Lago de Garda
…in which 24 courses of the rare and forbidden are served.
Gianni Abati proudly lifted a silver lid, his starched white toque and apron mirrored in its gleaming metal. He announced the dish with a flourish: Polenta Prosciutto.
“It is, in Alabama, how you call it? Ah… bacon corn bread!”
The handsome young chef smiled broadly at Mr. Wood. The jowly American in the big white cowboy hat politely returned a nod.
“Have you other gentlemens visit America in the South?”
Chef Abati cordially posed the question in his best English to the four other Epicureans seated around the outdoor table with Mr. Wood. Two were Japanese, the fashionable couple from Nagasaki. One, Don Gaston, lived in Brazil, where he bought and sold deadly weapons for international clients.
A fourth Epicurean, Tiziano Sacco, Italian and local like the chef, hosted their impromptu gathering. Signor Sacco sported a splendid suit the color of his silver-gray hair. An elegant tie in dual shades of platinum matched and mated his look.
Appropriately, Signor Sacco had made his fortune in precious metals.
The Epicureans were gathered at Signor Sacco’s request to scout a rising-star chef at a hard-to-reach ristorante on the picturesque shore of Lake Garda in the north of Italy. At a glance, Chef Abati’s al fresco space for the night looked convivial, good olive oil and bottles of spring water and fresh-baked bread set out on an ample table in deepening twilight.
Still, this convocation caused a little controversy.
Mr. Wood would host this year’s Epicurean gathering, the 25th annual winter solstice feast. It would take place in west Alabama, and the planner-in-chief had made it plain that he would be wholly, autonomously, in control of the menu.
Everything is ready, he coded his colleagues. I’ve picked a menu. I’ve picked a chef. I’ve prepared a place at my table.
But Signor Sacco, the industrialist from Milan, had grown so excited at discovering the table of a young Verona-born chef that he begged and bribed and finally prevailed on the Epicureans’ “tasting committee” to convene for a test meal.
Mr. Wood, uncharacteristically, gave in to Signor Sacco’s meddling. In truth, the trip to Italy gave him a good excuse to roll his custom-built Dassault Falcon 900 out of a secret hillside hangar near Moundville, check it down himself, then blast off into the heavens for a few hours of trans-Atlantic flight with barcaroles playing very loud on God’s own sound system and the splendors of a luxurious cabin stocked with secret Bruce Willis porn videos and other guilty pleasures — peanut-butter crackers and spicy meat sticks and cold Pabst Blue Ribbon longnecks.
You can take the boy out of the country, mused Mr. Wood, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
The Alabamian set the sleek black bird down gently in the middle of the night near Trento at a remote private strip owned by Signor Sacco. (Mr. Wood avoided flying his private stealth jet any closer to Vicenza, where surveillance equipment at the U.S. Air Force NATO base might possibly have been sophisticated enough to detect the flight despite its host of advanced radar-resistant features.)
A man in plain rural clothing met Mr. Wood. That man, Vino, worked for Mr. Sacco. He would watch over Mr. Wood’s jet for the next 48 hours. Though Mr. Wood had private reservations about trusting anyone he didn’t know, especially an Italian, with his personal property, one sometimes had to do business in a world overrun with billions of people.
Vino got brownie points anyway. With a smile Mr. Wood could see as genuine even in this dark hour of the night, the Italian handed over keys to a sleek new Lamborghini.
So this was the “molto bene, molto bene” Signor Sacco had promised Mr. Wood for finally saying yes to a tasting trip to Italy and witnessing the “genius” of young Chef Abati.
Agreed. The Lamborghini was a very nice, very nice surprise.
The sports car looked like a wasp, jet black, a prototype, with an engine that rumbled as urgently as the Dassault’s.
Folded in a red-and-white napkin atop the basket, two hand-made Italian pizzelle cookies in the shape of children, anatomically correct, greeted Mr. Wood.
The pasta and pizzelle would be a fine snack, a tide-me-over. After this, Mr. Wood would refrain from eating again for many hours. Signor Sacco had strictly advised him that a very big, very grand meal would be coming from Chef Abati at his hideaway near Malcesine, on the lake, late that day.
Mr. Wood drove his astonishing new automobile very fast for two hours on a twisting road through the majestic southern skirts of the Italian Alps. The sun rose ahead of him, shining with promise.
Italy appeared in the light. Lombardy poplars lined the road some places, and vineyards climbed slopes, and yellow pastures spread away to distant farmhouses. The snapshots of Old World scenery brought his soul to life.
For the first time in many months, Mr. Wood felt a peculiar excitement rise. He felt free. He felt anonymous.
He felt his old appetite.
The car purred like a powerful black cat as it climbed a narrow two-lane highway into the mountains. On one long, isolated, straight, downward slope, maybe a mile between curves ahead and behind, a stony cliff plunging away to his left, Mr. Wood spotted something ahead.
He lifted his foot from the accelerator.
An old Italian man led a white horse trudging along the road. The horse appeared lame, taking one painful step out of every four. The man wore a tattered hat and a brown coat, and he walked with his head down.
Mr. Wood cruised past the travelers, checked his rearview mirror carefully, then braked the Lamborghini. His tail lights brightened as he silently backed up for a hundred yards.
Mr. Wood climbed out of the car. The mountain air smelled clean, felt bracingly cold.
He waited for the old brown man and the old white horse to draw near.
Clop, clop. Clop, clop.
Buon giorno, husked the man, warily. He had brown eyes like a hound and severe wrinkles, deep as scars, on his face.
Without acknowledging the greeting, Mr. Wood shot out a thick left arm and grabbed the man by his throat.
With a powerful right hand, Mr. Wood gave the old Italian’s chin a sharp, violent twist. The gaunt traveler — he was far thinner than he first appeared to Mr. Wood — fell to the road without a sound. The white horse reared and whinnied and galloped away in terror in the direction it had come. The steed limped visibly, dragging its short rope.
For one long heart-pounding moment, Mr. Wood stood in a swell of glory over his victim. A triumph boiled through his whole being. Primal elation.
He might have savored his kill for a long time, but a distant glow hinted at headlights that would any second round the curve behind Mr. Wood and the idling Lamborghini.
Mr. Wood dragged the dead man effortlessly to the steep cliff yawning just past the steel guard rail. He tossed the body over like a bag of garbage.
Mr. Wood picked up the beaten old hat from the road, solemnly dusted it off, then sailed it over the rail, too.
The Lamborghini smelled like warm pesto when Mr. Wood opened his door.
