Most Midwestern cooks use sage once a year. My mother was no different. Her stuffing was the best in the Kansas City Metro (self-proclaimed award), and she believed her stuffing’s magical powers came from one not-so-special ingredient.
Ordinary. Deadly. Sage.
None of us noticed Mom was using the wrong kind of sage from the start. Maybe it would’ve been fine, the absurd amount she insisted on depleting, since it was dry, ground sage, not fresh or rubbed. Dry, ground sage is barely anything. It tastes like pepper that’s not peppery enough for a mild salad or rosemary drained of pine. Dry, ground sage is the one-lane prairie highway of spices.
But we didn’t notice. We were woefully uneducated on the different types and implementations of sage. I’m not sure we all deserved to die as a result, but hindsight is useless in cases such as these, when unfathomable tragedy becomes the subject of grotesque speculation for generations.
Fifteen pounds of unthawed turkey waited on the rickety kitchen table, and an aluminum pan the size of a baby’s in-sink bathtub was filled with a mountain of breadcrumbs. The bulk ingredient of stuffing, they rested precariously on the edge of the counter, wedged between the oven and a board of chopped celery and onions. The house had the vaguely musty, bloody odor of roasting giblets. Later, the innards would be chopped along with the sausage, and the offal juice poured over the stale bread.
Those were the factory settings for stuffing. Recipes were personalized by the cook with ingredients meant to moisten and zest, everything from oysters to corn muffin mix, so the stuffing in every household was as different as their dysfunctions.
Tonight, all the elements were in their proper order. There was one canister of sage, one ounce that should’ve been plenty.
Then the unthinkable. Mom stared at me, her gaze flat and unblinking, as with menacing deliberation, she produced nine more canisters of dry, ground sage.
Generic, store brand, dry, ground sage to end us all.
The Thanksgiving Eve stuffing preparation was our special tradition. More people would come to the party later, but for now it was the three of us in my cousin’s kitchen. Uneasily, I slid my eyes at Angie, but she didn’t notice because she was agape at the massive display of sage.
I couldn’t have known what I said next was the hammer to the firing pin of my mother’s unbalanced psyche. “Mom, that’s, well, it’s quite a bit of sage.”
“This won’t be like last year,” Mom declared, an unfamiliar crackle in her voice. My God, she was already walking the precipice of insanity.
“What do you mean, Aunt Rita?” Angie’s tone was steady if guarded.
“Don’t you remember, dear girl? How bland the stuffing was? Everyone commented on it. Bethany, Becky’s new boyfriend, EVERYONE.”
“That’s only two people, I hardly think–”
Before I could finish, Mom snatched one of the plastic sage containers from the table and held it above the onions and celery it took me a half hour to slice. With a maniacal grin, she crushed the hard plastic in her palm, creating a flurry of sage that dusted the ingredients the herb was least likely to bind with.
Sage pairs well with fatty meats, butter, and eggs. That’s why people use it in stuffing. Coating the vegetables made no sense, but then again, Mom was clearly flirting with madness. I choked back sobs at the sight of the ruined vegetables.
“The sage is the key, girls,” she whispered.
We knew then we had to flee. But the oven timer dinged, and with the finishing of the offal came the beginning of our ends. Though perhaps we should’ve expected, we couldn’t know the sage would be our doom.
November thunderstorms are unusual in Kansas City, but on this eerie night, the flash of lightning was befitting. It was close enough the electricity flickered at the same moment Mom struck her lighter. The orange flame licked her green eyes, as reflective as a cat’s and twice as malign. When she opened her mouth, for the briefest of moments, her tongue unfurled, and I jumped. Mom’s tongue was unnaturally long and forked. As she sucked in a lungful of smoke, she turned to the oven, as spritely as she’d been in decades, and removed the giblets without bothering with oven mitts.
“Aunt Rita, no, you’ll burn your hands!”
Mom turned slowly, her head cocked to the side, considering my cousin’s advice. Her once papery skin was thick and scaly, transformed by her besaged lunacy. We stared at each other, Mom with her glassy, feline oblongs, Angie and I near tears at this terrifying metamorphosis, until she had to put down the casserole dish or risk cigarette ash destroying her recipe.
The laugh started as a titter, charming and crazy, and bloomed to a guffaw as she unloaded a second bottle of sage onto the steaming guts of the bird.
“Aunt Rita, there are other spices we can use. I have fresh thyme growing right in the windowsill.”
Without so much as a glance, Mom flicked her cigarette into the sink and shoved the third canister of sage into my cousin’s shaking hand. Her fingers were slender, blue with fearsome cold, and she began to weep as Mom forced them to curl around the dry, ground sage. Angie tried to turn away, but in her psychosis, Mom’s strength was supernatural. She held my cousin’s arm aloft, the innocent breadcrumbs poised to become the next victim of the seasoning rampage.
“No, please, no,” Angie wept desperately. “The sage won’t even stick to the breadcrumbs, not until we add the giblet juice and eggs. Don’t make me do this. I have a whole thing of Lawry’s seasoned salt. We can save this!”
