I watched as he filled a kettle, took Tetley's bags from their paper holders, placed cups on saucers. He seemed frailer than I remembered, more stooped.

“I don't get many visitors.”

“This is lovely. Thank you.”

He led me to an afghan-draped sofa, placed both cups on a coffee table made from a slice of tree trunk, and dragged a chair opposite.

We both drank. Outside, I heard the whiney buzz of an outboard motor on the Oconaluftee River. I waited until he was ready.

“I'm not sure how well I can talk about it.”

“I know what happened, Simon. What I don't understand is why.”

“I wasn't there in the beginning. What I know comes from others.”

“You knew Prentice Dashwood.”

He leaned back, and his eyes shifted to another time.

“Prentice was an insatiable reader with a staggering array of knowledge. There was nothing that didn't interest him. Darwin. Lyell. Newton. Mendelyev. And the philosophers. Hobbs. Aenesidemus. Baumgarten. Wittgenstein. Lao-tzu. He read everything. Archaeology. Ethnology. Physics. Biology. History.”

He interrupted to sip his tea.

“And he was wonderful at spinning yarns. That's how it began. Prentice told stories of his ancestor's Hell Fire Club, describing the members as rakish good fellows who banded together for riotous profanity and intellectual conversation. The idea seemed benign enough. And for a while it was.”

His cup trembled in its saucer as he set it down.

“But Prentice had a darker side. He believed that certain human beings were more valuable than others.” His voice trailed off.

“The intellectually superior,” I prodded.

“Yes. As Prentice aged, his worldview was strongly influenced by his cross-cultural reading on cosmology and cannibalism. His grasp on reality diminished.”

He paused, sorting through things he could say.

“It started out as frivolous blasphemy. No one really believed it.”

“Believed what?”

“That eating the dead negated the finality of death. That partaking of the flesh of another human being allowed the assimilation of soul, personality, and wisdom.”

“Is that what Dashwood believed?”

One bony shoulder shrugged.

“Perhaps he did. Perhaps he simply used the idea, and for the inner circle the actual act, as a way to keep the club intact. Collective indulgence in the forbidden. The in-group, out-group mindset. Prentice understood that cultural rituals exist to reinforce the unity of those performing them.”

“How did it start?”

“An accident.”

He sniffed.

“A bloody accident. A young man showed up at the lodge one summer. God knows what he was doing way out there. There was a lot of drinking, a fight, the boy was killed. Prentice proposed that everyone—”

He withdrew a hanky and ran it over his eyes.

“This took place before the war. I learned about it years later when I overheard a conversation that was not for my ears.”


“Prentice cut slivers of muscle from the boy's thigh and required everyone to partake. They had no inner- outer-circle distinction back then. It was a pact. Each was a participant and equally guilty. No one would talk about the boy's death. They buried the body in the woods, the following year the inner circle was formed, and Tucker Adams was killed.”

“Intelligent men accepted this insanity? Educated men with wives, and families, and responsible jobs?”

“Prentice Dashwood was an extraordinarily charismatic man. When he spoke, everything made sense.”

“Cannibalism?” I kept my voice calm.

“Do you have any idea how pervasive the theme of humans eating humans is in Western culture? Human sacrifice is mentioned in the Old Testament, the Rig-Veda. Anthropophagy is central to the plot of many Greek and Roman myths; it's the centerpiece of the Catholic Mass. Look at literature. Jonathan Swift's ‘Modest Proposal’ and Tom Prest's tale of Sweeney Todd. Movies Soylent Green; Fried Green Tomatoes; The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, Her Lover; Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend. And let's not forget the children: Hansel and Gretel, the Gingerbread Man, and various versions of Snow White, Cinderella, and Red Riding Hood. Grandma, what big teeth you have!”

He drew a tremulous breath.

“And, of course, there are the participants of necessity. The Donner party; the rugby team stranded in the Andes; the crew of the yacht Mignonette; Marten Hartwell, the bush pilot marooned in

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