Just another Italian suicide, Mr. Wood assured himself as he gunned the engine. The lame leg of a faithful horse was old Pagliacci’s last straw...
Mr. Wood shot away into the blue morning. He sang aloud for the first time in many, many years. O Sole Mio. Then he invented something tuneless, operatic, and as melodramatically Italian as it could possibly sound.
Stefan put down portions of Polenta Prosciutto on each plate.
Mr. Wood was struck, as always, by the anomaly of Stefan’s gigantic hands, so delicate on a pair of silver tongs as they transferred individual two-bite squares of grilled gold. Beyond the candlelight warming their table, Mr. Wood spotted Ronaldo, the black server, quietly going in and out of the doors of Chef Abati’s restaurant with bottles of wine.
Tonight, a sign, hand-scrawled in Italian, hung at the gate to the long driveway leading to Chef Abati’s restaurant: Closed. Private event.
The five Epicureans dined in deepening twilight at a table so near Lake Garda they could hear the rhythmic crunch and slosh of waves on its pebble beach. To their south, Mount Baldo soared to a snowy top. At this hour, nine o’clock blue litmused the Italian heavens around the great peak.
This special full day of June had almost passed. Mr. Wood had not eaten since the pre-dawn pesto and cookies. His fellow Epicureans had fasted, too, heeding Signor Sacco’s advice to “fully prepare for feasting.”
Now, that feast came forward, dish by dish, bottle by bottle, a procession of gifts from this purported young tyro of the Italian kitchen.
The table grew festive.
“I am in Georgia and Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana last year for three months,” Chef Abati announced as he poured glasses full of a red wine from Signor Sacco’s private Alto Adige stock. (Mr. Wood indicated he would not be drinking.)
The chef had piercing green eyes and a nose like Mr. Wood had seen on old busts of the Caesars. He wore his shining chestnut hair tied back in a ponytail. The chef clearly took tremendous pride in his English, a certain marker of worldliness and sophistication. “I am so happy in New Orleans, more than any other place.”
He waved a hand back toward Una Tavola Chiamata Desiderio, his establishment. A Table Called Desire.
“I am eating in the New Orleans ristorantes all the time,” Abati said. “And I am happy in the jazz, so many waves and waves of the jazz. All the time, I am happy … and writing down the dishes and contents and recipe.”
Mr. Wood plucked a final polenta morsel from his plate with thick fingers, daring any of the company to question his manners. Nobody he knew in Alabama used silverware to eat a piece of cornbread.
“I have visited New Orleans fifty times,” Don Gaston, the Brazilian, exclaimed in boastful English. He occupied the seat next to Signor Sacco, who himself took the father’s position at the head of their table. “New Orleans is a main reason I am so big in the waist.”
Mr. Wood found himself uncharacteristically merry. He had put down his cigar at the start of the meal, but he now patted inside his jacket pocket, drew out a handsome long Cuban, lit it, and announced, “New Orleans is also the reason I am so big in the pants.”
The Epicureans laughed, and so did the chef. The Polenta Prosciutto delighted them; the amuse-bouche held great promise for the evening ahead.
Chef Abati seemed bursting with enthusiasm.
“Good! Very good! I will serving you several more recipes inspired by New Orleans in Louisiana and by Memphis in Tennessee and by the South of the U.S. in this evening,” he promised, eyes bright. “By the end, amicos, you will be more big in the waist and in the pants?”
The table laughed, and then laughed again as their cheerful echo smacked back to them from out on the lake.
Church bells rang somewhere down the blue valley that nestled the vast lake. Hell’s bells, Mr. Wood thought. Church bells are always ringing somewhere in Italy. Every damn hour of the day and night. How could even a saint with a perfect conscience ever get any sleep with all that clanging?
Overhead, lively swifts now jittered, free from roosts in the steeples and aswirl in flocks just a little darker than the sky. Venus glimmered.
Chef Abati’s intelligence and culinary skill shone like that heavenly body. He cannily brought out his courses with just enough food on the service for a couple of small tastes. He also amused The Epicureans, pulling off with his charm a series of brief, cheeky “tongue lessons” that surely would have insulted any other culinary club of world-wise billionaires.
“I ask you to think of meeting each my creations,” Chef Abati explained, “as if meeting a beautiful woman..."
Mr. Wood cut a quick glance toward the two Japanese guests. A beautiful woman? Those cats were so far past queer that the English language needed a new word for them. The perfectly matched couple with their early Beatle haircuts blinked stoically at the chef through identical gold-rimmed TAG Heuers.
“The first taste,” Gianni Abati said, “is the moment you take a beautiful woman’s hand and look into her eyes and say piacere, how please to meet you.”
Taste two, he went on, you “thoughtfully appraise” the beautiful woman. She invites your conversation, courts your analysis. “What do you talk all this time?” the chef passionately asked. “You talk about love, without saying it name is love, without calling it out loud that it is love! But by that time… both you know it!”
Chef Abati went on, instructing his guests to carefully weigh and consider the woman’s unique brilliance, her beauty, her intrigue. In your imagination, he told them, you compare this beautiful woman to other lovers you have known, the taste of her, the smell of her, the memories of her that live on your tongue.
“When she is just right for you,” Chef Abati declared, “you think of her long after the sun rises.”
The final taste, the third, came down to a simple concept — pleasure. Chef Abati stressed that the consummate taste should be… no, must be… purely a moment of sensation, exclusively an instant of pleasure. No assessment. No distracting imaginings.
“You are now… ah… making love, but you are not a human thing. You are simply… a tongue.”
“Simply a… cosa?” asked Don Gaston. The Brazilian looked deeply puzzled. “A tongue?”
After the ebullient young man bowed and bounded away to the kitchen to bring out a now highly anticipated second course, incredulous stares gave way to titters. Then, The Epicureans turned loose a flood of hysterical snorts and guffaws. Their hearty laughter echoed off the lake and off stone arcades lining garden paths on both sides of the restaurant.
“I love this young man, I truly do!” announced Signor Sacco.
His face shone with great pleasure. His candidate for chef of The Epicurean solstice feast was as charming and skillful in his courtyard under a starry sky in the Veneto as he had been the night Signor Sacco discovered his talents two months ago. Signor Sacco felt doubly pleased to witness the enjoyment of his guests.
“He is very charming!” purred John.
“Very charming, he is!” Paul agreed, running a hand quickly back through the gold streak in his jet hair.
“Now… we will see if he is the artist he claims to be,” challenged Signor Sacco, offering a happy wink to them all. His face beamed.
Course two came up.
