Fruit of Decay
by Neil Willcox, 3.24am July 10th 2021
“Bite me,” she says and I do.
Her flesh is warm and moist, slightly sour in flavour. I chew thoughtfully. She laughs. “That’s better. You mortals are so repressed. You think this is extreme? In the Unseelie courts what we do tonight would be considered foreplay.”
I take another bite from her thigh. There is little blood, and what there is of it is thick, black. It does not taste of much but the scent of it is intoxicating. Earthy.
“At this rate it will take all night,” she says, leaning backwards, her dark hair falling in a wave on to the table. She smiles. “Not that I mind, better long and slow than,” and she clicks her fingers. The light flickers.
It had taken me a while to understand that she was not talking about food. Or at least not about food in the normal sense.
A friend of a friend had asked me to his girlfriend’s gallery. Some guy had his statues cluttering up the space, too many crammed in too small an area. I took a glass of Australian bubbles and went to look at the photos on the wall.
The artist had taken pictures of plates of food. So far so Instagram. But then he had left the plates and come back a day later, again and again. As I progressed along the thirty sets of photos the food dried up and shrivelled, or melted into rotting pools, or produced flies and maggots.
I wouldn’t say I liked it exactly, but at least it had some balls to it. Not like the abstract ceramics everyone else was pretending to enjoy. Pretending to look at.
That was where I saw her, dark shimmery dress, slightly green tinge to her loose black hair, tall and broad shouldered. Standing between day 24 and day 25, explaining the lifecycle of the maggots.
“By now there may have been two generations of flies laying eggs on this food, making these the third generation of maggots. Imagine it, growing, eating, transforming in the same place as your grandmother. So few people do that in these times, everyone moves from village to town to city. No one has roots.”
The man beside her – Bill, I recognised him – shuddered and looked at the next picture. All but unrecognisable corn was covered with mushrooms.
“Fungus, of course, is all about roots. Or rather mycelia. It starts as a spore then the mould grows in the gaps of the rotting object, filling and splitting the structure as it loses strength and cohesion. It breaks it down, consuming it, then at the last it fruits a mushroom, the glorious achievement of rot and decay.”
Bill shook his head. “Well I prefer my mushrooms the way god intended – baked in garlic butter.” Out the corner of his eye he caught sight of me and waved me over. “Hey Jack.”
I smiled. “Those mushrooms you like so well, they’re grown on horseshit.” I looked about, decided not to comment further.
Bill had no such restraint. “Hey, then they’d fit right in here. Like if they have some of those mushroom vol-au-vents? That would be perfect.”
“The food looks Ethiopian to me,” I said and waited.
“Oh hey, Jack, this is G.” He waved his hand vaguely between the two of us. “Haven’t you met? She’s been part of the the scene for, well...”
“Forever,” she said, holding out her hand. We shook, slightly formally.
“Of course,” blundered on Bill, “I guess this isn’t your scene anyway, is it Jack? I haven’t seen you at one of these for ages.”
“Pottery not really my thing,” I said.
“No, no, of course not.” He turned to G. “Jack’s a gypsy.”
“Traveller,” I said.
“Same thing,” he shrugged. It is not the same thing. I did not bother to correct him, or even ask why that might be relevant to my indifference to ceramics.
G didn’t have any of the usual questions, just looked me up and down. I did the same to her. Before either of us spoke Anne and her gang arrived. “Bill, Jack. What the hell are you looking at?” She pointed at day 26. “Disgusting. And I was just saying we should go to the new tapas place, but that has completely put me off my feed.” She downed the glass of bubbles. “But we should go anyway.” She waved dismissively. “You come too G, it’s been ages since I saw you.”
“Yes,” said G.
It isn’t working. Her flesh is tender, but not that tender. Human mouths simply aren’t designed to take a body apart.
(When I look closely I see that her jaw and teeth are those of a predator. A carnivore.)
I am puzzling over the knee joint. “Try the kitchen,” she says, and I am not surprised to find that she has a large selection of excellent butcher knives and saws.
“Don’t break the bones, right?” I say as I lever off the kneecap. “Don’t suck out the marrow.” I haven’t done this for ages, and never to a living human.
Or human-shaped being.
She smirks. It is not a pleasant expression. ”I’m not Tanngrisnir or Tanngnjóstr. I don’t have nano-machinery in my bones to rebuild me. I’m simply immortal. You can’t hurt me.”
I pull on the thigh bone and it slips through my hand and she gasps. “Oh! Well you can hurt me but not seriously. In no way that is important.”
I don’t like this dismissal. Despite everything I’ve already eaten I am still hungry. I strip the flesh from her foot and consume it.
“I get it, I suppose,” said Anne. “Food inevitably rots. Everything runs down. Entropy will always win.”
G looked at her. I could not make out her expression in the dimly lit place. “It is more than that. Food rots, and melts away and becomes the nutrients for the next cycle of growth. We eat, we digest, we shit and that’s that. But to a farmer, shit is manure, is fertiliser. The very thing we need to grow the next harvest.” She picked up a small fried fish and ate it, head and all, the bones crackling in her teeth.
