I had an inkling as to the location of the door but I would have to wait until my father was at work to begin my investigation. I left the library using an alternate exit to avoid confrontation. I would have to hide the key when time afforded but at the moment I had no alternative but to rejoin the celebration.
Dinner was painful. I watched my mother cut her food into progressively smaller pieces. She rearranged her food, now thoroughly dimensionless, into careful piles. She created illusions of absence. She ate nothing but air. My mother did most of the talking. She talked on behalf of everyone. I could feel her voice tearing at the back of my throat every time I opened my mouth. I could feel her eyes in my skull, like two hooks. ‘Shut up. Shut up. You’ll ruin everything.’ She spoke to me with her hands. She tugged my sleeve under the table. I spoke only when addressed. I spoke in monosyllables and euphemisms. After dinner there was a short recess. I spent my recess in the shadow of my classmates. “Your mother is very thin. Is she sick?” One of the girls remarked off-handedly. “Oh no, she just can’t put on weight. She has a high…” I trailed off a high what? What was I meant to say? The girl waited impatiently. “Standard…” I had heard the words high and standard linked frequently in conversation.
“Well alright then…” The girl shrugged. She didn’t care enough to press me. I searched my mind in vain for the word.
When I entered the kitchen I could tell by my mother’s expression that she had noted, if only just, my presence. Her hand alighted on my shoulder like a frightened bird and she took, what I imagined was, the last breath of the evening. I had prepared an excuse for my unexpected intrusion but it proved unnecessary.
“There you are Eli! Come now it’s time to cut the cake…” She maneuvered me toward the large banquet table in the center of the dining hall. She had tears in her voice.
There were three cakes, one vanilla, one strawberry, and one chocolate presented precisely in that order. It had been determined, after much consideration, that vanilla was my favorite. Strawberry suggested vanity. Chocolate suggested avarice. Vanilla was prudent and therefore the only acceptable choice, I would not even be permitted to sample the other flavors. If it really was that easy to alter a man’s nature then why hadn’t my parents taken more care with their own diets? Why did my father drink? Why did my mother refuse to eat?
My mother pressed the handle of the knife into my outstretched hand, but she was not permitted to guide the blade. I watched her take her seat, her knitted brows drawing out the terror in her smile. For this occasion I was permitted to sit at the head of the table, a designation I neither deserved nor desired. The guests, which existed purely for their own benefit, appeared sewn into their chairs. I stood motionless above the cake. The cake might well have been a body of flesh and blood and I might well have been a recruit in service to an unprincipled war. I swallowed but the lump in my throat could not be dislodged. “Well don’t just stand there Elijah.” My father barked. I slid the blade shakily through the cake. When it was my mother’s turn, I watched her delicately shave away a slice. Paper-thin. Borderline transparent.
I buried the key beneath my mother’s favorite rose bush. She was in the kitchen, embroiled in a war which offered no hope of formal resolution. She would scrub each dish until her fingers were raw from heat and persistence. Once clean she would drop them into the trash one by one, like the shells of discarded eggs. No one dared intercept her pathos and no one dared name it but the cause was obvious. My father retired to his study, drink in hand, he would not speak again until breakfast.
I had been careful not to kneel in the dirt and with my sleeves rolled up past the elbows I believed myself impervious to filth. Against my naked forearms the air was as sharp as a briefly applied cigarette. Not for an external chill but such was the shock of my violation. I had wanted for very little in my short life and had asked for far less but this key held the culmination of all those secret leanings. I patted the earth carefully knowing that my mother would detect the slightest disturbance. If she were for some reason vexed by the sight of the topsoil she might extract the entire plant. The thought that she could kill something she loved to appease her illness frightened me and though I’d never voiced my fear I often worried that my own eccentricities might invite a similar fate.