by Nick Hunt
Figure 1a: the dining hall. Located, it seems, in an abandoned subway tunnel, panelled incongruously in teak, mahogany and other unsustainable hardwoods. Insufficiently lit by dim, recessed lights that give the room an atmosphere of twilight. Walls dustily cluttered with half-completed objects, broken bits of statuary that appear familiar at first glance, and at second glance unrecognisable. Things that make you say to yourself, ‘I’ll have a closer look at that later,’ but, of course, you never do.
Figure 1b: the dining table. It stretches the full length of the hall, and appears to be constructed from railway sleepers, or planks from some old galleon. It must weigh many tonnes. Glancing beneath, you see it is supported by a forest of legs of many different shapes and sizes, cannibalised from tables, chairs, pedestals, crutches, walking sticks. Laid out upon the bare expanse of wood are two rows of dusty glasses, two rows of earthenware bowls, and some wooden spoons.
Figure 1c: the diners. At first you assume there are scores of them, but later adjust your estimate to just a few dozen. Calculating numbers is surprisingly tricky, due to the insufficiency of light and the peculiar amorphousness of facial features. Various races are represented here, and there’s an equal ratio of women to men, but around this table they all appear generic. It’s not helped by the fact they keep changing position without you noticing them move. You turn away from the man to your left, a Slavic gentleman with impressive moustaches, and when you turn back it’s an old Asian lady with spectacles like the lenses from antique telescopes. But it’s hard to be sure. Your concentration keeps slipping. Perhaps this is still the same person, with a different facial expression.
Figure 2: the egg-timer (a). It stands at the furthest end of the table, about the height of a grandfather clock, a truly impressive object. A baroque monstrosity of piped and fluted metal, like something from the palace of the Tsars. The dirty golden sand hisses audibly from the top chamber to the bottom, and an ingenious pivoting mechanism allows the whole thing to be rotated when the bottom chamber is full. This task, you imagine, will be performed by the diners sitting on either side, who are watching the sand’s flow closely. But the top chamber isn’t empty yet.
Figure 3a: the soup tureen. It is wheeled in on a serving trolley, and lifted onto the table by three waiters. Its arrival elicits little excitement from the assembled diners, though you, a first-timer, are awed by its size. ‘Could fit a whole lot of soup in there,’ you scribble on the first page of your notebook. But the tureen, as far as you see, has yet to be filled.
Figure 3b: the ladle. It’s a big one.
Figure 4: the observer. This is you. You still can’t quite believe you’ve been chosen to attend the fabled annual Dinner of Loss, but here you sit, notebook on table, wooden spoon in hand. A poorly accredited freelance journalist with a vague interest in ‘disappearing things’ – you’ve written articles on language extinction, vanishing glaciers, memory loss – you received the invitation three days ago, and cancelled all previous engagements. You’ve come across mention of the Dinner of Loss in the course of your researches, of course, but were doubtful if the rumours were true. As far as you know, one lucky observer is invited to attend every year, but you can’t imagine how the organisers came to choose you.
You came here in an ordinary taxi, though half expecting to be blindfolded and spun around for disorientation. You entered through an ordinary door, following the instructions. You descended several flights of stairs, walked down a mothball-smelling corridor, entered the long dining hall, and found your place-name waiting.
You’ve been here about forty-five minutes. The dinner is due to begin.
Figure 5: the gong. It gongs. A silence settles around the table.
Figure 6: the first intonations. Delivered by one diner after another, passing around the table in turn, at a steady metronomic pace, in an anticlockwise direction. Running, as far as you can note, as follows:
‘The auroch. The Barbary lion. The Japanese wolf. The giant short-faced bear. The upland moa. The American bison. The broad-faced potoroo. The American lion. The elephant bird. The Caucasian wisent. The cave bear. The Nendo tube-nosed fruit bat. The Darling Downs hopping mouse. The dwarf elephant. The Syrian wild ass. The St. Lucy giant rice rat…’
You scribble as fast as your biro can go, but the separately-spoken intonations dissolve into a quiet cacophony of names, murmuring like a disturbed sea, with little rhyme or rhythm. They don’t appear to follow any order, whether categorical or chronological. Your writing degrades into improvised shorthand you’re not even sure you’ll be able to read.
