On the heels of the American Thanksgiving holiday, Britain’s L.P. Lee delivers a timely — and richly told — fable of power and abuse, and asks uncomfortable questions about abundance, scarcity, appetite and satisfaction. Her work is exquisitely illustrated by UK artist Annie Ridd.
Every day you will see tired grey faces by the roadside, begging for scraps, a kind loaf.
When he walks it is as if he is a god. He has amassed the bounty of the earth in his private kingdom where the grass he treads is green; his line of warehouses with their cruel barbed wire floats through everyman’s dreams.
Once a month on a Sunday his messenger on horseback arrives at a door with a piece of exquisite paper, scented like almonds. It is an invitation, scrawled in his long white hand — a loopy style with pretty aristocratic flourishes, his slow proud signature at the end.
It is always the women and the girls that he’ll summon; his preference is for the newlywed.
After the messenger trots out of sight, the faces turn to each other, a small scandal ensues. Some go willingly, with the blessings of their loved ones. Others are suspicious: a dinner must be more than a dinner.
Homes have crumbled because of his kindness, children left in tears, but the virgin girls come home untouched. A dinner is a dinner, they say.
He will invite the guests to satiate themselves and at first they might hesitate, but overwhelmed by their hunger they will soon forget themselves; they will disappear. They will gorge to their heart’s content.
He will watch them guzzle and gulp, stuffing their pretty cheeks with red meat, devouring and licking, and this most elegant of gourmands will sit back and observe.
For the most part he himself will not eat, though sometimes he will suck an oyster out of its shell and other times there will be a small bowl by his arm from which he will pick a small, red, heart-shaped cherry and bite it with a smile.
But he will never touch the girl. He has never so much as breathed on a guest. He will seat himself at the other end of the table and remain there until the end of the feast when he will depart and his guest — bewildered, bloated and inexplicably ashamed — will be led out by the dwarf in the black and gold suit.
Who is this Count? Whose charity has lain waste to families, whose generosity has annihilated whole villages, household by household? They say it is in the food itself. There is something that will worm its way into a woman’s heart and shrivel up the soul.
A woman will return home changed. There will be something resigned about her, else something darker; a strange fury. Even if she kisses her husband with the same sweetness as before, her lips plant doubt on his bearded cheek.
But it is only a meal, a precious meal in a land so famished.
One cold Sunday the messenger comes for her. Beneath the moon his black horse paws the earth, plumes of breath billow like clouds around its nose.
The messenger is masked. His painted face is gold and gleaming, decorated with a strange smile, the expression ambiguous, almost mocking.
He presents the invitation with a white gloved hand. The mask leers close and she receives the letter with thanks. Her hands tremble, her face is pale. The black horse rears, the messenger departs.
Alone again she looks at the letter. The signature of the Count is stark and beautiful.
Go, says her husband. His face is drawn; he is a sliver of the man he once was. Hunger has wasted away his flesh; he has shriveled up like the corn in the field. The drought has lasted seven years.
It will do you good, he says, though she can sense his apprehension. Two skeletons, they are, rattling their way through life. Their wedding feast was the last full meal they had. Neighbors brought reserves to share; it was the first time in months they tasted the sweetness of honey.
Go, he says, and when she shakes her head he becomes angry. Looks at her withered form, shrivelled over the seasons to a dry husk, her hair once lustrous, her eyes once bright. All has been dulled by hunger and he drops his eyes, turns away, shoulders slumping.
Word spreads with the ease of a plague. The next day everyone hears of it. If it is not a girl from one village, it will be a girl from another. Somewhere among the lonely villages of this desolate realm there will always be a girl.
The date of the feast draws near. She ignores the judgmental eyes, the whispers, the trace of envy on the tongue.
She has sold her best dresses for bread and the market has swallowed her jewels, but she will make herself presentable in a plain old smock, scrub her skin to a sheen.
When the carriage arrives she and her husband are waiting before their house, quivering, pinched and brittle, swaying with fatigue in the breeze. Her husband has trimmed his beard though only the horseman will see it and the horseman does not notice such things. He hardly turns his head to look at them. His golden mask is facing forward, catching the dying light of the sun.
Eat your fill, my love.
She is packed into the carriage and sits on cushions black and lush. The horses pull, the wheels roll. She watches her home grow smaller but draws the curtains when they pass the village square.
She sits back into scant malnourished thoughts. Her body rocks with the movements of the carriage and the interior is warm as a womb.
In the distance the Count’s castle is grey, forbidding. It is made of hostile stones, turrets stab the sky, ravens circle the upper reaches.
The iron gates swing open, the carriage glides through. But here — what a sight! — there is a carpet of luxuriant grass, green as sin, and rows of blissful flowers, awash with sordid colours. A maid is watering the garden from a golden pot; it is strange — shocking — to see such precious water lavished on beauty. It gushes from the spout without restraint.
Into the hall she is ushered. The ceiling is high and carved with angels; the floor is smooth stone eroded by generations of courtly feet. A dwarf greets her in a black and gold suit and leads her through long corridors of hanging flames and tapestries. Their footsteps ring and echo.
No words pass between them. No one has spoken to her since she boarded the carriage. She is unsure of her guide’s appearance. He marches briskly; she sees only the bobbing shape of his large round head, the golden tassels that sway on his shoulders.
Her pulse quickens as they progress deeper in. She smells before she sees: the rich aroma of warm stew, the pungency of spice and garlic, the juicy odor of racks of meat, the sugary scent of a party of cakes.
It pierces her, this gunshot of smell. She is filled with the fumes of the feast and she sighs and salivates. Her mouth moistens wildly.
They are at the end of the corridor; now the oak doors open. They are heavy doors, old doors, doors from an earlier, primitive age.
