The Mary Sue is pleased to present strange, beautiful new fiction from Apex Magazine each month. This month’s story, from Apex Magazine’s current issue, is “Soul of Soup Bones” by Crystal Lynn Hilbert. Take a look…
Finding Drevený came first. An unrecorded town on the border of Slovakia—outgrown, emptied and overgrown since 1523—it knew no maps. Adrienne located its remnants just the same; wild roses, a crust of scattered masonry in a pitted field, bomb-broken from an old war.
The necromancer’s journal placed the forest less than a mile to the north. She found it near enough as he described, downhill a way and settled in a loose crook of the river.
From there, with only the ritual to worry about, things grew easier.
Adrienne stepped out of daylight and into the forest, a wild goose held under one arm, spell-docile and dozing. Choked with elderberry and briar bushes, the forest proved uneasy going. It took some time and a whispered spell before Adrienne found a deer run winding between the tangles and sank into the forest.
When the last of the sunlight dripped away, Adrienne settled her goose in the dirt, and whispering a sacrifice, opened its throat.
Easy as parting spiders’ webs, the necromancer appeared between the trees, barefoot and loose-limbed.
“Jacoben Stoyan,” Adrienne named him and bound him.
Here, ghosts tended to fight. Drawing strength from spilt blood, they railed and raged and pulled away.
Jacoben only cocked his head, as though he had been waiting.
He smiled. Without her asking, he turned and led her through the trees.
They followed a path lost to overgrowth and flooded fingerlings streams five hundred years before. Keeping Jacoben in sight, Adrienne forged her own path—around trees and over trees, through winding turns and wet to the knees from several icy streams.
At last, her ghost brought her to the decimated ruin of a tiny… tower was not the word, though it was the word his journals used. It looked more like a stone grain silo, fallen now, round and barely higher than her own sea-cliff home.
Jacoben guided her through the broken arch, to the still-standing corner of the circle and disappeared.
There, Adrienne found his bones; butcher-bare, pristine.
And still warm after five hundred years.
That evening, she mailed a package to herself from a post office in Bratislava—a quiet box of ghost and bones.
The box arrived at her home not long after she did. Jet-lagged and hungry, Adrienne opened it on her kitchen table, laying each bone carefully on an old alter cloth of her mother’s. Like a breath, Jacoben’s soul rose.
Adrienne smiled to see him. “We’ll work here,” she said. “Tomorrow. I have your tools, the things we’ll need.”
But Jacoben did not speak. He turned away—began, of all things, to rummage through her cupboards.
“I’ve tried your spell—what you wrote of it—dozens of times. Every way I could think to finish it. What didn’t you write down? What am I missing?”
Jacoben closed the last cupboard, a box of tea in hand. He set it down, filled the kettle, ignited the stove. Heart sinking, body sinking, Adrienne sat at her kitchen table and watched the ghost of an ancient necromancer make tea.
She asked him other questions.
Warming the teapot, Jacoben answered nothing.
Adrienne did her best to let him acclimate. She gave him trinkets her summonings usually liked—shards of bronze, shattered mirrors, spring water, lambs’ wool. He ignored everything—until, at the end of the week and running out of ideas, Adrienne killed him another goose.
Jacoben cooked it, offered it dressed and baked on the kitchen table, stuffed with black sausage—its own blood and bits returned.
She tried to ask him questions, gifted him his own journals, read him his own spells.
He only glanced at her, once, over his shoulder, shaving fennel on the mandolin.
She tasted the sausage, tried the goose—found no magic, only sausage, only goose.
Adrienne drained the red wine sauce from the tray, remembering the scrying wine and oil of the ancient Greeks. But filling a bowl, she saw nothing—saw nothing and spent a night watching goose-fat coalesce around the edges of her best scry bowl.
And so it went.
He would not speak to her. He answered no questions.
He did not hear her when she spoke his name.
At the sound of her screen door creaking open, Adrienne looked up from a table full of open books and tiny pies, her head in disarray. Tanja smiled back at her from the doorway and the sight of her old friend settled Adrienne’s nerves a little.