Chef Abati personally… and tenderly… set down a lovely 18-karat gold tureen — its finely wrought handles in the shape of twin sea horses gave the two Japanese guests all the information they needed to identify it absolutely, positively, as a Botticelli. (The couple from Nagasaki collected art, too, of course.) The tureen, donated by Signor Sacco for the night from his private collection, seemed to glow like a full golden moon, and it brimmed with a savory fish stew — scallop and eel and succulent Adriatic oysters and chunks of white perch that had swum this very morning in the waters of Lake Garda. The chef’s savory red broth made the meal signature Italian, without question.
Faithful Stefan ladled the stew while silent Ronaldo stood close at hand holding a bottle swaddled in a white linen napkin. Each Epicurean received… and savored… his three ample spoonsful, every man now consciously imagining the seductions of a beautiful partner with every careful taste.
Mr. Wood studied the two servers by the light of the candles. How old would Stefan be, he wondered. He could not tell by any physical sign — Stefan’s face bore lines and fissures like those in Dolomite granite, but he might have been 30 or he might have been 60.
Ronaldo? A black man raised in Alabama with that physique might be playing cornerback on Sundays in the NFL. Or he could have been a drunk, cutting grass with a borrowed lawn mower for the next gut-rotting bottle of Four Roses. Free food stamps and dental care thanks to the damned government.
“You’ve put on some weight since last December, Stefan,” said Mr. Wood gruffly. “You ever think of making friends with a salad bar now and then?”
The server’s face did not change as he ladled red broth over fruits of the sea… and lake.
“Thank you, sir. Your opinion matters very much to me, sir.”
Mr. Wood actually chuckled. He now knew that Stefan could absolutely tell a lie.
The beefy server replied to other comments or requests pleasantly, if absent all emotion. Stefan never missed a beat in his duties. The gigantic hands that had used a garrote so brilliantly six months ago on the last chef tonight set down and gathered the dinner guests’ dishes and cutlery without the clink of a single utensil.
Ronaldo, lustrously black and as handsome as a movie star, stepped forward next to pour a perfect white surprise, a spumanti, to complement the stew course. This playful libation deliciously cooled lips flecked by red pepper from the stew and deepened the dish’s ocean flavors.
With the Prosciutto Polenta, Chef Abati had also served a perfect champagne, a little fizzing shallow in five stone cups. (Mr. Wood took water.) Those stone cups, Signor Sacco, explained, first belonged to a 16th-century Sacco forebear who made his way out of Venice with a stolen shipping fortune to create a great, enduring family estate. The Sacco line did all sorts of things. Signor Sacco went into precious metals because in his childhood his mother had mentioned after a bedtime story how much she would love a son who possessed a true Midas touch.
“Molto bene! Molto bene, tutti!”
Chef Abati reappeared as toasts with the sparkling wine went round. His white toque and apron made him ghostly in the clutching darkness.
The chef personally delivered his third presentation, a small pine tray with a simple carved wooden lid.
“This idea,” he announced with booming pride, “I got from a small wooden house by the road in your Memphis in the place called Tennessee. Mr. Wood, I believe this kind of tiny house is call a… a shuck?”
The chef’s smile showed in the candlelight.
“Yes! A shack! It was a shack where they make one thing, just one thing. Hot chicken. That is, hot chicken to the tongue, by spice and pepper. So hot! Hot Memphis Chicken! It make me weep. I cry like the day my little puppy disappear when I am six.”
Under Chef Abati’s hand, the lid rose off a wooden platter of ten impossibly thin, evil-looking squares.
“The hot chicken taste like pleasure and pain, side by side,” he warned.
One-inch by one-inch squares, no thicker than a page in a Bible, glowed on the platter. Deep orange and purple-black, the geometric construct seemed to smolder with inner incandescence.
“So… I serve you NOT a hot crispy chicken skin, Memphis style,” Chef Abati proclaimed in a loud stage voice. “Chef Abati treat you with… hot crispy hummingbird skin! The skin of nectar-drinking colibri!”
The two Japanese looked blankly at one another, impossible-to-read messages passing between them. The rest of the party also exchanged intensely curious glances.
Now, by heaven, this was something different…
Chef Abati almost hovered in air with excitement.
“The orange pieces of the skin? I make it with assam bhut jolokia, the ghost pepper. It is so very hot. The dark pieces of the skin… I season it with Hungarian black pepper, in my secret way. It is even more hot. Hot like hell is hot!”
The young chef eagerly scanned faces, watching reactions.
Now you are talking, Mr. Wood thought to himself.
The hulking Stefan plated Mr. Wood’s tiny hallucinatory squares of bird skin using what appeared to be a surgical instrument.
“Your taste buds are MINE… your tongues belong to ME… after this course,” Chef Abati boasted, the picture of magnificent Italian confidence. “I wish you to weep like I did.”
The Epicureans raised forks and knives and eyebrows.
Chef Abati proved merciful for serving the squares so small.
“Oh, shit,” Don Gaston moaned. “Oh, holy mother of god.”
Mr. Wood had never tasted anything like it. He prided himself on the insulating capability of his Deep South mouth, boasting privately of being a connoisseur of capsicums, a fearless pepper-sauce man, a habañero breaker.
The ghost pepper exploded on his tongue like a napalm bomb. Nerves wailed from the taste buds to the roots of his scalp. Liquids abandoned their posts in every part of his head.
Tears. Sinuses. Sweat so hard and fast he wondered if The Epicureans could actually hear it popping out. Wild heart rate. Mr. Wood thought that his small saliva glands desperately welling, pumping out their flimsy defenses, was like neighbors with garden hoses working against the bomb at Nagasaki.
Mr. Wood took deep breaths, slowly regained his aplomb. He blinked through a teary blur at tablemates.
The two Japanese gentleman were — what? Either kissing in a paralytic trance, or else giving one another mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Don Gaston held his hands clasped in his lap and stared straight up at the sky issuing little hassling, whining breaths as if transformed into some kind of Brazilian canine.
Signor Sacco sat unperturbed.
The paired orange and evil purple squares of hot hummingbird skin sat untouched on his plate.
A tear the size of a marble rolled down Mr. Wood’s left cheek, and his upper lip shined with moisture from a pouring nose. At first, he couldn’t make his tongue and lips form words, but with a great effort, Mr. Wood finally nodded at Signor Sacco’s plate and spoke.
“Why?” he wheezed.
“I don’t prefer the hot dishes,” the Italian answered simply.
A chorus of heavy-breathing echoes and little moans echoed back in the night from the lakeside and resonant garden arcades.
