The Hunger

A short story about hunger, and what it means to women and men. Based on the Japanese yokai futakuchi-onna.

“Daddy, may I please have some more? I’m still hungry.”

Anxiety swelled in Kumiko’s stomach. Before her husband could lash out she said to her daughter, “Your father works very hard, and we should be grateful for whatever he is willing to give us. It is impolite to ask for anything more.” Kumiko dared to glance at Hidemi. She saw the swelling anger turn back into a simmer. He grunted his approval, snatched the empty bowl from his daughter, and walked into the kitchen.

Kumiko let out a breath when he was gone and looked at her daughter. Emiri was too small for her age. Her skin stretched across a bony frame that looked like it would tear through at any second. She reached under the table and grasped a tiny hand that was more claw than anything else. Kumiko looked into her daughter’s eyes, and with pursed lips poured out all the love she could into that one gaze. But she said nothing. When she heard footsteps approach, she pulled her hand back into her own bony lap and kept her eyes down.

Hidemi stood over his wife and daughter. “Emiri, I’m doing this for your own good. Someday, you will understand. Go to bed.” The little girl quickly said goodnight to her parents, and staggered to her room without looking back.

Hidemi looked down at his wife, who silently stared at her own empty bowl. She’d only been allowed half a cup of rice and a single radish.

“Let me see,” he said.

She picked up the back of her hair and parted it. Section by section she parted her hair until she’d revealed the entire back of her head.

Satisfied, Hidemi turned towards his bedroom. “Clean up before coming to bed.”

As he lay down listening to the sound of his wife washing dishes, Hidemi thought of his mother. Someone he tried very hard not to think about, yet always seemed to be in his thoughts. His mind carried him off to memories with too much gravity to escape.

– – –

“Eat up, Hidemi.”

The small boy looked up at his smiling mother. Her body, though thin and lanky, radiated warmth and energy. Her mouth stretched across her face in two perfect rows of blocky, white teeth. Long, black hair fell straight to her waist and moved liked snakes when she walked. Even when still, her hair to seemed to move of its own accord. As if some animating force lived in each strand.

Hidemi looked backed down at his meal. Pork over rice, a whole fish cooked with vegetables, miso soup, seaweed salad, deep fried taro balls, a plate of dumplings, and silken tofu for dessert. Each dish looked perfect, like it did on those cooking shows his mother watched. But he wasn’t hungry. He was never hungry.

Hidemi’s father waddled over from the living room and sat down at the table. “The boy will turn into a dumpling if you keep feeding him like this.”

The son looked at his father. Sweat dotted Eitaro’s temples from the effort of the short walk, and his inflated belly kept him at least a foot from the table. Labored breathing filled the room, and the boy wondered if he was looking at a window into the future.

Fuyumi put a hand on her son’s shoulder and pushed the dishes closer. “Don’t listen to your father. There is not enough food in the world, and you must eat it when you can. You are blessed Hidemi, don’t throw that away.”

“Yes, mother.” Hidemi picked up his chopsticks and started with the dumplings. Every time he stopped, his mother would encourage him to keep eating. A dutiful son, he ate until there was nothing left.

– – –

Hidemi knocked on the door. After a moment, it opened to reveal a tall man in a suit. Bowing low to his boss, Hiroji, Hidemi said, “Thank you for inviting me to your home, you are most kind.”

Hiroji bowed back, “It is my pleasure. I’m only sorry your family could not join us.”

“Yes, it is unfortunate that they are unwell. Emiri picked up something from school and gave it to her mother. But they both send their thanks and regards.” In truth, Kumiko and Emiri were at home trying to unlock the cupboards. Without keys, they tried to break the heavy locks with a hammer. But the stainless steel refused to give. Raiding the refrigerator was useless. Hidemi used it to keep his bottled water cold.

Hiroji led Hidemi to a table covered with a feast. Hiroji’s wife, Asuna, had cooked all day and the aroma of at least 11 dishes wafted towards the guest. Fried pork, teriyaki chicken, beef curry, soba noodles, and other delights spread out before Hidemi. Asuna came out of the kitchen to put another dish on the table and walked over to her husband’s side. She was a petite woman who smiled with her mouth closed. His boss made introductions, and she bowed to Hidemi but never spoke. Soon, two young boys joined the table.

“My pride, my boys!” cried Hiroji who took a son under each arm. The sons shifted uncomfortably with the affection and bowed to Hidemi. They too, said nothing.

Everyone sat down and began to eat. The sounds of chopsticks clinking on ceramic, chewing, and smacking intermingled with conversation. Hidemi tried to focus on what his boss was saying, but his eyes were always finding their way to Asuna. Specifically, her mouth. She would delicately close her lips around the tiniest morsels, and then move her jaw almost imperceptibly. Hidemi was keeping track of how much she ate. Though it was substantially less than everyone else at the table, Hidemi thought it was far too much. She never made a sound and her movements were gracefully in their minimalism. Had he not been introduced, he might not have even known she was there. By the time Hidemi left, his respect for Hiroji had significantly declined. He tried to understand, he tried to be sympathic. It was quite possible that Hiroji just didn’t know what kind of monster he was living with. There was a time he himself hadn’t either.

