“Touch me, taste me, peel me apart.” -Vivia Douleur
For a while things were at their worst.
Nothing stayed down. Cola scalded her throat. A sandwich left her jaw aching, her teeth sore and cold. Bread was a brick in her stomach. She choked down chicken and potatoes and sour cream—and relived it all again hunched over porcelain, before the leftovers had time to cool. Ice cream left her in a fever; a mug of cocoa froze her tongue.
The kitchen frightened her. She couldn’t stomach the bang of a pot on the counter, the screeching scrape of fork against plate, the clink of glasses.
They finally took her to a doctor. Then a nutritionist. Then a shrink. Then back home. She slumped in the backseat, muscles anemic and watery, nauseous. The questions hurt: why aren't you—what's wrong with—what happened to—don't you want—what do you—her ears ached in echo with her stomach.
Her mother called. Her father worried. Toby cried.
Sarah herself could only ache.
(The first feast is one of flowers. Lychees in lavender honey. Rosewater lassi. Tiny, precious cakes of crystallized rose petals and edible gold. There are dainty raspberry violet tartlets and poppy vinegar, and spicy, pink carnations. There are borage buds, salted and sprinkled like capers. There is thyme.
He smiles. Grapefruit parfait. A pear gently half baked in cinnamon-rich pastry, garnished with whipped cream and a glimmering puree of tart cherries. Her hand shakes near the fork; his is steady on the knife, descending.
You'll like this, I promise.
It is so easy, so very simple, to surrender. She doesn't even have to look him in the eye, just part her lips. The simplicity of it swaths her head in sweetness, turning thoughts to slow, dull fudge. She fists her hands in the embroidered tablecloth in readiness—
Left alone, how long would she have lasted? Weeks, months, a year of tasteless suffocation and hapless suppers? She was fifteen and exhausted; she would've broke. He would've won.
If not for Karen.
Because it was Karen—strict, no-nonsense-no-jokes, vile Karen—who forced her on. She sliced apples when Sarah couldn’t tolerate chips, bought artisan loaves when Wonderbread chaffed, composed mac-and-cheese with the fervor of a nun. She brought pears and artichokes and ribs.
And it was Karen—diligent, tired, desperate Karen—who came down early Tuesday morning, steeled and ready to make pancakes to wage war on the unnamable malaise bleeding her stepdaughter who found Sarah in the kitchen, heating syrup in a pan.
“I was hungry,” she said.
Karen burst into tears.
(The second feast is gold: champagne sorbet, gold leaf topping tuna belly, chilled fruit soup the pale color of dawn, gilded celery hearts and confited lemon. She wears a starlet dress, its silk like caramel on her hips, her leg, her breasts.
Somewhere beyond the dilapidated splendor of the room—bronze vases full of fading flowers, gin-dark curtains—she’s sixteen. There was a nervous party and cake, and she nearly threw up at smelling the candles.
You’re being unbecomingly stubborn, he says.
She shoves the table up, arms straining, and he starts at the wave of cool soup rolling near—
—and she wakes.)
Damn him and his dreams and his voice and his palm on her back, her knees against the damask-cushioned chair, the silver's heft in her palm, the sugar bubbles filled with pink grapefruit gelée, the white beat puree with rosemary oil, the candlelit twilight, the open collar baring his throat, the damn damn damn sweetness that poisons the first minute of every day she wakes.
You want a fight, Goblin King? I'll serve you a war.
She'll muddle through recipes untold and burns unnumbered, fight her way out of every castle fantasy supper to guard what he's out to steal, for her will is stronger, strong as iron and oil, and her kingdom—her crucible, her hearth, her cauldron and laboratory—will be greater. She'll dice and boil and mince and grind and baste and sear and chop and blend and simmer and core and dredge and pare and grill and melt and peel and fry and brown and sauté and braise and stir and truss and whip and shred and crimp and dot and glaze and mash and skin and knead and poach and roast and pit and scrape and watch and learn, you royal wicked jerk, because you have no power over this.
Choke on that, Jareth.
(The third feast is red and cold: Frozen glasses of vodka. Champagne sorbet. Canapés of ortolan. A train swimming through a fairly-tale night. Snow is falling. The lamps are shining and curtains drawn, a crimson baize table is fixed to the floor's center, wax candles are fastened at the saloon's corners. On one side rests a stately samovar. There are waiters with unseen faces in red, red linen coats.
