THE LEARNING SEASON
It is 5o’clock in the evening on the Autumnal equinox and the kitchen smells like cinnamon and coriander. Mother is in a long white linen shift and bare feet and her hair hangs in golden ringlets in the stream of early evening sunshine slicing through the kitchen window.
She is so beautiful, I think for the thousandth time in my 12 years. She looks so ethereal and delicate. In truth, she is neither of those things. One day, she says, I will look like her. I almost believe it. I can almost see it. She swears I will outgrow my plainness, grow into the magic that will make me inherently powerful and beautiful and desirable to men and women alike. She tells me this in a way that gives me the understanding: this desire from others will be either unwanted or disingenuous. People both desire my mother and fear her, all for reasons they don’t understand.
At the stove, her one hand stirs the bone broth stew brewing in the cast iron pot and the other hand holds a delicate wine glass with what appears to be red wine.
Some of it is red wine. But it is also other things. Magic things. Murmured things. She sips it and slyly licks her lips clean, knowing he is watching her mouth. The buttons on her dress are undone one too many and her pale breast is almost in view when her stirring arm moves just the right way…
“Can I help?” Guy asks, ogling her from the barstool next to me. “I feel lazy just sitting here, watching you be beautiful all the way across the room.” He swigs his beer and stares at her and I roll my eyes at the wall. I am quiet, like always, blending into the wallpaper on the walls.
“No, no, baby,” my mother coos. “You are the guest. Just relax and let me cook for you.”
She has a way of making everyone feel darling and special. They feel seen and validated. It is a preternatural kind of intoxication. Mother hosts four dinners like this each year—equinox and solstice dinners. They are attended by me, my mother, and a gentleman of her choosing. The men are always attractive and younger than she (though men would be shocked to learn her true age), and because these dinners are short-lived and transient, I’ve taken to calling each of the men “Guy”. There is no sense in learning their true names.
The autumn equinox dinner carries a mood not unlike other others thrown by other people, the last bbq of the summer, a wave goodbye to the last vestiges of warm weather and long days and the pregnant growing season. But my mother prefers the stove to the grill. It’s the stove. Always the stove. There are treasured, long-held recipes to adhere to.
“Sephie, bring me that ladle. The dark one,” Mother says, gesturing to a drawer next to me. I know which one she wants. It’s the one made of blessed wood, prayed over by a fevered shaman woman, with prayers whispered into the swirling grain. I pull it from the drawer (it looks like a regular ladle—magic hides in plain sight) and cross the tile floor to hand it to her.
“Oh, she gets to help?” Guy pouts, downing the rest of his beer and lazily clanging the bottle on the counter.
Mother takes the ladle and begins stirring, widdershins. She leans and whispers a heavy-tongued spell into the curling steam. She then turns to Guy and smiles sweetly. “Sephie is my helper,” she says. “Right, Sephie?”
I shrug. “This is how I learn,” I say, both to Mother and to Guy. Mother has taught me to learn by doing, my whole life. Learn by doing. It is effective.
“Sephie has to learn to prepare equinox and solstice dinners for the men in her life when she is older. It’s our heritage and tradition.”
Guy grunts in reply. “I guess, yeah. Hell, if she can learn to cook half as good as her momma. And she’s gonna be pretty just like her momma, too.” I glance at him and he winks at me. He lazy, tarnished silver tongue doesn’t fool me.
My mother smiles at him, masking the low anger I feel roiling inside her. These men. These men with their half-hearted appreciation of who we are. Interested only in what they can take and what we can give and repaying in too-bright smiles and shallow compliments.
It is a false currency that feels sticky and dirty as it passes through our hands. I have learned that lesson already.
He beams at her and cracks another beer. His voice and his smell and his insides bother me. Not his words, but the movement behind his words, trouble me. He smiles and talks to me fine, but he doesn’t like me. He is annoyed by my mere presence.
He wants to be alone with my mother—they all do. He is thinking of a way, after dinner, to get rid of me for a half hour or so, so he can have his quick, sweaty way with her.
