by Paula Gail Benson
Enjoy this never before published Thanksgiving mystery short story.
This Thanksgiving, I promised my family I would be a different person. From the moment I woke on Thanksgiving Day until–well, until–I agreed to be the new and improved me. If I failed, I would not be trusted again, and next year, I could be the sacrifice.
Since Tante Juliette had been among us, my Thanksgiving morning perch was sitting on the long bench beside the picnic style wood table just beyond the wall-sized brick fireplace, watching Tante prepare the roast. Not in front of the T.V. looking at the parade with its balloons and marching bands, but here in the monstrous kitchen of the family’s nouveau chateau observing an ancient ritual of meat being scored, bound with an oiled string and rotated over a raging fire. And wondering, as I watched, what we would be eating.
I jumped, then clasped my throbbing chest as my brother, Ramon, plopped down on the bench beside me. Tante jabbered at us in French, making clear by hand motions that Ramon had frightened her, too. Ramon greeted her cheerfully, then turned his attention with ghoulish fascination to the fat dripping into the fire from the trussed meat.
“When did you arrive?” I asked.
My eyes narrowed. “I thought you would ride with John Paul and Izzy.”
He rested his arms on the wooden table and placed his chin on top of his folded hands. “Three’s a crowd, sister dear.”
“But you could have harassed them the whole way home!”
He shook his head as he continued to watch the drippings on the hearth. “Just exactly what we need to avoid. No antagonism. They are engaged, Marguerite. She’ll be part of our family. We need to welcome her and get her acquainted with our,” he paused, “customs.”
I felt the heat from the flames turning my face sunburn red and wondered how Ramon could bask in its glow, like an actor in the limelight. “How can you be so calm about Izzy dumping you for John Paul?”
Ramon actually smiled. “If I can’t have her, why shouldn’t my twin?”
“Just give me an hour alone with him and I’ll knock some sense into his head.”
He gave me a scrutinizing look. “I think our tennis prodigy can handle you, a mere fourteen-year-old slip of a girl. Despite his full scholarship, John Paul will probably quit college and go straight to the professional circuit. But, then, it doesn’t really matter, since he’ll inherit the house and all the property, thanks to Papa’s plan for preserving the estate.”
“Which is why Izzy wants him instead of you!”
He stared into the hearth. I saw the hint of a tiny spark of jealousy in Ramon’s eyes and I knew it wasn’t just reflected fire-light.
“Yes, I suppose she preferred to follow wealth instead of beauty,” Ramon continued. “But, I don’t think John Paul will have any difficulty subduing you if you get that time alone with him. Particularly since he knows full well where you’re ticklish!”
Ramon’s curled fingers reached for my side, but I quickly avoided contact. Unfortunately, my sudden move away jarred the table and dumped one of Tante’s mixtures, leading her to spout a barrage of French invective and ban us from her kitchen. By her gestures, we understood we were to set the table in the dining hall. We entered the room where excess had again won the battle over wisdom. The walls climbed to a twenty-foot cathedral ceiling, with half beams, massive hutches loomed on both sides of the room, a parquet floor glistened underfoot and an overwhelming cut-glass chandelier precisely centered over the table with eighteen chairs.
My dusting hell. I had to be particularly attentive to an item resting in one hutch, a wooden box with the picture of a skeletal finger painted on its top, curved as if beckoning from beyond the grave. A symbol also incorporated in the family crest that hung among the tapestries in the living room. The ornate silver utensils shone like beacons when we placed them on the navy blue table cloth. The plain white china appeared like puffy clouds in the sky or huge sails on ships cutting across the ocean waves to the new land. The land of freedom. The refuge from tyranny. Except that I had a feeling tyranny was coming to dinner, if it wasn’t already poking a roast over the fireplace.
The front door bell sounded, a light and airy melody, giving no sense of the despised persons waiting outside. Ramon and I were at opposite ends of the table, but I looked up and caught his eye. I felt like wiggling my jazz hands at him and saying, “Showtime,” but I knew that would freak him out. Tante Juliette yammered at us from the kitchen. Ramon set down his last spoon, turned, and headed in my direction.
“You promised, Marguerite,” he whispered. “You said you could handle this.”
“So I have and so I can.”
“And, you won’t mention…” His voice trailed off, for the first time near to breaking his own promise not to speak the words.
He clasped my shoulder. “Let’s do it.”
