There are times I am convinced Anna’s mere presence activates my gout. Other times I wish to hug her. She is taking over my kitchen – my Indian restaurant. She wields her knife like a Shokunin chef, commanding the respect of my staff and the attention of my customers. Perhaps Aztec women feel they must re-take the New World one kitchen at a time.
If you were to see her, you would think she was nothing more than a chamber maid, shaped like a potato and perhaps no smarter. It was fortuitous how it happened. The sous-chef had suddenly quit. It is not as though I miss him. He truly belongs in a chip wagon anyway. But then like a spice monger in a trailer park, Anna suddenly appeared. I will allow her to upstage me for the moment, for she will be my salvation. Oddly enough, I would not have taken her seriously if not for Helmut’s recommendation. I remember that day two months ago as if it just happened.
It was just after my live appearance on Canada AM where I had prepared Alberta ostrich, marinated in lemongrass oil and Labrador cloudberries. The host moaned and rolled her eyes as she bit into the bird.
“Oh God, this is so good.” She said, as if I did not already know. “And Julian, not only is ostrich meat lean and delicious, but I understand that it is a true alternative to traditional meats?”
The fool. I could not help myself and proceeded to set her straight. I explained as simply as I could that a more viable alternative was the human body – a renewable harvest that was ninety per cent digestible and had a sixty percent dressed yield with just as much protein as beef or lamb. She may have been the first person on live television to require the Heimlich maneuver, a scene that has since gone viral.
Since then, Helmut could be found planting his towering presence in my office like an actuary searching for his missing dollar. I’d known him for years, but suspected his loyalty was also to the Council.
Named after the mythological King Lycaon who sacrificed his son and offered him to Zeus for dinner, we Lycaons are a group of culinary artists and diners particularly fond of human flesh. Within the Lycaons is the omnipotent Council. They are so staid and exclusive they make the Vatican look like an open Indian wedding. But I know the Council is not happy with me. Their idea of taking us forward is to change the tent cards. I however am not afraid of the future, even when I slip hints to the public of how tasty and healthy human flesh is.
Normally the dinosaurs come on a Sunday when my restaurant is closed to civilians and my staff are off. I discreetly open it only to Lycaons. Looking like tired aristocrats from the failed League of Nations, they would puff their cigars in my non-smoking restaurant and look down on me as if I was their little Indian lackey fresh off the boat. It mattered little to them that my family had been flesh artists for three generations in Canada, and that Cannibal Bites Quarterly said I was a culinary force to be reckoned with.
The Council had seen me work the finest lean flesh, fresh from the morgue into handcrafted ravioli filled with smoked organic shiitake mushrooms. They’d also seen me improvise with only donated organs on hand when I rolled them in pistachios and ground kaffir lime leaves before slow cooking them in my tandoori. Each time, they licked my plates clean. Yet they never showed the respect and reverence for me as they do white Lycaon chefs. Instead they lecture about tradition, discretion and respect for the Council. Blah, blah, blah.
Surprisingly, I was not reprimanded by the Council after Canada AM. Not a word was heard. Instead of the usual lecture, the most unexpected thing happened: they bestowed upon me the honour of catering the quadrennial general meeting only months away. And if tradition were to follow, an extraordinary meal could lead to the offer of a seat on the Council afterwards. I could scarcely believe it. It could only mean that my vision of human flesh eating slowly being taken out of the closet was gaining popularity. I needed only to create a feast that would be seen as worthy of my belonging.
The next day Anna strode in for the first time.
One of my bartenders brought her resume to my office while she waited by the bar. Helmut was already sitting on my desk, nursing a snifter of my $300.15 a bottle Remy Martin XO. I ignored the resume and capped the brandy. Helmut flipped through it. She had run several small but successful civilian restaurants in Mexico City which Helmut had enjoyed, but he had never heard of her so she could not have been one of us.
“Herr Julian,” he said, “perhaps you should not be so quick to judge. This is impressive.” He handed the resume back to me.
Anna mentioned her Aztec roots, and my mind began to race ahead. As a sous-chef with no Canadian experience, she would be a gamble. But for what I was thinking, no previous experience was needed – an Aztec feast featuring an Aztec woman! She would symbolize my vision of the Lycaons embracing their past with a modern, global and bold direction led by me. It was not necessary for Helmut to insist that I interview her. I sent for her straight away.
