings round her.
“Oh my god…” She said, an almost admiring half-smile creeping up on her, “… was this whole trip about coming here?”
“No, of course not.” He said, “Well, not entirely. I thought you’d like the culture and that.”
“Oh, I do, hon. It’s beautiful.” She smiled a little broader – Joe felt like it was the smile that she practiced for the day when their notional toddler gave her a crayon-rendered abortion of a picture, and she had to pretend it was a work of genius. It didn’t make him feel spectacular. “But really… you promised. You promised no more after Florida.”
“Well, I just… I’d read about this place on the internet, and the opportunity kind of came up.” He looked away from her, suddenly very interested in the worn wooden floor. His bottom lip stuck out. “And besides, you loved snake.”
“I did. I did, you’re right…” She lowered her head, trying to catch his eye. “But no amount of snake-meat is ever going to make up for the dolphin.”
“You liked the dolphin. You said it had a sublime texture, and melted perfectly on the tongue.”
“Only when I didn’t know it was bloody dolphin!” She countered, but calmed down the second she saw the hurt expression on his face. She reached across the table. Managed – just about – to ruffle his hair.
“I suppose the snake was quite nice,” she offered, “and two-toed sloth was better then I’d have expected.”
He started to raise his head against her hand, looking up at her again.
“Yeah. Yes. I suppose we could try something new again. Just for a change.” She grinned, relieved to see him cheering up. “So, what are we having?”
“That, my dear girl, is going to have to stay a surprise.”
Liza rolled her eyes.
Before long, the door at the back of the restaurant opened again. For an agonizing moment, it stayed there, propped a little way open by a hidden hip, and the scents of cooked meat hit Liza hard, made her suddenly very hungry. Then the waitress was fully through, and heading towards them, a dish in each hand.
Liza watched the serving dishes carefully as the waitress laid them in the center of the table, and returned to the kitchen to collect more. So far, it looked like a typical Thai meal, like you got in the places back home. The first bowl held a pile of sticky rice – more then enough for the two of them. Each subsequent plate contained dishes that Joe knew she would like – stir-fried chicken with razor sliced ginger; green curry made with chillies so fresh that they made her eyes water all over again; stir-fried vegetables, seasonal and probably bought earlier that day from one of the markets that they had walked through.
Joe eyed her curiously, and she knew that he was eager to see how she reacted to his choices. So far, though, there was nothing out of the ordinary here – she was fairly certain that the chicken was just normal chicken, and aside from the green curry being made with fish-balls – back home, she normally picked the poultry option – she couldn’t see where the big shocker was.
Finally, the waitress brought out what Liza instantly knew was a saté – the crushed peanut sauce and cucumber were unmistakable – and she thought that Joe was pretty smart to pick this as the dish that contained his mystery meat, because it was easily her favourite Thai dish.
The thin bamboo skewers of grilled meat, pushed to one side of the plate, looked just like pork, but Liza knew Joe well enough to know that that wouldn’t be the case. She moved closer, to get a better look, and got her first really good breath of the various scents of their meal. The fish sauce and the lime, the pungent sharp spices of each dish, distinct but complementary, made her mouth water.
But she’d learned her lesson. Identify the meat before you eat. It was one of the tough lessons, hard to learn, but it stuck with her. The popping and whistling and splashing sounds of the noon-show at SeaWorld kept it pinned there.
She prodded at the first skewer with her fork, nudging the meat, testing consistency and flexibility. It really did look and move just like pork. She sniffed at it, but the herbs and marinade used in the grilling process baffled her senses, and she hadn’t thought she’d have been able to work the problem convincingly that way anyway. Stabbing through with the fork, the tines scraping against the bamboo skewer inside, she opened the meat up, and looked at the pink insides. It was fibrous but tender, and still no clues.
She looked across at Joe, who was watching with a broad grin on his face.
“What is it?” She demanded, the bossy child that she was in her early teens made manifest.
“Can’t you tell?”
