3470 words, short story
Manjar dos Deuses
“Some would say it’s mercenary to charge people for their memories. What do you have to say about that?”
Trust a reporter to sour the beauty of my work, Daniel thought. “I’m not charging for their memories. I’m charging for the reconstruction. Every one of my clients is special—every food memory is unique, and it’s my job to treat it like the treasure it is. This is not an easy feat but, as you have just testified, it’s money well spent.”
The reporter laughed in embarrassed agreement as she nibbled on another prawn from the cocktail Daniel prepared according to her dearest memory, her first “grown up” event: a wedding party when she was six years old. And all the while, Daniel sighed, waiting for the next obvious question. How many times had he explained himself? And yet, people thought the time-tracking machine worked on its own. It could only show what had happened at the moment the event plaited itself in the memory fabric, but once back to the present day, it was the raw talent in the kitchen that made or broke the day. But to talk about that was to spoil the magic.
“You must have a favorite dish,” the reporter insisted with a coy look. “The recipe only your mother could prepare. Would you be able to reproduce it?”
Saved by the bell—or rather by the ringing of his mobile phone—the name on the caller ID made Daniel blanch, and he stood up so fast the chair fell to the carpeted ground with a muted thump. “Please excuse me—that’s awkward—an emergency,” he said as he walked away, phone to the ear, shoulders down like a rugby fly half about to dash for the opponent’s field. “Denise, I’m busy!”
“And top o’ the fucking morning to you too, sunshine! I’ll be brief. Mum is on the last wish list.” Daniel stopped walking. “Dan? You heard me? It’s time for the last meal.”
“Yeah, what of it? The food reproducers at the hospital are great. I trained the staff myself. Why the fuck are you—”
“I can’t explain over the phone, just come up here!” Denise sighed, and he saw her in the back of his mind, Denise with the wiry reddish hair and her freckles, pressing the middle of her forehead with two fingers and counting to ten, grounding herself or else she’d bite his head off over the phone. “Please, just show up. Blame it on me, if you must.”
“Oh, you can count on that!” Off went the phone. A deep breath, and then another, and another. He had to come to his senses, hoping the reporter hadn’t heard the conversation. It wouldn’t look good on the papers if he said he didn’t have a childhood favorite recipe, or that he sometimes wished his mother would end her days the way she forced her children to go through their early days: dry toast and water from the tap, greasy food from tins and frozen pots. Why did Denise call him? She knew there was nothing he could do.
The brutality of the memory made him shiver in fear, especially as he saw the reporter at the other end of the restaurant, nibbling on her prawn cocktail, oblivious to the shift going on inside the celebrity time-chef who brought that blissful remembrance to her life once had.
There was the recipe card, yellowed with age, written with the meticulous calligraphy of those who couldn’t waste an inch of space on the paper. Manjar dos Deuses, or the Gods’ Pudding: a coconut flan served with a dried plum syrup. It was all the rage back in the day, an obvious choice for a supper party at home. Any woman of his mother’s generation would have had it at least once, but the cold fact didn’t quite match what he remembered of his mother. “Just what memory did they unearth from her hair?”
“The time-cooks said they saw her picking the recipe from a neighbor and then writing it down.”
“But they didn’t capture her preparing or eating the pudding.”
“No, but does it matter? That was the memory in her hair, Manjar dos Deuses with sugar syrup and prunes. This was the recipe I found in her stuff. This is her handwriting. All this work, and she didn’t even eat it!”
“Did you eat it?” Daniel couldn’t help asking.
“I hate coconut,” Denise flinched. “When it’s my turn, I’ll ask for my mother-in-law’s baklava. That’s proper food for the gods. Now, then . . . D’you think the cooks could have messed this up?”
Don’t tell her what you think, Daniel thought. No use hurting her, it won’t fix anything. “Dunno, but it won’t hurt me to check, since I’m here . . . ” Denise sighed, relieved. Note to self: make her a tray of baklava when this is over.
The hospice time-traveling device wasn’t new, but it worked well enough. It could produce ten slots per week—a fair number, considering the small clientele. “We don’t need the big guns, like those weird museum machineries. We don’t go too far in the past. Fifty, sixty years back, tops,” said one time-cook. “People like it simple. Mum’s special porridge, grandma’s pie, nothing fancy.”
