She watches the weathered hands of the proprietor pour the ghee into the bottle and slap a label on it: Gowardhan Desi Cow Ghee, Since 1947. An inch of golden liquid over grainy goodness in the heat of Hyderabad, it would turn into a yellow cake in Chicago, yield to the pressure of her spoon. A spoonful a day in hot dal for her daughter Meena, through her to the baby.
The bottle grows in her mother-hands: trussed in pages of the Indian Express plastered with pictures of body bags and hospitals—bleak world for new life—then bubble-wrapped, tied with twine, bundled in a sari, and tucked in a suitcase. Joined there by papery methi-stuffed parathas, and packets of pomegranate seeds and dry red chillies, the heat and goodness of the country sealed into their powdery bodies. A bottle of hing snuggles in a brassiere cup, a baggie of ginger frolics in the blouses, plastic-sheathed parathas glint between saris, a serene green-flecked sea.
The baby is a girl, third in a line of women, starting with the mother. As blood thinned, so would ill-luck—that was the hope. The mother’s: a bad heart laced up with metal, early widowhood. And Meena, a sickly Lactogen baby—grief and stress had seen to it. Beginnings matter. She pushed away mother-made food, stood stock-still in pillowy mother-embraces, fled at eighteen to America, where she ate fries and burgers and pizza and ruined the lining of her stomach. Can’t eat wheat or rice or onions, she said on distant, infrequent calls. Can’t feed myself, couldn’t feed a baby, can’t have one. There went the mother’s second chance.
Anyone would think she was traveling. In truth, suitcase, mother, chillies, all were in service of the ghee—they were henchmen to the ghee—the ghee rich in butyric acid, a short-chain fatty acid that stimulates the secretion of gastric juices and aids in better digestion and smooth bowel movements, which is very important in new mothers, and, in addition, increases vitamin absorbency thereby strengthening the immune system. Her keen mother-eyes had read the words in a doctor’s office, her mother-mind memorized them. Three lemons, skin cratered like the moon, and several sprigs of curry leaves, flawless in their geometry, lurk in her hand baggage as do twists of turmeric root, to be ruthlessly boiled in water and honey for Meena. At the last minute, she thrusts in her suitcase small packs of basmati rice, yellow lentils, and dried chickpeas, her shoulders heaving with relief at having remembered.
Pokerfaced, she tells the uniformed man at O’Hare that she carried nothing, nothing at all. Masked, shielded, camouflaged, Mother and ghee roll through the green channel and into Chicago. The ground shakes, the city quakes beneath her mother-step. Then she’s with the American Meena married—enabler of the surprise baby—who twangs away at her. What is in her bag, why is it so heavy? “Gee? There’s gee in Chicago,” he says. “G-h-e-e. G-H,” she sighs. The cows were not the same, the hump made all the difference, research had shown. He starts talking about the flavored gees in Stop & Shop. She stops listening and stares at the traffic.
Then Meena, after fifteen years, sallow and rotund. “I don’t know why you came,” she says, clueless about mother-might. One sweep of her arm and out go the ketchup, the peanut butter, the mayonnaise. By evening they are sitting down to a meal, Meena, the baby, and the ghee.
Anu Kandikuppa’s flash fiction has appeared in Gone Lawn, Jellyfish Review, and The Cincinnati Review, and her short stories and essays appear in Colorado Review, Epiphany, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Rumpus, and other journals. Her work has received Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and Best Microfiction nominations. Among other degrees, Anu holds an MFA from the Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She worked as an economics consultant in a former life and lives in Boston.