SHORT STORY, 4805 WORDS
I can always tell what dish my customers will order. Knowing what the dead crave is my gift. Or my curse. It’s hard to know which.
This girl, for instance. Brown, like me, but pale, as if the color’s been leeched out of her skin. Dark, staring eyes, weeds tangled in her drowned hair, and an ugly purple frog squatting on her shoulder. She doesn’t remember her name or the man who killed her, but she remembers the taste of her mother’s fish pakoras.
She drifts in, dripping water over my nice linoleum floor. I suppress a sigh. Cleaning’s the worst part of my job. At least it’s not blood and guts today.
“Sorry,” she says, glancing down.
“Don’t worry about it.” I wave her to a barstool. I have tables and chairs for groups, even a couple of red vinyl booths, but my customers are usually a solitary lot. Sometimes a family will come in, all four or five of whom have died in the same accident. I’ll usher them to a booth, doing my best to ignore their ghastly wounds, and give them what they need.
In a manner of speaking. What they need is for whatever tragedy struck to not have happened at all, but that’s not in my hands. All that’s in my hands is my frying pan, my pressure cooker, my stockpot, and my notebook. I do what I can with these implements. I like to think I fulfill a useful role in people’s afterlives, helping them move along.
A few become regulars, refusing to move along. This is not my fault. I can’t help it if I’m such a good cook.
The drowned girl perches on my stool and regards my diner with tepid interest.
“What’ll it be?” I ask, even though I know. This is a ritual; every step is important.
She points to the menu I’ve stuck to the wall. Anything you want, it says. Within reason, it adds. “Can you really make anything?”
“If you truly want it, I can make it,” I answer.
She sighs, spreading her hands on the counter as if to anchor herself. Her nails are bitten-down white, her fingers wrinkled prunes. “I want fish pakoras, the way my mother used to make them.”
“Be right with you,” I say, turning around.
What about me, croaks the frog on her shoulder.
I throw it a dirty look. Pets sometimes sneak in with their owners, but I’ve never had a frog before. You don’t belong here.
She needs me. Its voice drips with fake sincerity. I’m her emotional support whatchamacallit. Amphibian.
I roll my eyes. Fine. What do you want?
Caviar, it says smugly.
I retreat to the kitchen. Rule number one, said the Shadow Man. You must serve whoever enters the diner. He didn’t say anything about species, but honestly, when I accepted this job, I assumed I would be dealing only with humans.
Don’t get me wrong. I welcome the occasional dog, cat, parrot, or budgie. I have even served decommissioned robots without batting an eye. Robots are persons too, after all—metal persons who like to knock back a tankard of oil while reminiscing about the good old factory days.
But I draw the line at frogs.
I wish I could draw the line at frogs. I open the fridge and glare at the jar of expensive caviar that has just appeared on one of the shelves. If the kitchen approves, I have no choice. I must serve the frog.
I make the girl’s fish pakoras first. I flip open the notebook to a random page, and her mother’s recipe materializes in small, neat script. Chop tilapia filets into two-inch squares and set aside. Make a paste of chickpea flour, water, crushed garlic, ajwain, salt, turmeric, and red chili powder. Coat the pieces of fish in the paste and deep-fry in hot canola oil until golden brown.
The aroma of fried fish fills the kitchen, making my mouth water.
But the food is not for me. It’s never for me. Rule number two, said the Shadow Man. You cannot eat what you cook. Why would I agree to something so cruel? Why would I be willing to stay hungry? There must have been a reason, but I cannot remember it. Cannot remember what hold he has on me. Perhaps I committed a terrible sin, and this is my penance.
I serve the pakoras in a glass dish with a side of coriander chutney. My customer inhales deeply, tears gathering in her eyes. “It smells like home,” she whispers.
Where’s my caviar, croaks the frog.
Patience, or I’ll make caviar out of you, I snap.
The drowned girl takes her first bite, sniffling all the while. I return to the kitchen, both to get the damn frog’s caviar and to give the girl some privacy.
