“Orange juice is the secret to moist chicken,” Martha’s mother said. She was in a good mood that day, though Martha couldn’t tell why, and she had demanded that Martha join her in the kitchen to learn how to cook. Martha started to explain that she learned how to scramble eggs and boil water for pasta in her ninth-grade home economics class, but her mother waved a wooden spatula in the way that mothers do when they want the room to fall in line. Martha’s spirit weakened under the birch gaze.
Martha’s spirit was the same one her grandmother had when she was fifteen.
“It’s a curse we all must bear,” her grandmother said. She fled Romania when she was Martha’s age and only used Kosher chicken that she bought from her uncle the butcher.
“Not mom,” Martha said. Martha’s mother longed to belong and never used Kosher chicken if she could avoid it. She had never shown signs of spirit or fire to Martha: only an emptiness deep enough to echo and wide enough to wash away even the loudest joy.
“That’s what happens when the spirit dies,” her grandmother had said.
“Use more orange juice,” her mother said.
Martha didn’t know that before, her mother’s spirit burned those around her. She spat bitter and biting words to fight battles she knew she couldn’t win. Now, it was pasteurized.
Betty’s strength came from her spirit and her biceps, built from a lifetime of stirring. Sundays slept long but Betty rose with the sun, ground corn into meal, and prepared the cast iron tuci. Her spirit’s embers ignited the fire and her conviction stoked the flames.
A morning learned by rote, Betty’s father and brother tended to the farm; her mother, the washing. Betty’s only Sunday task was the mămăligă.
She poured the water into the pot, measuring by counting seconds and beats of her heart. With heavy breaths that settled the unease of the week, she watched the smallest bubbles rise from the abyss and imagined, not for the first time, what it would be like to be born into the unknown, bursting through the barrier created by creatures of constancy.
Now large bubbles soared and danced to the rhythm of the flames. Water splashed to the edge of the tuci, but never escaped the black confines. When the fifth bubble clamored to the rim, Betty tipped the bowl of maize into the pot. She watched the yellow grains crash and quiet the heat. Her mother kept the mămăligă spoon in a special cupboard and no matter how great the distance between her and the pot Betty tended to, she always appeared the moment the maize hit the water’s surface.
Stirring the mămăligă was more transcendent than churning butter and more tiresome than the last week of harvest. For hours Betty stirred the pot with the wooden spoon. For hours she watched as the mixture thickened. Her spirit took over and though Betty’s biceps burned, she kept stirring until the spoon and she were stuck together.
Fleeing her was the hardest thing you’ve done.
First the flames, basting your bones, beating you back. She was the coldest fire. There was no passion in her hate and no love in her tough. After she called you a little bitch, there was no warmth in her apology. When your arms fleshed from rugburn and your bruises tendered yellow, she flinched when she applied ointment, but not out of regret.
Forced to remain as a child; you chose to stay as an adult. She needs me, you told yourself. There’s no one else. If her waking self were the only one, that might not be the case, but the version of her drowsy with drink spoke in manipulations and bitterness.
You waited centuries, longing for another life. Then, just as your skin calloused to her heat and your heart began shrink, the black scar above your eye burst. She left that scar for you—with a blunt kitchen knife wielded in whiskey—before your face trenched with wrinkles, and when it broke open, your strength seeped out like blood.
You left, flush with fresh hope, burgundy drops lining the path to freedom.
I am six.
“If you want to avoid the rain, don’t walk in a straight line,” Mama tells me every day before school. I’m not sure how she knows I walk along the cracks in the sidewalk like a tightrope or that I pretend my bat ears hear lasers forcing me to keep my limbs tight to my sides. I’m old enough to walk to school, toe to heel toe to heel, by myself, so she can’t tell me what to do.
I am pretending to listen.
“If you can see your reflection in the raindrops, you are too close,” Mama says. I want to feel the itch of grass between my toes. I want the mid-afternoon summer sun just before a storm. I want air. Mama warns me as though it’s the first time she’s talked about the dangers of the rain, as though I’m just now old enough to understand, but I’m too old to fake concern.
I am growing.
“If you let the teardrop splash on your cheek, your nose will shrivel up first,” Mama always says. My aunt, my grandmother, and my sister bled water in the end. Mama told them all the same things she tells me, and then I saw Auntie Ana drip clear on the floor one Wednesday afternoon. She came back from the market with her nose shrunk back like a pig’s and clear drops in a zigzag trail behind her. Three steps into the house, she crumpled and disappeared into a shallow puddle.
I am the only woman left.
“Curve your steps, watch for cumulating clouds, and don’t look up,” Mama says. I hold her clammy hand in mine and feel the faint heartbeat on her wrist.
“You’ll be more careful than I was,” she says, her cheek still shiny from the storm.
