When Moschata Russet stepped into the Halls of Full Harvest Elementary School, whispers followed like a wind in her wake.
“My mommy said that she ate too many carrots.”
“That’s stupid, that would give you big eyes and hers are normal. My daddy says that her papa must have been a squash or something like that.”
“My mama says she doesn’t have a Papa. Her mama grew her from a seed she found in her pocket one day, and that girl just came from the sprout. Cross my heart, hope to die.”
No student seemed willing to speak to her over the matter directly. Once, however, a small boy in the grade below came to her as she sat alone eating her lunch, asking “Why do you look the way you do?” To this she replied, “For the same reason you look the way you do.”
The boy pondered this for a moment. He nodded and skipped away, back to his friends standing near the playground watching. They hurried away with him, throwing nervous glances back as they walked. Moschata returned to her lunch of wheat bread and toasted slivers of squash.
After that, no children dared ask her why her skin was so perfectly orange, so cramoisy cardinal, so flavescently flammeous. Pumpkin skin on a plump little body; cheeks blushed with decay.
From the first day that she arrived at Full Harvest Elementary, Moschata was picked up by her new babysitter, a high school student named Maxima Sorrel. Whispers followed Maxima too, but these were different – especially when she passed by the elementary school. The 4th and 5th grade girls gazed at her dyed platinum blonde hair with hunger and disdain, scoffing as they wondered how to convince their mothers to allow them to do the same. The 5th grade boys ogled her seemingly endless legs as she stepped from her little car, transfixed by her painted smile and porcelain skin.
Moschata was not enamored. Each school day at three PM, she would walk outside her school to find her babysitter waiting by her car, a patient smile on her pomegranate lips.
Maxima would politely ask “How was your day?”, taking Moschata’s backpack. Moschata would politely reply, “It was fine, thank you for asking.”
“Great,” Maxima would remark as they climbed into their seats. And the days of this passed, with Maxima driving Moschata to and from school, leaving her at Full Harvest Elementary in the morning and leaving her at the unremarkable Russet household in the afternoon. The two maintained a cordial relationship, and Moschata, while never quite as bubbly as most young girls, never seemed unhappy, so Maxima thought little of it.
She thought instead of the twenty-five dollars she received in an envelope from Moschata every time she dropped her off. She thought of the nail polish she could buy with it, and the new platinum blonde hair dye she would need soon enough. She thought of the disdain of the girls at her high school, the ogling of the senior boys, and the space between her bony knees. She thought of the number of times she’d made herself vomit that week. She thought of the scale waiting in the bathroom she shared with her mother, taunting her, haunting her.
She thought of her own elementary school, where she had sat plump and alone at the edge of the playground, whispers following like a wind in her wake.
They say the Mama Russet is the greatest cook in all the land. They say that her tortes are dusted with Autumn, her tarts iced with Fall. The sweet scent of September can always be found on her hands. No one can quite say when last they saw her, but all remember the last creation of hers they ate.
They say she picks mushrooms from the edge of the Kingdom of Death, and stews them into a soup tasty enough to stay the hand of the Reaper himself. No cook has been able to replicate her recipes, but they say that all have tried. Wherever she leaves her mark, whispers are sure to follow like a wind in her wake.
“What does your mother do?” Maxima asked one day curiously, eyeing Moschata in the rearview mirror as she drove the familiar route home. Moschata frowned out the window at the parade of September foliage, the scent of caramel and sweet rot coming in through the open car window.
“She does Mama things,” Moschata replied plainly. Maxima pursed her perfect lips and, against her better judgment, asked, “Like what?” Moschata shot her a furtive look in the rearview mirror before staring out the window again.
“Well,” she said, and seemed to be choosing her words carefully, “She bakes. And cooks. And hunts too, I suppose. That’s for the autumn winds; they’re very hard to catch. And even once you’ve caught them, you’ve got to be sure to contain them right or else they break the jar and wreak havoc on the house. But she’s a marvelous baker, and makes all sorts of cinnamon biscotti, drizzled with October sunlight, and pecan pies powdered with brisk breezes. And her mushroom soup is rather lovely too.”
