Three thousand habitable planets in the known universe, and I’m stuck on the only one without shishkosh. Now for most people this might not pose a problem, but I happen to hail from a leading family in the shishkosh culinary empire. I mean, we have recipes that go back to the days of Putrid the Minor, the days when most of the ingredients for shishkosh en papillotte grew wild!
When my Papov had me on his knee, he whispered variations for this dish in my baby ears till I grew so tired, he could carry my limp body over to the body cradle capsule and tuck me in. If I am ever tortured, out would pour all the secrets of each of the 523 dishes that can be made with raw, cooked, pureed, strained, braised, sautéed, broiled, fried and fricasseed shiskkosh: the drikweed gathered before its time, the salting process for the kosh itself and so on. Though these days this will hardly come up in routine conversations or in torture chambers here and abroad. Did I mention that Papov would save the reeds and administer light thrashings on my tender body for St. Machiav’s birthday? Every part of those ingredients served multiple purposes.
Today, here on Eustachia, it’s a different ballgame altogether. First of all, they don’t eat anything they can cook. My guard in his white apron serves me Eustachian wafers at prescribed intervals. Though they come in different flavors, I’ve yet to distinguish any difference between them. Imagine a piece of hide from a zulkof, maybe a baby zulkof (if you’re lucky), that you chew and chew and chew, turning it over in your mouth again and again, sucking down the juices, before finally—if you’re a foreigner like me—spitting it out in sheer fatigue and boredom. One thing I must say for it: it does kill the appetite and stall the cramps for a while.
It does nothing though for the dreams haunting my daylight hours as well as nighttime attempts at sleep. How will I get my hands on some of the shishkosh ingredients? Surely, drikweed must grow on Eustachia too? It’s part of the same solar system as my home planet, Earth. Kosh is possibly growing moss-like right now on those shrubs I glimpse through the small window at the top of my cell! If I could bribe the guard to gather some for me, then maybe I’d be in a position to prepare one of the 523 dishes.
I’m pretty sure I could count on the same results. I mean, why not? Eustachians are humanoid creatures, not as highly evolved as we are, but recognizable. So this problem, or rather its solution, occupies all my thoughts, as it has done these last eleven months, three weeks and two days.
How has the year gone by so quickly? Well, it hasn’t. Almost every hour I’ve been flayed alive, imagining the worst outcome possible. I’ve worked through escape scenarios – the bars are too thick, the window too high, my guard doubtless as clever as I. I tried feigning illness, impending appendicitis, wild and wooly psychotic breaks. Nobody cared.
I have five days left before I must prove my worth to the judges of Eustachia. Then it’s all over. I’m just sixteen! Shishkosh is my only hope, my only possible contribution to their society.
Did I mention Eustachians don’t eat?
* * *
My guard, Kaydor, was feeling happy in his heart today for this morning he brought me Eustache wafers made from aborted zulkof fetuses. Sounds disgusting, right? But so much easier to chew. For me, these days, this represents haute cuisine.
I don’t know much about Kaydor despite the fact that he has been ministering to my needs for the whole of my year-long term. Looking into his eyes, a trick from my hometown, I can read that he has two little bitty Eustachians at home and a wife even thinner and more dour than him. They all resemble long strips of bark after a long hard winter. Must be their diet. I can’t imagine where they get any fat from unless there’s a secret stash of kosh that they keep hidden from me.
As always I talk to Kaydor about my childhood and recite one or two of the 523 recipes. He sits on a chair outside my cell and I sit on one inside, facing him. He’s my number one strategic tool and I can see that I’ve made some headway, though it’s been slow going. Images of shishkosh decorate the heretofore barren walls of his being now. I see the inner Kaydor turning his gaze to admire them. The fish has taken the bait! (Oh, for some fish!)
“Most esteemed guard, I would like to recount today for you only Recipe #344, Shishkosh Supreme.”
Kaydor nods. I am his first and only prisoner and he takes his assignment very seriously.
“You will see how your mouth waters as much as mine did back in the day. First you go into the fields and gather armfuls of fresh yellow drikweed. The women salt it, strip it, grate it, pound it into a pulp, then make a thick paste out of it by adding week-old water. The children are sent to gather green sticky kosh from under the branches of shrubs and little trees. The men mix the paste into the kosh and shape it into a huge round ball the size of . . . the pregnant belly of an ohrbek! By the way, ohrbek meat is to die for!”
Kaydor shakes his head.
“So anyway, the whole village rolls the ball through the fields and positions it somewhere it can catch the sun’s rays. After a few days, my father determines it is ready. It’s Shishkosh Time, he says. He cuts a door in the side of the ball and clears a passage. We file in, hand in hand taking positions. At the signal, we open our mouths and bite into the soft spongy walls.”
Here I mime opening my mouth as wide as I can and clamping down on my hand and pretending to chew. The memory is too much for me; I feel like I’m going to pass out. I read that Kaydor is displeased. He stands up and removes his chair. I’m alone with my thoughts once again. Tears slide down my face.
* * *
Kaydor seems a bit put out with me. Why, I wonder. He’s hardly overworked. Of course on that diet of theirs…
With so few days left, I decide to let him in on my secret, my ability to read him. “You know, Kaydor, though you have almost never spoken, I can tell you I know everything about you.”
