10 comments

Contemporary Fiction Desi

Isabelle lifted the recipe card and tried, yet again, to decipher the smudged instructions at the bottom. The last two ingredients and all the assembly steps faded into the water stain, unchanged from the last time she looked. The kitchen timer whirred. The latest attempt at Nana’s cookies had cooled enough to be tasted. She lifted one of the golden circles off the rack, brought it to her mouth and bit down. 

This batch was better. It had the snap she remembered. The shape and color were right, the edges impeccably dressed with their green nut coats, toasted in the oven to just the right hue. The measurements of butter, sugar, vanilla, flour, and salt had been legible and correct. She remembered the steps of chill, cut, and roll. But the familiar dance on her tongue was maddeningly absent. 

Fortunately for this round, she’d recalled the time as a young girl when she raked her fingers across metal blades while grating orange peel. Adding the fragrant zest had improved the taste, Isabelle thought. These cookies were edible. Good, even. If she had to put a finger on the flavor, she’d call it almost. What was the it that she couldn’t get? After three batches, she’d eliminated cinnamon, nutmeg, and now cloves as the missing spice. These were not quite Nana’s cookies, and therefore not quite Isabelle’s. Not yet.  

Isabelle was the only baker in the Marino family, although unofficially exiled. It had been only right that she should receive Nana’s recipe box, but her relatives shared subtle (and not so subtle) opinions that Isabelle had no right to claim anything at all. She had been surprised and relieved that it had survived the progressively aggressive purges of her Grandmother’s belongings. She’d picked it up from the donation pile on that last sorting day. 

Even though it was with other discarded items, it still somehow felt like stealing. She picked it up, looking around as if daring someone to challenge her. She met her mothers gaze, who stared at her with pursed lips, shrugged, then returned to an argument with her sister about a brooch. If Isabelle was allowed just a touch of spite, it was nice to think that some of the history her family would deny her was written out on these musty, faded index cards now in her possession.

She’d never seen a single one of them at the nursing home as Nana declined over the past year. Isabelle had barely missed an afternoon. She would finish teaching, then stop to sit with Nana. When she’d started visiting, she may have had some fantasy to relive the tea and cookie days. But Nana didn’t speak much anymore. By the time Isabelle had moved back to town, Nana was a mere shadow of the matriarch she once was. She would reluctantly sip a shake through a cardboard container that smelled like baby food, all while painfully calling Isabelle “Anna.” Their visits were typically silent.  Isabelle had always left the nursing home before the sundowning started. 

Today, on no particular Saturday, Isabelle felt she had to tackle the recipe. She had nowhere to be, no one to entertain. Ironic, as Nana always had these cookies out for guests. In the good years, it was like Nana had a magic refillable cookie jar. Isabelle couldn’t remember Nana even looking at a recipe card as she expertly whipped up batch after batch, smiling. Isabelle bit into the rejected cookie again. Crumbs collected at the side of her mouth. She frowned, considering the only person that would know what the missing spice could be. 

She decided she was within her rights to call her mother, no matter what had happened before. Her stubbornness, more than any bravery, led her to dial the contact. After one ring her call was sent to voicemail. She willed herself not to hang up, to leave the voicemail. It would be worth it. “Hi, it’s Isabelle. I’m trying to bake Nana’s cookies... wondering if you remember what spices she used, the recipe’s fuzzy. If you remember, call me back.” 

Don’t let yourself get upset, she thought. She stacked dozens of the imperfect cookies in tupperware and locked the seal, turning her back on the disheveled kitchen. She wasn’t even convinced the spice she needed was in her apartment, which seemed to be shrinking. The bowls and beaters and egg shells polluting her usually tidy kitchen were too intimidating. She grabbed the tray of cookies and headed out the door. She sent a message to the only person she could think of that wouldn’t waste 3 dozen cookies. She needed them gone before she could continue. 

#

Isabelle pulled into the parking lot of Memorial Hospital and sent Tanya a text. 

Cookies in your parking lot. 

Ellipses wiggled on her phone. 

YES! I’m coming. 2 minutes.

This would be a brief encounter. Tanya wouldn’t go near her while working on shift. After three minutes, she emerged from the ambulance bay tucked just to the left of the emergency department entrance. The petite figure in navy scrubs waved at the Camry, and approached on the passenger side. Isabelle rolled down the window.

“Busy shift?” she asked, passing the tray to Tanya through the open window.

“Ugh,” Tanya grunted through a blue paper mask. 

