Episode 225: Little Wonders 9 – Comfort Food


The Four Stewpots

by D. K. Thompson

 

Review: The Four Stewpots

by Darcy E. (14 friends, 27 reviews) 1 star out of 5

 

I’ve been coming to uptown for the past year since getting a new job and moving to Whittier, and somehow had never seen The Four Stewpots before. I’m actually not a stew fan. I like my food fresh. Soup is okay, some days. Stew? Bleh. It’s been sitting for ages – this place actually suggests one pot they have is a thousand years old. Bon Apetit? But my daughter’s first report card had come home from junior high – she’d done exceptionally well – she wants to be an astronaut, a monster make-up artist, a superhero, a cryptozoologist, or a cartographer of parallel universes – whatever she decides to do she’ll be brilliant, and so as a reward, I let her pick. She saw The Four Stewpots as we were driving down the street, right next to Undercity Comics, and demanded we go there. Again, I do not like stew, but I am a supportive and proud mother who wants to encourage my daughter’s academic achievements, and realize that it isn’t always about me. At least, until it’s time to write the Yelp review.  

 

It is time to write the Yelp review.

Sadly, this establishment did not change my opinion of stew in general, or give me hope for specific noveau reinventions that managed to somehow subvert the stereotypical sludge. TL;DR- it was a horrific, terrifying experience, and not just in the presentation of the food. It almost ruined my life, and certainly warped my daughter’s.

 

The Four Stewpots is allegedly a themed restaurant, where the hosts and servers all dress up. But I couldn’t tell you what the theme was – cosmic hodgepodge pub for cosplayers, maybe? The decor consisted of maps of places I didn’t recognize. On the ceiling, an enormous X was painted by hand in red around a mixture of glowstars, planets, and layered maps that were torn apart and pasted together with the legend “YOU ARE HERE.” Wow. Thank you for not letting me forget, Four Stewpots, no matter how hard I might have tried.

 

My daughter adored the costumes the staff wore, and asked them where they’d originated from. The hostess was covered in black leather from neck to toes, and had short, spiked, silver hair, black raccoon-like make-up around her eyes, and some kind of mechanized membrane-webbed wings that fluttered and looked completely organic. Our waiter wore an impressive mask with elephantine ears and a large snout. Rows of ridiculously jagged and yellow rubber teeth filled her mouth, and her pale, sleeveless arms looked like circuitry pumped through her veins. The bartender looked like a reject from a punk rock rendition of Oliver! with his Dickensian coat and trousers and purple mohawk. His shirt was unbuttoned halfway down his chest, and I could make out the trace of something like a giant spider horse tattooed there. He wore goggles on his forehead, and spent the entire time drinking and texting furiously on his phone, while casually twisting an old wood and brass ship’s wheel. They were polite, but had funny accents, and dazed expressions.

 

The menu attempts to be imaginative but is lacking. There’s a big explanation on the back as to why the options are limited (warning: understatement), because preparing stews for an unknown number of people is an impossibility. BLAH BLAH BLAH. The long and the short of it are you have four stewpot options: Stewmaster’s Sea Serpent Supreme, Dragon Scale Delight, the Great Nameless Stewing Evil, and Spicy Space Slug Sludge. Only one of them (the Great Nameless Evil) is vegetarian. ONE. My daughter smiled and said “See, Mom! They have stuff for you!” No, sweetie, I didn’t say then, but will punctuate now with ALL CAPS. N-O. NO. A single option is really not any kind of option at all. IT IS A DISTINCT LACK OF OPTIONS. As a result, I ordered the Evil, but only stirred the black sludge around once it arrived. I drank a glass of red (The Vineyard Under the Mountain – never heard of it before – mediocre) and ate the fresh, crusty bread. (Surprisingly warm, though a bit hard.)

