by Crystal Lynn Hilbert
The wind bites at her braids, smelling of smoke and roasted bones when it should smell like coming rain, the piss and exhaust stink of a wet city. This late, with only bar goers and line cooks like her loose on the street, Rikka takes notice of any little change. She squares her shoulders, clenches her knives a little tighter to her side.
Something coming, she thinks and it’s nonsense, it’s foolishness, but Rikka trusts her gut.
She steps warily, keys jutting between her knuckles, one hand ready on her bag. Big as she is—roller derby mean, kitchen heavy—Rikka doesn’t have to worry like her slender sister, but she knows not worth the trouble don’t mean trouble won’t come. Same as the rink, better to face it with momentum.
Crossing the last intersection towards home, the streets here smaller and deserted, Rikka half jogs along the wall of an empty warehouse, her free palm flat against her knives to stop the bag bouncing. The oddness in the air grows thicker. The traffic on distant Fifth Ave falls flat and strangely muffled. The streetlights crackle. Rikka hears laughter, close but tinny, like voices on an old radio. She smells pine wood burning, smells the char on a slab of fat, smells marrow sizzling in a hot pan—
Again, the streetlights pop. This time, every last one flickers out.
Blinking in the sudden dark, Rikka stumbles to a stop. She gropes for the wall beside her and finds nothing. Even when she crabwalks a few careful steps over, her hand falls on empty air.
Something coming, Rikka thinks, and the thought don’t seem so crazy now.
Above her, the sky rolls. Her skin tingles, hairs dancing on the back of her neck. She can’t hear any sounds from the city, now; no cars, no beeping crosswalks, no living people. She hears… whispering, so close she expects to feel breathing in her ear, but still tinny in that ancient radio way, sounding so strange, so familiar…
Slowly, her eyes adjust. Rikka finds herself standing in the mouth of an alley that never existed. Where once her daily commute took her past a solid wall of warehouse, today, the walls of the warehouse bend away from her. Heavy brickwork melts into stone slabs, the space shifting in the darkness, outline distinct and misshapen in a way that pinches at her vision. Despite the lack of streetlights and a cloud-gotten moon, a kind of glow settles on the alley, diffuse light seeping from the stones, from too-green lichen and a tenacious blanket of weeds.
Heartbeat thudding in her teeth, Rikka stares at the over-saturated greenery, the strange silence and feels familiar. She remembers her grandmother—she remembers humid summer evenings spent standing at the kitchen window, her knuckles grey against the metal lip of the sink, waiting for something she wouldn’t explain.
“Elf light,” she’d call it, her voice taut with love and grief in a way that scared her. “A trick of the storm.”
Rikka didn’t understand. Doesn’t understand this now, either, but her eyes fall on a book in the alley, water-stained and forgotten on the pavement and she doesn’t understand, but she knows—somehow, she knows this place in her bones.
The whispering radio voices falter and fall silent. The air smells sweet—molasses, muscovado, marzipan—smells of bonfires and burning. Smells familiar, and Rikka swallows, tasting memory, tasting possibility…
Her stomach cramps. She finds herself starving, suddenly, so violently hungry her whole body hurts with it. And that—
Rikka’s heard this story. Now, she understands.
She doesn’t know what her grandmother got herself into—doesn’t know who and it’s too late to ask—but now they’ve got her, big and mean, a kitchen worth of knives.
Something coming, Rikka thinks. That something’s me.
Baring her teeth, she strides into the alley, hearing the radio voices hissing at each other, hearing some kind of claws scritch-scrabbling away in the darkness.
“Alright,” she says and snatches up the book from the green-damp stone. “I’ll bite.”
Hunched over her kitchen table, shoulders tight and wary, Rikka palms the symbols tooled into the leather cover. She expects something—distant voices, sudden dark—but nothing happens. Outside of its lunatic alley, it’s just a book; leather and yellowed paper and illegible crows’ feet parading down the page.
Slowly, Rikka breathes. She stretches her arms, loosening the night-long knot in her shoulders and eases into a chair.
She can’t read it, but she doesn’t have to. She knows this book by its smell, by grease darkening the cover, jam-stained fingerprints in the margin and flour on the spine. She learned to read from books like this, learned her craft when her elbows barely reached the counter, divining secrets from every neighborhood grandmother willing to part with heirloom biscuits and family spice rubs. She recognizes ingredients in the haphazard paths, spies measurements in the precise passage of birds.
