by Raji Singh
I am James Thaddeus Fiction, the Fifth – a true Fiction. Typhoon tears me from my parents. I alone survive. I become an orphaned foundling, taken in by new loving parents, Dr. Ben and Indira Singh. Now, I am Raji. These are my found and foundling tales.
CHEF R.K.’S INGREDIENT I. A LARGE PORTION OF CAN DO
Once upon a time as a lad, I possessed a plastic picture finger ring. From the first day I saw it in the bric-a-brac shop – MAGIC! Twist it, just slightly. A glittery red, white, blue image quickly changes, back and forth, from Old Glory to President Kennedy. I listen as his courageous profile challenges me:
“Ask not what your country can do for you, Raji. What can you do for it, hmm?”
I fury, fume, and wonder aloud. “How can I help? There must be a way. There must!” But, to a ten year old in Cincinnati, everything seemed right in my world.
When my parents overheard me and saw the ring they said, “Raji, you are too young for the late President’s Peace Corps. Yet there is much you can do.” For this task, they took me to their homeland, Lindia.
Though Lindia is but my adopted country, as an orphaned foundling, its kind people had saved my life. So this is where I began my many ‘can do’ summers, volunteering for something I’d not anticipated, certainly not relished – a road kill clean-up crew. Many wonderful things came from it: Just one of them – meeting lifelong friend, Chef R.K.
(His real name is Rhandi Khan. But because of his unusual roadwork, initials R.K. seemed more appropriate.)
INGREDIENT II. A TOUCH OF MAGIC
A type of painting similar to the here-now flagged-later Kennedy ring, murals the side of Chef R.K.’s twenty-foot long wagon that sits alongside the road in the Lindian Woods. The painting shows Lindia’s Goddess Nardesha. Blink and her outstretched palms lift from her creamy silk gown. She raises upward, Heaven bound. Other images painted on the wagon: long lines of crunched road kill. You can almost hear Nardesha whisper to them. “Come with me, my gentle creatures. The bondage of your spirits to this earthly realm is complete.” You blink; mongoose, cobra, lizard, squirrel, a fish – a FISH? – And dozens of other artist-depicted road kill puff out, are reborn, and then parade proudly skyward. Hundreds of beautiful butterflies guide them.
“You like picture?” Chef R.K. asks, hardly looking away from his cooking. His grill is the length of the wagon, and three-feet deep. Covering its surface are sizzling meats he filleted from flattened critters. They intermingle with steamy vegetables and pots of bitter-smelling broth.
R.K, in his 40’s is lean and tan, his face clean-shaven. He is shirtless, and in short pants to keep cool in the warm Lindian sun. His arms, hand and head move so fast you’d think his ancestors were octopus. His magic dust he sprinkles constantly: Ground herbs and spices in pouches hanging from his belt. They marry the bill of fare then birth tantalizing sweet scents.
R.K. controls his outdoor kitchen as a concert pianist does piano keys. Nothing burns. He removes sumptuous morsels, large and small, round, square, long, that were once animal sacrifices to the speeding steel gods of the highways. Now the critters are platefuls of inviting delicacies. Mongoose-cobra, rat-wildcat, eternal enemies sauteed together as one. He passes the dishes quickly to a line of other volunteer boys and girls who distribute them to the hundreds of bedraggled poor.
“The impoverished, Raji” he says, putting his mouth near my ear so I may hear midst the clattering pots and pans. “They too have the right to taste the wealth of Goddess Nardesha’s sumptuous array of bounty. Her food minions such as I; we have the ability to provide it, lovingly, tastefully. This is why I do what I do. I serve but the freshest of kill.”
Because of all the chattering of the gathering, and all the happy eating sounds, I can hardly hear Chef R.K. say “hello-goodbye” to my parents. He knew they were bringing me. After hugging me, they leave, not wanting to be in the way.
I know I won’t see them for weeks, but it is hard to feel my sadness at their departure for too long because R.K. instantly puts me to work midst the frenzy.
INGREDIENT III. ENDLESS HUMBLE OFFERINGS
Everything R.K. serves comes from the Lindian Woods.
