Late Arrivals – originally published in Luna Station Quarterly, Issue 25
When Mattie wakes to a scrubbed-clean kitchen and a pantry missing a can of stewed tomatoes and a box of chicken broth, she knows her mother has been making soup. Mom always makes soup Monday evenings. Mattie grew up living off a massive batch for a week at a time, a perilous admixture of leftover meats and vegetables rescued from the refrigerator’s darkest corners. Once, Mom made a ragout of leftover fried rice and battered catfish. Anything can be combined, as far as she’s concerned, with the power of a soup pot and stove.
Now, it’s Tuesday morning, and the soup pot is burbling quietly, the fridge a little barer than before. Mattie supposes Mom’s quest to save the previous week’s leftovers might be comforting, if she hadn’t already been dead for a year.
This isn’t the first time she’s come back to cook. It’s the pot, Mattie figures. You can’t separate a witch from her cauldron for long, yet no one in the family took Mattie seriously when she suggested putting the mustard- yellow Williams-Sonoma Dutch oven in the casket beside her mother. Mattie stared daggers at her father and grandmother, wanting to make them understand. Finally, Grandma muttered something about the enamel finish clashing with Mom’s lavender funeral dress, and that had been the end of it.
The end for everyone else, anyway.
The pot was a wedding gift, and probably didn’t start out as a cauldron, but Mattie’s mother came from a town of witches in Middle of Nowhere, Minnesota—a town peopled with the four-times-great-granddaughters of Welsh and Czech immigrants mixed up with the last of the Chippewa. If that couldn’t stir up old magicks, nothing else would. The cauldron became Mattie’s after Mom ended up in the nursing home with a fractured hip. On Christmas Eve, she buckled under the force of her third stroke as she climbed the kitchen stairs, and it had been a long, hard trip back down, once gravity had its say. Mom had all her words and her morbid streak back by St. Patrick’s Day. Mattie came to visit on a Saturday around lunchtime, finding her mother bundled up in a wheelchair in the crowded dining hall, wedged between two residents half again her age. They ground the teeth they didn’t have against rainbow-colored corned beef.
Between sullen forkfuls, Mom mentioned the cauldron.
“I can’t use it now. It’s yours.”
Mattie hadn’t lived at home for better than a decade. Still, she hadn’t forgotten the cauldron or its almost-deadly soups, or the time the family dog had eaten a chicken carcass and slowly bled to death from the inside, swelling and moaning in agony. She was eleven at the time and had never seen anything die before. On the third night of the dog’s suffering, Mom put an ear to its fluttering ribcage, stroked its muzzle, and said she knew something for pain. Out came the pot, warming leftover rice and broth and something strangely sweet unearthed from the back of a cabinet of loose-leaf teas. Mom gathered the shaggy spaniel in her lap to feed it dripping handfuls. She sang a long string of muttered nonsense, some kind of incantation, as the dog that hadn’t eaten in three days wolfed and thumped its tail. An hour later, it was dead, but it had stopped moaning long before. Mom was still holding it, singing.
“I can’t take that pot,” Mattie answered, at last. “It’s yours.”
Mom turned her face away from another bite, grimacing. The corned beef leaked through the tines of the fork. They pureed her food now. “No, Mattie. It’s the only thing of mine that matters. You should have it.”
“You’ll need it. You’re going to be home in a week, back to poisoning Dad with your soup like always.”
Mattie had said that three weeks running. Mom only nodded. They both knew she was never going home. They both knew neither of them was allowed to admit it.
“Still, you should stop by the house and take it home with you. Do it today.”
“I will, Mom.”
And Mattie knew she had three days—the time before her next visit—to invent a reason not to have made the trip. She was very good at finding excuses for a late arrival or a missed appointment. Her own magical gift. The thing she could always cook up.
Dad remarried a woman who owned cookbooks and appreciated Food Network programming less than a year after Mom died. She also appreciated a tidy house, something which had always been a good deal lower on Mom’s list of priorities. The basement was a storehouse of cracked eggshells, carefully washed and bagged; whole, dried musk melons with their centers inexplicably warded against rot; and the skeleton fingers of locust bean pods, stacked in plastic grocery bags and peeking from old Bell jars. A week after the honeymoon, it was transformed, neat as a pin, and Dad called Mattie to ask if she cared at all about the old Dutch oven.
