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Featured Story • February 2017

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The Famine King

 

Darcie Little Badger

 
 

I was a seven-year-old prisoner of sleep paralysis. My eyes, which could move side to side like marbles in a doll’s head, observed a human silhouette behind the closed bedroom window. Face pressed against the glass, it said, “Hey, Irene. I have a secret for you. People rarely starve like they used to.” It sounded like a shrill parody of the neighbor, Mr. Botello.

“Go away,” I thought. “Stop.” Though young, I was accustomed to hypnopompic nightmares projected on reality, hallucinated monsters and voices without mouths.

The silhouette withdrew, leaving marks where its skin had touched, where its hot breath had fogged, and where its nails had pawed the cold glass. As it dissolved into the 2 a.m. shadows outside, it called, “The hunger is still here.”

A screaming ambulance passed. Even after its siren stopped, red and blue lights pulsed into my room, as if the vehicle had parked outside. Now fully awake, I scrambled to Mother’s bedroom across the hall. It smelled like cigarette smoke and the vanilla incense she burned to hide the musty tobacco scent.

“Mama! Mr. Botello was at my window.”

“Did … did I hear a siren just now?” Mother sat up. She had fallen asleep in her pea green work uniform. Her eyes glinted through artificial shadows, pillow-smudged mascara and eyeliner.

“Yes.”

“Come with me.”

We moved into the living room, and Mother pulled up the blinds. Two police cars and one ambulance had parked across the street. For several seconds, we watched people scramble into and around the neighbors’ house like frenzying ants. Mother put a calloused hand over my eyes. “It’s time for bed.”

They—the people on TV, the lunchroom gossips, and Mother, when she thought I could not hear her conversation with our mailman—all said that Mr. Botello murdered his two children and wife. He killed himself before the first responders arrived. I often wondered how he found the time to visit my window, too. The incident had not been a hallucination. His face left a ghoulish impression on the glass. The print never completely faded, though I scrubbed it with moist paper towels. In the right light, the ghostly smudge returned, so I left the curtains closed.

Sometimes, I heard my tattooed window repeating “the hunger, the hunger, the hunger” behind its curtain shroud.

Two decades would pass before I understood why Mr. Botello haunted me.

* * *

I first learned about The Famine King in a hole-in-the wall called O’Boylan’s. My pal Az inherited the place when her father, the original O’Boylan, retired to Florida. I kept her company every Saturday. O’Boylan’s was dim, quiet, and smoky; the atmosphere helped me recall all the times when Mama wrapped me in her hand-stitched quilt to soothe my nightmares. That night, Az wore her favorite eyepatch, black with a red embroidered hourglass. It was supposed to represent Latrodectus Hesperus, the black widow spider, but it always reminded me of time. Both spiders and time could be fatal, in their own way.

“You want another cranberry juice, Irene?” she asked me.

I slid cash across the bar. “Shirley Temple, please.”

“Right-o.”

Alcohol sometimes triggered my paranoid delusions. The last time I drank, the resulting hangover felt wretched. Unfortunately, I diagnosed myself with cyanide poisoning, threw away all my perishable groceries, stopped drinking tap water, and fainted on the street. Such is life with my breed of mental illness.

“Slice of lime or a cherry?” Az asked.

“Both, please.” The television behind her transitioned from local news to a commercial:

There is no sound. We see a log cabin in the rust-colored forest. A nuclear family eating Thanksgiving dinner says grace. Snow begins to fall. A lanky shadow dances between molting trees. The father cradles his infant, smiling, and then kisses the child’s brow. Snow piles against the cabin and buries the family car. The pantry is empty. The father treks into the forest for help. He returns with hunger in his eyes. He cradles his infant. There will be no kiss. The father opens his mouth, baring rust-colored teeth. Fade to black. A title flashes across the television: THE FAMINE KING.

“What was that?” I asked.

“Hm? I wasn’t looking.”

“The creepy commercial. Famine King?”

“It’s a new wendigo movie. Great reviews so far.”

“Why are wendigos so popular lately?” I asked. “Are people fed up with zombies?”

“Same taboo, different monster. You’re a librarian: is it wendigo, windigo, or weendigo?”

I shrugged. I knew very little about the wendigo, an evil spirit of famine, misery, and cannibalism from Algonquian lore. “I’ll look it up for you.”

