Where I come from, cooking is considered a noteworthy skill; it doesn’t matter whether you’re a professional or simply a dilettante. Even in my family, every member had at least one dish they had perfected. So much so that it became synonymous with their name.
My father was the most creative person I knew; he was the only person in my six-member family who dared to cook his signature dish atypical to everyone else’s.
In plain words, his dish was a pot of stewed mutton and potatoes, but its preparation was a departure from our home’s culturally approved method of preparing meat and potato stews. No red chili, no tomatoes, and minimal oil. To a newcomer, it looked like mutton chops and quartered potatoes swimming in a bowl of chicken soup.
Sounds appetizing, doesn’t it?
Mama was probably the only person in the family who rallied that the dish tasted better than it looked. I was among the ranks of my siblings; the only reason we tolerated the dish was to pander to Dad.
But now, if someone gave me a choice between that stew and being alone in this place, I think I would choose the former. Who wants to be alone in a shanty cabin like this? It’s made of dark wood with a funny smell, there are no pipes or wires, drops of melted ice sometimes trickle from the roof, and the only thing that ‘lights up’ is the fire inside a little woodstove in the corner.
The only companionship I have is my phone, but that too is in the last moments of its battery. But why am I saving it for emergencies? The signal meter still has a giant cross on it.
I stand up and head for the door. I twist the knob and pull the wooden door open. It’s still white and freezing outside. Of course, it is. Why would anything change in half an hour? But I know that in the next hour, I’ll again walk to the door and swing it open, just like how I used to open the door of my refrigerator even when I wasn’t hungry.
Once I opened it seven times in a single day. The eighth time I did it, I voice whispered, “Stop opening the door! You’re bringing the hot air inside!” I slammed the door shut, grabbed a plastic cup from the side shelf, and forcefully threw it where the voice was coming from. It hit my brother’s forehead who yelped and I roared with laughter.
The fire roared too now. It seemed to be lying low. I stared into it, wondering when it was planning to finally die out. Should I toss in some firewood now? Or wait for it to finish its business. It’s not nice to disturb things you know.
I think about my family and wonder if they’re looking for me. I don’t think I told them where I was going or why I was coming here. Maybe I told Tania, my younger sister. I must have told her. She’s the only sibling I manage to have decent conversations with without wanting to yank her hair off, and her hair is softer than me!
Huh? I thought I heard something.
There! I heard it again! Or did I?
Was I going mad already? It hasn’t even been a week since I was here! Do hallucinations kick in that fast?
Again, I heard the sound again. No, I’m not crazy. I just saw the door shake for a second.
“Who is it?” I called.
“Open up!” a blurred voice answered, “It’s freezing, and this firewood is weighing me down!”
I didn’t recognize the voice. How did this person get here? I’m pretty sure that this shack is hundreds of kilometers away from ‘the land of the living’. If only the glass window was on the same wall as the door, I could see this guy better.
He pounds the door again, this time more aggressively. This was a bad idea but I walked to the door anyway.
When the door opened, and a giant, clothed figure bolted into the warmth of the cabin. He released the firewood into the corner behind the woodstove. I did not shut the door just yet. A part of me screamed that I was being careless again. I had been careless from the beginning to land myself in a place like this.
The man turned, rubbing his giant gloved hands, and finally saw me. He glared, either at the open door or at me standing next to it. He yelled at me again to close it.
“Who are you?” I said.
“I’m the yeti!”
“Oh, God! Ayza shut the door! You’re bringing the cold air inside!”
How did he know my name? Wait… What did he just say about the air?
Finally, the man strode over himself and shut the door himself. I didn’t know this man. He was taller than me, and the gloves on his hands made them appear larger. I thought he would push me against the wall in one clean swing; maybe even the wood of the cabin walls would give way.
But this ‘yeti’ had no intention of doing anything. He simply sat by the fire and groaned. I was still glued next to the door. Whoever this stranger was, he was completely ignorant of me. I didn’t find anything remotely familiar about him. If this was the start of a teenage romance novel, I would be looking for traits of attractiveness. But I didn’t find that either.
The growling of both our stomachs interrupted the silence. Nope, I thought, definitely not a romance novel.
“Let’s see what we have” the man spoke. He strode to a shelf near the woodstove whose top was aligned with jars and sacks. I watched as he scavenged the jars and almost chuckled. The first jar he picked was freshly empty because I gobbled up all the dried apricots inside.
I sauntered to the other end of the cabin and settled silently on an ottoman. Maybe, he was going to improvise and cook something up. I wanted to see what that could be. That could pass a final verdict on whether I should throw this guy out into the snow or let him share the warm air.
Did he have a phone? But still, no signals, so that option’s out the window.
He pulled out a saucepan from the shelf and filled it with water from the pipe. He placed it over the wood stove to boil and returned to the shelves. I thought we would be lucky to have just tea and biscuits if there were any. But my stomach growled even louder, and I finally spoke out to drown its humiliating sound:
“Do you know where we are?”
“Atop fairy meadows,” he said without turning.
Now, he turned. It was dark but I could see that his eyebrows were raised.
“I know what my name thank you very much” I grunted, “You haven’t mentioned yours!”
He blinked. For a few seconds, we engaged in an undeclared staring contest. I didn’t look away. This, I have to admit would have been a great addition to the novel. But this guy was strangely irritating.
“Ayza? Do you really not know who I am?”
“I’m Waleed… Your brother.”
“Oh please. You don’t look anything like my brother. And his name isn’t Waleed either! He has a bigger nose than yours!”
“I don’t have a…” he was about to exclaim but stopped.
He started looking around in the cabin. His hand patted the pipe leading the smoke to the roof. My eyes didn’t waver from him.
“Did you hit your head on something here?” he asked.
“Why do you care?”
“Come on Ayza. You know I’m not in a joking mood when I’m hungry.”
“What jokes? I don’t know you!” Now I was becoming the irritated party.
“I know why you’re doing this” he breathed, as he nestled a saucepan on the woodstove, “You’re still mad at me for making you live in this shack right?”
I didn’t answer. Tremors continued to move in my stomach and now, something began pounding heavily in my chest.
“You’re the reason I’m here?” I breathed.
There was enough light inside the cabin for me to see the redness on his cheeks.
“Ayza that’s enough!” he said, “Mama sent me here to see if you’re okay. She sent Tania a while back but you yourself told her you wouldn’t come out until sunset.”
My breath was quickening. I was still glaring at this figure. Obviously, I didn’t believe a word he was saying.
“Stop lying” I breathed, “My family isn’t anywhere near here!”
“Yes, they are! Dad’s making that white stew of his back at the camp” he paused, “Although, I don’t blame you if you’d rather stay here.”
I breathed. My head tilted to the window on my right. Snow, everything in sight was smeared with snow. My family couldn’t be anywhere near here. Is he telling the truth?
Without a second thought, I marched to the door. I burst out, exposed among the whiteness of the snow.
Shivers ran down me. When I turned, I saw that he was following me. My feet moved. I started running. The cold air hit my face like needles. But I didn’t stop. I kept running on the soft, icy snow. It crushed under my feet and slowed me down. My breath was beginning to falter. I heard him calling my name out.
Finally, I stopped. My legs shivered and I choked. I sagged on the white ground. When I lifted my head, patches of land were spread miles away from me. Green patches; the snow atop them had been cleaned away. They were covered in colorful trinkets of some kind.
No, those aren’t trinkets… They’re cabins. Each nestled close to the other, with colorful tents standing close by. I even heard noises from among them. There were people coming out from the cabins, and children playing ahead. Behind them, flocks of trees covered the area. Hills moved up and down like waves in a meadow.
As I sat heaving, I heard steps pounding on the snow behind me.
“Ayza! Stop it already!” the man shouted. I didn’t answer. I wanted to run away but my legs wouldn’t budge. He didn’t come in front of me. I heard him panting. A ray of sunlight peered at us from above, revealing his shadow towering over me. My eyes were watery now.
“I’m sorry! Stop scaring me!”
“You’re scaring me!” I screamed back with my remaining breath.
“Ayza it’s me Waleed, your brother” he was coming to my side now.
“You’re nothing like him!”
“I don’t have a big nose!” He yelled back and collapsed on the ice next to me. I finally looked at him. He was disheveled. He was heavily breathing, or was that his laughter? I stared at his bent face. His cheeks were red and fatigue was now enveloping him. I pitied him at that moment. I imagined the coldness was seeping into his body from the snow just like it was creeping into mine. We were both cold and exhausted.
I turned my eyes above to look at the peaking clouds. I looked around at the hills. But my tranquil state was interrupted with the sound of his heaving. When I turned, our eyes met. He was glaring at me. His face was even redder now that I thought steam was coming off of him.
I almost giggled. His mouth fell open.
“Gotcha!” I said and roared with laughter.