Tuesday, 26 February 2019

Chapter 31: Cooking





                                                                                                          
The offering has been given a choice.  The offering stays.  The offering submits to a greater destiny.  I am not sure the offering is worthy of the honour, but I am sure Nydia deserves a sacrifice.  I may take remission of my sins through the offering’s blood, God willing, but Nydia is far more deserving, and will reap the greater benefit.  This offering, this sacrifice, can ensure healthy crops and a fertile future for our people.  I will make a difference and make right what has been wronged. The time is soon. Soon.
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“They need you, now!”  Ruthie called, breathing heavily, her top half through the open door, looking at Elle.

“So soon?” Elle dropped a wooden spoon and began vigorously washing her hands and forearms.  She grabbed a bag from under the couch.  She returned to the kitchen counter, where a container and equipment Neith had seen her boiling again earlier sat upturned, air-drying.  Elle tossed the tools into the container, snapping it closed, and slid it into the bag.

“It’s definitely happening.”  Ruthie’s hair was tied into a loose knot with flyaways forming a halo. 

Elle made her way to the door, then stepped back to the table to snatch a thick sheet from the stack of clean items Neith had just finished folding there.  She tossed it at Ruthie.  Elle looked at the dinner, also on the table in mid-preparation.  “Do you mind?”  She was looking at Neith.  Ruthie wasn’t staying?   Neith nodded with a dry tongue and stood up.  The two left, arms full.  They were gone, leaving behind a rectangular square of bright light from the open door.  It was hot.  Almost-Longest-Day, height-of-summer, hot.

Neith synced a pouted release of breath with a scan of the cooking area. 

She could do this. 

She had watched Elle’s kitchen choreography for months now.  But faced with the unlabelled jar array and the few steps from her bench seat to Elle’s worn patch of the floor, she felt lost. 

Stirring.  Stirring seemed like an excellent place to start.  Neith swooped to the wok atop the rear stove element.  She took the idle wooden spoon in a tight grip and stirred.  After a few minutes of that she remembered the wok wasn’t all that was cooking. With apprehension, she leaned so she could see outside through the window.  The barrel by the stone wall was still smoking.  How long had the fish been in there?  How long did fish need?  How long did this particular kind of fish need?  It hadn’t been that big.  Sorry, Jamin (he’d dropped the catch off earlier).

Neith had a few guesses where Elle was going, but was bemused by Elle saying so little about it.  It felt like they talked about everything now.

Sort of.

Just keep stirring.  The vegetables were shrivelling to a size that seemed insulting. 

Neith listed window-ward again, but this time took in the storage bay and surrounds beyond the smoker.  No activity; no one stacking dry wood, no one using a walkway.  There was usually someone in sight, these days – it was never busy on Elle’s side of the camp, but people didn’t avoid it the way they used to.

Had whatever called away her mentor and friend also called away everyone else?  Amos was with Koro today, she knew – was this part of the same plan?  Davey was at school.  Hey – why wasn’t Ruth at school?  Whatever was going down in Nydia today, it appeared to be Neith-Exclusive.  Another council meeting?  Neith dared to leave the stove to look out the front door as well.  Nope, her surrounds lacked anyone who might offer culinary salvation.  And humans generally.  Only Ninja was in sight, stretching in a patch of sun he’d claimed on the couch. Something big was happening, somewhere else.

The vegetables needed to stop shrinking.  Neith removed them from the element and placed the wok at the back of the stove.  Pursing her lips at the bright flame she’d revealed in doing so, her hand flitted over the dials for igniting and adjusting the temperature of each round hot spot, settling on none.  Any labels suggesting which circular knob controlled which flame had long ago worn away, and any numbers and lines indicating which direction was high and which was low had gone with them. There wasn’t even a dot or arrow on the dial to show where it was pointing.  She took a punt, twisting the one furthest to her left.  A flame arm leapt from the exposed ring of blue fire to the previously unlit left-front quarter.  Now two elements were burning.  It was at this point Neith smiled.  Yes, she may be working in the opposite direction from her goal, but the squeal that the fire-doubling incident had just now elicited from her?  It kindly coincided with some kind of Nydia Valley rapture; it was a smile of relief – this pickle she was in – her embarrassment? It would be her secret. Her smile evolved to a half-snort, then chuckles of laughter, as she continued to play with the dials lighting first three elements, then those same two dang it, then the original one, then no gas elements.  Zero fire. 