Az handed me a glass of bubbling pink-orange ombré liquid. It seemed luminescent in front of the neon beer signs and flat-screen TV that hanged on the wall. The commercials had ended; the local news broadcasted a wall of flames. I slammed my glass down, missing the cork place mat by several inches, my eyes glued to the screen. “Az! That’s your apartment building!”

She turned around. “God! Was anybody trapped inside? How did it happen? Where will I live?” She clutched her inch-long hair, fingers pulling the curls taut. Az and I were both alone in the city, branches snapped from our respective family trees and transplanted in a strange forest.

“If you want,” I said, “stay with me.”

* * *

From the sessional papers of the Ontario Legislative Assembly, volume 40, part 4, 1908:

Judge’s charge concluding His Majesty the King vs. Joseph Fiddler: “[Mrs. Fiddler] was lying there on a cotton sheet … almost immediately on his arrival the chief said: ‘we must strangle this woman; she is delirious and will not recover and will become a cannibal if we do not.’ [Joseph] said: ‘all right.’

Norman described in his graphic way how the arms of [Mrs. Fiddler] were seized and held by her side; how the chief and the accused stood on either side and wrapped her neck with a cotton cloth and put around the string and pulled on it and choked the woman until she died.”

* * *

I began life as a cannibal, drinking Mother as she held me against her breast, first siphoning away her pregnancy weight and then suckling ravenously until her cheeks became hollows. She never let me forget that I once bit her while I was teething.

“You’ll embarrass your kid, too, someday,” she said. However, I lack the parental instinct.

That doesn’t mean I want to be alone.

Domestic bliss was a pipe dream—who could tolerate somebody like me?—until I experienced life with Az. Displaced by the fire, she moved to my couch, and for two weeks, we danced around each other like planets in a complementary orbit. Every morning, we ate eggs and toast together. Our mealtime conversations were longer and more complex than any held over O’Boylan’s bar. Az often reminisced about her childhood. The bar reminded her of her father, much like it reminded me of my mother. Though the fire had not reached Az’s eighth-story apartment, she worried that her photo albums had been damaged.

Once the authorities allowed her to fetch valuables, Az spent all day copying her family pictures with the high-resolution scanner in my library. I supervised, treated to the story behind each photograph: “This is my first Halloween with braces. Mom and Dad were clowns that year. They scared more little kids than I did …”

As she spoke and scanned, I remembered when we met during my first week working in Maria Public Library, a contemporary building inspired by gothic churches. The gray stone exterior was replete with spires, and its massive rose-style stained glass window depicted Captain Ahab battling the white whale. At work, I danced between reference desk and shelf duties. When a patron needed help, they could ring a silver bell on the reference desk; its shrill ding reverberated among the ribs of the high ceiling.

Many people could not resist hitting the bell several times. Some, especially children, would slap its head until the dingdingdingding resembled a siren.

On the day we met, Az rang it once and waited patiently as I ran from the nonfiction shelves to my station. It was the best first impression anybody has made in my life.

“Can you tell me when your copy of Poe’s Contemporaries will be available?” Az asked.

“Barring a late return, it will be free Tuesday.”

“Thank you.” Her smile deepened the laugh lines framing her eye. “What’s your name?”

“Irene.”

“Good to meet you. I’m Azalea. Stick around, and you’ll see me again.”

Indeed, she visited the library weekly, and through casual conversation, I learned about O’Boylan’s. Thus began our friendship.

* * *

Once she finished scanning her family albums, Az said, “I don’t work tonight. Let’s see a movie.”

“Not The Famine King.” It was number one at the box office for the third week in a row, and I knew Az had been itching to watch history’s most profitable creep flick.

“Actually, I have the new mall mascot comedy.”

“Sounds fun.”

That evening, we sat on my sofa with a bowl of popcorn between us. As the promos ran, Az said, “I’ll be out of your hair soon.”

It was news to me. “How soon?”

“Tomorrow. Irene, thank you for taking me in.”

“Any time.” She didn’t have to thank me at all.

Later, I woke up lying on my side, my face inches from the wall, my body damp with sweat. It took a moment to remember that I had turned into bed after the movie and dozed off in my day clothes, thick jeans and a sweater. Somebody lay behind me; I heard their wheezing breaths.