“The enamel’s cracked and the cast iron’s rusting,” he explained. Mattie could picture him rubbing the back of his neck as he spoke, his familiar gesture of awkward apology. “Arlene thinks it’s not safe for cooking anymore, but I didn’t think you’d want me to just –”
“I’ll take it, Dad.”
Mattie drove by that afternoon to take the pot back. At the door, she hugged her stepmother, who smelled of orange furniture polish and had plans for the back garden to show off. She drove home an hour later with the pot cradled in her lap, iron all the way through and spilling over with guilt.
Tuesday morning. The cauldron simmers on the stove, and the refrigerator no longer has a Tupperware bowl of pulled pork or two ears of corn stuffed in the back, because Mom is there, dead or not, standing by the coffee maker.
“I still haven’t figured it out,” she sighs when Mattie turns the corner into the fluorescent-bright kitchen.
“Haven’t figured what out, Mom?”
“How I can work everything in the kitchen except your coffee maker. Is it on a timer or something?”
“It uses those little cup-things.” Mattie points to a wire rack on a lazy Susan. “You just put them in and press the button.”
“Really?” Mom brightens, digging around the carousel. A moment later, she has a cup going.
At least her hip doesn’t seem to be bothering her, Mattie thinks. It’s about the last thing that should occur to her. Why are you here? How are you here? Can you forgive me? Any of those should come first. All of those—the last, especially.
“Well,” Mom breathes, shaking her head in wonder as the single-cup brewer sizzles. “Some things, I swear, are simply magic.”
Among the things Mom called “magic,” before death and after:
Almond tea with milk.
Library book sales.
Dogs with blue eyes.
Cats with green eyes.
Mattie collects these things whenever she finds them. The last has proven the most elusive.
Mom’s health hadn’t been great before the stroke and the broken hip. Migraine and liver problems. Anemia. The rolling blackouts of mini-seizures. Pain from fibromyalgia deep as a well and twice as dark. It had been bad enough already. Everything about the nursing home made it worse. Mom wouldn’t eat, apart from the chocolate pudding the orderlies used to feed her round after round of Relpax and Keppra and heparin. By April, her charts clearly indicated she was to have a thin liquids diet only. She only wanted grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup.
Mahmoud, her mid-week attendant, insisted both were strictly off limits.
Mattie smuggled in stacks of sandwiches wrapped in waxed paper and an old steel Thermos of soup each time she visited. Feeding Mom was equal parts ritual and sin, and not just because the food was forbidden.
Mom would drink her soup and sigh in ecstasy, her sallow face finally relaxed. “You heated it in the pot. I can tell. It tastes just like it should.”
In an undergraduate ethics class, a professor had lectured Mattie on lies of omission, though she’d already been well-practiced in them. She nodded.
“I’m glad you like it.”
On Tuesday nights, Mattie had a yoga class. That always threw off her visiting schedule. Mattie would creep in at seven o’clock, Mom’s room long since dark behind heavy drapes, and find her mother already fast asleep. She kept a notebook in her purse, but the pages never tore out right. She’d leave messages scrawled on the backs of receipts, instead.
I hid the soup between your mattress and the bed rail. Give Dad the Thermos when he visits tomorrow. I’ll get it back from him later.
Mattie always meant to add, “I miss you,” but stopped short. It would be cruel—a kind of accusation. Mom hadn’t asked for something to stir the chemicals in her brain wrong and leave her in an ugly stew.
I’ll see you Saturday morning, she’d finish instead.
She would arrive in the mid-afternoon.
“I thought writers sleep in,” Mom says, stirring her coffee cup. She stands on the opposite side of the kitchen island. Mattie takes the sight of her in with slow blinks, frame by frame.
“Some, maybe. I heard something on the baby monitor. I thought it was Kathy.”
“Mmmm.” The sound is the taste of coffee and the acknowledgement of fact. “Is she sleeping through the night yet?”
The question stings Mattie’s eyes. “You should go upstairs and see for yourself,” she whispers.
Mattie and Mom were both wrong. She left the nursing home, after all, but not to go home. The doctors knew what they were looking at, and so they told Mattie’s father it was time for his wife to see anyone who was important to her—to go back to her family.
After that, Mom spent three weeks in hospice care, bustled over by her husband, her octogenarian mother, and two nurses on shifts. She lay on the same mattress in the same bed in the same cottage by a Minnesota lake that had been her childhood home. Mattie intended to replace her thrice-weekly visits with three phone calls, but you’d have thought the phone had burst into flames and thorns, as often as she picked it up.
