Special Gin Fizz—gin, honey (replacement for simple syrup), soda water, lime juice and crushed juniper berries (Egg white if you can, but it’s just as good without)
A change of seasons cocktail. I first tried this in the Cotswolds, in autumn. That year, spring barely whisked across the hills and summer was as soft and short as a half-hearted wish, never quite creeping down to the floor of the woods or the lake shores. It was 1914 and I was staying there with my lover, Oskar, in the great stone house where fires that smelled of cinnamon always burned gently in the hearths. The drink, too, tasted of that spice, although there is none it. Perhaps that woodsmoke permeated everything—the air, our drinks, our dreams. Cinnamon is an old aphrodisiac, you know. The bite of the gin was emphasised by the crushed berries, but the honey is my own addition, in memory of my lover. The drinks in this book have all changed, just a whisper, when they pass into my hands from another’s. Much the same way as a story, I suppose.
In the evenings, Oskar and I would sit in the apple orchard, sipping Gin Fizz and trying to forget the world outside our small patch. I would have given everything I had for things to stay that way forever. But it was not that kind of world. One evening, he said to me, “Tell me your secrets.”
We both knew that secrets are the only way to really know someone. I only sipped my drink and watched the moon, dropping light on the land like rivers of mercury, and replied “The only ones we can trust with our secrets are the bees.”
Next day, he took me walking in the woods beyond the lake, where it was cool and green, autumn’s amber just touching the leaves. There was no path to follow, but every now and then he would stop and pull and ribbon from his pocket, tie it onto a branch or wedge it into a knothole.
We arrived at a clearing, full of bees in flight. The hive hung from an oak tree, great segments of honeycomb among the leaves. The little insects went from blossom to blossom, along the invisible bee-paths known only to them, and crawled across the hive in their endless industry. Holding my hand under it, honey dripped onto my fingertips and I licked it gently away, then kissed Oskar in thanks. He whispered to me to follow the ribbons back when I was done, then disappeared between the trees.
The bees went about their gentle work and I opened my mouth to speak, but shame dried my words in my throat. I touched the hive, lifted my finger to my lips to take a lick of honey-courage.
“My lover is German. We are at war with his country.”
The bees, they didn’t judge, simply flew around me, making trails in the air and weaving my words into different shapes, of apple trees and curls of smoke. In their buzzing, their response.
Love is love is love . . .
It became more urgent.
Soon, a terrible secret will be yours, one even we cannot keep . . .
A chill ran me through. “Then how . . . ?” I didn’t even know where to begin.
The buzzing became a refrain.
They sang to me as I followed the ribbons back to the man I loved, who the world had made my enemy.
Brandy, orange liqueur, sour cherries and a lick of champagne (best drunk late at night and after only one or two wines—this one has the kick of a mule)
The bees were right. Not long after that day, a terrible secret dropped anchor inside me, and I held onto it for years. Until it became unbearable. But I had never forgotten the bees. I remembered the old stories and songs, about the creature who bridged this world and the underworld. Who rode side by side with death, but was king of a realm that overlapped with the woods and green places of our world. Who better to unburden me once and for all?
So, in 1923, my search for the Erl-King began.
There are many different paths to the Erl-King’s realm, as many as there are different stories and songs and names for him, and his ilk. Some find their way through a door carved with blackbirds, and almost hidden by lichen and moss. Others are spirited away by a swift wind, stealing them from this world into his, or follow the sounds of hoofbeats at midnight on Hexennacht. But I had no intention of waiting for a doorway to appear, or to listen for music from underneath a mountain—to leave it to chance in any way.
I remembered the honey on my fingertips that day in the woods, and of the cherries that fruit in winter under the Erl-King’s touch; the bark of the cassia that flavours stews and cakes; the stories of feasts laid out for the fae, how the right sort can tempt them and they, in turn, can tempt others.
Now, I am no cook, but have always mixed an excellent tipple (and other concoctions that led to trouble in the first place—but that is only for the Erl-King to know, when I see him). I began with this one—brandy for warmth, oranges for sweet and bitter tongues. Cherries for their cyanide hearts. The celebration of champagne. Life and death, desire and revenge, opposites blended into one. For what is death but rebirth, and revenge love turned sour? All the things that make the fae dance and the Erl-King call for more. It was my own soured love that I sought to purge myself of—so many of us carried secrets and sadness from the Great War, leaving us piecemeal versions of what we may otherwise have been. Mine is bound up in love and enemies and betrayal. The oldest story in the book.
This brandy cocktail fortified my resolve and set my direction. For the King of Elves, what better than that which entices the tongue and dances across the senses? That brings with it joy, disinhibition mayhem? This is where my search began.
Loose sheet of paper, folded between the book’s pages.