White silk, cut low. The material bunches easily in her fist. A cool, tempting leather gloved touch on her shoulder. She shivers—
—and kicks the gilded table, porcelain and silver clattering down—
The neighborhood mothers adored her.
Really, what choice did they have? What defense against Sarah, pretty, tender Sarah with her tentative smile and eager eyes, her shy do you think and her cheerful, happy step on their porches? Her this is wonderful and delicious and could you teach me? Their own newly teenage daughters were Venusian reminders of foreign history. They’re not interested in ginger snap recipes or crackpots; they’re into boys and Uggs and ChristinaBrittneyRhianna and boys and school and mascara and boys—not custard. They are ripening. They are out of reach.
So in lieu of those absent pigtails and sundresses, kitchens all over the block welcome Sarah and give what they have, what they know, whatever she was willing to take.
In response Sarah took all she could.
(The fourth feast is short.
Little thief, he mocks her. Bandit. Poacher. Charlatan. Will you rob every hearth to fill your own greedy skull, mug every kitchen and stove?
She curls her fingers, cold as cream, into the leprous-white linen napkin. It is the only thing on the table, she still dares touch. (He's learned—painfully—to ban cutlery from of her reach.)
Fraud, he starts.
Coward, she finishes.
At first nobody wondered because nobody thought to ask. But eventually, slow as honey in Savannah, they began to notice.
Sarah never burned her palm. Sarah never cut her thumb. Sarah’s wrists remained unspotted by grease, no matter how brave and perfect her buttermilk chicken popped in the pan. She never forgot recipes, though half the time she forgot to need them.
It was an insult to anybody who’d ever struggled with a roast or a pot of beans. It was a flaunting challenge to the rules of home physics.
It was, quite possibly, magic.
Which Sarah kept herself too busy to acknowledge.
(The ninth feast is flush with spice. The tenth feast is wet with silver. The eleventh feast is a throng of delicate, white sugar beasts and Sarah stomps every sweet darling foolish enough to prance within reach.)
“What I’m wondering,” said Alice, “is whether they’ll make you prom queen or burn you at the stake.”
“Either way I’ll need hell of a dress.” Sarah hauled out the baking pan and set it—carefully—atop the stove.
Everybody in J. Henson High knows that’s Sarah’s a bit of a, well, witch. It’s not quite a secret and it’s not quite a rumor, but it’s true. Doesn't matter that she doesn't wear eye liner or fishnets or embroidered skirts or care a whit about chakras and moonstones. Just ask Beverly Marks who spent half a week crying over her breakup before an afternoon of chopping onions, and came in Monday, red-eyed but smiling.
A cookie fat with molasses slowed hasty words and tempers. Basils cooled the heart; mint wakes it. A couple pounds of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers, a slice of bread, oil and vinegar, and garlic, and salt and pepper spinning in a blender promised—and delivered—nothing but laughter at Toby’s fund raiser.
And there's no mistaking the mason jar of scented clover-sugar in the faculty office.
What playing with pots and whisks taught Sarah is that there were two kinds of magic: that of want and that of need. The glamour of wishes and the business of aid. Sugar and spice. A person could wish for endless tortes, frisbee-sized brownies, and espresso cupcakes, but it was usually the celery soups and yams that kept a soul together long enough to get through everyday disasters.
Sarah was no good with wishes. She didn't grind love potions or sandwich hexes, didn't waste parsley on revenge. Anybody dumb enough to approach her for a handout got a blank look and zero sympathy. Everybody knew that.
But if you were hurt, or damaged, or too drained to remember that every Monday had a Saturday, if you were stuck in a life that tasted of cardboard and dross, if you needed courage to be a friend, if you were lost--
"I'm glad you do this," said Alice. "Did I ever mention that? Really, I am. So don't, like, quit being weirdly awesome just 'cause nobody says thank you."
"If people knew enough to say thank you," Sarah said, reaching for the honey, "there'd be no point in doing it."
Because what you want and what you need are different kingdoms.
(The twelfth feast is her birthday. She's seventeen, strong, and still he manages to find a chink to stab through. Blackberry sorbet filled peaches. Flambéed peaches with crepes and raspberry-lemon ice cream. There are carnival masks painted on the plates.
It is awful and wonderful and impossible. But she smells desperation under the cream. And when the cake comes, studded with candied zest and no candles, when she hefts the candelabra and readies her first, final swing, when she catches his—tired? —eye across the chasm of finery, Sarah smiles—
—"Make a wish." —
She thinks of Snow White.