He points to boxes of orange and yellow cocoa pods other volunteers gather. “Crack open. All these, Raji. Separate bean from white.” His voice necessarily is staccato, to keep pace with his swift actions. I slam the pods together like castanets. They open easily. The insides are marshmallow soft, chocolaty pungent. I barely have time to taste it. R.K. ratchets it away and spreads it on the grill for flavoring. He waves his arms from his chest, outward, to indicate to me the impoverished. “Today, we serve them. “So we eat last,” he orders.
When all the pods are open – “Good Raji,” he says tersely. “Now. Sprinkle this on the oxen’s grass. He gives me a bucket of sour smelling powder. “When that is done. Shovel up their droppings. Bring them to me.”
One of the other busy volunteers – a freckled, black haired girl my age, who for reasons I couldn’t understand at that time in my life – smiles hugely at me, and whispers. “The powder is R.K’s secret extract. It makes the droppings smell sweet as clover when burned. This is a must. Because it is with it he heats the grill.” She fidgets timidly in her jeans and t-shirt. Her black eyes sparkle. She smells sweet, like vanilla ice cream. “My name is Reena, Raji.”
Dozens of tasks I accomplish that first day on the road kill crew – stoking the lavender aroma flames, washing pans, slicing pineapple, mashing mango – all for the purpose of feeding those in need. By now, I am drained of energy.
Reena brings fresh coconut milk and we share a half-shell. Inconspicuously, she wipes my face so R.K. doesn’t see we sneaked it. Briefly, she holds my hand. Her fingers are warm, lithe. I breathe deeply. This moment of joy like, I’ve never known before, this brief respite from President Kennedy’s “can do”, renews me.
“YES!” I shout inwardly. I suddenly understand, feel the importance of President Kennedy’s words. To me they mean, ‘only by helping others will you help yourself.’
Though we’ll eat nothing until all are fed, this thought would power me through the afternoon, then the rest of the summer, stay with me throughout my life. And the succulent scents – they would give me strength of willpower as well as muscle.
INGREDIENT IV. FISH, BUT NEVER FOUL
Every so often, a volunteer runs up, shouting and carrying a dead fish. “She’s delivered another one.”
R.K. takes it, sniffs, smiles, says. “I can always count on her to deliver only fresh.”
‘Her?’ I look around. ‘Her, who?’ I wonder.
Finally, another curiosity gets the best of me. I must ask, “How…a fish as road kill? How could so many keep falling off trucks?”
R.K. laughs, but the mournful sound seems a dirge. Midst his busyness, he takes time to explain. “There is sea kill too Raji. The wood and fiberglass gods of the water – the yachts – they leave much torture in their wake. As long as there is sea kill and road kill you will find me here summers and holidays.”
All of a sudden, I hear a familiar voice. “Aarrk! Catch Raji.” I look into the blue sky. Just in time to put my hands out, and grab what Captain Polly drops – a four-pound fish – bigger than her; her biggest delivery of the day.
“Ahoy, Captain Polly,” I shout, so excited in my surprise to see her.
“You know our Captain Polly, says Reena. “Often she helps us.”
“We are the best of friends, in Cincinnati. Geez, Reena. It’s such a small world.” Suddenly I have this desire to show Reena all my hiding spots and favorite places in my neighborhood back home.
My smile gets huge as Reena’s as she looks at me. I’ll just bet she knows what I am thinking.
Reena stammers a little, and glances away briefly, deciding what she will say. “Umm, Raji. Uh, well… Captain Polly certainly does get around. Maybe you know her compatriot in the water?”
I look through the woods, to the river that parallels the road. I see the top portion of a tattooed brown shell bobbing above the water. “Turt!” He winks at me and with his beak-snout scoops up unfortunate road kill and tosses it skyward. Swooping Captain Polly seizes it in her talons. She grunts as she’s pulled slightly down by the weight. She manages to stay airborne.
Oh, so that how she’s able to deliver such huge loads. Her momentum plus willpower propels her.
Captain Polly drops the fish to R.K., then lights on my shouder to rest. I smile, pet her glistening plumage.
