The Prompt: Emily Ludwig Shaffer

The Prompt: Emily Ludwig Shaffer

Marie-Helene Bertino serves up a recipe for magic realism inspired by Emily Ludwig Shaffer's 'Bay Leaf Wrapped Night.'

Marie-Helene Bertino serves up a recipe for magic realism inspired by Emily Ludwig Shaffer's 'Bay Leaf Wrapped Night.'

Emily Ludwig Shaffer, Bay Leaf Wrapped Night, 2018. New Now New York.

Alma and The Night

Written by Marie-Helene Bertino

That night, Alma uses a pastry cutter to turn a counter of rolled-thin dough into a hundred perfect squares. The restaurant is closed for a private birthday party, the dining room tables arranged in a candlelit crescent. The birthday woman has requested tortellini. Alma cuts square after square. Through the door she hears eruptions of laughter, toasts.

The party is comprised of high-end antique dealers. Chef lingers in the dining room, talking mid-century. This suits Alma, who prefers to interface with flour and eggs. She has worked at this bistro for a year and is known for her cloth-soft pasta.

Chef appears, trailed by a tall man in an expensive overcoat who wants to watch her process.

“I’ll be quiet as a mouse,” he promises. Under the kitchen lights he beams as if onstage.

Mice are loud, Alma thinks. But she says okay. Chef returns to the dining room and the man pulls himself into a sitting position on an adjacent counter. Alma spoons filling into the center of each square. He tells her he is a writer but doesn’t specify what kind. She tells him she is from the mountains but doesn’t specify which. It is his sister whose birthday it is. Are they close? Yes and no. Does Alma have siblings? No and no. She has a cat and this dough.

They talk until the drunken guests ask where’s dinner, where’s Leo, and Chef blusters back into the kitchen. Though he’d been the one to invite him, he shoos the tall man into the dining room.

“Leo!” The party exclaims. “Are you working here now?”

Cheers and a polished remark. Alma salts a giant pot of water. She is accustomed to hearing happiness from another room.

Chef gone, leftovers packaged, the party has vanished into paid rides. The last waiter moves through the dark dining room, crumbing empty tables. Alma slips the following day’s salmon into a bay of marinate. She is disappointed the tall man—Leo—hadn’t said good food or good night or anything before leaving.

The crumbing waiter returns from the dining room. “Someone forgot something.” She places it on the counter between them. A small, empty jar. They say goodnight and the girl leaves. Alma hears the release of a bike kickstand, the girl pedaling off, as she shuts off the last of the lights.

Plunged into darkness, the jar glows. Not empty after all, she thinks, moving closer.

Inside the jar is a clear night hung with a moon. A leafless tree on an expanse of hills. It looks real. As if summoned by her thought, the jar trembles, wobbles on its base. It shakes and falls onto its side. A crack snakes down the glass, shattering it.

Alma looks around for consult or conspirator but the restaurant is empty.

The Night inside the jar is now outside the jar, shimmering as if adjusting to freedom. Its borders are distinct, Alma can tell where The Night ends and her kitchen begins.

Its climate seems discreet: The tree sways from a breeze she cannot feel. She places a pinkie into its clime, gently, as if testing a sauce. Cool air encircles her finger.

The phone’s ring startles her. It is the birthday woman. “I left a jar!” Her voice roars through the receiver into the quiet kitchen. “Has anyone found it?”

The Night shudders on the counter. Fear, Alma registers. An urge to protect the vulnerable thing grows.

Emily Ludwig Shaffer, Bay Leaf Wrapped Night (detail), 2018. New Now New York.

“No one found anything.” She hangs up. The Night seems to sigh.

Alma hunts the cupboards for something that can swaddle. A sweet membrane that won’t entrap or overpower.

The phone’s upsetting ring startles her and The Night. This time, it’s Leo. Was she free for dinner the following week?

“Not pasta,” he jokes.

They make arrangements and hang up.

Bay leaves, she decides. She brushes a few with stock and lemon, and applies one to The Night. It works. She wraps its bottom and sides, leaves the top exposed. For what, she chides herself—breath? It had been trapped in a jar! But it had refused that jar.

