The Fluffy Cake and Dear Mama

The Fluffy Cake

I wanted to make a fluffy cake. I didn’t want to make cookies because they lack a third dimension. You eat cookies and it’s like they’re missing something, that’s why you can’t stop eating them. Cookies seem like they’re made from reconstituted bread or breadcrumbs. Only dogs know how to eat cookies the right way: they snatch ’em in mid-air, bite into ’em with a loud crunch, and devour ’em in one gulp, raising their head a bit.

I didn’t want to make crème caramel either because it’s a proto-food and it resembles a jellyfish. I did not want to make a tipsy cake, which is a sneaky cake. Wine gets poured into the mixture. You bite into it confidently, expecting it to taste like cake and instead it tastes like something else, strong and rancid.

The fluffy cake that I wanted to make was like this instant cake I had once eaten that came out of a beautiful little box, it was called “Paradise Cake.” On the box there was a picture of a woman wearing a long dress. (I don’t quite remember if it was a woman and a man or just a woman, but if it was just a woman she was awaiting a man.)

The Paradise Cake was so fluffy–I’ve never eaten anything quite like it. It’s not that it melted in your mouth. Instead, you would chew it ever so slightly and all the processes of chewing, swallowing, and so on, were perfect. Plus, it wasn’t like cookies, which are for eating when you’re bored. With Paradise Cake you’d think about it some afternoon and eat it, some afternoon filled with lovely thoughts. When I saw the recipe for “Fluffy Cake” I said to myself, “That’ll be just like a Paradise cake.” I asked my mom if she’d let me use the cook stove to make it.

“Not in your dreams,” she said.

We never lit the cook stove; it was a cumbersome black contraption with an equally darkened door. I had never seen what it looked like inside nor known how it worked. We didn’t use it because, apparently, it was a bother. There it stood, every day, in the kitchen like an uninvited guest. It was like the oven for baking bread that was out back, but I never saw anyone baking or roasting anything in it. That was considered to be another nuisance, except outdoors. To me they were different; I barely paid any attention to the cook stove because it was more akin to a piece of furniture. The bread oven I remembered because every time I went out to play I would jump from the top (first peering inside, into its dark interior filled with grey ash from a long time ago) onto the ground. That oven looked like a pigeon coop and if anyone had ever made bread in it no one remembered, nor did it seem they wanted to remember, as if that oven brought back unpleasant memories. I couldn’t make the fluffy cake in the cook stove, or in the regular oven. So I asked,

“Can I make it in the shed?”

“Yes,” said my mother.

I could make it in the shed with a brazier.

Not in the kitchen, because children make a mess in the kitchen. In the shed my mom was going to light a brazier (it’s dangerous, children mustn’t use it).

I made the cake in a little pan which, because of its size, wasn’t right for soup or anything else. I’d never seen that little green pan before, it must have been from some set my parents had before I was born.

If a brazier is as dangerous as they say, I don’t know how my mama managed to use that pair of bellows. With each draft of air from the bellows, she was on the verge of being scorched by an explosion; maybe she didn’t care if she died.

Since the cake had to turn golden on top there were glowing embers above the little green pan. I wanted my friend who lives across the street to help me in my enterprise. The day before I told her that I’d been given permission to make a fluffy cake and she said she’d come over. The look on her face when she arrived told me she’d only come because she had nothing better to do and she played the part of the reluctant observer. But she wasn’t afraid of death-by-exploding-brazier and when the flames died down she took pleasure in pumping that last strong draught of air, as if to say “this crud is cooked.” But I realized she wasn’t pumping to help out with the cake, but rather to partake in the act itself, to do something, because she was used to handling that type of apparatus and the idea of the fire going out was foolish to her.

By now the little pan was heating up with the fluffy cake inside, but I couldn’t wait to see if it was done. Better said, I wanted to see how it cooked; like a Japanese nursery owner who wakes up at night to watch “how” his plants grow.

