A gift casserole brings back memories. Martha’s recovering from pneumonia . . .
“Yes, ma’am.” Once he made sure that she climbed the three steps from the back stoop to the mudroom door safely, that was. Not until Martha had gone indoors did Jude finish collecting the arm-load of wood and carry it through the mud room into the garage. He stepped back outside and fetched more from the main pile, then emptied the cold ash can by the back door into the ash hopper in the shed. He also glanced into the bird bath to make sure it was full. Martha met him as he returned to the back door. “Please?” she handed him the mailbox key.
“Yes, ma’am.” She’s pushing too hard. Jude fetched the mail from the box by the road. Only then did he clean off his boots and come into the house. He closed the back door and tucked the draft-stopper into place along the base of the door. As he set the mail in the basket and removed his boots, he heard quiet coughing, then the kettle whistling. And if I dare say anything to her about working less, I’ll be spending the rest of the winter on the run! He’d gotten blistered ears twice already. He pulled the heavy coat from the rucksack. He shook out the coat, then hung it in the proper place.
“Tea’s ready,” Martha announced. He peered around the corner into the kitchen. “What? I’m not going to throw anything at you.” She glared down at the jar of local honey in her hand, then back up at him. “Unless you are going to start scolding me for moving wood closer to the door.”
He shook his head. “No, ma’am. I was going to ask if you needed to special order anything from the bakery, since they are closing the order list on Thursday.” He ventured into the kitchen and poured himself some tea. She’d made it as black as Shoim’s eyes, so he added a bit of cream, then some of the honey now that she’d finished with the sweetener. Even so, he could feel the end of his ponytail curling as he tasted the first sip. Hyssop. That’s what she’s added. Good for her, and I’ll survive. In truth, it was a bit of a miracle that he’d avoided catching anything yet this year, as much of Devon County seemed to be coughing, wheezing, or sneezing! He glanced at the sink. She’d gotten half the dishes done. No, she’s not regaining strength as fast as she wants.
Martha retreated to the living room to work on her current quilt project. Jude finished his tea. He washed the dishes and glanced at the list of supper options. “Pork stew with peppers” had come up on the schedule. Since nothing cooked on the stove or in the oven at the moment, he turned on the oven and then ventured into the garage.
The coven members had given him half a dozen casseroles when they learned about “Aunt Martha’s” illness. He’d been saving them until now. He opened the lid of the big chest freezer and found where he’d tucked the packages. He closed his eyes, pointed, and took the one he felt under his fingers. He also grabbed a two-pound pack of cubed pork shoulder. Once back in the kitchen, he puzzled at the label taped to the casserole. “Lucy. Pork Musaca with garlic and basil.” That’s different. Garlic is good. He turned the oven up to the recommended 400 degrees, and slid the dish in to bake. He also added water to the teapot and turned the heat up one notch on the dial.
Tea refilled, Jude ventured into the living room. Martha’s latest project combined a dozen shades of blue. She’d pinned a portion of the quilt top, and now stitched the pieces together by hand. He admired her dexterity and patience. Bauxite, Martha’s small black cat, dozed in her preferred spot in front of the wood stove. The stove had gone out. “Aunt Martha, do you want me to clean out the stove and re-light it?”
“Yes, please, after you sit and rest.” She took a long, slow breath, held it for three seconds, then exhaled. She didn’t cough. “I got busy with cleaning and plum forgot to get supper started. I did remember to let the stove die. How’s Molly?”
“She’s well, and says that you’re in her prayers. If you need anything, she’d like you to call her.” If that should come to pass, Shoim will be joining Fr. Antonio’s singing group, because a miracle will have happened. Or he and I will be summoned to fight the Last Battle beside the other Hunters and shadow mages. The latter being more likely, based on Jude’s observations over the past eight years. He drank more tea, letting the heat soak into his left hand. Gentle warmth eased the cold weather ache.
A snort greeted the message. “I appreciate the prayers. Is Scharbauer’s mincemeat canned or local made?”
Jude blinked and tried to recall. “Ah, last year it was local made. Yes, because Mr. Weinberg complained that it didn’t have enough of the proper kind of raisins, and Mrs. Benbow informed him that it tasted just like what her grandmother had made back in England.” It had sounded like a religious argument to him, so he’d refilled the bread loaves and kept his mouth firmly closed. His people’s mincemeat tasted nothing like Christmas mincemeat, either the English or the American versions.
