Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Aftertaste

The following is an excerpt from The Aftertaste by Ben Shakey. It will be published by Yeshchenko Publications in March 2009

Clenching my tongue between my teeth, I bite down. I feel nothing.

I pad the tips of my fingers together. Completely numb.

The poison is now firmly and irremovably in my body.

The position of King’s taster seems like unskilled labour. One held by an illiterate dolt whose only marketable talent is shoving food into their hole then dying. Many would happily perform this service. After spending a lifetime subsisting on turnips and other roots, the role appears like a pass to the greatest of restaurants even if evening ends with the ultimate bill.

However, the position is taster and not eater. I live off onions and roots most of the days and eat small portions of the King’s provisions in preparations. I learn of poisons, their flavours, their effects and wait till they may have run their course. There is studying, researching, education, and praying that whatever tiny amount of poison ingested does not murder me along with the ruler.

If the sword of Damocles hangs above the head of the sovereign, then a smaller portion of it hangs above the taster.

Resisting the urge to pick up the plate of fruit and smell it, I speculate that the poison is foxglove. Its sweetness is hidden amongst the dessert.

As a foundling raised in an Abbey my ambition was to be a priest before being stolen away to my higher calling of taster. If poisoned, rather than die alone, I always swore to say nothing and let the venom advance to the King that held me like a shield before him.

Well, now the reckoning arrives and there is little concern for the King. My only want is to hang longer to my life.

“Physician” I cry “I am numb!” this sounds like ‘I am dumb’ as my lips and other extremities grow heavy “I detect poison.”

The Doctor runs close. He peers into my eyes, lifts my lips, strokes my gums, and pats the mat of my hair as if purchasing livestock.

“Your Highness” he announces “Your servant is in good health and well being. At times the pressures and demands of tasting can overwhelm the thoughts. Taster’s minds can become unsettled and they find pollutions where there are none.”

The King begins to chuckle “I often fear for my life unfoundedly. Taster, this is the price we pay for being great men.” Then he laughs to cheer me.

The King’s fool then begins to eat his hat and declares it fouled. The room cackles.

“Your Highness, if I may take for a bleeding?” requests the Doctor “His humours are out of sorts. It may be possible for him to return to his duties. Please enjoy your dessert.”

The Doctor takes me to his chamber and lies me on the table. He prepares the bowl and razor for the letting.

Previous bleedings left me weak as a mewling newborn and I already feel so frail I can’t imagine what I will feel like after the operation.

The Doctor brings out the rags to catch the blood.

Some people even die in bleedings as the evil spirits in them do not escape and grow angry. I pray.

The Doctor brings the razor across my wrist in a savage slash. The Doctor is calm as he does this. In fact he seems happy.

Bleedings are not usually this violent. I don’t know how to perform a bleeding and in my studies of poisons there was no training in balancing humours. However, one does not need to be a surgeon to know what will happen to man who is cut too deeply.

The gashes seem more likely to do me in than any imagined poison. By why would anyone want to kill me?

I am so disoriented I forgot who I am. The reason to kill the taster is obvious. So he cannot inform the King. The portion is not enough to kill me so bleed me to death before the King stop consuming his venom.

My voice is weak but I murmur to the Doctor. “I am not the King”

“Ahh” whispers the Doctor “But the King is unbalanced. He is too sick with bile to lead and when the King is sick so is the Kingdom.” He leans and lacerates the razor across the other wrist.

“Taster” comes the bellowing voice from the doorway. “How are you? I came to see that my loyal servant is good spirits.”

There is a false ring to the Monarch’s concern. He expresses concern for my health but he has not done this for any other servant. Once the drummer fell to the floor in pain from a toothache that later killed him and the King called him rude for bringing a sombre tone to the evening. He only wants to know if we are both poisoned.

“Sir, the physician has attacked us with foxglove” I speak soft as a confession.

“He is quite ill in his mind. Everyone is very vigorous.”

“Then watch me die. It will not be bad thought that kill me. I will vomit, then lose my bowels, and then convulse. If I am wrong then lose nothing in this wager except the hour spent observing me. If I do any of these things, eat charcoal. It is not pleasant or regal but it will absorb the poison.”

“This is the sound of a raving madman” Says the Doctor.

The last thing I see is the King biting tapping his fingers to nose. It must be numb by now.

There are dressings on my wrists upon awakening.

The King greets me with a sooty black smile.

“You Sir are a learned man. He says “It is a shame that such a nimble mind is over shadowed by an organ like the tongue. You shall be the apprentice to my new physician.”

There is a sense of burnt wood to my mouth. They gave me a smaller portion of charcoal.

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