Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Importance of a Strawberry Tart (Part 1 of 4)

The children had been playing with dead things again, which was only distressing because it was a Tuesday.

It was hard to mistake the smell and harder still to pull its sticky fingers from the walls and the dark red fabric of the Master’s wing back chair. Even the shallowest of sniffs was laced with the sweet decay of oranges and the heavy scent of rot. Such an occurrence would have been acceptable on a Thursday or a Friday or even on a Saturday, but it was distinctly out of place on a Tuesday afternoon.

Sliding her knife through the thin layer of pastry covering her countertop, Georgia Gaines made a quick resolution not to concern herself with such annoyances until her tarts were in the oven. The smell of dead things could be attended to easily enough, but she was in no hurry to address the children.

She had placed her last tray of tarts in the oven when the kitchen door knocked into the old butter churn. The butter churn, having often received the door, amplified the collision with a deep and hollow thwump

“Georgia! I can smell it clear out to the street!” Eudora Pullisard tossed an umbrella to the floor, showering the wall with October rain, before she turned in a quick circle to push the door closed again. “The neighbors will smell it soon enough. Do I need to remind you what day it is?”

“Don’t be hysterical,” Georgia spoke briskly as she balanced tarts on her cooling rack, staggered in rows of twelve each with bits of strawberry preserve gleaming just beneath the flaky pastry. She’d have been tempted to try one, but she’d long since tired of tarts. “Be useful if you’re going to be anything at all.”

There was a rustle of fabric as Eudora shimmied out of her rain jacket. It was easy to imagine the bounce of her curls. Even damp, they would bounce.

“Fine. No hysterics, but if he comes home and the house smells like this, there will be You Know What to pay.”

“More than a strawberry tart, that’s for sure,” Georgia said, reaching for the poplar wood platter tucked away on the highest shelf in the cabinet, her voice level as the plains.
“I’ll get the sassafras.” Eudora darted around the corner and into the pantry, and while she piled her arms with dried sassafras, vervain and rosemary, Georgia loaded her tray with the coolest of the tarts.

Eudora wrinkled her nose as she slipped back into her already damp rain jacket, but she voiced no complaint as she followed Georgia through the side door. Together, they followed the old brick path to the edge of the property while a light rain glazed their shoulders and toes. Eudora moved with greater haste than Georgia, though she took care not to get too far ahead of her companion.

At the end of the path, they stopped. The wind came out of the north as they lit Eudora’s bundle of herbs. The flame shuddered and she cupped one hand around it, and cooed gently as if it were a frightened animal or child.

The girls circled the house three times, leaving a trail of fragrant smoke and tarts as they did every Tuesday. None of the tarts from the previous Tuesday ever remained and that was all as it should be.

Georgia placed her final tart in the wet grass and looked into the browning field that crept ever closer to the house. Others would not have dared so long a look, but Georgia stared right through the holly bushes that squatted sharply at the edge of the field. Eudora shivered at her side as she whispered a quiet prayer that their offering would appease.

Then, satisfied that the neighbors would no longer detect the scent of rot in the air, she turned back to the house.

“H-have you seen them?” Eudora held her bundle away from her face. She brushed at the air before her, but smoke drifted lazily around, heedless of her attempts to direct it. Her red curls shone like embers in the gray mist.

Georgia shook her head and brushed crumbs from her poplar platter. “But there’s no point in delaying the inevitable. Come on.”

The children were very likely tucked away in one of the attic rooms playing with their toys and whatever ripe, unsavory object they’d managed to snatch. Georgia hadn’t seen them leave the house this morning, but they were exceptionally sneaky. The Master, for the most part, was understanding of such happenings as long as his rules were given the respect they deserved.

There weren’t many of them and they only needed to be followed on Tuesdays: bake strawberry tarts, light a hickory wood fire in the southwest chamber no later than 4 o’clock, don’t play with dead things.

The children had trouble with the last once every few months and often dissembled with wide, dark eyes, claiming dead things found their way into the attic without their having noticed. What were they to do if dead things were attracted to their tea parties?

But it was the way they said it, with the edges of their sharp teeth sliding out from beneath their smiles and with the tips of their long fingers itching at the air, that turned stomachs. Eudora stopped speaking with the children quite soon after they’d arrived seven months ago, which left Georgia to see that the rules were observed. As this was her first professional posting, and a prestigious one for someone newly turned eighteen, she was loathe to let anything upset the Master.

She’d climbed the dusty old stairway to the attic many times in the past months and considered her relationship with the children steady if not predictable. They seemed to quite enjoy watching her pick apart their lightly woven fictions, even if she never discovered the truth that lay somewhere beneath them.

Tuesdays, however, were no day for such fallacious adventures and Georgia strode up the brick path and directly through the kitchen with the intention of demanding compliance with the Master’s rules in short order. Eudora did not follow and that was just as well because the house had many rooms in need of sassafras smoke. There would be nothing to do about the scent falling in great waves from the attic until the offending source was gone.

At the door to the attic stairway, Georgia paused. It would be better to have been armed with a sack or bit of cloth in which she could wrap whatever it was they were keeping up there, but there was no time to waste. The Master would be home soon and the strawberry tarts would already be attracting diners. Every remaining minute was precious.

Georgia placed one hand over her nose and opened the door. The first breath was the worst. She could taste it in the back of her throat, rot and decay, but she didn’t choke. After two, three, four breaths, she removed her hand from her face and began to make her way up the narrow staircase. She had no intention of showing the children how easy it was to make her uncomfortable and it was only a smell, after all. With each step, she recalled her favorite scents: clove, apples, lilies, and pine.

The children were giggling above. One started and the others joined, the sound tripped down the bowed wooden stairs toward her. Georgia tried to tell herself that it meant nothing. Children, and especially these children, frequently giggled when they knew they’d done something wrong, but as she crested the floor of the attic and saw them gathered around their collection of dolls and toys, she knew she had been too conservative with her concerns.

The children had been doing more than simply playing with dead things.

Up next: Part II by Valerie. Tune in on Tuesday to see how the story unfolds!

*Photo by Ann@74 via Flickr Creative Commons


Simon Hay Soul Healer said...

Boy I can taste that! The smell of dead things is something I'm familiar with. It lines the back of the throat like no other scent. These lines were my favourites: There weren’t many of them and they only needed to be followed on Tuesdays: bake strawberry tarts, light a hickory wood fire in the southwest chamber no later than 4 o’clock, don’t play with dead things.

Very cool.

Natalie C Parker said...

@Simon Hay Soul Healer

Thank you! Glad you liked the rules. :)

Jess (The Cozy Reader) said...

Very erie but I can't wait to see where Valerie takes it! :) Great job Natalie!`

Natalie C Parker said...

@Jess (The Cozy Reader)

Thank you! I can't wait to see what she does with it either.

Kristi Helvig said...

I love creepy--plus, this story makes my kids look like angels. Great job, Natalie! :)

Natalie C Parker said...

@ Kristi Helvig

Thanks, Kristi! I hope this story makes MOST children look like angels. ;)

Sara McClung ♥ said...

Love it!!!

"staggered in rows of twelve each with bits of strawberry preserve gleaming just beneath the flaky pastry"

CUE hunger pains and saliva.

And then, it's totally erased:

"The first breath was the worst. She could taste it in the back of her throat, rot and decay"

:) Can't wait to read the next part!!

Angela Ackerman said...

Decidedly creepy. Love your sensory description. Nice work!

Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

Natalie C Parker said...

@Sara Mclung <3

I was seriously craving strawberry tarts when I wrote this. ;)

Glad I could entice and revolt you!

@Angela Ackerman

Thank you!

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