Attention, dear reader: This is a love story, complete with grown folks’ business. This is not for the kids. But there is also a moral to this story, a cautionary tale for the young and the young-at-heart alike. Listen carefully, and be thee forewarned.
On a typical day, the hungry will enter the old kitchen with a need that cannot be sated by mere physical sustenance, their souls growling like empty bellies churning with acids that have set upon the flesh. The old Cook can hear these growls even before she sees the person, the bubbles and groans speaking to her in a language requiring a higher cognition to comprehend. With her cookbook as her cipher, she’ll tie back salt and pepper coils, squint through spectacles slipping down her round nose, and flip pages until she finds the remedy. This is more ritual than necessity, for everything in that cookbook has been committed to memory and modified to perfection ages ago. She’ll be cooking before the sustenance-seeker steps through the threshold and into her kitchen. After eighty years in this warm magical place, a stomach growl speaks louder than a human tongue.
Today is no different, in that regard.
Today, like every day, the old Cook can be found sitting in the old kitchen, in a new house, in the middle of a neighborhood in transition — a concrete landscape dotted with corner stores and check cashers gradually uprooted by gourmet coffee shops and hot-yoga studios. The air, once filled with the warm scents of cornbread and adobo, of collards and curry, now smells of oat milk and unseasoned chicken. The sounds of bachata and hip-hop are suppressed by noise complaints and the occasional blasts of Journey.
Now, this old kitchen cannot be seen from the street — or, for that matter, by the natural eye. But scents of comfort and curing map the way. It is hidden deep in the back, with its soot-covered hearth and wood-burning stove. An ancient ice box rattles against the wall, keeping eggs and dairy cool. Cast iron pots and dried herbs dangle from brick walls. Scents of rosemary, cinnamon, basil, and garlic mingle in the most delightful way. In a small dark corner closet hangs salted meats and sausage — some dried and jerked, others raw and awaiting hot oil and the skillet. Colorful jars of preserves and pickles sit on pantry shelves. Containers of sugars and spices clutter the table and counters. The sun pierces lazily through the warped glass of the kitchen’s old windows, filling the room with a muted, warm yellow glow. Every item, including Cook herself, is a throwback to ages long gone.
Through the kitchen is a back door that leads to a lush garden concealed by drooping trees and a high metal fence. A stream, running from nowhere, feeds vegetation with clear, cool waters. The tops of turnips, onions, carrots, and beets burst forth from rich soil and blankets of soft green moss. Grapevines twist lazily around silver trellises. Trees dip heavily with peaches, pears, and apples. Pecans and walnuts litter the ground. It is all seasons in this yard, fall and spring harvests co-mingling. Butterflies and blue jays flutter through the haze of dawn, and fireflies dance to the chirps of cicadas at dusk. A hammock swings between two trees, and that is where you can find Cook when she isn’t in her kitchen.
She heads there now, to cuddle her cat and rest her eyes.
Mister Chauncey keeps the house up front, coming and going in the guise of a harmless old man, hunched over and shuffling to conceal his impressive six-foot-five height and ageless physique. Goblin features — pointed ears, yellow eyes, crooked nose, and green-tinted brown skin — are obscured beneath dark shades, a derby hat, and his one indulgence of expensive tailored suits with spit-shined Italian leather wingtips. Ever the aristocrat, he moves with an air of nobility, confident in his superiority over just about all things.
Cook hears the heavy front door open and close, and she knows he has returned from some goblin excursion or another, no doubt discarding his disguise before relaxing in the front parlor. He’ll come on back when he’s ready. Mister Chauncey doesn’t much care for the smoke and chaos of the kitchen, which serves Cook just fine. He often carries the sourness of the outside world, and its bitterness taints her meals. This is the reason she rarely leaves the kitchen herself and delegates the out-worldly stuff to him, his constitution being steelier than her own.
But when things are right with Mister Chauncey — Cook smiles to herself as she recalls — he’ll take a seat at her wooden kitchen table, and she’ll serve him a plate. She’ll dish white corn grits boiled in seasoned salt, thickened with freshly churned butter, and stirred until the grits stick to her wooden spoon and drip slowly back into the pot. She’ll cut thin slices of cheddar from a cheese brick and stir them into the grits until the white is clouded orange. A cast iron skillet, greased with animal fat and heated to sizzle, will receive the farm fresh eggs, whisked with a little cream cheese until fluffy yellow clouds. She usually keeps the seasoning simple with a pinch of tarragon, a sprinkle of sea salt, and a dash of red pepper flakes. A couple of hot links, seared from the broiler, are set strategically between the grits and eggs, a savory barrier. A thick slice of freshly baked bread, toasted and buttered, is placed lightly on top of the sausage to soak up any excess oil. Plating complete, she’ll place it down in front of Mister Chauncey with a cup of strong black coffee flavored with notes of hazelnut, cardamom, and clove.
