Estimated reading time — 17 minutes
I think calling it an obsession would have been an exaggeration. I’d have preferred the more acceptable term “hobby” to describe my collecting of old cookbooks. Yes, it was a hobby. We all need hobbies, you know. Something to pass the time between lunch and dinner, work and sleep, birth and death. My hobby never consumed the house or anything like that, with great dusty tomes snaking their way upwards until they eclipsed the sun. My wife made sure that the books stayed in my study, nowhere else. Unless, of course, I planned on using them, in which case they were granted access to the cupboards in the kitchen. You could imagine that, when most of my books were for 19th century aristocrats, or for people working around the world war two rationing system, few of my cookbooks ever saw my house beyond the dimly lit study, where the dust mites did not so much dance under the languid light as they did drift stagnantly, like clouds making their way across the sky. I found this arrangement agreeable, since it kept me on the right side of the oh so fine line all collectors walk, the line that separates a “collection” from a “hoard.”
So, I spent my nights sequestered away in the study, with its deep green carpet and custard yellow walls. The room was certainly an eyesore, but the shelves of cookbooks covered most of the wallpaper, and the dull light of the study meant it was easy to pretend the carpet wasn’t such an unpleasant color. The obligation was, however, that if I spent my nights flicking through the mottled pages of old cookbooks, I had to use some of my knowledge to put dinner on the table every night. I wasn’t a master chef, but I knew which end of a knife was sharp, and was happy to make meals for our little family of three.
The night before I found the book, I was ladling great heaps of risotto into our bowls, while my wife impatiently tapped her cherry red finger nails on the dining table. I always thought her having such bright, obnoxiously colored nails was unsightly, especially since my wife typically dressed in browns and beiges, but perhaps that was the point. Her nails were like a release from the blandness of the her attire. Hunter sat with his head resting on the table, no doubt itching to finish dinner and run back up into his room to play video games and do whatever else it is that thirteen year old boys do when they’re alone. I suppose in another family Hunter would have been reprimanded for being so solitary, but everyone in this household spent most of their time alone, so he was simply following suit. We began to eat, wordlessly, but as the oppressive silence grew thicker, we started trading pieces of small talk to alleviate some of the awkwardness.
“So, hon, I was looking at the calendar and realized that Hunter’s science camp starts the day I go to visit the ice queen.” Yes, my wife and I both decided that the best label for her mother would be the “ice queen.” I think that says all you need to know about her character.
“You sure you’ll be okay with the house all to yourself?”
I scoffed. “Somehow, I think I’ll manage.”
She knew I wasn’t going with her. The rule we established was that I only tag along with my wife every second time we receive summons from the ice castle. Every other time, my job as a librarian “keeps me too busy” to come see her. With that, the spell of silence was broken, and we all began chatting about school, work, and ordinary family things. I laugh now, thinking about how this was the last night where I was truly sane. It was the the night before I discovered my crown jewel.
My job as a librarian was an enjoyable one. While my library, like most, had a stunted and unloved cookbook section, occasionally I’d be asked to make the three hour drive up to the gargantuan storage facility where all of the older books in the regional library’s collection were held, to pick up books for people who had requested them, and return those that had been sent out previously. It was tedious, to be sure, but I was allowed the entire day for such a task, and I regaled in the ancient books found there. It was in this place my love for cookbooks was born, even if I necessarily couldn’t take any of these books for my keeping. Feeling the dusty film on their pages, the stains left from previous uses, each one like its own artefact forever preserved within the bound leather tomes, I fell in love with these recipes and the contexts they came from. From 18th century housewives to the dying breed of 20th century royal families, every recipe was tailored for someone. But, while there wasn’t a single book in my collection that I wasn’t in love with, some books were more loved than others. On this particular day, I found the book that would top all others, my one true love. My crown jewel.
Every collector has a crown jewel. A typically rare and special article of whatever item it is they like to collect. It takes a while, and some collector’s crown jewels are better than others, but if one persists at their hobby long enough, they’re bound to find the one addition to their collection that makes it special. I had finished all the work I was supposed to do in the facility, and spent the rest of the day wandering among the labyrinth of ancient shelves creaking under the weight of ancient books. I ran my hand along their spines, noticing how, just like the pages themselves, the exterior of these books were also coated in a fine layer of dust. Not all these books were cookbooks, but every one told an engrossing story. Maps of old prospector towns, letters sent between nobles, I was lost in this sea of times long gone. While wandering through the isles, drifting deeper than I ever had before, I found a large pile of books that had toppled from their shelf, spilling all over the floor. It was as though the shelf had violently vomited all of these musty books from itself, leaving them in disarray. As a librarian, it was my duty to stuff these books back in their shelf. I was unfamiliar with what order they were placed in, so I just used my best judgement. The pile of books seemed to be unending, and the work quickly grew monotonous. What broke the monotony was the book that lay at the very bottom of the pile, being smothered by all the others.