“Well, in that case…” Mr. Wood somehow managed to say, pointing his knife, “are you gonna eat that…?”
The next two dozen-plus courses arrived with military precision — perhaps not German or Israeli military, but Italian military precision.
Gianni Abati simply put on a show.
The young chef showed tender mercy after the shock of his dragon-hot third course. The searing proved him a seer, too — the taste buds of The Epicureans really did now belong to Chef Abati, wholly, outright.
A series of cool raw dishes next appeared.
Stefan brought the table a platter of whimsical carved-cucumber sculptures — a bear, a lizard, a centaur, a grinning monkey — roaming about a fresh radicchio garden. The menagerie wore yellow yuzu jackets, the aromatic rinds out-fragrancing the lakeside garden’s banks of rosemary and summer roses for a few dizzy moments.
Next came a flight of small, artful, harvest-sheaves of clover and celery and dill, bound with a filament of edible Chinese silk. (Tibetan monks tended the silkworms.) Roma tomato rounds with tiny shining eyes of tapenade followed, the robust black fruit harvested from Signor Sacco’s own olive groves on Ithaki, in the Aegean, an island the Italian confessed he wanted to buy, in time, and develop as an Odysseus Theme Park.
The two Japanese guests made a great deal of the next course. Chef Abati proudly placed down strezzopretti — literally, priest stranglers, familiarly known as gnocchi. The steaming potato dumplings sat so lightly on the plate they seemed about to float to the thickening stars, held earthbound only by lavish dollops of sake edamame pesto.
A busy whispering erupted in the Nagasaki precinct across from Mr. Wood. The Alabamian cut his hooded eyes toward Don Gaston and Signor Sacco. The latter, after a thoughtful pause, shrugged, dabbing pesto at one corner of his mouth with a rose-colored napkin.
“Mr. Wood,” the Italian host suggested, “I don’t speak Japanese well, but I believe these gentlemen are conducting business.”
“True!” confirmed the Brazilian, who did speak Japanese, well enough in fact to have ammunition-merchant friends in Sao Paolo lovingly connected with the military in Tokyo. “They are discussing plans to market the green sauce on top of this dish.”
Now that Mr. Wood understood, he could interpret the small, quick hands of John and Paul as they spoke a kind of manual sign language of weights and measures, numbers, logistics.
For a time, the Japanese guests failed to realize all eyes watched them. Then John looked up. Sheepishly, Mr. Wood thought.
“So very sorry,” the Japanese gentleman explained. “Paul and I last month bought one of our country’s most notable soy-products manufacturers.”
“John and I know a good idea,” Paul concluded, motioning to his gnocchi, “when we taste one.”
“If the Japanese don’t like it, we can sell it to Italians,” John smiled.
Another moment of laughter felt good. Straining stomachs welcomed a little jostling at this juncture of the feast, some internal sorting and sifting. Seven courses along now in a meal that fully commanded their attention, The Epicureans hoped things had not hit a plateau in Chef Abati’s kitchen.
The chef met their doubts head-on.
Shimmering in the night, Abati delivered five Waterford crystal shot glasses. Each sparkling vessel brimmed with a hot golden nectar — honeysuckle liqueur, garnished with a mandarin orange twist.
“Where the hell did this joker from Verona, Italy, get honeysuckle?” Mr. Wood marveled, not realizing he said it out loud.
“Honeysuckle… it is a jazz song?” Paul suggested, his Asian eyes big and brown as buttons in the candlelight. “Honeysuckle Rose?”
“Mr. Fats Waller!” loudly declared John, perfectly pronouncing the double Ls… and preening with self-congratulation after he did.
For some reason, the man from Alabama found it harder and harder to like the two Japanese. Mr. Wood refused once more the latest red that Ronaldo offered to pour like blood from a wound into his glass.
Maybe, he thought privately, it’s because I spent several years shooting men in the jungle who looked like that. Then eating them.
Mr. Wood tipped back the honeysuckle elixir.
A single sweet taste sailed his mind. It took him to boyhood back in Lafayette, a time and place before the world intruded, before the evil molesting doctor and the Good Fridays that turned out to be so really bad for his dad and his family, before the endless reveilles of military school, then real military, and after that the endless reveilles of the whistling factory of life.
Mr. Wood remembered a long-ago day.
He stood barefoot in a sandy ditch, the sun a nuclear blast, his 8-year-old body hugging the only cool shade on a stretch of country road. He recalled plucking white and yellow blossoms off massed honeysuckle vines, slapping at bees for the prize, carefully stripping off each soft petal for the single shining drop of nectar on the delicate stem inside.
That drop of honeysuckle juice tasted better than any honey on earth. The untroubled boy in Mr. Wood’s memory seemed always able, every time, to catch the sweet drop on his tongue at the very moment it shook loose and fell free of the white filament of stamen he pinched between his already-fat fingers…
By God, Mr. Wood thought, thunderstruck, by God this cat… this Gianni Abati… well, The Epicureans have surely run into a genius here…
Mr. Wood lurched back from his moment of reverie. Back to Lake Garda. Back to the splendid table.
Subtly, Signor Sacco caught his eye. Like John the Jap, the host appeared rightfully well pleased with himself.
A lot of smug bastards in the world, Mr. Wood thought. And then he grinned his terrible jack o’ lantern grin.
Signor Sacco nodded, smiling back, absolutely sure he could mind-read the revelation that could just have well been blazing in red neon over Mr. Wood’s head:
GIANNI ABATI! KITCHEN MAGICIAN!
A big laugh from the kitchen turned all heads that direction.
A skinny feral cat scrambled wildly through the restaurant door, a stolen piece of hot hummingbird skin in its teeth.
That cat will be even skinnier tomorrow morning, Mr. Wood thought. His grin spread wider.
Presto! Stefan now appeared out of the perfect soft night. He wafted down the newest dish like an enchantment.
The Epicureans marveled at Chef Abati’s porcini and formaggio “cigars.” The five smoky, rolled, mushroom vessels bubbled with a pungent gorgonzola cheese — the aroma alone pleased The Epicureans tremendously, especially paired with a thrilling Riesling just sweet enough, they told Mr. Woods, to soothe over a sudden, palpable absence — the musky void of real cigars. Tobacco. Smoldering leaf. Sweet smoke.
Ahhh. Clever chef.
The Epicureans understood Chef Abati’s subtle message and acted on cue. They cleaned their plates of the smoking “cigars.” Then Mr. Wood and four tipsy gentlemen rose, glasses in hand, and repaired to soft Adirondack chairs at the far end of the arcade through the garden.
