Cast of Wonders 284: Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches (Staff Picks 2017)

Show Notes

Every year in January, Cast of Wonders takes the month off to recharge, plan the year ahead and highlight some of our favorite episodes. Throughout the month, different members of the Cast of Wonders crew will present their favorite story of 2017.

This week’s episode is hosted by associate editor Alexis Goble.

Old Teacups and Kitchen Witches

by Kate Baker

On the night my grandfather died, we all sat around his kitchen table and marveled at how he’d been able to raise six kids in such a tiny house. While creative with the cramped living space, one bathroom seemed to be enough despite the hustle to get to school and work in the mornings. Especially as children grew into teenagers and time preening before the mirror was at a premium.

There is chaos that comes with illness and death, yet despite piles of unopened mail and neglected dishes and floors, my eyes lingered on the subtle touches that made this house a home. Especially in this kitchen. A wooden hutch still held the “good” glass and dinnerware that my grandparents cherished and thought to protect. Pots and pans of every shape, size, and color hung from racks and peeked out from crowded cabinets. And despite a very thin layer of dust, the spice rack stood at the ready for whatever recipe came along.

My eyes scanned old photographs that hung on the wall and came to rest on a scene of a large family. In all the time I had spent visiting my grandparents, I never remembered seeing this one. Dressed in warm clothes, four kids stared ahead not quite sure what to make of the photographer. No smiles, save for the fifth little girl who looked like my grandmother. She couldn’t have been more than six, and her smile was directed at a very ugly doll that rested in her hands. Someone had written “1943” on the lower left corner which only intrigued me more. I was about to push my chair away to take a closer look when conversation erupted around me.

“He’s got a collection of mowers in the shed.”

“Get someone to take them for scrap. You might be able to get something small for them. The bots are faster anyway.”

“And cheaper if you’re not using gas.”

“Ugh. Who uses gas anymore?”

As I looked around at the drying eyes of my grieving family, one by one, small talk turned into realization. My mother, her sisters, and brother would need to sell the house to pay for his last few months of hospice care. Whether rooted in greed or a need to hold onto some part of the past, suddenly all of those faces turned towards familiar items around the house that they would ultimately claim as their own.

“I want the bed set.”

“What about his coin collection? We’ll need to split that up after appraisal.”

“Anyone know where that stupid robot vacuum went?”

I watched as piece by piece, my aunts and uncle divided and repurposed my grandfather’s life. They had already claimed anything of real value so I just sat quietly at the heirloom table that went to my mother. It was still beautiful despite the tiny scratches and gouges. I ran my hands over the wood, reflecting that one day I’d have to do the same hard task when we buried her. That table had hosted hundreds of meals along with piecrusts and promises both made and broken.

My ear buzzed again, the tickle announcing another message had arrived with the subject line, “I’m sorry.” Unwilling to interrupt, I took off the aural cradle and slid it into my pocket.

In the weeks after, sponges sopped up the yellow film deposited by decades-old cigar smoke that had been trapped in paint and cobwebs — the act both effectively and sadly erasing the smell of a kitchen that had been loved for eighty years. Those walls were full of memories and scents of baked bread, garlic, simmered sauces and celebration cakes, made by someone who loved to cook and loved their family. Despite the AI advancements given to my grandmother over the years, she still preferred to roll her dough by hand and season her soup to taste. Perhaps that’s why things never really tasted quite right when I cooked or baked. I relied too heavily on machines instead of appreciating the art of instinct and heart.

After a fresh coat of paint and some new cabinets, the house sold rather quickly to a new couple just starting out their lives. I guess you could find some poetry in the fact that they would be the second owners of a house that had stood for almost a century. They also didn’t demand the smart house conversion like other prospective buyers. That simple concession allowed more of my grandfather’s debts to be paid with money that didn’t need to come off the top of the sale. Both families quickly agreed to terms. As we prepared for the close, everyone spoke less about the heartache of watching him wither away. Conversations now included small hopes that the new occupants wouldn’t change things very much. But everyone knew that they would make the place their own as soon as we transferred the keys.

