The Soup Witch's Funeral Dinner
983 words long
Everybody knew that if she could cure you with one broth, she could kill you with another.
Now 2/3 the original length and out on reprint submission!
Notes from the author:
Learning how to do magic, real magic, would be a dream come true. What wouldn’t you do, if you could do magic? Magic is power, and power is tempting. But as every Spider-Man fan knows, with great power comes great responsibility. The hero of the story will not gain the one without paying what’s due to the other.
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is one version of that story. The protagonist learns just enough magic to make a hash of things, and their mentor will have to come to the rescue. In arguably the most well-known adaptation, Mickey Mouse commands the animated broomstick to carry water for him, but he doesn’t know how to make the broomstick stop. But the moral of the story isn’t “Do your own damn chores.” It’s more like “Don’t summon what you can’t banish.” It’s a lesson about logic, not ethics.
On its face, the Witch’s Apprentice is a similar kind of story, but it has a different focus. It, too, is about responsible use of power, but more in terms of the people affected than in the effects of the spell. Over the course of their apprenticeship, the protagonist learns not only how to be a witch but also why. Duty will insist they use their newfound power in ways they desperately wish they didn’t have to, and so they learn that power comes with a price.
One morning Sammy Tailor paid the soup witch a visit. She didn’t ask him to. She didn’t call him up on the telephone and say, “Come on over.” She didn’t email him a dinner invitation. She just fired up the big iron cauldron in her back yard, put in a pinch of this and a few leaves of that and a gallon or two of the other, and she let the whole thing simmer.
When the good smell from the soup witch’s cauldron found Sammy, he was fighting a losing battle with one of his father’s sewing machines. It was the oldest of the bunch. It couldn’t run programs like the latest models with their fancy embroidery settings, but it could sew a straight stitch and it could sew a variable-width zig-zag and it was the most reliable workhorse in the stable. Unfortunately, it was having some tensioning problems. Sammy was busy making those problems worse when the smell found him.
Sammy showed up at the soup witch’s door a little resentful and a whole lot of hungry. The soup witch handed him a bowl and a spoon and led him through the house to the back yard. One sip of what was in the cauldron and resentment fled. He ate until it was all gone.
When he was done, the soup witch said, “Sammy Tailor, I need to train up a successor. It looks like it’s gonna be you.”
“Why me?” said Sammy. It was his usual response to any sentence that began with his name. Sammy, would you put a three-quarter-inch hem on each of these ten shirts the county choir just ordered? Why me? Sammy, go round to Mrs. Halibut’s for the check she owes us, will you? Why me? It was a safe response. It wasn’t a No, but it expected the other person to work a little for the Yes.
The soup witch had already done all the work she intended to do. “Because the soup I cooked up was a successor-finding soup. You’re the one who came and ate it, so you’re the one I’m going to train up. Got a problem with that?”
Honestly, Sammy didn’t. It probably beat a future in mending everyone else’s trousers. He wasn’t especially excited about cooking soup for a living, but if it meant never having to wrestle with that steel behemoth in his father’s garage, he’d give it a chance. Besides, he was tired of hearing “Sammy, come here!” and “Sammy, do this!” all the time. The idea of yanking other people around by the olfactory system appealed. So he agreed to become the soup witch’s apprentice.
Soup witch lessons weren’t very interesting at first. They generally involved making soup. Sammy had expected that, but he’d also expected to learn magic and all sorts of secrets. Didn’t the soup witch know secrets? How else did she know who to summon to her door, sometimes even before they themselves knew they were sick? And she had the power to make the fevers and the infections and sometimes even the cancers go away. “When do I get to do magic?” Sammy whined one day when his impatience got the better of him.
“Not until you’ve mastered deglazing to my satisfaction,” said the soup witch. “Also the mirepoix, the sofrito, and the holy trinity. You can’t make magic until you’ve learned to cook. Now dice these carrots good and fine.”
And it wasn’t just cooking. There was chopping wood and building a fire so that the cauldron stayed at just the right temperature. There was seasoning and reseasoning the cauldron, rubbing in the fats and oils from a hundred different animals and plants then letting the fire blaze until Sammy could barely see over the next-door neighbor’s fence because of the smoke. But nobody came to complain. Everyone had a healthy respect for the soup witch. Everybody knew that if she could cure you with one broth, she could kill you with another, and she could make you crave that poison like it was your grandmother’s minestrone.
