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6 minute read.
A touch on my shoulder. Images. Flickering. A world vanished before I could fix it in memory. Grim, gray light poured in. Mamma stood in an anorak, her hair uncombed.
“Meet me at the tool shed,” she told me.
I put on a jeans-jacket, plain tee and boots, pulled back the mosquito curtain and went outside. A sharp, salty breeze chilled me. The trees hissed. It was too early for birdsong. Mamma handed me a garden fork and a pile of sacks, and we walked up the hill. Through a forest of corn, we followed a narrow path to a patch of open land.
“Dig up everything,” Mamma ordered.
I thrust the spikes parallel to a line of green shoots, and raised a large clump. Nuggets of orange appeared in the stringy, dry soil. I pulled these out, and piled them up. I lifted another chunk, and another, and tried the same method with the potatoes. Once I finished turning the earth, we shook dirt off the vegetables and bagged them. A glint appeared on the horizon, and I leaned on the handle of the fork.
“I’m tired and hungry,” I told Mamma.
“We’ll deal with that later,” she said.
After hauling the sacks to the pick-up, we went to the caterpillar tunnels to gather peppers and tomatoes. This was painless work, but long and boring, as the crates never seemed to fill up. At the back of the farmhouse stood a wall of maple logs that Dad chopped last year, and left to season. Mamma parked the pick-up close, so I could shift the logs into the cargo bed, next to the sacks and crates. She also loaded half a dozen ceramic vats, with round lids and thick handles. The sight of these always made me shiver, so I was relieved when she covered the goods in tarp, and strapped them in with nylon.
I belted up in the passenger seat, and tried to stay calm. This wasn’t easy. My neck ached, my fingertips stung, and soil rimmed my nails. We left our drive, and passed through woods to a clear road. Fields of corn and rape spread out. At their margins loitered fat hogs, clawing at the ground, snout-deep in roots.
Between us and the sea lay a steep ridge of hills, bare except for scattered, wind-blasted trees. The road followed the coast, where the tide flooded a shingle beach. In the sunlight glowed chimneys, cloud-gushing over the water. In the distance, container ships cruised so slowly, I couldn’t tell if they were leaving or coming to the port. Maybe they weren’t moving at all.
Once we joined an expressway, we were boxed in by cars, lorries and pick-ups. The scenery changed to truck parks patrolled by dogs, red-eyed and rib-lean, and empty homes bordered by limp fences. The road thinned to fewer lanes, and we slowed down, and stalled in traffic. Mamma’s hands fell from the wheel, and she nervously rubbed her wedding ring. A gap opened, and she let go of the brake. The pavement was crowded. A woman dragged her son away from a shop window, clinging to his wrist, the fingers taut. A couple in tight t-shirts, shorts and plimsolls pushed a cart filled with canteens of water. Outside a betting shop, a security guard argued with a pack of teenagers, all pleading arms and heads-in-hands. We moved under a railway bridge, and muddy ground stretched out from the curb. High-rises stood back from the street, rigged in air conditioners and satellite dishes. Towels, t-shirts and flags hung from their balconies.
Again, we were in a queue. Ahead lay a beaten-up pylon sign that read “Cash or Exchange“ in blue and white. After ten minutes of waiting, Mamma turned into a gravel lot. While she tried to find a parking spot, the tires shook up the grit, which rattled against the chassis.
“I need your help,” she said, pulling on the hand-brake.
At the rear of the vehicle, she loosened the rope, unrolled the tarp and flipped down the tailgate. A skinny attendant in greasy dungarees wheeled over a box-cart capped with scales. We unloaded the logs into the box, where a gray screen flickered with kilograms. The guy nodded to us, and we took the logs away, and added the vegetables. Nodding again, he removed a battered wallet, crammed with bank-notes.
“I’ll give you twenty,” he said.
“Those are fresh peppers,” protested Mamma.
“Won’t make any difference when they’re in the broth.”
“Twenty-two’s my final offer,” he showed us the cash.
