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Solstice Cakes

Over the past thirty years, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and YA novels and more than 250 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her fiction has won her a Stoker and a Nebula Award.

Ace published several of Nina's adult novels, among them Fistful of Sky and Fall of Light. Viking published Nina's Young Adult fantasy novels, including Stir of Bones, Spirits that Walk in Shadow, Thresholds, and Meeting. A collection of her short stories, Permeable Borders, was published in 2012 by Fairwood Press.

Nina does production work for the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches writing through Lane Community College, and she also works with teen writers. She has taught at the Clarion Science Fiction Workshop and at Odyssey. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html. This is Nina's eighth story for Daily Science Fiction.

I'm not the one who should get the family recipe. It has passed from mother to daughter for more generations than anybody can count, and I'm a son, not a daughter. But my three sisters didn't have the vision to read the writing on the family recipe page, and I did, so Mom was stuck with training me to make the solstice cakes.
I'm seventeen, and I was looking forward to running away to the Western Culinary Institute next year, partly to get away from Dad, who says these things that sound like compliments but aren't, like, "Nice quiche, Zach. Very flavorful. Who knew you had it in you?" I've been interested in cooking since I was nine, so he should know I had it in me by now.
He said things like that about my songwriting, too. "What a cute little jingle. Maybe you could write songs for ads." When I heard that, something inside me crumpled like paper smashed in a fist. I stopped playing my songs for the family after that. I took my guitar out to the woods and recorded my songs on my phone instead, and only shared them with my sister Mora, who smiled or cried at the right times and always told me they were great.
When Mom told Dad at dinner that I was going to get the family recipe, his cheeks flushed. He stared at me from under lowered brows, his mouth straight. His shoulders sagged. Then he got up and left the room.
He didn't even mock me about it.
On the winter solstice, Mom and I got together in the kitchen. We washed and put all the dishes away and scrubbed off the stove and the inside of the oven. Then Mom smudged with a white sage bundle she'd put together earlier in the season, when she had time to go to the desert and gather the sage, and I used a fan to direct the fragrant smoke to every corner. We'd done this together before. We'd cooked and baked together since I was nine. She had taught me most of what I knew.
When it came time to make the solstice cakes, we stared at each other. She'd always had it in her head that this was only for girls, and I'd believed that all my life, too. We stood on either side of the butcher-block table, a mixing bowl in front of each of us, and ingredients in a line down the middle of the table. The vellum recipe page lay sideways so we could both see it.
I glanced at the recipe, then looked at the things laid out between us. "Which one is the starlight? How do you even collect that?"
Mom swallowed, then said, "There's a special sieve. This is the starlight." She touched a small glass jar with a lid on it. "It's tricky to work with. If you're not careful, it'll escape."
"I'll watch what you do," I said.
She bit her lip and nodded. "We start with the clover flour." She picked up a cookie tin and a measuring cup. I grabbed my measuring cup. She opened the tin, which was full of green powder.
"Jeeze, I thought that was a spelling mistake," I said. "It's not flowers? You really powdered clover?"
"Yes, as it was and is and always will be." The words rolled out like a prayer. Then she blinked and looked at me. "Was, is, and always will be" had changed this year.
She let out a breath and dipped her measuring cup into the green powder. I copied her.
We worked without speaking. We both studied the recipe, and I watched Mom to see what she'd pick up next, then copied her actions. "Where do you keep these ingredients between solstices?" I asked her.
"There's a secret door in the basement. The hidden pantry is down there. Oh, heavens, I'll have to teach you how to collect everything." The despair in her voice knifed my heart.
"I didn't exactly sign up for this," I said. My voice shook. Dad was already distancing himself from me even more because of this. Why couldn't Mora or Beth or Kalla have been worthy? Stupid sisters. There were three of them, and none of them--
"Yes. I'm sorry, Zach. I'm just worried whether this will work, and if it doesn't--Well, we need this to work."
Solstice cakes kept us well, kept pests of all kinds away from our bodies and our house. When everybody else was down with flu and colds, we were fine. The houses on either side of ours had been burgled, but no one ever stole from us. When I was ten, I'd seen Brad Gates, the school bully, stare at me, then look away and beat up other kids for lunch money. Boys who went into the military in our family always came home. Girls married men who treated them well. No one had died in childbirth in the recorded history of our family.
"Let's just get it done," I said.
When we had the batter in the cake pans, Mom recited a chant in the Other Language over her three cakes. I listened while she said it, watched the words on the parchment, but they were blurred and confusing. She hadn't taught me the Other Language. She had been saving it for when one of the girls would show the spark.
But I had the spark.
I closed my eyes and memorized sounds.
When Mom finished, I repeated the chant. I didn't look at her while I did it, afraid I'd stumble over a word, though my verbal memory was good. I could hear a song once and sing it.
The words in my mouth had flavors: caramel, citrus, nutmeg, anise, peppermint, the green of grass stems, fresh bread. The tastes didn't mix, but happened one after the other. With the last word, a taste lay on my tongue like morning, sweet, fresh, hopeful. I swallowed it and looked at Mom.
She smiled.
We put the cakes in the oven, and while they baked, filling the house with that warm, spicy cake scent, we gathered up the leftover ingredients.
When we took the cakes out, mine looked as brown and appetizing as Mom's. I leaned over and sniffed. They all smelled so good.
How were we going to find out whether mine worked? Half the family would eat my cakes and maybe be unprotected until the next solstice.
Mom held her hands over the cakes and said a short chant. All the cakes emitted an orange glow. Her smile started small, then stretched wide. She pulled me into a hug. "Perfect child," she whispered.
After they cooled, we took the cakes out and set them on the dining room table, then called the girls and Dad. Mom lit the solstice candles, and I got a tray of glasses of water from the kitchen.
Dad stood by his chair at the head of the table and looked at the cakes. "I can't tell which ones are real," he said.
"They're all real," said Mom.
"Which are Zach's?"
"Does it matter?"
"I want one of Zach's," he said. He looked at my sisters.
Mora got mad. "Dad!"
I didn't get it, and then I did. He thought my cakes wouldn't work, and he would save one of the rest of us from a defective cake. And Mora figured it out.
My cheeks prickled with sudden cold. Crumpled paper in my chest again. Mom gripped my shoulder, and I remembered the tastes of the chant in my mouth, and the warmth of our kitchen, and the moment when all the cakes glowed. I smoothed my hands down my chest, across my ribs, uncrumpling what was crushed.
What Dad said didn't help. I didn't have to listen anymore.
"Eat," said Mom.
We all sat down and ate. Sweet ginger spice, moist cake, and the flavor of safety.
After we ate, Mom showed me the way to open the secret door in the basement.
The hidden pantry had lots of shelves, and the light in it was like foxfire. Bunches of drying herbs hung from the ceiling. Labeled bottles, jars, boxes, and twists of paper crowded the shelves. Some of the contents in the jars glowed with their own light. I went to one shelf and read labels. "Bottled lightning?" I whispered. "Cats' shadows? Baby's breath?"
"Oh, Zach. I have so much to teach you." Mom handed me a beat-up leather-bound book from among a clutch of books on one of the shelves.
I let it fall open and found a recipe for "Diverting Attention Powder." "Take one pinch of butterfly wing powder and three pinches of mystery...."
"Have you ever tried this one?" I asked Mom.
She glanced at it. "That's a good one." She handed me a white feather. "Mark the place."
I set the feather between the pages and closed the book with a little fluff sticking out the top. I took a deep breath. The air was redolent of spices and flavors I had never smelled or tasted before. I was already imagining what I could make with them.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, May 20th, 2014
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