 

My daughter, OTOH, has always been an adventurous eater. Her bowl of Sea Serpent claimed to have wild leviathan meat, as well as okra, zucchini, tomatoes, basil, and garlic. Of course, when I asked what the meat really was, the server flicked her Dumbo-like ear and repeated, “Leviathan?” As if it were obvious! I persisted, and eventually asked for the manager, who was apparently on her lunch break. I would’ve made a bigger issue of it – such customer service is appalling – but we were supposed to be celebrating my daughter! Who mumbled an apology to the waitress, then got up from the table to look at all the maps that littered the walls.

 

When the food arrived (thankfully it didn’t take long – the menu explains why), it smelled like a mermaid had died in it centuries ago. My daughter, whom at this point I think reveled in my distress, wolfed it down, and gave a loud belch.

 

She urged me to get a take out container for my Evil while she finished a second bowl (you get free refills, apparently, just in case you haven’t had enough). She excused herself to wipe off some stew she’d spilled on her t-shirt, belching all the way to the restroom. She hadn’t been gone long enough to let the water warm, when she dashed back out, whooping and shouting. I jumped to my feet ready to discover (and throttle) whatever had frightened her, when I realized how different she looked. An odd tri-cornered hat sat crooked on her head, her face was covered with grime, and she wore red-ribbed leather vest, boots, and had a plastic sword hilt (no blade) strapped to her hip. She clutched what looked suspiciously like a flintlock, and waved it at the bathroom. I realized she must’ve found the treasure chest or toy box the restaurant kept for children. Yes, this restaurant gives children toy guns!

 

I tried to rise above it. “Sweetie, you’re a little old for toys, and you know we don’t play with pretend weapons.”

 

“Mom, have you paid already? Hurry up!”

 

Adolescents!

 

I had not paid, and reached for my purse, when she slapped down a handful of odd marbles on the table, and pushed me toward the door.

 

Something roared from the bathroom. Large but cheap looking plastic lobster claws and tentacles pushed open the door, and the restaurant lights flickered.

 

Apparently we had taken some interdimensional portal and ended up at the Rainforest Cafe. OMG.

 

My daughter lifted the toy gun and pulled the trigger. It didn’t make a noise, just flashed a little. But the claws and tentacles disappeared back into the bathroom with a whine, clearly on some kind of timer system.

 

That was when my daughter’s hat fell off, and I saw what was left of her long, curly hair – now lopped off at her shoulders.

 

“Who – in the name of all that’s holy – ruined your hair?” I demanded. “I will destroy them.”

 

“A pirate from Undertow,” she said, and twirled her flintlock. “Not me!”

 

“Put that back this instant!”

 

She complied, throwing the flintlock at the bartender (still crouched over his phone, but managed to bat it down behind the countertop). “Useless now, anyway,” she said, and pulled me out the door. (I admit, I let her keep the plastic sword hilt fastened to her hip. I didn’t see what damage she could do without any blade.)

 

You can see why I don’t plan on going back. Oddly, I’ve driven by a couple of times to express my fury to the manager, but it seems like it’s closed down? The sign is up, but the lights are off. Good riddance.

 

One star, though I am severely tempted to find a way to rank it lower. That said, I must admit, despite all the trauma, my daughter can’t stop talking about riding a giant sea turtle, fighting clockwork dragons, and pirate gorillas (or guerrillas?). I can’t figure out what movie this stems from, or what books she has been reading, but I suppose whatever was in her stew must’ve been good for her imagination. Her hair, of course, has not yet grown back.

 

(My box of Evil remains safely in the refrigerator, where I left it, continuing to sit and solidify for the next thousand years.)

 


 

Her Path Lay Forward

By Shane Halbach

 

“What do we do?” whispered Oliver. “What do we do, what do we do?” Tears continued to leak from his red-rimmed eyes.

 

“We’ll do what we must,” said Agnes. She looked around at the remaining residents of Thistlepatch huddled in one of the few intact buildings. Most of the other buildings has been reduced to ash or smashed to kindling by the dragon.

