Issue 164, Winter 2002-2003
I am a lady drone and a big eater. I eat for the tribe and I eat well. How I gorge, grinning back at my spare teeth on the wall, knowing the tribe depends on me! My chewing does not deviate from regulation by more than one point two five beats per minute, and my digestion is irreproachable. I polish my tackle daily, brushing all my teeth whether I have used them or not, the second-best and third-best set, the travel tooth I have seldom used and the ugly spatulate guest tooth, as also the rarer items, the fragile ceremonial embouchure of the gift tooth and the miniature krill of the husband stripper, never used, which is beautiful as a diadem and of the very best make, and I hang them on their hooks on the wall of my bungalow. Nights I fidget and twitch, sweating out the toxins of dangerous foods into the sponges held in harness against my pulse points. Every morning I drop off the soggy wads with The Doberman at the sump and she gives one an evaluative pinch, nods appreciatively at the volume and color of my wee. This is what I do and what I'm for. I'm the top jaw in the district and my hydration ratio is tops bar none.
There is only one thing I regret, and that is that I still have not found a husband. Maybe it is because I spend so much of the day eating. Unless a husband were rolled up and buried in a johnnycake or a loaf of bread like a file for a prisoner I am unlikely to hit upon one, given my dedication to work.
I have bought the scrolls and read them, I know how to take a husband and I certainly keep an eye out when I hurry between my bungalow and the sump for a flash of feathers in the trees that border the trough; I listen for the sullen proud yelling of husbands at large. Sometimes at work I can sense a husband is close at hand and I raise my great jaw, crumbs spilling out over my body like rice. I will have to crawl and lick them up later (though this is exciting, letting things slide, and makes me feel like a different, more reckless girl) but for a moment I forget my duties, and my whole body goes as still and heavy as a hamper of food on the hatch at dawn awaiting the imprint of a new tooth. But soon the feeling fades. I fasten my teeth on a dangerous brioche and chow hard, chow strong, chow soberly and well.
Pick up the husband by the feet and gently shake him a few times. This will make the plumage fall back into position.
Wipe off bloodstains and dirt with a small wad of absorbent cotton, and plug any large shot holes to prevent blood and stomach juices from running out. Bloodstains are much easier to remove when fresh than after they have dn"ed Roll the husband in newspaper before putting him away in the shooting bag.
There is a discipline of husband augury, and I do believe there is something in it, but I have come to the opinion that it is its own reward for those who pursue it seriously, more of a substitute for husbandry than a route toward it. As our involvement with its arcana deepens, we become ever more compulsive in our recourse to interpretive procedures-casting of food peels, scrying of wee rivulets and bird flurries-in a passion for answers that may even eventually become, for all I know, a completely satisfactory replacement for the passion of the husband.
Color notes of the fleshy parts, such as the bare skin around the face, eyelids, legs, and feet, and the color of the eyes should be recorded. The colors of all parts of the body must be noted while the husband is still warm, since these colors start to fade as soon as the husbands are dead.
Once, with a fellow eater and friend from whom I have since become estranged, I planned a hunting trip. Together we browsed the books; together we cast the bones and read the peels to find the most propitious time and place to look for the nests of the husbands. We armed ourselves; we practiced the songs and sayings that are supposed to lure the mate, though I do not believe one in ten of these to be efficacious. At the last minute, however, The Doberman called me in for a talk. She said the tribe could ill spare me, that all signs indicated that we could expect heavy food over the next few months, rich food that I above all had the experience and the strength to digest. She said, "You are a chowhound. You will make the right decision." And so my indignant friend went alone, and caught a husband, and I stayed behind, and chowed long and hard, and caught none.
The Doberman is a slight figure, without the girth she must once have had, but we know she was once champion eater, the greatest of all, her feats still unbeaten. Her jaw is still strong, and muscles play in it even in seeming repose, as if she were always secretly testing her strength. I am sure her powers are still prodigious. How I would love to see her at work.
Nobody has ever eaten as much as The Doberman. It is said that a whole borough was won from the floods of food that heave against our shores by the offices of her prodigious jaws. Sometimes I think she has a special fondness for me. I like to think, but dare not assume, that she sees her own youthful self in me, in my dedication and appetite.
HUSBAND 161 At this time it will help if several contact outlines are made of the husband. Lay him on his side on a piece of heavy, plain paper, and shape it into several positions. The husband will take on a lifelike pose while limp and before being skinned.
Trace around the body, making several different outlines to refer to later when deciding the position of the mount.
