Famine, 1963

by Burton Shulman

Wagon left in a vacant town.

Hannah was kneading his arm. It started hurting; Ike pulled it away.

“What are you doing?”

“Wondering how it would…taste.”

Ike sat up.

“Come again?”

“Your arm.”

He stared.

“Are you hungry?” She turned away.

“Hannah, this isn’t what usually passes for pillow talk. Maybe from here on your mouth should stay up where I can see it. Regrettably.”

She didn’t respond. He touched her back. She rolled her shoulder away.

“Flesh,” she muttered into her pillow. “Bone.”

“Okay, what the fuck?”

She glanced back at him. Her eyes were cold.

“This isn’t funny,” he said.

She rolled onto her back. “Bad dream.”

He was annoyed. “Then talk about the dream instead of being weird.”

She closed her eyes and said nothing. He was getting more irritated. He felt a surge of anxiety before he realized why. He spoke slowly.

“During the war I had to film a horror show. You don’t want to hear details.”

She got up on her elbow and studied him. “Actually I do.” Her eyes were clinical; interested.

He felt one of his own eyes start to twitch.

“Actually you do?” What the fuck was wrong with her?

“What do you want first? The smell? The way a body looks after three weeks in tropical heat? The way you keep vomiting between shots? How half the time you’re knee-high in seawater with floating body parts and a stench I can’t describe?” He paused. “I’m getting sick talking about it.” Hannah still looked curious. “I don’t know the taste of human flesh, but I know how it smells when it’s been cooked. That’s what our flamethrowers did. And as it turned out…it’s what a lot of those bastards did to each other.” He was starting to sweat. “Three weeks with no food or water…I guess that’s what people do.”

Hannah squinted at the ceiling as if trying to read a teleprompter. She cleared her throat and started speaking in a flat voice, in Russian. Her eyes blinked rapidly.

“In 1931 my sister started sleeping with the Proskurov Party chief. As you know, he protected us. Got my father a Party post, later on got you and me the exit papers.

“He did more. I’ve mentioned the famine but not really. It was Stalin’s famine. The reason for it was as stupid as this: he announced to the press that in five years, collectivization would make Russia Europe’s bread basket. Grain exports would rise. By the end we would be feeding everyone. He was proving Bolshevism was superior. Shortly after his announcement it was clear that the only chance he had was if no grain was eaten by the farmers.

“My sister’s friend kept my family fed. In the beginning she brought the food home herself; later soldiers had to walk her home.” She lit a cigarette; she still looked and sounded impassive but the lighter’s flame shook. “My father’s position was tenuous; he had to be careful. Things got dangerous quickly. The Party kept soldiers in the fields to stop farmers from stealing grain. Stealing.”

She took a long drag. “Things started disappearing. It seemed just a matter of weeks. First you didn’t notice; then you saw fewer cows and goats. Then horses. Then plants. Weeds. Bugs. Grass. One day a lady I knew was stopped walking into Party headquarters. She was carrying a bundle.” Hannah blew smoke at the ceiling. “Her dead infant. I don’t know what she meant to do with it; I’m sure she didn’t either.” She picked tobacco from her tongue. “She disappeared.

“It wasn’t long before the town was barren. Dirt and stone and dust. The only things that moved were people, and they moved as if they were already dead. The only ones who were different were the ones who were eating. Like us. We weren’t well fed. But we ate.

“Sharing wasn’t possible, not even with friends and family. My sister’s lover kept her tied to him by always giving less than we needed. Unless that really was all he could do.

“When people could no longer dig graves, soldiers started piling the bodies behind a barricade. My father brought his rifle everywhere. Faces got bigger—big eyes, big heads. People wobbled big stomachs. They had open sores; they balanced on bones.

“Then there were fewer. At first we thought it was NKVD, making them vanish the usual way.

“One day a girl my age, a close friend just months before, stopped at my window. She said her father managed to get a job—things were better. She invited me to her house like the old days.

“My father warned us all the time against this. But I was lonely.

“Her yard was dry and dusty like everyone else’s. The door was ajar with the sun in the entryway. I felt nervous and stopped.

“‘What’s wrong? Remember my dolls?’ She put out her hand; I took it and went in.

“She called out, ‘Father, Hannah’s here.’ Her voice broke in the middle. I heard someone stumbling. What job could he have gotten and still be home midday? My friend’s eyes got wide. She looked behind her—then made the tiniest wave at the door. Her eyes filled. I don’t think many people have been looked at that way. I ran home fast as I could. Hansel and Gretel was no longer a fairy tale.

“My father took soldiers to the house but it was already empty. Someone opened a broom closet…”

She shuddered, took another drag on the cigarette. “Never saw her again.”

Ike waited. He finally said: “The closet?”

She opened her eyes. “Bones, Isaac. Skulls. I guess it was risky to bury them outside, so they threw them in the broom closet. I wonder where they put the brooms.”

Ike’s mouth had fallen open.

“Maybe you don’t believe me? It’s documented. Mothers…feeding…younger ones to older ones. Leaving instructions for how to cook themselves after they died.” She eyed him. “Children feed on you in the womb. When they’re born they suck out your milk. Why not your flesh? I wonder if any fed them their own body parts one by one to live a little longer. I wonder if some ate…themselves.” She appraised her forearm, turned it back and forth. “Too much risk of infection.”

She started to laugh. Ike was revolted. She started to cry. He went to hold her.


Traffic noise floated through the window. Someone was yelling at someone, loud enough to hear but not understand. Hannah slept, twitching as if from little shocks. Ike rested his ear on his own arm until he became aware of the sound of an artery and moved his head.

The pleasant air, the sweet and sweaty smells of sex, Hannah’s calf resting on his, alternately straining and relaxing.


He was afraid of her; wasn’t sure he could ever kiss her again. Her or anyone. Out of what he’d thought was sleep, she started whispering.

“Most died in bed. The soldiers left them there. For months the air smelled of death and sewage, maybe like your cave. But the ones who didn’t die and still had no source of food—how? This was impossible. You see? Some were in our extended family. Animals. They should have been butchered.”

He felt nauseated. But how could she judge? She’d been fed, they hadn’t. And how could he judge anyone? He didn’t know anything, not really.

He relaxed a little when he saw rapid eye movement under her lids and was convinced she was asleep.

As he dropped off, too, he couldn’t stop imagining her nightmares before he was lost in his own.

Category: Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing