The caterpillar lay to one side of the glazed earthenware dish. An assortment of siblings, cousins and more distant relatives huddled in the centre. Not one larva twitched, jerked or shuffled off to safety. Two dozen brown speckled bodies gazed up at the sky with unseeing eyes as if anticipating their imminent fate.
As a veteran missionary of twelve years in Zimbabwe, Elizabeth wasn't about to let her visitor see her flinch. Gripping the hairy caterpillar between finger and thumb, she lifted it from the dish and dipped one end in a bowl of sweet chilli sauce. Then, nonchalantly, she popped the syrupy grub in her mouth and bit off its head.
As expected, Candace pulled a face. "I swear you'll never get me eating such disgusting things. Are the people round here starving? Is that why they're forced toŚ" Candace didn't finish her question, being distracted by the sound of Elizabeth crunching on the husk of the crisply fried caterpillar.
"Actually," replied Elizabeth, reaching for a second grub, "they're something of a delicacy. Why don't you try one? They taste a bit like fish. You'll be all right just so long as you don't look them in the eye."
Candace was momentarily tempted. After all, she had once sampled frogs' legs in a French restaurant. "Are you quite sure that they're safe?"
"Absolutely. Just so long as they've been properly soaked and cleaned. Otherwise madoro can give you dreadful gut ache. Or in rare cases intestinal bleeding..."
Elizabeth suppressed a smile at the shudder that rippled across her guest's noticeably pale face. Without a word Candace pushed away her own untouched plate and opened her notebook.
"Let's proceed with the interview. A lot of people back home are dying to know what life is really like out here, especially for a single missionary. Tell me this, how did you first hear the call?"
"I'm not sure that I ever did."
"I'm sorry?" Candace arched one eyebrow as she peered over the rim of her tortoise-shell spectacles.
"I've always felt somewhat inadequate when it comes to the call of God."
"But surely there must have been some particular moment when Heaven opened and you heard the Spirit commission you? That's the sort of thing that missionaries always say."
"Then I guess I'm something of an oddball. But that's certainly how Sophie talked. She loved to testify in the village churches about the day she saw the hand of God writing in the clouds: 'Come to Africa. Feed my needy people.'"
"Excuse me," Candace interrupted. "But, er, who's Sophie? I thought you worked alone."
"I do now. But Sophie and I were sent out here together. She was always receiving some marvellous revelation from God, rushing off to fulfil some urgent summons. Used to make me feel like I was a second-rate Christian."
"But that's ridiculous. You've stuck it out here in Zimbabwe when half the population has been fleeing the country for greener pastures. You've tended the dying; cared lovingly for AIDS widows. I've lost count of the number of people you've led to the Lord. My dear, you're an inspiration to us all."
Elizabeth picked up the last remaining caterpillar and nibbled distractedly at its spicy, crisp abdomen. "It seems that all my life God has spoken to me in whispers, through vague impressions. When people talk about hearing the distinct call of God, I sometimes question whether I'm even meant to be here."
Candace set down her pen and grasped Elizabeth's hands in her own.
"Let me ask you this. Why isn't Sophie with you now?"
Elizabeth's eyes took on a faraway look as she reflected on the previous twelve years. "About nine months after we got here, God called her to go and set up a children's home in Swaziland. That lasted a year or so, then she wrote to say she was needed in the Congo. The last I heard from Sophie she was doing something in the Ukraine."
"If you don't mind my saying, your Sophie sounds a bit unreliable."
"I suppose so."
"The fact is that you've stuck it out here for more than a decade. That's proof enough for me of God's call. Now shall we resume our interview?"
"In just a moment," Elizabeth said, nodding at an approaching waiter. "You said you wanted a taste of life on the mission field. If fried caterpillars aren't to your liking, perhaps you'll appreciate this next delicacy. Grilled goat's intestines stuffed with chopped liver, heart and stomach lining..."
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