But she seems to want to talk. As I plop a bowl of caviar on the counter, she says, “Do you get many customers?”
I shrug. “It depends. Sometimes, this place is full. Sometimes, it’s empty. You’re my first guest tonight, but you won’t be the last.”
Not bad, says the frog from the depths of the caviar bowl. I could get used to this.
The girl pops a pakora into her mouth. “This is perfect. Thank you so much.”
“You’re welcome.” I watch as a bit of color steals into her face. It won’t last, but while she’s here, eating my food, she can remember what it was like to be alive.
She stops suddenly, looking dismayed. “How do I pay you?”
“You don’t have to pay me.” I grab a mop and head over to swab the floor. She’s dripping all around the barstool.
“I’d like to give you something,” she says. “I don’t want to take anything for free.”
I can see it worries her, so I say, “Give me your name, if you wish.”
She frowns and bites her lip, obviously struggling.
“Eat the pakoras,” I advise. “You may recall by the time you’ve finished.”
Obediently, she recommences eating. It gladdens my heart. I cannot stand to see food wasted, even here. Especially here.
My name’s Mandy, says the frog, burping. Mandy, short for Manduka, get it?
I swab the floor, trying not to wince as my back twinges. Did I ask you for your name?
No, but I gave it anyway. I’m generous like that.
You’re a generous asshole.
Actually, my asshole’s quite tiny, heehee.
I purse my lips, trying to suppress my annoyance. Any response will simply embolden him further. Besides, frogs are a symbol of transformation. Perhaps there’s a reason he’s here. Perhaps he really will help the drowned girl move on.
The bell tinkles, and Nadeem enters. I smile and wave, setting down my mop. He’s one of my regulars. I shouldn’t encourage the dead to stay, but a few of them become friends after a while. They make the darker parts of my job more bearable.
The fact that I can’t step out of the diner, for instance. Rule number three, said the Shadow Man. You cannot leave. What’s out there? All I see from the windows is twilit fog.
One day, the fog will clear, and I will see the stars. I will remember who I was. Remember how I died. That was his promise to me.
How much time has yet to pass before that day arrives? Or has it already come and gone, leaving me in an endless loop of remembering and forgetting?
But this is a dark thought, and I push it aside.
Nadeem is dressed in his usual neat blue suit and black leather shoes, striped tie, and the white bone knife sticking out of his chest. Happily, he doesn’t bleed much, unlike some of my other customers. He saunters in and perches on one of the barstools, nodding politely to the drowned girl.
“What’ll it be?” I ask, moving behind the bar.
“The usual, please.”
The usual, for Nadeem, is the rogan josh that was served at his wedding—the last thing he ate before he was stabbed by his bride’s ex-boyfriend.
I cook the rich, spicy goat curry while Nadeem hums an old Bollywood song and the frog passes lewd comments, which mercifully neither of my customers can hear. The aroma of cinnamon, black cardamom, peppercorn, bay leaves, and cloves permeates my kitchen. In another pot, I cook long grain basmati rice. Rogan josh takes at least three hours of slow cooking, but time moves differently here. The food is ready in what feels like minutes. It still tires me just as much as if I’d been working three hours, though.
Nadeem inhales deeply in appreciation when I serve him. “Amma, what would I do without you?”
Move on, perhaps, I manage not to say. Dead people prefer the warmth of my diner to the coldness of the unknown. What’s surprising about that?
The door pushes open, and two of my favorite people enter: Twinkle and Dimple, ten-year-old twins, accompanied by their little black cat, Legolas. Legolas takes one look at the frog and leaps onto the bar, claws clattering as he skids across the counter, nearly upsetting Nadeem’s rogan josh.
Mandy gives a throaty scream and jumps onto my shoulder. Save me, my good woman, save me!
If you call me your good woman again, I’ll throw you into the stockpot.
I shake my finger at Legolas. Darling, you know the rules.
Disbelief emanates from the cat’s sapphire eyes. But my lady, he is food! Enemy! Prey!
