Good Food for Starving Things (Emerging Writer’s Contest Winner: FICTION)

Issue #150
Winter 2021-22

In fiction, our winner is Meghan O’Toole, for her short story “Good Food for Starving Things.”

Of the story, fiction judge Kiley Reid says, “‘Good Food for Starving Things’—dark, abrupt, and a bit wild—is a deft cross-pollination concerning what it means to be a beast, and what it means to belong. With addictive and highly personal prose, [O’Toole] creates an even-handed exploration of the erosion of language, and the fraught difference between starvation and hunger. This is one of those chilling narratives that refuses to ask permission or forgiveness. It’s visceral and haunting, yet emotional and delightfully absurd.”


When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? When did you first call yourself a writer?

I think, like many writers, it came to me from a young age. I think the fascination with and drive to create stories is something many children feel. I just never grew out of it. I have become more and more obsessive the older I’ve gotten.


Describe your writing process. What works for you as a writer? What do you find challenging, or even difficult, about writing?

When it comes to writing, I have learned to follow the flow. Ideas come to me, and some of them stick—or rather, I stick to them—and from there I get wrapped up in what I’m creating to the point that it’s all I think about. I have had to be very intentional about not letting it completely rule my life. A lot of that is thanks to my friends, who make art and cook with me. A huge part of my process is creation that lives off and extends beyond the page. I think all things come back to writing for me in that way. If I am feeling uninspired, I work on painting, play music, or even go for a walk. This act of stepping away helps me reconnect with my written work. Even learning about other people’s craft, especially beyond writing craft, helps me. Annie Dillard writes, in her book The Writing Life, about how everything that isn’t writing is actually writing, and that really resonated with me. I think my interest in the broad definition of craft goes all the way back to my childhood. My father is a very skilled carpenter. I used to love watching him route molding or create custom pieces for his clients. He often spoke of how important it is to be precise. If edges or angles are off even slightly, the structural coherence is off and the finished piece can be messy and unstable. Writing is much the same, which all leads into carefully revising too.


What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before writing?

I am not much of a researcher. As much as I love diving into research for a big academic paper, my creative work feels so inside myself that whatever comes naturally and feels connected feels right. I will, of course, fact check and try to make sure I’m not presenting inaccurate information. For “Good Food for Starving Things,” for example, my sister who lives in Poland helped me with much of the Polish and Polish-to-English translations.


Who are you reading now? What writers or works have most influenced your writing?

My tastes can range broadly-ish. I appreciate anything that is written beautifully and comes together in a satisfying way. I just finished reading Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth, which I loved. I also read Jeanette Winterson’s Written on the Body, which has stayed with me since I read it, and Jeff VanDerMeer’s Annihilation, which I absolutely adored. I also love classics. More specifically, I love new translations of ancient texts. I love exploring how some of these ancient themes and ideas can be recontextualized and given slightly altered meaning that resonate in a new way. Maria Dahvana Headley does an amazing job of this in her translation of Beowulf, which I had to constantly put down and call friends to talk about simply because I loved how it built on the original. I also like Anne Carson’s new translations for similar reasons.


What inspired “Good Food for Starving Things”? What works or writers would you say directly informed this story?

I would say that if there’s one body of work that influenced this piece, it’s the Polish folk tales I grew up hearing. My mother is from Poland, so many of the stories I heard as a child were Polish fairy tales, especially ones about Baba Jaga, who initially had a much larger role in this story. I’ve thought about writing this story since college, but then abandoned it until it finally came together with a separate story I was trying to work on. It lived in my head for years before I found a way to tell it. My connection to my Polish culture has always felt confusing—at once strong and weak. I wanted to communicate that feeling through the characters and the creature in the basement. Much of my connection to Polish culture has been through food and trips to the Polish store with my mom rather than the language. I was recently in Poland visiting my grandparents and my sister, and it was disheartening to feel like I keep losing bits of the language, which I already have such a flimsy grasp on since it’s so challenging. As a child, I felt that I knew much more, or it came easier to me, and now my mouth can’t seem to find the right sounds. I’m planning on taking lessons soon so I can maintain this connection to Poland, but the story definitely represents a lot of that anxiety surrounding culture, language, and belonging.


What’s the most valuable piece of writing advice you’ve received?

