. That was the word I've been trying to remember all week. Stories about the future are traditionally divided into happy stories (where everyone lived in an idealised perfect society - Utopia - ) and the other kind, where the writer wanted to, say, make a point about how crap Socialism was (Orwell
, "1984"), or how dangerous genetic engineering was (Huxley
, "Brave New World") or, in what was called the "eco-thriller", how mother nature would fuck you over if you didn't recycle your plastic bags. Dystopia.
Well, here we are living in the future, and they were all wrong; things just got weird and dumb. Example: where I live you can still buy insecticide, household cleansers, toilet paper, light bulbs, diet Pepsi, trashy romance novels and those little cylinders filled with nitrous oxide that give you a ten-second buzz. There is still free-to-air television, internet access, electricity (some of the time), social security and sanitation. The only things we don't have are jobs and food. Everyone I know is on the dole and spending most of it on rent; the climate is fucked up to the point where winter lasts all year and the only thing that's edible in the shops is rice, and you'd better stock up on that when they have it. Incredible! We're living in the twenty-first fucking century and we're eating the same food as third-world peons in, well, the third world.
All the little bakeries, the fast-food places, the pizzerias, fish shops, restaurants and the fruit-and-veg shops; they all closed over a period of two years. They didn't have anything to sell. Some of the supermarkets are still going, but shopping in them is like a trip back in time to the Soviet Union circa 1975. They still have the shelves where they used to stock food; they just don't have anything to put on them. There are huge shopping malls in some suburbs that sell real food, I've heard, but you need a couple of hundred bucks before they'll even let you park outside. There was a minor media thing when a gang of starving unemployed tried to rush the security guards. Some of the dolies were beaten to death, but people forgot about it after the next big aircraft explosion. Maybe there's something about a low protein diet that gives people the attention span of a goldfish.
Mmm... fried goldfish.
Once some friends of mine drove up to the country because they'd heard that farmers still had cows and sheep. They were going to kill some, bring them back to the suburbs and sell the meat (there's that low-protein-diet thinking again; what they really wanted to do was bring them back then kill them). They said they drove around for four days and didn't see a living thing more advanced than a tree. Most of us have already tried eating leaves. They're not very tasty. Or filling. Or nutritious.
There were still stray rats, cats, dogs and possums, but anything still living out here in the suburbs was too smart to be trapped. The cats survived by eating crows and possums. Packs of dogs fed on cats, crows and possums. Occasionally a dog would be killed in a fight and, after the pack had eaten all the good bits, dozens of crows would come descend in a coal-black wave and peck at what was left. God knows what the possums ate.
This is where I decided to step in, with my next door neighbor Jade The Mad Bitch. She's a slat-thin goth who actually likes living out here because the supermarkets still sell cough syrup and vodka. She has the kind of metabolism which allows her to get by on one meal a week. Me, I'm descended from hearty Polish peasant stock, and occasionally I need to eat meat. When I woke Jade out of her hibernation and told her what I had in mind, she sneered, "Oh, right. You'll eat crow, but you won't eat dog."
"I can pretend that crows are just evil chickens. I can't make dog seem like anything except dog. And don't dogs carry rabies?"
"No, that's bats. You with me on this or not? Think of the feathers, Jade. Lots of black feathers." That got her in. "Here's the plan. We go down to the park, find some crows - "
"- the collective noun for 'crows' is a 'murder' -"
" - I know that. Everybody knows that. Okay. Right. We find a murder of crows, toss a weighted nylon gill-net over them and if we trap any, we club them to death with a shovel."
"Sounds like a plan. Not much of a plan, but it's a plan. It's been a long time since I had any fried chicken."
It worked, more or less. We managed to trap four crows, big turkey-sized fuckers too full of raw dog (I tried not to think about that) to get away. They hung on to life, I'll give them that, and they weren't at all intimidated by mammals twenty times bigger than them. What finally stopped them wasn't so much a shovel over the back of the head, as a shovel through the neck. Jade wanted to keep the heads, and I let her. When we'd thrown the net over them their eyes had been glittering pale emeralds. Within quarter of an hour the eyes were the colour of dried snot, and she lost interest in the heads.
So there we were, fifteen minutes later, in my living room, with four headless crows. They were bigger than the chickens I remembered from the take-aways, but part of that was the memory of how viciously they'd fought back after we'd netted them.
I looked at the crows. I looked at Jade. She looked at me. I looked at the crows again.
"Well?" she said.
"Well. I've never cooked crow before. I do know, from reading the Furry Freak Brothers, that you have to pull the insides out first."
She stared at me. "You know... What did you stuff the turkey with? I didn't have to stuff it - it was already full."
Jade rolled her eyes in exasperation. "I'll prepare them."
Since the power was out, we built a bonfire on the vacant lot where one of the units had partly burned down last year. There were still many goodly-sized pieces of wood to hand; I siphoned a cup of petrol from my car to get it going. It was quite festive. We sat down next to the blazing heap of wood and pulled feathers out of dead crows. We had to use pliers.
