Gluttony

Heavy seas tossed the enormous ship as if it were but a lifeboat. Lightning tore asunder the darkness of the moonless night. Thunder punctuated the relentless drumming of rain on the wooden roof. Animals screeched, bellowed, and howled in their stalls. They made more noise than usual that night.

(Image provided by Henry Herz)

Broad-shouldered first mate Japheth barely heard six bells rung above the cacophonous choir. He swayed for balance as he trod the watch along creaking planks. His dread grew with each stride that a beast would burst free from its cage. Men would die should that happen. Muttering a prayer of thanks and sweating despite the chill, he completed his rounds at midnight. He rushed to his cabin, shut the door, and threw the bolt home.

In their padlocked reinforced stall, a pair of manticores exchanged glances. Gula, the female, growled. “I’m still hungry.” She bared her triple rows of razor-sharp fangs, alarming in their stark contrast with her otherwise alluring human face. Vicious talons sprouted from her four thick paws. Her tail, tipped with sharp barbs, swished in agitation.

Her mate licked his lips. “I’m always hungry,” replied Gluttire. “I can’t stomach any more of the cornmeal we’re fed. It’s been too long since I’ve had bloody meat … or killed prey.”

Gula’s mouth formed a mirthless smile. She nodded and tossed her russet mane. “Yesss. The entire ship can be our larder. Let’s stretch our legs.” The pair bunched their powerful leonine limbs and leaped over their high stall wall. They landed without a sound. The pair padded down the wide passageway, their heads swiveling left and right. In the other stalls, nostrils flared. Eyes snapped open. Hair rose on the back of necks. Even without hearing the prowling apex predators, the animals shrunk to the far corners of their stalls. Sleeping crew twisted in their bunks and dreamed of death and darkness.

“I’m in the mood for poultry,” Gula whispered. “Follow my lead.” She stopped in front of a stall holding a pair of harpies. “Good evening.”

“And to you, mistress,” the harpies replied, retreating to the rear of their stall.

“How are you handling the voyage so far?” Gula asked with false solicitude.

“As well as most, I suspect. But there’s never enough to eat.”

Gula smiled. “Indeed. But you might be pleased to learn that Gluttire and I have some spare corn. You’re welcome to share.”

The harpies whispered to each other, tossing an occasional glance at the manticores. Despite their poorly masked wariness, drool seeped slowly from their beaks. “That’s most gracious of you, mistress. But we cannot accept your hospitality. As you can see, our pen is floor-to-ceiling.”

“Nonsense,” replied Gula. “We’d love to have you for dinner.” Quick as a striking snake, her taloned paw struck the lock on the harpy pen. It shattered and tumbled to the deck. Gula pushed open the gate. “After you.”

The ungainly harpies hesitated. But eventually gluttony overcame their fear, and they hopped down the passageway like starving vultures toward a ripe carcass. They reached the manticore stall. With a fluttering of black feathered wings, the harpies cleared the top, soon joined by their hosts.

“As promised, there’s the corn,” said Gula, pointing to a sack in the corner of the stall. Needing no further invitation, the harpies waddled to the sack and tore into the contents. They gorged, while the manticores watched.

Eventually, the harpies rested from their labors, their stomachs bulging. “Our thanks, mistress. I haven’t felt so full in an age.”

“You’re most welcome. Please, help yourself to more.”

“Oh, I couldn’t swallow another kernel.”

Gula smiled. “Oh, I think you could.”

The harpies gulped and exchanged a glance. They backed away from their hosts.

Each manticore lunged and grasped a harpy by the throat with an iron grip. But no coups de grâce, no head-severing bites offered quick release from terror and pain. With her free forepaw, Gula grabbed a fistful of grain and shoved it down her harpy’s throat. Gluttire mimicked his mate. Gulping for breath, the harpies couldn’t scream … for the next few hours. Their prolonged torture prompted hissing, growling, and wailing by the manticores’ neighbors, all to no avail. The din of the storm drowned their shouts.

When the corn was gone, Gluttire bit the head off his harpy, feathers and all. He quickly polished off the harpy with a few more gulps. The other harpy begged for mercy. Gula just smiled. There was no mercy to be had.

In an almost leisurely fashion, Gula ripped one limb at a time from the squawking, thrashing harpy. She delicately picked the flesh off the bones, then snapped them and sucked out the marrow. She slit open the torso of the now still harpy and methodically ate the organs, saving the liver for last.

