The Art of Preserving by Martha Lane

Photo by Héctor J. Rivas on Unsplash

Everybody stopped eating the meat from Hamstead Hollow a long time ago. It was when the rumours that Magda’s grandmother was a witch had pervaded every home on the island, setting like glue. It was when even the most sensible resident raised an eyebrow in suspicion if her name came up. Which it did, frequently, in whispers.

As newer, more cynical generations arrived, it was too late. By then nobody remembered why the farm had fallen on hard times, why its rusty trellis tables remained folded and dusty, perched against the two-metre-high perimeter fence. Everyone had simply moved on. Choosing to frequent brightly lit supermarkets with their eyewatering variety, or artisan butchers selling prime cuts from the mainland, or the greengrocer who pretended to be local even though he spent more time at his “second” home than he did on the island.

The family understood how the rumours started. Hundreds of years as apothecaries had brewed jealousy, served in simmering vats. But Magda’s grandmother was the first to be officially labelled. She was born left-handed. Her hair came in the colour of raven feathers. As a teenager she adopted stray cats to hunt mice on the farm. By adulthood she was skilled in herbal medicine.

Ointments that magically faded bruises. Witch.

Potions to soothe cramping stomachs. Witch.

Crops that flourished when others withered. Witch.

Her fate was sealed.

Magda’s parents worked themselves into shadows trying to keep the farm afloat, but on her 23rd birthday they announced there was nothing more to be done. The last worker left in favour of a more lucrative venture. The last grain store succumbed to the weather. And the bank account was drained.

That was a lifetime ago.

Their last chicken was sold the day before the “closed for business” sign was hammered, carelessly wonky, into the wooden gatepost. Directly above the venom-yellow “trespassers will be prosecuted” warning and the “private land, no public access” reminder in red.

That was the same day those men went missing.

The same day the alpacas appeared.

Hamstead Hollow had a secret. Through the thicket of trees that shielded the farm from the road lay a procession of sauropod footprints, huge sunken lily pads in the ground. Magda spent her childhood playing amongst them while her mother, father and grandparents tackled the crops or herded the sheep and milked their three cows by hand. She was given little jobs too, plucking eggs from the hen house or checking fences for fox holes, but this never took the whole day. As soon as she finished, she played among the footprints. She would take huge leaps, imagining she too was as large as a diplodocus. She would walk slowly, craning her neck as far as it would go, and move her spine as if she had a 30ft tail. Or she would be a frog, speckled and hungry, hopping between the enormous fossils. Her favourite game was to pretend she was a caveperson finding the footprints, believing them to be nothing more than a place to sit, or a safe dry space to build a fire. Flames spitting as fat from her invisible boar leg dripped down.

Not a single islander outside the family had ever seen the fossils. Forty-eight of them, perfectly preserved in their meandering parade. There had never been a larger collection reported. Tiny dinosaur skeletons, no bigger than geckos or newts, lay twisted in several of them. The titans had caused sinkholes nearly a metre wide, the smaller breeds drowning in the muddy pools they left behind. There was a time she would’ve been able to name every one of those little creatures. Her bedroom filled with books as she tried to discover all she could about prehistoric life, huge dusty tomes she could barely carry, with print so fine the letters were gnats on the page.

The family had never felt the need to open up their home to strangers. Gogglers. The island was a hotbed of geological discovery, so it was unsurprising that acres of previously unexplored land drew scientific interest. Every now and again teams of palaeontologists, archaeologists or documentary filmmakers would arrive and try to talk their way onto the grounds. Sometimes they were less keen to ask permission.

The missing men never did.

Magda now scraped by selling wool and jars of homemade preserves. The vegetables that grew in the chalky soil, forever rejected by wholesalers, were small and wonky, often with a thicker skin than expected or desired. They were fine for pickling though.

Her courgette pickle was good, no matter what Jeanette, Head of Purchasing said. Courgettes, shallots, heaps of salt, cider vinegar, sugar for balance, mustard powder and seeds, celery seeds if she could get hold of them, dried chilli flakes, and turmeric but not enough to dye the pale green ribbons yellow. She’d made a batch that morning, scooped the verdant mixture into jars, her swollen knuckles throbbing as she closed the gold lid tight. Gold for courgette, purple for pear and ginger, red for piccalilli and blue for tomato chutney. She did that on purpose, conjuring small talk as customers always joked that they would’ve reserved red for the tomatoes.