My undergraduate writing mentor and professor Dr. Janice Lively always reiterated the need to read in order to write, and reading has never failed me. It keeps my ideas fresh and my mind moving. I remember her words to us on the first day of class so clearly: “When you get out of this class, you will never be able to read the same way again. You’re going to read like writers.” And it was true! In a way, I thought she sounded kind of sorry about it, as if she was both taking something away and giving us something new. Reading like a writer is a skill that requires attention, engagement, and analytic thinking, and learning how to do it has helped me more than anything.


What risks do you take with your writing that have paid off?

Switching genres! I like to jump around in my subject matter and setting even if the core themes stay the same. I recently wrote a fantasy(ish) novel that I had so much fun with. It feels more like a classic fairy tale than a high fantasy, but making sure I’m having fun with what I’m writing is what feels best, and it means that I am producing my best work. The risk factor, or what felt like one sometimes, was feeling that I was abandoning my course or not being “serious” enough if I wrote a story about a creature in a basement. However, writing what comes to me and writing what I enjoy has brought me the most rewarding work.


Do you have any advice for new or aspiring writers?

That classic piece of advice, read and write, has to be taken seriously. However, other than that, I would remind them not to take anyone’s advice too seriously. Find out what works for you and follow it. That will lead you to your unique voice.


What projects are you working on now? Where is your writing headed?

Right now, I have a couple of novels I have completed that I would like to try to get published, one dealing with the tenuous connections between loneliness and identity confusion and the other exploring trauma, codependency, and internal resistance to the narrative (or maybe the narrative as the enemy, the fact that the end is set as soon as the reader begins to read). I’m also working on a new novel that deals with generational awareness of doom, a feeling that is especially prominent in discussions of climate change. However, rather than focusing on climate change itself, I would like to prioritize the sense of doom many young people have to cope with. Of course, the novel feels kind of absurd, and I am liking the direction it’s going. It’s always fun to get carried off with a new idea!








I am never alone in the house. The thing in the basement breathes, my air and its air shared through the corridors, though I never go down to see it. The thing in the basement is large and dark. I do not know its name. It does not have a voice.

I count the notches that climb my mother’s neck as she bows her head into the kitchen sink to bleed the pink from her hair and replace it with muddy brown. She is going back to Poland. She wants to look like her old self for her dying mother. I stretch the spray nozzle from the tap and wash out the excess dye, then hand her a towel.

She tousles her scalp. “How do I look?”

She has picked the eyebrow ring and nose-piercing from her face, replaced the metal bars in her ears with two amber studs. I always loved her pink hair; one summer, she did mine the same way and joked to friends who asked that it was genetic. Now her hair is mousy brown like mine, like her mother’s.

“You look nice,” I say, and she looks nice as in different, nice as in normal, nice as in I might not recognize her from a distance. The fine lines that fork from the corners of her eyes echo the shapes of her mother’s. She stretches, and her collarbones swan in a downward shape, as if her whole body is caving in at the thought of going home.

“It will have to do.” She sighs as she wraps her hair in a towel. Her eyes linger on her reflection in the mirror. She looks away. “Help me pack.”

My mother leaves tomorrow. She is going home to take care of Babcia because my uncle can’t do it on his own anymore. She will be gone for the rest of spring and all summer. I will be home, which will be fine, except that my throat prickles with apprehension.

I will not be alone.

In this house, I am never alone, even when my mother volunteers at the women’s health clinic or picks up extra shifts at the bar where she works. Always, there is a heaviness of an extra body in the house. The creature makes the building sink and settle into the foundation. The thing in the basement is there, always, living its quiet, dark life in the basement.

The grating of claws against the cage boils up the dark stairway. I shudder. Even now, listening to its insistent scraping against the bars as it waits for breakfast, my blood runs like sludge.

I have never seen it. I don’t know what it looks like. I only know it has wings; I can hear it flapping them like a restless bird, feathers slapping the sides of the enclosure. So that is how I see it in my mind: a giant, bloody bird, haggard and wretched with gnashing teeth crammed in its beak.

“You know,” my mother says as she takes a comb to her hair, “you will have to feed the thing while I’m gone.”

I open my mouth, but no sound comes out.

