The Whisky Blot
Journal of Literature, Poetry, and Haiku
Klea grasped the pot handle of her simmering meat sauce, inhaling the robust bouquet of lamb and beef with hints of cinnamon and oregano. Lungs filled with the scent of her spell, she burst out four chords of joyous, operatic song.
Proper sound was often lacking in the cooking process and it was an essential ingredient to add, activating the potential of edible magic. Tone and volume were important, as were the emotions experienced while creating it. That would be her biggest challenge today. How could she simmer in joy with grief brimming in her heart?
Klea preferred her spells to be pleasant, turning down clients who sought the darker side of her witchcraft. But her practice wasn’t a quiet one.
The couple next door had once threatened to call the cops on their ‘crazy neighbor’ when Klea baked a raucous batch of cookies. Klea’s father often placated them: he always had a way with people. A subtle magic that wasn’t magic, a splendid thing to behold.
Dad had jogged outside, his bare feet sinking into their neatly mowed lawn as the neighbor woman shouted over her picket fence with her grouchy husband at her shoulder. He dispelled the couple’s irritation with an easy smile and a horribly bad joke. Klea had watched from the kitchen window, cookies in hand, as the neighbors’ shoulders relaxed, anger stitched into their faces softening as they spoke with him.
And now dad was gone. The lawn was overgrown, weed-ridden and more brown than it should be for early fall.
Klea gripped the stainless steel handle. A solid anchor—something real in a suddenly surreal world. She set the lid on top of her pot, tipped to release whispers of steam, and turned to the tall windows framing the front yard.
They should arrive any time.
Despite the clear skies, the world outside was gray; color leaking down drains sliced into the gutters on the lane. A quiet lane lined with cottages and old oaks where Klea and her sisters used to play as children, pretending to cast spells as if they were simple words. Magic was far deeper than that; something dad had taught them with each gentle gesture and crooked smile.
Barren street too much to bear, Klea turned back to the warm light in her kitchen. But it was uncomfortably empty. She should make some tea, keep busy.
She whistled along with the kettle to give her beverage a touch of cheer, but her heart wasn’t in it. Hoping for a little comfort, she hummed to the jasmine leaves as they steeped in hot water. It took a moment to realize the tune she picked was a lullaby her mother used to sing.
Tears threatened her numb countenance, and she choked them back, edging away from her simmering sauce. She couldn’t taint the spell she was cooking. Not now. Not when her sisters were finally coming home. Together again after so long. She needed to be there, warm and welcoming, to ease their melancholy.
A unifier to their differences.
But standing in the empty shell of their house, his house, she lost that battle, and salt trailed down her cheeks to join the jasmine in her teacup.
Klea stared outside, trying to occupy her mind as she waited. Squirrels foraged with less enthusiasm. A wren that hadn’t flown south pecked weakly at the brittle grass. Even the breeze jostling the fanned leaves of the ginkgo tree did so half-heartedly. Brecka used to love climbing that tree.
“Aren’t parents supposed to tell their kids to be careful? To get down so they don’t hurt themselves?” Klea had often asked her father.
Dad had smirked, giving a shrug as he watched Brecka dangle high above them. “I think we both know that would only push Brecka higher up the tree.”
As if summoned by a thought, Brecka’s car puttered down the lane. The black beater sang in Klea’s ears like a gentle staccato as it pulled into the driveway behind Klea’s pickup. Klea wasn’t going anywhere: she never did.
Klea set her mug on the counter and rushed out through the kitchen door—the screen barely swinging open before a car door slammed shut.
“Traffic is still terrible,” Brecka said, her mane of raven hair tangled up in the collar of her long black coat.
“It’s a one-lane road.” Klea spread her arms and embraced her sister on the cracked driveway. “It’s less a matter of how many cars, but if you’re lucky enough to get stuck behind a slow one.”
She felt Brecka snort against her shoulder before withdrawing. “How are you?” Brecka asked, sharp eyes searching Klea’s face.
Klea forced a smile. “I’m getting by.”
Brecka jerked the stiff screen door open and waved them inside the house as if she had never left. “Sure.” Brecka could sniff bullshit a mile away.
“I’m a little better now.” That was true.
Brecka stepped into the kitchen. “Well, enjoy the peace while you can. Once Morraine’s loud ass gets here, that’ll be over.” She inhaled and visibly relaxed, creases of strain vanishing from the corners of her eyes. “Smells good. What spell is that?”
“You know the rules,” Klea chided. “Wait until we’re at the table before guessing.” But this spell had begun the moment Brecka stepped inside.
