Baba’s Secret Ingredient

The crusted top layer of snow crunched beneath Leigh’s boots as she stomped along. The sight of her breath in the air, the sting on her cheeks and the straps of her pack cutting into her shoulders through her heavy coat all served as gentle reminders that her friends—normal people—were still tucked into their warm beds with no intention of getting up before Ninja Turtles came on.

But not her.

Her grandmother was crazy and lived in a little hut in the middle of nowhere with no running water or electricity. And her mother thought it was a good idea to load a teenage girl with weird groceries and send her traipsing off through the woods in the snow at 7:00 AM.

On a Saturday.

At least the puffy clouds of smoke rising over the treeline meant Baba was awake and had the wood burning stove going. Leigh wouldn’t find the old woman laying frozen to death on the floor. Like they found Mr. Hostelter the winter after Mrs. Hostelter passed away.

The wind changed as Leigh climbed the ridge and the smell of roasted almonds mixed with cedar smoke rolled over her. Her stomach gave a small gurgle of approval, reminder her about her mother’s prophesied warning on the value of Fruity Pebbles versus eggs and bacon. Baba’s breakfasts were always the best, anyway. She cinched the pack up onto her shoulders a little higher and hurried to cover the last acre of woods.

Baba’s hut wasn’t every big—just big enough for the old woman’s bed, a single wooden chair, the pot-bellied stove and her stinky collection of herbs. She claimed it was still more than enough and she’d grown up with eleven sisters in a house much smaller back in the old country.

Leigh didn’t believe her. Her own room in the house Baba and Dedo built when her mom was a baby was way too small and she didn’t have to share it with anyone. She knew what Baba was really doing was more like the old Eskimos and going away to die.

The hut’s door opened and Baba stepped out into the snow. Bent with age and wearing a face made up of all nose, ears, and wrinkles, she worked to cultivate the perfect image of an old witch. She even wore a kerchief wrapped around her bone-white hair.

“Don’t stand in the snow, girl. Come in. Come in,” Baba said, waving towards herself with both arms.

Leigh ran the last few steps and let her grandmother pull her into a bear hug. The hug went on for longer than usual. Baba’s arms crushing down on Leigh with more strength than a woman her age should have. When it finally ended, Baba pulled her inside the hut and closed the door tight behind her.
Inside, the warmth of the stove pushed away the cold. Even the stinging chill in Leigh’s cheeks fled from the glow of the fire. After a second, sweat began to trickle down her neck. She shrugged off the backpack and her coat, then hung both beside the door.

“Mom sent you some supplies,” Leigh said. “She said it was some things you needed. Like vinegar and honey.”

“Good,” Baba said. Her voice was husky and thick with the accent of the old country—Bulgaria, Serbia, or the Ukraine. Leigh could never remember which Baba was actually from. Before coming here, the family traveled enough to call all of Eastern Europe home.

Baba turned her attention back to the bubbling water on the stove top. “You are just in time, vnucka. You can help me finish.”
Leigh looked down at her watch. It was still early. She had plenty of time to make it back to the house before her show came on.

Even in the snow.

“Okay, Baba. Whatever you need.”

“Good, vnucka. I have the shakad boiling. What is shakad for?” Baba asked.

“Shakad… That’s almond gum, right? Almonds are for wisdom, money, prosperity, and health. Are you trying to win the lottery, again? Mom says the government will send Wizards after you for that.”

Baba made a loud noise with her throat and nose to say exactly what she thought of wizards, then leaned down and sniffed the water. “Hand me the pennyroyal. What is pennyroyal for?”

Leigh pulled one of the herb pouches from the pantry and gave it a sniff. It was minty, but it made her eyes water. She held the pouch up to her grandmother, but Baba shook her head.

“What is it for, vnucka?”

Leigh closed her eyes. “Mints usually are good. They make you refreshed and peaceful but pennyroyal also repels…” She snapped her eyes back open. “Getting rid of annoying people!” 

“And things,” Baba confirmed. She took the pouch from Leigh’s hand and sprinkled some of the dry leaves into the boiling pot.

