Very honored and excited to announce that my short story “To Harvest Lavender” won 3rd place in Writer’s Digest Short Story Contest 2022. This story is very much a product of quarantine and my real life experience with the passing of a loved one. I hope you enjoy...
To Harvest Lavender
I saved her from the oven all those years ago, only because her death by fire would have been a calamity for the rest of us. Of course, she couldn’t tolerate me in the house, so I slept in her wilderness. For years. To protect her.
No, to watch her die.
Well, that job is done. All that’s left is to clean.
I steal in her doorway, like she will come with thunder in her fingertips. Like she will scream at me for dawdling.
She never once welcomed me. Even when I came to the door, a child in a red bramble-torn cloak, pursued by a savage furred terror, she’d sneered. “You should’ve sent the wolf to eat me. It would have been kinder.”
I light the sage to consume the magic she left behind.
One must be of strong will to command magic. It’s difficult for two strong wills to coexist, harder when one is learning the art. She hated teaching. She bragged of the worlds she’d slain, the princes she’d conquered, the dragons she’d seduced before I made her an unwilling mother.
The dust caking her books, the shelf of rotting potions, the filthy cauldron remind me of her broom striking my back, of the foul taste of her ladle in my mouth, of the dark places she’d abandoned me. The pain sits like a rock in my belly. Unforgiven. Made small by newer memories.
In the end, she was fragile as spun-sugar, weak as broken teeth, and soft as wet dough. I never beat her or tested potions on her, and the only dark place she wandered was her own mind.
It’s hard to hate a woman who can’t chew her own gingerbread.
I scrub the ancient and sticky residue in the oven, stooped over inside the black maw. This oven hasn’t been cleaned for decades— not since a girl with a stronger spine than me pushed—
No, I mustn’t be unkind to myself. Not when I won’t be unkind to her and just burn the whole house down. That girl had a brother, another heart to protect. She wasn’t alone with this confusing love for someone she hated…
Or do I feel hatred for someone I loved?
I can’t tell. Not surrounded by the damp and sticky muck of her life.
When the oven blazes clean, I burn the scraps of her life. The chocolate rotted in a bowl. The licorice glued to the page of a book. She’ll never finish reading that book.
Do I actually smell burning flesh, or is that just her ghost?
I scrub the chalky cauldron. She hasn’t been able to clean this terror for centuries. It isn’t fit to conjure soup. When the fresh water stays clean, I brew a potion to drink the magic. While it bubbles, I rest in her chair.
The aroma of stale cookie fades into the clean scent of fresh ash. Soon the walls will only be wood. I breathe deeply to preserve that sweetness in my lungs, already missing it.
Her lungs never were right after the oven. And at the end, it was her gasping that called me from the woods. I meant to ease her passing, but when I found her sitting by the water, exhausting herself with breathing, she’d already eaten her own poisoned apple. Self-sufficient. She didn’t have the teeth to break the skin. Had waited for it to rot so she could scoop out the mush.
By the time the rattling croak of her breaths had stopped, her eyes were glazed and sweet. She didn’t curse me. But only because she didn’t recognize me.
That hurt far more than any beating.
Her golden rings litter the table below the cloth-draped mirror, a lure for greedy crows and dutiful daughters. I gather the treasure, uninterested in the shine, respectful of their recovery.
Such a vain old toad. Here’s the powder to cover wrinkles. Here’s the ointment for smooth skin. Here’s a flaking paper to remind—
Lavender wouldn’t have prolonged her life, only soothe her lungs.
But the lavender grows just outside her door. She used to grab handfuls from the window, gleefully flinging them into the cauldron…
To need to harvest…
To need a reminder…
How mad was she at the end? How lonely? How lost?
I catch her scent. Not in the perfume. In the mirror. Saying goodbye? No. Not her. She’s lying in wait.
If I were clever, I’d catch her in my pocket mirror. If I were cautious, I’d light more sage.
I tear the cloth away, confront the ghost.
I was never clever nor cautious; I was bold.
Her smile is honey. She reaches from the mirror to embrace me. I know it’s a trap, but I sink into the softness of her arms… one last time. She sinks her claws in my back… one last time.
She means to trap my soul in the mirror, to crawl inside my body. Once she has my hands, she will bake something sweet and crunchy.
That’s all I am to her. Good teeth. Strong hands. I’m disappointed. Disappointed to find I still care what she thinks.
Her ghost pushes at my heart. It’s too hard for her to invade.
“You had to harvest your own lavender, because you’d rather have me howl in the wilderness than tolerate me as your daughter.”
It’s difficult for two strong wills to coexist, but I have learned my art, and she is dead.
“I love you, baba, but you’ve taken all I’m willing to give.”
The scent of the ghost— carrot-cake and candied plums— wafts away, dragged into the cauldron with the rest of the dead magic.
My soul tremors. Relief? Grief?
There is freedom in death and longing in life. I will never visit her again.
The tears only come now. I feel guilty they have not come sooner. Resentful that they come at all.
She will give me no new hurts.
No matter how hard I seek them.