“You don’t want it to starve,” she warns as she makes her way to the kitchen. I follow closely behind her as she picks up a blue plastic bucket and empties leftovers into it.

“It won’t,” I promise. “I’ll feed it.”

“Only in the morning. He doesn’t need much.” She shows me the collection of food in the bucket. Old hamburger patties we never finished, stale bread, eggshells, corn chip shards. “Do you need me to show you?”

I lick my lips. “No.”

“OK, Maggie.” The way she says Maggie makes it sound special, her accent drawing out the a and pushing the consonants to the front of her mouth. Because my father was an American, both before and after he left my mom, he chose to name me Maggie instead of Małgorzata, Babcia’s name. Maggie, a compromise like a thick slather of paint. Maggie roots me in the Midwest. Maggie like the bottle of seasoning we dash into our soup. Maggie like a storybook character. Maggie like magpies, which eat dead things.

My mother sighs and nods at me before she sets off down the stairs. The heaviness of her steps shakes the floor, but then, it’s quiet, as if the darkness has eaten her up, sound and all. This is the part I hate most. The silence. The moment when the thing settles because it knows the food is coming. I hold my breath and wait. Then her steps rise again, and she sets the empty bucket on the floor. “All done. Easy-peasy.” She winks at me.

She used to ask me if I wanted to visit the bird, but, white-knuckled and sweat-shined, I always shook my head and turned up the volume on the Saturday morning cartoons to drown out the picking of its beak. She won’t say what she sees down there. Her silence spins it large and ragged, half-plucked and bloodstained as it clinks its beak against the bars.

Reaching into a drawer, she hands me an envelope of cash. “For food,” she says. “Make sure you eat well. And feed it.” she says, gesturing to the basement. “And don’t just eat those frozen pizzas. Just make sure you eat. If you don’t, Baba Jaga will come for you.” She grins.

I roll my eyes. “OK, Mom. I get it. Eat. feed the thing. Easy enough. I’ll finally learn how to cook. One of us should know how.”

“No need for extremes,” she says. “I told Pani Jagoda—she owns the Polish store—that you’ll be stopping by a few times a week.”

My mouth falls open. “Alone?” Of course, alone. But I have never been to the Polish store without my mother, without her fluent, native Polish.

My mother waves a hand. “You can speak English. She will understand. She just can’t speak it well.” Her smile crinkles her eyes. She boops my nose with her index finger, and I swat her hand away. “Just like you and your Polish.”

We spend the rest of the day shopping, picking up food, gifts, coffee. We stop at the gas station and buy bags of American candy. When my mother returns home, the weight will be replaced by pounds of Polish sheep’s cheese and sweets. I search for a small gift for my grandmother, my babcia, something my mother can easily tuck between the folds of clothes in her suitcase, but each necklace I stare at doesn’t seem right, and I don’t know what colors she wears. Finally, my mother plucks a pair of slippers from the rack. “These will do,” she says, “We can say they’re from you.”

My mother’s English voice is different from her Polish voice. Lower, like it has been weighed down by the baggage of a life removed from home. The traveling-light trade-off. She looks at everything in before and after. Before she left home, before she learned English, before she met my father, before she had me. I used to go to Poland for the summers until my mother fell behind on bills and had nothing to spare for plane tickets. It has been ten years since I last saw Babciu. But the last time I saw her, all the Polish I had had been melon-balled from my mind. I have the language of a toddler. I can only point to things and name them: królik, kamyk, konik.

My mother makes one last phone call to her brother before we go to O’Hare. Her Polish is smooth as river stones. It hushes across her lips, gentle whispers like wind in leaves, and I catch snippets of understanding: do szpitala, jutro, przyjadę za niedługo. Her voice pitches low into the belly of anxiety. I clutch the quilt and bring it up to my chin as I strain to understand. Hospital. Tomorrow. I’m coming.

I could lie here all day and listen, and I could pray that just listening would make me speak stronger. I don’t hear her speak Polish often. Having a child out of wedlock is un-Catholic. Even more so is dating women, and none of my Polish family ever wanted to meet one of my mother’s girlfriends. But part of it must be my fault. They don’t know how to react to me, my mother’s American daughter. They speak to me in halves. Half Polish, half English. So our house formed a chalky shell of silence, and I suppose it was natural, then, for the beast to grow here, dormant and embryonic in our care. We live with it in an egg of our making.

