An Elegy for the Uninvited
Copyright © 2005 by Kirsten Noelle Hubbard. All rights reserved.
At dinner we start from the outside and work our way in as the men say witty things and the ladies stick out their chests and screech in laughter. There are courses within each course. I pick the cucumber slices from my salad, stacking them neatly on my napkin and wondering if doing so is unfashionable.
Someone, maybe a butler, turns on the stereo, and the room is swollen with classical music. I busy myself by trying to identify the composer. My eyes eventually shift back to the table, where the second course is being laid out before the ladies who are fingering earrings vaguely shaped like tears.
There are lots of little dainty things, little curried things, lady-fingers and tiny meat pastries than melt under the tongue. There’s a boy, and he’s thin and tiny, and dust billows around his ankles as if he’s standing in a current. His eyes are calm but his mouth gapes on his face like a sore. He’s holding out his hands, baby-hands with fat baby-fingers which are curling around terrible gashes, jagged crimson welts, crisscrossed like crucifixes, burnt on the palms of his baby-hands and he’s wailing.
My own palms begin to burn, and discreetly I clasp my hands together under the table. I look down. I need to fix my nails; they’re acrylic, and two of them are already coming off. I raise my eyes and allow them to drift from painted woman to painted woman. I analyze their nails and wonder if anyone else has seen the little boy.
Maybe there are one or two courses in between, but it isn’t until the main course that I sit up and take notice. There’s roast duck in orange sauce, and some kind of flounder with a grape for an eye, and entire racks of marinated ribs, and ripe red hams glistening with honey. Next to the hams there’s an old woman hobbling along the edge of a saucer, her cane tap-tapping on the china. Her neck hangs in folds. Her eyes are like white pebbles pressed into clay, and they’re searching, they’re rolling back in her head, she’s rolling along the edge clutching a shredded bit of blanket over her shoulders. Her mouth is moving, her dry lips forming words but I can’t hear her over the arrogant rise and fall of the music in the background.
I ask the fat man to my right to pass me the saucer with the old woman, but instead he passes me a plate of warm rolls. Thank you very much, I say graciously, and I busy myself with a roll, smearing cherry preserves back and forth with a knife, back and forth with ardor until a few drops fall onto the tablecloth.
I examine the drops. It’s remarkable how much they look like blood. But of course they are blood, drops of blood that growing thicker as I follow them, thicker and darker until they coagulate into a big pool around the body of a dog.
It’s some kind of mutt; maybe part German Shepherd, although every mutt looks part German Shepherd. I chew on duck flesh and think about the dog I owned as a child, the only dog I ever owned. We found him in a field as a puppy, crouching in wind-strewn weeds. He never learned to mind. We had to put him to sleep.
I’m hoping that the little boy won’t notice the dog, but he does and right away hunkers down next to it, squatting waggle-bottomed in that little boy way. He tries to pet the dog but his hands — he forgets about his ruined hands, how could he? — but he tries to pet the dog, and then he is rushing away, his face contorted with agony.
The hostess explodes next to me. She’s in this shimmering scarlet dress, with ridiculous breasts and a nasal voice. Before I can stop her she whips out a napkin and wipes up the drops of cherry, the blood and the body of the dog.
Have to get that up before it stains the tablecloth, she says.
To change the atmosphere I start a conversation with the fat man next to me. He seems pleased that I am speaking to him, though he is self-important and unexciting. He speaks of stocks and bonds and things I have no mind for, but it’s easy for me to nod and watch the table out of the corner of my eye.
I watch as the little boy and the old woman with the rolling eyes meet in the middle of the tablecloth. The boy, still weeping, stretches his hands up to the old woman’s ancient cheeks. She digs her craggy claws into his shoulder and peers back into his dirty, streaked face, his baby-round face, and for an instant her eyes stop rolling. Then she sobs and turns away, and he falls backwards into the dust. He is quiet then but his mouth is still shaped like a wail.
You aren’t listening, the fat man notes. What’s so appealing about crumbs and bones? He squeezes my thigh with his fat hand and laughs.
I’m sick of pretending, so I don’t answer him. I just watch the little boy pick himself up and wander away, holding his useless hands out in front of him.
Dessert is in the next room, the hostess is saying. All the ladies gather their dresses and stand like preening flamingos, while the men heave themselves wearily onto their feet. Couples pair off, with arms burrowing into hooked elbows, fingertips brushing outstretched palms. The fat man tries to take my hand to lead me away from the table, but I won’t leave; I have to see what’s going to happen. There’s billiards in the other room, the fat man says, his voice booming from the gulf of his enormous belly. There’s sorbet and apple pudding. There’s candied fruits and every kind of cake.
I shake my head, and he leaves me finally. I am alone at the table, alone except for the boy and the old woman, who are moving further and further apart.
The soldiers appear suddenly. They rumble along the table in tanks and on foot, swarming over the dirty plates and wading through the pools of gravy. They clamber through the duck carcasses that haven’t been taken away. They peer though rib cages and shoot holes in the tablecloth.
I see the old woman with the rolling eyes huddle under the rim of a soup-bowl, behind a tumbleweed of crumbled napkins. I look away quickly, so no one follows my eyes to her hiding place. But the little boy doesn’t hide. Maybe he’s too young to know any better; maybe his straw legs will break if he runs. The soldiers see him and shout. They flood around him. I listen as hard as I can, and behold, I hear their voices.
Boy, we’ve got you, we’ll keep you they say, but something isn’t right. Their mouths are gentle but their eyes are hard, like little coals, black-coated coals where the fire’s died. Come here, little boy, come to us and we’ll take you. There are so many of them that the frightened little boy can’t help but move towards them; he’s holding out his hands, his blistered hands and he’s wailing, wailing because there’s nothing else to say.
One of the soldiers reaches out and captures his hands, one tiny baby hand in each of his.
But his hands are burning, I say out loud; he’s just a baby and his hands are burning! You can’t touch his hands!
Someone switches off the music in the other room, and the void of sound is more than I can bear. I see a sudden flicker of color in the doorway as the dinner party guests hurry back in the room. They are rushing towards me. They are speaking but I can’t hear them; all I can hear are the soldiers.
Get away! I say. Get away! And the people from the dinner party stop coming; they stop where they are because they think it is them I am speaking to.
But I’m speaking to the soldiers, although they don’t listen as they lift the boy up by his tiny, burning hands, swing him into the air and let go. My mouth is open as I watch the bullets rip into his body, twisting his tiny body into scrap. The soldiers march away, leaving the little boy’s body torn on the tabletop like a shredded bit of blanket, amid the dirt and dust and chewed-up food and napkins.
I look behind me. No one moves. No one speaks. There is no sound except the gentle tap-tapping of a little old woman’s cane as it pokes among the wreckage, looking for something lost.