The Shallot Pot

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The Shallot PotI found it at a garage sale.  Someone was getting rid of their family heirlooms.  Not jewels or ancient scrolls or photo albums from bygone eras.  Just cookware and cutlery, end tables, mismatched dining sets, and the like.  I was supposed to be looking for something specific and practical.  A desk.  But something else caught my eye.  It looked exactly as I would imagine a witch’s pot would look like.  Coal-black cast iron.  Bulging, maybe three or four quarts big, with three stubby feet and a handle.  I paid five dollars for it.  

My roommate, Frankie, thought I was crazy.  She swore if I ever cooked anything in that “atrocity,” she would never eat it.  She walked past me muttering under her breath about lead and radiation.  She moved on to look at some spare computer parts and vintage-looking beaded vests.

Her disdain only made me want it more.  Poor little pot.  Plain and somewhat dinged about.  There were scratches on the inside.  It looked as if someone had been careless and used metal utensils with it or something.  It wasn’t until I brought it home and really looked at it that I began to suspect there was a pattern.  I took an awkward rubbing and got teased by Frankie again.

She congratulated me on changing my major to something more practical than philosophy.  “Doctor Roslyn Book, Archaeologist, sounds much cooler than Roslyn Book, Philosopher.”

Still staring at the rubbing, I raised a finger.  “Unemployed philosopher.  And we’re too young to be thinking about practical matters.”

As it stood, I was uselessly poring over the markings in my new pot, while my Renaissance woman roommate was rotating between cooking us dinner, working on a final project, and paying our bills.

“This script doesn’t look familiar to me,” I said.  “Looks like a lot of different variations of the letter ‘m.’”

Frankie chuckled and walked over.  She leaned over my shoulder and looked at the paper.  “Yeah…”

I glanced up at her.  “What?”

She returned to her marinara sauce.  “Do an internet search on ‘Theban script’ or ‘witches alphabet.’”

I frowned.  “How do you know?”  She was a math major.

“One of the clubs I joined for a while in freshman year was a Wiccan group.”

***

Magdara Ezlakai.  The name was written in the pot.  Along with what seemed to be a recipe that sounded like a dressed up French onion soup and a message.

“For all my heirs to have, the truth as you would see it.”

It sounded like a riddle.  But it could have been an off translation.  I was too impatient to find a human translator.  I just ran the script through an internet translation program.  I looked up the name and found a number of major hits.  One of them was a museum exhibit.  It was in Europe, so there was no chance of making a visit, but the museum’s website provided excellent shots of the display, including drawings of what they called the Pot of Ezlakai.   They also had a detailed and well-written biography of the pot’s first owner.

Magdara was a medicine woman.  Quiet, but respected.  Sought out by many.  She was talented, curious, and tireless in her development of potions.  At a young age, she grew an affinity for onions.  She began to use them in her brews.  She learned that shallots made her potions particularly effective when cooked in her pot.  The pot’s powers and properties remained mysterious, but of the shallots, there was much known.  She began to grow all manner and varieties of shallots herself.  And she prepared them in her pot in all manner of ways: pickled, steamed, fried, baked.  The onion-eater, some called her.

She could heal and purify.  One day a village’s well became poisoned and Magdara’s potion cleansed it.  She could strengthen and fortify.  Warriors came to her.  Once, a blacksmith who’d grown old and weary from years of hammering took her potion and regained his vitality.  She could beautify. The bald could grow hair and the hairy could remove it.  A giant once came to her for help.  He wanted a potion that would shrink him down to the size of a normal man.  And she was approached by many who believed they were cursed and wanted their curses lifted, including a woman whose touch turned everything she loved into crystal.

But the most prominent tale was that of her encounter with a dashing young aristocrat who also had interests in plants and herbs.  Most of Magdara’s potions involved an onion of some sort, typically a variety of shallot from her own garden, some of which could not be found elsewhere.  So she not only made potions with them, but also sold them so they could be used in cooking.  They were rather delicious and had flavors of other spices and herbs in them.

The young aristocrat was interested in her shallots and in her.  The two fell in love and resided together (such residence being to the disapproval of many).  They did not marry.  Magdara taught the young aristocrat everything she knew.  But when he learned that it was not the shallots alone that bore results, but the combination of the shallots and the enchanted pot, he stole the pot.  And he stole some of her bulbs.

When Magdara discovered the theft, she lamented at first.  Then she grew angry and pursued him.  She found him and followed him aboard a great sea vessel.  She confronted him and demanded that he return her pot.  But he managed to charm her again.  He explained that he had only borrowed the pot to show off its promise and show off Magdara’s skill to the royal that ruled them.  He convinced her to join him and then to marry him.  Magdara acquiesced.  But when the ship made landfall, he did not come to her quarters to fetch her as he had promised.  And when she went to look for him, he was nowhere to be found.