Brecka didn’t bother pressing, striding across the open floor to the den, where the family used to gather each night after dinner. “I’m surprised you haven’t started the fire yet,” she called over her shoulder.
“Feel free to do it,” Klea said, keeping her voice steady. She hadn’t touched the hearth since dad passed. It was the heart of his home, the gathering place, the place to swap stories. Now, she couldn’t bear to sit in the den alone.
“How’s your practice coming along?” Klea called, continuing to glance out the window for signs of the others.
Brecka grunted as she hauled a few dusty logs by the fireplace onto the grate within and opened the flue. “About what you’d expect. I painted a beautiful spell of protection for a newborn last week and finished a rather special one for a cancer survivor. Also turned away some crazy bitch who thought I would curse her ex-boyfriend with…bedroom deficiencies. What about you?”
This meal was the first Klea had found the strength to cook since she murmured her last goodbye. Her kitchen now sat neglected where before she had lived in it. She could still hear dad’s gentle rumble as she baked Chel’s favorite shortbread cookies, infused with warm hums of homecoming.
“If you keep sending her treats, what incentive does she have to come home?” he asked, watching her wrap them lovingly in a tin with a letter asking her to visit.
As Klea opened her mouth to make an excuse to Brecka, another car door slammed outside.
Brecka didn’t move, fiddling with the deep box of tinder and kindling by the hearth. Klea paced towards the door, but the screen was already opening to reveal Chel’s bony face, sprinkled with its usual dusting of glitter. A large prism dangled from a golden chain around her neck, swaying like a pendulum as she leaned forward.
Despite being middle-aged, Chel never grew out of bedecking herself in sparkles. She gave Klea an airy smile, pale eyes distant and gentle. “Klea,” she said. “It smells otherworldly in here. What spell is that?”
“If you tell her, I’m leaving!” Brecka called from the den.
Klea chuckled. “You’ll find out at the table, same as always.”
As Chel reached a bejeweled hand to pat Klea’s square jaw, water built behind her sister’s thick-rimmed glasses. Klea wasn’t ready to examine those feelings and turned to check on her sauce as she swallowed a lump in her throat.
The kitchen door opened again.
Fauna poked her round, dark face into the kitchen, looking as wild as the woods she lived in. “I can smell that from outside,” she breathed, wide eyes landing on the stove. “Now I’m hungry.”
Chel turned to usher their youngest sister inside. “Don’t let the chill in.”
“She’s fine,” Klea said, wrapping her arms around Fauna’s slight frame, the girl’s knotted hair catching for a moment on Klea’s earrings. “No friends today?”
“Only two. I promised they could come,” Fauna said, her tiny voice thinner than usual.
“Well, I hope they’re small.” Klea leaned over to check Fauna’s person. A pair of chipmunks peeked out from the right pocket of the young woman’s oversized duster. Their beady eyes stared up at Klea expectantly. “Tell them they’d better like peanuts,” Klea said. “That’s what I have.”
Dad had always kept a jar around. He would toss them to the squirrels outside while he asked Klea what names Fauna would give them if she were still home.
“I think that one looks like a Nutters, yeah?”
“I don’t think she names them, dad.”
While her younger sister whispered to the critters, golden light licked against the walls of the den as flames consumed kindling. Eyes shot to the fireplace, where Brecka stood with a proud grin. “We got time before dinner? I could do with a story.”
Klea’s heart pounded faster. “I have a few more elements to add to the spell.” She ushered the other two sisters down towards Brecka. “Go catch up; I can hear you talking from here.” It was one of the best things about their family house—the kitchen was open to everything.
“Morraine’s late as usual,” Brecka said, slumping onto a hand-carved rocking chair.
A chorus of creaking followed as the other two sat on the worn couch, threadbare from many years of love. Klea soaked in the song of memory: banter from her sisters, the groaning of wooden furniture, the crackling of the fire. Father’s voice reciting stories about their mother, meeting her in the forest of Cevat where the wood nymph bewitched him with more than just her words.
Those tales were all they had of her now.
Klea turned back to her meat sauce and opened the lid to let in the ambient noises of nostalgia, tender and bittersweet. She was careful not to stand too close, unwilling to sour it with the ache in her heart.
While the three sisters chatted about their practices and recited old stories about mom, Klea worked on her spell. She whipped up a bechamel with plenty of cream, adding in nutmeg and parmesan before finishing it with a few lines from a cheerful jig. Pasta got tossed in with the meat sauce and tipped into a casserole dish, bechamel topping the hearty blend.