Actually, he’s some sort of pet, so please don’t eat him. I’ll get you your favorite chicken and tuna stew in a minute. Off you go.
Legolas retreats reluctantly from the counter to a stool, his tail swishing, his fierce gaze fixed on the trembling frog. Twinkle strokes the cat’s back, smoothing down his fur. “Legolas, don’t be naughty, or Amma won’t give us our treat.”
“I will always give you your treat, no matter how badly your cat behaves,” I tell the twins.
Legolas bristles. Me, behave badly? Me?
“You are a most excellent cat,” I assure him. “The frog is out of bounds, though.” I pluck Mandy from my shoulder and hold him out to the drowned girl.
She cups him in her palms. “Thank you. I don’t know why he followed me here, but I feel responsible for him now.”
I glare at the frog. Emotional support amphibian, are you?
Dimple jumps up and down, unable to contain herself. “May we have our treat now?”
“Suppose it’s finished?” says Nadeem in a doom-laden voice. “Suppose you have eaten Amma’s whole entire stock of candyfloss?”
“It’s not that difficult to make,” I say hastily, before the twins can protest. “I just need sugar, corn syrup, raspberry extract, and a decapitated whisk.”
But two enormous clouds of pink candyfloss are already sitting on my kitchen counter, waiting to be delivered. The twins fall on them with squeals of joy. In moments, their faces and hands are pink and sticky.
How many times have they done this before? A hundred? Two hundred?
It doesn’t matter. The candyfloss will always be special to them, taking them back to the best day of their lives before it was cruelly cut short. They will remember the carnival, the rides, the magicians, the games. They will remember the smell of trampled grass, burnt sugar, and the summer heat rising up from the ground and pressing down from the sky. They will remember clowns, acrobats, jugglers, and how the tents lit up with fairy lights when dusk stole across the fairground.
They will not remember the candyfloss man. That’s my burden, not theirs. And if it weighs me down sometimes—well, I knew when I took this job that it wouldn’t be easy.
I give Legolas his stew and retreat to the kitchen for my own treat: a cocktail glass of spring water. I make it festive, garnishing the glass with a lime peel twist, and sit down to savor it, groaning as I lower myself on the chair.
So that’s your poison, eh?
I nearly spill my drink. Mandy squats on the floor, regarding me with his deceptively sleepy eyes.
“Out,” I order. “The kitchen is sacrosanct. No customers here. Only cook and ingredients, understand?”
He stretches his stubby legs. My skin is a bit dry. Can I have a bowl of water?
“Amma?” a voice calls from the bar. I sigh, set down my glass, and step over the frog.
The drowned girl has finished her pakoras. She is leaning on the bar, crackling with excitement. Her face is flushed, as if blood still flows beneath her skin. “I remember my name!” she cries. “It’s Akanksha.”
“Well done.” I smile. Akanksha means aspiration. I hope she became what she aspired to be before she died.
Another customer enters, and I take their order, my lips shaping the expected words. From the corner of my eye, I see a bulky figure in a black raincoat settle on a chair by the fog-blind window. My heart jumps. The Shadow Man. His visits are rare, and I’ve learned to ignore him. Rule number four, said the Shadow Man. Ask no questions. I cut my eyes away from him, trying to slow my pulse.
What would happen if I broke the rules? If I ran out the door, if I ate the food, if I asked him the questions that burn in my heart?
I do not know. All I know is that I made a bargain with him I shouldn’t have.
But there are compensations. I would be lying if I said there weren’t. This is my home, and these are my people. I take care of them.
When I return to the kitchen, Mandy is lounging inside my cocktail glass, an expression of bliss on his froggy face.
I invert the glass, tipping him out. Of all the mean things to do, he splutters indignantly.
“Where did you meet the girl?” I demand. “Where are you from?”
You want info? He throws me a sly look. What’s in it for me?
“I won’t cook you.”
My good woman! The frog sounds affronted. Have you considered that I could be a prince? You ought to kiss me.
