So there I was like a professor at Durmstrang, my pumpkin juice heavily laden with rakia.
The brandy came in swing-top bottle in a fabric sleeve done up to look like a little suit. It was a present from my wife's cousin Kostadin, and it gave my pumpkin juice the aroma of grapes and enough kick to put a hole through the back of my head. I sat back in my chair, no longer cooking, nor worried about cooking, deeply and profoundly thankful.
The pumpkin juice was a byproduct of the pumpkin pies, which had gone into the oven at the same time I talked to my friend Paul in Japan for the first time since he went into the hospital. Bone bruises, he told me, very painful and debilitating, but treatable. It was such a relief. I ground cloves in a hand mill and let go of the worry. Then, the potatoes.
8 hours later, our guests were eating mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, cornbread and cranberry relish, brusslessprouts. The cider and the gravy were done and so was I. I took just a minute to sit with my friends and drink a couple of slugs of hard pumpkin juice before I set to carving the turkeys.
What did we even talk about? At the moment, all I can remember is a taste like stepping outside after the first frost, when the tannins in the air hit the back of your throat and the cool fills in your lungs. All that I remember is I didn't tease Kostadin nearly enough about those turkeys.
That story begins at my daughter's birthday at the beginning of the month, when Kostadin invited me to his wife's village to help him butcher and barbecue a quarter of a cow. That adventure didn't end up happening, but it got us onto the subject of turkeys. Kostadin's father-in-law knew someone who could hook us up for Thanksgiving.
I was all for it. Put us down for two turkeys!
"Two? Who are you feeding? The whole neighborhood?"
I counted off the people we usually invited to Thanksgiving – let's say fifteen. We'd need two turkeys to feed that many people.
"You don't know about this guy's turkeys," said Kostadin.
Gesturing like a fisherman, he described a bird the mass of his daughter. Like an ostrich it would be, but more flavorful.
We would not have to kill the beast ourselves, but we would have to gut it and scald it, pluck it and singe off the pin-feathers with a blow-torch. It would be a savage adventure, like riding with the Huns. I summoned up my courage and accepted the mission.
Both of us deserve some fun to be made of us. I didn't have to catch or pluck the turkeys, or even drive with Kostadin to the village of Izbor to collect them. He brought them to my house all ready for the oven. But he doesn't get off lightly either, because the two birds together wouldn't make half the mass of his daughter. They were, let's say, "rangy," with more meat on the drumsticks than on the breast. The good news was that they could both fit in one oven at the same time, while I borrowed Pavlina's other cousin's oven downstairs for the full-sized turkey I bought at the grocery store.
Here's the thing, though. Kostadin's turkeys were very good. The store-bought bird tasted at best like gravy and at worst like wet paper towels, but the ones from Izbor had their own flavor. They tasted like animals that had lived lives, eaten what they could find, run when they wanted to run. I appreciated them, and Kostadin, and even my mother-in-law when she told me the food this year was much better than last year. She was right.
I carved the turkeys and made another batch of gravy and whipped the cream for the pies. I drank pumpkin juice with rakia and hot apple cider with rum. I talked with my friend Emil and Maggie's friend's dad Angel. About, I think Georgi Gospodinov? Go look him up. He's supposed to be good.
The guests laughed. Our kids washed back and forth across the apartment. Nothing much was broken, and when it was time for me to walk Emil to his bus-stop, my legs still worked.
It's been a year of building and expansion. Improving my cooking, improving my work-out routine, meeting the various crises and dramas that make life work writing about. There's you, who graciously read what I've written, and want, I hope and trust, more.
There's still more to do, and I'm grateful for that too.
Right. What have I done this month? I've been working hard on Third Realm, researching, writing, conlanging a whole lot, and drawing. Every Wednesday, I ask research questions on Substack and Royal Road, so if you want to educate me on medieval history, follow me there.
Speaking of Substack, some writers there asked me to give some writing advice. I thought about it, and responded "Write, Reflect, Ask." I think it's good advice even if you're not a writer. Read the whole thing on patreon or substack.
On Patreon, The World's Other Side has passed the one-half mark and is now conveniently collected here for your reading pleasure.
And remember Fellow Tetrapod? I'm planning to start its final revision after Christmas before self-publishing it, and feedback would be tremendously helpful. Please tell me what you think. You can also find the whole book on Royal Road.
And I read some things this month.
The Satyricon by Petronius
Reading the ancient Roman fragments gives the impression of a modern novel written in some unknown European country. Somewhere raucous and cruel. It tells part of the story of Encolpius, a satire of epic heroes like Odysseus and Aeneas, who was tragically cursed by Priapus, the god of erections. He finds love...with an unfaithful male prostitute. He finds fortune...by stealing it. He visits the realm of Pluto...or at least a wealthy freed slave obsessed with death and conspicuous consumption. Lots of slaves get beaten, lots of sex ends unsatisfactorily for everyone, and there's too much bad poetry. It's an interesting book, and occasionally even funny.
Through Adversity (Worth the Candle) by Alexander Wales
I came to this after reading Wales's later books, Shadows of the Limelight and The Metropolitan Man, both of which I recommend. I do not recommend Worth the Candle. It's the first novel of a teenage boy. These thoughts and feelings are so big that nobody has ever had them before! But I'm glad to see the author got better. Once again: Shadows of the Limelight.
Differently Morphous by Yahtzee Croshaw
I listened to this on Audible and I'm frankly surprised they green-lighted it. Pleasantly surprised, because this is a book that criticizes Wokeism. The criticism is nuanced and thoughtful, pointing out problems and solutions on both sides of the Culture War, which is why I suspect it got so many bad reviews. For my part, I appreciated this book a great deal. We begin following along with a girl as she is inducted into the secret magical organization within the British government, and then a lot of unexpected things happen. The protagonist is not the Chosen One, the jerks are not the villains, and some demons really are demonic. I should also mention that Croshaw does a good Shoggoth, and his Dr. Diablary was a joy to hear. There's a sequel I'm eager to read.
The Gulag Archipelago vol. 1 by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
This was a bit of a slog. I probably wouldn't have made it if I wasn't listening to the The Gulag Archipellago as an audiobook, but I did get through it and it was useful. The Gulag Archipelago is basically subjective - a huge collection of anecdotes about the lives of political prisoners of the Soviet Union. The interrogator making a date with his mistress while you writes his reports for him. The man who was the first to stop clapping after a speech by a Party boss. The Swede whom the Soviets thought was a spy and the Romanian who was actually a spy. "Things were said innocently - but they weren't listened to innocently."
Uncertain Placement by D.J. Newman
A gently funny collection of images and text, appreciating and poking fun at speculative biology, museum curation, and us lovers of both. "As Gary stared into the tadpole’s unblinking eye, he couldn’t help but see the uncomfortable metaphor for postponed maturity. Profoundly shaken, Gary returned to college and completed his degree."
Daniel M. Bensen