Joanne balanced a third jar of pickles on her arm as she peered into another of Grammy’s cupboards. Once again, she saw endless rows of canned goods but not a drop of liquor or a recipe card. “Damnit Grammy, where’d you keep it?” she said, then flushed with guilt. This is your fault; Joanne berated herself as she re-arranged the pickles exactly as she had found them. You could’ve asked Grammy a dozen times about her famous moonshine recipe and now she’s gone. You decided not to call home more, you could’ve…
Grammy’s old dog Bess walked stiffly into the kitchen and rubbed against Joanne’s leg, interrupting her self-scolding. She scratched Bess’s head with one hand, opened another cupboard and spied a scratched metal index card box wedged between jars of dilly beans. Joanne’s heart quickened as she grabbed the box. Her mind began to play fantasies of deconstructing Grammy’s moonshine recipe; she saw herself serving Grammy’s exact whiskey to her astounded boss at the brewery. She could hear his praise and imagined Grammy’s moonshine pouring into the market.
Joanne took the box to the kitchen table, shoving aside the piles of milk crates and shoeboxes to sit down. Momma had sighed in relief when Joanne offered to sort through her grandmother’s kitchen before returning to Chicago; her mother was busy feeding the relatives that had come up to the mountains for Grammy’s funeral and sucking her teeth at every beer can set on her table without a coaster. If Momma knew Joanne was looking for Grammy’s moonshine formula, Joanne would be back to making small talk with the relatives and enduring awkward pauses as she tried to translate her life outside Kentucky to her extended family. This morning during breakfast, Joanne’s cousins had listened to her stories of life in Chicago with the detached politeness reserved for outsiders. She’d tried to explain the excitement watching her roommate’s improv troupe and her wonder and confusion at trying Thai food for the first time, but she couldn’t capture the experiences and the stories fell flat. Stories about work fared a little better; they liked that Joanne worked at Goose Island Brewery because it was success they could understand and measure by the cases she had brought with her. Reckon you got the knack from your Grammy; my Daddy said she made the best moonshine whiskey he ever tasted, made him sleep a week and dream he was a prince in a castle, one of her cousins had commented. You were always real good at baking and canning and such, I remember. Your Grammy ever teach you how to make her shine? Joanne had replied no and they sat in awkward silence again until she left for Grammy’s house.
She felt more at home sitting alone at Grammy’s table than she had felt surrounded by family. Joanne remembered the hours spent here, making birdhouses out of milk cartons, drawing Halloween masks on paper plates, and a dozen other projects. Her favorite game in those days had been to make something out of whatever was lying around the kitchen, and Grammy had let Joanne spread out her crayons and paper and glue all over the table. The only rule was that Joanne had to clean up after herself. Joanne felt a twinge in her chest and tried to remember the last time she made something just for the sheer love of it. She couldn’t recall, and the failure troubled her. Joanne shoved the last crate out of the way and opened the index card box. Her body buzzed with excitement as it hadn’t for months.
Card after card of shaky handwriting detailed her grandmother’s familiar recipes and the best time of year to make them: Hot Relish-June, Crabapple Jelly-September, Fairy Bread-All Hallows’ Eve. Joanne grinned at the last one. Grammy was always superstitious about the Folk, as she called them. It wasn’t uncommon among older Knox County residents; Joanne remembered telling her incredulous college roommate that she was never allowed to trick or treat past sunset, not for fear of nightly news kidnappers, but because Grammy insisted that the Fair Folk rode abroad that night. The Folk take children and leave their own behind in exchange; Grammy explained when Joanne and her brothers protested. Most of the Folk’s changelings die, but the ones that live are powerful as can be, charming animals and making you see things that ain’t there. They can’t come in unless invited, so we leave bread and milk on the windowsill to show respect, and stay in the house until they’ve passed. Her roommate had laughed at Joanne’s story, in the same way she laughed at the way Joanne pronounced “wash” as “warsh” and when Joanne put red wine in the refrigerator.
The measurements in the recipe cards were idiosyncratic, to say the least. A piece of butter the size of a goose egg, not the brown one that bites, the other one. “Land’s sake, Grammy,” she said aloud to Bess, imitating her late grandmother’s aggrieved tone. How did anyone cook this way? As she read them, it seemed every card had some sort of nonsense doodle scrawled in one of the corners.
