by Cameron Thomson
For as long as they could remember, the children had had nothing to eat but food.
“Must we have food at every meal,” the sister complained, “always food and nothing else to eat?”
“It isn’t right,” one of the brothers agreed, nodding his head, “morning, noon, and night—always the same old thing.”
“It’s gone on for too long now,” grumbled a third child, the youngest. He was quiet and a tiny thing. He imitated the others.
“And in any case,” the oldest said, “we know that there are other things to eat.”
He was looking at their mother as he said this. He held both of his hands—raised, closed and clenched, knuckles pressed together—tightly against his chest. Then slowly, with his right index finger, he pointed at her. His face had gone bloodless and pale, but his voice was loud and forceful.
“We know,” he said, “that there are other things that would fill us up.”
“No,” their mother said, “there are not.”
But the world was replete with other things—apart from food. Apart from food, there were many other things.
“Surely,” the oldest protested once more, “we might be allowed something else to eat from time to time.”
But their mother declared that no, to the contrary, they would not be.
“If it isn’t food,” she said, “you cannot eat it.”
The eldest tested a more accommodating approach.
He had noticed that among all the food that there was, there was food that was not food—so one was told—for human beings.
There were blood-poisoning berries, for example, that were food for ravenous birds, but not for boys and girls. There were hard-thorned stems that were food for carefree goats, but not for men and women. There were thick-veined leaves, rich with bitter juices, that were food for snails, but not for merchants, or missionaries, or soldiers, or civil servants.
What if they did not aspire, he wondered, to the eating of things that were not food at all? What if they pined only for a sip, or a lick, of things designated only inedible-by-us?
The oldest brother persuaded the youngest of them to ask again, like this, saying, “What of those things? Those are food, after all. They are eaten.”
If they were to have nothing but food to eat, then what of food like that? Might they try it?
But their mother said, “No—you know better. You know that food like that is not food for human beings.”
Her eyes went cold after she had said this, her mouth firmly shut.
“Such food,” she added, now speaking to her eldest son through barely parted lips, “is food for things that are out there, that are out in the open.”
The boy could see that his mother was afraid.
Later when the younger children had fallen asleep, she came to him. She sat on the edge of his bed in the dimness of his room. She wanted to say, I know where this is going. I know where this will end. I fear for you—for you especially. But she said nothing, for he was asleep.
As for this bestial food, not meant for them, the other children were dubious. Such food was, after all, very much eaten. It was most evidently edible and in-going. They had visited old farmsteads, after all, reeking of urea and yellow-stiff stems, where they had noted that such food was very audibly in there, in upon the tongues and between the teeth of things that are what children are, at first: yes, things that are out in the open.
The oldest boy then came upon an awful book. It was not on a shelf with their many other books. Rather, it was hidden in the pantry, in a basket, at the back, in a corner, under the bottom shelf there, in the dark. Curious and alone, he pulled the basket out into the light. He found that it was a stout vessel of black and grey argyle, done by hand in desiccated jute. And there was the book, together with several brittle, brown shards of ancient clementine peel. He sniffed them and they smelled of dust.
Furtively, he looked at the pictures that were in the book. Surreptitiously, he read what it had to say. And he observed, now, that in the midst of all the food that there was, there was food that was not—the book said—food for people like us: food that was food indeed, food in fact (but for them, for those).
There were ancient cakes of menstrua, for example; black, dehydrated rounds of dissolved, once-lively linings that odd holymen were known to eat. There was the vomita of lunatics; slick porridges swarming with tiny twitchers, invisible to naked eyes, that were reheated and ingested by saddened madwives. There were hard-shelled vermin, vile, brown things, boiled by some. And bewhiskered, pestilential greylimbs that were easily trapped and broiled by others.
There was food, he now told the others, whispering it to them in the play-yard, that relieved one of thought and pain. Green morsels that blessed one’s head with emptiness. Blue protrusions, pulled off and sucked upon, that made one stand beside oneself. Pink ticklers that poked one full of exhilarating holes. Purple slivers that strained one’s hinges, that popped one out and left one lying, for a time, outside of things.
