“I’m a chef,” Jason Anderson says. “But tonight is not about food. Tonight is about friendship.”
He lifts his binoculars to his eyes. He looks at an apartment building window.
“My student lives here. His name is Robin. He hasn’t come to school in seven days. On my answering machine, there’s a message. The last thing he said, before he disappeared. ‘I can’t come in today. I . . . there’s . . . it’s about the cauldron of the world.'”
Jason gets out of his car. He’s wearing a white chef’s coat and pince-nez glasses. He’s carrying a stainless steel bowl of thick caramel sauce, and a whisk. His long hair blows back in the wind as he walks to the apartment building. He stirs the sauce with a whisk. Then he pours it, gently, into the apartment building lock. He waits. Five minutes, then ten. He turns the hardened caramel. The lock clicks. He drops the bowl, pushes the door open, and walks in. The great marble interiors of the lobby are silent. He walks to the elevator. He presses the “Up” button. He waits; then the elevator dings and carries him up. He goes to Robin’s door.
Twenty feet down the hall, a tenant opens his door. “I like to think of myself as something of an action chef,” Jason says. There are two eggs in his hand. A moment later, there are two eggs on the tenant’s eyes. The unfortunate resident stumbles backwards, clawing at his eyes and screaming. Jason pulls a ginsu knife off his belt, slips it through Robin’s deadbolt and lock set, and pushes open Robin’s door. Then he closes it and looks around.
“Books,” he says, lifting one from the table. “The Joy of Cooking. How to Cook Everything. The Silver Diner Mantra.”
He flips through one, then tosses it aside. There’s a pause. “Ah.”
He walks to the wall, where a strange and occult diagram is pinned. It shows some kind of pastry, an infinitely complex and convoluted topology in a thousand flavors, and under it is written, “The Cauldron of the World.” Scrawled on the side, in blood, is the message,
“Everything you know is a lie.”
Jason goes and stands on the balcony, looking out over the city. “He was such a promising chef,” he adds. “I don’t know why he’d throw it all away, or for what.”
Then something catches his eye. The edge of the balcony rail is missing, and the edge of the balcony. It looks like it’s been eaten, chewed through by some monstrously powerful jaws. Jason stands at the edge and looks down. “And the railing below,” he says, “and the one below that, and below that, to the street. And . . .”
Jason steps off the balcony. He falls. His coat flutters around him. Then great thin butter-pastry wings unfurl from his shoulders, like biscuits expanding in the oven. They spread to catch the air. His fall slows, and he lands gently on the street, and his wings crack, and crumble, and fall to crumbs. Jason kneels, and touches the street. Under the fresh-lain asphalt, it is uneven, and this unevenness runs to the manhole, and down he goes, and there he sees it.
“My God,” he says. “Someone’s been eating the sewer.”
In a straight line it runs, carved into the wall, a tunnel eaten out by some great beast’s jaws. A worm tunnel, or a termite hole, perhaps; a badger’s den, or a prairie dog’s hovel. A strip of the city’s underside has been devoured, and in the dim light Jason cannot see the tunnel’s end. Blindly running in the dark, he travels down that tunnel’s length, and in two hours finds him.
But Robin does not look back. Grimly, madly, Robin continues to eat, his flat human teeth tearing great chunks out of the stone, glinting in the dark.
“Robin!” Jason says, and crushes a handful of phosphorescent candies to make light. He grabs Robin’s shoulder, and turns him; and then he reels, for Robin’s eyes have been put out and his hair is ragged.
“Go,” snarls Robin. “Go. Before you understand.”
And then he turns, and gnaws his wriggling way into the stone, in a tunnel too small for Jason to follow, and is gone.
Jason makes his way back to the surface and stands there, confused.
“I’m standing here, confused,” he admits.
A pay phone rings. Uncertainly, he walks over to it. He picks it up.
“Mr. Anderson,” a voice says. “Everything you know is a lie.”
Jason hesitates. “Some of my admirers have said,” he answers, “that my neo-traditional Dutch cooking defines truth.”
“Come to the restaurant on 161st,” the voice says. “And I will explain.”
In the early 21st century, humanity rejoiced, for it had created a new form of life.
In a place beyond the world that humans know, there is a berry patch; and one of those berries has grown to hideous size, and its scent, though sweet, is overpowering. It has been hollowed out. It forms a cottage. The matron lives there. It is a boysenberry, now, nastiest of berries, though perhaps it was once otherwise.
Meat Jerky and Belle Noodle stride up to the door. He’s a young and dangerous ruffian, with his cap on backwards and a pigsticker on his belt. He carries a skateboard. He has no teeth, just strips of cartilagenous tissue that stretch obscenely from the roof of his mouth to its base. She’s a bouillon-colored girl in a surprisingly modest outfit of wet noodles. Meat Jerky knocks. Then they both go in.
