2 February 2010 | Vol. 9, No. 4
They couldn't get her to stop doing it. Crusts of bread, leaves of boiled cabbage, twenty-six grapes, flour in small plastic bags choked with red twist ties. They couldn't get her to stop doing it until she stopped doing everything, and after that it wasn't long until the end. Half bananas browning in their peels, dollops of sour cream in drawers, potatoes in slippers under the bed, red beets bleeding through the pockets of her pale yellow bathrobe.
Her mother—not her mother really, but just a tired and kind woman named Ana, whose hair was graying at the temples—she made the beets. The girl had never really adjusted to American food. Cheeseburgers oozing ketchup, apple pie with gooey vanilla ice cream or a wedge of cheddar cheese, thick sickly green pea soup with ham, coleslaw, potato salad, blue-rare roast beef. She never seemed to eat those things, but she became artful at rearranging them on her plate. And surreptitiously pouring the pea soup into Dixie cups to stow in the medicine cabinet, and cramming the roast beef into the pockets of her purse, and Saran-wrapping flat patties of coleslaw and potato salad to insert under the couch cushions. The apple pie sans ice cream was found later in a tool box in the garage. She liked ice cream.
Her father—not really her father, but a balding man called Hal who worked at a car dealership and took things apart on Sundays just to see if he could put them back together again before Ana came home from church—he began to lose patience. The house stunk. There were rotting things everywhere. One couldn't sit in a chair, or cross the carpet, or open a book without finding some decomposing edible thing mushed up and crammed in or under, or between, or through.
But they couldn't get her to stop doing it.
Ana took her to church and to a psychologist, and then a psychiatrist. The priest had Ana and the girl kneel down and pray. Later they found pickles and potato chips and sweet potato pie and chicken bones stuffed into the shelves hung on the back of each pew to hold the hymnals and the Bible. She was good at what she did, that girl. And she was determined to do it.
The psychologist said it was understandable really. One hundred thousand dead, they said. In that place, that strange place where she came from, where no one ate apple pie. It would take time he said, they would have to be patient. Nine hundred thousand people starving, even still. In that place, that place where she came from, where nobody really ate much at all it seems. It was understandable, he said. They would have to be patient.
But Hal couldn't understand it, and Ana, Ana had been patient and now she was tired and graying at the temples. And the girl, the girl was still finding secret places for shredded oat bran, and Tater-tots, and fish sticks, and garlic bulbs, and plum pits. There were ants everywhere, and mice. The cat was pleased, at least.
She had never really adjusted.
The psychiatrist was full of ideas. Medication to control her neuroses, and therapy five times a week. And there were other girls just like her. The support group was twenty minutes away by car. Later they found hundreds of white pills lined up in rows under the floor mats of the Volvo.
At the support group, in the basement of the YWCA, the girls kissed and cried and spoke to each other in a language that was coarse to the ears of the mothers. The mothers who stood, hands on their hips, and drank coffee, grainy with nondairy creamer.
The girl stopped speaking at some point. She stopped moving altogether unless she was told to move. No one knows whether she slept. No one knows if she dreamt anything during her sleep. No one remembers exactly when it happened. But she stopped tucking food into corners and slipping it into the coils of the bed frame, or between towels in the linen closet. The syrupy canned peaches, the red and green peppers, the baked ziti, the beets, even the ice cream, all stayed on the plates, exactly where they were put. Ana finally could keep up with the cleaning. Hal sprayed pesticides. They left the house for a day. And when they came back he could relax, the smell was gone; the mice and the ants were gone. Unfortunately the cat as well. As a manifestation of his joy, Hal took apart the TV and put it back together in record time.
It wasn't long after that until the end. They figured somewhere between the pills, and the priest, and the therapy, and the other girls in the basement of the YWCA, she was cured.
I won't tell you what happened. What she did. But when they found her there was nothing in her pockets, not even a saltine. And after it happened, after she did it to herself, Ana continued to go to the support group. The other women clucked over her, while the girls talked in their strange tongue. They assured her it wasn't her fault. And they made her tea. And sometimes, somebody brought pound cake, which Ana always wrapped up to take home to Hal.
About the author:
Lily Brent is a New Jersey native and a graduate of Oberlin College. After three years working for a nonprofit in New York City, she recently relocated to Rwanda to accept a position at a residential community for orphaned children.