Transubstantiation in the Subtropics by Lewis Gesner

The Toothless Lady, or, The BBQ Witch

She walked across parking lots and tar driveways with her feet pointing outward. In a great feat of the imagination, one could speculate she had been a ballerina once, but the likelihood was she suffered from some form of hip displacement that gave her this measured, crab-like walk. Her clothes hung from her frame, and seemed to swing and sway backward and forward almost magically in a simulation of a body endowed with mass and subject to the airborne wind. On the top of her head were large white curls the likes you would see on painted iron fenced gates, and not protruding from someone’s scalp. As she made her way, a small cloud followed her closely from behind, a remnant of her drying skin she found more convenient to flake away than to shed at once. Her eyes were dark and nondescript, the kind of thing that she would plan that way. In such a village, she could walk along. She didn’t attract company, and indeed, many hid inside away from her as she passed by their habitats. One might imagine these features would be enough for one person to suffer or wield, but there was one more aspect that was incontrovertibly more impressive. And that was her mouth. 

    Some existent things are said to not be describable by human means; heaven, hell, dying -.This mouth, this orifice, this pucker from the rue of defective, corrupted creation stood alone at the pinnacle of the undefined. A flock of one thousand in lab coats with all of the instruments of examination could not draw a single conclusion. Such is the village oddity. Some referred to her as the toothless lady. That described her mouth in the most superficial, but perhaps bearable way. She had no teeth, that was true. I will attempt a vain characterization. Where teeth might have been, there were gaps and craters that seemed filled with the darkest black, and of a size that meant her teeth would have barely fit in her head. If one were to venture close to this horrible hole, one might imagine some creeping essence housed in these caves, catch the smell from their own lurid mouths, or glimpse the blinking of a lone and oozing eye at the parapet defenses of some unearthly chthonian dwelling worm. The grounds surrounding these pits were anemic and washed out as to offend pink, and attested to an overall ancientness and erosion. Old indeed, yet God had clearly not taken her for a myriad of reasons, stemming from the unpleasantness of her nearness. The outer rim of the mouth fell into the void like from a powerful suction that suggested she would be the epicenter of our earth’s final implosion at the end of time. 

    What’s more, she wandered here and there on a regular circuit each day. She seemed to search for cats to curse and children to frighten.  Passersby were subject to comment on their dress weight or other appearance that might not be in their hands. After these walks, she’d go back to her house, a cement block building with no windows which may have been used for a supply shed during the Japanese occupation. People pictured her solitary life behind those thick cold walls. A few felt sorry for her. Most thought she was a witch. That also made her feared. On the many occasions for BBQ, such as on national days and Chinese New Year, and in this village, more frequently, the toothless lady would become sociable, though not talkative. She would travel around the village, following her nose for BBQ until she found its source. The revelers would fall silent at her sight. Without hesitating, should go straight to the grill and take a rib, gobbling it down quickly and eating another, and another, the bloody juice running down her chin, and you could almost hear her bony jaws gnashing together, sans teeth. When she had eaten all of the ribs on the grill, she would wander away, on to the next BBQ. This was the way it was, year after year. If a cousin or uncle from another village asked about this horrible presence at everyone’s BBQ who seemed to invite herself and take with impunity, they were quickly shushed. It hadn’t always been like this, they were told. Once, it had been much worse. And, if they were insistent, they were told the story. 

    Maybe it was a generations ago, maybe more. None could really provide facts, but there was no lack of details. The toothless lady seemed ageless, and by all accounts, had always been old. Parents, grandparents, and great grandparents told of growing up with her cursing them. And, it was rumored that the Japanese soldiers gave her a wide berth, which was not their usual way with villagers. Most people were poor back then. It’s why of cuisine of today is so varied. No food matter of plant or animal was every wasted. The blood of pigs or chickens was gathered up and rice was soaked in it for cakes. Offal of every kind of animal was commonly eaten. Brains went in soup. Snakes and frogs went into the stew pot. With such efficient consumption of all food stuffs, it was remarkable that stray cats still abound, in most areas, with the exception of one, and that would be the vicinity around the toothless lady’s abode. It was also on some occasion that one might chance to see a scattering of little ribs around this locale along paths and roadside. It was even rumored that one year, villagers had expended all of their earnings to buy a small whole pig, to offer to their local guardian god as blot for his favor. And an unthinkable thing had happened. As the pig lay splayed in the protective shelter of the temple, someone took it. Robbing god! All eyes were on the toothless lady, it was said. Yet she walked the streets unconcerned, with a callous smile. What ill luck she would bring this village, no one could imagine. 

