A Strange Herb

The first occurence of this dream happened several weeks ago. The scene was so quick, it was easy to dismiss it as the echo of a commercial or some scene I read in a mostly forgotten text. But the dream persisted in repeating until I recognized it.

The dream begins to reveal I am standing in my kitchen. Folded bags attest to the great amount of groceries I had just stocked my pantry and refridgerator with. I’m standing, looking at enough food to feed a marching band for an hour, and feeling pretty pleased with myself.

Outside, the bright day suddenly becomes stormy and dark. A fierce wind blows against the windows, shaking them and testing the seals.

There is a knock at the front door. Whoever is knocking is not sure anyone will answer.

I answer it quickly.

The Stranger smiles a greeting. He is covered with dust from head to toe and smells like miles as if distance has a scent. There is something wrong with his feet but his act of removing his worn hat from his dusted head distracts me from looking further.

“Excuse me, Miss. I’ve traveled far and long. I ran out of food back there and am hungry. Have you any food to spare? I only need a bite to keep going.”

I sniffed in a mockery of being offended and answered with a broad smile. “You’ll not have a bite, Sir. I just filled my pantry with what I need and what I want. You’ll have a meal with me and more to take with you after. I think my ego and my ass can deal with being spoiled a little less than planned.”

I invited him in, asking only that he wipe his feet on the mat outside the door, and told him to be seated while I searched for something quick.

As he wiped his feet (his strange shaped feet) on the mat and ground more dust in his hands trying to wipe them on his traveling cloak, I went into the kitchen with the intention of stirring up some food. I opened a pantry door and came to a full stop.

The pantry was empty.

Shelves that I was worried about overburdening were cleanly bare as if nothing had ever been placed there. The fridge was perfectly cold and perfectly empty. The freezer sang defiant songs to itself.

I pulled the receipt from the trash to verify I had indeed purchased too much damn food that morning and stared helpless at the kitchen that never saw a crumb since it was built.

I turned back to the Stranger, who was now seated at my dining table. He was watching all of this with bright-eyed interest. He was smiling as if he had expected the food to vanish but I did not realize it at that moment.

“I… I have no words! I have no food! Gone! All of it is gone!”

He nodded. “It is. How will you feed yourself, now?”

“I’m not worried about myself!” I snapped at him but caught myself before I slipped into being outright rude. “I can always go buy myself more food to eat, but you’re relying on the hospitality of strangers. There is no guarantee that the next door you knock on will be receptive, and it was my hope that I could equip you so that you could finish your journey without knocking on any more doors. But!” I turned back to the empty kitchen. “It’s gone! It’s all gone! How the fuck did that happen? I don’t get it… I had so much food here…”

The Stranger rose from the table and patted me on the shoulder to comfort me. “No, it’s okay. You opened your door and invited me inside. You sat me at your table and was happy to have me even though I am filthy from the road. You worry that I have nothing when it is you who have been deprived. You have fed me, and I am fed well.”

His hand slipped from patting me on the shoulder to patting me on the arm. I looked at the skeletal hand and noted it was backwards. I looked up at the Stranger and saw his face was severely deformed and scarred. I saw him clearly, but I had no fear of him.

“Tell me. If there was a way for us to share a meal, would you still sit with me, even though now you see me as I am?”

“Have you sought to harm me? What evil are you visiting upon me that I need to clock your ass out the door? Bring peace, have peace, and you have been a peaceful guest. So yes, if there was a way for us to share a meal, I would sit with you and all your grotesque manners. Just don’t puke on me.”

He blinked, then laughed a deep laughter that chases away doubts and fears. “Here. I have something for you to fill your kitchen with.” He pulled from some unseen pocket a small dust sealed bag. From the bag he pulled a teeny linen pouch that was tied closed. He opened the teeny linen pouch and held it up for me to look into and smell.

A pinch of something small, dried, and green were in the pouch. It smelled bitter and minty. It smelled familiar.

“This is [a certain herb]. You know the name, yes? This, I leave with you. When you are able and awake, make a pot of food and season it with this. Call me, and I will sit at your table and share your meal. No matter how far away I am when you call for me, I will hear you and come.”

He poured out the teeny linen pouch into my hand. The dried herb stabbed at my memory. He lifted my hand to my mouth and motioned for me to lick it.

I licked my hand and the bitterness surprised me into waking.

The first time I had that dream, upon waking I realized where I had heard that herb name before. I had ordered some spices from an online vendor and my desired purchase was just a few dollars short of free shipping. As the cost of my order with shipping would have been more than the cost of adding a small jar of something else to get free shipping, I looked through all the offerings for something new to try.

After discounting many of the spice blends for personal reasons, I had the choice of trying something completely different and alien to me, or doubling down on something I already had and would take five years to use up.

I chose something new. I figured if the herb lived up to the advertised reputation then there would be nothing wasted. If the herb wound up being absolutely useless to me, then I didn’t lose any money. Win-win.

As I looked over my order placed two days before the dream, I confirmed that this was the herb that the Stranger wanted me to cook with. I guess I have homework, then.

I quickly ran into a problem. As far as American cooking was concerned, the herb was only useful in one specific context for one specific dish and the flavor profile was something you wanted to avoid unless you wanted to eat this one specific dish, forever. Too bad that I did not grow up with an appreciation for beans outside of chili, and this was not the time for me to force myself to eat beans I wasn’t even sure how to cook.

I didn’t have access to much beyond what Google and Bing was showing me. Even switching languages didn’t help. Search results kept showing me the same content, over and over again. The only thing that changed were the websites scraping from each other and the number of blocked browser scripts.

Even after receiving the order and the mystery herb, I still didn’t know what to cook with it other than with a pot of black beans. (Did I mention that I don’t like beans. Cuz I sure as hell don’t.) I wasn’t sure if I was going to share a meal with the Stranger after all.

