Leah has always felt compelled to touch every book at the sale, to inspect every cover, searching for that one special discovery. Her mother doesn’t mind; she knows all the adults here and she stops to talk to each of them. So when Leah finds WORLD OF DESSERTS, its cover sticky and its pages smelling faintly of smoke, at the bottom of a pile of history books, she cracks it open to see what’s inside.
Cramped handwriting fights for space in the margins of the pages. Leah’s mouth crimps: she loves to find old math and Spanish and literature textbooks, hates to find their questions already marked with answers by someone else’s pen. But then she realizes what the words say, what they are, and she snaps the book closed with a dangerous thrill.
The book goes into Mom’s basket under a few decoys: two Harry Potter novels, Computer Science for Dummies , and some cheap dime-store novel with an underdressed sorceress on the front. Mom prunes these from the pile without interrupting her conversation with two of the ladies from church. Harry Potter books and sorcery and half-nude ladies all fall under the broad heading of satanism.
Or maybe the watchword these days is worldliness; that would catch the programming book, too. Leah hoped that one would slide past; she’s unsurprised that it fails. She and her mother have already gone several rounds about whether a tenth-grade young lady belongs in Advanced Programming, among a bunch of slavering junior and senior boys.
In any case, she doesn’t even think to check a cookbook for an infestation of occultism.
Leah bides over three snappish, irritable days of algebra and Catechism homework, laundry-folding, toilet-scrubbing. The secret of the cookbook pulses raw and electric at the back of her mouth, painful as a broken tooth. When she can bear no more of the tender suspense, she shuts her door and sits with her back to it, pawing through pages, fingers lingering over antique stains.
She chooses more quickly than she wants to. A closed door, in this house, is more of an invitation than an open one.
* * *
DEEP DISH BROWNIES and Incantation for Impenetrable Good Mood
• 8 Tbsp butter (plus more for pan) Soften using body heat while you meditate on peacefulness list the factors outside your control
• ¾ cup white sugar
½ cup white flour
½ cup cocoa powder
• Pinch of salt * Another pinch of salt (throw over shoulder of dominant hand when taking brownies out of oven)
• ½ tsp baking powder
• 2 eggs
• 12 oz dark chocolate, finely chopped choc chips OK too …
* * *
Leah’s glasses fog over when she opens the oven. At the aroma alone, she dissolves into giggles, although that may just be nerves. Before it cools, she heaves a wet, crumbling slice onto a plate and breathes chocolatey dragon-steam around the first bite.
She’s still leaning against the counter, chasing crumbs around the plate with a saliva-slick fingertip, when her mother enters the kitchen. Leah stands still while her mother moves around her to pull out garlic salt and basil and the good knife and the cutting board and the frying pan, fencing Leah in with sharp quiet little comments about spoiled appetites and spilled crumbs.
The words pierce her, as they always do. But this time, nothing comes pouring out through the open wounds. Her smile does not dry out, her pulse does not skip and hammer in her throat. She cuts herself another slice and eats it, sucking melted chocolate off her fingers, while her mother pretends not to hear. The magic is real, whether it comes from some secret and unknowable aether or from the biochemical thrill of rebellion and motivational salience.
* * *
PARTY PUNCH for a Rainy Day
• 2 liter bottle lemon-lime soda (Sprite most reliable, mixed results with 7-Up/Fresca/off-brand)
**UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES USE MOUNTAIN DEW
• 1 tub orange sherbet slightly softened under a tepid shower
• Fresh strawberry slices Mash strawberries while reciting the 7-day weather forecast
* * *
On the laundry line, sheets snap and strain against their pins. One tears loose at the far corner, flapping ominously like a lumberjack’s plaid-printed ghost. Leah’s mother yanks it down and shoves it into the basket just as the first drops strike, pebbling the still-hanging laundry with fat round circles. Leah’s brothers just barely beat her inside; they ditch their bikes in the middle of the yard while she runs lopsided, the basket balanced on one hip.
Leah is waiting just inside the kitchen door beside her neatly stacked piles of the last laundry load: just-so squares of washcloth, balled-up socks, a rainbow of underwear. She passes sweating plastic cups into hands as her soaked family stumbles into the shelter of the house.
Her mother’s laden basket drops to the linoleum floor, vomiting wet pillowcases and souvenir t-shirts from places they’ve never been. She thanks Leah, sincerity sewn tight with bafflement. Leah has never been much help in the kitchen; indeed, she has yet to live down the fire-alarm infamy of the blackened grilled cheese she made last fall.
Over the rim of her plastic cup, Leah looks for the hidden tell of suspicion in her mother’s face: a sideways glance as she marks down some furtive sin and treasures it up against a future need, a tightness in the skin around her eyes as she seeks to see through Leah’s virtuous façade. Leah finds nothing, which she hopes means her mother does, too.
* * *
Chocolate Silence Souffle
• 2 marshmallows (hold in each cheek while baking. Eat when finished?)
