Poyke (Jennifer Semple Siegel)
He unloads the black cauldron from the van.
“It’s called a ‘poyke,’” he says.
She doesn’t care what it’s called, just that it’s too big and heavy for this camping trip.
He insisted and prevailed because she was too exhausted to argue.
It had been a gag wedding present –
Some joke, she thinks.
Once camp has been set up and dinner finished, they will tell the children.
She wants to blurt it out, get it over with.
Just nuke it.
Yes, painful, but over quick.
He wants to cook the news slowly, prepare and prime the children, a pinch of information here and there, brought to a pre-boil.
Simmer over a low fire.
After setting up the tent, he hangs the poyke from a hook – forged in his shop – fills it with filtered water brought from home, and builds a fire under it.
The children play; they are young enough to see this as an adventure, not the momentous change brewing.
The woman watches as he carries the cooler from the van and removes the beef marinade cubes, pre-basted and thawed in advance, according to the recipe for “cowboy stew”:
Place thawed beef cubes in a bag with marinade made from sweet red wine, sugar, soy sauce, half a head of garlic and the herbs.
Unfrozen in time. He has always been well-organized, his recipe for life, planning in advance, always.
Everything in place and time: responsible, knowing, and accommodating.
She is restless, prone to boiling over, wanting to say “fuck it” to timetables and other recipes designed to keep her shut up. But she knows the shift will change all that.
He carefully drops the beef cubes, olive oil, lamb fat, soy sauce, and sugar into the water.
As he waits for the water to come to a simmer, he spreads out an oil cloth on the picnic table, carries the basket holding the other ingredients from the van, and organizes them in neat rows, according to first in, to down the line, to last in.
Measuring spoons and cups
Root vegetables, pre-cut and diced: onions, carrots, potatoes, sweet potatoes, celery root, and garlic cloves
Spices: chili powder, sweet paprika, thyme, rosemary, parsley, pepper, and salt.
A bottle of dry red wine, to be added at the last minute...
Wine: the glue holding us together...
At the bottom of the basket, he finds...
A rogue ingredient sneaked in, a cryptic message?
He taps the Basil packet on his open palm and considers adding it anyway but decides against it: too unpredictable. He slips the packet into his pocket.
This stew must be perfect.
One by one, and in precise order, he adds the ingredients to the simmering water and stirs continually.
Once the water has reached its optimum simmering point, he stirs occasionally and adds wood to the fire as needed.
As the stew simmers, the man and the children play badminton.
The woman is sprawled out on a blanket on the ground, reading The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver.
Her third attempt at trying to break through this novel – but now she’s determined to solve the mysteries of the Price family.
Five hours later, the stew has been eaten, the leftovers saved, the poyke washed and put away.
It’s just after sundown. The man, the woman, and the three children – two boys and a girl – sit around the fire, now a crackling bonfire, warming their hands.
The children are in their pajamas, fuzzy against the nip in the air.
The woman tosses in another log; the flames sizzle and dance.
The man rubs his hands together and says, “Your mother and I have something important to tell you.”
The girl, a bright child of nine years, jumps up. “Are you guys getting a divorce?”
The woman shifts uncomfortably but doesn’t speak.
The man chuckles with unease. “Nothing like that, sweetheart. Just some changes...”
The woman jumps up, suddenly animated. “I’m going to become a cowboy!”
The children laugh.
The man cringes. “What your mother is trying to say, well, she will be making some changes on how she dresses.”
“But you’re not going away?” the older boy, ten years old, asks his mother.
“I assure you, no...” the man says.
“No one’s going anywhere. I’ll always be your parent, right here for you, alongside your dad.”
“I’m changing my name, too, but you can still call me ‘Mom,’ at least for a little while.”
Oh, boy!” the youngest boy, age five, says, dancing a bit too close to the fire. “A brand-new name! I wish I could change my name!”
The man grabs the boy’s tee-shirt and pulls him away from the fire. “You already have a fine name, young man.”
“Soon, you will hear others calling me ‘Basil.’ But don’t be afraid.”
The man winces and touches the pocket where he has placed the packet.
“But that’s a boy’s name,” the girl says.
“Yes,” the man says.
The three children grow quiet and still, their wide eyes glowing from the fire.
“Yes,” the woman echoes.
The man stands up and tosses another log on the fire. He brushes invisible dust from his pant legs and claps his hands. “Well, kids, time for bed. A big day tomorrow.”
Like zombies, the children rise and file into the tent, question marks dancing in the wind.