The day Chef Gong disappeared, the restaurant hosted a fantastic party, and so no one noticed that the plump Prussian was missing until it was too late.
The occasion for the fête was Philomena’s 11th birthday. The restaurant’s owner, Frank Pittura, had wanted no expense spared for his daughter’s big day. He wanted rose petals sprinkled all along the floor, and a cello quartet to play fancy tunes, and a column of doves to be released into the evening sky. The managers had invited all the regulars—Dr. Eugenides was coming, as were the card sharp and Progonnaya—and the bartenders volunteered to dress up as fortune-tellers. One of the restaurant’s customers with high-level musical connections had even arranged for a famous soprano to sing a special song.
Everyone was in sore need of a party, anyway. The restaurant had been a particularly gloomy place to work that spring: Manager Art had lost his girlfriend and spent most of his days moping morosely in the wine cellar; Olympe, the other manager, was carrying on a clandestine affair with Dr. Eugenides and passed her dinner shifts by making out with him in the back alley. And Frank was getting more and more vindictive—he’d fired two waiters the fortnight before just because he couldn’t pronounce their names right.
Even the bartenders were feeling the strain. Their most lucrative regular—a rich man named Theonian, who ran with a harem of slinky models—had recently tried to slime his way into one of the prettiest waitress’s hearts. A bartender had defended her honor (with his fists, no less) and since then, Theonian and his girls had all but disappeared. Tips had slowed to a trickle and so, on the sly, the bartenders were fleecing Frankie every chance they got.
So it was a welcome change of pace to spruce up the joint for Philo’s big bash. In the week leading up to the celebration, the hostesses polished the great metallic urn in the foyer until it glistened like fire. They cleaned the silver and the nicest wine glasses. They brushed the translucent curtains that cloaked the private dining room and dusted off the mural that hung behind the bar, the one with the strange man surrounded by dolphins and grapes.
The kitchen spent three whole days preparing for the feast. The pastry chefs piped rosewater custard into scrumptious petit fours and filled pastry tarts with raspberries and lemon cream. The line cooks cured salmon until its flesh was silky and pink, then layered it into tea sandwiches with Russian crème fraîche. Meanwhile, Chefs Gurov and Gong set to work creating a spectacular fairy cake, with vanilla frosting and layers of strawberry gelée and buttercream. Each of its tiers was decorated with a different kind of crystalized flower, and at the very top of the tower, Gurov placed a miniature nereid crafted entirely out of marzipan.
The 13th of June dawned bright and aureate. The hostesses and Olympe arrived at the restaurant early, in order to sprinkle around the rose petals and stash the doves downstairs.
When Olympe clattered down to the pastry kitchen with the crates of birds, balancing precariously on her sky-high stilettos, she spied Chef Gurov decorating the splendid fairy cake. The dessert glistened with sugar, and its frosting was as white as Olympe’s own hair. It was a work of confectionary brilliance.
By the time Frank and Philomena arrived for the party, the chefs had finished the finger food and were busy prepping the main course—a goatling roasting on a spit of ash set over the open stove. The whole restaurant smelled delicious, like hot flames and grilling meat.
Soon, the regulars were milling around drinking champagne, and the waiters were passing the hors d’oeuvres, and even Art was chatting up the cello quartet and acting merry. The card sharp was cleaning up at dice games in the back alley—nearby, Dr. Eugenides secretly snogged Olympe in the shadows—and the busboys were organizing teams for Blind-Man’s Bluff.
As for Philomena, the birthday girl sat shyly near the hostess stand, letting the nymphs exclaim over her gauzy party dress as they wove a crown of silver sea-stars into her downy, dark curls.
It was about halfway through the party when a rather strange thing occurred.
It happened back in the private dining room, where Myrte had set up the bartenders’ divination shop. In the sumptuous space, framed by elaborate sea-murals on the walls, she’d burned dusky lamps and draped her wrists with pentacles and coins. She set out a board billing herself as The Star-Crossed Sybil and called to the hostesses:
“Free readings, ladies! Find out your future!”
The nymphettes crowded around Myrte, begging her to tell them their fates. And so the bartender teased the girls, making up exotic tales of well and woe: This one was going to marry a soldier but would suffer a long journey home; that one was going to lose a man to an evil love potion. Myrte saved the best destiny for Philomena—she told the child that she would always remember this birthday, and that each year of her life would be happier than the last. When the little girl heard this, she beamed bashfully and clutched the hostesses in excitement.
After the last sylph had received her prediction, and Philomena and the hostesses had dispersed, the bald bar regular, Progonnaya, wandered alone into the fortune-teller’s den. He didn’t particularly believe in divination, but he was reluctant to leave the party too soon, and so he asked if Myrte would read his fate.