With one meaty paw enclosed around my cousin’s, Mom used her free hand to pop open the herb. Angie screamed as the sage doused her face.
Angie struggled to spare the breadcrumbs the remainder of the sage. I wrapped my arms around her waist and tried to pull her away. If we couldn’t salvage the stuffing, maybe we could salvage our lives.
Suddenly, she stumbled backwards, and we slammed against the refrigerator. I thought we won, that we managed to escape with dignity left in the breadcrumbs and sage left in the canister.
But no. When I looked up, I realized though I may have freed Angie’s body, Mom retained possession of her arm. With obvious delight, she waggled my cousin’s severed limb, and in a final degradation, used Angie’s own hand to finish sprinkling the sage.
It was obvious by that point not only was the stuffing a lost cause, but the actual turkey was halfway to ruination. The turkey must’ve sensed it too. Headless and gutless, the bird’s carcass sprang from its perch and made a beeline for the screen door. It nearly escaped, but Mom snatched it by the drumstick and pinned it between her thighs. As it tried to squirm away, she wrenched open two more canisters of dry, ground sage and gleefully emptied them into the turkey’s cavernous remains. Though already dead, the turkey’s falsetto gobble as whatever numinous power that facilitated its final attempt at escape was snuffed out in a lethal shower of sage.
A second preternatural crack of lightning flashed outside the kitchen door, splitting a pear tree down the middle and sending sparks flying through the darkness.
I hunched over my cousin as blood spurted out of her stump. I tried to stop the bleeding, but my hands were slick with offal broth and sage coating. The cornflower blue of her eyes drained as she exsanguinated.
Angie pressed her remaining palm to my cheek. With a pitiful cough, she gasped, “It’s too late for me, but not for you. The thyme is in the windowsill, parsley too. Hell, I think there’s even some marjoram in the pantry. Don’t let her do this. You’re the last hope for us all.”
My cousin died in my arms amidst a squall of powdery sage, but there was no time to mourn. Before I could close Angie’s vacant eyes, my mother gripped my ponytail and yanked me to my feet. My fight wasn’t over.
Specifically for Thanksgiving, Mom owned an electric carving knife. The sound was innocuous enough, like a heavy artillery electric toothbrush, but she scraped the vibrating blade against my neck, scoring paper thin slices to ensure I obeyed her instructions.
I cracked the eggs. I chopped the giblets. I added the broth. I mixed it all with my bare hands, the purposefully stale breadcrumbs moistening. I added a generous dash of pepper, enough salt to bring out the flavor in the vegetables, and I foolishly hoped the work lulled my sage-fevered mother into complacency.
With my hands gobbed by the gummy stuffing, I reached for the metal spoon with a handle long enough to reach the darkest insides of the turkey. Perhaps dismembering and murdering her niece quelled Mom’s frenzy.
This was not the case.
“Don’t even think about it.” Mom pressed the electric knife against my wrist, millimeters from my basilic vein, which visibly pulsed beneath my skin. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
“No, Mom, please,” I sobbed quietly, understanding this fate would not be avoided. “This can’t fix what happened last year. It’s just going to be a different disaster.”
“Add the sage.”
“I don’t even care about the stuffing,” I wept. “I just want mashed potatoes and those jellied cranberries that make a sloorp sound when you take them out of the can. We shouldn’t have criticized. Let me go, you can do the stuffing however you want.”
Slowly, I reached for an unopened container of sage. I knew the only way to survive was to do what she asked, but in the end, I couldn’t. This wasn’t what Angie died for.
“More SAGE!” Gone was the collected veneer. Her mind was lost, replaced by a primitive reptilian focus of adding sage to every last element of the stuffing.
Etching my own tombstone, I hung my head. “I can’t.”
Mom revved up the electric carving knife as she pinned me against the table with inhuman strength. I screamed as she savagely sawed off my right hand.
The rest of the torture was a blur. The last thing I remember was staring into my cousin’s bright, dead eyes, paralyzed as my mother sliced a hole through my belly button and filled my abdominal cavity with dry, ground sage. She cackled joyfully, and my last thought was even though I was lying on a bed of sage and it was covering every inch of my body, because it was cheap, dry, ground sage, I could barely taste it. The sage was little more than annoying dust, and I thought it a fair punishment that Mom’s dressing would be dry, woodsy, and tasteless. I was going to tell her this year that both the stuffing and the turkey were juicier if cooked separately. Now she’d never know.
Let them all choke on their withered turkey and flavorless stuffing.
What happened to Mom after the massacre, I never learned. Angie and I were granted one last glance at earth. We floated above Angie’s kitchen, the linoleum scrubbed clean of the herb and blood. We wondered why we were being given this opportunity until the new homeowner entered the room with a purpose.
She was holding a brown bundle that she lit in the gas burner. She blew on the sticks so the room was filled with smoke rather than flames.
We realized it simultaneously, and our ghosts giggled together. The woman was blessing the room.
By burning sage.