“What of those?” the oldest asked, now looking hard into his mother’s eyes, daring her to deny that she knew about them too.
And hearing him, the others all pleaded with their mother, saying things like:
Those things are food, after all, Mother, aren’t they?
Mother, if we’re to have nothing but food to eat, day after day, then what of food like that?
What was to prevent them trying such things, the children wanted to know. And their mother said that she—she herself—would prevent them. She would stand in their way and stop them. She would block their access to such food and deny them entry to places where such food—so-called food, unthinkable food, she called it—was being readied for consumption.
They were forbidden, in fact, to think that such things were food at all.
“Do not think,” she pressed them, “that such things are food. They aren’t.”
“Aren’t they, though?” the oldest pressed back. “Aren’t they eaten?”
“No” their mother replied, “It’s unthinkable. No—perish the thought. Let it perish. Now.”
But the thought did not perish right away. It lived on and it left the children more curious and dissatisfied than before.
They did not know it, but they had stumbled upon a most ancient and awful secret. They did not know what they were seeing, but they bore witness to it with dreadful clarity. They felt the cold shadow of our towering artifice. They fell back from the steep ramparts that we had raised against their clueless trespassing. Our resistance to their unsophisticated vying and testing had pushed them back to that forgotten limit, the frontier from beyond which they had first come. They discerned the proximity of their infancy, of their thoughtlessness and speechlessness, and they knew that they were still trespassers: alien intruders, unwelcome and subject to the most definitive refusals.
They had not yet submitted to that pre-established harmony, the vast consensus that renders the world a world.
This is food.
That is not food.
They still had the taste of it in their mouths: the zing of the thing that a thing’s being food at all, in the first place, consists in.
They did not bite into it. It bit into them. They did not grasp it. Rather, it gripped them: the what of food’s being constituted, qua food, food. It was the blank that filled in all the blanks.
The children were curious and dissatisfied, but the nearness of that utter, outer boundary did not make them afraid. Being children, they enjoyed the secrecy of their secret. Being children, they toyed with the world.
They played at eating things that were not food. They played at nibbling, gobbling, and swallowing this and that. They made believe that they were eating things that were destitute of the plenitude that food possesses, things that were not food for them, nor for beasts, nor even for those shades who, by eating the unthinkable as though it were food, disengaged from the order-of-things and became, once more, like newborn babes.
They played, for example, at eating quartz and basalt and agates. They played at eating hobnails and carpet tacks and railroad spikes.
And, too, they played at eating the food of beasts. They played at being swarms and herds and flocks. They made believe that they ate the things that such things eat.
Before long, however, one by one, the children found themselves sitting at tables that were decked with delectable flora and fauna and they found that they were perfectly clear in their minds about what their elders already knew: that they would eat food henceforth—food and only food—and that nothing could be more obvious than that.
But something carried the oldest brother away.
He sat at table with them, yes, but his hands were in his lap. His fingers were spread out flat upon his thighs. He could not touch their flatware. Things flashed in their happy hands, those knives and tines. They leaned into their plates and ate. But he was watching the shadows that were cast across the floor by the sideboard and the hutch, the cabinet and the serving cart. He could not look away. Awful, lovely things presented themselves to him—the lascivious thing!—for eating. He did not want to open his mouth in front of the others, for fear of showing a salacious tongue—his—that would gladly lick the length of some slick line; or a lower lip—his own—that would happily catch on the salty cusp of some wet bump.
Afraid, he tried not to move his mouth, but it did not matter. At times he longed desperately to starve, but his longing did not save him. No, he chewed his way into the heart of an outermost place, a place without blessings—a graceless, merciless, blank terrain. He found, to his horror, that he had become a man.
Had he ever posed the question blithely? In any case, he was tormented by it now:
What to eat?
He asked it like an idiot. He asked it like a baby.
Was he over-skinned by a more than ample derma? Yes. Was he held upright by great, thick bones? He was. He was larger and older—but it made no difference. His infancy was ineliminable.
