We All Ate The White Flesh
This story was originally featured in the award-winning "Shadows and Teeth" anthology.
It all began with that damned turnip. I’m sure you’ve heard the story, although it has been twisted and changed so much in the retelling over the years that sometimes, when I hear it, I barely even recognize it myself anymore. Suffice it to say that once there was indeed an old man and once he did indeed grow an enormous turnip. It took him, his wife, his daughter, two strong horses, and me to pull the damn thing up.
I wish we never had.
It had been a brutal winter. My own parents had died, frozen in their timber hut when the last of the oil for their lamps was used up. The mountain paths had been made treacherous by snowfall and it was some weeks before I found them. Mercifully, the cold had preserved them. We ate well as a result.
With nothing left to me other than a few old tools, their cabin, my mother’s books, and their frozen flesh however, I found myself an orphan and beholden to my beloved’s parents for my very existence. They were good people but, with the icy winds rattling the windows in their frames and snow forcing its way under the doors, an extra mouth to feed was hardly welcome. My father had been a hunter, my mother a schoolteacher. Prey was scarce now, thanks to the snow and ice, and there were no children to teach. Neither my bow nor my educated words were of use.
So my beloved and I trudged out daily to search for firewood, winter berries, and whatever other flotsam the snow brought with it. Reduced to scavenging, how I wished I had more to offer her. Unlike my parents, who lived in one of the high places, my beloved’s family lived at the bottom of the valley. The flotsam and jetsam of other’s misfortunes found its way here, drifting down on the snow or tumbling into the valley on the small avalanches that were an almost daily occurrence. We kept our young eyes peeled for lost things. We found an entire carriage once, fallen from one of the high roads. We knew it had fallen recently, for the flanks of the dead horses were still steaming in the cold. On top of the carriage was luggage; furs and good winter clothes. Inside, the owners were dead and yet, like their steeds, still warm. My beloved and I snuggled amongst them and, for the first time in a long time, rutted without fear that frostbite would cripple my manhood.
We dragged the luggage back through the snow before returning with my beloved’s parents to turn the carriage into firewood but, alas, some other animals had found the thing by then. The horses had been partially devoured and there was a grunting, snuffling sound from inside the carriage that chilled my bones more than the snow or wind ever had. My father had taught me to recognize the many cries of both beast and bird, yet this was unlike any sound of any animal I had ever heard. We counted our blessings of new winter clothes and returned to our small house, bolting the door behind us.
And thus we weathered the bleak winter, surviving by the whims of blessing and fate, waiting impatiently for the snows to end. When they did, the old man declared that we must prepare for the next winter better, now that there were “more mouths to feed”. At first I assumed he meant just me, before I felt my beloved squeeze my hand and place it against her warm abdomen.
To his credit, the old man took me under his wing. I had proved my worth, it would seem, through the winter - either with the bounties I had brought from my excursions out into the snow or through my successful impregnation of his daughter. In either case, he seemed to take it upon himself to impart to me all his knowledge and wisdom. In particular, he wanted to teach me about turnips.
The eventual retreat of the snow had revealed the paltry lands that the old man laid claim to. See nothing more than a few tracts of frozen dirt supporting nothing of note, I began to fear that the summer might be as spartan as the winter had been. The man’s genius, however, lay with matters of the soil. He took handfuls of it and rubbed it between his fingers, holding it to his nose and breathing deeply of it. Being from hunting stock I knew nothing of farming, but some of the rituals appeared to be the same as those my father had taught me. The old man seemed to search the ground for fertility in the same way that my own father had taught me to search for the scents and tracks of the animals that called the high places their home. I watched, tried to learn what I could of the old man’s esoteric practices, and helped him with the planting. I suspected him a little mad, but resolved to wait and see what underground fruits his labors would grant us before I judged him unduly.
Alongside my adopted father I cared for those turnips as carefully and as dotingly as I cared for my expectant beloved. I forbade her from searching for firewood, or from fetching and carrying for her mother and father, taking on her familial chores atop my own. It was not chivalry on my part, understand, but a very real concern for her health. The child grew quickly, leaving my beloved increasingly pale and weakened with every new expansion of her girth. Her mother clucked and fussed, muttering in some old language that I had no knowledge of. My beloved begged me to pay it no heed, but I saw the dark and haunted look on my adopted mother’s face as he watched the growth of our child. She feared it, and I could not fathom why.
