Note: There’s this fan community I recently joined that hosts an annual writing contest called Project Ink. I applied, surprisingly got accepted, and made it to the second-to-the-last round. Each of the bi-weekly rounds had the participants write short stories following prompts. I had the choice to build a new world with each new round, but I didn’t. Instead, I built the Cecilia Canon – a series of stories about this woman named Cecilia, her daughter Claudia, and her unnamed mother who all look like Eva Green.
Project Ink Applications: Description Challenge. Max 1000 words.
The Dinner Table
Cecilia stares at the dark dinner table and recalls the last time she had been seated there.
She had been only ten then, just a slip of a girl who was more often in her school uniform than out of it. For that dinner at the Perezes, however, Mama had gotten her a new dress – blue with the pattern of white flowers and curls. It came to rest on her knees, and she loved how it swished when she moved. Mama had seemed sad, however, as she watched Cecilia in the mirror. Tonight was their only chance, she whispered, holding her daughter’s hand. If the Perezes refused to finance Cecilia’s tuition, she would not get into St James. They would never escape their smelly apartment, their dangerous neighborhood, or their difficult lives. They had to do well.
Cecilia stared at her reflection and felt rather like a secret agent.
That night, the dinner table had seemed even longer and darker than it actually was. At its head loomed Santiago Perez, frowning at the plastic fruits arranged on the Lazy Susan. He was imposing and dignified with his silver hair and thick mustache, but the way he pushed the carrots around his plate reminded Cecilia of her pickiness that always drove Mama to tears. To his left sat his wife Almira, who was possibly the slowest person Cecilia had ever eaten with. She moved unhurriedly, but not indolently, as though she had all the time in the world to waste. Entranced, Cecilia watched her – from the way she brought her fork to her lips to the way she rubbed the lipstick off the edge of her glass. She would glance at Cecilia from the corner of her eye, before turning away again.
These fragile creatures – Santiago and Almira – were not the type one would ever see in the district where she and Mama lived. Cecilia thought of the rotten beams in their apartment, comparing them with the high ceiling of the Perez house. The sideboard behind Santiago alone was probably worth more than all of their furniture combined, or perhaps the porcelain vase filled with lilies on top of it was enough. Even the dinner plates looked expensive, Cecilia noted, observing hers. It was unduly heavy, its edges trimmed with what glinted like gold, and the vegetables piled on it seemed to do it a grave injustice. Frowning, Cecilia tried not to push her carrots away – she would have, had she been at home. Mama was watching her with a worried brow, and she had promised to be on her best behavior tonight. She sent her mother a small smile over the feast that was laid out between them.
Santiago suddenly threw his napkin down and stalked off into a side room. Mama scurried after him, and suddenly, Cecilia felt vulnerable without her mother. To shake off the tension, she amused herself with the details of the room instead. The dancing light from the chandelier fell on the gilded frames of the portraits on the walls and made the metal windows on the far end of the room shine. Beyond them was a garden bathed in quiet moonlight, its roses resplendent and full. Cecilia stared at them, lined up in neat rows, and wondered how her mother’s childhood in this house had been. Why, she wondered, would anyone leave this place?
An abrupt movement caught Cecilia’s eye – a maid was changing the plates for dessert. The woman, who was portly and pale, considered her for one long heartbeat, before giving her a familiar smile. When she left, however, Cecilia found herself looking back at Almira Perez, who held her hands on her lap and watched Cecilia mournfully. Her lower lip quivered and her eyes were rimmed red, as though she had not slept for many nights. It was then that Cecilia realized how Almira had Mama’s face. They shared the same fine bones, dark hair, and rich brown eyes. Whereas Mama’s eyes were always tired and worried, however, Almira’s seemed empty.
Perhaps Mama would be the same when she was older. Perhaps Cecilia would, too.
Mama returned. She was crying, her mascara running past her cheeks and into the folds of her peach dress. Almira stood and turned to her, but Cecilia was faster – she was hugging Mama’s waist before she knew it. As they walked out of the room, holding onto each other, Almira reached out and touched Mama’s hand. But Mama’s tears fell more heavily, and she tugged at Cecilia with force, wrenching her out of Almira’s fingers. Cecilia’s last memory of the room with the dinner table was that of Almira, standing alone under the chandelier. She might have been crying, too.
It had been nineteen years since.
“I thought you grew up poor,” a voice abruptly says close to Cecilia’s ear, startling her from her reverie. “Then I find out your grandparents left you a fortune…”
She turns and finds Nick observing the sideboard, which has been marked with a red tag like most of the furniture in the room. He frowns. “Are you really selling all this?”
“I don’t want any of their things.” Cecilia crosses her arms. “Look, Nick. Can’t you just wait in the car? I’ll go find the agent, and then we’ll leave.”
Nick shrugs but doesn’t complain. He leaves and the silence returns, but the room no longer sparkles. Where there had been carpets in Cecilia’s memory there are now only cracks on the marble floor. The windows that look into the garden are broken, and the roses there have been overrun by weeds.
Cecilia runs a hand on the dinner table, if only because it is the one thing there that looks unchanged. But when she lifts her fingers, she finds dirt clinging onto them – a thick layer of dust accumulated over years. Cecilia scowls in disgust at her hands, and without one last glance at the room, walks away.
This time, she leaves on her own terms.