I grind my teeth. “I don’t believe in fairy tales. I believe in food. Have you heard of cuisses de grenouille? Served with baguette. Very tasty, I’ve heard. Or I could just go with a simple congee.”
Say no more! Mandy strikes a dramatic pose. I will tell you all. I come from a beauteous land of open skies and azure seas. In the magical boundary between land and water, in a glorious paradise of insects, shrimps, worms—
“The name, Frog,” I snap.
Gulf of Mannar, he says sulkily.
Memory rises like a hungry fish from the depths of the past. Glass-bottomed boats, hot sun, pink coral, pearl oysters, sea turtles, dugongs. A woman with a camera, peering into the dazzling water, taking furious notes.
Someone else’s memory, not yours.
But I can’t be sure. I just can’t.
I return to the bar and welcome new customers. The twins have occupied a booth with Nadeem and Akanksha. They are playing Monopoly. Legolas strolls across the board, scattering the pieces, but no one scolds him. The random scattering appears to be part of the game. I feel a pang as I watch them. I belong on this side of the counter, and most of the time, that’s okay.
But lately, I tire more easily. I wish I were on the other side, being fed and comforted, rather than being the one doling it out.
I drag a chair up to the counter and sit down. I’ve served over a dozen people. Everyone is busy eating, talking, or playing games. I can take a break, rest my eyes for a bit before the next lot comes in.
Where do they go when they’re not here? I’ve never asked, and they’ve never told.
The bulky figure in the raincoat stirs, swirling the shadows above his head. I shudder and turn aside. I’ve never seen his face. Never wanted to see his face.
A morsel of caviar for your thoughts, comes Mandy’s croaky voice.
I’m too tired, too tense, to reply. From the booth comes a peal of laughter and a shriek of admonishment as Legolas upsets the game board. I feel both intimately connected and painfully removed from it all.
The frog hops closer to me. You look like you need a change.
Don’t we all, I say in my driest tone. I hesitate, then jerk my chin at the dark window. Surely the frog does not count as a person to whom I cannot ask questions. What’s out there?
Mandy winks. Roads of all kinds. Rivers with creaky old boats. Mountain passes. Haunted inns. Rubbish heaps. Teahouses. Ruins. Abandoned libraries. Signposts filled with gibberish.
A current of longing runs through me. But the frog could be lying. I narrow my eyes at him. You claim you can read?
I make no such claim, says Mandy with dignity. But the girl didn’t understand them.
Akanksha, I say. That’s her name.
He peers at me. What’s yours?
A guest walks in, saving me from having to answer, from having to admit that I don’t know. Time wears on, and so do I. I make food, smile, serve the dead. Such a familiar rhythm. Who is to say there is anything more, anything better? They call me Amma. I may not be anyone’s real mother, but it still sounds sweet to my ears, even after all this time.
The twins fall asleep in the booth, their arms wrapped around each other, Legolas standing watchful guard. Perhaps there are monsters in the afterlife too. The cat seems to think so. Nadeem leaves after giving me a courtly bow. One by one, the other customers leave too. At last, only Akanksha is left, playing with Mandy at my counter. The Shadow Man hunches like a dark cloud in one corner. Why hasn’t he gone yet?
I flop down on a chair, exhausted, and close my eyes.
“Are you tired?” says Akanksha. “Shall I make something for you?”
My eyes fly open, and I grip the arms of my chair. “I’m not supposed to…” I begin, but my words trail away.
The drowned girl tilts her head. “Not supposed to what?”
Not supposed to cook for myself. The food would turn to ashes in my mouth. But what if someone else cooked it? No one’s ever offered before. “I don’t even know what I want,” I admit.
She gives an encouraging smile. “What about a simple cup of tea?”
“Oh, but it can’t be simple,” I say without thinking. “It has to be real chai with freshly crushed green cardamom, fennel, raw honey…” I stop short, realizing what I’ve just said.
Akanksha’s smile widens. “I’m sure I can manage that. My mother used to say I made the best chai in the world.”
