The short story I’m working on, “Magissa,” is inspired by true events and loosely based on my grandmother’s experiences during the war. Unsurprisingly, she’s been on my mind lately, and when I found this snippet buried in my Google Docs, I thought I’d share it. I’m not sure I’d call it a story, really. I suppose it’s more of a vignette of one of my favorite memories. I give you “The Fish Cake.”
When I was little, it never bothered me that I couldn’t talk to my grandmother. She seemed to have her own language, one comprised of hugs and food. My first memory of her isn’t an image but a feeling of warmth combined with the scent of onions and olive oil. By the time I was two or three, she had taught me how to count up to ten and to recite some of the Greek alphabet, but the first words I learned to use with purpose were “I love you” and “I’m hungry.”
Yiayia came to live with us when I was thirteen. Though I still couldn’t speak much Greek despite having endured seven years of Greek school, I liked to sit with her and read while she watched her soap operas or cooked. Yiayia cooked all the time, and she talked while she cooked. Eventually, I started talking back. I never reached fluency, but we could carry on piecemeal conversations about simple things like school and the garden–and, of course, food.
A lifetime of cooking had provided Yiayia with a nearly flawless instinct for which flavors and textures would work together and which wouldn’t. She made soups and stuffed vegetables and wonderful savory pies filled with ground beef and onions, or chicken and cheese, or cabbage and potatoes–whatever happened to be on hand.
But nobody is perfect, and one day I came home to an overwhelming reek of fish. I poked around, looking for the source of the stink, but I couldn’t find anything except a harmless-looking loaf of bread sitting on the counter. I eyed it warily. Surely not, I thought.
“Eat, eat,” my grandmother said, appearing at my side as if summoned by the rumbling of my stomach.
“What is it?” I sniffed suspiciously at the loaf and pointed at it, hoping I was wrong. “Fish?”
“It’s just a cake,” she told me with an airy wave of her hand, like putting fish in a cake was a totally normal thing to do. Not even worth talking about. “Have some.”
I demurred as politely as my limited facility with the language allowed and stood firm against that best-loved weapon of grandmothers everywhere, guilt. As much as it pained me to turn down something she had made–according to her–just for me, there was no way I was touching that cake. I mean, it was a fish-cake. A cake made of fish. A fishloaf.
Finally, we reached an impasse and stared at each other for several long moments. I had very nearly come up with the proper words to frame an excuse when Yiayia sighed heavily and swatted at the air above the horrible cake. It was the gesture she used to dismiss everything that irritated her, from the television to my spastic black cat, whom she called “that little goat.” Our eyes met, and we burst into giggles.
“Well,” she said with a philosophical shrug, “maybe your brother will eat it.”