AL ÁNDALUS • by Sarah Crysl Akhtar

Feed me the sun, said Grandma, so I can get warm again.

I woke up crying, my hands still curved from pressing Grandma’s cold, soft, swollen feet in my dream.

Outside it was gray and damp but without the relief of rain.  If you were on your way to dying there was nothing to make you stay.

These last few weeks in the hospital, Grandma’d hardly had the strength to talk.

She’d never been what people call a fighter.  She was an endurer; not meek but brave.  I’d just realized it.  Too late, or almost just in time.

My heart clenched up inside me because I was sure she was too tired, now, to notice.

***

The doorbell rang.

I was staying in Grandma’s apartment, watering her plants and sorting the mail and paying bills.  It was closer to the hospital and I figured, even if it was the least little gesture of what she meant to me, I should spend some of my vacation time on her.

“Hey, Manny.”

The super from Grandma’s building.  He started to say something but someone pushed him out of the way and waved a Tupperware container at me.

“Para su abuelita,” she said.  “Flan de naranja sanguina.”

“My grandmother,” Manny said.  He had that look on him big men wear when trying to deal with tiny little determined women.

She made Manny hold the container while she pried off the lid to show me.  Inside were four fluted glass custard cups, and four little matching spoons.

Todo para su abuelita,” she said, looking mighty dangerous.  “Como la aurora sonrosada y hermosa.”

Manny saw I’d managed to understand most of what she said and he translated only the last part for me.

Rosy and beautiful like the dawn.

I thanked them awkwardly and closed the door, and then I started to cry again.

***

“She had a quiet night,” the nurse said, like I should take that and be thankful.  Grandma’s food tray sat there, untouched.

When we were alone except for the other dying people in the room, I pulled the curtain around Grandma’s bed and unpacked one of Manny’s grandma’s little custard dishes and its spoon from my tote bag.

Ketzeleh, I don’t think — ” she started to say.  Her lips were cracked; it was hard for her to speak.

I pulled out the unfairest weapon I had.

“If you love me, Grandma, you’ll eat this.”

***

I guess I’d fallen asleep in the chair.  For a moment it felt like another dream.

“Such a long time I didn’t taste that,” Grandma said; “Josefina used to make it for us.  From their own oranges.  Tell her I’ll sew her a red petticoat, as soon as I get better.”

Josefina, she’d said, giving it the right Spanish lilt; so strange in her own Yiddish accent.

But of course they’d become friends, wouldn’t they?  Sitting together, catching the sun, on the courtyard benches; they wouldn’t need much of each other’s language to do that.

Manny was outside smoking a cigarette when I got back to Grandma’s place, and I told him how much she’d enjoyed that flan and to tell his grandma for me.

I asked him how long they’d known each other.

“They don’t,” he said.  “They haven’t met.  My parents brought my grandmother up here a week ago.  To see a specialist.  She didn’t want to; said it was just old people’s aches and pains.  But my mom insisted.”

“Manny — ”

“My grandma had a dream,” Manny said; “and the next morning she made me take her to the market to get those oranges.”

“What’s your grandma’s name?”

“Luz Sofia,” he said.  “Everyone calls her Luz.”

“This is a weird question, but — do you know a Josefina?”

“In my family,” said Manny, “there have always been Josefinas.”

***

Ketzeleh,” said Grandma, “I really want to go home.”

She was looking better and I was starting to think it was possible.  Something had eased in her; a knotted place smoothed out.  She’d eaten every one of those flans.

“Don’t mind,” she said; “I love you more than anything, and I know you love me.  But I can’t stay.  I have to make that petticoat for Josefina.  We left so fast, we couldn’t say goodbye…

“And by the time you come, not now but later, yours will be ready too.”

You’re not supposed to cry in front of sick people in the hospital.  Please, God, I thought, stroking her hand all swollen from the IV; I won’t mind if she’s crazy, as long as she doesn’t die.

***

Grandma went first; Manny’s grandma a couple of weeks later.  I was there, sorting out Grandma’s things, and I went down to Manny’s apartment to pay my respects.  I kissed Manny’s mom and told her how sorry I was, and then I tried to slip out again quietly.

Manny saw me through the crush of people and followed me out.

“She went so fast,” he said.  “We didn’t expect it.  My parents are taking her home tomorrow.”

I felt like his heart was in my own chest, aching so badly it’s a wonder it kept beating.