Like foreplay, Mister Chauncey will take his time mixing the grits with the scrambled eggs, then add a dash of homemade hot pepper sauce for a little extra kick. Cook will watch as he lifts fork to full lips and a delicate tongue capable of tasting the most subtle flavors — her arousal growing with each bite her lover takes. He’ll taste, chew, and swallow, then grimace like it’s not good. But Cook knows that’s a lie, because he’ll wink and continue to eat.
Goblins just like to pick.
It doesn’t take too many forkfuls before Mister Chauncey will rise with a full belly but a persistent hunger. He’ll pull down those expensive trousers and bend Cook over that wooden table. She’ll quickly slip out of her drawers and he into her, Mister Chauncey moaning obscenities and declarations of love alike, his stamina and skill unmatched by any mortal man, his syrup precious nectar for her cakes and pies. Cook feeds off of his magic and Mister Chauncey from her passion, giving them both a vitality that has endured for almost a century and will last a century more.
This kitchen knows love. And it is that hunger that Cook can fill best. Not surprisingly, lovers are frequent patrons of her kitchen.
Today is no different, in that regard. Two lovers approach now.
The doorbell rings, and a harmony of organ pipes plays throughout the house, their echo reaching into the magical little garden. Cook is shaken from daydreams of new recipes and scents to lure Mister Chauncey back into the kitchen. She sits up in her garden hammock and listens as he grumbles and shuffles begrudgingly to answer the door. The massive metal and wooden gateway to a new world creaks with the resistance of magic against reality. Mister Chauncey forces it ajar. Cook senses two magic-struck patrons, both their stomachs growling a deep hollow sound. She almost feels the rancid gas traveling like lightning through their groins to settle uncomfortably in their bellies. She hears their hunger as clearly as her own voice.
“Oohhh,” she cries in empathy and heads mission-bound into the kitchen. “These babies need a meal!”
Muffled words are exchanged with Mister Chauncey. Goblins prefer payment in gold, and although a half-breed, Mister Chauncey is no different. Cook hears the gentle clink of jewelry dropped into a glass jar.
“That’s all you got?” Mister Chauncy clicks his tongue in disapproval. It is enough, but Mister Chauncey grumbles that it is not.
Goblins just like to pick.
After a few tense moments, he relents. “Alright, then. Come on back.”
Cook hears murmurs of thanks, and so much more. These two lovers are holding on to memories of passion-flavors grown stale and tasteless. If left untreated, their emotions will mold and become toxic. She puts on hot water for the grits.
These young lovers need a binding.
Mister Chauncey enters the kitchen first, the couple fidgeting nervously behind him. Unbothered, he leans in the threshold, taking a moment to admire his lover with those piercing golden eyes.
Although the years have been kind to her youthful deep brown skin, Cook knows that her body has changed. Her hips are fuller and press against her cotton skirts, her round breasts stretch the silk of her blouses, and her stomach creases with gentle ripples of flesh. Now her body sways when she moves, a study of angles and curves as she glides from stove to ice box to cupboards. Mister Chauncey watches her with a mischievous smirk. Cook throws him a wink. The goblin licks his lips with a low hungry growl that sends shivers up her spine. Cook wonders how she got so lucky to find this love. What she doesn’t know is that Mister Chauncey wonders the same.
“Hey, Cookie,” he purrs, biting his bottom lip.
“Hey, Cey.” She suppresses a girlish giggle. He looks good enough to eat in those shiny shoes and pleated pants. She makes a note to set aside a pot of grits for him later. She’ll make him keep the shoes on tonight.
“‘Cey,’ is it?” asks a masculine voice from behind the goblin.
“Mister Chauncey to you, boy,” the goblin sneers.
Apologies muttered, Mister Chauncey reluctantly steps aside to allow the couple to enter the kitchen. Cook turns to greet the hungry lovers — a Black man, almost as tall as Mister Chauncey but wider from fast foods that cannot fill his void, and a tiny white woman with unnatural auburn hair that looks like fire against her pale skin. She is frail and — from the scent of it — anemic, her soul hunger eating away at her body. These two found one another, but neither has given the other what they need. Their hunger has simply dug too deep.
Cook intends to fix that.
“Hello,” she greets them with a warm, sympathetic smile. “You can call me Cook.”
“That’s a little on the nose,” the young woman chuckles nervously.
“My surname was Cooke with an E. That was ages ago. Guess I fell into the role. What do I call you?”
