"When Medzmama’s Eyes Sparkle, You Know to Watch Your Back" by Lindy Biller

“Don’t be shy,” she says. “I’ve got a surprise for you!”

You are six, and Medzmama is sitting on that big woven carpet with the cranes and cheetahs and leaping horses, all the way from the Old Country. She holds out her hand—a diamond of paklava swaddled in a napkin. She has sneaked this from the dinner table, even though you didn’t finish your green beans and pilaf, even though Mama told you no, sweets were for good girls only—and you inch closer, nervous. It could be a lure, the carpet beneath her a trapdoor, the dessert as bait.

“Go on,” Medzmama says, the eye-sparkle turning even more sparkly.

You reach out and snatch the paklava without stepping on the rug. The flaky layers stick to your teeth, and Medzmama grins. You think of the witch in the woods, fattening up the children with cakes and treacle. You feel a tingle of excitement that spreads from your tongue to your fingertips. It could also be dread, but you are too young to know that yet.

“There,” Medzmama says. “My good, sweet girl.”

You are eight years old, the chosen flower girl for your aunt’s wedding. Such an honor, Mama says! You’ve been grinding your teeth at night and biting your nails during the day. Your skin is patchy with eczema. Less sugar, the doctor says, but Medzmama won’t hear of it. She takes you and your mother to the Middle Eastern bakery and then out shopping for fabric. All around you, silk in pinks and blues and yellows, taffeta like whipped cream, reams of chiffon, patterned fabrics on sticks like rolling pins.

You choose moss green. Your mother holds it up to your skin.

“No,” she says. “It washes you out.”

Your mother has brought fashion magazines for comparison’s sake. The women in the magazines are tall and lithe and their noses look nothing like yours. Your mother pulls some colors from the racks: mulberry, emerald, cobalt blue. Your grandmother agrees to a bold emerald, but she buys some of the moss-green chiffon anyway. “For the new curtains,” she says. “I’ve been looking for something just this color.”

Thread flows like water from her machine. Your dress is moss green, with a floaty skirt and a bodice like Medzmama’s hugs—a little too tight. Your mother sighs. “Mom.” The wedding day is rainy and the priest is late and the pictures go terribly and you are smiling in all of them.

You're eleven, walking three miles to Medzmama’s house after school. Not the best arrangement, but your brother has soccer practice and your Papa has work and your Mama hasn’t moved from the couch in three days.

You set up your books on Medzmama’s kitchen table, which is yellow and crisscross patterned. Medzmama stands at the stove, a pot bubbling. She sings a lullaby in Armenian, which you don’t speak, but you don’t like the crawling-skin feeling it gives you. Like worms are trying to burrow out. You gather up your books and walk past Medzmama, toward the living room. There is that sly, sparkling look, and then she lunges—her grip tight on your wrist, and then your arm wrenched toward her, your finger plunged into the pot on the stove, and you scream, but she holds you with iron strength, your fingertip deep in the thick, foamy yogurt—madzoon, as she calls it, which always made you think “mad moon,” though the words don’t mean the same thing at all—and before you can beg, she’s released you.

You stare at your fingertip. Covered in foam, unscathed beneath.

Medzmama looks delighted.

“Remember. The warmth, the way it feels. The only way to know is by touch.”

For dinner, she makes your favorite, a peace offering: muenster cheese wrapped in phyllo dough. She pries the glittering seeds from a pomegranate, puts them in a shallow bowl, puts the bowl on the table. In school, you’re learning about Persephone. The whole thing with Hades and the pomegranate. A trick, the story goes. But—Queen of Hell! What other option did she have? Sitting around in a field with her mother, doling out sunshine for small men, braiding wheat stalks? You eat slowly, bursting each ruby between your worn-down molars.

You’re thirteen, and your mother is taking you to the nursing home to see Medzmama. It has been two months since her stroke. The hall is long and beige, full of fake, potted flowers. You touch one, wondering if it’s silk, and your mother slaps your hand away.

“That’s not yours, Lucine.”

“I just wanted to feel it.”

Your mother stops at a door, frowns. The number is correct, but Medzmama's needlework is hanging on the next door over.

“I must’ve remembered wrong,” your mother says. She knocks at the second door, then pushes it open. “Mom?”

The woman inside shrieks—an old lady in curlers, shorter and rounder than Medzmama, her TV tuned to a soap opera in which two pretty people are kissing.

When you knock at the other door, the correct one, Medzmama answers gleefully.

“April Fools!”

Her favorite holiday, except for Easter. It is February 4th, but you and your mother laugh. A real surprise, your mother says. You got us good, Mom.

She tells you that was nothing—imagine dying in front of all of them, the holes in your palms, the thorns, the blood. That was commitment. Selling the bit. You see the people all crying or cheering, depending on whose side they’re on, you see the lightning and earthquakes and the tears falling, swallowed up instantly by the parched earth, but you can’t say anything, can’t react at all, because what a pity it would be to spoil it. Admittedly, you would hate it for a little while. The combined weight of their sadness. You’d wonder if this whole thing was worth it. But then—oh, the moment when the stone rolled away, the empty tomb. The woman who came to see you, talking softly with her eyes down, thinking you were a gardener—a gardener! Imagine the looks on their faces.

You are fifteen and all the good china has been packed away, the needlework divided between her sisters and children, the furniture donated to the hospice thrift store. Your mother is on the phone, her voice a spindle. You curl up on Medzmama’s carpet, your cheek pressed against the pomegranate medallion at its center. You close your eyes, waiting.

Lindy Biller is a writer of Armenian descent. Her fiction has recently appeared at Milk Candy Review, Fractured Literary, Reservoir Road, and Cheap Pop. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @lindymbiller.