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Fiction #131
(published April 24, 2003)
The Boy Who Wouldn't Eat Cheese
by Tom Sheehan

The boy had come out of the cave on the Island of a Thousand Rains after seven long days, his lips and cheeks drawn and pinched and his eyes yet full of darkness. Hunger sat on his face deep as a scar. Dangling from his wrists his hands were thin and wiry, as if they had been unrolled from a clutch of wire, and a stumble seemed imminent and evident in his gait. Never had he remembered being so hungry, and his young body complaining all the while of aches never known before. Now the equatorial sun burst down upon him its eternal welcome and embrace, and salt came again with its scissors of smell into his nose. Salt, proving itself once more, could cut away all things, even the unpleasant odor of his own body. The cave, out of the insistent rain, had nevertheless fostered foul smells in its trade-off. But it had been warm, and dry after a fashion.

On the beach the captain of the small ship riding out there on the quiet water had stepped from the now-cumbersome rowboat atilt on the sand. Tall, he was, lithe in frame, with a chin a small goatee found pasture on. The eyes under the sullen and worn cap were as blue-green in their hesitancy as the sea itself, never sure which color to assume, blue for one statement, green or aqua-bent for a question, and one was forthcoming. "Are you Eduoard D'Lenville? Are you the missing heir?" And then, putting his inquiry in consummate perspective, asked, "Are you the boy who will not eat cheese?"

"That's my name. That's who I am." And then, capping off his reply as if in a tiring rote, added, "That's what I do not do." Eduoard D'Lenville, twelve-year old heir of a dot com fortune still rising from the garage floor of his father's former old house, lost for more than seven days on the wild Atlantic, his gait seemingly irreparable at the moment, walked toward the captain and the rowboat beached and askew on the sand. He was thinking that the man just out of the rowboat would perchance now collect a great reward. The captain was not a jaunty dresser, certainly not like his father was, now, these days, what of such days would come back to him after all this. Clad mostly in somber gray, pants serious enough for command, a shirt with time written down into its threads, a cap the sun and wind had nearly undressed from the needle's touch, the captain delivered a serious nod to the young heir.

"You look hungry, young man, but all we have in the larder are cheese sandwiches, and wedges of cheese, between us and home port. We lost much of our supplies in the storm you also have known, and there were two other boats, those that foundered before they were righted, we had to give supplies to." He pointed back over his shoulder, to his small ship out on the sea, "And with me now are those we had to pluck from the sea and the storm that ravaged many." Over his shoulder he tossed a thumb in quick declaration.

One of the rowers in the beached dory waved a single hand as if to identify one soul plucked from the sea, glad to be yet of service in this world or, more to the point, merely to be in it. The waver appeared to be a bit older than the found heir, perhaps fifteen years at the most, and he waved again, a slight note of recognition in the wave, one rescued youngster saluting another rescued youngster, finding communion in sheepish grins, in the tingle of salt air.

"I am hungry. Were they all looking for me? Did my father send them?" Toward the rescued waver he looked and said, as if to each listener, but to him in particular, "I hope he did not lose any shipmates looking for me," and added a very serious nod of solicitation to his words. His eyes, so recently distant and dark, when he was forlorn and bereft of hope for hours at a time, looked out on the open sea. On its flat and endless expanse the sun was able to make solicitous angles of pleasure, the way gold or silver is fingered in the till or chest, a nickel or a dime at a time, or a dollar burst. Again then the boy thought about the reward and how this tall man, this savior clad austerely in gray and minute black, would soon have a new boat or whatever his dreams fostered up for him. Finally, as if to ward off the unnecessary dictate, implication or inference sure in any amends, to affirm his stand, he said, "But I will not eat the cheese sandwiches, or the wedges. Though I am hungry, I will not eat the cheese. It is a matter of taste with me, not honor."

The captain smiled at the boy's words as the boy walked close to him and the boat. The boy could smell the cheese sandwiches that stood piled their decks of cards in the captain's hands, those hands openly thrust towards the boy.

