Post by AnneL on Feb 3, 2017 14:19:45 GMT -5
Chapter 1: A Barley Beginning
Hill Country, United States, 1914
Lavender sat at her kitchen table and prepared to eat the worst stew in the history of stew. She knew with certainty it would be terrible, because she’d eaten this same sad concoction every day since she was six years old—ever since the day her parents packed them up and moved to this tiny town. All because she’d cooked an egg.
She couldn’t explain how or why she’d done it; she simply remembered that somehow she knew how to cook, even though she never had before. Back then she was a girl with whims. And that day, her whim was to cook.
As soon as she’d placed the egg in its floral cup, her parents had gathered their belongings and loaded them on the next train out of the city. A day’s-worth of cramped travel later, they settled in the corner of the state, right in the middle of hill country.
Their new home was a small, sloping cottage with peeling paint and an atrocious kitchen. Back at their city house, the kitchen had been Lavender’s favorite room, with its gleaming copper pots and shelves of spices. But this kitchen had no cheerful jugs of wildflowers or braids of garlic. Just an ancient black stove that hissed at random, and an empty larder.
Shortly after they had arrived in hill country, Lavender’s mother handed over The Recipe. Lavender was barely tall enough to see into the chipped enamel pot on the stove. Still, her mother presented the stained parchment with a great deal of ceremony, along with the edict, “Follow this recipe, and do not deviate. Or there will be DIRE consequences. We don’t want another egg fiasco.”
Now, Lavender was a (thin) twelve-year-old still eating that horrific stew, and not a bit wiser to the reason for her egg-induced imprisonment. She glanced at the recipe, which she’d tacked to the wooden slats behind the stove so many years ago. She had never deviated.
Best Barley Stew
1 pot water, 2 cups barley, 2 stalks chopped celery
Bring water to a boil. Add barley. When barley has cooked for 5 minutes, add celery. Cook until celery is barely tender and barley is still chewy. Serve tepid.
Lavender swallowed the first spoonful of stew, and proceeded to chew on the crunchy bits of celery and the anemic pearls of barley. It tasted worse than usual. She set down her spoon and walked onto their front porch. There was still no sign of her parents on the muddy road ahead, and it felt strange to be left alone so long. Lavender’s mother rarely left the house. But today she’d accompanied Lavender’s father into town to “stock up on provisions,” which Lavender assumed meant “loads more barley.”
Lavender inhaled deeply, hoping to catch a whiff of the honeysuckle that clung to their gate on early summer nights. But all she noticed was the sound of her own stomach growling in frustration. And at that moment, she could bear it no longer. She was hungry. There was just one thing to do—she needed to cook. Let the consequences come. They couldn’t be worse than this.
Lavender marched to the back yard. At the base of the fence, she pulled one of the sweet garlic shoots that popped from the earth each summer. Then she ran over to the giant oak tree on the edge of their property and pulled a few of the wild mushrooms that grew at its base. And on her way back inside, she spotted the patch of chives with their crown of purple flowers. She tore off a handful and added them to her apron, flowers and all. She wished for something more substantial, but she’d have to make do.
Inside, she organized her meagre ingredients on the wooden butcher-block, then diced and sautéed, just as she’d done in her imagination so many times. She dished just one bowl of the stew, and left the remainder in the pot. As she tipped her fragrant ingredients into her wooden soup bowl, she said a prayer. Please, let this be better. It has to be better. She gave her improved concoction a quick stir, and took a bite.
She tasted the garlic first. Its pungency cut through the watery mixture of barley and celery. The chives followed, subtly echoing the garlic’s robust flavor, but softer and mellow. And finally the mushrooms. She allowed a chunk to slide onto her spoon, and it provided the perfect savory finale.
As she scraped the bottom of her bowl, she wondered: Can three wild ingredients really make that much difference? That was all she’d used. She couldn’t imagine such simple additions could transform that disgusting soup. But they did. She scooped another hunk of mushroom, placed it on her tongue, and chewed slowly, so she could concentrate on its chewy texture. And suddenly, two realizations rang out in her brain. You must leave. And you must cook. Nobody spoke, but the message was crystal clear.
She swallowed, and at that exact moment, two sharp knocks at the front door caused her to drop her spoon. Really? Right now? She smoothed her apron and tucked her black curls behind her ears. She picked up her bowl of improved soup, stashed it in a cupboard, and walked to the front door.
On the porch stood a child. This child wore trousers the color of deep brown soil, a crisp striped shirt with a green bowtie, suspenders, and boots of fine leather. All quite boyish, except for the hair. It was golden blonde, and braided into two impossibly long plaits and tied at the bottoms with pink satin ribbons. This led Lavender to deduce she was looking at a little girl—one who spoke right away, in a voice that was both light and high.
“I’m looking for a cook. Can you help me?”
Chapter 2: The Dire Consequences
“You’re not from here,” said Lavender, transfixed by this tiny person.
“Of course I’m not. Gosh, something smells good in there,” the girl said, pointing to the kitchen. “Oh, then I was right! It’s you! Of course I expected someone a little older, but that sure does smell divine, whatever you’ve got on the stove in there.”
Lavender recalled her mother’s words again. Dire consequences. She doubted a bizarre little girl with pink ribbons in her hair counted as dire, but she didn’t want to take any chances.
“Come on, what did you make?” the girl said, as she walked toward the kitchen. “And what’s your name?”
“My name is Lavender, and that—on the stove—is just barley stew. It’s gross.”
“Can I taste it?” the girl continued, now heading into the kitchen uninvited.
Lavender darted in front of her, and blocked her from the stove.
“It’s horrible. Trust me. And you haven’t even told me your name, or what on earth you’re doing here.”
The girl cleared her throat. “Of course,” she said. “Allow me to introduce myself properly. My name is Jessamine Claire Fortescue the 2nd. But for goodness sakes please call me Jess.” No argument there, thought Lavender.
“Anyway, I come from the north. From the city. And my family needs a cook.”
“I don’t understand,” Lavender said. “How old are you? Surely you didn’t travel alone. Who’s ‘we’?”
“I’m ten years old, though I’m not sure why that’s relevant. Just let me taste your stew. I’ve come such a long way.”
“You’ve come a long way for stew? Somehow I doubt that.”
Jess glared at her, impatience stretched across her face as clear as her numerous freckles.
“You’re not going to leave me alone until you’ve satisfied yourself, are you?” said Lavender.
“Indeed not,” she replied.
Lavender pulled a bowl from the top shelf of the wooden hutch in the corner of the kitchen, and a spoon from the drawer. Then she found a clean checked napkin and spread it out on the table. She ladled one spoonful of the stew from the pot on the stove.
Jess sat at the table, tucked the napkin into the neck of her shirt so it covered her bowtie. Then she filled her spoon and took a bite. And nearly choked.
“Oh,” she said. “But this is disgusting,”
“Yes it is,” said Lavender. “Now can you go?”
“Can you make it better?”
“I’m not allowed. And I wouldn’t know how,” Lavender lied, still unsure if this was all some kind of cruel joke. But even as she told the lie, her entire body urged her to follow this child.
“All right then. I guess I’ll be going," said Jess.
Lavender watched as Jess grabbed her jacket and made for the door. Go with her. It was that voice inside her again, and this time it shouted at her. Lavender closed her eyes and remembered the taste of the soup—the mushrooms, the garlic, the chives. You must leave. And you must cook. She had no idea where this girl would take her, but she longed to go. She glanced at the pot on the stove. She needed to be near lively people and good food. She needed to escape…barley.
“Jess!” she cried. “Wait!”