“I was wondering when you’d turn up,” she said.
Tanja laughed and claimed a chair beside her. Her bangles chimed in bird-song harmony.
“Well? How goes it, then?” she asked. “Any updates?”
“I don’t know what to do.” Adrienne straightened, stretched—tried to lose the rock wedged between her shoulders and succeeded only in moving it into her neck. “First tea. Then this mindless baking. I don’t understand. What am I missing?”
Tanja shrugged. “It’s not the right ghost.”
“No. It’s him. I know it’s him.”
“He cooked a goose in a gas oven. He’s using a mandolin. He’s been dead five hundred years and right now he’s…” she leaned back, peering over Adrienne’s shoulders, “using your stand mixer. Meringue or icing?”
Adrienne pressed a knuckle to her temples. “He may have been summoned before.”
“Adrienne,” Tanja gentled, twining their fingers together. Her bangles pressed cool against Adrienne’s kitchen-hot skin, peridot and citrine sinking tender ice into her veins. “He may have been broken before. A bad summoning—a spell that made him biddable, turned him into… whatever this is. He’s not here. Not properly.”
“How can it be?” Tanja pressed. “Five hundred years and he just—what? Cast a time-trap on his bones and waited in a forest? Five hundred years dead, he should have reincarnated at least once by now. You may have only stolen the waking dreams of some poor chef—”
“No.” Adrienne shook her head. “No, I know it’s him.” At Tanja’s look, she added, “And all there is of him. He’s not broken.”
“How? By your bones? Your gut? He feeds you, Adrienne, and feeds from you. Your energy sustains him—of course he feels right. Mosquitos never itch until they’re gone.”
Threading fingers through her hair, Adrienne watched Jacoben fill a piping bag with meringue, watched a necromancer—an innovator in the field—sculpt flowers on a baking pan.
“I’m not asking the right questions.”
“He’s not answering any.” Tanja shook her head. “He’s not right. Something’s missing.”
Adrienne turned away. “How was Nepal?” she asked instead.
Respecting her obsession, Tanja dropped the subject.
Just the same, she did not stop by unannounced again.
Weeks passed. Adrienne sacrificed a pig. Jacoben braised ribs.
She mixed honey-wine and milk—an offering of melikraton the old Greek ghosts preferred. Jacoben browned sugar in a copper pot.
She offered him fresh sturgeon, glossy-eyed, still dreaming of oceans. She offered him rabbits, snared in a new moon. She draped her table in grape-leaves, in radishes, in carrots. She left him wine and beer, champagne and mead.
Adrienne offered him entire markets. Jacoben baked peaches.
The house smelt of caramel and onion, garlic and spent-spells.
And Adrienne watched. She studied every pan, every plate. She filled notebooks counting spoon-strokes and knife-falls, but nothing made sense. She gained five pounds trying to discern what he meant by this parade of roasts and sweets, but in the end, what could be learned from fennel pie, from truffles soaked in wine?
Moreover, he cooked all night. Banging pans haunted her dreams, thudding rolling pins, the occasional blender. Adrienne slept fitfully when at all and always woke early to a cacophony of oven timers and wooden spoons.
One morning, waking on the wrong side of four am to find Jacoben frying onions, for the first time, Adrienne wanted to banish him.
“Why?” she snarled, fists clenched, barefoot in her kitchen doorway. “All this—why? What good does it do you? What am I missing?”
And for the first time, Jacoben stopped.
He stopped. And he watched her. For the first time, his eyes met hers.
“What use do you have for cakes and soups?” she asked, magic crackling over her shoulders, arching down her fingers. “I gave you a second chance—that’s what you wanted, what you spent your whole life working towards. And now, given the opportunity, you bake!”
Another oven timer and Jacoben’s attention dropped, back to his pan—his damnable four-am food—and abruptly, Adrienne’s patience shattered. She stormed to the table, swept every plate and pie and roast into the trash.
