When I was a young boy, my brother told me that because we did not have much to eat, we would have to eat people. Every morning our father would leave the house in his tie and jacket, and my brother would tell me that he wasn’t going to the office like he said he was, because there was no office, and there had never been an office. Instead, he went out to hunt every day. Sometimes he could get chickens or maybe find a cow, if he were lucky he could get water buffalo or an ox, but usually the only food he could find was a peasant, someone who lived in the city and did menial labor, which is why their flesh was so tough to eat, and why mom had to prepare them with all kinds of seasonings or sauces. When she would prepare dinner and place my plate in front of me, I would try hard to look at the steamed vegetables or the mashed potatoes with the skins mashed in with them and I would try hard not to look at my brother, or to listen to him, or even acknowledge his existence, because I knew what would happen. Yet still, I looked at him out of the corner of my eye, quickly, then right back at my plate, and as soon as I did his finger was right in my plate and he pointed straight down at the chunk of meat in gravy made from drippings and flour and cooked to a viscous consistency and the first thing he said was, “That’s human meat, you know,” and that’s when I started screaming.
What did I know? I was seven. I figured that my brother, who was ten, knew everything that I needed to know, and that I had to pay attention to him when he pointed out these things, like the human flesh that was on my plate. I didn’t know why he only started to tell me these things once I turned seven—perhaps he didn’t know himself until then. I like to think that when he was nine he made a horrible discovery. I have this fantasy where he walked into the kitchen and found a secret doorway, perhaps next to or even behind the refrigerator, where he saw his mother—our mother, my mother—cutting a chunk of meat off of the thigh of a human being, a man, who was hanging from the ceiling by his ankles and dripping blood into the drain that ran through the abattoir. The man was gagged, a cloth stuck in his mouth and then his mouth taped shut, and his hands were tied behind his back. He could squirm to try and escape, but he had already lost so much blood that he had no strength left. Our mother would see him and smile and ask what he wanted for dinner, while the victim hung from his ankles slowly rocking back and forth while his eyes pleaded for mercy.
When Michael told me about the horrors of cannibalism that our parents forced me to endure, I thought it was funny. It was shortly after my seventh birthday and I laughed at him and told him that he was silly. People didn’t eat people! I said to him. But he stared at me and said, in a spooky voice that only a ten year old can achieve, “You think I’m lying? I’m not. It’s true.” He kept telling me this over and over again and again, at dinner, when we walked to school, when I was trying to sleep at night, when I was trying to take a bath. He made it his priority to make me believe that our parents were cannibals. It got to the point where I could not listen to him at all, I would try to sing little songs to myself or to try and talk to myself so that I would not be able to hear him when he started talking. Would it work? What do you think? Would I be here in your office if it didn’t work?
Did I ask my parents about the cannibalism? No, I did not. I was a child and I was terrified, how could I ask them about it? What would I have done, just walked up to my mom when she was cooking and said, “Hi, Mom, who are we eating tonight?” It’s a little cannibal humor. You didn’t find it funny? You never laugh, have you ever noticed that? You say you do, but I’ve never seen it.
All right, back to the story. I never asked my parents about what Michael told me because I trusted him. Trust is very important, especially in family. I mean, haven’t you always trusted your family? How can you not trust them? He told me that brothers always had to trust each other. This was just after I turned seven and he had turned ten. He seemed so much older than I was; while I still watched cartoons and learned multiplication tables he was reading books and looking around the room cautiously, as if there was always going to be something around the corner, stalking him. He told me that if I was going to be his brother, I had to trust in him, and he would trust in me. That’s when he first told me about the, you know, the cannibal thing.
Yes, I loved my brother. Not for any particular reason, but because he was my brother. Mom and dad told us that we had to love each other, and I guess I took that to mean that I had to believe what he had to say. So I listened to him. When he told me that our parents were cannibals, I still listened, even though I tried really hard not to. How long did it last? It was excruciating, like needles being jammed up underneath by fingernails. Actually, it was worse than that. I tried jamming needles under my fingernails to see if Michael’s insane cannibal stories were that bad, and I found out that the stories were worse. I ended up going to school with my fingertips covered in band-aids, and still I had images of my parents killing and eating people.
Children are very impressionable. You’re a psychologist, you ought to know this. When I was in college I took a developmental psychology class and tried to solve this problem myself. The textbooks always used a child, an unnamed, undescribed, unknown child, to illustrate the various theories and disorders. I always saw myself, seven years old again, in the place of that unknown child, and watched as I was subjected to different psychological horrors. I imagined what I would have gone through, molestation, post traumatic stress syndrome, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, false memories, obsessive compulsive, phobias, sleep related eating disorders, anxiety disorders, panic disorders, disorders on top of disorders. I fantasized about being mentally deranged. It got so bad that I scared my roommate out of our room during my sophomore year.
