When the idea of having Lawrence M. Schoen and Daniel Polansky write together came up, it seemed an unlikely match. Daniel’s The Builders is a tale of of bloody revenge and razor sharp wit, while Lawrence’s Barsk is a story of prophecy, the afterlife and deep pathos. Then we looked again and realized that Barsk features sentient, genetically engineered post-elephants as protagonists, and The Builders has a star studded cast of anthropomorphic desperados. Of course! Each authors’ characters are sympathetic and human-like, but the choice of creature matters, revealing key character- and world-building details.
“A Kippled Meal,” the result of their collaboration, is a meditation on the nature of various idealized animals. A mole, a cat, a sloth, a dog, and various other animals discuss their perfect meal—suppers that reveal their innermost instincts, with some more uncouth than others…
A Kippled Meal
The night was dark, and the storm as fierce and hard as you would ever hope to watch from inside the comfort of your bedroom, lying beneath something warm with someone warm beside you. The rain fell in bowls, in basins, in buckets, in old-fashioned claw-footed bird baths. Though it was neither the time nor, sad to say, the weather, which was keeping the customers away, Dog thought sadly. Even on sunny summer Sundays the cafe was quiet, a product presumably of the location, which was inconvenient, and the décor, which was unpleasant, and the food, which was…well, the less said about the food, the better. He’d inherited the place from a well-intentioned but shortsighted uncle. The disgruntled staff had abandoned him, and his lack of business acumen and utter void of culinary ability had yielded predictable consequences.
The sole occupant at the moment was the fat mole, sitting at the overlarge round table for the better part of an hour. The menu was a single sheet of yellowed paper with three hand written entries, though he perused it as if it were the length and complexity of a bible. Twice he opened his mouth to order; twice he shut it without speaking.
A crash of lightning and the door swung open, followed swiftly thereafter by a tawny cat of the lap variety. Once his fur had been sleek and well groomed, and perhaps there had even been a ribbon in it. But that had been a long time ago, years perhaps, and the interim had not treated him well. Still, he retained some vestige of his arrogance, sniffing at the surroundings, and at the dog awaiting his order, and at the mole who looked up with nervous kindness, before deigning finally to take an open seat.
Dog rustled over slowly, dropped a second menu on the table.
“Do you have any escargot?” Cat asked without looking at the menu.
The dog shook his head. The cat huffed. The door opened a second time, hanging as if the rain and wind both sought admission, only to be followed by a slow-moving fellow as soaked and bedraggled as the others. A sloth. He eased deeper into the cafe at a glacier’s pace, and well before he had reached his seat a stoat appeared in the doorway and moved swiftly past, slapping the water from her fur as she aimed herself the promise of a hot meal. As the dog’s back turned, an instant before the door finally closed, a prairie dog slipped inside and took up position alongside the cafe’s entrance.
“I’ll take the soup,” Cat said finally.
Dog shook his head. “No soup.”
“What do you have?”
“Meat it will be, then.”
Having discovered that his time spent looking over the menu to be wasted, Mole managed to squeak out, “meat for me as well, th…th…thanks.”
The rest of the occupants, bowing to the inevitable, ordered the same. The meal came quickly, though that was the absolute best that could be said about it, slices of graying flesh arranged haphazardly on a tarnished serving dish. What the meat had been before it had been meat, what creature had once inhabited it, and whether it had come from torso, or thigh, or some other, less prepossessing area, none among the assembled could say.
Dog walked the serving dish around, even carrying it to the door when it became clear the prairie dog had no intention of venturing further into the room.
The mole took a small piece, cut off a smaller one, brought it to his mouth, masticated a long time before speaking. “I…I…It’s not so bad,” he said very softly.
Though the cat heard, and took offense. “Not so bad!” he hissed, as if the observation were direct insult. “Not so bad!”
“I’ve h…had worse,” the mole added in his diffident manner.
“No doubt you have! To think that it’s come to this! Once I sat on pillows of down and silk, and nibbled crudites and drank champagne from fine crystal, and now, and now…” Cat shook his head miserably.
“Wh…wh…what would you rather be eating?” Mole asked.
This was exactly what the cat had hoped he would be asked, though he took a moment before answering. “Oh, to think of the lost pleasures of my youth! Garden parties over long summer evenings, goose pate atop toasted ginger bread, fresh, briny oysters caught fresh from the sea, a dash of horse radish and only a dash. And the company! More important even than the food is the conversation which surrounds it, the bon mot and the double entendre, witticisms as succulent even as the dish themselves!”
The stoat’s fur was mottled, and her eyes were cagey, and her laugh was long and cruel. After a moment the mole joined her, unclear on the particulars of the joke but not wanting to be left out.
“Something funny?” asked Cat, though not aggressively, his self-regard exceeded, if barely, by his sense of self-preservation, and the knowledge that stoats were dangerous creatures, and untrustworthy.
“Garden parties! Pate! Such meager pleasures of which you dream!”
