Today one of my very favorite pieces came out in the fall edition Three Lobed Burning Eye. And this got me thinking: Why do I love some stories more than others? For example, I had fun writing "Cold Iron and Green Vines," but I never felt particularly attached to it, even though it's a pretty enjoyable tale and it found a home in pro-level magazine. There are just some stories that resonate more inside me than others, regardless of their craft or skill-level.
As an exploration, I decided to dig out my very first accepted short story and share it with you all. It was published in the no-pay online zine The Abacot Journal, and it appeared in January 2009. (I wonder whatever happened to Alexandra Ash, the editor of this departed magazine? I hope she's still out there working with words.)
THE KITCHEN WITCH
By Wendy N. Wagner
Elva Manotte hadn't spent the last fifty-five years practicing witchcraft just to be surprised by a naked man on her front porch. She had seen many more exciting things than that, and more horrible, and never flinched.
She raised the flag on the mailbox and petted the big gray tom circling her feet while she decided what to do. When a crow hopped out of the house and tugged at the man's brown hair, she made up her mind.
"Well, Marcus," she said, voice as rusty and croaking as the crow she addressed, "let's bring him in and see what we can do." The gray cat at her feet hissed at the idea, and darted back into the house.
If Elva's husband—God rest his soul—had been there to see it, he wouldn't have batted an eye. Elva was always picking up strays. He would have looked over the top of his newspaper, made an offer to drive to the store for supplies, then gone back to reading until she asked for help. As it was, his skull over the fireplace merely clacked its upper jaw against the mantle in a reflexive offer.
She lowered the strange man's head onto her bottle green couch and gave the skull a tender smile. "Ah, that's good of you, Sean. Don't worry yourself. I'm sure this is nothing I can't handle."
The skull made no response. There was no need, really. She was probably right.
"Now, what have we got here?" Elva sat back on her glider rocker—a fortieth anniversary gift from Sean, and never a better purchase—and took a look at her foundling.
He wasn't very old, early thirties perhaps, and thin as a rail. There was a white scar along his side. As far as she could tell, it was his only distinguishing mark. She watched a lot of crime dramas these days; she knew things like that were important.
The crow hopped onto the back of the couch and cocked its head, shining an eye down on the man's face. Elva knew the look.
"Don't even think about picking out his eyes, Marcus. He's not even dead."
The bird grumbled and fluttered on its perch. The back of the couch was scarred from his frequent use, and the back streaked white. Elva had thought about covering the thing with plastic, but settled for scrubbing it once a week. She'd use a spell, but by and large, inanimate things resisted her powers. She had hoped to outgrow that little weakness, but now that she was collecting Social Security, she had to admit it wasn't likely.
"Well, I ought to at least cover him up. Don't need him to get shock on top of everything else."
She went to the big cedar chest in the corner and drew out a quilt her mother had made in the twilight of her years, and spread it over the man on the couch. The quilt was all sunny yellows and oranges, in the neat squares that were all arthritis had left the old woman. Elva's mother had once worked intricate patterns with lyrical names and tiny geometric pieces of fabric, the craftswoman's mosaic. The quilts had sold for thousands of dollars, and one even hung in a museum.
But this one, warming a strange and naked man on her daughter's couch, was a gift of love simplified by the ravaging hand of time. Elva straightened it fondly.
She stood up with a smile, rubbing the small of her back, which always felt worn after lifting and stooping. The man hadn't been a light load for her, after all. She looked at the bird.
"Marcus, let me know if he wakes up. I'll be in the kitchen. He'll want something to eat, I'm sure."
The bird bobbed its head in the affirmative, and Elva left him. She had put up some jars of peach pie filling this July. Maybe she would bake. Yes, a pie. With crumb topping. Did she have any ice cream left?
These were the things that went through her mind, because Elva was a practical woman, and she knew wondering and fretting would do nothing for herself or the man. She could go through old books and guess at the cause of the man's stupor, using up half her magical supplies and risking demonic possession—or she could bake and let the comforting scents of cinnamon and sugar reach out to him.