The chuckling continued.  Each knob seemed turned to its furthermost point anti-clockwise.  She had this situation under control.  Even if the vegetables lacked seasoning.  And size.  She hunched over and sniffed above the hob for the tell-tale, oddly-pleasant scent of gas.   The chuckling subsided as she was taken away in a brief imagining of Elle’s home in ashes upon her return. Thankfully, there was no gassy smell.  Just that of unseasoned vegetables and…smoke.  The fish!

Neith ran out through the bead curtain to the smoker, unconsciously armed with a wooden spoon in one hand and nothing in her right, only to hop back and forth between her feet realising she wasn’t equipped to open the smoker.  She spun to dash back inside and grab a hot pad, a towel – anything but just a spoon. 

That was when she saw him.  He was leaning inside the front doorframe.

Miles.

Neith could hear the side door’s beads clapping together all-too-cheerfully behind her as she replayed things; assessing the extent of the damage. 

Miles’ smelt revealed little, but the creases around his eyes betrayed a smugness that suggested he’d appeared somewhere before the spoon dash.  Before she played disc jockey to flames?  She made a split-second analysis.  His mouth-corner twitched.  He definitely turned up pre-snort. 

Cuss.

“Hello.”  She said. “I hope you’re joining us for dinner.  You can hardly miss the main event if this is the curtain-raiser.”  Did she just invite him to come over?  Miles’ squint and slight turn of the head manifested his lack of appreciation for that analogy.  “Before a big show – a band playing or something – some smaller outfit plays to warm the crowd up, so the curtain raises earlier.  Sometimes the curtain-raiser is really good, and you’re like, ‘Woah, if they’re this good, how good is the main show gonna be?’”  Was she still talking?  Was this a class?  “So, yeah, you’d want to see what kind of act was gonna follow that kind of entertainment!  Dinner.  I’m talking about the dinner.”

“Wouldn’t miss it,” Miles answered with a slight incline of his chin.  With that, he shrugged off of the frame and left.  He called back as he made his way down the path: “For the record – I knocked!” 

Neith’s eyes began watering.  The smoke was still a thing.  It was slinking in through the back door now, fishy and thick.  She snatched two towels and bolted back through the just-still beads.  Manoeuvring the top layers from the smoker stack and placing them on the stone wall alongside the cooker, she slowly retrieved the wire racks within.  She concentrated on holding them level so any juices left in the smoking parcels wouldn’t sluice out onto the coals below – she had paid some attention.  She eased the white fog-hidden food – a.k.a. the main event / the evening’s fare – onto the stones as well. 

All. Under. Control.

She went back inside.

“What’s for dinner?” Ruthie sang.  She was back.  Where was Davey?  Was school finished?  Who was Davey with, if Miles had been here?!  “Eugh.  What was for dinner?”  asked Ruthie.

Neith displaced her bottom jaw sideways and clenched her teeth in apology, “I’m optimistic it’s still for dinner?”

Ruthie laughed in reply.  “But really, what’s cookin’?”

“Fried asparagus, aragula and walnuts; potatoes with pumpkin seed powder; and smoked salmon,” Neith supplied.  She didn’t mean for it to sound like a question, but it sort of had.

Ruthie raised her eyebrows and smirked.  “Really?!”  She began to laugh breathily, as she did, her shoulders shaking.  “Any dinner guests, by chance?”

Neith began to suspect a grapevine’s work and nervously squeezed both of her thumb-tips.  “Yes, actually.  One.  No, probably two – how did you know?”

“Just a hunch,” Ruthie said.

Neith continued placing plates around the table.

“You know something.” Neith pressed.

“Many things.” Ruthie replied.

“You know something worth sharing for the good of all present.  Please?”

“Ah – the rub.  It all comes down to whose wrath I fear more – yours, or mother’s.  I think you know whose.”

Neith scoffed as she laid the last plate.  Ruthie clattered down the tray of cutlery as the table’s centrepiece. 

“How about I run to the garden and grab some flowers for the table?  You clean up.”  Ruthie left.  Neith wiped the benches and swept thefloor.

Ruthie burst back through the door, flushed.  She was holding her tunic at its base to form an improvised well.  It was full of greens.   “It’s Wooing Food!” Ruthie blurted.

“Come again?”

“Wooing Food!  Mum’s been joking about making this…aphrodisiac cocktail…”

 “Tonight’s meal was meant to be romantic?”