Whatever ogre my imagination had conjured for Izzy, her true looks exceeded. She had a creamy complexion, green-gray eyes and rosewood-colored hair, like a corpse in a highly varnished dark wood coffin. Her face was long and she used a heavy cherry red lip-gloss, accentuating her large mouth. She threw back her head to laugh at something John Paul said as they came in the front door and I noticed her face undergo a truly hideous transformation. The sight of her oversized, flat-edged, rows of teeth made me expect to hear a neigh emerge from her throat. Her teeth had a purposeful gleam, as if carnivorously poised to tear off great hunks of food and mulch them into tiny morsels for easy swallowing. I couldn’t stop the image from one of my recent science lessons popping into my head. The female praying mantis, after using the male to produce offspring, bit his tiny head off for a nourishing meal.
Turning to greet John Paul, I noticed for the first time that my brother’s head looked abnormally small. “Marguerite,” he said, clasping me in a hug. “You’ve grown a foot since I saw you last.”
“Healthy food and clean living,” I dead-panned.
“May I take your coats and wraps?” Ramon asked.
“I brought this squash casserole for dinner,” Isabel said, turning her back to Ramon to let him help her disrobe. Definitely a high-maintenance nag.
“Squash?” John Paul asked. He stared at the aluminum foil covered object in her hands as if he had not seen it earlier. Or smelled it.
“Made with cheese, mushroom soup, and crushed crackers, silly,” Izzy chided him as she held out the dish for him to take while waiting for Ramon to remove her garment.
Neither twin cooperated.
“Squash?” Ramon echoed, shifting so he could stare at what she carried, just like his brother. Izzy’s coat remained on her shoulders.
Izzy no longer feigned amusement with the questions. “I followed my mother’s recipe,” she said, then her huge lower lip protruded in a pout.
“Let me take it,” I said, crossing in front of her and reaching for the dish. “I’m sure it will go well with the roast.”
Izzy frowned. “You mean you don’t have turkey for Thanksgiving?”
“Anything is possible,” I said reassuringly. “But, I didn’t notice any wings or drum sticks as it was strung up over the fire.”
Her frown deepened. “Over the fire? That’s how your mother cooks the meat?”
The twins remained frozen at Izzy’s mention of “our mother.” I kept silent, letting them handle the explanation.
“You remember, dearest,” John Paul finally murmured to Isabel. “I told you our mother wouldn’t be here. Just Tante Juliette.”
“I remember telling you to call me Isabel from now on, not endearments,” she replied tersely.
A trace of self-absorbed California girl seemed to have slipped into her accent. I wondered, did an Isabel have a sense of entitlement an Izzy lacked? Like Belle, in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? And if, dear Izzy–sorry, Isabel–thought she had successfully roasted my brother John Paul, how would she react to facing what Tante Juliette had simmering in the fireplace? Careful, Marguerite, I cautioned myself. You’re on dangerous ground. Don’t give it all away now.
“Being at the chateau on holidays became a bit too much for mother after Tante Juliette arrived,” Ramon added.
Looking uncertain about this tidbit of information, Isabel asked, “You mean, your mother didn’t like to share her kitchen?”
I smiled and tried to be helpful. “Among other things.”
“Well, I’ve never heard of not having turkey for Thanksgiving,” Izzy insisted. “That sounds un-American.” Grudgingly, she hunched out of her coat and scarf and placed them in Ramon’s hands.
“Tante Juliette is American now, but she prefers family as opposed to national traditions for celebrations,” John Paul explained as he took off his coat and handed it to Ramon, who carried the load to the entry closet. I wondered if he would just toss them in or take the time to place them on hangers.
“What kind of family customs?” Isabel asked.
Another voice came from the hallway behind us. “Can this enchanting creature be your fiancée?”
We turned to find our father inching forward, an aluminum crutch under his right arm and a metal bar extending from beneath his pant hem, going straight into a metal weight in his right shoe. The metal bar was longer than his left leg, which gave him an unnatural gait.
Isabel’s eyes widened. “John Paul, you didn’t tell me your father had been injured.” She took a step forward, then halted. A flicker of aversion passed over her face as she struggled over whether or not to embrace him or accept his hug.
“Don’t let this put you off,” my father told her, as he brought his left arm around her back and pulled her close. “Unfortunately, the prosthesis needed an adjustment, so I’m on my crutch and this spike for the next week. Damned hard to get technicians to work during the holidays.”
Her arms flailed around her for a moment. Isabel reconciled herself to the inevitable. She accepted his touch, but didn’t return it. She let her arms hover on either side of him without ever making contact. I decided to go back to thinking of her as Izzy. It made loathing her easier.
“A lost limb can be expected from a life spent in construction,” Ramon said. “No doubt the profession I’ll follow after my failed acting career. Hard manual labor with no possibility of inheriting the main estate.” Ramon’s sigh was a little too exaggerated, even for me.
Father placed his free left arm heavily around Izzy’s shoulder to lead her toward the tapestry-adorned living room. “Just don’t count on a place with my construction company.” He looked at Izzy’s face and explained, “I know it seems unfair in this modern age, but that’s the only way to keep these large places intact. Give them to one family member with the resources to maintain them. John Paul is logical because he’s the first born and has the best prospects, even though they are short term.”