“That flan was the only thing my grandma could keep down,” I said, “in the end.  I really hoped — ”

“I was there with my grandma, the night before she died,” Manny said.  “And I asked her.  It was so strange, wasn’t it?  I mean — you know what she said?  She said they were neighbors once in Al-Ándalus, a long time ago.”


Sarah Crysl Akhtar’s shtetl forebears gifted her with the genes that impel her to make much from little. So of course she writes flash fiction, cultivates orchards on her windowsill and bakes fabulous shortbread. Her son gives her what’s immeasurable — the best of all possible worlds. (Less miraculous fruit of her labors has appeared on 365tomorrows, Flash Fiction Online and Perihelion SF Magazine; her posts on the craft of writing keep materializing on Flash Fiction Chronicles.)


Rate this story:
 average 4.3 stars • 7 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I didn’t really follow this story. I’d watch out for all those ‘It was…’ sentences. The indefinite ‘it’ seems to to be a bit of a weasel.

  • Paul A. Freeman

    I didn’t really follow this story. I’d watch out for all those ‘It was…’ sentences. The indefinite ‘it’ seems to to be a bit of a weasel.

  • S Conroy

    Loved this and specially enjoyed the mysterious historical ending. A long time ago indeed. And I love the idea that a taste for something can be passed through the generations. In the beginning I thought there was nothing in the cups, which was a bit confusing, but I ran the Spanish through Google translate and discovered the blood orange flans. I think it would
    be helpful for the reader to have got this part in English as it’s
    quite a key moment..

    • Edward Beach
      I agree. I would have preferred it if Manny had translated for his grandmother rather than it all being left in Spanish. Perhaps the intention was to lend an air of mystery but I think Sarah is asking a little too much of the reader to translate key passages for themselves.
  • S Conroy

    Loved this and specially enjoyed the mysterious historical ending. A long time ago indeed. And I love the idea that a taste for something can be passed through the generations. In the beginning I thought there was nothing in the cups, which was a bit confusing, but I ran the Spanish through Google translate and discovered the blood orange flans. I think it would
    be helpful for the reader to have got this part in English as it’s
    quite a key moment..

    • Edward Beach
      I agree. I would have preferred it if Manny had translated for his grandmother rather than it all being left in Spanish. Perhaps the intention was to lend an air of mystery but I think Sarah is asking a little too much of the reader to translate key passages for themselves.
  • Carl Steiger

    In general, I echo S Conroy, particularly the mysterious history.
    “We left so fast, we couldn’t say goodbye” is an interesting line. I’m thinking of Ferdinand & Isabella’s Edict of Expulsion of 1492. Am I barking up the right tree?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Yes.
  • Carl Steiger

    In general, I echo S Conroy, particularly the mysterious history.
    “We left so fast, we couldn’t say goodbye” is an interesting line. I’m thinking of Ferdinand & Isabella’s Edict of Expulsion of 1492. Am I barking up the right tree?

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Yes.
  • I enjoyed reading this mysterious and moving story. It was a pleasure.

  • I enjoyed reading this mysterious and moving story. It was a pleasure.

  • Edward Beach

    This has a decent level tone. I appreciate it when a writer has the patience to maintain their tone throughout a piece and doesn’t resort to “suddenly this” and “suddenly that”. I was hoping we were going to be treated to a piece of social fiction here, some interesting twist in the relationship between granddaughter and grandmother, so the supernatural element came as a surprise.

    I was wondering about the use of Spanish, Sarah, Did you want to keep some of the story elements from the reader? Was the intention to lend an air of mystery? It would be interesting to know.

