Here’s a tasteful little story, which Harry Harrison has occasionally referred to in interviews, using the title ‘I Ate a Pygmy.’ This ‘true’ adventure was made up by HH and collaborator Hubert Pritchard, and the accompanying photograph – not for the squeamish! – was also faked by the two of them. The human arm was modelled in clay by Pritchard, I think, and the photograph was taken by HH, who carefully adjusted the focus so that the image was slightly blurred. The arm was then covered with a ten cent can of stew, which Harrison and Pritchard were intending to eat once the photoshoot was completed – but the image they created was so revolting that they lost their appetites for stew!
The Unholiest Banquet
by ‘Hugh Fitzpatrick’ [Harry Harrison & Hubert Pritchard] (1958)
My heart hammered a loud echo in my ears as George knocked on the front door. We were at, a house in the most fashionable section of Leopoldville, going to a dinner party. Any other time, I would have been relaxed and probably bored. Now I was keyed up, excited. This dinner party was going to be very different.
A trap in the door opened suddenly and a man looked out. He didn’t say a word, just looked us up and down with a cold glare. George leaned forward and whispered something to him – the door swung open.
We walked in and gave the butler our coats, then joined the small group in the living room. They were all from the very upper strata of African society. The men wore tuxedos, the women were dressed in low-cut evening gowns. We talked together politely, but we were scarcely aware of what we said. All of our attention was focused on the closed entrance to the dining room. It seemed hours before the butler threw open the doors and announced dinner.
I followed the others through the wide doors, admiring their relaxed manner. Either they were better at hiding their feelings than I was – or they had been through it before. It would be a new experience for me, though.
We were going to eat human flesh.
There was something that made me even more nervous – concealed in my pocket was a miniature spy camera.
I was risking my neck by doing it, but I wanted to take a picture of the grisly meal. It was going to be my only chance – I wanted to make the most of it. If I could have foreseen the future, I might have thought twice about it…
I had arrived a week earlier, taking the ship as far as Lobito, then flying the last 250 miles to Leopoldville. It was a cool and pleasant flight – until we dropped down to land. The heat pressed down like a flaming blanket. I was soaked with sweat even before I left the plane. A cab took me through the crowded streets to the Air Hotel – I collapsed on the bed and went over my soggy notes.
A series of articles I was doing on uranium had brought me to the Belgian Congo, the second largest producer in the world. I was going to get my facts fast and get out – at least that’s what I thought at the time…
After dark, it was a little cooler, and I began to come back to life. After a drink in the bar, I remembered something. George L., my roommate in college – hadn’t he come from Leopoldville? It was worth a look. The bartender brought the phone directory and I flipped through it. He was there all right. When I called George, he didn’t understand me at first – then, when he realized who I was he became excited and told me to come right over.
It’s always good to meet a friend when you’re far from home – and George and I had always gotten along. His home was almost a mansion – set well back from the road. I had forgotten how rich his family was! He came to the door himself and it was like old times.
We sat in his study, which was fairly cool, and drank pink gins. Talking about old times, we passed a very pleasant evening.
Around eleven, George had a phone call. When he hung up, he poured himself a stiff hooker of gin.
“Damn it,” he said, “I wish they wouldn’t bother me! I don’t want to get involved with them again.”
I raised questioning eyebrows, but he just sat for a while after that, sipping his drink and scowling like a thundercloud.
Any other time, he probably wouldn’t have told me. But we had been reliving the “good old days” and felt very close. He was angry; he wanted to get his troubles off his chest. He turned suddenly and stabbed a finger at me.
“How much do you know about cannibalism here in the Congo?” he asked.
I shrugged. “As much as anyone else I guess. I suppose the tribes back in the forest still go in for it: there’s no way to check up really.”
“Not that kind,” he said impatiently. “I mean civilized cannibalism – right here in Leopoldville.”
I looked bug-eyed for a minute, then started to laugh. I stopped when I saw the expression on his face. He meant what he said. I didn’t laugh – but I still didn’t believe him.
“Oh, come now,” I finally said, “you can’t expect me to believe that people are that hungry. I wouldn’t doubt you for a second if you said it was going on in some tribe back in the hills. But not right here in the middle of Leopoldville!”
