The boy was born with an appetite for truth. “I love you.” Mommy’s words poured forth from an endless fountain, and the boy lapped up the truth as though it was a runny sunrise of a yolk. He feasted on it. “I love you,” she said, and it was simple and true, and the boy fell asleep dreaming dreams of Mommies who lived forever and mouths whose words were always baked from grains of truth. One morning, he woke up with a quarter under his pillow in exchange for his tooth. Mommy smiled at him with a tooth-fairy reason behind her lips, and that was the moment of his first hunger pang. When the boy began his schooling, another boy said, “Hunch over so I can see your answers. We’re friends, you and I.” But it wasn’t true, and the boy grew hungry. School had been a place where 2 plus 2 were makings of a hearty meal, but now when the teachers nodded and said, “Columbus,” and “Thanksgiving,” and “Manifest Destiny,” he couldn’t digest the myth of cornucopia and maize and the Trail of Tears left a bitter taste in his mouth because even that story forgot the foreign disease that left natives’ corpses in its wake, making the soil so fertile in this new land. Instead, he read about how Columbus sold little girls into slavery, and even though those facts were hard to swallow, he wouldn’t feel hungry for an hour or two because of them. He grew thin and tall and Mommy’s love wasn’t enough to fill him anymore, so he talked to a girl. They picked fruit off trees and he watched her bite in, juice dribbling down her chin and tracing a fine line down the length of her arm. They lay on the hood of a car in a cornfield harvest of stars, and he told her he loved her, and she said it back, but it tasted all wrong to him, like the flesh of a peach bit into too early. He grew taller and thinner and hungered even more. When he flew to far-off places to nourish himself on overseas truth, he saw from the airplane the soil of the Midwest tortured into obedient square farms, the land a vast sheet of graph paper with no patch of earth left to grow wild, true to its nature. He took his camera to try to capture the truth so he could savor it. In Kosovo, he snapped a photo of an infant being passed through a barbed wire fence. He zoomed in on the hopscotch children giggling in front of Chicago’s Cabrini Green projects whose windows winked down at him with jagged eyes. But those he photographed in the 3 by 5s wouldn’t stay captured, held captive in the frame. On assignment in Sudan, he clicked away in a barren field of rocky dirt and straw. A baby crouched, forehead kissing the ground, as if in prayer. The beads on her necklace could be counted as easily as her ribs. Her skin stretched tight against the bone. She was starving. His stomach and her stomach growled together, sounding as though a pride of ravenous lions lurked nearby. He approached quietly. Five steps behind her sat a hunched vulture, patiently waiting with its full feather coat and hooked beak, its beady eyes watching the tiny girl—an ominous babysitter. He had been ordered against touching any of the people here by his bosses who were stuffed full of bottom lines and subscription numbers. They cried, “Disease!” They crowed, “Not our responsibility!” but the boy knew that wasn’t the exact truth. He shot photos of the baby whose prayers were or weren’t answered when her belly stopped growling minutes later. The only sound was the clicking of his camera. The vulture sidled closer and he shooed the bird away, but even in the air, the vulture kept its shadow over the baby girl. He held it at bay until his helicopter came. He pictured her Mommy still in line at the UN’s feeding center, holding out her hands for grain that wouldn’t feed her baby now. He had to go, go, let me go, don’t let me go, don’t let me go, the girl’s captured image said to him, and his hands that took the picture were the ones that left her untouched, unnourished by his honest wish to let her know that someone was there. That someone cared. That she wasn’t alone. Back home, when the man photographed a toddler blowing bubbles, his fingertips turned to talons. He snapped away at a bundled child building a snowman, but the picture didn’t look right because he’d taken it hunched against the cold, casting a shadow on the snow. He scavenged and picked over his days for bits of truth to survive on while everyone around him seemed to grow full and fat of “How are you?” “Fine.”s and “have a nice day!”s Now he was an old man with Mommy a mere black-and-white memory, and he tried to feed himself at diners at the break of day, but the waitress’s smile couldn’t satisfy him, because it was quick and didn’t crinkle the edges of her eyes. He couldn’t believe her smile, even if he saw her every morning, because she saved her true smiles for her own little boy. And she couldn’t understand this odd old man with the wrinkled shirt who ordered hot peaches and cream crepes and who, day after day, let it grow cold, untouched. Another patron was a stooped man who carried his own strawberry syrup with him every morning and chatted with the man who ate truth about the weather and that idiot who just got elected. With every conversation that kept him in touch with these people, he tried to touch the baby’s hand, but he never could reach her, because when he’d had the chance, he hadn’t done it—hadn’t been true to everything he believed. And that was what ate him up inside. He wanted to tell the syrup man: “I should’ve stayed with her.” He wanted to be honest with the waitress: “I have nightmares.” He wanted to confess to the baby girl: “Every night, the vulture plucks your veins like violin strings. I see your heart lie still behind your wishbone ribs.” In the news, he read about corpses that were used to feed dogs and how a Mommy had killed her own baby boy, and all of this was true, but he couldn’t take it, couldn’t take it anymore. The boy who hungered for truth had grown up into a man who saw that the truth couldn’t sustain him. That to be satiated, he’d have to become a weaver of tooth-fairy tales, daily white lies, history’s wishbone fables. And he knew he couldn’t. He didn’t want to be full of empty falsehoods, and he didn’t want to scavenge for gruesome truth just to stay alive another hour. Into the wide world, his starving, shaking steps shambled him forward an inch, and then an inch more. And the boy who hungered for truth was the man who wondered if this inch, hour, sunrise, would be his last. His eyes searched out a face that was telling the truth. He saw nothing. His ears listened for honesty. All he heard was his stomach. It growled.
-- Nik Gallicchio’s writing has appeared on the stages of Chicago’s Live Lit show Write Club and on the pages of Champaign’s Buzz Magazine. Delighting in the unexpected, Nik crafts and wears things she’s created, like skirts made of men’s ties and dresses made out of book pages. The piece “Hunger” was inspired by the achingly beautiful life of Pulitzer Prize-winning Photojournalist Kevin Carter (1960-1994).