Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Magic Oven, Part 1 of 2

There was a man named Hatoshi who owned a roadside restaurant and it wasn’t very good.  He burned mushrooms, he burned rice.  Rumor had it that he burned water as well.  His wife, Shisso, insisted he try something he did better, like becoming a pyromancer in the emperor’s army.  But the would-be cook loved people and he loved food, and he wanted people to be happy eating his food.
One day an odd little man entered the restaurant.  He had the look of the road etched on his blistered feet, but he dressed like a wealthy daimyo and had the face of an ancient priest.  The cook was nervous about so noble a guest, but the old man was hungry and a restaurant was expected to feed its customers.  The odd man ordered sushi and seven bowls of stripped beef, and the cook cut live fish from the sea and threw slabs of beef into his oven.
The meal was no sooner made than eaten.  The odd man smiled and patted his gut.  “That was the worst rice I ever had, and I’ve lived over three hundred years.  You forgot to burn a few spots, you know.  The sushi was fine as you let me decide how dead to make it.”
Hatoshi bowed.  “I beg your forgiveness, my lord.”
“I am no lord—merely a wanderer who loves his food.  You put too much fire into all this, and by that I mean too much love.”  The traveler reached into his robes and out came a large, stone box.  “They say a demon forged this oven long ago, but it’s been so greatly changed in manner and making that demon hands could hardly be credited.  Pour love into this magic oven if you wish to see wonders, my friend.  Then you will make wondrous food.”  The odd man did not pay with any more than the oven and a wink before leaving the restaurant and returning to the road.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
“You let him leave without leaving a coin?” Shisso asked when the man was gone.  “You think we’ll live on your love and extra ovens?  You can’t even use the old one properly.  If only you were a businessman.  Now, come help me.  A cow has dropped dead on the road and its owner will give us the rest if we cook him some of it.  Now that is a trade!  If only lightning had struck it first, it might be cooked better than what you’ll give this man.”
Hatoshi helped Shisso drag the dead cow inside.  Shisso led the man to a table and the cook went to his proper place in the kitchen.  His old oven had been faithful, never given him the trouble he gave the food, but the new one, plain as it looked, was at least worth a try.
He opened it.  There was no place to set a fire in its base, only a place to set food.  He would never hear the end of it if he let a slab of beef rot on cold stone when it could’ve at least been horribly burnt, but he had to try something.  The odd man had said it was magic, after all.  Hatoshi dropped a cut chunk of cow inside.
“It usually takes the better part of an hour to cook,” he said.  “Of course, maybe less is better.”
The moment Hatoshi shut his mouth, the oven door flew open.  There on the stone sat a choice beef steak, sizzling with juices, cooked not too much, not too little, but exactly right.
“It smells far too good to stay outside my mouth for long,” the traveler said, and he happily devoured the piece of his old cow.  “Wonderful!  Delicious!  I’ve never tasted better!  I thought it was bad luck for my cow to drop dead so far from home, but a meal so fantastic is worth a little bad luck.”  The man had a second helping and went his merry way.
“How did you manage that?” Shisso asked her husband.  “If only you could make money appear so easily, like a magician.”
“Try to be happy that I have made a meal right,” Hatoshi said.  “Should I do it again, I beg your forgiveness that I’ll continue cooking.”
Hatoshi did it again and went on cooking.  Travelers came from the direction the cow owner had gone, eager to taste Hatoshi’s delicious beef.  They brought cows of their own, one after another, and soon the cook could sell spare beef to others for imperial tokens and bits of gold.
And with money came new ingredients, new recipes, and not one dish failed.  Any animal Hatoshi threw into the oven emerged roasted perfectly.  Any combination of herbs, spices, and vegetables that went in emerged as a mysterious delicacy.  Even rice came out properly, as if it had been boiled over a fire.  Everything that entered the oven came out right.
Except Shisso’s opinions.  The better the restaurant became, the more livid her mood.  “We weren’t supposed to stay in the wilderness,” she said.  “Not doing this, at least.  If only you’d been a great philosopher, or a hunter of demons.”  The cooking itself seemed to offend her, and the greater Hatoshi’s popularity, the less he could stand his wife’s nagging.
