Gray clouds swirl in the sky above the land of the dead, but never part. Sunlight never touches the bones strewn across the countryside. Warmth never melts the soft snow that falls to blanket the gentle hills and valleys, copses and dales of Death's freehold. Bitter wind creeps through walls and flesh just the same, sowing ice and salt as it goes. Despite the lack of sunlight, blighted stalks of arctic willow grow from shallow tundra soil, up through ribs and mandibles, up through eye sockets and collarbones, straining above the snow cover by force of will alone. After all, Death's herd must eat.
The kerberoxen move in small groups, shaggy, gray-brown, and asymmetrical. They mar the bleached landscape: hot tears on blotter paper. Their hooves punch down through snow and bone, raking and scraping to reveal willow, or crowberries, or lichen that has managed to take hold on a half-buried cranial plane. When a kerberox finds food, its central head lowers to eat, while the head on each side either rises to keep watch for competition if the patch is small, or begins calling out to neighbors in a low baritone if the food source is large enough for other members of the herd to eat.
Some of the kerberoxen are molting. Every Sunday, Death walks across the estate, inspecting the animals, checking to see which are ready for combing. Because there are no changes to the weather, there is no molting season. Each animal molts regularly, but not en masse. Death combs all the qiviut-- the fine, downy woolen underhair-- by hand, and works it with thin quick phalanges, keeping only the softest and finest fibers.
Each kerberox only molts once a year, but Death is nothing if not patient.
Death lives in an old wooden house in the center of the estate. The house is very warm. It's connected to Death's hothouse mulberry grove, where Death raises silkworms. Death knows the precise moment when each silkworm is ready to hatch, and is prepared. One eyedropper of warm water, squeezed onto the cocoon; nimble slender fingerbones, spinning the silk thread off in one single long strand; spindles, to collect the silk. The cocoon turns quickly in Death's deft hands, until the last of the thread winds off, and the new moths-- heritage Bombyx mandarina-- fly off in little circles, dizzy but unharmed, until Death releases them.
Death is a vegetarian.
The house creaks and groans and squeaks in the constant wind, which Death finds to be a comfort. Sometimes late at night, lying in an old wooden bed, Death relaxes and allows the clouds to dissipate. Moonlight performs a slow dappled waltz across the walls and ceilings of Death's home, diffused by empty trees and reflected by snow, and the sound of a steam train engine calls across the grange, though there is no outbound traffic. Death's angora rabbits shiver in their sleep on the quilted bedspread, and Death knows peace.
Death combines the kerberox qiviut in a particular ratio with the rabbit angora and fine silk to make thread. Death alone spins this thread, and then, in the evenings, Death knits. A single kerberox combing can be used to knit enough thread to make seven square feet of cabled cloth, but Death is nothing if not persistent.
Sometimes at night Death lies covered by the quilt in the moonlight, surrounded by small warm sleeping rabbits. Death remembers what it was like to have been alive. Remembers the fear of abandoning one's body, the dreaded impending revelation of the mystery. If Death had eyebrows, they would raise in sympathy; if Death had lips, they would curl up in a small smile: recognition of shared experience; remembrance of crossing universal thresholds.
For Death knows: we are all ghosts temporarily thrust into living bodies. There is evidence in every coffin, every x-ray, every sugar skull, every Halloween night. When we go, everything that we are-- every intention, every desire, every love, every hate-- is woven into Death's great darkness. Death gathers it all. Death remembers. And Death will knit until all of the knitting is done.
Death is knitting a shroud large enough to encompass the earth.
Art courtesy of the excellent Randy Ortiz.
So, I keep up with a lot of folks on the ol' social media. One of my old friends, Sandra, has been an amazing pastry chef for more than a decade, and has recently been having a lot of success lately with her new bakery in Minneapolis. It's called the Savory Bake House, and although I have not eaten there, because I do not live in Minnesota, I follow both Sandra and the bakery itself on social media.
