The Feet Eaters

    
    Feet are considered a delicacy among the cannibals here.  They are served boiled, fried and smoked, but roasting is the most usual form of preparation.  A single large adult foot, topped with tamarind sauce and garnished with mango or pineapple, makes a meal for two.  The toes may be marinated separately and eaten as hors d'oeuvres.  Especially prized is the pad of the big toe, which is hospitably reserved for guests.
    There is an abundance of available feet only when the tribe has been successful in battle.  The feet of the losers are then claimed as trophies.  The squires of the victorious warriors circulate among the slain, harvesting each foot with only two downward strokes of a sharpened-stone or clamshell axe, severing the tendons fore and aft and removing the foot below the ankle.  Eventually the toe bones appear on the necklaces of the champions.  The longer metatarsals are worn singly in the ear, or, conjoined to the heel bone in a spray, may decorate the headdress of council elders.
    Owing to this rarity of comestible feet, they are most typically eaten at feasts celebrating achievements in battle, and are roasted.  Spitted through the instep, they rotate slowly in rows over the flames and are basted with coconut butter.  When they are nearly crisp on the outside, the cooks, who occupy high positions in tribal society, lift the spits in the air and offer the feet to the warriors in order of precedence.  They are then held in the hands and eaten whole, as we would eat corn from the cob, or a leg of chicken.
    Whether the wild jubilation at these gatherings is occasioned by the successful military engagement or by the prospect of dining on the preferred dish is, for an outsider, hard to say.  Perhaps the two are so conjoined in the minds of the savages, the one being invariably associated with the other, as to form a single event--by all evidence, the most significant in the life of the tribe.
    It was difficult to know what to do when the platters were laid before us.  Several whole, well-done right feet, for it is the prerogative of senior commanders to be offered the right foot, lay on beds of leaves and chopped pineapple.  My first impulse was to refuse.  Aside from what for us is a natural physical distaste for human flesh, there is of course the strongly felt moral prescription.  We are not, and in view of our role as emissaries should not appear to be, cannibals.
    However, as we sat unsmiling before the meal, the tendons curled like the cuffs of discarded shoes, sprigs of green set between the toes, the noise around us died.  Our hosts were puzzled.  The silence grew.  My thoughts were on our mission, which was, I reasoned, our first responsibility.  As fellow warriors, we had been invited to participate in a celebration of victory.  By offending the local people, we would jeopardize our chances of establishing a post, and of advancing the very values we now felt to be affronted.  Then too, we were miles from the coast, without support and vastly outnumbered.  Finally, it was clear that there were only enough feet to feed the native commanders and a few of my officers: the rest of the men would not be corrupted.
    Unable any longer to endure our hesitation, the chief reached forward and drew a platter to me.  Furthering the initiative, he snapped off a big toe and held it out.  With a glance at my staff to indicate that they were to do likewise, I accepted it.
    I do not remember how it tasted.  It had the consistency of boiled mutton.  The surface was glazed almost crisp, and the meat slipped from the bone as from an overcooked drumstick.
    "Mm," I said, and nodded at the chief.  My officers echoed me less vigorously.
    It was enough to get us past the crisis.   The drums began again, and the clamor.  We poked perfunctorily at the food, concentrating on the fruit.  The chief's attention wandered from us.
    Afterwards the young women of the tribe honored us with a dance of sexual enticement.  Squatting with their hands on their hips, they advanced towards us in ranks, at each step kneeling on alternate knees, while the men shouted.
    My own men, who had not seen women since setting out from the coast, were eager to respond.  But, beneath the din and affecting a good-humored expression, I gave orders for restraint.  When my immobile officers had been embarrassed to the satisfaction of our hosts, we were granted the grace to take our leave.
    I now believe that I was gravely in error when I did not decline to partake, however minimally, of human flesh.  The impression made on the savages by our abstinence might have had greater value than an appeasement that contradicted our own moral law; and although it might have cost us our lives, I am convinced, most of the time, that it was my duty to refuse.  Does life offer a better criterion than 'most of the time'?
