Chicken paprika

by Monika S Jones

2 onions
clove of garlic, diced
chicken breast, sliced
sour cream, dollop
3 boiled potatoes, boil from standing water to avoid mealiness
paprika, pinches to taste
tomatoes, diced, salted, drained
salt, pinches to see
water, flicked from fingers

Ella has chopped everything on a cutting board next to the stove. She places her cool hands over mine and guides me. To my right, garlic and tomatoes. Then, the fiery paprika, finely cut. To my left, a cup of salt. Ella guides me to the colander of boiled potatoes in the back left, they emit a pale yellow aroma. I’m getting excited now, potatoes have always been my special addition. We skirt over the plate of prepped chicken, I pat the pieces.

“I poured a glass of water, it’s next to the cutting board and I’ve lit the gas. Oil is in the pan,” she says gently putting my hand on the handle.

“Please be careful. Keep the heat on low and call out if you need help.”

“Go go go,” I tell her. I breathe in. All the patinas are raw.

Ella slips out so quietly I’m not sure she’s gone.

I listen for the oil to start cracking. I’m shaky when I add the first fistful of onion, but isn’t long before I breathe in sky-blue. My wooden spoon sweeps over the pan, spicy azure fills the kitchen. I add garlic and my mind goes turquoise.

Blue is the big sky of my home in suburban North America. I lived there as an immigrant, always grateful, always on the edges, looking from outside in. When I inhale the silky floss of my children’s’ hair fleeces across our backyard — oh, then I didn’t know to cherish so hard what would be disappeared.

I turn the gas down swiftly; burning garlic put everything in charcoal. I  know better to cast it all in smoke because of a portrait of nostalgia. Stir, stir.

It’s time for the chicken. I reach to my side, moving my toes to the floor for grip, and place strips of meat side-by-side. Soon the sizzles are bright purple. Going to turn velvet soon, yes. I add the melted potatoes from the cold colander to my left, which bring golden overtones.

Inhaling colors has animated my inner world all my life. And thankfully, my synesthesia stayed with me after that desperate week three years ago. When the terror of surgery faded and chemotherapy finished, thankfully, the olfactory rainbow remained in me, a joyful symphony. Aging means vast swathes of time are left out regularly, only to surface, unexpectedly, with the vibrant pinch of salt.

Then come tomatoes. They flash with magenta. I sprinkle paprika from over head. Too much. It’s too late, it is color is more red than in life. Piros is overwhelming. Suddenly, I am a child, alone, scared. Hiding in the musty cellar that reeks, hoping each inhale is punishment enough and the Arrow-Cross will keep away.

I fumble for vís, nearly knocking over the glass. Steam rises. The pan cools. The memory fades away. I feel my first husband stand behind me, we are green. We are newlyweds. It’s the 18th of March, 1944, the day before the coup, a beginning in the end of times. He’s swaying me gently. I hear the strains of my brother playing his clarinet.

“Breathe in Zsoli, isn’t this wonderful?” I say. I crave that creamy smell of passion, I let my head loll backwards with delight.

“Ummmm, Grandma, it’s me, Ella,” my granddaughter is patting my shoulders, “I wanted to check on you, and you’ve done it. You really are able to cook!”

“Oy! Természetesen” I declare, taking offense only because I’m still in the past. Now I am stirring in sour cream, the csirke paprika is babbling like a baby.

“It’s my way of seeing again, you see,” I council her. The smell of their scalps, sweet with milk, and the squishy cheeks, makes me smile with hunger.

My Ella comes behind me and is lifting the pan; I feel her litheness against my softening. I don’t move away, I can’t. I clutch the counter with both hands, gripping my fingertips.

With the gas off, the ingredients melting together in harmony, my old self becomes as shadowy as my actual granddaughter is to my quieted eyes.

I am breathing in deeply, deeply, seeing the last scents of color. I feel faint and heavy. The world dims. Then, as if she already knew, my granddaughter leads me to a chair. Rest.

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