“Sort of.  That would be a bonus!” Her eyes were alight.  “A chemical kick-start, more like!  The menu tonight?  Everything on it – well, except the potatoes, I suppose…it’s all food that gets, you, you know…thinking more about doing it.”  She saw Neith’s look of alarm. “Okay, romancegetting married,” she bounced some air quotes with her fingers before continuing, “…and then doing it.”

Neith did her best to hide her shock, “Is this some kind of gag?” 

“Nope.  We’re meddling.  Deal with it.”  Elle was meddling?  Romantically?

Since Ruthie seemed to be dispensing information now, Neith wasn’t going to miss the opportunity to have further questions answered.  She decided to ease into her inquiry.

 “So what happened to The Wrath of Elle?  I thought it was going to be harder than that to get at what you were hiding,” Neith said.

“Yeah, it’s too exciting!  And it seemed good timing to squeal – Ma will have a lot of other things on her mind, I doubt I’ll even get a glare for this one.”

Aha, Ruthie led her to the pressing point.  “So it is lack of fear for your mother, not fear of me, that swayed you.  You’ve thought this through.”

“Naturally.  Your wrath’s not much threat, I’m afraid.”  Ruth emptied the fragrant and dirty result of her labours out of her shirt onto the table’s edge.  There were uprooted dandelions in the pile.

“Thanks?”

“Don’t mention it.”

Neith hesitated.  Seize the opportunity.  “I did notice Nydia seems…engaged today; I imagine everyone is thinking about other things.”

“Less people to talk of how smoky ‘smoked fish’ ought to be, right?  I could smell your dinner from the garden.” 

“Right,” Neith confirmed.  She had a point.  But it wasn’t the one she was fishing for.  She resisted the urge to guffaw at the pun as she thought it.  “I imagine they’ll be talking about much more important things.”

“Things I can’t squeal about, so give up now.  That’s not my story to tell.  With the dinner thing, I was a co-conspirator, so I have squealing rights.”

She’d pressed too fast with Ruth.  “But you do know something about where everyone is today, don’t you?”  She wouldn’t pursue Ruthie’s confession of conspiracy yet.

“Of the many things I know, I can tell you…” she leaned in towards Neith, “Dandelions have a pretty sharp bitter taste.  Their roots are chewy, but they taste okay when cooked.  Ma sometimes hangs them to dry out back and grinds them to fill the jar next to the pumpkin seeds for Jamin when he comes by.  Kit gets his little sisters to collect the flowers, and doesn’t tell them it’s for wine he makes for him and his friends.  I, myself, prefer making May-honey with them,” Ruthie’s seemed carried away for a moment, “Mmm, honey.”  Ruthie nudged the flowers she’d collected.  “When I said ‘for the table,’ I meant we will be serving flowers – roots and all.  I grabbed spinach too.” 

Neith had a pretty good guess of where and what would require Elle so urgently.  The tools, the visits Ruthie talked about all pointed to one thing.  But the widespread absence of Nydians  made her second guess her conclusion.  Everyone would not be welcome at that.  Would they?

Neith was looking to Ruthie for directions when Davey tumbled in through the front door. He shed his load on the chest by the door and paused long enough to snatch a handful of shelled walnuts from the bench before exiting out the back, bound for the strawberry patch, Neith suspected. 

“Dinner is soon!” Ruthie called out after him.

The house still did its stretching and awakening without Elle, even when only roused as a thoroughfare.  She noticed Davey hadn’t questioned Elle’s absence.  Did he know where his mother was?  “Now which of the many properties of this glorious yellow flower are we calling upon to rescue me, exactly?” Neith asked.

“Well, I’m not sure, even with glory involved, this meal can be saved.  The dandelions were closest and the first thing that sprung to mind.  I’ve decided we’re going to mask the overdone vegetables with the fresh spinach, for a start.  The dandelions’ strong flavour will hopefully help to hide what’s happened here.  It’s a bonus they’re meant to make you hungry and improve digestion.”

“So the goal is to avoid a stomach-ache?”

“Right again, Nee,” Mini-Elle was enjoying this too much.

“So the food will still probably be awful?”

“Probably.  But it won’t be awful twice.  Isn’t that good?”  Neith followed her meaning, after a short delay.

“I’m sold, just tell me what to do,” Neith said.

Neith felt grateful for her little Crisis Averter.  In a few minutes, she’d really turned things around.  Neith busied herself with things she could do while they waited for everyone to come home.  She rinsed and oiled the wok, wiped the bench-top, and collected the compost to be emptied. 