    • Edward Beach
      Btw, I gave this 4 stars for the tone more than anything else. Old people die, they always do, there was no way this story could have ended with survival, so the way you stepped up to the reality of the situation and brought in death has to be appreciated.
    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      I'd hoped that the repetition of the words "flan" and "custard" throughout the story, and the handing over of the Tupperware container and the feeding of the MC's grandmother, would make a word-by-word translation mostly unnecessary, except for the metaphorical description of the flans. I did not want a heavy hand here, especially with the way the story begins. I could have avoided that by having Manny just speak directly for his grandma, but I felt her own voice was important to the story, and how her intensity communicates meaning to the MC. The MC and Manny are really only bystanders to and a conduit for the two grandmas.
      • S Conroy
        My problem there on the first read (On the second read I realised the cups contained the flan) was that I ended up doing mental acrobatics with the hospital food on the tray. I decided that the grandmother put this food into the cups and then ate it and it tasted like flan. Still loved the story. And on the second read picked up that the young girl was feeding her grandma the sun. Nice.
      • Edward Beach
        Hey Sarah. I didn't pick up on the presence of a flan or custard from my first reading. Like S Conroy, I got the fluted glasses, but not the implication they had a dessert in them. Even later in the hospital the role of the glasses and spoons seemed uncertain, as if MC was feeding her gran standard hospital food, but had brought the glasses in as a gift to look nice by her bed. Just shows how little I pick up, eh? I was saying to someone else here that I tend to rush-read when reading via a screen. I don't know if it's something other people do but I know I'm much more forgiving when something is in print. I'm going to have to practice slowing down my reading pace when reading online I think. I agree with you that having Manny's gran speak with her own voice added to the story, which kind of makes Manny the expendable character here. I wonder if there is a way for Manny's gran to appear independently, with MC and Manny's gran stumbling through the words until they come to a common understanding expressed in the story. That in itself could take some doing, especially in a compressed <1000 word format, but it might be worth it. Like I said before, I really liked the tone of this peice, and 3.1 is an unreasonably low score in my opinion, given what has been hitting the low 4's recently. I definitely think this is a keeper. Try reworking it and resubmit it elsewhere, I'd like to see it in a different incarnation.
        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
          Edward, I really appreciate your appreciation of this story, and your perspective. I feel there are two parallel relationships here, both essential to the story. There's the shared anguish of the MC and Manny, who are entirely of this time and place, and the confluence of their grandmothers, who are both fully of this time and yet somehow of another as well. Those grandmas achieved a good death in the healing of a very great loss. Their grandchildren must try to come to terms with a mystery as well as with their own grief. I know you like one plot stream--per your remarks on my previous story--but I feel there's plenty of elasticity within those 1000 words of a flash piece. But every one of those words is important, and can carry more than one meaning. Again I really thank you for valuing this story. I have the feeling that my unrestrained opinions don't do much for the ratings of my stories. But no one's exactly denying me a Pulitzer or a Man Booker, and it's the comments that mean the most to me.
  • Edward Beach

    This has a decent level tone. I appreciate it when a writer has the patience to maintain their tone throughout and doesn’t resort to “suddenly this” and “suddenly that”. I was hoping we were going to be treated to a piece of social fiction here, some interesting twist in the relationship between granddaughter and grandmother, so the supernatural element came as a surprise.

    I was wondering about the use of Spanish, Sarah, Did you want to keep some of the story elements from the reader? Was the intention to lend an air of mystery? It would be interesting to know.

    • Edward Beach
      Btw, I gave this 4 stars for the tone more than anything else. Old people die, they always do, there was no way this story could have ended with survival, so the way you stepped up to the reality of the situation and brought in death has to be appreciated.
    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      I'd hoped that the repetition of the words "flan" and "custard" throughout the story, and the handing over of the Tupperware container and the feeding of the MC's grandmother, would make a word-by-word translation mostly unnecessary, except for the metaphorical description of the flans. I did not want a heavy hand here, especially with the way the story begins. I could have avoided that by having Manny just speak directly for his grandma, but I felt her own voice was important to the story, and how her intensity communicates meaning to the MC. The MC and Manny are really only bystanders to and a conduit for the two grandmas.
      • S Conroy
        My problem there on the first read (On the second read I realised the cups contained the flan) was that I ended up doing mental acrobatics with the hospital food on the tray. I decided that the grandmother put this food into the cups and then ate it and it tasted like flan. Still loved the story. And on the second read picked up that the young girl was feeding her grandma the sun. Nice.
      • Edward Beach
        Hey Sarah. I didn't pick up on the presence of a flan or custard from my first reading. Like S Conroy, I got the fluted glasses, but not the implication they had a dessert in them. Even later in the hospital the role of the glasses and spoons seemed uncertain, as if MC was feeding her gran standard hospital food, but had brought the glasses in as a gift to look nice by her bed. Just shows how little I pick up, eh? I was saying to someone else here that I tend to rush-read when reading via a screen. I don't know if it's something other people do but I know I'm much more forgiving when something is in print. I'm going to have to practice slowing down my reading pace when reading online I think. I agree with you that having Manny's gran speak with her own voice added to the story, which kind of makes Manny the expendable character here. I wonder if there is a way for Manny's gran to appear independently, with MC and Manny's gran stumbling through the words until they come to a common understanding expressed in the story. That in itself could take some doing, especially in a compressed <1000 word format, but it might be worth it. Like I said before, I really liked the tone of this peice, and 3.1 is an unreasonably low score in my opinion, given what has been hitting the low 4's recently. I definitely think this is a keeper. Try reworking it and resubmit it elsewhere, I'd like to see it in a different incarnation.
        • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
          Edward, I really appreciate your appreciation of this story, and your perspective. I feel there are two parallel relationships here, both essential to the story. There's the shared anguish of the MC and Manny, who are entirely of this time and place, and the confluence of their grandmothers, who are both fully of this time and yet somehow of another as well. Those grandmas achieved a good death in the healing of a very great loss. Their grandchildren must try to come to terms with a mystery as well as with their own grief. I know you like one plot stream--per your remarks on my previous story--but I feel there's plenty of elasticity within those 1000 words of a flash piece. But every one of those words is important, and can carry more than one meaning. Again I really thank you for valuing this story. I have the feeling that my unrestrained opinions don't do much for the ratings of my stories. But no one's exactly denying me a Pulitzer or a Man Booker, and it's the comments that mean the most to me.
  • terrytvgal