“How’s cookiepalooza?” Tanya asked, leaning toward the window, not touching anything else but the tray. Even though her shift would’ve only started a few hours ago, chestnut wisps of hair already crept out from the sides of her paisley scrub cap. 

“Aggravating,” Isabelle said. 

Tanya snapped open the box, selected a cookie and bit into it. She spoke through crunches. “This is it? It’s really good.”

 “It’s not it. But, I’m getting closer.”

“Then, keep practicing. I’ll be pretty popular around here if you keep dropping these off. But I’ll need to size up my scrubs.”

“I like them tight,” Isabelle teased, and watched a smile curve on Tanya’s lips.

“Is that an invitation over tonight? I’ll bring some pho, after I shower.”

“I can grab something.”

“Please, I had cold pizza for breakfast. I need to feel like an adult.” A voice screeched from the radio in Tanya’s pocket. “Nurse triage to trauma bay 3.” Tanya lowered the volume. “Speaking of which…” she nodded towards the hospital. Isabelle pushed on the ignition. Tanya turned on her heel, cookies in hand. “These will be gone in two minutes. Vultures,” she shouted, jogging back inside. 

The car’s navigation screen blinked on. Incoming message from Mom cell. Isabelle straightened her posture and pressed ‘read.’ 

I really wouldn’t know. I never baked those with her.

“Coward,” she accused the screen, and pulled out of the parking lot. “And, liar.” 

She reminded herself not to text and drive, and the anger built in her. 

“Send text to mom,” She ordered the speaker. But the responses came to mind too fast, which had the effect of paralyzing her. 

Thanks for nothing.

Gee, thanks, I’m doing ok. 

Apparently, I’m the only one who really cared about anything related to Nana… unless it had a carat attached to it. 

She remembered holding Nana’s papery hand, and being called her mother’s name. Then came the guilt, pelting like hail. Isabelle hadn’t been there for the last of the good years, when Nana was truly there. Her face ignited, red and hot, tears welling. She was approaching a park, and pulled into an open streetside parking space. Why, she thought, had she even tried with these stupid cookies?

She rummaged through the glove compartment and pulled out a fast food napkin, then angrily wiped at her cheeks. The rough fibers felt like a slap, and the tears were over nearly as soon as they’d started. She blew her nose into the damp napkin and took a swig of stale water from a bottle in her purse. She looked up towards the park. 

A young jogger’s ponytail whipped behind her as she traveled down the path. Women scrolled their phone as they pushed strollers. Children dashed across the grass. An elderly woman strolled down the sidewalk close to Isabelle’s car, a small child racing ahead. The woman was yelling something at the child, and then dropped, slipping off the curb and into Isabelle’s car with a thud. She then landed on her side on the ground. After a jump, Isabelle unbuckled herself and rushed out the driver’s side door. She ran around the side of the car. The woman lay in a heap, holding the side of her leg. “Ay, ay,” she cried.

“Dadu!” The child cried and raced back to the woman on the ground. Isabelle offered her arm, which the woman accepted and pulled herself to a seated position.

“Are you ok, Ma’am?” Isabelle asked.

“Dadu!” the child cried.

“Tigase, tigase,” the woman said softly. “Dadu is ok!” She forced a smile, wincing as she shifted her left leg. The old woman’s skin was brown, and her long hair was black and thick, with long grey currents along the sides. 

“So clumsy,” Dadu said, an accent barely detectable.

“May I see your leg? I’m a teacher, I had to take first aid,” she offered sheepishly. 

“Yes, fine,” the woman said, pulling up a pink, baggy pant leg to reveal a red scrape across her ankle, the top layer of skin peeled back and loose. 

Isabelle frowned. “Can you move your leg?” 

The woman tried to turn her limb, and sucked in a deep breath.

“I’m sorry, Dadu,’ the child said. Tears fell down her cheeks. Her wail revealed a missing front tooth.

“I’m worried about your leg,” Isabelle said. “Did you drive here?” 

“No, we live close.”

“Can I take you to the hospital?” 

“No. No hospital,” the woman said firmly.

Isabelle scanned the park for anyone who could intervene. Everyone else seemed blissfully unaware of the injured woman.  

“I can drive you home?” Isabelle suggested, assuring herself she could lift this slight woman into her car, despite only having a sniffling child as her assistant. 

“If it’s not too much trouble. We do not live far. My daughter-in-law can help me.”

“It’s no trouble.”  

Iasabelle opened the passenger door and squatted, offering her arms and waist. The older woman stood with her assistance, steadied herself, then scooted forward with her weight on the right, uninjured leg. She turned her bottom toward the passenger seat and lowered herself onto it.

