The night my step-dad found mum in bed with another guy was the same night he gave me his Swiss Army knife—the one he’d spent hours whittling wood with outside on our balcony. He jammed his clothes and books into a knapsack and told me he was sorry I wasn’t his for the taking. I tightened my jaw while he unfastened his world map from the kitchen wall, the one we’d spent hours pouring over while he told me about his travels, and said that was all right—I didn’t need him anyway. I could look after myself just fine.
I kept his knife underneath a sweatshirt I used as a pillow, running its blades up and down my arms—soft enough to skim through the fine, blonde hair covering my bruised skin—while mum sat half-deep in a bottle and bee-lining for hell in the living room. When I had trouble sleeping, I lay underneath my bed frame and shaved curls from its wood, like the ones that eventually blew off the balcony. The more I practiced, the more familiar the knife felt in my hands, and the more detailed my etchings became until the bottom of my bed resembled a collection of beaches, jungles, and cities I wanted to escape into.
Mum dressed me in slacks and collared shirts, kept my hair chopped short with a tail that stretched past my shoulders. “Ain’t nobody going to knock you up looking like a boy,” she’d say, her fingers yanking a braid out of the thin strand down my back. “The last thing I needed at fifteen was you.”
I started skipping school, carving pictures of places I dreamed of into oak trees that lined the streets and avenues around town. Sometimes people would shoo me away. Other times they’d stop and watch, remarking on my talent. It wasn’t talent, though. The knife was an extension of my arm—a way to protect myself, and to make myself heard.
I found an after-school job the day I was old enough for someone to hire me. Every dollar I saved was a dollar I was closer to leaving home. Afternoon shifts bled into whenever-I-wanted-them shifts, skinning onions and peeling carrots out back of a Chinese restaurant. The owner, Charlie, paid me cash, which I kept in an empty pickled radish jar under the counter so mum couldn’t steal from me. On slow nights, Charlie taught me how to cut with precision—julienne, brunoise, batonnet, paysanne, and chiffonade—then I’d wolf down his leftovers until my hunger was gone. I kept mum off my back by bringing food home, and she’d greedily stuff her mouth instead of using it to run me down.
My jar of savings grew faster than it should have. Charlie padded what I put away, even though he denied it when asked. I used the excess to buy a starter knife, which I kept at the restaurant, practicing my skills and creating art out of vegetables I found on the floor of the walk-in cooler. I left zucchini grizzlies baring their teeth, red pepper cats wielding their claws, and snap pea bees with pointed stingers lined up above boxes of produce, watching over me like brothers and sisters. They were companions in my carved out world.
Before long, I was working the line, my santoku thundering along a cutting board while Charlie, sweat-drenched and smiling, yelled out orders with vigor. There was something about the pitch in the kitchen that made it possible to forget about everything else. During the height of the rush, I didn’t care that mum would be waiting for me back home. All I wanted was to create. And when she slapped me around, telling me I’d been out too late and accusing me of keeping cash from her, I pictured the world underneath my bed and my siblings in the walk-in cooler, and I took her shit on the chin.
I worked at Charlie’s restaurant for a little over a year before she paid her first and only visit. She showed up at the back steps while I was on break, sitting on an upside-down bucket and carving a carrot stick caribou. She looked like she’d been drinking for days, her cheeks a ruddy red, her hair half-matted to the side of her head. Her best coat, a light-brown belted trench, strapped tightly around her burgeoning belly.
“You can’t work here anymore,” she said.
I sat silently, working my knife.
She took a step closer and grabbed me by the tail, giving it a solid yank. “Get your ass home where you belong.”
My hands were shaking when she finally left, furious I didn’t obey her. I went inside and worked the rest of my shift with a throbbing cheek, lining my miniature companions along the edge of the range for courage. My mind whirred, but I didn’t cut myself—not once. I moved my knife with meaning.
Charlie’s chef whites smelled of onions and oil when he walked me toward the front door that night, my pickled radish jar gripped between my tired hands.
“You are welcome to stay,” he said. “There is a room upstairs. My wife can give you the key.”
I shook my head. “I can’t.” I didn’t want to stay where mum could find me anymore.
“Very well,” he said, then pulled a brand new chai dao knife from behind the counter and presented me with it. “Please know you are always welcome in my kitchen.”
The gesture meant the world to me. I held tightly to my possessions as I stepped into the biting wind, and walked toward home. When I reached the base of the oak that sprawled over our balcony, I stopped and pulled my Swiss Army knife from the pocket of my chef’s pants. Drawing open its blade, I carved my initials into the tree bark, then pressed on, running my fingers over the pieces of the map I’d left myself along the way.
© Jennifer Todhunter