He Is What He Eats
"He's coming! He's coming! I hear his footsteps in the living room." Mattie Goe pushed a strand of silver hair away from her eyes and began scurrying about the shoebox home, plumping pillows and putting away slippers. Her husband, Frank, stood on a tiny chair and pushed at the fish hook hanging over the top edge of the box. Attached to this homemade grappling hook were two pieces of fishing line; the first reached to the floor of their cardboard home and the second hung outside the walls.
One might think the couple was cramped, living in a shoebox, but the opposite was true. Their home had been built to accommodate a pair of size-fourteen, triple-wide fishing boots, and the little people were only a few inches tall. For them, the shoebox was quite commodious, and caring for their home was easy. They had no shrubs or lawn to tend because the shoebox was set in the middle of a normal-sized kitchen table. A candlestick-style lamp was placed near the shoebox like a street light. Since the overhead fixture had burnt out months ago, it provided the only light in the kitchen.
"Hurry, hurry! He mustn't know you've been out of the box." Mattie wrung her thin hands. "Or there'll be a huge penalty to pay."
"Ohh ... ahh." Grunting and groaning, Frank pushed again. Sweat erupted from the top of his balding head, ran down his forehead, and was caught by bushy, steel gray eyebrows. "Ugh ..."
The hook fell to the floor. Quickly, Mattie folded the lines and Frank dragged the hook to the bed. Then they hid the hook and the lines between the cotton ball-filled mattress and the floor. Mattie fluffed the quilt and pillows.
"Frank, tell me quickly, before he's here, were you able to figure out how to reach it?"
"No. We'll talk about it later. Hurry, he'll be here soon."
Thump. Thump. Thundering footsteps shook their stunted bodies as they ran to their kitchen table, made of a box lid with knee space cut out of the sides, and seated themselves in chairs fashioned of glued-together toothpick pieces.
Squeak. The kitchen door opened. Mattie and Frank shuddered.
"Why doesn't he oil those hinges?" Mattie shook her head. "I've asked him a hundred times. I think he refuses to do it because he knows it hurts us."
She looked down at her lap, then tried to stroke a wrinkle out of her dress. John had cut it from a floral-print silk scarf; it was nothing more than a half-circle with fraying holes for her arms and neck, and it was wrapped around her thin body and held in place with a piece of red thread. Once she'd worn the scarf tied around her neck, and now she was completely covered by hardly a corner, by a single pink carnation.
"Don't be so hard on him. He has a demanding government job and can't do everything, with us requiring so much care and all." Frank frowned at Mattie. "He made this home, all the furniture, and our clothing. We wouldn't have been able to do it without him."
"He's the one who made us dependent." Her hands tightened into fists.
"Please relax, Mattie." Her husband reached over and patted her hand. "So we can spend a peaceful evening with our son."
Mattie reached under the table for the four tufts of cotton extracted from their mattress.
"Here." She handed two tufts to her husband and watched as he stuffed the cotton in his ears. His hands trembled; his shoulders were bent, and a ragged, gray beard reached almost to his lap. Mattie remembered the man he had been before their belittlementa capable and well-liked plant manager, a family man. They had both done without to send their son to college, to pay off the mortgage, to save for their retirement. She knew the experience was harder on her husband than on her; he had lost his pride, the ability to provide for and protect his wife. He was a broken man, while she was an angry woman, and that anger sustained her and gave her hope.
She stuffed two pieces of cotton in her ears, then straightened and stiffened her back.
Slam. The door to the closet was shut with such force that Mattie's and Frank's little bodies vibrated. They put their feet flat on the floor and braced themselves. Suddenly, a giant face materialized above the little people.
John Goe's nose was longer than his parents were tall. He had thick red eyebrows that met in the middle, set across his creased forehead like a giant minus sign, and reached almost a third the length of the shoebox home. His flaccid cheeks quivered when he spoke.
"Hello, Mother. Hello, Father."
The force of his breath caused the old couple's chairs to move and, though protected by the cotton plugs, Mattie's ears rang from the loudness of his voice. She reached under the kitchen table for a megaphone made of paper glued to a cone shape and placed it to her lips.
"How was your day, John?" she shouted.
"Collections were slow." He scowled and glanced around their home. "What have you been up to today?"
His gaze rested on their bed. Mattie's stomach churned, both from the odor of John's breath and from fear. She wondered if he had cause to be suspicious of their activities or was just in an especially foul mood.
