Content Warnings: abuse, child abuse, mind control
"Pasta al Memoir" by E H Timms
The bristles of Jaye's brush dug into the wood as she scrubbed the surface of her work table down the old-fashioned way. The rhythm of the work let her clear her mind of memories that might taint the finished dish. Once the cinnamon-lemon scent-feel of magic had vanished completely, and the table was clean, she traced the wards burned into all the edges of the table with a finger. Warmth blossomed against her hand as the protections rose to ring in the entire work space. Jaye nodded in satisfaction and turned to give the stove the same treatment. Once that was also clean and warded, she set aside the brush and contemplated the shelves of ingredients.
First, she decided, the onion. Onions evoked tears easily, which meant they also held tears easily. What kind of tears though – of fear, of grief, of joy, of pain, of relief – that was up to the cook-mage using them and which nets they wanted to weave from the emotion to catch the diner. She reached over and picked the onion up, cradling it in both hands. Flakes of papery outer skin fluttered away from the touch of her fingers. Her family demanded a freebie for Father's Day? Very well, fathers it would be.
She was six, and an adult hand closed around her wrist and forced her stop her flight to the safety of her room, with a demand to know where she was going. She had no words to offer in counter argument. "Away" wasn't enough. "Away from you" was too much. Both were the only truths in her mind, and lying wasn't an option either because liars were bad and she really, really wanted to be good because then she might be safe.... She might even get that rare drop of approval that she craved. She whispered, looking at the restraining arm, "Nowhere."
"Good," said her father. "You can come and help me." He pulled her into the kitchen, pressed a honey sandwich into her free hand, and stared at her until she ate it. It tasted sickeningly sweet, and each bite weighed heavy inside her. He let her go once she swallowed the last mouthful, but "away" no longer occurred to her. She continued to lean against him, all the bumps and hollows of her scared mind plastered over with adoration and obedience. He smiled with open satisfaction. Her heart hammered wildly against the cage of her ribs, and the honey told her that this was joy, this was the best day of her life. He smiled at her. He approved.
Grief then, for the father she could have had, should have had, if he was less interested in control and more in earning her love. Her grief sank down through the layers of the onion, trailing tears in its wake, and she let out a breath she hadn't realised that she was holding. She set the onion down on the table, then reached out and curled her fingers around the handle of a knife. Two quick strokes took off the ends of the onion and a third, lighter, one sliced through the outer brown layer. She laid the knife down for a moment to peel off the papery outer layers and discard them, then resumed dicing the onion and tossing the pieces into a wide pan with a splash of oil. She lit the stove, set the pan on the heat and carefully slowed the jerky shoves of her wooden spoon into a slower, smoother, stirring motion. When the onion had turned as translucent as the tears it held, she tossed in the mince. Each short strand folded towards itself like a hurting child curling up defensively. As she stirred, it changed from red to the grey-brown of regrets.
She was ten, trying desperately to keep to a list of rules that she had cobbled together from rare requests, overheard phrases, eruptions of fury, and all the ways she had disappointed. She stood on the corner that was as far as she was allowed to roam while her friends whizzed freely past her. For her crossing that line was like trying to walk through a brick wall, the binding on her as sour as lemon juice on a pancake. For them? She hadn't the words to ask. Ask for nothing, expect nothing, reach for nothing, began the rules she lived by. Hide. Be as invisible as you can. Escape before the volcano erupts, and hold in the ache while the adults yell and fume and slam things and hope that they don't notice and start blaming each other for upsetting you. There were so many things she wanted, and didn't get, and they all boiled down to safety in the end.
Passata came next. She set the spoon down and reached for it, but misjudged the distance and jolted the box. It splashed a blot of red onto the bench, like blood, and she flinched involuntarily, then flinched again as her body reacted to the expectation of a fuming volcano. There was no-one looming over her shoulder this time, so she took a breath, wiped up the spill, and lifted the box more carefully. Pouring with one hand and stirring with the other, she mixed it steadily into the mince and onions, and the sauce began to look like a meal.
She put water to heat in a new pan, and when it began to bubble, she tossed in the knots of dried tagliatelle and held a hand out over the pan. Steam tangled around her fingers and blurred her view.
She was fourteen, skipping meals to drag her grades up to a passing mark instead of a failure, with coffee lacing its bitterness on her teeth in place of sleep. She offered her efforts to her father like a gift, the only one she had left to give, and he looked scorn down upon her.
"You're smart," he said, "you should be doing better."
Coffee was no longer the only bitter taste in her mouth, and she swallowed down all her words forever, locked away her emotions and ducked her head to his words.
He smiled approvingly and offered her a slice of cake. She took it and ate in silence, some far distant part of her hovering above the rest of her mind and watching the magic laced through the cake twist and thrash against the locked door guarding her emotions. If she had access to emotions, she would have smiled back in satisfaction, but even that was a lost thing and she didn't dare to unlock the protective door. She only noted the action down as effective, ducked her head again and slipped away.
In the pan the flat strips of pasta softened, uncurled, twisted slightly, and merged back together at the ends. Jaye did smile now, although it didn't reach her eyes, and turned back to begin seasoning the sauce. First a squirt of garlic puree for flavour, stirred through with a brisker, steadier hand than before, then the herbs. Rosemary to mordant the memories in place, thyme for the lost years, sage and oregano for strength and longlasting power. Her own magic sang through her in clear notes of scent, and spiraled down the spoon to bind it all together.
She set out a plate on the work table, traced a finger around the rim, and then lifted the tagliatelle free. It came in a single ring of nested strands, one moebius strip after another. She shook off the water and settled it on the plate. Carrying the pan of sauce across to the table, she retrieved the spoon and ladled sauce into the middle of the nest, then traded the pan for the plate.
She took it through to the main part of the house, where her father waited, and laid it in front of him. Stepped back, innocent mask firmly in place, and retreated to clean up.
Once every trace of her work and presence had been scrubbed away, she walked softly back. He sat immobile, his eyes wide and blank, trapped in an endless moebius loop of pasta and memories. Jaye left him there.
She was eighteen, reporting for formal training, and they placed salt on her tongue. It was only a routine procedure, using it as a counter-agent to clear away any old traces of magic, but it locked her in place. She never knew how many hours she stood frozen while fire and salt raged through her veins and blasted all her doors open again, only that she came to herself gagging and retching on food long gone. There were no tears, no peace, no release, only a pain she had to learn to live with once more and a power woken in her hands that she had to learn to control.
"One last meal," she told her family, "for old time's sake," and removed every pot of salt from their reach.
After winning the BBC Wildlife Young Poet of the Year award, E H Timms eventually branched out into writing prose as well, with a particular focus on fantasy and a fondness for looking at old stories from new angles. They have a number of short stories published, as well as a children's novel and a poetry collection. They now live in SW England with far too many books and a computer tethered to their elbow.