But I couldn’t lift that lid full of embers. I asked my friend and she shrugged.

“Oh, I know,” I realized, “with a long pole.”

I grabbed a long broom pole and tried to loop it through the handle of the lid; my friend helped me, hesitantly. Right when we were about to lift it my mom came in and my friend made like she had nothing to do with that bright idea with the pole–which was true, after all. My mom knew right away it had been my idea.

“What’s gotten into you!” she said, “Having a peek at the batter before it’s done! Why, you’ve just put it in the oven.”

When she left I was able to lift the lid with a thinner pole and I spied the cake for just a moment. I got the vague idea, but it still looked like a pancake, no third dimension.

“Maybe it will still rise,” my friend said and she suggested doing something else in the meantime. But I wasn’t about to move until I saw what happened.

A while later I removed it for good, because you can’t be taking the embers off and putting them back on over and over. The cake had turned dark brown, it had shrunk into itself in every direction: lengthwise and widthwise. It ended up like a brown pastry, like a straight croissant.

Mama said,

“It’s to be expected, I would have guessed.”

I figured that, for adults, preparing turds was something logical and inevitable.

But I didn’t eat it, nor did anyone else. You wouldn’t have been able to eat it either.

Dear Mama

Dear Mama,

Here goes the third time I’ve written this letter to you. I didn’t like the first one and I lost the second. When I don’t like something now I don’t throw it out, I lose it–even though I later regain interest and I know at some point it’ll come back to me. These days I always try to do two things at once. For example, while I dust the shelves I find something I’ve been looking for and while I sweep I listen to the radio. If I sunbathe I tend to the plants. I used to get so upset when you’d tell me, “While you’re at it, do this or that.” I didn’t want to do anything else while I was engaged in one task, so I could focus on the main activity. Now I don’t know whether the main activity is sweeping or listening to the radio. And I understand when you used to say to yourself, “Yes, yes, yes” as if something were taking shape, as if life were a momentum of its own regardless of one’s own intentions.

Although you wouldn’t believe it, I try to throw out everything I don’t need. I amass so many papers and exams from the students, because ever since the restoration of democracy I’ve been working at the university. But by then you had left. Here’s what happened: the military junta went to war with the English, they occupied the Malvinas and the entire British fleet came at us. We lost the war, the military junta lost their prestige and had to relinquish power. Then Alfonsín was taken over. He was forced to step down before his time because of the economic situation: prices of things would go up during the course of a single day. Now Menem is president, I don’t know if you’re aware. It’s like we’ve been pissed on by elephant seals. The economic situation is bad, but I get by. I don’t live in the apartment on Gascón Street anymore. I moved to a place with a big balcony, I filled it with plants and I have an arbor I call the grapevine. That’s what I wanted to tell you. I forgot to sweep the leaves off the balcony and the drain got clogged and the whole house flooded. I laid down a bunch of old exams from the students and cardboard boxes to soak up the water, but water is so evasive and uncontainable: it seeped all the way to the elevator. That doesn’t happen to me anymore. Nor do I have a single cockroach because I’ve become squeaky clean. Sometimes I do the laundry to avoid smoking so much and I also correct exams because while one is correcting you don’t spend money. At the end of the month I routinely start to look for some money I think I once hid in a book and have never found. But that’s only for two or three days. There were worse times during the military dictatorship. Once there were seven of us for dinner and between us we only had enough money to buy flour and a can of tomato sauce. Luis, Lea’s husband, the artisan, kneaded tagliatelle for the first time in his life. He orchestrated the cutting of those noodles. We worked in an assembly line and ate the most delicious meal.

