“The Banshee and the Chef,” by Katie Umans

“Can you sense anything from the kitchen?” her mother asked one evening at their table in the new restaurant, tucking the girl’s hair behind an ear. “Blood? Recent suffering? Anything?”

The family had gone to the restaurant a few times since it opened, enough that the girl was starting to get embarrassed, though the chef was always warm and welcoming when he came to their table to ask how they liked the meal.

It was a small town, houses in a forest really. It was something to have a restaurant.

“So…. anything?” her mother repeated. The girl shook her head and studied the appetizers.

Terrible at foretelling anything, these were the days she had begun to wonder if she would ever be able to please her mother.

And tonight, when the chef came over, she could see her mother was making urgent small talk, being overly friendly.

“This one here” – a gesture with her head – “loves to cook. Do you ever take apprentices?”

Next thing she knew, she was moving into a spare room in the house attached to the restaurant. It seems good workers were hard to find.

“Remember,” her mother said when she dropped her off, “to sense things. There’s death everywhere. You’ll get better and better.”

It started with the obvious. Fish heads in the trash, bones in a long-simmering broth, a pig carcass barreling through the back door in the arms of a delivery boy. She let out a little mewl at seeing these things, but her cries were tentative, reactions more than premonitions. She might as well have been an unsettled vegetarian in those early days.

For a while, she practiced foretelling by being a predictor of taste and found she was quite good at sacrificing peaceful herbs and spices to boiling pots. Standing beside a dish in progress, she would grow bold. “Sage!” she would say suddenly and, curious, the chef would try it. “Sumac! Paprika!” At first he seemed irritated, but eventually he came to trust her predictions, though she never tasted anything. She had it already, on her tongue. He called her his prophet, which was close.

She felt mostly as if her tongue were growing thicker, mossier. That was what knowing must be… at least if you start doing it in a kitchen. She had heard of this, different banshees having different sensing organs depending on where their skills first began to grow. Thus an ice cream scooper might detect a gnawing pain up the right arm’s fortified muscle or, in older times, a corset fitter suddenly be embraced by a cold vise’s grip around her middle.

And eventually she began to know, an hour or so before, when the animals were coming.

A long, thin wail for each. Fortunately kitchens were loud and eccentricities common, so this behavior warranted little attention. People probably thought a recipe had gone wrong, a tray of bruschetta had burned. But then there was also the long, pale hair left on the plate of each diner, according to the rulebook. That was harder to ignore. Complaints came in.

The chef did not fire her. He moved her.

Now he watches her, asks her to harvest from the garden and stay away from saucepans, plates, and customers.

The chef’s apron hardens over the day. At night it is stiff with blood and flour. And certain days for her begin to harden the same way, until the evening is rigid and saturated and she knows she is feeling someone coming to their end.

She begins to read the local paper and match the feelings up to reports of passings: old men in their beds, cancer and car accidents, an unsolved disappearance. People go quiet the same way the feverish kitchen slowly whirs to a clean, bone-gleaming stop late each night, the metal tables cold as slabs at a morgue.

She begins to try going into the woods for wailing, the way it’s supposed to be done. There, in leaf rot and moonlight, she howls on nights before a death, feeling more and more certain each time. When she has howled, her tongue thins until it again feels comfortable in her mouth.

Then there’s this moment when the chef falls in love with her. It’s like that moment just when the steaming artichokes have run out of water and you suddenly know a scorched smell will hit the air. He’s bare pot on heat now whenever she is near.

He asks her back into the kitchen but stays at her side, soliciting more advice on recipes and using more ingredients he knows she likes. He compliments her. “Intuition is the most important thing in a kitchen,” he says, and seems to be thinking about bedrooms.

He finds her brightly uprooting carrots in the garden, hovers to watch.

But when it is his mother she must uproot? For the old woman lives nearby and when she walks in, the air gets thick, as though corn starch has been added, and the girl’s tongue thickens.

The girl moves out of the spare room and into the chef’s wing of the house – into his bed, too. The chef breathes in her scent when she comes back from her late night runs, pulls twigs from her hair, says nothing, seems to think of the forest as another layer of clothing to remove.

Some days, though, she must admit it is a little satisfying to be amongst the trees, her voice hitting the sky like an axe to open it and let the spirits out. Other days she hates the woods, her mother’s eager letters wanting news, the chef’s little murmurs of displeasure when she slides into the bed and—roiled and winded—takes hours to settle. For happy weeks, no one will die, and she will soak up the kitchen’s heat and bustle, its almost kind resurrection of bones and flesh into food. She begins to adore the tender lean over pots and the surprised breath of gas being lit. Then, later, there’s the chef, his fingers scented with garlic, his hair with the tinny cling of celery.

But this cannot last. Whenever she walks near it, a pearl necklace the chef’s mother left on his dresser begins to pull toward her eyes like under-door light from a closed, forbidden room.

“You could have the necklace,” says the chef, holding out the pearls one day. Maybe he has seen her looking at it darkly, mistaken it for wanting. “She wouldn’t miss it.” He does not know that she has counted and knows there are more pearls than days left for its owner.

God, she thinks. What kind of woman – or whatever it is she is – goes into the woods to howl like a she-wolf, crazed and fed by her beloved’s orphaning, all the while demurely inheriting the jewels she’s watched across a room?

The animals barely register anymore. They feel like feathers on her tongue, not the thick moss of doomed humans. She knows she won’t have use for the restaurant much longer. She’s so much stronger, surer than she was when she arrived. Even her mother would say so.

Still she imagines, at times, wrapping her throat with tight scarves, maybe cabbage leaves like mothers stifling milk, closing off that other voice to become the simpler thing: the disciplined apprentice, the wife, the taster of sauces, smiling at laden plates and gleaming glasses as they pass. Even perhaps the hostess at the front, where people enter, asking how they are and how many to be seated. Asking: where can she put them for this one night and can she take (just) their coats? Can she?


Printed with permission from Katie Umans, copyrighted by Katie Umans @ 2014. This piece, winner of the Spring 2014 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction, originally appeared in Issue No. 16 of the Los Angeles Review.

Author: A Room of Her Own

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