    I too, felt disadvantaged by the Spanish, though eventually realized the flan had blood orange. Still, there was a balance and flow to the writing that carried me to the end. I didn’t need to understand each word to know that a very rare and unique bond was forged between the two dying women.

  • terrytvgal

    I too, felt disadvantaged by the Spanish, though eventually realized the flan had blood orange. Still, there was a balance and flow to the writing that carried me to the end. I didn’t need to understand each word to know that a very rare and unique bond was forged between the two dying women.

  • BUD CLAYMAN

    I felt the writing was really excellent and PRECISE. The dialogue and descriptions were right on.

    My big problem with this was the story. I, too, did mental acrobatics just trying to keep up with all the different characters and plot lines. I feel the story needed to be focused more than it was. For me, at least, it trailed off in too many different directions.

  • BUD CLAYMAN

    I felt the writing was really excellent and PRECISE. The dialogue and descriptions were right on.

    My big problem with this was the story. I, too, did mental acrobatics just trying to keep up with all the different characters and plot lines. I feel the story needed to be focused more than it was. For me, at least, it trailed off in too many different directions.

  • BUD CLAYMAN

    “I felt the story needed to be focused….” I have to watch my tenses.

  • BUD CLAYMAN

    “I felt the story needed to be focused….” I have to watch my tenses.

  • joanna b.

    i liked the spanish but i feel full translations would have been fine and not so frustrating for some of the readers.

    more important, paragraph 5: the gmo being not a fighter but an endurer, “not meek but brave,” and the gdau realizing that fact “too late, or almost just in time.” i didn’t understand what you meant in either description. i think that paragraph might have worked better if it had been two paragraphs, one devoted to who the gmo was and one devoted to the relationship of gmo and gdau. trying to figure out what i was supposed to feel there took me out of the story.

    i do love your writing, sarah, and always look forward to your stories. i marvelled at paragraph 3, and also the line, “I pulled out the unfairest weapon I had.” i guess every ethnicity understands about unfair weapons but, being Jewish myself, i like to think the Jews understand them best of all. i’ve pulled, and had pulled on me, every unfair weapon in the book, and i didn’t have to leave home for that to happen.

    this is a provocative story, sarah, with many threads. it set me thinking, both about the death of a gmo and the historical link between the two gmos. yet it did not reach in and grab my emotions as much as i wanted them grabbed.

    but it could.

    while you have many choices in a reworking of it (i really like edward beach’s phrase, “a different incarnation”) and while i understand that flash fiction has your allegiance as an excellent writer and an excellent critic, still i think this might work better in a longer form, with the MCs and their relationships given the time they deserve.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Joanna--thank you for giving so much thought to this. I felt that the word "endure" has somewhat of the connotation of a dumb beast or a terribly battered down person, and I wanted to emphasize that "not fighting" is not necessarily "giving in," and that the MC's grandma was a person of great but not obvious strength. The MC is realizing this just as her grandma is at that stage of dying where a weeping relative professing love and devotion is almost an intrusion. You don't want the dying person to have to use that last strength to comfort the living. So I hoped to show that the MC is very bitterly grieving not just the imminent loss of her grandma, but that it must happen without the grandma knowing that she is, finally, truly appreciated for everything she is. As I said to Edward, the MC and Manny are bystanders to what might be called a little miracle of reconnection. The grandmas have left in peace, but the MC and Manny are struggling with guilt and loss. Because of that it's not a neat wrap-up and maybe that's one of the things that left you unsatisfied or untouched, because there is so much yet-to-be resolved pain. I feel very much with flash that it's a chance to capture a moment and perhaps leave the reader intrigued and with an appetite for more, rather than finding after the meal is finished that it wasn't so great after all. When I think of going into greater depth with some stories, it feels like going too far and forcing all the possibilities into one arbitrarily chosen direction.
  • joanna b.

