by Bob McHugh
Camilla’s father kissed me on both cheeks and said something that I didn’t understand. I speak passable Italian, so I assumed it was Sardinian, but it could have been slang. It was at least marginally insulting. I could tell from the look of his amused laughter as I beamed back a dumb, wide smile. I didn’t know what else to do except hold that grin of a friendly idiot, so I walked around the large picnic table and greeted the rest of her extended family.
When I got back to my seat alongside Camilla, she whispered at my ear, “You don’t have to eat it. No one will notice.” I was glad she thought my nerves were about the casu marzu. We met just two weeks prior. I didn’t know her favorite movie, her greatest fear, her snack of choice when she’s full of self-loathing. We never had that moment where one of us shares something despicable we had done only to have the other confess to the same sin. We had slept together on two occasions. Yet the relationship progressed, unwanted and unexpected, like someone going to the bar for just one beer and ending up on the street at 3 a.m. naked and obliterated.
When she called me last week, I was surprised to hear from her. When she asked me if I would come meet her family for an enormous feast that Sunday, I was so stunned I had glazed over her talk of the casu marzu, the maggot cheese.
Casu marzu, she told me, is both a family and Sardinian tradition. The cheese, intentionally infested with live maggots for flavor, was an outlawed delicacy in Sardinia. Her father, who made it and sold it on the black market, had invited me to eat it with her family. Why did he know of me? Why did I agree to go?
The casu marzu stood alone on the table. A feast would follow, but this block of rotting cheese was clearly the guest of honor and commanded the attention and respect of the diners. The little girl next to me licked her lips. An old man, probably a great-uncle, rubbed his hands together in a disturbingly sensual fashion. I stared at it. Camilla’s mother, with eyes so big they threatened to tip over her head, passed out the bread. Her father doled out chunks of cheese to all the guests.
Camilla’s grandmother, an extra in this Olive Garden commercial of the damned, noticed me gazing at the cheese and said, “Afrodisiaco!” I offered a vacant smile to match hers and tried to avoid any more eye contact.
Noticing my inactivity, Camilla took the casu marzu and spread it on my bread. The larvae wiggled. Camilla told me earlier that this was a good sign. Dead maggots meant the Pecorino was dangerous to eat, even more so than live maggots were dangerous to eat. Dead maggots meant the cheese was too toxic to support their lives. Larvae could survive in anything; even humans. Dead maggots meant a truly deadly cheese. Live maggots meant a potentially deadly cheese. Lucky me.
In the manner most mistakes are made, I dug into my meal quick enough to avoid turning back. I took a bite. Putrid. The little girl on my side begged to differ and tore into hers liked an escaped zoo animal coming out for flesh. Despite what I knew from direct evidence to the contrary, my fellow diners made it look appealing. I took another bite. It didn’t taste like food; it was flaming poison. My tongue couldn’t process why I was doing this to it and went numb. A gulp of red wine and a couple of bites later and my plate was empty except for two maggots writhing in the center.
I thought I gulped it down but everyone else had already finished. Like a cult inducting its newest member, they all smiled at me. Camilla, most pleased of all, gave me an uncomfortably long kiss at the table. Her breath stunk; mine too. Everyone remained smiling.
That night, I stayed awake thinking of the maggots laying eggs inside of me, making plans for future generations, moving furniture around in my stomach. I pictured a maggot teen coming home from a party in my left kidney wearing a short skirt and a heavy layer of makeup, her mother yelling at her. They both turn to the father for support, but he gives a blank look. He didn’t even know how his life had arrived here.
BOB MCHUGH is an MFA student in fiction at Emerson College. He cooks and writes humor articles at critcbob.blogspot.com in his spare time.