Sugimoto couldn’t get the taste of Ogata’s blood out of his mouth.
At first it hadn’t seemed too unusual. He’d had blood in his mouth before, his own as well as others. His teeth have known the texture of raw meat, sinew, the flood of arterial copper beneath his tongue as his stomach clenched with the need for something, anything to fill it. And he’d eaten other, stranger things, most of them along with Asirpa -- spongy eyeballs and rubbery brain matter, citatap chopped from bones and cartilage and purple, still-squirming organs. In war he’d eaten weevils, ants, and rice covered in mold; would have eaten human flesh if they’d kept him on that hill any longer.
But the problem was that Ogata’s blood wouldn’t wash out. It just lingered there on Sugimoto’s tongue like a thin layer of grease, sour and tacky and sticking to the roof of his mouth. He tried water, snow, seal oil, boiled fish intestines. Flatbreads and gruel. Potatoes -- he’d never had one of those before -- courtesy of Russian traders in Akou, who happily traded huge sacks of starch and flour in exchange for seal skin and whale bone. The dry-cured salmon, which their Nivkh hosts called yukola, had nearly worked. But then Sugimoto would wake up the next morning with Ogata’s acid-vein filth in his mouth and the whole process would start again.
Part of Sugimoto wondered if Ogata wasn’t causing it somehow. Maybe getting up in the middle of the night and squeezing a bit of eye socket juice onto Sugimoto’s lips as he slept. But all evidence suggested Ogata hadn’t stirred since they’d laid him up with Tsukishima in the to ryv. According to Asirpa -- who had insisted on taking on the lion’s share of Ogata’s care, over Sugimoto’s protests -- he was barely even able to keep a few drops of water down. If he was leaving a bad taste in anyone’s mouth, it was only figurative.
“What about seal anus?” Asirpa suggested, after a week had passed with no relief.
Sugimoto choked on his broth.
“That can’t be a real thing,” he croaked. He mopped at the stains down the front of his coat with the corner of his scarf. “You’re just messing with me.”
Asirpa regarded him severely. “I never do that. Are you saying the foods my people eat are strange?”
Sugimoto opened his mouth. He shut it again. There were countless ways he could respond to that and every one of them was going to end badly for him.
Instead, he answered, “We can’t go hunting a whole seal just for me to eat its ass,” and then immediately regretted it.
Luckily (?), their Nivkh hosts stored quite a bit of dried meat as winter preserves, seal included. Enonoka helped broker the trade. How she managed to keep a straight face through the proceedings, even when Asirpa explained (in Ainu) specifically what cut of meat they were looking for, Sugimoto would never know.
It didn’t look any different from any other organ meat, at least. Brownish-pink and leathery, about the size of a sheet of paper all stretched out. Nothing fibrous or puckery that screamed “you are eating sphincter” like Sugimoto might have dreaded. Asirpa cut the meat into eight long, thin strips and added half of these to the kombu stock of her ohaw; while that simmered, she chopped the remaining slices into fine shreds, seasoned them with seal oil, and ground them until they became almost paste-like. She spooned these into the stew as it came off the fire and presented to Sugimoto in a steaming hot bowl.
“No herbs or anything?” Sugimoto asked, gingerly accepting it.
“That would defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it?” Asirpa said.
Sugimoto took a deep breath and reflected on just how, exactly, he’d ended up in this situation. Brains, eyeballs, he could nearly handle, especially if Asirpa salted them beforehand. This, though? Somehow felt like a new low for him.
The seal anus didn’t taste… bad. But it didn’t taste good, either. The ohaw broth was thin and metallic, sour like tonguing at a canker sore on one’s inner cheek. The rehydrated paste was somehow grainy and lumpy and stuck to the roof of his mouth. He swallowed his first mouthful with concerted effort, still trying to figure out if he was meant to chew any of it.
He was halfway through the bowl before he caught Asirpa’s grin.
“I knew it!” he yelled, through a mouthful of scum and grease. He plonked the bowl down onto the rug, some of it splattering onto his palm. “You were just trying to see if I would eat something weird again!”