Today I was delivered a thick mass of gristle. I put on my second-best tooth-no point in blunting a fine instrument on that lump-and I set about it. It was nauseating and it made the bones of my head ache. At first I really felt I was eating my way toward something, but my mind wandered.
There was a moment when I didn't know if I even cared about digestion. This is unsettling. I have never lost faith, never been a quitter.
Lay the husband on his back, head to the left. Part the hair along the breastbone with the finger; a bare stnp of skin shows here in most husbands. The opening cut is made along this bone using a small, sharp scalpel. Working down each side of the body, separate the skin from the body with the fingers and scalpel. When the legs are reached, grasp each from the outside, force them upward and detach them from the body.
I believe that if I had a husband, I would eat as I have never eaten before, chowing faster than even The Doberman can. I have that in me.
I dream that a husband comes and sits above my smoke hole, legs dangling down into my home.
Morning comes, and with it a sick feeling in my belly, since I see my husband has still not come. Pudding is delivered, pudding and more pudding. There must be more to life than eating.
The Doberman told me her name was Ellen. Why she wanted to confide this to me, I did not know. I was flattered, I can tell you that.
Work the skin down over neck and head. Use extreme care when the ears are reached, pulling the entire ear lining from the head with a small pair of tweezers. Also, be careful not to cut or tear the skin around the eyes and lips. Skin down to the lips. With small husbands, leave the skin attached to the lips. The brain can now be removed from the brain cavity.
Some husbands have heads so large that the neck skin cannot be pulled over the head. In this case a slit in the back of the neck will make removal possible without tearing or stretching the neck skin.
On the way home from the sump today, I looked to one side of the walking trough and saw something pink under a bush. I looked behind me to make sure I was out of sight of The Doberman-Ellen-and, with a feeling of madcap daring, I hoisted myself out of the trough. And there, lying in the dirt, dirt covered, was a husband. It was both folded and scrunched, as if someone had prepared it carefully for storage, but then another person or the same one after a change of heart had dumped it here without formalities.
In the distance I could hear the food surf dully pounding against the dikes, and fancied I could feel the reverberations of its blows in my feet. Out on the battlegrounds across the trough behind me our lawyers sounded small as crickets. I picked up the skin and tiny dry rolling sounds sounded within it, and objects fell out, salting my feet, crumbs of dried mud and flakes of unknown provenance and moving objects of the beetle persuasion I did not want to examine too closely, because I had found a husband, and a cathedral hush fell upon me.
The skin of the husband must now be cured and treated.
A fine krill is usually employed to scrape off the residual husband from the skin. It is now only a sort of sock or sleeve, of considerable symbolic value of course, but unable to perform any husband functions. It is necessary to refill the sleeve with a rudimentary husband form. Formerly, the mounting of husband skins was called "stuffiing, "and this was exactly what was done. The husband was simply packed with straw, excelsior, or other similar material. Now, however, the stuffing process is obsolete. A rudimentary husband form may be carved out of balsa wood, and augmented with wires wrapped with tallow-soaked cloth or with twine. It should be a1Tanged and held in a somewhat natural position by wires run through the body and anchored to a perch. A handler can be hired to manipulate the husband when active service is required.
The husband skin wanted to keep its folded shape like a stiff kind of origami and the memory of the folds would not be easily expunged even after I had persuaded it into flatness.
It would need to be soaked in hot water and vinegar to soften and then pounded against a stone.
It was a well-used skin; wear had stripped it here and there of plumage, and hand oils and dirt had made it darkly shiny, almost lacquered-appearing about the high-traffic areas, and it was ratty about one foot as if it had been used too often for kicking. It was big enough for me, I could tell, though it had molded to the form of another wife, thinner but taller than me, without my muscular gut and jaw. Not an eater, then, or a young one. What had happened to her, had she lost her husband, or, improbably, left him? I tucked the husband into my vomit pouch-a precaution, though I had never used it, against accidental waste-and hurried home.
Many wives, however, prefer to be their own husbands. A wife actually has the perfect rudimentary husband form. All she has to do when she needs a husband is pull the husband sleeve over her own head, sliding her arms inside his arms, her fingers inside his fingers, buttoning his bottom over hers and positioning the eyeholes carefully over her own eyes. A slit may need to be made in the top of the head to accommodate the larger brain, but this is easily concealed with a hairpiece, hat, or even a "comb-over." I put on the husband. It was still a little damp and smelled faintly of vinegar and more strongly of something unfamiliar but heady, part yeast and part gravy, that made me gnash my jaw slightly in the instinct to chow. The light glowed squash-colored through the husband and showed up grains and thickenings and the shadows of hairs which swam and merged and blurred and jigged before my eyes. Then the husband settled lightly on my shoulders, and its face fell lightly upon my face and I stretched my fingers in the fingers of the husband, fingers that knew and had performed those services so long awaited. I pinched myself, and it was my husband pinching me. I saw my home through the eyes of my husband, and found it good.