A leather bound tome, with its cover faded and wrinkled, but still intricately decorated. In that extravagant, old English font, the title read “The Book of the Ravenous: Dishes to Sate any Appetite.” The words within were a more standard Georgian font, placing it around the 19th century. The pages were a Pollack painting of brown and maroon smears and smudges, mouldering on the page like some sort of fungus or lichen. At first, as I skimmed the yellowed pages, the book was only of mild interest. Only when I focused on the ingredients of a particular page did I realise the uniqueness of this book.
ONE CLOVE OF GARLIC
1 TEASPOON SALT
1/2 TEASPOON PEPPER
1 CUP PEAS
I felt fear squirming in my stomach, like a black worm tying itself into knots. Skimming through the pages, more body parts appeared. Legs, thighs, ribs. There was no author, no date of publication, no introduction, just pages and pages of recipes, each one detailing another way to cook a human body part. Suddenly, the strangely coloured stains plastered on every page made more sense. What kind of library would have this book in its database? I searched for a barcode, or some sort of marker that showed the library owned it, and found none. This book was not actually in the library’s system. Had it been left here on purpose? Buried under all these other books? Such a morbid book frightened me to no end, to be sure, but to think that it was so unique, so strange, and far too authentically bound for it to be some kind of “gag” book, I couldn’t resist it. The woman at the front desk payed me no mind as I left the storage facility, my crowned jewel nestled safely within my jacket.
I stared at the slab of meat on the cutting board. It glistened under the kitchen’s pendulum lights. I stared at the veins of fat that carved their way through the flesh. I wanted to touch it, to press my thumb in it and watch the wet indent slowly rise, or remain pushed in. Grabbing my knife, I began to cut the beef. My afternoon was spent reading my latest find. Most pieces of flesh had at least one page dedicated to them, though certain pieces, such as the liver or the heart, frequented as the star of a dish. As I cut the beef, the images conjured up from that book hung about me, haunting me like phantoms. Filleting the inner thigh, deboning the fingers, skinning the forearm, it was as though these images were embedded into my brain with a soldering iron.
It was stir fry that night. I had mixed in with the noodles and beef lots of vibrant vegetables that seemed to glow as the steam rose off them. I generously spooned at least five different spices into the dish. Despite my best efforts, the meal seemed disappointing. The noodles became claggy paste in my mouth, and the vegetables felt rubbery and bland. “Sorry guys, this one wasn’t my greatest hit.” I said, trying to speak over their chewing sounds. “I don’t know what you’re talking about honey, this is great! Do you like it, Hunter?” She gestured to him with those red fingernails. Cherry red. Like blood. Blood running in rivulets across the white kitchen bench, creating new, red veins to mingle with the marble’s grey ones. Blood pooling at the bench’s edge, first trickling, then spilling, then nearly rushing over, landing on the tiles with a series of sickening splatters, like an overflow of rainwater rushing from a gutter. Blood, filling the valleys between the white kitchen tiles, as though they were veins in their own right, and the house was being granted new life. Blood. Blood. Blood.
I looked up to find my wife and child staring at me like I had just had a heart attack at the table. “Uh, sorry, what did you say?”
“I asked how work was.”
“Oh, work was fine, got to go up to that big storage place again today.”
“Any good reads, hon?”
“Nah, nothing out of the ordinary.”
The distaste in my cooking only grew. As long as I focused on it and nothing else, my mind wouldn’t wander back to those morbid thoughts. Despite my wife’s constant protestations, and my son’s absent minded nodding, I believed the quality of my cooking to be at a decline. There was also something else I had noticed. A desire, welling up within me. I didn’t entertain the thought of these desires. I pushed them far, far back, sequestered them away where they couldn’t escape. Yet everyday the niggling at the back of my head continued. Like a second heartbeat, I could hear the book calling, calling, calling. Every night I would read more recipes; it became a compulsion. Other cookbooks, which had once been as entertaining as a fantasy novel for me, became like reading chemistry textbooks. I tried not going into my study at all, but I was drawn there, drawn into the gloomy depths of that room, as though the study and I were bound by a string. I was in my study the night before my wife went to the ice castle, and Hunter to science camp. The current recipe had me engrossed.