    So it began. At first, there were small packages outside of her doorstep, of food that some could spare, and other gifts, such as little carved statues, or bits of cloth. But it became clear what the toothless lady cared for, as villagers found their offerings dumped in local’s fishponds and thrown over stone walls. The only thing that the toothless lady kept were gifts of BBQ, specifically, ribs. As the tributes became more satisfying for her, it was observed that the weather grew milder, earning opportunities increased among villagers, and wealth began to build. Through this connection, she became more broadly known as the BBQ witch. Her status had been raised to a local, living god. Yet this is not the end of the story. With surging confidence and pride, it only took a generation for the village to feel its prosperity was from its own excellence and efforts, and that the beliefs of the past were a hindrance of their parents. The BBQ witch began to return to her oddball status as the village hermit and wanderer, and the gifts lain at her door to appease became less, and then ceased. Lessons in the realm of supernatural influence are hard earned. There was then a price to be paid. A drought came, food became more scares, and farms failed. And then there was a bad typhoon season, in which there was flooding, widespread property damage, and loss of life. Life returned to struggling, and people wondered what they had done wrong. While some attributed these events to chance and luck, there was one more blight that no one could deny was an unnatural curse on their village. It was thought to have begun during a typhoon. A young family had battened down their house as the wind and rain beat hard against door and window in the night. A young boy in his bed cried out. He said the howling storm outside of his window was calling his name in a horrible cackling voice. Inconsolable, his parents let him sleep between them that night. And in the morning, he was gone. 

    With no sign of forced entry, it could only be assumed the boy had left the house on his own. Searches followed, to no avail. Rumors spread, the parents told of how the boy heard a voice calling him the night he disappeared. After a week, a lone thin bone was paraded about the town by a black dog that was never seen again. Other disappearances followed. A child walking to school, a mere kilometer stroll, never arrived. Twins riding their bicycles together down a lane never emerge from a wooded grove. And all this while, it seemed, black smoke seeped in little puffs from beneath the BBQ witch’s front door. With sadness and surrender, the village pooled their money and roasted an oversized pig, leaving it at the BBQ witch’s door. No one saw it taken in, but it seemed to immediately vanish. Within days, the luck of the village returned. Crops seemed to leap in size overnight, and businesses had landfalls. The new-found wealth brought celebration and feasting. Traditional BBQs of national days and Chinese New Year increased to several times a week. Outdoor cooking on a grill, ribs of pig and cow were sumptuously consumed, and the BBQ witch made her rounds, inviting herself to every house patio and sidewalk with a grill and ribs. Though not greeted, she was tolerated as everyone knew the cost of shunning her. The black smoke filled the air, and the village became famously known as Black Sky Township.

    Today, our restless and troublesome children squirm themselves to quiet sleep at night under the threat of being wisked away by the hungry BBQ witch who hears the sounds of noisy children or those tardy for their beds at night. “Beware” they are warned, “or the BBQ witch will hear you, and come to steal you away. She’ll BBQ your ribs and spit out your bones in the street!”

The Mosquito Queen

A museum display, corded off with a yellow velveteen sash in a corner, poorly lit, as if a janitor’s tool closet rather than a presentation : a fifty gallon steel drum, dented on one side and painted a turquoise blue, with streaks and gashes of orange rust showing through, a cement cast cauldron that might accommodate goldfish in a back yard garden, some varied colored plastic buckets of different sizes, some cracked down their sides, a brick façade wall painted over grey, accentuating the dimness of the room’s iridescent illumination, with a high rectangular window lit through from the other side to simulate sunlight the entire scene being damp and containers filled to their brims and leaking with water, churning with brown and white speckled mosquito larva constituting a farming of them – is what you can expect to see on entering the Old House, as it had been known before, prior to historicizing the objects and events of its exhibition. Now, it was The Museum of the Mosquito Queen. As before, they tried to retain its setting and surroundings. It still perched slightly on a hill of a long and broad furrowed field at the outskirts of town. 

    Another room you’ll find is full of mature females, and a complicated gulfing of air from circulatory vents assures that they always give the impression of swarming in massive, purposeful blankets as black as the darkest storm cloud, and numbering in the millions of individuals. You risk a death from anemia or any number of viral contractions from entering in here, so the culture monger must sign multiple releases and waivers. Be warned. Now you know. 