I decided to become a vegetarian, even though I didn’t know what a vegetarian was. I had to look it up in the dictionary at first. My parents thought that I was being childish—isn’t that funny? They told me to eat what was on my plate. They said that it was chicken, or meatloaf, or steak, and how much I liked it: “You like chicken, Alex!” But I knew better. My brother told me what it was, and I couldn’t think that it was anything else besides chunks of flesh from some poor victim of my parents’ bloodthirsty carnage spree. The less I ate the hungrier I became, and my skin color became pale and I became weak, and my parents started yelling at me, ordering me to eat what was on my plate, but I wouldn’t do it—oh no, I knew what they were up to! I wasn’t going to eat any human being, no way! And then they got wise to what was happening, maybe because Michael was trying so hard not to laugh, but he could not stop himself, and they let him have it, oh, yes they did! And I felt good about it, because by that point I hated him for what he told me, but I couldn’t eat meat again because I was already stained. I’ve been eating nothing but vegetables and grains ever since.
How long did that last? What, do you mean the period where he told me about the cannibalism? That lasted about three months. Why are you looking at me like that? Don’t judge me! I was seven! All right, all right, I’ll calm down. I’m sorry, I just…I’m trying to find something…maybe I can find some way out of this? I mean, this has been going on for years. I can smell a cheeseburger and it smells wonderful, but the thought of eating it makes me think of the man hanging upside down and bleeding out in my mom’s kitchen. It’s like my nose doesn’t have a problem with it but my brain does, and I go from being hungry to wanting to vomit every time I smell bacon or sausage or anything that is remotely meat related. I can’t even talk about it without feeling that I’m going to…oh my god…
I am so sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. I will clean it up. No, seriously, I will. Well, all right, but at least let me thank your staff. Do we have any more time left? Oh good.
Even though my brother stopped telling me that our parents were cannibals, I could still tell that he never really stopped believing it. They got so mad at him when they finally found out what he had been doing, and they made him apologize and tell me that everything he said was a lie, but I could tell that they weren’t. He would look me in the eye and apologize but the look in his eye was screaming to me It’s true! It’s true! Run for your life! Our mother could tell, and she yelled at him and told him to stop and then spanked him, and when she wailed on him and caused him to scream and cry in pain and his face turned bright red his eyes would become calm and say You see? I was right all along—they’ll kill and eat me now. And you’ll be next.
Do I still believe it? I think I do. Or then again, perhaps I don’t. I’m not sure anymore. It’s like that joke about the two madmen on top of the roof and the one tells the other that if they really wanted to walk across to the other building, they could walk across on a beam from a flashlight. And the other one tells the first one Are you crazy? How do I know that you won’t turn it off? Well, it’s not supposed to be funny. How am I supposed to know if he was right or if they were right? Who is right when everyone around me is totally wrong?
I suppose what happened that really brought me here was when I went to dinner one night and I wanted to just have some vegetarian lasagna—it was the only thing at the dining hall I could eat—and I was sitting there and eating and these guys sat down near me. One of them was eating the veggie lasagna, just like me, and he stopped, just put his fork down and he said that it had been cooked in bacon. I stopped eating—I had cleared half my plate—and I turned to him and asked, “What?” He said that it had been cooked in bacon fat. I asked him how did he know and he said that he used to work in a restaurant and he saw exactly how they prepared vegetarian food using fat and pork products, so that you could never trust whatever a menu said was veggie and kosher. And I suddenly thought about all the food that I had eaten over the years and what exactly I had eaten and what had gone through my body, and if I had been eating people all of these years, then my brother had succeeded, even though his cruel tricks caused him to be beaten by our parents and ostracized him from everyone we knew and he never got to go to college because he was always a joker and never took his applications seriously, he still got exactly what he wanted, which was to watch me suffer! He got to see me twisting in the wind, leaving me wanting to barf and spew and vomit everything that was inside of me.
I didn’t eat anything for two weeks, and they had to set me up on an IV in the hospital to stop me from dying. I didn’t used to be this…thin. I am skin and bones and hair. The sunken eyes are something new; I think I first noticed that a week or so ago. I weight about half of what I did before. It hurts to think about food, and it hurts still to not think about food. I’m not starving anymore, but I still can’t eat anything. The only thing that is stopping me from dying is this tube stuck in my arm. And you know, ever since I’ve been in the hospital I’ve been thinking about what I want, and the only thing that I can think of is a cheeseburger, a big, fat, cheeseburger, with bacon on it. I can see it, I can’t smell it, and I start to drool when I think of it, and I don’t really care if it is made out of human flesh I just want to eat it. Does that make me a bad person? Because I’m thinking that I am a horrible person if this is what I want to eat, that maybe I’m a monster, that I’m a cannibal just like my parents.
And there’s the question again: were my parents cannibals? Were they really going to turn the light off as I crossed between the two buildings and let me fall to my death? Was that ever an option? I don’t know, and I don’t care anymore. Maybe they were cannibals, but I don’t care! I just want a cheeseburger, something made from meat and flesh, cooked and burned and served up or rare and bloody and gristly, I don’t care! I’ll take it either way, any way! Please, doctor! You have got to help me!
My brother? I don’t know. Maybe he went on to college, got a business degree, has some job in a corporation, and has a family he can look after. Or maybe our parents killed and ate him. Maybe I killed him. Does it really matter?
Samuel Harr has been a writer for about as long as he can remember. He grew up in Rochester, New York, but ventured outwards for the thrill of writing. He studied English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, at the Prague Summer Program in the Czech Republic, at the Creative Writing MFA program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and even spent a summer living and writing in Barcelona, Spain, one of the most beautiful cities in the world.