None of the cards revealed anything stronger than bourbon pecan pie filling. Well, what did she expect? Everyone knew that old-time shiners like Grammy worked from memory, nothing like the careful measurements Joanne used at work. She felt the prickles of excitement ebb away and the familiar heaviness descend on her chest again. Bess rested her chin on Joanne’s knee and she stroked the hound’s greying head. “It’s okay,” she told Bess. “I don’t need to learn how to make Grammy’s shine. I have a good job in Chicago. I got out of Knox County, like I said I would. It’s okay.” Bess’s eyebrows furrowed doubtfully.
Joanne got up to fix some lunch. It wasn’t hard—Momma and the aunts cooked enough food to feed a football team for Grammy’s wake and Joanne had brought a grocery bag of leftovers to Grammy’s house. It was strange being in the kitchen without her grandmother. She could almost hear her seven-year old self asking questions as they rolled out cookie dough.
Why do we put the baking soda in the cookies, Grammy? It tastes icky.
Cause it helps them rise, honey.
Don’t rightly know. Maybe you should look that up in one of them library books.
She put some leftovers down for Bess and tried to calculate how long it would take her to go through the kitchen, before she had to be back at work on Monday. She got out a pencil and notepad from the table drawer and made a bulleted list of all the things that needed doing, and then started to add sub-bullets.
“Jo? That you?” A voice came from the front porch.
“I’m in the kitchen, Aunt Myrtle. Come on in.”
An old woman entered the kitchen, wearing overalls and a Dave Matthews T-shirt, her braided grey hair wrapped in a crown around her head.
“Your Daddy said you’d be here—I figured you’re looking for Liza’s moonshine recipe. Don’t worry, I didn’t let it slip to your Momma.” Aunt Myrtle wasn’t really her aunt, but she’d been neighbors and friends with Grammy for so long that it didn’t seem right to call her anything else.
“Yeah. Folks on the mountain still talk about her whiskey—say it was the best in four counties.”
“That’s ‘cause it was. Wasn’t no moonshiner like your Grammy. Won’t be again.”
Joanne felt her throat and jaw tighten. She got up and started washing her dish, scrubbing harder than the casserole crumbs warranted. “Yeah. I mean, I could do it, if I knew the ingredients, but…” she said, letting frustration creep into her tone. Joanne remembered her manners “Sorry, Aunt Myrtle, would you like me to fix you a plate?”
“You bring some of your Aunt Lindy’s raisin bread? I could do with a slice and some milk to wash it down.” Joanne brought the last of the raisin bread, a tub of margarine, and jam jar of milk to Aunt Myrtle, then returned to the sink and started scrubbing the empty loaf tin.
“You got yourself a job in Chicago brewing, your Daddy said.” Aunt Myrtle spread margarine on the bread and Bess whined for a scrap. “I ain’t sharing. Get,” the old woman told the dog. Bess got.
“I’m a commercial chemist at the brewery. Money’s g— I mean, I’m paid well.” Joanne dried her plate. “It’s a really competitive job—a lot of chemists applied.”
Joanne gave a weak smile as her eyes fell on the kitchen table, its wood worn from being scrubbed twice a day for over half a century. She knew that she was supposed to say she was very happy, be Momma and Grammy’s whip-smart girl who won the science fair every year and left the mountains to have a fairytale life, but she couldn’t quite bring herself to perform the lie.
Unlike the rest of the family, Aunt Myrtle didn’t leap to fill the silence. The old woman never did. Joanne swallowed and kept her eyes on the table. “I’m using my degree…and it’s the kind of job I wanted.” The clock ticked on the wall. “I picked chemistry in college because I liked putting things together and making new stuff. Building things.”
“Aunt Myrtle nodded. “I remember when your Grammy got you them Legos for Christmas you built a whole city on this table. Liza thought you was going to sleep with those things like a teddy bear.”
“I figured this job would be perfect, making beers that are sold all over the world. And I did like it at first. Now it just feels…pointless. But I don’t know why.” She thought about the long rows of gleaming stainless steel drums at work, the hours spent churning out perfect batches of market-tested beers six days a week. No one had ever directly told her she needed to work Saturdays, she just figured it made her more indispensable. More secure. “I like detail stuff, but lately it feels like all detail and no creating. Just checklists.” Aunt Myrtle glanced at Joanne’s notepad of tasks and raised an inquiring eyebrow. “I’m good at following a checklist. I should be happy having a job like this.”