They were in a great seaport.  Try as she might, she could not find him.  All that she had learned was hers to keep.  But all her power and strength as a witch, she had placed in that pot.  She never returned to her home.  She died of a broken heart there in that seaport.

***

Frankie thought I was crazy, but after reading about how great Magdara’s potions were, I decided to try the recipe.  I had the pot checked out.  There was no lead.  No radiation.  I cleaned it gently.  I seasoned it with oil.  Frankie was impressed I knew to do that.  I went to the grocery store and got all of the ingredients.  Herbs, spices, broth, a root vegetable or two, and some shallots.  The recipe even came with a serving size.  A cup full making sure to have at least three shallots.

I ate it.  It was tasty for something I’d made, and in my humble opinion, even tasty compared to some of Frankie’s dishes.  Frankie, as she’d promised, refused to try any until she saw what effect it would have on me.

We watched our usual Thursday night shows and every commercial break, she made cracks about how I’d develop a wart on the end of my nose or wake up in the morning having turned into a roach.

***

It was morning.  After a full night’s sleep, I somehow felt drained.  I tripped over something on my way to the dining table.

“Was that always there?” I said, frowning at the ottoman that had appeared before me.

Frankie looked up from the crossword she was working on.  “You mean the ottoman that you bought and put right in that spot?  Yeah.”

I dropped in a chair.

“Sleepless night?”

I shrugged and looked over at the stove to see what kind of breakfast was available, wondering if it was worth getting up and walking over.  That was when the pot caught my eye.  There was something above it.  Steam.

“Did you make something in the pot?” I asked Frankie.

She didn’t look up from her puzzle.  “Your pot?  No.  Why?”

Wispy white puffs and tendrils were coming out of the pot.  Just a bit too substantial to be steam.  I blinked and rubbed my eyes.  The puffs and tendrils were gone.  I had class in an hour and barely enough time to get myself together and over to the university, so I dragged myself to the bathroom.

Frankie was using the car, so I had to walk-jog all the way.  I collided or bumped into no less than three people, and was almost run over by a bus if not for the intervention of a couple of bystanders.  Every time, I was startled and then scared.  I hadn’t seen anyone.  I hadn’t seen the bus.  I made it to class on time, but I had trouble focusing on the professor.  I started feeling nauseated and left early.  Maybe it was a coincidence, but I wasn’t so oblivious to the connection between my feeling ill and my having eaten some of that soup I’d made in the pot the night before.

I felt better after getting some fresh air and decided to skip my other two classes and carefully walk home.

***

But home was no safer.  When I got to the front door, the doorknob had vanished.  I squeezed my eyes shut for a moment.  When I opened them, the doorknob was there again.  I tried not to panic.  Frankie had an evening music class she was taking.  It was one of her favorites.  I tried to decide if I should call her and have her skip it.  I decided on lying down.  I wasn’t sleepy, but I did feel sapped of energy.

I fell asleep.  The sound of Frankie coming home woke me.  She found me on the coach and started telling me about her day, but stopped when she sat down and actually looked at me.  Her expression changed to sincere concern.  So I told her about my day.  And then she looked guilty.  She’d been teasing me all night about eating that soup, but hadn’t really thought I’d get sick from it.  She went to the kitchen to make me some tea.  And that’s when I saw the woman standing by the stove.

I didn’t realize Frankie had invited a friend over at such a late hour.

I mustered a weak “hello.”

The woman smiled.

“I’m Roslyn.  Sorry, I look like crap.  I don’t think I’m contagious.  Probably food poisoning.”

Frankie, who was standing beside the woman, reaching up to the cupboard where we kept our tea, turned around and laughed.  “Well, I’m Frankie and I don’t care if you look like crap.  I’m going to take care of you.”  She turned back around and pulled down a box of tea sachets.

“Thanks for caring, but I was talking to your friend, who you rudely neglected to introduce.”

“My friend?”

“The one who’s standing next to you.”

Frankie glanced to either side of her and turned to me.  She was frowning.  “Standing next to me when?”

My eyes widened.  I looked at the woman.  “Now.”  She looked…wispy.  I rose from the coach.  “Frankie, step away from the stove and walk toward me.”

Frankie did as I asked.  She wasn’t scared, as I was.  She just looked concerned.

The woman raised her hands, palms out, in a gesture of appeasement.  She smiled again.  She looked just a bit brighter than her surroundings.  And she was standing right next to the pot.

I pointed at her as Frankie stepped beside me.  “Do you see her?”

Frankie followed the direction of my finger.  “Who?”

“I’m hallucinating.  Or I’m seeing a ghost.”

“What are you seeing?”

I was scared if she was a hallucination.  That would mean there was something wrong with me.  But if she was a ghost…

“Magdara?”