Last week, this cropped up on my feed:
I'll be goddamned if that doesn't look like the most amazing and delicious thing ever.
(Also, #cleanmeat needs to start trending, across all topics and platforms, because that is a hilarious hashtag.)
We were gonna have a few folks over this weekend for a swimmin' pool trip-- kind of a rarity, in my post-parenthood lifestyle. I love to bake and I like making things that are delicious, so I figured what the hell, why not give these a shot? I gave Sandra a shout (bear in mind, I've known her more than half my life), and after swearing me to secrecy, she gave me the recipe for the strange brioche fold-over for sandwiching.
I consider myself a fairly skilled amateur baker. I can make some pretty good breads, including some pretty tasty brioche loaves. But I've never tried to do this thing, where you bake an array of things inside another thing. I make this hella-tasty prosciutto bread, but that's a bit different: the point of that recipe is to make the prosciutto melt into the bread, imbuing flavor-ham; here, the tasty innards are intended to stay cohesive. It's recursive baking. I was pretty nervous, so I thought I'd document that anxiety, and then I'd have an interesting document whether the experiment was a success or a failure.
I think you can tell how nervous I am.
I was so nervous, I didn't document the creation of the dough! But, y'know, that's probably for the best. I also went off-book and took some extra steps-- substituted some molasses for another sweetener, added unsweetened dutch-process cocoa powder for color, and threw in a bunch of toasted caraway seeds. It's never enough to try a brand-new recipe for a brand-new type of dish, because I am a smartass. I wanted to make this into a pumpernickel brioche Reuben sandwich (with a vegetarian alternative for some folks).
So, there's a bunch of corned beef in there. This is the non-vegetarian option, obviously.
Then the sauerkraut and cheese. I don't know if the cheeses were organic or not, so I can't cut #cleancheese for this. I did use organic sauerkraut, though, which I drained and sizzled up in a pan pretty nice, both for color and to get rid of excess moisture.
I used a ratio of like 3 to 1 tasty baby swiss to spicy pepperjack. I love swiss on a reuben sandwich, but I wanted a little bit of tang, especially because I was going to be omitting the Thousand Island dressing (because Thousand Island is gross, and also because I had another super-experimental idea I wanted to try. More on that later).
I did a layer of corned beef, a layer of sauerkraut, and then the cheese-- to seal the sauerkraut in as much as possible, and prevent moisture from messing up the sweet, sweet experimental pumpernickel brioche.
Then, the folding over.
The dough was so thin. I was terrified the whole thing was just going to turn out to be the world's worst taco. A gross-ass caraway-infested crispity shell around a giant wad of corned beef and cheese and sauerkraut.
My concerns almost ruined a perfectly-good trip to the swimming pool!
Okay, that is not true at all. I had a delightful time with some wonderful pals, all swillin' back tasty beers (holy crap, y'all, that Boulevard Ginger-Lemon Radler is the perfect poolside beer; they ain't even payin' me to say so, I'm just proclaiming on it because it is so damn tangy and tasty on a hot summer's day). Also, my kid is starting to warm up to splashing around in the water, so that's always a good time. Here is a picture of that, which is totally unrelated to this recipe or the processes involved in this recipe:
After a day spent splashing and drinking and doing lazy laps, we returned to the house, where the dough still had not risen, like, at all. When I texted Sandra to ask about it, she said:
"It never does [rise]... I feel like part of the success is that it works best if it makes you nervous."
I did a last-minute egg-wash on the bread (one of my coworkers keeps chickens, and he gives me these incredible free-range pasture-fed eggs, which taste better than any eggs ever), and then bunged them into the oven for a while.
And man, I was so incredibly relieved when these turned out well.
The bread really puffed up beautifully just in the oven, going from a quarter-inch to three-quarters of an inch of just fluffy, eggy, buttery brioche, all piping hot and approaching almost flakiness.
Here's a picture of the vegetarian version, which used tempeh, sauerkraut, and cheese:
And now one more picture of the array of sandwiches, because I'm so proud of them. Like a new papa. Well, like a new papa who then turns into a cannibal and scarfs down his creation.