The little girl hopped into the back seat, giddy at the newness of this experience and completely over the drama that just occurred. 

“I don’t have a car seat,” Isabelle said, looking to the woman for permission.

“We are not far,” she said. “Do you know 4th street?” 

“I’m not sure, but I can put it in my GPS.”

“I’ll direct you,” she said.

“OK. Buckle up!” Isabelle smiled toward the back seat, ensuring the child was strapped in.

“After three blocks, you’ll make a right turn,” she said.

Isabelle flipped her signal on and pulled out on the street. 

“I smell cookies,” the little girl noted.

Isabelle caught the girl’s eye in the rearview mirror. “I’ve been trying to make my Grandma’s perfect cookie.”

“I love chocolate chip cookies. But my mama buys them at the store,” she confided. 

“Tell me about her cookie,” Isabelle’s passenger asked. “It will distract me.” 

“It’s an old Italian recipe, like a shortbread with pistachios.”

“Crispy or soft?” the woman asked.

“They’re crispy.”

“Good, I don’t like soft cookies. Your grandmother knows how to bake then.”

“She did know. She passed away last month.”

Her smile faded slightly. “May God grant her paradise.” 

Isabelle shifted and tensed. “Thank you, she was sick for sometime. I saved her recipe box, which has a recipe for these cookies, but they’re missing a certain ingredient I haven’t placed. ”

“They sound delicious,” said the woman.

“Can I have one?” The child chirped from the back seat. 

“Rabia!” The old woman half-heartedly corrected the girl. “Put your blinker on here. Three blocks up and make a left. Then take it up to 4th street.”

Isabelle did, but slowly, trying not to jostle the woman’s tender leg. 

“We have a type of pistachio cookie in Bangladesh, too. They are truly delicious, but they have elaich, and that’s not common in American sweets.”

“Elaich?” Isabelle attempted. “I’ve never heard of it.”

The old woman put her hand to her forehead, trying to work out the word. “Elaich, elaich, it means…. Ahhh. Too old now.”

Isabelle turned onto 4th street. 

“It’s the blue house on the left, number 8268.” 

Isabelle pulled into the parking space. A woman’s face peered out the front window. The little girl burst out of the car and ran toward her front door. “Mama, Dadu’s leg is broken!” The young woman with a long black braid emerged from the house, pausing to take in the scene. She gasped when she saw Isabelle helping lift the woman out of the passenger seat.

“Oh no, what happened? Ma, khi khortoso?”

“Ami bhalo, I’m fine” the older woman reassured the younger one, who now had the little girl attached to her leg and a baby on her hip. “I fell off the curb and this woman stopped to help, at the park.”

The young mother stooped to look at the older woman’s leg. “Ah, it’s all swollen, I’ll call Tarek, we’ll take you to the hospital.” 

The old woman nodded. 

“I’ll help her inside. You have your hands full,” Isabelle pointed at the children.

“Thank you so much.”

“Maybe some ice?” Isabelle suggested, and the young woman flew inside, leaving the door open.

“My daughter in law, Muna” the woman said, smiling. She then turned to the task at hand. Isabelle supported the woman, using the same method as before. The woman hopped and slid across the grass, keeping her weight off the left leg. She still winced every time she dropped the good foot down. When they got inside, Muna was talking hurriedly into a cell phone. She handed Isabelle a cloth and a bag of ice. Isabelle helped seat the old woman gingerly on the fourth step of the staircase just inside the hall. Isabelle folded the ice bag in the cloth, and applied it to the stranger’s ankle. The woman startled, and then took the bag from her.

“Thank you, I’ll hold it now.”

“I’m so sorry this happened,” Isabelle said.

The old woman waived her apology off. “This will heal. Muna! Muna!” She called. Muna re-entered the hall, lowering her cell. “Tarek is coming now. What do you need, ma?”

“Get this lady some elaich from the kitchen.”

“What?” Muna raised an eyebrow at Isabelle, then threw a side glance to her mother-in-law. 

“She needs some for a special recipe. I can’t recall the name in English.”

Muna looked up, her mind searching. “Hmm, I don’t know, either. One moment.”

“Don’t bother, I can look it up,” Isabelle protested, but Muna was already in the kitchen.

“You are honoring your grandmother. You can take some. Try. It’s a kindness to accept from an old lady,” the old woman ordered. 

In moments, Muna returned to the hall. She handed Isabelle a plastic bag, containing teardrop-shaped, papery green pods the size of sunflower seeds. 