They’re recipes. Recipes and magic.
Everything she wanted as a girl—
Everything she still wants, well-worn daydreams hidden in a hundred soups and sauces.
“Figures I can’t read it,” she mutters, but, tying back her braids, she tries anyway.
Rikka empties her fridge struggling to decode some kind of sense from the book in front of her. She eats and reads; old take-out scouring the internet for runes, a box of cookies researching ancient Minoan script. She eats and reads; a brick of cheese attempting ciphers and the last of her graham crackers on the Voynich manuscript’s Wikipedia page. Bent over the water-stained paper, dawn-light dripping through her kitchen window, Rikka eats and she reads—
But everything tastes of ash and none of the words make sense—
And still her stomach cramps, empty and desperate.
More magic, she figures, another trick of the brewing storm. Scrubbing at her eyes, Rikka sighs, abandoning the book for bed. She’ll figure it out tomorrow, she tells herself, her grandmother’s summer stare heavy in her mind. She’ll figure it out eventually.
She works in a kitchen; ain’t like they can starve her.
Rikka stands at one end of a banquet table, an unfamiliar book in her arms, leather warm against her skin where the silk of her dress dips low. Her stomach rolls, so hungry her head spins with it. Mouth cottony and stomach aching, her eyes rove, already searching the table for her first taste.
She sees spiced red wine pooling in a bowl of roasted pears. Liquid chocolate kisses merlot, flecked with gold. A mason jar sits at her right hand, aged sour cherries steeped in Armagnac, smelling of late summer and her grandmother’s kitchen. Her grandmother…
“Took her long enough to come back,” someone whispers. She can’t tell who, above the music and laughter, can’t tear her eyes from the food.
Another replies, “No, this is a different one.”
“Looks like the last one.”
“Last one didn’t work,” someone new murmurs.
“Last one almost worked,” someone else corrects.
Rikka swallows. She should sit. Her throat hurts. Her stomach hurts. The book sinks in her arms, prodding sharp into the padding of her ribs. She switches it to her other hand. The woman nearest to her shrinks away.
She came here for something, Rikka thinks, struggling to concentrate. The book—she came here—
Nearby, roasted garlic soup steams in its heavy carafe, thick with cream and bellied up beside a loaf of crusty bread. Mussels roll and dance between the trays, buttered medallions shedding a trail of fleur de sel. A salad of wild mushrooms blooms from the table itself, chives and chanterelles and dark truffle pearls jutting from cracks in the wax-varnished wood.
Someone laughs, spinning away from the table and back into the throng of dancers. In the flickering gas lights, Rikka comes away with the sense of a wide hall, mahogany paneling and brass fittings on the walls. People fill the space, swaying with street-fight elegance, gaunt suits and beaded gowns, bare feet hissing time to the odd, warbling music. Not quite jazz, not quite lullaby, Rikka can almost pick out the words. It sounds like a song she remembers. Knows it well enough to hum along—
Her stomach hurts. Her hands shake. She boosts the book onto her hip, trying to shift the ungainly weight. Two dancers nearest to her flinch. Rikka frowns. She wants to ask if there’s somewhere she can put it down, but she can see there’s no room—
She can see a cut crystal bowl of pomegranates, tiny carnelians swimming through sloe gin—
And Rikka’s hungry, but standing at the end of the table, her eyes clear. She read mythology as a kid. Read a little more in her aborted attempt at college. Enough to know the shape of this, anyway—to recognize the dozen stories grown from these seeds. Persephone lured with the promise of a flower, the Goblin Market, the Erlkönig.
Don’t eat, the story goes. Not meat, not a seed, not a bite of peach.
Rikka swallows, tasting the memory of smoke and bone in the hollow of her throat and she’s hungry—god, she’s hungry—but she’s herself again.
“Is it not to your liking?” someone at her side asks.
“Too mundane, perhaps,” another murmurs.
Immediately, two broad figures approach the table, carrying a huge salt slab between them easy as bussing tables. A lion reclines on the tray, slow roasted whole and burnished bronze, smelling of dry earth, of garlic and cayenne and thyme.
Rikka’s stomach cramps. She steels her jaw, tongue stuck to the dry roof of her mouth, and she wants to laugh, she wants to eat—
She wants magic; she wants recipes.
Beside her, one of the fae leans close, careful to avoid the jutting corner of her book.
“You see?” she whispers with a face for sharing secrets, black eyes searching, oddly intent. “Hunt what hunts you.”
