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Deb Wain

The heat from the stove had warmed the small kitchen from inviting through cosy to where it sat now at uncomfortable. Abyan knew it wouldn’t be long before it became unbearable, but she had to finish all of the cooking before then anyway; their guests would arrive somewhere between uncomfortable and plain hot so the kitchen would be left to its final stages of heating up and cooling down again without her. She would be in the lounge room serving light refreshments of sambuus while Ramaas poured the hot, spiced tea by then. Her nerves made her impatient and she resisted the pointless urge to remove the lid from the cubed chicken and prod it into cooking faster.

She wasn’t sure what was expected so had fallen back on what she knew. She knew hospitality; she knew how to make friends welcome. She knew tea, and spices, and fried sambuus filled with beef, and green hot sauce, and rice dyed yellow and red served with suqaar digaag—the cubed chicken dish that was her favourite. Her new friends had seemed eager to try what they called ‘her’ food, but she still had trouble determining polite conversation from genuine interest. In the end she had invited them, not knowing how to do so in a way that they would be able to politely refuse.

She had started the meal early in the morning—toasting a fresh batch of xawaash and grinding the pods and seeds until the kitchen, still at its inviting warmth against the cool morning air, was tingling with the scents of the frying spice. She hummed while she worked, a song whose name she did not know—one learned in her mother’s kitchen watching the grind of the pestle against mortar as the spices became crushed then powdered. All the larger pieces had been broken down and blended smoothly by the action of her mother’s strong hands. The grinding created something both new and familiar; the scent had been in her nose since birth.

When she came to this new place, it was the first thing she noticed. It seemed to be without a smell. It took some time for her to place the feeling, to fit the missing piece, because it seemed a ridiculous thought, that a place had no smell. Because there were smells. She could smell the fish in the market, the dust in the dry air, the exhaust from the road. It wasn’t until she had managed to gather the necessary ingredients for her first batch of xawaash that she realised what had been missing.

She had gathered the ingredients as she found them, mentally ticking off the list of seven spices she needed. The peppercorns, cinnamon stick, turmeric and cloves were easily found in the supermarket aisle in the town she and Ramaas had moved to from the migrant centre. The seeds and cardamom pods had proved slightly more difficult but she couldn’t bring herself to buy the already powdered cumin and coriander. Toasting the seeds before grinding them would make the kitchen smell like memories.

At home in Somalia, the markets always had mounds of spices on smooth slabs of wood worn with the scooping and scraping of powders and stained golden or orange or brown. Even when there was little food to cook with them, they were still there in abundance. Merchants lovingly piled the coloured powders into conical mountains with the flat of a paddle. The scent of the spices enabled her to feel her mother’s hand in hers, once more, damp with the heat and closeness and bodies of the market. Only when all the spices were toasting together in the pan could she walk the long rows of market stalls in her memory, with their billowing sheets set up for shade and the calls of vendors hawking their wares. A missing ingredient would certainly mean a missing piece of her memory, a slipped stitch in the otherwise perfect tapestry of her childhood. She could hear her mother humming the song with no name as she ground the spices to a powder. Abyan hadn’t even bothered trying to put the xawaash together without the cardamom. The other pods and seeds had just to wait in the cool dark of the pantry until all seven notes of the chord were there.

The mortar and pestle were a gift, a going away present, from Somali friends in the city. She smiled as she ground the spice, thinking she must call and invite them to see this place—a ‘town’ that is not a city, not a village.

Eventually she found cumin and coriander seeds at a market stall. The mismatched produce of the local ‘bush market’ seemed to follow no logical pattern. Knitted dolls alongside chutneys, next to plastic toys and secondhand garden tools—rakes with broken handles, shovels with rusted blades. These haphazard tools were all they could afford and Ramaas wanted to have a garden again like his family had in Baidoa before the soldiers came and forced them out. He had been moving ever since, never stopping anywhere long enough to establish a garden, to plant vegetables, and still be there for the harvest. She bought the least rusty shovel for $3.50 and looked to the next stall: a trestle table clothed in calico and arranged with packets of spices. Each plastic bag had a piece of card folded over the top detailing the name of the herb, spice or blend, and the emblem of a star woven with intricate swirls. Abyan read through the names both familiar and unfamiliar. There seemed to be some kind of system to the arrangement but not one she could ascertain. Abyan looked up from the table to the girl behind it; she was seated in a folding chair with a book forgotten in her lap.

‘Please, do you have cumin, coriander and cardamom?’

‘Sure. Whole or ground?’

‘Whole, please.’

‘The whole seeds are over here,’ she said, gesturing to the far end of the table, ‘No cardamom, I’m afraid, but here you go: cumin and… coriander. Just one packet of each?’

Abyan nodded and thanked the young woman. She gathered coins from her purse. ‘I have not been able to find these in the local supermarket.’