Remove bicep from the upper arm, stopping where the shoulder meets the collar bone. Strip with flaying knife and then skin. Place in a well oiled pan with butter. Continue to cook until well-browned on both sides and butter has melted into the flesh. Serve with salt, pepper and basil.
I imagined the rivers of grease trickling down the browned flesh, the crackling of its surface, the steam rising in great columns like thin, ghostly dancers. I saw the fine layer of salt and pepper coating the flesh, like the film of dust on those old cookbooks. The leaves of basil, not a lot, only two or three, daintily sat atop the dish, completing its-
I looked down. On the page of the recipe, four great wet splotches had spattered on the page. I check the corners of my mouth. Wet. That night, even after the hamburgers I had made for my family, I went to bed with a growling stomach.
Hunter was already in the car, and my wife searching for her keys. I was watching the TV, or rather, staring at it. I wanted to read more recipes, and the blur of pixels on the screen, whatever it was, was not enough to hold my attention.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come with me, hun? I’m being serious this time.”
I sighed and looked down at my feet, trying to appear conflicted. In truth, I was angry. I needed her to leave so I could keep reading.
“You haven’t been yourself these past few days, or weeks, for that matter. Are you sure everything is okay?”
“Everything is fine, sweetie.” Was my response.
“Okay. I’ll be back in a week, but Hunter is at his camp for two. We’ll have a whole week to ourselves.”
“When you get back, I’ll cook a grand feast!” I exclaimed, throwing my hands in the air with melodramatic vigour.
“Okay sweetie, I’m looking forward to it already. I’ll send your regards to the ice queen.”
With that, we kissed and she went to the door. Some part of me wanted to run to her, to kiss her once more and ask her to wait as I packed my bags, so we could brave the ice queen together. But my legs were like cinder blocks, they weren’t moving. The door shut, the car drove away, and as I turned off the TV, I was left in a house absent of sound. The only noise came from my head, the book was calling, calling, calling…
I was able to make one compromise with my possessive study, and even more possessive cookbook. Instead of reading by the lamp as usual and entombing myself in the room with no open curtains, and no open doors, I read the book by the light of day. Time became fluid, and the hours blurred together as I turned page after page, and the sky grew darker and darker.
I looked out the window. The sky was black, which was good, considering it was 3 am. I didn’t remember turning on the lamp to read, but then again, I didn’t remember getting on to the page about marinating ribs, either. I turned the page, yawning as I-
I looked out the window once more. The sky wasn’t just black, it was abyssal. No moon. No stars. No clouds. Pitch black. A void.
What was that?
Downstairs. I walked out of the study and stared down the flight of steps. There was a faint, wavering light-
It was coming from the kitchen. I made my way down the stairs as stealthily as possible, and poked my head from behind the wall near the landing, the kitchen right before me.
There was a figure in the kitchen. It was hard to see who it was exactly. The kitchen had three pendulum lights, though only one was on, and it was swinging in great broad arcs, much like the item for which it was named. The figure’s shape kept dancing in and out of shadows as the light swung, being the only illuminating thing in the bottom story of the house.
I only needed to see it for a few seconds to understand its shape.
To understand the source of the banging.
To understand the figure in the kitchen was not human. It had the buckled hind legs of a goat. And its brown hair started at the hoofs, and didn’t stop until it had covered the head. The head, speaking of which, was slim and serious, but a goat’s head nonetheless, with those muddy yellow eyes, and thin, sinewy horns. The only part of the figure’s body that resembled a human’s, besides the overall body shape, was the goat creatures strong, burly arms, and the large hands it had wielding the cleaver. The cleaver that was cutting into a detached arm.
It turned and stared at me with its inhuman eyes. ‘A dream.’ I thought. ‘only a dream.’ It may very well have been a dream, but by no means an ordinary one. In a dream such as this, with the cleaver wielding goat-man attacking an arm, the point where he makes eye contact with you is the point where he screams, or laughs maniacally, jolting you from your dream. Instead, the creature gestured to a stool in front of the marble island with his bloody cleaver, and cautiously, I took a seat.
