I’m crammed into a burrow so small that my knees are up around my ears and the boom mike keeps slamming into my head, inhaling the potent scent of toffee-apple brandy and trying to drink a talking mouse under the table. But is it really the boom mike that’s making my head pound? I know for sure that my camera man doesn’t usually have two heads. I have to face facts. The mouse is winning.
Yesterday, I thought I knew what to expect from Narnia: good solid English cooking spiced up with the odd unusual ingredient, and good solid English people spiced up with the odd faun. And centaur. And talking animal. I’d longed to visit Narnia when I was a kid, but every time the notoriously capricious entry requirements, such as the bizarre and arbitrary lifetime limit on visits, relaxed the slightest bit, it would get invaded, get conquered, get re-conquered by the original rulers, or get hit by some natural disaster. The “Hundred-Year Winter” put the kibosh on the one time my parents even considered it.
When, by some bureaucratic miracle, my crew and I were permitted entry, I wondered if I was too old and jaded for Narnia. Maybe I’d been too old and jaded by the time I was twelve. Narnia is supposed to a land of clean living and old-fashioned values, where men are men and women are women and you have to go to Calormen to find anything more spicy than mulled wine. Not my kind of place at all, really.
I’m already in a foul mood when the call comes in that it’s time to go, NOW, this instant. My temper doesn’t improve when I land in Narnia, up to my waist in ice-cold water. The packet of hash I’d stashed in my hip pocket floats upward, is seized by the current, and merrily whirls away. I make a grab for it, miss, and fall on my ass. When I stand up, drenched from head to toe, I see that my crew had been thoughtfully deposited in a neighboring snowfield. The river, apparently, was a treat reserved just for me.
I stumble to the icy bank, where I stand shivering in the snow and glare at the distant white hills, the charmingly picturesque cottages, and the magnificent sunset blazing scarlet and purple behind it all.
“It’s a postcard come to life,” says my cameraman, Global Alan. “The light – it’s perfect!”
I stamp my rapidly numbing feet, and watch a robin take flight from a snowy fir. “It is perfect - too perfect. Everything’s as neat and clean as if it was just unpacked from Toys Reverse Their Fucking Letters.”
Warming to my ire, since I sure wasn’t warming anywhere else, I add, “Good food needs a little mess, a little dirt, a little sweat. Does this look like a place where anyone sweats or swears? I bet the food is mass-produced plastic, and the booze is non-alcoholic swill. I bet the inns are all called Ye Olde Crappe Somethinge. I bet—“
“Poltroon!” squeaks a high-pitched voice from somewhere below my knees. “Lout! Draw your sword, you twittering knave, and I’ll prove upon your body the quality of Narnian people, Narnian inns, Narnian food, and Narnian wine.”
I look down. My challenger is a mouse – a two-foot mouse – a Talking Mouse. He wears a golden circlet with a red feather stuck into it, and a belt from which dangles a very small sword. The effect is old-fashioned and dashing, like a WWI aviator.
Global Alan and the crew are laughing. Then the mouse draws his sword, and they stop. It’s the size of a filleting knife and sharp on both sides, and though the mouse can’t reach my heart or throat, he’s the perfect height to castrate me.
“I’m sorry!” I say hastily, as the sword edges toward my nuts.
Then I see myself as the mouse must see me – a blundering asshole, insulting his country for no reason other than that I’m cold and pissed off. I squat on my heels, putting myself at eye level with the mouse. Now his sword is at my throat, which stupidly makes me feel better than when it was at my gonads.
I say, and this time I mean it, “I don’t actually know what your food or alcohol or inns are like, and I have no business judging the people. I was shooting off my mouth like a stupid tourist, and I fucking hate those pricks. I apologize.”
The mouse cocks his head and considers my words. His eyes are black and shiny as oil-cured olives. “A true apology, however phrased, better suits a gentleman than ill-considered insults. Yet... You have the air of a man who enjoys a challenge. It would be a shame to part without trying our skill. Here are your seconds; draw your sword.”
