The Fever Dinner

“Eyes Open, Unseeing, Tranfixed,” by Aladdin Collar, 2017

They serve mostly stewed meats, some pickled vegetables, and a wet bread of a consistency that varies between the platters. All of the dishes are heavily seasoned with peppers, acids, and some minor poisons (in very small doses). I dine with a host of forty solemn & silent monks, and a lonely pilgrim whose desire for conversation has swollen like a river after heavy rains.

“They’re just so fucking boring,” he lamented of the monks. “It’s my last night of worship here, and I couldn’t be happier to leave. I almost quit the church more than once since I got here. Is any god worth all the silence?”

I shrug over my small bowl, and have a sip of the broth. It burns. I deserve it.

The unlucky monk who’s serving as the Dreamer stands on the center table, eyes open, unseeing, transfixed in a state of meditative oblivion. He is in his eleventh year of the trial, and, so I’ve heard, he’s liable to return from the void tonight on account of the spice in the air. If he can find his own voice, the Dreamer will surely have some hideous story to tell; those that survive their trials rarely return with anything hopeful to offer.

“I much prefer the monasteries where they drink and tell stories, that’s my kind of worship,” the pilgrim laments, his face reddening as he sups. “But, I know, I know, the soul – it’s a muscle. It must be strengthened. It must endure stressors.”

The Dreamer begins to quiver, slightly. The monks begin to turn their heads, looking up.

“I suppose it’s a better pilgrimage than the mount of the High Shrine. All that walking, days on end, and what’s at the top? Some old priest mumbling prayers for coins? A few broken statues? Bit of a disappointment, if you ask me. And then you’ve got to walk all the way back down!”

The Dreamer’s dull eyes suddenly close, and when they reopen, he dreams no longer. The withered old monk whimpers, and he collapses at the table. His mouth opens and closes, like a hooked fish gasping for air. No one rises to help him; Waking is lonely burden.

“I’ve always found the Dreamer’s Revelations to be a bit dull, if I’m being honest.” I do not give any indication to the Pilgrim that I am listening to his drivel, but he leans in close, whispering for my benefit. “I mean, of course there are good bits, but as a complete body of text – it’s a bit rambling, isn’t it? No coherent vision. No narrative. Of course, what would you expect from two hundred starving monks over two thousand years?”

“Please, water,” the wakened monk mumbles. Presumably, these are the first words he’s spoken since he took his vows; how many decades, I wonder, since that throat felt its own voice?

No one brings water to the monk.

“I almost feel sorry for him,” the pilgrim continues, making a face at the writhing figure. “It’s an honor, though, isn’t it? Every monk wants it, every monk thinks that they’re going to get it. That’s how they are. That’s why they take the cloth. They want to be known. They want to make their mark on the world.”

In the hush of the crowd, the wakened monk finds the strength to stand.

“I saw a world deeply-dusted in sand and tumbling pebbles,” he wheezes out in-between raw breaths. “The ground never ceased shifting beneath my feet, until I took refuge in a castle carved out of a mountain. Steeples burst through the floor like crystals grown in an alchemists solution, and the windows wept with colored waxes from bulbous, unkept candles. In the highest tower, I played a few simple games of chance with molten angels. I cheated, but I lost anyway. I had to give them what they asked. It was a soft kiss,“ he recalled, and touched his lips. “But it burned, dear lord, it burned, so that I could taste the sugars in my own fat and blood as they sizzled. Please, someone bring me water.”

When the clerk finishes his transcription, he stands from his podium, pours a chalice of seasoned wine, and approaches the wakened Dreamer with the offering.

I hear a small sob, and glance over at the Pilgrim. He wipes a tear from his eye, and whispers to me, voice drenched in emotion: “Beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. What a vision. What a revelation. And, you and I, friend; we were here. We were part of history.”

I take another taste of my dinner; the heat resumes its grip upon my ears, nose, throat, and downward. The end of the bowl is like the end of a scalding shower; I am numbed to its effects, attuned to the warmth that I have endured.

Story by Aladdin Collar, for “Where the Wild Thinks Are,” 2017.