Written by Eduardo Martínez Báez | Translation by Toshiya Kamei
Illustration by Gutti Barrios
Length 3965 Words
Highlight to read content warnings:
Discussion of death
Tamara set the table and served breakfast. That morning she had woken with a recipe on the tip of her tongue. Perched on the edge of her bed, she recited it out loud. After three months, she was used to her chip implant. When figures and words danced behind her eyes, she said them aloud and rolled them around her mouth to guess what they meant. Thyme, pepper, butter. Oftentimes a flavor or aroma lingered on her taste buds. Without realizing it, she found herself in the kitchen rummaging through cabinets and drawers. Where did they keep the vinegar? She dashed to the pantry and extended her hand to the exact place where the white wine vinegar was. Afterward, she reached down a few shelves below and, without looking, grabbed a handful of tarragon and a jar of allspice. The sauce didn't take long. Only when she dropped eggs into a pot of boiling water did she have some idea what she was making. But not knowing didn't slow her down. The scents of ham, thyme, and butter soon filled the kitchen.
Lidia awoke to the appetizing aroma. When she opened the door, she felt tears rise up, but fought them away. The smell triggered memories of other Sundays when Samuel cooked in front of the stove. In spite of herself, her mouth watered. She tied her hair back in a ponytail and walked into the kitchen.
"I made you breakfast," Tamara said. "I don't know what it's called. But if you don't like it, I can make you something else." She spoke almost perfect Spanish but in a trembling voice. Her new command of the language failed to hide her anxiety. She hadn't bonded with her client yet. She was an intruder in Lidia's house, and Lidia had let her know it from the get-go. At least, Lidia no longer called her that in front of her guests.
"Thanks, Tamara," Lidia said as she took her seat. She was making an effort, ready to get on with her widowhood. A few days earlier, under the same circumstance, she would have locked herself in her room until Tamara went to bed.
"Huevos benedictinos," Lidia mumbled as she poured herself coffee.
"Excuse me?" Tamara replied, so startled that she blurted the words in English.
"That's what they're called in Spanish: huevos benedictinos. Eggs Benedict in your language." Lidia sighed, looking forlorn. "Samuel's specialty. Although he made them only when he needed to cheer me up. I asked for them every weekend, but he said they wouldn't be special anymore if he made them too often. Sometimes I faked a cold or a migraine so he would make them."
"But he didn't realize you faked it?" Tamara asked, less formal than usual.
"I suspect he did. But that was what our marriage was like. We both played pretend."
"Well, you're not fooling me at all. Anyway you don't look very sick to me," Tamara replied.
A sense of pride surged through Tamara. Her strategy had worked. She had picked it up during her pre-employment training. Replicating past experiences and rituals helped speed up the bonding process. Her culinary tricks had been fail-proof so far. Luckily for her, Lidia's memories of Samuel were replete with mornings spent in the kitchen.
Tamara had arrived three days after Samuel's funeral, carrying a yellow suitcase and a gray backpack packed with pencils, rags, erasers, brushes, and a handful of basic color paints. When Lidia answered the door, still in her pajamas, Tamara delivered a message from the grave. Lidia boiled with hatred like liquid fire in her veins.
As Samuel knew that Lidia would refuse help, he had hired a memory surrogate behind her back. He had looked into surrogacy services when he received his terminal diagnosis. As Samuel told the consultant who attended to him at the agency, Lidia wasn't particularly forgetful. The effect of his physical absence worried him more than memory loss. If memories of him remained with her for a while longer, perhaps they could soften the blow of losing him. The consultant, a young woman in her late twenties, listened to him with empathy and attention.
"I've come to wonder about this. Am I really preparing Lidia for my death or am I preparing myself?" Samuel said with a nervous smile. His nervousness seemed a bit exaggerated to the consultant, but she was used to it. Clients rarely behaved as expected.
"So my surrogate will have all my memories?"
"That's right. At least for the duration of the assignment. We erase them when we remove the implant."
"Will it hurt?" Samuel asked, grimacing.