A whole other wish is that my mother speak Polish to me. I am eighteen and my tongue cannot sculpt the right sounds. My lips choke out brief sentences. My teeth grind words to dust. The language is fragments for me, shards of glass I have pieced into a broken mirror that distorts my reflection.

We eat our last meal together, lasagna. My mother collects our plates. What food we don’t finish she scrapes into a blue plastic bucket beside the trash can. “It probably won’t like this at all,” she says and lifts the bucket. “Still, it’s lasagna or nothing.” The thing, I think, prefers Polish food. I could not tell if my mother was joking when she told me that, a cigarette hanging limply between her lips as she smiled and said it, but she doesn’t cook, anyway, and she says the salt in all the food from home makes her sick. It tastes like she’s eating her mother’s tears, she says.

I listen to her feet, heavy down the steps. A quiet falls over the house, a hush. The flapping in the cage stills. I don’t know when the bird arrived, before me or before I remember. The flapping of its terrible wings at night as it wrestles against the cage. I hold my breath. I count my heartbeats until I hear her trudge back up the steps. I used to worry it would devour her in all its hunger. I worried it would break free from the cage and lumber through the halls of our house, all the way up to my room where it would wrap me in its leathery wings and smother my face with oil-reeked feathers.

When my mother returns, the bucket is empty.


The thing in the basement wakes me at dawn with the terrible clang of its beak against the cage. Restless, it moves and picks its way across the bars. The thrum of the metal bars shivers up the walls and into my room. Even with my ear pressed to the pillow, I hear it, hungry in the darkness downstairs. The restlessness of its movements, beaks and claws and feathers.

I lie in bed listening to the clunks and rattles like morse code messages. Feed me, it seems to whisper through the bones of the house. Feed me. And I feel the pang of hunger in my own gut.

It is just me and the beast in the house now. The house is empty like a stomach that needs filling.

For an hour, I lie in bed, unmoving. Sometimes the creature settles. There is silence, and there is rest. The house feels like a dollhouse, and I trick myself into feeling alone. But each time my limbs twitch or I take a deep breath or I shift the blankets to cover my nose, the cage rattles once more as if the creature watches me, as if it knows me.

Eventually, I push the blankets back. I get dressed without making the bed. I brush my teeth and rush out the front door without passing through the kitchen for breakfast. I spend the day wandering between friends’ houses and various parks where I sit on a bench and sketch the birds in the trees until it grows dark. Then, as I walk home, I wear my headphones to bed so I don’t hear the chipping of keratin against metal.

My mother video calls me the next day. She remarks on her mother’s thinness and frailty, and she asks if I want to speak to Babciu, but I shake my head. I cannot remember the crackle of her voice right now. It would be too much to hear it. She asks if I have been eating well. I nod. She does not ask about the bird, but I see the question in her eyes before I make excuses to hang up.

It is quiet when I do, but it is quiet of the listening kind.

I hold my breath and listen back.

Here there is nothing but the quiver of the refrigerator’s motor and the gentle rustle of kitchen curtains shifting in the breeze. The silence is full of waiting. I feel the beast’s hunger, but the guilt is not so heavy that I can’t turn up the volume on the TV and finish the last bag of pretzels before going to bed.

I dream of anger. A cloud of birds swoop down on me and nick the flesh of my skull with their razorlike beaks. Feed us, they hush and murmur as they circle overhead. The birds flock like starlings, changing shape until they become one enormous creature that flaps its wings at me and roars, Feed me.

On the third day, I collect food in the bucket and stand at the top of the stairs, staring into the dark. Remarkably still is the quiet that meets me. Heavy with waiting and a slow, creeping patience. A breath of rustling feathers in the dark. The bucket grows heavy in my hand, so I set it down and leave for school.

The fourth day, the fifth, the sixth. I cut up scraps of macaroni and keep them to myself. I eat them cold on the front step.

In my solitude, I wonder what it means to be whole. I knew a girl in elementary school, Karolina, who had just moved from Poland. I invited her over to my house and hoped she’d feel less alone. She and my mother spoke quickly, and I dashed along the ripples of their conversation like a pebble over water before I sank back into incomprehension. Both of them smiled as they talked, and then Karolina turned to me and asked me something in Polish. I still don’t know what she said. Then, in English, she asked, “Why don’t you speak Polish?”

