INTRODUCTION BY LUCIE SHELLY
Reading Jennifer Sears’s “Foragers” raises a question I have never answered to satisfaction: what is the difference between passion and obsession? Both require compulsion, to an extent, though perhaps passion uses it, while obsession fuels it. One sounds emotional, inspired, the other sounds corrosive, sinister — but sometimes I wonder if there is a true difference, or if they’re just two names for the same thing. Then I read a story like “Foragers” which concerns a group of five anorexic friends, and I know that there are things that require obsession, but in a way that is utterly clinical and dispassionate.
“Foragers” follows the meetings of Cat, Angelica, Susan, Lisa, and Melinda, who spend their afternoons in the library referencing anatomy books to calculate the weight of parts of the body, and documenting the information. They are in search of the “perfect minimum”: based on the necessary weight of their organs and other physiology, what is the least they can possibly weigh, and how can they get there? Their meetings take the shape of an extracurricular activity, like debate team or mathletes: “Every Tuesday and Thursday at the table on the balcony, each girl set out a calculator, a spiral notebook, and a silver water thermos — with no history of contamination! — purchased just for those afternoons.” As they tally the numbers, they are secretly competitive with one another. They will sacrifice all other activities, relationships, and small joys to reduce themselves. And of course, as the skinniest girl, Angelica, makes clear, eventually they must literally sacrifice their bodies: “It was simple, she said. They’d read the facts at their very table. Animals, when nearing their minimum, lose their peripheral vision…. ‘Human minds are the same,’ Angelica said. ‘My peripheral vision is gone.’”
This story originally appeared in a different form in a 2007 edition of So to Speak, a feminist journal produced at George Mason University, and it invokes a feminist-angled narrative that is common in dystopian fiction: women forced to sacrifice their bodies for a given end. Sears reframes this narrative. Her characters self-sacrifice; anorexia is their science and their philosophy. The story’s language is lean and precise, and the background — a library, school girl days — is deceptively benign. The obsession and, in its most disturbing form, the passion that these five girls channel into their disorder is not speculative or farfetched. After months of work, one girl, Susan, begins to ask questions, saying, “Didn’t they know their goal was impossible?” In this potent capsule of fiction, Sears gives us a realistic picture of what happens when an obsession cannot be fulfilled: the compulsion becomes a mania.
Associate Editor, Recommended Reading
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“Foragers” by Jennifer Sears
Every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, the girls met on the second floor balcony of the public library at their favorite table next to the two-story window overlooking the street. Cold wind pressed against the glass as each girl arrived wearing coats under coats, mittens under mittens, heavy turtleneck sweaters, and, buried far underneath, two layers of socks custom made by a local needle champion known for her perfectly turned heels. Her tightly knit masterpieces had become a secret emblem for their club.
In the girls’ minds, the table on the balcony was their very own. It had exactly five chairs, a sign! The table was meant for them. They’d come to expect it on those afternoons, demanded it when necessary, and the librarians acquiesced, cowed, the girls believed, by their unyielding demeanor. They were, after all, very good girls who knew to whisper in libraries. They never giggled or sang. They never brought boys. They were self-sufficient, requesting assistance only when necessary.
“We never use the word help,” the girls agreed.
Their favorite librarian knew which books the club needed — large reference volumes with detailed plates and illustrations — always the same books. On slow afternoons, she even had the books waiting on their table. The other librarians sometimes scolded her for encouraging them. Why, the girls heard them say.
Their librarian was curious and perhaps a little jealous, the girls decided.
“She wishes she could be one of us,” Cat said.
The girls smiled around their table. The librarian could never be one of them.
Initiation into their club had been a silent process. Each girl recognized her self in the others. Their shadowy habits were the same. At school during the terrifying shuffle between classes, they were the girls who crept close to the walls to avoid the stray arm or backpack that might bump or bruise their refined bodies. They were the girls who turned away from people they’d known their whole lives.
Everyone watched them. Everyone wanted to interfere. They were the skinniest girls in school.
Every Tuesday and Thursday at their table on the balcony, each girl set out a calculator, a spiral notebook, and a silver water thermos — with no history of contamination! — purchased just for those afternoons. Together, they filed to the drinking fountain where each girl watched the next fill her thermos to the same line. No member was allowed the satisfaction of knowing she had the least water weight inside herself during their meetings.
