You’ll believe the dead are finally contacting you one week after you move from the countryside to São Paulo, two weeks after you turn 30. And much like both the moving and the birthday, the experience will be kind of bittersweet.
On one hand, it’ll happen when you need it most. On the other, there’ll be no Chico Xavier’s psychographed letter in a familiar handwriting, nor references to impossible things for the famous medium to know. And most disappointingly of all: it won’t be your nonna coming back to talk to you, nor your mom.
At first, when you open the recipe notebook at the beef Milanese’s page and see the two lines scribbled in capital, crooked letters, you’ll feel truly offended by the idea that somebody dared to write on the notebook in which nonna Felicia had recorded recipes with her very own Italian hands.
BEEF SEASONING (BEFORE COATING)
– 1kg beef (patinho/coxão mole)
– ½ cup of vinegar (apple)
– Salt, to taste
– 1 teaspoon of tabasco
> [1 teaspoon of mustard]
> [1 pinch of confidence in who you have become]
You’ll be even more offended by the fact that somebody dared to suggest changing her recipe. You’ll think it’s like vandalizing the Mona Lisa with a graffiti telling Da Vinci how to better depict, say, Gioconda’s eyes.
You’ll consider calling the moving company to ask if somebody possibly messed with it. But you’ll change your mind right away because you’ll be a believer: unexplainable things will have happened to you before.
One unexplainable thing in particular.
You’ll always remember how your nonna carefully dried her hands at her apron when someone knocked that day. How the air smelled of the garlic and onions she was braising to prepare beans, and how you just ignored your mom calling you back to the kitchen and, instead, hurried down the corridor of the country house after your grandma. You’ll be always glad for arriving just in time to hear her saying: “I’m so happy you’re here,” one moment before closing the door. No matter how many years pass, you’ll recall in detail how your nonna smiled when she noticed you were there, and how you ran to the window and caught a glimpse of the woman just before she vanished into the thin air. There was nothing special about her appearance, but she looked ahead with such self-confidence you felt you could trust her with your life—well, if you couldn’t, Tupã the German Shepherd wouldn’t have allowed her inside, right?
You’ll grow up thinking she was an angel—and everybody knows this is a one-way road. If you believe in angels, you believe in hooligans, scribbling ghosts.
But you also won’t call the moving company because you’ll be preparing dinner for a date night. And, as always, you’ll be late and freaked out.
Not that late, actually—but you won’t know that until Francisco Maia (isn’t it crazy that you’ll date Chico Maia?) sends a casual message at 7:55 saying he’s on his way and will arrive by 8:30. And you’ll give an exasperated but relieved laugh at it, because who the hell leaves at 7:55 for a date scheduled at 8:00?
Well, someone from São Paulo, you’ll think. Always late, always in a hurry. But while you rub vinegar and salt and tabasco to the meat, you’ll realize he isn’t from São Paulo, is he? Well, you knew each other during primary school, at your hometown. This will make you feel kind of sad, wondering if one day you’ll also become someone who leaves at 7:55 for a date scheduled at 8:00. But oh, well, you’ll be seasoning beef at 7:55 for a date scheduled at 8:00.
You’ll shrug off the idea and decide it’s not time to think about who you’ll become. And you’ll give a chance to the ghost, adding the teaspoon of mustard to the meat.
You won’t need to ask: Francisco will remove his sneakers when he sees yours by the door. It may seem a silly gesture, but one of the things you’ll like most in your relationship is how he’ll grasp things in the air before you need to say them.
Inevitably, you’ll talk about the last political scandals while you finish preparing the rice, but then he’ll change the subject because you won’t want to spoil the night. Your knees will be packed under the new flat’s tiny table, and he’ll praise the beef (which will be really good indeed, kudos to the ghost). Eventually, you’ll say something silly, but a silly thing only you would say. He’ll laugh at it and touch your hand, and you’ll taste the mustard, the breadcrumbs, and the joy of being who you are and saying what you want to say. Medium-rare feelings, as you’ll know very well.
