The Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction Challenge for this week is called To Write About Food. After the death of Anthony Bourdain, Chuck asked us to take 2,000 words and see what deeper meaning we could find in food. I am looking at food as ritual, as community, and the way that all of those things can change over time. I don’t know if it’s all that great or not, but I had a good time writing it. Please to enjoy and let me know what you think.
“Lords of the Ascension, hear our plea.” The Chief Prelate stood on a dais in the middle of the floor, eyes closed, hands raised toward the ceiling. “Lords of the Descent, we also honor thee.” A group of acolytes, evenly spaced, walked slowly around the perimeter of the hall. They carried cast-iron censers swinging gently from pewter chains. The smoke wafting from them carried the smell of cooking bacon into every corner of the room. As they walked they could hear the sizzle as the small griddles inside the censers cooked their holy victuals.
“We Feast to honor you, Lords on high.” A line of congregants filed through the open doorway at the north end of the room, chorusing the next part of the traditional chant. They wore plain grey robes. White linen napkins were tucked into the collars of the robes, hanging down over their chests. “We shall eat and drink as you Prescribe.” They held their arms bent at ninety degree angles, their hands clenched into fists. Their right hands held knives, serrated blades make of steel, made to cut meat. Their left hands held forks, each with four tines to commemorate the Brethren.
From his position in the center of the room the High Prelate, his hands still held high, began a prayer, asking a blessing over the food and pledging his body, and the bodies of all who were in the room with him, to the service of the Four. As he prayed, the acolytes came to a halt along the walls. Each stood next to a low table with a cradle built into its surface. They set their censers in the cradles. Attendants came forward and opened the censers, exposing the griddles inside, sending a final explosion of fragrant steam into the air. More than one congregant interrupted their own chants with involuntary groans of anticipation at the smell.
As the congregants continued to file in, they each took a place behind a chair. There were four rows of long trestle-style tables covered with white linen tablecloths that matched the napkin at each congregant’s throat. A plate of fine white china sat at each place along with a goblet of more humble clay construction.
Slowly the room filled. Eventually, in addition to the High Prelate (who had a table of his own on his dais) and the sixteen acolytes along the walls, there were 400 congregants in the room. There were four acolytes and 100 congregants to honor each of the Four, with the High Prelate set above them to preside. All was arranged according to the Prescription. Consecrated.
It was the Feast of the Four, the highest holy ceremony the Church of the Brethren, observed once every four years. The High Prelate looked out over the room from its center, revolving on the spot to see those who had entered. Seeing that all was in order, he smiled and lowered his hands. “Be seated, friends,” he said.
Chairs scraped across the wooden floors as they were pulled out and scooted back in. After a few seconds of activity the noise died back down as the room settled itself. Only the High Prelate was left standing. He called, “Bring the Appetizers!”
The door to the kitchens lay in the southern wall. Through it now came a cadre of servers, each bearing a tray. The tables dedicated to Our Lady of the Ascension received wicker baskets of thin, baked corn chips and clay bowls full of a chunky, aromatic sauce, made from tomatoes and seasoned with various herbs. Our Lord of the Ascension’s followers received onions that had been battered and fried, cut into fanciful designs that made them resemble flowers. The followers of the Laird of the Descent and his Fool received (respectively) small pieces of chicken, baked and covered in a variety of spicy sauces; and short lengths of pork sausage wrapped in thin, crusty bread with a dish of tangy yellow mustard on the side.
Other servers came around bearing pitchers of cool, pure water which filled the goblets at each setting. As it had for untold years the water had been drawn from the river to the west of the chapel. It was clear and clean and hallowed, the stream having been consecrated by the Lady of the Ascent Herself before She took Her leave.
The acolytes along the walls were slowly peeling strips of bacon off the griddles in their censers and eating them, then licking their fingers clean one at a time. It was the only food they would receive and they were making it last. The life of an Acolyte of the Four was ascetic and full of hardship.
The High Prelate had received samples of each of the four Holy Appetizers and he continued to stand, holding them aloft one by one as he consumed them and explaining the ritual significance of each. He held his goblet out to a passing server and received a refill of water as he ate.
After several minutes of eating and contemplation of the Appetizers the servers reemerged to clear the tables. Once the detritus was removed, they began to serve the main course. The acolytes continued slowly ingesting their bacon as the High Prelate began to declaim. He pointed at the wall, where massive tapestries hung, depicting the Lord, the Lady, the Laird, and his Fool sitting and eating, exactly as they congregants were.
“We sit in the presence of the Four, enjoying the feast that They Prescribed to us,” said the High Prelate. “We enjoy Their favorite dishes, drink Their holiest water, and observe Their rituals. Behold!” Each of the acolytes stood up from their bacon and reached up. There were flat television screens mounted on the wall above each of their tables. They reached up and activated the screens.