The woman’s smiled widened.  She beamed.  She even seemed to grow brighter.  She nodded and moved as if to step forward, but she stopped.  She opened her mouth as if to speak and mouthed words that I couldn’t hear.

“She says she’s Magdara.”

I glanced at Frankie and she looked at the spot where I’d been staring.  “The witch who owned the pot?”

The woman, Magdara, nodded vigorously.  Frankie went back into the kitchen.  She stuck out her arm and stared waving it back and forth.

“Tell me where she is,” Frankie said.  I directed her.  Her arm passed right through Magdara, who just kept looking at me.

“Does it feel cold?” I asked.

Frankie shook her head.  “Warm.”

“Really?”

“Maybe she’s not a ghost.”

A panic started rising in my chest again.  “Then what is she?”

Magdara gestured to me.  She held her left hand in front of her horizontally with the palm facing toward her.  With her right index finger, she made zigzag motions on the palm of her left hand.

“Writing?  You have more writings?”

She shook her head and pointed to me.

I pointed to myself.  “You want me to write something?”

She nodded.

“Roslyn?”  It was Frankie’s voice, but I glanced around the room and couldn’t see her.

“Frankie?  Where are you?  Did you leave the room?”

“Ros, I’m right here.”

She sounded as if she was right next to me.  I squeezed my eyes shut.  I felt hands on my shoulders.  I opened my eyes.  And Frankie was standing right before me.

“Can you see me?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Are you hallucinating?  What’s going on?”

I looked over her shoulder.  The woman, the hallucination, or the ghost, Magdara was straining toward me.  Her eyes were wide with worry.  She saw me looking at her and pointed at me, then pointed to her eyes.  She turned and pointed to the pot.  She made writing gestures again.

“Maybe you should lie down again,” Frankie said.  “Just go to bed.  I’ll keep watch and we can call a doctor in the morning.”

“On one condition,” I said.  “Play along with me for a minute.  Let’s pretend she’s a ghost or spirit or something.  The ghost of Magdara Ezlakai.  She wants me to write something down.  I’ll write it down and then we’ll go to bed.”

“Deal.”  Frankie let me go.  “Assumption One: you are not hallucinating.  Assumption Two: we have the ghost of a witch in our house.”

I got a pencil and paper.  I watched Magdara.  “She wants to speak, but I can’t hear her.  She’s tracing characters in the air.”  If they were Theban script characters, it would be a long night, and Frankie would break our deal.

But as I watched, I realized something.

“It’s English.  She’s knows English.”

“How?  Because it’s a hallucination and you know English?”

I ignored her and watched Magdara make the letters in the air.  I wrote them down.  “The pot.  She’s linked to it.  It’s been in the Americas for a while.  No one used it till now, but she picked up a few things.  She knows French and Spanish too if we need that.”

“Good to know.”

“She knows what’s happening to me.”

***

The recipe I used was Magdara’s most powerful potion.  To work properly, it required a specific type of shallot, which only grew in a few places during Magdara’s time.  One of those places was her own garden.  Magdara called it the empress shallot.  I was going blind because I had made something in the pot with a variety of onion that had not existed in Magdara’s time.  The potion gave me the power to see ghosts of departed souls and spirits of those who still lived but walked upon the earth in dreams.  That’s why I could see her.

She said there was a price to seeing what a human being could not naturally see.  And that price was becoming blind to what one could naturally see.  Magdara herself had gone completely blind in one eye and partially blind in the other before she discovered that using the empress shallot would fortify mortal eyes enough to see the energies of ghosts and spirits.

Magdara was able to restore sight completely in the eye that was only partially blind.  She started telling me how to find seeds and grow the shallots and cook the potions I would need to heal myself, but I stopped her.  Aside from being leery of making any more concoctions in that pot, I still couldn’t tell if I was seeing something that was just in my mind, or something that was real in and of itself.  Whenever I blinked, I saw, from the corner of my eye, things in the apartment blinking in and out of my vision, including Frankie.

But Magdara remained.  I could see her.  And according to her, I had paid a price to see her.  I didn’t want to believe that my flashes of blindness would become permanent.  I needed more information.  More to consider.  I wanted her story.  I wanted the truth of what happened to her.  I wanted to know why she was haunting the pot.  I wanted to get to know her, so I could judge whether or not to trust her.

I told her I didn’t believe she was real.  That I thought I was just ill.  She pointed to the pot.  Then she told me that she could teach me a recipe that was not for consuming, but for turning the pot into a kind of a looking glass surface.  The recipe was a simple one, but it required onions indirectly.  One of the ingredients was the tears of the seer.

Frankie asked if she’d be able to see anything if she put her tears in the pot.  Magdara said “no” at first, but then she tilted her head and looked at Frankie.  She changed her answer to “maybe,” but didn’t explain why.  We needed fresh water, tears, salt, and finally, a drop of ink.  Magdara explained that the potion was like a dream.  She could not make words with the ink, but she could use her energies to manipulate the ink and create images.  She started by making an image of Frankie and me sitting on the couch when she first came in.