George was nervously pacing the room.
“It’s not that kind of cannibalism,” he said. “Not the poor people. It’s the very rich who go in for it. Very secret and very expensive. In fact that phone call was an invitation to one of their damn meals.”
That stopped me cold.
“It’s done here for completely different reasons,” he said. “The savages kill a strong enemy and eat his heart, so they’ll gain his strength. They’ll eat an eagle’s eyes to gain his keen vision. But cannibalism among the very rich is done for prestige. It’s dangerous as hell – and very expensive. Only the super-wealthy can afford it.”
“I’ve never beard of it,” I told him. “Or anything like it.”
“It happens in other places,” George went on, “it isn’t that rare. The Chinese do almost the same thing with monkeys. They take the monkey while it’s still alive and remove the top of the skull so that the brain is exposed. Then they put the monkey under the table so his head sticks up through a hole. They put a ring-like plate around it, with fresh greens on it. It looks as if the brain is lying on a dish on the table. Actually, the monkey is still alive. The brain twitches and that shakes the greens. When everything is ready, the guests dip in with silver spoons and eat the brain.”
I turned a fair shade of green myself at that point, and George laughed.
“It is kind of sickening,” he said. “But they don’t mind. People like this, the really idle rich, have strange ways of thinking sometimes. The only things of any value to them are those that are so expensive and exotic that no one else could possibly have them.”
Then the idea hit me – the words were out of my mouth before I even had time to think.
“Go to this dinner, George. But take me with you!”
At first he wouldn’t even consider it. I kept talking though, and didn’t let up. We were still at it when the sun came up-but I had him half-convinced. In desperation, I put it on the basis of our long friendship.
“This is no promise,” he finally said. “I’ll talk to these people and see if I can’t arrange to bring you along. If I tell them you’re a visiting millionaire, they’ll go out of their way to impress you. I don’t know if it will work – all I can do is try.”
Three days passed with no word from George. I began to feel the whole thing was a hoax. I had dug up all the uranium material I needed and was just killing time. Most of the day I spent in my room, looking at the phone. The constant heat was wearing my nerves raw – I was ready to quit and head for home. On the fourth night the phone rang. It was George.
“Can you come to dinner tomorrow?” he asked. “Formal dress. Be at my place by seven.”
I had enough sense not to ask questions. I just promised to be there and hung up. When I went up to my room I carefully locked the door and closed the blinds.
Going to the dinner wasn’t enough for me. I wanted a record of that fantastic meal. It meant taking a long chance, but I had to do it. I wanted a photograph.
Carefully, I pulled out my Minox from its padded case. It’s a jewel of a camera, no bigger than a man’s finger, yet capable of taking high-quality pictures. I opened it and slipped a cartridge inside. It was loaded with Ilford HPS – just about the fastest film you can get. With an ASA rating of 400, it can be force-developed up into the thousands. This means that it can take a picture anywhere – the light of a single match or candle is enough. I pre-set the opening and speed. All I had to do was point the camera and shoot my picture. Then I carefully put it into the pocket of my tux.
At five minutes to seven, I knocked at George’s front door The boiled shirt was stiff around my neck – the tiny weight of the camera pressed against my side. George waved me into his study and poured us a couple of double gins.
“Drink up,” he said, “it may help to keep your stomach quiet.”
After three doubles, we went out to his car and began driving through the expensive suburbs. By the time he had made five turns in the blackened streets, I had completely lost my way. Chances were he didn’t want me to know where we were going. I told George what I was thinking.
“It’s for your own good,” he said. “The people you’ll meet tonight are wealthy and powerful – the Belgian police would love to get their hands on them. These people can be pretty nasty when it comes to protecting themselves. For your own sake, the less you know the better off you’ll be.”
I felt the guilty weight of the camera in my pocket and tried not to think about it.
The house we stopped at was far off the road and completely surrounded by trees. The doorkeeper took our hats and showed us down a long, richly furnished hall. It opened into a majestic living room. There were eight or nine people in the room, sipping drinks and conversing. All the talk stopped when we entered – everyone turned toward me. I tried to follow George into the room without stumbling. The camera felt like a burning lump against my side and I was sure they could all see the bulge.