‘Yeah,’ the girl agreed, ‘it’s too small to stock much.’ The girl held her hand out and Abyan placed the coins into her palm. ‘Oh well, I’m here every month, third Sunday that’s market day, except when I head north and do the big market in Byron. But y’know, mostly I’m here.’

Abyan just smiled and nodded; she had not understood all of the words but got the general idea—she had found her cumin and coriander supply. Some of the seeds might even grow. She would try to germinate just a few of each and see. The cardamom would come later.

The elderly woman from the darkly curtained house next door said good morning to her as she walked past. She had been admiring the older woman’s roses in the cool morning air and was a little started by the voice from the garden. The old woman had nodded her greying head as she greeted her, so Abyan nodded her head also in reply. They had both smiled, and Abyan felt her mother’s hand clasping hers. On her way back from the market, carrying shopping, Abyan was determined to stop and speak to the neighbour—there was nothing in her baskets that would suffer from extra time out of the refrigerator. But when she came past her neighbour’s front yard, the black-clad, aproned woman was not outside.

Abyan watched for the woman in the following days, determined to find another opportunity to say hello and introduce herself. She hadn’t come this far to hide away in the house with Ramaas and have no friends. Your neighbours were the right place to start.

She could hear her mother’s voice in her head, ‘Sorrow is like rice in the store; if a basketful is removed every day, it will come to an end at last.’ Perhaps a friend would be the first basketful removed.

On the morning of the third day, Abyan was drinking sweet tea in the morning sun of her front step. She sipped the hot tea and thought how she would like to have a seat in the garden. She had seen many in the front gardens she passed as she walked to the supermarket. None of the neighbours in her street who had seats ever seemed to sit in them and she shook her head at the wasted opportunities to enjoy morning sun and evening breezes. Even so, tea on the front step of her own house—just the idea that this was now her reality made her smile. The luxury of tea on a garden seat, maybe with a small round table, seemed almost too delicious to think about. Perhaps the Ambulance Opp Shop at the back of the supermarket would have a kitchen chair she could use for the purpose. Something sturdy should be able to cope with being in a little weather. She could position it beneath the shade of the hibiscus tree with its lime leaves and pink flowers that seemed too extravagant to be real.

Amid thoughts of flowers and furniture, Abyan saw her black-clad neighbour step from her front door and unwind the serpentine garden hose from where it lay coiled next to their shared fence. The thought of conversation both thrilled and terrified her and she had to take a sharp breath to steady herself. It wasn’t the language she was afraid of. She had learned and used English at home in Somalia, although her accent sometimes presented a problem in the supermarket—her accent and the correct terminology. She still hadn’t been able to locate the cardamom pods. She wasn’t sure if the young man packing shelves was shaking his head because he could not understand her, because he had never heard of cardamom, or because he knew exactly what she wanted but they didn’t have any.

‘Hello, good morning.’ Abyan smiled at her neighbour.

‘Good morning,’ the old woman nodded her head in reply.

‘You have a beautiful garden.’

Grazie,’ the woman smiled, revealing missing teeth.

‘Parla italiano?’

‘Si, si! Sono italiano. Ma come fai a sapere italiano?’ The old woman’s confusion was clear on her lined face. How did Abyan understand her language?

Abyan shook her head. Explaining the history of Italy’s colonialism in Somalia was beyond her broken Italian. All she could manage was to say that her grandparents had taught her.

‘English,’ the woman said, pointing to herself, ‘No good.’ And she laughed, her head thrown back, revealing again her missing eyeteeth, the unused hose still in her hand.

‘Come,’ she said to Abyan, switching back to Italian, ‘come around the back. I have a glasshouse.’ On the way, the old woman introduced herself as Sofia and Abyan smiled to be exchanging names.

The air inside the glasshouse pressed against Abyan’s face and she breathed in the inviting heat. It smelled heavy and green.

‘All of this,’ said Sofia, flinging her short arm to indicate the contents of the space, ‘left by the previous owner.’ She shook her head in delighted disbelief. Abyan looked around at the flowers on spikes—orchids, Sofia said they were—but her eye was caught by a plant taking up a whole corner of the sun-warmed space. Its leaves splayed out like flags on their stems, the tallest in the centre pushing against the fibreglass roof of the structure. She squatted down and her hand found the bulbous green lumps at its base.

‘Do you use these?’ she asked in English as she ran her fingers across the glossy green surface of the capsules.

‘Use? No. But it has beautiful leaves, yes? It smells good.’ Sofia replied in Italian. It was to be the way of their conversations—each understanding enough of the other’s language to be able to reply in her own.

‘May I take some of these?’

‘Yes, yes. Take them all. What do you do with this?’

‘It’s a spice. I cook with it. Sofia, would you like to come to dinner?’ 

Deb Wain is an Australian poet and short story writer who is passionate about food, culture, and the environment. She has generally been employed in jobs where she talks or tells stories for a living. When not writing or talking you can find Deb dancing in the garden, drinking coffee, or learning new things. (Deb is a current PhD candidate at Deakin University, Melbourne.)