    Perhaps it is a soldier's conscience that troubles me.  Eating the feet was not only a moral transgression but a tactical error, and for a soldier they are the same: just as merchants see the action of God in the world in the movement of money, soldiers see it in the bestowal, or withholding, of victory.  Now we were confirmed in a brotherhood with the savages that was entirely improper.  In their eyes we had shared the inhuman feast, participated in the highest rite, and could not but acknowledge its excitement.  This made for difficulties.
    When the stockade was finished, we invited the chief and his warriors to inspect it.  Although they had doubtless spied on us from the edge of the clearing as the work progressed, they stood wonder-struck as if seeing it for the first time.  Inside they stared up at the sentries on our lashed-log wall.  Plainly they had never before seen such a structure.  But were they overwhelmed by the spectacle--from which they must have inferred what other abilities, what other efficiencies?--or were they, even then, taking the measure of our intentions?
    And what of our intentions?  What of the rule we brought that our hearts knew was good?  What of the empire of light it was our mission to carry forward?  What of the God of peace who walked on the waves of war?  They are so remote now.  Or rather it is we who are remote, and our intentions as collapsed and mossy as the stockade in the clearing.  I have fallen into the barbarous habit of worshipping them.
    We showed our guests how to sit on chairs, on which when once they were settled, they pumped and jerked forward until they were chest to the table.  They seized the food and tore at it as if it might be snatched away from them.  My officers sat rigid at the sight, and I mitigated their coldness as best I could by leaning towards the natives and nodding into their faces, anticipating their approval of the food.  They paused, as is their manner, and gave it.
    But the meal was only a momentary distraction from the tables, the candles, the plank floor.  They laughed loudly at our forks and knives, our declining to touch the food with our hands, and I could have wished my own staff to respond to the jibes with more humor.  But laughter one does not understand is naturally felt as an insult; in addition to the strain of isolation and the difficulties imposed by the jungle, my officers felt put upon to endure the affront of bumptious manners at table.  It fell to me to ease the strain on both groups.
    Since I mention the difficulty of my own position, I shall observe here also that I did not on this occasion defer to the manners of my guests by in any way imitating them.  Since the only difference between this and our previous dinner together was that I now had charge of an armed stronghold, I can only conclude that my agreeing to eat human flesh at the native feast was an act of cowardice.  Do I dwell needlessly on this?
    On the other hand, we did not on that second evening succeed in pleasing our guests.  The meat was venison, and this was felt as an omission: we were warriors feting brother warriors, but we served no feet.  The portions of rum we offered were received with delight, but delight faded with the merry sadness of flute and fiddle, and the forced heartiness of homesick Nordics, and died when no women came forward to dance.
    They left early.  Emboldened--is it possible?--by the rum, the chief asked me for bayonets.  The natives admired above all our flashing uniform bayonets.  Of their own implements the least crude were shells mounted in bamboo and swung like cleavers.  Here was a chance not only to ingratiate our presence but also to display our material strength.  I had the ordinance sergeant break out a box.  Hunched over it like a spider, dwarfed by our tall gate, they scurried away with it into the trees.
    I forbade contact with the women so as to control the spread of disease.  Infection thrives in this heat, and we had already lost men to malaria, cholera and sleeping sickness.  Still, despite these and the dangers of snakebite, we were drawn to the country.  The simplicity of life, the singing of the natives, the rich sound of the wind in the trees were for us impressions of paradise, and made us feel more sharply the lack of female companions.  Desire too thrives in the heat.  I had fully expected my prohibition to be infracted by stealth, but in the event it was proved unnecessary, for the women were kept away.
    An officer beat his native valet for stealing his silver insignia.  I was harsh.  I assigned him to a station at the periphery and placed the valet under the medical officer, who gave him light duties and a measure of authority.
