It was the 3rd day of the 23rd month of the 16th year since the slaying. Or Butternog Day to the natives. Aromas of burnt vanilla and chilled poppy seed filled the air as The Little Ones scurried about prepping for the night's festivities.
The trees bowed down and the waters stood still as the Lourdes seated themselves along the shore.
"Play On!" cried the crow. The show was about to begin.
Once every four years the island came together to celebrate the island's bountiful harvest of herbs, crops, and spices; rosemary, thyme, basil, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, nutmeg – all grew in abundance. This island was special and its inhabitants knew it. They were never in want of anything and had no need for the outside world. If you could eat it, you could find it here. More importantly, the personal chef to the Royal family, Abdim, knew what to do with it. Coming from a long line of culinary masters, Abdim's destiny was settled long before he was born. His ancestors had learned to command fire and water back when the world endured in darkness and he too, inherited this ability. Cooking was in his blood.
Fortunately for its residents, the community was small, so everyone on the island lived and ate very well. Each day began the same way; at the first sign of daylight, when the clock tower struck five, the dwellers rose from their beds, rubbed their eyes, came down from their trees and harvested their crops. In the late morning, they lined up along the lakeshore in one single file, waiting patiently, wiggling their toes and fluffing their tails, for a breakfast of sweet banana crepes with caramelized pears, candied bacon, yogurt biscuits brushed with honey butter, roasted asparagus with pickle-poached eggs, cherry tarragon sausage, and hot peppermint-spiced cider.
The fragrance emanating from the palace kitchen was intoxicating. The meals were delectable and filling; all one could do afterwards was take a nap. In fact, that's exactly what they did. When the clock tower signified the end of the meal, the plates were licked clean and the whole community returned to their trees to sleep until noon. Lunch was served then. Indeed life was perfect. The only things to do here were eat, sleep, and eat again. Day after day after day. "Dependability through Predictability" was their motto. Routine and familiarity were paramount to maintaining a happy life.
For three hundred years, the island operated this way. And there was no reason why it couldn't continue for three hundred more. Perfectly synchronized. Tranquil and content.
That all changed one lazy afternoon at the end of another splendid meal. While all were asleep the lake's waters began to stir. A slight simmer at first, hardly noticeable, but then slowly heating up to a boil. As if it were coming alive. The heat traveled below ground reaching the tips of the tree roots, startling them awake. This in turn, rattled the tree dwellers. The clock tower hadn't rung, because dinner was not for another four hours, so whatever this disturbance was, it was neither expected nor welcome.
The royal family was alerted and news swept across the land. The townsfolk flocked to the lake's edge to see what was amiss. Trails of smoke rose from the lake's surface. Emerging from beneath the water was a bulbous mound, occupying nearly the entire diameter of the lake. The tide rose and lapped at the bystanders' feet. They jumped back and fled to their homes, fearing the unknown. Only the royal family's sentries remained to stand guard, but truthfully, what could they do? Nothing unforeseeable ever happened here. Ill prepared, they simply stood there stupefied and afraid.
They watched, paralyzed, as the large mound rose to the height of a shiny knoll. Glistening in the afternoon sun, water flowed down what they assumed was its face. It cast fearful sounds that echoed for miles as the sun's unpleasant rays pressed its unfamiliar heat onto the thing's back. The beast's incessant noise went on for hours, finally abating after the sun went down. But their supper of Mango-Radicchio Caprese with Basil Vinaigrette; Prosciutto with Persimmon, Pomegranate and Arugula; Lemony Chicken and Orzo Soup; Brined grilled Chops with Treviso and Balsamic Glaze, and Triple-Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies for dessert could hardly be enjoyed, because while they dined along the banks of the lake, the trespasser laid there. Completely still. A giant, immovable object, impossible to ignore.
Clearly, something had to be done. At dinner's end, the residents gathered to determine how they could remove this foreign invader. They bemoaned their situation, agonized over the problem, and struggled to come up with a solution. Later that evening they returned home, distressed and tired. Settled in their beds, they slowly drifted off under the dark blue moonless sky. Thankfully, not a sound was made the entire night. It appeared the sleep that had eluded everyone earlier that day would finally be enjoyed. Had it not been for the bright white glow that quietly emanated from the center of the lake, perhaps it would have. But the light traveled through the forest, beyond the glade and across the mountains. Trees shone like candles, preventing anyone from sleeping. All through the night, the strange visitor remained a bright orb in the middle of the lake. It wasn't until sunrise that its light gently dimmed, eventually returning to its normal self.
Butternog Day was a day of remembrance. A day to commemorate the eradication of an unwanted danger. A chance to praise one another for coming together to restore unity. The audience now properly seated along the lakefront, the clock tower struck one and the performers with flaming torches held firmly in their mouths, swiftly encircled the lake's perimeter.
On cue, the Little Ones went about collecting storm clouds, assembling a foggy mass directly above the stage. As if by command, a violent wind swirled the mass like cotton candy, agitating the waters below. The audience watched in awe as a whirlpool churned the water, rapidly reaching a boil. They sat forward, mesmerized at the display of bubbling water and light as they recalled that dreadful period in their history with a great sense of relief.
For the grand finale, the torchbearers, in unison dipped their beaks into the lake. The crowd watched in awe as a ring of fire radiated a brilliant glow arcing high into the sky. Then all at once, everything stopped. The air cleared, the flames extinguished and the waters became placid. Everything and everyone remained still. The hush lasted a few seconds, before the crowd erupted with a great cheer.