“She doesn’t,” someone says across the table, half laughing. “They never do.”
Pressed against the polished table, Rikka’s free hand starts to itch. Her skin crawls. The back of her neck burns.
She knows the way the story’s supposed to go. Surrounded by dancers, fae creatures hunting, she knows what she’s supposed to do. Look pretty, eat nothing, say nothing, follow the rules. Just like all her years at school, burning up waiting for the clock to move.
And everything’s so artfully fabricated, flawless and pristine, so goddamn perfect—
Hiking up her fairy-given skirt, Rikka vaults onto the table. Wine splashes the floor. Buttered scallops roll away, something warm and soupy splattering beneath her heel. In a wave, the diners recoil, dodging spilled sauces and scattered meats. Chairs fall backwards. Voices shout. Even the music clatters to a halt.
Rikka ignores it all. It’s not hard. Every weekend at the rink, she weathers a tougher crowd than this. Heedless of all the yelling, she strides forward, kicking treats out of her path. And up high, above the haze of cookery and magic, she finally sees the far end.
A woman sits at the head of the table, purple-lipped and laughing. She wears a soft white suit, so stark against blue-black skin. A crown of mistletoe sits atop her wild briar curls. A necklace of human teeth grazes the glittering hollow of her collar bone. In the uncertain gas lights, her eyes shine, a predatory glimmer from two flat coins.
Rikka stares right back. She knows her stories—she knows her monsters, her legends, her myths. Faced with this one, Rikka grins.
Hunt what hunts you.
Standing barefoot in frisée and chanterelles, she lifts the book above her head.
The crowd seethes; the Erlkönig rises from her throne—
And Rikka lets it fall.
She wakes unbreathing, her alarm ringing and her bedsheets flaked in ocean salt.
Laying there in that tiny wreckage, Rikka can’t help laughing. She takes a pinch from her pillow and places it beneath her tongue.
Hunt what hunts you? The girls at the rink call her Wrecka Ball.
She wonders if all the fae and goblins knew what they were asking for.
The second time, Rikka knows what to expect. Enough to prepare little. She goes to bed with the cookbook in a messenger bag and wakes to find it waiting at her hip. Same as before, a banquet table sprawls in front of her. Unlike yesterday, though, this one looks like it’s been through a war, battered up and varnish gone, piled high but diners missing.
Slowly, Rikka walks the length of the weathered trencher, trailing fingers over dishes she knows better than to eat. Tiny sparrows fried whole, salted and dripping with grease. Black sausage on a bed of apples. Skate in caper butter, tarragon and watercress. She moves a bowl of gnocchi swimming in marrow fat and bree, unearths a rainbow of tiny macaroons sitting underneath.
She counts seven geese, articulated upright in a pond of peaches and cardamom. Two lambs sit nose to nose in pomegranate sauce, studded with rosemary. A giant boar stands as the centerpiece—head lifted, fig-roasted and fragrant—and well, at least they’re trying harder today. Credit where it’s due.
Rikka turns away.
She finds herself in a wide clearing ringed with trees, taller and darker than anything she’s ever seen. Fist-sized lights glitter in the boughs. Several massive bonfires dominate the clearing. Everywhere she looks, Rikka sees fae. No longer playing at humanity, feral and laughing, they dance in little beyond their skin.
Rikka steps a little closer, drawn by the drums, the heat of their disjointed singing. No, not just skin, she realizes. They all wear matching armor, but only a single piece each. She spots a gauntlet on one, a pauldron on another. Char-black chitin catches the light, tarnished silver chains knotted in intricate patterns and left to hang. The fringe hisses against naked flanks, whispering into the song.
Rikka remembers the Erlkönig’s necklace of teeth. She wonders—
But no, it don’t matter. She grips the strap of her bag, cookbook heavy against her side. They’re vicious creatures—some bigger than bears, vast hips twisting in the beat—but she’s big, too. She’s got her grandmama’s stride; she’s got her grandmama’s name.
Kitchen big, she reminds herself. Roller-derby mean. Hunt what hunts you, Rikka thinks, and she intends to—intends to dance, if not to eat—but the moment she steps into the firelight, the dancers cease.
Across the clearing, she sees the Erlkönig.
Tonight she wears a gown of feathers and living moths. Her hair coils around her head, braided through her crown of mistletoe. A kind of quiet question in her eyes, she smiles, but doesn’t move.
