The problem with fasting forty days and forty nights is that he had, once again, forgotten how to eat.
He had been on individual assignment this time. There was so much need in the world now he and his companions often split up. This one had not been so hard. He had helped a lonely, sad woman pass peacefully into a death he would never know. But it had required much fasting and prayer. For all her loneliness and pain, she had clung fiercely onto a life that while full of disappointments was at least a life she was accustomed to.
She was needed on the other side. He knew it. She knew it. But she still wouldn’t let go. And when she finally did, he found that he no longer had an appetite. He had forgotten how to eat.
Not that he and his two companions needed to eat. Not exactly. Their nourishment came solely through the spirit. Light equals intelligence equals truth equals power equals a full belly (or rather: equals sufficient energy and nutrients for their cells to go about their work). But while their bodies technically needed no additional sustenance–stuck as they were between mortality and immortality–the ability to eat was still crucial for them to magnify their callings.
For one, the power of the fast was useless without some sort of privation and whatever celestial physics and chemistry governed the feeding of their post-translation state was impossible to dampen or turn off. Not even, say, withdrawing to a place with no sunlight. Or immersing oneself in the depths of the sea. Thus, the only way for them to fast was to eat—eat well—and then stop eating.
For another, if they didn’t eat, they had trouble focusing on their work. It was as if physical nourishment was necessary not to the functioning of their bodily systems, but rather to the psychological conditions required to keep them tethered to this reality (as opposed to that other reality they felt coursing through their veins but that otherwise was just out of reach). Without eating, without regularly partaking in meals they lost their purpose. They felt the sins of the world as irritants rather than sorrows. They saw the suffering of others as something inevitable and intractable rather than something to be coaxed towards hope and faith.
To fast was to draw with strength upon the powers of heaven and direct them toward a particular purpose or cause; to eat was to connect deeply with the mortality they had left behind centuries before.
For him, the easiest way to remember was to have a particular dish that jolted him back into the desire for the experience of eating. A poached egg with sourdough toast and mushrooms fried in butter from this one café in Noe Valley. Canned tamales. A pomegranate molasses that had just the right amount of sugar to cut the bracing sour and that hadn’t been available since before the first world war. But the danger of such particularity, of course, is that if you’re not careful, it becomes a habit, and then that brand changes its formula or the restaurant loses its chef or an ingredient becomes impossible to get.
He started with fast food. It was not as reliable as it once had been, but sometimes it still worked. When the order was ready, he found he just couldn’t do it. He tried various fine dining establishments—concealed himself so he could watch the dishes be cooked and served. But nothing appealed to him. It all seemed too great and spacious. He wandered the aisles of an upmarket grocery store in a daze, eyes sliding off of every item with no stirring of desire—not even the hope for the particle of a desire.
He needed to leave the city. That was all. Someplace new would bring him back. Someplace not so wretchedly hot. He rented a car. Drove a little too erratic and fast. Drunk (so-to-speak) on his fast. Had to talk a highway patrol officer out of giving him a ticket.
Without knowing how, he found himself pulling into the driveway of the house belonging to the woman he had wrestled with lo, these many weeks.
Breaking in was not difficult. Being there was, especially with the air conditioning turned off. He sought the coolness of the basement. Studied the swollen metal cans, the barrels of hard wheat, the packs of freeze-dried strawberries gone gummy with the years. He opened up one of the barrels and thrust his hand into the kernels of wheat. They were hard and cool. Slightly musty, but not moldy.
He thought of some of his travels behind the Iron Curtain. A certain notion developed. He decided to pursue it.
He went back upstairs. Found a pan. Took it to the basement and scooped several cups of wheat into it. Filled it with water. Boiled the wheat until it bloated—soft but still chewy. He added the contents of a box of dark, crystallized raisins he found in the pantry. Added a cup of sugar for good measure and a lot of cinnamon. Poured it all into the olive wood bowl he had washed a month earlier after tossing the fruit that had been molding in it.
He set the largest of her doilies on the dining room table and placed the bowl on top of it. He had no cocoa powder, so he made the cross on top with a chocolate syrup so dark it was almost black. He stepped back and looked over his creation. It was not the most presentable colivă he had ever made, and certainly not the usual offering for a tough old Mormon woman who had died. But it was suitable. He looked at it for a while longer before coming to a decision: he had never died, but he could eat food for the dead.
He strolled to the kitchen in search of a clean spoon.
A Q&A about this story with William Morris is available here.