At last I too had a husband, and I would don it daily, without shirking, and do the ancient things only a husband can do, husbanding myself in style. There were tasks of speech that could only be performed through the husband mouth.
There were tasks of grooming and stroking that my hand could only perform when transfigured by the husband glove.
There were tasks of sight-astigmatism, selective blindness, and nit-picking-that only the lenses of the husband could focus upon my drone life. I was eager to get on with them.
I wanted to act as my husband always. But wearing the skin, I could not put on the sponge harness for the purifying sleep and, above all, I could not eat. The husband's small mouth cannot admit food that is not first chowed and spit up to him by a wife. And so I took the husband off.
I woke up the next day with a peculiarly solemn sense of aftermath. I had heard the thump of the food against my hatch, and normally that was enough to make me jump out of bed and strap on my teeth, eager to go to work, but not today. I felt heavy and sodden, as if I had not managed to hydrate enough to fill my sponges, and in fact when I pinched one it spilled only a little moisture across my thumb. I took off my tackle without bothering to free the sponges, and let it clank onto the floor at my feet. Each moment as it passed felt swollen-bellied and gray. I was sad without knowing what I was sad about; my sadness was waving a blind hand inside me, trying to find something to hang on to, as if I were myself an empty skin. My stomach felt bruised and cavernous.
I could eat a horse, though what was delivered today was cakes and an abundance of blinis. I would be able to finish those by early afternoon and call in for seconds. Ordinarily I would have called this a pleasant feeling, would have called it appetite, or that beautiful old-fashioned word hunger, and I would have marveled at the way the body does things on its own, how after months of maintenance it would suddenly imperiously unfold even further, like a flower in its season.
But I did not feel good today.
Why should a husband make me sad? True, I didn't like the feel of it on my skin, thick and stiff, not soft as I had imagined it. But that wasn't all: I also forgot what a husband was, or what I had thought it was, once I slipped it over my head. It was as though in getting a husband, I had lost it, found myself taking leave of that which I had desired all along, in order to receive a quite different thing of the same name. I had been hoodwinked somehow, but I had only myself to blame.
The wife-husband can take care of husband functions in a few hours every week, then remove the husband skin, dust it with talcum powder, fold and put it away in a drawer with a few mothballs.
I became more and more reluctant to don the husband, even on holidays. I found that the unimpeded air pressed its palms sweetly against my cheeks. I found myself loath even to look at the husband on its perch. I did not want to see its empty eyes, the sag of its wind bag, the expectancy implicit in every drooping line of his body.
What should I do? My lack of resolve had weakened my jaw; I faced the morning meal with trepidation. The Doberman had begun looking at me strangely. Her ritual pinch did not have the playful quality it had once had. I certainly did not dare to call her Ellen. I wondered if she had guessed that I had a secret husband, and that we had problems.
I had a worse secret: I had begun to be unable to finish my dinner. I had taken to hiding my leftovers in the husband skin, hung upside down now. The husband was gradually filling up with food. Soon there would be no room for me inside.
Its head filled up first; I could see the food through the eyes and mouth. Its chest became stout with food. I saw that I was making a sort of haggis. If I turned it out of its mold, I would find myself with a wife made of food, a wife resembling me, but a wife who perfectly fit my husband, as I did not.
Finally the husband was stuffed full; the food wife was complete. I could not shirk my duties any longer; I had no more hiding places. I considered my yellowed teeth, the tarnished tackle, and I resolved to change my life. I would chow for my country. I would chow for The Doberman.
I set up a steam tent over my bungalow fire, and set a cauldron of water to boiling. I stood the haggis on its head in the cauldron under the steam tent, and I kept the fire going under it for two days. Strange smells filled the bungalow, and seeped up out of the smoke hole, but I ignored the looks of my neighbors and went about my eating and visited the sump as usual. When I thought the food wife was done I took her out and laid her upon my bed. The husband skin in which I had cooked her was whitish yellow and had split in several places. I began to peel it off in strips.
The food wife was brownish gray and steaming. Suddenly I knew what to do. I lifted the wife in my arms and I carried her to The Doberman.
"Forgive me," I said, and laid my gift, my semblance, my confession down in front of her.
I saw her frown. I saw her mighty jaw quake. Then she plunged her teeth into the wife and tore her asunder.