Wife, daughter, and dessert
Since Anya was a little girl, her mother had urged her to marry a rich, older man. “Don’t fall in love with a bum like I did,” her mother scolded, tucking stray curls into her messy bun.
Over the years, Anya watched her mother scurry from the field to the barn to the kitchen, sweating for copper while her father prayed for gold. The family’s meals grew smaller and smaller. Her father became thin and soft, like an overcooked noodle. Her mother became thin and hard, like a shard of bone.
When an extremely rich, much older man asked to marry her, Anya did not object. Not even when he kissed her with wet, over-spiced lips. Not even when he spit tobacco juice into a sticky, stained cup. Not even when he pulled her into his lap and roughly explored her body, probing for flaws as if she were a secretly bruised fruit.
On Anya’s wedding night, her mother explained the facts of life in grim, clinical detail. “Remember to smile,” she said, taking her daughter’s smooth hand in her cracked one. “You’ll be a wealthy widow soon enough.”
As her mother advised, Anya smiled. And endured. But it was hard. Her new husband was playfully cruel. He loved to humiliate people, reveling in their bulging eyes and softening jaws. And he was stingy with everyone but his adult daughters. Anya wore their castoffs and ate leftovers from their plates.
One night at dinner, Anya’s husband told his wife and daughters a rambling story about a servant who had turned out to be a thief. He described the man’s torture in obsessive detail. The questioning. The insolent retorts. The beatings. The flayings. The screams. Anya’s stomach rolled and churned.
Mala, the older daughter whose lean, shimmery beauty reminded Anya of a poisonous snake, gently swayed over each word. But Sela, the younger daughter who was just one year older than Anya, rolled her eyes. And winked.
“And what finally became of that dirty thief?” asked Anya’s husband, regarding his young wife with amused contempt.
Anya gulped and stammered. “W-w-whatever you thought best, of c-c-course.”
Her husband snorted. “I hear the echo of your mother in that cautious, prissy answer. But what do you think? What’s your real opinion? Don’t be such a cowardly little mouse.”
Anya began to tremble. She was hungry all the time, and her nerves were frayed wires, alive with sparks. She was was sure she would guess wrong. She opened and closed her mouth like a dying fish.
Her husband sighed with mock exasperation. His mouth curved into a jocular leer. “You look hungry. Have some food. It will help you think.”
Unlike most nights, Anya’s gilded bowl was full of fragrant stew. She spooned up a morsel and brought it to her lips. She chewed carefully, savoring the delicate quality of the meat.
After she swallowed, her husband grinned, clapping his hands together. “So, dear wife, tell me. What happened to that terrible thief?”
Anya looked at Mala and Sela for help. Mala tittered. Sela’s eyes filled with shame.
“I’m disappointed, wife. Daughters, can you answer my question? What happened to the thief?”
“He’s our dinner tonight, isn’t he?” blurted Mala.
Anya vomited up a frothy mix of stew and bile. She knew she couldn’t endure any more. She needed to leave — or become a widow — very soon.
Anya watched Sela sleeping in a solid gold, four-poster bed. Under the moonlight, her husband’s daughter was a luminous pearl, beautiful and mysterious. She seemed like a brave, kindly girl, thought Anya, but would she really help me?
Anya silently shook her head, answering her own question. As she moved cautiously towards the door, she heard a harsh, whispery sound like a soul tearing in two. She whirled around. Sela was watching her through glittering eyes.
“What do you want, little mother?”
The banquet hall was full of merchants and dignitaries, all seeking favor from Anya’s husband. He sat at the head of the biggest table on the dais, patting his gold-clothed belly. Anya, Mala, and Sela stood beside him like serving girls, each holding a golden platter.
“Now, what have we here?” he asked, avidly inspecting his wife, his daughters, and their trays.
Anya’s heart fluttered. Her words stuck in her throat like a dry piece of toast. Sela elbowed her hard in the side.
“We each made a d-d-essert for you,” said Anya. “We want you to try them all and tell us which one is the b-b-best.”
Her husband chuckled and reached for the gold-and-white frosted chocolate nut cake Anya had painstakingly prepared. She held her breath. She told herself that this time, she would please him. This time, she would win. She had to.
But instead of taking a bite, he smashed her tray so the cake fell to the dirty floor and spattered her golden shoes. She swallowed a sob. She had studied her husband’s tastes. She had bribed the chief chef. Her cake had been perfection. What else could she do?
She barely heard when her husband said, “I certainly didn’t marry you for your cooking. I’m going to taste what my beautiful and talented daughters have made for me.”
Anya took small, hopeless sips of air as her husband took mouthfuls of Mala’s angel wing cake and Sela’s pinkberry macaroons. Despair nestled in her heart. She would always be his wife. She would never leave this place. She blinked away bitter tears.
Sela elbowed her again. “Don’t cry, little mother,” she whispered. “They’re all poisoned.”