by Paul Fishman
I’d been prodding the Frenchman with my boot all day to see if he was dead. Why I had not already eaten that last article I cannot say, unless it were superstition or strange absence of mind. My belt had gone, sucked at and gnawed, the night Cousin Jacques must have washed ashore from what wreck I do not know. So now I would sidle up to this poor fellow, give him a little tap where he lay, often enough listen to what sounds he had left in him to make, and then shift quickly away. I must have looked like an ape or a rotten dog running off with my back arched as my belly clenched within me like a madman’s fist. Oh Lord deliver me, I would think, that and sundry as I went about my ways.
Old Jacques he lay there, stuck fast on his side, right leg mangled something horrid, caked about here and there with his blood, burning in the sun. He never moved his head to see me, but spoke fast ahead. Mostly he would gasp softly and his voice was like a man breathing heavily asleep, but then he would start up a creaking whisper, very dry. I am no scholar, but I have a sailor’s French and I fancy I can read what’s to be read in a man’s non-speaking parts, and it was little enough mystery to me. At first it was all butter and gammon, me his benefactor and him expecting a nice drink of water pressed up against those blackening lips any time soon. Then he saw that wasn’t the order of things, me saying to myself what my father had said before me, there’s naught in watering dead flowers, and it became croaks for God, Mary and the angels. At last he would beg of me to despatch him. Not I for that job, and that was a point of principle upon which I would not be shifted.
If I may give qualified thanks to Beneficent Providence, it was the finding ashore of several articles that preserved me in my distress, me having been shipwrecked several months together. These were the casks of water, not what you would name an easeful sufficiency, but not much spoiled; the ship’s joiner’s tools; a barrel of salt, once a mocker in my thirst; and there was Jacques. If I say this man broke my desolation, it is the plainest truth, for my island was hitherto bare of life excepting a certain nondescript scrub that was but poor eating and naught to stanch my loneliness.
As in all things, meat is a matter of discretion. If a man dies and is buried and grass grows atop and cattle feed on it and then we feed on them, that is natural. And so if a man dies and his soul departs he is mere animal flesh. If a man takes a hand in this and then eats of the flesh, why then that man is a murderer and a cannibal. So it was not till poor Jacques died in his right time that I took to him with my tools and my preserving salt and saved myself from hunger and death and was rescued. It was written in the book thus and that he should prove my testing and my bounty, for the Lord is just as well as merciful. My whited bones shall not lie untended on a distant beach, nor shall I go to a worse place when at last I depart, for I am a discreet man.
Paul Fishman has been a professional reader–writer–editor–proofreader in one form or another since 1998, working in publishing, the book trade and as a freelance. As of late 2014 he’s a full-time freelance writer and editor. Website: http://fishmandeville.com/