There is a strong scent in the garden. Air freshener. No, less…chemical. Sometimes roses, but not from a rose. Sometimes vanilla, but not like ice cream. Jasmine. Sometimes like a cinnamon bun. Elaichi. Food. Cooking. Someone is cooking in my garden and it’s a new sensation. I feel her on the waves of aroma coming my way. Clove. Saunf. Hing. I follow the garden path, twisting and turning until I see the areas I have not tended to. Hedges growing wild. I swallow, as I see the weeds overrun across this neglected part of the yard. The garden is of course, vast. There are many areas I have not properly visited or tended. I have been, after all, intently focused on the grave, now filled and growing roses.
I hear the gravy bubbling before I see her, aroma wafting along the path before I see her. The path disintegrates into a clearing, and there she is in the middle – a witch to boot, complete with a pointy witch’s hat, green hands, and a cauldron…no…kadhai. A large metal kadhai with ears, sitting on a fire pit. She stirs with a giant steel ladle like the kind my grandma uses. Her hat covers half her face and I already know I won’t get to see any expression but her smile.
“Whatchu making?” I ask. I am in a cheerful-ish mood today. A curious mood, you could say.
“Mmm” she breathes, and lifts the ladle to her lips to take a sip. “Something delicious!” She says, like my mother when I ask “unnecessary questions”.
“Well I know that,” I say. “I meant what, specifically.”
“Everything,” she says, stirring again, and again, the mixture of aromas comes my way….it’s cake, I think at first, cocoa cake like my paati makes with too much cream and…but no it isn’t, there are the heavier spices for chana masala, garam masala and – no that’s sambhar powder, jeera… and so much coriander. “Everything.” She says again, this time with emphasis.
“Everything. All at once? How can that work?” I ask. “Wouldn’t it just be mush in the end?”
“In the end,” she repeats, musing softly. ” ‘In the end’ is a funny thought isn’t it? How do you know when you’re at the end of it?”
“Well, it depends on the meal, I suppose,” I say. “Sometimes there’s a..a beep, or a timer that goes off on the oven… or a slow cooker… but I suppose for more complex on-the-stove situations, you just, well, know.” I say.
“Did you always know?”
“No, I had to learn of course. And experienced cooks are better at telling and can do more things at the same time, maybe make more than one meal at once…wait, are we still talking about food?”
“I am an experienced cook,” the witch laughs. “A very experienced cook. I make all my meals at once, and in the same pot!”
“Come, see what I’m making,” she says, laughing a bit and beckoning with a single green finger.
“You seem the witchiest witch I’ve met yet” I muse. I cross the distance between us, half expecting her to suddenly grow in size, or for me to shrink, but she seems to have none of BeingLovedAgain’s tricks up her sleeve. We all stay proportional, the sizes we seem at first glance.
“Hmm do I?” she says carelessly. “Well maybe I am, on a scale of 0 to witchy, quite, quite witchy”
I peer over the cauldron to see a completely clear surface. No gravy. No cocoa cake. Nothing but the blue sky reflected back as though a mirror, and my own quizzical expression – and for the first time, her face too, predictably green, pointy nose that points slightly right like mine. No warts, wide full lips, and bright eyes, with deep red irises.
“Boo.” Her reflection says, laughing.
“Not food?” I ask.
“Not food!” she confirms. “I told you. I’m making…everything.”
“I’m in my head a lot these days,” I say, the reflective surface is making me reflective too.
“What’s that like?” She asks innocently, and I see a slight smirk tug her lips. Witches are sneaky devils sometimes.
“No need to mock me,” I say, aiming for exaggerated humour. But the words taste slightly bloody, and I know I sound more injured than I’d intended to be. A drop falls, scarlet and swirling like food colouring into the pot; it diffuses through the liquid, making our reflections fuzzy and hard to see. “It’s painful,” I say, finally.
“Do you ever wonder why pain feels more like truth than happy stuff? Love and kindness and care and everything else?” She asks.
“Yes. No, I don’t know – it just feels more real.”
“Yes, but why?”
I am not sure.
She shrugs, smiles again. “Maybe…it’s a truth you’re… comfortable with – at least, more than other truths. Everyone wants to be comfortable, after all.”
“You’re saying pain makes me comfortable?”
“I’m saying pain is a truth you may be comfortable with relative to other truths. Or maybe, if you’re constantly in pain, then changes in degrees of pain won’t feel so bad.”
Maybe she has a point. Maybe this is something I need to think about.
“What do you do when you mess up a recipe?” I ask, finally.
She blinks, slowly, like a cat. “That was a very good question. But, there is a better one to ask.”
The liquid in the pot bubbles and froths, swirling like a whirlpool. “Hrmm,” she says, peering into the cauldron, hands on her hips. “Yes, this really didn’t call for ‘blood of tongue’, she says, shaking her head. Hmm… maybe some lemon juice will fix it…” she mutters, squeezing half of one that has magically appeared in her hand. More frothing, more bubbling. She frowns. “Well, I guess it’s ruined then, and that’s alright.” She shrugs, unfazed, still smiling, and snaps her fingers. “I suppose you have your answer,” she says, smiling at me, and gestures to the cauldron. I look inside, and it’s completely empty.
“But… but you were making something amazing! You were making everything. I’m so sorry,” I say, flustered. “It’s all gone now – and it’s my fault!”
She looks at me, and laughs, shaking her head.
“Anything will do, won’t it?” She asks. “Maybe my empty cauldron isn’t about you, sweetie.”
“But I – ”
“Yes, you ruined it, and I don’t care. Things happen, sometimes. Sometimes bad things happen sometimes. But not all roads lead to pain! They lead,” she pauses thoughtfully, and then meaningfully says: “to Rome. I knew a Roman once – well a Roman type really, stoic and charming, and silent and reserved and so so afraid – oh they were all very afraid deep down underneath that delectable armour.”
“I…literally ruined everything,” I say, still horrified. “You were making everything, and I-”
“Yup! You did. And it’s ok,” she laughs and waves her hand over the cauldron. “Now excuse me, I need to make more of this. You can stay, but don’t lean over the pot quite so much. By the way, you asked your question, and you got your answer – two answers actually. Maybe even three! Maybe even four. Maybe even five.” She’s undeniably cheerful, and bouncing to the numbers.
“Ok, ok, I feel like I’m on Sesame Street,” I say, smiling slightly. I still feel self conscious. “So, we’re ok then?” I ask nervously.
“We always were!” She says, still stirring. Distractedly, she adds “Oh but – you’re not ok. You should probably work on that.”
“Ugh, thanks” I mutter. “Anyway, I should get going.”
“You’re welcome!” She waves a hand, green chilies dropping from them into the cauldron. “Visit anytime!”
And when I turn to leave, I find turning is all it takes to leave. There I am, back in my familiar garden.