The Star-Crossed Sybil jangled her bangles. She rubbed her crepuscular lamps. Then she began to flip over her cards.
The first one showed an angel pouring water between two cups and looking windward.
“What does it mean,” Progonnaya asked. Suddenly he was quite interested in the tarot.
“It means this day has been coming for a long time,” Myrte said. (Progonnaya thought that sounded promising.)
The second card showed a beggar roaming the world. Myrte called it the trump card, and said they were approaching a moment of checkmate.
“Well, that’s a strange thing to say,” Progonnaya said to no one in particular.
Myrte turned over the third card and gasped theatrically.
Progonnaya peered at the deck and saw the image of a shadowy warrior wielding a scythe. Beneath his feet, the heads of seven traitors littered the ground.
Progonnaya did not really want to know the meaning of this card. “Maybe we should start over—what about the ones with the stars and the lovers?” he asked. He silently weighed whether he could shuffle the deck without Myrte knowing it.
But Myrte was not responding to Progonnaya. Her head lolled to the side and her eyes rolled back towards the ceiling. The lamps flickered, and one went out.
In the gloom, Progonnaya had the impression that the sea-murals on the wall were moving and undulating like living things. The ships tossed tempestuously on their white-capped waves; the clouds on the ceiling scudded darkly over shooting stars; the underwater cities shuddered and swayed, as if some colossal divinity thundered across the ocean floor.
Myrte groped blindly in front of her and picked up the fourth card. She held it for a moment before letting it flutter from her grasp, where it floated, face-up, to the floor.
Progonnaya looked down at his destiny. The card showed a tower—pitch black, battle-wracked—electrified with orgiastic lightening. It teetered over a sacked city engulfed by plundering armies.
Myrte shuddered, and collapsed.
The bald man’s shriek alerted the busboys, who ran into the dim antechamber and found Myrte’s body lying limply on the ground.
“It wasn’t me!” Progonnaya squealed.
The busboys scowled at Progonnaya as they lifted the bartender and carried her to the back alley for some air.
The bald man trailed a few paces behind, dazed and shaking, clutching the evil cards in one hand and running the other over his clammy head. Some of the guests could hear him murmuring to himself.
“Why me,” Progonnaya wailed softly. “Why me??? Oh wicked fate!”
Myrte’s fainting spell presented a problem for the managers. It had startled the guests, and a few were starting to gossip that Progonnaya had attacked the bartender. The party seemed on the verge of dissolving.
But the managers hadn’t released the doves yet; Frankie would surely have their heads. So Olympe and Art decided it was time to distract the crowd with the soprano’s special performance.
While the busboys sprinkled cool water on Myrte in the back alley (and Progonnaya cowered nearby), the managers set up some chairs in front of the open kitchen, and helped the cello players arrange their instruments. Art shushed the chefs, who had been bantering boisterously while they roasted the goatling. The guests all took their seats—everyone had to squeeze in behind Frankie and Philomena, who got to sit all alone in the first row—and then the famous soprano stepped in front of the audience.
She was an imposing woman, this soprano. Her face held the look of the wind and sea: sunswept, craggy, seared with secrets. Her hair was raven black, and her eyes glittered with the remote light of a starless blue pool.
It was said in all the best opera houses that the soprano’s voice could stir the heart of anyone who heard her. And when she began to sing her song, the audience knew this to be true—her voice made people long for their hidden dreams. Art found himself imagining life far beyond the miserable restaurant: as part of a band of musicians playing concertos deep in the Swiss forests, with the sight of the midsummer sun setting fire to the Matterhorn. Olympe, meanwhile, remembered a boy from long ago. He’d looked, now that she thought about it, like a younger and less pudgy version of Dr. Eugenides. He’d asked her to elope, and then disappeared. She hadn’t spoken his name in many years.
Frank envisioned piles of money, subterranean gold that no one but himself could touch and hold. In this cave, he would have an army of little servants to fulfill his every whim, and when they disobeyed him, he would bury them alive under mountains of coins.
As for the birthday girl, little Philomena, she ached for her mother far away in Sicily—the way the woman smelled like fresh earth and baking bread, and how every time they saw each other, she’d wrap the child warmly in her arms and promise that she’d never let her go.
The soprano’s last note reverberated through the air. Art let out a deep sigh. Olympe felt a strange ache in her throat. The audience burst into rapturous applause.
The soprano stepped forward to take her bow.
At that very moment, a fracas broke out in the kitchen behind the diva. The guests could hear Chef Gurov yelling out loudly. The soprano looked offended and Frank glowered darkly—the miscreant cooks were ruining his daughter’s party. They would pay for this later.
