The Food of Love

Mark McLaughlin

Never underestimate the wisdom of the old saw, "You can't judge a book by its cover."

Map moved through the weed-choked outskirts of the city, thinking about manna. Deep within, she felt her need for more. She saw a gray slough in the distance and considered dipping into it. She took a few steps forward, then stopped. Shallow, still waters held no manna. And yet the slough looked inviting... To stop the urge, she stared into the sun for a moment to clear her mind.

A mewing echoed within a brick building coated with gray filth. Map listened--the mewing grew louder. A long, hairless cat wiggled onto the ledge of a ground floor window and stared at Map with eyes like yellow marbles.

"Chigger!" A deep voice cried out in the building. "Here Chigger, Chigger, Chigger!"

Map hid behind a rotting fence. Soon a man came to the window and picked up his pet. His head was large and round, with a thick tangle of black hair. His eyes were dark and slightly bulbous.

Map shouted from behind the fence. "Hello, sir."

The man shaded his eyes and looked out the window. "Who's there? You shouldn't be outside--it's too sunny."

Map pressed an eye to a crack in the fence. "Map," she called out.

The man laughed. "A map won't do you any good. There's nowhere to go." He kissed his cat on its smooth head and carried it back into the dark.

Map crept along the fence. The urge for manna throbbed in her belly. The man made other parts throb.

The dark yellow grass felt crisp under her feet. She pulled up a few strands and chewed on them, then spit them out. Too sour. The wind blew a large plastic bag toward her. She caught it and examined it for holes. Surprisingly, it was in good shape... Perfect for carrying manna.

Soon Map heard the sound of running water. She hurried past soft, twisted trees and collapsed houses until she came to a dark, bubbling river. Frothy blue-gray masses floated with the current.

Map filled her belly and her sack with semi-solid chunks of the froth. How sweet, how delicious--and how plentiful! But then, all rivers abounded with manna. Sometimes, when Map wandered too far from a river and went without manna, she became stupid. This time, she had retained a good deal of intelligence. Enough to grab the plastic sack. Enough to remember where the man lived.

She gazed out over the river. Her last husband had explained the cycle to her. Over the years, rain washed chemical stuff into the rivers from fields and landfills. Eventually the skies grew thin and the sun grew strong. When the strong new sun hit the rivers, the stuff cooked and made the froth. That husband had called it Satan's manna. Map wasn't sure who Satan was, but it was good of him to share.

Her husband had thought that manna was poisonous. He didn't know that manna made wonderful things happen, and Map didn't tell him. Like her other husbands, he had died from staying out in the sun too long.

Map loved the sun, and thought it was too bad that it made husbands get all blistered and smelly.

Map slipped behind the fence. "Sir? Are you home?" she called out.

After a moment, the dark-haired man came to the window. "Who is it?"

"May I come in? I've been traveling for days." Map stepped out from behind the fence. Tall and beautiful she was, with long red hair and almond-shaped eyes. "I'm afraid. Everyone I know is dead. Are you a good person, sir? I think so. I can tell by your eyes."

"Come in," the man said. "Get out of the sun."

Map walked to the building and entered. The carpet of the front hall was streaked with gray lichens. The man peered at her from around a door jamb.

"Who are you?" he said. "What's in the sack?"

"My name is Pam. These are my things. Private things." She clutched the top of the plastic bag. "Please don't try to take them away."

"I'm Daniel. Don't worry, I won't take your things." He smiled broadly--his teeth were large, white and crooked. "I've got lots of food. Are you hungry?"

He led Map to a room filled with canned goods. Map scanned the pictures on the labels--peaches, cherries, green beans, olives, salmon, and more.

"This building used to be a shelter for the homeless," he said. "Most of the cans are still pretty good."

The cat writhed into the room and rubbed against its master's leg. Daniel picked it up and petted it. "Dod, Dod," the cat muttered.

"I taught him that," Daniel said. "His name is Chigger."

"Your cat is very smart," Map said. "You are a good person. See how much your cat loves you."

"Dod, Dod," Chigger purred. "Dod, Dod, Dod." It began to lick at Daniel's chin with a pale yellow tongue.

Weeks passed. The days grew even hotter.

Map hid her sack in a cluttered storage room. She secretly began to feed Chigger small bits of manna.

She told Daniel she did not like to talk about her past, and he said that he understood. She found out that Daniel used to cut people's hair. That had been his job, he said--for fun, he used to throw pots. He laughed when Map asked who he threw them at. He explained that to throw a pot meant to spin clay on a wheel and shape it into something useful.

Map thought that pot-throwing sounded like a good thing.

Once, when it was cloudy, Daniel went outside to see if he could find any clay. He brought home a bucket of thick, gray ooze. He didn't have a wheel, so they each shaped a pot by hand. Daniel admired Map's work and told her that she had exceptional talent.

Chigger learned to call Map "Mom." The cat grew large--so large that Daniel could no longer lift the creature. He cut back on the amount of canned salmon he fed his pet, and still the cat piled on rolls of fat.