For a woman who now received food stamps, the choice was easy. Besides that, Elva had always preferred kitchen magic. It was simple, surprisingly successful, and easy to hide. Work magic in secrecy, Elva's mother had maintained, and she had lived to be ninety-eight. Not every witch was that lucky. Elva's great-grandmother had died at age forty-six at the hands of Baptist lynch mob.
Yes, there was a good reason to stay in the broom closet, and broom closets are usually close by the kitchen.
Elva pulled the butter from the fridge and set it on the stove to soften. Then she opened the window, calling in a breeze, and set the rest of her ingredients out on the counter.
It was the kind of September afternoon she loved better than any other time. She was sixty-nine this year, but she still felt that she had not had enough fall days. She didn't want to live forever, but she wanted to see another thirty or thirty-five falls, even if it meant drinking a few unpleasant potions along the way.
Her fingers worked quickly without too much instruction from her mind. Elva was a good baker, with a lot of practice. Pastry dough was one of her specialties; the fire department had a standing order for an apple pie a week during the fall, and every club in town made sure to call her for help planning their bake sale.
She patted the dough into a ball and rolled it out. With a certain economy of motion, she flipped the circle of pastry into the pie plate, and turned her attention to the crumb topping.
If only Sean were here, she caught herself thinking, and shook her head irritably. It was true her husband had loved a good peach pie. But what was done couldn't be undone, especially if what was done involved an eighteen-wheeler and a two-speed bike. Sometimes it didn't matter you were wearing your helmet—although, she had to remind herself, the only part of Sean's body that hadn't been pulped was his cranium.
Elva pried the lid off the jar of pie filling. The smell of peaches and ginger made her close her eyes with pleasure. This was a good batch. Yes, Sean would have enjoyed it.
She poured the pie filling into the pan gently and shook the crumbs over it. Then the pie went in the oven.
It baked for an hour. That gave her time to tidy up the dishes, go out to garden and pick some dahlias for the table, refill the cat and the crow's food dishes, and fold a basket of laundry. She took a moment to run a brush through her close-cropped white hair and apply some cherry-flavored chapstick.
Then the pie came out of the oven, and she started the coffee.
It was an old percolator, loud, and with her head bent over yesterday's crossword, it was no wonder the man surprised her when he coughed at the doorway and said:
"Is that . . . coffee I smell?"
He had a nice voice, a little nervous, with an accent Elva couldn't place. He looked lost, standing in the kitchen doorway with the blanket wrapped around himself and his bare toes curling on the linoleum. She smiled, grandmotherly, at him.
"Yes." He looked down at himself. "And apparently naked."
She laughed. "I'll get you something."
She didn't have any men's clothing, of course, not after five years as a widow, but she found a pair of her own sweatpants that might fit, and a plain green t-shirt. She sent him to the bathroom to change while she poured coffee and cut slices of pie. It was still too hot to cut, but she encouraged it to cool with a murmured chant, and it was good enough.
He emerged from the bathroom looking sheepish but clad.
"Do you take sugar? Cream?"
He nodded to both and sat down where she showed him to. She sat across and stirred her coffee. The crow hopped into the corner of the kitchen and watched him, eyes reptilian, orange.
"What's your name?"
"Jesus." He took a sip of coffee, winced. It was still very warm.
He didn't look Hispanic, although he was dark enough. You could never tell. Elva prided herself on being open-minded.
"Mine's Elva. Nice to meet you."
"Elva." He looked around at the kitchen, its ten-year-old appliances shining under their coats of children's drawings, and the dishes waiting in the drainer.
Elva noticed his glance. "My grandchildren give me those. I baby-sit for them every Thursday."
"That's lovely." He took a bite of his pie (there had been no ice cream), and his eyes closed. "Oh my. That's wonderful."
Elva took a bite, too. It really was. It had been years since she'd made a peach pie this perfect. She would have to save a slice for the skull.
