The Secret Ingredient

Submitted into Contest #88 in response to: Write a fairy tale about an outsider trying to fit in.... view prompt

8 comments

Fantasy Fiction Speculative

At the edge of the wood in the province of Jade, a crooked little house leaned over the edge of the Ravine of Eid. A field of grass lay between the house and the woods, and in that field, a single cherry tree stood like a sentinel.

It was early spring. Cherry blossoms fluttered through an open window and drifted lazily onto a wooden counter dusted with flour. The pink petals settled into Zahra’s mixing bowl and landed on her forearms like polka dots.

She dropped the petals onto the counter and dug her hands back into the sticky mess of dough, scraping the dry chunks of flour off the bottom and kneading it into the rest before tearing the mass into sections and setting six sticky discs — each three inches wide and an inch thick — onto a stone tray. Finished with the dough, she washed her hands under the water pump over the sink beside the window. Then she wiped her hands on her beige linen apron, plucked several hairs from her head, and carefully hid a piece of hair in each of the six mounds of dough.

Zahra set the stone tray into the brick oven heating the kitchen at her back and turned over the smallest hourglass on the window sill. The sand spilled from the top of the hourglass into the lower half and she put the baking out of her mind as she pushed through the narrow, creaking door into the full glare of the sun outside. Soon enough, the last grain of sand would fall through. Soon enough, it would be finished.

She repeated those words like a mantra as she turned her face up towards the sky and closed her eyes against the bright beams of sunlight. She took a deep breath of the warm spring air and tried to let the songs rising up from the ravine below sing her into peacefulness. Voices of birds and pixies echoed up the stone ridge of the ravine, but it wasn’t working. Zahra couldn’t stop fidgeting. She had to get this right if she wanted to pass the test.

She gave into her restlessness long enough to unwind the string that tied her hair in a knot on top of her head. The tight black coils of her hair cascaded down her shoulders and back and danced in the gentle breeze. She looked down at the golden ribbon in her hand and counted the knots in it, each spaced an inch apart.

Six knots for six days. She tied a seventh knot in the last empty section and tucked the ribbon into the pocket of her apron. And then she waited.

She waited for the sand in the hourglass to fall. She waited for the wind to pick up in the ravine below and whip the branches of the tree canopy back and forth. She waited for a wild bleating sound to echo up the rocks from the ravine below.

Even though she was expecting it, the cry made her jump. Again.

Zahra took a tentative step towards the edge. She peered down at the spread of trees, rocks, and roots far below her, just in time to see a white-furred mountain goat with long, curved horns launch off a shelf several feet below her. She scurried back just before the creature landed in front of her on the grassy knoll.

The goat’s wide, ochre-tinted eyes captured her immediately. Its stare seemed to root her in place. Just like last time, she was vaguely aware of something perched on the goat’s back. But for whatever reason, she wasn’t able to shift her gaze away from the goat’s eyes.

Not until its rider dismounted.

The rider’s feet hit the grass with twin soft thumps and Zahra dragged her eyes off the goat to the boy — the creature — before her. Though she stared straight at him, somehow his voice still reached her before she could make out his face.

“Child of the Jade, you summoned me. And yet it has only been a day since your last call.”

He spoke like a man six times his age. Zahra bunched her fist around the knotted ribbon in her pocket and forced herself to focus on him. His face was narrow, the cheeks hollow; his skin pale and soft as a white peach. His feline eyes were as changing as the sea around the slit of his pupil, ranging from green to blue to white to grey every time she blinked. He never blinked — the first time they met, she forced herself to keep her eyes open until they watered, just to be sure.

Zahra lifted her chin, determined not to be intimidated by him like the last six times. “I don’t need more than a day. I’m ready this time.”

He didn’t blink, but the long, cat-like ears on his head twitched. They hung down on either side of his face, sprouting from the silky, brown curls crowning his head. If they were indeed the ears of a cat, the flat position suggested that he was wary of her. Zahra took courage in that.

“This is not how we do things in Eid,” he said.

She knew better than to be dissuaded by his imperious tone. She stood a little taller and looked him up and down. He always wore the same clothes when she saw him: a furry brown vest over a tight black shirt with long sleeves, and a pair of baggy, loose pants like the şalvar from home. On anyone else, the combination would have been atrocious. On him, it looked like the most natural thing in the world.

“We’re not in Eid yet,” she said and thrust the ribbon from her pocket towards him.

He looked down at her knuckles with his unblinking eyes. “This is your final knot,” he said.