Gluttire stretched on his back and let out a satisfied belch. Gula stared at him and sighed. “You have a feather between your fangs, Gluttire.”

“Ah, thank you. Well, that hit the spot. But why’d we force-feed the harpies? Why not just gulp ‘em down and be done with ‘em?”

“Did you not savor the rich, buttery flavor of the enlarged liver? Did you not appreciate how well it complemented the harpy flesh? Ah, if only we had fig jam, onion chutney, and mustard seed. And I’d have given your left hindlimb for Poilâne-style sourdough and a chilled magnum of Riesling or Chardonnay.”

“It kinda tasted like chicken to me.”

“Philistine! My epicurean expertise is wasted on you. Did you not notice how vastly more delectable the taste of monster meat is to that of mundane animals like the quagga?”

“Ummm. Yeah. No more dodo meat for me. That tasted like chicken too.”

Gula scowled and finished licking the remaining merlot-colored stains from the deck.

✸✸✸

During the morning watch, a junior crewman discovered the harpies’ absence. He reasoned that they’d thrown themselves repeatedly against their pen door until the lock gave way. But a ship-wide search turned up no trace of the missing monsters. Inventory was tallied, and stall locks double-checked. The crew assumed the harpies had taken flight in search of a new roost.

✸✸✸

For the next week, each morning revealed a missing pair of monsters. Captain’s orders to the contrary, there are no secrets on a ship. The crew viewed the harpy departure as a bad omen. But with each new unexplained loss, greater dread crept throughout the ship. And no rationale could be contrived for the disappearance of non-flying monsters. Few crew now worked or walked the ship alone. They lit extra lanterns to drive back shadows. “Even the animals feel it,” said one sailor. “They pace in their cells and sleep only fitfully.”

The deluge lessened somewhat, but the thunder continued unabated. Japheth’s lanky brother Shem had the first watch. The ship’s stores held no armor or weaponry. So in their growing unease, Shem’s family prevailed upon him to borrow a knife from the galley and wear it in his belt as a precaution. The ship heaved with the waves. Shem stumbled repeatedly as he patrolled through the ruminant section of stalls. The noisome bouquet of horse, cow, goat, and sheep dung assaulted Shem’s nose. Between the stench and the rocking of the ship, he struggled to keep down his supper. His neck and shoulders tensed. Every dozen cubits or so, he cast furtive glances behind at imagined movement in the shadows.

An inhuman scream of pain from a distant part of the deck reached Shem’s ears. His breath stopped. His blood ran cold. Despite a feeble attempt to convince himself it was just the howling of the wind, he drew his knife. More lightning flashed. Another scream, closer this time, pierced the thunder. Shem’s head snapped in the direction of the sound. His bowels loosened, though the smell was mercifully masked by the animal reek. His every instinct clamored to flee from a menace beyond his ken. But his feet remained frozen to the deck by overpowering horror. A third scream, closer still, finally released him from his paralysis. He leaped through a hatchway and careened away from the screams in abject terror down the weather deck of the bucking vessel.

✸✸✸

Gula’s stomach rumbled. She licked her lips. “I’m still hungry. I could eat a horse.”

Gluttire sat up on his haunches and tilted his head. “But I thought you said that monsters taste much better than mundanes.”

“It was a figure of speech, dolt. Follow me.” Again the manticores left their stall and stalked. Again animals woke, whinnied or screamed, and shrunk to the far corners of their stalls. Except the chimeras. The pair leaped to their feet, adopting a shoulder-to-shoulder defensive stance at the approach of the manticores. With lion heads held low, they bared their teeth and growled. Above, their goat heads swayed back and forth, brandishing their long horns. Serpent-tipped tails swept back and forth, scanning for other threats.

“They’re strong,” whispered Gluttire. “We can’t beat them in a fair fight. Did we bite off more than we could chew?”

Gula sighed and raised her tail. “I don’t fight fair, remember? Get ready to spike them.” One chimera gave a loud roar. “Now!” cried Gula.

Each manticore loosed a venomous tail spine. The spines shot through gaps in the stall like bolts from a crossbow.  Each found its mark and sunk deeply into a chimera’s chest. The chimeras summoned final defiant growls. But within seconds, they lay lifeless on the deck.

The manticores leaped into the chimera stall. “Take the tail and leave the rest,” said Gula.

“What about all that other fresh meat?” In his gluttony, Gluttire sank his fangs into a chimera flank, tore off a chunk, and gulped it down without chewing. Chimera blood splattered the stall. The nearby animals whinnied and neighed in a chorus of horror.