Late on a Saturday afternoon, six months pregnant and finishing the paint in the nursery, Mattie saw her phone ring, the screen lighting up with a picture of her grandmother’s face.
“Come… here,” the old woman sobbed. “There’s not much time.”
It was a twelve- hour drive to the Minnesota lake house. She didn’t even take the time to close the cans of paint.
Mattie stuffed two days of clothes, a black maternity dress, and a string of pearls into a duffel bag. She poured tea into a Thermos. By dusk, her tiny orange hatchback was pelting north, a blur of fog lights and blaring radio. Just outside of St. Paul, she veered west around Lake Vadnais when she ought to have gone east and didn’t realize her mistake for thirty minutes. She had to backtrack through long trenches of construction and lane closures for better than an hour before she had her bearings again.
Just outside of Owens, Mattie’s phone buzzed.
Her grandmother’s quavering voice. News. Questions. Stupidly, Mattie nodded her answers, then closed the call.
She was still an hour away. Lost-at-Vadnais Lake-away. The baby jammed a foot between her ribs and pushed until Mattie thought she would split at her seams.
Mattie arrived just in time to help the funeral home attendant load the gray, silent form that had been her mother onto a gurney. She stood beside her duffel bag and watched the hearse’s tail lights disappear down the winding gravel lane. She slept in her mother’s bed that night. There were only three in the house, and she thought it would be wrong for her father or grandmother to have to take it—to lie right there, where the woman they’d loved had died.
Mattie crowded her half-moon body to the farthest edge of the mattress, reaching to the opposite pillow, tracing the topsheet’s hem. Her mother’s warmth was long gone, but the sheets still smelled of her—stale and rumpled and familiar.
Mattie had weeks of conversations stored up. By dawn, the bed knew her as well as anyone.
Kathy was born in the middle of August. Mom had died in May. Passing ships in the night, a friend said consolingly.
Mattie wanted to punch him in the neck.
Kathy hadn’t wanted for her tiny, leaf-shaped ship to sail past her grandmother’s. She was born wild and fierce. Only hours old, she had a wry smile so much like Mom’s, Mattie shivered when she caught it out of the corner of her eye. Kathy had wanted so badly not to miss her grandmother—not to come into the world trailing in her wake—that she was born with less than two hours’ labor, practically in the hospital parking lot, screaming even before her body had passed completely into the world.
There’d been no time for an epidural or much of anything else. Mattie was still half in her street clothes. As she lolled her head to spy the squalling, purple-brown infant kicking in rage, she knew in her bones being a witch must skip a generation.
That first night in the nursery wing, neither of them slept, but Kathy was already done crying. She stared at Mattie, her blurry, just-born face demanding answers. If there had been something to omit, Mattie might have found the right lie, but Kathy was a hungry black hole, eyes tirelessly pulling at her.
“You were late before you started, honey,” Mattie whispered, over and over. “I’m sorry.”
Eventually, Kathy turned her face toward the dim outline of the door, studying it with eyes like pools of ink. Mattie watched it with her. Outside, nurses shuffled quietly between rooms, delivering newborns to mothers who didn’t know how to nurse them, taking orders from fathers who didn’t know how to help. Every time footsteps came near or slowed, Mattie was sure the door would open, and she’d see Mom on the other side.
The whole night passed, and then the morning, and Mom never came through the door.
Mattie supposed that was reasonable. Mom had never been late for anything in her life, it was true. But now she was dead. It seemed an unfair expectation.
Six months later, Mattie came home from her father and stepmother’s house, put the cauldron on her kitchen counter, and stood for an hour staring into its empty landscape, cratered like the moon.
Being a witch must skip a generation, because Mattie’s grandmother is about as magical as a doorknob, and Mattie could be the doorstop to go with it. She has never doubted what Mom was. The evidence was too clear.
Once, on the drive back from an archdiocese potluck, Mom brought her Impala station wagon to a screeching halt and bolted toward a knot of people tying up the middle of the road. Mattie jerked around in her seat in time to see her mother push through the crowd, gathered around a man who’d been thrown from his motorcycle. She lost sight of her mother when she kneeled down beside the crimson mess and called for towels. No helmet, and now no back to the rider’s head. Mom wrapped him with her muttering voice and bloody, homemade turbans. Mattie sat alone in the car, the half-full potluck cauldron on the floorboards garlicky and pungent, holding a congealed something her mother had had the audacity to tell Father Michael was “a gumbo.” It made her stomach turn.