"No, not at all. Neither you nor your surrogate will feel a thing. You will be under anesthesia," she continued. "Also, I assure you that the device is very small, and the procedure is simple."
"I read that skills can also be passed on."
"Yes, the surrogate may also learn to do activities that you were good at. For example, speaking another language or driving a vehicle. When memories are transferred that are tied to a skill that used to be practiced often, the surrogate is sometimes able to acquire that skill as well. Although, unlike memories, these abilities cannot be erased when the chip implant is removed. But they usually atrophy through lack of use.”
The consultant pulled out a catalog of all the candidates. Samuel refused to open it and declined to choose anyone in particular. He only asked for a woman.
"She's lived with a man all her life," Samuel said. "Let's not torment her anymore."
The consultant nodded with a smile. Still, she felt bothered by Samuel's generalization, although she didn't know why. Is he very messy? Does he think a woman won't be, too?
The consultant looked unconvinced, but he didn't try to clarify his comment. He had always thought that Lidia would have been happier living among women. It never occurred to Samuel to wonder whether that suspicion also stemmed from some hidden prejudice.
"Go away. Please leave me alone," Lidia had said to Tamara the first day.
Tamara replied that she was from Oklahoma. Her employers had only given her a plane ticket and an address. She had nowhere else to go. Lidia was furious, but under no circumstances was she going to throw the girl out on the street. Samuel had counted on that.
"How long are you going to stay here? Three months?" Lidia rolled her eyes and shook her head. "You must be nuts, mija. Tomorrow you'll have to find another place to stay." Tamara didn't miss her cue and took Samuel's letter from her backpack.
"Your husband wanted you to read it before making up your mind."
Tamara never found out what the letter said.
"Follow me. I'll show you your room," Lidia said to her a minute later.
The first days were always difficult. But Tamara knew how to be patient. She had to be attentive to prove to her client that she could help her.
"Chingada madre!" One morning, Lidia screamed from the living room, and Tamara rushed to find her.
"What happened, Lidia? Are you okay?" Tamara asked, agitated. "Do you need anything?"
"I can't find the damn control."
"For the TV?"
"For the garage. I can't go out," she grunted in anger. Tamara hurried into the kitchen and returned with the control.
"Where was it?"
"In the cutlery drawer. You always leave it there."
The two women ate breakfast in silence. When they finished, Lidia thanked Tamara without commenting on how the eggs tasted, but Tamara could tell Lidia was pleased. Not because Lidia made a clear gesture of approval, but because the dish had exactly the same flavor as the version Samuel had cooked.
"Maybe it's time to talk about our situation again," Tamara began before Lidia stood to leave. "After all, this was your husband's last wish. He didn't want you to mourn alone, or at least not so suddenly."
"Look, Tamara, you're a sweet girl," Lidia said. "I've been really horrible to you, but this isn't your fault. It's not mine either. I'm not interested in what you have to offer. That thing they put in your head doesn't make you Samuel. You only have his memories. I don't need anybody to remind me where we keep the sugar or where the birth certificates are. I'm not senile. Far from it. I've always had a good memory."
"Forgive me, Lidia, but that's changed," Tamara began. "When someone loses their partner, a part of them dies, too. It's not merely a metaphor. You and your husband, like all couples who've lived together for many years, keep memories, experiences, and secrets within each other. When you store a document on your computer, you naturally don't remember what it says word for word, but you do remember where you saved it. That's how your brain worked with Samuel, too. He never remembered the password used to pay taxes online because he knew you did. You never memorized the combination of the safe because you knew he had it engraved in his memory. The safe has been open for weeks." Tamara took a pen from the drawer and jotted the correct combination on a napkin. "You see? Those are just numbers. The other day you didn't remember the name of your niece, the one with green eyes who came for cake."
"The moocher," Lidia said, laughing.
"Paulina," Tamara replied with a mocking smile.
After breakfast, undeterred by initial objections, Tamara insisted on helping Lidia in her garden. She first reasoned that her memory re-assimilation would accelerate if she participated in the activities Lidia did with her husband. When that failed to persuade Lidia, Tamara tried something else.
