I can hear her now as if it were yesterday.
Sunday evening was always one of my favorite times when I was growing up. We lived in a small little hick town on the outskirts of Prosperity, Indiana. All the neighbors were family in some way or another, and one of them was my grandmother.
She was an old fashioned woman, full of old-hills wisdom, and the fear of God. At least, that was how she described herself. To me, well, she was Meemaw.
Growing up in the country, there is a certain freedom unlike any other sort of life one can imagine. My brothers and I would spend most of our free time out in the woods. Finding hidden treasures or climbing trees and catching tadpoles in the nearby creek. Nostalgia brings back memories, but none compare to the memories of Sundays at Meemaw’s.
After church, most of the family would congregate at Meemaw’s house. We would spend the day shooting the breeze, playing card games, or enjoying an old hymn or two. Uncle Ben would regale us with his fiddle. While all that was fun, no one would deny the real reason we were there. It was because of the feast Meemaw would fix for us in the evening.
It didn’t matter what it was as it was always delicious. We all would tease Meemaw and tell her that she should have opened her own diner. She would chuckle and tell us that feeding our hungry maws was rewarding enough for her. She always said it in a way that made me believe her. Of course, nothing as grand as the meals she made came without a cost. There was always one rule, one policy, that we all had to adhere to. No matter how much food you got or came back for seconds, you always had to finish your food. No one had a problem keeping this rule as the food was more divine than even the gods of Olympus could imagine. To leave a crumb of it uneaten felt like a crime as bad as any other. I made sure I always cleaned my plate…even if it left me full and uncomfortable afterward. It was always worth it.
Meemaw died five days ago. It was so sudden we barely had time to process she was leaving us before she was already gone. Uncle Ben called me that evening to tell me the news. I dropped everything and booked the first flight I could back home. The doctors weren’t sure how long Meemaw would stay with us, so I knew I had to get there quickly, just in case.
My thoughts on the plane ride were bittersweet. Once I graduated high school, I had left our little farming community in favor of big city living. My hopes were of becoming a renowned chef. I know my love of cooking comes from my grandmother but now… Well, it sounds crazy, but I wonder if that passion was chosen for me. I arrived at the hospital, my heart thumping in my chest as I hit the number four elevator button. Meemaw was in the ICU. To this day, I still wish I had never seen Meemaw in the state she was in. It was…well, it was beyond heartbreaking. It was more like soul-shattering. Her skin, which seemed to hang off her bones, was pallid and gray. Her once bright eyes were dull and milky. How could a person go from being healthy one day to looking as if she had been wasting away for months?
My uncle Ben sat in a chair next to Meemaw’s bed. For a moment, I could only stand there in the doorway. My presence was eventually spotted. The feeble hand of my Meemaw reached for me, and I moved to take it. “I’m here, Meemaw. I’m right here.” I told her as I struggled to keep a hollow smile on my face. Skeletal fingers gripped mine with strength her condition should not have allowed. She beckoned me to lean down to her so she could whisper in my ear. I thought she was going to tell me words of love and happiness. The sort of sad but wholesome things people say when they know they are going to die. Instead, what she told confused me, “You must make sure everyone finishes their food. If you don’t… he will be angry.” I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but I remember feeling uneasy. Why would Meemaw, while on her deathbed, mention her one rule at dinner time? Who was this man that would be angry … and why? I did not ask her these questions. Instead, I nodded my head and leaned down to give her a kiss. She gave me a faltering smile and pat my hand. There was a look in her eyes I had never seen before, fear.
The funeral came and went. It was a rainy, miserable day when we laid Meemaw to rest in the ground. I remember thinking how intricately etched stone could not convey a woman’s life so rich and warm with love. The rest of that day went by in a blur. Family dinners, potlucks, faces I only saw once a year gave their deepest condolences to my family and me. It all felt so…fake. I was never so happy when evening came, and I was finally left on my own in my grandmother’s house.
I didn’t understand why I had been the one chosen to pack up the rest of Meemaw’s things nobody wanted. I had aunts and uncles that would have been better suited to the job, but still, the job fell to me. Meemaw lived a modest life. She never had been a packrat for all she lived through the Great Depression, so my chore should have been simple. Boy was that farthest from the truth. If I had an inkling of what was to come, I would have left after seeing Meemaw in the hospital. However, as these things usually go, I was ignorant of every sign I could have seen. In my defense, I’m certain no one would have seen enough of anything to suspect… well, what had happened would happen. All I can do is look back with regret for my decisions.
I was expecting to only have to stay there for a few days, and then I could get back to my life. Well, one thing happened and then another, and before I knew it was Sunday again. My stress level was through the roof. When family and friends called me to ask if dinner was still on for that evening, I told them no as kind as I could. I had no time to make a big dinner for a lot of people as I still had one closet to clean. It was the last thing to do, then I could go home. I doubt anyone would blame me for wanting to leave a house that reminded me of Meemaw and how much I missed her.
