Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Sergeant and the Surgeon

Excerpt from the journals of the late Captain Brindach.

            There's something wrong with this city.
I have been in the Watch and now the City Guard for near twenty years and aside from a six-month posting at West Keep, I have not ever left the city. It would be easy to think all cities are like this - that all people act this way, when crammed so together – but I have talked with soldiers and merchants from other places. We have swapped tales. Much of what I seen here, I have not told them. Compared to their yarns, I fear they would think my city had a sickness and take their money elsewhere. If the lords thought me driving off trade, I would find myself a guest in my own cells.

            Take as example my first day in the Watch. Just twelve years of age and fresh as rain. I was sent to the gaolhouse for the carrying out of chamber pots - buckets for the most part and a nastier job I could not imagine at that age, though I know now that it is good work to strengthen the backs and stomachs of recruits and I make the new boys do just the same work.
            At the time, I were miserable and lazy enough to be always looking for excuse to have a rest from it. Even on the first hour of my first day, I’d had enough of it and by the sixth hour I was driven along by clouts from the Sergeant. I knew how older folk loved to talk about their business and seeking respite from both his wrath and my work, I asked the Sergeant what the story was behind the prisoner in the farthest, deepest cell.
The man in that cell had cried hard all the morning and I were young enough to think that grown men could not cry so. Not only that, he was in a run of cells all by himself and I was feared he had plague or somesuch. I had not gone near enough to collect his bucket. Stranger still, down in that run, there was a flavoursome smell, despite all the other stenches and even with the smell of shit pounded all through me, that other smell made me start wondering when lunch would come.
            When I asked about him, the Sergeant’s eyes lit up. He bent with his hands on his knees to tell me about it face to face.

            It seems this man was a surgeon, making some work off of the Guard, but most work off the tradesmen who often have occasion to be in need, with their dangerous tools and heavy loads. He had been working the city for years and probably would have kept at it for many more, if he had not been caught so red-handed – or flour-handed as the story went.
            The Watch had been called upon to visit a one-legged carpenter and remind him that he had been paid by a rich family for work he had yet to deliver. Mindful of how folk find pressing business out the nearest window when the Watch knock, they slipped the latch and came into the carpenter’s house on their quietest feet.
            There they found the surgeon with two legs instead of one and he was making pastry for a pie. There was foodstuff all around - sausages, pies that had already been cooked, salted meat, aspic and a pot on the stove bubbling away with long bones poking out of it. The surgeon was up to his elbows in flour and he turned around sharp when he finally heard them come upon him. In one hand he held the carpenter’s peg leg, what he had been using as a rolling pin.
            It was not long before they realised what was going on. The surgeon’s excuses for being there were the lies of a man in sweating red-faced panic. A quick stir of the pot rolled up a man’s skull and that was that.
            Under the Captain of the Guard’s orders, the surgeon was put in one cell and all them pies and sausages and the like, put in the cell next to him but one, so that he could not reach for it through the bars and eat the evidence. The Captain questioned the man and it did not take much to get a confession, but all the time he was confessing, the surgeon was looking past the Captain at the food and his lips were shining with spit for it.
            The surgeon said he had heard a story from a soldier years before, who claimed to have eaten the flesh of the fallen as a means to surviving while in the frozen wastes of the north. The soldier had told him that he had never tasted its equal and it was a cure he was looking for – a cure for this dreadful longing. He had tried potions and powders from all sorts of merchants and surgeons and now he had come to this one. The surgeon could do nothing for him and the soldier was found hanged the very next day.
            The surgeon said this story haunted him – that it was like a curse that the soldier had put on him, because he could not cure him. This was his plea, that of bewitchment, but the Captain was having none of that.
            A year or so after the soldier's tale, the carpenter got himself run down by a cart and his leg was so ruined it had to be taken away. The surgeon does the job, but instead of burning the limb decently, he took it home. Just to find out, he says – and who needs to know? So he took it and roasted it and said it was the best meat he has ever had.
            A while after that, the surgeon found he could not forget that taste and he started finding more cause to be taking bits off people. A finger here, a foot there. The trouble is, no matter how often he dared to do this, none of them tasted as good as that first leg. Not even close.
           The surgeon said that for near three years he tasted the meat of a good portion of the citizenry and some of the Watch and Guard, but all it did was make his craving for that first meat even worse until at last he could stand it no longer. He found the carpenter, did him in and was caught mainly by virtue of how he did not want to waste a single drop of flavour. He’d boiled the bones white and made preserves and all he could think of to make the carpenter last him a long time.
            Captain asked him what he planned once he had run out of carpenter to eat. The surgeon answered that the carpenter had relatives, who might well taste as fine.
            The Captain declared he would see the surgeon hanged just as fast as he could get the warrant and the surgeon said that he understood and perhaps it was the only way to lift the curse, but what would the harm be in letting him have some of the food he had made? Just one pie. A couple of the sausages. One slice of pie, even.
            All the rest of that day, the surgeon begged for a taste of the food in the cell just beyond his reach. He told anyone who would listen that they should try it too – that if they did they would understand and have pity on him. He told them all that if they tried it, they would never taste anything finer.
            Then, at the end of the day, some of the food was noticed missing. The Captain went berserk, had the place searched, watchmen and guards questioned, but there was no sign of it. The surgeon said nothing, so the chances are good he got some of what he wanted.
            The Captain was still fit to be tied and he had all the food what was left, nailed into a coffin and he organised a cremation – with the blessing of Lord Sil, no less, who has already been down to have a look at such an unusual corpse. The carpenter’s relatives attended the cremation never knowing that they were weeping over pie and sausages.

            And that, said the Sergeant, is why the surgeon is crying and wailing in the cells as if his heart were breaking. Not because he is sorry for the murder, or because he hangs tomorrow, but because he knows he will never again taste that sweet, sweet carpenter.
            By that point I reckon my eyes must have been starting clean out of my head and my hair almost stood on end. The Sergeant laughed at me and said now it is lunchtime, would I like to share some of his pie?
            He took out a hefty slice wrapped up in his kerchief and even before he unwrapped it, I knew that smell. It was the same smell from those cells what made me hungry even while I was slopping shit and I turned and run. Just as I turned, I saw the Sergeant’s face turning meaner than it had been all day and I felt his fingers slip against the nape of my neck as he tried to catch hold of me. Out I ran, faster than I had thought I could go, at least until I ran smack into the Captain, who shook me until he could understand what it was that had got me so undone.

            Now there is some who would take this all as a joke, on my part, or on the part of that Sergeant, but I swear on my own blood that the next day when I crept into the gaolhouse, that Sergeant was gone – and one or two of the watchmen besides. ‘Gone to West Keep and never coming back’, the Captain told me. The keep is many things, but one of the uses it is put to, I know, is the hanging of people they do not want seen to be hanged.
            The smell of that pie. I have never forgotten it. From that day to this, I make it a firm point to always stand upwind of cremations.

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