I decide not to mention the chef’s knife in my luggage. “I don’t have one.”
“I am willing to fight bare-handed.”
“I’m three times your size.”
The mouse stares at me, narrow-eyed. “I have fought men before.”
I’ve seen that look before, on the faces of drunken, hopped-up chefs and sous-chefs and girlfriends, right before the cops come and haul them away. I probably could have seen it in the mirror, too, except I was too busy committing mayhem at the time to look into one. It’s not a look which can be argued away, but it is a look which can sometimes be deflected.
“I’ll thumb-wrestle you,” I offer. “My thumb, your hand. If you win, I’ll buy you a drink. If I win, you buy me one.”
The mouse sheaths his sword and holds out his arm. I grip it in my fist – the fur is like velvet – so his hand is squared off with my thumb.
His reflexes are fast, but he’s clearly never hand-thumb-wrestled before. I feint to the left, avoid his straight-on attack, then capture his hand and pin it down. Any thoughts of being gentle with the mouse vanish when his hand begins to lever my thumb upward. But my thumb has been as strengthened by years of chopping, filleting, and whacking as his hand has been by swordfighting. I press down as hard as I can, crushing his hand into my fingers.
“Well-fought,” says the mouse. “I yield.”
I release him, and he stands up.
“Best two out of three?” Tracey, the producer, sadistically suggests. The mouse and I glare at her, the mouse stealthily wringing his hand.
The mouse bows to me. “I am Reepicheep, chief of the Talking Mice. May I ask your name, and your purpose in Narnia?”
“I’m Anthony Bourdain – Tony – and I travel the world… worlds. Eating good food, drinking good liquor, having a good time, and talking about it.” My voice is slurring with cold. “Alternately, freezing to death.”
“I am remiss. You are a visitor to my land, and I am letting you and your friends stand wet in the snow.” Reepicheep raises a lordly hand. “Come with me. You shall join me for supper as well as a drink, and taste true Narnian hospitality.”
I grab my suitcase, which arrived with the crew on dry land, and follow. Reepicheep leads us, not toward the kitschy cottages, but into the woods. The soles of my shoes are iced over, and I skid in the powdery snow. Global Alan and Todd, the other cameraman, are shooting for all they’re worth.
Reepicheep stops in front of a huge oak and knocks on the bark. “Digwell! Mouldiscoop! I’ve brought visitors for supper!”
A narrow section of bark slides away like a shoji screen, and a large mole peers out, its pinprick eyes blinking from behind wire-rimmed glasses.
“Hullo, Reepicheep.” The mole’s gravelly voice reminds me of my old friend, Beth the Grill Bitch. “And welcome, Sons of Adam and Daughter of Eve. I’m Digwell.” She squints worriedly at me. “I don’t have any clothing for men. I could ask a faun…”
“It’s fine,” I assure her, hefting the suitcase. “I have my own. And thank you very much for having us over.”
“Oh, it’s no bother. I hope you like pavender.” She leads us into the tree, which turns out to be a sort of vestibule for a burrow. The latter is tastefully decorated with framed paintings and pebble mosaics. The camera is almost too wide and I am almost too tall to fit in, and Todd knocks a no doubt priceless heirloom mole portrait from the wall.
Digwell shows me into a minuscule guest room, where with some acrobatics I manage to squeeze into dry clothes without falling into the fireplace or banging my knees and elbows too badly. I follow the warmth and voices into the combined kitchen/dining room, where I find the moles pouring shots of dark brown liquor for Reepicheep, two hedgehogs, a rat, a beaver, and my crew. I accept a glass of the sweet-smelling alcohol in a flurry of introductions and sit down, trying not to smack my head on the rafters or jab my elbows into the hedgehogs.
“Home-brewed toffee-apple brandy,” says Mouldiscoop with a brewer’s pride, and raises his glass. “To Narnia!”
“To Narnia!” I echo, and knock it off. “This is powerful stuff,” I say to the cameras and Mouldiscoop. “It smells sweet, but it doesn’t taste sweet. It’s warm going down, with overtones of caramel apples and fresh-turned earth. I could drink this all night. And then you’d have to drag my sorry carcass to bed.”