Zahra didn’t balk. She waited until he took the ribbon between his thumb and forefinger. By the time he pulled his hand back to his side, the golden thread with seven knots had vanished.

She turned on the pointed toes of her slippers and returned to the house. The creature from the Ravine followed. His mount, the goat, stayed on the knoll.

Zahra passed the windowsill on her way to the door and swiped the tiny hourglass off the ledge just as the last of the sand fell through into the bottom. She tucked that into her pocket, and once inside she snatched a pair of towels off the counter and took the stone tray out of the brick oven. The flames in the oven abruptly died down to embers and when she turned around, her visitor stood in the doorway. Just like last time.

He stared at the tray in her hands, his eyes narrowing and changing to a deep, stormy grey. His ears pressed further down against the sides of his head.

“Six times you have called me, and six times you have failed to open the way to the Ravine.” He looked up and met Zahra’s gaze. Vaguely, she wondered if this was the first time he had ever done so. “What makes you think you’ll succeed again, with only one day to prepare?”

She stared at him a moment longer before answering with a quick shrug, then she strode over to the counter and set down the stone tray. The mounds of dough had transformed into soft, flaky biscuits with golden edges. The smell of rosemary and thyme wafted up from the tray. Her stomach grumbled. They both ignored it, but the creature’s ears twitched again and his eyes flickered green for a moment. In amusement, perhaps? She wondered how long it would take her to interpret the emotions in his eyes. She’d only have the chance to find out if she passed this test.

Zahra laid one of the biscuits on the towel in her left hand and spun back towards him, holding it out for him. “How many will you taste today?” Fully extended, her arm quivered at the elbow. She had to remind herself she had nothing to fear. She was safe in the little house for now. Until her people came looking for her.

The creature frowned at her. He had never looked at her that way before and Zahra almost lost her nerve, but she held her arm steady.

“Is something wrong?” she asked.

He couldn’t possibly have decided that she had failed already. He hadn’t even tried it.

His frown deepened. “This is your final attempt.”

Zahra nodded. The palm of her free hand was starting to sweat. What had him so nervous?

“If you fail, there is no trying again.”

She bit the inside of her cheek almost thinking better of it, and then she let the words out anyway: “That’s what ‘final attempt’ means, yes.”

He didn’t rise to her jab. He took the biscuit in one pale, long-fingered hand, and snapped it up in a single mouthful.

Zahra didn’t even see him chew. His throat bobbed once, heavily, as though he’d swallowed the biscuit whole, and he stared at her expectantly.

“Another?” she asked.

He dipped his chin. Zahra fetched another biscuit.

Six times, she held out her hand. Six times, he didn’t blink before snapping up the disc of dough and popping it into his mouth like it was a small candy. But after the last one, he licked his lips. That was something he had never done before either, and Zahra only noticed because his tongue was completely black.

She almost jumped back in surprise. The creature raised an eyebrow at her. She held her breath.

This was it. His judgement, his verdict — there was no turning back from this. Either the way would be open, or she would be trapped here on the edge of the Ravine.

Forever.

The creature broke eye contact first and Zahra’s heart shot into her throat, nearly choking her. Her whole body went cold, as though an icy wind had blown through the house. But the room was still warm from the embers burning in the brick oven.

He said, “Do you have any more?” and Zahra was certain that she had failed.

He never asked for more. Six times he had come, and six times she had presented him with six samples. This time was supposed to be no different, even if it was the seventh time. This wasn’t fair. The rules hadn’t changed, or if they had, no one had told her. How could they change the rules on her when he knew this was her final chance? He knew what was at stake for her. Did they truly want to keep her out so badly?

Tears stung in the corner of Zahra’s eyes as she considered the life she would live in this little house. Never again would she explore the musky woods of the Jade province. Never in her existence would she see the depths of the Ravine of Eid. This crooked little house on the edge of a cliff, under the shade of the cherry tree, would be her entire life until she was old beyond aging and the last remnants of her family line had long since passed away.

She would outlive them all and never see more of the world than this tiny little shack.

Zahra threw down the towel she had used to hold the biscuits. It hit the floor with a soft, dissatisfying sound and she bunched her hands into fists at her sides, wishing she could hurtle at something and hit it, tear at it, take it for all it was worth.

“That’s all there is!” she shouted into the flour-dusted air, heavy with the scent of baking and spices. None of it comforted her — not anymore. These were the smells she would live in for eternity; until she was so sick of them, she’d go mad. That’s what this world promised her. The Ravine was her only escape, and they wouldn’t even give her a chance.

