It was the ship chandler’s turn to give us a story. “Pass the bottle,” he said.
“No lies tonight, Phillips,” said Belden, between puffs of his cheroot. “Just give us a straight tale and leave the salt and pepper on the side.”
Phillips, the ship chandler, gulped a mouthful of Barbados and said two words. “Odd pork.”
We were silenced by the nonsense of that phrase.
“Odd pork,” said Phillips again. “That’s what a dead man tastes like. Not rancid, just ‘this is pork but maybe it isn’t’. If I served it to you now, you might never know.”
He stared into the candle and began his tale.
“We were on a trading voyage to Vanatua, off the east coast of Borneo, Captain John Chidsey, ‘Battersea’ Bill Dawes, and me.”
Phillips took a drink. “The Vanatua village was high up in the fog and trees. Everything was dirty. Everything was damp. Chidsey went off with the chief to talk some other business. All he said to us was, ‘Good luck, boys,’ and then he was gone. Chidsey was a scamp and he was mad about the native women. We guessed what his business was.
“Bill and me preached over our trade goods and argued with the chief’s lieutenant. We came to terms. They had copra and that’s what we wanted.
“When the bartering was over, the chief’s lieutenant said, ‘Now we must eat meat together. It is our custom to bind a contract between men.’
“Two local beauties came in with a great platter of grilled meat and set it down in the dirt in the middle of the hut. The meat was charred-black on the edges, rare-pink in the center, seasoned with trade spices. After three weeks of salt horse and ship’s biscuits, it smelled like a night in heaven.
“But the slices of meat were arranged around a boiled human skull wearing Captain Chidsey’s hat.” Phillips took a drink.
“Me and Bill jumped up like we’d sat in an anthill. We’d heard rumors that the Vanatuans were cannibals, but the Company men said that about all the islanders, even those that ate dog. Chidsey told us it was bunk.
“Bill started swearing. ‘Why did you kill the Captain?’ he said. The only reason we’d stopped on Vanatua was Chidsey had told us he and the chief were old friends.
“Then the chief walked in with his warriors and their machetes.
“‘Your Captain tried to rape my daughter,’ he said. “He has been here before and he has always caused trouble for us.’ Bill looked at me and I think even he was scared.
“‘What are your intentions?’ said the chief. ‘Have you come here to cheat us? Maybe to poison us?’ He tapped the keg of trade rum sitting with the bales of cloth and the spools of brass wire and the unpolished knife blanks.
“‘We came here to trade,’ said Bill. ‘We had nothing to do with Chidsey’s crime.’
“‘Then finish the trade,’ said the chief. ‘Men who eat from the same platter cannot betray one another, not in trade or love or war. Prove to us that you are not the sort of man your Captain Chidsey was.’ The chief took a slice of grilled meat and ate it. ‘Or neither of you will leave this house alive.’
“Bill sat down and I sat down next to him. The hut was crowded with black-eyed Vanatuan warriors. Their naked machetes stuck out all around us. I didn’t move an elbow for fear of sticking myself on one of the damned things.
“‘And if we eat with you,’ said Bill, ‘we can leave? With our copra?’
“‘Yes,’ said the chief. Bill looked at me and nodded. We had to do this thing. The savages had already killed Chidsey. They would surely kill us too. Here was a slim chance to get away from here alive.
“And all we had to do was eat Captain Chidsey.
“Bill took a slice of meat, folded it, and stuck it in his mouth. He grimaced and coughed and chewed and swallowed. And because Bill was Bill, he took another slice and ate that too.
“I ate it,” said Phillips. “I ate it. It tasted like pork. I think I said that already. And that’s all I’m going to say about it.
“They started laughing at us, the damned savages. The chief laughed too. Then he said, ‘Kill them.’ Just like that.
“They were going to kill us anyway and they still made us eat that meat.
“Bill jumped up and grabbed me by the arm and he bowled through the grinning warriors. We made it outside. I remember there was a fire pit–I remember an indescribable carcass roasting over a bed of coals. I think I screamed. Bill dragged me after him, and the whole village came running after us.
“We–well, we got away,” said Phillips. “We got away or I wouldn’t be telling you this now. That’s a story for another night. But we got away…”
Phillips finished his glass of rum. “Two years later, I ran into a man who said Captain Chidsey was living in the Sandwich Islands, married to the chief of Vanatua’s daughter. The story went that Chidsey had made a deal with the chief–his daughter in exchange for our cargo. The chief got our trade goods for free and Captain Chidsey got his bride. And me and Bill got away to report the Captain dead so the Company wouldn’t come after him for the loss of the trade goods.
“So maybe me and Bill didn’t eat man-flesh that night after all.
“I saw Bill at Pirro’s Bar in Kowlpoor a while later, and told him the story. He turned it around in his head a bit and then he said, ‘That wasn’t pork.’
“And maybe it wasn’t,” said Phillips. “I’ve spent thirty years trying to get the taste of that meat out of my mouth. Pass the bottle.”
Nick Logan lives and works in Woodstock, Illinois.