Her kitchen was a vinegar mist. The liquor simmering was for squash. A voracious plant with sprawling green leaves that took up half her garden now she was unable to stoop low enough to cut it back. She wasn’t sure how many more batches of this she could make. Slicing through the unwieldy vegetable was getting more difficult with every new crop. It was a shame because she did love the chutney it made, with apples, an onion, nigella and black mustard seeds, coriander and sugar, and cider vinegar, of course. Bay leaves, plain flour to thicken, fresh chilli and ginger. Livened up any cheese sandwich.

Magda had been making these recipes nearly her whole life, passed down from mother to daughter for generations. Each new cook adding some twist. Her grandmother perpetually stirring some concoction at the stove, adding herbs no one had ever heard of, explaining which ingredients caused reactions, could bring upon a spate of hives, an irritated bowel, or a cough that would rattle through the night. It was over these huge copper pans of bubbling pickles that Magda was fed horror stories in urgent hushed tones. That one day the prehistoric graveyard behind the farmhouse would be discovered. Magda was warned of the dangers such a discovery would bring, the sightseers, the loss of their simple, traditional life. She would shiver at the thought of becoming a tourist attraction, bulldozed out of her home to make room for a tea shop and souvenir stand. No privacy. No control. But as she grew older, she wondered if it could really be so bad. Someone other than her to chop back the overgrowth, feed the alpacas. Shear them. Honestly, those creatures. They always fought like it was not in their nature to be handled. Was it so terrible, after all these years, to finally want a sit down?

So today a team of people were here. When they’d called last month, she’d considered slamming the phone down into its hook, like so many times before. But a glance around her home, with its peeling wallpaper, bobbled wool blankets and woodless fireplace, made her think twice. It was the stack of unsold, past-its-best onion marmalade that gave her indigestion every time she ate it that made her decision.

Her heart was lead and her shoulders tense as she folded flour into cocoa-rich batter, her seizing fingers wrinkled. She whispered to herself an old song of her ancestors as she poured the mix into silicone moulds; one new-fangled invention she was in favour of. Without setting the timer, she placed the tray of uncooked cakes into the oven. She knew exactly how long they’d take.

The team of men and one woman with their clomping mud-clogged boots kicked the earth in her garden. Each thud landed hard in her stomach. Her instincts squabbled, wanted her to bare crooked teeth and chase the khaki-clad intruders out of her home. Instead, scowling, she listened to the kettle whistle and prepared a spread.

Trying to ignore their reckless behaviour, she busied herself with fanning water biscuits across a floral plate. Next to the crackers, chunks of brie, cheddar, and a log of soft goat’s cheese. Then thick ham slices, marbled with wobbly white fat and jelly. She placed heavy glass jars on the table, smoothing the thick cotton doilies as she went. Pickled cabbage, purple like a bruise. Tomato chutney spiced with cloves and treacle-sweet with muscovado. Soused vegetables heady with dill, crunchy and sharp. Perhaps a museum would be nice. A little shop selling her preserves, a black and white photo of the farm in its heyday on the packaging.

From the oven, she pulled the sponge cakes, puffed up and steaming. She popped them out of the moulds with asbestos fingers, and they glistened as she drizzled caramel syrup. An amber waterfall. Made from scratch naturally, the recipe lodged where other memories lay dormant. And finally, the glaze, a glossy river of chocolate, rum and cream pouring over the edges. She ran a finger round the bowl. The sweetness forced her mouth into a smile as it hit the fillings in her molars.

The door banged against the wall. Magda made a mental note to check the handle hadn’t left a mark, hoped she’d remember it. In poured the fossil men, at least a dozen, as she sucked the remaining chocolate from her fingers. It didn’t take long for her frown to return. They traipsed their equipment through her kitchen, crashing into her furniture. Not one sorry among them. Barely a thank you as she handed out cups of tea. There were such a lot of them she’d had to root out the chipped china from the back of the cupboard, stretching far beyond safety on her little wooden stool. Every one of the foul oafs missed the doilies laid out on the table.

