She never forgave the fishmonger for cursing the adorable child she was, that day her father took her to the market. All the children liked him; he was a funny man, with a big gut and a laugh that seemed like a whisper, like a steam engine passing through a village at night, tiptoeing over the sleeping rails. He played the very popular trick of the mind on her, none of the kids fell for it but she was earnest. She smiled at him and he gently pinched her nose and showed her his smooth thumb between his fingers.
“Got your snout, little one.” And then again breathed with that small laugh of his; it was all Emilia could hear and the last sane thought to escape her mind when she understood that this man was holding her beloved nose between his fishy fingers. She turned back quickly to take hold of her father’s leg but bumped straight into a table of mackerel; a few of the dead fish fell and tried to break her fall, instead they joined her in hitting the wet ground. And it was that Tuesday, at the tender age of four years, eight months and twelve days that Emilia’s nose took a turn for the worst and would prevent her from being the prettiest and sought after girl in town. She never ate fish again; the smell however sunk deep in her nostrils and rotted away ever since.
She grew up quick, her shoulders reaching for the clouds, her nose lunging for her right ear. She was never teased or made fun of; after all, she was almost the most beautiful girl in the city, and, with time, became as bitter as a pickle. She painted everything she saw with a wet coat of black, as if her eyelashes carried tiny painters with thick brushes, stabbing away at the big canvas of life. She was almost the most courted and most talked about woman in town. Almost. One day a short and pleasant young man, with the most fascinated eye, took her out for walks around the city; he would talk and she would listen, he would open wide topics and she would listen some more:
“ The world is a fascinating object, don’t you think?”
“It never ceases to amaze me.”
“Do you realise we are standing on a road that is six hundred years old?”
“A shocking realisation.”
“ The dirt under our feet has probably seen more people than you and I will ever meet, combined. It has outlived more than five generations of the Dowell family, and will surely outlive many more.”
“Luckily being booted in the face and spat on until we tar it up.”
“If only it could speak, if only it could tell us about the people passing through and what they would have said, of the rows, of the summers, of the rains drowning this road to sleep.”
“It would probably tell us to stop bloody walking all over it.”
The young man never came back but sent his brother, a man of great height and the darkest hair. He also had the deepest voice she had ever heard, so much so that when she first heard him announce himself before entering the house she expected an old man and not a gentle giant. He picked his words carefully and gave them time to climb out of his throat. He would smile at her comments and serve them back to her, as if pushing them out from of a deep cave. No rings could fit his fingers and she laughed with tears when he stood at the altar, her bent nose whistling. They bought a house a year after marrying, the walls holding framed pictures of the days where the groom’s presence wouldn’t surpass his shoulders. The picture frame would coincide with the front door’s and he made every exit head first, the same way his two daughters did, Evelyn and Chloe. Evelyn was born deaf and wrote every day; she would write as soon as she was taught and cried when she wrote names that looked like they would sound beautiful. She could speak and knew a few words, but learned that the speech of a deaf person was like serving the finest meals in dog bowls. Every morning she would write her name in best letters on her right forearm, in case someone asked her who she was, and also because it was a beautiful name. She could tell that her parents had slaved over what to call their first daughter and picked out every syllable. It was the smallest poem anybody had ever written for her and she feared that her voice would not be steady enough to carry it. She read bulimically for a young girl her age, ingesting stories and then pouring them into another book, of her own. She would write about Peter Pan flying over Moby Dick fighting away sharks gnawing at an old man’s catch, while Pinocchio looked out at the bay trying to keep a late rabbit from jumping in the sea. She would eventually write about the words she never said, the songs she never whispered and about her poor little Chloe:
* * * * * *
“She was a small child and she smiled like one; her father always believed she could be a saint or the most prolific murderer ever to wear flower dresses; she could smile and we’d all be fooled. She grew very slowly, so slowly in fact that her parents fed her twice as much as they should have. And she would still only grow at her leisure; eventually they couldn’t cook enough so they fed her candy and glazed chocolates and sugared creams but never cookies. It was not out of will but more out of convenience; the pastry that sold cookies was situated on the outskirts of the city and since the parents were eating their daughter’s sweets so as to set an example, they became fat and lazy. It was one Tuesday night, while having pancakes with hot chocolate, that the couple convinced themselves that cookies would be the answer to their troubles.