Okay, so here's a long-winded addendum. I mentioned earlier that I skipped the Thousand Island, because it is gross. Another reason I skipped it is because I wanted to do something else.
There's a small neighborhood bar in the Little Russia part of Topeka, Kansas, called Porubsky's. It's kind of hard to find, in an area mostly filled with little houses, and it's only open for lunch. At Porubsky's, they make these things that they charmingly, understatedly call "Hot Pickles."
Calling these things "Hot Pickles" is like calling dry ice "Chilly Carbon Dioxide." They make these things with some sort of hellacious wasabi extract-- maybe it's horseradish oil, maybe it's hot mustard oil, maybe it's some bizarro combination of everything that punches you in the snoot and disappears completely after a few seconds, but whatever it is, it is delicious, and it is not playing around.
I wanted to turn this into a relish. What's more, I wanted to turn this into a relish that normal people-- which is to say, people who wouldn't want to just put a spoonful of asian hot mustard into their mouths-- would eat.
So I blended a bunch of Porubsky's pickles with sweet gherkins, and dill pickles, and sriracha pickles, and roasted red peppers, and a couple different kinds of vinegar (for funsies). I did this in a food processor. I ended up with what looks basically like a cherry pepper relish, and which gives you a small love-tap on the snout and then backs off really quickly. It was the perfect compliment to the sandwiches, if I do say so myself.
Man, these sandwiches.
Sandra says she uses the same recipe, or very similar, to create sweet things as well-- cinnamon rolls, sweet mini-brioches, and something she called "mixed berry cream cheese rolls," which oh my goodness I may just have to try.
I'll leave the relish off those, though.
As a cat owner, I handle feces regularly. Handling feces is gross. Many cat owners are also not super-crazy about handling a whole bunch of feces, so we sometimes talk to each other about ways that we can minimize the feces-handling.
Today someone linked me to a brand-new "best litterbox ever," this one a Kickstarter sensation that has gone on to be well-liked by a number of people with small furry purring poop machines in their house. It looks problematic to me, but it also reminded me that I have never encountered a decent "better litterbox" than a big tub filled with some sort of medium, into which the kitties crap.
I only had one truly horrendous experience, with the CatGenie. This happened five years ago, and I have no idea if the fine folks at CatGenie have upped their game, so take this with a grain of salt and don't use it (entirely) against them.
The first, say, five months I had the CatGenie, it worked as it was supposed to. It consists of a rotating bowl, a bunch of plastic granules which serve as the litter, a raising and lowering scoop-like spatula, a hopper, and a flusher. It's hooked to a hose and a drain. When a cat craps in the box, the intention is this: The spatula lowers, the bowl rotates; the turds are captured in the spatula, letting the granules through. The spatula raises, dumping the turds into the hopper, where they're washed down the drain and whisked out to sea. The hose flushes water into the bowl, where the plastic litter is rinsed. Then an air-dryer dries the granules, and it's ready for the next cat-crapstravaganza.
After five months, the whole thing went awry. I contacted CatGenie, and they were fairly helpful, sending me a replacement "engine" for the thing; and then another, and then a third smaller replacement part. Then, things started to get really bad, and that's when I emailed them this:
I'm not sure if this is something I'd be better off calling in about than emailing you directly, but here goes.
I'm at my wit's end with the CatGenie. Thanks to your help last month, and the shipment of two different main unit replacements, I've gotten the CatGenie to a point where the bowl rotates the whole time without stopping (instead of pausing for long periods of time where nothing happens), the air blower does in fact dry the granules (instead of leaving a pile of soggy plastic bits), and the arm does raise and lower effectively when the main processing unit tells it to (instead of staying up or down the whole time and accomplishing nothing).
