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Mal de Caribou

Dorothy is thin, predominantly. Like most rich people in a certain age bracket, she wears fussy, preppy neutrals, and her hair is expensively coloured, though threadbare. Her pink scalp edges out from the corners of her up-do. When she smiles the soft tissue of her face shifts into unnatural shapes; I am able to trace the topography of fillers lifting the creases away from her skin. She is smiling now, waving one veined hand. “Well, you know how it is,” she says, “it’s all just a bit much, isn’t it? But you’ve come highly recommended, and I thought—oh, why not? Why not treat myself?”

“Why not,” I agree. My own smile feels foreign, a feral thing captured behind bars. “I have your taste list printed out here. What I normally do with my clients is text them each morning, to let them know the following day’s menu. If you have any issues, any preferences, you can fill me in then. I deliver between two and four. If you’re home, or if someone else will be, that’s great. Everything can go in the microwave whenever you’re ready to eat.” I flick my ponytail behind my shoulder. “Some clients prefer for me to set things up for them—I can let myself into the house, set the table, keep food warming in the oven. It’s entirely up to you.”

“I haven’t come home to a hot meal in years,” says Dorothy, laughing. “My husband wasn’t much of a cook, even before he left. My housekeeper can let you in every afternoon.”

I spread my hands. Offering her my imaginary feast. Sit, eat. “Would you like to start on a trial basis? A week or two? If you’re happy after that, I operate on a three-month contract.”

“Wonderful.” Dorothy sounds fervent. Her eyes shift nervously over me. Taking me in, spitting me out. “You’re a real godsend, aren’t you?”

Modest as a saint, I bow my head. “I’m just here to help,” I say.

For two weeks I feed Dorothy the way no one ever has. I lovingly roast camone tomatoes until their pink-black skins char and spit out citrusy sweetness, serve the pulp pureed with hand-cut duck-egg tagliatelle. I toast ancient grains, sugar them with coconut blossom nectar, mix in grated ginger, tuiled papaya, Mexican cinnamon. Tenderly, and with great care, I wrap quail in a mantel of holy basil and banana leaves, ready to be shredded over a salad of sprouted seeds and candied jalapeño. I tailor my menus to fit Dorothy’s preferences. Tease her out of old habits. Introduce her to flavours she might never have encountered, ensconced as she is in her own whiteness, her own middle age. At the end of the fortnight she calls me up. “Obviously I’m keeping you,” she says, and she giggles, like a much younger woman. “What do I have to do, sell you my firstborn?”

It has been a long day. My joints all feel shredded, my nerve-endings hypervigilant. I’m still sweeping crockery shards from between the kitchen tiles. Some days are like this: Leda and I have been working hard on reducing their number. “Oh, gosh, nothing like that,” I say, my eyes on the window, where the sunset stains the neighbourhood bloody. “I’m so glad you’ve been enjoying the service! I’ll send over the contracts right away.” On a whim, I add, “I’m taking a glazed apricot tart tatin out of the oven right now, actually. Can I bring you a piece tomorrow?”

Apricot is one of Dorothy’s favourites. It says so right here, on the list taped into my leather binder. She makes a sound I struggle to categorise as anything but sexual. “You’re trying to spoil me, aren’t you?” she demands. “Just admit it.”

I laugh. I twirl a strand of hair around my finger. Glazed apricot tart tatin takes three hours, if you’re making the puff pastry from scratch. It’s already nine o’clock. I nudge a shard of white porcelain away from the baseboard with one bare toe. “Everyone deserves a little spoiling, don’t they?” I ask.

