Mary and Mary’s mother and Mary’s mother’s mother Esther lived way upstate in a pale brown one-story house half a mile behind the interstate. Bright white shutters and the front porch swept clean, wildflowers dayglow-green-stemmed and radiant with health lounged in glass jars of water like Icelanders in hot springs, all gathered ardently from the narrow strip of wood between the house and the highway. Every morning Esther steeped red clover and chamomile in hot water, chopped up two pieces of grilled liver with olive oil and sea salt, and took it all out to the porch where she and Mary ate breakfast together before school.
This year Mary was turning seven, and Esther was already teaching her long division. Esther wrote fairy tales in block letters for Mary to illustrate, crepuscular stories filled with feathered fish and Cyclops trees and the very same wolves who circled the field around their little house, snatching at leftover scraps of meat that Esther threw to them like dog treats, and Mary learned to read. For science class, Esther collected dead insects from cobwebby corners and the two picked them apart as they looked through a guidebook, examining each part (leg, wing, head, heart) and learning their other names. Life, Esther explained to Mary, is about how different kinds of bodies open or fall apart. Afternoons, they wheeled their table and awning out to the side of the road near the remote gas station and sold the sweet breads, cakes, cookies, and other pastries that they spent every evening making for whoever stopped for gas or water.
Esther’s famous pomegranate passion cake took the most care, had the most rules, and only got made once a year, in September. Esther always began the cake by preparing the secret ingredient. Mary had to go sit in the narrow back room on her mother’s narrow bed while her mother lay silent and still, facing the wall, every summer growing enormous and sick with Paul. When Esther was ready, she allowed Mary to walk back into the pale violet light of the bleach-drenched kitchen, step past the crimson-streaked food processor and mortar and pestle, little hairs and eyelashes falling off of the counters, and help Esther continue the cake. Sun-kissed beige flour, superfine sugar, unwaxed lemon, finely zested. Mary begged Esther to tell her the secret ingredient.
One day, when you’re a big girl, Esther said, I’ll tell you everything you need to know.
The road wasn’t a busy one, but most of the cars that stopped by bought something from the bakery stand. A traveler would select a sticky bun or a pecan roll, and Esther with her cinnamon sugar hair and straw sunhat and sparky eyes would say How about a slice of my passion cake as well? It’s made with pomegranate, holding up a container weighted with a dense triangle of cake, so moist it steamed up the plastic. The answer was always Yes, and when it wasn’t Yes, it was Sure, why not? Why not?
Mary’s mother slept in her narrow room during the day while Esther and Mary sold cake, and then slept on a wooden bench on the porch every night that Paul was growing inside her, January into summer into September. The hottest nights she slept with no clothes on like she wanted the wolves through the trees to smell her ripening skin again, come back and lick the many peach parts of her, run their tongues down her, take part in her. Her eyes drifting open and closed in the purple air.
Every morning when she woke, Mary looked out the window and there was her mother, still sleeping, wearing her nightgown when the night was river-cold. Her nightgown was sky-blue with an enormous sunflower that Esther had embroidered over the midsection. Mary’s mother’s belly swelled and swelled and the sunflower stretched to cover it. When the sun rose over her body on the porch, Mary’s mother looked like a stalk of bamboo cracking in the heat, her skin splitting, slipping. The sunflower turning its face to the bright air, and Paul beneath the sunflower turning his face too.
Paul was always born near twilight in October, and when he was out of her, Mary’s mother’s skin dripped down on her small bones, and she kept her eyes closed as she dragged herself out of the bloody back room and out onto the bench in the amethyst evening, and there she laid out like an offering again, a long silver needle on the wood. Esther took her time swaddling Paul in the soaking bedsheets he’d been born onto.
Where are you going? Mary asked Esther. Esther smoothed Mary’s eyebrows down.
You’re getting to be a big girl now, Mary, she said, There are some things you need to know.
Can I know the secret ingredient? Mary asked.
Yes, if you go to sleep now, and don’t get out of bed till I come get you, you can help me begin tomorrow’s passion cake.
Esther took Paul and opened the front door. As Mary passed by the window, she heard her mother ask Esther: Where are you taking him? Where are you going? and heard when Esther answered her: Down to the river.
The next morning they laid out the baking powder, ground almonds, pomegranate molasses, fine sea salt, yogurt, and mascarpone on the table. Paul was all washed clean and chopped up in a white bowl, his blue eyeballs and heart and liver set down on a plate beside it. Esther and Mary ground his skin up into a flour, sugar from his cheekbones. When they bent over the oven to check if he was done, purpley-red seeped out and circled their heads like halos, Esther’s face bright as wisteria. Outside, wolves and sunlight made velvet rings around the little brown house. Mary’s mother’s body began again to get very slowly hotter in preparation for the wolves that winter, and Mary’s mother keened.
Isabelle Doyle (she/her) is the author of “O’Riley,” a poetry chapbook published by Jacar Press in November 2021. She is the winner of the 2021 Jacar Press Chapbook Competition, a Pushcart Prize nominee, a semi-finalist for the 2020 Tomaž Šalamun Poetry Prize, and the winner of the 2018 Frances Mason Harris Prize at Brown University. Her writing has been published in Typo Magazine, DIALOGIST, Map Literary, The Chiron Review, The Madison Review, Susurrus, Bluestem Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently a Graduate Council Fellow and Truman Capote Literary Scholar at the MFA in Creative Writing Program at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.