“I smell brains!” I yell down from the top of the stairs at my mom.
“Brains don’t smell,” she roars back.
“Why do you have to cook brains? I’m trying to read,” I say.
“The brains aren’t stopping you.”
I go back in my room and slam the door, books and bed my only refuge. I look down at the bent and ripped cover of On the Banks of Plum Creek and wish I could be Laura Ingalls Wilder. I long for a pioneer childhood on the prairie. I want to take sleigh rides and have hot potatoes in my pockets to keep my fingers warm. I crave the sticky, stretchy molasses candy Laura makes in a pan of fresh snow.
I wonder what vinegar pie tastes like. I crave gingerbread instead of toxic-yellow jilebis for dessert. And I’m desperate to play toss with a blown up pig-bladder balloon like Laura and Mary and to roast a pig’s tail, but since I am Muslim I am probably going to hell for even thinking about it.
Tiny flames licking at my heels, I hear my mother’s voice again, “come down and help in the kitchen.” I grind my teeth at her from behind my bedroom door and then stomp down the stairs as loudly as possible. I walk into the kitchen, immediately slapped by the smell of simmering brains and sizzling, carmely onions. I spy a discreet little pot on the back burner, a low fire burning underneath. I lift up the lid and see the brain, slowly boiling.
It’s resting in water just like a miniature human brain in a lab jar, yellow-gray, its two halves embedded with curvy pathways. It’s the size of a softball. I shudder thinking of how they cut it out of a sheep’s head.
“I’m not eating brains again,” I say.
“You’re eating my brain,” my mom says in Urdu.
“Why can’t we eat mac ‘n cheese or Chef Boyardee like regular Americans?” I ask, but get no response.
While she boils the brain, my mom fries an onion with garlic, ginger, onions, chili powder, tomatoes, and cilantro in a separate pan. When she adds the brain to the pan, she breaks it up with the back of a wooden spoon so it looks like dark scrambled eggs.
“I want you to peel the garlic. I need more adrak-leysan,” she orders. I roll my eyes and sit down at the table in front of a pile of garlic cloves. I do love the smell of adrak-leysan after it’s made. Sometimes I open a jar of the ginger-garlic paste while I’m standing in the open fridge and just take some deep whiffs. But I hate peeling garlic because the smell stays in my fingers and under my nails no matter how much soap I use. I rub baby lotion on my hands to make the smell go away but for at least two days I smell like a newborn smothered in garlic. This time, I swear I’m going to stick my garlic fingers directly into my mom’s blue jar of Noxema.
I wish my mom could make apple pie and Johnny cakes like Ma Ingalls. I want Saturday to be baking day. I want a pancake man on Christmas morning. I want Christmas.
I smell my hands and say, “Did nannima make you eat food you didn’t like?”
“We ate everything she made and never complained. We didn’t get to eat McDonalds like you.”
“But why do I have to eat brains when I hate them?”
“Brains are good for you; they make you smart,” she says.
“I’m twelve. I have a right to eat what I want.”
“A right? The only rights you have are to do what I tell you. I’ll put the brains in the potato cutlets like last time,” she says. “You liked that.”
“No I didn’t. You tricked me by mashing the brains with the potatoes.” My mom ignores me. She never listens. I live in a house where I’m forced to eat brains. Obviously,
my parents hate me. I want to smash the brain between my hands, but somehow I feel it would be my own brain oozing out of my fingers.
“Eat everything,” my dad says later, when he sees my face at dinner. My dad loves my mom’s brain masala.
I think of Laura doing her chores; happily bringing in buckets of water from the well and helping Pa make hay under a burning sun. I remember The Long Winter when the train couldn’t make it through the blizzards and the town had no wheat and starvation was near and how Laura dreamt about the good brown smell of beef when all the Ingalls had to eat were potatoes. For months.
“But I think…” I begin to say.
“Don’t think. Eat.”
But I do think. I think of food. I think of want. I think of my grandmother squatting in front of a single gas burner on the floor of her closet-sized kitchen, cooking for six children in a crumbling three-room apartment in Bombay.
I wonder what Laura would do.
I pour ketchup all over the brain cutlet. I swallow each piece in silence.
Samira Ahmed was born in Bombay, India, and has also lived in Vermont, New York City, and Kauai, where she spent a year with her husband and two young children searching for the perfect mango. Currently, she lives in Chicago. Her creative non-fiction has appeared in Jaggery Lit. She is at work on her fist novel, Swimming Lessons, which was a finalist for the 2015 Sheehan YA Book Prize. Find her on twitter @sam_aye_ahm.