Listen to this story, narrated by C. S. E. Cooney:
This story refers to domestic violence.
You’ll smell it before you see it — scents of ticklish pollen, braised roots. The market doesn’t like to let itself be found too easily. I found it by accident nineteen years ago, stumbling from Atgeld Library in that gossamer hour when the sun begins to warm a world still living in night. They tell me the walls between things are thinner at dawn and dusk.
But you, my daughter, needn’t worry about all that. They’re expecting you.
You’ll hear the snap of wind whipping canvas, and then you’ll see the white tents stretching down the shore of the campus lake. As you move between the wooden tables, you’ll begin to see familiar foods. Don’t stop. Ignore the rows of red honey spoons, the colour of an open mouth, stuck on slivers of wood — your favourite treat as a child; one, placed on your tongue, would keep you content for hours on end. Walk past the booths selling the cheeses we’d grill in sandwiches on the weekends, some corpse-pale and rind-heavy, some creamy and sharp enough to smell two rooms away, sliced thin and wrapped in blue leaves, in paper made from onion-skins. Hold your breath if the wind should shift, filling your nostrils with the scent of the nuts we’d roast in fungal butter to snack on by the handful on our movie nights.
Don’t meet the shopkeepers’ soot-black eyes. Don’t look at their pointed faces, their beautiful hair, the curve of claw, or the rill of sun on fur.
Don’t stop walking, even when you sense them begin to leave their stalls and follow you.
I was in my final year of school when I found the market. I went back several times that semester, fascinated by the range of cold fruits they sold — melons small enough to fit in your palm, grapes that shone and felt like beetle shells, but popped in your mouth at the slightest pressure, sweet as a first kiss. Cowslip cordial that smelled like spring, or like what you’d imagined spring should smell like as a child. They let me taste, and touch, and let me think it was free.
I should have known better, but I was young and pregnant, abuzz with new cravings, and I was naive. Naive enough to think I could keep telling the doctors at the student health centre that I’d slipped in the bath, walked into a door, fallen down the stairs, every time your father sent me to them with bruises painting my face.
Until the time he did send me down the stairs, with you still in my belly, and by then the cover stories were the least of my concern.
You should have died. You would have died, if not for what I’d been feeding on.
There was a price, of course. There’s always a price — for the food I’d eaten, for your life that they’d saved. They could have collected their payment right then, but they gave me sixteen years. Not forgiven — just deferred.
And when I was out of the hospital, they gave me something else: a handful of tiny mushrooms with frills that breathed and ballooned in my hand, and would release an undetectable poison when steeped overnight in milk.
Being a single mother was hard, but I had very little time to mourn. I had a degree to complete and a child to feed.
For you see, my daughter, that was the cost of the faerie meat and drink that saved your life — human food would never be enough to keep you alive, at least not by itself. You spat up formula and cried with hunger, complained that even the most spice-laden broth or sugared lollipops tasted like dust.
So I learned to strain pollen from strange, pale flowers, bigger than my hand, and use it to sweeten your milk. I learned to scatter powdered obsidian acorns over your mac and cheese. I learned to peel and dice those jewelled, deliquescing fruits, ready to splash juice all the way up to your wrists when the knife met them, and to bake them into flaky hand-pies or freeze them into popsicles. I learned to fold the yellow butter from knobs of fungus, smelling like hot tarmac and summer afternoons, and melt it over toast.
I went back to the market on my days off work to replenish my supplies and knew, all the while, that the sixteen years were running out.
Not forgiven. Just deferred.
And accumulating interest with every day they helped me keep you fed.
You grew. You grew so fast, so healthy, bursting with life. You were loud, so assuredly your own person from the very first day. You had opinions on everything, from the necessity of bathing to how often you should have ice-cream, and you made sure I knew them. You wore mismatched socks on purpose because you liked to be colourful, and stuck your tongue out when you were happy, and went through a phase when you showed affection by head-butting people in the chin.
We agreed on nothing, and I loved you more than anything I’d loved before.
And I continued to cook.
I branched out. I experimented, dragging out my mother’s recipes, and her mother’s before her, cursing the times I’d ignored their attempts to teach me in favour of easy American food that could be slathered in cheese and stuffed in an oven. Tears welled in my eyes as I pored over their familiar handwriting, and I blinked them back. I marinated nightingale hearts in yogurt and onion juice, pressure-cooking them with cinnamon bark, turmeric, and slivers of mandrake root. I sliced fluffy mushrooms patterned like butterfly wings into fillets, and steamed them folded in banana-leaf squares.
I bit my lip bloody when the urge to taste it myself grew overwhelming — I would not add to the mounting interest — and pulled you, complaining, from your play to lick spoonfuls and tell me how you liked it instead.
I started taking samples with me to the market to hand out — cashew nut brittle sealed in caramelised red honey, faerie fruit cooked into rice and milk with saffron threads — and felt intrigued eyes on me as I left.
When I first heard the skitter of small feet following me home, and spied darting shadows outside the kitchen window from the corner of my eye, I knew my plan was working. For confirmation, I left saucers of buttermilk outside, thickened with cuckoo spittle and a drizzle of red honey, and found them licked clean the next morning.
I know we haven’t always gotten along. You feel I’ve been too hard on you, and you’re right. Your friends had mothers who just gave them things. I made you earn them. I answered your questions with questions and made you negotiate for every bedtime story or treat or new toy. You learned to hold up fingers to trade hours of nap time for a red honey spoon almost before you’d learned to walk. I found loopholes to avoid keeping promises until you cried from frustration and, later, until you learned to lock them in with exacting words that left no gaps. I forced you to join the debate team as soon as you started high school, even though you didn’t want to.
And now our time is up.
I would be there with you, if I could, but they made it clear sixteen years ago that it wasn’t me they wanted.
Don’t worry, dear. I’m not sending you in empty-handed.
The hand-bound book you hold close to your chest as you come to a stop at the centre of the market holds every recipe I’ve designed, painstakingly handwritten with painted illustrations. Aperitifs, sweetmeats, cocktails. Side-dishes, palate cleansers, entrees. Snail dewlaps rolled in chickpea-flour batter and fried; black cherries not from our world, softened in clarified butter with cardamom beads.
I’ve come to understand the folk a little, with time. Money means nothing to them. They value colour and touch and intrigue, things they’ve never tasted, things that will surprise them, and so I’ve given you a currency that will make you rich in their eyes.
You may be afraid as you stand there and the swishing, slithering, humming folk crowd in around you, caressing you with expectant eyes. Don’t be. Hold your ground, my sweet, smart girl, and use everything I’ve ever taught you, and bargain.
And if you decide not to return — if what they offer you is more enticing than coming back — that’s alright. You never asked to have your life made collateral for a debt you didn’t incur. You should have what choice you can, at the end.
Wherever you go, whatever you choose, I hope you’ll remember mornings in the kitchen, me guiding your small, sticky hands to hold a spatula or a butter-knife. I hope you’ll remember the first time I let you stir a boiling pan on your own — carefully supervised, of course — how proud you were! I hope you’ll taste, in the memories of those meals, the things we didn’t say to each other.
And I hope that you’ll know your mother loves you, and always will — my daughter, my child, the best thing I have ever made.