    Outside the door and on the grounds, visitors are accompanied by a simulation of her voice, intoning, “I am the Mosquito Queen and you do what I say,” affected with various echoes and cheap movie effects, rings in cheap crackling electric spark of broken speakers across the dilapidated grasslands and meadows of the dilapidated shire. It was thought she suffered from emphysema, so, the curator made the recorded voice rough and phlegmatic. For something at the level of the fairground thrill, it was effectively chilling, and, much what it must have been like to be oppressed by her presence in those darker times. These managed terrors seemed all too authentic, and perhaps so much, that it might be worried they would conjure her dreaded spirit once again, like the  grotto where you row a canoe out into a swamp to relive the primitive horrors of early era dwellers, and find the allegators are all too real, or the cat ghost beneath the thick blanket at night during a storm, impossible to ignore, “meow, meow, meow.” 

    If anymore was from these environs or had roots here they would surely know of the Mosquito plague famed simply as Sour Gash. It takes little imagination to deduce why this name was chosen as its moniker. Once bitten by an infected mosquito, the victim would find their flesh opening up randomly in long broad wounds that would not bleed, but rather become opalescent in color and reek out a smell so bad that you could almost see its thick fumes. Hysterical madness and death followed, and not soon enough. To suffer this was inhuman. And who or what brought such horror to the land? It was that queen! 

    In nature, rarified matters form variously as forces and pressures act on them, be they mineral or vegetable. Coal forms into diamond, stalagmites form from eons of dripping, and oil distills from plant-life under pressure and long decay. Witches and gods may be more of the same, their natures exaggerated and refined in the forge of the deep earth, sky, or ocean. The teemings of the beasts and worldly pests, and itching of pleasure and discomfort serve to complement in traits that differentiate the witch or god from granite, fossil, oils or precious gems. They are imbued with a purposefulness and motive that animates them, as another force does living things. The witch or the god is dead, but, they seem not so. And that is what makes them the most frightening, this mocking disguise. 

    Whenever in a crowd, someone has ordered you. It may be silent, spoken, a command or something felt, but you were influenced as were the others to have gathered there. So witches have instructed their familiars under their control, as gods have driven followers toward the edge of cliffs. The Mosquito Queen was fashioned from the rarities of earth, as I have just described. And as such, took no nourishment as living bodies might but rather sucked a kind of feeling that was in her power to compel. The prick of pain at being stung by the mosquito stinger, amplified a million fold was what she longed for in her lifeless depravity. Infliction! And in her power, she could drive the million stinger in a swarming black fog engulfing victims in the horrible shroud of bloodsucking and viral infusions. 

     In the cold of winter, all her pets were harbored in old wartime cement pillboxes and underground in caves of mountain troops’ retreats from detection.  She would check them daily and they would greet her with a buzzy good morning as their hunger grew. Their lifecycles were suspended in her care, a spell she cast commuted their sentence of short life, and their numbers accumulated geometrically by the day. And then, when temperatures warmed, and stagnant water sat, the black clouds were released into the open spaces of the world! A farmer is engulfed as he shouldered his basket of corn, stings drained him as he folded deflated in a pile of arid parts. You are there. One mosquito is enjoined to raid a marketplace, and finds a victim leaning over bread. One sting is all it takes. It drinks the blood, and in exchange, it lets the virus slip into the host. It isn’t long, before the victim leaves the store, the body ripples into gasping purple lipped vents, the Sour Gash has struck! Afar, evil joy churns and overflows. The Mosquito Queen basks. 

    The beauty of these island havens never pales, like the old growth of the northern hemisphere, yet some other lurking makes bucolic environs insidious and amassing in dangers. You’ve seen it all before! Cute faced with a toxic quill, flights of color likened to a dabbling artist with their paints but touch of the skin that sends admirers wreathing in spasms of pain. It is so with all of earth, with its menagerie of deadlys.

The Ghost Cat  

    Everywhere a cat can squeeze its body through a crack can be their haunt. Are we then surrounded by their spirits? Maybe, and maybe some, more than others, hold a magic key for transporting from world to world. Something earned or learned of in their life. Some cats are special. 

    I the author have some personal memories of cats.