    A patrol was misled for days by its scout, no doubt by order of the chief to test our knowledge of the ground.  I was lenient, and had the scout replaced.
    Two of the natives who worked for the mess sergeant were found urinating in the water supply, which had been boiled and casked when men and horses had perished after drinking river water.  We were vulnerable to the jungle in ways the natives were not.  Brought before me in the middle of the night, they pretended it was a joke--as perhaps it was--and laughed insincerely as though they were sneering at us.  I turned them out of the stockade and posted a sentry on the water.  In the morning he was found moaning, his ankles in a pool of blood.
    I presented myself to the chief, who did not invite me to sit.  Had anything happened, I asked, to alter the good feeling between us?  Had we committed an offense?  If so, I wished to rectify it as quickly as possible, for I anticipated the arrival from the coast of a brigade accompanied by cannon, and was hopeful of the chief's welcome.
    Flattery and threat.  Did I omit sincerity? the baring of the heart?  But I was sincere!  I meant to flatter, and to threaten.  Again I invoke the ghosts of my intentions.
    On the trail back, arms lunged from the undergrowth and struck at our ankles.  We leaped away aghast and, bayonets fixed, returned the attack, I slashing at the foliage with my stick.  The devils disappeared.  A few yards on they struck again.  Some of us recognized our erstwhile equipment in the hands of the cannibals, who again eluded us, though we destroyed their cover.  We tiptoed warily back to the stockade, and were several times forced into a frenzied hop-scotch to avoid the cuts, parrying as best we could.
    The natives in our service were dismissed.  Patrols were sent to alert the outposts.  We had been a company of fifty horse and five hundred foot--"Eleven hundred soles," as my adjutant quipped until the unsmiling stares of the men silenced him.  Losses had reduced us to fewer than five hundred.  We kept the horses, which had proven impractical in the jungle, for food.  Of the promised reinforcements there was no word.
    Now we must be careful on the trails.  The men marched with their muskets muzzle-down, like hunters, to protect their insteps.  Bayonets were sheathed and worn at the belt to prevent their being snatched away by importunate natives, who negotiated the underbrush faster than we could prevent their flight.  We moved in patrols of ten, with an advance guard to hack at the sides of the path.
    Even so there were casualties.  An outpost was found abandoned.  In a clearing nearby, almost unrecognizable, lay the body of the commander, eyes open, acrawl with ants, indifferent as the wind-stirred jungle.  A glance at the stumps told the hideous story.
    We were combatants now in an undeclared war.  It was my hope that a show of strength on our part might terminate hostilities before the chief committed himself formally and made them a matter of tribal honor.  I recalled the detachments from the ring of outposts to concentrate our forces in the stockade, closing my fingers into a fist.
    The maneuver proved a complicated one.  The posts had been attacked, and several of the men had suffered the loss of one or both feet.  In some cases the victims, like the water sentry, survived; others, not.  Those who could walk converged on the fort carrying wounded in litters.  Many had been left behind, and rescue parties were dispatched.  These too were attacked.
    The surgeon, who had insisted on keeping his native assistants, worked without sleep for days, and saved many.  Some bled to death, or succumbed to gangrene.  The lucky ones tossed through days of fever and awoke weak and dispirited by their mutilation.
    The officer I had banished for beating his servant now returned with an air of justification, affecting to have been borne out regarding the sly perversity of the savages.  I might have notified him that his action had helped spark the present blaze; but such misdemeanors as his had been inevitable, and I may say here that I did not disburden myself of responsibility for the crisis.  Nor could I have risked demoralizing yet another of my officers, but trusted the spectacle of the accused man's attentions to the wounded as adequate remonstrance.
    February 14.  Still no sign of reinforcements.  Few horses remain to us, and the natives drive away the game from the vicinity of the stockade.  We have the advantage, at least, to have built near the river, and one expedition per day serves us with water.  We muster for parade as best we can; the familiar spectacle of men falling over at inspection is now occasioned, not by faintness due to the heat, but by difficulty in preserving balance.