The toast over, Digwell steps into the kitchen, where she lifts live, shimmering, rainbow-scaled fish from a bucket, neatly clubs and then guts them, and lays them in a vinegar bath. “To preserve the color,” she explains.
“Like blue trout,” I say. “Is there anything I can do to help?”
She beckons me to a sink. “You may scrub the potatoes.”
The earth still clinging to the potatoes is shot through with ice crystals. Like the fish, the potatoes were plucked from their natural environment only minutes before they will be cooked. The cleaned potatoes go into a pot of salted boiling water, and the pavenders into a pan of simmering vegetable stock. Carrots are roasted with butter and mint. Country bread still warm from the oven and sweet butter are already on the table, along with jugs of a nutty dark ale and fresh milk.
The pavenders, served with heads and tails intact, are firm but juicy, with a mild flavor reminiscent of trout, and they keep their beautiful rainbow color. They need no more seasoning than the lemon-spiked butter they’re served with. The earthy new potatoes and the autumnal carrots are the perfect accompaniment.
Reepicheep and the hedgehogs are party animals, drinking the brandy and ale as boilermakers, and playing mumblety-peg with small, sharp knives. While I join them with the boilermakers (I pass on the mumblety-peg), the moles discuss Narnian foodways.
“You see how white the butter is,” says Digwell. “Sniff – it has only the faintest scent of hay and snowdrops. In summer, when the cows go out to pasture in fields of buttercups, the butter is yellow as mustard-bloom, and you can taste the flowers.”
“It sounds like terroir is important in Narnia,” I say. “That means that where and when a food is produced makes an enormous difference in its flavor. If you took those cows to a different part of Narnia, even if you still pastured them on buttercups, the butter wouldn’t taste exactly the same.”
Mouldiscoop lifts the brandy bottle. “True toffee-apples will only grow in one part of Narnia. You can take the seeds outside of that area and plant them, and trees will grow, but the fruit will be different – more like an extra-juicy date. You can distill brandy from them, but it’s much sweeter and not half as complex.”
The beaver and Reepicheep have been whispering together. Now the beaver nudges me. “Tony, you said you like unusual, traditional food. Tomorrow I could take you to visit the Marshwiggles.”
“What’s their food like?” I ask.
The beaver and Reepicheep glance at each other.
“Traditional,” says Reepicheep.
“Unusual,” says the beaver.
“Wet,” says Digwell. “I believe their specialty is eel stew.”
I love Matelote d'Anguille, a French dish of eels in red wine with shallots, and Cornish eel soup with mace and cream. “I can’t wait!”
Mouldiscoop opens the oven and presents us each with a round brown dumpling, like a baked cha siu bao. I cut into mine. The scent of lemon and brown sugar rises up in a cloud of steam, and a caramel sauce runs out and pools around the pastry. I recognize an old-fashioned dessert I’d heard of but never tried – Sussex Pond Pudding, made by encasing an entire unpeeled lemon, along with butter and sugar, in a shell of suet pastry. The rind softens and caramelizes, becoming a sort of marmalade, and the lemon juice, butter, and sugar melt together to create the sauce.
It’s a rich dessert, perilously close to heavy. But the toffee-apple brandy cuts through the sweetness and enhances the citrus notes. We all have several more shots.
“I said some harsh things about perfection earlier,” I say. “But this meal was perfect in the best way. It was simple and fresh. The cooks used quality ingredients, and they cooked them with respect, skill, and love. I’ve been all over the world, and eaten at some of the best restaurants in existence, and I’ve never had anything better than what you’ve served me tonight.”
Mouldiscoop and Digwell beam and clasp paws. The rat and one of the hedgehogs drunkenly applaud, joined by Global Alan and Tracey. Todd, the other hedgehog, and the beaver are face-down on the rustic wooden table.
“Tony,” says Reepicheep, with a gleam of challenge in his eyes, “It is my belief that the capacity of a mouse is no less than the capacity of a man. Will you match me, drink for drink?”