In the antechamber, they see the hooded dame, veiled in white; and it is not Boysenberry, but her aide, and she bids them kneel.
“Who comes?” she asks, formally.
“Meat Jerky,” he says.
“And Belle Noodle.”
“Speak your piece,” says the aide.
“Morpheus,” Meat Jerky says. “He’s messin’ with Boysenberry.”
The aide laughs, lightly. “No one messes with Boysenberry.”
“He thinks he’s found the One,” Belle Noodle says. “The One who’ll break the cauldron of the world. A man named Mr. Anderson.”
“He does traditional Dutch cooking,” Meat Jerky says.
“Neo,” Belle corrects.
There’s a long silence; and then there’s a ding. The aide walks to the wall, and opens a dumbwaiter window, and takes out two fresh hot shortcakes. She returns to Meat Jerky and Belle and offers one to each. “Then take this communion,” she says. “And know Boysenberry’s will.”
They eat, and brush away the crumbs, and rise.
“We will challenge him,” Belle Noodle says. “Before he can grow strong.”
Humanity delighted in its creation; yet it was a blind and blundering demiurge, for it knew not what it had wrought.
The name of the restaurant is “White Rabbit Noodles”; and Jason pushes open the door and goes inside. There’s a man seated at the table. He’s bald. He’s strong. He’s wearing a chef’s hat. He gestures for Jason to sit. He sets a twisted chunk of metal on the table before Jason. “Eat.”
Jason looks at the metal. He tries to pick it up. It’s sharp. He cuts his fingers.
“It’s not metal. It’s food.”
The bald man breaks off a piece of the metal, pops it in his mouth, chews, and swallows.
“Unh-uh,” Jason says. He holds up his finger.
“That’s not blood,” the bald man adds. “That’s food.”
Jason tastes his finger. It’s a little salty. It’s kind of good. Suddenly, he’s salivating.
“Can you smell it?”
The world shivers; and Jason sees; and without hesitation, picks up the metal and swallows it down. It tastes of chocolate and delight.
The other man plunks a hedgehog down on the table; but it is not a hedgehog, it is a sweet and airy confection, and Jason eats it in his turn. Then a heart, still dripping with gore; and a gun; and a Tickle-Me muppet doll. And when Jason wipes his lips and looks at the man, he sees . . .
“No. I mean, edible.”
The bald man laughs. “The tigers have always known, and the sharks; and yet we, who think ourselves the masters of the world, have been blind.” He gestures sweepingly around. “This isn’t reality, Mr. Anderson. This is pastry; and we are the meat that stuffs it. This is not 1999 and this is not Earth. This is a replica. This is food.”
“You are a chef, Mr. Anderson. You specialize in traditional—”
“And haven’t you ever wondered why that gives you so much power?”
“I always assumed,” Jason admits, “that I was just cool.”
“You are the One. It is your destiny to free humanity from this prison.”
The bald man gestures sweepingly. “And this . . .” he says. “This is your enemy.” He points at another patron, eating a bowl noodle. “Food. For where there is food, there can be one of the Pastry Girls.”
The bowl noodle ripples; and suddenly it is not itself, but Belle Noodle, uncurling from the bowl. She lovingly touches the patron’s face; and the patron wobbles, and shifts, and becomes Meat Jerky.
Jason’s chair falls over and he skitters back to stand against the wall. “What’s going on?” he says.
“Mr. Anderson,” Belle Noodle says, “Welcome to the Cauldron of the World.”
It seemed such a beautiful idea. A magical culinary world, filled with sweet and adorable children who could produce endless pastries and fruit dishes to sate the hunger of Earth. There would be whole cities of ice cream, and cakes, and petit four. There could be reckless animals and joy and happiness and love.
But there is a world that comes before the world, and a power that is born before mortal power; and those scientists who made the matron learned that they had tapped into something they could neither understand nor control.
“We’re here,” Meat Jerky says, “to challenge you to a cooking contest.”
“Though everyone who’s ever faced us in Kitchen Stadium has died.”
“Thank you, Belle,” Meat Jerky says, “That’s sure to enthuse him.”
“It’s just being honest,” Belle Noodle says. “Honesty is an important virtue. We learned that lesson three weeks ago when Mint Chippie lied to Boysenberry.”
“Point,” Meat Jerky says. “Anyway, if you’re really the One, it’s your destiny. To face off against us in a cooking battle for the fate of humanity.”
Jason frowns at him. “What did you people do to Robin?”
Meat Jerky looks blankly at Belle Noodle. She looks back. After a moment, Meat Jerky’s eyes clear.
