by Akshata Rao
Two weeks without a meal. Where once I would have crept the streets, tongue wriggling in anticipation of blood, now I cower, afraid of human touch. I carry my hunger in my arms, and whisper solace into its blind babyface. I watch my neighbours glut themselves on Uber Eats.
I used to take my anger to the internet, but everyone uses me as a springboard for their own complaints. Last week I posted: ‘I am starving. I am afraid.’ A clear cry for help, no? Then some girl from Canberra jumps on the thread, outlining how the government has failed needy citizens, begging people to donate to food pantries and homeless shelters. A teenage wannabe-anarchist chimes in, misquoting Marxist theory to his heart’s delight. They paint over me with white noise. I had to delete my Twitter.
I want to take their little hands in mine, and say: your food is mass-produced, your hunger easily satiated. Your lockdown issues are nothing compared to what I face.
I am a hunter denied fresh kill. The bars are closed, leaving fewer drunks and partygoers out at lonely hours, and even when I spot an opportunity, I hesitate. My particular physiology is immune to many things, but I fear it can’t withstand this new virus. So I stay inside. I liquefy uncooked meat and sip it through the night. The ache in my belly mounts, and I suffer, helpless, unhelped.
There is one last option, a halfway point between hunting and starvation. Ten minutes from my apartment lies the house of the dead, bracketed by larger residential buildings done up in white paint. The mortuary, squat and brick-faced between these pale guards, looks like a drunk lost in the good part of town; but it has existed in this spot for over a hundred years, and that, apparently, makes it newsworthy.
Two articles have been written about it. The first, a tearjerker recount of some woman’s attempt to identify her friend’s body, has useful details about the interior. The woman describes walking up a marble staircase. I write down a note: wear soft shoes. She describes the chains on the door to the cadaver room, and how the mortician’s fingers dance over them, unlocking each one with tenderness. I pack a hammer.
The other story is a vanity piece for the district, a compilation of photos. Cafes with exotic plants bursting over the tables, bus stops vandalized with graffiti. The mortuary features briefly, and from these pictures, I work out a route into the building.
What lies in those morgue drawers is wretched to taste, but it will keep me alive. Better yet, autopsy reports will break down the contents of my meal like the nutrition label on a pack of chips. The perfect way to avoid snacking on contaminated flesh.
I check my backpack. In the main pocket is an ice-cream box holding three test tubes I bought off eBay, and two pairs of vinyl gloves. Tucked under the box are several rags torn from one of my mother’s shirts. Wrapped within the rags are the hammer and a knife-
I have forgotten the knife.
The kitchen is painted in the stench of boiled cabbage. I push open the window, using a ladle so the morning light doesn’t fall on my skin. In the street below, some animal is making hoarse noises.
I take the knife out of a drawer and run it over a tomato. The skin splits easily. Too easily. The fruit is half-rotten. I try again with a potato, slamming the knife down on the withered body. It takes only a slight effort to cut through, but I’m not satisfied. When I hold the blade up to my eyes and tilt, I can see scratches in the steel.
We used to own a knife sharpener. Like most other things that pass into this house, it’s long since vanished.
I hear footsteps down the corridor, and Mother comes into the kitchen. She cleans away the bits of vegetable I’ve left on the counter. Then she sprays the metal surface with Ajax and scrubs it down in long vertical strokes, pausing now and then to wring out her cloth.
I rifle through the cupboard beside the fridge, looking for the big pot, but it’s not there. I find it at the bottom of the sink. It’s caked in cabbage scum.
‘Could you wash that?’ I point at the pot.
‘In a moment,’ she says. She keeps scrubbing.
‘I need it now.’
She wipes the counter a few more times, and raises the spray bottle again. Then she sighs, sets it down, and moves to the sink. I take the pot when she’s done, and fill it with water to boil. She goes back to her cleaning.
‘I’m making soup,’ she announces.
I say nothing.
‘It’s good for you,’ she says. ‘You need some vegetables.’
‘You know I can’t eat that.’
I let the pot hit the stovetop hard, and she sucks in her breath. I know she wants to tell me to be gentler, so I make a resolution. If she speaks again, I’ll bang this pot down on the stove until the element shatters.
She holds her tongue.
‘Anyway,’ I continue. ‘I thought you made cabbage.’
‘That’s for my co-worker. Miriam, the one with stomach problems. The doctor says -’
She goes on talking, but I focus on the water. It takes an age to heat up. She goes quiet when I drop the knife in.
‘Are you going out today?’ she asks.
‘No,’ I say. ‘I’m going to bed today. I’m going out tomorrow.’
She doesn’t acknowledge her mistake. I set a five-minute timer on my phone. When the timer goes off, I take the knife out with a pair of tongs and lay it on a fresh towel to cool.
‘Put your stuff away when you’re done with it,’ she mutters. She wipes a hand on her gray skirt, then scratches at the back of her neck, squinting against the daylight.
