On their way to Grandma’s house, Tantalus sat in the back of the car next to his sister, Medusa, who was still sniveling from the morning’s events, when Tantalus had stuck a massive wad of gum in his sister’s black slithering tresses.
“That’s what you get for letting them bite me!” he said over his little sister’s wailing. The gum was binding the serpents together as they writhed and struggled. And even though he thought he was in the right, Tantalus ran into his room to hide under the covers, red in the face. His father couldn’t get him if he was under there. His blanket was like a cloak of invincibility.
Hours later, Tantalus could tell his sister was still crying, even if she was wearing sunglasses. She was crying with great cause too: in order to get the gum out of her hair, their father had to cut off most of her winding curls, in spite of their protesting hisses.
How on earth else do you get gum out of snakes? Their mother was positive a quick Internet search would produce no other “at home” remedies.
Once Tantalus and his family arrived at Grandma’s, he scampered out of the car, but not before his father stopped him. He took Tantalus by the arm and led him behind the car, bending down in a patronizing way.
“What you did to your sister today wasn’t nice,” he said. “So I think your punishment will be that you don’t get to have Thanksgiving dinner with us.” His words were unyielding to any of Tantalus’ pouting and stomping and stammering. The Fates had spoken and his father was firm in his decision.
“That’s what you think,” he whispered once his father was out of earshot.
Before going into the house, Tantalus looked in the backyard and saw his Grandmother’s prized fig tree: the spindly, finger-like branches always sagged from the weight of all the sweet and delicious figs that dangled from them. The aroma filled the whole backyard, which was like Eden, in the sense that there was always a bountiful plenty to be had. If Thanksgiving dinner was off limits, he could always sneak into the backyard.
Tantalus spent the evening sitting in the corner as his relatives caught up with one another; nobody ever really paid too much attention to him, which he was fine with. Then, at dinnertime, his father so cordially reminded him of his punishment: “You can sit with us at the dinner table, but you’re going to bed tonight without your dinner.”
Tantalus crossed his arms in a huff and looked the table over. It was covered in large platters that were overflowing with a plenty of food: a fat, crispy turkey lay on the largest platter, with thick slabs cut from its breast; sweet potatoes slathered in marshmallows sat by, waiting for somebody to take the first scoop; the family members passed around dishes of stuffing, green beans, and crunchy rolls, and scooped large dripping helpings of cranberry sauce and mashed potatoes with gravy.
Everything was tantalizing.
Once the dish of sweet potatoes reached Tantalus, he thought he could be sneaky and scoop some onto his plate before his father noticed.
He scooped the potatoes. Strings of sticky marshmallow stretched into the air with the spoon. Tantalus then pulled the spoon and the marshmallow strands snapped. He gulped at the sight of the food. His mouth watered. There was now food on his plate and he reached for his fork. But before he could get a bite into his mouth, Medusa cried out.
With a whiplike speed, Tantalus’ father snatched up his plate and took it away.
His sister stuck her tongue out at him, before jamming a forkful of turkey into her mouth. His dad was about to take away his glass as well, but Tantalus protested. “You can’t take my water too!”
“Fine,” his father responded, and he left the glass in front of Tantalus.
Tantalus gave a silent laugh. He ran into the kitchen, poured out his water, and then filled his glass to the brim with ice-cold pumpkin juice. He smacked his lips at the refreshing drink and went to take a sip. The second his lips touched the rim the juice receded, as if it were draining out the bottom of the glass. It was soon gone. It must have evaporated? He poured himself another glass of juice. But this time, when he went to taste the drink, all the juice leapt from the glass. It fell to the floor and slithered out the backdoor like a snake.
Tantalus was amazed. How on earth did juice leap like that? His stomach growled. Soon, his amazement turned into annoyance. He just wanted food.
At once, his aunt came into the kitchen and left a plate of leftover out on the counter, unaware that Tantalus was in there. Tantalus then grabbed the plate. He pilfered through the scraps and found an intact slab of turkey breast. He had it, finally.
He tossed it into his mouth and chewed like a ravenous beast.
But then he spat it out. It was a knee-jerk reaction, but only because the turkey had somehow turned chalky and gritty. And once it was out of his mouth, Tantalus realized why. He didn’t spit out turkey. He spat out sand.
Confused, he walked back into the dining room to find that it was dessert time. Now he was angry. Dessert was his favorite part of Thanksgiving and Grandma’s pumpkin pie was the one thing he really looked forward to, but he would have to miss out on it this year. With one less person to feed, everyone’s slices of pumpkin pie were a little bigger than they normally would be; the creamy orange, bespeckled with cinnamon, called out to Tantalus, tempting him to take a bite of the sweet pie.
He watched as his father dropped huge dollops of whipped cream onto his own slice, and Tantalus swore he was doing this purposely, to entice his son into something he couldn’t have. His mouth watered. His eye twitched. He needed to have some pie.
Tantalus threw his hands up in exasperation. He pulled at his hair and rested his balled-up fists against his temples. The clink of cutlery against plates and the polite chatter of the family annoyed Tantalus. It made his skin itch. And this whole “no dinner tonight” punishment was not cutting it. He felt wound up, like he was about to scream.
He escaped back into the kitchen and kicked the drawers in frustration. Tantalus then ran outside into the backyard, where he found the fruitful fig tree. He looked up and around at the inviting figs. Each one was more plump and juicy-looking than the last. He could have a fig. He could eat. And his father was nowhere in sight to take it away from him.
He eyed the tree. He searched. He decided which one was perfect and which one would be most satisfying. Tantalus then reached up to pluck the fruit off the branch, but the branch suddenly was out of reach.
He tried for the fig again and then he realized the tree was pulling its branches farther into the sky, out of Tantalus’ reach. He jumped up and down, trying to reach higher and higher, but the tree kept moving its branches even higher. The tree then started waving its branches about in a mocking way. It was even cheeky enough to bend a branch down closer to Tantalus, dangling a plump, sweet fig in front of his face, only to snatch it away at the last second. The tree quivered, as though it were in a fit of laughter.
He would have that fig if it killed him.
Tantalus kept at it for the next few hours. But he soon grew tired of his food jumping away from him. The sky was now a pale, cold blue; the stars twinkled and laughed at him. A slice of the moon peeked through the remaining daylight and took pity on Tantalus and his predicament, giving him a faint frown. He began to give up, sliding his back down the fig tree and collecting at the trunk like a puddle.
It looked like his father had gotten the best of him.
Off in the next door neighbor’s yard, a boy about the same age as Tantalus was trying to roll a boulder up a hill, only to have the boulder keep slipping away and rolling back down before he even reached the top.
Well, Tantalus thought pensively, at least he wasn’t that guy.
Brendon Zatirka is a teacher of college writing and lit, and a writer for tuneage.com, a popular music blog. He is really good at worrying, and losing his notebook among the clutter of coffee cups on his desk.