“Marcus.” The young Black man steps forward, holding his hand out to Chauncey and then to Cook. Both stare at his open palm until he drops it awkwardly to his side. “Uh, this is Lizzie.”
“Welcome, Marcus and Lizzie,” Cook says and means it. She likes her kitchen full. “How did you find us?”
“We smelled the food,” Lizzie struggles to explain, “from the street. It felt like we needed to come here to… to… eat, I guess.”
“Indeed, you do.” Cook gestures for them to sit. “You’re practically starving. Please make yourself at home. Mister Chauncey will pour you some peppermint tea while I prepare you a special meal.”
“I don’t like peppermint,” Lizzie whines. “It reminds me of being sick.”
Cook frowns. Baby, you are sick, she thinks, but instead says with strained patience, “Chamomile, then.”
Lizzie nods with a grateful smile. She and Marcus take a seat at the large kitchen table, their wide eyes anxious and questioning.
“I don’t really understand how or why we’re here,” Marcus says to no one in particular.
“Shush,” Lizzie scolds. “I’m hungry.”
Cook and Mister Chauncey exchange a concerned glance.
“That ginger smell like succubus to you?” Cook whispers to her lover.
Mister Chauncey’s eyes narrow, and he sniffs the air. “If it’s there, it’s far down the line. She’s just a tad demanding, and him not demanding enough. Give them some cake and throw their asses out. Now that I’m in this kitchen, I’m feeling a bit peckish myself. Woman, you look like a meal.” He pulls her close.
Cook playfully pushes him away. “Cake won’t fix this. They deserve the same chance we had.” She pushes the empty tea kettle against his chest. “Now make yourself useful if you’re going to stay in my kitchen.”
Mister Chauncey shrugs and grabs the kettle to fill it with water. Cook stuffs dried chamomile leaf and orange peel into small metal infusers. Eventually they find themselves side-by-side at the stove. Chauncey nudges his lover to get her attention.
“Did you make this?” he asks, sticking a long brown fingernail into a pot of homemade jam. He slowly licks it off.
Cook rolls her eyes. Goblins are about as subtle as a blow to the head. “You know I’ve touched every edible thing in this kitchen.” She picked those wild grapes herself from the vine in the garden, boiling and seasoning them with sugar and pectin made from apple scraps. Of course, he knows this, but goblins like to pick.
“Every edible thing?” He pulls her toward him. “Touched by you?” He runs his sticky finger across her plump lips. Cook savors the salty taste of her lover’s skin laced with the sweet stickiness of jam.
Mister Chauncey slips behind her and wraps his arms tightly around her thick waist, his warm body pressing into hers. He blows hot breath into his lover’s ear and whispers, “I need you.”
Cook glances over her shoulder at the young couple, who watch them with longing. Mister Chauncey follows her gaze and smiles devilishly. “Let’s show them what they’re missing.” He flips her around and kisses Cook deeply, his full lips and forked tongue twisting and massaging.
Cook does not want to pull away. Her lover smells of citrus and tastes of ripe fruit juice warmed in midday sun. She drinks greedily as she feels Mister Chauncey rising against her. The whistle of the tea kettle breaks their spell, and they reluctantly pull apart.
“How did you meet?” Lizzie asks, envy dripping from each word.
“She made me a meal,” Chauncey replies. “It was the worst I’d ever tasted. I was offended, really, but she did not care. Then I realized that I wanted her to care.”
“So, he wooed me until I could no longer see a life without him,” Cook adds.
“Nor I without her.”
“And my cooking became better.”
“One might say almost magical.”
“And how did you two meet?” Cook returns the question as Chauncey sets two delicate cups of tea before the couple.
“Coach wanted me to take yoga,” Marcus explains. “I am — I was — a semi-pro football player in Europe. Lizzie was the yoga instructor.”
“An athlete, huh?” Mister Chauncey raises an eyebrow at Marcus’s soft girth.
“Former athlete,” Marcus corrects. “I had a career-ending injury. Guess the yoga wasn’t enough.”
“Apparently not,” jeers the goblin.
Cook pinches him.
“I support him now,” Lizzie chimes in a little too eagerly. “Family money. I really don’t mind….” Her voice trails off.
“Okay, then.” Cook nods and adds a little more seasoning salt and butter to the grits.
“Hmm. It’s got to be hard not having your own money,” Chauncey says with an impassive tone. “I’d imagine a bit emasculating, being a kept man and all. Of course, I myself am only half-man, but the other half is far superior. You are not so fortunate, though. I’m curious — what does that feel like?”