That arcade ended at an evergreen-flanked piazza with a clear view of the black mirror of Lake Garda. Stars burned in the sky. Stars burned in the lake. The snowy tip of Monte Baldo was now black ice. Happy clusters of lights mapped the dark lake shoreline. There, there, and there, Malcesine and other villages quietly settled down to sleep for the night.
Stefan did his table-clearing magic. The Epicureans breathed good scents from strange mountains, fragrances of alpine cedar and wild oregano and pine that freshened their palates and rejuvenated their good appetites. The five men sipped and raucously compared notes on their meal so far. The down cushions in their chairs felt luxuriously soft.
Ronaldo, wearing his white jacket with the split tail, followed them to the open air. There, deftly, he pulled from nowhere a clutch of cured Turkish cigars, long thin instruments of pleasure barely the width of a pinkie. The sweet, unusual tobacco might have been the softest in his mouth Mr. Wood ever tasted.
“They are cured,” explained Signor Sacco, “in a cave with walls covered with ancient paintings, like prehistoric frescoes. All the human figures are colored red. Many of the important ones appear to be smoking tobacco leaves.”
Signor Sacco said no more, as if confident his explanation would not ignite secondary questions the way Mr. Wood’s golden lighter ignited the tips of five dainty smokes.
The Epicureans remained by the lake for some time, letting their meal find its level. Three of the cohort, Japanese and Brazilian, eventually stood to mill about the garden, too full of bonhomie and merry spirits to rest for long. Left to themselves, Mr. Wood and Signor Sacco rose, too, and made off to a spot alone on the ancient marble steps of the piazza.
The walkway was historic, an original feature of Palladio’s, the stones possibly set under his direct supervision. The stairway scaled a steep hillside down to Lake Garda, where boats once boarded and unboarded the feasting Romans who ruled this part of the empire.
The pale stairs glowed, beautiful with captured daylight this hour. Lost in their own thoughts, neither man spoke.
Finally a star fell, its fiery trail reflected in the water so that it blazed twice, maybe more bright that moment than anything else in the sky.
“Make a wish, Signor Sacco.”
The Italian host remained quiet a long moment.
“Do you know,” he sighed, “what the eternally damned Mohammedans say?”
Mr. Wood grunted.
“They say that whenever Satan appears on the earth, Allah hurls down a blazing star from heaven to strike him and drive him back down into Hell.”
“Do you think,” Mr. Wood asked after a thoughtful pause, “we should go indoors?”
They chuckled. Collegially. They shared great secrets.
What dish could possibly follow fire and fine tobacco?
Leave it to a gifted young Veronese chef to make a delicious joke of it.
Arctic char, one small fish for each Epicurean, steamed beneath the lid Stefan lifted.
The tasting rested on a halo — a gastronomic halo, spread radiantly over bone china behind the happily grinning head of each small fish. Mr. Wood admired a nimbus of Irish clotted cream flavored with garlic and… well, who knew what spices and embellishments Chef Abati threw in, at this point?
Another radiance, paper-thin circles of freshly sliced Sorrento lemon, scalloped the dish.
Oh yes, Mr. Wood, thought, he sends us this simple taste to cut through tobacco tongue.
But… Mr. Wood found the next dish, frankly, curious.
Ramp vichyssoise, morseled with carrot and millet and miniature spring greens.
By now, about one-third through the meal, Mr. Wood had assumed that Chef Abati’s dishes would grow more robust, more entrée and less appetizer, less second plate. Also, frankly, what retrenchment did this new soup make from the exquisite honeysuckle broth laid before them only a course or two ago?
Had genius stumbled?
With the arrival of the very next dish, the ramp vichyssoise instantly made sense.
Stefan uncovered — ta-da! — a pan-roasted fish. Halibut.
Perfect, Mr. Wood realized. We go here at lakeside from arctic char, a strongly seared fish, to another fish, more gentle, a deeper dive. The stepping stone down to this milder pelagic dish would naturally be liquid. Mr. Wood realized the vichyssoise served as a sort of sorbet of soups, to cleanse their palates a third or fourth time tonight to set up a fine-tasting surprise.
“Wonderful!” exclaimed Don Gaston, chewing the clean halibut slowly and delightedly. His knife and fork poised in an X over the flaky steaming section of white fish on his plate. “We never get fresh fish so good in Brasilia.”
Chef Abati overheard that piece of praise. He had popped out of the kitchen, this time without a dish in hand, but brandishing a small glass eyedropper. He looked to Mr. Wood like a mad scientist, his test tube filled with secret potion.
“With last taste of halibut,” the chef interrupted, “the beautiful woman must have one special extra jewel!”
Leaning forward exuberantly, kidlike, over the left shoulder of each guest, Chef Abati tipped the eyedropper. He colored the white fish flesh with one infinitely small and dark drop of… what?
The Epicureans watched Chef Abati breathlessly. Mr. Wood momentarily detached himself. He realized with more than a little amazement that the young chef was playing them all like five fine fiddles, five Stradivarii. This Eye-talian hot dog! Playing the Epicureans! And the culinary rascal grinning like a mule eating briars all the while...
“Licorice!” Chef Abati announced, mischievously.
The young man in the white toque and brown ponytail scuttled back to a glowing kitchen before questions peppered him.
“Licorice?” Paul asked this, his eyes the widest they’d been all night. “Licorice?”
It crossed Mr. his mind yet again that the damned Jap said the word twice simply to show off his English command of the letter ‘L.’
“Licorice?” parroted John. “With fish?”
“Why not?” Mr. Wood shrugged. “The son of a bitch hasn’t taken a false step so far.”
It came as a huge surprise. With the ramp vichyssoise and first clean bites of halibut, Chef Abati had transformed their mouths into clean canvas. The taste buds were now perfectly prepared for the sweet, thick darkness of licorice, spiced ever-so-slightly with Aztec chocolate, and surprisingly married to the steaming white meat of an ocean fish.
“Unbelievable!” someone gasped. Maybe it was Mr. Wood, his big body slumping back in his chair.
It didn’t matter who uttered the word. It might have been all of them at once.
Far down the lake, bells tolled in the night.
Stefan appeared. Up shimmered a serving lid, silver like a bell itself and making a slight humming noise as it left the serving tray.
Mr. Wood nearly burst out laughing. Fifteen small dark gnarled objects the size and appearance of cicadas lay before them.
What on earth? Snails? Exotic insects? Some unexpected something en papier marron?
Young Chef Abati cleared his throat behind them. He bit his lip, eyebrows arched, looking as if he might absolutely pop with self-amusement. He gave himself away when he glanced directly at Mr. Wood.
