By Rachel Cohen
Tali stared at the fish, and the koi looked back at her.
A red, a yellow and a green, eyes bulging in the arid shop window, the three plastic fishes ogled Tali’s red hair through the blurry fall of water.
Rain ran down Tali’s cheeks into the loose cavern of her grey sweater. Streetlights melted on the wet glass of the restaurant door. Tali went in, the koi’s eyes following her into the tinkling of bells over the entryway.
Two tables huddled together by a glass counter. A small bench waited, covered in a dark-blue cloth, ruched with shadows, filled with tiny stars.
Tali inserted herself between the tables and the bench. “Um.”
The woman did not come from anywhere. She just coagulated in front of Tali, her small beaky head plastered with smooth feathers of black hair. Her slanted black eyes blinked, beady. A high-pitched voice, more of chirrup, called out, “Soup.”
“No.” Tali clutched at the dark-blue cloth underneath her. “Not soup. I was thinking maybe sushi? And some tea? Also, if you happen to be serving noodles, maybe a I could have …”
“Soup.” The sharp fluted cadence of that “soup” eradicated choice.
“All right then.” Tali was in no shape to argue. “If soup is all you’ve got, I’ll have the soup. But could you maybe hold the hot stuff? I’m not very good with spice …”
“Soup.” The soup was cupped within white porcelain. A transparent lake, studded with pink and white blossoms of curled shrimp over the weeds of undulating noodles. Slices of grilled pork darted beneath the soup’s surface, swifter than minnows.
The first spoon burned Tali’s mouth with the bite of lemongrass. Tastes layered and shimmered, sweet melting into salt, spice billowing over the freshness.
The first tear rolled the length of Tali’s nose, hit the grey boat of a straw mushroom, and then Tali was crying in earnest, as if the rain she had walked in for the past hour was determined to pour out of her into the soup bowl.
The woman stood in front of Tali, the steam over the soup making her seem less and less real.
“I’m sorry,” Tali wiped her nose on her sleeve. “Your soup’s delicious.”
She touched the phone in the pocket of her shirt underneath the sweater. It hadn’t rang all night. Fear tore at Tali’s throat, the soup rose up, the tears flowed.
“I don’t think I can eat any more …” She could not stop eating the soup. The woman looked at Tali, knowing all about her, weaving a different future, swirling the possibilities with a pair of chopsticks, plucking only the most deserving of morsels from the chaos of the chopping board.
The phone rang.
Tali’s spoon dove into the thicket of the noodles. Tali nearly tore her sweater, when she hunted for the cell that thrashed against her heart.
“Tal, it’s not cancer!” Valery’s voice made the phone shake in Tali’s hand. “The biopsy’s clean, sis! Clean. I’ll be there for your graduation! Come on, say something … Tal, please don’t cry. It’s good news. Don’t cry. I’ll be fine. Don’t.”
Tali left a twenty on the small table. Then she thought about it and added another ten. The soup bowl stood white, a small moon illuminating its personal midnight. The shop owner was nowhere to be seen.
When Tali raced down the block to her campus residence, the puddles she landed in sent up diamond sparks. Val was fine.
It wasn’t cancer. She was coming to the graduation.
“I’m telling you,” Tali pressed her hands to the sides of her face and peered into the dark glass, “it was the most amazing soup. Best I’ve ever tasted. Incredible. But it looks like the shop’s closed …”
The three koi lay dusty and impassive in the hot afternoon sun, pretending not to know Tali.
“So?” David licked his ice-cream in one long smooth path, and Tali shivered, as if she herself had been inserted into the waffle cone. “These little places go in and out of business every day. Plenty of pho spots around here. Who’d want soup in this heat anyway?”
“It was the strangest thing,” Tali stepped back to the melting asphalt. “It was the night we found out Val’s cancer wasn’t back. It was like the woman who had served me that soup made it happen this way, you know?”
“I know magical thinking when I see it.” David tossed the half-eaten ice-cream into a trash can and grabbed Tali’s elbow.
“Come on. I still have my whole place to pack up and you are fantasising about soups.”
“So you are going?” Tali bit her tongue as she said it.
“We’ve been through that,” David let go of Tali’s elbow. “It’s a Supreme Court articles. Of course I’m going. So we won’t be at the same firm. Big deal. With the hours we’ll both keep, you’d hardly notice.”
“Not just at different firms. Different cities.” Tali tried to sound light, but she tasted the burn of the tires in the air, and it made her wince.
“Skip the drama, Tal.” David crossed on a red light, certain that cars would stop for him, for his height, for his head of dark cedar, for his broad shoulders. “Soups aren’t magic. Long distance is not a big deal.”
“Soups aren’t magic,” Tali agreed. She wasn’t so sure about the long distance.
The koi shone oily through the swirl of the falling snow. Tali gawped at them. This time, she burst through the door without hesitation, certain that she was waited for.
“Could I please have the soup?”
As soon as Tali sat down, the woman hovered next to her.
“No soup.” The slicing chirrup had remained as sharp as Tali remembered. “Chicken.”
