Rain BY SANGU MANDANNA
It had rained the day Anna’s mother died, but that was hardly unusual because it rained most days in England. Anna remembered it, though. It was a few months ago now, but she remembered the way raindrops had sparkled on the glasses of the police officer who had come to tell them there had been a car crash on the A47, and she remembered that he had said it was the rain that had caused the poor visibility that must have made her mother crash.
It had rained the day Aunt Mynah called to invite them to visit her in Rowbury, thousands of miles away across the Atlantic, and it had rained the day Dad decided to say yes.
And now it had started to rain as they got out of the cab outside Aunt Mynah’s home. Anna stepped onto the pavement (sidewalk? Wasn’t that what they called them here?)
and looked up at the new town houses in front of them. It was late, almost seven, but summer light kept the streets busy with chatter and noise. There were shrieks from children in the park across the street, protesting having to go home, and Anna could smell sushi, baked bread, and frying hot dogs. She could even catch the faint tang of Indian spices—not the kinds of spices she was used to, of course, the very specific kind in pandhi curry or masala crab, but then she had never come across those flavors outside the small, beautiful corner of India that her mother had once called home.
That said, this place did smell yummy. There was food everywhere she looked: street vendors, bakeries, cafés, take-out places, you name it. Hungry Heart Row, that’s what this neighborhood was called, and it seemed its residents had taken that very seriously.
Anna followed her father upstairs to Mynah’s flat (apartment?), and she huddled inside her jacket as they waited for Mynah to answer the door. Her father looked tired. He caught her eye and gave her a smile, and she tried to return it, but hers felt wooden, crooked, a smile pulled into place by a puppeteer.
“Long trip,” he said.
“It was,” she said.
The door clattered open. Anna sucked in a breath. She would never get used to how much like her mother Aunt Mynah looked. The thick, wavy dark hair, the turned-up nose, the bright bird eyes, the way they moved like the world was simply too slow for them.
“Anna!” she cried, and squeezed her tight in a hug. “Look at you! You’ve grown so much!” She pulled back, laughed, hugged her again, and then kissed Anna’s father affectionately on the cheek. “And you’re just as handsome as ever, Luke. Do you ever age?”
She hustled them into the apartment, chattering the whole time. Anna was grateful for it, because it gave her time to blink away the tears, swallow the lump in her throat, hide how much Mynah’s resemblance to her mother had shaken her.
“You must be exhausted after that trip,” Mynah went on. “Let’s do something quick and simple for dinner. Chinese? Emperor’s Way does the best Chinese takeout in the neighborhood, I’ll call them now.
As Mynah made the call, Anna went to the balcony and looked out at the neighborhood. She could see the park, the river, warehouses, and blocks of tall apartments that were so different from the sedate detached cottages and messy gardens of her own street back home. The sun had started to set on the river, and a golden light settled over Hungry Heart Row, giving the noise and laughter and rooftops a warm, inviting glow that made Anna feel a little less cold and lonely.
Then the moment was gone, and she turned back to her father and aunt, to the cold and the loneliness and the yawning, empty space where her mother should have been.
Mynah hadn’t lied; Emperor’s Way did make some pretty incredible Chinese food. “It’s not quite as good as
the Chinese food we used to get growing up,” Mynah told them, which Anna was in no way surprised to hear, because her mother had never passed up an opportunity to sigh wistfully and tell them about this one restaurant in Bangalore, where she and Mynah had grown up, and about the Hunan chicken and how bloody amazing it was, and— “No matter how hard we tried after moving away,” Mynah said, almost filling in the blanks for Anna, “we never could figure out the recipe and make it ourselves. Did you two ever try it when you visited?”
“It was too spicy for me,” Anna said, a split second before her father did.
Mynah laughed. Once Anna would have laughed too, and then her mother would have teased her for inheriting her English father’s constitution, but now she just felt a sense of loss, like here was yet another way in which she and her mother weren’t alike. That hadn’t mattered to her once, but it felt like it mattered very much now.
As soon as they were finished eating, she retreated to the room she had been given for the next two weeks and unpacked. On her way back from a quick shower, she caught the tail end of Dad’s voice from the kitchen.
“That’s not true,” he said.
“Are you kidding me, Luke? I was right there. You two barely said two words to each other all night. That’s not how I remember either of you.”
