Harvest time is coming up, when the majority of Buentoilliçan crops will be cut and laid into the stores. Historically, a lot has rested on the few weeks leading up to the harvest, when adverse weather conditions and the potential for pests and diseases were a constant worry for farmers. A lower than average harvest could lead to hunger and even starvation in the long winter months. It makes sense, then, that as with other objects of worry there would be rituals and superstitions to avoid catastrophe; today’s festival is perhaps one of the most idiosyncratically Buentoilliçan of these rituals.
The gathering point of today’s festival, the Festival of feeding the Maw, is the south wall of the Church of Saint Euchleda, in Whight Hollow. There, on the green behind the church, cooking stations are set out, inside marquees and tents, where some of the most renowned Buentoilliçan chefs will spend their day, chopping and broiling and basting and roasting and frying. Each will make five to eight elaborate dishes, using the finest ingredients. Just down from these chefs, a beer tent throngs with people, and there are other foods available to nibble at beneath the auspicious August sun forecast for this year’s ritual. When each dish is ready, a raffle ticket is drawn and one of the many revellers drinking beer nearby will come forward to taste it.
There are thousands of tickets sold each year, separated into vegan and non-vegan options, so you will have to be very lucky to get to taste any of the prestigious dishes. Yet it is a prize worth gambling on; not only is the food extremely delicious, but winning the position of taster is said to be a sign of good fortune, and the winners should expect several other lucky occurrences in the coming weeks, so long as they conform with the expectations of their newly won role. The first expectation is easy: they must first eat a single mouthful and declare it delicious, or if it is not they must give it over to a second taster for cross-referencing. This has only happened twice, once in 1703 (the taster hated garlic) and again in 1839 (the taster called their soup ‘overcooked’), and on both occasions the cross-referencer deemed it delicious, allowing it to continue on to the secondary stage.
The second thing expected of the taster is a lot harder than the first, which is usually very pleasurable. In the secondary stage, the taster must take the delicious food, of which they have only eaten one mouthful and are presumably salivating for more, and walk over to the church wall, where a large woman’s head is carved. Into the carving’s mouth, which is open wide, a dark hole extending back and then downwards for an unknown distance, the taster must then throw the rest of the perfectly good meal, plate and all, reciting the words, ‘I commend this meal to the earth, and ask humbly that she might give such delights in return.’ If they take even another bite then the harvest may be sacrificed and they will lose their promised luck (which is usually immediately recognised by a few free beers at the bar), so few have ever dared to do so. There are gruesome stories of stubborn, greedy or ignorant revellers eating more than allowed and being thrown down the hole after the remains of the meal, although these are in all probability untrue, given that the hole is only about a foot across.
You might suppose there is some storeroom below which is emptied by the clergy of the Church of Saint Euchleda, but the Church denies this, and no evidence of any such room has been found on the various occasions when the Church has been investigated. Presumably, then, there is some cave below filled with rotting food and drink (for it is customary to pour the dregs of your pint down the Maw, as the woman’s gaping mouth is known locally), yet there are no discernible smells that would suggest this explanation, nor can the sound of running water be heard, so there is no underground stream carrying the food away. Some suggest that the caves below are accessible to rats and other wildlife, which eat the food and prevent smells rising, though it’s not known where they might gain access.
The other mystery at play here is nobody is sure who the face is supposed to represent. It certainly isn’t Saint Euchleda, who is depicted extensively inside the Church and looks entirely different. The general theory is that she is some nameless spirit of the earth, perhaps modelled after a greene woman (which would explain the leaves in her hair). She isn’t even mentioned by anybody writing about the church until 1532, so it is possible that she was carved some time after her construction, though again quite why this church was chosen is unclear – Saint Euchleda is primarily remembered for her ability to Attune (i.e. to achieve a religious mental state of oneness with the world) through the extended, unwavering observation of ink diffusing in water – surely a far better church to choose to carve would be that of Saint Eulogeen, who gained sainthood by developing a form of Attunement which leveraged the uncomfortable feeling of having eaten far too much.
In 2015, Roachi Callendre unearthed a large illuminated manuscript from a forgotten corner of the Hidden Library, which he claims relates to the construction of the Maw. The manuscript is yet to be independently dated and verified, so his claims must be treated with a certain level of scholarly suspicion, but if true they could signal a fundamental change in the way that today’s festival is understood. Of the two pages that Callendre points to, the first is the least remarkable, but seems to provide the most useful detail; it describes a process for creating regular holes in masonry through the application of various acids and counter-agents. The second page is some way on into the text, and is just an illustration with no text. It shows the outline of a naked woman, sitting cross-legged in a stomach-shaped cave, a stony oesophagus extending up to the edge of the page.
Other festivals happening today:
- The Festival of the Criminal Wave
- The Festival of the Retch of Saint Kilnswotter
- Feather Duster Appreciation Day