I tell him about his wife, once a firecracker, his kids, awkward, loud, and messy, and then go for the jugular: “She doesn’t excite you any more, does she? So lean and dry and flaky. Every day (and night) it’s the same old in-and-out. Nothing to look forward to. Ever.”
I’ve got his attention. “Now if I had something to work with, I could let you have some shishkosh. Did you ever wonder why there were 523 recipes for this delicacy? Or why my father and his father and grandfather before him were all lords? Or why I got the honor, at my age, of being shot into space to explore the known and not-so-known universe?”
I don’t dare tell him we are running out of shishkosh ourselves and are desperately searching for more.
Kaydor comes closer and puts his hands around the bars of the cell. He is panting. I read the desperation, see the lolling tongue. Now we’re getting somewhere.
But after a moment, he rattles the bars, then walks away.
Maybe I laid it on too thick?
* * *
You know, I am so thin and weak and pale. If the judges spare me, will I survive even then? Why did I have to crash land here of all places? I won’t even get a last meal.
Execution is by trampling. The judges and their clerks, all together twenty or thirty men, run back and forth over the prisoner, in this case, me, until all that is left are splinters. I will hear all my bones break, see all my organs rupture, all my fluids run out of me, resembling, I imagine, their only delicacy: stillborn baby zulkof! That’s before they make it into a wafer.
I’m too despondent to try anything today. Anyway, Kaydor never reported to work this morning. I suck on an old wafer that I find sandwiched between the cot and the wall.
* * *
Kaydor unlocks the cell, hoists me onto his back and carries me into a large open courtyard where he lays me down on a plank. The three judges sit in a circle around me and along the edges of the courtyard are the town’s people, at least two hundred, all with the same weary woody look that Kaydor wears.
“You, Trespasser, have failed to prove your worth. By Eustachian law, we have given you a year to do so. All you have done is babble about your koshkhish.”
These bastards can’t even get the name right. I see out of the corner of my eyes that they are lacing on their thick boots. The one closest to me stops and then the others stop too. They are looking at something beyond me.
A woman approaches. I recognize her— it’s Kaydor’s wife. She seems to be crying. The judges are stupefied. With both arms, she beckons to the crowd and soon there are many women standing with her.
Stepping forward, she hands something to the judges.
“Ahhhh . . .Oooh,” say the judges, passing the photo back and forth amongst themselves. The murmuring in the crowd grows louder.
The judges ignore Kaydor’s wife, then try to wave her and the other women away. They continue to look at what she’s given them, transfixed by the images therein.
The chief judge, the oldest and craggiest, giddily punches judge #2 in the arm. Number 2 laughs, Eustachian-style, a cross between a hiccup and a belch. The third judge—is it possible?—seems to be performing a kind of celebratory jig.
The women too seem happier. They’ve backed off and now are smiling through their tears.
I’m not close enough to read anyone. What could be happening? What’s in that photo anyway? Are they still planning to trample me?
* * *
So that’s how I got my reprieve. I have thirty days to comb the countryside with Kaydor, his wife and her friends, looking for drikweed and kosh. Assuming it is somewhere to be found here or on their sister planets, I will then concoct some monstrous batch of shishkosh and start feeding it to the women. If it takes, I’ll be free to go!
Back to my high school sweetheart, Milot, with her luscious rounded arms and breasts and thighs and posterior, her flushed smiling countenance, her sweet breath. Kaydor’s wife already looks better, just from the hope the future partaking of shishkosh engenders.
I had forgotten about that photo they took from me when I was captured. It was the one I took at the school picnic—– Milot never even noticed. She was wearing that skimpy green gauzy sari and purple halter and she had yellow flowers in her dark hair. She looked good enough to eat.
Excuse me! I am a little obsessed with food these days. I know you understand. Funny, I had forgotten about Milot. My family. My friends. Is she waiting for me? A peach like her, hanging from a low branch, does not go unplucked. Or so we say where I come from.
We’re so much older now. They’ve all most likely given me up for dead.
Will the judges ever let me return to Earth?
No matter—there are hundreds of Eustachian women who have seen the light and are about to become beauty queens! Right? Thanks to me, First Lord of Shishkosh in Eustachia.
The men won’t lag far behind once they see the startling effects. Life will take a turn for the better in Eustachia, provided I locate enough of the raw ingredients to go around. It is unfortunate that Papov never once taught me how to cultivate the drikweed or kosh—it always grew so abundantly, it never occurred to me to ask. Or for him to ask his father. Oh well, positive thinking has gotten me this far. . .
Once we’ve secured the raw ingredients, had our cookout, fattened up the women, we can move on to other challenges. I may even show Eustachians how to jump inside each other’s brains for a look-see. Kaydor’s already bugging me so he can figure out what his wife wants, when she’s mad at him, what it takes to keep her happy. Hmmm. I don’t think I’ll tell him those are big orders and take many years of “reading” to master.
© 2014 Janet Garber All rights reserved.
Shishkosh was originally published in the Newtown Literary Journal, December 2014.