I MUST NOT engage with strangers.
My partner of thirty years has warned me about my alarming behaviour. Don’t start conversations, he tells me. Just answer with a polite yes or no. Just smile and say you are fine if anyone asks.
What he and I have noticed is that I somehow manage to get from Hi, how are you? to we will not survive the encroaching apocalypse in a maximum of five sentences. Conversations with me are fraught. Small talk is a thing of the past. In my work as an events co-ordinator at a bookshop I have found myself introducing a celebratory Christmas event by telling people we should enjoy this event now because we are bound to get more virulent strains of the coronavirus popping up in the oncoming calendar year and who knows when we will be able to meet in real life again. The crowd claps half-heartedly. Nobody laughs.
Days after the recent floods in my home town of Brisbane I battled thick mud, cancelled buses and closed bike paths to get to the bookshop to host a workshop. Not only did I acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we were meeting on but found myself acknowledging the mighty Maiwar, the Brisbane River, and suddenly my preamble was a speech about climate change and the insanity of building a city on a floodplain and, yes, yet again thanking people for gathering in a rare time before the whole of Brisbane is reclaimed by the river.
I’m not sure the workshop participants knew where to go from there.
In one of my unchecked interactions with a friend’s grown son it took only two sentences to get to the apocalypse.
Him: Hi, how are you going?
Me: Oh you know, about as well as you can expect when the world is about to end and we are sitting like lobsters over the fire, just letting the pot get hotter and hotter without trying to get out.
To my surprise he didn’t take a few steps back, eyeing me warily and wishing he had not greeted me at all. Instead he talked about how he was hoping to buy a property out bush and stock it with all the supplies and food and equipment he might need to defend himself and his potential future family.
Oh God no, I told him. You would need to buy guns and fight off hordes of hungry people. You would need to be the best fighter to survive. Eat them or be eaten, I said.
He agreed. He was up to the task. He would defend his imaginary family with his life.
Just eat me here in the city, I told him. When the apocalypse looks imminent – and, to be honest, that seems like it is right now – I’ll have a marinade made up, something that would go well with human flesh and I’ll set the barbeque going and invite you all for my final feast.
I remember that scene from the 1989 Peter Greenaway film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover where the murdered lover is prepared and served to be eaten by Helen Mirren’s husband and his band of horrible men. It is a scene that has stuck with me. Even when I first saw that film, I knew there was something noble in a death that celebrates our flesh as animal flesh. A death that feeds a crowd and revels in culinary experimentation.
I have always been a foodie. My best moments are great gatherings of friends around a table full of delights. Feeding her family was my grandmother’s only way of showing love. I have inherited her impulse to provide. I do not feel safe unless I have the ingredients in my cupboard to create an impromptu feast for a dozen friends.
The idea of having my body lovingly prepared and cooked as a feast for friends seems like a particularly beautiful death to me, and one that needs careful planning and consideration.
I turn to my copious supply of cookbooks. The vegan and vegetarian cookbooks are left on the shelf. I have no need for a light vinaigrette, a sambal or a sweet chilli infusion. The kind of meat on my bones needs a headier treatment, something thick and dark, salty, syrupy.
I have heard that human flesh tastes like pork. I am not sure where this rumour first started but somehow it has seeped into the popular imagination. I look like a pig when I crouch down. My flesh is pink and mottled and fat-filled. I have been well fed, fattened as is the case with a prized animal.
When I was visiting Slovenia, the land of my ancestors, I bought a Slovenian book on Koline. Koline is the ancient art of pig slaughtering. It is a day-long festival following years of living with a pig as if it were a member of the family. The pig has a good life, a good diet, a happy place among the children of the household, but on the day of Koline the animal’s throat is cut and the corpse is bled out into several buckets.
The blood is spiced then baked and served at the Koline festival. The next stage in the Koline is to burn the hair from the pig’s body. I only have sparse hair on my skin, in my crotch, on my chin, my calves, my armpits, my head. Still my corpse might benefit from this kind of smoking. Hay and bean pods are heaped over the body of the pig and it is set on fire. The fire burns off the hair and roasts the ears of the pig. The ears are then cut off and served to the villagers. The body is covered in straw a second time and women of child-bearing age are urged to ride the body of the pig.
This is a detail that I want repeated at my own last feast. The revelry of it, the debauchery. The wonderful abandon of young women climbing onto my corpse and riding me as I have not been ridden in years. Apparently this ritual, which is still a part of Koline in some parts of Slovenia today, will ensure that the young women become pregnant within the season.
I’m not sure why a young woman would want to bear children in the end times, but the idea of me fathering them from beyond the grave in a final orgiastic moment of pure abandon sounds like the send-off I would very much like to have.
After this final ride my spine will be removed with an axe. Two clean blows to the back, and then the dismemberment. This is nose-to-tail eating. The entrails are cleaned and used for sausage casings. Buckwheat, marjoram, yellow pepper, ginger, paprika. All the spices that can be used to fill a sausage, mixed with roasted lungs and raw liver, the fleshy parts of the head.
Carna klobása is cooked flesh and lungs and spice. Zemlova krvavica is a black pudding made from stock and bread and blood. A kind of sausage is made of the animal’s meat preserved and stuffed into the stomach lining. This kind of sausage is often referred to as man (ded), made from the stuffed lining, or woman (baba), made from flesh and meat, spices and onion stuffed into a part of the beast called the ‘blind gut’. The men and women are cooked and then weighted down with large stones till they are almost flat. Then they are hung in a smoker for two days before being smothered in pumpkin oil and vinegar.
I remember the thick green pumpkin oil from the three months I lived in Ljubljana. A drizzle on salad, a splash for cooking. There is no other flavour like it. Should I order some now for the end times, for this final feast, for the Koline, the sharing of my flesh at the end of the world?
PREKMURSKA ŠUNKA IS a particular, regional type of preserved ham. Thick thighs hung in the high winds that are specific to the Karst region where my grandmother was born. This type of ham is protected by a government order.
This is another thing I love about Slovenia, this protection of national dishes. I have already read about the national cake, the potica, which has a protection order over it. No one is allowed to vary the recipe without breaking the law. The same applies to the protected ham of my grandmother’s birthplace, the prekmurska šunka and, more regionally specific, the vipavski pršut from the area around the Vipava River where my grandmother’s village of Miren is located.
Of course, I would be varying the recipe by replacing pig with my own human leg. I would be breaking a law, but we are way past lawfulness here. We are at the period of the apocalypse where my friend’s son is stockpiling ammunition with his wife and children huddled in the bunker behind him. We are at the point where I am laying out a crisp white linen tablecloth, silver platters gleaming among bunches of herbs and an assortment of tealights.
I have mixed up the spices and cooked the onions, so many onions. The recipes are complicated, numerous and varied. Sausage, stew, ham, crackling, ears, crisped and crunchy on a plate. Gather your young women around me. Prepare the buckets to collect my blood, because when I cut my own throat at the end of the world, I want to be ridden till the bucking throes of my death shudder to a halt. I want there to be dancing, the smell of black pepper. A slather of green pumpkin oil. I want you to eat me. To honour me, here in the city where I have lived most of my life, as the Maiwar rises and the ancestors ululate and my own Slovenian ancestors sing for all the pigs they have slaughtered across a tumultuous and rising ocean, over the thousands of years since the beginning of humanity, which was the beginning of the end of the world.
So, stranger, well met. I see we have got from hello to the apocalypse in the small stretch of a few pages. And now, at my long-suffering partner’s urging, I really should just fare thee well.