Ingredients for cocktails
- Candied orange and lemon
- Burnt figs
- Champagne (of course!)
- Honey—best available, fine and golden; where appropriate, dotted with slivers of truffles
- Homemade ginger wine and gooseberry wine (need three months to develop after it’s bunged up, but will stay good for years. Recipe in back cover).
- Sour cherries in syrup
- Violets and rose petals. Rosewater.
These are, I think, the types of things that could lead me to the Erl-King, or him to me. (I also want to say things like woodsmoke and starlight, or the silver reflection of the waning moon on a lake, for I think he would be drawn to them, too. But I can only work with certainties, not ephemera). The art of poisons that I learnt from my mother—careful mixing, exactitude in measurement, intimate knowledge of their effects—can be applied here just as well.
[there is a short addenda on the other side of the list, written in a different pen and shakier hand] Knowing this, that I must use my art for something positive—even though the last time, so long ago, cracked my heart in two—already makes me feel a bit lighter. Perhaps the Erl-King is not so far away, after all.
Champagne, fig syrup, rosewater and a smidge, a trickle of honey
Ugh! Too sweet by half, and after three of these, I ended up with a tremendous headache. Even the nightmares it gave me—in the same way that cheese before bed gives me bad dreams—yielded no result.
There are dozens of entries like this one—some of the comments she made under the recipes give an insight into how she came to take the path that she did . . .
“We danced down by the river that night, and along the streets, that big moon lighting up the alleyways. The war was years ago, but for those of us who lived it, it could have been yesterday. So we danced for those who didn’t come home. We danced for our friends, who will never dance again . . . ”
“That day, we began with Bees Knees at brunch. I came home with twig and leaves in my hair, shoes on the wrong feet and a smile that didn’t leave me for three days! A break like this is just what the doctor ordered.”
“Talk turned to the zeppelins that had flown over London, dropping bombs and bringing mayhem. But we’d seen it through, hadn’t we? I didn’t tell them that I had gone Stratford just after that. Couldn’t tell them about Oskar, then, the “enemy alien” . . . such ugly words for a gentleman. One who taught me his native German and one who I lost twice over. But, talking about the past that day, over mulled wine, I began to think once more about the poisons that are also cure or expand the mind, and experience. I wondered if I dared use them again.”
- Mandrake (member of the nightshade family, induces vivid dreams and trances). Myth has it that it grows where the seed of hanged men falls. Use lightly; this can also induce delusions. Aphrodisiac.
- Ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Nutmeg. All aphrodisiacs, but also the spice can mask the bitterness of many poisons.
- Saffron—turns food and drink golden, has a slightly warm, woody flavour. Can temper the effects of emetics.
- Hemlock—in the right dose, this is a sedative, not a killer.
- Belladonna—produces hallucinations, including the appearance of faces, trees and snakes. Gives the world a mist, like looking through a sheer curtain.
- Monkshood (wolfsbane)—can give the feeling of numbness, reputed to be used in the flying salves of witches.
Champagne, truffled honey, saffron and a measure of Belladonna. A drop or two of rosemary oil on the surface. Garnish with a sprig of Asphodel.
Winter usually bleeds into a London spring, and this year was no different. So this bevy felt perfect for the season; it was no longer icy, the skies had lost their heavy grey cloak, but the air was still crisp and an evening drizzle washed the day away. Asphodel, grey and yellow, sparked in the saffron bubbles—a sign of respect for the underworld and its rulers, but also a call to one who might defy death. Or at least be curious about a woman who would be foolish enough to challenge it.
I had my measures right—I have learnt to triple check—but sipped my drink with trepidation, sitting in the drawing room that looked over the back garden, darkness falling along with a spring shower. As I walked outside to light the garden lamps, the first face appeared in the old beech tree, in the corner of the garden. It poked out from the bark, first looking like a young woman, then aging into the face of a crone. She smiled at me. Her teeth were pointed and, I suppose, were meant to scare me. I smiled, and she disappeared, subsumed by the trunk again. My pulse raced (from excitement or the belladonna, who can say? But I was sure I had my measures right) and though others say that the world appears as though through a veil when belladonna is ingested, I felt as though the veil had been lifted. That I was closer than ever before to that which I sought. The lilies opened and closed, puddles ran up the trees in silver rivulets, and the moths flittering around the lamps left trails of gold and silver in their wake. As the world danced around me, more faces peered out from the trees, the rockery, even from the waters of the pond.
I opened my mouth to speak, but they put their fingers to their lips and shook their heads. An owl hooted in the darkness, then spoke in the same haunting, hollow tones.
“They will not answer your questions until you give them a truth.”
