Once upon a time,” I tell my son, “a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold.”
My child starves. Day after day, his eyes grow larger than his shriveling stomach.
“Drink water,” I say when I leave him. “But not too much. I don’t know when we’ll have more.”
He barely nods. Almost, I think he will speak. In the darkness of our half-collapsed basement, his lips curl around something like a question.
“I’ll bring food today. I promise.”
Tucked in insulation, he reminds me of his infant self or of Jesus bedded in a manger of hay. We do not have hay.
“I promise,” I say again and leave him, perhaps, to die.
Our streets were not bombed. We did not flood or fall sick. The black horse, Famine, brought with it the most essential of wars. We fought daily battles with pitchforks and butcher knives. When our grocer was gutted and left at the intersection, it did not matter that the larger world also collapsed. As grand as we built civilization, its death was painted in the blood of 6 billion small tragedies. So it has always gone.
I stick to shadows. I hide in tattered clothes. As a boy, I stood outside this bakery window counting eclairs. When I felt the end nearing, I brought my own child here. Despite everything, we still believed in retreat. We thought we’d saved pockets of pastoral peace.
Other shadows slip from ruin to wreckage. We keep our eyes fixed on nothing. There aren’t many left who remember my name. Silence sounds my survival. Unknown, I believe I am safe.
Last night I fed my son boiled leather. I told him a story while he gnawed the pockets of an empty wallet.
“Once upon a time, a foolish peasant boasted of a daughter who could spin straw to gold. But the girl could not spin straw to gold. Her father had lied for vanity, so when the prince demanded the girl fill a straw room with wealth, she had to ask help of the devil.”
My son asks endless questions. “What’s vanity? Who is the devil?”
“The girl didn’t know who the devil was.”
“Then why would she ask for his help?”
“Just wait and see.”
The sun seems closer than ever. I find a white cloth and drape it across my blistered scalp. If we could plant seed, it would only bake in dry dirt. If we found enough water to feed it, we’d be slaughtered for the wealth. Some days, I truly believe that sterile seeds plays only a bit role in the larger drama.
Two weeks ago, I found the corner of a burlap sack in an empty yard. I dug with my bare hands. I dug too fast through hard earth. My nails split pulling the cornmeal from its grave.
We broke our windows ages ago. We hid what we had and hunted for more. Now, when we see each other slip over shattered glass and under broken eaves, we keep our eyes fixed on nothing. We have nothing left. We don’t know where to look. I think I see a rat and dive to the ground. I skin my chin on pavement. I grope in the dark under a rusting car. It bites my hand between thumb and first finger before I can snap its neck.
Once upon a time, people spoke of food deserts. We laughed, we architects of this great civilization, when we listened. Those deserts were full of food—our food. Once upon a time, children grew lettuce on rooftops and tried to fight us with planter boxes. They wore rough wool knits and used straw as mulch, animal bedding, thatching, fuel. We built them sparkling cities, but these children wanted to play at the hard lives of peasants. Until we took away their seeds.
I close my eyes and imagine the taste of green. The acid of phantom leaves stings my arid lips.
“Please, I just want some rice.” I’ve been mumbling for days, maybe months. “Please. Please. Please.”
Once upon a time, this corner was a market piled with satsumas, pineapple and persimmons in the fall. I took my son here Saturdays for fresh-baked pierogies. He cannot explain, now, how it felt to bite boiled pastry. Sometimes, he asks for the story of our lunches.
“What is dough?” he asks. “What does it sound like to chew on duck fat?”
“Please. Please. Rice. Please. Please.”
Last night I told my son stories. “‘I will turn your straw to gold,’ said the devil. ‘And in return I’ll have your firstborn son.’ But the girl did not want to give the devil her son, so the devil made a bargain. ‘You can keep your boy,’ he said, ‘if you can guess my name.”
“His name?” my son asked. “What does his name matter?”
“Rice,” I say. “Corn, wheat, rice. Please.”
The man under the counter laughs at me. He does not know my name, so I do not mind laughter. I do not mind the black mold that eats drywall. I do not wrinkle my nose at the smell of rot. The world is rot. We’ve gotten too hungry to be human.
“Rice,” he says. “Rice. Please. Rice.”
He’s a fool, babbling and thinner than me. Was I just so? I consider, for a moment, that he’s not there. That I only see myself in some fragment of glass. I haven’t had grain for weeks. Whoever he is, I will leave him to die. I spit at his feet, not because I hate, but because my hands bleed and my boy starves.
“Rice,” he squeals, and in his lunacy, he pulls a small bag from his pocket. “Rice.”
I know this strain. I recognize the length and color of the grain as I recognize my own hands. We fed it to starving countries before our own fell to pieces. A child could survive on half a cup a day. My eye, still discerning, calculates the neutered life in his bag.
“What do you want?”
“Rice?” He holds the bag to the street and giggles.
“What do you want?”
“Rice? Please? Rice?”
Someone could come. I cannot wait for the shadows to separate, for other hungry eyes to see. He was days from death anyhow, if not hours. Like the rat, he bit my hands.
Last night I told my son stories.
“Once upon a time, a man spun straw to gold. He spun and spun until he had rooms made of gold. Whole cities, even. But the man was a fool, for soon he had nothing but gold and nowhere to lay his son.”
“I thought the devil spun gold,” said my boy.
“The old tales get mixed up sometimes,” I explained. “I know it sounds strange, but sometimes one person can be the prince, and the girl, and the devil.”
“What’s the devil?”
“It’s hard to explain something that’s all around us. The devil is friends who murder each other for food. The devil is thirst with no water. The devil is starving children. The devil is a world of seeds with no life. Grain we can eat but can’t grow.”
“I’m hungry,” he told me.
“Once upon a time, you didn’t even know those words.”
I tuck the rice deep in my rags. With my head down, I hurry toward home. I feel the shadow rise before I see it. It’s hard to know who’s watching in a world full of ghosts. The edge of a blade presses my throat. I cannot swallow. My son is hungry. We ate boiled leather for dinner. A hand gropes against my ribs and draws our life away. Perhaps I should be grateful he wanted only the rice. Perhaps I should be grateful he did not guess my name. I am not. I fall to the pavement and weep.
What good is gold? That’s the joke we forgot. The daughter spins straw to shining ore. Her father beats her and screams, “What have you done with my straw, you little fool? Where will we bed the animals? What will we use to cover the fields and heat our home in the winter?”
Once upon a time, I spun wealth from seeds. My beautiful wife glittered with rare metal and stones. In good time, she bore me a child.
“He’s the most precious thing I’ve ever seen,” she whispered.
My son blinked at me with eyes like oil wells.
“We’ll name him after his father.”
I would not have told you so then, but I knew this future. I knew what I twisted through my fingers. In return for all my wealth, I’d made a deal. I took fertile seed from the land. I brought it to workshops where clever fingers spun its twining strands anew. We took its life in return for gold.
At night, I tell my son stories. “When I was your age, blood was never messy. It was written in numbers, either black or red. A long time ago, we had so much food we turned it to soap and diapers and ketchup. We had so much food we threw it away.”
“What’s ketchup?” I imagine he asks me. But he does not. He does not speak or move or heave a breath.
In the corner of our basement, I keep a locked box filled with stone. While my son lies stiff, I twist cold ore with bleeding fingers, wishing it would turn back to grain.
“Guess my name,” I whisper to the silence. “Please, guess my name.”