    Those of the men who are recovered from their wounds look about them with horror at the diminishment of our number.  They are eager to be relieved and sent home, I had almost said, "understandably," though I know not what prospects can await them beyond the beggars' sustenances due their veterancy and suffering.  For the moment even such futures as these are uncertain.
    Our position near the river has also its disadvantages.  Though our pilings are deeply set, the natives easily burrow through the loose loam beneath them.  By dark of moon they escape the notice of the sentries on the battlements and we are forced back to the officers' quarters, around which I station a circle of guards.  Fires are kept alight.  Inside, those still possessed of their feet curl like cats and sleep nervously.
    The necessity, imposed by their dismemberment, of adopting an immobile stance, legs apart and thrust into the sand, makes for fierceness of attitude and determined vigilance among the guards; but to little avail.  Scarcely a night passes that we are not awakened by screams, too late to prevent the horrible attack or the escape of the raiders.  So audacious are they, and so noiseless, as not infrequently to leave trails where they have crept like croquet balls beneath the very legs of the guards.
    We are desperate.  To endure thus separated from society, and even the hope of it, requires a disciplined serenity, but we are reduced to an unbecoming nervous quickness and a general illness of temper for our resources.  Perhaps after all sheer petulance will see us through.  We have been a cruelly long time without the company of women, and in some instances the men turn to each other for solace and relief.  I tolerate this without appearing to approve.  Indeed I cannot but admire the persistence of erotic sentiment among men who, standing or walking, teeter and falter as if on stilts.  Gaunt and shabby, we shuffle out of one another's way like victims of a botched resurrection.
    My own last days, for as such I have begun to think of them, are brightened by my affection for Ned, whose survival is a mercy.  Our friendship retains its old formality, not because I would derive no comfort from greater intimacy, but on account of the dignity its maintenance affords us.  In Ned's company I recover the easeful disinterest that is both the condition and reward of command.
    And here is something odder still.  (Might it be mere delirium due to lack of food and sleep?  I shall record it anyway as being true to these circumstances if only as a symptom.)  As I lean over this history by the light of my last and waning taper, stripped of my claim on the future and of the very light to see past my table, I fall back to positions that only now emerge from the terrain with any clarity of silhouette.  Only now do I see in my belief in God, in the King, and yes, even in my doomed command, the limit of retreat.  Is there not a measure of grace in this?
    In God, all be He featureless and indecipherable, I have never been able not to believe.  Beyond the ceremony associated with certain public occasions I embrace no religious practice, preferring the freethinker's open manner; yet I marvel at those who profess to doubt of His existence, a thing as certain to me as that of the hand that forms the words on this page; for the one is as far beyond my comprehension as the other.  No more can I relinquish this certainty than I can imagine, even in this deadly darkness, my own ceasing to be; for who is there than can conceive of himself that he be not?
    The second of my fortifications is the rule of His Majesty's law.  I am not such a provincial bumpkin as to imagine that, from one end of the world to the other, there has not arisen a succession of imperial powers, each spreading far its dominion before succumbing to a newer force.  Thus does the world proceed.  Yet even in the face of this knowledge, who can but believe, who has gone into the matter carefully, that ours is not merely one turn among many, but the turn?  It is no little comfort to me that the men waiting around me in the dark share the knowledge, without perhaps ever having considered it.
    Come we then to the third and frailest, and yet the least assailable wall of my bastion: this almost extinct command; this trapped forepaw, chewed off and abandoned by the creature that will survive it.  At the age of ten I rehearsed the loneliness of command and the glory of death in battle.  At twenty I was being absorbed into the soft fabric of the Empire, through gallantry and the smiles of young women.  At thirty the path before me led upwards through the center of things.  Now, past forty, I am forgotten, isolated, close to failure and death in an uncharted jungle, finding significance in my loss.  For let us have no illusions: the very life and prestige of any rule depend, not upon mercantile success or cultural achievement, but upon victory in war, and nothing else.  In our annihilation we serve the greater advance.   We stand for something--is significance not a great happiness?--and must, until we are defeated.