The months rolled on. My beloved shrank still, becoming like an appendage to her own swelling belly. Her mother continued with her dark and incomprehensible proclamations and I, for my part, begged the old man that we might harvest early. Food had become scarce once more and the nights grew dark more quickly than before. There were strange sounds in the valley, sounds that none of us could recognize, but that put in mind of whatever creature we had heard but not seen when we had abandoned our claim to the ruined carriage that we had found in the winter snow. Thinking back, those noises where the last animal I had heard in our valley. I hunted less and less, not because I was settling into the life and ways of a farmer but because, in hindsight, there were simply no animals to hunt. Save our neighbors in the next valley and whoever might have clung on in the high places were I no longer walked, we were the only living things there save for the trees. The trees, and the turnips.
A few weeks later, the old man came to me consumed with a great excitement. Unable to give voice to the reason for his excitement, he dragged me instead half-dressed, out into our turnip field. There, he showed me his discovery. He had begun to clear the thin covering of soil away from the tops of our turnips, ready to pull them from the soil. What should have been several turnips however, appeared to be just one. Where the purple topped white flesh of the turnip should have ended, leaving space for its brother, it did not. Where a new sprouting came up it appeared to be from the same vast dome of turnip flesh that extended in all directions through one corner of our small turnip patch.
I found myself as speechless as my mentor, down on my hands and knees and scrabbling around in the cold dirt in search of an end to the enormous turnip. All in all, working backwards and forwards, we came to the conclusion that the thing must have been some ten or more feet in diameter. Around it, all the other turnips were shriveled and dead, as if the very life had been sucked out of them by their gigantic neighbor. Befuddled, we could nothing other than trudge in silence back to the cabin for our strongest digging tools and some rope. We had grown, it would seem, a quite incredibly large turnip.
This next, I assume, is the story that you know. The story of how we huffed and we puffed, pulled and heaved, and how we had to draft in help from the old woman and from my beloved before we could even feel the slightest movement in the thing. Eventually I was sent to negotiate the loan of two strong horses from our nearest neighbor in the next valley and, with their help, we were eventually able to liberate the thing from the ground.
With more help from the horses we half hauled, half rolled the thing back to the cabin. The old man, who was naturally given to being suspicious even of neighbors who loaned him two horses with little or no explanation, decreed that the turnip was hidden behind the cabin. We kept the thing up against the house, providing it with as much seclusion as we could.
I returned the horses swiftly and was greeted at home by the unmistakable aroma of turnip soup.
I ate heartily, hoping to encourage my beloved whose appetite had diminished every bit as much as her frame had expanded. She did manage some of the repast and I was pleased to see some color return to her cheeks.
My happiness however, was short lived. The next morning my beloved’s mother bade me cut some more flesh from the enormous turnip that she might begin cooked a turnip stew. I didn’t dare cross the woman by asking what the difference between turnip stew and turnip soup would be, especially with the absence of meat from our diet for some months. Accepting my grim turnip dominated future, I took the knife she offered me and went to the turnip. To my surprise, the area that had been cut away the day before had regrown. Moreover, the thing seemed in no small way to be larger than it had been the day before.
I walked around the thing, looked underneath it and at as much of the top as my height and ability to leap would allow. As far as I could see the turnip was as whole and pristine as the day that we had plucked it from the ground. Suspicious that I was the victim of some strange prank, I carved my initials into the turnip’s hard white flesh next to the area from which I cut away a generous portion of the thing. I gave the old woman her slice of turnip, and her knife, and said nothing.
That night, before I took myself to bed, I inspected the turnip again. The flesh I had carved away had regrown. I was sure of it because, next to the area that was once more whole and perfect, were my initials. The flesh there had regrown as well, but not enough to not leave a faint impression, like an old scar, on the thing’s side. I was no expert on turnips, or any other vegetable for that matter, but I knew that there was something very wrong with this thing and resolved to voice my fears to my beloved’s father the following day.
A night of fitful sleep followed, my dreams plagued by the notion that a new turnip would grow inside of me from the flesh of I had eaten that evening in our turnip stew. I looked at my beloved’s swollen body and marveled at the life growing inside of her, the thought of it quickly dispelling my concerns about myself, replacing them instead with poisonous, odious thoughts of what devilment might befall my unborn child if it fell foul of the turnip’s influence.
