This is a word picture.
commensal. /kəˈmɛn səl/. adjective. 1. Sharing the same table. 2. Living in the same area as a different person, organism, or group without competition or harm. From Latin con ‘with’, ‘together’ + mensa ‘table’.
“There are monsters,” Kalan says as he chews his stew.
His grandfather raises an eyebrow. His grandmother smiles benignly. His father says “Don’t eat and talk at the same time.”
Kalan looks over at his friend Ethan, who is visiting them for supper. Ethan has red-sandy short hair and fine features. He’s sitting in front of the window, which has twelve panes. It looks out onto a front porch with powder blue square balusters and railing, and beyond that a tidy lawn, still green, still bearing the scuffs and rolling indents from the two boys’ play last hour. Kalan has dark hair and all the adults say to each other that he is a very good looking boy. Some say the girls had better watch out for him, and some say he had better watch out for the girls, and the rest don’t say that sort of thing. Behind Kalan on the wall is a framed reproduction of a Renoir restaurant scene, a lively litter of young men and women with tidy straw hats around a messy still life of a table featuring three half-empty wine bottles and plenty of messy white linen.
“That’s so dumb,” Lily says. Lily is four years older than Ethan and is, as her grandmother says, “budding.” In a half dozen years she could be in that painting, which is getting more of her gaze than her brother or his friend.
“I heard Ethan’s parents talking about them when I was over there,” Kalan says.
“Monsters.” Kalan’s dad, whose name is Mike, is in sales. He used to be athletic and you can still see it most of the time. He is that rare father who never calls his son “Buddy,” but he’s still pretty Daddish when he needs to be. “I’ve never seen any.”
“What do these monsters look like?” says Kalan’s grandfather, Basil, who has what we could call permanent amused resting face. If life hasn’t been good to him you’ll never hear about it from him.
Kalan looks at Ethan. Ethan looks at Basil and Mike and Basil and Kalan and Mike and then Basil. “…People.”
“Well, how do you know they’re monsters, then?” says Mike.
“I could be a monster!” Lily says, and rolls her eyes.
“You said it,” says Kalan.
“Kalan. Lily.” Their mother sets down her wine glass and doesn’t need to say another word.
“Look,” says Mike, “I’ve heard people talking about monsters every now and then, but I’ve never seen them. I’ve never seen any evidence of them.”
“What makes them any different from regular people?” Basil says, and then, quietly, “’Scuse my reach” as he pulls a casserole towards himself and takes another helping.
“They eat people,” Kalan says. Ethan nods.
“Do you know anyone who’s been eaten?” Mike says.
“Not people like us,” Kalan says.
“My parents do,” Ethan says.
Mike sighs and looks over at his wife. She has magazine-blonde hair in a tidy bob and just a few fine lines starting to grow from the corners of her eyes, and her name is Julie. She spears a green bean, but then doesn’t eat it. “I saw a nice word today,” she says. Then she eats the bean. Then she has a sip of wine and starts to refill her glass.
“Mom.” Lily looks at her. “What was the word.”
“Is that like commencement, but fancier?” Grandma asks. She’s Julie’s mother, Kalan’s grandmother, Basil’s wife. Her name is Margaret but no one calls her that. She’s the author of this lovely spread of food, and she is the soul of patience and kindness, and she has terrible migraines at unpredictable times but not too frequently.
“It means sharing a table, like we are, or coexisting peacefully,” Julie says. “It’s so nice to be commensal. And it’s so nice to have you here with us, Ethan.” The way she delivers this pocket lesson to the whole table, you’d think she was a teacher, but she’s not, she’s a nurse.
“If there was a monster here, which one of us would it eat?” Lily says. Lily has decided to be unpleasant, hasn’t she.
“Why do monsters eat people?” Basil says to either one of the boys.
“Why would monsters eat people?” Mike says. “There’s lots of good food. Not everyone has a Grandma to put on a feast like this, but come on.”
“It’s commensal,” Lily says. “They want them at the same table.” She bites a piece of stew meat.
“I guess they taste good?” Kalan says.
“Because they can,” Julie says.
“Oh, come on,” Mike says.
“It’s like, we can afford a nice car, so we have a nice car,” Julie says. “Even though it spends half its time in the shop. We’d be upset if someone told us we couldn’t have that thing.”
“Fine machinery requires maintenance,” Mike says, a bit tightly, and shovels some potatoes into his mouth.
“Now, Julie,” Basil says, “you don’t believe there are monsters, do you?”
“I hear about them at the hospital,” she says. “We get all sorts of people, and some of them will tell you they’ve lost family members to monsters.”
“Did they see them eat them?” Basil says, still in his natural pleasantly curious tone.
“I mean, I’m not there to grill them, I’m there to heal them,” Julie says.
“If you grilled and ate them you’d be a monster!” Kalan says, and looks over to Ethan, who takes a moment to recognize his cue to laugh.
“And where do they get them?” Mike says, consciously not setting his fork down too loudly. “They just walk down the street and grab one?”
“At the store,” Ethan volunteers.
“At the store,” Basil says. He turns to Grandma. “Do you ever see a ‘people’ section in the meat department when you go shopping?”
Grandma is a model of infinite patience and good humour. She surveys the table: the green beans are all served – Julie seems to have eaten most of them; the potatoes are nearly gone, much of them down Mike’s gullet; the casserole has enough for lunch leftovers; the breadbasket is empty; only three small carrots remain in their pale bowl; the stew is all eaten, except for a small, nearly untouched portion on Julie’s plate. “Are we ready for dessert?”
Basil reaches for the wine bottle, lifts it, sets it back down. “We need another bottle of wine, too.” Then, to Julie, “Aren’t you hungry? Don’t you like the stew?”
“She’s afraid it’s people,” Lily says.
“Lily.” Mike does his stern face.
“We’re not monsters, dear,” Basil says.
Julie smiles tightly and reaches for her glass, which is empty, so her hand stops midair, then returns to her side. She stands up. “I’ll help clear these off.” She reaches for the stew pot and her hand quivers just a bit, not so much that anyone would notice. Except Ethan, who is watching her with wide eyes.