You’ll start to caress his feet with yours while you talk. He won’t say anything for some time, but at last he’ll interrupt you with a short, soft laugh and will say “Sorry, I couldn’t pay attention to what you just said. I was … distracted.” The honest embarrassment in his voice will turn you on immediately. Being fat won’t be such a big issue to you anymore (believe it or not, once again), but feeling truly desired will always be a big deal. You’ll rise, sit on his lap, and whisper in his ear: “What if I say it closer?”
The sex will be almost as good as the dinner. It’ll taste like the air just before a thunderstorm, with a hint of delightful clumsiness and an aftertaste of memories still to be lived. You’ll spend the next morning at the bed, exchanging many types of recipes. While you set the table for two and reheat the Milanese leftovers for lunch, you’ll suddenly feel nonna Felicia would have approved your new scribbling ghost.
You’ll take a month or so to reopen the recipe notebook. There’ll be so many things happening at your new freelancer, home office life at São Paulo that you’ll be living mainly on delivered food. But it’ll come a night when cooking won’t be a matter of choice: watching the news at Jornal Nacional will finally push you to the edge. You’ll feel so overwhelmed you’ll think you may die if you don’t do something with your own hands.
You’ll want to use your own hands to fight, to change things—but it’ll be late at night, and you’ll be very tired and feeling down, and it’ll be pouring. So, you’ll decide to use your hands to do what you like the most: to cook.
You’ll want something sweet and soft, and your hands will automatically search for the recipe of cinnamon doughnuts. Bolinho de chuva. You’ll remember what your nonna used to say: “raindrop doughnuts are for rainy nights.”
BOLINHO DE CHUVA
– 2 eggs
– 1 cup of sugar
1 ½ cups [1 cup] of milk
1 tablespoon of butter
– 2 ½ cups of flour
– 1 teaspoon of baking powder
– Oil to fry
– Sugar and cinnamon, at taste
> [For extra comfort, cook a condensed milk can and stuff the doughnuts with homemade doce de leite. You can also remember the world is ugly, but nobody will save it alone. Not you, for sure. And you don’t have to. Go rest.]
Grandma Felicia’s cinnamon doughnuts were the best—no matter how carefully you follow her recipe, though, you’ll never be able to make yours taste like hers. Never, ever. You’ll know that already, so you won’t even question the ghost suggestions: you’ll put a Leite Moça can inside a pressure cooker, and its hissing will soothe you. You’ll start mixing the ingredients, and the feeling of busy hands will make the tears begin to stream down your cheeks by the time you start to fry the bolinhos de chuva. Raindrop doughnuts are for rainy nights, you’ll think. Maybe raindrop doughnuts are also for women raining inside.
When you bite the first one, you’ll taste the cinnamon and the sugar and the homemade doce de leite and the salty teardrops all at once. But you’ll also taste a subtle hint of the rarest spice at those dark times: a tiny dose of peace of mind.
The last months of the year will fly by, and Carnaval will arrive in no time. You’ll be planning to spend all holiday resting and sleeping and reading, but on Wednesday evening your favorite publisher house will send you an email asking if you’d like to translate the last book by your favorite author.
You’ll laugh and cry, delighted and relieved, because you’ll still be doubting the decision on quitting your last job—which paid your bills, but made you feel as if you’re not doing anything meaningful to the world.
Chico will suggest you call your family to celebrate, saying he wants to meet the beloved niece you talk so much about. You’ll feel happy and excited and scared at the same time—but, before you could even think about it, he’ll offer himself to prepare the pizza toppings if you make the famous nonna’s pizza dough about which you talk as much as you talk about your niece.
And the ghost, of course, will want to participate.
– 1kg of flour
– 30g of biological yeast
– 3 cups of lukewarm water
– ¾ cup of oil
– 1 teaspoon of salt
– [1 teaspoon of sugar]
1 tablespoon [2 tablespoons] of cachaça
> [Patience, to taste (but the more, the merrier)]
Your brother and your sister-in-law will be impressed when you niece eats the second slice of tuna pizza. She’ll love cooking just like you and won’t be as picky as most kids her age, but tuna pizza is tuna pizza, and Tainá will be only eleven by then. You’ll want to say it may have something to do with a ghost’s suggestions, but instead you’ll just say nonna’s dough is the best in the world.
