Chapter 7: An Unlikely Encounter
The nameless old man’s home seemed impossible to Brandyé; a door in the trunk of an enormous tree, low so that he had to stoop, and then stairs that led deep below the earth. Had Brandyé not been following him, he would have passed the entrance unaware of its existence. It made him wonder whether there might not be other homes in the forest that he had passed.
At the foot of the stairs was a cave of earthen floor and walls, yet it was clean and warm and comfortable. A hearth had been carved from the wall at one point, and a welcoming fire blazed within it, the smoke whirling inexplicably up and out of the cave, though there was no obvious opening. Candles burned here and there so that the cave was well-lit, and Brandyé could see the clutter and paraphernalia of a well-lived home.
There was a passage that led from this main room, but it was dark and the old man did not bother with it. Instead, he beckoned Brandyé to sit at a small table near the fire, and fastened a kettle above the flames. “Ah!” he said. “We shall have tea indeed, soon.”
Brandyé was still so utterly mystified that he could but act as though all of this was utterly normal, and asked, “Is there any biscuit, or bread?”
“No,” replied the old man. “But there is something better – caterpillar loaf.”
Brandyé was not sure he had heard correctly. “I beg your pardon – did you say caterpillar loaf?”
“I believe so,” said the old man. “Did you hear something different?”
Brandyé shook his head. “Is it what it sounds like?”
The old man frowned at him. “What does it sound like to you?”
Brandyé was befuddled. “It sounds like it is made from caterpillars.”
The man smiled. “Then so it must be! I grind them and bake them – it is quite a treat.”
And as Brandyé watched, the old man bumbled about, gathering mugs and plates and knives, and from a pantry in the wall brought some butter and what appeared to be a small loaf of bread, but of a greenish color. Brandyé felt bile, but insisted to himself that he at least be polite with this strange person.
Soon the kettle was whistling, and the old man unhooked it from the hearth and poured it into the mugs. He then ground herbs into the steaming water, and suggested they wait a few moments while the tea brewed. He cut a slice of the loaf, and offered it to Brandyé. “I prefer mine plain,” he said, “but you may wish to have some butter with yours.”
Without a word, Brandyé took the loaf, and inspected it carefully. He saw no legs or antennae or other signs that it was made of what the old man had suggested, but it certainly was not bread as he knew it. With a knife he cut some butter, spread it over the slice, and took a bite.
He was quite surprised to find that it in fact had quite a light and sweet flavor, and as the scent of the tea began to reach him, he realized it was a perfect compliment. “It is quite good,” he said with his mouth full.
“Thank you.” The old man smiled. “The butter is made from flies’ eggs.”
Brandyé stopped chewing, and focused upon the man once more. “Truly?” he mumbled.
“At least, that is what I put into it.”
Brandyé paused, and wondered if he could swallow what was in his mouth. After a moment, though, he recalled that he had eaten things not so dissimilar during his solitude by the Black Sea, and in any case, the knowledge hadn’t changed the flavor, which was still pleasant.
“Is the taste familiar?” the old man asked.
“It is,” Brandyé admitted. “Some years ago I was forced to live on my own with no provisions. There were occasions when such things were all I could find, though I burned them first.”
“Interesting,” the old man mused. “Shall I burn your loaf for you?”
“No – it’s very nice the way it is.”
“I am glad,” the old man said. “I am glad also, that we should meet. I have wished to speak with you for some time.”
Brandyé took a sip of tea, and said, “I do not understand you. You act as though you know me, but it is impossible that we should have ever met.”
“It is?” The old man seemed curious, and amused.