“Short term?” Izzy asked.
“Oh, we’ll try to see that he has a tennis career for as long as possible, but eventually we all pay the sacrifice.” Father eased away from Izzy so he could descend onto one of the couches positioned parallel to the living room fireplace. “Whew. I always forget how much energy this takes when my good leg’s in the shop.”
John Paul had taken a seat on the corner of the opposite couch and held his arm out along the top wood edge so that Izzy could scoot in beside him. She sat, but not too close. “What does he mean by sacrifice?” she whispered loudly toward John Paul’s ear.
“It’s part of who we are, our family obligation,” Ramon replied, as if Izzy had asked anyone in the room. “I expect the same to be my fate. I’ll have a few good years to ply my acting trade, then I’ll have to accept what’s expected of me.
Tante Juliette approached from the hallway, spewing forth a bevy of French phrases. Her tone was conciliatory. She smiled and bowed in Izzy’s direction as introductions were made, then gleefully threw up her hands as she spied the dish I held. She pulled Izzy from her seat, then shooed both of us into the hallway and toward the kitchen.
Izzy viewed the fireplace with its dripping roast. I heard her mutter under her breath, “All this needs are two more crones and a huge kettle and it could be a scene out of Macbeth.”
Tante Juliette flinched at the sound of “Macbeth.” Then, she recovered and proudly led Izzy forward, pointing toward the rotating roast.
“Our meat,” I interpreted for Izzy.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Only ‘the Sacrifice’ knows for sure,” I replied, putting the squash casserole on the kitchen table.
I turned back to face Izzy. “That’s what we call the person who has to accompany Tante Juliette to get the meat for Thanksgiving. Of course, it’s an imposition to have to make the trip, but then the Sacrifice always knows what the selection is.”
“Why doesn’t the Sacrifice tell everyone else?”
“That’s one of the benefits of being the Sacrifice. The Sacrifice helps provide the meat, but isn’t obligated to eat it. He or she is excused from coming to dinner until dessert is served.”
I paused to give Izzy a chance to digest this information. She looked uncertain, so I continued. “It’s always a good sign if the Sacrifice comes early, but I haven’t seen Uncle Henry yet.” From Izzy’s frown, I judged I had deepened her confusion.
Tante Juliette was behind us, pushing us back into the living room where Ramon had a tray with glasses and a wine decanter. Izzy made sure her glass was full, then immediately drank half its contents. My father struggled to rise and took the glass Ramon handed him. “Ah, now that we are gathered, let us drink a toast to the day, to our guest, and to our family. Yes, Ramon, we’ll allow Marguerite to join us with a little wine.”
I smiled, accepting the thimbleful poured for me and taking a small sip.
Tante Juliette spouted a rapid-fire stream of phrases. My father nodded. “Of course, we give a toast to the Sacrifice, too,” he said.
“The Sacrifice?” Izzy asked. “The one who helped with the meat selection?”
“Yes, yes,” Father agreed. “Uncle Henry as well, but Tante is referring to the original Sacrifice. Our ancestor, without whom none of us would be in America.”
Ramon lifted his glass. “To the Sacrifice! Whose memory is part of our family inheritance and in whose footsteps we all follow.” He turned to face John Paul. “Maybe those first in line sooner than others.”
“What does he mean, John Paul?” Izzy asked.
“Ignore him,” John Paul replied. “He’s being typically melodramatic.”
“Now, boys, it’s an honor that can fall upon any member of the family,” my father interrupted. “But, we’ll make that decision later. After dinner.”
“I would like to hear more about this ancestor,” Izzy said.
“Although meaningful to us, the story is not very pleasant pre-dining conversation,” Father told her.
Ramon disagreed. “As long as Izzy will be one of us, she should be able to share our traditions.”
“Later, Ramon,” John Paul said.
Tante Juliette managed a few agitated remarks, urging that the tale be told.
“I want to hear it, John Paul,” Izzy insisted. “Now.”
Father sighed and resumed his seat with difficulty. “Well, then let Marguerite do the telling. It’s better heard by one female from another, and I don’t feel up to translating for Tante.”
My head felt a little woozy and not from the drink. Father had bestowed upon me an honor I dared not hope for. I would be the one to tell the story. They trusted me…steady there, Marguerite, I told myself. Meet the challenge. See this through. “Well,” I said, as much to test my voice as to begin. “The story is told in our family…”
Tante jabbered away.
I knew I had to be more positive. “We believe we are descended from a noble man who escaped the French Revolution by bribing a sea captain for passage. Only the captain turned out to operate a pirate vessel.”
Again, Tante interrupted vehemently.
