Chapter 1: Mother and the Chocolate Cake
Our cake is velvet-crumbed, slivers cut one by one, each melting on the tongue, dark communion wafer. Mother raises her head, lips painted with chocolate: her mouth knows a secret taste. Shall we have milk? For milk and chocolate want to mingle, to marry. Sky-roofed, our pantry is by the stream, our feet careful on the rocks. The milk jug hangs by a string, shimmering in the water, our floor is leaves, laid one on the other until they sink into the earth. Our cupboards nest in low branches, open to wrens and robins: we do not find it strange. I have eaten all the frosting but no one is worried.
Chapter 2: Drying the Dishtowels
If the cake is gone, there is always something else, a cookie like a wheel, apple pie, edges crimped and golden, nut roll iced with a milk-white glaze. Mother is not worried. She lights a candle, spindly as a twig, sets it in a cup where it burns for her birthday, one flicker of flame for each year. Time is burning here in the yellow kitchen, burning on the table in the sun. Fold the dish towels, she says. Gathered in the basket, they are flowered, curlicued, calendared, named for hotels, each one a history of stains once wiped up and removed, edges burnt by the gas flame. They fly from my hands, edges aligned, wrinkles laid flat with the touch of her fingers. The yellow sun floods in and the window melts before it, the candle in its cup still burning, burning.
Chapter 3: Aftermath
We don’t believe in the exploding sky: the burrow, the hole, the tunnel below, the darkness of basements, pipes damp with decades-old sweat, windows furred with dust. There we remember the sky, blue as a field of daisies in the shade of a cloud. We cover our heads with tablecloths against the fall of the ceiling, Mother’s tied like a babushka, like her own mother when she went to market, her silvering hair covered, her face framed ready to be seen. She watches the ceiling crumble, dressed in clothes that drape and flutter, her arms curved, her back bent. I offer water, an orange, a bit of bread from which I have brushed the dust. I’m fine, she says, fine, her fingers pressing mine, each word from her lips a warning.
Chapter 4: The Jeweled Fish
Moving over the gray green river, dark on either side, we sit, heat-pressed, heat of the sun, of cooking. Mother takes my hand, our hands curve on the white cloth. The fish are honored guests: will you eat this one, scaled with silver, this with pearls, its sides encrusted like a jewel box? They twist on the platter, yearning toward the myth of water, the gray green of heaven. Mouths open, teeth aligned to bite, their eyes flatten with penance: what sin has brought them here? We have come to eat what is alive. My knees are buckling, the joints as weak as river water. For as long as she can Mother holds me up.
Mary Grimm has had two books published, Left to Themselves (novel) and Stealing Time (story collection) – both by Random House. Currently, she is working on a dystopian novel about oldsters. She teaches fiction writing at Case Western Reserve University.