I studied her as she stood before us. A floral skirt and white blouse hugged her sizeable breasts and oval form. I estimated thirty-one percent body fat.
She could be no more than thirty years old, past her peak, but her flank showed promise, thick enough for fillets or steaks, or even bacon strips if cut thinly. Like most breasts, hers would offer challenges. Despite their appetizing appearance, they’re always rather inedible, though the glands and fatty tissue can be used as briskets if removed before cutting the ribs. But I’d decided that a brilliant course would be to pan roast them with bufala mozzarella, soffrito, coriander spiced nuts and blood orange puree. I could see the Council drooling already.
I hired her immediately.
I could hardly contain my enthusiasm and surely beamed from ear to ear. She might have thought I was some sort of pervert, the silly girl. Then a funny thing occurred. Her large brown eyes fluttered as they scanned my body. A long, shy smile reminded me of a school girl gripped in a puppy love. I would have surmised she preferred women. Perhaps she too was mesmerized by my exotic charm. Had I not already made plans for her, I might have granted her some pleasure.
I spied stone-faced Helmut barely able to suppress a grin. He was pleased with my new hire. I needed that.
A week before the feast, I offered Anna a weekend at the spa. I told her it was a gift I would not use from a supplier. I wanted her skin exfoliated, soft and smooth, then rubbed down. Relaxed, loose muscles are much easier to work with. She accepted and returned all happy and smiley, and with a small gift bag.
“Señor Julian, you have been most kind to me.” She handed me the bag. “You have given me a new life, gracias.” She lowered her gaze but could not hide that shy smile.
I pulled out some OUI the People skin lotion, an $80 bottle. At first I did not know what to say. I must admit I have never been courted by someone who was to be my main course.
For a moment I felt a morsel of regret for her fate. Poor girl, no doubt she was lonely in her new country, perhaps short on confidence and frustrated at having to prove herself all over again. I too have been denied respect, forced to kowtow in two worlds. The sacrifices made, the obstacles only we must endure, the whisperings… we had much in common.
I thanked her and walked away, imagining the couple we could have been-chef and sous-chef, Brangelina in matching whites.
Last night I started the final lock-up routine when the clanking of glass nearly made me jump. I walked towards it.
“Anna? Anna, are you still here?” I called out, hoping it was her. I searched for a weapon, and moved towards the light panel.
“Nein. The cleaning woman is here.”
“Who’s there?” I called out.
I heard liquid pouring.
“Why so nervous Herr Julian?”
I approached the bar. Out of the shadows appeared Helmut and his muscle Deiter, a tall, unsmiling man with the hands of a point guard.
“What are you doing here?” I demanded.
Deiter poured his boss some Drambuie into a rock glass already filled with Scotch on ice.
“I wished a Rusty Nail.” He sipped from his glass.
Helmut was not only a Lycaon, he was also known as ‘The Wholesaler.’ His network would procure and deliver flesh on demand. He was extremely expensive. But then again, he took special orders: dead or live.
“Is everything prepared?” I asked.
Helmut swirled the ice in his glass. “Yes, but of course. Have I ever not delivered as promised?”
“At those prices, I could hire my own gang.”
“You complain too much, Herr Julian. The Council does not like complainers.”
“I’ll tell you what the Council likes and doesn’t like.”
Helmut scoffed. “You are expecting big things, ja?”
I wanted to say, ‘Only to fulfill a lifelong dream to be the Council member that brings human gastronomy out of the closet and into the forefront of elegant fare.’
Instead I replied, “Just remember, you are only to deliver her unharmed. The Council will see that I’m no pussy. I shall lead the ceremony.”
Helmut chuckled. “Ja, you are no girlie-man.” He downed his Rusty Nail. “You are a natural born killer.”
I ignored the sarcasm and repeated my previous requests. Anna was to be watched, then picked up the day before the feast. He was to keep her comfortable, and dress her in a headdress with quivering rooster feathers, a sleeveless, gold-sequined and spangled dress with matching feather trim, all of which I’d rented and had to be returned by eleven the next day.