He did not share my doubt. Over the next two weeks, I kept dreaming of him coming to my door and asking for food. Each time the contents of the stocked pantry would change, but the outcome remained the same. I began to wake in sorrow that I didn’t know what to do with what I had been given.

When time allowed, I would try to search for how the herb was used in different ways. As a tea. (It’s a folk medicine.) In baking breads. (Not recommended.) In stews (But only if you like… beans.) Website after website would announce how indispensible the herb was for traditional cooking leading the reader to think it was used as widely as black pepper is now, only to announce that no meal is complete without a side of beans and this herb was the key to making beans perfect.

But then another twist of search words gave me another set of results. A website gave the usual keywords and “traditional cooking” phrases as the others, but then described how the herb tastes in comparison with well known Western cooking herbs and spices.

Like an overly bitter oregano with an undertone of surprisingly cooling mint.

That description could have been lifted from the way the herb tasted in the repeated dreams.

Now that I knew the flavor profile, I had an idea of which of my usual dishes I could use it in. And I do have a favorite dish that is very heavy on oregano that I could use as the meal to share with the Stranger.

So yesterday, I threw a chopped onion, more garlic than I have sense, a can of diced tomatoes, about a pound of sausage, and a cup of lentils in the slow cooker. Drowning it with two and a half cups of chicken broth before blessing it with just enough smoked paprika (but a little more to be sure), a teaspoonish of oregano, a teaspoonish of the Stranger’s herb, and enough salt and pepper to say I tried, I put the lid on and went about the business of adulting for the day.

At dinner time it smelled right though upon tasting it I realized I had put more black pepper than I should have in the pot after all. This being one of Dter’s favorite meals, I was worried I had ruined it. I had barely ladeled my bowl when she returned for her second. She was happy with it.

The Stranger’s herb didn’t make itself known in the meal at first. I could tell it added an “earthy” note to the dish, but I could also tell it added a contradictory light taste to the dish that reminded me of mint without the coolness of mint.

I made a note to myself to add some ground chili pepper next time to balance the flavors, made my bowl, and retreated to my room for some “peace and quiet”. (Because of the environment we fled from, to sit at the same table and eat together is not a high priority for Dter and me. As long as we know the other is okay, we can be in separate rooms without feeling left out or alone.)

“Hey. Stranger. Come share this bowl with me. There’s extra in the pot, and all our backs are turned, so take from it what you need and take from it what you please. Just save a bit for [Dter] cuz she’ll out eat you and me both.”

It’s been a long while since I did anything like praying over a meal. After a moment of quiet, my stomach told my propriety to sit down a while and I began to eat.

(Definitely needs some heat to balance it.)

Despite Dter and I both having two bowls of the stuff, there was still enough leftover for another meal. I said nothing as I placed it in the fridge while cleaning up the kitchen. I don’t have a safe place nearby to pour or set out offerings so I hoped the Stranger would tell me if he wanted anything different. As if the Stranger would show at all.

“Yea, that’s good. Thank you. And thanks for not cooking beans again. I get beans a lot. A whole damn lot.” The Stranger pushed my bowl away from him. He sat across from me at my dining room table. He was just as road dusted as ever. His hat hung on his back by a thong against his neck. “Is this something you cook often?”

“Yea. It’s Dter’s comfort food. I didn’t get a chance to cook much when I was… elsewhere… and when I did, she didn’t get to have as much as she wanted because… well…” I looked at the empty bowl and tried to not allow the dream to be tainted by still open wounds. “Want more? The pot grew somehow as I was cooking it and there’s a lot more than I expected. I can put together a container to take with you and…” I reached for the empty bowl to take to the kitchen.

The Stranger’s backward hands grabbed mine before I could touch the bowl. “No. This is twice you have fed me. So I have had enough to stay and enough to go.” He stood and pulled me from the table. With a swift and smooth motion, he pulled me down to lie on the floor face up and straddled me while still holding my hands. “Now, I will feed you. It will be different from what you know, but you knew this was coming.”

I did. I had figured out who the Stranger was a week ago. I knew I was taking a risk by allowing him to reenter my life in a different way. There would be no need to treat me with softness.

His deformed face elongated into a scarred muzzle. Pinning me with his hands and his body, he leaned over to sniff at my mouth. He licked my lips with a canine tongue. I opened my mouth at his command.

He took a breath, covered my open mouth with his muzzle, and began to expel smoke into me. I choked when it entered my lungs and swallowed in reflex. The ingested smoke felt comfy. He continued to expel smoke into my mouth and I continued to swallow it as if I were dying of drought and he was the only source of water.

I noticed that the smoke tasted like how I imagined his herb would if burned on hot coals.

A perfect moment passed and then he moved his muzzle away. He licked my lips again to close them and sniffed carefully at my face. Releasing me from his whole body restraint, he sat on the floor with his legs crossed and pulled me into his lap. The action of ingesting all the smoke made me dizzy and tired.

“Sleep. I will watch over you. When you wake, I will be gone. Cook again for me, and cook again for your daughter, and cook again for yourself. Cook for all three at once if you can. Cook for yourself first if you can’t. You need strong hands to cook after all, and you deserve to eat just the same.”

Held in his grip with his backwards hands patting me, I could not help but fall into a deeper sleep.

In that deeper sleep, I dreamt of undisturbed gravedirt from which the Stranger’s herb grew so thick that the graves were hidden from everyone and even history forgot what was there. I dreamt of seeds planted in drought stricken areas in faith that the waters would one day come. I dreamt of ancient graves now flooded with new waters, and the seeds of the Stranger’s herb being carried away to new lands.

I woke up hungry.