‘The ground sloth. The pig-footed bandicoot. The Balearic shrew. The Ilin Island cloudrunner. The Arabian gazelle. The Schomburgk’s deer. The sea mink. The Javan tiger. The tarpan. The great auk. The Alaotra grebe. The Bermuda night heron. The laughing owl. The bluebuck. The quagga. The western black rhinosaurus. The Sturdee’s pipistrelle. The turquoise-throated puffleg…’
At last the intonations stop. Page after page of your notebook is covered in increasingly frenetic scrawls. You think perhaps an hour has passed, but since they removed your watch at the door you have no way of knowing. The only indicator of time is the giant egg-timer down the table, the snakey sand still hissing inside, though the top chamber still isn’t empty. Your writing hand throbs painfully, and you’re glad of the few minutes’ interregnum in which each diner finds their glass has been filled with wine at some point during the proceedings. Following the lead of the other diners, you raise your glass into the air, casting wobbling wine-shadows over the wood.
‘Lost animals,’ a voice concludes quietly. And as the glasses chime together, the trio of waiters re-enters the hall bearing a steaming vat.
Figure 7: loss soup (a). The waiters approach the soup tureen. You rise from your chair to get a better look, thrilled to be witness to the fabled soup itself, and a slight tut-tut of disapproval issues from the diners beside you. You disregard this. You’re a journalist. You can’t help but elicit disapproval at times. You lean across the table, on tiptoes, to get closer to the action.
Actually, there isn’t much to see. The waiters remove the tureen’s heavy lid and upend the steaming vat. You strain to get a good look at the soup as it sloppily cascades into the tureen, but all you can make out is a viscous gruel, thickened occasionally with matter you can’t from this distance identify, a greasy sludge of no definable colour. Although the vat is of no small proportions, you guess the soup that has been poured must cover only an inch or two at the base of the vast tureen. When the gush comes to an end the waiters shake the last drops out, replace the cumbersome china lid, bow to no-one in particular, and retire.
Figure 8: the second intonations. Before you are even resettled in your seat, the next round has begun.
‘Geeze. Nagumi. Kw’adza. Eyak. Esselen. Island Chumash. Hittite. Eel River Athabaskan. Lycian. Kalkatungic. Moabite. Coptic. Oti. Karipuna. Totoro. Ancient Nubian. Yahuna. Wasu. Old Prussian. Old Tatar. Modern Gutnish. Skepi Creole Dutch…’
You begin to feel a little light-headed. Your biro loses track. You are forced to resort to abbreviations you despair of ever deciphering. But still, you must attempt to keep pace with the murmuring litany of names, must try to record as many as you can, for they are fast disappearing.
The air itself seems to draw them in. They have no body, no substance. The sounds are like vapour, amorphous, removed from reality.
‘Akkala Sámi. Old Church Slavonic. Bo. Kseireins. Scythian. Cuman. Pictish. Karnic. Etruscan. Wagaya-Warluwaric. Edomite. Tangut. Ammonite. Minaean. Phoenician. Ugaritic. Basque-Icelandic pidgin…’
‘Lost languages,’ the soft voice says, dropping at last a tangible sound – if there can exist a thing – into a silence you hadn’t been made aware of. Glasses clink. You have missed the toast. You are still trying to scribble last names before the sounds go out of your head. But it’s no good, you can’t remember.
Figure 9: loss soup (b). Again, the waiters bring the vat, and you get to your feet to see the gruel slide like an oil slick into the tureen, billowing up clouds of steam. It gives a thin, faintly saline smell. The lid is replaced. The table settles down. The sand inside the egg-timer whispers to itself in the corner.
