PENNY THE POISONMONGER: An Origin Story by Myna Chang

What was the thing that twisted
my heart beyond repair?
It was a piece of burnt toast...
It did not begin when my fairy godmother betrayed me. “Ignore that handsome prince,” she’d said. “Marry the giant. He suits you better.” Pfft. The flighty little bitch.      

Nor did it start with the loss of our fortune, though I’ll admit that stung. Poverty grated on me. I cursed the tiny thief, with his agile burglar’s hands, but I cursed my lackwit husband more. Hiding all our money under a pillow? He may be imposing, but fiscally, he’s a fool.

It wasn’t even the loss of my daughters that set me on this path. The giant’s blood sloughing through their veins doomed them to coarse simplicity, easy game for a traveling magician with promises of beauty and charm. They should have wished for brains instead.

No, it was none of these events, though I suppose each tragedy played its part. The thing that twisted my heart beyond repair was an item of seemingly lesser import: a piece of burnt toast.

Specifically, it was my husband’s complaining about the toast. “Penny,” he’d said, “this toast is blacker than death’s shadow.”

Well.

I’ve never been the fairest woman in the land, nor the smartest. I am, however, a fine cook, turning out mountains of food daily to meet my husband’s giant appetite. My skill lies not only in the quantity of food but also in its quality. Savory stews, succulent with forest meats and spices. Rich porridges, steaming and sweet. Thick puddings spiked with the tang of fermented turnips.
         
And, of course, there are my hearty breads, studded with hummingbird kernels and crowned with dandelion-glazed crusts. When the aroma of my baking wafts through the forest, the neighbors seethe with jealousy.
         
“Why can’t you make such bread?” the men grouse to their wives.
         
“Won’t you give us your recipe, Penny?” the wives beg.
         
My bread has always been a precious treasure; a toasted slice, doubly delightful.
         
And my giant ass of a husband complained when one piece was a smidgeon over-crisped?
         
That, truly, was the moment it all began. 
The best mushrooms for stew are shy creatures. They hide between the toes of dryope trees, nourished by spring rain that pools on the forest floor. I always use a special sharp-edged spoon to gather those rare darlings on damp mornings. The day after the Toast Tirade, I searched for my prize, nudging aside fallen leaves and wishworms. The tree’s roots offered a bounty. Fat, tender brown stewing mushrooms gazed up at me with their bashful white spots.
         
I admired their promise for a moment, then stomped them, relishing the squelch of wasted potential under my feet. I flexed my toes, and then I reached further into the shadows. There! Lurking in the darkest crevice, I found the true object of my search: black shadow fungus. Flat, glistening, arrogant in its malevolence, it quivered under my touch, eagerly gave way to the sharpness of my harvesting spoon. It whispered sweet and terrible things to me as I carried it home in my basket.

Or perhaps I did the whispering.
         
I hummed a requiem, chopping the vegetables in time with the lament. Carrots, potatoes, garlic. A pinch of ground wasp wing. I diced the whispering fungus, the star of the stew, into tiny pieces. It joined the other ingredients in the pot, bubbling with luscious chipmunk broth. The aroma spoke of want, and chances lost; urges echoed in the rising steam.
        
My attention then turned to the bread. Burnt toast, indeed. The memory of his wretched voice spurred me to punch down the dough with more vigor than necessary, but it was resilient and bounced back quickly. The remaining fungus chattered to me as I kneaded it into the dough along with the hummingbird kernels. I shaped the loaf with care, slathered the top with extra dandelion syrup, and murmured pretty words to it before sliding it in the oven.
         
My husband came home early, lured by the bewitching scents emanating from my kitchen. As he heaved his weight into the dinner chair, I wondered what had become of that handsome prince. Did he ever think of me?
         
“I am hungry now, Penny,” the giant thundered, bringing my attention back to his loathsome demands. “Do not make me wait. And do not burn that toast again.”
         
“Very well.” I ladled the whispering stew and set it on the table, along with several thick slices of perfectly toasted bread. For the first time in my marriage, a thrill danced up my spine. “Enjoy your supper, Husband.”
         
He attacked the food, not even pausing to breathe as he shoveled it into his cavernous mouth, slurping and gnashing his teeth. The cacophony of his eating had always turned my stomach, but on this night, I treasured every one of his snorts and burps.
         
He was scooping the remnants of broth with his toast when it happened. He hiccuped, a sonorous spasm, and then slumped in his chair. The last of his life seeped away, and he crashed to the floor, a heap of ungrateful flesh.
         
“That was easy,” I said out loud. Warm satisfaction caressed me. I’d always loved to cook, but this was something beyond the basic alchemy of yeast and fire. This was justice. Well-deserved retribution.
         
And it was fun.
         
I contemplated the corpse, and I wondered if I might do it again. Not with my dead husband, of course. Even a giant can’t be killed twice. But other deserving souls? The inept godmothers. The brazen burglars and treacherous magicians. Hadn’t they earned their own sumptuous last meal?
         
I returned to my kitchen and set to work.
Myna Chang writes flash and short stories in a variety of genres. Her work has been featured in Daily Science Fiction, The Copperfield Review, and Dead Housekeeping, among others. Read more at MynaChang.com or @MynaChang.

Cover Painting: Andrea Commodi
Cover Layout: Amanda Bergloff @AmandaBergloff
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Comments

  1. Loved, loved, loved it!! It was fun to read and the descriptions you gave were wonderful! Well done, sweetie!! :D

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