At the dawn of a new century or was it a millennium? — we don’t know, Kate Stevenson found a large metal box on a beach. Had she gone to explore the shores of the Baltic, the Caspian or the Adriatic? The story doesn’t say. She might have been just walking on a beach in Cornwall, a few miles from her home.
The metal box was square and sealed shut, with traces of a red and black tartan on the top and the figures of brown and plump birds scattered on all sides. The sea and the salt had blurred, even erased, the drawings, but Kate’s eye was able to reconstruct their contours out of the few details, as if her memory was unhesitatingly linking all the remnant dots to a familiar picture. And indeed, Kate could easily believe that she had just found a metal box similar to those of the biscuits she had eaten as a child. She had spent her childhood in Gants Hill, a small town in Essex, but she had never gone back since the waters had flooded everything, the town, its people, their butter biscuits. Her grandmother used to bring over a metal box on Friday evenings and incidentally point out that you shouldn’t eat them after eating potatoes or peppers or whatever other food — Kate didn’t know which was problematic. She only remembered that the biscuits, what did her grandmother call them? were not compatible with everything, but there was nothing exceptional about this because the family was used to making lists of incompatible foods as one makes lists of complementary colours that can be somewhat arbitrary. Curiously, for example, one should never eat bacon after eating toffees, whereas the opposite was not true. Jellies, on the other hand, escaped all prohibitions, whatever colour and flavour. Even the violet ones? Kate asked. Even the violet ones, her grandmother answered. And how about the fluorescent ones? No problem at all, her grandmother repeated. Kate was fascinated because to her nothing seemed less edible than those bright translucent jellies that shook in the centre of the table and which her grandmother had named jellytefish, because they looked like jellyfish. Why not just say jellyfish? Kate asked her grandmother who answered with wide ignorant eyes. Kate hadn’t kept any of these habits because her husband, Colin, despised people who claimed food identities. He found it vulgar, undignified, degrading. Not everyone can claim a pedigree such as yours, Kate protested softly, knowing that the word annoyed the well-born Colin because of its canine connotations. But what on earth were those biscuits called?
She weighed the metal box in her hands. It was heavy. She tried several times to open the lid, but she couldn’t. She finally grabbed a long sharp stone and prised up one of the edges, which made all the others give way. Under crusts of salt and sand, Kate finally made out what the mass inside was. Not biscuits, alas; nothing was more disappointing to her as a child than to discover that metal boxes always ended up empty of biscuits and instead were full of all sorts of inedible objects such as screws or keys. This one was no exception and it seemed to Kate that it contained a large block of paper. A book? Several books? She immediately imagined recipe books for butter biscuits. She closed the metal box and went home clutching her loot.
Everyone was there, Colin and their three children, Kim, Brooke and Jake. Kate put the metal box on the living room table without saying a word and waited for questions. Colin asked her if the tide was high, her daughters asked if she had a chance to swim and her son said nothing. So be it, Kate thought, the questions would come later about my relic, my relic, my remnant, my regained childhood. But days and weeks went by without anything happening except a strange little thing: every time she approached the metal box, Kate felt on her skin, first a warmth and then a rash. She would rub her forearm, sometimes the palm of her hand, sometimes the inside of her elbow or the nape of her neck because of the tingling and itching that turned into a burning sensation. She didn’t say a word about it until Kim cried one morning that it was very hot in that house, Brooke said that her allergies were starting again and Jake took off all his clothes because he was definitely suffocating in that living-room. But Jake was such an eccentric that no one ever paid any attention to his whims. Still, Kate did not fail to observe that these recurrent phenomena faded when she went into the other rooms and became more intense when she came back to the coffee table, and thus to the metal box. One afternoon she sat down just in front of it as a test and felt her body flaming up like a torch. She was scared, thought she was going to set the whole house on fire and went to take an ice-cold shower. When she came back she asked Colin to sit by the metal box. He did so, but after twenty minutes he was still as cold and white as any Englishman. The whole family, except for Colin, kept on being plagued by complaints, rashes, and viral abrasive urticating skin visions, but being by temper rational, the Stevensons refused to incriminate the so-called mystery of the metal box, as Kate called it. However, a little more attention was paid to it and the children eventually asked their mother why she had brought it home. She told them about her beloved childhood biscuits, which everybody found almost touching enough to accept the harmful substance, but one night Kate found a tiny translucent blister on Jake’s hand that horrified her.
She decided to bring everyone together to discuss the situation. Jake hypothesized that the phenomenon, as it was now known, seemed to affect only those whose first names were spelled with a K. It was undeniable but a bit far-fetched, they replied in unison. Jake didn’t take offence, he was used to it, but suggested that they wrote his father’s first name with a K from now on, just to see what happened… Colin refused outright. His name was Colin Stevenson and that was that. Kate couldn’t say exactly why but her son’s hypothesis continued to run through her mind, or rather to wind through like a long filament of mist that both shows the way and shrouds it.
