Food For Thought

The late Patricia Highsmith’s diaries were published recently. Highsmith is the author of The Talented Mr Ripley and Strangers On A Train among many others. She wrote a mean short story too – mean in every sense of the word – some of which I read a while back. The following is a spoof of the kind of thing she came up with.  

Vernon had read somewhere about how ancient Aztecs – or perhaps it was Mayans – would eat the hearts of brave enemies so that they might absorb their courage. He was sure too he’d read something about how, on the same principle, consuming the flesh of intelligent creatures endowed the consumer with whatever intelligence the creatures had originally possessed. He read some strange things, he knew, but had become fully convinced that in principle these facts must be true. As he was, he felt, averse to cannibalism, he researched what would be the most intelligent animals one might reasonably devour. He supposed that dolphins and chimpanzees were off limits – though hadn’t he read of an African tribe that considered chimpanzee a delicacy? – and discovered an article that suggested intelligent life had evolved twice-over. Next to humans, it said, cephalopods were considered to have the greatest intelligence. Apparently the octopus brain was diffused throughout its body and therefore to eat it did not entail ingesting lumps of grey matter. Rather, it could be taken into the body in a soup or stew made from the entire organism.

The next set-back, he was disappointed to discover, was that octopus soup was not readily available in any of the stores near to where he lived. However, after further enquiry, he was pleased to learn that a Japanese restaurant in the next town specialised in such a dish. Accordingly, he determined to travel there on a daily basis, Sundays not included, to take his evening meal. He was surprised, though pleasantly so, to discover that octopus soup had a certain piquancy to it, reminiscent of a crab paste he had once tasted. He found it eminently palatable and for the next sixteen days, Sundays not included, partook of cephalopod consommé.

He would have continued with his regime for longer if not for a peculiar development. While his intelligence and capacity for deep thought had, he was pleased to say, improved considerably as a result of his new diet, he discovered on rising on the seventeenth day, that unsightly red blotches had appeared all along his arms. He was further dismayed, on swinging his legs from the bed, to see that the same marks ran from ankle to thigh.

Doctor Highsmith was at a loss to explain them. ‘Probably a virus of some sort,’ she said vaguely, washing her hands after what Vernon considered to be a perfunctory examination.’Or an allergic reaction to something. If I didn’t know better, I might even say you’d contracted plague – ring-a-roses and all that,’ she joked; impertinently Vernon thought. He wondered if his new diet could have played a part in his condition, but considered it best not to mention it to the doctor. He had, he knew, already surpassed her level of intelligence and did not therefore expect her to understand.

He was further alarmed two days later, however, when the red blotches had assumed a more three-dimensional appearance. They looked now rather like miniature, red-rimmed volcanic craters. He counted sixty-four in total, a neat multiple of eight. They were not painful but had blossomed so that his normal pasty flesh tones were all but obliterated with zig-zagged rows of the little craters. They somehow looked familiar and so he returned to his Encyclopaedia Animalia and the pages relating to cephalopods. Yes, that was what it was; the craters were like the suction cups on the arms of the creatures. He was not unduly alarmed; it was perhaps only to be expected after consuming so many of them and he was sure the symptoms would pass. His confidence was shaken a little though, when he caught himself adding an excess of salt to his food. It was rocked when he noticed that when passing water he was instead emitting a blue-black substance, indistinguishable from the ink secreted by octopuses themselves.

He was on the point of dialling Doctor Highsmith again when he was struck with a stabbing pain in his right arm. He rolled up his shirt sleeve to discover the entire limb had now a deep gash of glistening crimson, running its entire length between the rows of suction cups. Each side of this channel appeared to be on the verge of parting company with the other. His left arm was the same. He dared not look at his legs. He took up the telephone again but was shocked to discover that his lips had hardened around his mouth to the point of being beak-like. He was simultaneously overtaken by an urgent and compulsive need to visit the coast.

He drove to the sea – he knew not how – and abandoning his vehicle, tore off this clothes with what remained of his hands. He ran, gulping for air, to the cliff top. Launching himself from its prominence he entered the water, eight limbs trailing behind a now bulbous body, and disappeared beneath the surface.


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