Olympe hurried back to hiss at the chefs—and in a flash, she saw a gruesome scene. Chef Gurov was slumped on the ground, bleeding (Olympe noticed, with a hint of dismay) all over the bottom of the delectable fairy cake. The other line cooks were running pell-mell for the back door. And there, crouched on the pass and teetering wildly between the soprano and the open stove, was Mr. Gong.
The chef’s silvery long hair was matted with dirt and his arms were carved with fresh scars. In his fist, he brandished a meat cleaver, the sight of which caused the soprano to swoon dramatically.
“Someone get him out of my restaurant, the rotten drunk!” Frank blustered.
Mr. Gong growled a little and sniffed the air. He looked somewhat like an fattened wolf that had been rampaging among the livestock.
Frank was now throwing a full-on fit, screaming at the waiters to tackle the chef. The waiters slunk further back in the crowd. They would get fired for their insubordination, no doubt, but Gong looked nastily unhinged.
In Frank’s apoplexy, he failed to notice that his daughter, sweet little Philomena, had stepped forward from her throne in the front row and was waving bashfully at the chef. She was used to seeing him cook her pasta, and now here he was, putting on a silly-scary show for her birthday.
From their economy seats in row three, the hostesses tried to reach out and coax Philo back towards her seat. “Darling, come here! Come stand by us!” the sirens stage-whispered in fright.
“Now girls—let her say hello,” said a voice from the far edge of the crowd.
The waiters and the regulars and Manager Art and the hostesses and Frank all turned to see who had spoken.
It was Theonian.
Theonian, the moneyman, the vanished bar regular, dressed in an expensive silk suit and accompanied by a pair of comatose models. These two particular foxes were exquisitely beautiful—skin like dark honey, soft hair cascading in Corinthian curls—and, without a doubt, drugged out of their minds.
Theonian looked a little rougher. His nose was still gnarled by scar tissue from where the chivalrous bartender had bopped him and it was streaked a worrisome purple.
“Do you like my birthday present?” Theonian said, smiling a sharp smile and swiping a glass of champagne from the tray of a nearby waiter. “Go ahead, Mr. Gong. Show everyone your nice new tattoos.”
The plump Prussian snarled and lifted his tunic. There, singed into his chest, were three dark marks. They looked like clovers, or tiny wands.
So Theonian had branded poor Mr. Gong. The guests glanced furtively at the models and wondered if they were branded, too. The whole thing seemed rather sordid.
As if he sensed what everyone was thinking, Theonian draped his arms luxuriantly around the girls at his side. The beauties made whimpering noises as their eyes struggled to fixate on a vast nothingness.
“Do you think your daughter would like to join us?” Theonian asked Frank.
For the first time in his life, Frank had nothing to say. His throat bulged with fear.
The hostesses glared at Theonian and formed themselves into a phalanx between the rich man and Philomena.
“You lovelies can come, too,” Theonian grinned. “Ecstasy awaits.”
Then, he barked, “Get the child, Gong.”
Mr. Gong crouched on the pass, tensing to jump.
But before he could leap, the ponderous soprano planted herself in front of the chef, blocking him off from the little girl. The singer moved with a speed that surprised the rest of the guests, considering her tremendous girth.
Mr. Gong stared at the soprano. The diva stared back.
Mr. Gong let out a scream. The soprano, without batting an eye, screamed right back at his face.
Mr. Gong screamed. The soprano screamed. The audience was entranced by the showdown. The soprano outweighed the chef by about 200 pounds—but then again, Gong had the meat cleaver. Somewhere far in the back of the crowd, the card sharp tried to place bets on the winner. (“I’ve got the Prussian for $50,” he muttered, nudging his neighbors.)
As the soprano and the chef caterwauled, the hostesses thought they spied something small and fit and blonde whizzing through the kitchen behind Gong’s back.
It was Olympe, running on the tips of her precariously high stilettos, straight towards the chef.
The manager leapt up and grabbed Mr. Gong’s long black mane. Her fingers connected with a fistful of mangy hair, and she yanked hard. Mr. Gong tumbled back, over the pass, straight towards the open hearth where the goatling crackled and turned.
Olympe skidded to a stop just inches away from the sugary fairy cake. The look on her face was one of delicious triumph.
Mr. Gong slashed wildly at the air with his meat cleaver as he tumbled down—down, down, straight into the hearth’s ravenous flames.
The fire licked Gong’s silhouette. The Prussian babbled and danced, yelling incoherent nothings like a mad sprite. Then he melted clean away.