    A blanket is a second cover of darkness in the night. Any streetlight or the lamps of passing cars that filter through a window become doubly barred by a blanket pulled up over heads. The double darkness makes the lock that fits the special ghost cat’s magic key. Mystery solved! The cat comes to the bed of children, hiding from the things that move in the night. ‘Meow.” Almost silent, an echo as if through a long corridor. Approaches through an empty vacuumed expanse. “Meow.” More emphatic, plaintive, and chilling by the addition of a wobble in its pitch, perhaps the cat has intention of being frightening. “We should give it ghost cat food,” a voice reasons, from one of three disembodied speakers engulfed within the blanket, perhaps this is a parent. (sounds of opening an imaginary can, the tinkle of a little spoon, the sound of wet imaginary cat food landing in a bowl) (cat licks, tongue sounds, maybe a purr while eating) Suddenly it is completely silent again. “The cat went away!” yes, it had. Blanket thrown off, laughter. When the ghost cat comes, you must feed it ghost cat food. Then it will go away until the next night. Cats come and go. The average lifespan of a stray cat is two years. In Bandung in Indonesia, staying overnight in a house painted black inside and out, only rivaled by the former Church of Satan in Amsterdam, which had been transformed into a strip club called Bananas, cats began to howl at midnight. From a third-floor window that looked down over most rooftops, I could see scores of cats leaping from roof to roof, caterwauling in the heat, fighting, mating in droves on the terracotta. They tired by three, and by four, the call to worship began from loudspeakers mounted on the spires of mosques. In Taiwan is a village for old soldiers who have now all passed away, which has been taken over by cats. Some kindly types consider it a holy place, and come daily to feed the ever growing community of felines. 

    While studying music composition in college, it was recommended that I buy a pet to help me stay at home at night, to help further my studies by making me a homebody. It was a reasonable idea, and I purchased a white mouse. After some initial introductions of forms and concepts, the composition students were finally required to compose a piece of music for a small orchestra, to be performed in class. I had a few days to complete the assignment, but by the night before, I was still drawing a blank. I looked at the music paper on my table, and then I looked at my mouse. And then I had an idea. I found a bottle of India ink and poured some into a saucer. Then I took my mouse out of his cage, wet his feet in the ink, and let him run around on my tabletop covered with music paper. After a little jaunt, I cleaned off his feet and put him back in his cage.  The ink spots he created were unusual but surprisingly patterned, and easy to transcribe, and arrange for eight instruments. What I thought would be an all-nighter turned out to be an early night in. The composition went over very well in class. The performance left students and musicians initially silent. And then came a very deep discussion of the content, and the form. I took all of the credit. A work of some genius the teacher said. Subsequent compositions got only better as I learned how to collaborate with my partner. And I was being heralded as the next new thing. Being a young man, I still visited my family on national days. This time, I traveled with my new friend the mouse. Over dinner, my family found my new partnership amusing. Their crazy son and brother, making good at school with his foolish ways! At some time during the activities that day, the family cat managed to sneak its way into the room unnoticed, slip open the door to the mouse cage and remove the mouse. When I saw he was missing, I knew exactly what had happened. My mind flashed to ten years before, to my first pet ever. It was a pretty blue parrot, which we kept in a cage hanging from a freestanding pole to the side of the television in the living room. After only a day in our home, the parrot was missing from his cage. How had he escaped, I wondered. No amount of searching turned him up. He was gone. A week later, I was playing in our basement, where I often liked to roll on top of the potatoes in their bins, they felt so comfortable and cool. Underneath the stairs, I came across a single blue feather. So, that was my poor pet’s fate, eaten by the cat. I went there now. Sure enough, a single tiny bone and a spot of blood was all I found of my gifted mouse. I tried to simulate our compositional inventions, but there was no repeating the chemistry we had. In my mind, the family cat had destroyed the future of western music. Long gone now, but does this cat still wander the earth, cursed for his sins? Does he seek out beloved or useful pets to slaughter to satisfy his malignant hungers? Or is it simply a contempt for beauty in response to him own mundane and talentless embodiment? 

    For some months, my wife took up a practice of rescuing cats. That sometimes involved a difficult capture of a stray, or taking in a litter of abandoned kittens. At any given time, we housed twelve or more cats in our rooms. She found homes for many, but some, which arrived in poor condition, died in her care. Perhaps their spirits lingered in this only home they had ever know, or, they sent out a beacon-like signal to the cats that passed and didn’t know their way. This was a safehouse. Our children still play the “ghost cat” game of hiding in bed under a blanket and feeding a ghost cat ghost cat food. But the truth is, it is not uncommon to hear a meow around our game. If we sleep with the window open, it is not surprising to hear them in our stray infested neighborhood. Yet it is possible, and sounds to be, that the spirit of one on occasion enters our rooms and finds its way beneath the blanket to be fed by our innocent though sometimes morbidly obsessed children.

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