What the family could sell at an impromptu yard sale went quickly on the busy street with strangers haggling over how much they’d pay for a painting of a giant chicken to carting away pieces of a lazily curated knickknack collection. Two augmented reality Rifters looked past me at whatever game filled their contact lenses and bought my grandfather’s small couch with a wad full of cash. Totally satisfied they had talked me down a whole two dollars while multitasking, they loaded the couch and disappeared into the cab of a small box truck with only the letters, YO, staring back. I never got the chance to recommend the nano-cleaning to remove the smell of smoke from the smartfabric, but I don’t think they would have heard me anyway.

Anything left over was carefully looked over and nitpicked. Lucky items and salvageable tech found new homes while remaining items that no one wanted were carted away to the waiting maw of a recycler bot. The sound of breaking glass was oddly cathartic as the machine chewed and separated — a balm to all the emotional and physical sweat of the task as we threw in the misfits with as much ‘oomph’ as possible.

My girls were about to heave an old moldy box when I noticed a fragment of red peeking out from a hole.

“Hey! Wait!”  I shouted.

“What? This box is so gross,” my youngest said, peeling a dirty hand away to illustrate her point.

Feeling the “gross” adhere to my own skin as I took the box, I set it down on the pavement, wiped my hand on my jeans and peered inside. Much to my relief, I’d happened to save some delicate porcelain teacups imported or brought back from my grandparents’ trips to Poland, Russia, and Italy. From what I could tell, it wouldn’t be a matching set, but that only intrigued me more.

“Mom, can we go?” Impatient voices coupled with tired looks broke my reverie and I realized just how tired I was, too.

“Yeah. Go say goodbye to everyone. I’m going to go put this in the car. I’ll be there in a minute.”

With renewed energy, they disappeared back into the house, and I took one last look around. Despite my grandfather’s depression in his final year, he’d still managed to plant one of his many gardens. Defiant red, orange, pink, and purple petals reached through an overgrown tangle of weeds. His field of zinnias were still in full bloom and the fading few hours of sunlight bathed them with golden light. I remembered the sound of cicadas and chasing butterflies in the heat of summer as they gracefully danced from flower to flower. I remembered strangers stopping on the side of the road, getting out of their brand-new self-driving cars, taking pictures, and asking to pay to cut and take some home.

I suddenly remembered why I didn’t want to go back to mine.

“Play message,” I said, the earpiece recognizing the vibration that came with my voice as it accessed the only message left in the cloud.

“I’m sorry,” it started but it was the kind of “I’m sorry” that was devoid of any real emotion. “I’m not coming home,” it continued. “Look, I know this is a bad time, but you had to know this wasn’t going to work out. With the business trip, figured it was the easiest way. Sometimes shit just breaks, right? You said so yourself.”

The message was filled with pause after pause after frustrating pause and between each lay my irrational hope that a second thought might work to erase the building hurt. “I’ll send the legal scans your way in a few weeks. I doubt the kids will want to even talk to me, much less see me, so I’m not even going to fight you on custody. Just tell them both that…that it’s not their fault. Okay? Oh, and uh,” the last pause, “sorry about your grandfather.”

I first opened that message on the day we buried him. Relatives and friends dropped freshly cut roses and more zinnias on the casket as they said their quiet goodbyes. I watched from afar as their tears fell with the delicate petals on hard, brown metal. While I had set new calls on do not disturb, my earpiece buzzed again with the reminder that a message was still waiting. So I listened. I drifted like petals. I steeled myself against the flood. And now, despite prompts pinging in my ear to delete it, I played it over and over again, each time willing the message to change. Fighting the rising tears, anger, and bile in my throat, I took a deep breath as the sun finally sank below the horizon, all the color going with it.

“Oh, that one is so pretty!” My youngest pulled the topmost piece from the crumpled paper and wiped it gently with the bottom of her shirt. She fed the old newspaper to the waiting recycler bot.

“If you want to use them, you have to help me clean them up,” I said. I was stalling.

“Ew,” They both said in unison.

