Rappahannock Review | B.J. Hollars
1816
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Ineditability

It was only a matter of time before we began eating our bodies.  Before the taboo that was ourselves became our sustenance.

Once, we drew a line in the sand and said No, never, but then we erased that line.

A plea: do not be too quick to judge. After all, people do what they do when they must.

Such as Tantalus, who had some appeasing to do.

Please, he said after chopping his son and serving him to the gods, enjoy this humble meal. 

The gods did not, and in fact, upon learning what they had been served—a boy! a human boy!—pushed their plates away.

Except for Demeter who, in the throes of grief for her own lost daughter, unintentionally took a bite of somebody’s son.

Her palate could never be cleansed; her sorrow, unswallowable.

*

Meanwhile, back in America—in a cabin in the woods in the Sierras—a man named Keseberg lifted his head upon hearing a knock on the door. It was Tamsen Donner, wife of George Donner, and since she was half-frozen and grieving, Keseberg was quick to invite her in. He suffered from the same ailments—another member of the fractured party left abandoned along the trail.

Weeks prior, his own wife and daughter had left him, waved goodbye and carried on toward sunny California.

And so he’d been left alone in a cabin accompanied by five frozen corpses, all of whom whispered unthinkable thoughts as he slept.

One night, as the wolves tore tirelessly at his door, searching for their next meal, the whispers became a little less unthinkable. Keseberg realized that it was not the ideal solution, but it was the one that would keep him alive.

Later, he would speak of it, how the choice was not a choice but an imperative. How in the nights proceeding that first trespass, he’d tried to eat the muzzle of his pistol but failed.

On the night Tamsen found her way to his doorstep, Keseberg played the part of the good host.  He wrapped the woman in blankets, warming her as she whispered,  “My children…I must see my children.”

She was dead by morning, and while the world would long wonder if Keseberg had killed her for food, he always denied the charge.

His best defense was also the one he least wanted to admit:

“There were plenty of corpses lying around…” he said.

More than any one man could eat.

*

In 1932 the people of Ukraine grew hungry. They grew starved. Blame it on the Soviet’s failed economic policies, though quietly, people whispered: Is hunger the newest weapon of war? 

Later, the Ukrainian famine became known as the Holodomor.

Translation: Hunger-extermination.

People died in the streets and people died in their houses and people died beneath the propaganda posters that begged them not to eat their children.

Yes, agreed Tantalus from his place in his neck-deep pool, but is it also a sin to serve them to others?

A decade later, the Soviets themselves would know hunger. Hitler closed the roads, and by doing so, brought Leningrad to its knees. The people ate their people, their children, their pets.  Washed down their wallpaper with sawdust, took their apéritif from the torn pages of their books.

Might I offer you a spoonful of soil? men generously asked the starving.

Though the spoon was superfluous, as was the knife and the fork.

What use, after all, were these artifacts of civilization to a starving person?

For years, the people of Leningrad did all they could to keep from doing what they must; still, they did what they must.

Many took to eating their horses’ oats and fed them leaves instead.

Look closely: you can still see men peering across pastures as their beasts awaited Death’s saddle.

And if you listen, you can still hear the prophecy rumbling in their stomachs: I’m so hungry I could eat a horse.

For a time, they said this in the conditional tense.

*

Meanwhile, on the other side of the ocean, young men starved themselves for Leningrad. At the University of Minnesota, scientists selected 36 young men—all in possession of a mouth and an asshole, which was all that was required. They starved these men for six months, took careful notes as the men’s bodies shrunk and bowed inward.

Physiological and psychological data was gathered, and from it, the world now knew how best to starve a man and bring him back.

The answer was food.

A healthy diet consisting of anything but sawdust and sons.

I have seen pictures of these Minnesota men sprawled skeletal in their skivvies, have studied the way their bodies bore the scars of their bones.

I have seen pictures, too, of Leningrad and admit that the people look much the same.

The difference, of course, was that in Minnesota, the hunger was humbling, while in Europe, it was always just hunger.

*

Ask yourself: How could we not have seen this coming when it was always coming? How could we have forgotten that sustenance and suffering were always the two sides of the same scale with a milkshake in between?

A milkshake, mind you, that Keseberg never laid teeth on.

A milkshake, mind you, that in Europe was always a dream.

One day I plan to visit that wretched man who lives in neck-deep water with a fruit branch overhead. That man who mistook his son for a sacrifice and paid the price dearly.

Tell me, Tantalus, I’ll say, what are you serving for dinner tonight?

He’ll open his mouth, finally croak the right answer, and together, at last, we’ll break bread.

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