That’s fine, Rikka figures. She can be brave enough for two.
Offering up a smile of her own, she walks across the grass. The dancers shift back. The Erlkönig remains. She watches Rikka approach, face wide and open. Hope, she’d call it on a human, but Rikka’s not sure now. Nobody’s ever looked at her like that—like she might have the answer to everything—and her heart flutters in her throat, not quite scared but something close.
Stopping before the Erlkönig, Rikka swallows, smiling, keenly aware of the law of goblin fruit, aware of Persephone conquering a kingdom with a mouthful of seeds. Her pulse pounds loud in her ears—now or never, now or never—and Rikka makes her choice.
“I want to learn this,” she says. “Can you teach me? Recipes, spells—it don’t matter to me. I want everything.”
The assembled hold their breath. Everyone seems to hold so still around her, frozen and waiting. Rikka senses the tide of the story changing, the rules she knows bending in a new direction, but she does not turn to look around her. She looks only at the Erlkönig—her eyes gold coins in the almost-dark—and carefully does not look away.
Unblinking, the Erlkönig stares back. She holds her body rigid, bent to run and bent to fight, her inhuman face so tight with want it seizes at Rikka’s lungs. Slowly, her hands move, strong fingers painting unseen patterns in the air between them. A spell, Rikka thinks, until nothing happens. Belatedly, she realizes she’s signing.
“You’ll have to teach me that, too,” she tells her. “I don’t know how to hear you.”
The assembled breathe. They move. Translating for the Erlkönig, she thinks, listening to chains whisper against burnt-bone armor. But Rikka doesn’t turn to look. Her eyes fix on the Erlkönig, the woman smiling now, wide enough to show her pointed teeth. Her head dips, almost shy. But she watches Rikka, careful and gauging as she shifts a little closer. Moving slow, as if not to startle, the Erlkönig reaches into the empty air.
The fires sigh. Mist curls in the chill breeze and coils around her fingers, a chalice filling up her palm. Gingerly, so gentle, she reaches for Rikka’s hand and cups it to the goblet between her own.
Rikka’s heart shivers in her throat. She swallows it back down, concentrates instead on the unexpected warmth of the Erlkönig’s skin, callused and crosshatched with a strange pattern of scars, blue-dark against gold, gold—glass goblet, mead and her own brown skin—a kingdom’s worth of gold.
Rikka wonders if a kingdom’s what she’s being offered here.
She steps close. Close enough to feel moths and feathers ghosting against her skin, luminous in the firelight. Close enough for warm breath to kiss her cheek, the sharp green scent of mistletoe curling in her nose. Close enough for the Erlkönig to lift the goblet between them and press it to her waiting lips.
Rikka smells honey, caramel salted and sweet. Her stomach clenches, wanting, ready, starving—
But the cup rests empty against her mouth.
Humorless and bitter, the Erlkönig bares her teeth. Her hands flash. She steps away, cold air rushing into the space she leaves.
“You see?” the assembled whisper, translating so Rikka can hear. “Do you understand now?”
Rikka shakes her head. Her chest hurts. Her stomach gnaws. She sets her jaw, stepping forward as the Erlkönig steps back.
“I can help you,” she says. Her left hand clenches around the empty cup. The other seizes the Erlkönig’s sleeve.
Abruptly, the woman-creature stops. Rikka can feel the muscles beneath her hand draw taut, though to run or fight she can’t be sure. Around them, the assembled fall still, every eye fixed to the two of them.
Wind whistles through the trees, chasing ribbons of cloud across the moon. Crows cough in the trees. Coyotes howl. The Erlkönig moves. Somewhere in the cacophony, Rikka hears, “How?”
Losing feeling in her fingers, she squeezes the chalice tighter. Her other hand jumps and spasms, lost in fistful of silk and feathers and escaping moths. Still, Rikka holds on and holds her ground. Trust me, she thinks, you gotta trust me, searching out the Erlkönig’s eyes.
She says, “Well, for one thing, I can feed you,” stepping forward—
And wakes on her floor to the sound of shattering, violet petals strewn in glass-shard patterns across her tangled sheets and the strange new scars of her palms.
Slowly, sitting in the pastel wreckage, Rikka relearns how to breathe. She cradles her still-sore hand in her lap, mapping the runes, and she knows a little now from that long night trawling Wikipedia, but she’s not sure what runes these were meant to be. She’s dropped her palm on too many oven doors and hot pans—once lost her grip on a fish knife and needed stitches—so the wiry ropes read of nothing but a new carelessness.