“Mattie!” Mom’s voice was so shrill, Mattie had hardly recognized it. “Mattie—bring the pot!”
The pot was heavy enough empty. Half-full, Mattie had to brace it against her hip and lug it ahead with big, stumbling steps. The lid rattled, threatening to topple off. She paused just outside the parting ring of bystanders. Through the trunks of legs, Mattie could see smears of red, and maybe something else, something thick and—
“Just leave it there, sweetheart,” Mom said over her shoulder. “I’ll be done in a minute. Go back to the car.”
And Mattie had nodded and skittered like a teacup dog. Vanishingly far, she heard her mother asked someone else to open the pot. Mattie she lay flat on her back in the Impala’s backseat, staring at the saggy fabric ceiling so she couldn’t peek out the windows. The car still reeked of sausages and garlic. The street did, too, now.
When the ambulance came ten minutes later, the man was still alive, and well enough a month after to send my guardian angel, Kathy a thank-you card in his own, wobbly hand.
At thirteen, Mattie lost her retainer down the toilet and spent a day planning the lies she’d have to tell to keep out of trouble. When her mother came home from third shift at the hospital and found Mattie sitting awake on the couch, waiting, she said nothing. Mom went to the kitchen, pulled the cauldron from its cabinet, and lifted its lid.
The retainer was inside.
“It’s unbelievable where I lose things, sometimes, honey. You look pale. You should go to bed.”
The summer her family went to Mackinac Island, Mattie’s half-blind next door neighbor was left in charge of feeding and watering the family gerbils. The woman couldn’t see that after a few days, the water feeder had gone dry. Desert animals, she explained tearfully. I thought they must not need to drink very much.
Mattie came home to a pack of pups nursing at their mother’s desiccated corpse, chirruping and wriggling with the last of their strength. She was only nine, but she knew a dead thing when she saw it. The mother gerbil looked like a bit of windblown roadkill.
Mom took the musty, brittle corpse from the aquarium and tutted softly. “Well! You, lady, are in need of a bath. Phew!”
Mattie knew better than to ask questions of her mother.
Mom gave the gerbil a bath in her cauldron-pot, Dad scowling over her shoulder the whole time.
“That’s a dead rodent, Kathy. You can’t honestly expect us to eat stuff that comes out of that thing aga—”
The gerbil squeaked and shuddered, jerking up from a dream. Mom gathered it up in a dishtowel and carried it back to the aquarium.
“I most certainly do,” she said. And they did.
Here’s the thing about magic.
You will know it when you see it. Perhaps it will be your own doing, and you’ll be the force that opens the door, not some dull piece of hardware bolted on it. You can live your life surrounded by magic, though, without learning to cast a single spell.
Mattie’s life is like that. Mom first. Now Kathy. Kathy’s not yet a year old, but she walks with tottering determination, solid as a golem, and things Mattie can’t explain happen around her all the time. But Mattie grew up without explanations. She had her mother’s soup and tea and embroidery hoops, instead—though never her sense of timeliness.
Not yet a year old, Kathy is wound more precisely than any clock.
She wakes at five-thirty every morning, the sky already growing light. Somehow, Mattie knows that if Mom wants to see her, she’ll have to do it now. It comes down to the timing. Seeing the moment of need and answering it.
Mattie stands in the nursery doorway, watching sunlight burn through Mom’s silver hair as she walks, slow and unsteady, to the rail of Kathy’s crib.
The child lies on her back, an arm thrown above her head, Cupid’s bow lips parted. Her breath is milk and heat. Mom reaches down, rests a thin, blue-veined hand on the curve of her cheek. That’s when Mattie blinks away a tear.
Somewhere in that flickering moment, Mom is gone, and Kathy’s eyes open.
Five-thirty. Perfect timing.
She stretches and yawns, her tiny mouth a scarlet “O.”
Mattie’s husband doesn’t ask why she made soup in the middle of the night, and doesn’t complain about how awful it is. He’s learned some questions are better left alone—learned to recognize when he’s come into the room a moment too late for answers to matter.
There’s enough in the pot to last the whole week. On the following Monday night, Mattie leaves it on the stove with a wooden spoon, scrubbed clean. She lies in bed all night, staring at the ceiling.
There’s no soup in the morning, but there is a note on the back of a grocery store receipt.