by Daddy X
When first confronted with this topic, I was tempted to do a heavy philosophical treatise on the old artist’s question: Does the artist (fill in poet/writer/actor) need to starve to actually know in his/her heart all the range of emotions? Would they be effective? Would someone without a full range of experience be able to capture the essence of desperation? Like the “tree falling in the forest” quandary, all the arguments have been hashed over and over so many times from so many different angles that it’s hard to present a position that sounds anything but trite. Of course, if anyone wants to follow up on this area in your comments, it could be interesting. There are some of you out there who are quite a bit younger than others of us and have different takes on history and experience.
My first response has always been something to the effect of: “Then we can’t write about the wealthy?”
So, with no real ideas for a post, :>) I decided to kick off a story to the hunger prompt instead. It may become a longer piece someday, but as is, I think it has a certain finality of its own.
Hope you enjoy.
The Day the Food Arrived
It was the first time I could remember Father not going to work. At least not if he had any strength about him at all. Of course there were those days when he just couldn’t get up off his straw mat from one ailment or another. His malaria attacks caught him up some days—other times it was food poisoning or simple weakness if he hadn’t eaten the day before. Days like that we didn’t get any grain at all.
But most mornings, Father would wake before dawn and head off to the quarry to cut stone for the new Pharaoh’s tomb. Each day he brought back a cup of grain for his labors.
During certain seasons the Nile flooded extensively, and the puddles in the streets held fish and frogs after the water once again receded within its banks. If food was scarce, but we were lucky, Mother and I might uncover a bed of maggots to supplement our protein. She’d immerse a carcass in water to float the tiny, crescent-shaped morsels free from their host. We would rinse the wiggly mass through a cotton sieve to separate them from the smell. Boiled, they appeared like rice, but tasted much healthier. More sustaining.
When my brothers were really young, they’d steal fruit and vegetables from the market, scurrying through the alleys to avoid a beating. But when Het-Tum and Het-Awry each turned ten years of age, they too were sent to the quarry.
One morning, Father was still at home when we got up. Though he looked well enough, we were concerned it would be a no-grainer day. He stood at the end of the dirt path, talking with several men in brightly dyed clothes.
“Look at him, the lazy son of a dog,” Mother said. “We won’t be eating tonight, my hungry daughter. Perfectly fine day—he’s up and about. But he’s now more interested in his new friends than in feeding his family.”
“New friends?” I said incredulously. “We don’t have friends, at least none like those people. Those men look like priests. They’re clean! No callouses on their hands.”
“Ah, yes, my child. I wonder what he’s up to.”
That evening a young boy brought us two goats.
“You may eat the male,” said the lad, “but allow the female to live, so you can drink her milk.”
“And we can make cheese!” exclaimed Mother. “Oft’s the time I’ve dreamed of cheese...”
Father never went back to work. Day after sweltering day, stores of food came delivered to our hovel. Chickens, sheep, and haunches of beef were carried to us by pale Europeans from the north. Gazelles and turtles—delicacies intended only for royalty—floated down the river on rafts from the south. Stowing away the bins of grain overwhelmed our lean-to against the city wall. So we moved into a house.
It came to be that sustenance was no longer hard to come by; we were healthy, not only as individuals, but as a family. We bathed every day, and didn’t need to haul water or bury waste from the chamber pot. A mysterious someone had piped the river into the new house. We all started to gain weight.
My brothers didn’t need to go to the quarry any more. They had time to play, hang with the village elders, learning, gathering skills and wisdom usually reserved for the patriarchs. For our family, life had become like the fat ones on the upwind side of town.
As much as everyone benefitted, it seemed that I had benefitted most. Plain, skinny, uneducated girls, prone to lice and skin irritations, had not much to aspire to in our city. Rich men had fat, healthy wives, not frail street urchins like me. Poor men wanted strong, heavy women to work the fields and smother them in fat folds of love at night. Nobody wants a starving woman. No slender harlot will make her living in Egypt.
I became coddled more and more. As the only girl my parents birthed, I was their only problem. If a father can’t marry his daughter off in this town, he’s stuck with her. Unless, of course, she manages to find her own scandalous way in life. But then I perceived that I was the center of attraction. I would be fed first at every meal. There were always honey-soaked breads, nuts, dates and sweet baklava within my reach.
In the marketplace, men took notice of my growing presence. No longer did villagers turn their eyes from a scrawny, filthy, pitiful disgrace. Some even followed me through the narrow alleys. Blocks from the market, I’d glance behind me in the fetid streets, only to see a bearded stranger I had stood beside while examining some tuber earlier in the day.
As I grew heavier, my movements became more labored. In time, I had difficulty getting off the couch or out of bed. My trips outdoors became fewer over the weeks and months. I was lonely. I missed the glances of the young men I’d encountered in the square.
Father had been taking nocturnal excursions. With no job to go to, nothing for which to make him wake, he came home late, inebriated nearly every night. Mother would put him to bed with sweet tea, crackers and broth, knowing nothing of his whereabouts. I always wondered why she let him come back every time.
But he never neglected to kiss me, no matter how drunk he was. He called me his salvation.
One day, six official-looking men came to our door leading a flat, oxen-drawn cart. Our servant boy located Father in the breakfast room. “Sir,” he said. “Men from the Pharaoh have come. They say it’s time.”
“Show them in.”
Amid a clunking and clanging of iron and leather, the men entered. “Are you Het-el-Nut-Saheed?” asked the leader of the group.
“Yes,” said Father
“Is she ready?”
“How much does she weigh?”
So? Should I go on and make it a longer story? Let it stand as this tongue-in-cheek slap to everyone’s intelligence? Stop being silly?