I salute him with my shot glass. Soon I’m in a disgraceful state, seeing double, barely able to get the glass to my lips. As my face slowly descends toward the table, I see Reepicheep reflected in a pool of brandy – a touch glassy-eyed but upright, small and triumphant.
The next morning, I do not feel like visiting the Marsh-wiggles. I don’t feel like doing anything but lying still, preferably with a cold cloth over my face and a cool glass of the hair of the dog that bit me close at hand. Instead, I’m woken up at the crack of dawn by the beaver, whose name is Alderwood. After a quick but excellent breakfast of bacon, eggs, kippers, black pudding, sausages, and bread, all fried together in a huge cast-iron pan, we reluctantly head out, and trudge through miles and miles of snow. Eventually the snow turns to an unpleasant brown-green slush, and then to a marsh of gray-green slush interspersed with partially iced-over ponds.
“Lost, are you?” says a gloomy voice. “I don’t suppose you’ll ever find your way back home, what with the storm that’s coming. Well, never mind. Give me your names, and I’ll send a message back to your kin, so they’ll know what happened to you. At least, so they’ll know where you were last seen.”
What I had taken for a carelessly heaped stack of moldering lumber stands up and cracks its joints. It’s a tall thin woman in a limp, muddy dress the color of mold, with limp, muddy hair pulled fiercely back from her gaunt face.
“Of course we’re not lost,” retorts Alderwood. “Weedwoe, these are the people I sent the robin to tell you about – the ones who want to try Marsh-wiggle food.”
Weedwoe nods in the manner of a patient who knows her doctor is lying about the test results but is too polite to argue. “A spy mission. I see. Well, come along. Nothing I can do to stop you. You needn’t take more than a bite or two of the food, though. I’d say you needn’t take a single bite, but I expect you’ll want to keep up appearances.”
She turns her back on us and ambles across the marsh. Her bare, frog-like feet splay out like snowshoes, allowing her to walk across the surface of the mud. The rest of us splash and sink through it.
Though Global Alan and Todd try to hold the cameras high, mud splatters on the lenses. The more they swear, the more Weedwoe encourages them with remarks like, “That’s the spirit! Anger puts fire in your blood. Curse some more, and it’ll double the time it’ll take you to freeze to death.” Unnerved, the cameramen fall to silently cleaning their equipment.
Weedwoe leads us to a domed building built of what appears to be rotting wood. As I stand outside, trying in vain to wipe mud and slime from my shoes, I realize that the structure is sound and the mildew is decorative. Though the shades are limited to greens and grays, the mold depicts, with skill and wit, a scene of Marsh-wiggles fishing and cleaning their catch.
“Are mildew murals a traditional art?” I ask. “How is it done?”
“At too high a cost,” says Weedwoe darkly. “The whole place will be down around our ears one day. Probably tonight. I hear the rotten timbers creaking now.”
To my relief, it’s warm inside. Elevated trays of glow-worms and phosphorescent moss provide a glum greenish light reminiscent of day-old eggs Benedict, packaged pistachio pudding, and other unappetizing things.
Five or six Marsh-wiggles glance up from a wooden table. Each has a pint mug by his or her hand, but whatever they’re drinking isn’t cheering them up. I look around for Alderwood, to strangle him, but he has vanished. I mentally swear vengeance upon him and that fiend Reepicheep, who set me up in a way that is undoubtedly bringing pure sweet joy to the cold shriveled heart of my producer. Sure enough, Tracey is the only person in the room who looks happy. Todd sags, as if wishing to sink through the floor, and knocks over a tray of glow-worms.
“They’d have died soon enough,” says Weedwoe, brushing off his apologies and scooping up the enthusiastically wriggling grubs. “Everybody does.”
With no other recourse, I introduce myself and the crew, thank the Marsh-wiggles for an invitation I wasn’t altogether certain they had actually extended, and catch a few names in the mutters that followed: Cellardank, Bogdrip, and Peatgloom.