“I remember. My mother. Feeding me cookies as a. young boy. And look at me now.”
“I also recall the boys in school having cookies after lunch, and from what I gather they are all tall and broad.”
“In fact. I do believe. That most of the children. Living around this bakery. Are of good height.”
“I’ve heard the steps in houses over there are halfway bigger than ours are here, since people have such long legs.”
“And more than likely the men over there’s trousers are made of two parts, because there’s never enough fabric to cover the two legs.”
“Doesn’t that just. Imply that they. Have the worst tailors?”
“ Dreadful, they use bed sheets as measuring tape, and old forks as pins.”
“ I heard they wear aprons as ties. Tying them around their neck. And wear their tablecloth as a shirt.”
“Well, they may have terrible fashion sense but they seem to know their pastries. We will leave tomorrow.”
I would sit in the same room, reading and looking at them. I couldn’t understand what they said but I learned that day. I learned by watching their mannerisms, and their heads bopping up and down agreeingly; I learned about the fleeing, ungraspable notion of truth. It would be like a clap, alarming at first then questioned; finally it would be spat out, modified and twisted and another note, another sound, another lie I would never hear.
They brought Chloe to the pastry the next day and they were the first customers to enter the shop. There was a big old woman with grey hair tied up in bun, with an apron carrying stains of dough, egg and flour. The couple talked to her as if she were a medicine woman, asking for the best cookie for their daughter. The woman had to bend over her counter to see the little girl hanging from her father’s endless ropey arms. She smiled at her and she smiled back.
“That little girl should come with me. To see the dough and tell me which one would suit her.” She looked in the little black eyes staring up at her, round chocolate chips.
“Is that all right with you, little one?” She said yes with her head and held her arm out; the old lady grabbed her and lifted her to the back of the shop. She turned to the couple:
“I will just be a minute. Just tell the customers to leave the money on the counter and take what they want.” They both nodded and he took out enough to buy a dozen; it was after all a long drive and only right that their other daughter have some as well, although she didn’t need them – she was tall enough.
The baker sat Chloe on a bench and brought out trays for her; she asked her to point to which ones she thought were best, because the perfect cookie should taste great, even just by looking at it. Chloe picked the tray with the roundest, tastiest looking biscuits; the lady smiled and popped them in the oven. Chloe sat there, kicking her legs, impatient. The lady told her not to breathe too hard, that cookie vapours were addictive and that if she wasn’t careful, she would grow a tail. Chloe smiled and kicked her feet some more, then she saw the vapours, caramel coloured and elegant, as if the fog had piano fingers. It danced across the room and, when the old lady left to get herself another tray, Chloe stood up and sniffed in as hard as her little nostrils could. The fog came in fast and slid up her nose, down her throat and into her stomach. She felt like the vapours had gotten into her skin and under her nails, inside her hair and around her neck. It was that Wednesday, twenty four days away from blowing out her sixth birthday candle, that Chloe cursed herself into only being able to smell cookies. From then on, she would taste tomato and sweet corn soup that smelt like chocolate chip; the first lobster she ate steamed of sweet cookie dough. That’s how she lost a little bit of her mind, and a lot of her trust towards everything: everything she knew was trickery, even her senses were lying to her. She could only find truth through her mouth; when a man would court her she would teeth on his hair, to taste if he were genuine and prone to hygiene. She would suck on newborns' fingers and stare into their wide ungrudging eyes. She would gaze at flowers for their colours and their height, the different aromas they had; she had remained small with just one smell, constantly looking up, sad as a sunflower. Spring was the worst time; she could see the ribbons of pollen, carried across the scenery, sprinkled over mates, ecstatic, expectant. She couldn’t smell her skin burning or the first steps of rain, she would look at snow and think of coconut, she’d bite into it and think of grains, she’d bring it to her nose and cry. She never married.
