GlitterShip

GlitterShip is an LGBTQ SF&F fiction podcast - bringing you audio versions of great queer science fiction & fantasy short stories!

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episode 52: Episode #71: "Barbara in the Frame" by Emmalia Harrington


Barbara in the Frame by Emmalia Harrington       Bab’s stomach growled for the third time in five minutes. “You were right,” she said, pushing away from her desk, “It’s time for a break.” Summer classes meant papers and tests smashed close together. There was hardly time to get enough sleep, let alone shop on a regular basis. The only food in her dorm room was an orange. Bab picked it up and walked to her dresser, where the portrait of Barbara, her grandfather’s great-aunt, sat.   Full story after the cut.     Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip Episode 71 for April 15, 2019! This is your host, Keffy, and I'm super excited to be sharing this story with you. Our story for today is "Barbara in the Frame" by Emmalia Harrington read by Before we get started, a reminder that there's still a Tiptree Honor Book sale going on for the GlitterShip Year One and Year Two anthologies on gumroad! Just go to gumroad.com/keffy and use the coupon code “tiptree,” that’s t-i-p-t-r-e-e to get the ebooks for $5 each. Emmalia Harrington is a nonfiction writer, librarian and student with a deep love of speculative fiction. She hopes to have many more publications under her belt. In the meantime she continues to plug away at her novel and short stories. Her work has previously appeared in Cast of Wonders, FIYAH and is upcoming in other venues. She is a member of Broad Universe and volunteers with the Speculative Literature Foundation. Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali is a writer, editor and narrator. Her publications include Apex Magazine, Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine and others. Her fiction has been featured in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year: Volume 12 edited by Jonathan Strahan and The Best Science Fiction of the Year: Volume Three edited by Neil Clarke. You can hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons. She can be found online at http://khaalidah.com.   Barbara in the Frame by Emmalia Harrington       Bab’s stomach growled for the third time in five minutes. “You were right,” she said, pushing away from her desk, “It’s time for a break.” Summer classes meant papers and tests smashed close together. There was hardly time to get enough sleep, let alone shop on a regular basis. The only food in her dorm room was an orange. Bab picked it up and walked to her dresser, where the portrait of Barbara, her grandfather’s great-aunt, sat. She put a segment in her mouth and gagged. “Sorry,” she said, spitting the fruit into her hand. Bab forced it down on the fifth attempt. Aunt Barbara’s portrait frowned and glanced at the bookcase. The clothbound spine of Auntie’s handwritten cookbook stood out among the glossy college texts. “You know it’s too early for the kitchen,” Bab kept her eyes on the shelves and away from her aunt. “Those girls will be there.” Even looking away, Auntie’s disappointment made her wilt. Bab retreated to her desk to choke down the rest of her fruit. “I’m safer here,” she said as she wiped her hands. “It’s just you, me and a locked door.” She closed her eyes, imagining what diet could sustain her until the cafeteria opened for the autumn. Carrots lasted days without refrigeration, and if she soaked oatmeal overnight, it would be soft enough for breakfast. Auntie’s book said food was more potent when shared. It had nothing like the recipes the other girls loved to make for their Soul Food Sundays. Placing succotash next to their cheese grits and fried okra was little better than exposing her whole self. “Remember when I came home from the hospital?” Bab asked, turning back to her aunt. “I was so skinny Dad and Papa wouldn’t let me see you.” She gave a thin smile. “They thought seeing me would crack your frame.” Her throat shrank at the memories. The bureaucracy at her old college insisted on using the name and gender on her birth certificate and stuck her in the boys’ dorms. Her roommates alternated between hitting on her and punching inches from her head when she rebuffed them. One loved spiking her food with hot sauce and worse. After a few weeks she couldn’t sip water without panicking; a full meal was impossible.  “None of that will happen here.” Bab cracked her knuckles and tried to type as memories of the last year washed over her. This women’s college’s administration accepted Bab for who she was, name and all. She still felt safer keeping to herself. That midnight, she entered the kitchen with cookies on her mind. She pulled out her baking sheet and spices before she came to her senses. Food never worked right in an unconsecrated space. After several deep breaths, she was scrubbing the counter and attempting to meditate. Incense was not allowed on campus, but would have done wonders to erase the pork and garlic scent left over from the soul food dinner. Even when her dormmates weren’t there, they were reminding her how she wasn’t. Curvy figures to her still-underweight frame. Cornrows and other cute hairstyles while hers couldn’t grow longer than peach fuzz without breaking combs. Bab bit her tongue. A clear mind was the best way to perform a ritual. A pristine table and stovetop later, she was assembling Auntie’s happiness cookies. Rice flour provided security and cloves purified the mind and heart. Cinnamon brought comfort and strengthened the power of the other ingredients. Mix with water to create a dough, pop them in the oven for fifteen minutes and suffer from anticipation. Tidying right away added power to the food and gave them time to cool, even if the aroma of fresh cookies filled her mouth with drool. Back in her room, there were things she needed to do before eating. She paid homage to Aunt Barbara, placing the nicest smelling piece by her picture frame. Next was covering her desk in a clean towel in lieu of a tablecloth and folding a pretty bandanna into a napkin. A duct tape flower decorated the space. After a prayer of thanks, she took her first bite. At first, it tasted like a cracker in need of dip. As she chewed, spices spread through her mouth and into her nose. Tension fell from her shoulders and neck. The more she ate, the more her cookie took on an extra flavor she couldn’t describe. The closest she could get was “a hug from the whole family.” When she checked on her aunt, Barbara’s cookie was gone, crumbs and all.   College was a never-ending battle between sleeping in and being on time for class. Bab had just enough time to pull on jeans and run to the Humanities Building, cursing herself with every step. Life was hard enough as is, she shouldn’t make it worse by writing papers after 2am. By pinching the back of her hand, she stayed awake all through the lesson. The effect faded as she headed to the bathroom, where she fought not to drift off on the toilet. She was washing up when a familiar voice went “I said ‘Hey!’” It was Jen, dormmate and Political Science/Africana Studies major, standing between her and the exit. Bab stretched her lips into a smile. “Not working today?” Jen laughed and shook her head. The beads tipping her braids tinkled as she moved. Bab wished she had a scarf to hide her own hair. “My internship with the Congresswoman is this afternoon. I’m between classes now.” “I wouldn’t want to keep you,” Bab hoped the other girl didn’t notice the wobble in her voice. “There’s time yet.” Jen headed for the water closets and paused. “You’re the reason the kitchen smelled so good this morning?” Bab forgot how to breathe. Nodding had to do. “Will you come next Sunday? The three of us can’t make dessert to save ourselves.” Without waiting for an answer, Jen entered a stall. The sliding lock sounded like a guillotine blade. It was all Bab could do to run to her next seminar. Terror percolated inside her, tightening her throat until she couldn’t get a lungful. The Number Systems for School Teachers lecture passed in a haze of greying vision. At her next course, the professor took one look at her and ordered her to rest. Back in her room, Bab spent an endless time curled on her bed, fighting for air. Clattering from the dresser pulled Bab out of herself enough to check the noise’s source. Auntie’s picture had fallen. “Thanks,” she returned to the bed, hugging the portrait like a teddy bear. Her heart bumping against the frame’s glass made a double beat, Auntie’s pulse moving in time with hers. Bab’s airway relaxed, and her head cleared enough to grab last night’s cookies. “What should I do?” she said after filling Auntie in on the bathroom encounter. “Dad