Before the assembled Council, it was customary for the Chairman to recite the secret oath of the Society. Helmut would then turn to me, signaling my removing the pearl-handled knife from its gold-threaded scabbard, and taking it to the throat of the offering, Anna. And while I disemboweled Anna, I would pay tribute to her Aztec roots, and tempt the dinosaurs with the menu to follow.
The day arrived and the twelve Council members gathered at my closed restaurant. I ran my fingers along the cool marble of the ceremonial platform where I would offer the sacrifice. The platform itself was set on a small makeshift stage, curtained from the dining hall.
It was here that the Council would assemble for the feast and ceremony. I have fed many of them before. How could they not see that I would be a young lion standing tall within their circle? I felt confident that my inventiveness and energy would not be refused and would instead be seen as vital to the Council.
Helmut marched out of the storage area grinning. “Everything is under control.”
The sound system blasted out blaring trumpets and rolling drums as the Council took to their seats. I stood just off the podium. The Chairman commanded all members to stand and led the oath of secrecy in unison.
“Brothers, let us come together.”
He steadied himself on the podium. “Let our taste for that which is understood to none but the bold and brave silently bind us throughout time. Let the rich drippings that we lust after lead us to the splendor of the flesh of our rivals. And let us fill our bellies with their strength and courage so that we shall never want for any human strength. And let us honour our forefathers whose foresight led us out from the weak and the common.
“Brothers, let us come together. We are the chosen few. We are the keepers of the true forbidden fruit. We shall never know hunger. We shall never betray ourselves, and we shall endure.”
The rest of the Council sat. The Chairman remained standing and spoke, “But as we remember the past, we must also move forward.”
I could barely contain a smile, knowing how excited the Council would be once they realized I was offering a real Aztec woman. Finally, they would no longer look like the centrefold for Seniors Lifestyle Magazine. I readied myself for his final cue to unveil my prized sacrifice.
The Chairman’s voice rose as he straightened his stance. “But to move forward, we must not embrace brashness. We must not act in haste, and we must not ever, ever allow ourselves to be discovered.”
That was unexpected. The Council members nodded and their geriatric facades took a grim and serious turn. The electricity I felt vanished. A strange knot formed in my stomach.
Pulsating, intricate drum beats thundered from the speakers. I did not approve that and made a mental note to rebuke Helmut. The Chairman continued, “My fellow Lycaons, permit me to introduce you to our future…Chihuacoatl, descendant to an Aztec priest, and the finest young human flesh artist of our time.”
I had started waving to the crowd before realizing something terrible had happened. I turned my head. Helmut parted the curtain behind me to reveal Anna, beaming with pride, standing erect, headdress on, pearl-handled knife offered up, and wearing the traditional Aztec ceremonial costume I’d rented.
“Fellow Council members, it is time to embrace the past with our future. And let us be reminded of the price of our failings.” The Chairman, sounding determined and decisive, glared at me. I could feel everyone’s eyes.
I froze. Thick hands belonging to a stoic Deiter grabbed me and heaved me onto the stage, and then the platform.
I flailed away and kicked Deiter’s shins and started to scream. Helmut duct-taped my mouth. I tried head-butting him but only grazed his nose. He and Deiter tied my arms and legs together like a well-strung turkey.
“Yes, this is the finest menu ever. Indian food, real Indian food.” Helmut said to the applauding Council.
The crowd silenced itself. Anna approached the platform. She cut my tie off, and ripped my shirt open. Then she caressed my cheeks and neck. Her hot, clammy hands smoothed my chest then pinched my stomach. I choked on my muffled screams, and my nostrils exploded with phlegm.
She whispered in my ear. “Hmmm…only twenty percent fat, I think. Señor Julian, you disappoint me. And such rough, dry skin, why you not use my gift to you? No matter, loins dusted with Indian spice with a blood orange Cabernet sauce – delicious, no?”
She raised her knife above her head, then faced the audience and stood over me. She screamed something that had to be Aztec. As the blur of metal arced down towards me, I hoped my gout would spoil whatever she created.
Wayne Ng is a school social worker in Ottawa. As a child, he ran wild in Toronto’s Chinatown, inspiring his novel, Letters From Johnny. And like his idealist character, Lao Tzu in Finding the Way, Wayne is a lifelong dreamer of a just society, and of worlds far from his doorstep.