– – –

Hidemi was going to be late to school. He’d made it halfway there before he realized that his books were not in his backpack. He turned back home and ran as fast as he could.

He opened the door and was about to run up the stairs when he heard a crash from the kitchen. “Mom?” he said. No reply.

His instincts told him to run. That something wasn’t right. The TV should be tuned to some cooking show, like it was on the weekends when he was home. His mother should be singing as she did her chores. But except for that crash, the apartment was eerily quiet.

He tried to turn away, but instead his feet moved forward. Some force pulled him when all he wanted to do was run back to school. “Mom?” he said again. Again, no reply came. Other noises reached his ears the closer he got. Crunching, smacking, and little moans.

Hidemi peeked around the corner. His mother was on the floor surrounded by open containers of food, torn bags, and the scattered remains of what she’d devoured. But her mouth was closed, at least the one on her face. He watched in horror as her strands of hair wrapped around a can and tore it open. The tendrils brought it to the back of her head and her skull split open to reveal a giant, gaping mouth. The contents were dumped into the maw and two perfect rows blocky, white teeth masticated. A sigh of pleasure came from his mother, but which mouth made it he couldn’t tell.

As the thing continued to chew, the hair took hold of a cooked chicken. The fine, silken strands seemed to have iron strength as they tore the bird apart. Deconstructed, the pieces one after another were shoved into the mouth that never stopped chewing. Crunching sounds echoed through the small room and hurt Hidemi’s ears. His stomach rolled and he fell to the floor, his breakfast coming up in heaves.

When his crying subsided, he realized to his horror that his mother was holding him close. She rubbed his back, “There, there Hidemi. You’re okay, it’s okay.” Fuyumi started to sing and rock him like she used to do when he was sick in bed. He had felt loved in her arms, her hair forming a black curtain that kept him safe from the world.

But that happy memory was swallowed up by the horror he was drowning in. The boy pushed hard and tried to scramble away. His mother tightened her grip and her hair wrapped around his body, swaddling him so that he couldn’t move.

“I love you Hidemi, I would never hurt you. Someday you will grow up big and strong, and you will take care of your own family. That’s every mother’s dream.”

Hidemi thrashed and cried, but she never let go and never stopped singing. Nor did the other mouth ever stop eating.

– – –

Still disgusted with Asuna and worried about Hiroji, Hidemi opened the door to his apartment. His great belly entered the foyer before he did. He plopped down on a bench to take off his shoes, but had trouble reaching down to untie the laces. When he leaned too far forward, he let out a loud belch and tasted Asuna’s fish soup again. Finally managing to kick off his shoes, he put on some slippers and walked towards his bedroom.

As he rounded the corner, a knife plunged into his abdomen. He stared at it for what seemed like hours, his mind unable to come up with a logical reason as to why there would be a knife in him. He looked up, into the eyes of his wife Kumiko who reflected his own gaze of horror and confusion. A gaze which was quickly replaced with two black pits of bottomless anger. She pulled out the knife and brought it down again. The second stab was higher and glanced off his ribs throwing them both off balance. They fell to the floor, and Kumiko began to blindly slash and stab. Hidemi raised his arms to defend himself – to block the knife or push her off. But despite her emaciation, Kumiko was strong. Again and again she stabbed him. Hot tears poured down her face and burned him when they fell. “Monster! You monster!” she cried.

Hidemi felt his life slip away. His rotund body became a hollow shell as the blood seeped out to form an increasingly large pool around him. He’d always complained that he was too hot. But now he felt cold and he wished to be warm again. Through the faint, dull drone of his fading heartbeat in his ears, Hidemi heard a crunching sound. With his last bit of strength, he turned his head. Despite the edges of darkness surrounding his vision, he could make out the small withered form of his daughter sitting on the floor. She was surrounded by open containers and her tiny hands shoveled food in her mouth continuously. The cupboards were all smashed and the broken doors laid to the side.

Kumiko grew weak and stopped. She gasped for air and held her head, but never let go of the knife. As she stood up, she peered down at Hidemi and shook her head. “What kind of monster starves his wife and daughter? What kind of monster eats but demands others go hungry?”  Kumiko went to her daughter, holding her from behind so as not to interfere with her movements. She gently kissed the back of Emiri’s head as her daughter continued to eat. Kumiko finally let the knife fall from her hands, and fully embraced the fragile form of her only child. She let out a cry and sobbed as she rocked her daughter. Emiri too was crying, but she never stopped eating. Nor did she ever once look at her father.

Hidemi lay unmoving, watching his family. Breathing was becoming too difficult, and his plump body couldn’t be troubled anymore. As Hidemi’s world went black, he thought he heard his mother call out to him. He thought he heard the sound of crunching get closer.