They ate like animals. Her lovingly made chutneys dribbling down their chins, raining in great staining blobs onto the primrose-yellow tablecloth. Nuggets of cheese and greasy butter smears trapped in the corners of their mouths. They gobbled up the cake without waiting for it to cool, dropped sticky crumbs all over her floor. She hobbled past to get the broom and swept around their feet.

The man with the big hat spoke to her. ‘We’re going to start work now.’

Magda didn’t understand what they’d been doing all morning if it hadn’t been work. She needed this over before she changed her mind.

Another man nodded. ‘It’s all very exciting, you know.’ He spoke slowly as if she were a child – and a daft one at that. ‘This part of the world is good for digs, but we’ve never seen anything like what you’ve got out there.’

‘So many,’ another whispered.

‘Worth a fortune,’ said one more, voice giddy. Trembling.

‘And people will come to see them?’ she asked.

‘From all around the world.’ Mr Big Hat nodded.

‘I can’t believe you kept them hidden all this time,’ said the woman, her voice spiked with as much admiration as judgement.

Magda heard a whisper of something, a low warning voice. A memory of her grandmother muttering, scattering seeds along the farm’s boundary.       

They left with another whack of the door. Magda stayed behind to clean up the mess, piecing the kitchen back exactly as it had been before. Then she stood at the window and watched. They were adults but their faces were those of children. Flushed and excited, eyes bright and smiles impossible to hide. Perhaps other people would share this joy, perhaps the family had been wrong keeping this to themselves. Perhaps they were wrong that people would spoil it for them; maybe visitors would have helped the farm stay afloat?

Mr Big Hat poked his head back in, out of breath. Exhilarated. His smile was so wide Magda couldn’t help but return it.

‘It really is quite something.’

She nodded, wistful.

‘We would be truly honoured if you would allow us to set up properly. It would be months of work, lots of people, camera crews. We know it’s a lot to ask but we would be so careful. And you certainly wouldn’t need to feed us again.’

She laughed politely.

‘Which was absolutely delicious by the way. You must give me the recipe for that cake. Incredible.’

Cheeks painted rose, she followed him out. Took the offer of his arm as he guided her to the site.

‘I do have some forms, disclaimers for you to sign. Take your time, if you have any questions just ask.’ But Magda had no questions, she was done hiding. She scrawled her feeble signature over every dotted line.

The sky turned mauve.

A gust of wind rustled the leaves, knocked into her legs. Left her chilled.

Magda dropped the pen. The papers, carried away by the flurry, disintegrated before they reached the trees. Vines, thick and thorny sprouted and moved like snakes, building a wall.

The archaeologists opened their mouths but remained soundless. They dropped to the ground. Contorting. Writhing around her. Their necks stretching. Their skin growing thick curly brown wool, barbed-wire course. Their shoes fell away as their feet became cloven. Her vision was fading, the world turned grey. Magda’s head began to spin, the ground as loose as water beneath her slippered feet. The taste of vinegar, still lingering from lunch, grew stronger. Burned in her stomach. Pickling her.

She was granite, unable to move. Looking up at the sky, unable to see the farmhouse. Punishment for the betrayal. She had sunk into the soil.

Grandma had a cruel sense of humour.

Magda didn’t know how long she would stay aware, preserved in the ground, nothing more than a relic. An impression of what once was. Watching with lidless eyes as alpacas, shaking their heads, dazed but docile, moved on unsteady feet as they walked right over her. Destined to join the others, roaming aimlessly among what was now forty-nine fossils, with the last men who came with ambitions of taking what wasn’t theirs. The last men who’d been transformed by a spell.

Everybody stopped eating the meat from Hamstead Hollow a long time ago, because rumour had it Magda’s grandmother was a witch.

And, clearly, some rumours were true.

About The Author

Martha Lane is a writer by the sea. Her work has been published by Northern Gravy, Ellipsis Zine, Reflex Fiction, and Free Flash Fiction, among others. Balancing too many projects is her natural state. Tweets @poor_and_clean.

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