As soon as dawn woke the birds, before the sunrise had warmed the cicadas into song, the villagers smiled into the light. “Today is the feast,” said the old ones in their voices like old wine and autumn leaves as they patted their hair into place. In their rooms, the ones who lived alone checked their hems and faces and nodded to their own faces in the mirrors. They would go out today. “It’s the feast!” they said to the newspaper and the cat. “Today is the feast!” mothers and fathers told their children. The children needed no reminding. They were already hopping or staring, wide-eyed, at the imagined splendor of the gathering that was to come. The younger ones advised their stuffed animals about the joys that were near at hand, the older ones advised the real animals under their care. Mothers brushed lint off sleeves. Wives straightened collars and ties. Fathers tied shoes and helped with the tricky buttons near the neck. Husbands nodded and told their wives they looked beautiful. “She always does,” each said.
But I have not told you of the food. The dressing and rushing about was not done in an atmosphere of morning dew but of rich aromas, spices and roses and honey sweetness, saffron and butter and onions and wine. There was meat and potatoes, breads and scones, vegetables roasted into sweetness, baked fruits and pressed fruits and iced ones, too. There were coffee and tea enough to lift the weariness of each. Everyone could see or smell and almost taste the feast on the air. Each had cooked some of it and laid it out in offering in the night, to be revealed and reveled in now that it was morning, and there was always more than all of them had made together.
The village wasn’t magic. The food kept overnight because there were keepers who stirred it and kept it warm or cold or boiled and ready. All through the dark night, the keepers kept the food ready. They laid it out on clean plates and made ready cups that one need only turn over to fill with every good drink imaginable. The keepers would be at the feast, too, some of them, but some had already gone home to sleep until they waked to another feast.
You can imagine the singing on the way and the toasts and laughter when the people sat down together, young and old, single and coupled, loud or quiet. Everyone had a place, and when someone new arrived, the rest squashed up to make room, only to find that there was still room to spare. The people will tell you what it tasted like. The children who grew plump and strong at that table or who grew, loved, before they went off to sleep, will tell you of its sweetness and of how the adults took notice of them. They will tell you about the way their neighbor’s shawl caught the light or how the grandfather who wasn’t their grandfather told them about lemons in hot water or watermelons in aqua fresca. The adults smiled with satisfied lips, reveling in the balast of the fellowship and the food. The old ones didn’t eat as much as they used to, but they loved to use their waning strength to serve a little pie for the one next to them or help to tuck a napkin for a little one.
The feast happens every day, so you probably recognize it and see how thin my words are compared to the chewy bread, the thick pith of joy at the table you just left.
But maybe you didn’t notice after all.
Maybe you were distracted or frightened away by the wraiths that refuse to sit down at the table. They are loud, and they have so many reasonable sounding points. The saffron does stain ones fingers, and lime will turn your hands darker in the sunlight. Did you know, I heard from one of them that there was a line in a cookbook that definitely condemned altogether the practice of pickling? Yes, and if you match the patterns of Asclepius with Basil and Cyrus and Dun Scotus and Erasmus and Faust, you find an alphabets worth of things wrong with eating. Another wraith was certain that taking food together in any way was sacrilege. “Better acorns and grasses with the beasts of the field,” he said, “than to eat with men, those creatures of hypocrisy.”
Where I was sitting, a great scholar happened to be nearby, who invited the wraiths to refresh themselves. When they refused, the scholar warned them sternly that they would never grow healthy on a diet of their own righteousness. To my astonishment, the wraiths answered in song. They gathered around a little printed sheet with a screeching melody, “Better to starve and die and ruin the food than to sit as equals with humans.” The scholar was not deterred, having heard this song before. “And what are you, that you believe yourselves beyond the need of nourishment?” The wraiths passed scraps of grubby paper back and forth and gathered into loose ranks like an amateur choir, more loud than disciplined. “We are better than you!” they sang.
“But are you better than food?” the old scholar asked. “We are better than you, and anyone who will come with us can be better than you, too.” I laughed and looked from the scholar to a wizened old couple near me. “Who would leave this feast?” I said to the old woman. She shook her head, her chin down in wordless pity. I looked up. Two people, a young man who had not eaten much because he refused to ask anyone to pass the dishes his way, and a middle aged mother who would only eat a few olives and apples because she was frightened of contagion, had joined the wraiths. “See?” they screamed, loud enough to momentarily distract the festive atmosphere nearest, “These people see the truth! We are better!”
“But they are only hungry,” a little child said from his aunt’s lap where he was stickily enjoying a jar of jam with occasional bites of bread and cheese. “Yes,” said the old woman. The scholar and the old man shook their heads and prayed and placed their hands protectively on the backs of the chairs nearest them. “If they would only eat,” the child concluded, “They would know better instead of thinking they are better.”