and Papa couldn’t teach me black girl stuff. Jen and her friends have way more practice than me.” She took a bite. “If I change my mind, they’ll know something’s up, but if they get to know me, they’ll be just like my boy roommates and…” Aunt Barbara was pursing her lips. “You haven’t heard Jen, Maria and Tanya speak. Their majors are going to help them ‘change the world.’” Bab stuck her chest out, superhero style. Auntie raised her eyebrows. “I know becoming a teacher’s important,” she sighed. “But tell that to people outside my department. Anyway, that’s not the main reason they’ll hate me.” She glanced at Auntie’s cookbook. “On Sundays the kitchen smells like those TV shows with sassy mothers who teach girls how to cook the ‘real way.’” She made finger quotes. “Nothing like what we eat at home. They’ll take one look at my food and treat me like my old roommates.” Her stomach twisted. “I don’t want to go to the hospital again.” Finishing the cookie kept the worst throat swelling away. She still felt like barricading herself until graduation. Light glinted from the portrait. When Bab took a closer look, Auntie met her eyes. Aunt Barbara resembled a professor, stern but caring. If photos could speak, Bab would be getting a speech on conquering fear. The eye lecture finished with Auntie glancing in the direction of her book. Bab crossed the room, picked it up, and flipped through the dessert section. She doubted grapenut pudding would go over well. Apple-cheddar pie might work, but she wasn’t masochistic enough to make crust from scratch. Hermits seemed easy enough, but the next recipe stopped her cold. Froggers. Above the recipe, Aunt Barbara had written a few notes about Lucretia Brown, the inventor. Bab read and reread the page before saying “They might like it.”   Summer lessons meant more homework and less time. Bab spent her free days camped in the library, reading hundreds of pages worth of assignments before trudging back to her room to bang out papers. She peeked from her window before going outside. Maria, a Soul Food Sunday girl, wasn’t out running laps. Bab headed to the library, wiping sweat off her palms every couple of steps. If the Pre-Law/Economics student wasn’t marathoning, she was on work-study. Bab needed to find a secluded corner to avoid detection. Maria was nowhere near the front desk when Bab checked out her classes’ reserve texts. She walked the opposite way from the book return cart, in case the girl was shelving. Bab spent the next two hours in the clear until it came time to make copies. The other girl was bent over loading paper into the machine, looking more voluptuous than Bab could hope to be. Bab closed her eyes, praying to avoid a repeat of yesterday. “Hey.” Maybe starting the conversation would help. The other girl yelped, whirling around and overbalancing. Bab rushed to steady her, half-wondering if she landed in a romantic comedy. Maria’s face flushed redder than her shirt. “I didn’t see you.” It was Bab’s turn to freeze. She studied the wall behind the other girl’s head as she tried to form words. “Oh! You’re coming Sunday,” Maria sounded relieved. “We can talk then.” She stepped away from Bab and hurried to the front desk. Two hours and five textbooks later, Bab emerged from the library, dazed. Motor memory led her to the campus coffee shop, where she ordered a red eye. She needed the caffeine to unfry her brain and conduct decent extracurricular research. Maria was nowhere to be found when Bab walked to the reference librarian’s desk. There wasn’t too much on Lucretia Brown, but what existed came from places like the Smithsonian. The state historical society had a series of frogger recipes as well as official documents on Brown’s business. Bab’s coffee went cold as she pored over the papers.   “What do you think, Auntie?” Bab asked that night. “Those three might hate them because they have ‘frog’ in the name.” Aunt Barbara didn’t react. Bab twisted her hands and continued. “I found a zillion ways to make froggers. Some I don’t have to buy a ton of new ingredients for. One is similar to your happiness cookies and isn’t very sweet. They’ll think I was lying about making dessert. Another’s fried, not baked. Those three…” She drifted off as Auntie wrinkled her nose. “What do you think I should do?” Bab said, hoping Auntie wouldn’t give the obvious answer. She gave Bab a hard stare. “I can’t do that,” Bab said, backing away. “I’m safer not making friends.” She bumped into her bed. Auntie looked miserable. Bab stroked the picture frame before returning to fretting. Silently this time. Every recipe called for allspice, which promoted luck, success and health. It was also quite masculine. Bab wasn’t keen on infusing virility in herself or the others. Liquor united the feminine elements of water and earth, but she was too young to buy the rum froggers required. Bab prayed rum extract with its high alcohol content was an acceptable substitute. Auntie’s book had nothing to say about the power of molasses. Maybe it took after its sister sugar in terms of protection and enhancement. It could also be a soul food ingredient, though Bab was too afraid to check.   Spices were never cheap. Bab spent the next few days outside of class in the city. Ethnic enclaves had spices at better cost than supermarkets, and she was going to find the best prices. She always went on foot to channel bus fare into grocery cash. Her feet swelled until she could barely pull her shoes off at night, but she got all the seasonings she needed, plus extra rice flour. By Saturday afternoon, Bab recovered enough to limp to the market nearest to the dorms. Butter was easy enough to find, but molasses and extract remained elusive, no matter how many times she wandered Aisle 5. Between her focus on the shelves and her still complaining legs, she didn’t notice company until she bumped into them. Bab’s heart froze when she realized who she crashed into. Tanya was Jen and Maria’s buddy, a Business/Chemistry major and heir to a cosmetics firm that made products for black women. She might have been in jeans and ponytail, but her skin glowed and her hair smelled of jasmine and coconut oil. “I’m sorry!” Bab couldn’t apologize fast enough. “I should have seen you-” Tanya waved her hand. “I ran into you. Let me make up for it.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a wad of papers. “Have a coupon.” Bab reached for the offering, doing her best not to brush Tanya’s fingers. She didn’t want to piss the girl off by mistake. There were discounts on powdered soup, meal replacement shakes, frozen dinners… “Mind if I have this one?” Bab held up a voucher for oranges. Tanya shrugged. “It’s not like I’ll get scurvy.” Bab’s grin felt foreign on her mouth. “They’re also great for clearing the mind and cheering you up.” The other girl raised an eyebrow, something Bab had yet to master. “Isn’t that what chocolate’s for?” Bab’s cheeks burned, but before she could answer, Tanya said, “Maybe I’ll get some chocolate peanut butter this week. They taste good with strawberry Caffeine Bombs.” She waved goodbye. Bab couldn’t decide whether to stare at her, or her basket of white bread and neon drinks. She resumed her search for the remaining ingredients, trying to imagine what Auntie would think of Tanya’s cuisine. There could be rage, terror, or horrific rage. “Victory!” Bab announced later in her room. “Now I have everything for froggers.” She picked up the portrait. “Will it be all right?” Auntie beamed. “Of course you think that, we’re family. I don’t have that advantage for tomorrow.” Aunt Barbara looked Bab up and down before raising her chin. Bab crossed her arms over her bust. “They’re prettier than I am, and I don’t think a padded bra would help.” Auntie’s eye narrowed. “What’s worth knowing about me?” Her voice wobbled. Auntie glanced at the mirror. Bab stood in front of it for ages, trying to see what Aunt Barbara did. It never appeared. Whenever she turned away, Auntie nodded for Bab to return. Her throat ached from not shrieking her frustration. Her reflection continued to show someone who did not have the looks, goals or background as the other black girls in the dorm. She had bits and pieces of other kin in her appearance, like Papa’s forehead, Grandfather’s nose, and Auntie’s love of frilly blouses. Bab straightened her back and assumed the formal pose of Auntie’s portrait. She still couldn’t find what Auntie saw, but her urge to scream faded. Maybe one of these years she’d be as awesome as Auntie believed.   