Az would not join me in bed, like a lover. Neither of us wanted that.

Phantom bodies were unusual sleep paralysis visitors.

There was a third, more troubling possibility.

My cotton bedsheet tightened around my neck. The wheezing breaths came from me now. Wheezing, gurgling, raspy gasps. I could not fight the noose. My face felt tight and hot. A flash of light. Sharp pain behind my eyes: it was morning, and I was alone, alive, and tangled in my sheets.

* * *

Let me tell you about the wendigo: when, during times of famine, people become cannibals, the wendigo enters their bellies like a tapeworm. As it grows, so too grows their abhorrent hunger.

When The Famine King reigned, people visited Maria Public Library in droves to ring my silver bell and request documents from historical wendigo trials. Most inquired about Swift Runner and the Fiddler brothers. The former butchered his children and wife for meat. The latter killed people corrupted by wendigo evil; often, victims were physically or mentally ill Anishinaabe people: people like me. “Is this all?” some bell ringers asked me, after I provided court documents.

They wanted more visceral details.

The day after Az left my couch, as I was emptying the book return bin, a tall, blue-haired twenty-something approached. I recognized him; Anthony Crispen Wright, a student mathematician, often studied in Maria during the midterm and final exam seasons. He and his classmates would spread their textbooks across a reading table and camp until they passed every test.

“I have returns for you,” Anthony said, pulling several books from his messenger bag. Their titles included The Encyclopedia of North American Indigenous Monsters, Algernon Blackwood’s The Wendigo and Other Stories, and Teeth of Winter. Perhaps noticing my interest, Anthony explained, “I’m researching wendigo mythology.”

“Is it for a class?”

“No. Just personal.”

“Why cannibals?” I asked. “Aren’t you vegan?”

He knit his brows. “Yes. How do you know?”

I had eavesdropped on a dozen conversations about his diet, usually after his study mates asked him why he avoided milk and eggs. Anthony’s responses were so eloquent and passionate that he nearly won me over. He once said, “Most of us would not eat our family. But if you believe in abiogenesis, we’re all descended from Earth when she began to live over three billion years ago. Every creature is kin. What is a cow? DNA, meat, bones. What are we? DNA, meat, bones. Sister Cow does not give us permission to take her milk and babies and life.”

“I think your friend mentioned it once,” I said.

“Okay. Well, about the wendigo—some things are just interesting. It’s hard to explain. You know?”

A thought popped into my head: the vicarious bite of skin and meat is thrilling to natural-born cannibals, we mammals who come into the world with a thirst for our own mothers. The whispering voice was not mine. It spoke to me, not from me.

“Did you hear something?” I asked. Anthony just shook his head, grinning, as if privy to a secret joke.

Once he left, I hid North American Indigenous Monsters, the Algernon Blackwood collection, and Teeth of Winter in the library basement, among hardcovers and paperbacks that had been set aside for the annual charity book sale. My coworkers would soon notice their absence. Thanks to The Famine King, all wendigo material was in high demand. But I felt uneasy returning the corrupt books to the lending shelves, where anybody could use them to stoke their cannibal hunger.

When my shift ended, it was subzero chilly outside. Every quick breath I took pulled gnat-sized snowflakes into my body. I jogged to the bus stop, a three-wall glass and steel enclosure. Only large enough to comfortably shelter ten adults, it now contained twelve people, all fattened by winter outfits: no room for one more. I leaned against an outer wall and thrust my bare hands in rubbish-filled pockets.

Thump. The wall behind me shuddered, and somebody shouted, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Turning, I came face to face with a young man. His nose, cheek, and mouth were squished against the glass. A red smear obscured his flattened lips. Shouts erupted:

“I’m holding him. Call the police!”

“Carissa, are you all right?”

A woman fell to the curb. Two bleeding flaps of skin dangled from her earlobe, as if an earring or plug had been torn out. “It hurts,” she sobbed.

From the squished face, a muffled protest: “Ih wasa accident. Leht go!”

I’d never seen a woman’s ear accidentally split before. A siren pealed nearby. Ambulance? Police? I just wanted to go home. Gawkers began filming with their phones, as if the siren didn’t exist.

They were spellbound by something louder.