“Just ‘cause you’re good at something don’t mean you’re happy doing it. I’m fair good at ironing but I never could abide it.” Aunt Myrtle took a sip of her milk. “Ever think about looking for other work?”
“It’s a good job, and it’s in my field. If I’m not happy in this job…I don’t think I’d feel better in another one. And I worked hard to get this job; it doesn’t make sense to look for a different one.” Joanne hugged herself and avoided Aunt Myrtle’s eyes.
“Your Grammy was real proud, you getting your degree and going to Chicago and everything. Teased your Momma something dreadful, about you making liquor. ”
“Yeah, Momma told folks at the funeral that I’m a commercial chemist—for a top Chicago beverage maker,” Joanne imitated her mother’s too-bright tone when talking about unpleasant things. Aunt Myrtle laughed and Joanne joined in. She forgot how good being with Aunt Myrtle was—something changed in the air when she was around. Lit up the room, as Grammy had said. The tension in Joanne’s shoulders loosened a bit.
Aunt Myrtle finished her food and beckoned Bess, who lay her head on the old woman’s foot and immediately started snoring. “You know I used to run shine for Liza? Drove the Ford right over Soldier’s Hollow, then over the border to Indiana. Watched her make it more times than I could count.” She laced her fingers together and cracked her swollen knuckles. “Reckon I could teach you to make shine like her, if I thought you could pull it off.”
“Really? You know Grammy’s formula?” Joanne’s heart skipped a beat.
“Near enough. Made Liza sad, thinking that no one would make her moonshine after she passed. But she didn’t want to teach just anybody, wanted to be sure they could do it right. Liza thought about teaching you, but your Momma would’ve had a fit. Your Momma wanted better for you all. Liza’s shine put shoes on her kids’ feet but it wasn’t easy, you know. Your Momma always hated people talking and whiskey money came with talking. And Liza said you already had yourself a good job, thought you wouldn’t be interested.” Joanne’s stomach twisted and she wished that she could remember the last time she had called Grammy. She’d been so busy and Momma always gave her updates, but still…
Aunt Myrtle went on, “I’d rather let things be buried with Liza than see someone put out her liquor without it tasting proper. I owe her that. But it would be nice to taste her shine again.” Aunt Myrtle looked around the room, her eyes lingering over the painted cupboards and the ancient stove that Grammy refused to replace. “You think I’d be used to people dying, as many of my friends I’ve buried. But I don’t seem to ever get hard to it.”
Joanne crossed over and put her hand on the Aunt Myrtle’s shoulder. Aunt Myrtle’s eyes kept searching the room; her gaze finally turned to Joanne, looking her up and down like she was sizing up a new truck. “Tell you what. Make your best whiskey for me. I’ll taste it, and if I think you can make Liza’s shine, I’ll teach you.”
Joanne kissed Myrtle’s crown braid. “I can do it. I’ll make whiskey so perfect, you’ll reckon you died and went to heaven. My boss says I’m the most consistent brewer on the team.”
“Consistent,” Aunt Myrtle echoed.
Joanne sat at Grammy’s kitchen table, waiting for Aunt Myrtle. Her foot couldn’t stop tapping, and she moved it from under the table, so as not to jiggle the bottle of whiskey. Seven days was not as fast as Grammy’s legendary three day brew—but it was chemically impossible to ferment the mash that quickly and Joanne guessed that was just folks telling tall tales. These were same people that carried rowan when mushroom hunting and talked about Rip Van Winkle bowling with the Folk and drinking their liquor like it happened yesterday.
She had stretched the truth to her boss and used some vacation time for “family matters”. Joanne justified her lie by telling herself that there was a market for moonshine now, banking on hipster nostalgia for past sins. If she returned to Chicago with a genuine backwoods moonshine recipe, it would be a gold star for her rep as a brewer and distiller. Though, since moonshine was just illegal white whiskey, was it even moonshine if you made it legally? The question made her head pound more. Her eyes hurt from poring over exact measurements and her fingers ached from building a still in the kitchen out of copper piping from the hardware store and Grammy’s tea kettle, but the whiskey in the Mason jar was so clear, it looked empty.