Cook frowns as Marcus stutters a non-response. Mister Chauncey is baiting him. He can’t even help himself. This is the sourness she doesn’t need in her kitchen.
“Baby, pay him no mind,” Cook comforts Marcus. “There are all kinds of partnerships.” She sets down a plate of flaky biscuits and pushes jars of jellies, syrup, sugar, and cinnamon towards the couple before leaning in close to explain, “Sugar, like infatuation, is fleeting. It cannot sustain the passion necessary for true love. It will burn off from its own heat, and you will be left empty before you can forget you were once full. But enjoy this li’l sweet now while I whip up something more enduring.”
Marcus and Lizzie immediately dig into the biscuits, and Cook casts another disapproving glare at Mister Chauncey. The half-goblin throws up his hands in mock surrender and takes a seat on the hearth. He stretches his long limbs before crossing his legs and leaning back on his elbows in one elegant motion. He puckers his lips and blows Cook a kiss.
Cook rolls her eyes. Give a goblin some looks and a little height, and they are intolerable. “Why are you still in my kitchen?” she asks him.
“Cuz I have something for you when you’re done.”
Cook pretends to pay him no mind, but the sooner she can take care of this couple, the sooner Mister Chauncey can take care of her. She pushes a couple of hot links into the broiler and risks a glance over her shoulder at Chauncey. They lock eyes as he bites his bottom lip again.
Cook fans herself with a dish towel. “Good lawd, this creature.”
Marcus and Lizzie look up eagerly from empty plates with crumb-littered lips. Cook turns to see Marcus reach for Lizzie’s hand and squeeze tightly. Cook smiles to herself. She’s become quite the conjurer over the years. The sweetness of the biscuits won’t last for long, but it will give them the spark that they’ve been missing.
“Tell him why you love him,” she encourages.
Lizzie leans her forehead against Marcus’s and unloads her heart in a hushed whisper meant only for lovers’ ears. When she is done, Marcus begins.
Mister Chauncey scoffs.
He is a distracting presence. I wish he’d leave until I’m through. Cook glares at him but continues with her conjure. She sets the grits to simmer and turns to the skillet to crack and scramble the eggs. The spicy aroma from the oven tells her the hot links are almost ready. From the corner of her eye, she watches Marcus and Lizzie kiss. It is a shallow, polite kiss, but it is a start. She hums to herself as she sets the coffee to percolating and begins to plate.
“Shoot,” she says to herself, “I forgot the cheddar.” She quickly cuts thin slices of cheese on top of the hot grits.
“Something not right about those two.” Cook jumps at the sound of Mister Chauncey standing directly behind her. Damn Goblin shadow steps!
“Succubus?” she asks again.
“No. Why do you keep saying that?”
“Maybe it’s the red hair.” Cook shrugs. “Anyway, money has a way of wedging between lovers. If they can check their egos and ignore the outside world, they’ll have a chance. I’m going to remind them of why they found one other in the first place.”
Mister Chauncey shakes his head. “They don’t deserve you.”
“You don’t deserve me,” Cook jokes.
“That much is true,” Mister Chauncey agrees, “but I’ll live forever trying.”
Cook bumps him playfully with her hip as she switches past, carrying two plates laden with food. She sets the plates quietly before Lizzie and Marcus, who remain engrossed in one another.
Best not to disturb them and let the conjure do its work, Cook decides and backs away to rejoin Mister Chauncey by the stove. He’s already dipping his finger into the pot of hot grits and slowly licking them off. “You with the finger and the licking.” Cook slaps his hand away. “This conjure is not for me and you.”
Without a word, Mister Chauncey pulls her to him and buries his head into her soft coils. Cook knows he is smelling coconut oil and lemon, intoxicating scents to his sensitive nose. The appetites they inspire will need to be sated soon. Cook wraps her arms around his waist as he rubs her neck, shoulders, and back, his hands sliding down to the roundness of her hips — massaging, grasping. She releases a soft moan, silenced almost immediately by Mister Chauncey’s lips. The world quickly drops away until it is but the two of them in this kitchen.
“Is this cheese?” Cook does not hear Lizzie groan. “You know I don’t do dairy.”
“It’s not melted yet. Just scrap it off, babe,” Marcus advises.
“Plain grits are like eating cardboard.” Lizzie reaches for a jar of sugar and a shaker of cinnamon.
“I wouldn’t do that,” Marcus cautions.
“Why? She wants us to enjoy the food. It’d be rude not to eat it.”
Marcus nods slowly. “Yeah, I guess. To be honest, I prefer sweet grits too.”
