Joyland

a hub for short fiction

Roots and Soil

Maggie’s grandmother grew turnips. Maggie remembers the dirt under her grandmother’s fingernails and in the creases of her hands after digging them out of the backyard garden on the West side of Detroit. Her grandmother ate them raw, without washing. Maggie’s grandmother made rutabaga pies for the holidays, from a recipe her mother brought over from Hungary, when the family immigrated to the U.S. in 1910. As a child, Maggie was uncomfortable with root vegetables, and with their corresponding, foreign words. Tarlórépa, cékla, retek. Maggie ate her first turnip accidentally at the age of twenty-five, at an unmemorable restaurant, in the form of a cream soup.

Maggie’s mother grows tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers in her backyard garden, and occasionally, she bakes. Maggie’s mother has recipes that have been passed down through the family’s female lineage, scrawled on index cards located in the metal box she keeps in the pantry.

The box had been discovered when Maggie’s mother, aunt, and three uncles had been arguing over what to do with all of Maggie’s grandmother’s stuff that nobody wanted, so that they could get on with selling the house. Her aunt, who was too busy for this shit and had other places to be, angrily dropped a box labeled “Plates” onto the living room floor and stormed out. The box ripped open. Broken ceramic plates, plastic cups, and the smaller box of recipes spilled out.

The recipes include chicken soup, beef stew with potatoes, goulash, meatloaf, strawberry pie, angel food cake, chocolate torte, rigó jancsi, and sugar cookies. The rutabaga pie recipe was never written down, Maggie guesses. Maggie repeats a phrase in her mind, over and over, a mantra. My thumbs are not green, my oven turns everything black, this is where family secrets go…

When Maggie was little, her grandmother told the stories that her own mother brought from Hungary. Maggie can’t remember many details, so she never tells the stories. She remembers one, not in words, but in a series of hazy images, about her family’s Gypsy heritage: a wooden cart, a woman in a long skirt, a baby swaddled in babushkas, several chickens. She remembers a song her grandmother had sung. Maggie learned the song in broken Hungarian syllables, so that she could sing along despite the lack of translation. The song, like the stories, is difficult for her to share with any confidence. She is never sure which syllables fit together to make up a word until she gets to the chorus: Yo, yo, yo!

Maggie stretches her legs roadside by the station, waits for the cab she's called, when the woman in the long, mustard skirt approaches. Maggie is in Europe on whim, her own version of the grand tour. Budapest was not part of the original plan, but once she was on the continent, she couldn’t stop thinking about visiting. After weeks of wandering around other, more familiar places, London, Cannes, Barcelona, Rome, she decided to see the place she’d never be able to rightly call her homeland. She took the overnight train from Venice to Budapest, almost fourteen hours. She didn’t sleep.

The woman, in her thirties Maggie guesses, shows Maggie the palms of her hands. Dirt has settled into the creases, and Maggie thinks about pulling turnips, and the subsequent sense of accomplishment, the quiet breath of cool air. You are my cousin, Maggie thinks, as she gives the woman spare change and half of her cheese sandwich, the half she’d planned on saving for lunch. They sit on the side of the road together, eating the sandwich. Maggie pulls out her English to Hungarian translation guide and tells the woman about the cab. The woman seems to understand, and they move forward with their shaky conversation, with ample gesturing. After the sandwich, silence for a while. Having never known what to talk about with strangers, Maggie asks about the woman’s family. Van olyan család? The woman purses her lips for a moment, and then rummages through her bag for something. A picture, Maggie assumes.

The woman asks Maggie to read a note. Very important, she says, as she hands Maggie a scrap of yellowed paper. A number. I need to know. This, the family who adopted my daughter. Please tell me, so I can find? Maggie takes the crumpled paper and unfolds it. The phone number is a smudge of pencil that once, perhaps, identified the location of a family.

Nem tudom, Maggie says, I can’t. Her cab turns the corner a few blocks away, and Maggie hands the paper back.

The woman holds it loosely in her palm and watches with her dark eyes as Maggie gets into her cab. She doesn’t believe that Maggie can’t read the paper. The woman herself can’t read it, and her notion of reading is such that she doesn’t understand how the signs and icons of meaning could be gone.

Hazudsz, the woman whispers, just loud enough for Maggie to hear. Miért hazudsz? Why do you lie?

Maggie doesn’t know this phrase. She assumes it means goodbye, and returns the sentiment.

Hazudsz, Maggie says, and closes the cab’s door.