Images of that day’s sportsball competition appeared, showing emerald fields marked with lines of white. Athletes in multicolored uniforms faced off while packs of supporters stood and screamed encouragement or disapprobation from the bleachers surrounding the fields. There was a different game on every screen. The acolytes sat back down.
The congregants in the room began to murmur as they watched the games. There were occasional gasps and muted cheers or groans as the action unfolded. The servers emerged from the kitchen and began to serve the Feast’s main course, round pies on thick breaded crusts. The crusts were covered with tomato sauce and melted cheese and topped with meats and vegetables in various combinations. Some had no other toppings, only cheese and sauce.
The congregants began to serve pieces of the pies to themselves and each other. They continued to watch the games as they ate. The acolytes, having mostly finished their bacon, were closing their censers. Their part in the Feast was over once the screens were on and they could go or stay as they wished from that point. Most stayed to watch the games with the others.
The High Prelate finally sat down. He was served a pie of his own, preferring one with green peppers and pineapple and thick slices of sausage. He ate and watched the congregants with a paternal eye. This was the part of the Feast he loved the most. When the meal began to move away from the ritual and become a true communal experience.
He reflected upon this. They ate together all the time. Why was it that the Feast provided a stronger feeling of community? Was it the games on the screens? He doubted it. There were people eating and watching those games all over the city right now but he knew those people weren’t feeling the same sense of togetherness that he was feeling with these congregants. Was it the Appetizers? The pies? Perhaps; these were not usual foods. They had been in the days of the Four but appetites had changed since then. Things were different now. Simpler.
Suddenly there was an outburst at one of the Fool’s tables. A man leaped to his feet, shouting, as the audience at the game he was watching began to shout as well. “No!” he cried. “Are you insane? He wasn’t down yet!” His voice was harsh, with a slurred sound. Others around him tried to quiet him and pull him back into his seat, but the damage was already done.
As the man waved his hands toward the screen in disgust, a silver flask flew out of the end of his sleeve and landed on the table before him. The noise drew his attention away from the game. It drew everyone’s attention away from the games. Suddenly everyone in the room was looking at him.
The High Prelate stood. The acolytes nearest the man began to move toward him but the High Prelate held up a hand and they stopped, instead reaching up to turn down the volume on their screens. All the acolytes in the room did so. The High Prelate stepped down from his dais and walked the length of the table. He stopped beside the man, who was trembling. The other congregants in the area all cast their eyes to the floor. The flask was laying on the table.
“What is your name?” asked the High Prelate.
“Hugh,” answered the man.
“Hand me the flask, Hugh,” said the High Prelate.
Hugh’s hand shook as he reached out and picked up the flask and put it into the High Prelate’s outstretched hand. The High Prelate looked at it. It was silver, with a leather patch affixed to one side. There was a design embossed in the leather. The High Prelate looked at the design then at the screen Hugh had been watching. One of the teams had the same design on their uniforms. “You’re a Robins fan, then?” His voice resonated in the otherwise silent room. Hugh nodded.
The High Prelate unscrewed the top of the flask and sniffed. His nose wrinkled. “Homebrew?” Hugh nodded again, still obviously not trusting himself to speak. The High Prelate took a small sip from the flask. There were gasps all through the room. The High Prelate frowned. He took another sip. He looked at Hugh. “Fool’s Gold?” His face lightening just a little, Hugh managed a response. “Yes, your Grace.”
“Why would you bring this today, Hugh?” asked the High Prelate. “This is the Feast of the Four. You must know the Prescriptions, or you wouldn’t be here. This is beyond the prescriptions. It’s not consecrated. You must know that.”
“I do,” said Hugh, “and I admit my transgression, but sire, this is Fool’s Gold! It’s described in the Tenets! It was part of Their ritual. They ate Their food, as we do, They watched Their games, as we do, and They drank this, while we merely drink water. It’s in the Tenets, your Grace!”
“The Feast is about merging the world of the Four with our own,” said the High Prelate. He motioned at the screens. “These are not Their games, they are ours. This is not exactly Their food. It is merely our approximation. The water we drink today is a symbol of that. Drinking the Lady’s water is a way to make a stronger connection between us and Them. It serves as a bridge between the world of the Four and the world of today.”
“But this is Fool’s Gold!” said Hugh. “It is the Fool’s own drink! Surely it can serve the same purpose.”
“Perhaps,” said the High Prelate thoughtfully, handing Hugh his flask, “there can be more than one way to define community.” He spoke louder now, so the entire room could hear him. “That meaning can change. For today, though, Hugh, leave it as it is. Put your flask away and drink according to the Prescriptions.”
And he did. And the Robins won. And four years later, Hugh’s homebrew Fool’s Gold was consecrated and added to the Prescriptions and served at the Feast to those who wanted it. And it was good.