I rake a fork through the small glass container in front of me and find a peppercorn, a small black ball amidst the green and brown of my meal. With a piece of tofu, I scoop it up and deliver it to my mouth.
My teeth crunch down on the cooked but still gritty peppercorn. For a moment I await in anticipation. At first I think it is the taste of the spice that I await for, a sharp, pungent numbness that grips strongly and reassuringly at the inside of my mouth, but when it arrives I realize that it is something else.
The dim memory of a small dining room. A humble golden chandelier casts a warm glow over the white-clothed table below. Sizzling, chopping, and the running of water emanate from a kitchen just out of sight.
The flavor of meat with that unmistakable peppercorn tinge fills a mouth that has been vegan for years, void of the pop of soy that has come to signify safety. Instead of evoking alarm or disgust, though, this bite brings a wisp of warmth. I turn to the container and fit another peppercorn between the prongs of my fork.
The pepperiness is stronger this time, and so is the recollection that accompanies it. The tall windows on the left side of the dining room look over a sizeable backyard where there once stood a pool that I don’t remember and an unsturdy swingset I remember just a little more. The opening to the right of the dining room frames a spacious living room, where a pale gray couch is an observation deck for the coffee table in front of it, the well-played upright against one wall, and a TV diagonally crammed against the other.
I sit for a moment in the snow globe I have suddenly found myself enclosed in. I am entranced by the sounds, the spaces, the fleeting slivers of memory that flutter around me. I reach for another peppercorn.
I am floating among the songs of flute and voice that ring constantly between the shingled walls. I am wet with tears that drip from my face to the hands desperately dancing over the black and white keys below. I am shaken with laughter as three slick ace cards drop on top of the pile before me. I am breathing the smoke-filled air of a neighbor’s house after getting off the school bus and realizing I didn’t have keys.
I am touched by the long, golden afternoon rays of sun that skip gracefully across the snow. The crystals of my breath begin to reflect the freezing of my fingers and toes, and I am pulled back to my family to warm up. When I emerge again it is summer. Surrounded by a gated lawn that is boundless in the darkness of night, I crane my head upwards at the infinite tapestry of pinprick stars that mesmerize me from above.
The contents of my lunchbox had steadily disappeared as I traveled. Now there remained a single peppercorn, pitted and monumentally black against the last remaining piece of tofu. I slid my fork under it and lifted it into my mouth.
As soon as my teeth crack the peppercorn, the stars fade away. Sunlight streaks over the ground before vanishing too below the horizon. Wavering, rubato’d notes recede into the vibrations of bamboo and vocal chords, and playing cards fly back into my hand and into oblivion. Furniture shrink into specks of dust and walls fold in on themselves. I shield my eyes as the the delicate landscape around me falls away with dazzling spectacle, as if the universe had reached the limits of its expansion and come crashing back in. Time evaporates into mere wisps of smoke.
Just as I think that the asymptotic point of emptiness is about be hit and the snow globe about to shatter, all becomes still.
I slide my hand away from my face to find myself seated at a white-clothed dining table. A humble golden chandelier casts a warm glow over the plates of food below. At the sides of the table are seated my mother, my sister, my father. They pile savory meat and vegetable stews over bowls of rice. I pick up my chopsticks and do the same.
But the respite is only momentary. A peppercorn hides in the piece of rice between my chopsticks. I crunch down through the fluffiness to the gritty black ball. One last time, I feel its angry flavor erupt.
I look up to see my dad calmly raising a piece of celery to his lips, only he is growing translucent as he does so. I watch in curiosity at first, but then I see that my mother has joined him, fading away as she chews her own mouthful of food. With terror I realize that I am immobilized, unable to reach out or make a sound, only feel the crunch of peppercorn between my teeth and the growing, unidentifiable feeling within my own chest.
My dad has faded away completely now, along with the food in front of him, leaving his spot at the table occupied only by an empty plate. My mother, still unaware of her fading, now picks up a spoon and grabs a shovel-full of vegetables from a dish in the middle of the table. She turns to my sister and slides the vegetables on her plate. My sister pouts and pushes the spoon back. I am horrified to see that she, too, is now fading away, the rice under the newly-added vegetables on her plate slowly shrinking under the weight of time.
My mother, now just a fraction of the opacity of my sister or the room around her, finally turns towards me and reaches over in slow-motion. I feel her touch my shoulder, but now I can only barely see my mother. Just as fast as her touch came it disappears, and only my sister and I remain. She looks at me intently, but I don’t know what to do. She too grows dimmer and dimmer, before finally looking away. She disappears, and I am alone.
I catch a glimpse of myself on the empty plates on the table, and realize that I, too, am fading. I leave behind my body and shoot upwards as the peppercorn is fully squashed between my teeth.
One way or another, all four of us are gone now. Along with the sunlight and the stars, we are but pretty pieces of a snow globe contained within peppercorn, that comfortingly angry, monolithic, and ultimately ephemeral vessel of time.
I swallow the last bite of my lunch and get back to work.