The owl didn’t answer, but it didn’t need to. I thought I knew what they were after –truth meant vulnerability. That is the kind of sacrifice the Erl-King would require. All around me, those strange, changeling faces watched me, expectant and just a little cruel.
I tried to summon my honey-courage from years before, and took a deep breath. “A long time ago, when the world was at war and it felt like everything was ending, I was in love with one of our enemies. He was not a soldier, or a fighter, just a man. That war, though, made me a fighter, of sorts. A silent, stealthy one. Poisons have always been a woman’s art . . . ”
I poured myself another sip of champagne and gave the asphodel to the watery pond-witch, who gulped it down whole. The owl swooped down on an unsuspecting moth, but all else was still and waiting.
“I poisoned the man that I loved and, in doing so, I killed him.”
The faces gasped and whispered to one another, sounding like wind through a winter forest. The owl glided down and perched on the side of the pond, looking up at me with its huge amber eyes.
“They say that your truth means you will need to bring with you one of each, to find who it is that you seek.”
“One each of what?”
“One of love, one of loss,” it hooted softly as it took to the wing again.
The faces melted away, and spindly fae hands reached out for me instead, branch and water and blossom beckoning. Faceless voices brushed by me in that same leaf-song, whispering a language I didn’t know, that made me weep all the same. They stayed with me for days afterward, as yellow eyes blinked at me and watched as I mixed various tinctures, experimented with different bevies.
What they did not know, of course, is that I refused to give them the whole truth. How could I, when I couldn’t even voice it to myself?
Homemade gingerwine, a rasp of nutmeg, a crumble of mandrake and a haunt of mead to finish, with three violets floating on the surface. Garnish with fermented fig and a small sprig of rosemary.
It wasn’t difficult for me to find Oskar’s grave again, even though it was not in any church or cemetery. A copse of yew trees, on the edge of the woodland just outside Stratford, a short distance from the internment camp where he had been held. We buried him in the early hours, just me and Sophie. She took my secret to her own grave, as I will hers (I will not share it even in my own diaries). We hadn’t had any time to perform any rites; I didn’t even shed a tear that night, although I certainly made up for afterwards.
So, when I found it again, monkshood growing where his body lay beneath the earth, I took my time—spoke to him in his mother tongue, talked of how the world had changed since the Great War, reminded him of the time we shared.
Told him I was searching for the Erl-King and raised my glass of wine and spice and love. I passed it over his grave, three times, the same way folk used to pass bread and wine over a corpse before passing them to a sin-eater. In the way of the sin-eater, I drank down Oskar’s transgressions and took them on myself, hoping that both he and I would find some peace. Then, with the drink still sweet on my tongue, the madragora took over.
The world was weightless, as was I. Twilight stretched around me—although it was only mid-afternoon—and was pinned with tiny stars that popped and burst and reappeared in the corners of my vision. Shadows moved between the trees and walked after them, at a distance. Gliding in and out between the trunks, slithering over the leaf-littered woodland floor, whispering past the foxgloves so that they moved as though in a soft breeze. They’re dancing, I thought. Then, Is he among them? But there was no answer in those faceless, lovely shades, only the sense of wandering and fluttering along with the veil between the worlds. It was tempting to allow the weightlessness to take me over, to take me dancing, too. To forget, and forever shift in the strangeling light of nowhere.
I licked my lips, tasted the light oil the crushed rosemary had left there. That faithful herb would not let me forget.
“Do you remember when we drank mead together, the winter we were snowed in for a week?” I asked.
The shadows continued to swirl and sway, stirring up the mulch, but did not answer back. I tried again.
“I suspect you did not have that many sins to divest, but I have taken them, all the same. It is the least I can do, after . . . ” I didn’t know how to finish. After what? How would I put into words how terribly wrong things had gone? That if I could take on his very death, that he might have even another day of life, I would? No words would make up for my sins against him.
The cocktail—well, the mandrake, most likely—was beginning to make my head swim. Fruit that was not of this earth bloomed on the trees, then withered to a husk, only to bloom again.
“It was a terrible, terrible mistake,” I whispered. The shadows stopped; the fruit stilled on the branches. “You should not have died. The minute you drank it, I realised my error. We tried, Sophie and I, to revive you, but the antidote was too weak. Years have passed since then, but here I am, seeking your forgiveness.”
A real wind blew then, shaking the leaves from the branches and turning the shadows that, only moments before, had danced, to nothing more than thready remnants in the gloaming. I didn’t know if he forgave me or not, didn’t even know if he was there. The woods felt very empty. With his sins warming my belly, I turned to go.
When I got back to his grave, lying atop it was one of the fruits that had blossomed on the trees, just before. Dark as a bruise, it was the exact size and shape of a human heart. I picked it up, felt the weight of it in my hands and knew, without doubt, that he had heard me.