The creature with the feline eyes and ears crossed his arms over his furry vest and frowned deeply at her. His eyes flickered between so many different blues, greys, and greens, she wondered if they’d ever stop and she thought she could almost see the ocean in them — the ocean she had left behind on the other side of the woods of Jade. The ocean she would never see again because she had chosen to come here and shackled herself to this place.

“Then you’ll have to make more,” he finally said.

And Zahra almost wailed. He had said this was her last try. He had said she wouldn’t get another, and now he was demanding more? Was this his plan all along? For her to feed him biscuits every day for the rest of her life? Insufferable pixie! She should have listened to the myths, the stories. These creatures weren’t to be trusted. How could she have expected to ever belong with them?

“Come.” The creature turned and trotted for the door. “The ingredients here obviously won’t do.”

He was out the door before she realized what his words actually meant. Zahra tugged the little hourglass out of her apron pocket and stared at it. The sand in the bottom had disappeared. The only things left were the two twisted bowls of glass, nestled in the brown skin of her palm.

Her time was up. And she had passed.

She looked up, out the window over the counter at where the mountain goat stood on the knoll. The animal hadn’t moved since she and its rider entered the house. It moved now, turning slowly to stare at her. Eye contact with the goat erased everything else. Zahra was distantly aware of the rider crossing the grass to mount again, but the eyes of the goat stole everything else from her awareness.

The goat winked. Zahra dropped the hourglass back into her pocket and flew out of the house, not even bothering to remove her apron.

They were taking her there — into the ravine. They wanted more of her baking, and for that, they would take her to Eid. The way had been opened, and she would leave this place. She wouldn’t be trapped here for eternity.

She dashed across the grass and reached the goat’s side, and when the creature — the boy — held out his hand and tugged her onto its back, the strange haze over her mind disappeared and she could see everything. She could see the little house, bathed in the shade of the cherry tree; the boy on the animal in front of her, gripping a tiny set of reins attached to the bridle that hung around the goat’s head; the birds chased by tittering pixies as they flew over the treetops in the ravine below.

She could see it all, and she was going to see so much more of it. They’d accepted her.

She could hardly breathe as the mountain goat started its descent into the Ravine of Eid, going slower this time with smaller jumps from ledge to ledge. Zahra wrapped her arms around the boy in the saddle they shared and stared at everything with such wide eyes, she thought they’d burst from her very head.

“What did you do differently?” the boy suddenly asked.

His voice was soft and quiet like she hadn’t heard before. The wind rushing through the ravine carried it away from Zahra’s ears so that she had to strain to hear him.

She shook her head to clear it and tried to focus on his question. He was still thinking about the biscuits?

“You said last time there was nothing about them that made them mine. So, I made them mine,” she finally said.

The boy craned his neck to look at her. One of his fuzzy ears brushed against the tip of her nose and Zahra almost sneezed. This time, his eyes were a bright sky blue.

He didn’t ask what she’d done differently. She didn’t tell him. Somehow, she didn’t think he’d like to know that he’d eaten six strands of her hair, even if he was an insufferable pixie.

April 04, 2021 18:15

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8 comments

Aman Fatima
03:28 Apr 16, 2021

This was a really nice story. Loved the characters and i could imagine it happening in my head. Loved it!!!!

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Elise Volkman
16:52 Apr 16, 2021

Thank you! You're so sweet! <3

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Aman Fatima
16:56 Apr 16, 2021

Welcome :)

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Chelsea Iversen
13:48 Apr 11, 2021

This was really fun to read! I loved the little joke at the end, and the images were really well constructed. I also loved the tension when she was worried shed failed and what that would mean. Well done!

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Elise Volkman
15:43 Apr 13, 2021

Thank you so much, Chelsea!

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H L Mc Quaid
20:29 Apr 04, 2021

I was completely entranced. Great characters and plot, and rising tension. Two small things. Here I think you could remove "heating the kitchen at her back" which would make it more concise and clearer: "Zahra set the stone tray into the brick oven heating the kitchen at her back and turned over the smallest hourglass on the window sill." Second thing, that were quite a few 'justs' in proximity. This was really compelling though. well done. And one random thought on the title I had while falling asleep last night, was "Stranded" (tha...

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Elise Volkman
15:44 Apr 13, 2021

Thanks again for your feedback, Heather! I think "just" might be one of my crutch words, so I appreciate that you flagged that. And I love that "Stranded" idea - that's so clever! <3

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Emily Bergen
07:59 Nov 17, 2021

I started reading and couldn't puted down. I was so drawn into the world I thought I was there.

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