Anna had almost left the stall without recognizing the fruits. They seemed smaller and their color not as vivid as the ones she remembered eating when she was a child, over seventy years ago.
But then she saw the sign with the well-remembered name, and she picked up one of the pale blue fruits in her hand.
“How can it be?” she asked the fruit seller. “How did they come all the way from the island?”
Above the noise of the market, he shouted something about the end of the war and something else about imports and refrigeration, but she could not follow what he said. All she understood was the familiar rough texture of the fruit in her hand.
“Please give me four,” she said, and he slipped them into a brown paper bag.
For many years, she had almost forgotten the island, but in the past few months it had begun to creep back into her dreams. The icy rain would tap furiously against her bedroom window, and the wind would make the apartment building rattle and groan, but in her dreams there was the warmth of a fierce sun, the call of the wild birds, the gentle roar of the ocean, and the freshly baked cakes her mother used to make for her.
The round cakes bulged with thick slices of the island’s fruit, and once Anna had slept long enough to taste one. She bit into the soft dough, a piece of fruit burst with sweetness in her mouth…and then she awoke.
The dream had dissolved into a dry and bitter taste on her tongue, and she had shivered despite the blankets. It had felt as if the chill in the air had crawled into her bones and was making its way to her heart.
Now as she climbed the stairs to her apartment, she needed to pause to catch her breath. It was sharp in her throat. But she pressed her eyes shut for several seconds, and she thought of the fruits in the brown paper bag. The sharpness began to lose its edge.
“Mama, what are you doing?” It was the voice of her daughter, Sylvie. She was looking down from the landing in front of the door of Anna’s apartment, and she had her little boy in her arms. “I knocked and I knocked and you didn’t answer. I thought something terrible happened to you. This is why I don’t want you to live alone.”
Sylvie was Anna’s only child, and Anna had always been pleased that she had kept her daughter close. Her friends lamented their children moving away, but when Sylvie married, the apartment above Anna’s had been vacated only a week before. And so, of course, there was no reason for Sylvie to move anywhere else.
But lately Sylvie and her husband had been talking about a town far away, of the new factory that was being built there, of opportunities, and of the possibility of leaving behind all that they knew here.
Anna feared that soon they would seriously take up the conversation with her and try to convince her to come. And what if she said no? Would they be cruel enough to go and leave her behind?
“I’m sorry, Sylvie. I was sure I’d be back in time,” Anna said. There was still a dull ache in her bones, but she continued up the flight of stairs.
“You shouldn’t have gone out. You haven’t been looking well,” said Sylvie when Anna reached the landing.
“I felt better this morning. I needed some things for breakfast.”
The little boy struggled out of his mother’s arms and ran to Anna. His eyes were the same soft gray that Anna’s mother’s had been, and Anna felt the ache in her bones lessen when she looked into them. She gave him the paper bag, and he smiled with delight when he pulled out one of the fruits.
“Not to eat yet,” Anna warned.
“I bought fruit for you yesterday,” said Sylvie.
“Not these. They are from the island. They are the ones I always told you about.”
The worry in Sylvie’s face now changed to astonishment. She caught up her son again and followed her mother into the apartment.
Anna was glad that she had the fruits to distract Sylvie so that her daughter would not begin again on her favorite subject — how cramped and drafty the rooms were, how the constant murmur of the pipes behind the tired walls had kept her up at night in the apartment above. “In the town,” Sylvie would say eagerly, “there will be new apartments with shiny appliances in the kitchens. The lights won’t flicker during storms. The electricity won’t go out for hours. They are so big we can live together.” Yesterday, she had tried to show her mother the brochure with the glossy photos of the apartments.
But Anna refused to look at the brochure. Her apartment had become to her like the island once had been, and only in its rooms did she feel that her life might go on, nourished by the flood of memories that eddied around each corner. It sheltered her like a cocoon, warm and safe, except when the wind stretched its fingers under the windows.
For it was here that she had rebuilt her life after leaving the island, here that she had loved her husband who had taught her the language of this new land, and here that she had said goodbye to him when the sickness took him.
“At last I will make you sweet cakes for breakfast,” Anna said. She took off her coat and scarf and sat down wearily at the kitchen table. “Just let me catch my breath.”
“I can’t stay for breakfast,” said Sylvie. “And you are tired. You can make the sweet cakes tomorrow.”
“No, today. You can’t go to work now. Look, it’s already snowing. They said in the market there would be quite a storm.”
“Every day there is a storm,” said Sylvie, but she went to the window and saw that the street below was already blanketed in white. “All right,” she said. “I’ll wait and see if the weather changes.”
But the weather did not change. Instead, the snow fell faster and thicker, and Anna rose to her feet and arranged ingredients and bowls and spoons on the counter.
Then she took down a pale pink box, old and battered, from the top shelf of one of the kitchen cabinets. Inside, wrapped in white tissue paper, was a bright red plate covered in a delicate hand-painted design of two golden birds. It was the last piece that remained of her mother’s china.
“This is for when the sweet cakes are ready,” she said, lifting the plate gently from the box. “We must make the dough first.”
“You sit down and tell me how,” said Sylvie.
But Anna looked at the ingredients, and she realized that she did not remember. She held the plate tightly and sat back down in the chair.
“What is it, Mama?” asked Sylvie.
Anna could not answer. She knew that if she tried, she would begin to sob, and she did not want Sylvie or the little boy to see her cry. He was tapping Anna’s knee now and asking to see the pretty plate. She showed it to him, and he traced his finger along the beak of one of the birds. “Gentle, be gentle,” she whispered to him.