The following morning, I found the old man inspecting the turnip himself. He was measuring it with a length of knotted rope. I looked at the knots and was fearful for a moment of how much more the turnip had already grown. The crown of the thing now threatened to eclipse the roof of the cabin and the girth of it was such that the old man had used nails to help hold the rope around it.
We did not speak of it except when the old man asked to borrow the knife I had with me so that he could cut himself some turnip for breakfast. His hunger, plainly, outweighed his curiosity or his fear. After he was gone, I sat and stared at the part of the turnip where had had cut. Under the white and purple skin the flesh was pure white and I watched, fascinated and horror struck as the thing rebuilt itself slowly before my eyes. Suddenly alive, the flesh probed forth in worm-like tendrils as if the thing were infested with maggots. Layer by layer, as the vile worm-things writhed and left fresh turnip flesh in their wake, the thing grew back. As it reached fullness, the outer skin of the turnip seemed to also grow, or at least stretch, until the new flesh was covered over and the squirming things vanished.
I took my beloved aside that morning and forbade her from eating any more of the strange, gargantuan turnip. I avoiding explaining my reasoning and promised to hunt later than day and bring back some real meat for her and our child. She was dutiful and obedient to me, even when I returned from my hunting empty handed.
That night, she wailed and thrashed in our small bed in the throes of some terrible agony. She clutched at her vast belly and I swear I saw the shapes of hands and feet pushing out against her taut skin. They could not have been hands and feet though, I knew it even then, because there were simply too many of them. Whatever they were, they pushed out in all directions at once and put me in mind of the horrors I had seen beneath the skin of the turnip. I was yet again plagued by the question of what eating the vile thing might have done to us all and the terrifying thought that my beloved was not swollen with child but with a writhing, seething nest of pale maggots. Her cries of anguish brought her mother and father to our small room, where mother fed her hastily cut and fried slices of the gargantuan turnip, all the while admonishing me for my failure to take care of her daughter and her child. Before I could begin to explain what I had seen and why I did not want my beloved to eat the flesh of the strange thing that we had grown, the old man took me out of the room. We did not speak, but with a simple shake of his head he forbade me to share with either my beloved or his wife what we both knew.
The next day the old man and I rose together in the early hours and took our axes to the turnip. We worked quickly and, at least on my part, ferociously. The more I cut into the thing, the more of the strangely pearly white flesh I cut away, the more disturbing and malevolent the thing became to me. I don’t know what I expected of it; perhaps I expected it to scream, or to tremble, or the reveal something else strange and otherworldy in its dark heart, but it failed me on all these counts and more. It remained a turnip, albeit a vast one, and as we chopped and hacked at the thing it dutifully came to pieces and lay motionless on the ground. Of the worms-things, there was no sign and I began to wonder if I had imagined them as my mind struggled to comprehend the unnatural regeneration of the thing.
The old man gathered up some of the flesh and filled some sacks that he took inside. The rest he helped me shovel into our barrow, bit by bit, so that I could take it down into the woods the bordered the land that we considered to be ours. I up-ended barrow after barrow of the shiny white turnip into the woods. I thought perhaps it might bring out some of the forest creatures, as rare as they were, then chilled my own heart with another unbidden memory of the thing that had eaten the horses that day. Was it out here, somewhere in the dark woods? After my final trip I doubled back and made sure that I had left no trail for any creature to follow back to our cabin.
That night, an awkward silence presided over the dinner table. We dined on turnip, albeit in significantly smaller portions that before. My beloved and I excused ourselves early and retired to our beds. I watched her as she slept fitfully, waiting for slumber to take me also. The exertions of the day should have left me exhausted, but I was too elated at being rid of the turnip to fall to sleep easily. I gingerly touched my beloved’s abdomen, feeling no trace of the strange movements I had witnessed before, and believing us in that moment to be free of the turnip’s corrupting influence. It was destroyed, and we were free.
I was woken in the night by a strange sound from somewhere in our cabin. It began as a groaning, then quickly grew to a shrieking. I rushed from the room I shared with my beloved, colliding with her father who had also be roused from his slumber. Quickly, we tracked down the source of the noise. In the cabin’s small pantry, the chunks of turnip in their sack had each began to grow back to their normal size and shape. Each had become a fat, shiny turnip of its own, bulging and expanding with each passing moment. Already bigger than the sack, they had burst loose and were now pressing on the walls of the pantry. The groaning and screeching came from the wood, which seemed ill-disposed towards constraining the growth of the turnips and howled with the effort.