"We watched the videotape you left on for us." She smiled broadly, and dared not look at her husband, who was not as good at lying. "It's a Wonderful Life is one of our favorite films. Wasn't Jimmy Stewart a great actor?" She looked at the clear plastic-covered opening in the long end of the shoebox. "We set our chairs at the window and watched the film, then discussed it. That took most of the day."
The creases in John's giant forehead smoothed out. "I'll play it again tomorrow." He walked to the television set and turned it off.
Frank took the megaphone from his wife and yelled to his son, "I'd rather see a football game tomorrow, John. That is, if it's all right with you."
"Yes, that'd be nice," said Mattie. She would rather see the news, but she knew that asking would throw John into a rage. In the five years since he'd begun depreciating them, their son fiercely controlled all information coming into the household. At first, he attached earphones to the television so that only he could hear the news, but Mattie and Frank could see the screen and surmise what was happening in the world. For the past year or more he'd played nothing but old videotapes.
"Sure, Father, tomorrow you can see the 1991 Rose Bowl game. It's a classic." He grunted. "I'll get dinner before I rest."
"I'll set the table." Mattie stood.
"I'll help." Frank got up and pushed his chair under the table. The little people opened a cabinet made of a matchbox, removed plates and cups that began life as bottle-caps, selected forks and knives made from shortened and bent paper clips, and placed them on the table. Mattie filled the cups at their water supply, an old hamster-type water feeder.
They walked to the plastic window and watched their son gather food from a tall wooden barrel strapped with copper bands, which sat in the center of the kitchen. He shoved a tree-trunk-size arm into the barrel and reached and grabbed, came up with nothing, then reached in with the other arm.
"We're getting pork again," whispered Mattie. "I'm sick of smoked porkbreakfast and dinnerit's always smoked pork."
"We never get fresh fish anymore. I wonder why he stopped fishing." Frank looked out the plastic window at the dusty tackle box sitting on the kitchen table next to the shoebox house.
"It's better he did, so he doesn't notice you slipped out before he fastened down the window covering and stole a fish hook and some line." Mattie watched their son in puzzlement. "See how far he has to reach before coming up with food. That means he's not refilling the barrel."
John removed his arm and stood above the barrel. He snorted and shook his head angrily, causing his belly to quiver. A button on his shirt opened and revealed an enormous white stomach sparsely covered with red hair. He loosened his striped blue tie and dove head-first into the barrel. His massive mid-section rested on the rim and saved him from disappearing completely. After much snorting and grunting and shaking, John emerged with a victorious smile on his face and a huge hunk of smoked butt in his hand.
He sat at the kitchen table opposite Mattie's and Frank's plastic window. His parents watched as John gripped the bone with both hands, clamped his teeth on a corner of the meat, shook his head, and tore off a huge portion of smoked butt. Then, bite by bite, the chunk of meat disappeared into John's cavernous mouth. He rubbed drippings from his chin with a chubby fist and took another bite.
Mattie stared at this strange being, the product of their creative efforts, and couldn't find a shred of the sweet child he'd once been, of the son in whom they'd placed their hopes and dreams. She felt no attachment to him. He'd long since betrayed her trust, and with that went her love and loyalty.
"Look, Frank," Mattie whispered. "I do believe I can see him growing fatter with each bite he takes."
Another button popped open on John's shirt.
"He's getting broader and more insatiable each day." Her stomach growled with hunger, but she knew they'd have to wait for their dinner until John had his fill.
John continued gorging on the pork butt. He slurped and sucked, and dislodged with long, ragged fingernails the shreds of meat caught between his teeth. Finally, when only a few bits remained hanging from the bone, he leaned back and belched, belched again, and smiled.
"That was good." He patted his bare belly. "There's enough left for you. It's a good thing you don't eat much." John laughed heartily. With two sausage-shaped fingers he daintily removed the little meat and fat remaining and dropped them on his parents' cardboard table. A greasy stain formed.
Mattie felt like retching, but she was too hungry to turn away any food. Her eyes met Frank's over the substance on their kitchen table. "I can't live like this another day," she whispered.
Frank took a deep breath.
"Let's talk about it tonight in bed."
"What are you two whispering about?" John's huge hand entered the shoebox house, picked up his father, and shook him. Luckily, Frank's head was cushioned by John's first two fingers, but his left arm swung about furiously and hit the thick gold school ring on John's third finger. Crack.
"Eeeee!" Frank's scream was loud enough for John to hear. He immediately dropped his father on the miniature bed. Frank clutched his arm and moaned.
Mattie ran to her husband's side.