So that was it. Another homage to the Deep South.
“These are fried pork skins,” Mr. Wood announced, looking at each Epicurean around the table. He then made a joke of his roots. “Well, slap me nekkid and hide my clothes!”
“Si! Bene! Bene!” exulted Chef Abati, without understanding the sarcasm at all. “Chicharrones!”
Salty. Crunchy. Spiced just right with some laterite of red pepper. Sweet and oily and totally unexpected at this point in their meal of a lifetime.
Chef Abati played his Stradivarii.
Dish fourteen surprised them nearly as profoundly.
This time, Stefan and Ronaldo brought four serving platters from the happy little kitchen. Chef Abati carried a fifth and final one.
All servers set their dishes down at once, a gesture clearly designed to create maximum dramatic effect.
Each plate held fourteen perfect loose pearls of Israeli couscous, these carefully arranged on the plate to form actual numerals: Number 14.
Around these couscous globes, whitish yellow as the candle wax oozing down the tapers on their table, lay fourteen separate daubs of pure color, red to green to blue, in a rainbow array. Stefan produced tiny skewers, little devil pitchforks. The Epicureans would use these to spear the couscous orbs, dredge them through the palette of flavored hues, then bite-by-bite transport fourteen separate and distinct oral orgasms to their waiting lips.
“I give you palette of sauces made in summer Italian vegetables,” Chef Abati announced. “My palettes… for your palates.”
Fourteen sauces for their fourteenth service. English pea. Roasted red pepper, orange pepper, green pepper, purple pepper, white pepper. Roasted spiced cucumber, of all things, and pungent leek and some other pearl-colored onion-like root that Mr. Wood had never seen or heard of in all his days. Zucchini, two-toned, yellow with green, and corn puree and roasted eggplant and artichoke. And, as always, a surprise among the surprises: foie gras, the most delicious and distinct taste among all the braised viands.
“I see you faces. You ask: Chef Abati, is goose liver an Italian vegetable?” The impish smile leaped to the cook’s face again. “I think tonight it is!”
The buttery texture and strong taste of the organ meat suggested to Mr. Wood, and all the rest of The Epicureans, a hint of darkness, of winter, of a winter solstice, of a very long, very memorable, night to come.
“Holy smoke,” sighed Mr. Wood.
“Jesu, Giuseppe, and Maria,” nodded Don Gaston, his eyes closed, chewing slowly and thoughtfully.
Signor Sacco watched in perfect silence, implacably pleased.
“Fucking…” said John, pronouncing it like the name of a Japanese city.
“… A!” finished Paul.
The table cracked up. The Epicureans giggled like kids.
Gianni Abati! Gianni Abati passed the test! Chef Abati would be the chosen one for the solstice meal!
But next year, announced Mr. Wood at that moment. This year, I’ve already found my own personal Champion.
Halfway home now, it hardly mattered what floated next from the magical Italian night onto the checkered tablecloth.
The baby swan came with an ambergris of mint jelly, the way roast lamb emerges from a kitchen. (The two golden-skinned fowl artfully arrived in a little service nest of shredded carrot and fried ginger.)
The brandy-infused yogurt stopped conversation… then sparked it again… a hearty discussion about a hidden layer of juniper salt sprinkle. This very unusual taste pierced through expectations, paving, as always, a smooth path to the next plate.
For that one, Chef Abati burned, just so, a whole young mountain rabbit with spring onions, these softened to translucence in the bubbling fat.
Stefan set down a whole roasted elephant garlic, a little steaming mosque, delicately balanced atop a weave of string-thin, raw snap beans.
The roast Sicilian wild boar practically piped with various aromas — the chef served it with a stinging salsa verde of three wild forest greens.
Three steamed spears of white asparagus — so many trinities! — arrived in a splay, their bedding a soft red seaweed that the chef boiled exactly two seconds in the same water used to steam the phallic asparagus shafts.
For the drinkers, Ronaldo paired what Mr. Wood considered to be shot glasses of different wines with each course. Sweet wine, tart wine, transparent wine, cheerful red wine.
After the simple asparagus-fern dish, The Epicureans traded glances again. Had the evening crested? How would things go from here?
Chef Abati answered commandingly. His crusty ciabatta points spread with veal marrow arrived with three golden drops of different honeys, these adroitly spooned onto plates by fastidious Stefan.
Mr. Wood ate and ate. Yet he seemed to find, to his amazement, room for more and more. The portions and blend of courses Chef Abati presented somehow dovetailed, synchronized, blending in the belly as beautifully as in the mind. In fact, Mr. Wood felt roaringly eager for each next course, ever more excited to feel the next soft detonations of his taste buds, the flood in his pleasure center.
His strange pleasure center.
Chef Abati came out of the kitchen only one time with neither platter nor plate. He wished simply to check on their progress, he said.
The two Japanese took this occasion to rise together and stand by their chairs with glasses raised. They sang, very tipsy now, in perfect harmony, in perfect Beatles garb:
We love you… yeah, yeah, yeah.
We love you… yeah, yeah, yeah ...
John and Paul hit the famous closing seventh in perfect harmony. Amazing. Astonishingly tight… especially from two drunk Japs, Mr. Wood thought. Still, he grudgingly acknowledged how they sounded like The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show back when Mr. Wood sat in a stuffy living room on Sunday night and watched a black-and-white TV with his transfixed music-teacher dad and his stone-deaf mom…
Hold the thought.
Chef Abati actually vaulted the table, jumped right over the candlesticks, without making a flame flicker.
The young chef embraced both Japanese gentlemen at once in a bear hug and lifted them, legs wriggling, off the ground.
Signor Sacco leaned to Mr. Wood. He spoke sotto voce. “Chef Abati played the beautiful sport. Italian national team. And he’s the most eligible young bachelor in northern Italy.”
“Hooray! Bravo!” cheered Don Gaston. “Well done!”
“Well done… maestro!” added Signor Sacco, pleased with everything. “Well done, John and Paul!”
The couple from Nagasaki blushed with pride, and with alcohol. Their boyish fun had now swept everyone up and bumped the memorable pleasure of a night on Lake Garda one notch higher in volume.
The meal of a lifetime moved into its final act now, a half-dozen courses to go. Here came the stage most delightfully anticipated by the Japanese gentlemen, who loudly professed “unreserved, undeserved” love for cheeses and desserts.
Chef Abati made their dreams come true.