“Do onions raise the dead?” she demanded, shouting, “Do cakes preserve memory? Do roasts stop rot?”
Jacoben cocked his head, his attention hers again—a question, perhaps, or an invitation.
“I want nothing to do with any of it,” she said, chin high, hands shaking.
But maybe… Maybe Tanja was right. Perhaps he simply didn’t understand, only a blind and silent ghost following an old pattern. Perhaps she’d simply caught one of the many carrion ghosts that swarmed like flies to a light with every powerful summoning.
Adrienne closed her eyes. The anger flowed from her like a broken dam, leaving only exhaustion. She found herself looking down at the mess on her hands, rubbing chocolate icing between her fingers.
“I don’t want this,” she murmured. “I want answers. Or eggs, at the very least. But I imagine you’ve used them all already.”
And so saying, she slipped away.
Adrienne shut the door to the kitchen behind her and padded to the bathroom. She washed her hands, her face, but the sticky reside remained, nagging, dogging her into her library to look for something wrong in the spell.
Still in pajamas, Adrienne sat down to read her notes again, for all the good it’d do.
She stirred from her work sometime later at the click of porcelain on wood. Opening the door, she found a plate.
Eggs. Boiled, scrambled, sunny-side up.
Adrienne sank. For a long time, she sat on the floor, holding her head in her hands.
She didn’t understand. She didn’t know whether to cry or to laugh.
She ate the eggs instead.
That night, Jacoben made her melikraton for supper—a mixture superior and foreign to her own. Milk, honey, wine and mead, barley berries, myrrh and myrtle. A spell—a better spell, but unfinished.
“What’s missing?” she asked him.
Jacoben ignored her, browning sausage at the stove.
“Something’s missing. There’s an ingredient gone. What do you need?”
Sausage became gravy. Gravy gave way to roast.
“Fine. Then what do I need?” she tried. “How do I finish this?”
But Jacoben said nothing, his eyes fixed to garlic, to carrots and cream.
Adrienne asked for more in as many ways as she could think of. Jacoben heard nothing.
She spilled blood on the floor, asking and asking. Sheep and cow, lamb and bull—wild goose, even, since it worked so well to summon him.
Even Adrienne’s own blood received only knives on wood, clanking pans, gas burners clicking on.
She asked over breakfast the next day, casually, remembering the eggs, “Melikraton, please.”
Quietly, methodically, Jacoben overturned every cup in the kitchen—a silent shell game that coffee stained her trousers, left her legs aching and raw.
Adrienne did not ask again.
So she mixed melikraton of her own, heated on bronze beneath the beating summer sun, high noon and sweat between her shoulder blades, creeping at the band of her bra.
Over and over, she mixed and tested, tasting from memory. After the fifth try, she found the recipe Jacoben used. Adrienne smiled grim triumph. But though she sketched tastes and quantities in her notes, the wrongness remained.
Something missing. Something burnt or undercooked.
At the market, Adrienne borrowed one of Parnella’s children—Marcelle, just under nine and well-used to this kind of work. The girl sat at her kitchen table, black shined shoes kicking as Adrienne prepared a scrying spell with her newmelikraton. At last, with the mixture swirling in hot, promising spirals, Adrienne pressed the bowl into Marcelle’s hands.
“What am I missing?” she asked.
Marcelle peered into the mixture. Pursing her lips, she turned the bowl and looked again—tipped it up, tipped it back, dipped a finger in and stirred.
“I can’t see anything,” she said at last.
Adrienne frowned. The melikraton should work. Inefficiently, yes, but poorly enough to show her what it lacked.
Taking back the bowl, she added blood from a kettle simmering quietly on the stove.
“And now?” she asked.
Marcelle eyed Adrienne’s bandaged forearms with trepidation, but did as she’d been asked.
“There’s… no. Nothing.”
“May I?” Adrienne asked, doubling their hands. Marcelle nodded.
But even Borrowing the child’s eyes, Adrienne saw nothing.
Worse, she saw the bottom of an empty bowl.