“You’re so gullible, Sugimoto,” Asirpa said, with unmasked fondness. “It’s just ordinary offal. It’s not even from a seal.”
“And you ate it even though I prepared the kombu wrong and didn’t use pukusakina,” Asirpa continued. “You’re too trusting, Sugimoto.”
“So? Did it work?”
It did, but not for long. The iron from the kombu and mincemeat was too rich. Sugimoto was tasting Ogata in his mouth before sunset.
“Why couldn’t you get shot in the hand or something?” Sugimoto grumbled that evening, steam curling between his fingers as he wrung the washcloth and dabbed it gingerly over Ogata’s cheekbones. “Take an arrow right to your dumb trigger finger? Then I coulda just amputated at the wrist.”
On the adjacent bed, Tsukishima made a low, raspy sound which might’ve been a laugh or just a clearing of his throat. He was up and about more often these days, but still had to spend most of his waking hours resting in the to ryv, with only a comatose sniper for company. And his sense of humor had never been all that great to begin with.
Sugimoto, who had taken over Ogata’s caretaking detail from Asirpa for the evening in exchange for her dubious remedy, barely paid the sergeant a glance. He doused the washcloth in a bowl of water again and let it cool in the frigid air before wringing a few droplets onto Ogata’s cracked and bleeding lips.
It was a funny thing, the human body. You could go weeks without food, but more than a few days without water and you might as well just pack it in. Ogata couldn’t even really drink like this -- just passively swallow a few dribbles of water as they slid down his tongue. Sugimoto knew he was looking at a body slowly sinking into hibernation; organs shutting down one by one, breath growing shallow, limbs rigid. It wasn’t from poison, as far as anyone could tell. Just shock, infection, and blood loss.
Any day now, their Nivkh hosts were going to tell Sugimoto that Ogata was a lost cause. That he was slipping further into coma and one night the cold was going to claim him. Knowing the bastard, Ogata’s blood wouldn’t leave his mouth even then, just continue to putrefy until every time Sugimoto spoke all he’d taste and smell was rotting flesh moldering on his tongue.
“Hey, Tsukishima.” He left off the suffix. One of the few upshots to a dishonorable discharge is no one could force you to give a shit about rank.
In his narrow bunk, under a pile of coarse furs, the sergeant grunted.
“What do you do to get a bad taste out of your mouth? Like really bad.”
Sugimoto didn’t have to clarify what ‘really bad’ was. They’d both hunkered in those trenches on 203 Hill. There were only so many fetid corpses you could stack one atop another before the smell just whited out the rest of your senses.
“Easy,” Tsukishima said, with the same utterly flat voice he always used, if possibly a little rougher around the edges. “You taste it again.”
Something squirmed in Sugimoto’s guts. Part of him really wanted to ask how Tsukishima came by a remedy like that. The rest of him absolutely didn’t want to know.
And yet there he was again in the to ryv the next morning, another night of aching, perforated sleep behind him, restless turning and piques of nausea. The taste had only gotten worse after dinner, with Sugimoto turning Tsukishima’s advice over and over again inside his head, and after a few hours of tossing and turning he’d entirely given up and gone to put his boots on.
Now, under the wavering light of a candle, Ogata’s supine form appeared stretched out and skeletal. On the other bed, the sergeant had rolled over onto his shoulder with his back to the room. Sugimoto laid out the bowl and cloth and knelt beside Ogata, surveying his fragile, paper-y skin, the crust of blood mottling his cheek beneath the bandages.
Sugimoto ran his tongue over the coarse ridges of his mouth, grimy and sour with ichor. Sticky like the half-coagulated surface of a wet scab, that was Ogata’s texture. What did that eye socket look like under the bandages, Sugimoto wondered? He hadn’t exactly been delicate with his knife. Was it just a twisted, pustulant mass of purple flesh now, shiny and oozing like a cyst, wrinkled like an overripe crabapple?
