Hatoshi blinked. “I beg your forgiveness, but—what?”
“This one,” the demon at the door said. “Roast him. Bake him. Anything.” The demon stood tall. “This is the place and you are the one. The human cook who cooks humans. Here, I’ve brought a human. Cook him.”
Hatoshi reluctantly took the man into his arms and stuffed him into the magic oven. A moment later, it spit out another savory meal. The demon sat at a table and gorged on the baked body, even eating the bones, which was fine since the old oven was running out of room.
The demon wiped his mouth. “I have never praised a human who wasn’t a warrior, but you are an amazing cook.”
Hatoshi bowed. “Now, I was about to close up—”
“Understood.” The demon stood, laid his coins on the table, and left the restaurant.
The cook locked the door. “Disturbing,” he muttered to himself. Then he looked at the coins. They were a demon’s gold, minted with the face of the demon king. “Disturbing in a profitable way.” Hatoshi hid the coins, unsure what he could do with demon money, and finished cleaning up. “Best I forget all about it. One demon out of so many men served is just one demon. Nothing to worry about.”
Hatoshi had much to worry about when he woke up the next morning. He opened the restaurant’s door to greet the line of customers, likely expecting a meal made of man, and sadly that’s exactly what his customers expected. A great line of demons stretched along the road from the restaurant. They came in all kinds, from enormous, tusked brutes to angry-eyed, walking fish. There were trees that slithered, heads that floated, and men with tongues longer than their arms. Many demons hid from the sun under parasols. Each clutched a human and Hatoshi recognized some of his regular customers.
“What luck!” said the closest demon, who Hatoshi remembered from the last night. “I told my friends and they told their friends, and word has spread indeed. And better yet, we didn’t have to go hunting anyone. There were humans waiting for us right here! Your supplier must be quite skilled.
Without a word from the cook, the first demon barged inside, and the second, and then as many as could fit in the dining area. Not one would leave until Hatoshi cooked the humans they brought. Seeing no other choice, he put his customers one by one into the magic oven in order to feed his other customers.
“I beg your forgiveness,” he said with every shove, but the oven cooked too fast and too well for anyone to forgive him before turning well-done.
The demons overheard him and some laughed. “How could a meal forgive?” asked one.
“I imagine he asks forgiveness of every bird and beast he bakes,” said another.
Other demons pounded their fists on the tables. “Do not mock the chef’s customs!” shouted a brute. “We’re fortunate he has such skill. He can say whatever he wants to the food, so long as it’s tasty.”
The demons all agreed to this and praised the cook, and as they praised, they ate, and after they ate, they paid, and when they left, more demons appeared, each carrying some manner of person. A hulking monster held an old couple in his arms, while three women dangled from another demon’s nails. No matter the size, age, or status, they all went into the magic oven, and Hatoshi prayed himself to sleep, night after night.
After a week of demon customers, a great uproar ran through the waiting line, and all parted for an glamorous, horned, masked demon. He did not remove his mask until his meal was ready and Hatoshi recognized the face underneath—the demon king he had seen on every demon coin. It was said that the king could eat an entire village with one gulp and turned to meaty jelly any human who saw his true face. Yet he ate only one man and didn’t seem to care that Hatoshi had seen him.
When the king finished eating, bones and all, he stood up and faced the demons outside. “I have eaten many humans over the centuries,” the demon king said. “Yet not one has ever tasted so sweet, so ripe. Not one was so juicy that I had to slow and savor each bite. From this day and ever on, I claim this restaurant the best in the land of a thousand demons. May we always be its patrons.”
The demons cheered. Hatoshi sighed heavily. When the demons left, he cleaned the place, and pondered chaining up the magic oven and chucking it into the sea. He could outrun the demons for a time. They were all a little fatter now.
A heavy knock at the door pulled him from his thoughts and he opened it before realizing he had closed up for the night.
An official-looking man held an official-looking scroll. “By order of the great and noble emperor, you are charged to feed his men who have stopped at your doorstep.”
Hatoshi frowned. “What men?”
