Peer Review by ALangford (United Kingdom)

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Ground Cumin

By: casual.ties

When I asked my mother what my name was she laughed at me, and went back to stirring a pot on the stove. I think it was soup, because the room smelt like chorizo and my mother makes the best chickpea and chorizo soup. My mother could have been a chef I think, because I can still remember the taste of that soup in my mouth, and I haven’t remembered anything in a long time.  When I asked again she stopped. She put the wooden spoon down on the breakfast bar and searched for a joke in my eyes.

“Are you feeling okay?” she asked, stepping closer, studying me suspiciously as if she was expecting me to burst into laughter and tease her for falling for it. It would help if I knew what she would have been falling for, because I’m pretty sure the prankster is supposed to know what the joke is when they’re making it.

I suppose at the time I was feeling okay, that was until she put down the spoon, because my mother never put down the spoon when she was cooking something. Not until it was in a bowl and being eaten. Then she called my dad in from the other room. I think he was playing with my sister. He doesn’t do that very much anymore.

“What?” My dad asked as he peered into the kitchen.

“Ask him what you just asked me.”

I felt almost ashamed in that moment, I guess, because I could see my mother’s eyes getting wider until I could see all of her iris, surrounded by a rim of bloodshot white. I remember that my mother had hazel eyes.

“I asked my name. I can’t remember it.”


That’s all I can remember of that day. It’s a lot more than I usually remember, which is probably because it was an important day and my wayward mind decided that some of it was worth remembering. I’m glad, because memories are like dreams that I can access any time of the day, and sometimes I’m thankful I don’t have more, because I suppose I’d spend all day in my head; I would replay memories until they got all scratched and wouldn’t spin right in the DVD player any more.

My sister tells me that I had more memories once, just like her and mum and dad did, but it’s hard to imagine how it feels now. It’s like when you cut your hair and you despise it but one day you look in the mirror and you can’t remember the way it looked before. I wish I could look after her more, my sister. She’s a lot bigger than I remember her ever being, and she acts old and real mature. She doesn’t like playing games very much though, so I sit with her when she does her homework. Sometimes I try to help her but most of the time I just watch as a page gets fuller and fuller, until it’s crammed with smeared blue ink. It’s a beautiful feeling, that.

Sometimes she gets angry though, when I do something wrong. I can’t remember what I did wrong but one time she yelled at me and slammed a door so loud my ears started ringing. If I knew what I did I could apologise, but I can’t now.

I try to write about how that moment feels sometimes, having a door slammed in your face. I try make it about my sister but it always seems to end up being about me. Instead I wrote this on the back of a used post-it-note.

“I am one of those old jars you find in the back of the pantry that’s now filled with salad dressing or ground cumin, but it wasn’t always. Someday it was full of something else, something you can’t quite remember; but it’s gone, used up now. I wish I could remember, because then maybe I’d be full again.”

I didn’t want my parents to find it and worry so I hid it in the back of my wardrobe, where I knew I could find it again if I wanted. I think I used to write a bit, when I knew more words and how to put them together so they sounded like music, because by room is full of half-used notebooks that had to be rebound to stop all the pages from falling out. Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and find blue ink stains on the side of my hand, and an newly written page in one of the books that I don’t remember being there before.

Time seems to pass strangely now, and I only remember the important bits. It’s like the moment I decide to go someplace, like magic, I’m there, in the blink of an eye. You get used to it after a while, and it becomes stranger when it doesn’t happen, because then I know that something will get in the way of us going there.  It’s a mix between anticipation and dread, and all I can do is cross my fingers and hope that nothing bad happens. Something bad usually ends up happening anyway.

There is a bird bath in our back garden and it hasn’t been full for a long time this summer, but last night it rained for the first time and now suddenly it’s full to overflowing. Next time it rained I went outside and stood on the curb with my arms outspread until my mother yelled out at me to come inside, and it made me realise something. I don’t have to be full of what I was made to be full of, because that doesn’t make me any less brimming. I can flood 100s of empty jam jars with ground cumin and they’ll still be full to the brim. That makes me feel better whenever I forget. I’m full of ground cumin. I don’t have to feel empty anymore.

Peer Review

Gahh, I'm so obsessed with this whole thing. The understated but shocking first line (like the modern equivalent of Kafka) is extremely effective at drawing the reader in and the lines after that also work really well because you draw the reader away from what they're wondering about and onto what seems like an unrelated topic - it's gorgeously frustrating. But I think it's the style that I like the most - as I say, its understated and very genuine and in the context of this it works very well.

I think it's the style again because you don't go off on Woolf-esque explorations of every tiny feeling but instead you summarise really poignant thoughts of your character in a matter-of-fact way which kind of reinforces the poignancy of it overall, as well as using really effective analogies to back this up. This conversational tone really helps the reader to understand the character. It's also those little added lines you use like 'something bad usually happens anyway' - it reveals a lot about your character's mindset and attitudes but very subtly and in a really charming way. Maybe you could develop on the line about trying to make it about the sister but not ever managing it - this makes the character seem self-absorbed but I'd be interested to know how this is possible when the character can't remember what has shaped them as a person.

To be honest I can't judge it because I'm too in love with it, but maybe sort of space out the epiphany at the ending more? It seems like quite an abrupt conclusion given that the feelings of being empty have been expressed so recently.

I think you were right to not concentrate too much on setting - the focus of this extract is effectively the passage of time so I don't think it would have worked to describe it too much. However, having said this, the brief description of the birdbath is brilliant in context. It's quite beautifully visual at times - maybe you could have also referenced the loss of memory of sound etc? It probably wouldn't have added anything extra to this as an excerpt though, to be honest.

Beautiful writing, beautiful title, beautiful idea - this is such a charming and interesting piece. Well done!

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