Poor, pale princess whose heart was such a prize it almost made her a homicide statistic. Who was squeezed and choked, and survived—only to succumb to a chunk of fruit. How sweet that first and only bite must’ve been on her tongue, the juice gushing down her throat even as it closed around the mulched flesh of the apple.
And how it must’ve lingered, that lethal sweetness, even after they cracked the coffin and pulled her out, set her on a horse and rode to the altar, and the bedroom, and the throne, and the happily ever after protection.
She thinks of Sleeping Beauty who was cocooned in blunt, bland safety until faerie fate bit her finger and she brought it to her lips, tasting her own blood, her own weakness, for the first time.
She thinks of Red Riding Hood, the myopic wunderkind who couldn’t differentiate fur from wrinkles. She thinks of how endurance is its own weapon, how little Red was swallowed yet survived, and how vivid were her eyes and cheeks upon bursting out of the beast’s stomach.
She thinks of gingerbread houses and ovens and children who take without asking, and of castles and mazes and teenagers who give without thinking.
But mostly Sarah thinks of Persephone. Persephone, the innocent. Persephone, the hostage. Persephone, the flower child singled out by a dark power’s attention but ill-equipped to handle it. Persephone, the tender morsel who was dragged underground with no time to understand the crime. Persephone, who swallowed the seeds and tore her life in half.
Indeed, fight insight thought she does, Sarah thinks about Persephone most of all.
(The thirteenth feast is black. There is turtle soup and Russian bread and Turkish olives, plump and dark. Cool caviar, mule steaks and smoked sausages. Truffles sleeping in jelly. A caravan of chocolate-tinted creams and puddings, mulberries and sweet, black cherries. The plates are black-rimmed and wine comes in dark-smoked glasses: blood of the Limagne and Roussillon, sap of Tenedos, the Val de Penas and Oporto. The coffee rivals midnight. Equally lightless is the port and stout, the savory kwas.
He matches: black boots, dark cuffs, no cloak. There are little bits—shards—of black mirror sewn onto his jacket. They reflect nothing.
Against the splendid gloom, Sarah’s button-up and denim are flagrantly challenging.
They stay on their respective sides of the long table for the duration of the nightmare, and that is—different. He does not taunt, or lure, or promise. He only says, once, at the end, when she raises a dry cup in toast, “Congratulations.”
She lowers the cup.
For a while things were at their…nicest. Indeed, Sarah had a faultlessly ordinary year. Admittedly it’s the sort of “ordinary” that includes self-stirring bouillabaisse, fireproof soufflés, and a dalliance with sushi schooling that leaves the Lucas Library book club dreaming in French for a week, but still: normal.
Sarah cooked. Sarah went to school. Sarah was not popular or shunned or trendy. Sarah was respected and sought and intriguing.
And again it was Karen—fussy, lovely, kind—Karen who came down too early on Thursday morning to find her vastly puzzling stepdaughter straining tea.
“Couldn’t sleep,” was Sarah’s plain explanation.
“Nervous about midterms?” Karen sat down. There was a second cup steaming in waiting on the table. No point questioning it, the world tended to change shape (just a little) in the realm of Sarah’s kitchen. Things worked.
“No, I'm good there. It’s just…”
“Is this about Paris? Because your father and I already told you, we’ve got no issues with that. Linda’s perfectly able to—”
“It’s just dreams.”
“Dreams.” Sarah stirred something red and savory into her brew; suddenly, the air was full of summer. “Weird, pointless dreams that don’t prove anything.”
Karen drank her tea. Waiting.
Finally: “There’s this…orchard. A big one. And it’s—it’s a total mess. All the branches are torn, everything looks burnt and crushed. All the fruit’s squashed.”
“Well, that’s. Well.” Karen drank more tea. “We used to do that sort of thing when I was little. Apple picking, I mean.”
“It wasn’t apples.” Sarah got up and emptied her tea into the sink, automatically rinsing the cup. “It was peaches.”
(The fourteenth feast is—well, that's the thing, actually: the fourteenth feast is. No matter how lavish the drama of "first" and "thirteenth", it doesn't change the fact that there are no firsts without seconds, and no automatic lasts. What happens once can—will—happen again. It's the beauty of any recipe: gather the necessary, follow the steps, and receive the expected.
And then, of course, there's the other half of it, the joy of knowing your own touch to be the secret ingredient. The fact of discovering that old words need not be changed for the outcome to differ, to be something new.