“See?” Lizzie smiles as she scrapes the cheese off the top of the grits and stirs cinnamon and sugar into the corn mixture. She takes a large, satisfying bite before offering a forkful to Marcus. He hesitates, but only for a moment, before opening wide and tasting the sweet concoction for himself. They both moan with delight.
“This is good.” Marcus digs his fork into Lizzie’s plate for another taste.
Mister Chauncey looks up casually from biting Cook’s neck and freezes as he watches Lizzie sprinkle sugar over the grits on Marcus’s plate. “Oh shit.”
“What?” Cook follows his gaze to the couple and gasps in horror.
“Oh shit,” Mister Chauncey repeats. He backs away from Cook. “For the record, I never liked these two.”
Cook steadies herself against the counter as the room turns red and begins to spin. “HOW DARE YOU!” She stomps towards the couple, her voice deeper now, rising from some ancient well of rage that reverberates off the kitchen walls. “You disrespectful, ungrateful little beasts!”
A startled Lizzie pushes back from the table, a fork of sugar grits still dangling from her lips. Marcus immediately stands, his athlete’s reflexes ready for fight or flight.
“You really shouldn’t have done that.” Mister Chauncey’s voice is filled with amusement. “There’s disrespect, and then there’s sugar in grits. Holy shit, kids, you done fucked up now.” His smile widens, the sharpened edges of goblin teeth fully visible.
“I CURSE YOU!” Spittle flies from Cook’s mouth. “I curse you with a suffocating loneliness that will swallow your remaining moments of life in a haze of dark despair! You will feel nothing but emptiness and pain as your flesh is torn from your bones, and your ability to love is consumed like watered-down syrup, burned away as quickly as the sugar that you use to taint my grits! Your souls will wander aimlessly in search of a fullness that will be forever denied. I name you Agony and Despair, and that is all you shall know.”
“I’m lactose intolerant,” Lizzie cries.
“My god! It’s only sugar, lady!” Marcus shouts as he protectively pushes Lizzie against the wall.
Cook reaches for the pot of hot grits on the stove. Mister Chauncey swats her hand away and places a kitchen hatchet in it instead, goblins being handy in a brawl. Cook nods in thanks and growls, “You want to act like animals? Well, welcome to the slaughterhouse!”
“This neighborhood is going to shit,” Mister Chauncey says to his lover.
“It really is,” Cook agrees.
Together, they pounce.
Dear reader: Today things went a little differently. The moral of this story? There are many reasons not to put sugar on grits, but being butchered by a witch and her goblin lover is a big one.
“Well, that was unfortunate,” Cook sighs, breaking the silence.
The grits have hardened in the pot, and the animal fat has congealed in the skillet. The setting sun fills the kitchen with a blinding orange light as the cat licks bits of Lizzie and Marcus off the floor. Mister Chauncey finishes salting the meat while Cook wipes down the kitchen floor and counters. They both drip with sweat and blood.
“Was it?” Mister Chauncey asks, hooking the last chunk of meat in the corner closet. “This suit has certainly seen better days.” He wipes bloodied hands against the rich wool. “At least we got fresh meat.”
“I lost my temper.” Cook’s voice is filled with remorse.
“You did,” Chauncey agrees. “You sure you don’t have a little goblin in you?”
“I really did want to help them.”
“I know, Cookie.” Mister Chauncey wraps his lover in a comforting embrace. “But not everyone is worthy of a love as powerful as ours.”
Cook rests her head on his chest as he rocks her gently. But the adrenaline and blood are a heady blend. Mister Chauncey’s hands and lips begin to explore her blood-soiled flesh. Their caresses grow more frantic. Growls and snarls escape from them both as they tear clothing from each other.
Cook gazes down into her lover’s brilliant golden eyes as he kneels before her naked body, kissing below her navel and gently parting her thighs. She grabs the back of his head as that talented forked tongue finds her sweet middle and digs in with a ravenous yet controlled zeal. She is always feeding this creature, and it is always a delight.
The familiar harmony of organ pipes rings through the house. A hungry patron stands at the threshold, but for now, Cook and Mister Chauncey give in to their own hunger. Once again, they lose themselves in one another, but this time writhing on a bloody kitchen floor, giving and receiving pleasure through all manner of pose and position, filling one another up as only old familiar lovers can do. Praises to ancient gods, declarations of love, and the blaspheme of obscenities fill the air. The entire kitchen shakes. There is rumor of earthquakes in Brooklyn that day.
It is hours before their hunger is quenched and they finally part, rising from that kitchen floor sticky and glowing from one another. Cook heads to the garden and Mister Chauncey to the front of the house. It may be days before they meet again, each living full lives apart. But theirs is a love as savory and fortifying as a plate of sausage, eggs, and cheese grits.