It made sense: all a matter of perspective. His clients wanted what they had at their honeymoon or on a joyous holiday, stuff dripping with privilege and joy. The last wish brigade merely wanted comfort for the journey ahead.
“I saw her writing the recipe,” the time-cook carried on. “A different moment, to be sure, but we have that from time to time: two memories plaited in the same strand, referring to the same dish.”
“How old was she, then?”
“Twelve, tops. School uniform, plaited hair . . . ”
At the same age Daniel began to cook for himself, because Denise was out working at all hours and mother couldn’t be bothered leaving her bed. And even when she did . . . The taste of dry toast still clogged the back of his throat. “Listen, lads, it wasn’t your fault,” Daniel added, banishing the foul taste away from his mind. “I’m sure you did your best. She’s just a tough customer.”
“I suppose she is, since she’s used to the best in show!”
“Could you show me the rest of the kitchen?” Daniel forced a press-approved smile as the cooks gave him a tour of the facilities. Later, he’d sign toques and books, and pose for pictures with the crew before wasting one of his own time-tracking credits on the hospital’s equipment to see his mother writing the recipe for the manjar. His mother—a malnourished, grubby little girl with lice in her reddish-brown hair, holding the black ballpen with the same difficulty she’d have to hold cutlery later in life.
She only had one card—that was why she was writing so slowly. No room for mistakes. When she added the last word, she smiled in bright triumph—and then, little by little, the smile faded into the blue grimace Daniel had been so accustomed to.
When the “beep” signaled the end of the session, he sighed with palpable relief upon seeing the white Formica and gray chrome empty kitchen through the glass door of the time-tracking equipment.
The frown on his mother’s childhood face wasn’t displeasure. It was a sadness too deep to explore without proper instruments.
Daniel had expected worse for someone who was on the last wish roll. His mother looked well, given the circumstances—sure, thinner and sallower, but with the usual penciled eyebrows over the same hooded eyes, the same Roman nose both he and Denise had inherited.
“Oh, no, they called the big star!”
The same viper tongue, too. “Top o’ the morning to you too,” Daniel replied through the press-approved smile, trying to figure out what to say next. “How are you?” was a silly question and “did you miss me” was useless. Denise steered the attention to the plate resting on the plastic tray. “Mama, mama, isn’t this nice? Daniel prepared an heirloom recipe especially for you!”
“Fancy that! The celebrity chef made me a dish? Must be my lucky day.”
Daniel frowned as he looked at Denise, who had the decency to appear mortified. “Mama, won’t you eat it? Daniel prepared it especially for you.”
“Where are the cameras? Did you hide the cameras? Am I going to be in one of your silly shows?” When Daniel didn’t rise to the bait, the old lady pierced the pudding with a plastic spoon twice and then turned to Denise. “You eat it. I’m too much of a hillbilly to appreciate such finery.”
“Remind me again why did I bother?” Daniel turned to his sister. “I wasted my personal credits to see the memory and . . . ”
“Blah, blah, blah! Why did you think I’d eat your gourmet crap?” His mother raised her voice. Again, Daniel closed his fists, waiting for the monster behind that sound. “Fancy crap to feed the bling-bling crowd, that’s all. I didn’t ask for this. I’m not that ill to be given such mercies.”
“This crap,” he picked up the plate, “is far from refined!” Daniel handed the plate to Denise. “Find someone who likes coconut and give this to them. Don’t bloody dare call me again unless it’s an actual emergency.”
He left without looking back, the memories simmering and floating like fat atop a soup: bread and margarine for lunch if he was lucky; bouillon for dinner if things were well; the laughter of the other children when he ate a tomato the way one eats an apple because he was so hungry, so hungry. His mother refused to cook, refused to even look at the hob, leaving him and Denise to the care of others, leaving them to the care of the wind, forever famished. If someone would ever throw one lock of his hair into the time-traveling device, that’s what they would find: a tomato eaten like an apple, and the laughter, the painful laughter that made him a chef: you’ll see, the lot of you, I’ll cook my way out of this hellhole, you’ll choke on the morsels, just you wait.
