For Children

Ayla Schultz

Mung Dal

9th - 12th Grade Prose Winner

My Nani put down the pot of dal on the wooden dining table. My brother Aayan slouched down in the chair across from me, he looked sweaty—hair shining in the light of the old chandelier above the table. The room smelled of cumin, cardamom and smoke. The rotis slowly deflated as my Nana inched towards the table. He was eighty seven with scarce white hair and a toothless smile. He used to be taller but had stooped over, bent from years of people placing their secrets upon him. A faceted image of his face was reflected in the cut crystal glass he was carrying. The rim was slightly chipped.

He placed himself at the head of the table in a old hardwood chair with a cracking wicker seat. My Nani went to the other end, ladling everyone bowls of dal before she sat down.

The cars honked outside, headlights shining into the thick air. The Mumbai skyline was grainy, pollution clinging onto the low-hanging thick clouds. Large buildings tried to pierce through to the sky—stretching up with metal to part the rain, to breathe the fresh air hovering just out of reach. The cars piled up, pushing against one another in the endless race to be faster than those who came before. Drivers honked their horns, not to make anyone move, but to release the bottled-up anger that made their heads hot and minds foggy.

People scurried between the cars, feet pounding on, inaudible beneath them. Sandals torn, their soles were worn down from years of running from horns and taxes. “Your mother phoned,” Nani’s mouth thinned. Her eyes showed years of worry, built up in the form of wrinkled maps of traceable emotion snaking in jagged lines across her face. She had a shawl dripping down across her left shoulder. It was reddish brown, interwoven diamonds imprinted across the surface with wax.

Aayan got up to turn on the fan, his chair scraping across the polished floor. It came on, buzzing above our heads. The window was open, a fly came in, followed by a translucent gust of tacky wind. “What did she say?” Nana tried to look calm, his eyes betrayed him. His hands clenched his tarnished spoon, his knuckles turned pale.

“The usual,” Nana hands relaxed. Nani looked at me, her eyes expectant. I stayed silent.

My mother used to call every evening, talk to me for hours and tell me about her new home, her new life. She told me about the people, always rushing, never stopping to breathe the air and forget. “The car horns sound different here.” She sounded sad, her voice cracking in places. She used to call every day, ask how Nani and Nana were holding up. They were always the same. They loved walks just as Aayan still ate too many pani puris. She told me that the food there was different, that the meat was often undercooked and the Indian food was full of oil. One night, she called to tell me that she had a job, and we would come and live with her once she had earned enough money.

Slowly the calls stopped coming as frequently; some weeks I barely heard from her at all. When she did call, the conversations were fleeting and slightly chilled. She told me she loved me, and hung up the phone.

If she loved me, she would have time to talk.

I walked to school every day, along the cracked dusty streets. The crows flew above me, muttering to each other about things that only they understood. Nani always said they were the ones who perceived life clearly—they looked down on it all, and saw the bigger picture.

Aayan got up from the table and put his plate in the kitchen sink, we could hear the scatter of whitewashed porcelain and leftover bay leaves. He turned on the faucet, the undrinkable water flowing over the silverware. The curtains flapped in the wind, the dishwasher turned on.

I woke up to the sound of veridian parrots getting into a fight over the tree outside my window. The clock in the hallway chimed five, the bells echoing around the carpeted hall, telling me I should still be asleep. I sighed and sat up to shut the window.

The air outside was heavy, the sun was just starting to rise above the skyline, casting shadows across the buildings’ silver faces. The red reflected in the muddy glass turned the low-hanging clouds rusted amber. A car drove past, dark blue and stained. The dry mud splashed up, dusting it with grit.

I fell back down onto my bed, the pillows coming up to meet my tired head. The ceiling needed to be repainted, the plaster flaking away in thin waterlogged sheets. The room was dark, the sun had not yet met my window. The fan was on, stirring up controversy in the pyretic air. The bathroom door was open—the faucet dripping into the mottled sink. The window in the bathroom was agape, a newly awakened crow sitting outside. A fly buzzed around my ear, circling my head in an attempt to land on my unbrushed curly dark hair.

The chair in the corner of the room was worn, the dark copper fabric eaten away in certain places. Next to the chair was a small stone table with a half-drunk water glass on top of it. Some of the water had spilled on the rusty carpet, turning it a darker shade of red. The rest of the floor not surrounding the table was scratched, the stain fading and the varnish coming off. The door to the dresser was ajar. The dresser was old, it used to be painted foamy blue—it had faded to a musty brown. Inside mine and my mother's left clothes, neatly hung up, the hems dancing in the breeze from the fan.

My shoes were in the corner next to the thick wooden door, sandals neatly facing the wall. Finally I gave up on sleep and went to the living room, brushing my teeth before I left.

My mother left almost six months ago, she bought a plane ticket and took only what could fit in her old black suitcase. She bought a new pair of sneakers before she went. When she got there she called me to tell me she was cold—it was March in New Jersey when she landed. She said the ground was muddy, it stuck to her shoes, creating a crust of greyed chocolate.

The phone rang when it was seven in the morning. I got up from the couch to answer it.

****

Morristown, New Jersey was quiet, the houses neatly lined next to each other. The lawns were groomed, with multicolored flowers alighting along the edge near the newly replaced curbs. The man next door got into his small SUV, dropping his gray dog into the back seat. As he drove away, the potholes in the road stared up at his car.

She walked to the mall, stopping outside the cold glass door before entering. Entering the over-air conditioned space, the air flew into her face. She walked by a restaurant called Nani’s Kitchen and stopped—the smell of cumin mixed with paneer washed over her. She walked over, staring at the turmeric colored chicken, and the buttery green mung dal.

She remembered her mother making rotis on Friday nights, the pillowy elastic pale beige dough being pulled and stretched by her creased hands. She pictured her stirred spices, grinding them together—cumin, cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns. She saw her soaking lentils in filtered water, cooking them with red carrots and tomatoes. She watched them swirl together in the already marbled water.

Shaking her head, she ordered one plate of food to stay, and pulled out her phone to call her daughter.