“You’re robbing us,” said Mamma, seizing the notes, and clutching them hard.
At the yard exit, we followed the signs to the city center. In the street, fog clustered around parked cars and tree-stumps. Sweat was trickling down Mamma’s forehead and onto her cheeks. While staying at a light, she took off her jacket, and I did the same with mine. Under my arms, wet patches broke out. Mamma opened the windows. A grill-like odor drifted in, smokey and half-raw.
“Here we are,” she said.
The size of the building was difficult to see, so I leaned out for a better view. Marble arcades towered up, divided by columns, in a wall that moved in a smooth bend. Steam poured from an upper level, constant and dense. Between the arches, pipes burst out and snaked into the streets, rippling with heat.
As we drew closer, I saw how the stone at the base of the columns was crumbling, and its fragments collecting in bird spikes. I also noticed how the arches weren’t made of marble, but limestone and cement. In the hills behind our farmhouse, shepherds used the same materials in walls around their pastures.
Mamma indicated to turn into the building. A shadow tipped over us. Flashes leapt in the dark. My mouth felt chalky, and I wiped my brow against the sleeve of my tee. Once my eyes adjusted, I made out girders, blistered with rust and bent with strain, holding up the facade. Other pick-ups filled the parking spaces, but Mamma found a free place. Pulling to a stop, she unlocked the glove compartment, and eased off her wedding ring, which she put on a pile of unopened letters. We wound up the windows and left the car. At the rear, Mamma pushed one empty vat towards me, while she carried two others.
In the middle of the hall was an iron barrier, as vast as a dam, curving on both sides into a blur of mist. I walked nearer, up to a handrail and mesh fence. Something bright was caressing the metal. Looking over the handrail, I sensed pressure in my temples. Heat punched with such force, I was almost flung backwards. Below was a pit of fire.
“Hey,” Mamma called, “come here.”
I followed her to a turnstile with a red light and a thin slot. Into the gate, Mamma fed one of the notes from Cash or Exchange.
“Keep close,” she said.
The light turned green. I held up the pot and threw one arm around Mamma’s waist, half-hugging her, and we clicked through at the same time.
A steel staircase climbed towards a dome of steam, rolling towards an exit. Mamma set a fast pace, the steps jangled under my heels, and the vat knocked against the balustrades. The air swelled with a familiar scent of leather and paprika, which strengthened the higher we rose. We reached a gangway, where I saw the breadth of what we’d glimpsed below. Resembling a basin with a broad rim, it stretched as wide as a cornfield. On a dropped ceiling, bars of neon revealed a bubbling and seething stock. Strips of leek and onion, chopped carrot and potato, and chunks of organ and fat were turning in the stew, waiting to be rendered. A mixed feeling came back to me. It was the moment when Dad called out my name, asking me to come to the dinner table. This meant an end to stress, but it was paired with annoyance, because I’d be stuck with the same flavor again—always slightly different, but the same as well.
“When was this built?” I asked Mamma.
“Hundreds of years ago, or maybe more, maybe thousands.”
“Did the fire ever go out?”
“Not that we know.”
“And the broth?”
“It’s been cooking all that time.”
At the far edge of the cauldron, shadows slipped in and out of the neon, overturning plastic bowls of vegetables and offal.
“No one ever cleaned it?” I asked.
“I doubt anyone can.”
“But there could be stuff here from way back.”
Pulleys hung from the ceiling, holding chains that draped above the rim. Mamma attached a hook on one chain to the pot handle, and used another to hoist the links over the stew. The pot swung, before plunging and vanishing. A few seconds later, she yanked on the wire, bringing out the full container and resting it on the gangway. Taking an oily rag from her shirt pocket, she wiped off the muck from the outside, shook the cloth and tucked it into her belt. Holding up the second pot, she asked me to bring her a hook.
We fastened the vats with a lid and carried them down to the pick-up. Once we piled them in the cargo bed, my arms and shoulders felt numb, but Mamma didn’t let up. She presented me with another empty, while she grappled with two more, and we returned to the staircase, and climbed to the top.