Figure 10: the third intonations.
‘The Fijian weinmannia. The Skottsberg’s wikstroemia. The Prony Bay xanthostemon. The Maui ruta tree. The root-spine palm. The Franklin tree. The Cuban erythroxylum. The fuzzyflower cyrtandra. The Szaferi birch. The Cuban holly. The Hastings County neomacounia. The Yunnan malva. The toromiro. The Mason River myrtle…’
‘Lost plants and trees,’ says the voice, and you have the sensation of a door softly closed, a latch slipping down inside. Again, you weren’t aware the litany had ended. Your biro moves across the table, overshooting its mark. It occurs to you that much time has gone. You were lost in the murmuration, and when you skip back over the pages you find that your notebook is almost full. Hurriedly you fumble in your journalist’s pouch in search of a replacement. Glasses clink mildly around the table. You have missed the toast again. The waiters bring the vat.
Figure 11: loss soup (c). The giant tureen still echoes emptily as the soup crashes into the china depths. It looks as if an ocean could slide in there. The oily smell rises unpleasantly, saturating the air around. The smell makes you uncomfortable. It’s better to breathe through your mouth.
Figure 12: the fourth intonations.
‘The arctops. The sycosarus. The gorgonops. The broomisaurus. The eoarctops. The cephalicustriodus. The dinogorgon. The leontocephalus. The inostrancevia. The pravoslaveria. The viatkogorgon. The aelurognathus tigriceps.’
‘Gorgonopsians,’ says the voice. You don’t even know what this word means. You check the egg-timer timidly, shaking the cramp from your pen-clawed hand, but the sand is still flowing down, a never-ending stream.
Figure 13: loss soup (d). Another greyish slurry emits from the vat, frothing as it hits the china walls. You notice some of the diners’ mouths are shielded with scented handkerchiefs. The stink is becoming immense.
Figure 14: the fifth intonations.
‘The Gallina. The Karankawa. The Anasazi. The Caribs. The Thraco-Cimmerians. The Lusatians. The Khazars. The Kipchaks. The Sassanids. The Great Zimbabweans. The Olmecs. The Hittites. The Etruscans. The Babylonians. The Picts. The Fir Chera. The Gauls. The Philistines. The Tasmanian Aborigines. The Copts. The Yeehats. The Sumerians. The Cathaginians. The Calusa. The Taino. The Ojibwa. The Mohicans. The Cahokia. The Aquitani. The Vindelici. The Belgae. The Brigantes. The Maya. The Dal gCais. The Ui Liathain. The Thracians. The Hibernians. The Kushans. The Macedons. The Amalekites. The Hereros. The Zapatecs. The Atakapas. The Zunghars. The Harappans. The Mughals. The Magadhas. The Moabites. The Pandyans. The Nazcans. The Timurids. The Seljuks. The Huari. The Chachapoya…’
You find yourself filled with a sense of despair. There appears no meaning behind these names. There is nothing to clutch onto here, they scarcely seem worth the breath they’re spoken with. You halt your hopeless scribbling – already you have skipped dozens, scores, perhaps hundreds have not been committed to paper, you will never recall them now – and scan instead the line of faces seated around the dining table, pointlessly and passionlessly intoning. They have no features, no identifying markings. They have reverted to a monotype. Ethnically, sexually and culturally dilute. It’s as if every race in the world has been boiled down to its component paste and stirred together into a beige-coloured blandness.
In increasing journalistic desperation, you search for something, anything. Some clue as to who these people are, or more importantly, why they care. But do they care? Why are they here? You try to remember what you have heard in the past about the Dinner of Loss, but find even this has slipped away. What is this roll call supposed to be for? What are you meant to be observing?
You close your notebook, and then your eyes. You’d like to close your nose as well, but the reek of the soup is all-pervading, it’s already inside your skin.