Cellardank pushes a mug toward me. “I expect you loathe the smell of tobacco. Can’t be helped. Marsh-wiggles love a good smoke.”
“So do I,” I say. “Can I bum a cigarette?”
“You don’t smoke a pipe, of course.” When I snatch it from his long greenish fingers, he makes a final try. “All we have is Marsh-wiggle tobacco. It’s repulsive to humans, no doubt.”
I light the pipe and suck down the smoke. It’s rich and peaty, slightly acrid. The smoke doesn’t rise, but descends down from the pipe, drifts along the table, and pools around the mugs, taking a very long time to dissipate. I notice that the table has a raised rim, which catches the smoke and prevents it from sinking to the floor. “It’s great. I bet it would be expensive where I come from.”
“Ah,” says Cellardank. “I see. Victims of tobacco blight, are you?”
I take a sip of the liquid in the mug. It has no scent or taste and is slightly oily on the tongue, with an aftertaste hinting at green herbs and brine. Then an industrial refrigerator falls on my head, accompanied by a gas main explosion. If I wasn’t a veteran of a thousand hangovers from vile concoctions like Dirty Schoolgirls and even, God help me, Slippery Nipples (Bailey’s Irish Cream and Sambuca, in two lethal layers), I might have keeled over on the spot. As it is, it’s a moment before I can speak.
“What the hell am I drinking?” I gasp. “And if it’s the same stuff that’s in your mugs, why aren’t you all dancing on the table? Or under it.”
“Terravita,” says Weedwoe. “Mud of life. It’s triple-distilled from mud-potatoes, with an infusion of duckweed and water cabbage. Too much of it – though no one knows how much that is – will make you go blind. I’m not surprised you don’t like it.”
I want to contradict her, but like is much too mild a word for this stuff. So is dislike. It’s terrifying and tempting, like your very first line of coke laid out on a mirror, or a woman who says yes while you’re still getting up the nerve to ask her. I take another sip. The second time is easier. But then, isn’t it always?
Cellardank joins Weedwoe in unceremoniously plonking down tureens and pots on to the table. Digwell wasn’t kidding when she said Marsh-wiggle cuisine was wet – there isn’t a single item that can’t be poured. We’re all given a set of little separate bowls, like you might find on an Indian thali, each with its own spoon. After just two sips of terravita, there’s no way I’ll be able to keep them all straight.
“Mud-potato porridge,” says Weedwoe, indicating a substance which looks like – well, let’s be delicate and say mud. “Mud-potato mash.” More of the same. To not be delicate, more of the same when you start feeling a little better but aren’t entirely well yet. “Boiled mud-potato.” That’s what you get when you’re back on your feet again.
“Fermented waterweeds.” I love pickles. But this mass of slimy green tentacles, submerged in a murky brine that smells like it conceals old boots or the cement-encased corpse of Jimmy Hoffa, and still sends up the occasional bubble, is unlikely to replace sauerkraut or sunomono in my affections.
“Eel stew.” A thick brown stew. “Dredge-the-pond.” Another thick brown stew.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“A traditional recipe,” replies Weedwoe. “You dredge the pond, and boil whatever comes up. There’s always mud-potatoes, but the rest varies. You won’t like it unless you like mud-potatoes, and you won’t like mud-potatoes.”
I live for the moments when I put something that looks and sounds disgusting into my mouth, and it turns out to be sublime. That moment doesn’t happen. The mud-potatoes taste like badly rinsed potatoes. The fermented waterweed has the texture of natto and the flavor of spoiled cabbage. Dredge-the-pond tastes exactly like it sounds. The eel stew is surprisingly tasty, with the gritty, mysterious complexity of a fine gumbo, but I wouldn’t call it sublime.
I renew my vow to murder Reepicheep and Alderwood, then sink into a silent funk. Pipe smoke slowly accumulates on the table, rising higher and higher until we’re all dipping our spoons into a black cloud-bank. I decide this is deliberate, so no one can tell if you’re not finishing the waterweed. The Marsh-wiggles drink and smoke more than they eat, not that I blame them, occasionally discussing fishing (not a good year for it), the cultivation of underwater vegetables (particularly unpleasant in winter), and the state of Narnia (going to hell in a handbasket.)
