“The Artichoke Dinner”

Her father had slapped her twice already. Her face is still red from the blows. Tears run down her cheeks. She is obstinately silent. They sit in the beige Formica kitchen on the first floor of their new, still bare house.

But she will not give in. She will not eat.

Her mother has cooked artichokes for dinner. This is the right season for them. They are grown in the region: “Artichauts de Bretagne, fleurs de Bretagne!” says the slogan urging artichokes onto every kitchen table in France. Her mother has steamed the artichokes in the heavy metal pressure cooker; it had hissed for much of the evening on the gas stove, filling the house with the acrid smell.

You had to wait a few minutes before unscrewing the huge lid—or risk burning yourself. The cooker could explode from the accumulated pressure; that’s what her mother said.

Her mother always left the vegetables for too long on the gas fire, out of habit and precaution, and they were overcooked, always. Vegetables for dinner every night, green beans, chicory, depending on the season.  Carrots, leeks, potatoes are reduced to soup for two or three more meals. In her family, you do not eat meat for dinner. Meals must be healthy and balanced; vegetables in the evening, meat at midday. And fish on Fridays, a vestige.

Her mother and her brother left the dinner table long ago. They ate their artichokes, but she will not. She does not like artichokes. She is determined not to like them.

Before retreating, her mother had tried to quell the budding fight by murmuring, “Come on, try at least to eat the hearts. Come on, don’t be so stubborn.” She hated her mother for letting her down, for failing to grasp what is at stake at this moment—there is no trusting her anymore. And her brother will not take sides; he has gone back to his room upstairs.

She has been here in the kitchen for a long time, after the others have left. They are face to face, she and her father, in this pale, constricted room at the front part of the house. Her father has set his mind on her eating the artichoke. They will sit there for as long as it takes for her to swallow it.

She cannot eat the artichoke.  She must resist. She must survive.

From the kitchen window, she can usually see the valley, the swath of green that separates their neighborhood from the center of town. But the shutters are down now. She sits on a Formica stool against the wall, on the short side of the rectangular kitchen table. Her father faces the closed window. The bare bulb hanging from the ceiling beams a pitiless light. On the gas stove, the pressure cooker sits abandoned, its lid off, a nauseous smell emanating from inside. She thinks of the pressure cooker’s metal basket: surely the water there beneath it must be cold by now.

The house is silent. She knows she has to win this battle. Or she will be milled down and diluted into this provincial life. Cooked to insipidity. Nothing will be left of her.

From time to time, a sound from the street below cuts through the silence—motorcycle.

She begins to count them. If she can last ten motorcycles without giving in, she will be all right.

Her father does not move. Children must eat whatever they are served at meals—who questions that? Who does she think she is to breach that sacred rule?

A low moan.  Motorcycle number nine.

Her eyelids, heavier and heavier.

One more, she prays.

Motorcycle number ten.

The metallic scraping of a chair, her father’s. He leaves the kitchen, banging the door behind him.

She finds herself in the ruthless light of the exposed bulb, the untouched artichoke before her.

She leaves the artichoke on the kitchen table, like a trophy. She walks up to her room not knowing what will happen to her the next day.

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About Annie De Benedictis

I am 60 years old and I live in The Hague, in the Netherlands. I work for the International Criminal Court. I have three children who are adults now. I am French but write my stories in English. I discovered that using a language that is not my native language gives me a great freedom of expression, the necessary distance from the moments of my life that I picture in my stories to make them become pieces of fiction.