R.K. laughs. “Well, Raji. Appears it is old home week. It ought to be an adventurous summer for you three musketeers.”
I look at Reena and say to myself, “the four of us.”
INGREDIENT V. REPLENISHING THE SPIRIT
Its getting dark. The poor, fed for another day. Only the volunteers remain. We eat, yet plentiful uncooked food remains. “Nothing wasted,” declares R.K. “We’ll slow cook the remaining overnight on the cooling grill. It will provide many breakfasts.”
With the help of Turt who moseys up from the river, we all load the grill onto the wagon. Captain Polly squawks directions. “Higher, lower. Aarrk! To the left, right.” We yoke the oxen and harness them to the wagon. The volunteers disperse. Reena remains. She pulls me aside. Her face shimmers in the starlight. “My parents will be picking me up soon, Raji. I…I…just wanted to say how glad I am we met. I’ll be returning to help R.K. again next week. I…I’m anxious to see you again.” Headlights beaming onto Nardesha indicate a car approaching. Reena kisses my cheek, and runs to the car and gets in.
I feel…I don’t know what I feel. Surprise? Joy? Shock? All these emotions reel wildly within me.
THE FINAL INGREDIENT. CONTENTMENT
The oxen, so used to R.K.’s route, pull the wagon by rote. They know to stop just before daylight, so R.K. can ready for another day’s cooking. He and I recline on sleeping bags atop an elevated bunk on the wagon. We’re far above any wild animals that are fortunate to avoid becoming road kill. Captain Polly is dozily reliving the day with Turt as she rides atop his shell. He rides on a sturdy sidecar-like storage platform attached to the wagon.
R.K. points skyward. “You will learn the constellations as summer passes, Raji. It is so relaxing to search the heavens. See there. That is Orion. Look, Andromeda. She is a beautiful young princess.”
I study the formation, but I don’t see stars, only Reena. I think R.K. reads my thoughts. He says, “You like Reena, yes Raji?”
“Good,” he says. “She is a sweet girl. She has been a little helper of mine, almost ever since she could walk. She lives by my restaurant in Lindia City? I am sure you’ll get a chance to see her a lot.”
R.K starts telling me about himself, his wife and grown children, his history with road kill wagons – he has one of them in each of Lindia’s 40 provinces, all with their cooks, volunteers. I hear what he says, but my thoughts are on Reena. I anxiously ask, “Will Reena come back soon? Does she have a boyfr… Before I can finish, Captain Polly, half squawks half sings, “Reena, dear Reena. Our dear Raji is smitten.” Turt joins the serenade, with a trilling trumpeting.
EPILOGUE: THE FINAL GARNISHMENT
I went to the Lindian Woods one summer, decades later, to visit R.K. Nowhere in sight. I returned to Lindia City and stopped at his always-crowded restaurant. The road kill wagon sat cobwebbed in the alley. He took a few moments to visit.
“The steel gods of the highway Raji: They’re ever bigger, soar ever faster. Yet there is little road kill to collect. Who would ever think? It is because there are so few of Nardesha’s creatures remaining to pass from one side of the road to the other. Who can say why so many are no longer here: Chemicals, pesticides, changing temperatures, the flooding coasts? SAD! Which species will be next, Raji? Yours and mine?”
If you knew R.K. as I do, you’d know he is undefeatable. He pats my shoulder before returning to the grill. “Raji, we road kill chef’s have a new weapon. It is something so simple. It is called ‘NOTHING WASTED’. We make sure there is no waste in any of our restaurants. From just here in Lindia City, we feed hundreds of thousands poor each year.”
R.K. smiles broadly as he happily flips, fillets, and fricassees.
WHEN NEXT WE SEE REENA AND RAJI: ‘WALK WITH ME TO THE KISSING TREE’
(Join me every Sunday night at the Fiction House, your place for short story, lark, whimsy, and merriment. Meet the many residents as I archive their lives and centuries of adventures. You can read of their origins in my novel TALES OF THE FICTION HOUSE. They are completely different stories. My novel is available at Amazon, (Kindle and Trade Paperback) and Barnes and Noble.)
©2014 Raji Singh