ISSUE 4 · SPRING 2010
The triangular head and leafy legs of the mantis lay torn and useless on my son’s Pooh Bear sheets. Billy sat in the crib chewing the body like a stalk of wheat, his saliva oozing out of the corners of his mouth, green and brown. He swallowed with an audible gulp, and then bounced on his diapered bottom. Picking up the legs, he waved them in the air as if conducting an orchestra and smiled at me, insect detritus wedged between his baby teeth. Although Stephanie was hesitant, I demanded we take him to the pediatrician.
“Does Billy do this often?” asked Dr. Wu.
“Yes,” I said, my face contorting from nausea. Just the week prior, Billy had played in the backyard, choosing to sit in the sandy areas near the fence. His hands, sticky with saliva and grape juice, probed deep into the loose dirt and came out covered with tiny ants and millipedes shining metallic in the sun. He licked his hands like they were ice pops and shook them at the sky. He then crawled deeper into the grass, searching out other things he could play with and eventually consume.
Bursting into the house in a frenzy, carrying Billy in my arms, I raved about him needing to go to the hospital to get his stomach pumped. There were amoebas, clusters of bacteria, coursing through my son’s intestines from the filth he ingested. Stephanie dismissed my concerns with a wave of her hand and the words: “Boys will be boys.”
“Sometimes, but I don’t think it’s a big deal,” Stephanie said to Dr. Wu. “Like, he’ll eat those roly poly bugs that crawl around near the vents.”
“That’s the least of it,” I said. Stephanie sighed through her nose.
“It’s fine,” she replied, “my sister did it when she was that age right at the front window. One after another, and she was okay.” I looked at Dr. Wu for a safe face, a face that would commiserate with me against this madness. Instead, he nodded and smiled warmly as if waiting for a mug of hot chocolate. Billy sat placidly on the examining table, looking at each of the adults like he understood everything, like there were no limits to the depth of his comprehension.
“He should be all right,” said Dr. Wu, “Kids eat lots of crazy things. Pennies, wood chips. Now I can add mantises to the list.” He snorted and scribbled something on a pad.
“If the body can’t digest something,” he continued, “it will either throw it up, or you’ll be in a lot of pain. So keep an eye on him and let me know if he complains of a stomach ache. Then we’ll take it from there.” Dr. Wu stuffed the pad back into his pocket.
“But he doesn’t talk yet,” I replied.
Dr. Wu shrugged. “You’ll know when he’s upset,” he said with a chortle, “you won’t be able to escape him.” I nodded, but Billy was always quiet and fearless in the face of pain, only complaining if hungry. When Stephanie had to stop nursing due to sore nipples, he devoured formula, applesauce, and yogurt. Anything we gave him disappeared in his gaping mouth. It wasn’t too long after that when Billy crawled to me with a crushed cricket in his hand. It was large and had long, spiderlike legs: a cave cricket, as my grandfather would say. And like a dog lapping at its water bowl, Billy inhaled the insect with a single bite and erupted with a squeal of satiation.
Stephanie nodded her head thoughtfully at Dr. Wu and then turned to Billy, mussing his hair.
“Did you not get enough supper, little buddy?” she asked with a playful glint in her eyes. I wondered if there were more episodes than these, some so severe that Stephanie would conceal them from me. What else could Billy eat? My tongue felt limp in my mouth and I found it hard to swallow. As we left, Dr. Wu touched my elbow, cupping it in his hand.
“A boy needs to explore his surroundings,” he said in a soft voice. “How can you become a man if you don’t understand your environment?”
When we arrived home, I scrutinized Billy, but he seemed fine. He played with his blocks on the carpet, giggling when makeshift towers would collapse and turning back every so often, just to make sure his parents were there, watching.
. . .
His diaper was full. On the changing table, I opened it, expecting to find a soft bowel movement, but instead there was a dead mouse. Small and brown with mottled fur, its neck was cracked upwards with bones poking through the skin in odd places. Tiny black eyes sat immobile in their sockets, as lifeless as marbles. Deep scratches that I hadn’t seen before were laced over Billy’s fingers, undoubtedly due to the struggle between boy and rodent. Billy cooed with laughter.
After placing Billy back in his crib, I quietly tossed the diaper and carcass into the pail. The room seemed small, and all the hairs on my body brushed against my skin. There were things alive everywhere, on every surface. I remembered reading about tiny mites that live in the roots of your eyelashes, and I felt like tearing at my skin. Where did all of these things come from? In our clean house, this child was somehow able to find the monsters that normally existed only in darkness. I looked at Billy. He stood in his crib, watching me silently, a half-smirk painted on his face.
This was beyond my experience, and I clutched at Billy’s cheeks and stared at his eyes to see if there were any signs, any answers. I watched passively as Billy’s mouth enveloped my thumb and squeezed gently. Mild pain shot up through my arm, but I did not break my gaze. Dimples appeared in Billy’s face, his lips curled into a smile, and he released me, leaving small indentations in my skin. The boy jumped up and down in the crib, screaming with delight. He chomped down onto the wooden railing and shook his head and growled like a beast.
I was desperate to understand. He was my son. I bent down and bit the grain of the railing. I slowly applied pressure, my teeth wobbling at first, but then digging deep into the wood. Soon after, flecks of splinter broke off, lacerating my gums and softening on my tongue. Blood and saliva seeped onto the wood and dampened the fibers. It was salty and bitter and sour and sweet. It was everything, and delicious. The room darkened at the edges. Stag beetles scurried out of cracks and dotted the walls. Crickets fell from the light fixture and rained down gently upon us. Mantises were perched on all four corners of the crib. Their eyes, bulbous and cloudy with black pinpricks in the center, observed it all.
Billy ripped off a chuck of wood and gnawed it, his eyes wild. Wrapping his small hand around my pinky finger, we ate together: wood, cloth, and flesh.
Randolph Schmidt was raised in Massachusetts and currently lives in New Jersey with his wife and son. His fiction has appeared in The Berkeley Fiction Review, Cavalier Literary Couture, and Pear Noir!. He can be reached via email at randolph_schmidtAThotmail.com.