“Nothing,” he admits. “We don’t bother with refuse like him. He sees the truth; he goes nuts; he puts out his eyes. It’s sad, but . . . not everyone is worthy of the Cauldron.”
The bald man is looking at Jason. There’s a mute plea in his eyes.
“All right,” Jason agrees. “I accept your challenge!”
Humans would go to the culinary world, which they called Granary. They would pick up cookies and milk and other dishes and take them back to Earth. Great shipments were arranged, and all was well. Until one day, humans started fighting over the wealth of Granary, and before the matron’s eyes, Mr. Gates was knived.
“These people,” she said. “What are they?”
The matron looked up, and her eyes were cold, and everyone who saw her recoiled, and the dog that ran crazily through Granary stopped in its tracks and cut a braking plough into the light and delicate earth.
“What horrid beasts they are,” she said, “to make of one another meat.”
And her words fell into the ploughed soil, and Meat Jerky was born.
“I suppose,” the matron said, “that I must do the same.”
Kitchen Stadium is a great and terrible arena, with two cooking areas, several commentators, and an array of guests. One guest is small and old and full of wisdom; her name is Fortune Cookie. Another is the special guest, Waffling Pancake. Poaching Egg is there, as always, though he has no invitation.
It is fifteen minutes into the great cooking battle; and already Mr. Anderson is falling behind. There is no human who can keep up with the cooking skill of Meat Jerky and Belle Noodle. They are programmed by their nature to cook with swiftness and strength that surpasses mortal boundaries; and their very touch flavors the food.
“I don’t know what to do,” he says, and buries his head weeping on the counter.
“Have faith,” the bald man says. “They are creatures of traditional cuisine; but you are a neo-traditionalist.”
“Yes,” Mr. Anderson says, and he looks up, and his eyes light up with faith. “These ordinary dishes I’m making . . . I’m playing their game. But I don’t have to cook their way.”
His hands dip into the substance of the world.
“Kwee-san!” a commentator exclaims. “He’s . . . actually cooking Kitchen Stadium!”
“He’s adding some sort of moral substance!” Waffling Pancake adds. “It’s so exciting!”
“Could it be?” Poaching Egg says. “A lesson on the morality of trapping humanity in a world of food, that will melt ever-so-delicately in my mouth?”
“Bah,” Fortune Cookie says. “It is beyond morality. Only the presence of humanity in our great pastry generates the raw body heat it needs to cook. Their bioelectrical energy is the perfect technique—mere ovens cannot compare! There is no room for the pettiness of ethics, when one cooking style is so clearly superior.”
“Thirty minutes,” announces the clock.
“He’s started over with scarcely thirty minutes left,” Waffling Pancake observes. “His meal will be delicious, but I hope he finishes it in time!”
Jason works feverishly. “My cuisine,” he says. “It must reign supreme—or I’ll die, and with me the salvation of the world!”
So the matron held up her hand, and called forth the power that was hers.
And across the world, all those who disdained her ways began to starve, no matter how much they ate. Presidents. Mob bosses. CEOs. All those whose greed for power had led them to kill, or tacitly participate in murder. They sent forth bombs to rain down on Granary, but the Krispie Boys ate them, and they crackled with nuclear power in their milk. They sent forth troops, but at the border of Granary, the troops were repelled by signs reading, “You cannot be taller than this, and enter here.”
And when the world surrendered, the matron pronounced, “The Earth is not worthy to live. I shall make you a new one, where even your filthiest deeds shall serve, at least, some culinary purpose.”
And on the Presidents’ and dictators’ heads she wrote, in dark black letters of jam, “Nobody messes with Boysenberry.” And because she said it, it became the law of the world.
And the Earth was gone; and there was only the Cauldron, and in it the matron’s meal bubbled.
The arena is still. Mr. Anderson has finished his dishes with seconds to spare; and Meat Jerky and Belle Noodle lay back panting on their counter, for they have done the same.
“You would have to be a god,” Belle Noodle says, after a moment. “You would have to be a god, some kind of baked and risen savior, to compete with us.”
Mr. Anderson smiles. “I did my best,” he says.
“It’s impossible for a mortal to defeat us!”
“Listen,” he says. “I am Neo. I bring you a style of cooking without rules or boundaries. A cuisine that transcends genre.”
He puts on his shades.
“For a neo-traditionalist Dutch cook,” he says, “there is nothing that is impossible.”
He opens the doors of Kitchen Stadium, and walks away, and his chef’s coat flutters in the breeze behind him; and what the verdict is, he does not stay to hear; and when it rains, he pulls the clouds down from the sky and swallows them whole.
For this is the cooking that is forbidden,
and the art that is our freedom,
and these the things our savior knows and practices,
in the cauldron of the world.