She wonders if it was meant to be a curse. She thinks of the Erlkönig, her scars worn smooth with time and calluses, the woman grim and hurting and barely daring to hope. She thinks of her grandmother, her own hand scored in grill-pan lines.
Thinks of her grandmother, standing at the kitchen window, watching every summer storm.
Yeah, she thinks and rises. Damn right she understands.
Still wearing her pajamas, Rikka goes to war. Balanced on a kitchen chair, she pries the batteries from her smoke alarm. She cracks a window, chooses from the knives her mother gave her, and opens the front cover of the unfamiliar book.
Slicing down the binding, Rikka shucks out the meat of the pages. She leaves the tooled leather shell behind her on the table, clicks on the stove’s front burner.
Smoke billows into the kitchen the moment paper touches flame, smelling of wood smoke and marrow bones, of roasted pears and aged sour cherries, of peaches and pomegranates and fig-roasted boar, of wild laughter and leaf mold and wet grass.
Her palm burns, but Rikka’s not new to the kitchen. She keeps a bottle of aloe vera on the shelf beside her stove.
Determined, eyes and throat and palm stinging in the smoke, she takes her grandmother’s cookbook from where it lives on her tiny back counter. Not grand like the pile of parchment she drops smoldering in her sink, her grandmother built this cookbook from an ungainly packet of mismatched paper, all different colors and all different sizes, a lifetime of recipes scrawled down upon waking, during phone calls and errands and TV shows.
“Something I ate in a dream,” she used to say and Rikka understands. She understands.
So she slides her grandmother’s cookbook into the empty cover—packs recipes for pot roasts and fudge between the rune-marked bindings—and, standing at her kitchen table, Rikka candies violets.
The recipe is in the book. Egg wash and fine sugar. A little lemon zest, a little salt. There’s a kind of magic to it, she thinks, as she slides the tray into the oven. A spark of life living in the memory of summer, of lavender-scented birthday cakes for a ten-year-old girl just learning how to pipe roses, of a sun-burnt face full of oven steam, of berry-picking and a thousand questions about jam.
Or maybe it’s just a promise.
When they cool, Rikka packs the crisp petals in plastic and presses the bag between the pages of her grandmother’s book. She turns on the dishwasher, gives her kitchen one last look-over. The stove reads 9:15. She’s not needed at work until two.
Rikka shuts the window. Holding the book under one arm, she goes back to bed.
Broken glass crunches underfoot. A savanna wreckage of bone picked carcasses jut from the grass. The table slumps, weather worn and rain shattered, rotted through the center. The clearing sits empty, lit only by a pregnant moon. All around her, Rikka hears coyotes laughing, wolves howling to kin. Kicking tarnished silver platters, she turns her back on the blackened remnants of old bonfires and walks into the trees.
If this is the Wild Hunt, Rikka is not afraid. Eyes glow in the darkness around her, lighting her way. She meets the forest like she meets the rink and, kitchen big, roller-derby mean, Rikka plows her way through like she knows it. Foxes bound at her side, leaping over fallen limbs, chattering, eager. An enormous boar crashes through the underbrush, followed by a second and a third. She catches an elk from the corner of her eye, antlers threaded gold. And as they run, they change, flowing into fae, into something close to human—wild women leaping barefoot through the undergrowth and bracken. They laugh, they sing, howling hope and triumph, urging her on, urging her faster—
Rikka breaks from the trees and into a mossy grove. She stops. The dancers circle around her.
The Erlkönig stands in the center of the clearing, her crown of braids unravelling. This time, she is fully armored, wearing all the pieces she scattered amongst her dancers, barely visible in the breathing dark but for the way her eyes shine.
Holding the book to her chest, without hesitation, Rikka strides to meet her.
“Teach me your recipes,” she says, feeling her heartbeat pounding in her teeth. “Teach me magic. Teach me to hear you.”
The Erlkönig inclines her head. She steps forward, hands moving, her face raw with hope.
Breath held, barely a whisper, the assembled murmur, “And what do you offer me?”
Rikka grins. She shifts her hold on the book, lets the cover fall open.
And in the light of a watery sunrise, she opens a plastic bag.
“Glittering; Guttering” (© Crystal Lynn Hilbert) was published in Issue 3 of Capricious. If you enjoyed this story, please consider subscribing to Capricious.