Anna slipped back into her room before they realized she was there. She hadn’t really thought about it, but
Mynah was right; she and her father hadn’t said much to each other all night. In fact, they didn’t speak much at all anymore. Oh, there was plenty of “Dad, don’t forget my tampons when you’re doing the shopping tomorrow” and “What do you fancy for dinner tonight, Anna?” swapped back and forth around their home, but they didn’t talk. Not like they used to when there had been three of them. And Anna hadn’t even noticed.
She closed her eyes and fell asleep to the sound of the rain.
* * *
The first few days in Hungry Heart Row were okay, all things considered. It was nice to not be home, where every room and every day was a reminder that there was someone missing, and Anna spent her time exploring the neighborhood. It was small and vibrant, full of locals and tourists alike, with flyers all over the place for music gigs, tarot card readings, and a Hungry Ghost Festival. (What?)
By the fourth day, it felt like she had seen all of the neighborhood and eaten at every single restaurant, street cart, and café. The novelty had worn off, and without it, there was nothing to distract her from the grief they had come here to escape. Her walks around the city grew listless, she avoided Dad and Aunt Mynah as much as possible, and she spent more and more time in her room with her books. She was a jigsaw girl, fragile and in pieces, slotted clumsily together. One careless move would break the pieces apart.
Her aunt tried to talk to her about it. “I’m worried
about you, sweetie,” she said, catching Anna alone in her room one evening. “You’re so quiet.”
“I’m just tired,” Anna said, the default words, the easy words.
“What a crock of shit.”
A small smile tugged at the corner of Anna’s mouth, but it was brief. Mynah stomped across the room and planted herself in front of the window with her arms crossed over her chest. Waiting.
Anna’s heart knotted. “Mum used to do that. Stomp like that when she was tired of my tantrums and grumpfests.”
A fond smile warmed Mynah’s face. “I think we both got it from our grandmother, that sour old crone. Don’t look at me like that—she was! Your mother was always the first to say so. She drove Thayi crazy when we went to visit her as children, climbing trees and bringing frogs into the house and trying to catch cobras. Thayi spent half her life trying to stop your mother from doing something dangerous, and yes, in hindsight I do see that the old bat was just being a responsible adult, but at the time Leila and I just thought she was a grumpy crone.”
“She kind of was,” Anna said. “I only met her once, but she did not strike me as a lady who believed in fun.”
“Now that,” Mynah said, “is the first genuinely Anna thing you’ve said since you arrived.” She kissed the top of Anna’s head on her way out of the room and paused at the door. “You’re still in there. You’ll find your way back out again.”
* * *
It rained the day something finally broke.
At least it rained all morning. Then, when it cleared up in the afternoon, Anna went out to the playground near Mynah’s town house. Raindrops dripped from the trees, and the ground squelched under her feet. The park was almost completely deserted, and there was a crisp, wet, grassy smell in the air that reminded Anna of something, but she couldn’t figure out what it was. She sat on one of the swings, watched a bird peck at the ground, and burst into tears.
Just like that. She burst into tears. She cried actual fucking tears. And why? Not why was she so desperately unhappy, because of course she knew why, but why now? Why here? There was no real reason why it had to be this moment on this day, yet here she was. Crying.
The storm passed, and she closed her eyes. There was that smell again, the wet grass, the rain in the trees, and there, yes, there, that was it. It was that smell that had broken her. Why? What memory was it that it pulled at? What almost forgotten part of her heart had it woken up?
“Hi,” said a voice behind her.
Anna snapped her head around, startled, and watched a girl approach her. She was smallish, with brown skin, black hair, and a green ribbon for a headband. She moved like a hummingbird, delicate and quick, as if her feet didn’t quite touch the ground. There was a box in her hands, and she held it out to Anna.
“Um,” said Anna.
“These are for you,” said the girl.
“Are you sure you’ve got the right person?” Anna asked, bewildered. “I don’t think we’ve ever met.”
“We haven’t,” said the girl.
“So those can’t be for me. . . .”
“I don’t follow your logic,” the girl said, raising an eyebrow. “What does one have to do with the other?”
Anna had a feeling she was not about to get rid of this strange, persistent girl, so she took the box. “Um, thanks. That’s really nice of you. I think.”
The girl smiled, sat on the other swing, and kicked herself into the air.