“You already know I can’t! Tell me!”
“No! I can’t!” She would have stamped her feet, except she didn’t think it would help. Joe was on top again.
“Okay, I’ll give you a clue.” He pretended to think about it really hard. “Right. So. What is the one thing that you would never, ever, ever have thought we’d get to eat?”
She thought about it for a second. Looked at his face, and thought about it for a second longer. She turned a little green, as she thought about it a bit more. Looked at the back of her arm, and raised it, comparing it to the opened up meat on the plate.
She gulped, trying hard to suppress the gag reflex.
Looked over at him, mouth crimping up visibly.
“Oh, god, Joe, no…” She said, quietly.
Joe looked back, confused momentarily. Then he looked at how she was holding her arm, against the side of the plate, and blanched a little himself.
“No. Oh lord no. That’s sick!” He said. “Did you honestly think I’d…? I’m not a cannibal, Liza!”
“Well, what on earth are you on about, then?” She said, frustrated now.
“God. Well, more precisely, a god. Not the God.”
“What you’ve got on that plate in front of you, is a prime cut of god meat.”
“What? What? Have you… have I gone mad?”
“No, honestly, darling. It’s… only a small god. One of the little ones. There are potentially loads of them knocking about, but this is the only one I’ve ever heard about anybody finding.”
“Yeah, apparently we could have watched them cut the meat, but I thought that might be a bit much. That was probably who you heard screaming out there.”
“Who? A who? We’re eating a who?” Liza’s face was doing all sorts of odd things, by this point. On the one hand, she couldn’t really believe what she was hearing, and on the other, she could, and it was freaking her out.
“Well, kind of. The thing you have to remember, sweetie, is that he’s here by choice.”
“Remember? How on earth would I remember something like that? I didn’t know it to begin with.”
“You didn’t? Oh, I suppose… no, you didn’t. Right, well. Yes. The god – I think the menu says he is the “god of difficult decisions” – the website said that he hasn’t been worshiped since around 1000BC. Apparently, he presented himself to these two guys, the Brit and the fr… Frenchman. When they were holidaying out here.”
“Right?” Said Liza. Torn somewhere between disbelief and disgust, she started to paddle for safer ground, and find pragmatism all over again.
“Yeah, right. And, well, he says to them that he’s dwindling, because nobody even knows he exists any more, right? He’s… they live a long time, so it’s taken this long, but all these thousands of years without any human worship, it’s knackered him. He’s about to wink out.
So, he makes this proposition to them. He says that he’s still got some power. He’ll help them build a restaurant. But they have to put him on the menu.
Because apparently it’s the act of being needed or wanted that feeds a god. Not faith or belief or anything like that, although I guess they work by extension. But the thing that keeps a god alive is, it seems, having a purpose. By being food, he gets to be of some use, and that keeps him alive.
And by all accounts, he heals up almost as soon as they cut the meat off him. So no harm, no foul.”
“You know, you have gone quite bonkers.” Liza said, a concerned look on her face.
“If that’s the case, what’s going on there, then?” Joe replied, pointing at the saté skewers.
The one that she had torn apart was now completely intact. Not a sign of her investigations remained.
She picked the meat up by the bamboo, and held it in front of her face, stunned.
“Okay, that’s quite weird.” She said.
“Weird enough to eat?” He replied.
She looked at him, then back at the meat. It did look tasty. Tasty weird.
“You’re absolutely certain it’s not human meat?”
“Positive. Human meat doesn’t heal up after cooking like that.” He grinned. She shot him a look.
“Fine. We’ll try it.” Joe’s smile grew at her words. “If it’s good, we’ll keep eating. When we’re done, I might want to go see what the story is with this tiny god.”
“Cool, sweetheart. Whatever you want.”
“You first?” She said, waving the miraculous meat at him.
“No, you. I insist.” He responded.
“Hm.” She said.
Raised the meat, free of peanut sauce for this first taste, to her lips.
And took a bite.
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