Taster of Poisons
by Strange de Jim
New Age Journal, April 1976, reprinted
I am a taster of poisons. As you can imagine it is a profession which requires great skill. Actually I have to sense the poison, not taste it. Even a sip could be quite uncomfortable, especially with some of the crueler psychedelics.
I’m proud of my ability. I’ve never been sick a day in my life. Few in my line of work can make that claim.
Fortunately and unfortunately for me, my master is a very highly placed and very unpopular man. Fortunately, for that makes me a necessity. I am the breath of life to him. Unfortunately, for my skill is often tried.
I taste few dishes of his. They are placed before me, and I point to one and say, “Get rid of that.” At first he had those particular dishes fed to animals or enemies or those who were tiresome; but they always died (and he never did); so soon he began to trust me. Not me. He didn’t trust me. He trusted my skill. His problem was how to secure it.
He had to outbid those who would bribe me, or at least so he thought. And bribes are not always (or even usually) in money. He gave me everyone he thought I wanted. I soon stopped him. The only ones I wanted were the ones he couldn’t give me, and I could easily get those for myself. All my magic isn’t in my sense of taste.
I never said to him, “I’m necessary to you. You can’t live without me.” I never even hinted at it. Sometimes I accepted his gifts. Sometimes I didn’t. I didn’t bother to glory in this. Non-attachment is my rule.
“What is it you want?” he’d ask. He couldn’t figure me out.
“Nothing,” I would reply. “Give me nothing.” That is what I yearned for. He didn’t understand.
He wanted my respect, but I kept my standards high (partly for his sake).
It wasn’t just poisons. I sensed other dangers as well. “No, let’s go this way,” I’d say in a tone he learned to heed. I never steered him wrong.
I don’t even feel contempt for him now. Freeing myself of that was a hard one, almost as hard as giving up love. Thinking myself perverse and Christlike, those were hard to get rid of too. I’m washing myself clean, becoming an empty vessel.
Before this my job was massaging the condemned, relaxing them so they would gladly give up their lives to reach the peace on the other side. I’m sure the bliss they glimpsed through my fingers was an honest foretaste of eternity. I pray I didn’t lie.
He had bought a young girl to be executed for sport. I worked on her with all my skill. In spite of myself I felt pity. When he saw her so pure, so above the perversions he had planned to practice on her, he was awed. There’s no other word for it. He was awed. He sent the others away and had me brought to him.
“Do that to me,” he ordered.
“I couldn’t,” I replied.
It had been a long time since he had been refused.
“Why not?” My life hung in the air.
“I couldn’t. That is the truth,” I said.
He looked long at me. I was indifferent to death. I knew how to make it nothing. Before I practiced on others, I had practiced on myself.
His face changed. “What could you do for nme?” he asked.
I hadn’t thought about it. “I am a taster of poisons,” I answered. I think he felt a little of the same awe he had felt when he first saw the young girl’s face (she turned out badly, by the way). He poisoned my predecessor and added me to his household.
He fears and admires and doesn’t understand me. I don’t let him pretend I am in his power. I give him gentle reminders now and again that I am a free man. Never in front of people. I never force him to lose face. He recognizes but doesn’t understand my restraint.
“I’ve given orders that you should be killed if I die for any reason whatsoever,” he announced to me one day.
“Do you have anyone brave enough or loyal enough to carry out those orders once you are gone?” I asked. The next day he told me he had rescinded the command. I didn’t reply. Should I have thanked him?
He once told me I had dignity. I purged myself of it that night.
“Who are you?” he finally asked.
“God and the Devil,” I replied. “I thought you knew.”
The answer seemed right. I wonder if it’s true.