The man stood aside. The road was filled with tents, horses, campfires, and every man in the emperor’s army. There was even a great tent with the sun embroidered on its entrance flap, suggesting the emperor himself had come to visit.
“The emperor!” Hatoshi hopped into the air and forgot all his troubles. A visit by the emperor would surely please his wife’s spirit. “What brings this honor to my humble restaurant?” Hatoshi asked.
At the messenger’s words, Hatoshi’s troubles came trickling back. “We’ve heard that a large number of demons gather here daily,” the official said. A torrent of troubles returned to the cook. “One of them is said to be the demon king, who only shows his face once every nineteen years.” Then the troubles flooded Hatoshi’s mind. “The emperor decided there will be no better time to strike back. We’ll make a stand here and tomorrow when the demon’s come, we will attack. There will be only a mortal lord for the land of a thousand demons. Perhaps we’ll even change the name.”
Hatoshi’s sigh was the longest ever heard, but the imperial official seemed not to notice. “In the meantime, we’ll need your kitchen to help keep our men fed.”
The cook had only rotten ingredients and animal meat remaining after his usual supplier had been eaten. He tossed that into the magic oven anyway and it all emerged delicious, as expected. Somehow cooking had lost its allure.
The soldiers hadn’t lost their appetites. Hatoshi’s food spread through the camp, and praise spread behind it. The compliments even rustled the emperor’s tent, and when all the soldiers had eaten, the emperor emerged. He was not much of a warrior, but he stood so tall he could’ve touched the sun, and every man he passed bowed at his presence.
“I hear your food is wonderful,” he said. “You will have the honor of preparing a meal for your imperial lord.”
Hatoshi bowed and dug through the kitchen. There was nothing left, not a scrap. The cook was about to suggest the emperor have one of his men assist him in the meal, but then he remembered the bones. Taking piles of them from the old oven, he tossed them by the armload into the magic oven and prayed something good would come out.
Indeed something did. Out popped a great bowl of ground bone meal, mixed with shreds of marrow. It looked much like a lamb stew. The emperor tasted it hesitantly, then sipped a spoonful, then downed the whole bowl of meal.
“Extraordinary,” the imperial lord said. “I was wrong, little cook. The honor is mine to have dined on such amazing cuisine.”
Hatoshi’s heart sank. He had an inkling of what he was about to hear.
The emperor turned to his soldiers outside. “From this day and ever on, I claim this restaurant the best in the land of a thousand demons. May we always be its patrons.”
The soldiers slept well that night. Hatoshi did not. At dawn the demons would find a new dinner at his doorstep. It would be carnage and Hatoshi guessed he would be killed. “I surely deserve it,” he moaned. He only wished to run away. He was so distraught that he didn’t hear the knocking on the wall until it shook the house.
“What is it now?” he asked. “Do the foxes want me to cook their fellows? Do the rivers want me to cook the earth? Do the gods visit me with a taste for the magic oven’s meal, wanting me to cook clouds or mountains, or they only know?”
“It is only an old customer who’s feeling peckish.” The window opened and in came the odd man who had given Hatoshi the magic oven.
“I beg your forgiveness,” Hatoshi said. “I have nothing to feed you. Worse, I’ve made an awful mess of our trade.”
“Nonsense and nonsense,” the traveler said. “Anything can be thrown into that oven and make a decent meal.” He snatched the hat off his head and tossed it in. Moments later, the hat was a goat skin roast. “As for trade—hah! No one would trade for the meal you gave me. The magic oven was a gift.”
“Then will you take it back?”
“Losing the oven won’t change anything. It was only a tool, perhaps too ambitious a tool, perhaps a tool misused, but only a tool in the end, and one that works well. If anything, you are the problem.”
“My wife would have said as much. What can I do?”
“I wouldn’t know,” the odd man said. “I am not your wife. I am only a peddler and a sight-seer. It’s not for me to stop wars outside your window. You made it happen. You stop it.” With that, the traveler ate his hat and was on his way.