Oblivious to the chaos, Gluttire took a more leisurely second bite. He grimaced, gagged, and spit out the fetid flesh. “Ugh, chimera tastes like ass! They’re worse than trolls.”

Gula sighed. “Yes. Except their tail. Soup made from chimera tail is considered a delicacy. Almost as good as wyvern tail. It’s even better when taken off a live chimera. But I wasn’t in the mood for a fight tonight. Though it can be entertaining to watch a chimera thrash around and bleed to death with its tail off.”

“Perhaps next time,” replied Gluttire.

“There won’t be a next time,” said Gula. She bit the tail off a chimera. “Suck the ichor out so you don’t leave a trail back to our stall. And we must stage an explanation for the mess you made. Extract the spines and toss them out the porthole. Arrange the carcasses so it appears they killed each other. Take bites out of both their necks.” Gluttire complied, retching at the foul taste. Gula snatched a chimera tail with her mouth, leaped over the wall, and returned to her stall. Gluttire soon followed.

“Now, keep in mind,” Gula lectured back in their stall. “For a truly thick and savory chimera tail broth, I’d need shrimp, Dongu mushrooms, bamboo shoots, and sliced ginger. I’d pair it with a Chateauneuf-du-Pape for that wine’s subtle notes of black cherry, cassis, and vanilla. Such finesse in the mouth! Elegant layers and a delightful long aftertaste. Sadly, I’ll have to make do with what we have.”

Gula reached for the tails to start preparing them. But Gluttire already had one in his maw. “Sorry. I’m famished. But, you’re right. It’s mighty tasty. Umm, do we have ketchup?”

“Boor!” Gula spat. “I don’t know why I even try to teach you gastronomy.”

✸✸✸

Over the following days, the manticores continued ravaging the ship’s cargo. As the monster population dwindled, the crew’s terror grew. The nightly screams and grisly results the following mornings left everyone trembling with fear, wondering when their turn would come, and what they’d done to deserve such an accursed fate. Some refused to stand a night watch. Some claimed sudden illness and wouldn’t budge from their bunks. Morale sank so low that the officers had to put down a minor mutiny.

After more weeks of inescapable horror gnawing at the souls and sanity of the crew, a desperate handful of them assembled a makeshift raft and leaped overboard in the pre-dawn light. They were never seen again. The next day, a young sailor didn’t report for duty. The first mate found him in the crew’s quarters, swaying in time with the ship from a length of rope tied around his neck, his face mottled and purple, his unbound hands offering wordless testament to his terror-induced suicide. The last vestige of hope fled the ship.

✸✸✸

The ship’s bell rang midnight.  Gluttire stood, stretched, and turned to his mate. “I’m hungrier than ever.”

“As am I,” replied Gula. “It would seem the more monsters we eat, the more ravenous we become. Shall we go find dinner?”

Gluttire nodded and followed Gula over the wall. Their shipboard hunting honed by nightly practice, they soon returned to their stall. Each held by the throat a two-legged winged serpent with a rooster’s head. The panicked cockatrices struggled to no avail, any pleas for mercy choked off.

“Cockatrices feed at night,” said Gula, “Normally, I’d stab out their eyes so that they think it’s nighttime. Then they’d gorge until they double in size. However, neither of us want to wait for days, do we?”

Gluttire nodded. Viscous drool dripped from his jaw and pooled on the floorboards.

“Pull the top off that barrel of brandy I purloined earlier today,” directed Gula. She shoved her cockatrice into the barrel until it was completely submerged. The cockatrice’s flailing magnified, splashing brandy on the deck. But Gula’s grip only tightened. Eventually, the cockatrice’s thrashing stopped. “There we are. You see, Gluttire, this marinates it from both the inside and outside.”

Although no comprehension illuminated his face, Gluttire nodded and copied the process with his dinner.

“Now, enjoy. Close your eyes and pay close attention. It’s salty and savory, with hazelnut overtones and the incomparable flavor of cockatrice fat.” Gluttire complied.

✸✸✸

Grumbling about having to stand more watches due to the lost crewmen, Ham strode quietly among the cages. He’d drawn the short stick and had the last watch this night. He rounded a corner and pulled up short outside the manticore stall. “What in heaven’s name is going on here? How did the cockatrices end up in this stall?” he cried. His wits slowed by shock, realization finally dawned. “So, you’re the accursed source of all the bloodshed! What have you to say for yourselves?”