They fished her out one Thursday; she had been missing since the night before. She was wearing her summer dress and had never been taught to swim; she was as white as flour and as tender as eggs, her lungs filled with cookie dough.
My mother cried that day, that week and the nights in between. She cried so much she stopped drinking water, thinking it was just seeping straight out of her eyes; she drank wine instead but got so sick her whole body wept. Everyone would try and comfort her at the wake, and she would just hiccup and breathe back, grateful and drowning in her own tears. Her eyes were red slits at the burial; she couldn’t see the small coffin in the ground; the hole was as deep as the cot she had barely grown up in. When she would sing her syllables and hold out her arms scraping for the ceiling she would never reach. My father cried also: tears slid down his cheeks and hung on to his chin, terrified of the fall they would have to face.
She stopped crying that night. She had wet her eyes so much that everything she saw was drowning; the crows would swim across the damp sky and leak black heavy ink drops that would splash on the murky ground. Her sleeves would leak on her dripping fingers, and her palms would hold little pink pools deep enough to dip an egg in. She would dip in her bed at night and dive in her covers until the sun woke her up, leaking high in the clouds. The world dried up when I started school: she would sing to me in the morning, and I would notice sometimes that she was cooking as much as usual, making my father and I eat Chloe’s portion. We both became heavy, so heavy that I found it harder and harder to get out of a good book, and my father had to walk his meal off each night, carrying his stomach around the streets. Sometimes he would eat so much that he wouldn’t come back until the next morning, with heavy eyes and thin soles, his stomach whole and weeping. He would eat his breakfast and Chloe’s, and then sleep until lunch; he would do so in the drawing room, where I would write. I would try to draw him sometimes: he made the furniture around him look like it was in the distance; the couch would squint at me and I would squint back, until it finally gave up and would sigh, barely upsetting my father. I used three of the thickest brushes taped together for his hair and put a drop of tar in the black paint, the canvas fighting to keep the hair attached to his head. He always looked the same sleeping, his snores falling out of his mouth and bouncing off his round stomach, flying away with the butterflies that trafficked through the window. I would draw them sometimes, or I’d draw pots and flowers, I’d draw shapes that would look like names. I would stretch the letters to portraits, I would paint capitals in king’s outfits: The great King E. The Princes V and W. X the Tyrant burning a village of L’s and R’s with O’s cowering away. The Epic Battle of vowels, where we lost a few good U’s and A’s, and I’s got the military dot of honor. I drew Chloe and the girl she would have been, the flowers she hadn’t smelled yet, the woman she could have become. My imagination couldn’t stretch that far: every time I tried all that came out was a portrait of my mother with a small chocolate chip for a nose.”
* * * * * *
Two summers later, Evelyn worked in a teaching branch for the deaf while the one her father was sitting on snapped. It was a cherry tree, and he would always tell them that the best fruits were at the top; that was why his hair was so dark, because it was ripe and so close to the sun. It was the same hair that hit the ground first, sending him down like a knife on a block of marble, smacking its edge then bouncing down, broken. The cherries were dripping in his hands when his body finally leaned for the ground and snapped his neck like a bread stick.
That autumn, the bricks of their house turned black with grief and they buried the hungry giant where he had landed, still grasping his cherries. Emilia never forgave him for dying in their back garden, but she kept cooking for him. Eventually she ate so much that even her lungs got fat, fatter than her crooked nose could cope with. She would spend all day wheezing, eating slowly and taking rests between each mouthful. Until one Friday, when she left Evelyn and her house, and every one she knew, with one last tired whistle; she had fed herself to death.
Evelyn spent the next two months telling her deaf students about her heartbreak and her loss. They would look at her and nod like grazing cows, oblivious to her broken speech and her grief. From that point on, she hid in her black house and wrote to the people that used to live in it every day. She’d remind them of how she'd thought she would reach old age before her father would finish telling a story, how her mother wouldn’t leave the house without enough food to service a whole regiment, how her sister could walk through acres of cow dung and not bat an eyelid, how she was never taught to cook and how she was most likely to starve out here on her own. And how right she was.