“I’m sorry. I’ve wasted your time,” she said. Shaking her head, Adrienne returned the girl’s sight and slumped into a kitchen chair. “Take whatever you like home with you. We’ve a hundred cakes and pies to spare.”
Later, still bent over the table, Adrienne called Tanja.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “I’m at my wits end.”
“Let him go,” Tanja said.
But she couldn’t.
She tried to take her mind from it, instead. Heading down the hill to market yet again, she bought anchovies from the dock, shallots and bread from the rest. She’d make a few simple house-magics of her own—fish-memories in frying pans to soothe her.
But when she returned home, Adrienne found Jacoben dropping ankle bones into a stew pot and watched his right foot disappear.
“He’s cooking himself,” she called Tanja. In the background, she heard a little radio playing against the ocean. “Used his ankle bones for soup.”
“What kind?” Tanja asked—a tangent, a tiny madness. But Adrienne summoned the wraith of a necromancer after five hundred years dead. New ground. Impossible ground. Why shouldn’t he cook himself in her kitchen?
Adrienne lifted the lid and took a spoon to the knuckles for her trouble.
“Cabbage,” she said, kissing smarting knuckles. Jacoben retreated, eyeing her, kneading dough—the most he’d looked at her in days.
“For wisdom,” Tanja said.
“And the necromancer bones?”
Over the phone, she heard Tanja shrug. “Only you would know. This is new ground, Addie. Your new ground. Write a paper.”
Wars were fought in the 60’s: Necromancy as death science, as history, as proper magic. No cannibals drooling after grandmother’s quickly cooling flesh.
Still, Adrienne tasted the soup—a hesitant spoonful when Jacoben abandoned the pot.
Tomatoes, garlic and vinegar; onion, turmeric and cayenne.
Adrienne hated cabbage.
She packed it away in Tupperware, labeled lids and stacked it in the fridge.
She made it to the living room before she returned, removed the soup, interred it in the freezer instead.
If Jacoben noticed, he didn’t say.
Once, long ago, Thor cooked the goats that pulled his cart. Skinned them—sautéed, basted, broiled, baked—and when he finished, he wrapped their bones in skin and set them on their hooves again.
The soul of bones. Old magic.
Adrienne lay awake most nights, her head a cacophony of cracking bones and boiling wine. Hands fisted in her hair, she read Jacoben’s old journals until she whispered passages in her sleep.
She didn’t fear death. Necromancers of the past slunk and shrank in every shadow, terrified of ending. Alchemists sought a philosopher’s stone—a thing to turn wine golden, to turn flesh to ageless stone. Adventurers searched for a spring across the sea, a weapon against the monster they would never overcome.
Adrienne knew a better question: how to begin again?
Death meant nothing; time drove her to distraction. How could she spend a century in study, in the midst of the work of lifetimes, only to drop it all at the dawn of her hundredth year? Dying, losing everything, relearning it all again—over and over this cycle, and who knew how often?
Who knew how much she’d lost between bodies? How many spells and recipes gone, to be lost and found and lost again, ad infinitum, ad nauseam? So much wasted time spent crossing the old paths, relearning the old roads…
He’d devised a spell. But he hadn’t written it. After all his research, after all the failed experiments, he’d written only:
Non omnis moriar
I will not die entirely.
Adrienne knew the answer waited somewhere in his journals. These experiments led him to his end—the answer must have followed their progression.
So Adrienne studied and read and whispered in her sleep.
Soul of bones.
Soul of bones—and Odin on the tree, sacrificing himself to himself—retaining memory, if not body.
Not a spell to keep from dying; a spell to live again.
Non omnis moriar.
She wondered how many recipes Thor knew for goat.
Some of Adrienne’s books called bees the first reincarnation of lost souls. She knew stories of sorcerers who died exhaling bees, passing ancient knowing along the back of a new swarm. She knew older stories—dog-eared, second-hand accounts of Tucuna shamans and old Italian necromancers, beehive conversations carried far past death and dirt.