The problem I'm having now is, frankly, awful. Instead of scooping up the cat turds, dropping them into the hopper, and flushing them, the CatGenie seems to be basically straining the turds through the scoop by breaking them into chunks small enough that the scoop is unable to effectively pick them up. Then, after breaking the turds up, failing to scoop them, and leaving them mixed in with the granules, the CatGenie blows hot air over the tiny turd chunklets, filling my house with the rancid, disgusting smell of hot feces. So when I get home from work, or when I come downstairs in the morning, that is what greets me.
I am including a photo of the CatGenie immediately after having run a cleaning cycle. The dark bits are the turd chunklets. You will notice also a massive wad of poo on the arm itself, where it has mashed a turd into the bottom of the bowl and then tenaciously clung to it, which is also not an uncommon phenomenon. Usually when this happens I use a paper towel to remove the turd-wad from the arm. I use the same paper towel to pluck out the turd chunklets and manually dump them into the hopper. All of which seems to go explicitly against the reason I got a CatGenie in the first place, which was so that I would rarely have to handle cat poo.
Honestly, I can't think of anything that would make me not want to go back to a nice, civilized, covered catbox with scent-dampening clay litter, throw this thing into the dumpster, and warn everybody I know about the failure of the CatGenie to function. However, I now present you, Rich, with an opportunity to change my mind, present a solution to this seemingly insoluble never-ending series of problems, or otherwise alleviate my utter disappointment with your product.
I never heard back. In all honesty, I was at my wit's end with the thing and could not foresee any possible solution. In my furious insanity, I deliberately wrote this letter in as provocative and florid a manner as I could muster. I imagined that the people at CatGenie would read it, laugh, and offer a full replacement as a solution, instead of what happened, which was nothing.
I am not angry at the CatGenie people, at this point, because their product was fundamentally flawed, and they must have been inundated with complaints from people like me. Many of the complaints must have been much more vocal about their hatred of the scent of fresh-baked turdlets waking them up in the mornings (I have always maintained a policy of being even-tempered with Phone Helper People, because I have been on the other end of that phone). They did what they could with what they had.
I'll stick with a big tub full of a granulated medium that can accept whatever my cats dish out.
This fable is a continuation, of sorts, of this one. Read that one first, if you haven't.
Many years ago, O children, there was a man who was arrested with less than a quarter-ounce of substandard marijuana. Although he was a nonviolent drug offender, it was his third conviction, and so he was sentenced to prison for a very long time. He calmly and good-naturedly tried to serve his term in a low-security prison. While he was unhappy to be incarcerated, and very much looked forward to his eventual release, he tried to make the best of his time; he used the library, and the weight room, and did little meditations, and wrote little songs.
One evening more than halfway through his sentence, the jailors came to his cell door and unlocked it. "Got a new cellie for you, pal," said a guard, and ushered in an old man.
The old man was unlike any cellmate the prisoner ever had. He was very old, with skin like papyrus. His skin was all white, whiter even than the skin of prisoners coming out of solitary confinement. His eyes were pink and very bright. He wasn't wearing a standard orange jumpsuit, but instead a finely bespoke suit and hat made of pure white unmarred fabric. He carried a large white rabbit in his hands, and he walked into the cell and sat down on the bottom bunk, making eye contact with the prisoner the entire time, and stroking the wide-eyed rabbit in his lap with one gnarled hand.
"Hey," said the prisoner.
The cellmate did not respond, and continued staring at the prisoner and petting the rabbit.
"What's your story, man? What you in for? How come you get to wear a suit?"
The cellmate scratched the rabbit behind the ears with his long white fingernails.
The prisoner went to the bars of his cell and called out to the guard. "Hey, who the hell is this guy? Why's he get to wear his own clothes? Why's he get to bring a pet?"
The guard calmly walked over to the cell. "Temporary arrangement. For his safety. He ain't like you, he'll be gone after tomorrow. You were just the only one who had a vacancy. Don't do anything stupid."
"Okay," said the prisoner. "This is fucked up, though."
"You're tellin' me, pal," said the guard.