Absinthe and mead, served in a cup carved from a rowan tree. Wolfsbane, the same amount that was traditionally used in a flying salve. Elderflower liqueur and well-water, to dilute the cloying sweetness.
Where better to finish than back at the start? I went back to the Cotswolds, my autumn land, took a room in the old stone house and water from the stone well. Drink in one hand, his shadow-heart in the other, I walked to the wooden pier that stretches out over the lake, sat and dangled my bare feet over the edge. Though I could not see the bees, I imagined them at work on their hive, tracing invisible trails through the air that their brethren could follow. I sipped my drink and thanked them for setting me on my own trail, nine years before.
My toes skimmed the water and I closed my eyes, imagined that I was flying across the lake. Wished, for a moment, that I was one of those secret witches of years gone by, who flew with their sisters and followed the ways of the old gods. The sound of footsteps, heavy and solid and firmly earthbound made me open my eyes. Someone stopped behind me, placed a hand on my shoulder. In the lake’s waters, my reflection and that of the Erl-King; black eyes, a beard that looked like Spanish moss, skin as mottled as tree bark. He smelled of loam, and rainstorms, and spring winds. I sighed and stretched the tension from legs and back, rested my cheek on his hand. Nothing had ever felt so comforting; so like coming home.
I stood and handed him the rowan cup. He drank the last of the wolfsbane mixture, then we walked back to shore and into the woods together.
“Why have you come?” he asked.
“My secret is too heavy to carry with me anymore. Will you unburden me?”
He shifted, nearly disappearing into the shadows, as though he would let this place swallow him whole. Or was it that he would wrap it around him, wear it like a cloak? I suddenly felt very small.
“I have brought you something,” I said, hating the way my voice shook, but terrified that he could simply vanish at any moment. “One for love and one for loss.”
I held up the shadow-heart, and it beat slowly in my hands. If I could, I would have opened my own chest and stowed it there, safe next to mine. But that is not what shadow-hearts are for. All the same, I felt like I was losing Oskar all over again when I handed it to the Erl-King.
He raised it to his face, sniffed it, then turned it in the dappled light as though he was a jeweller examining a diamond for flaws. Nodding to me, he reached up and pulled down a cage made of tiny bones, interlaced. He unlatched it and put the heart inside, then hung it from a vine that was wrapped around his waist.
“Before you give me the one for love, tell me your secret.”
I almost couldn’t speak the words aloud and tell the story I had kept locked inside for so very long. But I had not come so far, created and failed and created again, only to stay silent. So I told him of my German lover, interred in a camp as an enemy alien when the Great War broke out and of how I could not stand the thought of him locked away, away from me. My plan had been simple—a sleeping draught that has the look of death, my dear friend Sophie and I posing as two of the young men who remove the dead from the camps, then sneaking away from Stratford and London with him, to wait out the war together.
But the art of poisons is a strange thing and I did not know my doses well enough. So, instead of sleep and escape, I delivered death to him in a tiny glass vial, and when Sophie and I were far from the camp, nothing we did would revive him. Taking his body to the authorities was out of the question—the signs of poisoning were obvious. So we buried him in a lonely field and I have lived with that terrible secret and guilt ever since.
“It eats me from the inside out,” I said. “I am terrified it will consume me entirely.”
“You need cannot it no longer,” the Erl-King said, stroking my hair. “For you have given it to me.”
He opened his palm, upon which sat a little green creature, with a long tail and fine whiskers, limbs like twigs and dark, sorrowful eyes. It scampered up his arm, sat on the Erl-King’s shoulder. And, just like that, it was unmoored from me.
My Oskar, with dark blue eyes and rakish smile. His soft voice and the smell of his skin. The callouses on his hands and the warmth of him in the dark of night. For the first time since he died, it no longer hurt to think of him.
There was a tickle in my throat, which was insistent, uncomfortable, then a scratching, as though something was trying to claw its way out. I began to cough and with a great, choking retch, I managed to expel it the thing that was choking me—a black cicada, with red eyes and paper-fine wings. The Erl-King pulled down another bone-cage, and popped the insect inside.
“His sins,” I said. “That, is for love.”
The Erl-King looked at me, and those eyes looked as though they had seen the whole world and were tired of it. I stood on my toes and, soft as the footsteps of a bee on blossom, kissed him. As though I could kiss away his cares. Then those same lips smiled at me and I smiled back.
I had finally called him forth with wormwood liquor and a witch’s brew; I had given him love and loss and the most terrible of secrets; and he had freed me. Asking for nothing else in exchange for so great a gift, the Erl-King turned and disappeared into the green gloom, with footsteps like faraway thunder.