I shrugged and tried to play it off as we ate the candy and drank the syrupy peach juice my mother picked up at the Polish store that morning. “I can’t remember how.”

At school the next day, Karolina only played with the real Polish girls, the ones who spoke it at home and went to Polish school on the weekends. I wonder what it means to be all one thing instead of two functioning halves.

My mother again calls on the seventh day. It is the afternoon here, nighttime in Poland.

“How are you?” Weariness carves her voice to bone.

“I’m fine. How’s Babcia?”

“She’s hanging in there. She needs a lot of help.” I can picture my mother feeding her and combing her hair. “Do you want to talk to her?”

My throat seizes. I lick my lips.

But before I have to answer, my mother clicks her tongue. “Ah, never mind. She’s asleep. How are you?”

“Fine. It’s great.” I force a smile. “Quiet. I can finally read in peace.”

My mother clicks her tongue. “You miss my noise, I know it.” Then her face solidifies, serious. “Are you eating well? You look thin.”

I nod.

“Good,” she says. I don’t know if she believes me. I study myself in the small frame in the corner of the screen, and I compare my face to hers. I sometimes wonder if I would look more like her if my face muscles learned to speak her language or if my accent echoed her own. “What about—” She stops. “You know.”

I swallow hard and glance at the top of the stairs. The deepening dark. The empty blue bucket. “It’s all fine.”

She runs a hand through her brown hair. The color makes her look old. “OK. I have to go. Call me soon.” The line goes dead. I put down my phone and pour myself a glass of milk. I sip. A sour taste coats my tongue. I gag. Milk’s gone bad. I pour it down the sink.

All night, the bird settles and unsettles in the cage. Feed me. Its heaving breaths. Feed me.

But the hunger gnaws at me too. I have to get food. In the morning, I leaf through the envelope of cash. I sip a breath and wind my scarf around my neck.

The Polish store is five blocks from home. I walk along the curb of a busy road, balancing my way to the squat plaza with the last remaining video rental store in town. Dead leaves and mud congeal in the gutters. Nest-building birds flit across the sky and make homes in the hollow letters of the plaza signs. In bold red light-up letters over the last shop: Polski Sklep. The bells chime when I push the door. My damp palms leave prints on the glass.

The Polish store is small. Three rows of shelves backed with jarred pickled food, a deli counter, and a section for loaves and loaves of fresh, golden rye. The air smells lightly of mushroom soup, salt, and rosół. A rack of Polish magazines and calling cards stands upright beside a display of hand-folded lollipops that shine like stained glass flowers. Lambs sculpted from sugar, offerings of Easter baskets, line the shelves behind the counter. As a kid, I once tried to eat one whole. I bit the white head from its body and spit its sweetness back up.

An old woman behind the counter looks up from her paperback. She smiles a grin with one blackened tooth. “Cześć kochana.” This must be her, Pani Jagoda. Her gray hair is combed back into a fat bun. She is short, stout, grandmotherly, but not like my babcia, who is tall and proud and dyes her hair plum red. This woman’s nails are unpainted, and her clothes are plain echoes of the countryside. Her hands, pinked, wrinkled, and snarled into arthritic claws. She smells of rose perfume and butter.

Cześć,” I echo, unsure it’s the correct response. The syllables are like playdough on my tongue, cloying and poorly formed, and I cannot bring myself to look the woman in the eye.

She puts the book down. “You need help finding something?” she asks in English.

I clear my throat and pick up a jar of red currant jam, sweet and thick as blood. “I’m here for food.”

Her laughter rips through the shop as she throws her head back. “You come to right place. You are Małgorzata. Your mother told me you will come.”

My name in Polish pushes on me like a stack of stones. No one has called me that since I was in Poland ten years ago. “Maggie,” I say.

The woman nods, tipping her chin back to get a better look at me. “Skinny,” she says. “I will pick some things for you.” Her back turns to me. She roots through various plastic containers. “Your babcia’s name is Małgorzata.” Her tongue gives an accusatory click. “How she doing?”