“And what would be your meal of choice, then?” asked Sloth, drawing out the vowels of each syllable. “Your last meal, if you thought to die at the end of it?”
“A peculiar question, though appropriate to one who has filled his belly without knowing if he would have time to digest the meal.” The stoat laughed again, longer and nastier, and this time the mole did not think to match her. “The feline can keep his pate and his champagne and his soft pillow on which to sit. It is not comfort which gives a meal its flavor. In fact, quite the opposite.”
Against himself, and displaying the curiosity of his species, the cat could not help but show interest. “What do you mean?”
“The finest thing one can eat is not given, but stolen,” the stoat began. “A dark night. Darker than tonight, without even the flash of lightning to illuminate it. And you darker still, clad only in shadows. She sleeps soundly atop a bed of white, tightly coiled, certain in her wariness and her menace. A step forward. Another step, the treasure so close you can all but taste it. That first nip, so soft as to crack the shell without making a sound.” The stoat showed her teeth. “There will be weeping in the morning, and the gnashing of her rattled-tail. But for now there is only the creamy yellow yolk, thick and rich as sunshine.”
No one spoke for a while. The cat licked his lips. The mole looked left and right and ventured to fill the silence.
“The b..b…best meal I ever had–”
With a strident bark, Prairie Dog cut the mole off before he could continue, calling out from her position by the door.
“You completely miss the point of what makes a meal great. It’s not how you come by it, but rather with whom you share it. A truly fine meal is impossible without community. Once, when I was just a pup, the weather had turned, as if all the season’s rain had been stolen for later use, perhaps as we see tonight. The grass was brown, seeds barely existent, and while we had plenty of dust for bathing it’s hard to take pleasure even in such simple things when your belly is empty. But what little we had we offered to one another, each taking a fair portion. And if all in the colony went hungry, the sharing of that meager repast created a fullness that no sentry eating alone could ever know.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but instead jerked to alertness, cracking the door a smidge and peered out into the storm.
“Ahhhhh,” said Sloth at such length that it caused the others to wonder if he was voicing an opinion or releasing gas. “What nonsense. A fine meal is not the food, not the taking, not the sharing. These things end too quickly. A meal, a great meal, must be savored, not simply in the moment it slips into the mouth, but through the entirety of its journey. Contemplate not merely the flavor of shoots and buds, but the nourishment they impart each step of the way through the alimentary canal. It’s an appreciation that cannot be rushed. Even a snack deserves a fortnight, and a full meal a month of consideration.” The sloth stopped, panting faintly with emotion after what was perhaps the longest speech of his life.
“I…I…If it was to me…” interrupted the mole finally, but failed to finish, as if unable to believe he had gotten that far.
“Well?” asked Stoat, rather cross. “You’ve got your chance, then – what’s the best meal?”
“Worms,” Mole continued. “Juicy worms, from claw straight to mouth.”
“Worms? Did you say worms?” gasped the prairie dog, staggering a step from her post at the door.
“Um,” said Dog, pausing in mid-motion, serving plate poised to pass another portion of meat to the mole.
“Warm, fresh, wriggly on the tongue, chewy to the teeth–”
“That’s quite enough–” Cat said.
But having finally had his say, Mole proved loathe to relinquish the spotlight. “…still squiggling when you swallow it, and even hours after you can feel the swirl in your tummy…”
“I think I’m going to be sick,” said Sloth.
Stoat did more than think about it, leaning low over her plate and upchucking the full quantity of the unidentified meat she had only just consumed.
In reaction, the prairie dog jerked upright, dropped her plate with its untouched serving, and raced back to the door, only to fling it wide and vanish into the storm. The squeaky sound of her own heaving floated back just recognizable over the rain.
The cat responded in kind, vomiting up the small portion of meat he’d consumed, voiding his stomach with a series of coughs that also yielded a portion of spittle-slicked hair. This set the sloth off, whose entire torso shook and roiled as a horrid mass of partially digested leaves, bits of insects, and recognizable bird bones flowed from his maw like a heavy gravy onto the uneaten slab of gristly meat on his plate.
The cat pulled away in disgust. “That’s just too much. Too much.” And with a flick of his tail threw some coins down and followed the prairie dog’s example, choosing the company of the storm over such vulgar dinner companions. Stoat and Mole glanced at one another, then at the sloth’s regurgitations, and by some unspoken accord pushed away from the common table at the same time, deposited a hurried payment, and fled.
Exhausted by the effort, the sloth slid from his seat to curl up on the floor, falling immediately into a deep sleep.
The dog sighed, noting that neither the prairie dog nor the sloth had paid, though in fairness neither had actually eaten either. He surveyed the mess of puke and meat left behind, and began cleaning up by scooping everything into a large bowl. As he finished, he seated himself comfortably onto a warm cushion, settled in with the bowl pressed against his belly. Taking up the spoon and digging in, he consoled himself that at least they’d left him a considerable tip.
Top image from the cover of The Builders, art by Richard Anderson.