Then, in bright and audible recall, the captain could clearly hear the words from the mouth of the boy's father, a likewise tall and striking man, but an alert multi-millionaire with a blue blaze in his eyes and a worry at the same time carved on his chin as though some stone mason had found it under cover, a Michelangelo at emotion. "A handsome reward, one beyond dreams," the father had said on the porch of the great house on the promontory, his clothes now impeccably perfect, "for him who brings my son back to me, and double it if the boy eats cheese on the way home." He'd nodded then and appended a gratuitous explanation, " I handled that all wrong, giving him his leash on the meal account, bending to small dislikes, bending to whims and whimpers, the import of business too much at hand. " The captain remembered that at that moment, at those words, the father dropped his eyes, his steady gaze, for the making of an unconscious sign as broad as a billboard. He had settled on cheese as a point of honor, though it seemed so arbitrary.

In recalling the father's words, the captain of the small boat sitting like a domino on the open sea, thought the father in error to think this boy, seven days alone on this small island, thrown from the comfort of his own small boat when mast and sail went asunder, adamant in his stance about cheese, would ever whimper. Not such a boy! Such a son I would have, thought the captain as the hungry boy fell into his arms, the whole seven days down atop him in one fell swoop. "Back to the ship to get food in his gut. Row fast, boys, the poor lad's been through the mill."

And, as luck would have it, the loose god of gods, strolling out through his universe, pointing fingers, rooting, setting storms and calms in place of choice, put about that little ship before long one more serious undertaking. The winds, more than one at a time, came out of two or three quarters; the waves rose in answer, the sea in complete abeyance cresting wildly and without rhythm, sending in motion the most irreverent energies. Calamities sailed and tossed the seas.

The little rescue ship bounced and cavorted and answered the sea's momentum and the wind's dictate. Young D'Lenville and the other young rescued boy sat side by side in the galley, crouched, dependent, anxious. That other boy's name was Andre Chabra, and both of them, teeth chattering, out of one fire and into the next one, the ship beneath them bouncing and noisy as an empty drum, held to each other for long minutes at a time. In the air a mixed stench of oil and foul food, diesel and sea fodder fighting against the clear run of salty air. Such odors are, in the gut, like a large ladle stirrer in a back-burner olla podrida, and both boys knew that great pot.

"I never dreamed the sea could be this mean," Andre said between drumbeats, an obvious attempt at displacement of some sort. "Is it true you have never had cheese? I love cheese. You must have tried it and then found out you did not like it." The words were repetitive and forced, as if making voice for company, and almost stuck in his mouth as the ship pitched high on a crest and dipped like a roller coaster on a down grade. Pans and dishes loosely answered one another in cabinets; large pots echoed their loose habits, and grease and salt mixed in the air again and clutched anew at the innards. His fine blond hair was cut in a crew fashion, his eyes gave away secrets from the back of his head, his chin never relaxing for a moment. He could have been the D'Lenville older son, so much did he look like the young heir.

"Do things happen in threes?" D'Lenville said. "Do we have a chance at another escape out of all this? Is there one more chance for each of us? The smell of cheese makes me think of old goats in a pen a long time ago, long before my father became rich. Goats are such dirty things,

eating the crud of the earth. My grandmother made goats' cheese. It was horrible smelling, sticking in my head, saying foul things to me about itself, about cheese. The goat I remember most was the one with the huge udder, who dragged her teats through swill and garbage the whole day. And then my grandmother would milk her. God, it made me sick, sick as I am now, and then she'd make that awful cheese."

"Ah," Andre Chabra said, nodding an ancient's assessment, "have you not eaten the feet of pigs after their tromp in hogwash and offal and human-discarded garbage, or bacon fat, or omelet from an egg picked out of chicken shit? Meat from a scurvy lamb? Mutton sitting a week on the table in a crock, the brine heady, leading to dreams or nightmares? Had no potatoes from so close to a sump hole or cesspool or latrine the piss was barely drained away, flowed through seventeen feet of drainage it was near clean, as my grandfather used to say? They all come of the earth. They all smell of the ground that gives them life, that gives us life. Potatoes, beets, onions and scallions, yams and sweet potatoes, the rich stew of the good earth, the true yield."