Mama, I have a cat I call Andrés, Marabú, Misho, and Catito. He’s adorable and has a white, grey, and tawny coat. I feed him fish to make his coat shiny. He scratches a rug you haven’t seen, he scratches my jeans, and ever so often he scratches me a bit, when he’s frustrated. He sleeps at my feet and don’t say “Santa Madonna,” because he doesn’t have fleas and if he has them he doesn’t give them to me, and if he gives them to me they don’t bite. He eats from the china dishes you left me, the ones you saved for special occasions, but it seems right to me and I only see it as a bit odd when someone points it out, and just so they don’t think I’m slightly loopy I promise myself I’m going to buy a cat bowl but then I forget. I still have some wine glasses but little by little they’ve gotten broken at various celebrations and just because. As for the tea sets, there’s nothing left. I had to sell the china one summer to pay the bills. Once I sold a china plate to a gypsy. I gave the linen tablecloths to my cousins. You were right, linen tablecloths are not for me, and anyway now they sell those cheap washable ones made from synthetic fabric, in different colors. You can toss them out and change it up a bit. You were right about lots of things I only now realize. For example, when I would go sunbathing in summer right after lunch and you would say to me, “How could you in this heat!” Now I, too wonder how I used to do that because now after lunch I take a nap when I can. You were right that a nap is a beautiful thing. And you were also right about when I asked you to fire the cleaning lady who made the house dirtier instead of cleaner and you didn’t want to and you said, “Let her stay here, the beating she’ll get if she goes out on the street!” Now I’ve got a Bolivian woman who’s new to the city. I had to teach her how to use the elevator and every now and then she still gets stuck in it, I don’t know how. If she finds a cap from a container that’s been thrown away she puts it atop another container like a little hat and makes a pointless decoration. She annoys me a bit, but on the other hand I like to see someone else’s hand at work in the house, innovations, different ways of tidying. Oh Mama, how I wish you could come sit under the grapevine with your cane! I wouldn’t quarrel with you about anything, like when you got paid and would buy yourself a bottle of port and a bag of candy. I used to go with you, impatient and annoyed. I would ask, “What do you want those for if you don’t even eat them?” And you would say to me hesitantly, “Just to have them, in case someone comes over.”

Mama, all those times we’ve fought and loved each other so much, that after you were gone I thought, “How is it possible that everything that once was real is no longer so and now she’s unaware of everything that’s happening to me–what the heck if it’s black or white?” I think this letter is so hard for me because I don’t want to cry. I don’t know why I don’t want to cry, it’s been so long since I cried and it would be good for me, maybe by watching a movie. I wept so much, Mama, when you left and then because of that boyfriend who you only spoke to over the telephone. One day in the morning I wept thinking about you and then a bit later thinking about that boyfriend. Now I live alone and I don’t think I want a boyfriend, but perhaps what one wants is a habit like anything else. And speaking of what I want–because I try to do too many things at once, I put them off and let them slip away–I wanted to ask you a favor. I sense some small grace for myself, some gift, but the fact that I already have enough memories and their burden might be disruptive. I’d like to ask you, who were a believer, to entrust God with your memories. That way I only have to take care of my own. That way, with a lighter load, I’ll be able to receive that grace.

Your daughter, who has given you so much work, but who has also loved you so much.

Bios

Hebe Uhart

Likened to Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and Clarice Lispector, Hebe Uhart is an Argentine writer whose distinctive voice has made her beloved over the past 50 years by the Argentine public and fellow writers. Relatos Reunidos, her collected works, won the award for the Best Work of Literary Creation at the Buenos Aires Book Fair in 2011. Her newest story collection, Un día cualquiera, was released in 2013. An avid traveler with a piercing eye, Uhart has also published two travelogue collections, with a third forthcoming.

Maureen Shaughnessy

Maureen Shaughnessy is an editor-at-large at Asymptote. She has translated stories by Mariana Enriquez, Norah Lange, Margarita García Robayo, and Luis Nuño. Her translations have been published in World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, and Asymptote; and are forthcoming in The Antioch Review. She lives in Bariloche, Argentina.

Englisht translation copyright (c) Maureen Shaughnessy, 2014.