Stranger Than Flicktion, our Flickr-inspired column. We provide writers with five random food-related Flickr images and ask them to construct a fictional short story in under five days.
A northwesterly breeze carried Chastity over the old oak grove. When a small clearing came into view she drew her pellet gun and rapidly fired into the large helium balloons overhead, initiating her descent. A few more shots and she dropped neatly into the clearing, just off center, landing on her feet, her backpack of gear intact. Dusk; the yellow-green tracery of fireflies lit the blacker corners of the edge of the clearing. Chastity sniffed the air. She had come to the right place.
Chastity gathered wood and built a small fire. On a small portable wood chopping block she sliced peppers and onions and sweet Italian sausage. Adding a drop of olive oil to a pan, she fried the sausage and vegetables until the beasts of the night began to howl to the north and west. Chastity opened a bottle of Cannonau. She ate. She drank. She slept.
In the morning she woke and considered the grove around her. Originally planted in the late 19th century and abandoned at the beginning of the First World War, like so many thousands of groves like it, it had long ago been considered fruitless. But Chastity knew better.
She could sense it. She could smell it.
There had been Grignac, a 19th-century sow who could sniff out a half-inch white truffle six feet underground. In the 1780s lived Cortacio, a Tuscan hog that found a four-pound black truffle and promptly ate it. In the early 20th century was Draga, a Slovenian truffle hound who went missing one day, and was found a year later in a remote part of an unknown oak grove positively gross with truffles. And of course there was Franq, a Belgian truffle beagle kidnapped and successfully ransomed for €500,000 in 2009. But never has there been a truffle human, until Chastity Desaulniers, from Dime Box, Texas.
Chastity put on her kneepads and her gloves, strapped her spade across her back, and began to crawl and sniff around the roots of the old-growth oaks. It might be the younger trees that would yield the finest truffles, but there was no telling with ectomycorrhizal fungi.
Chastity had been asked before what they smelled like. But she had no answer. It was a deeper sensation, a vibration of the sixth sense, a perturbation of internal harmonies that indicated the presence of a tuber. That's when it was time to dig.
Today, Chastity sensed the truffle presence throughout the grove—-they were everywhere, a few inches to a few feet below the surface of the earth—-but there was nothing special here. Chastity was hunting for that special signal, that blip that indicated a monstrum, a vastness, a Gargantua of a truffle. For three days and three nights she crawled through the grove.
And then, at the witching hour on the fourth day, between two oak knees, the ping. She began to dig. And at dawn, she had uncovered it. A three-and-one-quarter pound flawless white truffle, worth anywhere from $100,000-$500,000, depending on the moods of the bidding chefs.
Chastity made her way back to the clearing, decamped, and began to hike north and east toward the town of Redaecque.
Of all the naps she'd had in her seven short years so far on this planet, Hotaru Arakawa regarded the nap she'd just had in the blanket hammock to be easily in the top five, if not in the top two. Deep and drooly, and committed in perfect comfort, it had been a positively epic temporal experience. She had dreamed of trees made of rain, of cats with electric fur, of mountains tipped in diamond, of books inked in sugar, of trees in down coats. She had awakened in total bewilderment, but without fear or anxiety, knowing all was well and good. Slowly she came to her senses, and confusion was replaced by hunger. She peeked over the edge of the hammock to see if her parents and aunt and uncle had gotten the picnic underway.
Not yet, curses! In fact, her family were nowhere to be seen. Hotaru flopped backed into the snuggly confines of the hammock, dozing, staring up into the comforting reticulum of oak boughs above her, the rays of early afternoon sun streaming between them. Another nap, just as darn good as the last.
This time she woke and her parents and aunt and uncle had just spread out the picnic. There were vegetable pakora, pigs in a blanket, barbecue tortilla chips, roast chicken with lemon, edam, lobster tails, sour cream and onion Pringles, and cold Cokes. The grownups talked about grownup things: the state of the Diet and the Tour de France and Michelin restaurants. Mom said this region of France was famous for truffles.
"What are truffles?" said Hotaru.
"Kind of like underground mushrooms that people dig up and eat."
"They're delish," said Dad.
"And expensive," said Aunt Sawako.
"In the olden days they thought lightning made them," said Uncle Jiro.
"Only some kinds of very special dogs and pigs can find them," said Mom.
"And me," said a voice.
In the distance, standing at a concrete picnic table, was a woman in a gray sweatsuit wearing a suede visor and sunglasses, searching though a light blue bag.
"Excuse us?" said the Arakawa family.
"I can find truffles," said the woman, without looking up. "Would you like to see what I found?"
The woman picked up a blue ice chest and carried it over to the picnickers. She kneeled down next to them, opened up the ice chest, reached inside, and withdrew a dirty object that looked much like a small brain.
"Ew!" said Hotaru.
"This is a white truffle. I have some smaller ones, too. It is a food of the gods, a sublime gustatory experience. Would you like me to cook something for you? I have garlic, butter, and spices. What have you got?"
"We have lobster tails."
"Truffled lobster salad on bread, oh my, perfect."
The woman set to work. In 20 minutes the feast was ready. Everyone munched a truffled lobster roll and drank cold lager or Coke.
"Who are you," said Dad.
"I am Chastity Desaulniers, Truffle Human."
"Pleased to meet you, we are the Arakawas, from Osaka, Japan."
"I must be on my way."
And with that, Chastity packed up her pans and stove, withdrew from her bag a small tank of helium gas and a bunch of helium balloons, and began to inflate them one by one. When she had two dozen anchored to the ground, she secured them to a harness around her waist, slashed the tether with a razor sharp Gerber knife, lifted off, and a northeasterly breeze began to carry her slowly towards Belgium, where the great truffle auctions were about to begin.
This first appeared on MUNCHIES in June 2016.