Couscous

By M.J. Fievre

Memoir

My father is dozing on the balcony, behind the large hibiscus plant.

Papa sleeps better during the day because he’s haunted. Night haunted. And when the spooky things come—memories of his childhood, he haunts my mother. He tells her his nightmares, wakes her up—to pull her into his suffering, to taunt her into saving him.

I know because I’ve heard him.

Papa wakes up. “Ready for some couscous?” he asks.

I nod, and while Papa takes out pots and pans, I stand by the kerosene stove, watching Mother wash down the refrigerator (it’s leaking because of the power cut).

I lean down as Papa minces garlic and wish I could tell him how his couscous smells yummy but tastes like wet toilet paper. He makes us what he calls “gourmet dinner” at least once a week, and I always keep up a constant stream of oohs and ahs and compliments, which sound so exaggerated to Papa sometimes that he raises an eyebrow and suspects me of mockery.

I sit and watch him, as he bends over and listens to the food in the skillet. He pinches salt between his fingers and dashes it in. He pays attention, deeply, to the textures and colors and smells, and a little smile forms upon his lips.

“Here, try this,” he says, lifting a spoon of couscous.

I try not to cringe at the funny taste. We have music on in the background, and the sun is shining through the skylights. Papa is annoyed with Mother, who keeps checking to make sure the stove isn’t leaking gas and telling him he forgot to talk to the landlord about putting some more locks on the doors. Then she’s doing the dishes behind us, in a futile attempt to keep the kitchen clean.

As Papa plates up our food, his face widens with excitement, because he thinks I’m going to love this food he has made with his hands. I slam my fork into the couscous and it is half-cooked.

I say, “Oh man, this is good.”

That is the highest praise I could ever give him. My father ruins the couscous recipe every time he attempts, and the kitchen now has a greasy smell.

“This is good,” I say again.

And he believes me. He says his couscous has a twist of culinary adventure—soft, rich, and memorable. He goes into his bedroom for a nap, and Mother grants me permission to throw away my meal. The radio hisses and bursts into snatches of chatters in Creole. Mother makes sandwiches. Patricia and I pick the vegetables off and eat quickly, eyeing each other competitively, mouths bulging.

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Born in Port-au-Prince, M.J. FIEVRE is an expat whose short stories and poems have appeared in numerous publications, including Haiti Noir (Akashic Books, 2011), The Beautiful Anthology (TNB, 2012), The Southeast Review, The Caribbean Writer, and The Mom Egg. She graduated from the Creative Writing program at Florida International University. She loves coconut shrimp, piña coladas, her dog Wiskee, and a good story. Anton Chekhov is one of her favorite writers. Her author website is located at www.mjfievre.com.

14 responses to “Couscous”

  1. Zara Potts says:

    Well, this post is a dish unto itself. You have given us little mouthwatering tastes of the story behind the story and now I want more.
    The lie here is fabulous. What better lie is there than one only spoken out of love? A lie like that is always better than truth.
    Lovely, M.J. Lovely.

  2. Irene Zion says:

    This story is a Patrushka Doll.
    You think you understand it
    and yet there is more inside
    and yet more
    and yet more
    until the few words you wrote
    become a weighty tome
    in the reader’s eyes
    and heart.

  3. M.J. Fievre says:

    Thank you, Irene. I love the idea of the Patrushka Doll!

  4. Judy Prince says:

    I don’t know why this made tears come to my eyes, MJ, but it did. It created a complex of feelings—-of sweet child adoration for her dad, of his need for validation, of your mother needing to keep things together for everyone’s sake, of your dad’s unhappy dreams, of a family caught in difficult circumstances and trying to survive them as well as they can, of children’s innocence as well as their deep knowing and caring, and of sisters being sisters.

    These words struck me, especially: “I sit and watch him, as he bends over and listens to the food in the skillet.”

    • M.J. Fievre says:

      Hi Judy,
      I’m so glad I was able to touch you… Thank you so much for reading. I think I inherited my dad’s need for validation 😉 so it’s always a pleasure to read comments like yours.

  5. Cynthia Hawkins says:

    This is lovely, M.J. I think Irene’s description of it as a Patrushka Doll is right on!

  6. Dana says:

    Lovely, as always!

  7. Erika Rae says:

    You know what, MJ? I’m a fan. I really dig your writing style. So colorful and full of genuine feeling. Thank you for choking down the couscous so we can have this.

  8. Neddy says:

    Love the colorful words used to describe the whole process involved in your father’s cooking of the couscous. For a few minutes, I was transported to that kitchen and could clearly picture you and your dad getting ready for the couscous.

  9. M.J. Fievre says:

    Thank you so much for reading, Neddy! Bless my father’s heart. God, he tried!

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