Figure 15a: the egg-timer (b). The silence is more general than before, and it takes you a while to understand why. The sand. The sand has finally stopped hissing. You open your eyes, and see that the diners have turned their heads to the far end of the hall, where, sure enough, the top chamber stands empty, and the bottom chamber is full.
Figure 15b: the egg-timer (c). More servants appear, and commence an operation that involves a set of tiny keys, which they use to loosen the brackets that holds it together. You realise the entire egg-timer unscrews, to divide the top from the bottom chamber. The empty top chamber is leant against the wall, while it takes six men to carry the bottom, staggering towards the dining table with the great sand-filled glass bell.
Somehow they lift it onto the table, and then clamber up on the table themselves, dragging it over to the soup tureen. Amid much grunting and strenuous groans, the sand is poured into the soup, every last grain shaken out of the chamber. Then the concoction is thoroughly stirred with the oversized ladle.
The pungency of the odour mounts. The diners are gagging politely. You pull your sweater over your face and try not to breathe it in.
Finally the servants do the rounds, ladling soup into each wooden bowl.
‘Ladies and gentleman, loss soup,’ says the voice, with infinite sadness.
Figure 16: loss soup (e). You stare in some horror at what lies before you. It reeks of bilges, dishwater. An oily film slides on its surface, and when you poke it with the spoon you disturb partially suspended bands of sallow browns and greys. Occasionally a translucent lump of matter rises to the surface, slowly revolves, and then sinks back into the anonymous slop. The sand forms a silt at the bottom of the bowl, something like Turkish coffee.
You cannot remember what you expected, but surely it was something better than this. Perhaps you imagined them swimming down there – shades of the Kipchaks, the wisents, the grebes, the canopies of long-extinct trees, intimations of dead Aboriginal tongues, the auroch and the Neanderthal, Homo floresiensis, the glaciers, megafauna – but you find yourself confronted instead with a sewer-stinking broth. There’s not even any wine left to wash the stuff down. Is this perhaps some awful joke?
You look around. The diners are eating, ferrying the soup from their bowls to their mouths with mute determination. The liquid dribbles from their loose lips, splashing back into the bowls. Apart from the pitter-patter of soup drops, the only sound around the table is the steady champing of teeth against sand. Throat muscles clench and gulp. They are actually swallowing the stuff.
Somehow, as unlikely as it seems, you find yourself incredibly hungry. You feel as if you haven’t eaten for weeks. You’ve lost track of how long you’ve been in this place. Your stomach aches with emptiness, a hunger of bottomless proportions. Steeling your nerves, you take a spoonful and bring it towards your mouth. But something tells you that would only make it worse. You just can’t do it. An enormous sadness grips you. Your spoon tips and the soup splashes onto the open page of your notebook, soaking through the paper and blotting the words.
You put the notebook back in its pouch and weakly rise to your feet.
‘I’d like… I’d like to add my own,’ you say, holding up your empty glass. Hollow eyes swivel, but no-one speaks. ‘My contribution… Such as it is. I lost my father. I mean, we don’t speak. We don’t know who each other are anymore. And long before that, I lost a toy that wouldn’t have meant much to anyone, but for me it was the only thing that seemed at all important. I left it under a tree in some woods. I used to think about it getting rained on. And… and I lost many friends. One in particular. I guess he decided he didn’t see the value in our friendship anymore. I lost contact with all my old girlfriends, and even the ones I stayed in touch with, I’ve lost them forever too. And I lost a love that needn’t have been lost. I could have kept it alive but I chose not to. And… I’ve forgotten certain smells and ideas. What the light was like at this or that moment, things I thought I could never forget… Someone’s face, someone else’s name… Who I was before…’
The words trail off. You’ve lost yourself now. Something tugs dully at the back of your mind, and for a moment you almost know what it is, but then it disappears like everything else, and you sit back in your seat.
The diners stare at you gloomily. Their jaws continue working up and down. The only sound is the sound of champing sand.
Finally you bring the soup to your lips. It doesn’t taste of anything at all.