Other patrons watched their procession. Periodical readers gazed up from the floor below. Returning to the table, the girls set down their thermoses, opened the books, and began.
First, they consulted the Anatomy Coloring Book containing black and white line drawings of the human body neatly divided into subsections and systems. Dividing these among themselves, the girls turned to more complicated volumes and medical books that identified parts and organs in Latinate terms printed in microscopic fonts that made the girls feel like scribes divining codes from mysteries begun long ago. Adding the weight of each organ, the weight of each bone, the mass of each muscle, the club searched for the body’s purest weight: the perfect minimum.
Equations, facts, and diagrams filled their notebooks. The female encephalon: 44 ounces. Spleen: 7 ounces. Each ovary: 1 to 2 drachmas. The club adored the organs willing to downsize along with them: “…the combined weight of both kidneys in proportion to body weight is 1 to 240.” The heart stumped them with its riddle: it grows heavier throughout life, resulting in a proportion of 1 to 149. But how heavy was the heart at their age, sixteen?
Melinda began with the Digestive System, teeth to rectum and, on completion, advanced to the Organs of the Senses: nose, eyes, the labyrinth of the ear, the tongue. Susan worked on the Great Groups of Connective Tissue, including cartilage and bone. She complained the most. Scientists were always leaving things out, avoiding specifics, and wasn’t being specific their very job? Some sections and parts were described with no mention of weight at all!
The girls shook their heads. Even the scientists were against them.
Lisa Simon, a former math champ during the days when grades mattered, tried to determine how the each member’s skeletal frame might affect her perfect minimum. She assessed their proportions — this girl shorter, that taller — in combination with bone density. But when she asked each girl to divulge the exact measurement of her wrist, they all refused.
They knew Lisa Simon was jealous. Lisa Simon was the biggest in their club.
Along with her investigation of the Female Organs of Generation, Cat coordinated the project, tabulating their results in a yellow notebook. She made sure no member hoarded information for herself. Angelica, the skinniest member of the group, sat next to the window. Cat didn’t make her do numbers. Angelica simply observed their diligence with a distant smile.
Calculations and numbers filled their pages as they worked through the winter. Snow banked and drifted around the maple saplings in the parking lot across the street, but the club still arrived, never mentioning the shocked stares of faraway relatives who invaded their lives during the holidays and tried to interrupt their routine.
Though they were girls who often caught colds — girls teachers didn’t expect to see at school anymore — no member ever missed a session with the club. What if the others learned something? Found the secret? Got ahead?
In February, they returned to the knitter’s studio for new socks to reward their perseverance and to help them remember at all times that they were chosen — a club.
The woman shuddered when they explained why they needed extra pairs. Not enough fat left on the bottom of their feet. Their heel bones pressed too sharply against their soles, pricking the inside of their skin. On that same visit, they asked the knitter to embroider on each ankle an ancient Greek line drawing of a pomegranate they’d found in a library book.
“An insignia,” they begged. “A special symbol meant only for us!”
To their surprise, the old woman refused. “Girls, girls,” she said, grabbing Cat’s bony shoulders in her hands.
On the second floor balcony of the library, the girls all indulged Angelica. A delicate presence with enormous blue eyes and a pale frizz of hair, Angelica had popularized fainting spells at school. In her seat beside the window, Angelica sat motionless for hours or consulted an anatomy book made for artists and drew human figures. The club admired Angelica’s drawings though one disturbed them, a detailed silhouette of the female body filled with tiny circles. Cells, Angelica explained.
The implication of those circles overwhelmed them. So many numbers, so much work still ahead!
Other times, Angelica told stories. In the story they loved most, a specialist told Angelica she fascinated him. As her mother watched, he made Angelica stand naked in front of a full-length mirror. She shivered as he brushed his fingertips across her bare collarbones.
“How do you do it?” the specialist asked.
In the mirror, Angelica saw her mother begin to cry.
The girls nodded around the table. They all made their mothers cry.
The specialist touched the reflection of Angelica’s eyes. “Tell me,” he said. “What do you see?”
