I was working my way through Nana’s Book of Bottling and Preserves. I thought I was doing well, although a few months down the track I’d find that a quarter of my preserved apricots had been surfaced with vivid ecosystems of mould. No one does it like Nana did.
My parents said she was a witch, an eldritch horror, a creature of weird spells cast in darkest night. I told them I didn’t believe them, but on some level I always knew it was a possibility. Anyone who knew my Nana knew that she could go from sweet to terrifying in an instant, and that she was her own person, unbound by society’s rules. She was a healer, a herbalist, and supported herself with homemade wares. A witch? Why not? Still, their warnings didn’t stop me from moving into Nana’s home as soon as I inherited it, along with her business. I stepped right into her fleecy slippers.
I ran my fingers over Nana’s book. It was her own set of homespun recipes, and had never travelled far from her. The paper was thick and yellowed, covered in handwriting—the loopy, elegant style that no one bothers with anymore. In places where she had made some adjustment or correction, words were neatly crossed, with alternative instructions squeezed in. The book smelled of age and wisdom, with a dash of the lavender and rose potpourri that Nana used to leave around the place in little silk bags with lace edging.
I’d worked on rhubarb last, bottling it in sweet syrup spiced with cinnamon, cardamom and cloves. It had always been a winner at Nana’s market stalls, and I knew her old customers might loosen their purse strings at its return. The last notes on the page suggested that rhubarb roots, dried and pulverised, could be used as a laxative, and that oxalic acid could be extracted from rhubarb leaves for a handy poison. I was interested in neither option just then (although you never know when enemies, or constipation, may strike).
Thinking I had time to learn one more recipe, I exhaled and turned the page, from the R section to the S section. I was expecting to find mainly strawberries, of course, which would be perfect. I would jam and stew the offerings of the ever-bearing strawberry plants in Nana’s garden—at least, those I hadn’t already scoffed.
Instead, I found an entry titled ‘Bottled Spirits’. Intriguing. Nana had never touched a drop in her life. There wasn’t another reference to alcohol in the book so far—even figs were to be preserved in syrup rather than brandy. I thought she had some religious thing against it, but I hadn’t asked, and in fact I wasn’t even sure what her religion was, although she’d occasionally mentioned dancing with her ‘sisters’. She was an only child, so I assumed they were her ‘sisters in something-or-other’.
I only needed to read a little further to see that Nana hadn’t been referring to alcohol at all. I smiled. The entry had everything in common with Nana after all: with her moonlit walks, her superstition and her whimsy.
I decided to try it that night.
Picking your Spirits
The best spirits are picked under a gibbous moon, by twilight. Choose a cloudless evening.
I peered out the kitchen window, shifting aside Nana’s apple green curtains. The day was sunny, clear. I believed the moon would be right. I kept reading.
Prepare for spirit picking with the appropriate attire. An ample portion of skin should remain uncovered, as spirits are slippery and cloth will not hold them. No sleeves or gloves. No shoes or boots, as heavy footfall will cause them to take flight. Nudity enjoyable, but unnecessary.
To view spirits for harvest, drink one thimbleful of Spring Fairywater (see recipe in other book).
I didn’t know where to find the other book, but there was a dusty bottle in the back of Nana’s walk-in pantry labelled Fairywater. When I pulled the cork, it smelled of magnolia blossoms. I poured the liquid (the texture and colour of thin honey) to the brim of Nana’s silver thimble. I quaffed it, then nearly spat it out again. It was sour enough to pucker my teeth!
The fairywater made me feel lightheaded and light-hearted. I waltzed round Nana’s loungeroom, hugging lampshades and walls, feeling the love I’d inherited with this place. Loneliness, grief, and all thoughts of returning to the Sydney rat race were gone.
It was nearing twilight by the time I could focus enough to read the book again.
Face moonwards, Nana instructed. I read on and then, leaving my slippers behind me, I stepped into the twilight.
The air was warm and Nana’s garden was inviting. The long grass cushioned my feet. I slipped between the apples and peaches, then climbed the gentle slope to the crest of the hill. The fat moon heaved itself over the horizon.
It was like thinking you’re alone, then finding out a quiet crowd has been watching you all along. Spirits sprang into view, dozens of them, wobbling orbs in luminescent colour. They drifted like jellyfish in a gentle current.
I could have reached out and caught any number of them, but I was careful.
The spirit reaped will affect the final product, Nana’s instructions had read. Avoid spirits with colourful edges but dim centres. These are inhuman spirits, and may cause illness and upset. Ghosts, or human spirits, are sweeter and easier to digest.
About half the spirits were ghosts, as far as I could tell. I reached forward and picked one, a glittering green globe. It looked smooth, but it had sharp barbs and let off a strong smell of bog and rot. I let it go and stepped back quickly.
