“Step down, lady, you are free.”
I was getting to the good part in The Last Unicorn. It was a summer afternoon, Tuesday or maybe Friday, as I sat reading with the whir of the fishtank and the clunking of the overhead fan and Cornette, my new foster mother, writing in her daisy-covered notebook, The Fulfilled Woman’s Daily Planner.
Cornette looked up from the Weekly Menu page. “Did you ever bake cookies?”
“Don’t think so.” The unicorn took a first step.
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “No one has taught you to do anything.”
She said that every time I loaded the dishwasher wrong, or jammed a key in a car door, or put my nylons on backwards. Yeah, I put my nylons on backwards.
I wanted to say, “Hey, it’s not my mother’s fault. She couldn’t handle her own life, let alone help me with stuff. She did the best she could.”
Cornette stretched across the kitchen counter, pulling close a metal recipe box, her red nails flipping through blue-lined recipe cards. She saved the blank cards in back for other uses. There were quotes: “The man who ends up winning is the man who thinks he can,” Bible verses: “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” and notes: “Please load the dishwasher. Thank you.”
She plucked a card from the Desserts section, whisked on her apron, opened a canister of flour, flipped open a carton of eggs.
I slipped off my stretchy headband and stuck it at page 35, where the magician freed the unicorn from its cage. I got up, clumping over to Cornette’s side of the counter. My size eight Norsports looked twice the size of Cornette’s bare feet with their skinny-necked toes and red-faced nails.
She rested against the kitchen counter, supporting her pregnant weight on the strong knobs of her knuckles. Her middle finger wore a chunky silver ring with a turquoise globe. She laid the three-by-five card flat. Chocolate Chip Cookies, it said. The letters were gorgeous loops that sprung large, handwriting that had never known a cage.
Her auburn hair swung round her ears, and she smelled like perfume, but clean, without the filmy burn in your nose. “Two bowls, it says. But it’s simpler and time-saving to use one.”
“Recipes are guidelines,” she said. “There’s always a better way to do everything.”
“Here,” she said. “Open your hand.”
She measured salt into the green plastic teaspoon, then poured the teaspoonful into my palm.
I wasn’t sure what she was going to have me do, so I just held the salt really well.
“If you remember what a teaspoon looks like, you don’t have to measure next time.” The salt filled the center of my life line, white and mounded. It trickled into, I thought, the love line, what Ruby Nickels called it. Back when I lived with Mother, Ruby Nickels and I were best friends, and we all loved each other forever.
Cornette pointed me down the list of ingredients and explained that brown sugar must be packed. I mashed it beneath my spoon, solid and glossy, and it emerged in a perfect cylinder when I dumped it into the bowl. The baking soda was difficult to scoop from the cut-out cardboard hole of the Arm & Hammer box. I managed to wobble out the measuring spoon without spilling white grit all over the counter.
I picked up the egg. I knew the egg. Mother would rap it on the edge of a cup and it would crumple inward, cracked and ready. It was learning I’d had much longer, deeper, than “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” or “The man who ends up winning.”
Cornette saw me holding the egg, about to make impact. “Wait–” she said, and with one motion took the egg from my hand, turned it sideways, tapped it on the counter, and made a clean perfect break. “See?”
“Nobody,” she said, “wants to have all those tiny broken pieces floating around.”
I slowly scooped the flour. I looked around for the bag of chocolate chips. The sealed wrapper slipped under my oily fingers.
“Here,” she said, with a small sigh of exploding impatience. She grabbed scissors and cut the bag open. Raising eyebrows, she leaned back against the opposite counter as if she could take a nap in all the time it was taking me.
By now the butter was oozy yellow puddles among the other ingredients. I stirred and stirred and stirred.
Cornette started to say something, but turned it into breath. She waited, arms folded.
“That’s right,” she said. “It’s all mixed up now.” More than I could know.
She showed me how to spoon globs of dough onto the cookie sheets, so they had room to grow. “Very nice,” she said, and twisted the dial on the timer.
At the ding, Cornette pulled the cookie sheets from the oven. The cookies breathed their last steam, each a round and crisp-edged minefield of chips, each chip a dark, simmering pool. “They’re not like mine.” She broke one in half, chewed. “I don’t know. They may be even better.”
I spooned the next batch on my own and went back to my book. The kitchen was ticking like a bomb. Pretty soon I figured out, even though the unicorn was free, there was a lot more still to happen. I was only on page thirty-six.
I never did learn to load the dishwasher.
Christi Krug has authored seven resource books and dozens of articles for national magazines. Her stories and poetry have appeared in Insight, The Fossil, Vision, Zelos, The Rambler, Umbrella, and Qarrtsiluni. She can be found blogging at christikrug.blogspot.com. Website: christikrug.com.
© 2008, Christi Krug