Corps de l’article
My mother claims she once had very pretty hands. Slim fingers and smooth knuckles, she insists. I don’t believe her, but I nod anyway. It is four o’clock in the afternoon. I am pulling vegetables out of the refrigerator and putting them on the counter next to the stove. I slip around her to wash them in the sink. She tells me that she is surprised I remembered to wash them, but she smiles as she says it. She likes having me with her while she cooks, as it makes the fluorescent kitchen less dismal. My father insists fluorescence makes for brighter light.
I’m 12 years old and she’s teaching me how to make pelau, a Trinidadian rice dish, a sort of pilaf.
It not hard to make. You just have to remember to have a heavy hand when you using spices. Don’t be afraid to use plenty spice, you just have to know what go with what. Don’t be adding allspice or cardamom to this. You aunty always scared to add flavour to she pot, that why she food not so sweet. And make sure that when the sugar browning you don’t take you eyes off the pot, at all, at all.
That I listen seems to make her happy. She only talks to our dog, her plants, and occasionally her sister.
I don’t need any friends you know. People always talk about how you need friends and thing. I don’t agree with dat. What you need friends for? To just gossip and mind other people business? I always was by myself. I wasn’t like the others. I always like to think about things, and play in the canefield behind the house and watch my mother cook in de kitchen. I never need nobody.
She gets out the heavy cast iron pot from the back of the cupboard. I always wonder why she keeps it so tucked away in the far-to-reach corner of the cabinet. She pours in just enough oil to coat the base of the pot and turns on the stove.
Now when you cooking, you have to cook with love. If you not in de mood, everyone going to taste it. That why you grandmother had such a sweet hand. When she cook, you could bite you finger off, it so good.
She squeezes a fistful of brown sugar in her hand, and then sprinkles it over the hot oil. She waits for the oil and sugar to thickly bubble. She stirs it quickly when it’s golden, and waits for the mixture to froth again. All she has goes in here—I see that now. We never said thank you, never do.
She tells me I must always use a wooden spoon when cooking, and that metal spoons will leave a taste in my mouth and damage my pots. I tell her how I caught a butterfly in school the way daddy showed me, and that Rianna, the bossy girl in my class with the grown-up face, was picked as class prefect and told Mrs. Rosemary that I was talking when she left the room.
My mother shakes her head and sucks in her cheeks. “I don’t like this Reshma girl. She sounding like she want to be a woman. Show me she next time. She sounding like she real obnoxious.”
“Yes, yes.” I say. “She’s obnoxious and it wasn’t like I was the only one talking anyway. She just pick on me. I don’t know why, ‘cause I didn’t do she anything.”
My mother pats my cheek, then moves to the pot and dumps in the chicken she seasoned the night before. The pot sizzles and I smell thyme, celery, cilantro, and caramelized sugar. She quickly stirs the meat and covers the pot so that the meat will get nice and brown. She always throws away the neck and feet and tells me that no child of hers would ever eat those parts.
She sits across from me at the kitchen table, chopping bell peppers, carrots, and onions. I clumsily imitate her. She starts to tell me a story of a house party she and her sister had when they were younger, and how she used the brand name makeup she bought with her very first paycheck: Helena Rubenstein blush in a gold compact case. My mother’s stories are made up solely of beginnings. I wonder vaguely if she was hurt by the spiteful note I wrote her after being spanked saying that the stranger who called her beautiful and young was clearly mad or lying. We aren’t a family that apologizes.
She starts peeling clove after clove of garlic, saying once again how every dish needs garlic.
Yes mom, you always saying this.
Well if you know, why you don’t peel some sometime and leave it in the jar in the fridge?
Well, I would, but I wasn’t sure if it would lose its flavour. I know that sometimes happens
Uh-huh. You well know how to run away from work, eh? Off skylarking somewhere.
Yes mom, skylarking instead of peeling garlic. I peeling them now anyway.
She shakes her head and tells me I should never get married or have children. She believes that garlic—peeled garlic—is crucial to the proper maintenance of both.
My mother used to love dancing. She went out every weekend in a pretty green dress she wouldn’t dare to wear now and danced right in the middle of the floor. I saw her once when her sister came to visit, the two of them laughing and flailing away in the living room to some 70s band. My mom was all teeth and eyes in a housedress with a frog stitched on the front. My two sisters and I held their hands and clumsily swayed in a shaky ring, our jerky movements amusing them. The dress became too worn and she gave it away.
She adds pigeon peas and coconut milk to the pot now, making the pelau look all white and velvety. Little golden dots of butter bubble to the surface. She dips in her spoon and dabs a little bit of the mixture on the fleshy part of her palm. “It missing something, taste that. See? It need thyme.”