If Bab was going to bake undisturbed, she was better off starting at midnight. The cookies wouldn’t be the freshest, but she half-remembered one recipe saying froggers grew tastier with time. Or she could scrub the kitchen for so long, Monday would roll by before she finished. Giving the counter, sink and other surfaces the once-over wasn’t going to be enough if she wanted to win the trio’s favor. Bab scoured until her arms ached, shook them out, and started again. She filled her head with prayers for the cookies’ success and her continued safety. Whenever her mind wandered, she bit hard on her tongue. Now that she thought about it, froggers might taste better if she rewashed the baking sheet. As she worried it with a sponge, she caught a glimpse of herself on the aluminum. She was nothing more than a blobby outline, but it was enough to remember the afternoon. Auntie thought she was worth something and Bab needed to act the part. She preheated the oven and pulled out the measuring cup. Auntie’s recipe didn’t specify rice flour, but she could do with its protection. The spices that went into happiness cookies went into the mixing bowl, along with lucky nutmeg and ginger’s love. Macho allspice went in after all, to impart success. Wet ingredients went into another bowl, before she combined everything to make a sticky dough. Nothing a bit of flour couldn’t fix. She rolled everything out with the side of an empty glass, used the mouth of the same cup to cut out froggers and stuck them in the oven. Baking and cooling times stretched until every second felt like forever. Despite her best efforts, no amount of tidying would speed things. Sweat oozed from her face and armpits. As soon as she could move the cookies without burning herself, Bab fled to her room. “I did it!” She hitched her shoulders in lieu of a fist pump. Dropping the froggers now would mean baking them later in front of an audience. Once they were safely on her desk, she fell to her knees. “I thought of you as much as I could and how you want me to be.” On the floor, she couldn’t meet Auntie’s face. “I’m still not there, sorry.” Even through her jeans, the tiled floor felt so cool, but passing out here would mean a stiff back in the morning. “Just a minute.” It took a few tries to lurch off the floor and back on her feet. Bab placed a frogger by Auntie’s picture. “What do you think?” Between one blink and the next, the cookie vanished. Auntie’s smile threatened to push her cheeks off.   It was ten when Bab woke up, and eleven before she rolled out of bed. She only had a few hours, and laundry wouldn’t do itself. Typical for Sunday, all the machines were full, but one just had a few minutes left to run. She buried herself in a textbook, wondering if she could drop out of dinner, saying she had a test tomorrow. Auntie would be disappointed in her. The afternoon vanished in a flurry of chores, grooming and actual homework reading. Bab shaved, brushed her hair until her arm ached, and smoothed out the wrinkles in one of her nicer shirts. Whenever her throat threatened to swell, she turned back to studying. An hour before the event, Bab’s heart thrummed in her ears. She had one last thing to do before she was ready, but it meant going to the kitchen, possibly in front of everyone. The room was filled with cell phone music and off-key singing. Tanya and Maria’s backs were to Bab as they chopped away. Jen hadn’t arrived. Bab was free to cover the table with a freshly washed sheet, though she ached to clap her hands over her ears. The file quality, song genre and the girls’ lack of skill made it Vogon poetry in human mouths. She placed her duct tape flower in the center of the table before retreating to gather the froggers. When she returned, the pair was belting out what might have been “Baby Come to Me.” Bab prayed “4:33” was next on the playlist as she arranged cookies on her largest plate. She couldn’t do anything more artful than a pyramid of concentric circles, but it looked good enough for a magazine. A shriek stole the last of her hearing. “Bab, when did you get here?” Bab turned to Tanya, rubbing her ears. “I didn’t want to interrupt.” Tanya laughed. “It’s either sing or put up with Maria’s preaching.” “Soul food _isn’t_ vegan,” the third girl hissed. “Aren’t you making peas and carrots?” Tanya said. “Doesn’t count, I use butter,” Maria said. “See what I mean?” Tanya said to Bab with a hammy sigh. Bab’s smile shook around the edges. “Why not vegan?” “Thank you!” Tanya abandoned her cutting board to crush Bab in a hug. “You understand.” “Does that mean no cookies tonight?” Bab winced at her lack of subtlety. “They