No one introduced me and no names were mentioned. Someone handed me a drink and I poured it down without even looking. When it hit bottom, I felt a little better. They were just a bunch of people in Paris gowns and Saville Row suits, waiting for dinner to be announced.
Then I felt the undercurrent of tension in their voices and remembered what we were having for dinner.
Everyone was perfectly mannered of course, but I could see the glow of illicit excitement in the women’s eyes and the hint of pleasures to come in the rumble of the men’s voices. It looked like an ordinary gathering, yet I felt as if I were sitting on top of an A-bomb.
I found myself talking to a handsome young matron in her early forties. Her figure was superb under her skin-tight gown and her relaxed conversation seemed in keeping with a dinner party. Yet I could sense the expectation behind her words.
Behind me an elderly man laughed – there was a slight edge of hysteria to his laughter.
Then the dining room doors opened The small talk died instantly. We filed in soundlessly, and the butler motioned me to a chair next to George. The woman I had been talking to sat down on my other side.
Though the silverware and china were luxurious, the places were almost bare. A single plate, a knife and fork, a goblet of water. This simplicity in the regal surroundings only emphasized the strangeness of our meal. The center of the table was empty.
The company was too formal to stare openly, yet I could feel all the attention focused on what must have been the kitchen door. As it started to swing open, a hushed silence filled the room.
On a rolling table, pushed by the host of the evening, lay a giant covered dish. He wheeled it up, then carefully transferred it to the center of the table. With a sudden motion, he lifted the lid.
It looked like a thick stew, made with small pieces of meat. It could have been any kind of meat, I thought – until I got my plate. Perhaps because I was a guest and this was my first time, I received a special plate. It was filled with stew. On the edge, surrounded by the stew, WAS A SMALL HUMAN ARM.
I have a strong stomach, but this was almost too much. I don’t think I would have minded so much running across the same thing in the jungle, among some barbaric tribe. It was the contrast of civilization and savagery that was so shocking.
The other guests were watching me and I gave them something to see. It didn’t take much acting – the sweat was pouring down. I carefully pulled my handkerchief out of my pocket and wiped my face. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the others turn politely away.
For my sake I was glad they did. I had the camera under the handkerchief For that single instant no one was looking at me – it was the best chance I would have.
Holding the camera under the handkerchief, I could only guess at my aim. I did the best I could and tripped the shutter. It made a tiny click – it sounded like a shot to me. I glanced quickly around the table. George was leaning away – he couldn’t have heard. Then I noticed that the woman on my right was sitting quite still, with a strange expression on her face. Then she smiled at me and returned to her dinner. I didn’t know what to think. All I could do was wait.
One picture was all I dared to take. If I tried to advance the film, someone would have noticed. I slipped the handkerchief – and camera – into my pocket and turned back to my meal.
My hand was trembling when I picked up my fork. The others seemed to be enjoying the weird meal and I meant to do as well as any of them. But that tiny, cooked hand took away any appetite I might have had.
Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a particularly delicate stomach. I’ve eaten fried agave worms in Mexico, cooked grasshoppers in India – and rattlesnake steaks right in the State of Florida. I’ve poured all that stuff into my long-suffering stomach. Yet I still couldn’t raise my fork to that innocent looking plate of stew.
I knew I had to force myself. Taking a sip of cold water I forced a measure of control over my body.
I kept my eyes away from the pathetic little arm. It wasn’t there, I told myself. All I had in front of me was a plate of Congo stew. Made with some strange meat…
Slowly and deliberately, I raised my fork and speared a piece of meat. With careful strokes, I cut off a bite-sized piece of pink flesh and raised it to my lips. I didn’t try to chew or taste it – just swallowed as fast as I could. A quick swallow of water rinsed my mouth out. Not completely though. As much as I didn’t want it, the taste of the meat was still there.
It was sweet, a very little like fresh pork. But it was all I could do to hold it down. My throat muscle tensed and I drained the water glass to stop the spasm. One of the servants leaned over and refilled my glass.
