I am not hungry, but I place salt flakes on my tongue, allow the hard edges to melt into a briny liquor. I eat olives, anchovies, Parma ham, shake soy into my mouth, follow it with strips of bacon.
It has been raining for days, and outside the ground is saturated with water, running in rivulets through my garden, over the carefully laid stone path that winds and wavers in an attempt to lure the monsters and the demons away from my door.
Most times it works. But lately, they have been coming closer and closer—I can hear their howls, the scratch scritch of their claws. One got almost to the roof and I could hear its feet scuttling on the mortar, but my wards held.
When it is dry, I surround my house and garden with coarse salt and ground red brick to protect it, and me. But with this torrential rain, the salt and brick wash away, leaving the house vulnerable.
I have no control over the elements; I cannot stop the deluge of savagery saturating this last stronghold of peace. And so I have no choice but to make myself the protection.
In my mortar I grind salt with oil, add pimento. Spread it on my tongue like a paste. The sharpness makes me shudder and my nipples harden.
Outside the rain drives and the demons rustle, preparing for battle.
I am not ready yet. But I will be.
Salted cashews are creamy, almost milky in my mouth, and I suck on them like teats before crushing them on my back teeth. Follow them with crab roe that crunches like good crystal under a boot heel and cornichons tart enough to make me wince.
I try not to exert myself too much—I don’t want to sweat away the salt filling my body.
Am I a sacrifice?
I’ll know soon.
My tongue feels rough, almost shriveled; I say grace before I eat again and ask for blessings from my ancestors. My grandmother’s spirit has always given me her guidance, but she has instructed me to fight my own battles. I wonder if she will intervene this time to stop the monsters threatening my door—the door that separates this world from the next.
Skittering and gleeful chitter tells me they slink ever closer.
The house grows hot, then the heat ebbs to cool, descends to frost. I question my strength. No, the voice inside me—the one that recalls my stumbles, my fear, my indecision—asks: Who do you think you are? You can’t win. You can’t destroy them all. You are but one.
I warm bouillon on the cast-iron stove, add drops of lemon juice, then drink it down, the dried vegetables scraping my raw throat.
Is this what it takes to become protection? Is this what it takes to become a god? No, I will never be a god. A priestess, perhaps. A lowly kitchen witch taking on the fight of the ages. Whatever I am, I am the last.
But can I take this punishment? I am but one.
A hiss comes from outside, I turn to see a shadow dart away from my window.
So it begins.
I rush over to close the curtains, but I decide against it. Best that I am able to see them when they come. Look the end in the face. If I survive this battle, it will be a miracle.
Cheese from cow, ewe, and goat—all tangy, salty savor. The door rattles on its hinges, and rainwater leeches in under a crack in the frame, running in rivulets toward my bare feet.
Their numbers double, triple. They have brought the rains to sweep me away, so they can roam this world free. Free to devour those that only seek to live their lives away from pain and torment. From the weight of judgment that will always find them lacking.
Sleep does not come, nor do I wish it to.
I greet the day with red eyes that see clearly. My body shakes. Across the garden, through the rain, they come. Their steps judder and jump. Some crawl, but most are standing upright, confident of victory.
I can see their teeth, white fangs bright under the grey rainy skies. Howls of pleasure, or anticipation, reach me, and I bare my own fangs.
Let them come.
I get my wish. They rush forward in droves, rain sluicing off their hides, their footfalls pounding the earth. My door rattles as I open it, face my fate. The first one dissolves at the touch of my finger. Unable to stop their rampage, dozens more shatter when they collide with me. Others dissolve, their screams hellish and comforting.
Confused, some hang back. Why isn’t she afraid? Why doesn’t she run? They hesitate, waiting to see the outcome… hoping there will be something left to pick clean.
Not these bones.
Let them taste of me. Let my blood salt this earth, soaking into the soil to nourish the grasses that will then shoot up, twisting and twining, tying the monsters up, trapping them in a prison of their own making. Do not come for me, or you will be sent back to whatever hell you left.
A seizure takes me. I shake as though someone is trying to wake me from a dream. No. Not now.
Their howls of triumph erupt, grow louder.
I squeeze my eyes shut, run forward into the rain. My skin slicks as it dissolves and I fling my arms wide, releasing swirls of opaque salinized slush that strikes the monsters like burning whips. They scream, almost as loud as I do while I flail. All that I have prepared, all that I have become, turning to sludge.
The monsters circle me, but they are wary. Afraid once again. They see the sacrifice I am willing to make and it makes them cowardly, unsure of their power in the face of a kitchen priestess god at the end of her tether.
I rage, saline and brick and my own blood now strewn around the garden. More of them suffer though, as I watch—almost unseeing—in the storm. The howls fade, growing distant.
It is a good thing, because I am also fading. Sinking into the soil, now drenched and mucky. I close my eyes slowly, then open them, knowing I have given my all, my everything, and it is now time to stop. My feet have sunk into the dirt and I try to pull them out, but I see they have partially dissolved into the earth. My hands have eroded too. I tumble to the ground, pull myself toward the house, arm over arm, toward the open door. I manage to get inside, place my worn shoulder against the frame and push it closed.
I close my eyes again.
Whispers cover me. Hands, butterfly light, work on my wounds. A floral, ethereal scent wafts from them, like the fragrance of the gardenia I place on grandmother’s grave every year. Only now I realize how much I hurt, inside and out, but mostly, I am shaken. Monsters still call in the failing darkness, but the sounds are far away, and growing fainter. I open my eyes.
The rain has stopped and the growing sunlight is almost blinding, but I can see their shadows. Their hands redraw my wards, crush fresh brick with salt, feed me soup—a meaty brine that begins to restore me to myself.
I thought I was alone. The last.
My mouth is dry and the words are a struggle.
Jewelry jangles from necks and ears and wrists while they work, leaving the sound of change in the air.
Never for long, they reply.
|Eden Royce is a Geechee writer from South Carolina. Her short fiction can be found in various print and online publications including: FIYAH Literary Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror, Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed, and PodCastle. Her debut middle grade Southern Gothic novel Root Magic is out now from Walden Pond Press/HarperCollins. More at linktr.ee/edenroyce.|