I trekked toward an alternate bus stop. It was outside my favorite bakery and several foodie restaurants, just five blocks south. I’d walked there a hundred times before, but six street corners later, none of the buildings looked familiar. They had brick facades and eaved doors without signs: this was a residential neighborhood. How did I get lost? The snow must have disoriented me. The flakes were now larger and denser than flies swarming over rotten meat.

A pedestrian passed with quick strides. “Excuse me!” I called. “I’m …”

She turned, and though her lower face was wrapped in a black scarf, I recognized her eyes, bloodshot and dripping mascara. “What?” she asked. “Can I help you?”

No, no, no. A million shadows might visit me at night, but I could not bear to be haunted by my own mother!

I fled, tears freezing on my cheeks, aware of Mother’s eyes trained on my back. But no. No. No. Mother was dead, and good souls like hers did not linger in this vile world. An evil had corrupted the city; it projected my sins across the frozen streets. It tore off the thin scabs of my festering guilt.

I killed her. I killed my mother. For eighteen years, she worked from morning to night, on holidays and weekends, juggling two jobs with no vacations. Feeding me, clothing me, raising me altruistically. And at night, during the precious time she could rest, I tormented her with my nightmares. Mama, mama, I saw monsters again. Why didn’t she lock her door? Why did she wrap me in her quilt, cradle me in her arms, and give me more tenderness than I deserved? Her heart had succumbed to the chronic strain. It stopped beating as she slept. The one night she needed my help, I had a long, uninterrupted sleep and did not discover her body until morning, well after doctors could revive her. Now I understood why Mr. Botello’s wendigo came to my window. In me, it recognized kin.

When I finally reached the bus stop, my face, fingers, and feet ached in the relentless cold. After stumbling around the labyrinthine city for two hours, I was faint with hunger. The foodie hotspots were packed, and my favorite bakery had closed at six, but a new place called Jukebox Burger advertised quick service. I gazed through its window. The interior, inspired by retro diners, was all bright, bold colors and Formica.

There, with his back to me, sat Anthony Crispen Wright. His electric blue hair was unmistakable, just like the half-eaten BLT on his plate. The meat was definitely real, unless miracle workers at Jukebox Burger found a way to perfectly imitate bacon and ground beef with soy.

The voice asked: why would an ethical vegan eat meat?

A waitress topped off his glass of water. She wore a blue poodle skirt, frilly blouse, and apron, but my eyes were drawn to her bare arm. A bandage had been placed over the crook of her elbow, as if staunching blood from a needle’s bite.

Because the meat donors were willing.

How can cows give consent to be eaten?

The meat did not come from a cow.

Scientists had grown hamburger patties from bovine stem cells, adult stem cells. Every employee of Jukebox Burger could be harvested. It just took one long needle to collect the material.

Or one friend in the morgue.

Jukebox Burger was a serf bound to the Famine King.

Anthony turned toward the window. He looked like a completely different man; the meat had fattened his face and put color in his cheeks. I wondered if he recognized me.

I mouthed, “I know what you are.”

Several diners exited Jukebox Burger. One offered me a paper takeout bag. “Are you hungry, Honey? Here, take this.”

I stepped back. Just who or what did they take me for?

“Please. It’s a whole burger. I ate too many fries.”

“I don’t want your filthy meat!”

A bus stopped behind me, and I dashed onboard. Only after hunkering in the back seat and watching several buildings pass my window did I realize that I had boarded the wrong bus.

I arrived home after 10 p.m., so numb from the cold that I could not feel anything below my knees or elbows. Layer by layer, I peeled off my clothing and climbed under the thick comforter on my bed, too exhausted for supper or a shower or …

In the Botello household, there is no sound until a baby screams. The scream never ends, so the exhausted father pads over to the nursery, his feet tracking blood on the hardwood floor. Paper snowflakes hang from the walls. The daughter made them with white construction paper and safety scissors, and now that she is part of the father, he can appreciate their creative symmetry. He stands, enraptured by the snowflakes as the baby screams and screams, the miserable wail pulsing like an emergency siren.