Anna opened the box. Wow. Inside were four beautiful, freshly baked pastries. Anna didn’t know what kind they were, but they looked and smelled utterly delicious. Two were in shades of green, the other two in shades of purple, and the warmth of them bled through the box and into her hands and chased some of the cold away.
“They’re pan dulce,” said the girl. “I knew someone needed them, so I baked them. I knew as soon as I saw you that it was you.”
This was extremely odd, but Anna didn’t feel it would be polite to say so. “I’m Anna,” she said.
“Lila,” said the girl. She paused, as if she was waiting for Anna to say something, and then said, “Bad day?”
Anna flushed with embarrassment; Lila had obviously seen her in tears. She thought about pretending nothing had
happened but didn’t think that would work on this girl. So she told the truth. “My mother died a few months ago.”
Anna shrugged, toed the ground with her boot. “Me too.”
“You wanna talk about it?”
“No,” Anna said, but she wasn’t sure that was true. “Yes. I don’t know. Maybe. It’s like I can feel all these things, things that hurt, and I want to take them out of me and put them somewhere else.”
Lila nodded. “I know just what you need,” she said. She plucked a leaf off the ground and handed it to Anna with a look of complete seriousness on her face. “Here. Spit all the things that are hurting you into the leaf and then blow it away.”
“You want me to spit on a leaf? Literally spit?”
Lila stared at Anna. Anna stared back. Then the smallest twitch at the corner of Lila’s mouth gave her away, and they both started to laugh.
“Of course I don’t want you to spit on a leaf,” Lila said, snorting laughter out of her nose, “The look on your face!”
“You just gave me a box of cakes! How was I supposed to know your weirdness had limits?”
Lila laughed harder. When she was done wiping her eyes, she said, “Seriously, though, I’m here if you want to talk about your mom.”
Anna was quiet for a minute or two. The laughter had unknotted something inside her, but it was still hard to start. “These pastries are gorgeous colors,” she said. “I
didn’t even know I liked green, but I do. It reminds me of her. I keep thinking of her grandparents’ house in India. My mother and aunt grew up in the city, but their grandparents grew coffee on a plantation a few hours away. Have you ever heard of Coorg? It’s this region in the south of India where people grow tea and coffee, and they have the most beautiful forests, and we used to go there every year when I was little. My mother would take me out to show me the coffee blossoms and the tigers in the forests. It was always so green there, and the air always felt like rain. And now it’s raining here and it’s all just wet and cold and I’m scared that—” She broke off. “I don’t know. Sorry. I’m probably not making much sense.”
Lila was quiet for a moment, and then she said, “What are you scared of?”
Anna shook her head. She couldn’t shape the words, and she wasn’t sure she could say them to someone she had only just met anyway. To distract herself, she took a bite of one of the pan dulce Lila had given her. It almost melted in her mouth, moist and sweet and perfectly crumbly.
“This is amazing,” she said.
Lila beamed. “I’m glad you like it.”
Another bite, another taste. Lila continued to swing gently, back and forth, in an oddly soothing rhythm. The taste of the pan dulce on Anna’s tongue felt soft, comforting, like a friend holding her hand. She felt some of her uncertainty crumble away, and she started to shape the words she hadn’t dared to before. “You asked me what
I’m scared of,” she said. “We were so close, but I’m not very much like her. I look more like my dad, for a start, and I don’t know anyone in her family other than my aunt. She was a university lecturer, but I want to be a vet. She liked horror movies, and I run screaming at the first note of the Jaws music. I know a lot of that’s stupid stuff and it doesn’t matter, but it feels like every way I’m different from my mother is another connection lost.”
Another connection lost. Another tether gone. And Anna was afraid there would come a day when she would find that there was nothing left of her mother at all.
“What about your dad?” Lila asked. “Can’t you talk to him about her? Keep her alive and close that way?”
Anna’s voice cracked. “I don’t even know how to talk to my dad anymore.”
Lila nodded. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too. Mostly for rambling at you about all this.” They both laughed at that. Anna gestured with the box in her hands. “Thanks for the pastries. They really are awesome. I should probably get back.”
Lila jumped nimbly off the swing. “Come by my family’s bakery and say good-bye before you go home.”
“I will.” As they split off in different directions, Anna called after her. “Do you always bake pastries when you want to help someone?”
