Wayword Scribblers, 3
by Eland Robert Mann
I volunteered to lead our third meeting, where first we discussed Terry’s latest assignment: to write a short story, with a beginning, middle and end, on a single page.
In 2012 I’d had the idea for the below story, so I used this opportunity to finally put it on the page. I’d always considered it a longer short story of around 1,500 to 2,000 words, but it was fun transposing my aim to around 600. The others in the group thought the story worked well at this length, so I’ve reproduced it as follows:
Year of the Marmot
For several years running a few acquaintances and I held a small gathering at my apartment to celebrate in an offhand way the Chinese New Year. None of us were Chinese, nor was there an Orientalist among us, but we always found ourselves looking for relief from the dreary mid-winter cold, and enjoyed the red glow of Chinese lanterns and the warmth of plum wine.
This past February we rang in the Year of the Snake with particular enthusiasm. This was partly because I had come into some money and had moved into a new apartment better suited to more extravagant get-togethers. It was also partly because a dear friend of mine brought along the woman he was enamored with at the time, Wu Lin, an in-the-flesh Chinese firecracker.
The highlight of the evening was a horoscope reading performed by Wu Lin, who had brought along a book on the Chinese Zodiac, and who proceeded to read to each delighted guest, one by one, their fortune for the coming year. The readings amused us, as our fortunes often contained odd details that seemed more in line with the life of a rural Chinese peasant. When it was my turn, Wu Lin revealed I was to have an exceptional year, as long as I refrained from one activity — I was forbidden from eating marmot meat.
I’d never heard of a marmot, let alone considered eating its meat. The ban shouldn’t have mattered. (You’d never guess that innocuous moment was the beginning of my condition.)
The following day, a light hangover dulled my appetite. I nibbled on some flavorless leftovers but nothing more, and went to bed early.
The next afternoon I met several friends at a new bistro that had opened in my neighborhood. I was still not feeling hungry, but ordered a sandwich anyway and forced half of it down. My friends remarked at the excellent taste of the food. My sandwich was cardboard bland, but I was beginning to feel unwell, and mentioned nothing.
Over the next week I attempted to eat twenty different meals. I ate favorite dishes of mine at home, at restaurants, at a friend’s house. With each passing meal, it became more painfully clear that I had lost my sense of taste. I would hover over the food before eating, smelling nothing. Before each bite, I would pray for any flavor that could satisfy. And at night, awake in bed, I’d close my eyes and imagine a decadent buffet of filet mignon and steamed mussels, lamb chops and grilled sea bass, moist pastries and elegant chocolate desserts, each dish more delicious than the last. Yet the only food, real or imagined, that could make my mouth water, that could get my gut grumbling and have me licking my lips in ecstasy, was the thought of marmot meat.
By March I had lost 20 pounds. I bought a new belt. Friends and colleagues became so worried that I saw a doctor at their insistence, but after weeks of tests he determined my condition to have no physical origin.
“If a dead tongue is the only symptom, then the likely cause is psychological,” said the doctor, pressing a pamphlet into my hands and referring me to a psychiatrist.
When a cold hunger takes hold in the depths of your stomach, you begin to fathom ideas never before considered. (Ideas like gutting a live, squealing marmot, stripping its coarse fur, tearing its bloody raw meat with your teeth, gnawing the last of its cartilage off the bones, cutting your tongue on its jagged bones as you hollow out the marrow, feeling satisfied at long last as the fatty flesh fills your stomach.)
Your being roars, as your lack of taste carves you into an empty cavern, engorged with the echoes of your growling stomach. You long to fill the void with marmot meat. You are gradually consumed by the idea of consuming.
The most terrible part of your condition is that you have no idea how to get any marmot meat.