The man was a great baby, really, only thinking instead of playing. The thing that rose up before him now terrorized him: the answer to the old question concerning food, food and all the rest of it. He found himself struggling not to know it, but the answer deafened him. It reared up like a black mare does, who lodges her shrill protest with the horse-killer, because she does not want to meet her Eater.
No untroubled inquisitiveness now. No playing-at to satisfy curiosity. No harmless make-believe. His smouldering curiosity and the teeming caldron of his imagination were things that were the matter with him. Not good things. Bad.
Finally, he could no longer think clearly at all, for fear of thinking, for fear of all the trouble that comes from thinking things.
He did not know what to eat. And yet he thought of eating and he ate.
Or he starved. He became a morsel of nothing, a shrunken homunculus cowering inside his own head, behind his own eyes, trembling like a wisp of pink foam in the damp trap of his own skull. Looking out through those eyes, he found that he could no longer bear to survey the world.
It agitated him horribly: the buzzing manifold of pricks and pokes and flicks. It harassed him mercilessly: the endless barrage of puffs and smacks. The avalanche of whiffs and cracks threatened to smother him—all the clicks and glints that made the world.
In the face of all that, he rehearsed the secret that he had learned before. Now, though, he had words for it:
The sheer looseness of things.
Their limitless promiscuity.
The marks made on things by other minds did not help him. Their arbitrary geometry unnerved him. The sad smudges left everywhere by other hearts presented an indecipherable palimpsest whose countless layers he could not read. Everything was thoroughly marked, he saw, nicked and cut and over-scratched by men. Things were set into their manifold places and their countless relations by mere men, now mostly dead. No one remained, he saw, to hold things together, to say what was what.
But in the end, someone loved him.
She loved him and she gave herself to him. And then a girl was in her, growing. And he learned that he was to be beset—by a daughter.
Before she came, the little one, he dreamed of her. He dreamed of the advent of her hunger and of his own blank longing amplified in her a thousand-fold.
But sometimes his anticipation made him dream dreams of food: true food. He dreamed of a heavenly bakery and of perfect bread and of being fed. He awoke warm with hope, filled with the feel of knowledge, the tang of truth in the mouth of his mind. First hope—on waking—but then the old feeling returned and the sweet loneliness that he sucked on, the taste of exclusion and absence from that impossible feast.
And sometimes there were nightmares. He dreamed that she was a starving thing, unfeedable. A hungry thing with no mouth. He dreamed that she screamed without ceasing, that she was a trespasser to whom he could never yield. And he dreamed of a mouth too small to feed and of a food too colossal to be eaten. He dreamed of a mouth, his or hers, that lacked teeth and that could not chew food, so as to swallow it, and he awoke choking, trying to swallow the bland air that filled the chambers of his face.
The girl was born. She came to them in tears—cold, confused, and hungry. And the midwife passed her to him, all tight-wrapped in pure white flannel. And he touched the soft spot in the centre of the crown of her delicate head and to his horror he saw that she was edible. She was a hungry thing to satisfy some monstrous hunger.
Having thought it once, he feared for her, for the ones that loved him and that he loved. He feared that he would devour all of them some day. He feared nights lost to unconsciousness. He feared black stupors and bleak, blue morning-times, all haggard with the grey of awful evenings and nights before.
And he feared being eaten.
No one remained to hold things together. And no one remained, any more, to hold everyone apart.
But his wife wanted to help him. She loved him and she saw that he was afraid. She asked him why, again.
Again he said, “I do not know what to eat. I fear eating wrong. I fear that I have eaten wrong already. I fear to think of eating, for fear of conceiving a desire for wrong food.”
And she said, “My love, consider this”—and he wanted to consider it, this thing that she had for him, to help him, but he could not look into her eyes for fear of her, for fear of feedings, for fear of feeding on her and of her feeding on him.
“If it has poisoned you,” she said, fearless and blessed, perhaps, with common sense, “then do not eat it again. If you are dying, slowly, from it—then do not go on putting it into your mouth.”
“I cannot tell the difference,” he replied. Then, dramatically, “I’ve always regarded this and that and everything as food. I’ve eaten it. I’ve died from it. Yes. I’m dead.”