I have nothing to contribute, so I sit and listen to these gloomy, taciturn, hardbitten people, sipping their knock-you-on-your-ass liquor and smoking their heavy tobacco. So they aren’t the world’s best cooks – they still have their own traditions, their own way of life, and their own sardonic pleasures. They welcomed, in their own unique manner, a bunch of strangers thrust upon them as a joke, and offered us the best they had without compromising themselves in an effort to please. I respect that.
“You’re sorry you came, I’m sure,” says Cellardank.
“Not at all,” I say, and mean it.
On my third day in Narnia, I get kidnapped. A man falls into step beside me as I walk toward Cair Paravel for a state dinner, and something sharp jabs into my side.
“Don’t make a fuss,” he says in the bored tones of a professional killer. “Turn around and walk with me.”
“What about my crew?” I ask.
In a flurry of gauze and a waft of sandalwood, a woman comes up on my other side and puts her hand on my arm. It’s marked with the burn scars, knife scars, and calluses of a professional chef, or an amateur who does a lot of cooking. She smiles at me, and in that single glance I know that she’s my kind of woman, she knows my kind of scene, and I’m in for a wild night.
“Don’t worry, Tony.” Her voice matches her smile: sensual, cynical, dangerous. “We’re not going to hurt you or them. We only want to show you a side of Narnia the tourists don’t see. It will be much more fun. I promise.”
“Change of plans, guys,” I announce. “No state dinner. I hate those fucking rubber chicken extravaganzas anyway. Instead, we’re going with…?”
“Faseera, the Calormen Ambassador.” She sweeps up her flowing scarlet skirts in an elegant curtsy. “At your service. I’ll make official apologies for you later. And the gentleman is my… friend… Hati Moon-eater.”
I continue, “And we’re going to…?”
Hati’s upper lip rises, displaying bright white teeth. Sharp teeth. “A Wer-Wolf meat bar.”
Suddenly, the evening is so much more promising.
He withdraws his claw from my side, then whips round on the cameramen, who shrink back. “You may not take pictures of me, or of any of the other guests. You may not take pictures of the outside of the building, or say where it is. You may take pictures of the food only. We are a very…” He licks his lips with a red tongue. “A very private people.”
“Gotcha. No guest pictures, undisclosed location,” says Global Alan.
“I will check,” he says menacingly.
A chorus of hasty agreement rises up, and then we follow him and Faseera away from the castle and into the woods. They are darker, thicker woods than the ones Digwell and Mouldiwarp live in, with taller, twistier trees. I feel like a big, hairy Riding Hood who decided to ditch Grandma and run off with the wolf.
Finally we come upon a square, windowless building of gray stone, halfway between an ancient fort and a Stalinist government building.
Hati bangs on the heavy wooden door, shouting, “Hati Moon-eater, with guests!”
The door creaks open, letting out clouds of steam, flickering firelight, and my favorite smell in the world: cooking meat. Grilling meat, roasting meat, frying meat; venison and pork, beef and duck, rendering fat and sizzling drippings.
We pile inside, letting the grim, gray-haired doorman slam the door behind us and slide a huge iron bolt across it. The room is half dining area, half open kitchen. Dogs on treadmills turn spits with impaled savory carcasses, and the booths and chairs and benches are all draped with lush furs. PETA would shit itself. I love it already.
Hati and Faseera escort us to a large table with a party already in progress. I can’t tell if everyone there is a Wer-Wolf or not – they all look like regular Narnians to me – and I have to confess, I find that slightly disturbing. I check their hands for claws, but then I check Hati’s too, and he doesn’t have them any more.
When I start to introduce myself, Hati snarls, “Put a sausage in that big mouth of yours.”
“Wers don’t usually reveal themselves to other Narnians,” explains Faseera. “Even for foreigners like you and I, it’s courteous not to exchange names if you meet in a place like this. It’s an honor to be brought here at all. The people here want their food to be better-known, but they prefer to keep their identities to themselves.”
