This story was written for the September 2015 Monthly Short Story Writing Challenge held by our writing community at the EA Forums. If you write SimLit, we’d love to have you join us! We have a new challenge each month!
It all started when I opened my mind. No, wait. It started before then. For my heart had to open first, even if just a little bit, or my mind would have remained as firmly shut as a nutmeg seed. And before then, I had to open the store, and before that the shipment of saffron. Let’s just say that it started.
At the time, I valued saffron more than any other spice. It wasn’t that it was a quality spice–what is there to it? I thought at the time. Just color. No taste. Little aroma. Nothing but the stamens of a crocus. You would think that, being from the stamen, saffron would be a particularly sexy, potent spice. But the crocus flower is sterile, propagated through the division of the corms, a secret underground cloning. There is neither virility nor fertility to the sexless flower.
But it sold like gold. It was all the rage at that time among gourmets and the bistro restaurant chefs that frequented my shop.
I loved to pour over my ledgers–so little money out, so much money in. And saffron brought in more profit than nearly every other herb or spice combined, even Ceylon cinnamon.
That one afternoon, I heard the bell above the door, and as it opened, so began that cascade of openings that leads to here, this moment, this table, this dish.
A woman, just past middle age, walked in. Nothing unusual. Customers streamed in all through the day. I had seen her before: hair pulled back with cloth ties, colorful clothes, face open and smooth like child’s. Always a laugh ready in the corner of her eyes.
I didn’t feel an immediate affinity for her–not that day, nor any of the times when she had strolled through the shop. At the time, I felt that anyone who wore a smile wore it to hide something, no matter how open her face might appear.
“I’m here for saffron,” she said.
Of course. The new shipment I’d received from Spain was graded coupé–the highest grade. I’d picked it up at a bargain from a merchant I knew in New York who had overbought for his market. Word had gotten out among the connoisseurs that I was selling the overflow.
“How much?” I asked.
For the home kitchen, that was a large order. We sat at the table with the shop scale, and I measured it out with tweezers and then weighed it.
“I’m making saffron rice,” she said.
“Lovely, I’m sure.”
“Have you had it?” she asked, as if on a whim, an afterthought. “Surely you have.”
“I have not,” I replied, a little defensively.
She leaned back in her chair and surveyed me.
“A seller of spice who has never had saffron rice,” she said.
And she looked at me again.
“We must remedy that!”
“Oh, no,” I replied. “There is nothing to remedy.”
I could not taste. That was my secret. It wasn’t one that I wanted to get around, for who would buy from someone who could not appreciate the qualities of his merchandise?
But she wouldn’t settle for no.
“You needn’t come to me. I will come to you. Tomorrow afternoon. Four o’clock, shall we say? You just wait here, open the door when I come, and you will finally, at last, enjoy the divine pleasure that is saffron rice.”
I spent that evening and the next morning trying to catch a cold, stub my toe, break my arm, anything that might require me to close the shop early.
But around noon, she stopped by again.
“I haven’t forgotten,” she said. “Just popping in to let you know!”
And something about her smile, something in the light that flicked from her eyes, something about her voice–I resigned myself to trying her dish.
“I thought you might forget,” I said.
“No, no,” she replied. “Here, just try this.”
And she passed over to me a golden raisin.
“Put it in your mouth!” she said.
I opened my mouth. Perhaps it all started when I opened my mouth. The raisin, in its sweetness, rested on my tongue.
“Don’t chew!” she said. “Let it sit in your mouth.”
Slowly, the sweetness spread, through my tongue, onto the palette, down my throat. I felt the sweetness descend.
“What witchery is this?” I asked.
She laughed, “No witchery! Just a late summer raisin, golden from the sun! Just a little prelude to the dish we’ll share in a few short hours!”
After she left, I could not settle into a task. I kept pacing about the room, remembering the sweetness of the raisin. How was it I could taste it? How was it I could taste it still?
At last, the hour for our appointment arrived. She opened the door again to the tinkling bell, and she carried a serving bowl covered with a red plaid dish towel.
The aroma–Ceylon cinnamon, cardamom, raisins, almonds, and something I could not identify–made me pause.
She carried the dish back into the little kitchen in my private quarters, at the back of the shop. She dished out two helpings, and we sat on my single bed and ate together.
“Eat slowly,” she said. “Like with the raisin. Smell first, then eat slow.”
Flavors filled my mouth–sweet, again, from the raisin and cinnamon. Salty. Savory–were those onions and garlic? And one last flavor.
“What is this?” I asked.
“Saffron,” she said. “It’s indescribable, isn’t it? The threads from the crocus!”
“It’s not just for color, after all!”
“Oh, no!” she said. “It’s for essence!”
How was it, that I could taste this? What had changed in me, what had opened to allow this entire world that my customers sought to become real for me?
After the meal, I asked her to tell me her favorite spices, and we spent the next hour sampling pepper, vanilla bean, nutmeg, turmeric.
Thus began our daily ritual. Every afternoon, now, around four o’clock, my friend arrives with some new dish, and we settle in to enjoy a meal enriched with the spices that I deal.
I was a seller of merchandise. I have become a spice merchant.