They All Could Have Loved You Until You Ate That Child

As a boy, Tarrare had always eaten more than his weight. His parents thought they were in some sort of messed up fairy tale the old women used to titter on about—the boy who ate his family out of house and home and did not gain a fat pound—and so they did the responsible thing: they kicked his bones and skin out. He cried and said it was cruel of them to do such a thing to their own blood. His mother almost took him back when she saw the water in his eyes, but her husband pointed out the boy was stuffing handfuls of dirt into his mouth, and so they shut and locked the door.

He walked and ate whatever he found—scraps of meat stolen from butchers and crusts of bread left on plates from the mid-day meal—but he was so hungry he ate the leather off his shoes, and then the cloth off his back. A group of wandering thieves and prostitutes found him with the cuff of his pants in his mouth, gnawing, and since they found that funny they asked him to join them. He made his coin putting all sorts of things into his mouth and swallowing: living snails and toads, the handle of a dagger, a virgin’s nightgown, tree bark, and, when he had a rich patron who wanted to test his limits, a meal large enough to feed a small army, which he dined on merrily in one sitting and then asked for more. The patron looked under the table and everywhere around to make sure the food was not being hidden and it was all a magnificent trick, but there was no trace of it anywhere, except in the air when Tarrare belched.

“Your shit must be a sight to behold,” the patron admired, and promptly kicked Tarrare out, as he had started gumming the table.

The patron had ties to the military, and when he met with the General for drinks, he told him about the curious man he met who could eat anything. The General was intrigued and immediately snatched Tarrare up, saying he would feed him whatever he liked and as much as he liked so long as he swallowed a few sealed documents whole. Then, he was to take them across enemy lines and deliver them to his men in the thick of it. The General could have done this himself, but he mused that an expert of digestion would be better suited to this line of work. Tarrare was not sure he wanted this at first, but then the General offered him a bone, and he took the job with a patriotic flair.

Swallowing the letters was the easy part, but he had cramps in enemy territory—their dirt was unlike the dirt from home, and when he shoved it into his mouth he rolled over in pain and immediately shat himself. That was how the enemy found him, digging through his own waste and trying to shove the letters back down. They laughed and took him to their General, and because Tarrare was a coward, as well as quite hungry at this point, he rolled his eyes, aimed his rifle at him and pretended to fire until Tarrare cried.

“Go back home,” this General told him. “And don’t get involved in matters that don’t concern you.”

And so Tarrare returned, hungry and failing to live up to the goals of his nation, which he was not quite sure what they were setting out to accomplish of but felt proud of all the same. At least the dirt at home didn’t make him sick. He returned to his General with his head low.

“It’s a shame," said the General, clipping off the ends of his fingernails until they were blunt points. “I knew you were talented, but a man of one talent is not much of a man at all, is he?”

Then Tarrare began to weep, and the General put his hand on his head. “Now, now. No reason to be sad about it. Not all of us can be fully formed men—why, that would make for a very sorry world indeed. No conflict, no confusion, no oddities. And you are an oddity. You should embrace that.”

The General was overcome by his own magnanimity, and thought he might share this later with his wife, and definitely his mistress, so that they too could know what sort of man he was. Then he noticed that Tarrare was popping the nail clippings into his mouth, and then decided that it was a bit all too much and sent him to hospital.

The nurses were kind to him. They saw a poor hungry thing and gave him their lunches and bathed all the dirt from his body. They turned their heads away when he lapped up the bathwater, and gently scolded him when he tried to chew on the bathtub. They assigned him to Dr. Boyle, who was the expert on all mad things. The doctor took one look at him, took a longer look at his pen as it disappeared down Tarrare’s throat, and then an even longer look at Tarrare’s feces, which appeared normal.

“Remarkable,” he said.

Tarrare shook his head. “I don’t want to be like this. I just want to be normal.”

“I’ll do my best to help you,” Dr. Boyle said.

Dr. Boyle decided on an extreme form of treatment: starve the man until his appetite corrected itself. Dr. Boyle locked him in a room and only put water through the door, and no matter how much Tarrare cried and how much he howled, the nurses were under strict orders not to let him out, but every time they passed by the door they had to put their hands to their eyes, lest they create their own water for him. When Dr. Boyle checked on him later, Tarrare was little but skin and bones.

“Now that the madness is starved out, we’ll put you on a proper diet.”

They fed him three practical meals of fruit and honey, soft boiled eggs, bread and cheese and a vegetable soup, and a little salad with a pastry for dessert. These he ate with all the manners he had garnered from watching others consume, and they all applauded his recovery. Never mind that at night the nurses found him sucking on the wounds of old Mr. Abel, who had sores from an infection on his right leg. They didn’t like Mr. Abel much, as he was always putting his hands where they shouldn’t be or yelling for better bread. Never mind that once they found him drinking blood from the collection vials, because it was just a little trip up and recovery is a process, not instantaneous. Never mind that once they found him chewing on an arm in the morgue—the arm was dead and couldn’t feel anymore anyway. As long as there were long sleeves at the funeral, who would mind?

But they had to mind when the baby went missing. Mrs. Lamar was inconsolable after her child disappeared from the nursery. Wasn’t it enough that she had suffered to push it out and then to have the hospital lose it? It was all a bit too much. The nurses scrambled and checked every corner that they could but found no trace of the babe, until one of them found a rattle in Tarrare’s stool, and beat him with it.

“How could you!” she cried. “A baby is an angel and has done nothing to deserve your cruelty, you selfish man.”

Tarrare denied ever being cruel but said he was so hungry he didn’t even know what he was eating anymore, only that he felt he had a great hole inside of him that he had to keep filling and filling and filling up, and nothing ever seemed to make his want fade. How could anyone know what it was like to never be satisfied, to have people talk of being full, of being in a state when there was nothing more they desired to taste, even for a moment? How could they understand, when inside him he felt only a great emptiness, a gulf that stretched from his core and seemed to swallow all of him, and no thing on earth could plug it, not rocks nor bread nor even the gentle caress of a woman. He was a great mysteries to himself, and he had no idea how to solve it.

“Get out,” she said, beating him again for good measure. “I hope someone eats you. See how you like it.”

And so poor Tarrare found himself all alone on the streets again. He made well enough for a time eating rocks and flowers, but no book he encountered (before he swallowed each page) had any answers for him, and no wise man or woman could tell him what he could eat to sate, and they were furious when he chewed the hems of their robes. He then did the only decent thing he could think of to do. He put up a sign that said “Free Meal to a Hungry Mouth” and laid down beside it. Eventually, he hoped, someone would come across it and swallow him whole, and then perhaps he would know satisfaction.

For Tarrare, satisfaction did not come. He died there, finally ending his hunger, and soon even his little sign abandoned him, blown away in a particularly strong gust. His body was taken to the hospital for dissection, and Dr. Boyd was particularly pleased, for cutting him open had been his first inclination for curing, though he knew it had a small chance of survival. Now he could do as he pleased, and he chopped Tarrare in two to see what was wrong. At first, he noticed the man’s throat was a bit larger than it should be, and his lungs and bit too heavy, though that did not explain much. Yet, where the stomach should be, there was only a great emptiness: not that it was missing, but that it was never there at all. Curious, Dr. Boyd stuck his finger into that emptiness, and it gulped and gargled and swallowed the good doctor whole.  

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