In keeping with our snowy visitor from the East, here’s a jolly little story about cannibalism I wrote last year.
The first time the boy hears hooting, he ignores it. He thinks he’s imagining things again.
But the second time, squinting into an ice-white sky, he sees a row of what look like swatches of flapping black material. Geese, perhaps. He isn’t sure. They’re too high. It doesn’t matter. They’re flying away.
Then one breaks off and starts falling. The boy watches its spiral blackness carve through sky, willing it to earth. Watching through his eyes, his mother says:
So he goes. She makes all his big decisions, and most decisions these days are too big for a thirteen-year old boy from the village.
In the clearing, though, the bird is nowhere to be seen. Only snow, rocks, and the black outlines of trees. It’s falling thick so he knows the bird might be hidden nearby. But he’s tired and weak and can’t stay out for long. It takes all his strength to hold back tears.
He sees a few black feathers and his father’s footsteps leading away into the trees. This is his father’s lucky day, not his.
Months ago, his mother said
Run. He will kill you.
He’d seen the look in his father’s eye and ran.
She’s saying it again. He runs.
When the boy wakes up, he sees blood on his pillow. His body’s giving up.
Not now. Not today. We’re so close.
He counts with his tongue: fourteen, fifteen…fifteen. Another tooth gone. He checks for blood elsewhere on his bony body. Can’t see the tooth anywhere. Must have swallowed it. Tries to think of it as food.
It’s better than thinking about food that’s run out. Better than thinking of empty packets of biscuits, crumbless floors, and leatherless shoes. Or former friends and neighbours. No, he doesn’t think about that vanished world of edible objects. He tries to imagine a future in which he can feel hungry again.
He hoists himself up with a tree branch. It had been his mother’s walking stick, before she was bedridden. He’d seen her waste away, tracking her decline against this thick-limbed branch.
When he let himself think of her, he remembered father, son, and sister at the table, his mother’s seat empty, and on the table, the usual plate of boiled weeds.
And dog meat.
None of them believed it yet they all finished their plates.
The next time they ate meat, only father and son sat at the table. Even father didn’t speak that time.
So he doesn’t think of mother and sister anymore. He only listens when they speak to him. Lately they tell him what he already knows: he must find a way to leave the village. All the other families left after the third harvest failed. His father’s stubbornness kept them behind.
Knowing her husband better than he knew himself, the boy’s mother hid food for her son. She took biscuits, wrapped them in blankets, and buried them in the snow and earth that was once a field behind their home. The boy doesn’t let himself think of the biscuits, though, even on the morning of his departure. He thinks only of blankets, snow, and earth, and his father waiting for him to return.
His father, who’d looked at him with hunger in his eye.
Run. He will kill you.
Neither of them could run; they hadn’t the strength. Yet the boy had missed the tip of the rock that tripped his father.
He remembers his tall, once powerfully-built father, face-down in the snow, groaning. The boy owed his life to a rock.
Leaving the house that was once someone else’s home, the boy moves slowly over the snow. There are rocks, some of them waiting for him. He treads lightly. At the edge of the field he enters a row of trees. He stops and stares. Every house looks the same, even on the inside. Every starving person, whether rich or poor, starts seeing food in the walls and the floorboards. The inside of every house he’s stayed in looks like it’s been gnawed by a giant rat.
He crouches by a tree, resting a hand on its charcoal-like surface. He’s only a few hundred yards from home. It looks lifeless, as if absorbed by the surrounding indifference. For a second, he thinks hopeful thoughts.
If father looked at me, then he had nothing left. He has given up.
But a soft sound emanates from behind the house. His father’s arm, stick-thin, is shovelling snow.
Keeping as still as possible, the boy draws in his knees and wraps his arms around his legs. Cold cuts through his filthy clothes but the fear cuts deeper and holds him still. He watches through a fraction of one eye. His father’s weakened movements have a rhythmic determination that nauseates him.
The boy’s sister says:
Dad will be mad when he finds out about this.
The old man’s dying strength is in his shovel. His wheezing and panting is in the wind through the trees. His eyes never leave the ground. His doubles over, coughing up blood. Wipes his mouth on his sleeve. Stares at the sleeve. Then keeps digging. From where the boy sits, he looks like a scarecrow.
But the boy doesn’t see him as he is; he sees the fearsome, combustible giant of man he’d once known and feared.
When the old man stops and limps around the back of the house and the boy thinks he can hear the clatter of the back door, nothing happens. Nothing but one snowflake falling after another, until his mother says:
I wanted you to live.
He stumbles forth, into the open, his small, battered heart in his mouth. He approaches the house side-on, all the time watching its slate-grey windows, its eyes, for signs of life. He wills the house to sleep.
He reaches the spot and digs. He digs frantically, blind with panic, ramming the pitchfork into the ground. A spade would have been better for clearing the snow but he feels safer with the pitchfork. After a minute, the snow turns to hard, black earth. He stabs but it won’t yield. He puts his full weight on it, for what that’s worth, and then it sinks a little, and he’s through, and scraping away clods of rubble. When he finds nothing but rubble, he thinks he’s gone blind.
He changes position. He drives in the pitchfork and this time it sinks so freely he has to stop himself from falling face-forwards. The rubble comes away in ready-made pieces. Then his heart, too, falls to pieces because there it is: hope.
His mother’s white blanket first, puckered with frost like the skin of an ancient animal. He sheds the outer layers and holds the thick brown paper parcel like it’s a part of his mother. No time for shedding tears though. Not yet.
He shakes it. It feels heavy. It feels like it will be enough.
Package in one hand, pitchfork in the other, he hurries back over the field, quicker this time, as if the distance has shrunk relative to the only journey that matters. He walks so fast that he’s almost to the trees when his father cries:
Get back here.
His words pierce the boy like wires, overtake him and reel him through the air.
This cannot be happening.
The boy runs. He tries not to look back but when he does, he sees his father dragging his heavy bones over the snow, hobbling yet closing the distance. When he looks ahead, he can still see his father’s shovel. His father’s eyes. His teeth.
The boy’s in the trees and out the other side. Into another field. The field dips then inclines.
The cord around the boy’s waist breaks and he falls. He tries tucking the parcel under his arm but it won’t fit, so he tosses the pitchfork aside and holds up his trousers with his free hand.
He keeps running but he’s slowing. The trouser-ends are flapping at his ankles; he knows they will catch. Father, through the trees, shouts:
I only want to talk.
The boy’s trousers catch and he tumbles.
The boy scrambles up, up, up the incline. Everything ahead he sees through steam, every drop of life escaping his broken body.
On the horizon, yet more trees, more fields, houses.
His father’s voice, at a hundred yards. Angry now:
Do. As. I. Say.
The boy falls again. He cannot get up. He crawls. On his hands and knees, then on his belly. His father, too, crawls uphill, grunting.
At the top of the field, the boy no longer hears his father. When he looks back, he’s stopped. He’s lying on one side, one arm reaching for his son, the other curled around his ribs.
The boy edges back down the slope, barely blinking, until he’s close enough to see his father’s face. For a moment, the silence sickens him.
Then he hears his sister, finding his mother and son burying food:
Dad will be mad when he finds out what you’re doing.
And mother, seeing the look in her boy’s eye, tells her daughter:
Run. He will kill you.
She tells her daughter, though she won’t listen:
When the boy came for his mother instead, she pleaded with him:
I wanted you to live.
Now the old man’s eyes are still. The look on the boy’s face is one of hunger.