An elderly woman indicates a platter of carpaccio and sashimi. “Beef, venison, and pavender. You are not afraid of raw meat?”
The flavorful beef has a bright lemon sauce, the chewy venison has a richer one of wild berries, and the pavender is served plain, on a crouton of its own flash-fried rainbow skin.
“It’s very good,” I say. “Especially the pavender. Any sushi chef would kill to get his hands on that fish.”
Looking pleased, the white-haired woman spoons chopped raw meat on to my plate from a bowl. It’s warm and tender, gently mixed with melted butter, with bits of deep-fried pig skin for crunch and hints of pine needles and juniper berries: a stunning, sophisticated dish.
I help myself to more of the chopped meat, and the various roasted and grilled cuts. Hati picks through everything on the table, selecting the best portions for Faseera. The Wers chat vaguely of jobs and assignments, without any identifying details and with many sudden pauses and changes of topic. They sound like hit men, or CIA agents, or Hollywood producers. I appreciate that they invited me here, knowing that it meant they wouldn’t be able to speak freely.
After a while, a delicate palate-cleanser of light broth with fluffy cubes of blood cake is passed around.
“This is all great,” I say. “But I expected it to be a bit more challenging. Though maybe it is for Narnia…”
“I challenge you,” says a shaggy-haired teenage boy. He forks up a small bird roasted whole, head and all, and dumps it on my plate. “Roast swiftlet. If you can eat it in one bite and swallow it all, it will give you the speed to escape the wolf.”
I pop the bird into my mouth, sinking my teeth into the crisp skin, buttery fat, and tender flesh. At first it tastes like squab, but then I get a hit of the bitter entrails. The flavors meld together as I chew, adding in the unctuous marrow as I crunch down on the bones.
As I continue chewing, the edible parts dissolve and I’m left with a mass of crushed bones, forming a huge, hard ball in my mouth. I’ll choke if I try to swallow it. But Hati and the boy are watching me with faint scorn, and the other Wers with such a lack of curiosity that I know they think I’ll never swallow, and Faseera with amusement, and Tracey with transparent glee at the prospect of me choking or spitting – either way, humiliating myself disgustingly – on air. Boffo ratings, baby!
I worry at the mass with my teeth and tongue, breaking it apart. Now it’s a slurry of sharp, gravel-like fragments. I force it down, wincing as it makes its rough way down my throat. I hate to think what it’ll do to my ass tomorrow morning. Better eat more to cushion it.
“Delicious!” I announce.
The Wers look faintly surprised. Todd applauds, and knocks a plate off the table with his elbow. The old woman’s hand flashes out and grabs it, contents intact, before it can hit the floor.
She smiles at me, and her eyes turn yellow. “I challenge you.”
Anti-climactically, she holds out a plate of small sausages. They’re pointed at both ends like bananas, and the skin is slightly iridescent. They’re not sausages at all, but grilled… eels?
“Leeches,” the woman explains. “Fed on blood, then seared to cook the flesh without coagulating the interior. A great traditional delicacy.”
I try not to wince when I pick one up. It can’t be worse than the raw cobra heart, and it has to be better than the roasted warthog anus. But it’s hard not to think of the slimy leeches that hung off Tracey’s ass in the Malaysia episode.
“Tracey,” I say, dangling it in the air. “This one’s for you!”
I drop it into my open mouth. The skin resists, then pops like a hotdog. Warm, coppery blood floods my mouth. I chew and swallow, but I can’t say that I enjoy it.
“How was it?” asks Tracey, when I don’t comment.
“Tastes like getting punched in the nose.”
Hati raises his hand, getting my attention. The talons are back. “Three challenges are traditional, and I hear you love tradition. I brought you here, so the last is mine. I challenge you.”
I brace myself. Please, no anus. Anything but anus.
Gray fur bristles out of Hati’s skin, and a muzzle thrusts from his face. I’m sitting next to a man with the head of a wolf – a wolf who lifts his nose to the sky and howls. Every atom in my body remembers that I descended from prey animals, and I can feel the pulsing of every vein in my throat.