“Excuse me, the captain was a privateer with a near mutinous crew. They would have preferred to give the noble man to the revolutionaries for the guillotine than to have him escape on the ship. The captain had to convince his crew that our ancestor was just another seaman, not a fleeing aristocrat. So, our ancestor agreed to do the one thing that would make him look like a fellow pirate…”
Tante opened her mouth, but I caught the error. “A fellow privateer and not a member of the nobility.” I paused, listening to everyone breathe for a moment.
Finally, Izzy asked the question. “What did he do?”
“He agreed to have a body part cut off. Many pirates had that happen in battles. They were compensated for lost body parts, too. So, the captain told his crew a heroic story about how our ancestor had been injured in battle and the captain was paying him by giving him a job as the ship’s cook.”
“Also a little money for the body part so he would have a nest egg to start over in America,” Ramon added.
Father rose again from his seat. “Our traditional toast for our ancestor. From Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In Brutus’ immortal words: ‘Let us be sacrificers but not butchers, …and, gentle friends…let’s carve him as a dish fit for the gods.’”
Everyone but Izzy drank. “What body part did he loose?” Izzy asked. Her lower lip had started to tremble.
“That’s the part of the story that is lost in history,” John Paul said.
“Not true,” I interrupted. “It’s clear from the box in the dining room and our own family crest that it had to be a finger or two. That would make sense. A noble man could do without fingers, and the wound would heal quickly.”
Ramon laughed. “Marguerite, have you ever worked up the courage to look inside that box? I always loved teasing you that it was the finger bones our noble ancestor brought with him to America, after using the flesh to flavor the food he served the pirate crew.”
Tante Juliette again objected to the pirate reference.
John Paul shook his head. “I still say it had to be a greater sacrifice. Maybe a leg,” he looked toward Father and Tante Juliette, “or a…”
I jumped up when the door bell rang. “I’ll get it.”
Uncle Henry’s laughter filled the hallway as he entered. “May,” he greeted me, pinning my shoulders in place as he kissed each cheek. “Happy holiday! Where are your brothers Ray and Jay Pay? I hope I’m not too late to greet our guest.” He brushed past me, striding into the living room, his arm extended to greet Izzy. I heard her screaming. Leaving the door open, I ran to grab her coat and scarf from the closet and tossed them to her as she dashed into the hall, then stumbled outside. When she reached the street she flagged down a car with a young couple and screamed for them to drive her somewhere, anywhere away from our home.
I shut the door and joined the family in the living room. Uncle Henry was pulling off the arm piece he used to play Captain Hook in Peter Pan. Tante Juliette was peeling off her face mask to morph back into our mother, a French teacher by day and thespian by night.
“Next time,” she announced. “I would rather play Shakespeare’s Juliet than this Tante character. Can you imagine, that Izzy mentioned the Scottish play by name in our kitchen? What colossal bad luck is that?”
“Don’t worry, my dear,” Father replied, as he pulled the metal appendage from his right leg and wiggled his foot, which had been immobilized and pointing downward while in disguise, to regain circulation. “The curse will follow her and not be on us.”
“What I don’t understand is how she never heard that your family ran the Chateau Improv Dinner Theater,” Uncle Henry said to his nephews. “Don’t you talk about the family business at college?
“After the word ‘Chateau,’ she wasn’t listening anymore,” John Paul replied.
“Jed and April picked her up in their car,” I told the group. They were two of the younger company members.
“They’ll be back shortly to help us put back up the theater signs for the evening crowd,” Father said. He turned to the twins. “I hope this shows you boys the extent to which your family will go to rid you of unwanted female admirers.”
Ramon came up to me and placed his arm around my shoulder. “And, I hope it proves to you, dear parental units, that our own Marguerite is ready to join the troupe in action. She didn’t flinch for an instant this time and followed the rules to the letter.”
I held up a finger as I recited each requirement, “One, from the minute we begin, you must become the character. Two, never speak unless you can do so with earnest sincerity. And, three, if you are about to break character, leave the speeches to others until you regain the control to continue.”
Although most of the faces around me were smiling; Father looked quite serious.
“Marguerite,” he cautioned. “I hope you’ll remember that acting is a powerful tool which can be dangerous in the wrong hands.”
“I know, Father.”
He finally gave me a smile. “Looks like we have returned to a family of actors hurrying to eat Thanksgiving dinner before it’s time to prepare for the evening show.”
For a moment, we were all silent. Some of us, no doubt, thinking about the roast hanging in the fireplace.
“The catered meal is in the trunk of my car,” Uncle Henry said. “Turkey with dressing, cranberry sauce, and all the fixings.”
I raced the twins to help carry it in.
Check out more Thanksgiving short stories in our Terrific Tales section.