"Frank, don't move your arm until I've felt it for breaks." She wiped the tears from his eyes with a bit of her dress. He was biting on his lower lip and his teeth were making purple indentations. "Stop biting, Frank, or you'll go through the skin. Hold on and I'll get something for you to bite on." She ran to the kitchen area, grabbed the terry scrap they used for a towel, then ran back to her husband. "Open." She shoved the scrap into Frank's mouth. "Bite on that." Mattie gently ran her hands down his arm. She could feel a jagged spot on the forearm bone.
Yes, broken, she thought, ran back to the kitchen, picked up the paper megaphone, and spoke to the huge head looming above her.
"John, your father needs a doctor right away."
Three long creases formed in John's forehead. His eyes half closed, and his lips pursed and unpursed.
"A doctor? Why? What's wrong?"
"You've broken his arm!" she shouted.
John dropped his head. His cheeks became as red as his hair. He stood still for almost a minute. Mattie held her breath and wondered if this would be the event that awakened the long-sleeping humanity in John.
"I'll check out medical care." John trudged to a dictionary stand in a corner of the kitchen and dragged it nearer and nearer until it overhung the kitchen table. The stand held one huge, dusty book.
His mother's heart almost stopped. If John left the dictionary stand there, she and Frank might be able to reach it. A groan from her husband brought her attention back to their immediate dilemmahis broken arm.
"Broken arms ... broken arms." A cloud of dust rose as John flipped through the huge book. He coughed and wiped his eyes. Soon he stopped at a page. "Ah ... here it is. The code on medical coverage." John skewed his head, picked up a pen from the kitchen table, and wrote in the margin. He said, "Only life-threatening diseases are treated, not injuries, so I'm disallowing Dad's broken arm. Besides, I'd have to find a doctor to depreciate, and I don't know any with fiscal years ending today."
Frank moaned pitifully. Mattie sat on the bed next to her husband and stroked his head. With the other hand she held the megaphone.
"If you don't help your father, he might die, and then he wouldn't be able to pay taxes."
"Inability to pay?" The creases in John's forehead became furrows as he pondered the problem. "Take his social security death benefit? But that's nothing." He shook his head and paused for some time, then smiled and his forehead became smooth. "Mother, I've decided you have spousal responsibility. You'll pay for him out of your share of the big house."
He laughed gleefully, pulled a scribble-covered three-by-five card from within the book, and placed it in the page as a book mark.
"No reason to wait until Dad dies; I'll lien the big house tomorrow."
Mattie hardly heard John's threat; she was transfixed by the three-by-five card. Could that be it? A long time ago she had seen John recite the formula from a similar card, and as he spoke she had felt herself shrinking. When he'd noticed her watching, John had folded it in half and placed it in the book.
The card in the book also had a crease down the middle.
"It hurts a lot. If you tell him that, surely he'll help me." Frank grabbed his wife's hand and squeezed it until her fingertips tingled. Mattie stared up at John, megaphone to her lips.
"Your father is in a lot of pain. If you can't get a doctor, at least give him medication."
John's finger ran down the lines on the page.
"The code doesn't allow payment for prescription drugs. The best I can do is an aspirin."
He extracted an almost-empty bottle from a nearby kitchen cabinet, removed a white pill, and dropped it in the shoebox. Thud. The aspirin landed near Mattie. It was as large as a roasting pan.
She sensed movement and looked up. A huge hand was coming toward her. She flinched and rolled to the left until she was between the hand and Frank. Her heart thundered in her ears.
"I've had enough of your complaining for one night." Two fat fingers grabbed the megaphone and lifted it away. "I'll leave the lamp on until I come back with your bath water." He trudged out of the room.
Mattie pulled the cotton plugs out of her ears, and removed Frank's plugs for him.
"We have at most two hours before he brings in the warm water. I'm going to set your arm." Mattie walked through the shoebox, gathering what she needed. She pulled a rung from a toothpick chair and ripped a dress into strips, then chipped off bits of aspirin with a paper-clip fork and filled a cup of water.
"Here, swallow these." She dropped four tiny pieces of aspirin into her husband's mouth, held up his head, and placed the cup to his lips. Frank swallowed until rivulets of water ran from his mouth and into his beard.
For the next twenty minutes, Mattie stood over the bed and wrung her hands as she watched her husband and worried about the dosage. Had she given too little to reduce the pain when she set his arm? Had she given too much and placed him in a life-threatening position?
Finally, Frank began snoring lightly. Mattie spoke softly, hoping not to fully awaken him, but to prepare him for what she was about to do.