Hatoshi cried, then slept, then cried and slept, and then was at least awoken without tears by the roar of a demon host. Looking out the window, Hatoshi saw the emperor’s soldiers assembling their lines, while in the distance, hungry demons marched closer and closer.
It began more quickly than the cook imagined. Outlying demons clashed with outlying soldiers, and then the brunt of both forces smashed iron, arrows, and teeth outside Hatoshi’s front door.
“We claim Hatoshi’s cooking!” the emperor shouted, and his men cut into the monsters.
“No, we claim this human’s cooking!” the demon king bellowed, and the demons tore into the soldiers.
Illustration by Darryl Fabia.
It was the greatest battle the land had ever seen, waged between the army of the emperor and the army of the demon king over their favorite restaurant. Blood soaked the earth and bodies piled, some waiting to be incinerated, others to be cooked.
“What to do?” Hatoshi asked himself. “What to do?” He sank to his knees, lowered his head, and turned his eyes heavenward. “O, great force that has guided me through life. O, she who rules the gods. O, you who know more than any mortal men. O, you whose wrath knows no end. O, wife of mine, wherever you are, I beg your forgiveness. Please, tell me what to do again!”
The only words Hatoshi heard echoed those of the traveler. “You are the problem.”
They were all he needed. He hopped to his feet and his face lit bright as the sun. “Yes, it’s me! I am the problem. I am the problem!”
He knew what to do. First Hatoshi hauled the magic oven from his kitchen and tossed it on its face outside his doorstep. Men and demons fought around it. Then Hatoshi grabbed pots and pans and clanged them on the oven’s backside, long and loud enough that the nearest warriors stopped to look. A wave of attention spread through the armies until every head was turned Hatoshi’s way.
“Meal time!” he shouted. “Take a break, and while you’re at it, take me your ingredients so I have something to cook.”
Soldiers and demons alike scurried to and fro, eager to supply Hatoshi with goats, chickens, spices, and dead men. He dragged everything inside and set to work, boiling, baking, chopping, stirring, cooking as best he could. When the meal was finally finished, the warriors sat on the road, ready to enjoy an excellent meal. Hatoshi served them all and waited without the smile of a man who’s put his heart into his work.
The spitting began far up the road on each side of the warrior crowds and traveled to the center, right outside the restaurant, where the emperor and the demon king each coughed until Hatoshi’s cooking had left their mouths.
“What is this travesty?” the emperor asked. “I had a far better meal last night.”
“And I’ve had better meals from a fisherman’s gut pile,” said the demon king. “Why serve us this filth?”
“I tried my best,” Hatoshi said. “What you tasted before? All flukes, all tricks. Today, I am an honest man. I beg you, keep an open mind and give my restaurant the same patronage as before.”
The armies were silent for what seemed like a long time. Then one soldier stood up and tossed the food over his shoulder. “If I’m going to die today fighting demons, I won’t have this be my last meal.” Then he stormed off. Another said the same and followed, and then another, and soon the soldiers didn’t need to say anything. They all thought alike. The emperor left as well, if only to pretend he had ordered this and still held some measure of control.
Likewise the demons abandoned the restaurant. “Why waste human meat here when even a fox could cook humans better?” asked one demon, and his sentiment flowed through the rest. They left in droves and the demon king left with them.
Alone outside the restaurant, Hatoshi set to cleaning up. He began to wonder about all the other professions his wife had suggested. Some seemed possible now that he had contacts with influential people like the emperor and the demon king. He also wondered if he would do as badly with another profession as with cooking, or if he could possibly love doing anything else.
At mid-afternoon, a traveler appeared. His clothes hung ragged and his skin clung tight to his bones. “Is this a place where I can eat?” he asked Hatoshi. “It’s been so long. I’m starving.”
Hatoshi pulled the magic oven upright. “If you have something you would like to cook, feel free to use this and it will come out perfectly. Or, if you have nothing, come inside and I’ll cook for you. I’m sure the soldiers left some supplies inside. I can’t guarantee the taste and I beg your forgiveness if it’s bad, but I promise, it’s honest food and it’s on the house.”