Dense evergreen forest

The Story of the Cook

By Rob Carney

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Old Roads, New Stories: A Literary Series

I’m not a hydrologist, but I know how to use a water glass. If you drink it down halfway, and then more, and then almost to the bottom, then the only way to have more is to fill it  back up. Same with the Great Salt Lake: Divert the rivers that flow to it so that people in all the new housing tracts can have faucets and ice cubes and lawns, and there you go—little, less, and then nothing left to reach the lake. Which is why it’s dying. Which is why we’ll soon have nothing but a crust of salt and toxic dust, dust stirred up into every breath of air.

Our legislature knows this. They have reports, even ones from professors at BYU instead of those lefty-type faculty at public universities. But in January 2023, they got a better report… well, more of a letter, but still… a letter that says this catastrophe is all the fault of trees.

Yep. That’s exactly what I thought too.

Anyway, trees, it says—and this explains why people like Representative Ivory have signed on as enthusiasts; the Ivory family makes its millions from building housing developments—trees are out there drinking up all the water, and that’s why the lake is so low, so the obvious fix is to bulldoze and burn them, and as soon as we do—Abracadabra!—the lake will be restored.

I could go on writing and trying to persuade why this is dumb, but you already know that, and the problem, I think, with another essay is that anyone who doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to, isn’t reading or listening anyway. Instead, sometimes I write parables—those old stories hoping to demonstrate, those old stories with setting and characters in action—because maybe they still have a chance to find a different door. A doorway into people’s thoughts. A doorway to reach their feelings for a minute. And that’s how long most parables tend to be, no longer than a minute or two. But with an impact, perhaps, that lasts longer, that goes on growing inside someone the way a tree keeps growing rings.

That said, this one, “The Story of the Cook,” is not about the Great Salt Lake. I already did that a year ago in “The Woman Who Kept on Talking,” and then again, though less directly, in “The Story of the Farmer.” No, this one is about the people who give and the ones who keep on taking, and because my wife is a fifth-grade teacher (and my parents were teachers, and a lot of my friends’ parents were teachers), I think of this cook as a teacher in disguise, in quiet metaphor.

You’re free, of course, to think of someone else who gives. Parables intend for you to do that. They’re aiming at universality rather than the singular and literal. Take that naked emperor, for instance; he isn’t one idiot who’s naked and an emperor. And the kid pointing out the emperor’s foolishness isn’t just one kid. Those two characters could be anyone and everyone by design. Same with this cook, and with the people who always keep coming, wanting more:

The Story of the Cook

A day or two after the cook moved in, everything started to change. Each morning, the people lined up on her porch to ask please: for the pies that their grandmothers made, and huge birds stuffed with plums and acorns, the lasagna he’d had once somewhere in Montana—an improbable place, he agreed, but “Good God, the sauce, and those cheeses, and trees that went all the way up to a summer-colored sky.”

“If you could make us that,” they all said.

And so she did.

It was good to be generous, spending nights at her table writing recipes, using weekends to hunt for mushrooms tucked between moss, and mud, and a stump she might have sat on if only there were time.

That was her secret, her ingredient: adding time from her own past and future. Adding time while the mirror grew thinner around her every day, until she faded, and finally was gone, just a faint trace of cinnamon.

That’s why the people need a new cook now. That’s why they’re hammering and painting a “Help Wanted” sign.



Rob CarneyRob Carney’s first collection of creative nonfiction, Accidental Gardens, is out now from Stormbird Press, and his new book of poems, Call and Response, is available from Black Lawrence Press. Previous books include Facts and Figures, The Last Tiger is Somewhere, The Book of Sharksand 88 Maps.

Read an interview with Rob Carney appearing in “The Ocean is Full of Questions.”
Read Rob Carney’s Letter to America in Dear America: Letters of Hope, Habitat, Defiance, and Democracy, published by and Trinity University Press.
Read poetry by Rob Carney appearing in 6th Annual Contest Finalist, 4th Annual Contest Winner, and Issue 30. And listen to an interview on Montana Public Radio about The Book of Sharks.

Header photo by andreiuc88, courtesy Shutterstock. is the first online literary journal of place, publishing award-winning literature, art, editorials, and community case studies since 1998.