Do you know what it feels like to be hungry? she asks me, the light all red, shadows lacing between us, pulling us incrementally closer together. Closer, closer. I am watching her pupils swell and diminish, like flowerbuds, like prisms. Of course, I say. Reach for her. I am always reaching for her. She is always in the process of moving away. No, she says dismissively, I don’t mean like peckish, I don’t mean like skipping a meal. I mean like. When it gets inside you. When you feel it, here. Her hand presses up against my sternum. And here, she whispers, palm to my throat. When it’s everywhere, she says, her hair an ocean around me. When there’s nothing else you can understand. Nothing else you can believe in. Do you know what that feels like? and I am crying, although I don’t mean to, thinking of the peach I sliced with my hunting knife to feed her, juice on our fingers, our chins. Thinking of the marshmallows shaped like little clouds, blackened over a Zippo lighter so they were flavoured slightly of kerosine, both of us giggling, windblown. No, I say, I don’t know what that feels like. Thinking of fresh bread. Thinking of ripe apples. Thinking of her mouth, wet with tears.

One month into her contract, I’m just checking the oven temperature in Dorothy’s glacial kitchen when I hear her high heels clack in from some other unseen room. “Sorry,” I say, wiping my hands on my apron. “I didn’t realise you were home, I’ll be out of your hair in a second.”

“No, there’s no hurry. I’m taking a personal day.” She leans up against the counter. Her hair, unpinned, falls around her shoulders, lank and thin. “Can I get you anything? Coffee, tea?”

I bite my lip. Glance at the door. A show of reluctance. “I should really—”

“It’s no trouble. Anyone who makes crème brûlée like yours is practically family already! Let me feed you, for once,” she insists. “It might not be hand-rolled wild boar dolmades, but I do make a fabulous Nespresso pod.”

Dutifully, I laugh. “If you’re sure,” I say, and perch myself on one of the spindly counter stools. Furniture designed to punish. A house designed to consume. Dramatic irony: I know where this story ends.

Dorothy busies herself at the coffee machine. “So,” she says over her shoulder. “Are you local? You went to culinary school in London, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, and worked there for a few years. But I’m local. I grew up right around the corner, actually. Greenlight,” I say, chin on my fist.

I see Dorothy’s hands falter over the coffee pods. Greenlight is right around the corner in the way that inner cities are right around the corner from decorous suburbs. Dorothy’s expression, when she turns back to me, is painfully unconcerned. “Oh, lovely,” she murmurs. “So many fun little coffee shops.”

Gentrification will do that. “What about you?” I ask. “Do you come from around here?”

“Born and raised. I’m old blood.” She gives that girlish giggle again. “My grandfather was a town elder—I share my last name with a street in the historic core.”

In fact, I know this already. Caldwell Street, home to several banks, several trade centres. I’ve already made my pilgrimage to this piece of living history, already stood beneath the street sign, wondering at the fickleness of fortune. How it ebbs and flows, like water. Nothing can ever last. Not even a name. I make a polite noise and accept the mug Dorothy offers me. “That’s so interesting,” I say. “Do you have family yourself?”

She makes a careless gesture. Coffee slops from the mug in her hand; she doesn’t seem to notice. “The kids are all grown up and off on their own adventures. My daughter comes home for holidays, when she can get away from the office. Do you see your mother often, sweetheart?”

“My mother’s dead.”

“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Her eyes fill with tears, with genuine sympathy, and I swallow a scalding mouthful. Some people, I think, are like this: any empathetic energy reserved for the strangers in their lives, the blank faces pressed to their windows. “How old were you when she died?”


“You poor thing. I’m sure she’d be proud of you. Running a successful business, so highly reviewed, any mother would—” Dorothy pauses, her face blanking out. Her hand raised to illustrate her point.

I wait. After a moment I clear my throat. “Dorothy?” I prompt.

Like the breaking of a magic spell, she comes back to life. Blinking, gasping slightly. “I’m so sorry,” she says. “I think that’s what they call a senior moment. What—”

“No worries,” I say. “I should get going, anyway. Thanks for the coffee.”

“Have a good evening, honey,” says Dorothy absently, her hand pressed to her forehead.