The club listened with envy. Angelica’s eyes indeed set her apart. Her eyes seemed to grow larger by the week as her cheekbones sharpened below them. The club, too, had wondered, could Angelica see something more? As they worried over details, foraged through facts in pursuit of one number, did Angelica know a simpler truth she hoarded for herself?
Angelica was the skinniest, and they could all see she was getting even skinnier!
Finally, Angelica offered a hint. They’d read the facts aloud at that very table. Animals, when nearing their minimum, lose peripheral vision. Their minds rule out distractions. Nothing exists but the hunt. They see only the prey in front of them.
“Human minds are the same,” Angelica said. “My peripheral vision is gone.”
The other girls nodded, anxious for the day their minds would free them from distractions, when even their sight would get skinny!
Tracking her eyes across each face at the table, Angelica said, “I see nothing but numbers in front of me.”
Angelica was the first to be taken away.
On the first Thursday in March, Lisa Simon was late. As the club waited, sun gleamed across their table, reflecting off three silver thermoses. Though they never spoke of Angelica or took her empty chair, each girl wondered if Angelica was still holding out, restrained, as girls sometimes were, to a hospital bed with an IV unit dripping calories into her, counting butt squeezes and tiny stomach crunches beneath the white sheets, making contractions so small no one would see?
During sleepless nights, each member prepared and practiced such things.
Lisa Simon still hadn’t come. The girls filed to the fountain, filled up their thermoses, returned to their table, and began.
Halfway through the session, a car drove into the parking lot across the street. As Lisa Simon ran toward the library door, the club saw her pretty stepmother get out of the car. She looked toward the upper part of the window.
“I’m sorry,” Lisa Simon whispered when she reached their table.
The club kept working.
Lisa Simon wanted to explain. That day in school, a boy in her physics class, a boy they’d all known forever, had walked toward her desk while the teacher was out of the room. He must have forgotten no one talked to them anymore, Lisa Simon said. Had they noticed? People only stared and whispered about them now.
The club continued with their books and numbers. Lisa Simon was speaking too loudly. She was ruining their reputation. They were after all very good girls who knew to whisper in libraries. They didn’t waste their time with silly boys.
Lisa Simon went on. That boy said he could see she needed help. It was obvious, he said, that she needed things. He offered to get things for her. For them. The club. Everyone in this town is on something, he had whispered.
The other girls pretended they hadn’t heard the numbers cheapened in that way, their project dismissed as a passing phase, a self-absorbed game. They knew people blamed the influence of fashion models, foolish girls who were cheats in their eyes. It was easy to be skinny with such long legs. Those girls needed cigarettes and drugs. Those girls needed money and fame. They needed help because they got skinny for other people. They didn’t understand the inspiration, the purity, or the discipline of the numbers. No one understood. They, the club, were like no one else.
“I told,” Lisa Simon said.
The club looked out the window. Lisa Simon’s stepmother was still there. She was looking for them! Angrily, the girls turned back to the project. The numbers would never betray them.
“I’m sorry,” Lisa Simon said again.
Lisa Simon was the biggest in their club. She was not one of them.
Lisa Simon was the next one taken away.
In April, as the club worked in the balcony, a group of popular girls and boys from their school entered the library and took a table in the periodical section on the first floor. The club leaned closer to their numbers, but they couldn’t block out the sounds of those boys. They heard boys slapping each other on their backs, boys telling jokes, boys laughing with each other, boys laughing with pretty girls among the newspapers, chairs, and tables.
The club worked even harder.
One boy jumped on a table and began stomping. He shouted back at a patron who stood up and complained. The popular boys and girls laughed harder. Other patrons turned to watch.
Even the club stopped their work. Susan went to the metal railing that edged the balcony and looked onto the first floor. Her movement caused one of the girls to look up. She pointed. The popular kids turned. The other patrons looked to see what had silenced the room. Everyone stared at the club.
It was a test! The popular boys and girls were sent to test the club’s allegiance to the numbers. Cat opened the yellow notebook and began to recite from their collected facts. “Fat is first detected in the human embryo during the fourteenth week,” she whispered.
Fourteenth week Susan and Melinda recorded in their notebooks.
The kids below began laughing again. They laughed louder and louder until one of the librarians escorted them through the front door.
“Thank goodness,” Cat said after the library resumed its order. She closed the yellow notebook. “Thank goodness those children are gone.”