We looked at each other in desperation before grabbing our axes and chopping once more at the turnips. As we cut them through, we grabbed the pieces and tossed them out in the night, as far from the house as we could. For a while, it seemed that we were fighting an unrelenting tide of the things; each bulging tuber of hard white flesh bigger and expanding more rapidly than the next. At last, as the sun began to paint the front of the house, it seemed it was over. I cleaved the last swelling turnip in two with my axe and tossed it, bisected, out of the front door. The turnips we had thrown out previously had continued to grow and their long shadows crept towards the house as the sun rose above the valley’s rim.
Exhausted, the old man and I sat there and watched as the turnips not only continued to grow but seemed, through some unseen force of motility, to turn their green frond heads towards the sun. The old woman and my beloved joined us, and we watched in mute disbelief as those same turnips began to turn on their own axis, burrowing slowly down into the loamy soil. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, they sank into the Earth. Had it not been for the movement of their shadows on the ground and our rapt attention to them, I wonder if we would have realized that they were moving at all. I was struck again by their malevolent sameness, their featureless aggression. I hated them.
Utterly drained, I managed some broken sleep that morning, the old woman promising to wake me should any new strangeness occur. My beloved lay beside me and I felt the movements again from within her belly. Was it cooking the turnips that robbed them of their unnatural ability to grow back, or was it some feature of our human digestion that rendered them down past the point from which they could return? My thoughts once again turned to what dire effect the abominable white flesh of the turnips might be having on our unborn child, and it was these horrors that kept me from sleep.
The old man, who had slept better than I it seemed, had been inspecting our field. Only one turnip remained above ground, the original that I had scarred with my initials days before. It was somehow whole again and returned to its resting place at the back of the cabin. I imagined it, huge and pale, rolling slowly up the house, its purpose unknown and unfathomable to us all. Were they alive, these things, or simply mobile in the way that any flower will turn towards the son? But, if that were the case, why would it return here rather than bury itself deep in the ground like the others had? The old man also told us that, in the woodland, he had found animals as well, split open from inside as best he could fathom, their guts scattered about the place. Victims, I surmised, of the foul flesh of the turnips. At least one of my guesses was correct, only the heat of the cooking pot or the acid of a human stomach could render the vile things inert.
I proudly told my beloved of my conclusions but, far from being elated, she sat down on our bed and began to weep. I held her in my arms, thinking perhaps that she was simply overcome with emotion. It was through sobs that she told me that she had been chewing on raw turnip as a cure for nausea, an old remedy recommended by her mother. Thinking of our child, I placed my hand upon her belly, and felt the unnatural movement within. My mother and father had not been God-fearing people, but I whispered a prayer all the same.
The thing was born some weeks later.
I had busied myself, digging down to uncover the enormous turnips one by one and bathing them in boiling water. I cooked them in the very ground where they lay hiding, taking great delight in hacking a chunk from each of them so that I could be sure that they grew no more. We had loan once more of our neighbors horses, and we pulled the great, dead things from our soil one by one. We rolled them to the woods edge and, to be sure of their demise, took axes to them with great ferocity. Every blow I struck, I struck on behalf of my child, revenge for whatever unnatural havoc had been wreaked upon it by these damned turnips.
It was as I returned from one such errand that I was met, half way between the woods and our humble house, by the old man. He was red of face and sweating, having run the entire distance no doubt. I knew in an instant why he had come for me and, without words, we ran as one man possessed back towards the house.
I entered praying only to hear the natural cry of a child or else still the cries of my beloved as she labored. I heard neither. Instead, I heard the most grotesque and yet familiar snuffling and grunting sound, coming from somewhere muffled within the cabin. The old woman blocked my path, a shake of her head and her outstretched palm warning me that all news was ill for both my beloved and child. I slumped against the wall, my stomach a sucking pit of pain as my body seemed to try and fold in on itself, as if I could disappear from the world and be spared this agony. As I recovered my wits and my senses, I realized that the old woman’s clothes and hands were soaked with blood. Her face was wet with tears and the reason that I could hear nothing from my beloved was clear.
Placing my weight on my axe, I staggered towards the door of our meager room. The rough floors were wet beneath my feet. I felt the old man’s hands on me as I crossed the threshold, trying to pull me back. I shook myself loose, determined to see.