“I’ll even try to get my hands on some tea for a party?” I said, realizing then just how much they had both grown from the days of teddy bears and small tables filled with imaginary cakes and sandwiches. For a moment, I realized my error but to my surprise their eyes lit up and they both nodded enthusiastically.

I examined each piece of the mismatched tea set and wiped off the dust. Some were plainly decorated on the outside, their artistry revealed in the center with a garden slowly coming to life as you drank your tea. Others were multicolored masterpieces with a delicate and shimmering glaze to protect the intricate patterns. I handed each one up to waiting young hands with soft sponges covered in soap.

Nearing the end of the box, I pulled out a porcelain pot with a bit of fabric peeking out of the top. Figuring it was something to protect the innards, I yanked on it, trying to free the contents and instead pulled out the head of a kitchen witch.

“Oh God, that can’t be good,” I murmured and fished for the rest of what I knew to be Baba Yaga in the teapot. “Huh. I wonder how she found herself in there.”

Her porcelain head was broken in two places. A large chip marked her forehead, the snake-like cracks slithering down to her mouth. A deep gouge marked the side of her left cheek back to where her ear should have been.

I found the tiny stuffed body in a smaller creamer along with the handkerchief that covered her ratty and moldy mohair.

“Ugh, just toss it.” This time the suggestion came from my oldest, coupled with a look of disgust.

Baba Yaga had certainly seen better days. She looked old and brittle but she didn’t deserve to be discarded. No one does. Not like that. “No. You don’t just throw stuff away like that.”

“But she’s totally broken.”

Yep. I… she was and I still didn’t know how I was going to tell them. The latest excuse for being incommunicado was an international business trip to Australia. Lucky for me, my kids are very trusting.

“I think we need to at least try to fix her,” I said, hoping to hide the desperation in my voice.

I began by softly cleaning her with detergent, surprised at the amount of dirt that found its way to the sponge.

An online search for remedies to fix cracked porcelain doll heads pointed to expensive “hospitals,” each website clearly stating that they’d just have to replace the whole thing with vintage looking but state-of-the-art materials. Most places even bragged about being able to retrofit any doll with new AI that passed the Turing test for a “nominal fee.”

Nope. Baba Yaga didn’t need any help in the creepy department.

So I got creative. I took Baba with me to the hardware store, and matched the color of her face to the porcelain repair kits they sold for sinks. I had to ask for help with that too because apparently it was just easier to replace the whole damn thing than try to salvage it. I guessed it had everything to do with not having the constant reminder that you or someone close to you broke that sink. Out of sight, out of mind.

With a deep breath, I filled in the gouge by Baba Yaga’s ear and traced the snake cracks down to her mouth with a toothpick. I wiped off the excess with a soft cloth and set her to dry on the kitchen counter.

Now, I’m not so great with a sewing machine, but one of the skills I’d absolutely had to learn was making small, little dresses. Convenient eh? There is a story behind that, because there should always be a story. When both of my daughters received those expensive “look and talk like you” dolls one birthday or another, there was no way I’d be able to afford any of the extra clothes that completed the iconic look.

So I taught myself through online videos. It took me quite a while to get the whole ‘threading the machine’ thing down. I still occasionally screw that up, instantly evident when the machine starts, followed by a large crunch and buzzing that comes from somewhere within. Then everything stops, including my heart for that fraction of a second where I think I’ve broken my machine. A hand-me-down. The new ones take all the joy and anxiety out of the process now. Where is the fun in that?

So after about three days, visits back to the bookmarked videos, and many curses, Baba Yaga had a mostly straight, checkerboard patterned dress. I was already pressing my luck, so I passed on attempting an apron. I threw her existing one in a delicate cycle with some NanoClean and prayed for the best. It came out mostly unscathed with only a small tear at the shoulder strap which was easily fixed with a safety pin.

I carefully pulled the new dress over her still decapitated body, affixed the apron, and went to get her head. Softly rubbing the excess material from the repair kit off her face, I took a good look at my work. She was mistreated and old, and micro-abrasions had formed in places where natural wrinkles might have been in skin. Grinding up some dried pink acrylic in a mortar, I gently applied it to brighten her cheeks. Baba Yaga didn’t strike me as the kind of witch who went for lipstick, so I left that part out, and instead carefully darkened the pupils of her eyes with liberal dots of black paint.