As they did every morning, the tower's bells signaled the start of a new day, but without a wink of sleep the night before, no one was in the mood to do anything but devise a plan, once and for all, to rid themselves of this horrendous monster. The entire town gathered within the palace's walls. The unruly crowd clamored their dissatisfaction, but nothing could be heard clearly through the pandemonium. The royal family tried desperately to quiet the crowd to no avail. Nothing even remotely close to this had ever happened here.
Chef Abdim peered through the kitchen window to see what all the ruckus was that prevented his French toast soufflé from rising properly. For his meals to turn out perfectly, he required meticulous attention to detail that could only be accomplished through an almost meditative state. All this noise was a disturbance and deemed entirely unacceptable.
Determined to put an end to this, he huffed through the palace halls and marched out to the balcony banging wildly on a stockpot with a large wooden spoon. "Silence!" he shouted as he continued to bang the pot until the clanging rang through everyone's ears. Gradually, they quieted down. "You are all ruining my soufflé!" He shook his wooden spoon at the masses. "If you continue to act this way, there will be no breakfast."
"Who cares about breakfast?" someone shouted from the crowd.
A group joined in agreement. "Somebody needs to do something!"
The royal family looked toward the palace guards, the palace guards looked toward Chef Abdim. The fact of the matter was that this peaceful island was so remote that in all its history, there was never any need to plan for security, or prepare for an invasion. The only things that even resembled weapons were Chef Abdim's giant metal pot and wooden spoon.
"How about you? You have weapons," shouted someone from the crowd. Further pointing out that the chef had a meat cleaver, a colander, a baking pan and an eggbeater, the group chimed in accord, volunteering the old cook to save their homeland. The chef dismissed this notion with a wave of his spoon, but a quick vote from the crowd and a mandate from the royal family sent the culinarian back to his kitchen to form a plan of attack using whatever he had on hand.
Defeated, he stared at his deflated soufflés, wondering how in the world he was expected to fight the enemy with a cheese grater and a saucepan. This was a suicide mission and he wanted no part of it.
To take his mind off things for a while, he did the only sensible thing he could think of. He set off to cook. He fired up the clay oven, lined up his spices, kneaded the dough, laid out his cookware and chopped up the vegetables with machine-like precision. Within minutes, he was blanching spinach, toasting sesame seeds, simmering the cream sauce, sautéing the meats and baking the bread. Darting back and forth from stove to oven to grill to fryer, Abdim whirled his way through the kitchen, checking temperatures, tasting, sprinkling and adjusting the flames. The entire room was fragranced with mint, fenugreek, tomato, garlic, ginger and a myriad of other exotic scents.
The royal family could hear the activity from the other side of the walls. Clearly, he was onto something. They were so excited to finally be ridding themselves of their annoying visitor, they approached the kitchen door, eager to know the Chef's plan. But the door was locked. Chef Abdim had a strict policy of never being disturbed while working. The suspense too much to bear, they rapped on the door.
"Chef Abdim. May we see?"
Chef Abdim was startled by the interruption and lost his focus for a moment. "Go away!" he said.
But they wouldn't go away. They begged him to let them in on his strategy for putting an end to their misery. He obviously had a brilliant solution, what with all the commotion coming from inside the kitchen.
But the commotion was actually Chef Abdim struggling to keep track of all the dishes being prepared. The distraction caused him to lose his train of thought and now something didn't smell right. He sniffed the air and detected that something was burning. His soufflé! Abdim dropped his eggs, sprinted toward the oven, and hurdled a dessert cart. His right foot landed in a pot of boiling hot water that had been sitting on the floor. He let out a yelp, grabbed his foot and hopped about carelessly knocking over trays, bowls, mixers...the kitchen was a disaster, the entire meal ruined.
Abdim looked around. Dejected, his eyes settled on a low-running flame on the stovetop. That's when it hit him.
"We'll cook it right where it lays!"
At the Lourdes's command, the entire town set to work with perfect synchronization. While the tables were being set outside, Chef Abdim drafted his recipe and assembled the ingredients. Of course, typically he would test his recipe before serving it, but there was no time for that now. He would have to rely on years of training and instinct.
As the Little Ones lined up outside the kitchen, Abdim armed them with all the necessary ingredients. One by one they flew to the lake and dropped sacks of herbs and spices onto the creature's head, who up until that time, lay soundless and serene. After all the ingredients had been dumped into the lake, the chef gave the signal. Immediately, the mantis shrimp dipped below the surface and began to stir vigorously. Bit by bit the water's temperature began to rise. The heat from below unsettled the creature. Feeling some discomfort, it let out a whimper. The villagers made final preparations as the shrimp continued to stir faster and faster. The creature's whimpers turned into wails and soon after, cries of pain that resounded throughout the land. As the water bubbles increased, the creature's color turned pale and skin became soft. Eventually, its cries subsided into faint whines, until nothing but the gurgling of the bubbling water could be heard.
Moments later, the stirring lessened, reducing the boil to a simmer. And so it remained for most of the day. Quietly, everyone retired to their homes to catch up on much needed rest, looking forward to tonight's feast.
At dusk, the bell tower sounded. The natives ventured toward the lake, where the trees had already begun extending their branches and dragging the creature onto land. With the crows' assistance, they broke down the body and served it to the eager diners. Once everyone was served, the cue was given to begin.
Night fell and only the sounds of enjoyment broke the otherwise sober mood. The food as expected, was divine. The portions, plentiful. Their bellies full, the villagers were overcome with a sense of relief and comfort, knowing that life as they knew it had been restored. All that remained was to sleep. And so they did. As aromas of burnt vanilla and chilled poppy seed filled the air. •