The memory surfaces, so sharp it cuts me, leaving me gasping. Sitting on the porch swing, cradling a cup of fragrant chai in my hands while a monsoon shower sweeps into the garden, drumming the roof and splashing my feet.
“Amma!” calls a familiar, beloved voice. “You’ll get wet.”
My daughter hurries outside, grabs my cup, and chivvies me indoors.
My daughter. I am someone’s mother, or at least, I was. No wonder I love being called Amma. I blink back tears.
Is she still alive? Or have multiple lifetimes passed since then?
I start at the sound of that voice. That name. My gut twists.
The Shadow Man perches on the counter above me. I stare at him, petrified. The hood is drawn over his head, hiding his fearsome visage, but his eyes glow with the flames of hell, and his elongated teeth gleam white as bone. He smells of fire and blood, death and decay. The smoke of funeral pyres swirls above his head, and ash rains down on his coat. I lean back on my chair, breathing through my mouth, trying to put as much distance between myself and him as possible.
A sweet humming sounds in the kitchen. Akanksha, making me my first cup of chai in forever. Have I broken the rules? Is that why the Shadow Man is here, forcing me to face him?
Mira, he whispers in that voice which puts me in mind of echoing canyons and depthless seas. You have served your time.
Mira, my true name from my mortal life. I swallow the lump in my throat. What time?
But he’s gone. The diner is empty but for the sleeping twins and the frog on the counter, flicking his tongue out to catch a ghostly fly.
How should I know what the time is? says Mandy. You think I have a watch?
I stare at the frog, and reality shifts beneath me. Did you see him? The Shadow Man?
The Shadow Man. The god of death. Yamaraja. The punisher of sins. The first mortal. The lord of justice. The guardian of the south. Mandy grimaces. Yeah, I saw him. “Perk” of the job.
What are you? I demand.
Hungry is what I am, says Mandy. More caviar, my good woman.
Akanksha bustles in, bearing a tray with a steaming cup, and the aroma of freshly brewed chai invades my nostrils. She isn’t dripping on the floor any longer. Even her clothes and hair are dry. When did this happen? Everything is strange. I feel disoriented and out of sorts. You have served your time, he said, but he didn’t bother to explain, and I still have no more than my name and the precious memory of my daughter’s face.
Akanksha plunks the tray in front of me, beaming. “One cup of the best chai in the world.”
A grumpy, unreasonable part of me wants to push it away, to say I don’t want it, and what does she think she’s doing in my kitchen anyway?
But the scent of green cardamom and fennel is impossible to ignore. “Thank you.” I pick up the cup, filled with trepidation—will it turn to ashes? Poison me?—and take a tiny sip.
It is hot, sweet, spicy, and delicious. I close my eyes and take another sip. And another. My mouth feels like it’s gone to heaven.
“You like it,” says Akanksha with satisfaction.
I set down the cup, trying not to cry. “It’s wonderful.”
She nods, pleased. “What about a snack to go with it? Something savory?”
“Plain sugar biscuits, please,” I say. “The kind you can dunk into tea.”
“I’ll see if there are any,” she says, heading back into the kitchen. But I know, even before she returns, waving a packet of my favorite glucose biscuits in her hand, a triumphant smile on her face, that she will find them. That she will find whatever anyone who enters the diner needs. The baton has passed. The thought is both alarming and exhilarating. I don’t know anything but the diner, neither of life nor of what comes after it. Where would I go? What would I do? The window is still dark, the sky fog-swallowed. I see no stars.
Akanksha opens the packet and arranges the biscuits in a festive spiral on a plain white plate. “Go on,” she says. “Try one.”
I snag a biscuit from the plate and dip it in the tea, careful not to let it fall in.
And as I take the first bite, I remember.
I am five, running barefoot on wet sand, screaming with laughter as my mother chases me. Far in the distance, the line between sea and sky blurs into a hazy blue. Closer by, colorful fishing boats bob on the water. One of those is my father’s. I helped him paint it, and as a reward, he named it Mira, after me.