We met at the market. I sold her a chocolate-raspberry tart, an unthinkable indulgence, and I found myself entranced by her fingers picking through her pockets full of change, her seashell nailbeds, and so I took my break, watched her eat. The graceful cruelty of synchronicity. Of circles that must always loop back around themselves. When she had eaten the tart I produced strawberries, sun-warm, which we shared on the warm grass, our knees knocking together. What’s your name, I asked her, and she said Leda. Leda, Leda. By this point she had died twice already. Once in an ambulance, once on the ward, a line running nutrients into the pit of her stomach. I didn’t know this at the time. All I knew then, the reduction of the entire world, was her eyes, her hands, her wrists. Her thumbs, tapping a rhythm on the scarred wood. Her mouth, red as a strawberry. As sweet.

A week later Dorothy calls me. Her family’s in town, she says, she wants to host a dinner, can I cater? I can, and will. We get together to plan the menu: veal parcels, lamb chops. I am struck by the cruelty of the meal, of every meal, how the elimination of hunger is often an excuse for savagery. What we are dealt. What we then deal out. Several times during the meeting Dorothy has to excuse herself to run to the restroom. When I ask her, in concern, if she is all right, she blames overwork. The whites of her eyes are pink. Her hands shake on her iPad.

Dorothy’s family dinner party consists of herself, her sister Juliette, her son Ned, Ned’s wife and infant child, Dorothy’s younger daughter Caroline, and Caroline’s Bichon Frise, Darling. I arrive early to help Dorothy set up. Together, her housekeeper and I shine glasses, polish silver, and arrange centrepieces. This is not precisely part of my job description, but I’m willing to make myself useful.

Caroline drifts into the kitchen while I’m glazing the veal parcels with balsamic syrup. “It smells amazing,” she says, her dog bundled in her arms like a rag doll. “Can I sneak some?”

I offer her the pastry brush. She licks it, slowly, her eyes on me. Caroline is pale as a mollusk, her eyes indented into her face like currents into risen dough. Like her mother, she is thin; unlike her mother, it seems to come naturally. I do not like the petulant sulk of her mouth. The way she tucks her dog under her elbow like a corsage. I catch its resigned, apathetic gaze. Poor Darling. “Oh, wow,” Caroline breathes. “That’s fucking orgasmic.”

Food and sex. Sex and food. When did we all become so trite? I think of Leda, her mouth pressed to my breast. “Thank you,” I say.

I stay through dinner, to make certain everything gets out on time, to ensure that every plate has an adequate brush-stroke of jus, the appropriate modern-art arrangement of deconstructed French cuisine. The best thing I ever ate was a pear, so soft it had already begun to ferment, sticky and alcoholic and delicious in the heat, violins singing over the radio and the windows rolled down, the forest in our hair. Or maybe it was something else, red and sweet and salty and wet. Either way, nothing you would ever serve in a Michelin-starred restaurant, on a plate decorated like a Pollack painting. I am, at the heart of me, a simple woman. Maybe that’s why all this comes so easily.

The argument starts halfway through the salad course. I am shearing mint leaves for the lamb; I hear Dorothy’s voice raised in an undignified wail, and I start towards the swinging doors into the dining room. “I know what I said,” Dorothy cries, “you can’t make me think I don’t know—

“Mom,” Caroline is saying, “Mom, Mom, please, sit down.”

Chairs shriek against the floor. A glass tinkles into another glass. “You’re all trying—you’re trying to trick me, I know what this is—”

“No one’s trying to trick you,” says a man’s voice. Ned. “It’s not a big deal, Mom, nothing to get upset about.”

“But I know what I said!” Dorothy shouts. “You can’t tell me I don’t know what I said!”

Something crashes. A terrible, humid silence. Caroline, her face paler than ever, slips into the kitchen. “You can go,” she says in a low voice. “We’re going to call it an early night. I’ll make sure she settles up with you. Do you know where she keeps the towels?”