 

Slowly, Agnes rose to her feet. It was best she didn’t sit too long anyway, or her back would lock up.

 

“I will go to the dragon,” she declared.

 

There was a murmur of disbelief from the other villagers.

 

“Grandmother, don’t be foolish,” said Evelyn.

 

Agnes had known Evelyn’s parents, gone some time now. Evelyn had children of her own. Before long, faster than she knew, Evelyn would be the one feeling the pain her back and the wind in her bones. She would be the one they were calling Grandmother.

 

“Foolish?” snapped Agnes. “Of course it’s foolish; it’s a gods damned dragon. It was foolish for Tom to go, and Bernard. It was foolish for Jasper. Just because they were strapping young men didn’t make it any less foolish.”

 

“But Grandmother, at least they –“

 

“And what choice do we have? Are any of you volunteering to go?” Agnes glared around at the villagers, but no one would meet her eye.

 

“We do what we must,” said Agnes.


The day was bright and warm, and Agnes set out early. As she crossed the forest, she concentrated on the simple joys, maybe for the last time: the sounds of the birds in the maple trees, the crisp air, the sun on her face, the smell of pines and honeysuckle. She bent to gather herbs in the shady parts of the undergrowth, as she always did. As her mother had always done.

 

Half a day out of town, Agnes’ way was blocked by a wall of brambles. The immense patch of tight-knit thorns was deep, and stretched between the trees for as far as Agnes could see in either direction. She knew all the way back to her childhood that there were no easy paths through, no shortcuts. Her path lay forward, and it would be uncomfortable.

 

Using her woolen robe to shield her skin as much as possible, she plunged into the brambles, trampling them beneath her feet. Thorns drew hot lines across her hands and ankles, until her blood ran from dozens of small cuts. She tugged her dress free from grasping branches and heard fabric tear and seams rip. Grimacing, she continued, crying out when the brambles ripped particularly deep.

 

Finally, she was through.

 

She sat on a rock to catch her breath. Moisture stung her eyes, but she ignored it, examining the bloodiest of the gashes. From a pocket in her robe, Agnes removed a small sewing kit and set to work, mending dress and skin alike with an experienced hand.

 


 

As the elevation rose, Agnes had to stop more often for breaks. Though she was accustomed to walking, she had not walked an entire day in many years. Now that she was out onto the rockier ground of the foot hills, her ankles were starting to ache.

 

Evidence of the dragon surrounded her. There was no more birdsong here: tree husks smoldered where the tops had been burned off. The taste of ash was in her mouth.

 

Agnes longed to sit in her worn chair by the fire, drifting in and out of sleep. But she was close to the end now, and her path lay forward.

 

Eventually, Agnes found a path of stones worn smooth, scoured by the dragon’s passage. The path led to the edge of a steep cliff face, resuming, Agnes presumed, somewhere on the ground some two dozen feet below. The dragon would no doubt have spread his wings and glided gracefully to the ground, but Agnes needed another way down.

 

On the edge of the cliff was a small fir tree, with web-like roots trailing over the edge, reaching for the floor below. The wispy roots would never hold even her slight weight, but they trailed three quarters of the way down the steep rock face.

 

Agnes sat on the edge and braced her weary back against the tree. She gathered the longest roots and started braiding them into a sturdier cord. Her body was light and her arms strong from carrying water to the garden. When the cord was long enough, she would climb down. The path lay forward; she must go on.

 


 

The dragon’s black scales shone like polished steel, reflecting the last of the sun as it basked on the rocks before its lair. Wisps of smoke drifted from its nostrils, but it was not asleep; one enormous pupil cracked open at Agnes’ approach.

 

When the dragon saw the old woman making her way slowly toward him, he sat up in surprise, his head towering over her stooped body.

 

The dragon’s voice rumbled in Agnes’ bones. “Is this who Thistlepatch sends to battle me?”