This closet was far more packed than the others had been. I figured that was because it was in Meemaw’s bedroom. I began to drag out boxes, clothing, shoes, the everyday things a person would find in their closet. I can’t remember how much time it took to get everything out and put them in organized piles. One of those piles were things I wished to keep for myself. Having that all cleared out and ready to be picked up by people tomorrow, I stood up and stretched. My back was sore for sitting there, however long it was to clear everything out. What happened next is the one thing I regret the most. If I could, I would choose to go back and not be so damned curious about the last thing I found.
I don’t know how I spotted it. It almost felt as if someone turned my head to look in the right spot where one of the floorboards was more worn than the others. I wish to God I would have just shrugged my shoulders and left it alone. I didn’t, of course. I can’t really explain it, but it was as if something was pulling me towards it. I knelt down, rubbed my hands over the board, and then gave it a little tap. It sounded hollow, so I began to see if there was a way I could lift it. After several minutes I was finally able to lift the wood with my nails. It was hollow inside, and there was something wrapped in what appeared to be ancient linen that was ragged on the edges and stained a sickly yellow. Carefully I pulled back the linen. The smell of it…well, I can only explain it as being old, damp, with remnants of a fire. I know, I know, that doesn’t make a lick of sense. How can something smell both like it’s damp and on fire? As I said, that is the best way I can describe it. Under the linen was a leather-bound book, a simple, ordinary old book. The only thing remarkable was that it looked years younger than the linen it was wrapped in.
I inspected the covering, but there was nothing on it. I opened it to the very front page where the title usually is, but the only thing there was an odd-looking symbol. I’d never seen it before, but it both terrified me and mesmerized me. I felt protective of it for no Godly reason. I both wanted to put it back where it was and never let go of it for the rest of my life. Whatever my emotions were at that moment, I had to look at more pages. One by one, I went from one page to another. There were more strange symbols I didn’t recognize, and a language I didn’t know decorated the pages. Even though the book looked new, some of the pages were as old as the linen. Curiosity made me keep going. There was something sinister about the book with all its pictures and symbols. The images weren’t discernible, and I really couldn’t make them out. Just when I thought I did, the pictures seemed to blur more, and I’d lose any thoughts I had. Finally, and a bit disappointingly, I got to the last page of the book.
This page was strikingly different. There were words still in a foreign language; however, it felt like I knew what it was saying. Out loud, I attempted to say the words, “Ego constrinxerit animam iurare in Baal et parere Imperio suo.” Hearing me try to say it made me realize it sounded Latin. I then looked at the other scribbles in the book. The pictures were more apparent now. I could tell there were all kinds of food decorating the pages. This was a recipe book. While it wasn’t unusual for Meemaw to have a recipe book, I’d never seen one like this before. What I noticed next made my stomach drop. In dark red was my Meemaw’s signature. All the hairs on my body stood up then with a shiver. I didn’t know why I had that reaction, it was her book, but something was unsettling seeing her name there. There was another name below hers.
I immediately slammed the book shut. My heart raced, unsure if I had really seen what I thought I’d seen. I gave it one more peek to be sure, and there it was…just like I had seen it the first time. My name was under Meemaw’s, written in her handwriting, and there were a few words written in English. It said, “I swear my oath to Baal and obey his command.” I had no idea what that meant, and frankly, I was too freaked out at that point that I just closed the book. I didn’t put it back. I just laid it on the nightstand. Despite how much I was unnerved, I still felt like I had to protect it, but I also needed a break to comprehend what this recipe book really was.
When I had looked up, I noticed that it was turning dark outside. How long had I have been in there to not see the sun going down? It had to have been hours, but it certainly didn’t feel that way. My stomach growled to let me know it needed filling. After everything that had happened that day, I really wasn’t in the mood to eat, but I knew I should. I also didn’t wish to be alone for the rest of the evening. Thinking of my family, I called Uncle Ben back and told him that he, his wife, and their son could come over for dinner if they wished still. I warned them that I would not be making a big fancy meal, just something simple. Sometimes even highly-rated chefs don’t want to cook a huge meal. I am no exception. The easiest and quick dish I could think of was pasta. I didn’t even take the time to really season it up and make it as delicious as I usually did. It wasn’t long before Uncle Ben, and his family came to the door.
We all sat down at the table and began to eat. Being together at Meemaw’s table with loved ones brought old cherished memories. Still, it just didn’t feel right without her there, which quickly made me lose my appetite. In the back of my mind, I could hear Meemaw’s voice saying, “Make sure to finish your food.” This time though, despite what she had told me before she died, I didn’t have the heart to finish it. There were only three or four more bites left. I could have finished it even if I wasn’t hungry—one last time to finish my food in this house.
If only I had known such a simple rule could have such consequences when broken. I didn’t…and now… I’m not only paying the price, but my family is as well. The thing I love most in the world, which I have devoted my life to studying and perfecting, is now a living nightmare that will never end. I’m not sure how I ended up in this place or why my family is trapped here with me. There is no one to ask and no way to learn the truth, but I have been here long enough to make an educated guess. Meemaw had been a phenomenal cook. She could have gone professional if she wanted to. I had grown up and became a professional chef with many claiming my talent as extraordinary. Our skills had to be related to the oath in that damned cookbook. Where that book came from, how long Meemaw had it, or why Meemaw had signed my name to it will never be answered. There were a few moments when I had time to be angry that Meemaw forced me into this pact without my consent or explaining exactly what would happen if her one rule was ever broken. I no longer waste the energy on useless things like anger.