“So, you’re trying to get rich and keep wizards away?” Leigh asked.

“This is not Mr. Science,” Baba said patiently. “We work in metaphors. Give me the honey.”

Leigh reached into her backpack and pulled out the plastic bear. “Honey is sticky and it makes things stick together,” she said without being prompted.

“More importantly, it is sweet,” Baba said. She poured a significant amount of the bottle into the boiling brew. “And men are children about their medicine. Even old men who should know better. You’ll do well to remember that.”

“I will, Baba,” Leigh said. She looked down at her watch. “Do you still need me?”

Baba tapped her finger against her wrinkly lips and eyed Leigh, looking her over from thick boots to frizzy hair. “The mixing is done, yes.”

Leigh smiled. Baba never put more than three ingredients in a potion. Too much medicine was worse than no medicine. “Okay. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow—“

“But, there is still work to do,” Baba said. She pushed passed Leigh and grabbed the big stone jar from the shelf above her bed. “You are thirteen now. Practically a woman. It is time you learned to do real magic.”

“I thought the herbs were all you needed,” Leigh said. “The herbs just work.”

Baba nodded and gave her a wink. “The herbs will work just fine, but the true power, that takes sacrifice and energy. If you want the best results, you must use more.”

She sat the stone jar on the floor beside the stove and opened the lid. With a pair of iron tongs, she reached into the mouth of the pot-bellied stove and rooted around until she found the right coal.

“Look at this ember. What do you see?” Baba asked, holding the coal up for Leigh.

“A burning piece of wood?”

“No, look closer. Look at the dancing flames.” As Baba spoke, the warmth in the room shifted and grew more intense. She lifted the coal higher, bringing it uncomfortably close to Leigh’s eyes.

But, there, inside the little flames, Leigh saw it—tiny, almost invisibly small and flittering about like a fruit fly.

“It’s a fire spirit,” Leigh said, her eyes wide and voice jumping up an octave. “How did you catch it?”

“The stove does the hard work,” Baba said as she lowered to coal down into the stone jar. “Every expression of an element gives birth to spirits. Even a tiny fire like this gives a tiny spark when it burns long enough.”

She closed the lid tight on the jar and it began to glow in the depths of the rough cracks. Inside, the spirit still flickered, now much easier to see.

“What are you going to do with it?” Leigh asked. “Can I have one?”

“I’m afraid this one is already claimed,” Baba said. She picked the jar up from the floor and placed it on the stove beside the pot of boiling water. “But, if you would like, you are old enough to learn to make your own vessel. Then I can teach you to find your own spirits. For now, watch.”

Baba bent down and said something in the old language to the jar, then placed her hands on both sides of it. The flickering spirit inside the jar began to buzz anxiously around the jar. It squealed a small squeal, and then it was gone. The glow in the stone jar moved from inside the crags to the smooth stone on the surface, then pulled out and wrapped itself around Baba’s hands.

She moved her hands away from the stone and held them above the boiling water. With her eyes closed tight enough for her bushy eyebrows to knit together, she shoved her hands into the water held them while Leigh counted to three inside her mind, then pulled them free again.

The smell of almonds and mint burned from the air and the water inside the pot began to steam with pink steam.

“Now it must cool,” Baba said. She pulled the pot from the stove and stepped outside the hut. She sat the pot in the snow, smiled down at her work, and stepped back inside.

Leigh leaned forward, trying to see anything moving inside the stone jar. “What happened to the spirit, Baba?”

“It’s gone,” Baba said. “But it’s power will let Mr. Koldaz recover from his pneumonia.”

“You… killed it?” Leigh asked. “But it was so cool!”

Baba shook her head. “No, vnucka. I did not kill it because it was not alive. It was a spirit. A small one. No more than a flea. It wasn’t a great spirit. There is no loss. The spirits exist to give us this power. Now, do you want me to show you how to craft a jar or do you want to run off to your cartoons.”

Leigh grinned. Visions of what she could accomplish with a little bit of power danced in her imagination. “Baba? Can we make one for a bigger spirit?”