As the days passed Colin watched his family sweating profusely. He rejoiced at being spared, at least at first, but then he began to imagine them being thrown into a furnace from which he could not rescue them and which he suspected could be hell. But what sin could they have committed? He became dark, wistful and remote, as if cut off from his own people.
Kate then had the idea to invite a few friends and put them to a test. Of all the guests gathered in the living-room, two were sweating, a man and a woman, Kevin and Becky, previously strangers who suddenly stared at each other as if they were cousins or unaware lovers. Kate discreetly intercepted the look between Kevin and Becky and burried it in her pocket like a blood-stained handkerchief.
After the party, the Stevensons hesitated between worrying less because two out of twelve people weren’t many to worry about, and worrying more because the phenomenon was spreading. Why Kevin and not me? Colin asked in regret. Kate found the words to reassure her husband and insisted that he was certainly different but clearly the majority. Think of us, she told him, there is nothing more frightening than feeling different and a minority, there are four of us and you are eleven, or if you want, we make up less than a third. On top of that, we are the ones in pain.
The metal box started to be looked at unfavourably. Jake suggested putting it outside on the window ledge, while Brooke offered to get rid of it for good, but with one voice and without consulting each other, Kate and Kim protested that it was out of the question. Kim spoke of the power of detection and said it was time to find out what was in that bloody metal box of…shortbread! Kate cried out, who was struck by her grandmother’s word like a bolt of lightning.
Kim tried to scrape the salt and sand off the big block of cardboard but just a few measly flakes came off, dissolved by the sweat that was was dripping on them. She had the idea to bring the kettle nearer and, thanks to the steam jet, managed to peel off a good portion of crust. A booklet came off the block. On what must have been a first page, one could guess a letter which seemed to be an H or a K. Large and bold. Then Jake cried out, There it is ! I knew it, it’s a K! In front of his nearly liquefied sister, he went back to his room singing out that we would soon be wading through the family like in a puddle and refused to see that happen. He would move out to his friend, Peter’s, he was tired of being naked, like a wild boy he was not and as no one in the family ever listened to him.
Kim’s efforts resulted in revealing a second and then a third booklet, each one with a dark, thick K printed on the full height of the first page. She had to admit that actually it was a K. She came to the end of the whole block and found herself holding twelve curled booklets with twelve K’s from a monomaniacal alphabet.
She and her mother looked as if they were surrounded. To ease the tension, Kate suggested that they were probably recipe books for shortbread and tried to remember the names of famous brands, Kolnider, Kidousher or Kusher — something like that, the ones her grandmother used to bring over on Fridays. Listening to her mother only slightly, Kim remained focused on the enigma. She boiled more water over the next few days to steam open the glued pages of the booklets. Her father worried that she would melt away with the salt and sand, but her mother let her continue. Pages gave way from which unexpected words such as temple, modern, solution, disappearance, Spinoza, and then, many, many times, shosa, or shoa, fell from almost every page. Kim increasingly dismissed the idea that they could be recipe books unless Spinoza was the name of a pastry cook, solution a cooking method, and shoa a shortbread avatar. By dint of chewing, the words change, Kate explained, you start with shortbread then you go through shortbrea’, shortbr’a’, sho’tbr’a’, sho’t’r’a’, sho”’r’a’ and, finally, get to sho””a’! Time chews words, she concluded with a smile, it crushes them. I’m not sure, Kim said, while wondering how to peel apart even more pages so they gave up their secrets. Let’s leave it that way, her mother said, noting that the booklets exhaled strange vapours and that they might soon disappear into thin smoke with their secrets, she thought, which might not displease her. Jake was right, Kim had become a shadow of her former self, nothing but skin and bones and a red irritated skin.
But that was without counting on Colin’s good will. He was tired of feeling cut off from his own people and who decided one night that he would contribute to history by covertly making the shortbreads that Kate loved so much. He got up at three in the morning, looked at various cooking websites and at breakfast he greeted his wife by showing her the golden mound, Your shoa, my darling.
Kate was so moved that she didn’t dare touch it at first. But when she took her first bite, a whole world rose beneath her palate. A world where there was neither her grandmother, nor her house on Gants Hill, nothing, but more ancient times, with creatures moving like little K’s, sometimes proud, sometimes threatened. They were glowing in the distance, crepuscular, imprinting themselves in her flesh, burning in eternity. Kate’s face darkened. She stopped eating and with her mouth full of what she swore would be her last shoa, she mumbled in a daze: K for what? K for me?
Colin was devastated. He paced, asked questions, but Kate kept repeating, K for me, K for me, absorbed in visions that he would have given anything to share. What’s going on, Kate, tell me? Tell me what’s going on! But the more he insisted, the more she seemed, without making a single step, to roam through forbidden and inaccessible lands. Slowly she began to swing back and forth and Colin, desperate, concluded that he would never be able to save her from hell.
Nathalie Azoulai, march 2021.