Susan and Melinda nodded though they all watched the group walk down the street, the stupid boys with their stupid arms around the stupid girls.
“Those kids are always laughing,” Susan said. “We never laugh.”
Cat and Melinda turned back to their work.
Susan said she was sorry. She was interrupting the routine, and the routine had been tried enough for one day. But she couldn’t stop noticing how much those kids laughed. Their laughter distracted her more than the looks and stares.
The club kept working.
Susan went on. Were they even supposed to happy? She needed to know because her family wanted her to be happy. They wanted her take pills, Prozac or Elavil. They didn’t understand. There was no way to learn the calorie count of those pills. How would she know how many leg lifts and sit-ups were needed to cancel out the numbers swallowed with those pills? Doctors might even inject calories into them. How could she be happy if she couldn’t do her equations? Her mind would never rest.
The club kept working.
Besides, Susan said, there was no time to be happy. Adding up the fat and calorie count of everything she absorbed. Subtracting the expenditure of every activity, even walking — 3 calories per minute — and breathing — 15 calories per minute. The calculations and facts never ended. She memorized the calorie count of food she only looked at and food she’d never seen. Things like shad — 71.5 calories per ounce — and roe — 40 calories per ounce.
Shad, the club noted, 71.5 calories per ounce. Roe, 40 calories per ounce.
And the project, Susan said, didn’t they know their goal was impossible? The eyeball, embedded in the fat of the eyes’ orbit. Their tongues — fat, muscle, and nerves. Their fingertips, everything they touched was translated through layers of fat.
Eyeball embedded in fat. Tongue — fat, muscle, and nerves.
Susan watched them write the words in their books. She asked, didn’t they know their task was impossible? Even if they decided on the perfect minimum could they imagine stopping? Wouldn’t they still have to beat it? Wouldn’t they still have to beat each other?
“I’m sorry,” Susan said again.
Susan was the third one taken away.
At their table on the balcony, Cat and Melinda continued the project. They even kept up the water fountain routine though it seemed ridiculous to them now. They knew Susan was right about the project. A minimum wouldn’t allow them to stop. What were they without the numbers? They would still have to come to watch each other.
One afternoon, Melinda put down her pencil. She pulled off her socks. Her face flinched as she stood, her heel bones pinching the skin of her bare feet against the linoleum floor.
“Each night,” she whispered to Cat, “I make myself walk. One step for each number left. I want my body to feel what’s left.”
Melinda walked slowly along the edge of the balcony. Sunlight streamed through the two-story window, illuminating her narrowed face and the remaining fluff of her hair.
She gripped the metal rail. Her fingers — knuckles, tendons, and bones — echoed the anatomical drawings in the books on the table.
67. 68. Both girls counted each step. When Melinda stopped, she smiled at Cat. Both of them knew. Melinda was the skinniest.
Smiling still, Melinda rose onto her toes. She pulled herself onto the rail and leaned farther over the periodical section.
Cat turned back to their work. Melinda was breaking the rules, threatening to take that easier, obvious way out! She was stealing Cat’s chance to get ahead.
Cat yanked open the yellow notebook and searched for an entry that described how bones, when starved, begin to stockpile fat in their marrow. The club had read the story aloud. As they got skinnier, their very bones would sabotage their efforts, hiding more and more fat in their innermost recesses. Cat would remind Melinda it was useless to cheat in that way. She would only land in pools of her own fat that had long been preparing, waiting to thwart her.
But when Cat stood to read the passage aloud, Melinda was gone. There was no disturbance in the periodical section. Had the numbers told Melinda to step back, to start counting again? Smiling, counting, feeling each number left, she must have walked to the stairs and crept her way down, away from the project and away from Cat.
Melinda was the fourth girl taken away.
The next Tuesday, on the second floor balcony of the public library, Cat sat alone. Their favorite librarian had set out their books.
The librarians, the patrons, who would notice first the other girls had disappeared? Where are your friends? Cat expected someone to say. She would explain the project, its clear objective, and the organization of the data. The idea was mine, she would say. Because hadn’t everyone been watching? Couldn’t everyone see?
She was the skinniest girl in school.
Cat opened the yellow notebook and wrote: I win. I win. I win.