"You know, my mom had a beautiful garden in Tulsa," Tamara began wistfully. "It was small but colorful. I had my own watering jug, and every weekend I got up early to help her. Although I was small, a sense of pride filled me when I went back to the house with muddy shoes. I haven't seen that garden in a long time."
"My God," Lidia growled, as she gazed up at the sky wryly. "Come on. Don't cry," she said through her teeth, making a defeated face.
Tamara followed her into the garden with a mischievous smile.
Lidia spent the entire morning watering, pruning, transplanting, and rearranging the backyard. The garden had turned into a colorful puzzle where she spent hours searching for the exact space where her piece fit. A couple of weeks later, she would undo the puzzle and start over. On the day of the funeral mass, her sister had to pry the shovel out of her hand, shake her, and force her to get dressed. As soon as the service was over, she left without saying goodbye. She went home and continued turning the soil. It was her way of taking control of something, whatever it was.
When Samuel fell ill, Lidia had devoted herself to his last requests with fervor: to arrange his belongings in two categories, donate or bequeath, and then to look for a lawyer and draw up the will, which Samuel, despite the many reminders Lidia gave him each year, had never sat down to prepare. She even got him a priest for confession. This was the most complicated task. No priest wanted to get close to Samuel. Lidia couldn't ask for help without being asked why no one wanted to give last rites to her husband. Her last straw was taking Samuel to choose his own funeral wreath.
Resentment stirred in her belly. She thought Samuel was being inconsiderate. A part of her was dying, too. Yet he didn't even spare her a moment to brace herself for what was to come. But she chose not to pester him. They didn't have much time left together.
When her husband finally breathed his last, Lidia had no time to feel sad or relieved. She immediately made preparations for the wake at home as Samuel had detailed in his farewell letter. Lidia hated that grotesque ritual above any other. The living surrounding the deceased, looking down at him, hurting for him, pretending, resisting, feigning interest. There isn't much to do after looking down at a flattened body for ten to fifteen minutes.
Lidia handed Tamara a pair of orange-handled scissors and led her to yellow rose bushes.
"Pay attention. See that pair of dead flowers? Count two buds down and cut there. No, this is a yolk. Didn't you say you used to help your mother? You're not just making that up, are you?" Lidia grabbed her own scissors. "Okay, cut there at forty-five degrees, like this. After you prune the stems, throw them there."
Tamara tried to please Lidia by being as precise as possible. Under Lidia's watchful gaze, Tamara focused on her task. Her dark skin glistened in the sun, the yellow flowers in one hand, her hair tied up like a ball of black yarn. For the first time, Lidia allowed herself to appreciate Tamara's beauty, not out of modesty, but out of sadness. Lidia took her mourning very seriously.
The only beauty she considered permissible was that of her garden. Nothing else should bring her joy. Of course, that was a lie. She pretended for Samuel's sake. She actually enjoyed many other things: playing cards with her friends, taking walks downtown, sitting in the café on the corner to watch tourists go by and greet local children in halting Spanish, playing with her nephews, eating with Tamara. But a sense of guilt overwhelmed all the other things that made her happy.
"Where is Tulsa?" Lidia asked, feigning disinterest.
"In Oklahoma, north of Texas. Smack in the middle of the Cherokee Nation."
"Is it nice?"
"It's very green. I liked that, I guess." Tamara answered. "But big cities are just not my scene. I prefer small towns like San Miguel."
"It's not as small as it used to be, thanks to all the gringos who flock here," Lidia said wryly. "I'm kidding. What do you like the most about this town?"
"The cobbled streets, the galleries," Tamara gushed, her eyes sparkling. "I've never seen so many galleries in one place anywhere else. There's one on every block."
"I can connect you to a friend who owns one nearby, so you can show him your work."
"I would love that!" Tamara's face became animated. "Although I didn't really come here for that."
"Who says you can't do two things at the same time?" Lidia said.