About and within the ship there were more tremendous and calamitous knocks, metal on metal, drum on drum, god on god for the comparison and the reverberations beating at their blood. The older boy collected his breath once more and continued. "You tell me you actually turn your nose up at the ground you walk on? C'mon, Eddie, get with this life, look around, not now but before or after, if we're so lucky again. Never smelled lamb kidneys cooking in oil, the spatter of butter and flour, the smell reaching down to the front hall and up to the upper apartments, like a stable was let loose, foul as hell, almost like piss call it is? Why, my Grandmere used to make a rouppi pie from boiled and squeezed potatoes and salt pork or chicken leftovers. You would have starved if you did not eat it. Would have starved the livelong day. My grandpere, coming down off the ladder, said it put hair on your chest and in your drawers. Aye, rouppi pie I would give up a small dream for right now; to be sitting beside her stove and gnawing away, that black chaw thick as a wad in my mouth." Odd sound effects came from his throat.

The small ship rolled again and Eduoard D'Lenville, his stomach in revolt at the earthly menu of his companion, felt his guts surfacing themselves. "God, you sicken me. I feel like I will toss up what little I have in me now." He put his hand up. "Please, no more. If you want, I'll take that sandwich of cheese. I'll eat the cheese. But no more menus, please. The smell gets down inside me. It makes me worse than I am."

Andre Chabra nodded and said, "Eddie, you have no idea how much better you'll feel with something in your gut. Here," and his hand came out of his pea coat and the sandwich was there, wrapped in a scurvy-looking plastic wrapper, the yellow slice of cheese hanging from its edge like a tongue loose of its mouth. He felt the revulsion but also the threat of hunger at last come unspecified, come open armed and demand in its call.

Eduoard D'Lenville, heir to a mighty fortune, chewed down the cheese sandwich, rolled with the ship as the ship rolled with the angry sea, and felt better. His older friend rolled against him in the companionship a storm brings to the sailor and shipmate. Into his gut he had delivered the hard Earth itself, and what comes of it in the least of appointments. Taste had not delivered him, or hunger, but the cursed menu of his shipmate, the relentless dissertation on the subjective foulness of food itself, and his knowing the finicky stomach, the too-long catered-to stomach, the spoiled rotten stomach, did have a hope for generalities. The ship rolled and his gut rolled and the cheese sandwich, now in place for the very first time with him, did a slower roll and somewhat stabilized his innards. A trade-off he had made and he knew the slight benefit of it. In some neutral state he felt himself, some state of recovery.

At length, after a few hours of slap and be slapped, of gut recovery, of creaking beams and plates and bulkheads, of a loose anchor chain beating a wild rhythm and vibration that went down through the keel itself, the storm passed and the two boys at last ventured on deck. In a matter of hours they were below the great promontory where the grand house of the D'Lenvilles

sat like a frozen comet atop a hill. The newly rich father was elated that his son was found safe and sound, pleased that his son had at last partaken of a cheese sandwich, and cranked open his checkbook to pay off the captain.

"If you must pay him because he is the master of the boat, father, then you must pay the same to Andre Chabra here on the quarter-deck. He is the one who got me to send over my folly, who got me to eat the first cheese sandwich, to remember grandmother's goat and not get sick again. Andre cured me. Andre deserves a great reward too, and he will buy a new boat and he and I will sail it when we are ready, for we have been to the sea and the sea has found us favorable. She has taken us and given us back, cheese be damned, the old goat be damned.

And the newly rich father poured out from his rich coffers a double reward and knew that his son was a survivor, that the sea had another conscription to its credit. And Eduoard D'Lenville and Andre Chabra sailed for years on their own boat, and were sailing long after the dot.com fortune of the senior D'Lenville had disappeared in the dust and the goats were left well behind the last landfall of each voyage.

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