Maxima stifled a giggle and asked, “What on earth are you talking about?”
“Mama feeds me right,” Moschata replied irritably, as if Maxima were missing the point. She crossed her arms and opened the window further a crack, letting the chilly wind whip across her saffron face. “She feeds me pumpkin, so I can be enduring, and cinnamon, so I can be sharp. Sometimes September dawns, to be lovely, but usually November dusks, so I will be swift, and silent and softly sure. Mama always says, you are what you eat.”
They say that Moschata Russet was born pale as snow. Her mother wept more profusely than she had ever done so before; more than she’d wept when her mother had died, more than she’d wept when her husband had left her.
“It is my fault,” she whispered to the poor baby in the hospital room, cradling the girl in her arms. “For years and years, I have swallowed the sorrows of others. I swallowed the sorrows of my mother when my father left us, just as she swallowed her mother’s sorrows, and she, her mother before her. My stomach was filled with their misfortunes pale and cold, and in swallowing so many for so long, I have passed them on to you.”
For an endless moment, Mama Russet clung to her daughter and did not speak. Her body shook with silent sobs. Outside, the nurses waited patiently. Finally, her weeping quieted so that she could whisper to the child.
“But I have a secret for you. Listen closely, little girl, for I have a secret. You have been born snow-white with the sorrows I have swallowed in your veins, but not for long. No, dear one, soon, I shall feed you pumpkin, so you can be enduring, and cinnamon, so you can be sharp. Sometimes September dawns, to be lovely, but usually November dusks, so you will be swift, and silent and softly sure.”
Mama Russet leaned down and kissed the white forehead of her baby. “My little pumpkin darling. My sweet, sweet Moschata.”
Some October afternoons, Maxima would take Moschata to Ochre Overpass. It was a small bridge off the road, spanning the gap between two brambling hills and standing over a valley of wild underbrush.
“My mother can be… strict… with me too, you know,” Maxima confided one such afternoon. “She used to tell me I’d never be pretty with such a round face, and, well, I…” She trailed off, toying with the sandwich she had split with Moschata – sweet crimson of cranberry, bland beige of potato, pale pink of cut turkey.
“Mama knows best,” Moschata said firmly. “She wants me to be enduring, and sharp, and lovely and swift. Like her.”
“I know, but maybe… maybe you don’t have to be your mother. Maybe you can choose to be something else. Someone else.”
For a moment that stretched far too long, Moschata said nothing. She looked down at her half of the sandwich and extracted a bit of turkey bone.
“Why do they kill the chicken before they eat it?” she asked quietly, running her fingertips along the ragged rib.
“Because it would be a very rude thing to do to eat someone while they were still alive, silly,” Maxima replied with a giggle. Moschcata traced shapes into her palm with the bone, and then, much to Maxima’s surprise, giggled too and looked up with a sly smile. “Rude is bad,” she whispered. “Mama always says, a rude mouth never gets dinner.”
They say that Maxima Sorrel is almost as beautiful as her mother once was. Fairest in all the land. Such porcelain skin Mama Sorrel had, such pomegranate lips, and hair as flaxen gold as the sun. But still, they say that the boys stare as Maxima passes, that the girls whisper rumors like knives.
But beauty like hers is long fought and hard won. There are hairs to pluck, cheeks to paint, and all the while there is the hunger. Empty stomachs whine for food, but such cries must be disregarded. Empty hearts whine for love, but they such calls must be ignored.
They say that every evening before she falls asleep, Maxima checks her weight on the scale in the bathroom she shares with her mother. They say that every morning, she wakes to find the gap between her knees a little bit wider.
“You don’t eat the things your mother gives you much these days,” Maxima mentioned cautiously one November afternoon along the ride home. “Are you just not hungry for them?” When Moschata continued to stare out the car window, Maxima asked, “If you don’t like it, why don’t you ask her to make something different?”
After a long silence, Moschata replied “I’ve been trading them”. “With the other children. For normal food. I’m tired of eating what Mama gives me, and I’m tired of looking like this, and I’m tired of being enduring, and sharp, and lovely and swift.” She crossed her arms firmly and glared out the window. “I don’t want to be her anymore.”