Tamara accepted Lidia's offer and went back to pruning.
"Can I ask you something?"
"Yes, but keep pruning. It won't be long before the sun gets strong," Lidia said as she placed soil in a new pot.
"Were you happy with your husband?"
Lidia paused and wiped the sweat from her forehead with her grimy glove, smearing herself with mud.
"Why do you ask me that?"
"When we're assigned a new case, our first instinct is to talk about the deceased, but sometimes that's the last thing the client wants to hear."
"Can't you see everything with that metal they put in you?"
"Not yet. Memories come back in bits and pieces, like dreams," Tamara mused. "You don't dream twenty dreams at a time, maybe one or two a night. The same goes for this process. I still can't see if there are reasons to avoid bringing him up."
"He wasn't violent, if that's what you're asking. Although when he was younger he could be cruel."
"What do you mean?"
"Lack of empathy, more than anything else," Lidia said with a faraway look. "Samuel was special. He was..." Lidia paused suddenly and shook her head. "He was like a magnet. Folks sought him out because he had a way of giving them what they wanted, even for a few minutes." Lidia spoke without looking at Tamara, her gaze fixed on the guava tree growing right in front of her. She stepped closer and picked a fruit. She fumbled with the guava, tossing it from one hand to the other. "That kind of attention can breed cruelty. I forgave him for things that are no longer forgiven today."
"We don't have to talk about him if you don't want to."
"No, I didn't mean that." Lidia shook her head. "That was back when we were very young. With the passage of time, he gradually mellowed. If you had met him, you would've thought of him the sweetest old man in the world." Lidia bit into the guava.
"Maybe in a couple of days I'll remember how to do all this right and can really help you out here. Not just get in your way."
"I don't think so, mija. Samuel wasn't much of a gardener. He tried to help me, but..."
"He was getting in your way," Tamara blurted out. "Oops, sorry," she corrected herself quickly. Lidia smothered a cry of guilt and swallowed it.
At noon, the two women put away the shovels and scissors, shook the dirt off outside the sliding door, took off their shoes, and entered the house. Lidia went to take her shower, and Tamara sat on a stool. She shut her eyes, squeezing the lids tightly together. Slowly, one by one, a slew of flavors flooded her taste buds. Colorful triangles took the shape of chilies, then herbs, garlic. Knock, knock, knock. Light knocking jolted her out of her reverie.
"Lidia, is it you?" No reply came. Knock, knock, knock. The noise came from an old piece of furniture on one side of the sofa. It had two vertical doors with several family photos on top of it. A small framed portrait of Samuel had fallen face down. Tamara put it back, pulling the leg at the back of the frame. Knock, knock, knock! Tamara fell back onto the living room rug. The two little doors of the cabinet shook. The knocking came from inside. Tamara stood, and the little handles moved as if someone was trying to get out. Something stirred behind the door. Someone was talking to her.
"Would you let me in?" a childlike voice reached her. Tamara couldn't tell if it was a boy or a girl, but the voice seemed to belong to a young child. Although she tried to resist, she brought both hands closer to the handles. She grabbed them and pulled.
"No!" A hand slammed both doors shut. Tamara raised her head. Lidia stood wrapped in a towel, her face pale and her hair wet.
"What was that?" Tamara asked, her voice cracking. Lidia sat on a stool, her eyes closed.
"It was only supposed to be his memories," she murmured. "That's what his letter said."
"Lidia, please, if you know something, tell me," Tamara pleaded. "What's going on?" Lidia raised her head and stared at her.
"You got that from him, Tamara."
"What did I get? I don't understand."
"Samuel could summon spirits like that," Lidia said, pointing to the furniture in the living room, which had stopped moving. "They gave you his memories of him, his Spanish, his recipes, and apparently that, too."
That night, Tamara remained frozen on the couch. She hadn't moved since she heard Lidia's explanation. It never occurred to her that this couple could make a living from that occupation. She imagined that mediums only lived in dimly lit alleys with pentagrams on the doors, not in fancy houses in downtown San Miguel de Allende.