Jade wanted to leave their feet on. "Here. These two are yours, and these two are mine." I used the pliers to cut through the legs about two inches from the claws (the tendons snapped and withdrew into the withered flesh), tossed the feet onto the fire where they clutched at the coals and smelled like death.
"Jesus, that's teddible."
Jade grinned. "You think that's bad?" She threw a handful of feathers onto the fire. They ignited and spiralled up with the hot air. Thankfully most of the stench rose with them. I couldn't decide if it was more like rotting dog carcasses or septic sewage. A little of both, perhaps, with a touch of sulphur. Remembering the archetypal Priest's Speech On Hell from James Joyce, I thought this is what hell would smell like, all the time.
I held one of the naked birds up to the firelight. "Are they supposed to be this colour?" I wondered. "I don't remember food ever being quite that shade of grey."
"Oh, for fuck's sake, we're eating crow. Don't be so fucking fussy." She laid the largest specimen on its back on a sheet of plywood, whipped out her goth dagger and sliced it open from the ragged neck-stump down to its asshole. There was... stuff inside. I pretended not to be repelled. She grabbed a handfull of the stuff, pulled and sliced through pale membranes. She held up a cupped hand, smeared with blood, filled with... uh, stuff.
"Please, don't throw that on the - " Of course, that's where she threw it. It hissed and started to burn. "Oh, fuck." The smell got worse.
She wiped her hand on the yellowed, dying grass. "Where the hell did you think I was going to put it?"
I can only suppose she was trying to cheer me up by holding the crow carcass by its wing-tips and making it dance. "Doobley-doobley doo," she pantomimed.
"You're not helping," I muttered, casting about for a wooden spar to mount the thing on. She made the bird dance a can-can, its claws clattering on the plywood, before impaling it on a section of aluminium window-frame and arranging it over the flames. What had been tiny puckered dimples in the chicken flesh from my memory was, in plucked crow, ragged holes with slivers of feather-horn sticking out here and there. After a few moments we realised it wasn't going to cook dangling over the flames, so I pushed it into the coals. Jade eviscerated the next bird while I went through my collection of spices; the sorts of things you accumulate over the years because you never find a use for them. Ground nutmeg? Garlic and coriander? Maple syrup? Chicken salt! Yes. I pulled the bird from the fire, sprinkled, and put it back. The flames flared sodium-yellow.
I felt I was losing face by my reservedness, so I offered to gut the remaining two. I laid the bird on its back, held it gingerly by one wing-tip and sawed at the breastbone with a serrated-edged kitchen knife that had once sliced bread, when we'd had bread to slice. The skin parted. The blade went in easily.
"You don't want to cut the insides into sections," Jade cautioned. "or you'll be forever getting it all out. Just open the body, peel it back..." It didn't want to open neatly; it was all held together by a sticky, stringy mesentery which was tougher than the skin. I managed to seperate the two with some success, then I reached in with my eyes closed. It was still warm; the internal stuff had an unpleasantly grainy feel, as if the bird had been eating gravel. "That's it," Jade enthused, "give it a good squeeze and then pull."
Which I did. And, of course, it came apart in my fingers. I gulped, grasped the sticky wetness a little more firmly and tugged again. Pieces of it came out. With my eyes still closed, I threw the insides onto the fire. When I opened my eyes, I saw the guts had landed on top of the bird roasting in the coals.
"I'm not very good at this," I decided.
We experimented with a couple of different cooking systems; the one that I feel worked the best was the Crow Wrapped In Wire and Burned to Buggery. The Spit-Roasted Crow kept falling off its spit; not enough meat to hold it on.
I elected to wait until the meat had turned black, burning my fingers on the wire as I unwound it. I pinned the carcass to the plywood with the bread knife and pulled on a drumstick. Then I pulled some more. Then I decided it wasn't done yet and held it in the coals, dangling from the knife, until enough flesh had been burned through to allow the leg to part from the torso.
She was waiting for me to try it first. Well, if I hadn't impressed her with my crow-gutting skills, I would dazzle her with my reckless crow-eating. I sniffed the ragged end; it didn't smell like chicken. At least it didn't smell like burning crow's feet. My tongue found a small piece that had looked a bit like chicken; I took it in my teeth, pulled, chewed. It tasted of wood smoke and chicken salt, with a faint hint of petrol. It was greasy and flaked with ash, but it was way better than rice.
Jade added some chicken salt to the smoking crow on a stick, then buried her teeth in blackened flesh. She chewed enthusiastically. "No'bad. 'Specially with salt. After all," she added, a mad glint in her eyes, several crow's feathers poking from her hair at odd angles and soot smeared across her cheek, "we aren't savages."
We ate all four of them and washed them down with cough syrup and vodka. We're going back to catch some more tomorrow.