“Pretty much,” Lila called back, and flashed a smile over her shoulder. “What can I say? Welcome to Hungry Heart Row!”
* * *
The pan dulce was perfect, and it gave Anna an idea. Talking to Lila about her favorite memories of her mother had shaken loose parts of the past she had either forgotten or overlooked. Like the songs her mother would sing as she cooked the one and only thing she ever cooked; like that time they visited the family coffee estate and Mum shot a rampaging wild boar and then they cooked and ate it later that night; like the smell of rain in the forest; like the fat, sour gooseberries they would pick off the trees; like fresh peppercorns straight off the vine; like countless other jumbled memories and smells and tastes and sounds that had been tucked away in some corner of her mind gathering dust for so long.
Mum’s favorite dish, the one and only thing she ever cooked.
I’m going to make it.
Anna had never learned how to make it, because she had always arrogantly assumed her mother would be around forever, but she had eaten it so many times that she was sure she could recreate it by memory and taste alone. This is it. Her favorite food. She would have to thank Lila for the inspiration later. This was the connection she had been afraid she would never find. It was a way to hold on to everything she had lost.
“Can I borrow your wallet, Dad?”
Excited for the first time in what felt like months, Anna rushed out to the neighborhood grocery store and
picked out the ingredients she hoped would work. Curry leaves, bay leaves, whole black peppercorns, turmeric, ginger, garlic, green chilies, red chilies, limes, honey, and, finally, a fresh shoulder of pork.
The first batch was vaguely nice and vaguely bland and really just vague in every way, which was not the effect she had intended.
Okay, more chilies then.
The second batch was so spicy that she gagged and had to down half a can of Coke before she could breathe again.
Fewer chilies. More than the first time, less than this time. That was doable, wasn’t it? A happy balance somewhere between meh and murder.
The third batch tasted great, but—
“It doesn’t taste right,” she said out loud.
Frustration and disappointment made her throat squeeze tight. She’d been at it for hours and had had no luck. She had been so excited, and now even this felt out of her reach.
“What are you doing?”
She glanced back at her father, who stood in the doorway with a puzzled expression on his face.
Anna’s shoulders hunched. “It doesn’t matter.”
He looked into the dish on the stove, and his eyes widened. “You’re trying to make your mum’s Coorg pandhi curry.”
He pronounced the words perfectly, a sharp departure
from his very white, very British accent, but he’d had years to get it right.
His brow furrowed. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because,” Anna said, “what would have been the point? You do your thing; I do mine. We don’t talk unless we have to. That’s how it works now.”
“Anna, that’s not how I meant to—”
“I know, Dad. I know you didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t either.” She looked away, at a shiny spot of grease on the counter. “It doesn’t matter anyway. It doesn’t taste like Mum’s. I can’t get it right.”
There was a silence. Then his voice, firmer this time. “Anna, look at me.”
She did. His eyes were sadder than they once were, but brighter than they had been the day before.
They crinkled as he smiled. “We’ll get it right.”
Slowly, tentatively, the corners of Anna’s mouth tugged upward. “Okay,” she said, and handed him the spoon.
* * *
“The flavor just isn’t right.”
“Do we need more pepper? More honey?”
Dad shook his head, tapping his fingers on the counter strewn with chopped onions. “It’s too sweet with the extra honey.”
They tried again. “Oooh, that works a little better,” Anna said, “I think that batch had extra lime.”
“But it’s still not right.”
“Lime, though, that seems to be the key. Maybe we need even more of it?”
“Maybe it’s time to google. . . .”
“No. We need to make Mum’s version of this, not whatever we find on Google!”
“You’re as stubborn as she was.”
And still it didn’t work. The kitchen was a disaster, the pot on the stove gave off a smell that was closer to death than to deliciousness, and Anna had burned her thumb at least three times.
“Why is this so impossible?” she demanded. “Didn’t we watch her make this a million times?”
“I guess we didn’t pay attention.”
“I never thought I needed to. I thought she’d be around forever.”
Dad’s jaw tightened. “So did I.”
“It’s okay if you’re crying. You don’t have to hide it.”
“You’re crying too.”
“This hug is awkward.”
“It didn’t used to be. When did we stop hugging?”
“Probably around the time we stopped talking.”
“You’re crying into the stew.”
“And it still doesn’t taste right!”
