Witch’s Brew

Sean Locke Photography/Shutterstock.com

This post was originally published through Patreon on March 19, 2019

Martha tipped her plate and a hillock of diced onions dropped into a tall aluminum pot. Steam rose up at once, and she grabbed a metal spoon and began to stir.

“If there’s no browning, there’s no flavor,” her father used to say, “but too much browning and you’ve spoiled the meal.”

Martha knew how important it was to get this dish right, so she sprinkled in some salt to bleed the onions and watched with a hawk’s eye as it turned first translucent, then gold, then finally a light caramel brown.

Next came the minced garlic, followed by the carrots and celery. Martha gave the vegetables time to release their magic, then dumped into the pot two cans of crushed tomatoes and waited for the concoction to start bubbling like a witch’s brew.

And that’s really what it was, wasn’t it?

She’d feed it to her customers, and in a few minutes, or a few hours, or a few days, something would happen. Something would change, and for better or for worst, their lives would never be the same.

After ten or fifteen minutes, Martha stirred some more. She didn’t have to—the heat was low and the bottom wouldn’t burn—but she needed to do something with her hands. The anxious energy inside of her had started to boil alongside the soup and she was restless.

Should I serve this to my customers or send them home?

Every day, she asked herself the same question, and every day, she reached the same conclusion.

This is what I do. It’s my life’s work and I’m good at it.

The soup on the stove spat its approval.

The happy endings were, of course, a fundamental part of what kept her going—spontaneous marriage proposals, miraculous cures, and unexpected fortunes were just a few of the things that occurred in Martha’s restaurant—but what really got her fired up was that she got to play such a direct role in the outcomes of people’s lives.

“You’re not changing their destinies,” her father once explained, “just hastening their fulfillment. Some people prefer to meet their fate head-on, and for almost 200 years our family has helped them do so.”

But it was hard for her not to feel responsible for the things that happened, and whenever her soup led to someone discovering their fortune, Martha swelled with pride.

There is, however, a dark cloud for every silver lining—isn’t there always?—and while many of her patrons departed under much-improved circumstances, many more did so having suffered some traumatic loss or heartbreak—or didn’t depart at all, at least not alive.

Yesterday, a seemingly happy husband had confessed to his wife of forty years to numerous infidelities, and the day before, two men had suffered massive coronaries, dropping dead before the rest of Matha’s horrified patrons. On both occasions, she’d found solace in her father’s explanation, assuring herself that these horrible things would have come to pass anyway in their own good time.

Still, such experiences took their toll, and Martha felt as if she’d aged twenty years rather than five since inheriting her father’s restaurant. At the end of his career, the man had, for the first and only time, taken a taste from his own spoon, and today, Martha considered doing the same.

Her father was now comfortably retired, having received an unexpected windfall from a past investment. What would happen to Martha if she, too, partook of the mysterious soup? Would she find good fortune or bad? She had no children to carry on the tradition should her life take a sharp and sudden turn for the worst, but then again, whatever happened to her would have been destined anyway, so what did it even matter?

Before, Martha hadn’t understood why her father had been so impatient to meet his fate. Now, she thought she did.

And so, with some trepidation, she dipped her spoon into the aluminum pot. She stared at its contents with avid fascination, and, heart pounding, lifted it to her lips and took a sip.

Now, there was nothing left for Martha to do but stand before her famous brew and wait for her fate to catch up to her.

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