My flash fiction “Sugar High” posted today in the Shamboic Reviw. This editor was especially generous with his feedback so I was able to improve the piece. I hope you are well this Saturday. —Margaret
Now Katinka was the most efficient housewife in the village. Before the sun had risen overhead, she had finished the laundering and had set the bread out to rise. Her kitchen and rooms sparkled, and the hearth cracked with a bright well fed fire. It was her habit to air her home in the spring as she worked. One day, in flew a brown striped bird with a pink beak and a white breast. The tiny lark perched upon the back of a dining chair.
He then said: “You will have to do something about that husband of yours, Stefan. Surely he is cheating on you with the great and beautiful Georgeta, and everyone knows it. They talk of her beauty and her youth and how tasty she must be and how your husband is enjoying the fruits of two trees.”
“He is not, you naughty bird!” said Katinka, grabbing a broom and chasing the bird around her little wooden house.
But the bird escaped her broom and landed on the threshold of the open door. He sat long enough to chirp about the various sexual feats of Katinka’s beloved.
When she finally managed to oust him, she sat on her chair beside the hearth and cried. She cried so much that she made a salty soup with her tears, which she then put in the garden for the deer.
That night, in their marital bed, Katinka asked her husband, “Have I ever given you cause to be unfaithful?”
“No, of course not, my love,” Stefan assured her. “There is none more beautiful in all of the world to me. You are the only one of my heart, now and forever. You should not trouble yourself with such things.”
The next day, Katinka was hanging out fresh laundry. Out of the corner of her eye she spotted a brown striped bird bounding from branch to branch. Finally, it landed in her basket.
“I hope those wet clothes soak you so that you are damp and miserable,” said Katinka.
The bird only cocked its head to one side as it looked at her.
“Do you not remember that you were the bearer of evil news regarding my husband?” she said. “It was a falsehood. Were I not a kind woman, I would crush you and bake you into a pie.”
“At this very minute,” said the bird, “the king has entered the palace, the rowing has commenced across the moat, the snake is crawling its way to its hiding home.”
“That’s it!” cried. She threw a blanket over the basket, trying to catch the nasty animal, but it spirited away to the forest.
This encounter left her breathless and visions of what the animal was alluding to drummed through her head. How could it be possible? She believed her husband in everything he said. She was a good wife to him and had never even burned a piece of toast. And she was still one of the most beautiful women of the village, no small thing for a woman of her age, only a year younger than Stefan himself.
She made him ciorba that night for dinner, his favorite. She took extra care with the ingredients, adding the kefir that brings the tartness to the dish and whets the appetite. She wore a frock that complimented her figure and brought out the rosiness of her complexion. She brushed her hair a hundred times and wore her best combs. When she served Stefan the ciorba, she took care to bend so that he saw the beauty of her bosom and would catch the sweet scent of her perfume.
“You are beautiful tonight, my queen, and you have prepared my favorite meal for me. Whatever is the occasion?”
Katinka only smiled and sliced a generous piece of lipie for his plate. She watched him consume his dinner and then he took her to bed. They were happy as a man and wife and she could not be more satisfied that all was as perfect as the day they wed. “Nasty old bird,” she thought. “Tomorrow he will be bird pie, bird stew, bird bread. What is the meaning of all of his chatter?”
The next day she had to go to market. She was out of milk and butter and flour and she wanted to buy a string for his little bird neck. She would catch him and feed him to her husband who would be none the wiser. That would teach him.
On passing through the market she chanced upon the lovely Georgeta who was buying a wheel of cheese. She had the chance to observe the lass who seemed sweet and innocent enough, not at all the picture of debauchery painted by the filthy bird. It was just birds like this, thought Katinka, who created so much misery in the world. How many tears have I cried over his lies? I tell you, one teaspoonful is too much.
She built the bird a snare and to lure him, a mound of seeds. The next day, she found him in her trap, proving he can only be the bird brain she thought him to be.
When she pointed this out, he said, “But I have done nothing against my nature, Katinka. I have sung what is in my heart to sing. I have eaten the seed that my stomach craves. Mark my words: By next moon, you will be out in the cold and a new bird will fluff her feathers in your nest.”
And with that, Katinka wrung his little neck and put him into a pie and baked him in the oven, so displeased was she with the little thing. “I just hope the taste is not as bad as his words,” she thought. But the taste was as succulent a pie as she had ever made and her husband praised her and stuffed his face. He was passionate in bed with her that night, more passionate than he had ever been and she was pleased as a wife and could not help but smile at the memory of it the next day.
She found she missed the creature, however, oddly enough, missed the way his accusatory remarks had stirred her. Her life felt flat, somehow, plain. When her husband came home she was as dull as a worn pan. “What has happened to you?” he said and for many days thereafter he inquired after her missing beauty, charms, youthful demeanor. “Where is my fair bride?” he said one day and it struck her that he saw only the surface for he did not ask: “How is the heart of my beloved?”
And so doubt struck her for the first time since Stefan had declared himself her faithful husband. The bird had sung one note which now reverberated louder in her mind since taking the little creature’s life for their dinner. Stefan seemed to sing several notes which clashed: One a denial of his trysts, another his claim of an exclusive love for her, and yet a third his concern with appearances only and not the depths of her heart. This made it impossible for her to see him with a singular heart. What had happened to her dear, loving husband?