* * *
Eventually, they took a break. They went out to eat something that wasn’t pork and ended up at Lila’s bakery. She wasn’t there, but Anna left a note.
Thanks for everything. I was going to bring you some homemade pork curry, but it’s not right yet. Maybe next time.
“It’s nice here, isn’t it?” Dad said. They walked back toward the apartment, his mouth full of a cookie from Lila’s bakery.
“It’s great. And Mynah’s a saint for putting up with our grumpy faces all this time. Maybe we should take her out to eat somewhere nice before we leave?”
Anna looked down the street at the park, the town houses, the river. It was beautiful here. But it wasn’t home.
“Do you think it’ll be okay?” she blurted out. “When we go back home?”
“In what way?”
She rushed on before she lost her nerve. “The house felt cold and empty and horrible without her, and I’m afraid it’ll feel like that again when we go back.”
“Anna, why didn’t you tell me you felt that way?”
“I don’t know. I just couldn’t. It felt like every time I opened my mouth to speak, the words dried up, and I just wanted to go away again. Why didn’t you tell me how you felt? I know you must have been miserable too.”
He gave her a small, rueful smile. “I should have told you. I don’t know why I didn’t. Maybe I didn’t want to admit she was gone.”
“It wasn’t exactly easy to pretend she was still there, Dad.”
“I don’t know, Anna. I don’t know why I didn’t talk to you about it. I can only guess. I think I really did want to pretend nothing had changed. Which doesn’t make sense, but grief doesn’t make sense. Death doesn’t make sense.”
“It’s the worst,” Anna said, which made her father snort a laugh.
“I’m sorry. I should have done better.”
“Me too,” she said softly.
Something wet fell on the tip of Anna’s nose, then on her forehead. It had started to rain.
When they got back to the apartment, Mynah was home from work. She stood in the kitchen, comically out of place in her crisp skirt, blouse, heels, and suit jacket, and stared at the ingredients strewn around her.
She swiveled slowly to face them, incredulous. “What in actual hell have you two been up to?”
“We’ve been trying to recreate Mum’s Coorg pandhi curry.”
“Is that so?” said Mynah. “How was that supposed to work without the kachampuli?”
“Kachampuli,” she repeated.
“What is kachampuli supposed to be?” Dad asked, sounding out the syllables carefully.
Mynah let out a shriek of laughter. “Are you telling me you’ve been trying to make Coorg pandhi curry all this time, and neither of you knows about kachampuli? Which is only the most essential ingredient?”
“But surely the pandhi is the most essential ingredient,” Anna protested, gesturing in the direction of the pork rind sitting on the counter. “Otherwise it would be called kachampuli curry.”
Mynah ignored that and wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. “Kachampuli, my sweet ignorant ones, is what gives the pandhi curry its distinct flavor. It’s a little like vinegar, and it’s made from a limey sort of fruit they grow in Coorg.” She marched to one of the cupboards, rooted around in the back, and retrieved a dusty bottle with a sealed cap. Inside gleamed a thick, dark liquid. “Behold,” she said dramatically, “kachampuli.”
Anna was amazed. “So if we use this, the stew will taste like Mum’s did?”
“I don’t see why not.” Mynah put the bottle down with a triumphant thunk, and turned on her heel. “I’ll leave you to it while I shower.” They could hear her laughing all the way into the bathroom. “Pandhi curry
without kachampuli,” she gurgled, “the very idea . . .”
The mysterious kachampuli wasn’t a magic elixir. There were still a few hiccups—a dash too much salt here, an overcooked and chewy chunk of pork there—and it took a few more attempts and a few more days to make it perfect.
It rained the day they got it right. Anna could hear the thrum of it against the glass of the window as she speared a piece of meat on a fork and promptly burst into tears because it tasted just like every time her mother had made it. It tasted like rain on the air and frogs hopping across the grass and coffee beans in a jar and the green, green leaves of the forest rustling in the night and the sound of her mother humming a song. It tasted like a future in which the rain and the coffee beans and her mother weren’t out of reach after all.
“You did it,” said Dad.
“We did it,” Anna replied, and grinned.
“One could argue that I did it,” Mynah called from the other room, “but sure, you two take all the credit.”
* * *
It rained the day Anna and her father left Hungry Heart Row, but the sun was out by the time they got home.