Gula turned, licked the last bit of cockatrice juice from her lips and replied, “That I’m still feeling peckish. How about you, Gluttire?” Gula nodded toward Ham, who caught the glance and fled for his life despite the locked manticore stall. The manticores leaped over their stall and gave pursuit. “See how pathetically slow humans are,” said Gula. “They offer good sport, and I’m in the mood to toy with him, but we can’t allow him to sound the alarm.”

Ham stumbled aft, his screams drowned out by the storm’s noise. The manticores soon overtook him. Cruel talons pinned him to the deck. Ham closed his eyes and muttered a final prayer.

The manticores sank their fangs into arms and pulled in opposite directions. Ham screamed. The manticores dug their talons into the deck and tugged like two bulldogs fighting over a haunch of beef. With sickening snaps, Ham’s shoulders tore from his body. His lifeblood spurted onto the deck. Bone-breaking feeding sounds followed. By the time the manticores returned their attention to him, he’d stopped screaming. Their ravenous shredding continued until only Ham’s head remained, still wide-eyed with terror on the red-stained deck.

“Too bad he surprised us,” said Gula. “With time to plan a meal, I could have wrought wonders by honey-baking him, or preparing him with some green hydra eggs.”

Gluttire lowered his head and sniffed at Ham’s head. “I don’t like human brains, though I’m still hungry. I’d love some dessert right now. But we ate the pair of house brownies two nights ago. What do we do now, Gula? There are no more monsters left to eat.”

Gula closed her eyes in thought. “Well,” she mused, “there is one more.” Like a stooping falcon, her talons slashed downward and tore out Gluttire’s jugular. His eyes bulged. Dark crimson gore gushed from his neck. He reeled away from Gula, collapsing against a bulkhead. Gula swung her tail and plunged its spines into Gluttire’s heart. His eyes flickered and he slumped to the deck. “Finally, no more snoring or insipid conversation,” she said. “Too bad I don’t have a nice bottle of Chianti to accompany Gluttire’s last supper.” She ripped open his chest cavity and feasted on her mate’s organs. “Starting tomorrow, it looks like I’ll be dining with the crew.”

✸✸✸

Sleep eluded Noah. Maybe it was the oppressive sense of impending doom that permeated the ship. Maybe it was the constant humidity that wreaked havoc on his joints. Maybe it was worry that he wouldn’t be strong enough to fulfill his divinely ordained mission. Noah ran a hand through his hair. He got dressed, took up his staff, and strolled down the length of the ark, hoping fresh air would banish his pessimism. He prayed that he’d find a clue regarding the source of all the deaths.

Thus it was that Noah came upon both the remains of his son and the heartless perpetrators of the ship-wide genocides. His eyes widened in horror. But fury and righteous wrath lent strength to his aged arms. With Gula’s blood-slicked face buried in her mate’s exposed entrails, Noah swung with all his might. The hardwood staff and Gula’s skull shattered with the impact.

The following day, after Ham’s funeral service, the ark grounded on a mountaintop.

✸✸✸

Author’s Note

This story offers a speculative explanation of how gluttony purged monsters from the earth, inspired by the biblical flood narrative and the doomed voyage of the Demeter in Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

Gluttony (selfishness) is truly one of the seven mortal sins. But the starkest horror of this tale is that the monstrous behaviors of manticores are sadly emulated by some people even today.

Gula’s preparation of harpies is not unlike how a tube is shoved down the neck of a goose to force-feed it. That expands its liver tenfold in order to increase the yield of foie gras. Gula’s treatment of chimeras is similar to how sharks are caught, their fins hacked off, and their still-thrashing bodies tossed back into the oceans. Perhaps the most horrific of all is how human chefs drown tiny ortolan bunting birds in Armagnac before cooking them.

This story previously appeared in Classics Remixed Anthology (5/2019, Left Hand Publishers).
Edited by Marie Ginga

Henry Herz's speculative fiction short stories include Out, Damned Virus (Daily Science Fiction), Bar Mitzvah on Planet Latke (Coming of Age, Albert Whitman & Co.), The Crowe Family (Castle of Horror V, Castle Bridge Media), Demon Hunter Vashti (The Jewish Book of Horror, Denver Horror Collective), Alien with a Bad Attitude (Strangely Funny VIII, Mystery and Horror LLP), The Case of the Murderous Alien (Spirit Machine, Air and Nothingness Press), Maria & Maslow (Highlights for Children), A Proper Party (Ladybug Magazine). He's written ten picture books, including the critically acclaimed I Am Smoke.