That night she collected tears silently by the bowlful and put them in the garden and the bowls outnumbered the deer necessary to take away her pain.
I don’t know if there is a food memory I am not quite remembering but for some reason since the onset of fall, I am finding myself drawn to Hungarian dishes. Maybe my mom used paprika in a dish I enjoyed. I also remember when I was losing weight on Atkins, the one especially enjoyable dish was a version of Hungarian Chicken Paprikash so maybe this is also what has inspired me.
I am trying different recipes for Chicken Paprikash in my cast iron pan and am finding, thankfully, it is fairly cheap because of its use of cheaper cuts of the chicken, such as thighs and drumsticks. I don’t usually like the darker cuts but am finding the cooking of it in this recipe with the use of a sweet onion, sour cream, and paprika mellows out the gamier flavor. The chicken turns out tender and can even withstand slight overcooking if I make a mistake, such as I did in my second trial run last night. I have also discovered stew meat I stashed in my freezer with the news of the pandemic, hence: goulash. I ordered some caraway yesterday to complete my spices so I may try my next Hungarian classic.
The smoky, sweet, sometimes spicy flavor of paprika seems a very good way to celebrate fall. And celebrations are small and private this season. I cannot invest yet in super authentic Hungarian paprika. Spending on luxuries are at a premium. My dog is experiencing some health complications. I am behind on my own health check ups. I take her everywhere with me in our bright yellow car when I get out to do errands and she socializes with dog friends and people friends at my apartment complex. But to get by, we are keeping life as simple as possible and praying for the best.
I did create a story several years ago which I set in a fantastical village incorporating some of the dishes from Eastern Europe. I think at the time I was thinking roughly of Hungary for my protagonist was named “Katinka,” a name possibly originating there. A dish she cooks for her husband is ciorba. Though this was a classic Romanian dish, it was passed to Hungary through a shared border, especially in the region of Transylvania. There are versions of this soup all over the world. Maybe something similar, like a sour ciorba, was inspiring me: A pickle soup I once enjoyed at a Polish restaurant in town. Maybe I was thinking something as refreshingly sour as this delight. Actually, I’m not a big pickle fan unless it’s spicy, but this Polish soup was so amazing and creamy. The bread I chose for my protagonist to make was lipie, apparently a Romanian classic, but I was banking on that same food fusion idea of shared borders, though maybe I should have gone with something like kalach, a sweet bread.
One thing I enjoy trying is to set stories in locations or with cultures unknown to me. Cultural appropriation can be pernicious in such attempts and I have been guilty of that, but am finding it somewhat more manageable if I can give the story a fantastic element, an element of imaginative play, instead of having it represent an attempt to be more authoritative. I often use something otherworldly in the story or fantastical or dystopian. Or sometimes I don’t name a region just make one up based on some research.
A few years ago, I gathered ideas and began a longer story set in Artic Sweden based loosely on the Ice Hotel. A part of me felt I must really try to travel there, but economic and health realities can be a sort of a buzzkill in certain projects. However, one can read stories and accounts, watch videos. I purchased a book on ice sculpting as well as an early explorer narrative among other resources, including a book discussing the native peoples of Lapland, reindeer, music, Laestadianism – a form of Luthernism in Nordic countries originating in the 19th century. I found a yearly ice sculpting competition in my area. And of course, I believe food and drink came into my research.
Research for stories becomes an obsession. I spent a year researching a story involving Chinese immigrants for my graduate Master’s thesis. Other projects based on research: haunted lighthouses of Florida, early Florida history, Three Gorges Damn of China, the Killing Fields of Texas. There may be more but these come to mind. I don’t really write much without research, even when it involves my area. And the good thing about writing fiction is you can kind of bend facts to a certain extent.
Some of the things I love about research is that it brings me closer to my world. I develop an affinity for more people, albeit in a more invisible, removed, microscopic sense. I start to become more curious about places, not to mention the recipes I can glean, lol. This past weekend, I began watching a series called “Artic Circle” on Amazon Prime through the channel Topic. Immediately, I recalled my research of Arctic Sweden and Lapland and the characters I started to develop . I compared and contrasted former beliefs and ideas with what I found illustrated through the show, though of course this show is set in Finland, unlike my story which is set in Arctic Sweden, but the Arctic circle region is close enough for the moment and couldn’t be any more foreign to central Florida.
I am really enjoying “Arctic Circle.” The story takes place in a Finnish border town close to Russia. A warning to you that it involves the horror of a fictitious virus, so if you are already feeling some burnout on this topic, it may not be for you. But it is slow burning, not gory, at least at the beginning, and is an interesting glimpse of a region and some of its real issues and not just a fictional one. Besides, there is indeed a current concern regarding viruses released via unfreezing of organic matter in Arctic regions.
Well, I started out this journey discussing a couple of dishes of Eastern Europe and a flash fiction story I created set in a fictitious, fantastical village. One of the main characters is a bird who talks, which is only possible in the realm of the fantastical. I published it in an online journal called One Thousand and One Stories but it appears to have collapsed. It burned brightly for a while. Originally my title was “nasty bird.” I think to keep it a bit more on the side of a PG rating I will rename it “naughty bird.” My bird is fond of “adult” circumlocutions, eh hem. But they serve the story.
I am posting “Naughty Bird” separately. Enjoy your Monday.