by William Michaelian
There was so much food on the table, it appeared the legs might buckle from the weight. For a time, even the family cat was afraid to venture underneath. In the center, from their position high atop an ornate holder, a mass of brightly burning candles illuminated the feast.
According to tradition, the oldest member of the family was seated first. When everything was ready, an ancient man with scarcely enough skin to cover his skull was carried in and placed in a massive cushion-lined chair at the head of the table. Almost immediately, he fell asleep, propped up by several strategically placed pillows. His sons and daughters shrugged; his grandchildren smiled; his great-grandchildren stared in wonder.
As always, there were several guests, many of whom were content to be installed at one of the smaller tables stationed around the edge of the room. A ragged assortment of hungry street people also wandered in; the family�s kindness and generosity were well known. A plate for each was filled without question, after which they were guided to another room away from the main gathering so no one would be disturbed by their presence or smell.
The dinner was fully under way when the doorbell rang and a shy young mother and her baby were let in. The woman was still apologizing when one of the servants handed her a plate heaped with meat and potatoes. Over and over, she said, �I�m sorry, miss, please forgive us,� as if she and her poorly bundled child were guilty of some crime � which they would have been, had someone consulted one of the more outspoken, less compassionate aunts. But the truth of the matter was easy to discern. The mother and child were homeless and had only each other to rely on.
When shown to the room reserved for uninvited guests, the young mother was understandably reluctant to join the other members of her caste. Quietly assuming the responsibility, the head servant, who was a mother and grandmother herself, arranged a small refuge in the kitchen for her and the baby. It was cold in the other room, and even colder outside. The steamy warmth of the kitchen provided a healing atmosphere and helped restore the color to their cheeks.
After the woman had eaten, she relaxed somewhat and began to nurse her baby. Inspired by the warmth, the tiny girl sucked greedily from her mother�s breast. At regular intervals, she stopped to catch her breath. When she did, she opened her blue eyes and looked up at her mother. Her solemn expression could melt the coldest heart; it quickly won over the other girls, who stopped to admire her on their trips to the kitchen.
Overwhelmed by comfort, the baby fell asleep. The unfortunate mother shyly rearranged her clothing. Some of the street people had already left. The rest were almost through eating.
Feeling more conspicuous with each passing moment, the young woman thanked the head servant and stood up to leave. But the head servant told her not to hurry. �Why don�t you sit awhile longer?� she said. �Catch your breath.�
�But you�re busy and I�m in your way,� the young woman said.
�Nonsense,� the head servant said. �I�ve been working here for over thirty years now. Believe me, I know when someone is in the way.�
Reassured, the young woman sat down again.
�My name is Amanda,� the head servant said.
�Thank you, Amanda. I�m Katherine. And this is my daughter, Rose.�
�She�s a beautiful baby. A little treasure.�
Katherine looked at Rose and smiled. The small blanket the baby was wrapped in had worn thin and lost most of its color.
�Here is some tea,� Amanda said.
�Thank you. You�re so kind.�
The tea was sweet and good; spicy bits of leaves and bark gave Katherine the feeling that it was dancing on her tongue.
�Where do you live, child?�
�We don�t have an address at present.�
�Oh. That�s a pity. Are you from here?�
�I was born here. But I�ve been away for a long time.�
�How nice. You�ve come home, then.�
�Well, that was my intention. Now I�m not so sure.�
�It sounds like you�ve had bad luck.�
�Yes. It�s been a terrible time. But I won�t burden you with it.� Katherine sipped her tea. �This is very good,� she said. �I remember having tea that was just like this. A long time ago, when I was a little girl.�
Amanda laughed. �You still are a little girl,� she said. �At least you are in my eyes.�
Katherine smiled. �I�m probably not as young as you think,� she said.
�No, probably not. Anyway, we�ve been making tea this way for years. I learned how from my mother, and she learned from her mother. The recipe goes back ages. I�m sure I couldn�t drink it any other way. And yet, did you know, I�ve heard that some people insist on putting milk in their tea. Doesn�t that sound ghastly? I don�t know how they do it.�
�You�re right. I�ve tasted it. It�s horrible.�
�My, then you have been away. No one around here drinks it that way.�
�Yes. I�ve been all over.�
�That�s wonderful. When I was your age, I wanted to travel.�
�Did you? Where did you go?�
�Nowhere. Nowhere at all. I�ve scarcely left this city. I was seventeen when my first child was born. That took care of everything.�
�You were seventeen? So was I.�
�Really, now. So Rose isn�t your first?�
�No. She�s my third. The first two died shortly after they were born.�
�Oh, that�s a tragedy.�
�It is. But now, I think they may have been the lucky ones.�
�Shh � you mustn�t say that.� Amanda turned away to address a servant who had just come in. �Is our royal highness still asleep?� she said, keeping her voice low.
The girl smiled. �Like a lamb,� she said. �Later on, we�ll wrap him in one of the linens and put him in a drawer. Then we can bring him out for Easter.�
�Shame on you,� Amanda said.
�Yes, ma�am. Of course. Shame on us all, as a matter of fact.� The girl put down the stack of dishes she was carrying and tugged at the clothing beneath her uniform. She looked at Katherine and Rose just long enough to wonder about their situation. No one knew yet, but the question of her own impending motherhood loomed. And the father, if indeed he was one, had already disappeared.
�That girl worries me,� Amanda said after the servant had left the kitchen.
�She knows far too many men.�
�Tell me. Do you have a husband?�
�No. Not anymore. And I�m not so sure I ever did.�
�They can be terrible, I know.�
The women looked at each other. Rose was sleeping soundly in her mother�s lap. For some reason, the happy voices in the dining room reminded Katherine of the sound of waves landing on the shore. They were beautiful and monotonous at the same time. Their rise and fall was predictable, also soothing. Had she known where she and her daughter were going to spend the night, she might have enjoyed listening to them for a long time.
They talked awhile longer. When Katherine confided that she had been beaten by her husband, Amanda�s face grew red with anger. �A man has no right,� she said. �It�s bad enough they are allowed to beat their children, and that it is condoned by society. I wonder what they would think if they weren�t so strong � if they had to accomplish their goals through tenderness, instead of brute force.�
�I think it would be a little out of character,� Katherine said. �Although some women are guilty of the same thing.�
�Yes, that is also true. Unfortunately.� Amanda sighed. �What a world we live in,� she said. �It�s a shame we can�t all get along.�
Katherine agreed. It was indeed a shame. At the same time, though, it didn�t matter, because she knew nothing was about to change. She was young yet, not quite twenty-three, and not very well educated, but she certainly knew that much. What people really needed was a way to survive.
Finally, the time came when both women knew that Katherine and Rose could stay no longer. The dessert was being served. Before long, the women of the family would become restless and start snooping in the kitchen. The men, of course, had more important things to do. There were cigars to be smoked, stories to be told, and old conquests to be exaggerated � or in the case of those just starting out, to be made up altogether.
Amanda wouldn�t let them go until she had put together a generous package of leftovers. Katherine thanked her at the door and said good-bye. It was still cold out. Rose opened her eyes.
William Michaelian�s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian�s other books and links to this site�s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.