In Famine

Gabrielle Hovendon

I. How during the Hunger Winter the Dutch ate their tulips. How they peeled away the bulbs’ dry and papery tunics, licked their lips, and counted their children’s ribs. How they shaved smooth the hairy roots, sliced out the riotous yellow buds at the center, diced and fried the tulip meat with brown beans and salt. All winter long, how they sacrificed beauty to need. This is how much you want my father.

II. The things my father gives you are few and far between: a faded cashmere sweater, a necklace that turned your throat green, half afternoons in hotels of his choice. And me, although not immediately. You are alone in this country, you have no one to look out for you, you don’t know the words for mistress or wife or even please. You are still too young to know what happens to women as pretty as you. He is twice your age, an ad exec for a chocolate company, a powerful businessman who touches your skin in a way that is both hungry and reluctant. Every minute you spend with him feels like your last.

III. That same winter, February 1944, a Dutch man died refusing to eat the tulip bulbs. His stomach cramped around the sugar beets he ate instead, their small prickly heads sticking in his throat. He was saving the bulbs to plant; he wanted his fiancée to have something to hold for their wedding day. At night his friends and family snuck into his house, ground the bulbs into meal and baked them into a bread like wet sawdust. His fiancée covered her face and did what you never would have: demanded her fair share. That spring they ate tulips at his funeral, petals sticking to their teeth like wet paper. When asked by the gravedigger, the family reported that the pink blossoms were the sweetest.

IV. This is how you know my father will leave you: the way he says you look so good I could eat you up. The way he covers your entire body with flower petals and refuses to let you get out of bed until he’s wrung every last drop of pleasure from the afternoon. Right from the start, you understand that no one this desperate will find what he needs in a single woman, and in fact you suspect he has several other lovers, although you can prove nothing. Tonight you are three months pregnant, and he is leaving the hotel in a hurry, running away from your news. While you are getting dressed alone, he is stepping, unseeing, into the path of an oncoming car, his ribs crumpling like the cartons of eggs you used to buy at the corner shop. Unaware, you remain in the room until a bellhop comes and asks you to leave.

V. Soldiers boiled shoe leather. Sailors devoured rats. In various times and states of hunger, people ate yellow vetch, mountain ebony, wild cowpea, tick trefoil, false indigo, crooked broad bean, and blue fenugreek. In 1849, Mormon settlers dug up the sego lilies that sprouted from the Utah desert and they survived on the roots. During the Siege of Paris, the French ate their zoo elephants, although in times of plenty they turned to songbirds, to tiny ortolan fed on millet and figs and drowned in brandy. During World War II, the Italians ate their pet cats. All of which is to say that, for the brief moment after you tell my father the news but before he runs away and is fatally wounded by the car, you can envision a future where the three of us are enough.

VI. Imagine this. Imagine it’s you and not the wife who’s notified of the accident. Imagine it’s you who rushes to the hospital in a hired car, your hair undone, your lipstick smeared away, to sit by my father’s side as he dies. Imagine you bend low, your lips touching his ear. Imagine you describe the slow toxicity of tulip bulbs, blue brushing the skin of everyone who ate them. The Dutch dunes and polders bare of their flowers, the Tuscan alleys empty of their cats. And all the knives that bent and snapped in elephant hides, and all tiny bones sticking in quiet throats, and all the people who ate song, wanting only to hold something close enough.

Gabrielle Hovendon is an MFA candidate in fiction at Bowling Green State University, where she teaches creative writing and composition. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including Baltimore Review, wigleaf, SmokeLong Quarterly, and apt. She is currently at work on a novel about the lives of two nineteenth-century mathematicians.