The banging continued, though the light seemed to have steadied. The goat-man wordlessly continued to cleave through flesh and bone, leaving a clean slice and creating that resounding bang on the chopping board. Just as I had gotten used to the steady bangs on the cleaver, a new sound caught my attention. Behind the goat creature, attached to the wall was a cupboard. It was enwreathed in chains, and adorned with a rusty padlock. It was here the sound of dripping blood emanated. The blood ran down the crevice between the cupboard doors and splattered onto the bench from its bottom. Now I could hear muffled bumping and shuffling from the cupboard, as its doors bulged and struggled against the chains. I looked back at the goat creature, who was staring at me once more. His eyes seemed to say are you going to pay attention now? I stared at the arm as he continued to cleave it. The arm with still twitching fingers. Still twitching fingers…with cherry red nails.
My mouth began to pool with a liquid. It wasn’t blood, or some mysterious black bile, as one would expect in a dream like this, but saliva. Beyond all the restraint I could muster, I licked my lips. Now as I looked around my benighted house, I saw I wasn’t alone. In the shadows of the dining room, and near the landing of the stairs, and just about every place that surrounded the kitchen in total blackness, there were eyes. Glowing, yellow eyes. I could hear them whispering, muttering to one another. I realized the light from the single globe above was slowly shrinking, and the eyes in the blackness were growing in number. The arm was cleaved into several thick slices, and the goat creature carried them to the oven, I followed him, and found myself next to him, and in front of the growing red puddle below the cupboard, as he shoveled the slices in.
“Who are they?” I whispered.
His eyes looked like they were a pool frozen mid-ripple.
“They are the Ravenous. They’re here to test you.”
Now the goat-man was gone, and the pendulum light had moved to shine a slim ray of light over me, the dripping cupboard, and the puddle below it. The whispering was growing more hurried now, and I found myself surrounded by a plethora of flickering yellow eyes. I stared into the puddle of blood. My skin was as black as the shadows overwhelming my house, and my eyes glowed a languid, yellow light. The light of the Ravenous. The light I used to read in my study. For once, this dream followed tradition, and ended with me releasing an ear splitting scream, terrified at my own reflection.
I awoke to find my head resting on the book, which was most likely the occult equivalent to falling asleep near a nuclear reactor. The window revealed that now it truly was night, and amid the gently twinkling stars the moon was a crescent, a closing eye, blinding itself to the events of the night. “What do you want from me?” I spoke aloud, grasping the book with both hands. “Test me? How the hell do you expect me to do this kind of stuff, huh?” My voice was trembling, I was truly growing angry with the book’s silence. I stared at its cover, at the snakes and ferns and gargoyles that were carved into the leather, lending the book its intricacy. I slammed the book on the table. “HUH?!” My rage was interrupted by a jarring pound at the door. I glanced at the study’s doorway, then back to the book. The door was pounded upon once more.
I opened the door to find a scruffy man under three layers of clothing, with his long, straw like hair somewhat matted to the stubble on his face. With his every breath he released a cloud of white frost. “Hey man, really sorry to bug you.” He scratched the back of his head, which was covered by a navy blue beanie.
“No trouble, I was up anyways.” I nervously mirrored the man, scratching the back of my head.
“I just ran out of phone battery, and my charger’s broke. Could I please just charge it till it gets back up? I really need to call someone.”
“Yeah, sure, please come in.”
He entered the house, and took the seat I offered him in the lounge room.
“Look, its super cold out there, why don’t you wait a bit longer so your phone can charge some more, and I’ll make you a cup of coffee.”
His opal eyes lit up, and his grin revealed a set of teeth so white and straight and perfect they could have been carved from the marble in the kitchen bench.
“Holy crap man, uh, thanks! B-but I don’t wanna intrude on you and I’m guessing your wife and kids?”
“How’d you figure I have those?”
“Well, y’know man, its a pretty big house.”
“Okay, I have a wife and a kid, but they’re both out of town. C’mon, just stay for one cup of joe.”
I could see the discomfort in the man’s eyes. He wanted nothing more than to grab his still uncharged phone from my hands and bolt for the door. But alas, with the only excuse he could think of being disarmed, he was socially obliged to accept the coffee. In his effort to be polite, he may have just sealed his fate.
I stared at the knife in the kitchen as the coffee brewed. I could end it all here. If this man goes on his way I’d still be tormented. But if I just ended myself, I’d be free. My stomach protested this with a mournful growl. I couldn’t remember the last time I had eaten a good meal, one that truly satisfied me. I made my way into the backyard, through the screen door in the kitchen, and fumbled my way along the exterior wall. My foot bumped into the toolbox. My hands trembling, and not just from the cold, I opened the box and grabbed the hammer that lay amid the miscellaneous collection of screws and nuts. Tucking the handle into my pants, and covering the rest with my shirt, I entered as the coffee was ready to be poured.