"Frank, I have to move the bone back into place, or it'll heal crooked. It'll hurt, but I'll be as quick as possible." Her husband's eyelids fluttered with what she hoped was understanding.
Mattie placed the chair rung against Frank's forearm and loosely wrapped the cloth strips above and below the break. She took a deep breath and, mustering all her courage and strength, moved the broken arm back into position.
"Eeeee!" Frank screamed, legs thrashing about.
"The worst is over, Frank." Mattie leaned on her husband to prevent his moving again, then securely wrapped his forearm to the rung. "Try to fall back to sleep."
Exhausted, she climbed into bed and gently wrapped her body around him.
Mattie woke to moonbeams sneaking through the broken slat on the kitchen blind. She knew John had come by because the lamp was off and she could see the top of the pitcher for their warm bath water. John had left it on the table.
"Frank, are you awake?"
"Now I am," he replied. "Thank you Mattie. I don't know what I would have done without you. I feel much better." Frank hugged her with his good arm. "But it should be the other way around. I should be taking care of you."
"You have for many years. It's my turn." She patted his hand. "I think I saw the card with the formula."
Mattie felt Frank's body tense with excitement. Her stomach was aflutter as she described to him how and where she saw the card and that it might be reachable.
"Just imagine how it would feel to finally be free of this curse, to be normal again!" Then she heard a muffled cry from her husband. "What's the matter?"
"I'm too hurt to climb out of here. Our one chance, and I've ruined it."
"Nothing is ruined. I'll climb out and read the formula."
"Yes, Frank. Me."
The next morning began as most others. John came into the kitchen, lit the lamp, got his breakfast, turned on the VCR, and threw leftover pork on his parents' table. Then, in what seemed like an afterthought, he tossed the megaphone into the shoebox and left the room.
They waited for more than an hour before taking any action. Mattie paced and wrung her hands while Frank sat in bed, propped up against the wall, and said not one word. Finally, Mattie slipped out of her dress and into Frank's other pair of bib overalls. Before leaving, she tied a triangle of cloth to support Frank's broken arm.
"I don't like it, Mattie. Something doesn't feel right, but I can't put my finger on it." Frank shook his head. "Let's wait."
"No, Frank. It has to be done now. This may be our only chance to reverse the curse." Mattie reached under a corner of the bed and removed, then placed in her pocket, a smidgeon of lead from an old pencil and a tiny rolled-up piece of paper. Frank had gotten both on a trip outside the shoebox.
After much effort from both, the grappling hook was hung from the wall with one knotted line inside and the other outside. Mattie climbed out of the box and landed on the table. She was both frightened and awed; she hadn't been out of the box in a long time.
A pile of unwashed plates and the tackle box, three times her height, almost blocked her view of the book stand overhanging the edge of the table. The frayed electrical cord attached to the lamp was an obstacle; going over would put her in danger of electrocution. She went around and squeezed between the tackle box and the water pitcher. The pile of plates would provide access to the book stand, the code book, and, she hoped, the card containing the formula.
Mattie counted the plates in the piletwelve dinner-size plates, with an unknown number of bowls on top. They would serve as stairs; vertical, but stairs nonetheless.
She walked around the plates to choose the point of safest ascent, where the stack leaned inwardly. It was near the edge of the table. Dangerous. She could fall to her death. Nevertheless, she began to climb, tightly gripping the edge of a plate, stepping up on the edge of another, gripping and stepping, gripping and stepping. She stopped twice to lie in a space between plates and rest until her heart beat normally.
Finally, she reached the summitthe topmost bowl on the pile. It contained the odorous remnants of one of John's meals: rancid pork, bones, and a fork. From there it was mere inches to the edge of the book stand, but too far for Mattie to jump. She struggled to make a bridge out of the fork and counter-balanced her weight by piling bones on the fork tines. Then she carefully stepped across the bridge and onto the book stand. Eureka! She allowed herself a deep breath.
She walked across the code book to the bottom of the three-by-five card. It contained three lines of huge lettering ending in "...minus size squared." Her heart soared when she realized they could reverse the curse by replacing "minus" with "plus." Quickly, she removed the tiny piece of pencil lead and rolled-up paper from her pocket and began writing the formula.
Meanwhile, Frank had situated himself at the place in the shoebox farthest away from the book stand. From this vantage point he could follow his little wife's precarious journey, beginning at about mid-point on the stack of plates. As his eyes followed Mattie, his expression changed from worry to relief to joy to terror.
"Run!" he screamed.
"Hello, Mother. I see you're out of the box." John towered over her. "I knew you or Dad had been out when I saw footprints in the dust on the table."