You’ll have lots of fun. At some point, Tainá will fall asleep at the sofa, and you’ll admire her not-so-childish face. The dark skin she inherited from your sister-in-law. The lips identical to your mom’s. The small scar at her chin, from when she fell headfirst from the swing.
You’ll laugh when the girl starts talking in her sleep. When she babbles about a flying mermaid or something like that, your father will elbow Francisco’s ribs and comments on how much Tainá looks like you, how you both love “all this fantasy stuff.” You’ll start rolling your eyes, but then you’ll notice he just sounded different, didn’t he? More tender than mocking. You’ll then wonder if he had always said that with such brute sweetness and you’re the one who didn’t notice it.
Anyway, when your father overhears you telling your brother about the plot of the book you’ll be translating, he’ll say that again. And this time you’ll stand up, hug him tight and say how much you love that stubborn, grumpy man.
You’ll soon feel like the scribbling ghost is your friend. You’ll be kind of disappointed every time you open the recipe book and find no additional comments, but it won’t let you down when you need it most.
Like when you feel bad because it seems passion is fading away, even though you still love Chico a lot. You’ll flip to the brigadeiro recipe’s page on a lazy Sunday afternoon just to find notes on: a) adding a pinch of salt flower to the brigadeiro to bright it up, and b) speaking your mind and opening your heart.
You and Francisco will talk that same day, and you’ll decide you should open your relationship. You’ll also end up having the best sex of your lives, at the literal sound of fireworks (the neighbors will be celebrating Palmeiras or Corinthians or any other soccer team’s victory, but you’ll like to think they’re celebrating the way your love found a way).
A couple of weeks later, you’ll be feeling especially homesick, tired of São Paulo’s eternal hurry and scared by your recent discovery that it’s perfectly possible to feel alone in a city this huge, even with dear people around. You’ll be missing small things, like the pamonha car passing at the street with the amplified seller’s voice promising it’s the best sweet corn cake in the world, and the way the market cashier would call you by your name and ask to see pictures of your niece. The traffic noises won’t be any worse than when you moved, but you’ll be so disturbed by it that you’ll start to frequently wake up in the middle of the night.
You’ll videocall your niece that weekend, and you’ll chat with her while watching her peel oranges for a feijoada. You’ll feel better, but you’ll end up even more needy.
When your best friend Ana calls, you’ll take it as a sign and will invite her for a girl’s afternoon. When you open the recipe notebook at the cuscus page, you’ll barely notice the change on the broth’s seasoning: your eyes will be immediately drawn to the sticker of a cute, cartoony dog at the bottom of the ingredients list. You’ll smile so wide you’ll suddenly notice you hadn’t smiled at all in a long, long time.
While you eat the cuscus, you’ll tell Ana you’re thinking about adopting a dog, as if it was your own idea all along. She will clasp her hands like a little girl, saying she can take you to a shelter she knows.
You’ll cry tears of joy when you see the grey, shaggy stray dog. When people ask you, you’ll say you named her Fumaça after her smoky aspect—but actually you’ll chose it because you’ll be feeling you were getting lost, and you think she’ll be like a smoke signal to draw you back on track.
That night, Fumaça will climb at the kitchen counter while you are at the shower and will eat all the remaining cuscus. You’ll get worried she gets sick, but the full-bellied little bastard will sleep undisturbed on your bed, snoring lightly and happily among your blankets. The last thing you’ll think before falling asleep is that nonna Felicia and Fumaça would surely have great fun if they could meet each other.
The traffic noises at your place will never lessen, but you won’t wake up in the middle of the night anymore.
The day someone else uses your grandma’s notebook to cook for you will be one of the messiest days of your life. The fact that it’ll happen so out of the blue will only make it messier: one night you’ll go to sleep feeling perfectly well; the next, you’ll wake up bleeding and in pain. The doctor will say meaningless words and numbers you’ll barely remember: ectopic, 3%, curettage, IUD amenorrhea, 9 weeks.