At least that's what keeps Sarah's hands steady on the chopping knife when Hoggle and a mixed gaggle of goblins burst into the castle kitchen.
"So," she offers blithely. "What's for dinner?")
She sent Didymus questing for basil. She had Ludo bar the pantry door. She cheerfully, and without a shred of guilt, bullied the goblins into finding the other salt cellar and fetching more firewood and licking clean the second biggest cauldron. (Which, of course, she wasn't going to use, but it kept the little pig-eyed buggers busy and away from the mixing bowl.)
But it was Hoggle she turned to when it came to asking: "Where is he?"
After a while (not long, not at all, only a minute or three or so) she told Hoggle to go back to the kitchen and yell at whatever goblin had his paw deepest in the sauce. She didn't turn away from the bed to say it, and her voice didn't crack in asking. She merely stood and waited and when the sound of footsteps dimmed, went further inside the room and looked.
He was pale, but then he'd always been pale as if flushed with milk rather than blood. His hair didn't look longer or shorter or any less bright. His throat was still long and white. His shirt had a familiar sort of insultingly pretty unlaced collar. His chest rose and fell, rose and fell, rose and fell easily. His hands—
Sarah blinked, chewing her lip, before reaching down and taking the King's naked hand between her own. There was the thinnest edge of black under the left thumbnail.
True to character, the King awoke at the most blatantly inconvenient moment possible, specifically when Sarah was leaning over him with an ornate, but reasonably serviceable, knife in her hand.
“That’s the spirit,” he croaked.
“Shut up,” she advised and sat back down to finish peeling the apple in her other hand. “For the record, you’re an idiot.”
“Fabulous.” He had swallowed once, twice, to get the next words out. “I have missed these charming tête-à-têtes. Shall we celebrate by you throwing glassware at my skull again?”
“Hoggle told me.”
The silence was immediate, and dense as fudge. Sarah finished guiding the pretty blade under the last of the fruit’s skin, detaching the peel in one long, perfect ribbon. She set it aside—there was a good jam recipe for that—and began sectioning the fruit.
“He didn’t want to,” she said. “Seems some unbecomingly stubborn dolt forbade anyone talking about it, because he thought—well, you know I haven’t the foggiest what he thought; I'm not in fluent in monarchial self-destructive idiocy. I'm better with jams. Oh, and fritters; I'm fantastic with fritters.”
“Are you now?” came the voice from the bed.
“Yeah. I'm magic.” She finished the apple quarters. “Or so says the yearbook. Congratulate me, by the way; graduation was last week.”
“Thanks. Any particular reason you’re trying to kill yourself?”
(Because that is what Hoggle tells her, even if not in those same dry words.
The King did not—does not—eat. There are no gleaming long feasts, no fulsome suppers, no repast. No wine. The plates stay cold; the knives turn dull and lazy. The King’s table has not granted sustenance or pleasure, nor health or curiosity, nor flesh or fruit, nor anything worth mentioning in years.
Not since she left the Labyrinth.
That’s insane, Sarah argues. He brought—there were banquets.
Yes, agrees Hoggle. But did she ever see him take a bite of them?)
“I have a theory,” Sarah said. She was out of apples, the peeled white bounty filling the bowl between her knees, and was toying with the knife idly. “Actually, it’s more of a reasoning but—ok, never mind. It’s about a story, a myth. The one about Hades and Persephone. You know it.”
It wasn’t a question, but he nodded anyway.
“Here it is: if she—Persephone—was actually starving, then why just those six seeds? I mean, come on, she’d been around divine types enough to know he’d notice. Right? So why just six measly bits, why not go out and gorge?”
“Basic table manners aside,” Jareth nods. “Your hypothesis, then?”
“I think…” Sarah looked at the knife and bowl, tossed the latter in the former. Looked at the king. He didn’t look weak, she thought sourly. Even ravaged with self-imposed nonsense, the Goblin King retained his hard polish. It made her want to rub butter and pepper in his hair, or maybe dump potato peelings down his pretty shirt.
Because it really wasn’t fair.