The tornado of 1983 tore through the center of town and the middle of Natasha’s life. When she moved from California two years earlier, her neighbors tried to warn her.
“We’re unlucky here,” they said. “Not a year passes without one ripping up a few homes and farms.”
Bill, who owned the corner store shrugged and said, “Nothing to do, really. Try to get a basement, I suppose.”
Natasha, who’d felt the walls shake and seen plaster crumble from earthquakes, was too busy setting up her new life to worry. She had a list—job, house, husband, family—and according to the uppity girl who lived down the hall in her senior year dorm, this was the town where Natasha could check those items off.
Bill hired her to work the till and since he was about as invested in his store as he was in protecting himself from tornados, it was an easy job. She started managing the place last year and was close to having enough money to buy a house. When Natasha told her mother during their weekly Wednesday evening call, her mother grimaced loud enough to come through the phone lines and said, “You want I should die without grandchildren?” Natasha hadn’t been home in months and though her family did their best to assimilate, it was strange living in a town where no one could point out Romania on a map.
On the day Natasha went to look at her first house, the wind blew green and orange across the brick buildings, sparking dusty stars that danced along the sidewalks.
James gestured for Natasha to enter first—which her mother would have approved of—and then began sharing the history of the home with the enthusiasm of a dull pencil sharpener. She couldn’t blame him: the house was ten years old and the town bled boredom. The particulars of the house didn’t affect Natasha’s list, and she was ready to make an offer when James turned away from the kitchen window, grabbed her wrist, and dragged her through a door he’d just finished telling her led to the basement.
“Hail,” he said, nodding up to the first floor of the house. It peppered the walls, spitballed ice at the fresh coat of paint, and shot blasts of deep green wind at the shutters. While they crouched on the basement floor, James told Natasha the story of his first tornado. His voice rose and fell with each sentence, and he paused as if to check that she was enjoying it. He smiled and gestured and engulfed Natasha with his tale.
When they climbed back into the light, he told Natasha that this wasn’t the best house for her, and if she’d go to dinner with him, he’d show her the perfect place to spend the rest of her life.
When Martha was four, she asked about her father for the first time. Natasha prepared for this moment. She lined up faded photographs in a timeline on the kitchen table, but only the good parts. She showed her daughter the house where they first met—“I live there,” Martha said as she pointed at the front door.—their favorite restaurant, and their rainy wedding day. Her bridesmaids wore goldenrod yellow, which was a muted color choice at the time. But when Martha asked where her father was, Natasha said that he had been away for a long time.
When Martha was eight, she told her mother that daddy was never coming back. Natasha didn’t say she was glad, didn’t tell her daughter they were better off without him, didn’t let loose any memories not cautiously chosen.
On Martha’s eleventh birthday, she asked what her father was like. Natasha told the story of the tornado that trapped them together, of the dinner and movie and three-days-long date that followed, and of her mother’s wedding ring that he proposed with. She wove the tales with threads of truth and tried to close any holes that might let Martha wonder.
By the end of dinner, with sunset’s light warming the walls, Natasha still hadn’t said how Bill plucked daffodils every day in early spring or how he danced to the rhythm of the pasta water boiling. She didn’t tell Martha how her throat dropped into her stomach when she found out she was pregnant, how Bill soothed her fears with silly nursery songs he wrote on the spot, or how she woke up one morning to find that Bill had packed up his clothing and left, taking her spirit with him.
In mid-winter when the earth dried and the flowers died, Martha met her mother’s spirit. Mother and daughter walked jagged lines between headstones, connecting dots like constellations. Martha watched the names of the dead grow more dated and the years shift earlier. The echo of a pattern, of a sense of order to the world they had left.
They wove between the stars, a crunchy amalgam of snow and leaves under their boots. They could have parked close to the plot—they received directions—but separately, and aligned for the first time in years, they decided to take the long way.
Later, Martha couldn’t remember what they talked about, the stories they shared, or the silence they held. She erased the discomfort that stretched between them.
Scattered black teardrops drifted around the plot and only coalesced as a group of mourners when the rabbi spoke. Aunts and uncles talked about growing up with Betty and her rich cooking; cousins nodded, solemn yet distracted; and Martha thought if she closed her eyes, she could feel the stars nodding as well.
Martha heard the mourner’s kaddish prayer often, but never had someone to say it for until then. She chanted loud enough so her grandmother could hear. Natasha mouthed the words, but no sound escaped her lips.
When the dirt from Natasha’s shovel pitter pattered into the grave, Martha saw the flames burn behind her mother’s eyes.
Hailey Holden is a visual artist and musician from Portland, Oregon. She majored in feminist analysis and dance at Portland State University where she graduated cum laude. She collaborates with many local musicians in Portland and plays with multiple projects around the Pacific Northwest. Passionate about relationships with food, she has illustrated for every issue of the community oriented publication Kitchen Table Magazine.