Finished, she leans in to listen to The Night. A faraway howl. A grape smell.

Alma bikes home with The Night in her pocket.

Above her, the moon hangs in its waning phase.

In her pocket, the moon is full.

That week, Alma becomes a student of The Night. Likes: broth-soaked bay leaves. To sit on the windowsill gazing at its sibling, the real night. Dislikes: the cities’ startling horns and her cat. Alma tells The Night about the mercurial mountains where she’s from. Fits of trees. Eruptions of mist. She wears flowy pants with pockets so she can carry The Night wherever she goes.

Alma and Leo sit on a blanket eating salad and drinking wine. In conversation they grow close, intellectually. Later in her apartment they grow close, physically. In the morning, he asks about the bay- wrapped item on her shelf. She doesn’t specify where she acquired it. He does not seem overly interested.

Weeks pass. Leo stays over more and more. Every so often, his sister calls the restaurant to inquire over the “lost jar” and Alma says she hasn’t found it. She sews pockets into every dress she owns. She likes the feeling of The Night against her hip. She slips her hand in and it reaches for her with its comforting climate. Best friends. Has she ever been this happy?

After a depressing shift, Alma returns home to find her apartment door ajar. Someone has been inside. The damage is relegated to the bedroom. Every pair of jeans and pants she owns lie on the bed, pockets pulled out. The ones she wears when she’s feeling spicy. The ones she wears when she can’t bother. Her cat, bored, lies in the middle, licking a paw. Alma remembers a silent film where a beggar character pulls his pockets out to prove he’s broke. Her bed is covered in these expressions of poverty. She knows which tortellini eater has done it. But if she confronts her, she’ll have to admit to lying about The Night. Alma remains silent, even to Leo, who she assumes knows nothing.

Leo’s parents host their anniversary dinner on the cities’ highest rooftop. Like Leo’s sister they are antique dealers. Discerning people, accustomed to discerning genuine from chintz. In Alma’s pocket, The Night shivers. Whatever malice it endured had been at their hands.

The restaurant hovers over the city like a cruel remark. Alma’s unease grows during the meal. She is aware of the steep drop on all but one side of the table, packed with Leo’s family.

After dinner, Leo and a cousin cross the patio to smoke cigars.

“And you never found that jar?” his sister says, as if they’d already been talking about it. Alma feels The Night tremble and hop. Every face at the table turns toward her.

“We know you have it,” Leo’s mother says. “It’s time to give it up.”

Across the patio, Leo is ensconced in smoke. City lights diamond around him, in on it. His advances, she realizes, their dating, has only been to steal back The Night.

Alma runs.

Leo pursues, yelling, “What’s wrong, love?” But his voice is shot through with fraud. She’s onto him and his family.

Alma finds another patio where another restaurant’s wait staff sets out delicate plates. The Night throbs in her pocket, urging her on. She dodges partygoers and reaches an empty rooftop. She runs to the low wall that separates it from the drop.

Yards behind, Leo holds out his hands as if to steady her. “You’re out of control. Let’s talk.” Behind him, his family glares.

“Give us back our Night!”

In her pocket, a desperate howling.

“The Night is mine!” Alma says.

Several stories below, cars hush by on the street. Alma steps to the top of the wall, raises one leg as if to gain purchase on a ladder, and leaps into the air. Her dress launches over her head as she falls. She senses a commotion near the pocket. This is the end of it, then. The reaching of her limbs in tender space. An endless flat of dough. She falls and falls and falls. The Night expands. She lands, not on sidewalk but grass. Above her glimmer the leafless boughs of a tree. A pale, full moon set amid a bank of stars. A faraway howl. Alma sits on the cool grass. She is not worried or scared. The Night wraps her in its breeze.



Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the novels Parakeet and 2 a.m. at The Cat's Pajamas and the story collection Safe as Houses. Her work has received The O. Henry Prize, The Pushcart Prize, The Iowa Short Fiction award, and The Frank O'Connor International Short Story Fellowship in Cork, Ireland. Her fourth book, the novel Beautyland, is forthcoming from FSG in 2024. Find more here and here.



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