 

“Nobody sent me, I volunteered,” said Agnes. “I’m the only one who could do what the others could not.”

 

The dragon chuckled incredulously.

 

“And what is it that you can do, die? Don’t you see how big I am? Don’t you see my sharp teeth?”

 

“My eyesight’s not that good,” snapped Agnes, sitting on a rock to rest her feet and hide her trembling.

 

The dragon cocked his head curiously. “Aren’t you frightened of me?”

 

Agnes’ bladder was in danger of letting go. She was as frightened as she had ever been in her life. More frightened than when Alphonse lay dying, leaving her alone and unprotected in a cruel world, not knowing how she would provide for their children. More frightened than when she had lain in bed, waiting for word of her sons.

 

As she always had before, she accepted the fear, but did not let it control her.

 

“War took my two sons from me. Plague took my sister and my daughter-in-law. Old age took all of my friends and neighbors. All you’ve taken from me is one grandson.”

 

The dragon rumbled in annoyance, his eyes narrowing to slits. “I don’t need your fear and cowering. Afraid or not, you will not leave this clearing alive.”

 

Agnes stood and faced the dragon. Her voice quavered, but grew stronger as she spoke, strengthening as she knew it was time to do what she had come for.

 

“I am old and frail. I’ve lived and loved, grieved and lost, and seen all the death I’ve cared to. Time moves on, and I’ll die as I lived; doing what I must.”

 

The dragon reared high above her, and as he did, Agnes reached into the pockets of her robes, bringing out the herbs that she had gathered along the way. Pokeweed and snakeroot and hemlock, how many times had she taught kids to identify them? Danger, she taught the little ones. Poison.

 

She smiled and raised her hands, as if to embrace a long lost friend.

 

The mighty dragon snapped her up in its jaws. It started to tilt its head back, but paused, catching the bitter taste of the hemlock. The dragon coughed and tried to spit Agnes from its mouth, but she was churning her legs, moving forward blindly, screaming in rage, crawling deeper into the beast’s mouth.

 

The dragon choked and shook its head, but he could not dislodge her. Deeper she crawled, to the back of its mouth. It couldn’t breathe, and Agnes pressed in the back of its throat.

 

The dragon swallowed, drawing the poison into itself, sealing its own doom.

 

In the end, as always, Agnes’ path lay forward.

 

About the Authors

Shane Halbach

Shane Halbach lives with his wife and three kids in a secret lair located deep under Chicago. There, he hones his superpower of being exactly wrong about which direction he needs to turn. His fiction has appeared previously at all four Escape Artists podcasts.

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Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson is a pretty awesome guy, even if he disparages pumpkin beer. He lives outside Los Angeles with his wife and three children. Together with co-editor Anna Schwind, he ran PodCastle for five amazing years, stepping down to focus on his own writing in 2015. You can find two of his audiobook narrations on Amazon: Norse Code by Greg Van Eekhout and Briarpatch by Tim Pratt.

Dave is an Escape Artists’ Worldwalker and Storyteller, having been published in, and narrated for, all four EA podcasts.

 

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About the Narrators

Tina Connolly

Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin and Seriously Wicked series, and the collection On the Eyeball Floor. She has been a finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, Norton, and World Fantasy awards.

She co-hosts Escape Pod, narrates for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and all four Escape Artists podcasts, and runs Toasted Cake.

Find her at tinaconnolly.com.

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M.K. Hobson

M.K. Hobson is a writer of historical fantasy fiction, and records stories for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Zero Books. She’s also the cohost of a Web series for Zero Books titled “We Live in a Society.”

Her work has appeared in many publications such as Realms of Fantasy, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Interzone and Sybil’s Garage. Her debut novel The Native Star was published to critical acclaim in September 2010 by Ballantine Spectra.

She can be heard frequently on PodCastle, both as guest host and narrator, and has long been a beloved part of the Escape Artists family. Follow her online or on Twitter.

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