I pour a glass of water and place it near her. She stops her work and takes a long sip, sighing when she’s done. I lay a hand on her shoulder, feeling her relax under my touch. She smiles.
I leave the kitchen without tidying up. It’s good for her to have things to do.
Around four p.m., I’m woken by the smash of glass. Mother goes down the corridor, looking for a broom. It’s still bright outside, so I browse Youtube for a while.
I find some great videos. There’s an artist who makes windchimes out of things he scavenges off beaches, like bones and driftwood. There’s a woman who figure-skates over thawing rivers. I even find some scrawny guy who says he’s immune to fire. He holds his hand over a lighter, looking straight into the camera the whole time. The video quality is shit, but if you turn your screen’s brightness up, you can see his skin redden. He doesn’t blink.
I used to look for people like this. I wanted proof that there were other strange creatures out there, but no one responded to my messages. If there are others, they’re like crabs sheltering in the roots of anemones, anchored against time and movement. They won’t let themselves be found so easily – but I will find them. In a year or in a century, in homes or on battlefields, the world will pull us together someday. If I can survive long enough.
At nine-thirty I’m on the streets. By ten I’ve found the mortuary. I pull my cap low and walk down the driveway, sticking under the trees in case someone’s looking out from a nearby balcony. As I round the side of the building, a tremor passes over me, and I double over, breathing hard.
The feeling subsides. I reach the thin strip of concrete behind the mortuary. This back section juts out beyond the line of sight of the neighbouring buildings, so I’m hidden from view. There are two windows on the ground floor, barred, and an unbarred one on the second story, several metres above. A steel drainpipe runs up the wall, crooking horizontal a little above a ground-floor window. I step up into the window ledge, gripping the bars for balance, but I can’t reach the drainpipe. I cram a foot behind the bars and get the edge of my shoe onto a decorative metal flower sticking out of the wooden frame. I use this foothold to push myself up, and manage to get my hands on the pipe. I try to pull, but my clammy palms slide over the steel, and I can’t find the right grip.
I stay like that. My bent leg begins to cramp, rattling the bars. I think I hear something in a room above – a voice, a footstep. I let go, falling to the ground. I flee.
Just before I turn the corner to my street, my strength gives out. I stagger, half-crawling over the pavement. A man comes around the bend. He is slow to notice me, and when he does, he laughs in a sloppy way.
I lunge at him, grabbing his hand. I have it halfway to my teeth before he shakes me off. He curses, backing up against a fence. I go for him again, but he swings at me, catching me in the ribs. It’s sloppy, but in my weakened state I can’t block it, and I go down.
I land on my backpack and remember the knife. I twist, trying to reach the zip, but then the man is over me, kicking like he wants to see me crack open on the pavement. I say something to him. Maybe I beg. Eventually he leaves me there, a few steps from home.
Mother is awake when I get in. I can hear her moving around, opening a window. I stand in the doorway of my room, and force my breath down the shattered wall of my throat. I think about that man’s hand on me. I hear Mother settle into bed, wood creaking as she lies down. I turn, and move towards her bedroom.
She says nothing when I enter. During the walk here, I have liberated the knife. I hold it to my chest, cupping the hilt like it’s a candle, and approach her head on the pillow. There’s a glass of water on the nightstand, and a book with a train on the cover.
‘What’s the book about?’ I ask her.
She says something, but the words are smudged. Her hand snakes out of the blanket, grabs the glass. She tips it towards her mouth, moistening her lips.
‘France,’ she whispers. ‘A doctor and his wife.’
I pick up the book and skip to the last chapter. Thankfully, it’s a short one. I read it to her, switching voice for each character, putting life into the god-awful love story.
When I’m finished, I cup her face. She pulls away. I grab her hair, and make her look at me. I can feel the sweat spreading across her scalp. The blanket flutters with her breathing, and she begins to tread her legs, heels pushing against the foot of her bed.
‘You had your turn,’ I say. ‘It’s my turn.’
She shakes her head. Fear has washed her clean of her human voice, her chittering energy, all those affectations she wrapped around herself to hide the creature inside. There was a time, long before we came to this place, when she was something far worse than I have ever been. Then over the years, she shrank. I grew. Between us, we found something like peace. This rhythm, what we took for granted, has come to an end.
I tilt her face from side to side. There is still a hint of animal about her. A hardness in the jut of her jaw. Some part of her remembers the hunger, the raw-gummed desire to bite and tear.
Maybe that’s why, when the knife finally descends, she does not struggle.
When Akshata Rao was seven years old, she wrote a story that was published in the school newsletter. She stole the plot from an Enid Blyton novel. It took a few years for her to figure out that writing your own stories is way more fun, but ever since then, she’s been working on at least a dozen different stories at a time.
After spending most of university hiding in the back rows of lecture halls and writing bad poetry, Akshata graduated this year and began full-time work in finance. Drainpipe was written to prove to herself that she still wants to be a writer.