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  • Writer's pictureNicole Jorge

Feast or Famine

“Tell me, Victoria, have you ever read Edgar Allan Poe?”

Victoria kept her eyes on her place setting through the first three courses. It was no trouble - Uncle Ambrose hadn’t deigned to speak to her before now. But there was no avoiding him as the next dish was served.

“No, I don’t think so.”

Mother made a face. “Oh, Ambrose, Victoria really has no time for reading! She’s too busy with school, and with her friends, like young Georgie. How is Georgie, darling?”

Victoria shrugged. Uncle Ambrose’s eyes narrowed. Victoria sat straighter, pulling her shoulders back, and smiled at Mother.

“He’s swell. Helping his father out at the office after school…filing papers, that sort of thing.”

“Women’s work,” Uncle Ambrose said, shortly.

George Drewes might be an absolute bore, but that didn’t mean Victoria would let her uncle badmouth him.

“Dr. Drewes says it’s important he learns everything there is to know about running his own practice. They don’t teach that kind of thing at medical school.”

Uncle Ambrose snorted and took a long sip from his wine, his eyes trained on Victoria in a way that made her skin crawl.

“Never mind that. I asked you a question, Victoria.”

Victoria started to squirm and caught herself.

“I answered you, Uncle.”

“Oh, didn’t she?” Mother asked, tittering.

Uncle Ambrose ignored his younger sister, as he often did.

“I asked whether or not you’ve read any works by the great American author Edgar Allan Poe. You said ‘I don’t think so.’ Seems to me either you have, or you haven’t. So which is it?”

Tori looked at her plate again. Roast chicken and vegetables, seasoned only just enough to be palatable, like so many dishes at her uncle’s house. There was always plenty of food at Uncle Ambrose’s, more than she could ever ask for. But all of it fought her on the way down.

“I haven’t.”

Uncle Ambrose set his glass down. It clinked loudly against the surface of the dining table, and Mother flinched.

“That’s a damn shame. What are they teaching you kids at school these days?”

“Does it…does it matter?” Mother asked. She managed another smile, tight and ill-fitting on her face, ghastly beneath her thick makeup.

“You know Victoria is plenty smart. Just as much as she needs to be. She’ll do well at that typing course you enrolled her in, won’t you, Vicky dear?”

Victoria hated being called Vicky, but she nodded again.

“Yes, Mother. I’m looking forward to it.”

“Seems to me girls these days don’t know what’s good for them,” Uncle Ambrose said. He picked up his utensils and began to cut up his chicken breast, quick, decisive slices. “I hear that Stone girl is going to college next year. No idea what the hell her old man must be thinking. Should’ve put her in her place a long time ago.”

“Sonia,” Victoria said, before she could stop herself. “Her name is Sonia.”

It wasn’t a correction, exactly, so Uncle Ambrose disregarded it. He turned his attention to Mother instead.

“Are you playing with your food, Deborah? At your age?”

Mother dropped her fork, which she’d been stirring idly through her peas. Startled laughter escaped her.

“Was I? How embarrassing! Vicky, what are you and Georgie planning for prom? We’ll go dress-shopping soon. Your hair-”

“Victoria and I are having a conversation,” Uncle Ambrose cut in.

Mother fell silent. Like a scolded child, she looked down and away. Satisfied, Uncle Ambrose turned back to Victoria.

“We have a library, you know. There’s a collection of Poe’s works there - you’ll go up after dinner,” he said, in a tone that allowed for no argument. “There’s a story I think you’ll appreciate. It’s called The Cask of Amontillado.”

Victoria said nothing. What was there to say? Uncle Ambrose chewed a bite of chicken slowly. Mother’s eyes darted from him to Victoria and back. They watched him wash his food down with another sip of wine, his throat bobbing.

“It’s a fascinating story, really,” he went on. “A man called Montresor takes vengeance against another who’s offended him. You see, this Fortunato enjoys a particular wine called Amontillado.”

“Like you?” Victoria prodded. “You and your wine?”

Uncle Ambrose’s smile was chilly.

“I suppose so. Now, our hero Montresor lures Fortunato down into the vaults beneath his home.”

“Whose home? Montresor’s, or Fortunato’s?” Victoria questioned.

A little sound escaped Mother. Uncle Ambrose stared at Victoria for a moment, frowning, then laughed.

“An excellent question! Montresor’s, I mean. Montresor takes the very drunk Fortunato into the vaults in search of this wine. There, we learn the Montresor family motto - nemo me impunit lacessit. Can you guess what that means, Victoria?”

Victoria shook her head.

No one provokes me with impunity. And down in the vaults, Montresor teaches Fortunato what happens to those who provoke him.”

“What’s that?”

“I don’t like this story,” Mother murmured.

Uncle Ambrose went on as if he hadn’t heard her.

“They die. Montresor bricks Fortunato up down in the vault, leaves him sealed in the wall. Terrible way to go, isn’t it?”

“Awful,” Victoria agreed, dryly.

“I’ve often wondered…must he have asphyxiated, or starved? He was ill,” Uncle Ambrose went on. “Nonetheless, he learned his lesson.”

“I suppose he did,” Victoria demurred.

“You’ve hardly touched your dinner,” her uncle observed. “I work hard to put food on this table, Victoria.”

The soup was sour, Victoria thought. The bread was stale, the lettuce was wilted, the fish was dry.

What she said was “Thank you, Uncle. Sorry.”

Victoria ate the chicken; she ate the cheese, the fruit, the ice cream, drank the thimbleful of port. And after that she went upstairs to the library.

“He takes such good care of us,” Mother often said. “So just…listen to him, won’t you?”

Victoria would listen, now. But she would not be walled up inside her uncle’s home. She would not die there, like Fortunato in a dark hole. And if that provoked her uncle, so be it.

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