My grandmother never liked to make the same dish twice. Driven by the desire for each meal to stand alone, her house was a clutter of bizarre vegetables and flavours. The older she got, the more insistent she became that she simply did not have enough time to eat the same things twice, and so she grew more determined to uphold that ideal. Variety is the spice of life, after all.
Still, she had favourite ingredients; garlic featured frequently in her food, as did courgette, although that could be put down to the copious amounts that grew in the garden every September. Similarly, rhubarb was a component of many desserts, cakes, and whatever else she could fit it in.
One afternoon, as the sun slipped its sleepy eye over the horizon, she and I were digging up carrots in the garden. It was a normal practice; Haylie and I would come in from school and, after finishing any homework, could enjoy the softening evening light uprooting carrots. My little sister had little interest in cold or mud at the time, but I found it soothing. Hands in the dirt, a steadily increasing pile of muddied orange beside me and silence as an easy companion.
The best part of the whole practice was when I would come across an earthworm, as I did on that occasion. Watching it wiggle its way through the cool damp of the dirt, I smiled. Worms have always held a certain wonder for me. I always thought it was how much expression they appear to have, despite their lack of features, but more likely it was how much everyone else seemed to dislike them. My favourite worm fact at the time, of which there were many, was that worms have a remarkable capacity for resurrection and regrowth. I was still observing its mesmerising progress through the grass when my grandmother called out to me.
“Laura?” My head turned up instinctively, and I blew the loose strands of hair away from my mouth.
“What is it?” I couldn’t see her from where I was knelt.
“Could you pass the blue trowel?” Peering through the bushes, I could just spot her; a silver-haired shrub amongst the onions. The muddied fingers of my left hand gripped the plastic handle as those of my right pressed deeper into the soil under my weight. In one smooth movement, I was up and walking toward her.
I should have mentioned something then, about the bulbs. But I was young (though not as young as Haylie) and what did I know about my grandma’s garden? It may well be the price of hindsight, reminding me of all the things I could have done and didn’t, but they looked strange to me.
The bulbs were smaller than usual, and longer. I chalked it up to my inexperience and wandered back to my patch of carrots and worms. I didn’t think about it until much later.
My grandma and I stood over the sink together that evening, rinsing off our vegetable haul. We joked about being pirates, uncovering buried treasure as we washed the lingering soil off the carrots and bulbs. Haylie couldn’t reach the sink, but she sat on the floor around us anyway. She lost her temper when I spilled water on her skirt, but Grandma picked her up in soapy hands and showed her the glistening carrots to dry her tears.
I sat and read while she cooked. The smell was unique, but then it always was. Neither Haylie nor I thought anything of it. All three of us sat at the table with washed hands, empty stomachs, and mouths watering.
“Worms can survive even if they’re cut in half.” I explained as Grandma served up. She’d paired the warm-spiced broth with stodgy rice, just as Haylie had insisted.
“But only if the break is in the right place. It has to be below the clitellum. They won’t grow back otherwise.”
She chuckled to herself; I remember. She told me how exciting it must be for the worms to get a whole new body. Grandma didn’t mind it when I explained things to her like that. She was one of the only people who seemed to enjoy it. But soon enough, she waved an oven-gloved hand through the air, lifting the saucepan lid in a puff of steam, and we were tucking into dinner.
The flavour was delightful. Grandma had successes and failures in her meals – such is the risk when you cook something different every evening – so I was pleased that this one had turned out alright. Really, it was only once Haylie started to choke that I became worried, despite what I told everyone.
I never blamed her for what happened, though mum felt differently. As small as I was, I knew that Grandma’s memory wasn’t what it used to be. And the bulbs were so close together – it’s an easy mistake to make. Once they’re out of the ground it’s nearly impossible to tell, especially all covered in soil. Her eyesight was getting worse too, maybe that’s what it was. Just terribly bad luck.
Haylie spent two nights in the hospital, though I fared better. The doctors had to pump her stomach. She says she doesn’t remember much about it, but hospitals make her shaky and she won’t eat homecooked food if she thinks it has onions in it. She was six, and I wasn’t much older.
Before it all happened, I used to joke about dying. I think I liked the idea of having no company but worms. They would wiggle their way through me, and we’d all be the best of friends. From that day on, those jokes dried up and died before they left my tongue.
Grandma never cooked another meal. When we were allowed to visit, Haylie and I would be treated to a takeaway or a ready meal. The garden became wild; overgrown and overlooked. It wasn’t as though Grandma had the physical ability to tend to it anymore. Sometimes I miss slow afternoons with the sun and dirt under my nails, but mostly I don’t mind. I’d rather be able to play with Haylie.
Our grandmother’s house has a smell now. Musty lavender and sandalwood. If anything, I miss the time when it didn’t.