“There’s a legend from the bad times,” she hoisted up a pot. “The rulers used to send their soldiers to the farms, where they knocked on every door, and asked how many people lived there. After making a list, they forced every family to give one of their sons to the city. This had to be the tallest and largest boy, who was closest to being an adult. The soldiers brought the children to the dome, stripped their clothes, shaved their heads and bodies, ordered them up the steps, and brought them here.”
“Did they put up a fight?” I asked.
“It would have made no difference.”
“So there’s a bit of them in what we eat?”
“Don’t worry,” said Mamma, letting the pot sink. “The heat boils away anything poisonous or rotten.”
Two figures marched towards us on the gangway, their faces hidden in the low light. Mamma thrust on the chain, the pulley creaked and the pot emerged. Grabbing its handles, she eased it down next to me.
“It’s thick today,” she said.
My belly stirred.
The figures moved closer. They were stout men, in newsboy hats and long aprons, stained in brown and green. Under their boots, the grating clattered and shook.
Mamma seized my arm. Nerves shot through me. With her other hand, she offered me a rag.
“Wipe it,” she said.
The two men passed by.
Breathing slower, I rubbed the side of the dirty pot, but this was useless, as the cloth was just as filthy.
Once we’d collected enough soup in the pick-up, Mamma threw the tarp on our haul and secured the ropes.
“Let me show you something,” she said.
Near the handrail stood a group of men in yellow jackets and hard-hats, arguing over something. Looking up, they pointed to a fracture that began from the base of the cauldron and branched over its body.
“What’re they talking about?” I asked.
“How to stop the crack from spreading.”
“They could make the fire smaller.”
“Then the food wouldn’t cook.”
“They could sell more soup, to lighten the load.”
“That would delay the problem, not solve it.”
“So what’ll happen?” I asked.
“What always happens.”
There was a pause. I looked at Mamma, goading her to continue.
“Everything breaks eventually,” she said.
“You mean this place will burst, and we’ll see all the leftovers, such as the bones of those boys?”
“Maybe something worse.”
The heat was stifling, and my t-shirt and jeans were sodden, so I was glad to return to the pick-up. Mamma clicked open the glove compartment, scrambled for her ring and twisted it on her finger. Turning on the ignition, she glanced in the rear-view, maneuvered us out of the space and made for the exit.
When we reached the expressway, my body cooled, but my skin chafed from the moisture. Smells from the building lingered. I pushed my nose against the collar of my tee, and drew in traces of soot and onion. This reminded me of Saturday evening in the dining room, where the table was laid with three bowls. I waited silently on my chair, dizzy and tired, while Mamma sat upright, hands together, with every finger tight around its double. Dad ladled out the broth, and gave me an extra spoonful. “It’s fresh,“ he had said, grinning with that fake smile he wore. The one I could see through. The one he knew I could see through.
The country road was dark. Our headlights showed only dust. Mamma kept the speed low to avoid dogs and pigs.
“They should destroy the cauldron,” I said.
“People need to eat,” replied Mamma.
“They could build a new one.”
“It’s too expensive.”
“So they have to make something else.”
“That would be even more expensive.”
“If it costs too much to do this, what’s the point of money?”
Mamma laughed. This was manic and loud, and caused her to swerve into the shoulder. The pots rattled at the back. With a firm hand, she brought us into the mid-lane. Silent, we watched the weak light on the grit, hoping nothing would leap out, flash-eyed and stunned, trapping us into a kill.
Michael Bird is a writer and journalist based between London and Bucharest, with fiction recently published in Final Girl, Route 57, Porter House Review and Panel Magazine. His body horror story about a 1980s McDonald’s mascot ‘Fry Girl 4Eva’ for Daily Drunk Mag was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2022. As a journalist, he’s investigated organized crime, vampire-hunters, killer home-made drugs, fur farms, the Ukraine war and the rise in bear numbers across Europe. https://michaelbirdjournalist.wordpress.com/