Today begins a full week of flash fiction, with a story every day.
by Christine Venzon
Carmen sat alone at the kitchen table, face-to-face with her nemesis.
Before her, a wedge of two deceptively feathery layers, cinnamon-shaded, studded with flecks of real raisins and faux carrot. A band of buttercream frosting separated top from bottom, and blanketed the surface like fresh-fallen snow, adorned with a demure squiggle of orange and a curl of green.
Who’s stronger? Carmen challenged herself. You or the cake?
She knew her foe, from many matches past.
One-twelfth of a boxed cake prepared according to package directions (and it was, easily – church ladies were notoriously generous), 260 calories. Canned frosting, approximately five tablespoons at 70 calories per, 350 calories. One tablespoon raisins, 35 calories. Grand total: 745 calories.
And that wasn’t counting the buttercream carrot.
Her defenses: lifting fork to face and chewing approximately twelve bites (she was practiced in small bites), maybe four calories total. Basal metabolic rate, one calorie per minute. Estimated eating time, optimistically two minutes. Grand total: six calories.
Hardly a fair fight.
Ironic. Her earliest memories of food involved carrot cake. She was six years old, helping her sister with a high school home economics assignment. Just the two of them, measuring, stirring, conferring. They got an A.
And it was a carrot cake her mother baked for her twelfth birthday (at 4’11”, 113 pounds), because horses loved carrots and she loved horses. Eating in silence, she imagined sneaking a piece to the barn (a backyard tool shed in dreary reality) and feeding it to her dapple-gray Arabian stallion (her favorite Breyer model horse). He would snuffle with velvety nose, daubing his whiskers with frosting.
And it was a carrot cake her mother bought when she graduated high school (5’2”, 142 pounds), a beautifully decorated little masterpiece for just Carmen and her parents, the only ones left in that house. Carmen had yelled, “Why do you always try to buy love with food!” and slammed her bedroom door, coming out after they’d gone to bed and eating the cake with her hands until it was gone.
Not that carrot cake carried more weight than the Suzy-Q’s her father brought home from the outlet bakery or the donuts they earned by behaving at church. It was only because it was carrot cake that glutted the table at the Zion AME bake sale outside the library that this particular piece came home with her. Normally she would have walked past, blinders on. But it was late afternoon; few people were buying. The girls looked as disappointed as she often felt when she left work, that bright-lit place of possibilities. There, she thrived on tracking down some elusive treasure, some nugget of critical knowledge. “Madame Carmen,” her coworkers in Reference anointed her. “Knows all, tells all.” The timetable for the Eurostar from London to Paris. Proposal guidelines for National Science Foundation grants in geochemistry. A 14th-century illuminated manuscript of Dante’s Paradiso. Keys that opened a world for another to explore.
So she bought a piece, paying twice the sticker price. And left smiling, because the baker would see that her efforts had not been in vain, and maybe Zion AME’s Salvation Choir could afford to go to the competition in Springfield. And she would give the cake to the neighbor who fixed her screen door last weekend. Then it would have played a noble role, bringing joy not once but twice, and she the unscathed benefactor.
Only the neighbor wasn’t home. Night closed in, her weakest hour, when one piece of cake could push her over the edge, down the fat-slickened slope into the morass of self-loathing. She’d spent 10 years clawing out of that pit, marking the ascent with descending numbers. At 130 pounds, she stopped being ashamed of her body. At 122, she started believing when people said she looked good. At 115, she was almost proud . . .
No one would blame her for falling. But would they love her afterward? Would she?
Who’s stronger? Carmen challenged herself. You or the cake?
At 8:13 p.m. the answer came.
She took a dessert fork from the drawer, the ornate, rose-pattern, pristine, gleaming silver. She raised the plastic wrap from the cake as if lifting a bridal veil. A tide of nutmeg and vanilla flooded her nostrils. Fork pierced frosting, severing a tender morsel that bathed her mouth with luxuriant cream and longed-for sweetness. She stopped counting bites. She lost track of time. She savored each mouthful, mashing the last crumbs with frosting smears on the grease-blotted paper plate.
She had to tell someone. Someone deserved to know what she’d done.
Carmen punched the number on her phone. “Mom? Nothing much. You? I just wanted to . . .” She swallowed the ache in her throat. “I just had a piece of cake. It was really good. . . . Mom?”
In response, breathless silence, then sobs.
Afterward, alone, waves of panic and accusation mounted to a tsunami. She cleared the table, washed the fork, readied the coffeemaker for morning. But routine was too flimsy a shelter.
She sought safety where she’d always found it, before the mirror, naked.
A dying tree stared back, limbs knobby and bare. An aged kayak returned her scrutiny, dry skin stretched tight over a frame of bone. She remembered the question asked of the prophet living in exile, among a people of dying faith: “Son of man, can these bones live?”
Then the vision: “I saw the sinews appear on them, and the flesh come upon them, and the skin to cover them, but there was no spirit in them.”
Then the prophecy: “From the four winds come, O spirit, and breathe into these slain that they may come to life.”
She breathed. Air stabbed her throat and filled her lungs.
At 86 pounds, she was starting to believe when people said it wouldn’t hurt to put on a little weight.
Photo by @eva-elijas via Pexels.com
a beautiful and heartbreaking story. Carmen is such a compelling and sympathetic character.
that last line . . .wow.