One time I had a barley wine that tasted like a summer’s day. Like too-tall, dry grass and tough, roadside flowers, with a bit of carroty sweetness, like Queen Anne’s Lace. You could taste sunburn and a day without socks and racing bikes over dirt hills. It was called Invictus and it was brewed in a pub that no longer exists and that I only went to that once, a guest of older, wealthier friends. I remember the bottle and its black and white label. I remember the stopper. I remember the thick polyurethane coating on the wooden table. I remember all of this because I can never have it again.
On a space station shaped like a carousel where the main export is freeze-dried rations, there wasn’t much to make liquor out of. I managed to distill some aquavit from kitchen waste, mostly potato peels. It was clear and pungent, flavoured with whatever I could find extra in the food stores—sauerkraut or onion. Sometimes garlic. Dried but potent flavouring agents were necessary for the freeze-dried rations. Sauerkraut doesn’t reconstitute well, so no one missed it.
Then one glorious day, a ship was in trouble and had nothing to pay with but cuttings from their herb garden. For the first time in a year as head cook, I had dill, basil, and oregano. It was a fight to keep the plants alive and unconsumed.
A single basil leaf mulled into Citric Acid Supplement Twelve and a dash of my bathtub vodka was a trip to silk and candlelight over Venetian canals. Oh, how I savoured it, but everyone wanted a taste, and tore leaves off the plants when I wasn’t around. Greed was killing the shoots faster than I could coax them to grow.
The only way to save the flavours was to make more aquavit.
The first two bottles of garlic dill were greedily consumed. I took the third and set it on the station main concourse, on a high shelf that had once held some removed equipment. The crew looked at me like I’d lost my mind. “What are you doing, Cookie? I thought we’d drink it tonight!”
“Why drink it when you can look at it?” I said. The sprig of dill in the bottle was still green, floating serenely. “It’ll last a long time. Something green in this gritty, metal place. Or you can drink it now, and never have it again.”
I felt the crowd subside. I went back to the kitchen. Every day I walked by, every day I lived on that station, that bottle stayed where I put it.
My friend Dr. Dave, who was one of those, I think, in the brew pub with the Invictus, was the person who introduced me to aquavit. He had a collection of rare and unusual alcohols and after watching three grown men shake tears from their eyes after shots of horseradish vodka, well, I had to give it a try, skinny little girl that I was. It burned all right, but I tried mixing it with a shot of pickle juice and then it was lovely.
Dr. Dave had a two-hundred-year-old bottle of Grand Marnier. The label was hand-lettered, the cork sealed with wax. “I have no idea,” he said, “if this is any good or if it’s turned to vinegar by now.” I was rooted to the spot, there in his kitchen with the collection of novelty mugs and oven mitts, horrified and overjoyed at once as he cracked the seal and opened it. The bottle was small, medicinal, and the liquid a clear tawny yellow.
It smelled faint, like the lingering perfume in dried flowers, but on the tongue, by some alchemy, it burst into fresh oranges, tart and sweet and pure. The flavour danced on the senses, warmed the skull, and effervesced into air far too quickly.
I left that carousel-shaped station. Got my debts paid enough and thought I’d retire back to the green and damp. Only made it as far as Mars and the less said about those two years the better, but ships can always use someone who knows how to make garbage edible, so I got out, and was a head cook again.
Must have been on twenty years gone when we docked at my old station and, wouldn’t you know it, there was my dill aquavit. They’d built it a little shrine-like thing of gold-coloured paper mache and glass baubles. I couldn’t recognize the corridor for all the new panels, new openings and such, but here was a bottle I’d sealed with my own hands. I picked it up.
So many people sucked in their breath at once you’d think I’d pierced the airlock. I turned to find children and old people, station admins and security, all staring at me like I held their god in my hand.
“I made this,” I said.
“It’s magic,” a little boy said, eyes wide. “It keeps the air clean.”
“No,” a man said. “It’s a relic from Earth. Passed down from the founder of the station.”
“It’s aquavit and it was made right here. It’s garlic and dill. I mean, it might not even taste like anything, anymore.” The waxed stopper was brittle with age. The silicone plug I’d used as a cork slid out with a satisfying pop. A startling smell of fresh onions and dill filled the air like a spring morning in a farmer’s market.
Someone wailed in pain. I’d robbed them of a myth, and a possession.
Station security shouldered their way forward, ringed me, weapons drawn. I had the bottle halfway to my mouth and realized I might not survive drinking from it. My captain and crew were nowhere around.
I lowered the bottle. “Get some glasses, and some pickle brine, and any fresh herbs you might have on hand.” I smiled and motioned gently toward them, guns and all. I leaned heavily on my grandmotherly appearance and stubbornness. Most people will go along with you if you act like of course they will. “Go on. I’m seventy-eight. I’m not fighting anyone and if I die here, so be it.”
Slowly, people moved. A long-suffering soul in an apron came forth with a folding table. I recognized a fellow chef from the painful wobble of swollen feet.
With the brine and herbs, I made one bottle serve out to a hundred station residents. I served it in shot glasses and juice cups, soup bowls and thimbles. There was a solemnity, a mass-like quality to it. No one drank until all were served. I didn’t take a sip for myself. I waited. Cups raised. Eyes widened.
“Wow,” a woman said.
Then there was jubilation, discussion. A few people messed around with the ingredients on my table, arguing. I drank their reactions in to full satisfaction.
The station administrator arrived, with more security. She frowned at the happiness for a while and finally got around to saying, “It wasn’t yours to give out, even if it was yours, once.”
“Don’t tell me these people enjoyed the bottle half as much as they are right now?” Someone had re-filled it with water. The old dill sprig was worse for the wear, but proud, like a rain-soaked feather in a natty hat. “Oh, relax. I’ll give you the recipe, you can make another.”
“No. You need to pay back in kind,” she said. “And I don’t think you can.”
“I think I can.” I’d been brewing and I had several bottles of barley wine. The warm, floral notes awoke some ancient race-memory, taking us to where plants were plentiful enough to walk on and the air was flavoured with chlorophyll. It was my very closest attempt to re-creating Invictus.
Oh, they held me in the brig, but they agreed it was good. “It’s not magic, though.”
“Sure it is. Take this last bottle, and put it on your altar.” I hefted it, a pleasant globe of glass, warm in my palm. “It was distilled from the very soul of a traveller.”
It was this extraordinary colour, sparkling like topaz and dark like good, fertile soil. I could tell they didn’t think it would work, but when I set it on their gilt shelf, everyone sighed. A sphere of Earth. They let me go, of course. I’d replaced their liquor and their myth.
Story copyright © 2020 by Marie Vibbert
Artwork copyright © 2020 by P. Emerson Williams
Marie Vibbert has sold over 50 stories and dozens of poems, including work in Asimov’s, Analog, and F&SF. Her novel Galactic Hellcats, about a female biker gang rescuing a gay prince, is forthcoming from Vernacular Books.By day she is a computer programmer in Cleveland, Ohio.
P. Emerson Williams has an extensive background as a multimedia artist whose work synthesizes alchemical musical expressions with visual art, video, and performance. As a member of UK theatrical company FoolishPeople, his work included the creation of soundscapes and scores, set and graphic design, and live and voice acting. Williams brings his visual work to performing live with Jarboe around the world, expanding these performances with aspects of multimedia, including painted banners, video using footage shot around the world, and animation created from his own visual art.