When we had been together for six months she ended up back in the hospital. I knew, by that point, could hardly not know, the meticulous, esoteric pattern of denial, indulgence, penance. The numbers she worshipped like stone idols. The pacts she made, first with herself, then with me. I went to visit her on the ward, a place haunted by adolescence, all those hungry, hungry teenaged girls. She showed me a picture of herself as a child. See what I mean, she said. See what I’m fighting against. I took the photograph from her. As a kid she was fat; fat the way a seal is fat, the way a bird is fat, set against the lean of winter. Her eyes like shining chestnuts, her hair like poured sugar. Her face, her little face, so soft, so round, a rare delicacy, those cupped and smiling cheeks. I imagined myself an abuelita chomping her sweetness with my teeth. Saying ai, qué rico. How delicious. There in the hospital I took her face in my hands. Felt its angles, its ursine lanugo. God, I said. God. God. You were beautiful.

Dorothy arranges another meeting. When I arrive she is dressed in pyjamas, not elegant rich-person loungewear but cheap polyester terrycloth pants and a t-shirt that reads Not a Morning Person above a cartoon drawing of a sleepy-eyed pug dog. Her hair is greasy, her face more seamed than it was last time I saw her. Her eyes unfocused. “Come in,” she says, waving me into her foyer. Her house, once a loyal homage to Scandinavian minimalism, is now crowded with shopping bags, empty cardboard boxes, and tufts of wrapping paper. I step gingerly over a scatter of packing peanuts. “Retail therapy,” Dorothy explains, with a slightly unhinged grin. “I’ve been buying myself some happy!”

She does not look happy. She looks as though she is falling apart. I follow her into the kitchen, the only room I’ve ever spent any time in. I always leave it pristine; today I find chaos. A smoothie blender cracked in the sink, a smear of blueberry puree trailing down the countertop. Oats underfoot. With unfeigned courtesy Dorothy offers me one of my own breakfast muffins, half-defrosted and leaking almond butter onto the chopping board. I refuse, politely. “I’ve been feeling a bit under the weather,” she says, her gaze drifting a few inches to the left of my face. “A little bit off, you know? I was wondering if you could help me.”

“Help you,” I say.

“With. With, I don’t know. Antioxidants? Superfoods? Açai, isn’t açai a superfood? Or—goji berries? Bone broth,” she goes on, her expression shifting towards desperation. “Purple sprouting broccoli?”

I know that feeling, when you’re trying so hard to communicate. When communication seems fundamentally impossible. After a lingering moment, I come to her rescue. “Feel-good foods,” I say, helpfully. “You want something nourishing, right? Full of nutrients, to help you get back on your feet?”

“Yes!” Dorothy’s relief is almost pitiable. Almost. “Oh, thank you. I’ve been having some—” she mimes drawing a circle around her. “You know?”

I do. I do, I do. Yesterday I found Leda in the bathroom, tracing the imaginary outline of her imaginary belly in viscera-red lipstick. I, too, have been having some. You know. I give Dorothy my most sympathetic smile. “Sure,” I say. “That time of year, there’s always something going around. Let’s get some immune-boosting food into you.”

“What would I do without you?” Dorothy asks. Heartfelt. Unwitting.

“What most of my clients would do,” I say blithely. “Starve.”

She is the black sheep of her family. That’s what she calls it, this conscientious unpeeling of attention, affection, consideration, love. When she was six, she says, her mother stripped her naked, walked her into the walk-in closet and stood her in front of the angled mirrors, so she was there, and there, and there, refracted and refracted, and then, deliberate as a storybook villainess, her mother pointed out each and every flaw in Leda’s six-year-old body. Pressed her finger into Leda’s naked stomach, charting excess meals. Tugged at the softness of Leda’s thighs. In the bathroom, an expanse of marble, she weighed Leda. Sighed. Said, oh, Leda. Look what you’ve done.

In a way, the rest of Leda’s life spun outward from that one moment. Like sugar, like cotton candy. We try to unwind it. We try to piece her back together from fragments of the self she starved and starved away. But it is a Sisyphean task, one I am imperfectly equipped to handle, to forge a life for her from the ashes of the fact that the more space she took up in the world, the more she was denied. That the smaller she grew the more her mother loved her.