The prisoner leaned against the bars for a minute, then turned around. The old man was still staring at him.
"Well, that's my bunk," said the prisoner. When the old man didn't respond, he said, "But hey, that's cool. One night, you take that bunk. I'll sleep up top."
Eventually, the prisoner lowered himself and sat cross-legged on the floor across from his new cellmate. He stared back, and counted his breaths, and kept quiet. He fought down his deep sense of unease, and rubbed down the hairs on his arms, which had all risen of their own accord.
The sun eventually went down, and the cell darkened. Neither man spoke, and after a time, the lights in the cell went out, leaving only moonlight streaming through the bars of the cell's only window.
The old man raised his free hand and held up three fingers (pinky, ring, and middle). "Have you ever been on a deserted island, with no way back and no place to sleep, and watched the sun set over the mainland?"
The man paused and remembered an incident from his past, when he was young, and made many mistakes. "Once, yeah."
The old man dropped his middle finger and nodded. "Have you ever been alone in a house at night and seen a herd of cows gathered at the windows to look at you?"
"How the fuck you know this shit, man? I never told anybody about that."
The old man nodded again, and dropped his ring finger, leaving only his pinky raised. "Have you ever seen a pack of wolves bring down a stag?"
"What? No. What the fuck are you even talking about, man?"
The old man smiled, not unkindly, and lowered the remaining finger, making a fist. "It's quite a thing to behold. A single wolf could never do it alone, not a big stag, full-antlered. But a pack could, if they work together. If they're hungry enough. They start by tearing at the legs." He scratched the top of the rabbit's head. The rabbit chewed something unseen. "Go to sleep," said the old man.
Hesitantly, and not unafraid, the prisoner climbed up into the top bunk and rested his head on his pillow. He had every intention of staying awake all night in order to protect himself, but found himself almost immediately asleep.
His dream was dark, and full of shadows and swirling black mist. The prisoner tried to move through his murky blindness, but found that he could only move slowly. He heard a rhythmic thrum, the persistent desperate knocking of an unwanted and dreadful but ultimately ecstatic revelation. The prisoner turned around to run from it, but he could not tell one direction from another, and the pounding got louder and closer no matter which way he moved.
The prisoner awoke as the sun was rising and the first rays of the day peeked through the bars of the window. Although he'd slept all night, he felt more exhausted than ever. He groaned, and lowered himself slowly to the floor, and made his way to the steel privy in the corner, where he relieved himself.
The old man still sat on the lower bunk, one hand folded over the other. "Good morning," he said, and smiled wide, revealing a set of small red-stained teeth.
"Morning," said the prisoner softly. The lights in the cell slowly flickered to life. The guards unlocked the door and led the old man away, leaving the prisoner alone once again.
Art by the incredible Dragan Bibin. Used with permission.
There once was a traditional herbalist, O children, with a shop in the tiny back room of a strip-mall spa and nail salon in a small Arkansas town. She had painted a small sign that hung in the window of the nail salon, offering her services: traditional herbal health treatments, aromatherapy, prayer candles, country incense, homeopathy. She had a steady trickle of customers, to whom she sold a lot of prayer candles and incense, and in this way she was able to keep the lights on in her small house and keep her refrigerator stocked with food.
She was disappointed by the infrequency with which she was asked to perform her traditional herbalist medicine. She had been taught in the ways of country remedies by her mother, who had been taught by her mother, and so on up the family tree as far as her heirloom Bible went.
In her backyard, she maintained the family garden: sumac, whole cloves, cubeb, prickly ash, a patch of ginger; an orange tree; angelica, peppermint, caraway; coneflower, foxglove, black-eyed susan. She used these infrequently in her shop, but often for personal use, and it was important to her to continue the family tradition.