A tomato and the laughter: but they weren’t as painful as the memory of his hunger.
“There has to be some secret ingredient. Dunno, something extra or something missing, if you know what I mean. Please, Dan, you can’t just give up!”
“I didn’t give up. I went there, I saw the memory, and I cooked what I saw. She didn’t want to eat it; she never wants to eat anything. Why are you insisting on this? I know all your friends’ mothers had extravagant last dishes, but that’s not in the cards for us.” Denise pressed the center of her forehead. “And stop doing that!” Daniel snapped. “You look just like her when you do that.”
“And you think I don’t know that? I can’t help it. You sound like her, don’t you know.”
“More’s the fucking pity.” Daniel looked around his kitchen, all deserted after the night shift ended. The time-tracking device was put away for the night, but it still looked magnificent. It was a state-of-the-art machine that could run twenty slots per day. Not that he needed that much—he didn’t have that many clients—but it was good to know he had extra voyages just in case he needed to research a memory further. “Just humor me, did she eat the pudding in the end, or . . . ?”
“All of it,” Denise sighed. “She almost licked the plate! But she kept insisting she didn’t want it, that it wasn’t what she wanted or what she remembered. Perhaps it was all in the way her mother prepared it? Or her grandmother, or some other relative?”
“Denise, stop it. She probably invented a story herself. Think about it. Half a dozen eggs? Whole milk? Shredded coconut flakes? Denise, those things would have been expensive as heck for her family. Remember, rat poor, the lot of them—we heard the stories one time too many. We can’t go anywhere nice; we can’t have anything nice because they were rat poor and God help you or me if we dared to want more!” Again the laughter ringing in his ears, the tomato pulp running down his chin, and his mother excusing herself, saying her son was soft in the head, you understand, he got it after his father, bless him . . . And all the while, she wouldn’t listen when he said he was hungry. Didn’t I just feed you? You ask for too much. “What do you get from this torture?”
“Peace of mind, that’s what.” She didn’t go on, because she didn’t need to. Denise was and always would be the bigger person. She was the one that brought home the ingredients he asked for, at whatever cost; she was the first person he fed. For years, she was his only client and only companion, the one reason he kept learning, the one reason to wake up in the morning: I must make lunch for Denise, I must make dinner for Denise, she can’t go to work hungry.
“I want to make her comfortable. That little girl in the memory . . . There must be something I can do. I know the manjar was special. Trust me, Dan, please: I know it is.”
“Fine, fine. But I’d need another sample,” he relented. “Cut a strand of her hair and bring it here within an hour, or you best forget it. The machine is excellent, but it has limits.”
And so do I, he wanted to add, and you are pushing them too much.
The following morning, moments before the restaurant crew arrived for work, Denise brought a strand of yellowish hair in a paper napkin. It wasn’t the ideal way to carry a sample, but Daniel wouldn’t say a word about it—or else he’d change his mind once more.
He placed the hair in the acrylic box to the left of the machine, and then locked himself with Denise inside the square-meter-and-a-half green molded plastic traveling cabin. “You will stand as witness,” he said when she tried to leave. “It was your idea. You will see how I work now.”
Denise tried to leave again, but Daniel pressed a button inside the cabin and everything around them lost color and smell; next thing she knew, she was lurching forward in the small cabin as the surroundings spun, while Daniel remained stable in his corner, a quiet smile on his lips and both feet planted on the chromed ground.
The world outside melted, the modern kitchen became an off-white void that was tinged here and there with spots of verdigris and silver until, drip by drip, a new scenario emerged from the mixing colors.
A concrete tenement hall, dingy gray, and smelling of rancid fat and petrol fumes, stood before the two siblings as Daniel opened the glass door. There: at the staircase, carrying an immense government-issued food parcel, his mother at twenty. No, hold it: that was his grandmother at twenty: his mother was at the door of their apartment, a five-year-old girl jumping up and down with the joy of those blessed with a miracle.
Denise reached out to touch the little girl, but the memory flicked and almost disappeared. Daniel didn’t bother telling her the rules of the machinery and didn’t bother scolding her. Instead, he ran toward what passed for a kitchen in the bedsit: a camping stove, an ancient icebox, two pans, and two pots. The scene played on: his grandmother putting away the packets of rice, beans, and chickpeas, the sardine tins, and the ground coffee, and then holding a paper packet like a holy relic, a boon from the gods.