The only thing you’ll understand very well is that you need to rest—and it will be all you’ll want to do, even after three blank days at the hospital with Chico by your side.
Ana will come to stay at your place after your medical discharge; she’ll help you lay down in your bed, with Fumaça curled at your feet, and will shuffle your recipe notebook when you asked her for your grandma’s chicken soup. Your friend will be doing her best, but she’ll be as lost and hurt as you are. You’ll try hard to hold the tears at bay when she comes from the kitchen and reads the note at the bottom of the recipe with an intrigued tone: “It’s not your fault.”
Francisco will arrive from work while Ana cooks. He’ll call your dad, who will be at your brother’s, and you’ll talk briefly—there won’t be much to be said. Tainá will ask to talk to you too, and you’ll feel a burst of love when she starts recounting the last Turma da Mônica comics in a clumsy attempt of making you think about something else. You’ll really want to think about something else, but you’ll feel like your pain is the only thing that exists.
At some point, Chico will come in with two bowls of soup. He’ll pet Fumaça, sit by your side and caress your hair. Only then will you cry as you think about the message in the recipe book. You’ll feel guilty for not wanting a baby in the first place, guilty for getting pregnant even with the IUD, guilty for feeling bad for miscarrying an unwanted baby, guilty for feeling relieved you wouldn’t have a baby after all, guilty for the fact your body supposedly malfunctioned at something it was designed for, guilty for not being able to comfort Chico when you realize he’s also upset by the no-baby. Guilty for being so guilty.
But then you’ll put the first spoonful of broth at your mouth, and it’ll taste just like … your mom’s. Not your grandma or Ana’s; it’ll taste just like the lumpy and kind of dull chicken soup she used to prepare (as she didn’t like to cook at all, to your nonna’s dismay). But it’ll be as comforting as no metaphors would be able to convey.
While you slowly slurp the hot soup, you’ll miss your mom deeper than you though it would be possible. Saudades will assume a new meaning to you. You’ll surely miss her every single day of your life after her passing (I’m so, so sorry), and you’ll try not to think about it. But on that day, you’ll feel like your mamãe was the single person in the world who could truly comfort you.
You’ll wish you could hug her and talk to her once more. And you never, ever in your life will be able to eat any chicken broth again.
You’ll realize something is wrong with the scribbling ghost when Ana and Paula show up one night and tell you they’re engaged, and they want you to be their maid of honor.
It’s June celebration’s time, so you’ll decide to prepare some mulled wine for you all. Finding no additional notes near the recipes won’t surprise you anymore, but something at the beef Milanese’s page will catch your eye. You’ll feel your heart sinking a bit when you read it:
BEEF SEASONING (BEFORE COATING)
– 1kg beef (patinho/coxão mole)
– ½ cup of vinegar (apple)
– Salt, to taste
– 1 teaspoon of tabasco
No mustard. No advice in capital letters. You’ll shuffle the pages and will see some of the different handwriting pieces are still there, but not all of them. You’ll feel bad for an instant, as if an old friend had abandoned you, but immediately after that you’ll feel something else. You’ll feel curiously whole.
You’ll prepare the mulled wine, following the usual recipe—but, at the last moment, you’ll feel like not adding as much cloves as it says, and will even risk to drop a pinch of black pepper at the pan with apples, pineapples, sugar caramel, and cinnamon. When you pour in the wine, the hissing and boiling mix will smell like winter, June festivities, friendship, and night blooming flowers.
And you’ll celebrate the engagement of two of your best friends by drinking what they’ll claim to be the best mulled wine in the whole world.
One week later, your brother will call to tell you they’re having another baby. Tainá will be shouting at the background, asking to visit you. You’ll hear the insecurity edge at her voice from afar, and you won’t think twice before inviting her for a girl’s weekend.
You’ll know it’s over the day she arrives: you’ll open the recipe notebook after some dessert recipe and will notice there are no scribbles anymore. Not even a letter. You’ll leaf through the notebook twice, but you’ll know in your bones the scribbler ghost is gone, once and for all.
