We called it baby food. We were secretive and gleeful. At fourteen, we’d outrun our periods—literally—clomping down Kimberly Hill with such exaggerated gracelessness that each footfall shook our empty bellies, our brittle, honeycombed bones. Afterwards we chewed Milk Duds in your parents’ basement, then snuck the brown-smeared bag outside as we walked your golden retriever. Cracking up at the thought of a poop bag full of chocolate, careful to keep the swinging mush from Butterball’s eager snout. You’d named that dog before she killed the wild turkey one Labour Day, a riot of such innocent bloodlust we couldn’t help but laugh—your parents quick to hose down the campsite, convinced we were crying from fear. That night, we’d eaten so many S’mores your dad called them S’enough Alreadys. Our sleeping bags snug against full tummies, sticky fingers laced.
I don’t know when you started starving yourself outright. One day we got back from a run and you pushed the Milk Duds away: not hungry. What’s that got to do with it, I said, but you’d already gone to the bathroom. Your shower-wet hair striped your pink scalp like seaweed, your spine jutted even through flannel. I looked down at my chocolate glop and knew I’d been outpaced.
I tried to keep up. I wore ankle weights. I ran until my heart stuttered. Unobserved, my chew-and-spits turned into chew-and-swallows; bowed before the toilet, I felt dog-like and ashamed. Scabbed knuckles, fluffy wrists, teeth no longer brown from chocolate. Sour sixteen—my cheeks so swollen I could have just turned six.
And you. Tinier by the day. Running on air.
That was all a long time ago. I’ve grown, settled down, smoothed over. My husband is lanky and unencumbered, our life is small and kind. The day we found out I can’t have children, he held my hair as I retched. His long hands steady, the bathroom floor familiar as a kneeler. That day, I told myself: no more, and mostly I’ve stuck to it. I ride my bike, lick ice cream. Close my eyes and keep it down.
But sometimes, poised before a fresh feast, I still think of you. Of Butterball. I think of how, the summer before the turkey, we’d handed her an egg—gentle, gentle—then laughed in amazement as she held it between her long yellow teeth, unscathed. In weeks we’d see her fling the blood clean out of that helpless creature, but all we saw that day was a control so pure it shook us. Her teeth shiny, pink mouth ridged. Breath hot on our fingers. The freckled egg a twitch away from its simple, slippery end.
“Baby Food” is the honourable mention of Room’s Short Forms Contest 2018 as selected by judge Hiromi Goto. Here’s what the judge has to say about Elias’s piece:
Layered, thoughtful and keenly written; so much story in such a short form. I was moved by the clarity of language, the vivid images and startling beauty as the narrator wove through the devastating effects of an eating disorder.
Justina Elias has published in The Puritan, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. She was long listed for the 2018 CBC Short Story Prize and selected as a finalist for Glimmer Train’s 2018 Fiction Open and Narrative’s spring 2017 story contest. She works at Munro’s Books in Victoria, BC.