“Superfood” is a meaningless word, a word invented to sell expensive foreign imports to rich vegans. All whole foods are perfectly constructed, in their way, to contain the micronutrients vital in order to support life. Pleasurable life: everything that food promises. Did you know that regardless of what they’re made from, meals provide measurably less nourishment if they aren’t enjoyed? Scientists have studied this phenomenon, charted its veracity with facts and figures. We have to love what we eat. It’s a matter of life, or death.

I make Dorothy grilled rabbit shoulder with açai compote. I make her roast rabbit saddle steak with capers and goji berry. For breakfast I cook her egg white omelettes, full of purple sprouting broccoli and kale. I cook her heavily-seasoned broth, soothing to any upset stomach, just meat-water, salt, sage, cayenne. I make her salads of shredded turkey breast and dried strawberries. Only a few. She wouldn’t want to overdo it. I let myself into her kitchen, clean up after myself. Tidy as a criminal wiping away her fingerprints.

Dorothy finds me one day, setting her casserole of rabbit and baby carrot stew to warm in the oven. Her skin is yellowed, her eyes bruised. Her clothes hang off her bony shoulders. “Dorothy,” I exclaim, concerned, “are you all right? Still not feeling well? Have you been drinking enough water? I have some tea I can bring you, it’s a lifesaver.”

She blinks at me. I don’t know if she recognises me, not fully. “Okay,” she says, biddable as a dog. “Thank you.” Her breath strong and rank.

Rabbit is not a superfood.

Leda is beautiful. Even as she diminishes and expands and diminishes again, like the moon: she is beautiful, and it is a trial, sometimes, to love her, and I love her more than I love my own lungs, my own heart. When Leda called her mother from the ward, yet again, and said you are the reason I’m here, her mother cut her off. Cut her out, like a melanoma. But there was so much more she could have said. Like: what did I ever do to be so despised by you, other than exist in a shape you couldn’t bear? Like: what kind of monster looks at a child, her freckles and her curls and her baby fat—yes, baby fat, because that is what babies are meant to be, that is what sustains them on the long fight upwards into independence—and recoils in disgust? Who can regard the result of generations worth of genetic selection, the culmination of famine, of deprivation, of want, and call it anything but miraculous? Leda survived, she survived, not because of her mother but in spite of her, the hand that was never meant to do anything but provide turned to a fist, a snatching claw. She survived anyway. Part of that is because of me, the love I have lovingly fed her. A much larger part is nothing but her own. Determination. Desire. The obstinate refusal to diminish past the point of mattering to the world. Her lovely, necessary matter. I kiss her stomach. I kiss her cheeks. I tell her how much more strength it takes to devour than to abstain. I pray this is enough.

Enough. Enough. All of us, just begging to be enough.

Caroline calls me a few days later. On the phone she sounds subdued, rough-throated. “They’re calling it early onset dementia,” she says. “I didn’t know—it happened so quickly. Thanks, though, so much, for everything you’ve done for her.”

I visit her on the ward. I’ve been to this hospital before; just a few floors up. See? Didn’t I say I knew where this story ends? In her bed Dorothy is tiny, fragile, jaundiced and grotesque. I shut the door gently behind myself. Her eyes find me, though they have difficulty focusing. Her mouth struggles to remember my name. “It’s okay,” I tell her, soft and sweet. Like kindly fondant; like delicate crème anglaise. “I brought you something. One of your favourites.”

I put it on the bed, over her bony knees. A piece of apricot tart tatin. Dorothy regards it with wordless revulsion. I sit, cross my legs. “You should eat it,” I say. “A whole block of butter went into that puff pastry. Be good for you. Better than what you’ve been eating, anyway.”

Dorothy blinks at me. Slow. Filmy. Something prehistoric about her. “There,” she mumbles. “I—”

“You ever heard of rabbit starvation?”

She swings her head, pendulous.

