Previously: The severe meals of Jane Eyre.
We Have Always Lived In The Castle is a book about what would happen if everyone wanted to murder everyone else all of the time. All of the meals eaten therein are either poisoned or should have been. Here all of those meals are, in order of their sinister undertones.
“And how is he?”
“As well as can be expected. Black coffee, please.”
If anyone else came in and sat down at the counter I would leave my coffee without seeming hurried, and leave, nodding goodbye to Stella. “Keep well,” she always said automatically as I went out.
Helen Clarke took her tea with us on Fridays, and Mrs. Shepherd or Mrs. Rice or old Mrs. Crowley stopped by occasionally on a Sunday after church to tell us we would have enjoyed the sermon. They came dutifully, although we never returned their calls, and stayed a proper few minutes and sometimes brought flowers from their gardens, or books, or a song that Constance might care to try over on her harp; they spoke politely and with little runs of laughter, and never failed to invite us to their houses although they knew we would never come.
She turned to smile at me. “Not a bit,” she said. “I’m getting better all the time, I think. And today I’m going to make little rum cakes.”
“And Helen Clarke will scream and gobble them.”
Preserves and Ruin
Once Constance went into the cellar and came back with her arms full.
“Vegetable soup,” she said, almost singing, “and strawberry jam, and chicken soup, and pickled beef.” She set the jars on the kitchen table and turned slowly, looking down at the floor. There,” she said at last, and went to a corner to pick up a small saucepan. Then on a sudden thought she set down the saucepan and made her way into the pantry. “Merricat,” she called with laughter, “they didn’t find the flour in the barrel. Or the salt. Or the potatoes.”
They found the sugar, I thought. The floor was gritty, and almost alive under my feet, and I thought of course; of course they would go looking for the sugar and have a lovely time; perhaps they had thrown handfuls of sugar at one another, screaming, “Blackwood sugar, Blackwood sugar, want a taste?”
Everything Is Normal Here
“The lettuce is full of ashes.”
“Pancakes. Little tiny hot ones. And two fried eggs. Today my winged horse is coming and I am carrying you off to the moon and on the moon we will eat rose petals.”
“Some rose petals are poisonous.”
“Not on the moon. Is it true that you can plant a leaf?”
Don’t Look At Me, Don’t Ever Look At Me
She sat on the rose sofa with our mother’s portrait looking down on her, and I sat in my small chair in the corner and watched. I was allowed to carry cups and saucers and pass sandwiches and cakes, but not to pour tea. I disliked eating anything while people were looking at me, so I had my tea afterwards, in the kitchen.
“Thank you,” she said. Her hand hesitated over the plate and then she took a rum cake and set it carefully on the edge of her saucer. I thought that Mrs. Wright was being almost hysterically polite, and I said, “Do take two. Everything my sister cooks is delicious.”
“No,” she said. “Oh, no. Thank you.”
Secret Biscuits And Cursing
“We’re not going to keep coming, you know. There’s a limit to how much friends can take.”
Jonas yawned. In silence Constance turned, slowly and carefully, back to face her place at the table, and took up a buttered biscuit and took a tiny silent bite. I wanted to laugh, and put my hands over my mouth; Constance eating a biscuit silently was funny, like a doll pretending to eat.
“Damn it,” Jim Clarke said. He knocked on the door. “Damn it,” he said.
Mush And Body Horror
He sat across from me at dinner, in our father’s chair, with his big white face blotting out the silver on the sideboard behind him. He watched while Constance cut up Uncle Julian’s chicken and put it correctly on the plate, and he watched when Uncle Julian took the first bite and turned it over and over in his mouth.
“Here is a biscuit, Uncle Julian,” Constance said. “Eat the soft inside.”
Everyone Is Dead Or Starving But It’s Fine
“Merricat, oh, Merricat.” Constance dropped the tablecloth she was holding and put her arms around me. “What have I done to my baby Merricat?” she said. “No house. No food. And dressed in a tablecloth; what have I done?
“Constance,” I said, “I love you, Constance.”
“Dressed in a tablecloth like a rag doll.”
“Constance. We are going to be very happy, Constance.”
“Oh, Merricat,” she said, holding me.
“Listen to me, Constance. We are going to be very happy.”
Sometimes they brought bacon, home-cured, or fruit, or their own preserves, which were never as good as the preserves Constance made. Mostly they brought roasted chicken; sometimes a cake or a pie, frequently cookies, sometimes a potato salad or coleslaw. Once they brought a pot of beef stew, which Constance took apart and put back together again according to her own rules for beef stew, and sometimes there were pots of baked beans or macaroni.
“We are the biggest church supper they ever had,” Constance said once, looking at a loaf of homemade bread I had just brought inside.
These things were always left on the front doorstep, always silently and in the evenings. We thought that the men came home from work and the women had the baskets ready for them to carry over; perhaps they came in darkness not
to be recognized, as though each of them wanted to hide from the others, and bringing us food was somehow a shameful thing to do in public. There were many women cooking, Constance said. “Here is one,” she explained to me once, tasting a bean, “who uses ketchup, and too much of it; and the last one used more molasses.”
Once or twice there was a note in the basket: “This is for the dishes,” or “We apologize about the curtains,” or “Sorry for your harp.” We always set the baskets back where we had found them, and never opened the front door until it was completely dark and we were sure that no one was near. I always checked carefully afterwards to make certain that the front door was locked.
“– spring lamb roasted, with a mint jelly made from Constance’s garden mint. Spring potatoes, new peas, a salad, again from Constance’s garden. I remember it perfectly, madam. It is still one of my favorite meals. I have also, of course, made very thorough notes of everything about that meal and, in fact, that entire day. You will see at once how the dinner revolves around my niece. It was early summer, her garden was doing well — the weather was lovely that year, I recall; we have not seen such another summer since, or perhaps I am only getting older. We relied upon Constance for various small delicacies which only she could provide; I am of course not referring to arsenic.”
“Well, the blackberries were the important part.” Mrs. Wright sounded a little hoarse.
“What a mind you have, madam! So precise, so unerring. I can see that you are going to ask me why she should conceivably have used arsenic. My niece is not capable of such subtlety, and her lawyer luckily said so at the trial. Constance can put her hand upon a bewildering array of deadly substances without ever leaving home; she could feed you a sauce of poison hemlock, a member of the parsley family which produces immediate paralysis and death when eaten. She might have made a marmalade of the lovely thornapple or the baneberry, she might have tossed the salad with Holcus lanatus, called velvet grass, and rich in hydrocyanic acid. I have notes on all these, madam. Deadly nightshade is a relative of the tomato; would we, any of us, have had the prescience to decline if Constance served it to us, spiced and made into pickle? Or consider just the mushroom family, rich as that is in tradition and deception. We were all fond of mushrooms — my niece makes a mushroom omelette you must taste to believe, madam — and the common death cup — ”
“She should not have been doing the cooking,” said Mrs. Wright strongly.
“Well, of course, there is the root of our trouble. Certainly she should not have been doing the cooking if her intention was to destroy all of us with poison; we would have been blindly unselfish to encourage her to cook under such circumstances. But she was acquitted. Not only of the deed, but of the intention.”
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.