In the Surrounding Moments of a Kitchen
fiction by Isabella Zellerbach
CONTENT WARNING: domestic violence. Please read at your own risk.
In the Surrounding Moments of a Kitchen
The first night I spent with Abuela after the funeral, she barely let me set my bag down before tugging me into the kitchen. Her grasp was too tight; her nail beds were white where she squeezed me. It felt like she was making sure I didn’t float away.
She nudged me into a chair and I watched while she grabbed a hunk of Ibarra chocolate and went to the refrigerator for milk. The stove made a clicking noise before lighting. The kitchen smelled like my mother. It was warmth. It was spice and sugar and earth.
It was still.
The hiss of the flame and Abuela’s quiet chatter were a faded hum. It was easy to close my eyes and pretend I still had my own kitchen, that I still had my mother and it was her voice in my ear.
Abuela liked to pick the fruit from her garden and pile it in baskets in the kitchen. One basket was a mix of colors—reds, oranges, greens. The green had always been my favorite—green like my birthstone, like Abuela’s. Like my mother’s eyes. I loved the apple baskets. Apple baskets meant I was going to get dessert sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar and a piece of pan dulce on the side.
It was tradition that I pick the apples to be eaten. My palm came away sticky after setting the third apple in the bowl, so I dropped it, thinking it was bad. The last time my hand had come away with apple juice dripping between fingers, there was a tiny worm in the center curled around the seeds.
I flipped the apple over and saw that there was a split down the middle—rows of shiny, ruby beads pushing through. I told Abuela the apple was rotten. I was nine.
She smiled and took the fruit from my hand before splitting it in two, seeds flying into the air and scattering with plinks whose echoes were no more than a whisper. Granada, she told me, and placed six seeds into my hand before telling me this story:
She married at nineteen to someone handsome and funny and with enough stored away to get them settled in America. She left her mother and her twin sister with the money she had earned from watching the village children. They were unhappy she was going away. She was twenty-three with a two-year old and a swollen stomach when she made her way across. She told me the greatest gift my mother had given her was waiting to be born until they had made it their new home.
It was December. I placed three pomegranate seeds on my tongue and let them sit there while Abuela hummed about daughters being stolen by men and mothers wanting the earth to stand still until they were returned. I swallowed them without tasting.
There was a basket full of pomegranates by her feet. Every so often, she reached down and grabbed another to scoop out its insides and drop them into the blender. Added sugar. Added water. She dipped a spoon into the mixture and tasted. Her forehead crinkled the way it did when she was practicing her English.
Added water. Tasted. Nodded.
She put a glass in front of me, half full of frothy red juice. I sipped. Agrio. Sour.
She went back to the blender and added more sugar. The doorbell rang.
Es tu mama, she said. She wiped her hands on her apron and kissed my cheek before going to the backyard, away from the chiming door.
In the car on the way home, I asked my mother if my father had ever given her a pomegranate. She said no. I didn’t believe her.
I told her I didn’t like pomegranates. She said I might change my mind when I was a little bit older.
Abuela believed everything should be done by hand. Believed that anything made by hand was infused with care and thought and love.
The kitchen table had platters stacked with rows of damp cornhusks. There were bowls of shredded chicken and pork and beef drenched with sauces of reds and greens. The masa on my hands pressed further into my nail beds each time I reached for a new husk, coated my palms each time I folded the mixture on top of the filling.
New Year’s Eve meant preparing for the next day’s big family lunch.
Abuela whimpered from the living room, where she had been lighting the candles in front of the picture of my mother, of my father. The candle in front of her husband remained cold. It wasn’t his anniversary.
I stopped folding.
I told her to blow out my father’s candle.
She told me not to be disrespectful, fingers pressed on each edge of my mother’s smile. Six years gone.
I grabbed the glass of wine by my elbow, dough on my hands leaving behind an imprint, and pretended not to see her glare when I took a sip. I swallowed. It was sour.
My mother was not so careful anymore about being quiet when placing presents under the Christmas tree. My sister was nine and the baby. She figured it was a matter of time before Santa no longer existed. Abuela disagreed. So did my father.
Abuela lived alone. And Christmas was her favorite day of the year; she was able to cook her favorite foods and make scarves and sweaters and hats to replace anything she deemed too ragged. We spent the holiday with her.
The tree sat in a corner of the kitchen, a rag placed underneath. At fifteen, I was in charge of making sure there were enough cookies on the platter to feed Santa and all the reindeer. For every two cookies I put on the plate, I popped one into my mouth.
They were addictive. Small enough to eat in two bites. Covered in powdered sugar. Crumbled and coated my tongue as soon as I bit into one.
Abuela sat next to me with a glass of water and the notebook she was using to jot down the dishes she planned to make. My parents were cross-legged on the floor, wrapping the last few presents.
A lock of my mother’s hair fell from her ponytail and she tried to blow it out of her face. My father gently tugged on her hair until she sat back, still. He pulled the elastic from her hair and wove his fingers through the strands to pull it back up into a secure knot.
She smiled. And went to give him a kiss, letting the scissors in her hand clatter to the floor.
My father grabbed her wrist and yanked her toward him. The movement rattled the beer bottle by his foot. He asked her why she couldn’t be quiet.
When he let her go, I saw the pale indents where his nails had dug in and the redness that would turn purple, turn green, turn yellow, before fading.
Abuela grabbed my hand and brought it to her lips, giving me a kiss.
Abuela got sick sometimes, even if she refused to admit it. When she did get ill, she could barely eat, barely speak, her hands shook. We didn’t know anything was wrong until we came over for our bimonthly sleepover. My parents dropped us off in the driveway and left for their date, barely waiting for the car doors to close behind us.
I realized she was sick when she tried to scrape the spines off the nopales and ended up with a sliced thumb and tiny puncture wounds up the side of her hand. I grabbed the knife and pushed her toward the bed, my sister already curled up on the side against the wall.
I went back to the table and finished the nopales, scraping the remaining spines with only a few finding their way into my hand, dicing them, mixing them with the onions and tomatoes and jalapeño left on the table.
I heard my parents’ car in the driveway. It was late. Later than I was usually allowed up. I rushed to the bed, squeezing between Abuela and my sister. I placed my palm against Abuela’s forehead to check for a fever. My hand ached as I pressed too hard where the nopales had caught my skin. I closed my eyes and took slow breaths when I heard the lock click.
The gentle tap of my mother’s heels against the hardwood floor and the whispers passed between her and my father were all I could hear, as they made their way to where we were piled on the mattress.
My mother was crying. She pressed a kiss to my cheek and I felt her tears on my face.
My father kissed my forehead and whispered goodnight. I clenched my teeth to stop my nose from wrinkling. His breath smelled like alcohol.
I heard their footsteps fade and the front door close. Two cars doors slammed and the engine started.
I scooted in closer to Abuela and grabbed her hand. It stung.
I moved my hand to her sternum and fell asleep to her pulse, a steady rhythm beneath my palm.
Isabella is a writer with a focus on the culture and superstition of a Mexican household and how that relates to sexuality, gender dynamics, and grief/trauma. She is a graduate from Johns Hopkins University with Bachelor’s degrees in Writing Seminars and Political Science. She is a Flash Fiction Reader and Assistant Creative Non-Fiction Editor at Homology Lit. You can find her at @izellerbach on twitter or https://izellerbach.wordpress.com/.