“You have to crush them and take out the small black seed, and grind them into a powder. But take care, this is a very strong flavor,” Muna instructed.

“Yes, and if you’re baking something sweet you only need a teeny pinch,” the elder woman added.

“I’ll try it out, thank you.” She turned to the older woman. “Do you want me to help with anything? I can wait with you until your son comes home.” 

“No, you go. We have a long day of waiting to do now.”

Muna smiled and nodded, “Really you have done so much, we can take care of her now.”

Isabelle nodded, and started backing out the door. “I hope it’s not broken.” 

“We’ll catch up on my drama on the TV. Don’t worry. Thank you,” the old woman waved. Isabelle turned and walked to the car, ziplock bag in hand.

#

Elaich was cardamom, according to a google search. She cracked open the pods and ground them with a mortar. The small seeds released a warm, deep, inviting fragrance. It was familiar, but she wasn’t sure from where. Isabelle creamed the butter and sugar, added vanilla, and finally, the spice and zest. She heeded her earlier advice and spooned a careful sprinkling of powder into her dough. Then, she refrigerated, rolled, cut, and baked. 350 degrees for 11 minutes. 

She stared at the golden discs as they cooled. She set a timer for ten minutes, knowing she’d be tempted to try them before they were really ready and would crumble when she bit them. Their scent warmed the entire house. When the timer sang, she lifted one of the cookies to her lips and bit down. She closed her eyes. 

The cookie’s flavors mingled, and chanted. This was more than edible. This was the cookie she wanted to bake. She had a feeling, it still wasn’t exactly Nana’s cookie. Not quite. But she loved this warmth on her tongue. If she were to name the flavor, she might still call it almost. And almost, Isabelle decided, was enough. Before turning her attention to wiping flour from her counters, or washing a dozen cups and bowls, she picked up the yellowed recipe card. She hesitated for a brief second. A small voice in her head suggested pumpkin spice, or ginger, maybe? She shook her head to silence the temptation. She lifted a felt pen and wrote definitively over the water stain:

¼ teaspoon ground elaich. 

December 11, 2020 21:38

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.

10 comments

Lourenço Amorim
11:14 Dec 17, 2020

Slices of life aren't my favorites style of stories, but you made a great work, well written and clearly with personal touches that created a story complex and depth. I always like to read stories that show bits of a culture different than mine.

Reply

Niyyah R. Haqq
18:26 Dec 17, 2020

Thanks for this comment - I usually write stories for youth and this isn't my style either, but I really connected with this prompt. Thanks for the taking the time to comment :-)

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Vinci Lam
02:57 Dec 16, 2020

Beautifully written story! You captured the emotions so well, the sudden break down in the car was so real. I also enjoyed the little hints of isabelle and her mother's conflict, it adds to Isabelle's character. I think the grandmother at the park was a little bit of a stretch for me (esp in a short story), but still within reason. What I mean by that is, she's baking but then we get pulled to the hospital (which is a bit away from baking) and then we get pulled to a park meeting strangers. But you did tie them up pretty well with the st...

Reply

Niyyah R. Haqq
03:11 Dec 16, 2020

Thanks for this feedback, this is my first submission so I had all kinds of jitters. It is so kind of you to provide some thoughts for me to work on. I'll follow you, as well!

Reply

Vinci Lam
04:43 Dec 16, 2020

No problem! Haha, I totally understand that! It took me months to put out my first submission. I'm glad my comment was somewhat useful - I try to give some sort of value since we're all here trying to improve our craft. Thank you, I look forward to reading more of your work! :D

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
00:32 Dec 15, 2020

Awww I love this story!! I was sad when it ended. All the characters were awesome. I loved the cultural parts of the story too- I love doing the same thing, except with Mexican culture. :) Usually I try to give one or two critiques, but this story was perfect. None needed. I was also actually eating cookies while reading this story, and I think it just made it more fun :) I look forward to reading more of you stories!!

Reply

Niyyah R. Haqq
03:13 Dec 16, 2020

Katie, thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my story. I am generally eating cookies so I'm right there with you. I'll be checking out your stories, too!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Nainika Gupta
15:35 Jan 08, 2021

The emotions in the story are so perfectly developed and powerful that I couldn't stop reading. I loved this soo much!!

Reply

Niyyah R. Haqq
22:27 Jan 13, 2021

Thank you so much for taking the time to comment :-) I appreciate it!

Reply

Nainika Gupta
22:49 Jan 13, 2021

of course!!!

Reply

Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply