Stone Telling

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Mushroom Barley Soup: An Invocation

by Shira Lipkin

for Esther Smolowitz, 1914-1989

When I curse, my profanity sours the broth.

I can't be too careful —
years of trial and error,
singing like my grandmother,
tripping forth the same mondegreen
(even though I know the lyrics) —
searching for the magic combination
that makes the food hers
makes it right
makes it home.

Each time, the ritual grows more elaborate,
complex —
her apron
the way her socks drooped
the hum behind her words
all of it hall-of-mirrors duplicated
down the years and down the kitchens
until I feel her,
just a wisp,
standing beside me,
sprinkling the salt.

Old magic
food magic
grandmother magic.

I try everything —
maybe it's the bowl,
green Depression glass
it's not her soup without it —
I try leaning as she did,
toward the end,
speaking half-nonsense
in the Yiddish she hardly knew.
She was born here,
learned from grandparents,
a smattering a scattering
good American girls don't —

I let slip a modernism.
She slips away.

I restart the ritual.
Wooden spoon
sensible shoes
slow-chopped mushrooms
singing singing
hesitate — there —
and I feel her creeping back.

She was not much taller than me.
Gnarled like friendly old trees
by the time I knew her;
never moved without pain.
I must be slow,
be patient.

My grandfather died when I was ten;
she never made the soup again.

Shira Lipkin is a writer, activist, mother, and nexus. She has managed to convince Interfictions 2, ChiZine, Apex Magazine, Steam-Powered, Mythic Delirium, and other otherwise-sensible magazines and anthologies to publish her short fiction and poetry. She lives in Boston with her family and the requisite cats, fights crime with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, does six impossible things before breakfast, and would like a nap now. You can track her movements at and Please do. She likes the company.

Photography: family photograph of Esther Smolowitz by an unknown photographer, with permission of the author.