Cautiously, he reached forward with a hand and pinched the corner of the bandage over Ogata’s eye, stiff with blood and serum, and ever so slowly peeled it back.
The eye was -- well, it was worse than even Sugimoto’s imagination, which was a feat. He licked his lips; his mouth was filling with saliva, not out of hunger but of something anticipatory, like being on the verge of vomiting.
This is crazy, Sugimoto reminded himself. Also: This is stupid. This is weird. Lastly: There is no way this will work.
Checking one final time to ensure that Ogata wasn’t stirring beneath his fingers, Sugimoto leaned forward and pressed his mouth over the swollen, twisted knot of ruined flesh where Ogata’s eye used to be.
It tasted like nothing at first, just salt and dust. Then Sugimoto remembered that taste usually involved one’s tongue and darted his out between his lips, dragging the tip over a patch of scab tissue in a nervous, shaky stripe. It flooded into his mouth then, the brackish, pungent flavor of tree rot and spoiled meat, corpseflower and tobacco. He fought against the wave of revulsion and pressed his mouth harder against the wound, sucking, not hard enough to break the surface of the scab but enough to feel the electric crackle of Ogata’s fever-inflamed eyelids against his tongue, the small barbs of his eyelashes, the latent coffee sweetness of his saline.
This was it. The full taste of him, all the layers and top notes and textures that had boiled in the back of Sugimoto’s throat out there on the ice. Rancid and floral and violent and intimate, tears and steamed breath and gunpowder.
When Sugimoto finally pushed himself to withdraw, the seal of his mouth over the wound broke with a disgustingly loud smack which filled the hut. He cringed. And then, reflexively, he swiped his tongue over his lips, ringed bright pink and stuck with yellow-white serous crystals, like grains of salt scattered over boiled meat.
It tasted clean, that was the strangest part. Fresh, as though the days of memorizing the flavor on his tongue had flattened it into a cheap imitation of itself. Now it sang on Sugimoto’s tongue, popping and crackling like carbonation, the emberscorch bitterness giving way to something milder, more nuanced, airier. Alive, despite all evidence to the contrary.
Sugimoto swallowed on a mouthful of serosanguinous spit and then the taste was gone. All of it.
I’ll be damned, he thought. This wasn’t really an expression in Sugimoto’s case, more a statement of fact. He smacked his lips, reveling in the utter neutrality inside his mouth, nothing more pungent than snowmelt. Sugimoto supposed he’d have to thank Tsukishima for the advice later, though how he was meant to sidle up to that topic again, he had no clue.
Belatedly, and with another awkward clearing of his throat, Sugimoto returned to the bowl and cloth he had brought with him. It only seemed fair, now that he moved the bandages to expose Ogata’s injury, to properly clean up the area around the wound. He wrung the cloth in both hands and turned to apply it to the corner of Ogata’s cheek, and as he did so he saw the sniper’s mouth shift.
Sugimoto flung backward onto his ass, upending the bowl of not-very-hot water and dropping the wash cloth somewhere around his feet.
On the bed, Ogata’s sarcophagal repose flickered under the disturbed light from the candle. His chest continued to rise and fall in shallow, weakened breaths. There was no smirk playing on his lips, no wakeful tension in the muscles of his brow, no movement to suggest awareness that Sugimoto was even in the room, much less what he’d just been doing to his empty eye socket.
Cursing under his breath, Sugimoto climbed back up onto his knees and tried to salvage enough water from the bowl to do a quick wipe of Ogata’s cheeks and brow. Then he pulled the stiff, crackling bandages back down into their old position, covering the gnarled purple mess of his wound like a dirty secret.
Besides them, Tsukishima turned over and made a weird whistling noise that might’ve been a snore from that pug-dog nose of his.
“Serves you right,” Sugimoto muttered at Ogata’s unmoving form. “If you wanted clean dressing and no weirdos sucking on your face at night, you should hurry up and get better.”
For whatever reason, Sugimoto felt a strong and sudden craving for anglerfish.