    When I had finished the above entry the flame by which I wrote sputtered and drowned in its pool of wax.  Laying down my quill I rose and walked to the door, a rectangle of darkness slightly less black than that of my quarters, and stood pondering the hot night and the ceaseless pounding of the drums.  I must have cried out, for I felt a searing slice at the jointure of my instep and ankle, felt the depth of the cut, the cruel competence of it, and immediately another from behind.  My struggles hastened the loss of blood.  Already weakened by the long siege, I feel over in a swoon.
    Fever held me under and rolled me like a corpse in the surf.  In vain did I struggle to the surface to gasp.  I panted with thirst, and gagged on the water given me.  Wild cries escaped me and woke me as if another had uttered them.  In a moment of calm that could only have been the grateful result of exhaustion, I was told of Ned's death, and fell away again, hope melting in my grasp.
    When finally I lay still, I felt there was nothing left of me.  Around me lay my remaining handful, head-propped and torpid, bearded skeletons all of us.  Had we been able to form the thought we could not have told whether it was the noon heat or the being spent that paralyzed us, but I have no doubt we'd have lain so through the day, and twilight, and dawn and day again, until nature and her creatures reclaimed the place around us, if it had been allowed to happen.  As it was, a savage appeared in the doorway; then another.  We turned our heads enough to see them for a moment and then let them drop away again into less strenuous attitudes.
    They lifted us on their shoulders and carried us running through the jungle.  We bounced along piggyback without troubling to look around us.  I assumed, with the effortlessness of one step following another, that we were to make the meat of some unholy communion; but was past caring.  I felt nothing beyond a numb, uncurious wonder and the terrible acquiescence of the gazelle in the jaws of the beast.
    Chanting crowds met us at the edge of the village.  Leaping into the air and rhythmically pumping their spears up and down, they escorted us among the huts to a grove by the river.  Here, at the basin of a splashing waterfall, we were left in the charge of several of the women.  These stripped away what was left of our uniforms and lifted us into the water to bathe us, after which we were fed on fruit and coconut milk and rocked to sleep in hammocks.
    Soon health and vitality began to return, and with them the anxiety that as soon as we were fat enough for the feast, we would perish.  Powerless to flee, we sought succor in the embraces of our nurses, wherefrom we drew the long-missed nourishment that comes of physical tenderness, but which sharpened also the poignancy of our will to live.
    It soon became clear, however, that we had entered a tropical Valhalla reserved for warriors bearing the honorable wounds.  The women here love feetless men, and only for them will they uncover their breasts, which are considered highly erotic.  Our function is to preside at feasts, to give counsel in village affairs, to serve as embodiments of the gods and to be fanned, fondled and fussed over as exemplars of bliss.
    We are immersed in satisfactions beyond our devising.  There is not even the forbidden dish to trouble our vestigial consciences, for it is the preserve of active warriors.
    We miss home only a little.  Indeed, the moments I spend with this record are my only connection with the past, and they are only mine, for few of my surviving men have the skill of reading, and none the disposition.  It is doubtless the uneasy effect of comfort on a soldier's conscience that moves me still once in a while, in that interval when the others have fallen asleep and the embers still glow, to bend over these notes.  Otherwise I am happy.

("The Feet-Eaters"  first appeared in The Southeastern Review.)

Also by Robert MacLean:
Mortal Coil: A Comedy of Corpses at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES;
The President's Palm Reader: A Washington Comedy at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES;
and the Toby books: 
Foreign Matter at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords; 
Total Moisture at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords; 
The Cad at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords; and
Will You Please Fuck Off? at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon FR, Amazon DE, AmazonIT, AmazonES and Smashwords.
And they're at Sony, Nook, Kobo, Diesel, iTunes—the whole street.