“She’s sick.” I pick up one of the lollipops. When I was a child, I wished for a church with candied windows. I have faint memories of Babcia holding my hand as we walked through the village I visited every summer of my early childhood, laughing as she dared me to lick the church windows to see if they were sweet. The air was thick with summer, linden flowers weighing down the boughs of the trees.

I don’t know when or why I stopped visiting. Somewhere in my memory is the language, buried deep like old treasure, something that allowed me to speak to my babcia. But we stopped going when my parents divorced, when my father left with all the money. And at home, Polish wearied my tongue. My father, Illinois in his blood, did not want my mother speaking Polish to me. He wanted to understand everything we said, no secrets kept in his house.

“Your babcia is strong,” the shopkeeper says. Her face creases with her smile as she opens the deli case.

“You know her?” I tug on my braid.

“Yes.” She ladles thick soup into a Styrofoam container and seals it before tying the container up in a plastic bag. A length of sausage, a few breaded pork chops, pierogi, cabbage krokiety. Hunger is a growing hole in my stomach. My eyes follow the food. I didn’t realize how hungry I was. “We went to same school.”

Instead of happiness, I feel guilt. How could I not have known? Why don’t I know this woman?

“Freeze this.” She bags the food and totals it out. “Come back when you will finish,” she says.

I bite my lip and pay. “Dziękuję,” I manage, but it comes out strangled and childlike. Two plastic bags are heavy with home-cooked meals.

Her forceful eyes back me away from the counter. “Talk to your babcia.”

I loop the bag handles around my wrists and avoid her eyes. “I will.”

As Pani Jagoda settles back in her chair behind the counter, I catch a glimpse of her thin, wrinkled feet in her leather pantofle. They are narrow and clawlike, talons, like the feet of a chicken. I pretend not to see and rush out the door.

The hunger grows, grows until it becomes me and I am hunger on two feet, homebound. I am a block from the store, walking along the busy roadside with cars splashing past, when I reach into the bag. I eat the krokiety first without heating them up, tear into the fleshy rolls of dough and let the sauerkraut sting my tongue. The crumbs stick to my fingers. I lick them clean and eat another, another, until I finish the pack of rolls and move on to the kielbasa and cold pierogi.

At home, I lay out the remains of the food on the counter. Pork chops, sausage, dumplings, I make myself sick and I eat past the rock of fullness in my gut. I heat some of it up and keep some of it cold, and I chew, I chew, I swallow.

Deep in the bones of the house, a clang as sharp as ice stills me. I lower the forkful of potato and listen.

My heart, a bass drum. There, again, the scrape of keratin against metal. Feed me, it demands.

I swallow the last mouthful of food. I glance at the blue bucket near the top of the stairs.

Feed me. A long, drawn-out raking of claws, a shudder of horrible feathered wings. Feed me.

I stare at the remains of food on my plate and the diminished sprawl on the counter. The grease stains on my fingers glisten.

Feed me.

I gather the scraps and shove them into the blue bucket. I clutch the handle on the bucket to keep my hands from shaking. For a moment, I am frozen there at the top of the stairs like a picture in a frame. Silence settles in the basement. I wait. I wait to hear the wings or claws against the cage, but there’s nothing, and, briefly, I wonder if I imagined it all, the cage, the beast, the food, the beaks.

The first few steps I take, I take slowly. The part of my home I don’t visit is dark and cobwebbed. The air, cool. The walls slimed with damp. It stinks of mold and detergent.

The steps creak under my weight, and with each sound, my breath hitches in my throat. I feel my way along the wall, faded floral wallpaper peeling at the corners. My joints are stiff with reluctance.

I reach the bottom of the steps. The concrete floor bleeds the warmth from my body.

All around me is a darkness, the kind that is deep and hungry. It eats up all the sounds around it, and I see nothing. Nothing is a comfort, for a moment, just the blanket of black, and maybe I can convince myself that there never was a monster down here.

Something shifts, the sound of a feathered wind folding against a body. A rustle like a whisper: feed me.

I do not move forward. My eyes adjust to the light.

There, in the corner, stands a cage. Inside is a hulking dark figure, hunched. It does not stir.

I place the bucket on the floor and search for a light switch, but there isn’t one. There’s only a gas lamp on the floor with a box of matches. A circle of grubby light spills out of the lamp when I light it.

Raising the lamp to the beast, I inch closer, and where the light touches it, the bird shudders and stretches its dark brown wings in the cramped confines.

I stumble back. Even with the wingspan bent as it is, the creature is twice my size. I shine the light on the unpreened feathers, the starved form, and raise the lantern to its face.

The bird has two heads. Two hooked beaks of an eagle. Both necks crane toward me. Bright eyes collect the lamplight and hold it and me in their space. The bird is half starved. Its talons clutch a thick perch, and it reaches one up to rake against the bars. The vibration of the metal riles my spine.

I step back and pick up the bucket. “I brought food.” My voice shakes. I do not want the thing to lunge at me. I want it to know I’m here to help.

The eagle heads regard me with plateaued coldness. They do not know me. I am a stranger in their eyes. A stranger who has starved them.

This thing is mine to care for. There is no luster to its dark feathers. The heads droop at me. The eyes are deep-set and weary. I hold my breath. If it dies, I would have failed my mother.

I reach into the bucket and pick up a cabbage roll filled with meat and rice. I offer it through the bars of the cage, standing on my toes to hold the food to its beaks.

The bird backs away, a sudden jerk of motion as it recoils.

“Eat it,” I beg. “You’re hungry. Eat this.”

The eagle heads blink. The beaks stay shut.

I hold the mush up to the hooked beaks. “Eat it,” I say, voice raw. I grab the eagle’s head and shove its beak into my palm. “Eat it.

One head jerks away, the other snaps at my hand. I drop the cabbage roll and reach for a sausage.

But I can see the bird struggle to lift its own wings. “Just eat this,” I beg. “Eat.”

But the bird shuffles along the perch away from me, away from the food, away from the stranger I am.

I grip the bucket and toss the food into the cage. Half of it lands near my feet. A sob chokes my throat. “Eat.”

The eagle shudders its wings and the whole cage rattles. One of the heads stretches upward and opens its mouth in a cry. Jestem głodny. Nakarm mnie.

The other stares at me, dark pupils ringed in gold, then opens its mouth to a voice that is raspy and broken. Feed me. Feed me.

This is a creature of halves. One head speaks English, the other speaks Polish, and I wonder how much they understand each other. Does this thing understand itself? All it understands is hunger. It does not know me. It does not trust me. The heads nip at each other like warring things. Nakarm mnie. Feed me.

“Just eat!” I thrust my hand deeper in the cage. “Just take it.”

The sharp beak closes around my hand. I yelp and jump back to inspect the wound. I back away, blood dripping from the gash, and I can’t take my eyes off the eagle. When I back all the way to the stairs, the beast bows its heads as if to hide or sleep.


My mother used to tell me stories, sing me a song of a witch. Baba Jaga. I used to walk around the house with my older cousins and chant, gdy nie śpisz…jak nie zjesz…Something has always been coming for me. Maybe this is it. Maybe this thing has always been it.

I sit on the closed toilet with my knees hugged to my chest. I bandaged my hand an hour ago, but the wound still throbs. I ate all the food, but my stomach is unending. I hold my phone in one hand and think about calling my mother, think about speaking to Babcia, but I cannot bear the pain in her eyes when the exchange is limited to stageplay dialogue:

Maggie: Jak się czujesz?

Babciu: Dobrze, dobrze. Plecy mnie bolą, ale jest dobrze.

Maggie, mouth drawn into a sad O, I don’t know how to respond. A hurdle, a roadblock, a dead end.

Babciu: Jak tam w szkole?

Maggie: Dobrze, dobrze.

I wish I knew how to be a better daughter, a better granddaughter, but all I have ever known is what I am. I put the phone back in my pocket.

It starts out as a walk to clear my head. I take each step as it comes. I dodge puddles. But then my feet move faster, and suddenly I am running. I am trying to outrun the hunger, the grief. I run, run, like I am heading toward something, and then I realize I am.

I stop before the door of the Polish store. The daylight is fading now. I hold my breath as I walk through the door.

The woman looks as though she’s been waiting. She smiles from her perch, eyes and lips crinkled in a knowing smugness.

I hold up my bandaged hand. “I need help.”