The audience stared at the great stove. The soprano, who mercifully had stopped screaming, sank to the floor, exhausted by her effort. Frank burst out laughing and pounded his chest. The hostesses looked horrified, both by Mr. Gong’s demise and by Frank’s reaction. Somewhere in the back of the crowd, the card sharp tried to weasel his way out of his bet.
Manager Art looked around for Theonian, but the rich man and his drugged fleurettes had somehow vanished.
“More champagne!” Frank called. “The cake!’ Where’s the cake?”
Olympe looked at the cake. Chef Gurov was still bleeding all over its bottom tier.
Behind them, the oven rumbled as if it had swallowed something awful.
It belched a puff of smoke.
And then—it exploded.
A spray of incandescent embers—along with some charred flecks of goatling—shot high into the air. The white-hot coals floated down across the restaurant, singing the soft banquettes, tangling in the translucent curtains, and igniting the private dining room.
“No!” Frank gurgled in disbelief. “You”—he yelled, pointing at a waiter whose name he did not know—“do something!” Frank made a gesture as if the cretan should throw his body over the spreading flames. Instead, the waiter turned and ran for the back alley.
All around, the guests started to panic and stampede out the door. The inferno cast long red shadows on their sweaty faces.
“My restaurant!” Frank cried. “My restaurant!”
But there was no time to rescue his riches. The fire was already consuming them all. Up in the front, the flames began to lick the base of the great copper urn and devour the hostess stand.
Over in the kitchen, the fairy cake dissolved in a puff of sugary heat. Olympe helped pull Chef Gurov to his feet—he dripped some blood on her stilettos, but she could forgive him, considering the circumstances—and they limped out into the back alley as soot rained all around them.
The hostesses tugged at Frank and Philomena, and the aghast owner and his excited child allowed the sirens to guide them to safety. With one final glance back, Philo gazed in awe at the oven’s fireworks. It was, indeed, the best birthday ever.
Outside, the busboys were trying to operate a rather useless water-bucket brigade. Frank paced wrathfully around them, stamping his feet and trying to order them back into the bonfire to save his fine wines. Olympe and Dr. Eugenides flirted ferociously as they tended to Gurov’s wounds. (Love always blossoms at the end of the world.) The regulars and the line cooks had gathered at the feet of the famous soprano, who was humming an apocalyptic tune.
Myrte, who had awoken from her fainting spell as the chaos unfolded inside, shared a knowing look with Progonnaya. They stared at the spreading destruction. Without speaking a word, they took each other’s hands and, one by one, threw Myrte’s tarot cards into the pitiless flames.
The last pastry chefs and cello players and stray guests tumbled out the door, falling liberated to the cool earth.
“Where’s Art?” Olympe asked.
Art was not helping the busboys with their water brigade. He was not tending to Chef Gurov. In fact, he was not in the alleyway at all. Olympe was worried for her friend. Where could he be?
Deep inside the restaurant, at the heart of the volcan furnace, Art sat with a cello at last.
He pulled his bow across the glowing strings, drawing out a low note, at once melancholy and free. The instrument reverberated with a deep amber timbre. Its voice was the voice of the fire, and its song was as old as the tomb.
Art played, faster and faster, with all his heart. The kitchen’s hot winds blasted his back. He thought he could hear Olympe and the busboys and the hostesses crying out for him, but the fire was too high and the flames were too great. He was beyond their reach.
From his fiery pyre, Art thought the restaurant looked quite beautiful. The kitchen danced with light, and the pans sparkled like silvery quasars. The murals in the private dining room were melting together into one great boiling sea—all the painted ships and the phosphorescent twilights, the sailors and the shooting stars, swirled together around a centrifugal black vortex. Up in the front, the metal of the ancient urn shone like gleaming bones.
Art gazed at the bar’s rare mosaic, the one with the dolphins and the grapes. In the intense heat, the dark stranger enslaved at its center looked almost like Theonian. His coal-black eyes glittered and Art thought he heard a deep laughter echoing through the pure flames. And that was the last thing Art ever saw, just before the restaurant’s ceiling caved in and the kitchen combusted—the mural’s gorgeous cruel lord, the Fishermen’s king, splendid in ashes, smoldering at the center of the world.
On the patch of earth where the restaurant once stood, nothing beside remains. Only a few tufts of grass and crocus buds grow, clinging to the base of an antediluvian urn. Its metal is green and carious, and it lies, exposed to the elements, as spring thunderstorms sweep the brackish ruins. If you were to wander by, you would be struck by the way the air lingers with a cavernous sea-smell and how, when the wind blows just so, a faint sound emanates from deep within the vessel. It is the tintinnabulation of sand and ashes and sepulchers and tides—and deep within its primal muck hide all the atoms and eternities the restaurant once contained.