She wasn’t perfect, but she wasn’t in the garbage either. I affixed her head to her body, threaded the strings that would hold her to a small straw broom I found at the discount store, and hung her in the kitchen.

“You did a good job, Mom,” said my youngest and offered a hug.

“Thanks,” I said and folded into the embrace. Perhaps it was her sincerity or the warmth of her skin, but I suddenly realized I had no other distractions to hide behind and burst into tears.<

We had always spent the holidays with my grandfather when he was alive. When he died, I was voluntold to be hostess in my only slightly bigger house sure to be packed with food and family.

After Phineas the flying mopbot bit the dust, it was up to me to make sure all the cleaning got done. I worked my way through each room in the house and stuffed clutter into already woefully crammed drawers and closets. I was a manic whirlwind, grateful for the distraction. Staying busy meant I didn’t have to think about how I was going to pay the bills now that the divorce was underway, or which things we’d need to sell or cut from our budget.

I wrung out the rag into the bucket when I got the tickle in my ear that Mom had requested to connect.

Three months had passed since my grandfather’s death and she was self-medicating again. This made conversation difficult. “Put me up.”

“No. I’m cleaning and the face tracker is on the fritz again,” I lied. I hadn’t paid the bill for the whole-home video connection and they’d yanked the capability.

Hands in the toilet and armed with a scrub brush, I half listened to her complain that her Kapusta soup was ruined because she fell asleep (passed out) while it was cooking. She had burned it and “almost died” because the whole house filled with smoke. I hadn’t thought it could get any worse until  she angrily added that she wasn’t bringing anything to the party tonight and really, who cares, because nobody ate her food anyway.

“You getting a ride here, Mom?” I stripped off the rubber gloves and dropped them into the bucket, making my way back into the kitchen.

“Yeah. Why?” she responded with a slight slurring and annoyance both fighting for attention in her reply.

“Good. See you soon,” I answered curtly, and hung up the cradle with the vocal prompt.

“I don’t need this shit,” I whispered to no one and sank to the floor. “I just need a good day. One… fucking… good day.” I caught Baba Yaga’s black pinpoint eyes hanging there from my kitchen ceiling, remembering the cracks in her face and brought my hands to my own. It was too late to stop the tears so I just let them come.

Before I knew it, aunts and uncles arrived with a steady stream of wrapped gifts and food for the already crowded serving table. My daughters managed the steady stream of hugs and packages while I directed what was sure to be too much food into the kitchen. The initial rush subsided when a gleeful shout stopped all nearby conversation.

“Where did you find her?” my aunt Maddy asked, holding Baba Yaga in her hand while gently examining her face and body. “I thought dad, uh, your Dziadziu destroyed her after Babci died.”

“In some teacups when we cleaned out his house.”

“Her dress is different. Did you fix her up?” Maddy offered with a wistful smile.

I nodded, embarrassed. “Yeah, she was sort of decapitated and cracked. Did the best I coul — ”

The front door slammed open and Mom stumbled over the threshold. Another aunt quickly followed, frazzled in body language and elegant in dress, rolling her eyes in my direction. “Well, that was a lovely car ride,” she whispered as she pecked a kiss on my cheek. Refocusing, I turned my attention back to Maddy who had already disappeared into the other room, with witch in hand.

Mom passed me by without any greeting, instead questioning to anyone who could hear whether or not the potatoes were almost done. “It’s the one thing I was actually looking forward to tonight.”

“Shit,” I murmured, realizing that I had forgotten to prepare the dish as I was asked. Thinking I could get away with a small white lie, I followed her into the kitchen and opened my mouth to say I was going to start them then, when I saw her bring a wooden spoon from between her lips. “Glad you followed the recipe and didn’t use one of those things,” she said, pointing to the array of kitchen tech on the counters. “Now, where’s the wine?”