One morning, Map curled up next to Daniel on a pile of mouldering coats. "We should make love," she said.

"You're a beautiful woman, Pam," he said. "But I don't feel like it. I haven't felt like it for years. Just as well. I wouldn't want to bring a baby into a dead world."

"You would make a good father, Daniel. Chigger loves you."

"Hell, any babies born today would probably end up looking like Chigger. Big and hairless and ugly."

Map shook her head. "You think too many wrong things. Chigger is beautiful because he loves us. Chigger! Come here, Chigger!"

Chigger lumbered into the room and threw himself into their laps. "Mommy. Dod, Doddy."

"I have a surprise for you, Daniel," Map said. "Chigger! Who do you love?"

The huge cat worked the muscles of his fat cleft lips. "Chiggy lubs Doddy and Mommy."

"How can he do that?" Daniel whispered, squirming out from under his pet. "I thought I was doing good to get him to repeat one syllable, like a parrot."

Chigger blinked. "Doddy lubs Chiggy?"

"You stop that!" Daniel clapped his hand over the cat's mouth. "Cats aren't that smart!"

Map slapped his hand away. "You are so mean! Chigger and I wanted to surprise you and now the fun is spoiled. Look, Chigger's mouth is bleeding."

"Doddy hurd Chiggy!" cried the cat.

Daniel ran from the room. Map and Chigger stared after him.

The cat tilted his head to one side and sobbed.

"Don't be sad." Map pulled a small piece of manna from her pocket. "Look what I have for you."

That night, while Daniel slept, Map and Chigger slipped out of the house. They went to the river, feasted on manna and refilled Map's sack.

"Do you think Doddy would like manna?" Map said. "I've been eating it for years."

"Doddy silly," Chigger said.

Map nodded. "Doddy is very silly. He doesn't know what is good and what is bad. We will have to show him."

As they walked through the night, Map found a dilapidated shop with a mannequin in the window. Instructing Chigger to wait for her, she entered the shop and began to search. A shriveled cadaver in a polyester jumpsuit leered at her from behind the counter. In a back room, she found a large bundle wrapped in heavy plastic.

Map and the cat did not return to their home with Daniel for several days.

One morning, Daniel entered the kitchen and found Map preparing a large breakfast. He took his seat at the table. "Where were you? Where's Chigger?"

"We had things to do." Map smiled. "Chigger is probably asleep. Shall I go wake him?"

The man shook his head. "I'm sorry I was so mean. I missed both of you. Is Chigger's lip better?"

"Of course. Young boys heal fast." Map opened a can of fruit drink and filled three glasses.

"Chigger is not a boy. He's the latest in a long line of mutant cats."

"You are so silly, Doddy." A lanky blond boy entered the room and sat by Daniel's side. "Look at me! I'm a boy and you're my Doddy."

Map placed a bowl of manna in front of Daniel, and he pushed the bowl away in disgust. He narrowed his eyes at the boy. "You can't fool me. I can still see the outline of Chigger if I squint real hard. He's bigger now..."

"Doddy is so silly, Mommy! Doddy is so funny!" The little boy ran a tanned hand through his curly locks and began to laugh.

Map began to laugh, too. "Wait here, Daniel. I'll be right back." Map rushed to the storage room and threw the wedding dress over her head. It took a bit of wiggling, but she managed to work her way into the ill-fitting garment.

She still could hear Daniel talking to Chigger. "I can see through this trick of yours," he said. "All I have to do is concentrate."

Map swept back into the kitchen, white lace swirling in her wake. Still concentrating, Daniel turned from Chigger to the one he knew as Pam.

"Oh God, Pam. Oh God." He squinted hard, hard. "You had me fooled all along."

"I'm sorry, Mommy," Chigger said. "I did it all wrong and Doddy figured us out."

"Not to worry, Chigger," Map said. She smoothed the ruffles of lace over her thorax with a chitinous claw. Her mandibles twitched furiously. "Your Doddy doesn't know what is good and what is bad. So we must show him. Right now."

Chigger reared up out of his seat and threw Daniel to the floor. The wedding gown ripped as Map's glistening stinger sprang forth. A milky drop of poison fell from the cylinder's tip. Daniel's shrieks were muffled by the vestigal limb that Chigger slapped over his mouth.

"Remember what to say, Chigger," said the enormous mud dauber wasp as she slid the pointed tube into the base of Daniel's spine. She squirted once, twice. Not enough to kill him. Just enough to keep him from ever running away.

"I now pronounce you man and wife." Chigger nodded happily. "Everything is good now. You may kiss Doddy."

Mark McLaughlin ( has had fiction, nonfiction and poetry published in more than 425 magazines, anthologies and websites, including Galaxy, Talebones, Ghosts & Scholars, and The YearŐs Best Horror Stories (DAW Books). He is the editor of The Urbanite: Surreal & Lively & Bizarre (

InterText Copyright © 1991-2002 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 12, Number 1 of InterText. This story Copyright © 2002 Mark McLaughlin.