“Yes,” she said, with a patient smile, not yet weary of him, “you have regarded this and that as food. You have known that or this as something fooded. We have foodified things together. And yet, having regarded some food or other as food—once, for a time—we might leave it alone now.” Then, “Yes, yes,” she said, still forbearing and gentle with him, “I perceive the foodiness of its superfice—but it has no power over us. It cannot force us to eat it.”
She paused. Then cautiously she said, “There are things, too, regarded as food by few, things designated unfood, really, by most, that we might do better to consume.”
Like a child he looked up at her.
“But am I permitted—once, at last, permitted—to eat something that is not food?”
Hearing him, their child asked the same.
“May I eat it too?” she asked, folding her hands and raising them up as her father was doing, two supplicants together.
“You may,” her mother told her, “and it will feed you.”
And they ate—and all was well.
But he did not change. The old thoughts returned. A secret, unjust bitterness grew in him, towards his ever-unruffled wife. Of course, he thought, that’s all we’ve ever eaten: food and unfood, all regarded—indifferently—as food. You—he thought—know nothing of these things.
And with everything still un-pinned like this, unable to trust her, or to rest with her, or to take pleasure in their child and to love her without reserve, he slipped away.
Finally, he lay in gutters, cramped-cold. He slept in creaking, common bunk-downs stinking with other men’s post-feed excretions. He left his wife and his daughter because he despaired of being un-gripped from the grip of his secret fear. He wallowed in it, far from them, thinking to free them from its consequences.
Mightn’t it turn out that some things were really and truly food? Mightn’t it turn out that some things were exactly that—just food, in fact? If so, then all else besides would be unfood, naturally. Mightn’t the whole universe of things, in other words, be really and truly divisible like this:
food, on the one hand;
unfood, on the other.
And then, what if, without being food at all—and being, therefore, absolutely not food—something had turned out, once upon a time, to be both pleasant to the eyes and good for food? Had he eaten the ripe fruit of that impossible, awful tree?
Not food, but pleasant to the eyes and good for food, even so. The sheer madness of it!
He remembered: the ancient serpent’s clever tongue had claimed that eating it would make one wise and godlike. But one might be proven unwise and dirt—just dirt—having eaten it. One might find that one was blinded by it, instead; tongue-tied and deafened by it; left insensate in every part because of it. Blanked-out. Knocked into darkness and a life-long dream that masqueraded as life and wakefulness. One might not wake in time to find that one was lost—until one knew it in the white-bright waking of the utter, endless End.
Yes: what if some things were food, absolutely—irrespective, that is, of the mode or inflection of anyone’s particular regard for them? And what if all else was unconditionally excluded: all else as inedible as old goatsflesh, or noxious weeds, being neither lambsmeat, nor wheatsweet? He had heard it preached that the consequence of putting the wrong thing inside oneself would be an infernal fate, an everlasting death that did not kill one dead, but punished one for having dared to feed, in barren ecstasy, on the perfectly delightful, awful delectation of vile things.
But what of this? he pleaded, in the shadow of these thoughts, one only ate what one was fed. One was a baby. One never really fed oneself. One never knew what one was eating.
Ruled by fear, he remained vigilant. He had little hope that his vigilance would help him and so, for safety’s sake, he chewed, in the main, on the detritus of his own functions—intellectual, heartfelt, and visceral. These crusts and fluxes were not food exactly, he acknowledged, but they had been inside him, once. And they might be put back again without danger maybe, by way of his mouth, for example, as though they were food.
And he toyed with eating the unthinkable.
And he played, secretly, at eating the void.
And then, in spite of these corruptions—or because of them—he dreamed this strange and happy ending.
He found himself dissolving on the sweet wet of a tongue that was not inclined to spit him out. He found that he was well-known by happy lingual nerves that savoured him and did not find him rotten, that found him good rather, that made rather a good meal of him. He found that, having been thus consumed, he was incorporated into a perfect body and that it was his and that he had been set free to eat at last.
Cameron Thomson is a moral philosopher, storyteller, and singer-songwriter. He is currently working on a novel.