Stories & Etcetera

How to Bake a Girl

Image by Andrea Paterson from Pixabay
Image by Andrea Paterson from Pixabay

Baking a girl, a daughter even, is an easy at-home project, not much harder than whipping up the perfect sugar cookie. To make her crumble-proof is as simple as old alchemy. A strong daughter requires little more than your last nerve, your worst scars, and the buried fears you hid in shadows. The trick is regulating heat: too little or too much and she’ll forget to hold her keys between her knuckles in the parking lot at night.

Ingredients:

2 cups ferocity

1 cup food and shelter [you cannot bake a hungry girl; first, she must be fed and housed.]

½ cup opportunity

½ cup self-regard

A generous spoonful of dreams

A heap of stories, preferably with beasts—both human and inhuman

5 teaspoons of persistence

A pinch of bravery [the brand is up to you, but it’s best to use the kind distilled from survivors]

1. Gather your ingredients in a room without smartphones, cameras or mirrors. Remove airbrushed fashion photos, advertisements for unblemished skin, and prescriptions for fad diets. Keep your work space clean.

2. Preheat the oven. The temperature is mostly guesswork. Hot enough to melt a filtered selfie, but not so hot that she will burn with mania, depression, anxiety, addiction, anorexia, bulimia, self-harm or suicide. This is, of course, the tricky part. Test the heat with your own skin. Adjust at intervals determined by your faith, luck, and experience.

3. Girls are best baked in deep pans with room for secrets.

4. Blend the ingredients in any order you see fit. They will not be light and fluffy. Take your time. Stir well.

5. Pour the girl into the pan, using a spatula to scrape the bowl down to its bones.

6. Bake the girl for ten to twenty years, rotating the pan at frequent intervals, while singing songs of rebellion and telling stories where the heroines are warriors, artists, writers, inventors, dragon-slayers or executives.

7. The girl is finished when a wish inserted in her center comes out clean.

8. Place her on a rack to cool. Give her space. She might have wings. Or talons. She might erupt or quietly unfold like reverse origami into the shape she’s chosen. Let her stand. Or fly.

9. When she’s gone, clean your oven thoroughly, but leave the splatter in your heart.

Stay

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend

My daddy was the Keeper first. I inherited this place from him. Not much to
it—half a wall that used to fit someplace, on the back edge of our property.
Somehow that window never broke. Don’t ask me.

My daddy called it a “way station.” He used to be a trucker, so I misheard
at first and thought he meant “weigh station.” A place to take your measure. I
suppose that’s true enough. The dead folks who get stuck here? They’re all
taking stock.  

But man, oh man, they bring a shit ton of hard questions. I mean, they never
ask about the weather last Tuesday. They want a clean accounting, right and
wrong like flip sides of a shiny penny.

I did try. I told myself, “Sis, these ghosts deserve their peace, even if
they smell like cordite and dust spiked with magnolia.” I looked for answers on
the wall, words scratched into brick. Strings of letters, numbers. Lovey-dovey
phrases. Could be nothing more than folks’ initials. But maybe there was
something else. A moral calculus. A righteous etymology.

Don’t look so surprised—I went to college; I read books. People think if you
say ain’t that you aren’t going anywhere. At least the dead know better
than all that.

They do get mightily impatient. You’d reckon ghosts would learn to wait, but
they’re a testy lot. They throw bitterness at me—clumps of gauzy, weightless
shit that smells like long-dead fish. Daddy didn’t warn me about that, which
got me to thinking there must be another way, something I missed.  

Then this boy came along while I was picking wrath out of my hair. Little guy,
alone, but he came right up close. Brown corduroys and a T-shirt with a faded orange
logo. One shoe missing. Dirty fingers, caked with mud as if he’d clawed his way
from death. He stared at that old window, nothing on the other side but barren,
vacant light.

Well, Daddy didn’t give me any firm instructions, ‘cepting for the one word:
Stay. The window wasn’t latched. I opened it. And that kid floated
through, smiling fit to beat the band. Last I saw of him was one rubber-tipped
high-top and one bare set of toes. Last I heard, he laughed.

The rest of the dead followed. More come every day. Before they disappear, they drop stale questions at my feet. I sweep them up, make a pile, light a match. I burn the detritus of knowing. Eyes closed, I think about my daddy, out here on his own. I feel the pull of that lone window’s light, its tender provocations. I want to say, “I understand now, daddy. I get it, what you left me. This odd job. I might be the Keeper, but there ain’t nothing to hold onto. All I gotta do is stay.”

There’s a way and weight to that, to bearing witness. Staying. You ain’t got to know it all.

The Weeds

Photo by Brenda Gottsabend

“Where do the bubbles come from, mama?”

Violet pulls her mitten off to jab the iced weeds with a stick. When she doesn’t get an answer, she pokes her mother with the same downed branch.

“Violet, stop,” her mother says, brushing off the flecks of leaves from where they’ve landed on her new striped leggings. Her fingers tap the phone again. Her hair—cut short now and dyed black—works like curtains, hiding everything.

“I liked the pizza pants better,” Violet mumbles.

Her mother keeps her head down. “They weren’t practical,” she says.

“What about the fox pants? Or the owls—oh, or the tiny mice!”

Violet claps her hands, jumps and twirls across the frozen lawn. She thinks about her mother’s friends, the party where they bought those pants.

“sorry, josey. i had to bring violet. her father didn’t show.”
“again? aw, don’t worry, honey. i’ll set her up with lemonade and cookies. she’ll be fine.”

“Mama,” Violet stops her spinning. “How do the bubbles get in the ice?”

She scuffs her boot along the surface of the frozen puddle choked with weeds.

“you’ve let the lawn go all to hell, laura. jesus, can’t you get it right?”

“Um,” her mother says, “what’s that?”

She’s stabbing harder at her phone. Behind the shadow-fabric of her hair, she swipes a finger, wipes her eyes. Violet knows what’s coming. Her mother stitches on a smile that looks faker than a doll’s lips.

“What do you say we order Chinese take-out tonight, baby? Get a movie. Make popcorn?”

“He’s not coming,” Violet says.

“No, baby. He got held up.”

Violet spins again, this time with her dead branch lifted like a wand.

“Abracadabra!” she shouts.

“Baby, stop,” Laura says. “It’s cold. Let’s go inside.”

Violet smacks her stick against the fence. The neighbor’s Labrador begins to howl and that sets off the whole long block of barking, yapping dogs.

Laura yanks the branch away.

“I said stop,” she snaps.

Her cheeks are red. Her eyes are wet. She’s breathing hard.

Violet glares at her. “Those pants,” she says slowly, “make your butt look fat.”

Her mother holds so still Violet doubts she’s breathing. Laura drops the branch.

Violet flings herself forward, wraps her arms around her mother’s legs and holds on tight.

“i’m telling you, laura, that kid’s not normal. the way she stares at me. those freakin’ eyes”
“she has your eyes, mark”

When her mother strokes her hair, her fingers shake.

“Mama,” Violet whispers, “how does air get in the ice? Where do the bubbles come from?”

Laura’s voice drifts down like flakes. “I don’t know,” she says.

Violet tilts her head back, looks into her mother’s eyes.

“Could be fairies,” she whispers.

Laura smiles, a real smile. “Maybe.”

“Are they trapped?” Violet holds her breath.

“—why the hell I married you, you whore, you bitch, you cu—”

“No,” her mother says. “Not trapped. I think,” she hugs Violet close, “I think, they’re breaking loose.”