It was while she was carrying out days of food waste to meet its end as worm food that she saw the crime scene.  The victim’s organs were laid out neatly, deliberate in their arrangement.  Neith retched.  It was a dead bird.  A fantail. The very same flirtatious variety of fowl that had heralded her arrival to Nydia.  She knew what kind of bird it was because its tail feathers remained almost completely unsullied by the dismemberment – they lay not far off, an intact fan. 


Was someone still messing with her?  Like the note and nettle?  She scanned the tree line, over the stone wall into the trees, up by the outhouse.  Neith found no one looking on, relishing her discomfort.  She toed around the spread of entrails and took the compost up the back path.  She dumped the scraps onto the heap, sending fruit flies up in a small explosion.  When she made her second pass by the bird she permitted herself another moment of gruesome fascination.  The lingering hum of smoky fish in the air did nothing to help her stomach with the unpleasantness of it.

She parted the back door’s bead curtain with her free hand. “Well, that’s the compost done.  Aaaand, it seems someone left us a gift outside.”  Tai?  Whoever wrote the note?  Or the person who left the bouquet?  Were they the same person?

Ruthie looked up from crushing some sort of herb in a mortar and pestle.  “Oh?”  She looked excited at the possibilities.

“Lower your expectations.”

“Is that your motto today?”

Neith waved her away and laughed, “I’m beginning to think it should be!” 

“So what kind of gift are we talking?”  Ruthie had put down her tools and was rubbing her hands together. 

“I think I should have been clearer: I think this gift was entirely intended for me.”

“Enough with the cryptic stuff, let’s see it!”

“It’s still outside.”

Ruthie brushed passed her, sending the beads chattering.  She looked around the back area by the smoker, the clothes-line, Davey’s digging site, and stone wall.  Neith sounded her exit behind her and said, “I probably shouldn’t have called it a ‘gift’ – maybe I should have said someone’s left me a ‘warning.’  Not everybody likes me being here.  People leave presents.”

Ruthie still looked confused.  “So there’s a bad present out here you think someone left, to send you a message?”  Ruthie was still panning back and forth.  Was she looking for a box and bow? The mangled bird was right there.  Ruthie saw it.  And laughed.  “Oh Neith.  Do you mean that bird?”  More laughter.  “You’re right, that probably was meant for you, but no people here have it in for you.  That’s Ninja being Ninja.”  Ninja.  The cat.

Of course.  Why had Neith jumped to rule a dead bird as an act of terror before acknowledging the circle of life?  It’d been a while since the bouquet.  Neith needed to relax.  She slapped her forehead and joined Ruthie laughing.  “Hey, I’ve never had a cat around, okay?  Let alone a forest full of bird life.  I thought you fed Ninja – why does he need to catch birds?  And the fun ones?  And why doesn’t he eat them?”
Ruthie was still laughing as she went back inside and reclaimed the mortar and pestle.  Her laughter subsided and she explained, “You’re right, we do feed Ninja scraps.  But cats hunt.  It’s what they do.  Being given a lifeless piece of meat must be demoralising for a carnivore.”

“You sound like your mother.”

“Do I?”  Ruthie smiled at that, happy to be compared to Elle. 

“So you’re saying this is…for sport?  That’s why Ninja didn’t eat it?”  Ruthie nodded as she produced paste-like results.  Neith was attempting to reconcile these ideas.  She knew a little about animal classifications from the Intra – admittedly, not a lot, it had seemed irrelevant then, with so few animals around.  Even recalling carnivores did what they must, she still felt sad to think about it.  A once-enchanting creature lying out, disembowelled and forever stilled for the amusement of another creature.  “Wait, you said it was meant for me!  Is the cat showing off for me?  Ninja accepts me as part of the family, doesn’t he!?  He accepts me as another master!”  This set Ruthie off in another fit of laughter.  “What?  That’s it, isn’t it? Ninja brought me an offering.  Hey, I’m not saying the cat has a crush on me, but this means he likes me.  Right?”

Ruthie made some obvious collect-herself exhales through round lips before answering. “No, Neith.  When cats lay out prey for another carnivore, it’s because they think that poor predator is in serious need of some help.  Ninja was hunting for you, like he would for a litter of kittens.  Or a three-legged cat.”

Neith’s jaw dropped.  She looked to the couch.  The sun-faded spot the cat occupied earlier was now empty. 

Ruthie continued laughing on and off in small bursts as she added fidgety final touches to Project: Rescue Neith’s Meal.