We’re still in Meemaw’s house or at least some bastardized version of it. It’s been so long now that I couldn’t begin to guess how much time has passed. We are alone, so it seems, but yet we are prisoners. At first, we didn’t notice. All it seemed was that mealtime seemed to be going on awhile. After Uncle Ben realized that he was eating his fifth plate of food and I was still cooking, we noticed something was wrong. After that, we tried to get out of the house, but no matter which door we tried to get out of, we always ended up in the kitchen. I couldn’t count how many times we tried to escape, but eventually, we grew tired and sat back down at the table. Perhaps that was our mistake. Maybe if we had kept trying to get out, we would have eventually escaped. I suppose it doesn’t really matter now.
The food never ends. No matter how fast I try to cook, my family finishes eating and demanding more just as quickly. I’ve attempted to stop cooking just as they have tried to stop eating, but it never seems to work. The longer we stop, the more hungry they get, and the more panicked I get for not cooking. That is what our lives have been reduced down to. My family continually eating, and me continuously cooking. My family begs me to stop cooking and I, in turn, beg them to stop eating, but none of us can. We hope that if we can do that, maybe, just maybe, we’ll get out of this nightmare. It is a hollow dream now. One that I foolishly hung onto at first and is now replaced by despair.
We are far from the people I used to know. The once warm and cozy kitchen of Meemaw’s is now a grotesque hellscape. Remnants of food are splattered on every surface. I am covered in anything imaginable, from grease to bits of wet bread that have now solidified and crack off my skin in pieces. There’s no time to clean me, let alone the kitchen. In fact, I don’t have time to eat any of the food I am making. My body has wasted away to almost nothing. I look like a skeleton put on a discarded skin suit covered with boils, burns, and wounds caused by cooking accidents rather than a living person. There is literally no strength left in me, yet somehow I still manage to keep cooking and feeding my family. I could not tell you which of us are in the worst shape.
My uncle, aunt, and nephew take up most of the kitchen now. The table that was once between them eventually broke and splintered into pieces, crushed beneath the weight of three large stomachs. While I know they are people I have loved and cherished all my life, now I feel only disdain, hatred, and disgust for them. They are my hell as much as I am theirs. I barely recognize them now, as they have changed as much as I have. When I look at them now, all I see is rolls upon rolls of fat. That may seem too mean of me to say, but it is the truth. Each of them now weighs at least...I can’t even hazard to guess. There is barely room to walk in the kitchen now, but somehow I still have room to cook, and they’ve yet to break the confines we are in. If the kitchen is decorated with old, spoiled food, then my family might as well be made of it. Their clothes rotted away from their bodies long ago in exchange for garments that consist of the foulest, odorous, and sticky food combinations imaginable. Gravy continually flows out of their mouths and down their corpulent bodies like a sickly brown and viscous waterfall. Their hair is full of grease to the point if they could move their heads, it would shake off in oily droplets. The food that blankets their acne-covered skin is green with mold. The smell is horrendous and only made worse by the layers of excrement that also covers the floor. It is like all the world’s sewage combined with every rotting corpse had settled in the room already saturated with urine and feces.
If only the sight and smell were the only horrendous aspects of my family. While I can’t stand looking or smelling them, I believe having to hear them is the worst of all. They wail and scream when they are hungry, and I am taking too long to cook. They bawl and howl with agony over how full they are. There are times they stuff themselves so much the meals are regurgitated back up in almost complete pieces. Disregarding the coating of spoiled slop, their bodies themselves looked as if they were rotting away. Their extremities are black and blue from blood pooling into them from how little they are moved or used. Between the rolls of sweating and putrid flesh, grotesque sores never heal. They ooze with puss, and the edges rot away with necrosis. I may be a walking skeleton, but at least I can move. Even if it were possible for my family to shift their weight, it has long since become a choice they can’t make. The flesh that touches any surface has bonded to it as surely as trees plant their roots in the ground. They have even fused to each other, so it’s as if they are one colossal monster with three heads and mouths to feed.
This torturous prison is my personal hell. I know this as surely as I know that I am not ever going to escape it. I’ve tried to convince myself that this is only my hell and that my family is not genuinely suffering along with me. The horrible, pathetic, and monstrous creatures in my charge are not really my family but merely another form of torture to pile up on me. However, I have no way of knowing for sure, and the uncertainty only brings me more misery. Death would be a gift at this point, but not even Death dares to wander among the rooms of my torment. If he were to be so kind, then I would have died of starvation long ago, and my family would have suffocated on their own meals and vomit.
Please, I implore anyone that might happen upon an old leather-bound recipe book that appears as though you can’t focus well enough to read it-- run away from it. Try to destroy it if you can, but as strong as the book makes you want to protect it, I am not sure that is possible. I did not have a chance to escape this hell, but if I can prevent another from sharing in it, that is all I can hope for.