I take the second bite. I am eleven, crying bitterly because I am to be sent away to the city to live with my cousins so I can go to a big school.
I pop the rest of the biscuit into my mouth, tears streaming down my face. I am twenty-one, a junior researcher with the Marine Institute of India, studying coral reefs and seagrass beds in the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park.
I reach for another biscuit. I am twenty-eight, marrying the love of my life in a simple ceremony in my village. My parents are old now, their faces lined, their movements slow. My father can no longer fish, my mother can no longer chase me. But their expressions, as they gaze at me, are full of pride and joy.
I demolish the biscuits, memories flooding me, sweet in their ordinariness, their small griefs and joys. I committed no sin. I lived a good life. I had a daughter I loved with all the strength of my human heart.
The last memory is the one that guts me.
The freak storm that flooded the village and took the roof off our ancestral house. The sharp, sick pain of something hitting my head. The clenching sense of loss and grief as I beheld my daughter’s body next to mine, drifting in the debris of what had been our home. The Shadow Man standing before me, holding out his hand.
And the bargain I made. Let her live a full life span, and I shall do anything you ask, be whoever you want.
What is a soul worth? Can you weigh it against an ephemeral human life? I did. I bound myself in servitude to the god of death. And I would do it again, and again, many times over, to save my child.
The bell rings, and a customer enters—someone new I’ve never seen before. Akanksha glances at me. “Shall I?”
I nod, speechless, and she greets the customer with a warm smile, asks him what he wants.
The frog gets another bowl of caviar. More customers filter in, and Akanksha gets busy. I nibble the last biscuit and sip the cooling chai, putting off the moment I must get up and walk out the door.
Mandy hops over to me. When are we leaving?
We? I gaze at him, surprise pooling in my stomach.
You’ll need a guide, and I’m the best there is.
Realization hits me. The Shadow Man sent you to me.
Mandy gives a hiccupping laugh. You finally figured it out.
My eyes stray to the window, and I leap out of my chair, barely feeling the twinge in my back. It’s still dark, but the fog has cleared. A light flickers in the distance. A lamp?
Akanksha hurries out of the kitchen and plonks a heaping plate of food and a mug of coffee in front of a customer. She wipes her forehead with a sleeve and smiles at me. “Leaving?”
“Are you sure?” I stumble over the words. “There are rules…”
She shrugs. “They’re different for everyone. I choose to be here.”
I hesitate. “Did you meet him? The Shadow Man?”
She pushes the hair out of her eyes. “Of course. We all do, sooner or later.” Her gaze sweeps the diner, her attention already gone from me.
“Good luck,” I say, and she nods, distracted by the arrival of one of my regulars.
Mandy hops onto my shoulder, and I make myself walk across the diner, every step a wrench. It’s hard to leave. How many lifetimes have I spent here, serving the dead?
I push open the door, filled with a mixture of dread and anticipation.
The sky is a vast black bowl filled with white spears of light. So many stars, all unfamiliar to me. I step out, letting the door swing closed behind me, and turn in place, trying to orient myself.
Multiple roads radiate from the diner. Some have a streetlight; others are shrouded in darkness. An unseen boat laps against a ghostly river. In the distance, massive shapes loom against the blackness of the night. Mountains? A lone light shines at the top of the highest one. Another diner? A bar? A teahouse? A library? Or a haunted inn? Goosebumps prickle my skin at the possibilities.
Get a move on, says Mandy. I’d be dying of boredom if I weren’t already dead.
I pick a road to the mountain and take my first step away from Amma’s Kitchen. My heart feels like it will burst inside my chest.
I am no longer Amma. That role has passed to someone else. I am Mira, and I am here, out on the afterlife road, where I belong.
Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra now lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of the science fantasy novels Markswoman (2018) and Mahimata (2019) published by Harper Voyager. Her YA fantasy debut novel Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove was published in October 2022 by Wednesday Books. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for The Sunburst Award, nominated for The Aurora Award, and has appeared in multiple venues including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Find out more about her at ratiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra.