The tinny scrape of silverware cut through the starched air of the Taylors’ dining room. Grace stared into the flickering light of a candle, sitting in its tarnished brass holder on the table and casting a weak light that barely made visible the family’s china plates and the pale skin of their hands and faces. Occasionally, her father would dip to meet his fork and the light would catch white hints of age marring his recently trimmed and otherwise lush obsidian hair. Their gray clothes bled into the penumbra of the room. They were six disembodied heads and twelve marionette hands dancing about in the black. Her family ate and conversed in low tones while Grace waited for Anna to bring her dinner. She cleared her throat, and her mother’s head swiveled violently in her direction.
Stilted footsteps preceded the opening of the dining room door, through which Anna entered carrying a covered silver dish. She placed it on the linen tablecloth, curtsied stiffly, and made her way back out of the room with the same automaton, jerking rigidity with which she had entered. Grace lifted the lid, hand seizing when it revealed a small tangle of black and white hairs. She looked up. Her mother was methodically cutting her dinner into small pieces, and Gerald and George were fully engrossed in their own slices of beef. When she looked to her father, his black eyes grabbed her dull browns, lips wet with meat drippings, teeth gleaming in a smile. She started and he was questioning John about work at the bank.
In the plate, she could see the distorted reflection of her own eyes looking back at her, the rest of her face obscured by the nest of hair. The scraping of silverware continued.
“Mother,” Grace said.
Her mother stopped cutting, glancing down to her daughter’s plate.
“Yes?” she asked, looking back up.
Her mother tisked and resumed cutting. Gerald and George had stopped eating and were watching her. Grace waited for them to comment, but they simply turned to each other, communicating in that silent way unique to twins. Gerald gave a minute shrug of one shoulder, and the two turned back to their meal. She wanted to protest, but there seemed no place for her to interject without taking someone from their dinner or their conversation, and the muscles of her neck went taught at the thought of again drawing out her father’s smile; there was an unsettling feeling of vague remembrance in the red moisture on his lips, a shade at the back of her mind that lingered there, indistinct, a constantly shifting form like smoke that snakes and undulates in on itself.
She picked up her fork, inserting the tines gingerly into the strands, and teased out a few hairs. She made to raise them to her mouth. No one seemed to be paying any attention, but even with his head bent over his meal, her father’s shoulders were tensed, vibrating, waiting and willing. Without further thought, Grace took the fork into her mouth, squeezing her eyes shut as the thin, dry strings of hair met her tongue. Her father exhaled a low sigh. She let the strands sit there and breathed slowly through her nose as she tried not to register fully the stringy sensation. Her heartbeat picked up, a loud pulsing of fluid in her ears accompanying the heat now rising up the high collar of her dress to her face. Her hand was clenched and sweating around her fork; her mouth was filling with saliva that threatened to spill through her lips if she didn’t do something. Still breathing carefully, she sucked her tongue back, gathering the hairs at her throat, and forced a swallow. Her gag reflex convulsed, but she forced contraction after contraction of her esophagus until the hairs were down far enough that she dared open her mouth to take a sip of water while stifling the urge to retch or put a hand to her neck. A few more cautious sips and the last hair gave up its tendril grip, slipping down into her stomach as Anna entered the dining room once more. The door beat rhythmically against the jamb as it swung back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, finally circulating a light breeze in the room and drowning everything else out until Grace couldn’t tell the difference between her own heartbeat and the swinging door.
Amy Kotthaus is a writer and photographer. Her written work has been published in Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Yellow Chair Review, Occulum, and others. Her photography has been published in Storm Cellar, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Moonchild Magazine, Crab Fat Magazine, and others. She currently lives in Maine with her husband and children.