B.J. Hollars


When the war came they ate every last animal in the zoo. Every ostrich, every elephant—there were plenty of murderers that winter. When the cages grew as empty as their stomachs they turned to loyal pets, though one day even the cats and dogs ran dry.

One afternoon the children of Leningrad just stopped coming home. A stomach was a stomach was a stomach, and someone somewhere was in need of being fed. They were small game, but also easy to catch. A kind word, a friendly smile, a meal was a meal was a meal.

One evening a hungry man ate his arm to keep from starving.

Another night a family boiled the wallpaper to paste, then burned their books to cook sawdust.

Hitler was off fighting a war somewhere, but in Leningrad he wasted no bullets.

Meanwhile, stateside, 36 men in Minnesota starved themselves for science. They were patriots, though when they grew hungry they dreamed no heroics—just of lunatics and old people. Of devouring them, stripping their bones as clean as the inside of a Leningrad zoo. Six-months in, there was nothing left of them but a gaggle of mouths and assholes, skeletons leaning upright against their bunks. Each night they ogled cookbooks like skin flicks, thundering toward climax while fantasizing about the pot roast on the page.

I knew none of this when the seven-year-old me refused to eat his peas. In the Hollars home there was only ever talk of the starving children in Africa—(never Leningrad)—and neither parent adequately defined the word starving. Nor did anyone explain where to position the gun when blowing out an elephant's brain. Many years after those peas left my plate, I began to wonder: Who held the keys to those cages?