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.
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.)