“Hush.” The father leans into the infant’s crib, as if he wants a kiss, but his large mouth opens instead, and his teeth glint with a rusty sheen as …

I woke up, cold-sweat-terrified by the dream and paralyzed by more than fear. My peripheral vision caught a figure in my doorway, a silhouette with lanky limbs. I tried to ignore the goddamn shadow. It was not real! It was not! But it might be real. More helpless than a baby, I could not even scream.

“Irene,” said a voice from behind my window’s curtain, the same voice that had haunted me during my childhood, but this time, I was alone.

“Irene,” said the silhouette in my doorway—no, not in my doorway anymore. It had stepped inside my bedroom.

Two hands rose from the mattress on either side of my neck. Their dirt-caked fingers stretched, cracking like wood in a blue-hot fire. Thus readied for action, they grabbed my cotton bedsheet and pulled it down, crushing my neck between the fabric and mattress. The pressure increased until my trachea burned; I could not breathe.

“She is delirious,” my window said.

The lanky silhouette, which now stood beside my bed, thrashed and clutched its own neck, as if choking with me.

Hallucinations did not hurt like this.

I do not deserve to suffer.

Pain and anger shocked my body into motion. I grabbed the phantom hands; they were hard and brittle, like old bones, and they splintered when I squeezed them in my fists, their fingers crumbling into ash. Once free, I rolled off the bed, coughing and then screaming. The hands were gone. The lanky shadow was gone. But my window still chanted, “Hunger, hunger.”

“Shut up!” I shouted, whipping aside the curtain. “Leave me alone! I’m tired! I’m so tired!” My reflection howled with laughter. I punched its cavernous mouth, creating lamprey teeth cracks in the glass. My knuckles tore as I beat the howling doppelganger until every tooth was gone. The mesh screen beyond the glass popped out of its frame and fell three stories, its landing softened by snow. The wind raised goosebumps across my naked body.

Outside, a contemporary banshee wail, the peal of a mechanical siren, echoed through the frozen streets. Perhaps it called for me.

* * *

I am no stranger to the hospital, but for the first time in my adult life, I was not alone when the doctors released me. Embarrassed, confused, and groggy from the medication, I mumbled a feeble, “Hi, Az” when she met me in the hospital lobby. “What day is it?”

“Friday. This is for you,” she said, tucking a pink teddy bear in my arms. “I won him from the grocery store claw machine yesterday. It just took fifteen tries.”

“Thank you. I’ll name him Shirley.”

Az led me to her car. She had parked on the fringe of the snow-dusted parking lot, no doubt to leave closer spots for more needy people. “You’ll be all right,” she said. “You’ll be all right.”

Who did she want to convince?

“Where did that bruise come from?” Az pointed to my throat. A purplish streak marked the curve below my chin. I understood why she was concerned. It resembled a self-inflicted injury, the impression of a makeshift noose. But much like the face print Mr. Botello left on my childhood window, the bruise was evidence of monsters. Real monsters. During my psychotic thrall, while I imagined wendigo conspiracies, ancient ghosts wrapped a sheet around my neck. I must have faith in my little specks of proof, because the alternative is too terrible. Above all, I fear that my life is one endless hypnopompic nightmare.

“I’m not suicidal,” I said. “I’m not always well, though. Sorry, Az.”

“Don’t apologize.” Az wore a bright green eyepatch; it resembled a defiant leaf, the last of winter. She held my bandaged hand and said, “Let’s go home. Irene, you’re family to me.”

“I feel the same way.”

As she guided my hand to her lips, I could not predict whether Az would kiss my tattered knuckles or crush them between her teeth. Lord help me, I did not care.

 
 

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dlb_profile_largeDarcie Little Badger is a Lipan Apache scientist and writer. After studying gene expression in toxin-producing phytoplankton, she has received a PhD from Texas A&M University. Her short fiction has appeared in several publications, including Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Love Beyond Body, Space, and Time, an anthology of speculative fiction by indigenous writers.

Regarding “The Famine King,” she offered this explanatory note: “In this story, the monster is not a wendigo. Rather, it’s a bad movie, the titular Famine King. Irene may be an unreliable narrator, but not for the reason one might expect. She’s a branch snapped from her family tree and planted in a strange forest, a person with no ties to her ancestral clan. Irene learns about the wendigo—and herself—from outsiders and pop culture in a society that often demonizes both Native people and the mentally ill. Thus, she falls prey to The Famine King’s curse.”

 

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