There was a loud knock at the door and Joanne jumped.
“Come on in,” she called. Aunt Myrtle stomped into the kitchen. She didn’t greet Joanne, just sat at the table, unscrewed the jar, and took a swig.
“My stars, girl—that’s smooth as a river at midnight.” Aunt Myrtle set the jar down. “But ain’t it.”
Joanne felt hot tears prickle. Her arms were shaking from carrying tubs of water, her fingers hurt, and she hadn’t spent so much time calculating grams and kilos since her college days.
“But I made this whiskey from an award-winning formula and I made it exactly perfect! There isn’t—there ain’t nothing wrong with it!”
Aunt Myrtle shrugged. “It’s perfect all right. But it ain’t it.” She gave Bess a scratch. “I’ll be back tomorrow evening to take this old hound home and help haul Liza’s clothes to the Goodwill. Your Momma’s already taken all she means to keep.” She got up and left Joanne sitting in the kitchen.
She would have to go back to Chicago in three days. And she still hadn’t gone through Grammy’s kitchen. Joanne sat until she accepted that the dull ache in her chest wasn’t going away anytime soon and the boxes weren’t going to pack themselves. She wiped her face with her sleeve, dragged a box into the kitchen, and began pulling items out of the spice cupboard and putting them into the crates. As she stacked items, Joanne hummed an old-timey song Grammy always sang when she cleaned, the one about a black-eyed maid who pined for Sweet Jack though his heart belonged to another. A good sad song; she died of a broken heart after toasting him at his wedding feast.
Silver cup and golden bowl
Comfrey, birch, and spoon of thyme
she raised her glass beneath the moon.
Alas, Sweet Jack, that you were mine
I wonder what comfrey would taste like in a whiskey. She stopped, holding a jar in one hand.
Comfrey, birch—why, it was practically a recipe. The song even mentioned a spoonful of thyme. She looked at the jar of dried thyme in her hand, picked from Grammy’s garden.
“Holy shit.” Joanne said aloud. Her eyes fell on the rejected jar of moonshine on the table. “Why the hell not?” she said to Bess.
For her failed liquor, Joanne had made a large batch of the fermented sugar and corn “wash” needed to distill whiskey. Her wash still had a few days of good fermentation left, she calculated. There was enough to make another small jar of moonshine.
As she pulled the song’s ingredients from the pantry, Joanne began to sing with gusto. Grammy had liked Joanne’s voice, and had moped when Joanne stopped choir to take more AP classes. Now, all of the old tunes Grammy sang poured out of her, along with everything she’d learned since—R&B hits from high school, blues standards from tending bar during college, the classic rock her boss liked to play. She even improvised some tunes, like she used to do when she was a kid. Grammy was right; music did help the work go faster.
As the sun set the next evening, Joanne lifted a glass of moonshine with shaking hands.
It was terrible. Acrid and astringent, the herbs gave it the taste of lawn clippings. Her whiskey made Malort, Chicago’s infamously foul liquor, taste like a twenty-year Scotch. Joanne hurled the container of thyme across the kitchen. It smashed against the wall next to the door. Bess, who had been snoozing near the warm stove, jumped up. Joanne burst into tears as the old dog ran around frantically barking at whatever invisible menace had caused such distress.
“Bess, goddammit to hell, it’s just me.” Aunt Myrtle’s voice came from the front door. “Can I come in?” Joanne wiped her eyes and nose on her shirtsleeve.
“For Pete’s sake, Aunt Myrtle, just come on in—you don’t need to ask.”
“Ain’t my house; wouldn’t be ri—stars, what’s this?” The old woman stood at the kitchen entrance, looking at the bits of glass and dried leaves scattered over the floor.
“I’ll clean it up.”
Aunt Myrtle’s eyes darted to the Mason jar on the table, “That a new run?” Joanne grabbed a broom rather than answer.
The old woman held the dustpan as Joanne swept the shards. Aunt Myrtle deposited the load in the trashcan, then crossed over to the table and picked up the Mason jar of whiskey.
“Aunt Myrtle, don’t—it’s awful.”
“Think I should be the judge of that. Same recipe?”
“No—it’s stupid—I tried to make it with the plants in the song Grammy used to sing. The one about Sweet Jack.”