I wordlessly pointed to the open bottle on the kitchen island while quietly wondering just how those potatoes got done.

Baba Yaga unsteadily flew her broom, weaving through the last of the stragglers packing up containers full of leftover food. No one had offered to help with the cleanup. Despite all of the new machines that are supposed to make our lives a bit easier, there still isn’t anything that will load dishes or wash the pots without some human assistance. I am now convinced my relatives are not human. Except for Maddy, who maneuvered the witch straight to me and set her gently down on the counter.

“Thanks for fixing her up, sweetie.” She placed a hand on my shoulder. “You did a great job tonight. How are you holding up?”

“Probably just as well as all of you. We knew the holidays were going to be rough,” I offered, attempting to sound sincere while trying to keep the fragile façade in place.

She nodded, reaching for a dry towel and a wet pot. “Yeah. Your mom isn’t doing well herself, but I think you already knew that.”

I was unsure of how to respond. When in doubt, change the subject.

“Hey, I actually meant to ask you, why would Dziadziu have destroyed her?” I asked, my eyes trailing down to Baba Yaga sitting idly on the counter.  “I’ve read the stories and doesn’t she, like, eat children?”

“Not in this family! Unless you were being a little shit. Then, she’d eat you.” Maddy laughed, her gaze caught between the now and remembrance. “Actually, my mom believed her to be a totem of protection. The way she told it, when her family fled from German occupation, Baba was one of the few things that made it to Ellis Island with them.”

“Huh? Out of all the things they could have taken, why that?”

“She was just small enough to be grabbed on the way out to keep a little girl happy and ugly enough so that she wouldn’t get stolen.”

“Wow.” I thought back to the night we all sat around that kitchen table and the picture finally made sense. My grandmother had been smiling.

“Yeah. Baba never left our kitchen and my mother was convinced that she not only protected everyone in that house, but she somehow made even the leanest scraps of food during hard times taste good.” Maddy shrugged. “She certainly had all of us convinced, anyway. Just like you did with those potatoes tonight. They were awesome.”

I opened my mouth and then closed it.

“Anyway, your grandfather didn’t take it too well when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the time they got her to the doc, it was too late. Didn’t help that they both smoked like chimneys and drank pretty heavily, but shortly after she died, he practically destroyed the kitchen in a moment of overwhelming grief.”

I stopped washing another pot and looked at her. “What?”

“Yeah. We found him sitting there at the table, head in his hands, and sobbing. Their wedding china and wine glasses were smashed against the floor. I don’t know if he was mad at her or God or the cancer or hell, Baba, for not protecting her. Maybe it was a little bit of everything. I think he just needed to retaliate against how broken he felt without her.”

I felt the weight of those words in my core and forced my hands to continue their busy work.

“Anyway, we were all talking about it, we hope you continue to hang her up in your kitchen. She means a lot to this family.”  She handed me the last plate accompanied by a wary smile.

“That’s actually not how it happened.” My mom stepped over to the both of us, and looked down on the counter. She was still flying pretty high from the nth drink that night, evident from her rosy cheeks and rude insertion into the conversation. “Dad didn’t tear off Baba’s head. Mom did.”

Maddy and I both looked at my mother, incredulously.

“Yep. They’d just been given the news that she’d only have a few months if not weeks to live. Cancer was everywhere and they couldn’t do anything for her except dope her up when the pain got too bad. So, mom broke down, pulled her –” she pointed to Baba Yaga, “– off the wall and ripped her head off, screaming something about betrayal. I watched Dad pick up all the pieces of Baba after he picked up mom from the same place on the floor. I think he had every intention of fixing her and when everything became too much, he just –” my mother stared directly at me, “– couldn’t.”

Maddy and I both looked at each other, coming to the same conclusion simultaneously, but it was Maddy who answered first, “But why did he rip apart the kitchen after her death?”

“He wanted to bury them together, Maddy, and couldn’t remember where he’d put her.” She looked at me and her shoulders fell as she looked back down at the doll. “Anyway, she’s yours now,” she said. “Take care of my baby, Baba,” the pause filling in the unspoken but understood words, Because I can’t right now.