So Adrienne mixed her melikraton again and went to talk to the wild bees that lived in hollow cypress trees behind the field. She chose the largest hive—a bent cypress tree, arms stretched over an open, un-mowed field. Cross-legged amongst wild flowers and twisted roots, she daubed an offering of melikraton before the ashy, hollow tree and asked, “What am I missing?”
The hive faced her. It watched with a hundred million eyes. And Adrienne felt the moment those hundred million eyes recoiled. She felt the queen spread her wings.
And the hive curdled.
In an instant the tree emptied, a dark hissing cloud streaking the summer sky. The bees fled, honey and larvae abandoned in their tombs.
On the small thunder of wings, Adrienne understood only terror.
And sitting before the emptied hive, sudden understanding dawned.
“What am I missing?” she’d asked, again and again.
And the answer: nothing, nothing—
At least, nothing now.
Adrienne thought of Jacoben’s deft hand with the stove, unflinching at the prospect of refrigerators and cars after five hundred years dead.
So much time.
The one element Jacoben’s spell could not create. The one element for which Jacoben’s spell simply had to wait.
She did not need the answer to his spell, Adrienne realized.
She was it.
Adrienne ousted Jacoben from her kitchen will a well-placed hip, reclaimed her stove, her knives and spoons. She began the melikraton again, simmering spice and heavy cream. She didn’t make a potion. Not this time. This spell wasn’t a libation—it was a sauce.
Adrienne browned barley flour and simmered wine, melted honey, whisked milk and myrrh, dried cayenne and fresh myrtle.
And when she finished, Adrienne added salt.
Jacoben smiled at her over the kitchen table. He cut his femurs into even slabs with a lodestone butter knife.
He could not touch the salt; Adrienne rubbed the marrow down.
She placed them on a baking sheet—ivory towers amongst a sea of parsley, garlic, oiled yam—and slid them in the oven.
Knees and knuckle bones they boiled for gelatin. Arms for tender marrow, gently sweet, lemon and honey, simmered with thyme. Tiny pie pans filled and baked and crisped with sweet meringue.
She understood. She ate.
Adrienne flowed from jeans into sundresses that swelled as she did—lemon cakes and honey tarts, fatted goose and sausage.
Roasted potatoes, finger small, and she knew a childhood in Drevený.
Truffles soaked in wine brought a first experiment, gone poorly.
Salted onion carried seventeen years as prison warden, shuffling thief-corpses home on the back of a once-dead horse.
Spiced walnuts reclaimed success, a corpse that remembered, another that walked.
Cabbage soup, cabbage stews, cabbage baked, cabbage boiled, and Adrienne learned how to build a wraith from hunger, from the empty belly of a dead child and the roots of yellow-rattle.
Things to know and things to need.
Adrienne sautéed his rib bones, stewed his spine, baked her wraith in tarts and pies, stirred his marrow into chocolate, buttered it in wine.
And she remembered.
A century in study—the work of lifetimes.
“I see your ghost is gone,” Tanja said, over dinner—leftovers, tarts and yet more cabbage. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
At the stove, Adrienne smiled and stirred her soup. Inside, Jacoben grinned up at her, beans between his teeth and onions in his eyes.
“More or less,” she said.
And knocking off the spoon, Adrienne closed the lid.
Please visit Apex Magazine (www.apex-magazine.com) to read more great science fiction, fantasy, and horror.
This story is from issue 61 (June, 2014). The issue also features fiction by Eden Robins (“Cape to Cairo”), Marissa Lingen (“The Salt Path”), Kelly Link (“The Faery Handbag”), and Elizabeth Massie (“Sineater — Excerpt”), poetry by Alice Dryden (“Afterwards”), Mary Soon Lee (“Brighid”), and John M. Ford (“Harry of Five Points”), author interview with Eden Robins and cover artist interview with Tory Hoke, and nonfiction by Osvaldo Oyloa (“Black Communities of the 30thCentury: Racial Assimilation and Ahistoricity in Superhero Comics”)
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