He paired the brilliant and brilliantly named Brillat-Savarin, with an unholy Champagne, such a rascal in a bottle that even Stefan, with all his expertise, had trouble keeping bubbles from exploding over the lip of the flutes as he poured. The blocky server actually laughed aloud, uncharacteristically, at his bumbling.
“Our limited edition French Champagne,” remarked Don Sacco drily, “seems quite excited to see us.”
A new cheese appeared, one of those foul things from Sardinia, a rotted milk block with maggots. It delighted the entire table. The Epicureans spread wiggling smears of the Casu Marzu on fresh baguettes, so piping hot and crusty from the oven that Stefan had to juggle them all the way from restaurant oven to table.
This was a treat. The party chewed blissfully for minutes without talking, some with eyes closed.
A death odor fumed from their nostrils.
Sips of the Champagne fixed everything, the drinkers said. The liquid transcended the filth of the world, wiped corruption clean. It purified, sanctified. Why didn’t they serve this Champagne in churches, for communion.
Mr. Wood stuck with his water and never suffered.
Had he ever had a meal so good? he asked himself. The honest answer? Never. Except maybe one he hand-prepared, alone in the Catskills long ago…
Mr. Wood made a vow. He slipped his hand into his pocket, felt the key to the Lamborghini there. He would hand that key to Chef Abati at the end of the night.
He could truly enjoy the blazing-fast gift for the next blazing-fast 18 months.
The last of his life.
The Epicureans, at last showing some reluctance, went to the next course, a communal bowl of toasted walnut, mint leaf, and puffed wild rice. The fresh herb and nutty savors sweetly dreamed in their mouths. Those mouths had gone through a hard day’s night — dozens of flavors and spices and heats and sauces. A wormy cheese delicacy. A late cool bath of Champagne.
The reverie came to an end. One of the party stood now, glass raised.
“We happy few! We band of diners!”
John? John the Jap? Or was that Paul? Who the hell could tell? Hot-dogging again? Quoting some poem?
“That is William Shakespeare!” Don Gaston announced happily, raising his own glass at his seat. “Henry five.”
Mr. Wood rose quickly and raised his own glass, mocking John and Paul with a slurring, indelicate toast.
Fuck ’im in the rear!
Hit ’im in the head with a bottle of beer!
The Epicureans laughed so hard they knocked things off the table.
From out of nowhere, a white terrier puppy appeared, barking madly, astonished by the uproar and all these funny-looking strangers. The dog danced on his hind legs, howling, mixing in the merrymaking. Even Signor Sacco’s great mantel of dignity finally fell away — he brayed like a mountain donkey, a rose silk napkin clapped over his mouth.
Minutes later, they still could barely breathe. The Epicureans shared a chain reaction of hilarity that came in bursts, then eased away, then attacked again, carrying the group off in a gust. It seemed funny once, funnier the second time, uncontrollable the third and fourth and fifth. It was laughter beyond mastery.
It threatened to kill them altogether when the little terrier found a big chunk of the Sardinian maggot cheese that Don Gaston had accidentally elbowed off the table. The dancing white dog delightedly rolled in the crumbling, smelly mess, howling with delight like the humans.
Mr. Wood’s short poem had set off the delirium. But it gave him oddly mixed emotions.
On one hand, he didn’t much care for the show-off feeling it left in him. On the other hand, he found it a pleasant novelty to make people laugh themselves silly.
Either way, he briefly experienced payback.
With a new burst of laughing, a hot gorge rose to the back of Mr. Wood’s throat. He fought back a surprise bolt of scalding foie gras and stinking, crawling cheese and steamed fern and clotted cream and couscous and baby swan and, and, and…
Somehow, the man in the big white hat swallowed the acid broth, gulped his whopping supper a second time.
That stopped his laughing. He stood still, tasting something altogether new in his mouth now.
What did a man expect? Mr. Wood thought bitterly. All this foolishness.
He chased the rennet taste away with a glug straight from the bottle of a wondrous sparkling water. He squenched his eyes. His great mouth turned down at the corners, jaws clamped with great force to keep him from laughing again and risking the hot upsurge.
Just in time.
“Shakespeare! Fuck ’im in the rear!”
The toast, perfectly parroted by Paul, sent his partner John seismic again. Helpless with rattling chortles, John shot his own last sip of expensive Champagne straight out through his nose and over the table. Some of it misted Mr. Wood.
“Good thing it’s not biscuit gravy,” the Alabamian muttered despite himself, but loud enough for all to hear.
Oh, the gales of Garda! The howls of a summer night!
The Epicureans twisted and turned, jack-strawed, held their sides, pounded the sturdy dinner table with open palms. They laughed and kept laughing. They ached — jaws, muscles, scalps. Mr. Wood laughed again, too, daring the throw-up to surge its hot path up from his gut.
Woof! Woof ! Woof woof!
The terrier barked fiercely at the cheese now. He seemed to just realize that it swarmed with tiny white worms.
Finally, they all settled down, exhausted.
The kitchen looked like the warm lights of home a traveler sees in the distance. Inside, Chef Abati’s head and shoulders briefly disappeared into a great black oven. He came out holding something, straining, pads protecting both hands — a clay roasting container with a plain orange lid and handsomely charred base.
“La ultima!” Chef Abati called through the open kitchen door to them, this time in Spanish.
The last. Maybe, hell, the ultimate, too, thought Mr. Wood. What could this guy cook up on the solstice next year with the right ingredients?
Maybe a better question — what couldn’t he cook up?
Chef Abati approached.
He carried the heavy clay pot himself. Alone this time.
A few paces behind him, moving slowly forward like ghosts in the warm night, approached two hooded figures
Any laughter at the table now stopped cold.
A church bell tolled somewhere.
Don’t those hunchbacks ever stop pulling the damn ropes in these lake towns? Mr. Wood wondered.
And Mr. Wood heard a new sound.
It escaped from somewhere among baskets of scarlet begonias hanging in the archways of the arcades.
Mr. Wood heard peeping noises. Baby birds.
Why are baby birds awake at night? Mr. Wood wondered. Are they nightingales or cuckoos or some kind of nocturnal species? Where is the mother bird, or the daddy, to keep them shushed? What woke them up just now? Was it raucous laughter? A barking dog? That goddamned church bell?
The birds cried.
The stray terrier trotted to a spot directly beneath one basket. The puppy fixed a keen eye on the begonias, once rising on his hind legs. He looked like a white monkey.
Chef Abati arrived.
The chef gripped handles on opposite sides of the large flat clay roaster, his gifted hands protected by thick black insulated pads. The lid of the roaster allowed a plume of steam to escape into the night air. The clay pot itself glowed with heat, a dull red.