“It’s understood,” I say, lolling back in the particleboard hospital chair, “that a diet high in protein but devoid of any kind of fat will kill you faster than starvation itself. Early carnivores ate things like seal blubber, whale blubber, and managed to survive on those meats alone, but something like rabbit? The leanest meat you can cook up? It’s pretty much pure protein.” I lean forward. “Fat,” I say, articulating the word like a teacher at a spelling bee. “The body needs it, Dorothy. Do you know what fat does?”

Her fingers fret at the blanket. I think she might be reaching for the nurse call button.

Neatly, I twitch it away. “Helps you absorb necessary vitamins,” I tell her. “Protects organs against injury. Keeps the brain running the way it should be. Memory function, emotional processing, even hormonal regulation, all of these are dependent on the body’s access to fat.” I dig a pair of forks from my pocket, take a bite of tart. It’s perfect, the pastry flaking, the apricots globed and bursting, candied piquancy, the taste of summer. “Your family’s been noticing for weeks,” I tell her, with my mouth full. “The forgetfulness. The irrationality. I saw it at your dinner party. You couldn’t hold it together, could you?”

Dorothy is mouthing something now, her neck corded like rope. I take a second bite. “Leda tried to get back in touch with you,” I say softly. “She tried and tried. Left you messages, sent you fucking flowers. Apologising for the fact that you told her she was too fat to be your daughter.” I stand up, brush crumbs from my sleeves. Dorothy reaches for me, but she only manages to upend the jug of water on her bedside table all over herself, the bedclothes a sodden mess of wet pastry and dripping syrup. “You ever hear that fairy tale about the girl who told her father she loved him as much as fresh meat loves salt?” I ask. Dorothy’s crying, but I ignore her. “There’s this girl,” I say. “A princess. Beautiful, lovely, kind. One day her father the king asks her and her sisters how much they love him.” I spear a smudge of apricot, hold it to Dorothy’s lips. She shakes her head. Shakes her head. I press the fruit between her greying teeth. “The oldest sister says, oh, father, I love you more than every jewel in every coffer in the kingdom.” I hold my palm against Dorothy’s mouth. “The middle sister says, oh, father, I love you more than every star in the night sky.” Wait, until she swallows. “The youngest girl, the heroine of the story, she says: father, I love you as much as fresh meat loves salt.” I step back. Dorothy coughs. Gags. Vomits, bile and water and nothing and one single piece of apricot, onto the bed. “And her father exiles her,” I whisper. “But she doesn’t let it ruin her life. She has adventures, she meets her true love. And when they’re married, she invites her father to the wedding.” I press the nurse call button. “And she demands that every dish be served unsalted,” I say, thinking of Leda, not the punishment she inflicted on herself but everything else, her laugh, her song, her smile, her goodness. “And her father, at the reception, he eats everything, tries everything, and he just—he bursts out crying.” Leda with her face turned towards me in the dark. Leda with her hands full of roses. “And he says I’m sorry,” I say to Dorothy, who never will. “He says I should have known, she loved me most of all.”

The nurse pushes into the room. I fix my face into distress. “She started vomiting,” I say, “she spilled her water all over herself, I’m so sorry, I’m already running late, I wasn’t sure what else to do—”

“No, no, you were right to call,” says the nurse, brisk and capable. “Go ahead, we’ve got this, don’t we, Dorothy?”

And I leave. Back to Leda with the flowered hair, Leda with the ringing laugh, Leda who aches but does not succumb. Who rose from the spectre of her past into something lovely, something like happiness. I don’t intend to waste any more time here, in this fetid little room with this rotting, skeletal woman. But I hear, over my turned shoulder as I walk away into the day, the nurse murmuring to Dorothy. Saying oh, pet, what a mess. Look what you’ve done.

About the Author

Becca De La Rosa’s work has previously appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, The Best of Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and Fantasy Magazine, as well as several other magazines and anthologies. Her stories have twice been mentioned in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and her poem “World’s End” was nominated for a Rhysling Award. She is also the co-creator of the New York Times recommended horror podcast MABEL.