Of Gifts of Unknown Provenance

Romanian story

It looks excitingly modern. Its keys are white, except for the first one in the second row, which is red. I turn the round black handle and the cold plastic sends shivers down my spine and at the same time ignites a warm feeling in the depths of my stomach. Yes. This is how I will roll them out. Then I will pile them up and climb one piece of paper at a time towards my dream.

In the other corner of the table, my mother is arranging her fur hat, smiling. The self-sufficiency I read on her face reminds me I should take everything that comes from her with a grain of salt. Up until now, dealing with her was like dealing with the devil – the costs always surpassed the benefits, like comparing Everest with a mole hill.

I had buried my dream and mourned it properly a month ago, when Rodica from Bucharest told me over the telephone, in her obnoxiously nasal voice, that she would not be needing me to contribute to the maths exercise book anymore. I stared at the handwritten pages of exercises for hours and hours in a row through my clouded eyes, wishing to be able to destroy them. Their sight was a constant reminder of my failures.

‘There,’ my mother says. ‘Now you can write your own exercise book. You don’t need to share that first page with anyone.’ She leans towards me, winking. ‘You know what you could afford from the royalties you would receive from the book? Lawyers.’

‘Why would I want a lawyer?’ I quip, pretending not to understand. ‘Thank you. This is a gift from Heaven.’ I stroke my typewriter like a favourite cat.

My mother fumbles in her purse and draws out a cigarette. She blows the smoke towards Liviu’s jacket, forgotten on one of the dining room chairs.

‘Sweetie. You look more pleased and happy now than you ever have since you married that peasant of yours.’

The glowing tip of her cigarette draws a circle around my head. I could reply that it’s not my husband’s fault that I’m not happy, but her own refusal to support me, forcing me into taking a job I never liked. My hand on the typewriter feels awfully cold – strange enough, for a gift from hell. Not strange at all, considering the fact that she wields this gift like a dagger, hoping to slash a rift of separation between me and my husband. I could say something about her attempt at manipulation. Instead, I tell her, ‘I’m delighted by your present!’

She smiles. ‘And don’t pretend you don’t understand what I mean about the lawyers.’

If she only knew how close Liviu and I dance on the verge of divorce, and how he doesn’t need her help to pirouette away from me. How much more smug could that smile of hers be?

She pats my knee, like one would stroke an obedient dog. ‘But the two of us, we always understood each other, didn’t we?’

I glance again at the typewriter, at the metallic glare of the keys, its weight on my table, sealing a pact. And to think that my mother is the one who taught me never to accept gifts of unknown provenance.


Check out the full novella-in-flash, Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn, here.

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