"We retired some years ago, but for a while we did very well financially. Folks came from afar to see us. He held his séances. I handled our finances and entertained our clients. But there came a point where I no longer wanted to take money from those people. Not because Samuel was a fraud, but because what we were doing didn't help them. It was like a drug rather than a cure. But Samuel never stopped holding his sessions, although he tried to do so in secret. Since then, we haven't had such guests in the house, until today." Tamara sat up and remained silent for a few minutes. She stood abruptly and began to take ingredients out of the fridge.
While Tamara cooked, Lidia went to her room and screamed into her pillow. She'd mistakenly thought that part of her life was behind her. Now she had to take care of Tamara. She couldn't leave her alone with that "gift."
In the kitchen, Tamara cooked chili peppers and sliced onions like a sleepwalker. Her mother's warning flooded back to Tamara.
"Don't let them put things into your head," her mother had said.
"Mom, don't be dramatic," Tamara had replied. She had assured her mother that her new job was perfectly safe. Besides, she could travel, meet new people, and paint. She finally could dedicate herself to her art without worrying about making ends meet.
"Everything has consequences," she heard herself say in her mother's voice. She shook her head to expel those memories. It hurt her to think of her mother and her disapproval. A feeling of guilt over having left her mother alone gnawed at her. She was cleaning the onion off the knife with her finger when a thud from the pantry startled her. It sounded as if something had fallen off a shelf. She opened the door and leaned back. She blinked a few times, but she could hardly make out the figure before her. Yet in the darkness, she knew what she would see next. When she turned on the light, a tall, white-haired man stood in the narrow hallway of the pantry. No scream escaped her lips. She remained calm and still on the spot.
"Nice to meet you, Tamara," the old man said. "I'm Samuel. Can you let me in?" he asked. Tamara gave no reply.
"Hi, Lidia," Samuel said with a smile a few seconds later.
Tamara turned and saw Lidia right behind her.
"Don't let him in," Lidia warned in a low voice.
"Why?" Samuel asked with a frown. "Don't you miss me, mi vida?"
"You're dead, Samuel," Lidia answered. "If I have learned anything in all these years, it's that the dead aren't worth crying over."
"But don't you get it, Lidia?" Samuel pleaded. "You don't have to miss me. If you keep her close to you, I can be with you forever."
"Just leave her out of it. She's got nothing to do with any of this," Lidia said, her arms akimbo. "She's here to help me, not you. And I'm feeling better every day, so she has no reason to stay long."
"We can't let her go!" Samuel yelled out of desperation.
"Goodbye, Samuel," Lidia replied. She walked over to Tamara and whispered something in her ear. Tamara nodded.
"You can't come in." Tamara glared at him. "You can't come in here, ever!" she cried, nervously but firmly. Tamara flipped the switch on the wall, turning off the light. After a few seconds, she turned it on again. Samuel was gone.
The two women were silent for a few minutes.
"What are you cooking?" Lidia at last asked.
"I'm not sure yet," Tamara replied. Lidia walked over to the stove and checked the chopping board. Ancho chiles, morita chiles, garlic, onion, epazote leaves, shredded chicken, corn tortillas.
"Looks like you were making enchiladas." Lidia caught Tamara's trembling hands in hers and squeezed them reassuringly. "I love his enchiladas." Lidia smiled at her. "I'm going to help you with this. Everything will be fine. I can teach you how to handle it. You can stay here as long as you want."
They hugged for a long time. Then they had red enchiladas for dinner.
© Eduardo Martínez Báez
Eduardo Martínez Báez comes from Mexicali, México. Like so many people who live at the border, he was raised among Mexican culture and the other side’s, so he writes speculative fiction in both languages. His stories have been published by MoonPark Review (USA) and Revista Espejo Humeante (México). As a kid, he was able see ghosts, but no one believed him.
Toshiya Kamei holds an MFA in Literary Translation from the University of Arkansas. His translations have appeared in venues such as Clarkesworld, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Strange Horizons.