“Wow, did you see a ghost, aunt?” Tainá will ask, giggling, noticing your expression.
You’ll shiver at her choice of words and say you’re okay, but you’ll actually be feeling weird for considering maybe nothing of that happened. Is this how unbelievers feel?, you’ll ask yourself.
But then, the doorbell will ring. Fumaça will raise her head, but she won’t bark or run. You’ll feel like something is about to happen. Yeah, not an unbeliever at all.
You’ll look around and an improvised new dessert will pop up in your head. “Could you, uh, chop some chocolate, please?” you’ll ask Tainá, wanting to keep her busy. Your heart will be beating like crazy, but you’ll calmly dry your hands at your apron before going to the front door.
You’ll open it. And you’ll feel dizzy, because she’ll be waiting there. Her mom’s dark skin, your mom’s lips. The scar at her chin. She’ll be the same—only older. Older than you, it seems. But you won’t care about what that means.
The words will come out of your mouth before you think about them: “I’m so happy you’re here.”
Her eyes will be wet. She’ll smile and hand you an unknown notebook, smaller but heavier than your nonna’s. You’ll close the door just in time to turn back and see eleven-old-Tainá staring at you, hands smudged with chocolate. She’ll look fascinated. You’ll see yourself on her.
And you’ll understand it all.
“Put the chocolate in a water bath, will you?” you’ll ask. She’ll nod, numb, and you’ll open the new notebook.
It’ll be empty.
That night, while Tainá is asleep, you’ll first take your nonna’s recipe notebook and seat at the counter. Scribbling at the pages will be easier than you think. You’ll fake a squiggle—now recognizable—and will add all notes you remember. Well, you’ll remember them all. You’ll be a five-star scribbling ghost, cute dog sticker you’ll find amongst Tainá stuff and all.
Then, you’ll watch as all words vanish before your eyes. Grandma’s, yours. All smudges will be gone from the pages too. Only memories and brand-new blank pages will remain.
Finally, you’ll open the stockier notebook you got from her in its first page and will start to write. Passionfruit chocolate tart, something your nonna would probably grimace at. But you’ll like it, and Tainá will say it was the best dessert she’s ever had.
There will be no best first page to the notebook you’ll now know that your niece will inherit from you one day.
And you’ll know what to do.
The next weekend, you’ll feel goosebumps when you slam the car door behind you. You’ll scratch Fumaça’s ear and tell Ana, Paula, and Chico that you’ll be right back.
The wooden gate will be unlocked. Your nonnos’ country house, close to your hometown, won’t belong to your family anymore, sold as soon as your nonna dies. But, as you cross the gate, the air will change somehow, and you’ll know you’re at right time when Tupã, the German Shepherd deceased twenty years before, comes wagging his tail in recognition of a good friend. You’ll pet the goodest boy of all times and giggle. You apparently will smell the same after so many years.
You’ll seat at your favorite swing and will finish writing these very words. You knew this the whole time, but you’ll finally accept you were not writing these pages for anybody else.
You’re writing them for yourself.
And you’ll be so glad you did: some things are best digested when pickled in written words.
Then, you’ll ripe these pages out and burn them at your heart’s oven.
I knock, my eyes wet. I hear Mom calling my younger self. Hearing her voice again breaks my heart in a thousand pieces, but they have very soft edges.
Then, nonna Felicia opens the door, and I’m hit by the braised garlic and onions’ smell.
“I’m so happy you’re here,” she says.
Me too, nonna, I want to say. But she winks at me, and the novelty of the gesture makes me know that she knows it, and so much else. I can’t change it at all. And I don’t want to.
When I hear the excited steps coming down the corridor, I know it’s time to go. I hand nonna her-my-our full-empty recipe notebook, then I turn back and walk.
And as cyclical emotions simmer inside me, my old self boils away and vanishes into the thin air.
Jana Bianchi is a Brazilian writer, translator, and editor-in-chief at Revista Mafagafo. Her fiction has appeared, in Portuguese, in several collections and magazines. In English, her work has been published at Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and Fireside. She also attended Clarion West in 2021. Find her online at @janapbianchi on Twitter/Instagram.