“He didn’t thank you” Sammy observed one day after the latest patient went home.
“No one ever does,” said the soup witch. “It’s a thankless task. No one sits easy beside them what’s got power.”
“Why do we do it, then?”
“Because we can,” said the soup witch. “Because it needs doing.”
The months passed. Sammy got to be a right fair cook. And the soup witch started to teach him how to listen to the cauldron. “After you get the aromatics going,” the soup witch said, “that’s when it’ll start to nudge you toward other ingredients. Like the other day, when you were going to make chicken dumpling, but you changed your mind to vegetable beef once the onions got nice and soft. That’s the cauldron talking. It’ll tell you about herbs and medicine, too. Then you gotta give it room to talk to the patient, call them over to come eat.”
“How does it know?” asked Sammy.
“How do birds know when to fly?” said the soup witch. “It’s like that.”
“But what if the patient turns out to be the rottenest person in town,” Sammy insisted, “someone who deserves to be sick?”
“No one deserves to be sick, and it’s wicked to think they do. Just you listen to the cauldron, Sammy. It knows what it’s talking about.”
More months passed. Sammy got better at listening to the cauldron, and if he kept having wicked thoughts, he didn’t think them out loud. He started doing more of the day’s cooking and most of the tending to the patients. Tending patients mostly meant sitting with them while they ate their soup, but sometimes they wanted to talk a little, too. Sometimes they had the kind of things to say that you only say to your doctor or your priest. Sometimes they just wanted to tell Sammy their favorite memories of him as a little kid, and look how much he’d grown since then, and how wonderful it was that he’d found his calling, and that they were proud of him.
One day, Sammy made a soup that shook him to the bones. He put in what the cauldron told him to, and only belatedly realized the pinch of this was angel’s trumpet and the bit of that was nightshade. This wasn’t a soup for curing. This was a soup for killing. And even now it was calling to its victim to come here, come eat, come die. Sammy closed his eyes and stood very still and wished he’d never come.
The soup witch put a hand on his shoulder. “It’s all right, Sammy. That soup is for me.”
Sammy’s heart went pang and his throat closed over hard. He swallowed a few times so he could say, “Why would the cauldron want to give you this soup?”
“Cauldron can’t cure everything,” the soup witch said, “and the kind of sickness it can’t cure kills long and ugly. I’ve been living with it some years now, like a house guest who’s quiet and polite but has the most terrible plans. That soup there’s a kinder death than the one that’s waiting for me.” Sammy stared in horror, and the soup witch laughed. “It was the cauldron’s idea to cook a successor-finding soup. It knew I’d need you.”
Killing the soup witch was the saddest thing Sammy ever did. But he did it. He gave her the soup, and he watched her eat every bite.
When the soup was all gone, the soup witch tried to stand up but couldn’t. She broke her bowl trying to set it down. “Sammy,” she said, “I’m afraid you’re going to need to help me get to my bed.” He just about had to carry her. When she was tucked in and comfortable, and Sammy was holding her hand tight, she said, “You take care of them, now. They need you. They never loved me, but they like you. They got no fear of you, so they’ll let you take care of them now that you know how.”
Then she went to sleep, and she never woke up again.
Sammy held vigil over her body all night long. The next morning, he knew he’d need to bury her but he couldn’t think clear how to go about it. So Sammy started a soup first, because he knew how to make a soup. It turned into a rich, strong broth whose smell made even Sammy himself start to salivate.
The doorbell rang. Sammy came through the house and opened the door.
There, on the soup witch’s porch and in the soup witch’s front yard and overflowing into the street, were the soup witch’s neighbors and Sammy’s neighbors and everyone from all over town. Everyone Sammy had tended to was there, but more than that, so was everyone the soup witch had cured, everyone who was still alive and still living in the town and could make their own two feet or someone else’s take them there.
Everyone had brought a bowl and a spoon.
“Come on back,” Sammy told them. “Soup’s on.”
And that was the soup witch’s funeral dinner. And Sammy thought, Maybe they did love her a little, after all.
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