Frankie gasped.  She said she could see the ink and water swirling by itself.  She couldn’t see the image, but it made me feel far better that she saw anything at all.

“The story you found is the story that that was passed down,” Magdara wrote in the air.  “But it was not the story that transpired.”

As Magdara showed the images, I narrated so Frankie knew what I was seeing and so Magdara could correct me if I interpreted what I saw incorrectly.

She showed us her early life and that part was much as it had been passed down through history.  She quickly came to the part of her life when she met the aristocrat, the one whose named was lost to legend, despite his prominent presence in Magdara’s tale.  She gave no name to the images she showed.

He was indeed a scholar of plants and herbs.  He was arrogant but wise enough to know that there were many in the world who could teach him things he did not know.  He traveled the kingdom searching for such folk.  He had already learned much when he came upon the tales of the folk remedies made by a local witch from the house of Ezlakai.

***

They did not become lovers, the witch and the aristocrat.  They became rivals.  The aristocrat set up his own shop nearby.  He used herbs, flowers, roots, and the like to do what Magdara did with her shallots.  The land was green and lush.  The aristocrat longed to possess it by winning the favor of the ruling royal.  This royal had heard of the onion witch and was fascinated.  He called both witch and aristocrat to the royal palace.  The trip required a sea voyage, during which Magdara and the aristocrat did battle by competition, using the crew as judge.  They made stews, potions, tinctures, and tonics.  They made some potions that stunk so badly they were both almost tossed overboard by a fed-up captain.  But they made it to shore without killing anyone or each other.  In fact, between the two of them, the witch and the aristocrat had managed to keep alive two crewman and a passenger who had each met with accidents during the voyage.

They made it to the palace.  They performed their demonstrations.  And after their demonstrations, the royal told them of a demonic, dragon-like beast that the people of the region call the “soul destroyer.”  They feared it above all things.  No weapon could pierce its armored skin.  No spell or element could harm it.  There was a vague legend about the beast that said it could only be harmed from the inside.  And the royal said that if one of them could defeat the beast, that one could have the land they both loved.  Magdara loved her home but had no desire to possess the land.  But she did want to help the people.  While the aristocrat was happy to take the land, and while he was vain and arrogant, he was also good-hearted.  He wanted to save the people and be a hero more even than he wanted the land that was promised.  So they worked together and created a powerful brew that could break the beast’s heart, fracture it completely.

But the royal betrayed them.  This beast had not been seen in many generations.  The royal did not believe it ever existed.  His was a wicked and covetous heart.  He had no talents of his own to show among his peers.  He sought to steal the talents that were presented before him.  He was the one who took advantage of the good faith of the witch and of the aristocrat.

The royal stole the Pot of Ezlakai.  He tricked Magdara into drinking the very brew she had helped to make, so she would die.  And he placed the blame on the aristocrat.  Those who were present and knew the truth would never tell it, for fear of their sovereign.  And as they died, so died the truth with them.

But the pot did not die.  It endured.  All the way into the present day.  Magdara did not know how her spirit became attached to the pot.  She believed it may have been because she had put so much of her energies into it.  That and the violence of her death may have caused her confused spirit to attach to the one object in the mortal plane that it could find and recognize.

“Her spirit is trapped because it’s linked to the pot,” I said.  “She says that if I break the pot, she’ll be free to move on.”

“What about you?  Ros, you’re slowly going blind.  I think you should still go see a doctor, but…unless we’re both hallucinating, I saw the ink in that pot swirl around.  And I felt the heat coming from what I assume is Magdara’s spirit.”

“She says she should be able to help me heal, in return for freeing her.  But I have a lot of work to do and not much time.  It’s only been a day and I’ve already noticed it’s getting worse.  I’ll need your help.  My thumb is as black as they come.”

Frankie frowned.  “What are you planning on growing…shallots?”

I nodded.  I blinked and she vanished.  I blinked again and she slowly faded back into sight.

Frankie glanced around the kitchen.  “Meaning no offense to our spirit guest, but seeing as how she herself was betrayed, how do we know we can trust her?”

Magdara nodded in understanding and spelled two words in the air.  “You don’t.”

“I’ll be doing a lot research in the coming days,” I said.  “Verifying her story.  Making sure I get the right variety to grow.”

“We will be doing research,” Frankie corrected.  “If your eyes are unreliable, you’ll need me.”

“Sorry Frankie,” I said.  “I’m sorry for dragging you into this.”

Frankie sighed.  “Ate some onions and started seeing ghosts,” she said.  “This could only happen to you.”

I didn’t need to see the warm and comforting hand that sarcastically patted my shoulder.

 

Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.

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