Witch’s Brew

Sean Locke Photography/

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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Saved by the Rain

Leszek Glasner/

In the end, it was the rain that saved Peter Norton’s soul.

He’d always dreaded gloomy weather. He was the kind of child who thrived beneath blue skies and endless sunshine and, whenever the clouds rolled in, like a neglected house plant, Peter would wither by his locked bedroom window and watch the open sky bleed. In each pattering drop, Peter perceived the haunting tale of a great paradise lost, and by the time each stormy day wound to its inevitable end, he’d curl up in bed beneath a thick star-spackled duvet and implore the sun to make a much-needed and sorely missed appearance soon.

This aversion followed him through adulthood and didn’t abate until the final day of Peter Norton’s life when the rain chose to reveal its long-held secrets to him at last.

At 73 years old, Peter could already feel the approaching storm even before the sky grew dark.

“No,” he whispered, “not today.” But he knew his prayer was in vain. Already Peter’s joints were aching. He tried to tell himself it was just his arthritis acting up, but when he pushed himself out of bed, shuffled to the window, and beheld the storm clouds gathering over the horizon, Peter knew it would be another sad and lonely day.

“Better make some coffee,” he announced to the empty bedroom, then trundled to the stairlift his son-in-law had installed three years ago to help Peter in his relentless struggle for independence and the hard-earned right to continue living in his own home.

Peter tried to maintain a positive attitude, but the joints in his arms and legs hurt something fierce and he could already feel those first cold and clammy fingers of the outside weather reaching into him, sucking up what little warmth and vitality he had left.

At the bottom step, Peter took hold of the walker he always kept beside the stairs and shambled forward into the kitchen, where he started a pot of coffee and sat down at the table to stare at the rapidly darkening sky.

It’s going to be a terrible day, he thought, and already his mind was reaching back to happier times.

Sandra had understood his rainy day moods. His wife of 37 years, she’d often sit beside him at the window while he pondered those heavy metal rainclouds in silence. Sometimes they danced, sometimes they laughed, and always, in the end, they made love. Sandra had never failed to lift his spirits during those dark and sorrowful days. But now she was gone and had been for going on eleven years. The house was dark and quiet, and in the gloom that crept inside through the sliding glass door, Peter thought he could glimpse his deceased wife, gazing down on him from above.

My sweet Peter, she seemed to say, and he could help himself no longer. The tears that were already brimming at the corners of his eyes started to flow in earnest, and against the cruel advice of a now extinct generation, Peter broke down and bawled like a baby.

All the pain and anguish of life’s empty promises seemed to rain down on him at once. Peter tried to control himself, tried to still those avalanching teardrops, but that terrible sense of futility and desperation overpowered him. It seemed to lodge in Peter’s chest, gumming up the works, and, in the midst of great hulking man sobs, it expanded like a poisonous flower in bloom and at last stopped Peter Norton’s heart.

Clutching at his chest, Peter’s head contorted, sagged, then fell limp against the table. All the strength seemed to go out of him until the final darkness of death crept stealthily into his field of his vision.

No, Peter thought. This can’t be it.

But it was, or so he thought until his drooping eyes caught sight of the sliding glass door once more and fixed again on the world beyond.

In that transitional moment, something inside of Peter’s soul transformed. Maybe it was the way the raindrops suddenly glistened in the fading light like falling diamonds, or the way they tinkled on the outdoor patio like tiny wind chimes. All Peter knew for sure was that, where once he’d perceived desolation, he now glimpsed something beautiful, something ineffable, something other.

His wife continued to peer down at him from her home in the clouds, adding her words to those of the soft-spoken rain. The harmony of their combined voices stirred something deep within Peter’s failing heart, and just before he lost consciousness for good, he discovered a profound and startling truth.

The rain hadn’t depressed him for all those years because it sang of sorrow, regret, and all things lost, but because it sang of the mysteries beyond the world and the secret paradise that remains apart from us on this side of death. Peter’s sensitivity to this otherwise hidden reality had always caused him great pain. Now, on the precipice of his own dying breath, Peter realized he was eager to cross the great divide and see for himself all that the rain had been keeping from him.

Come, said Sandra, offering Peter his final consolation. Come and be part of the rain with me.

And so Peter closed his eyes and, with one final swell of hope, did as he as told.

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