Mattie's heart beat wildly. She looked around. John above. Fatal fall below. Suddenly, John's gigantic hand came toward her. He pulled the card from beneath her feet and knocked her off the book stand. She flew through the air, ricocheted off the fork bridge, and landed in the bowl face-up and stuck to a piece of rancid pork. She rolled free just as he grabbed for her. John's fingers seized the greasy pork instead. She rolled off the bowl and onto the plate stack. He grabbed again, but Mattie was quicker. She rolled off the plates, landed on the table, and rose to her feet.
John kept grabbing for his mother as she ran through and hid behind the items on the table. She could hardly breathe and her old bones ached from the fall, but she kept going. John grunted angrily and his arms flailed about, knocking over the book stand and the water pitcher in his futile attempt to grab Mattie.
He seemed to have forgotten the card with the formula. As his arms thrashed about, the card flew out of his hand and into the pork barrel. He appeared confused as he looked at the barrel, then at Mattie. He seemed to be deciding which to pursue. The card. John dove arms-first into the barrel.
"Mattie." Frank touched his wife's shoulder.
She turned. "Frank? How did you get out? And why are you all wet?"
"Look." He pointed his good arm toward the shoebox. The pitcher had landed inside and filled it with water. Frank had floated to the surface near the grappling hook and climbed out using the knotted fishing line for support. "I should have known he hadn't gone to work. We didn't hear the kitchen door squeak." Frank wrapped his arm around his wife and hugged her.
"Help me! Help me!" Even with his head in the barrel, John's calls for help could be heard. His body, from the waist up, was stuck upside down in the barrel. He kicked and twisted but couldn't unbalance his weight enough to fall over free of the pork barrel. His efforts caused rolls of fat to fall down, one upon the next, and form an even seal around the mouth of the barrel.
All Mattie and Frank could do was stand by helplessly.
Mattie turned and saw water seeping out of the shoebox and running to the frayed lamp cord. The moisture traveled along the cloth covering, wetting the wires and sending off sparks as it went. Sizzle. Hiss. Sizzle. At the outlet, a huge spark licked the wall beneath the window, and caught the curtains on fire.
"We have to get out of here! We have to find help and save our son." Frank ran frantically from one side of the table to the other, and stopped. "Look here, Mattie," he said and pointed to the book stand, which had fallen against the table when John knocked it over. It stood on an angle from table top to the floor. "We're going to ride it down. You first. Get on a leg and slide down." Without waiting for an answer, he pushed his wife against a long, thin leg. She hesitated.
"It's this or burn to death," he said and pointed to the fire that had started under the frayed lamp cord. Mattie wrapped herself around the leg, closed her eyes, and slid to the floor.
The slide was more difficult for Frank because he did not have the stability of two healthy arms. Mattie watched from below, wringing her hands. Finally, he was safely on the ground and in Mattie's arms.
"Thank God, you're safe. But how do we get out? We can't open the door." Mattie looked around. The fire was moving fast. John's screams grew louder. The room was filling with smoke.
"Remember the year we had the mouse problem and I stuffed the crack with a rag? That hole is near here." Frank walked toward a crack in the baseboard.
Mattie hurried after her husband.
"Frank, the smoke is drifting toward us. If we just let it happen we can fall into the big sleeptogether. There'd be no more struggle, no more fear. At our size, every living thing is a danger. We don't know what's waiting for us outside these walls."
"We're going to find out." Frank tugged and tugged at the dirty old rag until it came out of the crack, then dragged Mattie through the hole.
The sunlight was blindingly bright. They rubbed their eyes and blinked again and again, then ran a safe distance away and faced the house. Flames were shooting out of the roof. John's screams for help could no longer be heard. The air was filled with the stench of pork cooking.
Frank hung his head. "It's too late to save him." Tears flowed down his cheeks.
Mattie sobbed. "The house is burning and the formula with it. We'll never be normal again. We should have died with John."
Suddenly, she stopped crying and listened. From what seemed a great distance away came the faint sound of a siren. They turned toward the sound. The siren became louder.
From around a bend in the sidewalk came a little fire truck ridden by people their size. It stopped and the firefighters got out. Mattie and Frank stood stock still, their mouths hanging open.
"You're little too!" said Mattie.
"Don't look so surprised." said the fire chief. "We're all little. The big ones reduced us. John Goe was the last of the big ones."
Mattie and Frank turned toward the burning house.
"What can we do?" they asked.
"Watch it burn."
The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
The Harrow is published by THE HARROW PRESSSM