One night during a full moon, when the plants were at their most potent, she harvested ribwort, and hazel and lavender, and other things. As she did so, she heard a muffled high-pitched whine, like a small child screaming into a pillow. She stopped picking and listened, and followed the sound to its origin beneath a bough of her rowan tree. Carefully and slowly, she reached into the soil with her fingertips, and pulled out a screaming mandrake root. "How curious," she thought, as the mandrake shrieked into her face. "I have never planted mandrake." She placed her thumb over its wee little mouth, so as not to bother the neighbors, and took her harvest indoors, where she began preparing the plants.
Some went into an infusion, some were ground in a mortar and pestle, and some were laid out to dry. As she worked, the mandrake root sometimes coughed. As she broke up rowan bark, it started to loudly clear its throat, and as she zested oranges into a small jar, the mandrake spoke to her. "Tomorrow, a woman will come in to the shop. She will have rheumatoid arthritis." Then it rattled off a list of instructions and ingredients. The woman quickly gathered the materials, and put the mixture into a jar to soak overnight.
The next day, a woman came in for arthritis. "I knew you were coming," said the herbalist, and handed her the jar with a small label stating what it was for. "Tonight, heat up a cast-iron skillet on your stove. Put a towel over your head, and pour this into the cast-iron skillet. Put your head over the skillet, and breathe the smoke and vapor for thirty, forty-five seconds, or until it starts to really burn. Then stop. That'll be forty dollars."
That night, the mandrake root said, "Tomorrow, a man will come in with a broken heart. Here is what he will need." The mandrake listed ingredients and instructions, and asked the woman to cut off a chunk of its own mandrake root body, to include in the mixture. The woman did as she was told, and the next day she sold it to the man and gave him instructions for inhalation with his cast-iron skillet. The man came in the next day and bought some prayer candles and incense, and he thanked her, telling her that he'd never felt better.
This went on for weeks. The mandrake told the herbalist about customers who would come in with specific needs, and told her what to give them. These were always mixtures to be burned, steamed, and inhaled. For certain customers, the mandrake demanded that she cut off parts of it to be included and breathed in by her customers. The woman became much more successful, and had to order many more prayer candles and much more incense. Also, the herbalist started getting repeat customers.
The broken-hearted man came back in, for an inflamed liver. "I can feel it pulsating inside me," he said, "like a great black prune, a hungry prune." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
An insomniac woman came back because she now had terrible dreams. "A combine chases me through a field of wheat under bright moonlight," she said, "and I can feel that my feet are broken, but I must keep running, as the machine chases me and chases me." She gave the woman more mandrake infusion.
A man haunted by his father came back because he missed the presence of the ghost. "It was bad, hearing him moan and drip blood onto the floor while I lay in the dark, but it is much worse to not hear him moan and drip blood onto the floor, while I lay alone, in the dark, in the middle of this universe." She gave him more mandrake infusion.
The business kept coming. The woman's savings account grew plump. The body of the mandrake root dwindled until all that was left was its head.
One night, the mandrake root said, "This is the end. Two days from now, an old man will come into the shop. He will not speak, but his breath will smell of honey, and shit, and saffron. You must muddle an herbal concoction to exact specifications." The mandrake root gave her a very specific list of ingredients, with multiple steps for muddling, infusing, powdering. "Now, you must place what's left of me in your mortar, and use your pestle to grind me into mush. I will go into the jar last. Bury the jar beneath your rowan tree and leave it there overnight."
The herbalist did as she was told.
She thought she was prepared, but when the man arrived, she was shocked. His skin was all white, and his beard and hair too. He wore a suit made from the brightest white cloth she had ever seen, including a white leather tie and hat. His eyes were bright pink and rapidly moved back and forth as he looked at her. When he opened his mouth, all she could see was a deep ruby red, and the shop filled with the deep sweet permeating stench of honey and saffron and shit. Silently, with shaking hands, she handed him the soil-caked jar. The man reached into his inside vest pocket and brought out six small grains of gold, the size and shape of rice, and dropped them, tinkling, onto her counter.
Then he left.
The woman closed early, and went home, and looked at the grains of gold in her hand. That night, under the waning moon, she buried them beneath the rowan tree.