Saturday, October 7, 2023

“Purest Distilled Spirit” • by Rick Danforth

Elmer wasn’t excited to drink his aunt’s soul. It was his first time, and he didn’t want to disappoint anyone.

His grandfather had the honour of tapping the caskeg, a squat silver barrel and tap with the correct amount of inlay to be respectful, not gaudy. Next to it was a small hand-drawn picture of Great-Auntie Yenta. Elmer did his best to be dutiful, and not focus on how much it resembled a bulldog in a wig.

It sat on a wooden table in the middle of a room decorated by bouquets of spring flowers, bowls of bright fruit and burning incense in small cups of sand. A full room of people stared at the caskeg, wearing solemn expressions of mourning. Some real, some pretend. But all showing the expected level of respect.

Grandfather Joe caressed the keg with calloused fingers and whispered something, then picked up one of the ceremonial silver cups piled next to it. Joe waved Elmer to him, who felt the gaze of the room as he walked across in the black suit that still smelled like the second-hand store. Suddenly he felt very conscious about the threadbare, greasy relic that drowned him.

Elmer stood feeling the sweat pool in his shoes as Joe poured a glowing blue liquid into the cup, and then rested a kind hand on Elmer’s shoulder. “Sorry for the show, but it’s your first soul. Tradition says you drink first.”

Staring at the faintly glowing blue liquid swirling in a circle that looked far deeper than the cup, Elmer had never wanted to drink anything less. He’d rather chug the black liquid collecting under the kitchen sink. “What does it taste like? Is it strong?”

“It’s different for everyone.” Grandpa sighed. “Just remember, she was a troubled woman. Life didn’t always go her way.”

That didn’t bring Elmer confidence. His few memories of his Great-Aunt were of a slumped figure in a chair with raspy breath who handed out disgusting toffees and unwanted criticism in equal measures. Elmer took a deep breath, followed by a small sip.

Pure focused melancholy hit him in the stomach like an icicle. All of her pain, her memories, her insecurities had been distilled into a drink that tasted like Brussels sprouts and cat food with an aftertaste of axle grease and disappointment.

Elmer shivered and held the cup at arm’s length. He couldn’t stomach any more. He looked to his mother for help.

“It’s how we honour your aunt,” whispered Elmer’s mother. “We keep her essence alive within us. Sometimes it isn’t nice, not everyone has a comfortable life. But this is how we respect our family.”

“You don’t want to be the first to break a centuries-long tradition.” Grandpa Joe gave a kindly pat on Elmer’s back. “Probably easier if you down it.”

After finishing every foul drop, Elmer staggered to the back of the room, resisting the urge to throw up and go to sleep in that order. He plonked himself down on an unforgiving wooden chair and did his best to look respectful while his head swam in a thick fog.

As Yenta’s spirit sat in Elmer’s stomach like a poison pie, he found himself thinking about his family.  What they did, how they lived. Grandpa liked to joke about his spirit tasting bad to hide his fear, but he was such a good person that Elmer felt his soul would taste like chocolate cake. Apparently, Elmer’s father had tasted like steel and petrichor. That thought made Elmer panic about his own life. What would he leave behind for his family to drink?

As he struggled, Uncle Oberon joined him in the far corner. His solution to drinking Aunt Yenta was the same as for all his problems, topping the cup with a long pour from a cheap whisky bottle. He caught Elmer’s eye and winked. “Awful, isn’t she? I don’t think I’ll ever get the taste of that old hag out my mouth.”

Elmer did his best to keep it together. Most people left the room to go into the garden, leaving Elmer only with Oberon, who kept sipping whisky almost discretely. Elmer’s mother paused to stare at Oberon before she left, whispering, “Just watch him with the spoons.”

Elmer tried, but his eyes kept trying to stoop. Eventually Oberon stood near the keg and asked, “Can you help me move the caskeg? It’s time to move it somewhere quieter.”

Elmer wasn’t sure he could stand up, but he did. It felt as if his limbs were a thousand miles long and had never met. Giving them direction was a distant deliberate affair. Eventually he managed to get two hands on the freezing cold silver when he heard his grandfather. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“I’m just saying goodbye,” said Oberon, backing away with raised hands before a steely-eyed glare.

“I—” started Elmer.

“Not you, sweet,” said Elmer’s mother, following Joe in and quietly guiding Elmer to a chair on the side, while shooting an evil glance to Oberon at the same time. “Grandpa just needs to go have a quiet word with your uncle.”

Elmer watched them leave the room. “Will Grandpa hurt him?”

“He won’t have to. He'll just stare at Obe, and that stare will do the work.” Elmer’s mother took a deep breath, and passed Elmer a cup of water. “That stare says, ‘Don't make me sully my soul over you.’”

Elmer nodded. He had never seen the stare, but he knew grandpa was obsessed with leaving as pure a soul behind as possible. “I hope he doesn’t.”

“Only a complete idiot tries to sell a caskeg for the silver. But even he wouldn’t want to ruin your grandfather’s soul for everyone.”

It wasn’t long before Grandpa returned to the room. “I’m going to walk Obe home. He’s sorry and reckons he needs an early night.”

Elmer and his mother joined the rest of the family who were making small talk outside as the sun dipped. One cousin shoved a plate of food at him, another a glass of water, and Elmer’s mother took a glass of sherry.

Through the fence the whole family watched Grandpa walk away from the house, with Obe sulking behind him like a scolded puppy.

As they disappeared from view, Elmer’s mother raised her glass with a stern face. She toasted without an ounce of sarcasm. “To Obe’s health. May he outlive us all.”

Everyone raised their glass, in hope that none of them would ever have to taste his spirit.


Rick Danforth
resides in Yorkshire, England, where he works as a Systems Architect to fund his writing habit. He’s had several short stories published in a variety of venues, including Hexagon and Translunar Traveler's Lounge. His story “Seller’s Remorse” was shortlisted for the 2022 British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Short Fiction. His two most recent appearances in Stupefying Stories were “Patient Diplomacy”
and “Thanks for the Memory.”

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