The hall is filled with light. Candles glow along the gleaming table amid a mountain of dishes. The chocolates twinkle, the salamis shine, the yellow cheeses smoulder.
So much food, alive with heat. Steaming risottos, bubbling casseroles, simmering broths.
Cheeses pile on top of cheeses: hard cheeses, soft cheeses, cheeses white as cream, cheeses streaked with blue and salty veins, cheeses like fat wheels nestled in dark waxy rinds.
There are thick, succulent sausages, glistening skins slightly caramelised, meat rich in flavor. Browned legs of lamb, hunks of crispy pork with a small jar of apple sauce beside them. Bloody steaks, sweet treats aplenty.
Her eyes drift towards pyramids of macaroons in pastel pinks and blues, dense melting chocolate cakes oozing their luxury onto plates of burnished gold, ramekins of crème brûlées shining in amber glazes, and rows of vivid red-raspberry tarts.
There are airy profiteroles and syrupy sponges, crunchy meringues with gooey innards, fruit trifles and crystallized candies, vats of smooth vanilla custard, and sticky white rice cakes brought in from the East.
At the other end of the table where the host will sit are dishes for more expensive tastes: delicate caviar from the Caspian Sea, slabs of soft foie gras, grilled lobsters flame-red, and champagne jellies luminous with flakes of pure gold. Somewhere hovers the earthy scent of truffles.
Listen! Footsteps resound in the stone corridor; the echoes draw close. He is striding in even, measured steps towards the feasting hall.
When he sweeps in, he does not so much as glance at her. He brushes by, his movement stirs her strands of hair and she wonders about her host with his queer scent of almonds. He takes his seat at the end of the table.
His chest and arms sprout hairs, thick and black that escape through his rolled up sleeves and the open collar of his shirt.
Yet he is dressed in elite fashions. His shirt is clean and the purest white that she has seen for years, a white no longer present in her village where all the clothes have faded and nothing new is worn. It is the whitest of whites with a cold blue tint, the white of faraway peaks shrouded by silent clouds.
He smiles now at his guest. It is an ominous smile, too smooth to be honest and his teeth are sharp.
Yet there is an unmistakable handsomeness to him.
He motions for her to begin, and tentatively she reaches for a small slice of pie. It is a golden pie steaming with heat, succulent with meat. She brings the slice to her lips; the texture is moist, the pastry breaks a little between her fingers and crumbs tumble onto her lap.
The Count leans forward. He nods, flicks his long white hands and gestures for her to eat, eat.
Slowly her teeth sink through soft pastry; the tender flavours melt on her tongue and bathe her spirit in salty delight. She is transported momentarily to a higher plane and she thinks, when was the last time? That honey present on her wedding day, a stack of cheeses when they gave their vows. A few meek pleasures, all those years ago.
And she thinks of her home, so bleak, so austere. Her husband by the bare cupboard, shoulders slumped; his face wasting, his body atrophying, a mountain slowly eroding to dust.
Her saucer eyes survey the feast, the profusion of colours, smells and flavours. There is so much joy in a dish; each morsel contains within itself a bright piece of light. There is a promise of happiness in a bite, an opportunity to recover and live again.
She trembles. She holds the small slice of pie in her hands and she thinks, for too long I have lived off a grain that does not nourish me, half-starved, dying before my time is up. Too long, too long, I cannot contain myself any longer.
She reaches out and begins to pile her plate with lashings of meat. She feasts on pink hams and yellow cheeses, fills a bowl with soup and breaks some crusty bread. She spoons soft couscous into her mouth, dines on canapés of smoked salmon decked with lemon.
As she sips and slurps, champs and chews, new thoughts seep insidiously into her mind and chase one another through the labyrinthine passages and stairs.
How criminal it would be to wither one’s way through life, languishing in unfulfilled desires, steeped in a perpetual hunger. How wretched to be confined to a state of acceptance, to rot away from the inside out. How shameful, how miserable!
One must eat, savor and enjoy. Consume with relish else life is but a shadow on a wall. Each mouthful stirs her soul. Now it pulses, now it soars.
She picks up the cupcakes, so pretty and pink. She cracks the hard caramel layer of a crème brûlée, dips strawberries into lagoons of dark chocolate.
She indulges in aubergines roasted in olive oil, enjoys the chewy texture of halloumi. Her teeth pierce glistening sausage flesh; her lips and fingers shine with juice.
Now she sets to work on a thick steak, cutting it up with a silver knife and fork to find the outside beautifully seared while the meat inside is red. She chews quickly; she is in heaven. There is a reckless abandon to her eating for she wants everything and she cannot wait.
And there, hovering above the silver soup tureen is his ominous smile, teeth white as polished rice. That perfumed menace; he watches her more intently as she progresses deeper and deeper into delirium, mouthful by mouthful.
But now she notices him. Her fingers freeze, her mouth hangs partially open; she is for a moment paralyzed. She sees how amidst the intensity of his gaze, a peculiar cloudiness has crept in, frosting his eyes with a ferocious, dreamlike quality.
With a thunderclap she is brought back to her senses. Her heart pounds, her mind whirls. She covers her face. The feast is done.
The Count rises from his chair. He does not look at her. His steps are slow and relaxed. The oak doors open; he slides out without a word.
She hears the tap of his footsteps on stone. The footsteps recede.
Alone in the hall, a sigh escapes her: the low, aching sigh of a woman who has recognized the depth of her dissatisfaction.
There is a new sound in the corridor. The shuffling footfall of the dwarf. The golden tassels on his shoulders sway, his large round head bobs. He leads her out of the feasting hall, no warmth in his manner.
She ascends the carriage and there is only the rhythmic sound of the turning wheels, the plodding hooves and the flay of the whip for company.