“Comfrey, birch, and spoon of thyme.” Aunt Myrtle sniffed the jar, and then took a sip. She smacked her lips and smiled.
“My stars, girl, that’s foul.”
“I told you!” Joanne snatched the jar and dumped the contents down the drain.
“All right, I’ll teach you.”
Joanne turned around slowly. ”You’ll teach me to make Grammy’s whiskey?”
“No. I’ll teach to make shine like Liza done. Not hers.”
“I don’t understand.”
Aunt Myrtle sat down. She traced her fingers over the recipe cards scattered on the table. “Your Grammy and me, we’d been friends for a long time. And I was friends with her Momma and her Grammy before that.” Joanne glanced at the sink, where she had disposed of the moonshine. “I ain’t drunk, child. Can’t get drunk on anything but the kind of liquor your Grammy used to make.” The old woman gazed at the cards, shoulders sagging. Then she straightened her back and looked Joanne in eye. “Fairy wine. That’s what Liza made. That’s what I taught her and her Momma and her Grammy to make.”
Joanne racked her brain, trying to recall the stories her grandmother told her about the Folk “Like in Rip Van Winkle? The stuff that makes you fall asleep for hundred years?”
“Only if it’s very good.”
Joanne sat down at the table and rubbed her head. “You’re telling me Grammy made fairy wine. And you taught her. And you’ve lived forever.”
“The Fair Folk don’t live forever, that’s just tales. But I’ve lived a long time.”
The Fair Folk, Joanne thought. Her eyes widened. “Aunt Myrtle, you’re saying you’re a fairy?”
The old woman nodded. “Changelings, they calls us. Was left with some of your people a long time ago, in the home country. They was good to me, despite it all—and let me tell you, I was a terror when I was young. So when they came over the ocean and settled here, I came with. Course, I had to move around every score of years, after most people stopped telling stories about the Folk and started wondering about why this old lady don’t die. But I always come back and introduced myself again, to the ones who still told the stories. And I taught those ones how to make the Folk’s wine, under the moonlight.”
“Why?” Joanne blurted. Aunt Myrtle’s fingers lingered on Grammy’s handwriting.
“Same reason I want to teach you now that Liza’s passed, I reckon. When your kin is far away, or gone, it helps to do the things you remember doing together. Don’t take away the pain, but it helps.” She picked up a recipe for lavender-blueberry jam. “Liza liked to add things from her garden, like she did with her preserves.” Aunt Myrtle and pointed to the half circle doodle on the corner of the card. “See, she liked to use lavender picked on a half-moon night.”
Joanne looked at the recipe cards, the lopsided circles morphing into phases of the moon. “She marked them all…” Joanne shuffled the cards, there was hot pepper jelly with a waxing crescent, dilly beans marked with a full moon, rosehip syrup with a circle filled in. The dark moon, she assumed. “These are her notes for making whiskey recipes…and the moon she wanted to make them under…if I can just figure which ingredient on the card she used…” Aunt Myrtle smacked her hand.
“Joanne Roberts, ain’t you been paying attention? You don’t make fairy shine by following someone else’s checklist. If you could make it like that, the Folk could make it on their own.” Her voice gentled, “Honey, the Folk got our own magic, but it don’t work like yours. We repeat, we go on like a long river, but we’re a river that don’t twist or turn or carve valleys through mountains. We just are. Your people now, your people create things. They make up stories, make up songs, and make up new ways to get silly on corn or sugar or whatever else they can put in a pot.” She took Joanne’s hands in hers. “That’s why I needed to know you’d try new things. I knew you could follow a recipe someone else wrote up, but I needed to know you could fiddle around, tear things apart and put them back together. And you showed me that you could listen to a song, take the pieces, and make it into liquor.”
“But it was terrible.”
“Don’t matter.” Aunt Myrtle squeezed her hand. “It’s the trying I needed to see. Come on, I’m going to show you something. Take whatever tickles your fancy from the spice rack and bring that last bottle of wash—yes, I know it’s bad now.”
Something wet was on her face. Joanne opened her eyes to Bess’s greying muzzle and fuzzy eyebrows drawn together in concern. The hound licked her again. Joanne sat up and yelped as she smacked her head against something hard. She was lying under the kitchen table, still dressed in yesterday’s clothes. As she crawled out from under the table, her knee knocked against something else hard. A Mason jar tipped over with a thud.