She plucks some French thyme from one of the plants she keeps in a large old enamel cup with no handle. Every morning she waters the plants with a plastic cream watering can and wipes the cup with an old rag. She is meticulous with her cleaning, and rather fond of her little herb garden. Sometimes she wipes the individual leaves of her mint plants.
My mother wanted to be an artist when she was young. She took a home course on Drawing and Oil Painting when my brother was three. She keeps the charcoal sketches and tubes of paint in a brown leather case in the back of the closet she shares with my father. Sometimes she describes the paintings she wants to do when she has the time, and talks about how she’ll make the basement her studio. She used to try to explain perspective to me while pointing out famous paintings she wanted to see in the textbooks she ordered by mail. Once my brother got angry with her and cut the bristles off her camelhair paintbrushes. She has never replaced them.
Now, she adds all the chopped vegetables, the garlic, and the heavy pinch of salt I can never imitate no matter how I fashion my fingers. She hands me a wooden spoon and wipes an oily spill on the stove, hunched over with arms made big from housework, a fixed grin on her face. I know that she is unhappy—I want to make her laugh as she did in the picture that embarrasses her, the one in the dime-store frame in her bathroom.
All I can think to do is stand by the stove stirring a random pot, both of us mirroring my grandfather’s crooked smile.
You remember the backyard in St. Clement’s? Well, you granddaddy made a chicken coop out of wire mesh he find in the garage, and he put it out in the backyard and every morning one of we used to go there and get the eggs. In the night, the chickens use to like to sleep up in the cheneet tree. You remember the cheneet tree? It never bear any fruit, but the neighbour tree always had real sweet, sweet fruit.
I learned about that in Science! I think it’s because our tree was probably a male tree and hers was a female tree. So because of ours hers was making fruit.
Yes, that make sense. I used to wonder about that. All you never saw, but when I was in secondary school, we used to have a tree growing right in the middle of the backsteps. I never know how they get that to grow. We chop it down because termites started to live there.
I asked her once what she wanted when she was young, if this was how she pictured her life. She bashfully nodded yes. “When you father and I just married, we used to talk about how we wanted heads in the backseat of we car. We’d be driving and just see these little, spikey-haired heads in other people’s car. That’s what we wanted, a set of little heads in the backseat.”
She always speaks in plural when asked what she wanted.
My mother tells me that I made her happy. I was seven years old when she was pregnant with my little brother. I stayed up one full night to make her a homemade book with a brown paper bag cover, detailing my hope for eight little brothers and eight little sisters. She keeps the book still in a shoebox along with handmade crepe paper carnations and cards proclaiming “Happy Independence Day Mom! I love you!”
She likes to talk of her father. She tells me how his thumbnail was curved and that he lost his little finger cutting grass with a sickle for his goat. “He was just like you, he always like for me to comb his hair. He use to sit down every Sunday in the dining room and talk about moving to Brooklyn. He had a thing about Brooklyn since we small. He never get to go though, but he used to sit down with us every Sunday and just dream about it. And one time he bring all these homeless people home for food. Drive them over in he car and everything. I don’t know anybody else who would’ve do that. Don’t mind he faults, only God perfect, but you grandfather—if he in the house you could sleep with the front door open.”
Once she had a dream about him and woke up crying because she heard his voice. She can’t remember what his voice sounds like anymore when she’s awake.
I can smell that the food is ready. My mother pulls out the longest twigs of French thyme, and puts the pot on the kitchen table. She sets the tomato and watercress salad from the fridge. Next to the pot goes a jug of pineapple juice, along with the homemade hot sauce she makes once every month. I hear a strange creaking, and I watch as the table starts to shake. It begins to list and the creaking becomes louder. I want to stop it, but I am small and can do nothing but watch the table legs give way. The pot of food crashes down, and spills across the kitchen floor, splattering hot rice all over our legs. Pelau mixes with broken glass, pineapple juice, and tomato slices in a sticky mess on the tile floor. I watch as she turns around from the kitchen sink, clutching a rag fashioned out of one of our old pajama bottoms and slumps to the floor, hands still soapy from washing the wooden spoon, crying.
Phedra Deonarine lived in Trinidad for eighteen years before moving to Canada. Her short story Pelau was long-listed for the 2011 CBC Literary Award.
Phedra Deonarine a vécu à Trinidad pendant 18 ans avant de s’installer au Canada. Sa nouvelle Pelau a fait partie de la longue liste des finalistes aux Prix littéraires Radio-Canada en 2011.