Behind Chef Abati, the two shrouded figures arrived in lockstep. They halted a few feet from the table, just beyond the candlelight. They remained fearsomely mute.
The pair wore masks, The Epicureans could now see. White papier-mâché or cloth, hard to tell in the dark.
The head of one figure had the shape of a macabre bird, a pale comb on top slicked back, its beak a long proboscis, a horn of white. The eyes stared, large and solemn.
The other head was that of Pierrot, the clown thing Mr. Wood had seen in Carnival events in Europe once or twice.
Clowns troubled Mr. Wood. He wasn’t a man with many deep fears or insecurities, but he would openly admit a morbid fear of clowns. This particular Pierrot, so old in aspect and so severe in appearance, looked like a figure that might come skittering out of a tomb to lead a danse macabre under the windows of some dying rich man.
The baby birds sounded desperate.
Mr. Wood felt suddenly strange.
“As my good masked amicos Stefan and Ronaldo demonstrate us,” Chef Abati announced, gesturing to the two maskers, “it is required by custom — by tradition — that our next dish be eaten under mask or veil.”
Abati let suspense build.
“This is so God cannot witness your indescribable earthly pleasure as you taste.”
Signor Sacco, so impassive and restrained all night, sat forward suddenly.
“Ortolan?” he stammered. “Is this ortolan?”
Chef Abati looked down at him with a most charitable smile. Then he placed one hand on top of the clay roaster.
“Si, Signor Sacco! Ortolan!”
Chef Abati announced the dish simply, the way a priest would say amen at the end of a long, eloquent prayer.
A chain-lightning question traveled silently from one Epicurean to the next. Ortolan? What on earth? What was ortolan?
Signor Sacco answered, turning his lean, handsome face to the candlelight.
“Such a tiny bird,” he whispered, his eyes far away. “Like a warbler. A little song maker. The length of — let me see your hand, Don Gaston — yes, the length of our Brazilian friend’s thumb. Only so big. But…”
Signor Sacco seemed at a loss for words.
“… the ortolan has grown very rare now,” he said. “That is because, some say, the ortolan is the most delicious food on earth. They say it is the last meal a dying man should ever eat, since nothing else will ever taste so good.”
At least until our next winter solstice feast… thought Mr. Wood.
“Stefan? Ronaldo? You will do the honor?”
Chef Abati beckoned his costumed servers forward. Now Mr. Wood could see that the bird man and the clown man carried stacks of white cloth hoods in their hands, big baggy soft things like shed skins. Eyeless. Shrouds.
Ronaldo handed a hood to Mr. Wood. It seemed not much different from a simple white flour sack.
“Your instructions,” Chef Abati said simply.
Every eye turned.
“You each will be serve one ortolan. The bird… you eat in one bite. When you put it in mouth, under mask, hold it head with you fingers and bite it off and put head back on plate. You slow, thoughtful, with great respect, taste the ortolan. Taste the bone. Taste the juice. Taste the organs. Chew and chew and chew. You will taste flavors, good flavors, bursting out from places in the magic bird, so long as you chew. That… is ortolan.”
Signor Sacco leaned forward, his hood dangling in his right hand.
“One more word, Maestro Abati?”
The chef nodded, a blush of color in his young cheeks at the high praise bestowed by Signor Sacco’s title.
“The ortolan can only be caught by net,” Don Sacco told The Epicureans. “It does not come to the ground.”
The Italian host paused for a moment, and Mr. Wood saw that his eyes searched for something far away in his memory.
“When I was a boy, I saw the ortolan fly with many others of its kind, so many in the flocks they would fill up the bare almond trees like leaves. Singing leaves.”
Signor Sacco returned to the moment.
“After hunters capture them in their nets,” he said, “they put the ortolan in a clean cage… under a hood or a blanket. It is important that they don’t know night from day. That way, they will eat oats and millet constantly, many kilograms, day after day. Until they grow very succulent.”
Don Sacco paused, turned to Chef Abati.
“In old times, the hunters put out their eyes. The ortolan. But now we are more civilized. E vero?”
“Si, Signor Sacco. E vero.”
“When the ortolan is plump,” resumed Don Sacco, “it is drowned. In Armagnac. It is fragrant brandy that fills the bird’s lungs and bathes its insides. It is a wonderful flavor, they say. I have never had ortolan until this night.”
Mr. Wood saw Paul, across from him, scribbling notes on his palm with a gold pen.
Chef Abati smiled so broadly that everyone looked his way, though he hadn’t spoken a word.
“These ortolan,” he said, “I procured with my own hand. I fed and soaked and plucked and roasted them whole. I have tried my best to make them sing for you again.”
He lifted the roaster lid.
The birds lay like plump little school children in dormitory beds, snug and forever safe.
The Epicureans donned their white silk hoods.
Mr. Wood heard the ringing of silver serving utensils, felt the steady shuffle of Stefan and Ronaldo as they moved about the table setting up the final course. The hood muffled their sounds, but not entirely.
“You are served,” Chef Abati announced. “You must use only your hands for this course. It will be followed by one more taste — a sorbet made with Signor Sacco’s own blood oranges. Buon appetito.”
The hoods were white, but the darkness inside them was complete, total. Underneath, nothing would exist but aroma and taste. Purity.
Mr. Wood found the tiny bird by feel. He lifted the little aromatic corpse from his plate — it had just the weight and size of an Ajwa date wrapped in bacon — and brought the bite underneath the billowy hood.
He saw a flash of light. He felt a caress of cool air.
He suddenly thought of a story he read in some long-ago, far-away book, back in the innocent days of childhood when reading and stories seemed more real than the real world.
He discovered on some shelf in some elementary school library the tale of that lost traveler, Odysseus. He remembered a Cyclops in his cave, blinded by a hot poker, but forever hungry, groping around with gigantic fingers in the wet dark to catch and eat the savory little Greeks, one by one.
Mr. Wood’s oversized fingers told him already how tender the bite would be.
He waited, delaying gratification.
He heard the surprised sounds of his party as they took whole ortolans into their mouths.
Gasps. Small cries.
Pleasure? Pain? What’s the difference sometimes?
Don Gaston distinctly moaned, and a slow chewing from beneath his hood grew audible. Mr. Wood wasn’t sure, but… was Signor Sacco sobbing under his veil?
He heard one other sound.
The baby birds. Their echoes in the dark arches of the villa.
Their cries grew weaker and weaker.
Mr. Wood opened his mouth like a giant and kept one eye wide open, though it could see nothing.