Milenka turned off the stove. She was sore, wiped out from all the cooking and had cleaning ahead of her yet. She covered the pot of still-simmering spinach and rolled the dumplings into a covered container. Alema had finally eaten her full. At least Milenka had done that much for her.
Milenka sighed, not unhappily, at her messy kitchen. “Such a day,” she said. She spoke in Czech, surprising herself. She and Lida never spoke in Czech anymore. There was no place for it in this world. But once the words came out of Milenka’s mouth, she was glad.
Alema looked up from her place at the table, where she sat in a daze after her binge. “What did you say?”
Milenka knew Alema didn’t understand Czech. It was too bad, she always thought, that her granddaughter had never learned how to speak to them. But now Alema was leaning toward the language as if it could save her.
“I said it’s about time you stopped acting like a little child.”
Lida flinched when she heard Milenka’s words, and even Max, who had in his childhood refused to respond to Czech, made out the meaning and sat up a little straighter. Alema tilted her head and listened to the foreign words with interest.
“You are spiteful,” Lida said to Milenka in Czech. The language sounded natural even after all those years. “This is your only granddaughter,” Lida added. “You should be happy she came all the way to see you.”
“You know nothing about this,” Milenka told her. The Czech flowed from her effortlessly, as if she’d never stopped speaking it.
“So ungrateful. You don’t deserve such a granddaughter.”
“You don’t know what it means to have a grandchild,” Milenka said. “All your life, you’ve tried to take over my family. You put yourself right in with everyone else, as if you belong. But you don’t.”
Alema was watching them closely. “Tell me what you’re saying,” she said.
“Not now,” Milenka told her.
“You never let me have anything,” Lida said. Her voice was quiet. She looked down at the table and didn’t direct her words to anyone in particular, but she spoke in Czech, so she meant them for Milenka. “I had nothing, my whole life, and still you are prepared to take more away from me. And now,” Lida continued, “what you have is a granddaughter whose biggest fear is becoming you.”
“That’s not true,” Max said. “Alema just lives in a different world, that’s all. She’s independent, strong. I’m proud of her.”
Alema closed her eyes. “It’s a strange language. Kind of coarse and frightening, but beautiful. I wish I understood it.” She looked up at Milenka. “I don’t understand one word.”
“No matter,” Lida assured her in English. “You are a good girl.”
“I want to learn,” Alema said.
“Not now,” Milenka said again. She turned back to the sink and picked up a sponge.
“I’ll teach you,” Lida told Alema. “What do you want to say?”
Alema murmured something that Milenka couldn’t make out.
“All right,” Lida said. “That’s easy.”
Milenka glanced back to see Alema lean in toward Lida. She tensed at the sight of them so close together, their heads almost touching across the table.
Finally, Alema pulled away. “Grandmother,” she said in Czech. Milenka froze. Alema rarely called her “Grandmother” even in English. Usually she called her nothing at all.
“Thank you,” Alema went on haltingly. Her attempt was garbled but recognizable, and Lida nodded her on in encouragement. “Thank you.”
Milenka looked down at her hands. “Děkuji,” she said in return. She directed her thanks to no one, the word drifting off somewhere in the middle distance.
Alema smiled. Then she pushed back her chair and walked over to the breadbox, where she produced a pile of spice muffins.
“Lida made these this morning,” Alema said, passing the muffins around the table. When Milenka hesitated, Alema waved one in front of her. “How do you say, ‘this is for you?’”
Milenka took the muffin even though she’d baked a white cake that was sitting on the adjacent counter. No one noticed it, but maybe that didn’t matter.
“This is for you,” Milenka said in Czech. She looked at Lida, who was between Max and Alema but alone nonetheless.
“Say it again,” Alema said. “Slower.”
“This is for you.” Milenka met Lida’s eyes as she brought the soft spice muffin to her lips. She sank into it deep, its powdery texture filling her throat, creating inside her space for all that was generous, and giving, and good.