• ¼ cup sugar
• 1 cup finely diced dark chocolate (unsweetened baking chocolate = best effect, don’t go less than 85%)
• 1.5 tsp vanilla extract
• 4 egg yolks + 4 egg whites First remove the contents of a single egg by blowing. Whisper your heaviest secret into the hollow shell before disposal …
* * *
How can Leah weigh a secret? How can she choose a single one, when they all writhe and slip so tightly together, greasy and labyrinthine, unpleasant to linger on and impossible to separate?
She puts the wet, slippery eggshell to her lips. When she exhales, her cool breath finds her fingertip at the hole on the far side. She closes her eyes. She tells the egg what her mother already knows—that she is a bad person, a lust-soaked neoplasm, tumescent with wrath and pride and a million other smaller, duller sins too petty to name—and what her mother does not—that she does not want to be better.
The house is quiet: the boys half-heartedly kicking a soccer ball in the backyard, her mother sweeping out the garage or weeding the garden. Cleaning, always cleaning, her only real hobby. It’s not fair for Leah to hate that about her, but she does anyway.
Leah locks the door of her room and puts her back against it. She eats the entire soufflé until her stomach aches pleasantly and the background sounds of the house have bled away. No thrumming washing machine, no droning attic fan.
She hates herself a little, for finding real magic and putting it to such venal purposes. Still, she hikes down her too-tight shorts and slides her hand inside her underwear. No one but her can hear the hitch of her breath and the soft thick pounding of her palm against her own skin. When she’s done, sweat-sticky and halfway to bruised, she hates herself a little for that, too.
* * *
Single Crust Open-Mind Peach Pie
• Half recipe for double pie crust (p. 97)
• 5-7 fresh peaches, ripe Bury each pit in the garden along with one painful memory
• ¾ cup white sugar + 1 pinch – slip into the shoes of the person to be persuaded
• 1 tbsp butter + 1 dab to grease the plate of the person to be persuaded
• 1/3 cup white flour
• ½ tsp cinnamon
¼ nutmeg no one likes nutmeg, use a dash of allspice or cloves …
* * *
The kitchen smells of burnt cloves and smoke. The little glass jar has fallen open between the burners of the stovetop, brown-black powder discoloring the white enamel range and smoking where it touches the hot burner. Flecks of ash spin through the air and settle gently onto the spilled spices.
Leah stands in the corner, arms folded tight against herself, as her mother tears page after page from the cookbook and scorches them out of existence. Fragments of the paper waft past on the heat-addled air currents, blocky black text and soft loops of half-familiar handwriting. Fragments of speech, too, her mother unable to assemble a coherent thought or a grammatical sentence. Witchcraft—something evil invited into this house—so careless—disobedient.
Leah doesn’t cry and she doesn’t argue. She is disobedient; disobedient and sarcastic and impatient and full of lies. A shopping list of ingredients for a truly vile human casserole. There’s nothing her mother can say to her that she hasn’t already said to herself. The only real difference is that her mother has the power to punish her with something more substantial than self-recrimination.
The cookbook’s empty covers fall to the counter like the skin sloughed off by a creature growing into something bigger and stranger. Something too much to be contained any longer. Leah’s mother wipes her soot-streaked hands on her jeans and says in a broken voice that she needs to go call the pastor.
Leah stays behind. An orange-edged scrap of paper loops in front of her. It requests her eaviest secre before the glowing embers chew away the letters and leave only darkness behind.
* * *
After that, Leah plays the part. The rage that boils inside of her does not escape in tea-kettle shrieks; disdain sparks but, in the airless hollow of her chest, its fire is not permitted to catch. She obeys before she is tasked, answers mildly when questioned, accepts punishments—”consequences”—whether or not she has earned them.
Normalness settles back over the house, smothering whatever flames of disgust and disappointment still lick at her mother. Normalness is her mother’s golden calf; above all else she desires to feel normal, to appear normal to the outside eyes she feels constantly peering in through the windows of the world all round.
Leah is in ninth grade. She knows very well how to feign normal.
She broaches the subject of her fall class schedule over dinner one night. She sits on her hands, to warm them as well as to keep herself from picking at the chipped chicken on toast, and speaks in a tumble. To give her words weight, she hides her ugliest secrets, all the hymns she doesn’t mean and all the books she’s not supposed to read and all the words she’s said and can never take back, so that what she says comes out heavy. Sorrowful. Convincing.
Instead of telling her mother what she wants—a guarantee of disappointment—she asks: can she please (a hand-crafted please, artisanal, the load-bearing structure of the sentence) sign up for computer programming, if she takes home ec as well?
Her arguments are martialed and waiting in reserve, an attractive story of preparing for my future and being able to help you more around the house. Her private motives stay safely stitched up inside: the knowledge and opportunity to recreate a magical soufflé—perhaps even to create a recipe new and wonderful with magic all her own.
Her mother sets down her fork with a careful smile. Leah will take home economics, she decrees, with punitive precision; she has failed to demonstrate the grace that might have earned her enrollment in computer science.
Leah accepts the sacrifice of her decoy with dignity and a rich, decadent joy.