“Hmm.” She stitched until she ran out of thread for the moment, then said, “I want a mincemeat pie, ten inch, and two stollen, one orange and one plain.” Martha leaned around the edge of her chair’s high back and glared. “And I will pay for them.”
“Yes, ma’am. Two stollen, one orange and one plain, and a ten-inch mincemeat pie.” He didn’t move until she reached into her sewing basket and pulled out a bobbin of blue thread the soft shade of a spring sky. He let his eyes half close and shifted to seeing magic. Martha’s shields personal shields shimmered the faintest pale green, much weaker than in October. She’s not as young as she once was. Can I impose shields on her? Yes, but should he? Not around the house, no. He needed the energy, and the defenses around the house and yard should be enough until she recovered fully.
He finished his tea, then stood and got more, now that it had weakened a little. He stirred in cream and honey. Beer would be very good, heavy dark beer with thick flavors. He also missed wine, but this was beer weather, or mulled spiced wine. Neither of which he drank anymore. Martha’s church frowned on alcohol, although she did not object to his keeping wine here for his own use. And if I get drunk, Shoim will give me unending grief during the hangover, if something doesn’t eat me while I’m incapacitated. The stories about what liked to snack on drunk or stoned magic users . . . He shook his head and excavated the meat thermometer out of the “Everything Else” drawer before returning to the living room.
An hour later, once the casserole reached the recommended 170 degrees in the middle, Jude dug a serving spoon into the musaca. His breath caught in his throat at the scent and sight of the layered pork and potato casserole. It had more garlic than his mother’s recipe, but the cheese pulled the same way, and for a moment he stood in the big farmhouse kitchen, not in Martha’s kitchen. He wrenched himself back to the present and served Martha’s plate, then his own. He covered the baking pan again and slid it back into the still-warm oven to keep hot. He would want a second helping, he already knew.
“What’s this?” Martha inquired after saying grace.
A memory. “Lucy Hoffman made it. It’s called ‘musaca,’ and it’s like the Greek kind, but with pork instead of lamb. And potatoes instead of eggplant.” He also saw some mushrooms hiding among the cheese, ground meat, boiled potatoes, and tomato sauce. He took a bite of the steaming mixture and closed his eyes. She’d sliced the potatoes thicker than his mother did, and the mushrooms added a darker tone to the taste. A hint of basil flowed through the garlic and other flavors. Lady of Night, I want to go home, I so want to go home.
“Jude?” Martha’s voice, not his aunts’ or mother’s, broke the memories. He opened his eyes. She watched him, concern in her eyes and voice. “Is something wrong?” He heard care and sympathy.
“I—” He took a settling breath. “This tastes very much like my mother’s recipe. Lucy used more garlic, but that’s personal preference. Mother added cinnamon and clove sometimes. Father teased her about stealing from the Turks. Only Middle-Easterners use those spices with meat dishes.” He stopped himself and took another bite before he spoke more of his heart.
She ate several more bites, then asked in a soft, gentle voice, “Are the memories good ones?”
“Yes.” He couldn’t say more. A lump blocked his throat and tears filled his eyes. He closed them, fighting to regain proper composure. Before he could stop himself, he said in his own speech, “I want to go home.”
Martha’s chair scraped on the floor. A warm arm wrapped around his shoulders and pulled him against her side. “Jude, you’re safe. Let the tears come.”
He couldn’t stop them. Hot tears flowed down his cheeks. The memories, the sorrow, his heart hurt terribly. “I’m sorry,” he managed at last.
“Here.” She gave him a handkerchief, arm still around his shoulders. He wiped his eyes and returned the soft square of cloth. “There’s nothing to be sorry about young man.” She hugged him a little then let go and returned to her chair. “We’ll talk later, if you want to. And if you left any of this.” She pointed to the scraps on her plate with her fork. “If there’s not more, well, . .” She didn’t need to finish the threat.
Jude fetched the pan from the oven and served her a second helping, and got another spoon full for himself as well. How did Lucy know the recipe? That made twice that she’d baked something from his people’s traditions. Were the Hoffmans Saxon miners from Siebenbergen? That would explain why the dishes are close but different. Perhaps not the entire family, but a branch? Recipes traveled farther than people, especially now. That would explain a lot, and made sense—good sense.