“I… Should…” Maxima began and ceased, eyes flickering between the road and Moschata’s face in the rearview mirror. “Who do you want to be?” she asked at last. Moschata turned to look at her babysitter in the rearview mirror, and cried with delight, “You, of course!”
It was not until Maxima looked Moschata directly in the face that day that she realized Moschata’s skin was now a fleshy new color between orange and pink.
They say that girls like us are always hungry. Eat up, darling, but not too much. My, darling, what a big mouth you have. They say we have empty tummies and empty hearts that always wish to be filled. We hunt most savagely; we yearn and pine to fill them – with love, with beauty, with longing, even fear, even sorrow. Anything but the emptiness.
I know that you know, Mama. I know that you know that I have not eaten a dinner in months, that my ribcage is like a corset on my chest. The space between my knees gapes wide. My wrists are twigs that might snap in the wind.
You watch me with tired eyes from across the dinner table, where you eat mushroom soup and I push it around my bowl. You want to say something about it, about my ribs and knees and wrists. You want to tell me that you are what you eat, and emptiness begets emptiness. Yet silence still.
But our eyes meet across the dinner table, and in a sudden and terrible moment, I see it. I catch a glimpse of the years of failed beauty, of the silence in your mouth and the sorrows you have swallowed. White as snow, cold as winter.
Perhaps it is because it is what your mother fed you, and what her mother fed her. This emptiness, this hunger, this longing to be beautiful. Girls like us, Mama – spinning dreams with skeleton faces, too pretty to be held down by flesh.
This, I realize. This emptiness is what awaits girls like us. And looking into emptiness, I do not see love or beauty or longing. I only see my bones. I only taste the sorrow.
I go to the bathroom we share and take the scale – the scale we both step on, the scale that haunts us both young and old. I drive out to Ochre Overpass and with a tremendous effort I fling the scale into the darkness. It falls down into the valley, so far down that the sound of its landing is lost to the wind in the underpass. When I return home, I swallow every last drop of the mushroom soup.
On the last afternoon of November, both girls sat upon the edge of the bridge overlooking the pumpkin-strewn valley, and Maxima was fighting back tears as she spoke to Moschata.
“Sweetie, you have to promise me,” she said, gasping for breath. She shuddered, then began again, “You have to promise me never to let someone else tell you how to treat your body. Not your friends, your mother – not even me. I can tell you, sweetie – “ her voice cracked “ – I can tell you that it’s not worth your time.” She sniffled a little, then held out her pinkie. “Promise me?”
Moschata looked into Maxima’s face, and in a sudden and terrible moment, caught a glimpse of the girls’ disdain and the boys’ gaze and the space between her knees and the number of times she’d vomited that week. For a moment, she saw the plump little girl alone at the edge of the playground.
How remarkable, Moschata thought, to be as strong as her. How I wish I could be so strong. To be so enduring, so swift and silent and softly sure. “I promise,” Moschata replied, hooking their pinkies together. Then with horrendous strength, Moschata pushed Maxima over the edge of the bridge.
For a brief and wondrous moment, the fingertips of Maxama’s right hand touched the railing as she flailed in midair, and it seemed that she just might be able to save herself. But then the wind was strong and the iron slick with rain, and Maxima tumbled to the earth. Her screams were a wild whine that, from a distance, might be confused with the wind in the underpass. They ended with a thud and the cracking of bone.
Moschata’s trek into the underpass was hampered by thorny underbrush, so that when she reached the ravine, her arms were covered with scratches from the thorns and streaked with dirt. Yet she paid no heed to these things as she knelt beside the girl; she was not troubled as she brushed leaves and earth and other unsavory items from Maxmima’s back. It mattered not how dirty the babysitter was. Mama always says, hunger makes the best seasoning.
For a long and ponderous moment, Moschata studied Maxima’s form. She ran her fingertips along the gentle curve of the girl’s back, the rounded skull, through the silken-gold hair. She lifted Maxima’s porcelain hand to admire it, and then, with relish, took the first bite.