    i liked the spanish but i feel full translations would have been fine and not so frustrating for some of the readers.

    more important, paragraph 5: the gmo being not a fighter but an endurer, “not meek but brave,” and the gdau realizing that fact “too late, or almost just in time.” i didn’t understand what you meant in either description. i think that paragraph might have worked better if it had been two paragraphs, one devoted to who the gmo was and one devoted to the relationship of gmo and gdau. trying to figure out what i was supposed to feel there took me out of the story.

    i do love your writing, sarah, and always look forward to your stories. i marvelled at paragraph 3, and also the line, “I pulled out the unfairest weapon I had.” i guess every ethnicity understands about unfair weapons but, being Jewish myself, i like to think the Jews understand them best of all. i’ve pulled, and had pulled on me, every unfair weapon in the book, and i didn’t have to leave home for that to happen.

    this is a provocative story, sarah, with many threads. it set me thinking, both about the death of a gmo and the historical link between the two gmos. yet it did not reach in and grab my emotions as much as i wanted them grabbed.

    but it could.

    while you have many choices in a reworking of it (i really like edward beach’s phrase, “a different incarnation”) and while i understand that flash fiction has your allegiance as an excellent writer and an excellent critic, still i think this might work better in a longer form, with the MCs and their relationships given the time they deserve.

    • Sarah Crysl Akhtar
      Joanna--thank you for giving so much thought to this. I felt that the word "endure" has somewhat of the connotation of a dumb beast or a terribly battered down person, and I wanted to emphasize that "not fighting" is not necessarily "giving in," and that the MC's grandma was a person of great but not obvious strength. The MC is realizing this just as her grandma is at that stage of dying where a weeping relative professing love and devotion is almost an intrusion. You don't want the dying person to have to use that last strength to comfort the living. So I hoped to show that the MC is very bitterly grieving not just the imminent loss of her grandma, but that it must happen without the grandma knowing that she is, finally, truly appreciated for everything she is. As I said to Edward, the MC and Manny are bystanders to what might be called a little miracle of reconnection. The grandmas have left in peace, but the MC and Manny are struggling with guilt and loss. Because of that it's not a neat wrap-up and maybe that's one of the things that left you unsatisfied or untouched, because there is so much yet-to-be resolved pain. I feel very much with flash that it's a chance to capture a moment and perhaps leave the reader intrigued and with an appetite for more, rather than finding after the meal is finished that it wasn't so great after all. When I think of going into greater depth with some stories, it feels like going too far and forcing all the possibilities into one arbitrarily chosen direction.
  • jan

    This is one of the most uplifting stories I’ve read recently. I didn’t need a full explanation of the spanish, I could figure out enough to understand what was going on, and I got the ‘old’ connection between the grandmothers with no problem – it was all there in simple heartfelt emotion. Don’t worry too much about the occasional grammatical miss – just continue to write passionate caring pose – please!

  • A beautiful tapestry of words, as emotionally satisfying as a warm flan itself.

    The Spanish didn’t bother me as I am familiar with the language. I found it added a needed cultural flavor.

    The fluted glasses made me pause as where I live, flan is served on a plate, dripping with its caramelized juice, or in a custard cup. I, too, took a while to figure they contained flan and were not empty.

    One item, not yet mentioned was the significance of the red petticoat, the grandmas need to make one for the other grandma, and the reference to making one for her granddaughter. I drew from the wording that it is a death ritual of some type.

    I have no idea where Al-Andulas is, and I am debating whether I need to look it up or not.

    Sarah, your stories are seldom a quick read, not like some hot dog, sold by a street vendor, quickly devoured by someone with something else on the mind. I appreciate the care you take in your stories.