Pani Jagoda clicks her tongue. “I know you do.”

I bury my face in my hands. “It won’t eat. It doesn’t know me.” I steal a glance to check if she understands.

For a moment, I think she is about to turn me away for babbling nonsense, that she doesn’t understand what I mean. But she nods, slowly, and clasps her hands in her lap. “It should not be locked up that way.”

“I didn’t!” I protest.

She waves a hand. “You, your mother. Same thing.”

“I can let it go,” I say, stepping toward the counter, my knees buckling. “Just tell me how.”

“It would kill you if you tried.”


I whisper, “I just want it to leave me alone.”

The woman shakes her head. “It is too sick to be alone. It needs you. You need it.”

Pani Jagoda reaches into her pocket and takes out one pisanka, a vibrant wooden egg painted with intricate folk-floral patterns. The sight of it rings a bell in me. Did I once collect these eggs? Did I once try to eat them too?

“Take this,” she says. “It is good food for starving things.”

The pisanka falls heavy in my palm. It is as holy and splendid as a fresh Easter egg. There is the hunger in my belly again. It calls out to me and draws me closer. “Thank you.”

As I walk home, I inspect the pisanka, bright blue and painted with crossing lines of white dots and dark blue flowers. It fits safely in my hand. I can close my fingers over the glossy painted surface.

I tuck the egg in my pocket and keep walking. I pick my way over gray puddles of rainwater and think about pisanki. I must have collected them one summer in Poland. I had a basket of them near my bed, and I picked a different one up each night, described it to myself out loud in Polish to practice colors: czerwony, żółty, zielony, niebieski, fioletowy, różowy, czarny, biały. At last when I had tired my tongue, I laid the egg beneath my pillow while I slept. Did I imagine myself to be a hen who could hatch life from an egg? I always wondered what a creature from one of these would look like. Is this beast it?

I reach the house and descend into the basement to check on the beast. I brace myself as I turn on the lamp, but when I see it, it no longer frightens me. The creature is so frail and thin, the feathers that should shine are matte and mussed. Have I killed this awful, beautiful thing? Has it died with me?

Good food for starving things. That is what the woman said. I reach for the pisanka in my pocket. It shines in my palm even as my hand shakes. I offer it through the bars.

But the bird does not move. Both heads stare down at me with cool resolve. Am I supposed to pick one head to give it to, left or right? It has two mouths, and I only have one egg. I offer the egg to the left head first, but the bird turns its beak away, so I stretch to the right one, and the bird snaps at me again. I am quick this time. I draw my hand back and step away.

They are starving, but they are not hungry.

I feel the pain of hunger in my own gut as round and heavy as a stone. My arms are weak and worn from holding them up to the birds. Somehow I am wasting away even still.

Good food for starving things. I raise the wooden egg to my lips and shape my teeth around the gold and blue paint. I bite.

What I taste is as soft and warm as a fresh boiled egg. The pain in my gut subsides and I am crying, tears streaking down my cheeks so hot I wonder if they leave burn marks. I take another bite, another, until I finish the egg, and I clutch my stomach as I cry. I double over, press my eyes to my knees and let the sobs roll through me.

I think of Babcia and wonder how she remembers me. Does my mother show her pictures of how I have grown? Does she tell her where I struggle in school? Does she rue the sound of my accent? Does she never want me there again? She is sick and I do not belong there.

The bird interrupts my crying with a loud screech. I jump to my feet. One head lunges at the throat of the other. The hooked beak clamps down, one ready to rip the voice from the other. Feathers rain around me, dark and damp with blood as the beaks tear at one another. The bald patches beneath the feathers are pale and raw, pink and bleeding.

Stop!” My scream fills the basement.

Both heads freeze.

Przestańcie,” I say. It comes out smooth and rounded.

Kończymy,” the bird heads say back. “Już kończymy.”

At first, I reach into my mouth and pinch my tongue between my fingers. It feels the same, but cooler. I lick my lips and taste salt. To the bird heads, I ask, “Rozumiesz mnie? Me?” and they bow their heads. “Ucz się ze mną. Please.”

I bow my head back and run my tongue along my teeth. I taste the salt of my tears in my mouth.

A gentle clink pulls my eyes up to see the eagle beaks open, asking to be fed.