He thinks. I hear him thinking. Smell the thoughts and his imagination turning.
This dinner will not be hard.
Mother sips more from the glass and hums into the steam from the stove. “Sephie, set the table, will you, dear?”
I go to the cabinet with the special dishes—the dishes of ivory and the good silverware. I pull out the one very sharp knife of obsidian and slide it gently into my back pocket. I put two place settings on the table, knowing only two people will be dining when the meal is ready. Guy looks over at the table and smiles, happy to see I will not be dining with them. Happy knowing he no longer has to try to figure out how to get rid of me so they can be alone.
He crosses the room while my back is turned and I hear him kissing on Mother’s neck as she tends the pot. He is hungry, physically and carnally. I feel his want coming off of him in waves and know Mother is absorbing them, too. I know she is offering him drink from her glass and I know that he is accepting it, lapping from it deeply. Drinking from her glass, he is tied to her now.
“The harvest dinner is perhaps my favorite of the equinox dinners,” my mother says, and I glance over my shoulder to see her cooing into his ear as he smiles stupidly and drinks. “It is the time to reap what we have sown, a time to celebrate all the work of the summer. And it has been a magical summer for us, hasn’t it?”
He nods and kisses her cheek, thoroughly drunk on her now. He does not know what is coming for him until it hits him. The iron skillet with simmering herbs. Mother takes the glass from him, emptied of the wine and her blood, and sets it on the counter. She takes one step back, and deftly lifts the skillet. She swings and hits Guy cleanly over the back of the head as he dumbly bends to kiss her again.
A startled, confused look crosses his face before he drops to his knees, maroon blood rivulets running down the back of his neck, staining the collar of his white t-shirt. He opens his mouth as if to speak, but nothing comes out.
“Sephie, come move the rug,” Mother says flatly, and I cross to the center of the kitchen. He turns his head to look at me, an almost questioning look on his face. I feel no remorse this time. Mother swings the pan and hits him again. He clutches dumbly at her dress before falling to the tiled floor.
“Quickly now, before it stains,” Mother says, and I pull the marled wool rug from the center of the room, uncovering a drain in the tile floor.
“Did you put the bowl in?” she asks.
Mother stoops and pulls him by the back of his shirt to angle him toward the drain. Her arms are wiry and deceptively strong. The same tender hand that patted his cheek a few minutes ago now drags him so his blood will run and pool into the bowl waiting in the drain.
This is the summer’s bounty. The time invested with this man.
“The knife, Sephie,” she says low, pulling the metal cover from the drain. Guy’s blood runs in slow, straight, crimson streams along the grout between the floors tiles and into the waiting chalice-like bowl. He weakly groans but doesn’t move, his limbs lay limp and lifeless.
I pull it from my pocket and hold it out for her and looks me in the eye, her face beautiful and strong. I want to weep because I am suddenly struck with the sad fear that I will never be as beautiful and strong as my mother.
“Do you want to help with this part this time?” she asks. “Do you remember the words?”
She smiles and it almost illuminates the kitchen. “My sweet girl. You are learning. You are growing. In exactly the right time. Do not fear, love.”
And with those words I am imbued with all the courage and hope I need, and my heart swells, and I slide the knife, drawing true. Blood spills.
Later, at the table, we sit by candle light, eating bone broth stew and drinking from tall goblets. There is more to come after dark—sacred things done well into the night. But for now my mother and I sit in beautiful silence, partaking—together—as women.
This is the summer’s bounty. This is the reaping.
This is how I learn.
Tragic Tales of Strange Girls is Suz’s collection of six short horror stories.
Her whole world is restricted to an underground bunker– a place she now shares with the corpse of her mother…
Stuck in a utility closet with a boyfriend and a bite wound, a teenage girl fights to stay alive while a horde of zombies do their best to claw their way in…
Tragic Tales of Strange Girls is a collection of six horror short stories. Each girl is a bit strange, each story a bit creepy, and each ending–almost assuredly–a bit tragic.
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