When choosing a spirit, make sure you use multiple senses. A good spirit will feel, smell and sound as lovely as it looks. Its ultimate flavour will be delightful. Avoid a ghost that looks pretty, but sounds horrible, or feels tolerable but smells bad.
I took my time in picking the next spirit. I took a step towards one, then turned away when I heard its screeches. Another smelled like a room gone stale and mouldy.
When I heard a sound like windchimes coming from a small blue ghost, I pounced. This ghost had a familiar flowery smell, and it was light and slippery. It was like trying to hold egg innards in anti-gravity. I hugged it close and curled my fingers around it.
Once out of the moonlight, a ghost will fall dormant.
The moment I passed through the kitchen doorway, the ghost settled in my hands, like it had fallen asleep. It was heavy and soft. I put it in a heatproof bowl.
Knead ghost with fingers, till warm.
I pressed and squeezed and stretched the ghost till my digital food thermometer showed it had warmed from 11 to 38 degrees Celsius. It adhered to my palms a little, so I washed them carefully at the kitchen tap.
Uncured ghost is fatal, so resist the urge to lick your fingers.
I added a pinch of salt to the ghost, and a sprinkle of brown sugar for a nice caramel flavour.
Beat with hand whisk, till fluffy.
The ghost expanded as I whisked it, till it was the texture of uncooked pavlova.
Add sliced lemon to a fowlers jar (in need, a well washed jam jar will do, see instructions p.11). Scoop spirit over top,’til jar full.
I added the rubber seal, checked for twists, lidded it. I processed the jar in the preserving unit for an hour. When it was done, I pushed the jar to the back of the pantry shelf, and to the back of my mind. By the next day, the whole mad thing seemed like a fey dream. It was a scene that didn’t fit into the film of my life. I didn’t forget, of course, but I tried to. I moved on to strawberry jam.
Preservation according to this recipe will distil the essence of the ghost for your delectation.
Winter means less produce to bottle, but sales of preserves go up. People miss the abundance of fruit that summer gave them. Still, it was a lonely time for me. Evenings and non-market days were spent chopping firewood, fussing in the garden, reading. I missed the bustle of the city around me, missed networks and friends and shopping centres. To the community here, I wasn’t yet a local, and wouldn’t be for another twenty years, at least.
One evening, I looked out to see a gibbous moon just rising, surrounded by a scant scattering of sunset clouds. My gut jumped at the thought of seeing the ghosts again; the bright company of the departed. I went to the pantry and got up on the stepping stool, reaching to the back of the cupboard, but instead of taking the Fairywater, I decided to try the ghost. I was tired of being alone, of being an echo in a house of echoes.
I levered the steel lid from the jar. The ghost inside was opaque blue, glowing softly.
The ghost, once digested, will share its secrets.
It was enough to make me hesitate, of course. Well, there were secrets and there were secrets, weren’t there? It’s one thing to know a few things about rocket science, it’s another to know where the bodies are buried. Whose essence had I bottled?
The jar was open now, though, and the ghost would spoil within a day if not used. A waste. I could pour it out onto the garden, where it might rejoin the others—or would it be lapped up by a passing kangaroo? I shuddered.
I ate the ghost with peaches. It tasted like egg custard.
I took to my bed for two days, with an intense headache. I couldn’t remember a thing except the pain. I dosed up on paracetamol that seemed to do nothing, and failed to recall any other remedies. There was no one to help, no one to call. I missed a market that was worth several hundred to me, and regretted everything. My muscles burned, and my tongue was so dry that it was like felt in my mouth.
On the third day, the pain finally left and I spent the day in restless sleep, reaching to my bedside table for a gulp of water every now and again. My dreams were vivid tangles of emotion. I was a little girl on the farm, watching my Nana dance naked, alone on the hill. I was listening through a door as my parents called her crazy, a bad influence. I was a mouse in the city, wandering its cold, bleak landscapes, feeling its indifference, enduring its putrid smell and its desire to take me away from home and swallow me whole. I was in a jar, alone, waiting to be loved again.
When I woke, I slithered out of bed and made jam on toast at the kitchen table. I flicked on the kettle to make coffee. I was smiling, even though tears were streaming down my face—because now I knew.
I knew I’d never be alone again. I knew who Nana’s sisters were, how to call on them. I knew where I’d find her book of spells and potions, when I was done with preserving. And my Nana within me whispered that next summer, the apricots wouldn’t fail.
Jessica Nelson-Tyers has speculative fiction stories published in magazines and anthologies ranging from children’s fiction to the darkest horror. She recently won an Aurealis Award for Best Horror Short Story. Her preserves are phantastic. You can find her at jessicanelsontyers.com, on Instagram at jessica.nelson.tyers, or follow her tweets @JessNelsonTyers.