[Snip. Jude cleans the woodstove]
He stood with a creak. “I said stop that,” he told his knee. It listened as well as did the cat, or his Familiar. Which reminded him . . . I need to get more of those toffee bits for the Elemental, since it likes them. Now that Martha owned the woodlot beside the house, staying on good terms with the neighbor made even more sense. I wonder what troubled the other Elemental? Something that caused problems with the land, but what? He shrugged. He’d find out soon enough, probably sooner than he cared to. He sighed, quietly.
Martha still heard him. “Jude? What troubles you?” She came into the living room.
“For one, an earth Elemental in the state forest land on Hunter Road asked for help with a possible problem, ma’am. It bothers me that the Elementals stay awake so late in the year.”
She frowned and ran one hand over her greying golden brown hair. “That is strange.” She sat. “What did it want you and Shoim to do?”
“Cleanse the land if something polluted or corrupted it, magical pollution.” Removing dumped car parts and garbage was not his task, thanks be.
Martha tilted her head to the side, watching him. “Is that what you do, those nights you go out and come back exhausted and thinner?”
He hesitated. The Hunters never talked with outsiders. No, you owe her the truth. He took a very long, settling breath. “Yes, ma’am. Shoim and I clean rotten magic out of the land, and deal with the sort of creatures that are attracted to that rot.” He took another deep breath. “My family—extended family—do that in other places, both here in America and back in Europe.”
She smiled a little. “I’d wondered. You are very good with the shotgun, and that sword, and knives too. And you sometimes use words that are not Pennsylvania English, or the local German, either.”
He studied the floor. The words he’d used were probably not the ones he was supposed to say around ladies. “Yes, ma’am.” Lady of Night, help me find the words, please? He looked up and met her eyes again. “A few years ago, I was stupid. I made a joke that was taken wrong. Very, very wrong. I knew better than to say things like that when my cousin was tense, but . . .” He shrugged. “He tried to kill me. And now I can’t go home, because he might try again.”
Red darkened Martha’s cheeks, and anger snapped in her green-brown eyes. “Well daymn. An’ no sheriff wants to get caught in kin-fights.” Her birth accent grew thick indeed. “Not sayin’ I blame ’em, the way some folks act. Don’ take kindly t’ outsiders nosin’ int’ family business even when someone should.”
He nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” No family ever calls for outside law unless an outsider starts it. And for good reason. The German and Bohemian neighbors tended to be the same.
“Now you’re here. Doin’ more than your fair share of work for me and for Scharbauer,” she wagged a slightly-crooked finger at him. “An’ don’ tell me that it’s only three or four days a week. I’ve heard tell how much you’re doin’. Come Christmas you and Shoim are goin’ to rest, as much as you can.”
Could he challenge the “or else” he heard in her words? You can’t get away as fast as Shoim can. You’re a larger target. She thinks Shoim’s cute. Which made him wonder about how people defined “cute,” but didn’t change the fact that Martha let Shoim get away with almost everything short of murder. “Yes, ma’am. I promise I’ll try.”
“Good.” She inhaled to say more, then coughed. Jude left the living room, fixed tea with a dollop of honey, then returned. “Thank you,” she said, voice rough from the coughing spell. He made sure she wouldn’t drop the very full mug, then sat in the other chair.
(C) 2022 Alma T. C. Boykin All Rights Reserved
Very good reveal, with Jude beginning to open a little and letting some pain out. Sizeable step for him, to continue healing.
FYI, the major candy company operating from that region of the state (will remain that way, for reasons of a Trust) sells the toffee bits for baking in 10-12 oz bags. Aunt Martha can send a batch of toffee bars or cookies for a bake sale, as camouflage.
That portion of the Commonwealth had a lot of Germans settle from the 1720s onward, incoming from the Palatinate, Saxony, Bohemia, Moravia, some Bavaria. A Clan branch could have blended in close enough, leaving “for religious faith reasons.” Saxons from the Harz over toward Silesia would have included miners and farmers, as their new area had useful pockets of iron ore, limestone beds, and good sandstone. Odds are reasonable that Lucy’s family carried recipes from Home, or learned a few favorites on the way, adapted for farm labor and different local produce. Another point for her, and if Aunt Martha also encourages matchmaking – well, it’d be safer for Jude to take a wife than incur that much wrath.
Dang. Had me tearing up.
Really good, thanks.
Thank you for your gift. Dusty in here today.
Needed catharsis for Jude well done.
Very dusty… thank you!