Daniel would laugh if only he could stop trembling.
Instant pudding reinforced with powdered milk and corn flour to ensure the mixture would be thick enough to be like a true Manjar dos Deuses once unmounded. His grandmother cooked on her knees, while her daughter pestered her with all the great things they would eat now that they received their parcel, and how one day they’d have a nice oven and a sink, just you wait, when Dad came back and the rumble outside was gone.
The paltry war bundle, the soot on the bedsheets that did double duty as curtains, all horrified Denise. But Daniel only had eyes for the little black pot over the camping stove, to the care that his grandmother devoted to the ingredients, the way she quietly stirred everything, oblivious to her daughter and her dreams. The secret ingredient was a small bottle of coconut milk—and after his grandmother emptied the contents of the pot, she filled it with water and shook it to remove even the most recalcitrant dreg.
And his mother ate it all, still chatting about the days to come. Nothing better, nothing nicer in the world: her mother’s manjar was the best thing in the world.
He reconstructed the next years in his head. Soon, he figured out, that little girl would find out the Manjar dos Deuses her mother made to please her was a sham. She’d go to school and her classmates would fill in the details and taunt her for her poverty, for the father lost in the rumble, for the lice in her hair. The desire soured, the anger turned into resignation, all inside a recipe card she kept for fifty years, untouched like a museum specimen. Food became fuel so not to be again the knife that her colleagues used to slash her.
The same knife her son branded against her: her brightest enemy, sided with the riches and their glittery banquets that she could only glance at from the window.
Instant pudding? Why would he eat that crap? He’d make the real thing, and eat the real thing, and never be hungry again. He must have told her so, didn’t he? Or some words to that effect. They were always shouting at each other, ravenous and angry, one feeling fueling the other.
The scene blurred once more; the colors fading into green, into white, into black, and then reshaping themselves as Daniel’s kitchen. Denise opened the door and retched on the floor in a fit of tears while her brother observed the scene with glazed eyes.
There, he thought to himself: underneath the monster that shaped his entire life, a hungry five-year-old girl.
Daniel and Denise stared at a blue plastic bowl with the white, gelatinous mass faintly smelling of coconut and reconstituted powdered milk, proffered with no introductions or explanations. “You don’t expect me to eat this crap, now, do you?” their mother riled them out of habit, but the voice didn’t stir up much that time—Daniel kept his hands at his sides; Denise didn’t touch her forehead.
“What is it with you two? You poisoned the food? That desperate to get rid of me, are you?” Again, no answer, and she took a spoonful of the pudding. “Jesus, you two, always so bloody stuck-up. Here, I’ll eat it, all right, star chef? If that makes your sister happy, I’ll eat it.”
Something shifted when she ate the spoonful, and it led to another, and then another, and another until she was scraping the bowl, ravenous, desperate for more. And the more she ate, the more she stared at her son and her daughter, and in her eyes their faces were no longer distant and haughty, but human, too human, too close to her heart, too much like what she could have been if only, if only. “How dare you?” turned into “How could you?” and then into “Why didn’t you do this sooner?” and “Why didn’t I tell you?” until it all dissolved into tears and stomachache. She’d throw the bowl away; she’d howl, she’d try to cuss to make the pain go away—she would if only she could only stop shaking, the longing catching up with her at last.
“It’s not like hers,” she said at last, attempting to articulate the phrase in the composed, detached manner her children knew her for. “But thanks, I suppose. For the effort.”
“Likewise, I suppose,” Daniel replied with the same rehearsed tone, knowing only too well that this was the furthest she’d dare to go to acknowledge it all. But when future historians combed through his hair for clues about his story, they’d find that cheap pudding plaited in the strands, and the peace that came with it. It’d have to be enough.
Anna Martino is a Brazilian SFF writer and editor, publishing in English and Portuguese since 2013. Her work in English was featured in magazines such as Strange Horizons, Hexagon, Luna Station Quarterly, and Translunar Travellers Lounge, and was also performed at BBC World Radio. She lives in São Paulo with her husband and son.