Joanne’s head spun for a moment when she stood up, then settled. She splashed cold water on her face at the sink, filled a glass and sat down at the table. There was mud on the floor, she noticed, and then saw the same mud crusted her boots. As she drank the water, images bubbled up in her mind. She grabbed onto them; it was like trying to remember a dream. A sliver moon in the sky, the smell of leaves, the sound of liquid dripping like rain. Liquid. Joanne squatted down on the floor, picked up the heavy jar, and unscrewed the lid. The smell of alcohol filled her nose.
The scent brought back more memories: Aunt Myrtle was singing and the melody sounded like the songs Grammy and the other mountain people sang, but Joanne couldn’t understand the words. Aunt Myrtle had made Joanne repeat each line slowly, until she could sing the whole song.
Joanne sang a little of the song now and the words felt as sweet and familiar in her mouth as Grammy’s biscuits. She knew suddenly, as clearly as she knew her name, that she could sing the words any time she wanted.
Joanne dipped her finger into the alcohol, and stuck it in her mouth—it was the smoothest whiskey she’d ever tasted. The burning was quiet and comforting, like smoldering logs in a fireplace on a winter day. The taste was smoky and floral at the same time, which shouldn’t have worked, but did. As the taste spread across her tongue Joanne recalled Aunt Myrtle’s hands rolling moonlight in her hands like she was rolling dough to make cookies. Different colors of light streamed through the work-worn fingers, as if refracted through a prism. Looking at the tiny rainbows, Joanne had felt as if she was standing in front of a spice rack, ready to make a soup or at a stocked bar with an empty tumbler in front of her. See honey, I can draw down moonlight, but I need you to mix it.
“You up?” Aunt Myrtle’s voice came from the porch.
“Yeah—come on in.” The front door slammed.
“Ah, there’s the brew. Let’s give it a taste,” Aunt Myrtle crossed the room, got two empty jars from the cabinet and poured a bit of the whiskey into both. The old woman sat down, stretching out her legs.
“We—we made the whiskey in one night? But how—”
“Ever wonder how your Grammy got such a fast turnaround?” Aunt Myrtle winked, “Time ain’t so rigid for the Folk. Especially in one of our circles.”
The circle—another image came back to Joanne. She recalled stepping into a perfectly round ring of trees and time going soft as pudding. Joanne squinted, trying to put together all of the images.
“I remember some of it. I can still sing the song. But it’s all mixed up.”
The fairy woman nodded, “First time you enter a fairy ring it addles you up proper. But you get used to it.” Aunt Myrtle took a sip from her jar and sighed deeply. “Now that’s some shine. Don’t get that on Goose Island.” She cackled and rubbed Bess’s head.
Joanne thought of the rows of sterile equipment at work and felt a wave of tiredness come back. “So, should I quit my job? Come home and be your apprentice like Grammy? That’s what I’m supposed to do?”
Aunt Myrtle nearly choked. “My stars, girl, how should I know? I ain’t here to fix your life. You don’t like your job, you figure it out. I just show you how to make fairy shine.” Aunt Myrtle shrugged. “Though, plenty of Folk in Chicago too, just so you know. They’d be real happy to get a source, you decide to take what I teach you back to Chicago.” She held her jar of moonshine up, “This is for you, Liza.”
Joanne took another sip of the fairy wine; dried flowers burning in a fireplace, that was the taste, she realized. She remembered adding the tiny lavender, rose, and chamomile petals into the silvery stream that flowed from Aunt Myrtle’s hands. She had been thinking of winter evenings with Grammy and how her grandmother always threw some herbs on the logs to sweeten the air. I made this, she marveled, sipping the whiskey, I distilled that memory. I wonder what I else I could make. Images of her life in Chicago and Kentucky played in her mind like a movie and the gates that separated the two creaked open.
She could keep the job at the brewery for now, that still felt safe, but maybe she could start taking off some weekends. Maybe she could grow some of Grammy’s herbs in a container garden. Pictures of herbs on a windowsill and images of the spice-lined shelves in the groceries of Devon Street rose in her mind. Maybe I could combine that thing with that thing, maybe I could try, maybe, maybe…with every maybe more gates in her mind unlatched. She could try things, see what worked. Create again. Joanne raised her glass of moonshine and drank deeply.