The Man Who Ate Everything
Translated by Natascha Bruce
The Man Who Ate Everything
Ever since she was a girl, K had liked to wear French-style trench coats with many pockets. With both hands buried in pockets and two lanky legs extending below the hem, she used to look like a dazed water bird, standing out among the banyan trees in Qiuzhi Park. She wore her long hair draped over her shoulders and, while she did not quite resemble a red-crowned crane – its long legs crooked, a single pointed foot - when she pulled grains and breadcrumbs from her pockets, flattened both hands and slowly raised her palms to the sky, she was the emperor of the birds. A thousand descended in an instant.
Watching from a distance, J had seen K enveloped by a flock of birds, and that was when he decided they should be husband and wife. ‘The problem is,’ he said to his friends, ‘that right now K’s mind is on feeding other creatures.’
In recent times, K had not been wearing her trench coat to stand out in Qiuzhi Park. Now, she tied her hair back and wore high-necked padded jackets and baggy trousers, like Aladdin. In her hands were meat-red plastic carrier bags, filled with styrofoam take-out boxes. Years had passed, and the banyans had grown sparser and sparser. There were no flocks of birds anymore. When the wind blew, it threw up sand and stones, which scraped painfully against people's faces. With no birds left to feed, K had bought two enormous pots. She woke up at dawn and, in one pot, she boiled rice; in the other, she made a kind of mud-coloured sauce, of uncertain ingredients. Those were the contents of the styrofoam boxes: rice, with the sauce poured over.
J told his friends that K was no longer feeding those surging birds (after pecking the feed, they would retreat instantly into the leafy branches of the trees, or go back to making circles in the sky). Instead, she fed a crowd of doddery, absent-minded old people. They wore sunhats, or camouflage tracksuits, with cotton surgical masks hung over their faces, to protect them from the gusts of sand. They were like fearful little creatures hiding from predators, scattered in different corners of the park. When K arrived with the food, they darted their beady eyes around in alarm, hands trembling on their walking sticks. Some time later, they would calm down and, finally, on tottering feet, make their slow way over to K, and her styrofoam boxes.
To distinguish himself from these old folks, J decided to stop eating the food K brought. No matter whether it was a crispy fried egg or a steamed salty meat patty – his two former favourites - he turned down the boxes, time and time again. He noticed there was another man in the park rejecting K's food, just like him. The man wore black and sat by himself on a three-person bench. He held a long, neatly rolled umbrella that, every so often, he brandished in the air, as though chasing away mosquitoes. As a result, no one dared approach him.
The man in black had nothing but disdain for K’s offerings. He said it had been a very long time since he’d eaten such things. He recounted his story thus:
‘People forget, but many years ago, the city was occupied by an invading army. Back then, you often came across corpses laid out on the main street. Most of these bodies hadn’t been caught by a stray bullet, they’d simply starved to death. Sometimes, they’d be covered with a piece of sacking from a bag of rice, only their bony calves poking out from underneath. Usually, the authorities would come to clear a corpse before the day was out, but they’d often discover it minus a leg, or an arm, or with chunks of flesh haphazardly sliced off, leaving behind raw, pulpy gashes.
‘My mother left and never came back. Once she was gone, aside from going out every few days to queue for rice handouts, I did not leave the house. I stayed in, reading comic strips and standing guard over my grandmother, who barely moved. She never seemed to wake up. I boiled rice in large quantities of water, and grudgingly trickled spoonfuls into her mouth. Even with all the rest poured straight into the bottomless pit of my stomach, I was constantly light-headed. One day, lying beside my grandmother, I smelled a strong scent – could it be the smell of meat, I asked myself? I turned over so my face pressed into her side, and was shocked to discover that the flesh of her belly was even more tender than I could have imagined.
‘In the end, in spite of everything, I did not eat my grandmother. Instead, I dug a deep hole and hid her in it. Then, to fill the emptiness in my belly, I started to eat the clothes she’d left behind, cutting them into shreds and boiling them up. Then came the comic strips I’d finished reading. Then the wooden bed frame, which I had to hack into with a knife, tearing off a slice at a time. And it’s true that, in the beginning, because I wasn’t used to them, all these things were a little hard to get down. But later, as only those who’ve tasted for themselves will understand, I came to realise that every object in the world has its own particular taste, and its own particular texture.
‘Once peacetime came around, I developed a fondness for glass. Not any old glass, but the wide-mouthed, thin-bodied glass of red wine glasses; the kind that, tapped lightly with a forefinger and then held up to an ear, rings with a silvery tinkle. Every few days, I used to go out to the only high-end French restaurant near to where I lived, and order nothing but a single glass of their cheapest red wine. Before the wine arrived, they would set the glass in front of me, polished to a high gleam. I always chose a seat hidden behind a pillar so that, once the server had left, I could begin my careful bites into the glass, starting from the rim. You probably aren’t aware, but the taste of real glass is crisp and refreshing; really bursting with poetry.
‘The repeated disappearance of glasses meant that, finally, the restaurant management had no choice but to search my pockets – and, naturally, they didn't find a thing. They apologised profusely, and waived the bill for my wine. All the same, I never went back.
‘Later on, I fell in love with music. It’s much easier to eat than glass, because there's no need to use your teeth; you simply open your mouth and suck in, just as hard or as softly as you like. I was never too fond of heavy metal or rap, because they tended to upset my stomach and cause me trouble sleeping. At piano recitals, on the other hand, I ate up all the music before I even realised what I was doing, leaving behind only hollow, vacuous noise. And yet, none of those audience members, with their paid-for tickets, were ever any the wiser; they must have assumed the fault was with the musicians. There we were, seated inside a gorgeous, dome-roofed auditorium, the person up on stage labouring over a series of entirely meaningless taps. My, how those sounds made a person bored and fidgety!
‘Eventually, I stopped attending concerts, too. But my appetite remained as insatiable as ever. There were things I could eat even with my mouth closed without even meaning to – love, memory, willpower. No one would believe it, but this was how I was. I ate up everything in my life, bit by bit, until finally I cleaned out everything inside my beloved, and she up and left me.’
There was a pause, then the man in black went back to brandishing his umbrella.
‘You better stay far away from me!’ he said. ‘Even from this distance, I can eat up parts of you that you can’t imagine!’
And, in fact, J did feel tired. The old people had taken their boxes of food and gone to hide away in their corners. Over the last few years, these old people of K’s seemed to have been getting fewer and fewer. As for K, by now all trace of her had vanished from the park.
‘Let's go back,’ J said to his friends. Those friends − back when they still survived in human form, J had barely spoken to them. But now they were dead, transformed into illusions, and they had no choice but to listen obediently to his instructions. Very slowly, with tottering footsteps, they followed him out.