She swallowed down the tears in her throat, and as she watched his finger gliding across the design, a thought came to her. Surely once the flour dusted her hands, once she began to stir in each ingredient, then it would come back to her — it must come back to her. It would be like the memory of a long forgotten song.
“Bring everything here to the table,” she told Sylvie. “When I get started, then I will be able to tell you what to do.”
Anna searched her mind for fragments of memories. What would her mother have done first? But of course — they must slice up one of the fruits to eat while they prepared the dough.
Yes, that was what her mother always had done, she told Sylvie. It was a special treat just for those who made the sweet cakes and the little children who helped. So Sylvie sliced the fruit and handed one of the pieces to Anna.
Anna held it for several seconds between her fingers. She feared it would betray her memories. But then she put it in her mouth. It tasted of summer mornings, of golden-flecked sea foam, of footprints racing across the soft white sand.
The little boy laughed as he snatched up the fruit slices, and juice dribbled down his chin as he ate. “That is good,” said Anna. “There must be children’s laughter in the kitchen when you make the cakes. And there must be singing. I will sing of the island. Do you know this song, Sylvie?”
It was the song Anna used to sing when her daughter was a little girl. Sylvie would awaken in the night — she was frightened of the howling northern wind. But Anna’s words would lull her back to sleep, and the island that Sylvie had never seen would come into her dreams.
Anna’s hands were moving now as if on their own — she scarcely needed to think about what to do next in the recipe. But Sylvie made her stop and rest. Anna took the little boy onto her lap, and Sylvie kneaded the dough and continued the song.
At last, the cakes were ready for the oven. The aroma as they baked overflowed out of the little kitchen. It poured into the living room and spilled under the front door into the hall. It smelled of sunlight and warm breezes rustling the branches of island trees.
And then a knock sounded on the front door.
Sylvie went to see who it was, and in a few seconds she reappeared in the kitchen with the old woman who lived across the hall.
The old woman often came to play cards with Anna, but this time she had come because she smelled something wonderful. She had been sitting alone in her apartment, a shawl draped across her shoulders, watching the snow falling endlessly, when the fragrance of a summer morning embraced her, a summer morning when she had been young and in love. And she had felt compelled to follow it.
“Might I just have a taste?” asked the old woman. And Anna was glad that the woman had come because months before the woman’s family had left for the distant town. The woman did not smile anymore, but Anna was sure a slice of one of the sweet cakes would gladden her friend’s heart.
But then more knocks landed on the door. More neighbors wondering inquisitively what was that aroma that had cheered their hearts despite the raging storm outside. Sylvie worried that there would not be enough chairs, and Anna worried there would not be enough slices of sweet cake.
She had given a slice to the little boy already, and she kept cutting more slices because they could not turn anyone away. These were all the faces of friends — each neighbor she knew and loved as she loved the apartment. One was the former doctor who lived on the first floor and had helped bring Sylvie into the world long ago. One was Anna’s husband’s closest friend who still came to see Anna every now and then — only the other day he had helped to fix the faucet in the kitchen. One was the former seamstress who had made Anna’s wedding dress and then Sylvie’s.
On and on they came. Even Sylvie’s husband arrived, covered in snow. He had turned back on his way to work when he saw that the storm was growing fiercer or perhaps it was because he too had smelled the aroma of the sweet cakes drifting from under the kitchen window out across the village.
At last, everyone had a plate, and Anna smiled with happiness for the apartment was warm and filled with laughter, and she no longer felt the icy chill in her heart.
“But, Mama,” exclaimed Sylvie, “you have not even eaten your slice yet.”
Anna had not thought it was possible that any sweet cake would be left, but Sylvie placed the red plate with the golden birds in front of her.
The feathers of the birds seemed to ripple slightly as if touched by an island breeze, and there crowning the plate was the very last slice of the sweet cakes.
Anna raised the slice to her lips and bit into the soft dough. A piece of the fruit burst with sweetness in her mouth.
The crowd of neighbors had stayed past lunchtime, but eventually they had all left, ebbing away one by one like the ocean tide. And then Sylvie and her husband and the little boy had gone away to their apartment too.
It was evening now. A starless night crept across the village, swallowing whole the tops of the buildings and descending softly into the shadowy corners of the kitchen where the electric light could not drive it away.
Anna had returned to the kitchen to make dinner, but she realized she was not hungry. She sat down at the table instead. Sylvie and her husband had cleaned and put away all the plates and bowls and forks and spoons, but Sylvie had left the red plate on the table. It would look nice there as a centerpiece, she had said. Anna rested her hand on it, remembering family dinners from her childhood when the house on the island rang with laughing voices.
The apartment seemed quieter than most nights — a cold, eerie stillness that Anna could feel closing in around her. Perhaps it was only the contrast against the joy that had filled it hours before.
Yes, perhaps tomorrow it would feel like home again, not tinged by this sudden shadow of loneliness that arose unlooked-for in her heart.
But Anna knew that this was a hope that could not be. She realized now that it was only Sylvie and Sylvie’s husband and the little boy who could trail the sunlight into her life.
And with this realization, she accepted at last that she must say farewell to the apartment, just as she had once said farewell to the island.
She went to the telephone to call Sylvie.
Nicole Bianchi is a writer, copywriter, and storyteller at nicolebianchi.com. Sign up to her email newsletter for more stories, writing tips, and literary-minded articles.
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