After that first bite, it wasn’t too awful. Working slowly, I managed to put down piece after piece while my stomach churned in rebellion. That was enough. I managed a smile and politely turned down a second portion.
The woman next to me finished at the same time and delicately touched her napkin to her lips. She had that half smile on her lips and I remembered again about the camera. Had she heard the shutter? I couldn’t tell. She stood up then and left the room with the rest of the women. The men sat down again and turned to the brandy and cigars. For the first time, the conversation turned to our recent meal – I forgot all about the woman.
The talk was mostly about how to prepare the meal and the difficulty of getting the “meat.” For the first time, I heard mention of the “butchers.” I fitted together the chance remarks until I had a fairly accurate picture.
All over the world, there are men who will do anything for a price. Of all these men the “butchers” of the Congo are the lowest. They haunt the jungle where the pygmy live, until they find one of the little men alone. Then they simply overpower the three-foot-high man, truss him like a pig. and carry him back to the city,
For days – sometimes weeks – the terrified captive is held in a locked room. On the day before the banquet, he is pulled up like an animal and his throat cut. His corpse is hung head down overnight, to drain the blood and cool. In the morning the butcher dismembers and carves the flesh for the night’s feast.
The party broke up soon after, and people began to leave. When George and I reached the front door, our host was standing with his back to it. All his good humor was gone – his face had the scowl of a public executioner.
“Give me that camera,” he said, holding his hand out.
The hall was suddenly quiet, and the others turned with shocked looks that changed instantly to hatred. My face flushed – I felt like I had been caught in Times Square with no pants. She had seen me and told the others. The host’s hand was still there – shaking with anger. There was no point in trying to out-bluff them, they could easily search me and find it. Slowly I reached in, took out the camera and dropped it in his hand. It closed like a bear trap.
“Now get him out of here,” he growled with suppressed rage. “If you weren’t a friend of George’s it wouldn’t be this easy.”
I didn’t argue at all. My back didn’t relax until we were tearing down the road in George’s car. He, sat dark and silent over the wheel, and didn’t say a word until he let me off in front of the Air Hotel.
“I’m sorry you had to pull a stunt like that.” he said. “I used to like you.” Before I could answer he slammed the ear into gear and roared away. I felt guilty as hell about betraying his friendship.
If he hadn’t sped away I might even have given him the cartridge of film I had taken from the camera earlier, when I first noticed the woman looking at me.
As it was I knew I had to move fast. These people weren’t stupid. Someone was going to open the camera and find the film gone. This time my friendship with George wouldn’t hold them back. Men whose entire lives and reputations were at stake could be damned ruthless.
Up in my room I stopped just long enough to change into a light suit and throw a few things into a small bag. I went down the stairs and out through the bar. Two cars pulled up to the main entrance at the same moment. I waited until a number of men had come out and gone into the hotel before I moved out and hailed a cab. I was soaked with sweat.
Two of the men had been at the dinner party.
I switched cabs a couple of times and walked the last few blocks to the airport. I crossed my fingers, hoping there was a way out. Without looking, I passed the international airline desks. I didn’t have time for the red tape to get on one of their planes. And I had a feeling that if I showed my passport, some of the clerks might be interested in my name. Instead I went down to the end, to the Aire Congo line.
There was a plane leaving in an hour for Elizabethville – they had a seat. I gave them a phoney name, then took my ticket outside with me. When the plane appeared I was the first one aboard. Looking out the window, each minute I sat seemed to stretch into an hour. Some other passengers boarded and we finally left. Only then did I sigh with relief.
I could get an international flight out of Elizabethville under my own name. And I had my picture.
Once I was out of the country I was never bothered. And I had no intention of going back to the Belgian Congo for a long time.
I wired money to the hotel for my bill and forwarding my baggage. Nothing was missing, but I could tell it had been well searched. I wrote to George but he never answered. Losing his friendship is one thing I still regret.
All I have left is a single photograph and the memory of that dinner. It still bothers me a bit.
I used to eat all my steaks rare. But since that night I can honestly say I have never really enjoyed a piece of meat.
First published in Real Men, May 1958. Reprinted in Champion for Men, December 1959 under the title ‘Menu for Today: Human Meat.’