Someone snarls behind me, and I jump about a foot in the air. I barely stop myself from diving under the table, and instead turn to face my doom. It’s a black-clad waiter holding a wine bottle and a tray of glasses.
“Mother and child,” says the waiter, and pours the drink.
It’s pink and bubbly, like something a very girly eleven-year-old would order. It’ll probably make me sprout fangs, and then explode. I’m suspicious, and I can’t pick up a glass yet because my hands are still shaking. I’m just relieved I didn’t piss myself. Tracey would have loved that.
To my relief, Hati has a man’s head again.
“What is it?” I ask him.
He leans back, sinking into a nest of ermine. “Wers are born to the chase. A great wolf chases the sun across the sky by day, and another wolf pursues the moon at night. It is written upon the World Ash Tree that some day those wolves will catch their quarries and swallow them up. Then the wolf who is chained beneath the earth with links of fire will break free. And then… then will be the time of Wers.”
I know it’s a cliché, but the hairs on the back of my neck stand up.
He continues, “But until that time, Wers do not only chase. We also tend the herds. Mother is the milk of the mare. Child is the blood. The milk is fermented, and then the blood is added for flavor.” For the first time, he smiles at me. “Try it. You may enjoy it.”
I take a sip. Bubbles prickle my tongue. It’s yogurt-like, tangy, with a mild alcoholic bite. The blood is only a grace note in the background.
“I do enjoy it.”
“Then pick up your cup,” says Faseera. “And come with me. We’re taking over the kitchen.” She playfully tugs Hati’s rough hair. “I promised my Hati that some day I would cook for him the dishes of my own country. I need help from someone who knows how to cook more than just meat, or the unspiced food of this cold country. I have the ingredients ready. Will you help me prepare them?”
And so I finish that raucous night in the kitchen with the Calormen ambassador, cooking a feast in the Calormen style for a ravenous room of Wer-Wolves. It’s a rush to be back on the line, and there’s nothing like cooking with a beautiful woman who knows her way around the kitchen, especially when she strips down to a black silk bodysuit so her gauze draperies won’t catch fire. Even when we both know she’s going home with a man who could bite my head off.
We prepare roast duck with pomegranate sauce, squab stuffed with rice and pistachios, spiced meatballs, assorted kebabs, and, to drink, yogurt whisked with mint and water. Though the Wers don’t rave about the food, Wers don’t rave, period. But they clean their plates and crack the bones, and that’s a chef’s best compliment.
When we finally stagger outside, drunk and stuffed and exhausted, dawn is breaking. Hati escorts us to the edge of the woods. Then he goes back into them and Faseera heads off toward Cair Paravel.
We’re looking for an inn when we hear a voice – a deep, rumbling, velvety voice, not frightening but awesome, in the old sense of the word. It comes from a huge lion, who somehow managed to sneak up on us without any of us noticing.
“Sons of Adam and Daughter of Eve,” says the lion. “Your time in Narnia is over.”
“Already?” I can’t help protesting.
The lion nods gravely. “Anthony, Todd, Alan: treasure your memories, for you may never again return to Narnia.”
Todd looks like he’s going to burst into tears. “Did we do something wrong?”
The lion shakes his great head, sending ripples through his mane. “The time you had is the time you were given. Nothing can ever happen twice.”
I understand what he means. I can never again taste that same pavender that Digwell made for me, no matter how many other pavenders I eat. Once a moment has passed, it’s gone. Only the memories remain – the memories, and the desire to go somewhere new, try something different, and create more memories.
It’s not until we’re back home that we realize that the lion didn’t name Tracey.
Tracey, when you’re next in Narnia, give my regards to Reepicheep and his friends, to the Wer-Wolves and the Marsh-wiggles, to Faseera if she’s still there, and to that lion if you see him again. And if you can smuggle out a bottle of toffee-apple brandy, meet me at the studio, and we’ll all raise a glass to Narnia.