“I think Persephone made a deal. I think she brought up the idea of compromise but her mom was too much of a drama queen to admit as much afterwards. I think she, Persephone, I mean, came down to breakfast one day or—what time is it, oh—lunch, with a pomegranate in her pocket, because they’re easy to carry around and, you know, he was probably hiding somewhere, the coward, and she said, ‘Look, Your Majesty, the jig's up, okay? I'm not going to chew your ridiculous, elaborate muck—because kings plan the stupidest menus—and I don’t care if you lock up the sun or hide the flowers. I can see in the dark and mushrooms are fine. But you, you silly twit, you’re obviously losing weight over this nonsense just because you’re too thick to have asked me to dinner. Obviously one of us is going to have to be the groan of reason and fix this before the gods get weirder or you turn too thin for togas. So here’s this fruit—loaded with vitamin C, by the way—and how about I eat some and you eat some and we can sit here snacking like reasonable, peculiar people and then, maybe, don’t get cocky, one of us may decide to give certain imperial supercilious bastards another chance. Like, for example, dinner.’ And that’s exactly what they did and—and, I don’t know, the details got later rearranged to ensure publication. ‘Cause scandal sells better. Or something.”
Finished, Sarah reached out to put the bowl on the bed before unfolding from the chair.
“Think about it,” she told him, patting his leg on her way out.
Downstairs, the soup was ready. Hoggle grew fennel in his garden; Sarah sliced a few bulbs along with some tart apples, added basil and lemon and lots of pepper. Didymus insisted she used the only whole fork, but there were enough cracked cups to drink the soup. Ludo, apparently, didn't like olives; Sarah roasted some garlic-rubbed eggplant for him instead. She stuffed a radish slice in Hoggle's mouth when he tried to ask the obvious.
Afterwards, the goblins were allowed leftovers in return for promising to "take care" of the dishes--the details of which Sarah was resolutely not considering--and Sarah wrote a short, boring note on the sticky counter. She lodged it near the flour rack, far out of stubby goblin reach. Then she hugged Ludo, curtsied to Didymus, kissed Hoggle and went home.
Because the trouble people with thank you was nothing compared to how kings struggled with please.
The supermarket had a special on blueberries so Sarah picked the heftiest pint she saw. The berries were next to the apples which made her remember hearing someone somewhere say that the heart was the same size as an apple. It seemed a funny sort of thing, especially if it was true.
She bought peaches, too, not because it was rebellious or ironic, but because the skins were rose-gold and because they smelled wonderful.
The house was empty when she got home. Toby was spending the night at a friends; her father and Karen were indulging in a "night on the town". (Sarah had been invited to tag along. "To keep us decent" Karen explained with the kind of dry humor that'd never have dared emerge when Sarah was fifteen-going-on-doomed. She'd laughed and shook her head, and told her stepmother to wear the blue dress with the satin collar. It made her hair look like gold.)
She’d baked a cake that morning, thinking angel food would make nice sandwiches with the fruit compote recipe Mrs. Moulton send over Tuesday. Now, the smell of vanilla and wellness still lingered, putting Sarah in the mood for tarts. Peach tarts because, well, why not? A frangipane tart, rich and custard-y, sequined with blueberries.
She was spooning custard into the crust when something, something tiny and cool—a prickle? a scent?—sparked the back of her neck. Sarah looked up, "Hey."
The Goblin King nodded.
He was still pale and golden and wearing a shirt too pretty to suit anyone less inexplicable, but he was upright which counted for something. As did the faint anxiety skating around his eyes. It made him not quite familiar, but not so much that she'd ever mistake him for anything other than--well.
"Most people call ahead," Sarah said not wanting to make it too easy. "Or knock."
"You didn't leave a number." Mismatched eyes flicked up, edgy. "Besides I have a reservation."
I could toss you out, she thought with absolute certainty. I can turn my back and make you walk away. I can lock the door to bar you forever. I can eat peaches till my teeth rot...and never worry about you in the process. In her kitchen, Sarah could do anything. The surety of the thought was spicy-sweet, thrilling on the edge of her mouth--like a kiss, with a bit of tooth in it.
"I could go," he suggested suddenly. His hand rose and paused, not quite a plea or an offer. "If you'd prefer so."
Sarah picked up a kitchen towel, wiping her hands and looking at him. She thought about Snow White and Beauty and Little Red, and witches and wishes and worms, and mazes and monsters and fairy bites. She thought about pomegranates and gingerbread. She thought about each and every time she sat trapped across the table from him, and how she'd never dared suppose she wasn't the only prisoner in the room.
But she thought of these things briefly, lightly, like a recipe she knew by heart but wasn't sworn to follow exactly always. She could add cream, leave out the nuts, substitute apples for peaches, or decide to compose another dish entirely.
"It'll be another twenty minutes at least. I've still got to heat the honey," Sarah said. She nodded at the table. "Pull up a chair. You can keep me company till then.”