“The food is shit,” said Bill, poking at a plate of blood sausage.
I ate some liver, chewing it slowly. It has the consistency of boot leather. How I remember it from my childhood. Anne shook her head. “We’ve grown beyond that. Living in a town like this, we don’t need to see all that. Waste food all gets thrown away in big plastic bins, and, um, everything else goes down the clean porcelain exit tubes. We don’t need to think about...”
“Death?” I suggested. “We don’t need to think about death?”
“Death, of course, but only in a sterile and hygienic way. We don’t have to deal with the mess. There are people for that. It’s just an... ending.” Her gang murmured agreement. I thought about the dead people I know. Clive who got drunk, fell in a ditch and froze. Mel overdosed on something, or maybe everything, I’d dumped all the drugs before anyone else found them. Andy, hanging from the doorway, swinging. Dieter, bleeding out, someone having cut him for some reason.
None clean, none hygienic. I looked at G, who looked at me and I saw the same knowledge in her eyes. “You have been fortunate then Anne. Death is earthy, and visceral. It bites deep into our wild heart. Like birth, or a period, or having sex. Our defecation. Even our eating. It envelopes us, overwhelms us.” She ate a prawn, crunching through the shell.
Anne picked at her bread. “Well yes, fortunate. I suppose I am.” She was from a commuter towns on the coast originally, re-invented herself when she went to art college. A big wheel in an accountancy firm, artists kept on her good side because she knew people with money and brought them to events; business people thought her wild and bohemian, (though not excessively), hanging with all the creative types.
I liked her but she was not as clever and open-minded as she thought.
G smiled at her, teeth flashing. I blinked; the rest of her was in shadow. Where had the light come from? “Death will break into your life. I know it. Break through the clean, perfect facade. As it does with everyone. Better to embrace it, know it is simply a part of life.” She put a handful of olives in her mouth, chewing, then spat the stones out into a saucer.
Anne flinched. “I suppose that’s the case... when you come from the country.”
We look at her with contempt, Me, G, even Bill, who spent his childhood in some tiny village where everyone knows each other’s business. Now he tries to do the same in town. She knows she’s gone too far, and worse, we know her hometown tries to walk the line between city modernity and bucolic country living, failing at both.
The party broke up and somehow G slipped Bill, something I have never figured out how to do. We had coffee in a shiny, brightly lit place that had opened down the street. I like it a lot; good coffee, friendly staff, even the pastries are okay. I give it three months before it closes.
“You’re into the cycle of life,” I said, and thought I sounded dumb. Well, easy come, easy go.
“Into it? I try my best,” she said. “I try to be enveloped, consumed by it. It is not easy for me.”
We talked for a while and I began to understand she wasn’t talking about food, or death. Or she was but not in the usual ways. Anyway, we go back to her place.
“You understand now,” she gasps. The heart and lungs and throat are still there, still working. But her face, stripped down, lips gone, makes it hard for her to talk.
Frankly I’m surprised she can make herself understood. Do I understand? I think I do. An immortal is cut off from life, so the only way to experience it is to push themselves bodily into the cycle. To force themselves into it in whatever manner they can find. She cannot be hurt – or at least not hurt like a mortal – so this is as good a way as any.
I have eaten most of her body yet I do not feel full. If anything I am hungrier still. I do not know if this meal has had any other effects. I ought to be horrified at my actions, I suppose. Yet if my indifference – my enthusiasm – is a side effect of her eldritch meat, why did I take that first bite?
She tries to say something, but instead chokes out a laugh. I don’t like it. I take a hammer and break open her skull, scooping out her brains, and she shudders.
I eat until there is nothing more to eat and the sun is high, and then I sleep.
The dress and underwear she discarded after she had explained and I had understood, the shoes she slipped off, even her bag, those I scatter in her bedroom. I clean off the tools and every surface, seeking to leave no trace of me, no trace of her, no clue as to what has gone on here.
Walking out in daylight with a package of broken bones makes me nervous, but I’ve done worse. And down by the river there is a place they won’t be found, and I visit it that night.
I do not eat for a week and I know that she passes through my system. Has she changed me? I do not know. Is she part of the cycle of life? Is she now part of me?
It’s a year or more and I’m sitting on a fire escape smoking, listening to some guy who I’m probably not going to go home with telling me about how he writes the lyrics to his songs. “Just listen,” he says. “The world has its own music, the cars and the streets, and coming down from the sky...”
“Growing up from under the ground,” I say. “Waiting around the corner to bite you.”
I don’t listen any more as I hear a familiar laugh from down in the alleyway. “I’ve not seen you in an age. Where have you been G?”
“Oh, I’ve been laying low. Around and about. I don’t go by G any more. You can call me Fay.”
I take a drag and watch them as her hair flashes, shiny, black with just a hint of green. Then she vanishes into the dark.