The man was standing in the kitchen, staring directly at the hammer shaped outline behind my shirt. “Listen man, I really appreciate you letting me charge my phone, but I need to go, I think my phone’s charged anyway man, could you, ah, just pass it here and lemme get outta here?”
“Sure.” I said, trying to manage the friendliest tone I could.
I took the phone out of the charger, which I had placed in the socket next to the coffee machine. I also placed the hammer on the bench, trying to make it look as though it had some other purpose for being inside besides what we both knew its intent was. I held the phone out to him. “Here you go.”
“Man, could you please just put it on the bench?”
Now I was growing impatient, though I displayed this feeling as anger.
“You come into my home, ask me to perform a service, rudely deny the beverage I made for you, and now you choose to act like I’m some kind of psycho?”
“Dude, you came from your backyard with a hammer and you smell like you haven’t washed in days. Give me the god damned phone.”
I tossed it on the floor. Nimbly, he bent to grab it, misjudging the distance between us, and the speed I could swing this hammer at.
Steel met bone with a sickening crunch.
“Oh my goodness! Honey! This is incredible!” She exclaimed, happily chewing down the ribs I had prepared, pulling long, sinewy strands of flesh off the bone. “It just melts in your mouth!”
“I will admit, its the first dish I’ve been pleased with in weeks.”
She put her hand on mine.
“That’s really good, hon. I was beginning to get worried.”
We continued to eat, neither of us mentioning the sheer amount of grease glistening on the meat, trickling off of its surface as we sunk our teeth into it.
“What kind of meat is this, hon?”
“Hey, how’s the ice queen doing?”
She rolled her eyes.
“Don’t get me started.”
We continued to eat in silence, until both of us were filled to the brim.
“Hey, wanna see the book I got this recipe from?”
Her eyes lit up with excitement.
“Yeah! Bring it down!”
I ran up stairs and got the book. I could feel it pulse in my hands, radiating a dull warmth. It was pleased. I flipped to the page I had used and showed her the method.
Remove entrails and miscellaneous viscera through abdominal incision. Turn corpse over and use chisel or other blunt object to dislodge ribcage from spine. Extract ribs individually or all at once through incision and douse in marinate prepared earlier. You’ll find human ribs need far less time to cook than other animal variants, so only place in oven for…
She read the page in awe, beginning to laugh. “Oh my God! Hon, I didn’t realize you got into practical jokes since I left! What’s this called? The… “Book of the Ravenous?” Ha!” She laughed harder, before looking up at me. I wasn’t laughing, only faintly, patiently smiling. The laughing faltered as she read on. “Hon this is…uh…really gruesome, y’know…even for a joke boo-“ she stopped. As she looked back at me, I saw the comprehension in her eyes, it was faint, but present. I heard her gulp. “Honey…please don’t tell me this is…” She flipped to the next page, and then the next, and then the next, and then the next. I saw it before she did. From the corner of her mouth, a single, long, silvery strand of saliva caught the sunlight as it sluggishly began to make its way to the yellowed page of the book. As she looked up, the only emotion in her eyes was fear. I heard her stomach growl.
The car came to a screeching halt, disrupting the quaint and quiet atmosphere of the suburb. I really liked Jack, but his mother couldn’t drive for crap. “Here you go honey, tell your mum I said hi.” I smiled, hopping out of the door.
“Thanks Mrs. Danson, I will. See you, Jack.”
We waved, and then I shut the car door, watching the vehicle raucously barrel down the peaceful street once more. As I entered the house, I found it completely absent of light, natural or otherwise. Closing the door, I followed the sounds of wet, vigorous chewing. There was my mother in the kitchen, the most inelegant I had ever seen her, gorging herself over a plate of grease doused meat. “Hey, mum…?” My voice was timid and cautious. All I got as a response was a single glance as she ripped another great chunk of flesh off a rather large bone. I could hear the grease trickle from her mouth onto the plate, where it was beginning to form a puddle the color of dirty dishwater. As I went to the sink to get a drink, I noticed all the cleaning supplies usually kept under the sink were in disarray all over the counter. The cupboard under the sink was padlocked. And contained an incredibly faint, rasping sound, as though there were someone within struggling for breath. “Hunter! My boy!” I turned, trembling and slack jawed, only just noticing the thin stream of blood trickling from the cupboard. My father was completely enshrouded in the benighted house’s shadow. I could have sworn his eyes were glowing yellow. “Come and sit down Hunter! Eat something while you tell us about science camp. After two weeks away from my cooking, you must be ravenous!”
CREDIT: William Buckley
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