The kitchen of the small strange house was a tabernacle, a cathedral and a hovel all at once. The room wasn’t really a room, more like an afterthought of design that the architect (had there truly been an architect of the small strange house?) remembered when she was hungry. A few walls (how many exactly?) and an open side that gawped endlessly at the bed next to the fire and the old sagging sofa by the door. The kitchen’s oven was an oracle and the sink a confluence of events so random and many sided that the water was known to freeze in the summer and scald in the winter. The larder was never cool enough, but sometimes managed to freeze things beyond all redemption. Meals held at the dining table, when guests could be convinced, cajoled, or (on rare occasions) forced, were sometimes the most convivial of events, full of smooth flowing conversation, the warm goodwill of all diners, and an afterglow so pleasing, so cozy, so altogether bumptious, that the evening attained a pinnacle of perfection in the memory of all gathered. And then, on other occasions, the kitchen cathedral, the tabernacle of tomfoolery and the hovel of hostility, would provide no food worthy of eating and no drink worthy of drinking, but would choose to consume the guests themselves, which led to altogether darker memories in the few who survived.
One luscious summer evening when the dark gloom of the forest seemed suspended atop a bobbing waves of fireflies, Granny Moon decided to host a dinner. She put on her least torn pair of trousers, a velvet coat she had stolen from an old man she had found fast asleep on a town bench, a ruffled shirt that was many shades of blue, and a grey hat that she had found in a pile of clothes in the basement when she moved in. Although the hat smelled faintly of wood smoke that it was never able to shake, and while it seemed a bit tired and frayed, Granny Moon could tell it had been very handsome once and she wore it proudly.
The kitchen table was laid generously with a salad of evergreen needles and juniper juice, a haunch of roasted tundra elk studded with bitter black garlic and crushed mushrooms, a creamy acorn mash, and a pudding made from the mulled sap of Granny Moon’s favorite oak that she had left underneath the stars for three nights to impart that nightsky scent she loved so. As she shuffled between the fire and table trying to keep Fogthorn off of the elk haunch she listened with one ear for her guests.
She knew Mr. Master would arrive first, as much as he detested tardiness. He had lectured her once when they passed each other on the twisty dusty road on the sin of time wastage. It was, he said, the most grievous crime we could commit against a friend and indeed an enemy. Surely, he went on, there are kinder ways to die than to be ignored or forgotten about. It had been many years since Granny Moon had spoken to another person, besides the men who occasionally came in through the friendly gate, down the mossy path, and into the small strange house. But they were, after all, a Necessity. So Granny Moon had listened to Mr. Master as he spoke, his beady eyes darting behind his thick spectacles, and she had nodded and smiled and agreed with him. He was, after all, quite a handsome man, in his patched old coat and wide-brimmed hat. And Granny Moon was very fond of handsome men.
After Mr. Master arrived it would probably be Widow Winkle and her silent son Silas. Widow Winkle lived just beyond the bend of the twisty dusty road and wouldn’t have far to travel, even if Silas was having one of his dark days. It was true that Silas was silent, Granny Moon had never known him to speak, but it was also true that on some of his dark days, she had heard his screams.
And after Widow Winkle and Silas, it would probably be old Fairfax and whichever wife he felt like bringing. Granny Moon could never be sure if he chose them based on whim or if they had a schedule, perhaps based on the phases of the moon or something more obscure such as the rings on felled rowan trees or the number of kittens their old barn cat birthed in each litter. Whichever wife Fairfax brought Granny Moon fervently hoped it wouldn’t be Gretchen the slight. The woman had never eaten a morsel of food in her life and Granny Moon would be damned if someone was going to sit at her table and not enjoy the feast she had prepared.
The moment the sun disappeared entirely from the horizon, a knock shook the small strange house. And what a knock! Granny Moon was sure it was Mr. Master. Who else would have such a firm, confident hand? And indeed, it was he. She opened the door wide, only needing to give it two tugs more than usual, and ushered him inside. And could it be that he brought her a gift? Indeed he had, a lovely basket of nettleberries, black and sticky and fragrant as gossip. Granny Moon shocked herself by blushing and accepted the basket with something akin to a curtsy.
Mr. Master, who had never before been inside the small strange house, began to look around with a quizzical expression. Thirteenth century framework, he asked. Stones laid in a Grimmyhook pattern, he commented. Windowsill recently dusted, he remarked, dragging a finger along the smooth wood that Granny Moon had polished that morning. He winced in pain as his finger found an unusually long splinter that had not existed just a few moments earlier.
Another knock at the door. Widow Winkle and her son Silas. And he was clearly having a bad day. His mother’s little frame and bonneted head was dwarfed beside the towering might of her son. Silas lumbered in through the doorway and Granny Moon told the house to hush and stop its staring. Silas could not help being strange, after all, any more than the house could. Widow Winkle had brought a braided strip of garlic interwoven with onion leaves and boughs of green glade grass. I know you like to add this to your soup on a time, the Widow murmured, never taking her eyes off her son’s face. Granny Moon thanked her and brought her a cup of spiced beer. Does the boy want something, she asked. Oh no, no, definitely not, answered Widow Winkle with a worried note in her voice.
Silas grunted and made to move into the kitchen, but the scene was interrupted as the door popped open and a bundle of people spilled in. Fairfax and…which wife was it, oh it was Gretchen the Slight after all. And Fairfax was laughing and clapping Mr. Master on the back and telling him in a loud tinny voice that he had brought this one ‘cause she wouldn’t eat up and steal all the food he wanted for himself’. And he laughed again, not noticing the dazzled look on Mr. Master’s face. Mr. Master was, after all, mused Granny Moon, a gentle and thoughtful man, not quite used to the ways of rough folk such as these. Granny Moon made a note to talk at dinner of fine things that would please him.
But then her mind went black, for what fine things does a person living in the small strange house know about? Would she tell him of her long midnight walks through the forest, gathering clots of damp soil, broken egg shells, and the tiny bones of animals that had died especially painful deaths? Or should she tell him about the strange sounds that arose from the fireplace at night and how she dealt with them sternly but fairly? Or maybe he would be amused to learn about the garden and how it grew a new and different crop of neatly ordered vegetables and herbs every year even though she never planted anything? And surely it would be amusing to tell him that she would never again eat anything from that delightful and well-ordered garden, not after that first year when she had made that mistake and had lain in bed for nearly a moon hovering in and out of death’s grasp?
Granny Moon almost called off the dinner then and there, she almost gathered up her guests and shoved them out into the night, but at that moment a gentle breeze from the open window carried the scent of succulent elk haunch into her nostrils and she relented. She might not know how to speak of fine things to impress a man like Mr. Master, but she certainly knew how to cook. The meal was ready.