“No, you don’t understand,” Tali folded her hands in front of her. Her camel coat fell open over the black suit that reeked of coffee by the end of the day. “I’d like the same soup I had here half a year ago. My twin sister was really sick, and I was so scared for her and then I had the soup here, and it all turned out fine …”
“Chicken.” The plate skidded down in front of Tali. Dried lumps of meat in yellow crust held coagulated streaks of sauce.
Mechanically, Tali split her chopsticks apart. A long splinter stuck into the gap between the side of her finger and a nail. Tali yipped in pain.
“Couldn’t you do something?” Words tumbled out of Tali’s mouth. The bland chicken, dead to its fate, lay beneath the chopsticks. “It’s my boyfriend, David. He said that long distance would work, but it isn’t working. And I really, really …”
The woman held out a small white rectangle to Tali. It was going to be a recipe, Tali thought. Something about gathering grass in the moonlight and then saying magical words, and, before she knew it, David would be at her door.
The paper was a bill. For $10.50. Tali left a twenty on the table and rose, her chicken barely touched.
“You,” the woman called and Tali turned back, her hand already on the front door. “This chicken, you don’t want. You come back. After. Soup.”
Tali had meant to go back for the soup the very next day. Instead, she stayed at the office until one in the morning, chained to her desk by the new file. David’s message, when she heard it that night, did not open an artery or shatter a bone. Tali did not know where the dry indifference had come from. She lay down on her bed and stared in front of her. She could barely remember
David, she realised. The memory had no taste, no reflux of bitterness. Tali slept.
The koi were gone. Instead, a small apple tree laden with golden fruits stood in the pot in the middle of the shop window.
“I cannot believe it,” Tali laughed. “I had completely forgotten about this place.”
“What is it?” Jaimie, Tali’s husband, blond like the sunshine, always held a half-smile in the corner of his mouth. Just for Tali.
“It’s this little shop. It’s completely silly. I was going through a rough patch one time, and somehow convinced myself that it was magic. Not really magic, but something crazy like that.”
“I hear it works even if you don’t believe in it,” Jaimie leaned to Tali’s ear. “Let’s go in.”
This time, they were both served soup. They have barely sat down, and two bowls of soup filled the space between them.
As wonderful as Tali remembered. She ate hers, had another and finished Jaimie’s. She was always hungry these days.
“That was magic.” Outside the restaurant, Jaimie pressed his lips to Tali’s temple. She curved into his side, content.
“So how soon can you start babies on pho?” Jaimie wrapped his long arm around Tali’s waist.
“I don’t know? Three? Four?” Tali wasn’t only hungry these days. She also laughed all the time.
“I’m sure this one will be a prodigy. Let’s aim for two and a half.”
When Tali looked back at the restaurant from the street corner, the biggest golden apple seemed to disappear and the pop back. As if the tree had winked at her.
Her bag had to be cleaned out, Tali thought. She always dug for her phone, buried beneath the wad of important papers, a cotton rabbit, a doll with her hair cut short with dull scissors and a red lollipop. Strawberry-flavoured. Strawberry was Alice’s favourite.
Tali had no idea how she had ended up in front of the restaurant. She had completely forgotten about it during her maternity leave. Now that Alice was three and in the daycare round the corner from Tali’s office building, Tali no longer walked this way. She had expected it – the emptied-out shop window, the lights turned out, but it still gave her a pang.
Something moved within. Tali entered.
The two tables and the bench were gone. Cardboard boxes yawned in the middle of the floor, and the small dark-haired woman bent over them, frozen in confusion.
“What’s going on?” Tali’s voice rang out in the gloom.
“Closing.” The woman looked up, indifferent to yet another stranger.
“Oh, no! No, you mustn’t. No.” Tali stumbled over boxes. “You serve wonderful food here. Why are you closing?”
“Rent rise. Can’t pay.” This time, the woman focussed on Tali, recognised her. “You like soup, yes? I remember you.
You cry first time. You cry second time. Third time, no cry.”
“That’s exactly right. Third time, I didn’t cry. I was very happy, the third time. I still am. Listen,” Tali dug in her overflowing purse, “take my card. Actually, never mind my card. What’s your landlord’s name? I’ll talk to him. He might be hiking up your rent illegally. There have been cases in the neighborhood. A friend of mine, a lawyer, handled a few. I’ll put you in touch with her. You don’t need to lose your restaurant. And I’ll tell everyone at work about it. Do you cater? Our Christmas party, can you cater that?”
The woman nodded. Her mouth lifted at the corners, her cheeks rising like two buns over the crescent of a smile. Then she went back behind the counter and rummaged in the drawer. To Tali, she held out a lollipop and a dog-eared business card.
“Take,” she said. “Is good.”
“Thank you,” Tali put the candy and the card with the restaurant number in her bag. “Now I know how to reach you. You won’t go out of business, I promise.”
The woman nodded again.
“Strawberry,” she said. “Your girl, she likes.”
In the corner, Tali suddenly noticed the potted apple tree she had somehow missed before.
The apples glowed.
About the Author:
Rachel Cohen is a lawyer. Since she has to stick to the truth in her day job, when she writes fiction, she lies.