On Monday, she said, “If only you’d been a builder of fortresses.”
On Tuesday, “If only you’d been a general for the army.”
On Wednesday, “If only you’d been an advisor to the emperor.”
On Thursday, she lost her voice.
On Friday, she continued.  “If only you’d been a—”
Hatoshi was a man of vast patience.  He had to be to withstand his failures for so long.  But even the pleasant cook had his limits, and on a day that wasn’t Monday, but wasn’t Friday, before anyone arrived at his restaurant, he’d had enough.  When Shisso began again, Hatoshi thought of a hundred things she could say, each a profession that would bring the couple closer to civilization, which wasn’t where Hatoshi wanted to be.  Being a bandit would get him there, for his execution.  Being the skin for some parasitic demon could do it too.  Hatoshi could’ve argued, but he didn’t feel like it.  All he wanted to do was cook.
He didn’t realize he was doing just that until he heard his wife’s scream and saw his hand slam the magic oven’s door shut.  He shouted her name and tried prying the oven door, but it wouldn’t open until a moment later, when the cooking was done.
“Shisso?”  Hatoshi pulled a succulent side of meat from the oven and laid it on the nearest table.  “Shisso, can it be?  How could I do this?”  Hatoshi sank to the floor beside the oven and rested his face in his hands.  “My poor wife.  I beg your forgiveness.  I was so distracted by my love of cooking that I forgot my love for you.”  He wept for a while and noticed nothing of the world until he heard a great cheer.
At the table where he had left his wife, five men dined.  Wife grease dribbled and wife fat sat to the side.  Wife bones piled on one plate and wife meat was chewed between men’s teeth.  “We didn’t know where you were,” the leader said, the man whose cow had dropped dead on the road months ago.  “We decided to start eating and pay when you returned.”
Hatoshi bailed his fists and a mighty bout of curses soared up his throat, the kind that could turn their target’s cheeks red with embarrassment and his hair white with surprise.
Before the cook could speak, the leader continued.  “And we would pay anything.  I’ve tasted nearly every meat you’ve roasted, every recipe you’ve baked, but this is surely your finest work.  With a meal like this, your restaurant could be the most famous in the land.  Thousands of diners would flock here to taste it, perhaps even the emperor himself!”
Hatoshi was stunned.  He wanted so many people to eat his cooking and his wife would’ve liked a visit from the emperor.
“What is this mouth-watering meat?” the leader asked.
Hatoshi swallowed his curses.  “It’s a magical deer, only found in the deepest part of a demon’s forest.  Very dangerous.  My wife died bringing us this meal.”
The dining men gave solemn thanks and prayed to Shisso’s spirit that she would find peace.  Hatoshi joined them, took their money, and ushered the diners out the door.  Not a bite of his wife was wasted—only her bones were left in a pile.  He hid those in the old oven.
That evening, the restaurant slowly emptied and there was a lone wanderer who couldn’t pay for his meal.  Usually Hatoshi let these men go, at the risk of angering his wife.  This night he could free the man without trouble.  Instead he took him to the magic oven, and when no one was looking, he shoved the man inside.
Out popped another succulent mystery roast and even the customers who said they were full gave Hatoshi more money to taste the freshly-cooked dish.  Soon Hatoshi was tricking deadbeats and stragglers into the magic oven every day, and as he had been told, people traveled from far away to sample this wonderful meal.  Each time Hatoshi threw someone in, he begged the man’s forgiveness and yet he found another a day later in every instance.  Word of the restaurant’s wonder spread, while no one seemed to notice the missing traveler until one fateful night.
Hatoshi was almost finished cleaning up.  Not a customer remained, not even from the oven.  There was a knock at the door.
“We’re closed for the evening,” Hatoshi was about to say, but then he realized this might be an easy man to be made into a meal.  “One moment!”  He hurried to open the door and hoped he could pass the visitor to the magic oven without much fuss.
A man was at the door, but not alone.  He squirmed in the clutches of a terrible demon, his face full of eyes, his mouth full of tusks, his breath full of evil, his limbs full of muscle.  He bent close to Hatoshi, who greatly feared he would be eaten then and there.  Then the demon held out the squirming man and said, “Cook this one, please.”

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