With a whisper of love, Klea sent it to bake. As she shut the oven, the screen door opened one last time, a booming voice reverberating off her cabinets.
“Sorry I’m late!” Morraine said, spreading out her arms. “Forgot how horrid the road from the airport can be.” Red lipstick painted a little too thick, mascara a touch too dark, Morraine stood larger than life. Boisterous but loving in her own way.
“Brecka, dear,” Morraine called, unable to wait a second longer to antagonize her sibling. “Didn’t daddy tell you to fix that dent in your driver’s side door ages ago?”
He had. But as he deducted decades before, telling Brecka to do something was like challenging her to a standoff. Something Morraine never picked up on.
“How do you even know that?” Brecka muttered from the den, refusing to leave her rocker.
“I know lots of things.” Morraine paused, inhaling. “Oh, Klea, it’s simply divine in here. I can taste your magic in the air. Breathtaking.”
Klea bent down and cracked the oven door, letting in Morraine’s sonorous tones. That was more important for the spell than perfect heat circulation. The meal was nearing completion, almost all the ingredients added now. Fauna joined them again in the kitchen to greet Morraine and snatch another handful of peanuts for her guests.
Morraine clucked her tongue. “Fauna, when was the last time you combed your hair?”
“Perhaps we can help lay the table,” Chel’s gentle legato cut over Morraine’s nagging. “Unless that’s a part of this spell?” She glanced at Klea.
Klea gave her a coy smile. “That would be perfect. You know where everything is, nothing’s changed.”
The banter continued, strained and strident following Morraine’s arrival. It felt almost normal. Almost.
It was a lie.
Something unspoken lay beneath the laughter, grumbles, and shrill critiques. Something quiet and empty, throbbing like a deep drum. The absence of a low, easy baritone. Her last ingredient.
Klea leaned on the speckled granite counter to steady herself. Dad had been the sole rock in her life while her sisters drifted away like dandelion seeds out into the wider world, far from hearth and home. They sent word back occasionally, but their thirst for more kept them apart, never bonding the way Klea and their father had.
The sisters inherited their mother’s wild blood, veins full of wanderlust. Klea inherited her father’s sense of duty. She could never leave home, leave him; it would be too much like leaving one of her arms behind. Or, more accurately, her heart. She had wanted to draw the others back together, but nothing worked. Nothing brought them all home at once.
It was their father who succeeded where she failed. “I’ll bring them home,” he’d whispered near the end. “Death can be a great unifier.”
Was that his final spell? A summoning. To give Klea this last gift. Had he died just for her?
Klea’s throat swelled shut; she couldn’t hold back the guilt any longer and turned aside to hide her face.
But Brecka could sniff bullshit a mile away.
Ink-stained arms wrapped around Klea’s stocky form. “We’re here. We came,” Brecka croaked. “I’m sorry we were too late.”
That was too much.
A sob pierced Klea’s safe harbor of numbness, followed by another. And another. She tried to get away from the oven; sorrow would sour the meal. Brecka held her steady, the others joining the embrace in a circle.
“Your sorrow is a part of this, Klea,” Brecka said. “Our sorrow. We may not have been as close to him, but a hymn of mourning unites us, too. Complete the spell.”
“We aren’t even at the table yet,” Klea rasped. “You’re not supposed to guess the spell until we eat.”
“We know you, Klea,” Fauna said. “You’ve been brewing up unity since we were kids. I sensed it the moment I stepped inside.”
Klea realized the oven timer was beeping—how long, she wasn’t certain—but Morraine was already opening it. “Why don’t we skip the table, dish out this succulent magic, and eat down by the hearth instead?” Morraine said. “I think it’s about time that we told some stories about dad.”
Klea stared down at the den, warm and welcoming, but absent of her anchor. She knew she needed to face it.
To face his empty chair by the hearth, the seat worn from daily use. To wake each morning without the pungent scent of his coffee brewing on the counter. To live in a world without his horrible jokes and warm chuckle.
But she found him still in the embrace of her sisters. His smile shone through on Brecka’s face, and Fauna had inherited his inquisitive eyes. Morraine could sweet talk almost anyone and no one told worse jokes than Chel.
Klea nodded. Surrounded by her sisters, she would face this goodbye. “I’ll grab some plates.”
Erin L. Swann is a lifelong lover of fantasy and space adventures. She’s an avid home cook and works as an art teacher, feeding the imaginations of others while fueling her own creativity. Her work appears in numerous publications including Factor Four Magazine, The Colored Lens, and Brigids Gate Press. You can find her on twitter @swannscribbles and on her website at www.swannscribbles.com.
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