My mom says it’s a Valentine from our ancestors. A battered big-hearted cast-iron skillet. Been in the family for ages of aging women, dates back to the 19th century. Has lasted through slopped up servings of inky black bean stew, garlands of sizzling bacon, puffed up Dutch babies.
I grip the handle of the cast-iron.
Mom eyes the tilt of my wrist.
She cyclones a swirl of olive oil in the charred bottom of the pan. “It’s all about technique,” she says. “You meld the ingredients the way you would strike a skull. Carefully.”
“That’s a funny way to look at it,” I say, then try to lift the pan again. But I can’t. It must weigh thirty pounds.
“Carefully, Annie,” Mom says again. She wraps her hand around mine, and helps me out.
The borscht is greasy. Too greasy. I have made it so. I peer over the skillet and watch the edges of my face shimmer like oil on the soup’s surface.
My sister comes in, cocks her hip.
“It smells like farts.”
“You’re a fart. Go on, get out of here.”
She flicks her hair and exits.
My great-great-grandmother’s recipe must have missed an ingredient. I stare, frustrated, at the handwritten instructions. Faded like fog on a windowsill. I turn the recipe card over. I peer close at the final lines. Swing high, it says, stained with red.
To protect it from rust the skillet must be seasoned. Animal fat. A rub of lard, inside, outside. The curve of it cool and slick beneath paper towel, the palm of my hand. On its backside dark, sticky stains that linger. I trace a finger over one. I compare it to a shadow. Silent, skulking, spooky with knowing. I wipe excess fat from my hands. I put the skillet in the hot oven, and hope the stickiness will burn off.
Dinner at my grandmother’s house. She is craving oxtails and pork sausages, no complaints, she says. She cooks these in the oven, on a cookie sheet. As she and I wait for pig skins to crackle, she tells me about our lineage. About eight generations of women who have learned to love wrong and swing high.
One relative loved a Civil War soldier who asked to be put out of his one-legged misery. Another married a railroad man, and, once he raised a fist to her, said nope, no more. Then there was John, the husband of my grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother who was mistaken for a burglar. Then Lance, a lousy boyfriend of my aunt’s who simply forgot to cap the toothpaste. And Debbie, a 1950s homemaker who, well, just didn’t like her husband Thomas…or his brother Benji.
Grandmother doesn’t know if it’s the pan or the men we pin down but either way we’re cursed.
I am putting on the oven mitt when she leans in. A crooked smile unfurls across her face. It’s inherited, she whispers.
I try not to agree with her.
My mother has a new lover. A man with black hair and pockmarked skin. They spoon on the couch, curve necks to shoulders. They make soft, sucking sighs. I lurk on the staircase. I watch the back of the man’s head, curious about the round orbit of it. Wishing I knew where all the soft spots were. No recipe card for that.
My sister comes to sit beside me on the stairs. I rub her knee. I wonder at what’s inside of us. Because we understand now that the soft spots on the front of the face are the nasal cavity, the window of the mouth, the sockets of the eyes. Our father knew how to show us that.
Out in the gravel driveway, I swing the skillet at the sky. It glances off clouds, noon-blue heaven. The muscles in my arms tense, wiry and lean. My wrists have transformed to steel as I whip cast-iron like a baseball bat. I hear the way it whispers my name. It says it knows me well. It promises me a true purpose.
When I straighten up to drop the pan to the grass I see my mother on the porch. She looks different. Her entire cheek, bruised. The white of her eye red.
When her lover’s beat-up Cadillac swerves into the drive, my mother smiles at me with all her teeth.
I pick up the pan.
When I swing again, I swing carefully.
Jules Archer writes flash fiction in Arizona. Her work has appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, >kill author, Pank, The Butter, Maudlin House, and elsewhere. She likes to smell old books and drink red wine. Her chapbook ALL THE GHOSTS WE’VE ALWAYS HAD is out from Thirty West Publishing.