In 1988 I contracted a parasitic nematode from a book. The book had colorful illustrations of fruit that the very hungry protagonist was devouring, leaving nickel-sized holes in the pages. The book was being consumed by the story it told. The holes rattled my fledgling confidence that fact is a category distinct from fiction so profoundly that, with genuine curiosity, I licked the book.
Two months later my appetite became insatiable. No matter how much I ate in a sitting, within half an hour I was hungry for more. My mother was enthusiastic about it. I was a small six-year-old and she assumed that I was building strength to grow. She started preparing a thousand calories of lunch for me to take to school and a thousand more for me to eat when I got home before dinner. It was typical that she framed it numerically. She had been counting calories for years and our conversations around food often made me feel like I was eating numbers. At first she didn’t expect that I would eat everything she prepared, she just wanted me to have the opportunity to eat till I was full. I remember her concern when she came home from work after the first day of my new meal plan and I reported that I’d finished it all hours ago and was hungry for dinner. My babysitter Barbara confirmed my achievement. After her initial unease my mother shrugged it off as symptomatic of being a healthy growing boy and the diet continued for ten more days. She never increased the amount, but there wasn’t a day that I didn’t eat everything she prepared. It felt good to eat so much. It made me feel powerful.
About a week into my gluttony, Barbara took me to see a retrospective of Frank Stella’s painting from the 50s and 60s. She was a young painter and Stella was a hero of hers. Much of the show consisted of the large shaped canvases striped with dark parallel bands that Stella is famous for. I was particularly struck by the painting De la nada vida a la nada muerte. It’s massive, nearly 24 feet wide, shaped like an angular ribbon worming up and down between three isometrically projected planes. The third dimension implied by the angled lines is precarious, surrounded by the live depth of the thick shaped canvas. As I stared at the painting, the surface began to flicker between the unsteady deep space of the illusion and the extreme flatness enforced by its border. The flickering took hold of me like a familiar but unplacable smell, and I sneezed hard twice as if to expel its unassimilable charge. When my eyes cleared, I noticed that there was a mistake in the painting. There was a black mark severing just one of the twenty yellow lines that spanned its width. I pointed and told Barbara to look. The spot was so high up on the painting we could only get our eyes within about six feet of it. “Huh,” Barbara said squinting, “I think it’s a fly.” But I wasn’t so sure. We stood there for three full minutes waiting to see if it would take flight. It didn’t.
After two more days of ravenous hunger, my bowels fell apart. My mother took me to our pediatrician who sent us to a gastroenterologist. After hearing my story, she told us she suspected I had Ascariasis, an infestation of adult roundworms in my small intestine. Somehow, I wasn’t completely alarmed by this prediction, as I think I would be now, but I was disappointed by the thought that my new power was the result of alien intervention. The doctor took an X-ray and sure enough there were three hungry ghosts, curled and seeking, below my ribs. She said the worms were about as long as my index fingers. I placed my hands absent-mindedly over my abdomen and in a flash I saw the thin film riddled with holes. “There’s medication that will starve the worms and kill them in a couple days,” the doctor said. “He should be able to pass them no problem.”
Sixteen years later I discovered a story by Sakyo Komatsu, called “The Savage Mouth.” It’s the story of a man inspired, by the absurdity of existence, to eat himself to death with comic civility. He builds an automaton to perform a series of surgeries on him, each time removing a part of his body. There’s no pain inflicted and no blood spilled. It feeds him antibiotics to prevent infections and replaces his limbs and organs with “ultra-modern” prosthetics to keep him alive. After the machine removes each part of his body, he prepares the flesh with culinary prowess for himself to consume. There are many striking moments in the story, like the description of him eating his own brain, but I was infected by a passage in which he’s washing his right leg after it’s been amputated:
…washing it in the sink, with the hairs plastered down by the water, it looked more like the leg of a giant frog than any other kind of animal. He stared at the sole of the foot poking grotesquely over the edge of the stainless steel sink. My leg. Protruding kneecap, hard to fit high instep, toes infested with athlete’s foot—That’s my leg! And he was finally completely carried away, bent double in an uncontrollable spasm of poisonous laughter. At last there will be an end to that damn persistent athletes foot…
When I first read these lines, I plucked my eyes from the page as if I’d felt the sting of smoke. I then sneezed twice, violently, then stared at the wall. Nothing that happened in my mind for the next thirty seconds resembled thinking. It was more like holding something, firm but unknowable, like an eggplant, in the space where thinking usually happens. As the moment passed, the fruit was eaten from within by a single thought. It was vague at first but I could feel it boring out. When it eventually surfaced and I could see its full length, I was certain: I’m pregnant again.