Atop our bed, covered by blood and gore soaked blankets I saw a shape. A shape made up of human shapes, but disconnected and decoupled from each other. An arm here, a leg there, impossibly far apart. The rounded lump of a head, mercifully hidden and yet unmistakable. It was my beloved, rent asunder from within and dismembered like the doll of a petulant child.
The thought of a child brought me to my senses somewhat. I dragged myself away out of the room and back into the narrow corridor, following the snuffling, grunting sound I had heard moments before. I forced the old man out of my way, leaving him wailing and beating at the floor in his own anguish. I had no such luxury. I would mourn my beloved but, in this moment, I thought only about my child. I had to know. I had to see.
I found the old woman outside the small pantry, her normally hard face now a morbid rictus. She held a thin knife from the kitchen in her hand as she quietly opened the pantry door. Beyond it, I saw the lumpen shape of the child that had grown in my beloved’s belly.
Fat and slug-like, its flesh was the same pearly white as the turnips, turning purple at the extremities - of which it had many. Tiny arms and legs sprouted along the body of the thing from all angles, all twitching and moving independently. It rose up and on what I took to be its underside, revealed a cluster of bulging eyes and a snapping mouth. It snuffled and grunted, the mouth incapable of any other sounds.
The old woman covered her own eyes and raised the knife above her head.
I felt the axe in my own hand and, before she could strike, I cleaved her head in two as easily as I would have split a turnip. She toppled away, her arm still raised. Her brains spilled from the top of her skull as she hit the ground and I saw within the same white worm-things that I had seen in the flesh of the turnip. They writhed through the blood soaked greyness, leaving tiny bore holes behind them.
The wailing of the old man reached a crescendo as he came rushing down the corridor towards me. How he must have hated me in that moment, the outsider who had brought such ruin on his house. I noticed though that his own axe was lowered as he ran and, as we had done so many times, we communicated without speaking a word. I swung my own axe and took his head.
In the silent moments that followed I found clean blankets and wrapped my child in them. I held it so that I could see its eyes. It had its mother’s eyes, and my own, which seemed like a curious blessing to me, immersed in horror and madness as I was. The snuffling and grunting subsided, replaced by a sort of growling purr. I found some food and fed the thing with nervous fingers. It spat out most food until I happened upon some turnip that the old woman must have concealed from her husband and I, and then it ate with gusto.
I wondered what the creature truly was. I thought about the carriage in which my beloved and I had always believed it was conceived. I thought about the strange noises in the woods, the unseen but terrifying creature that had taken possession of the carriage. I thought about the turnips and whatever unholy infestation had transformed them so.
Like a sleepwalker, I trudged out into the evening with my child bundled up against me. I walked across the dirty, paltry fields, pock-marked as they were with the graves of turnips that had fallen to my axe and bucket. The child mewled in some distress as we passed them, rising to a howl as we reached the woodland’s edge where the turnips lay in great heaps of chopped and mashed flesh. I had heard this sound before, in the dark nights huddled against my beloved. It was the sound we feared in the woods, the sound of creatures unseen and yet terrifying.
I placed my child in its bundle down amongst the turnip flesh and finally the cries were silent.
I kissed it above its eyes, in the place where a human child’s forehead would have been. I whispered to it, giving it my father’s name to take it to wherever it was to go. It was a boy, I was sure. We had wanted a boy. As I backed away, slowly, I wondered how many others there were and if they were all born this way. I felt a sadness at the thought that my child, so beloved even before his birth, might be an outsider in whatever world it was that he was destined to be a part of. I thought of myself, my loneliness now in a world without either family of my own or my beloved. I wondered if a man could be a parent to a monster, as well as its father.
Just as my resolve wavered, just as I stooped to lift the bundle from the floor, I saw them. Dark shapes that moved through the ground just below the surface. Cresting backs that broke the earth, purple tipped appendages that dug and hauled their fat bodies forward, snuffling and grunting. They came in numbers, the things that we had heard in the night, the unseen terrors that had displaced all other life in the valley save for us and the accursed turnips. They surrounded my child, rising up to regard him with blinking clusters of milky white eyes. I watched, breathless, as they swarmed together and dragged him, blankets and all, down into the earth.
They made sounds I had never heard before then.
They were sounds of jubilation.