Funny things happen when you repair a mythical creature that’s had its head ripped off and your mother basically commands it to take care of you in a drunken stupor. It listens. Or tries to despite all those aforementioned injuries.

It started off much like when one hears stories about helpful elves. That perfect dish appearing at that first family gathering. Waking in the morning to find full boxes containing hurtful reminders of the wedding and family vacations. Pictures of the four of us hung on walls replaced with the sporadic but captured joy of three. Packed school lunches and freshly washed clothes. Sometimes though, we’d get pancakes made with Plaster of Paris instead of flour. I’m not sure if it was an inability to read or maybe lasting trauma from a broken porcelain head, but I had to make sure to move the harsh chemicals and art supplies to the garage. As it was, I didn’t have any extra money to pay for a dentist for a chipped tooth or worse. But I was grateful. So grateful.

Inspiration or perhaps a guiding hand also came in the form of indoor gardens, and somehow my lack of a green thumb didn’t manage to kill the greenery and vegetables that grew in the windowsill, greeting the winter sun. The fresh stuff made dinners more palatable despite the lack of funds to buy those expensive greens from the supermarket. I sold off most of the bots that helped with the cooking and learned to roll my own dough and season my soups to taste. I taught my girls how to do those things too. We hid less behind small screens and instead found laughter in flour covered hands and errant wisps that landed on noses.

We recycled seedlings in the spring of that year, transplanting them to a garden with saved compost and recaptured snow. I remembered my grandmother snapping string beans and snow peas with precision.  She was practiced in preparation for her summer vegetable platter. I sometimes found myself sitting in the garden eagerly willing things to hurry up and grow so that I could do the same. I think I felt Baba there with me, too. It was almost time for vinegar, dill, and pickling cucumbers, salt shakers and warm tomatoes, the earthy smell of green stems on fingertips. The dribble of seeds as you took the first bite…

A ping in my ear that an e-doc had arrived.

I sat in the kitchen holding the tablet in my hand. It required just a thumbprint to complete the divorce. It should have been easy. Just touch it and be done.

I thought of the girls asleep in their rooms, resilient despite their own anger and sadness. They would never see us together again. My heart felt the true weight of abandonment. I looked around the almost bare kitchen, devoid of its machines, sold off with other treasurers so we could keep the house and have food on the table. I grew frustrated that the meager child support payments only went far enough to keep our health insurance and the lights on. I thought I was prepared to deal with this slow death, but like a knife, it cut very deeply, very quickly.

I put the tablet down, the light from the screen my only illumination. Comfortable with the darkness, I closed my eyes.

Sometimes, you just can’t.

Warmth slipped between my fingers, a wrinkled hand sliding over mine, and I opened my eyes to see the outline of Baba Yaga standing there in the darkness. Her touch brought with it comfort, strength, and patience and she held my hand until I could.

And just as we had made do for the better part of a year, we said goodbye to that old life together.

About the Author

Kate Baker

Kate Baker is the Podcast Director and Non-fiction Editor for Clarkesworld Magazine. She has been very privileged to narrate over 350 short stories/poems by some of the biggest names in Science Fiction and Fantasy for multiple venues. Kate won the Hugo Award for Best Semiprozine in 2011 and 2013, the British Fantasy Award for Best Magazine in 2014 and the World Fantasy Award for Special Award: Non Professional in 2014 alongside the wonderfully talented editorial staff of Clarkesworld Magazine. Kate is currently situated in Northern Connecticut with her first fans; her wonderful children. She is currently working as the Director of Operations for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Follow her online and on Twitter.

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About the Narrator

Karen Bovenmyer

Karen Bovenmyer earned an MFA in Creative Writing: Popular Fiction from the University of Southern Maine. She teaches and mentors students at Iowa State University and Western Technical College. She is the 2016 recipient of the Horror Writers Association Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley Scholarship. Her poems, short stories and novellas appear in more than 40 publications and her first novel, SWIFT FOR THE SUN, debuted from Dreamspinner Press in 2017.

Find more by Karen Bovenmyer