They each took another bite, chewing and swallowing slowly, taking their time to enjoy each meaty slice of peach and feel the tiny burn of the spices on their tongues. It was a wonder of contrasting textures and flavors, the embodiment of all that was sensual and all the sunshine of summer.
Elva swallowed. She brought her coffee cup to her lips and looked hard at the man. She took a drink without letting go of his eyes, and he flinched a little at her gaze.
"What brought you to my doorstep today, Jesus?"
He looked surprised. "Don’t you know who I am?"
She took another drink, brows coming together. He could see her mind working, and he shook his head.
"Look." He brought his palms up beside his face. There in center of each, bright as moonlight, a silver scar. Circles of long-ago pain. She thought of the scar on his ribs and put down her coffee cup.
"Why my door, Jesus?"
He shrugged. "The Lord works in mysterious ways."
"Trite." She pushed aside the mug and folded her arms across her chest.
He pushed away his coffee, too. "Elva. I came to you because of who you are, what you do. I was sent here. Because it's my job." He smiled, his coffee-colored crinkling with gentle humor.
"Your job. The Son of God has a job?"
"Duty, perhaps, is a better word."
"Duty." She stood up, the lines around her mouth folding themselves deeper. "I understand duty. I learned duty before I could walk. Protect people, heal the earth, keep the world from falling apart. That's the duty of a witch, and that's what we've been doing since the birth of humankind. I'm not sure we need help from a minor deity like you."
He stood, too. "I'm not here to help you. I'm here to stop you. Witches like you can only slow down what needs to be done now. It's time. I've come back to Earth to end it—to stop all the madness and unhappiness and sin."
"By destroying everything?"
"It's the only way."
Elva shook her head. "It's wrong."
"It seems that way, but it's for the best. You know it's true. Good people like Sean die, while murderers and child molesters walk free in the streets. This world is corrupt." His brown eyes, so mild and kind, began to brighten with the fervor of his words. "It is a pit of filth and despair. I will rub it out so that it may be reborn!"
"No!" She struck out wildly at his face, and he seized her wrists. His hands were like iron, crushing hard on her very bones. Elva cried out with the pain of it, and felt her knees giving way beneath her.
There was a scream, and fluttering darkness, and Marcus the crow was battering the man's head. The cat—slinking, silent creature—threw itself against the man's knees, all claws and fury.
Elva jerked her hands free and grabbed for something, anything, and her hand closed on the edge of the pie plate. She brought the whole deep-dish weight of it down hard upon Jesus's head.
He went down without a sound.
She stood there, gasping for air, her chest tight with fear and anger, looking down at the man on the floor. The pie plate had broken, and the beautiful peaches, golden with summer, clung stickily to his curling brown hair.
A ribbon of red rolled out on the floor, and the cat licked at it curiously. It looked up at her and meowed.
"Oh, Mr. Whiskers," she murmured, and scooped him up, pressing her face into his soft fur. She rubbed his broad forehead until his purr slowed her heartbeat. The crow hopped onto the back of a chair and bumped her with its inky head.
She looked at the dead man on the floor. "How could anybody eat my peach pie and possibly think the world ought to be destroyed?" She shook her head. "And now I'm going to have to clean this mess up, for Chri--" She stopped and swallowed a cold lump in her throat. "For crying out loud!" she shouted.
Then she rolled up her sleeves.
Elva opened the back door and ran a couple of two-by-fours up the back stairs. Then she found the wheelbarrow in the garden shed and rolled it into the house, and with the help of a few herbs, found the strength to heave the corpse into the wheelbarrow. She took it out to the compost pile and buried it under a thick layer of grass clippings and dried leaves.
She wiped off the tines of her pitchfork and looked up at the sky. "I know you'll be back. And I guess you've got to do what you've got to do. But not today. I want thirty more Septembers." She smiled weakly. "The fire department is counting on me."
She put her tools back in the garden shed and went inside without glancing back at the compost heap.
After a shower and a cup of coffee, she pulled out another pie plate and baked a second peach pie. She needed a little something after saving the world. And Sean still needed his slice.