“Ursula, my child: What is this?”
Ursula held her breath. Her future hung on this moment, but Mistress Hazel’s voice was a croak. Her tone was flat, her question unladen with judgement.
“Is it good?” asked Ursula.
Mistress Hazel only nodded, tossing her spoon to the table. She picked up her bowl and licked it clean.
Ursula relaxed. Of course it’s good, she thought, taking a bite. She had been experimenting with the pie for months. Her tongue swirled the sweetness in her mouth.
“What is this?” repeated Mistress Hazel.
Ursula’s spoon slipped from between her lips like a lollipop. “Cherry pie.”
“Of course it’s cherry pie,” snapped Mistress Hazel. “What’s in it?”
“Sugar, sour cherries, butter—”
“Stop wasting my time, girl. What’s in here that makes it so…” Mistress Hazel flitted her hands and sighed, exasperated. “So good.”
“You mean my secret,” said Ursula. “Does that mean you can’t tell?”
Mistress Hazel scoffed. “You think I know so much. Everything! Not true.” Mistress Hazel reached across the table for Ursula’s pie and took it. She ate, her mouth going goopy. “Not true! Only one truth comes with wisdom: that I know what I know, and nothing else. Guess which one is bigger.”
“The latter,” mimicked Mistress Hazel. She glooped more pie into her mouth. “And your latter is greater than my latter in what matters. Now how did you make this pie so damn good?”
Ursula set her spoon on the table and pulled her robes tight. She squared her shoulders, packaging herself. She thought over the cherry pie and wanted to spill everything, to share every detail, to impress upon Mistress Hazel her genius. But the old woman was impatient.
Mistress Hazel’s milky eyes bored into Ursula. “Tell me everything,” she said.
“I go to the grocery store,” blurted Ursula, “at the south end of town.”
“Not Express Grocery.”
“No. City Market, in the predawn light.”
Mistress Hazel nodded, a gesture that said, Of course.
“After the sugar, cherries, and butter—
“Salted or unsalted?”
Mistress Hazel grunted. “Bold.”
Ursula powered on: “I buy lightly roasted coffee—”
“Really? I didn’t taste that. Brand?”
“Inconsequential—any light roast coffee, but not for the recipe. I drink it while I prepare. Then there’s flour—all purpose is fine—corn starch, almond extract, and fresh basil.”
“Basil!” shouted Mistress Hazel. “I knew I tasted—”
“Basil is not the secret ingredient,” said Ursula.
“I didn’t say it was.”
The witches stared at one another for only a moment. Ursula remembered herself and yielded, looking to the thatched walls of Mistress Hazel’s hut. Bones dangled from the ceiling. The shelves were full of jars, which were full of creatures and gray fluids. Herbs hung from the shelves, wrapped in twine.
Ursula forced a smile. It’s insincerity pleased Mistress Hazel, who read in its every line the ambition that roiled her new supplicant. Mistress Hazel licked Ursula’s bowl clean and asked, “Is the basil why the early morning is important? For freshness?”
“No. I like going early because the store isn’t busy. At any rate, that’s all of the ingredients I get at City Market.”
“‘At any rate,’” mimicked Mistress Hazel. “First lesson: speak simpler.”
“Yes ma’am.” First lesson! thought Ursula. Did that mean she was in? But Mistress Hazel only looked annoyed.
“There’s only one more thing,” said Ursula, glad to have saved the best for last. “One more ingredient. Do you know anyone who works at the hospital?”
Mistress Hazel perched forward, propping herself on the battered table. “Yes.”
“Do they bring you certain difficult ingredients?”
“Yes, yes, three people. What is it? What’s the ingredient?”
Ursula’s real smile spread, her little teeth popping like a pitbull’s.
“I have such a person, as well,” said Ursula. “The secret ingredient has caused some trouble for me. I collected it myself, at first. I snuck in the night. I popped locks, used valerian root on the sleeping to ensure their slumber—”
Mistress Hazel tapped her bowls together. “Add reduced cherry juice next time. It makes the valerian stronger.”
Ursula wasn’t so sure, but nodded. “I was about to try tranquilizers, anything to stop the screaming, when I found my man at the hospital.”
Mistress Hazel’s mouth spread wide. Ursula wasn’t sure which was worse: the black holes in the old woman’s gums where her teeth once were, or the brown scuzz on the teeth that remained. It took a moment for Ursula to realize that this hideous expression was a smile.
“A man,” said Mistress Hazel. “How did you get him?”
Ursula stuttered. “However. I don’t know. I was about to tell you my secret—”
“Fuck your secret. Tell me about the man.”
Ursula shrugged. “I wish I could say I used a potion to win his favor, but I didn’t need to. He’s young—”
“Yes,” groaned Mistress Hazel.
“Yes!” Mistress Hazel banged her little fist on the table. “More!”
“He works with the phlebotomists. His name is Daniel. Danny. He thinks I have a pet bat.”
“The idiot. A handsome idiot?”
“Have you harvested his seed?”
Ursula couldn’t help it—she laughed. “No! Should I?”
“Yes. As soon as we’re done here. Bring it back to me.”
Ursula blushed. “I guess I could. Is there a best way?”
“A condom—a plain one! No spermicide.”
“He doesn’t like condoms.”
“No one likes condoms, stupid girl! Force him. Tell him you like to take them off afterwards, and—”
“I get it!” Ursula was prepared for many things on her first visit to Mistress Hazel, but not this.
“Good. Have fun. My virile seed isn’t so virile anymore.”
The two women sat quietly. A goat bleated outside the hut. Mistress Hazel stretched her hands.
“You want to see me again, then,” said Ursula.
“As your apprentice.”
Mistress Hazel rested her palms on the table. She closed her eyes, wise enough to withhold what Ursula wanted.
“Inconsequential,’” said Mistress Hazel, her milky eyes sliding open. “But do come back. That's all you need to know.”
Ursula nodded, accepting the half victory. “Anyway, about my secret ingredient—”
“I know what it is. I had suspicions: the dark color of the crust, the thick chew. Phlebotomy. There’s no water in your pie, is there?”
“No,” said Ursula, coy at the loss of her secret, her last ounce of power.
“Blood is thicker than water,” said Mistress Hazel. “But there! You see? Another thing I never knew: that blood could be delicious, too.”
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I really enjoyed the dynamic of these two characters. The conversation was super funny, I loved how she relayed the recipe process so literally. I was laughing in various moments. Great job!