have dairy.” “Of course cookies,” Tanya stepped back, giving her a hard look. “Cookies need butter, chicken need salt, and collard greens are better with orange juice instead of pork.” “Blasphemy,” called a new voice from the doorway. Jen walked in, arms full of cans and equipment. “Smoked pork is food of the gods.” As the trio rambled amongst themselves, tension fell from Bab’s shoulders. She set the table, making sure everything was picture perfect while the others worked by the stove and countertops. Aside from the odd comment thrown in her direction, they left her alone until their food was ready. “What did you do?” Jen breathed as she took in Bab’s handiwork. “It looks like a real Sunday dinner now.” “Ahem,” Tanya said, looking in the direction of the garbage bin. An empty tube of biscuit dough and gravy can sat on top of the trash. “I was busy--” Jen started, but Maria cut her off. “I forgot salt, gravy will help the peas and carrots.” She plopped her dish next to the duct tape flower. “Let’s start?” No one commented on Bab sitting in the spot closest to the door. They were too busy saying things that threatened to stop her heart. “How’s the food? Maria used fresh carrots this time.” Tanya wiggled her eyebrows. Maria, Bab’s bench partner, turned the color of rust. The taste was on par with cafeteria food. Bab liked safety too much to say it aloud. “You’re right, it does go well with gravy.” Maria stared at her plate as more blood rushed to her face. “You know what would be great? Bacon.” Jen said. “Everything it touches turns to magic.” Bab opened her mouth, closed it and lowered her head so no one could see her face. Auntie’s cookbook never limited power to a single ingredient. The other girls were too busy arguing which brand of cured meat was best to notice Bab. It wasn’t long before the serving plates emptied. With competition out of the way, the froggers perfumed the table and made full stomachs grumble. “Are these the cookies you made last week?” Jen asked. Bab shook her head. “It’s a diff--” the trio snatched froggers for themselves and went to work reducing them to crumbs. Jen’s first bite took out a third of her cookie. Her eyes widened. Tanya chewed slowly, lost in thought. Maria closed her eyes and clasped her hands like a church lady. “What did you say these were?” “They’re molasses cookies.” Bab coughed, but her throat kept tingling. “Froggers.” “Made with real frogs?” Tanya said, her mouth wry. Bab took a deep breath and wished her lungs were bigger. “A woman named Lucretia Brown invented them.” All eyes were on her, none of them hateful. She looked at Tanya. “Lucretia was a black woman who ran an inn and made perfume and other things to sell.” To Jen and Maria she added “She was born in 1772 Massachusetts and owned property.” No one spoke. They were too busy considering their froggers. Bab took one for herself and bit in deep. Spices spread through her mouth and seeped into her being. Her throat relaxed enough to ask “Maria, mind if I jog with you tomorrow?” before she realized it. A second mouthful of cookie kept panic at bay. Maria’s ears darkened, but she said “I’d like that. Front door at eight A.M.? Wear good shoes.” Bab took a second frogger, but when she reached for a third, all she found was an empty plate. Hearing the trio tease each other as they helped with cleanup almost made up for it. The lack of singing certainly did. With four people helping, dishes and everything else were done in no time. Bab trailed the other girls out of the kitchen, itching to tell Aunt Barbara about tonight. It was too soon to tell how they’d take knowing Bab’s whole self, but for now they added warmth she couldn’t get with cookies alone. END     "Barbara in the Frame” was originally published in FIYAH and is copyright Emmalia Harrington, 2017. This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the Google Audio Library. You can support GlitterShip by checking out our Patreon at patreon.com/keffy, subscribing to our feed, leaving reviews on iTunes, or buying your own copy of the Summer 2018 issue at www.glittership.com/buy. You can also support us by picking up a free audiobook at  www.audibletrial.com/glittership. Thanks for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a new issue and a GlitterShip original, "Raders" by Nelson Stanley.


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 18 April 2019  34m