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Fiction

Sturgeon Moon Jam

Once a year, during the Sturgeon Moon, a house appears off Seven Mile Line Road in the heart of Chickasee County. Native grasses surround it, thick and tall, protecting the house and its sprawling kitchen garden from view. The being who lives inside the house calls herself Helga Tillinger when she manifests here. The body she chooses is that of an unremarkable woman with salt-and-pepper hair. She wears loose, drab clothing and sensible shoes. This form renders her as close to invisible as any other she’s tried.

The Sturgeon Moon coincides each year with the Chickasee County Fair and, cloaked as Helga Tillinger, the being wanders through the animal pens, observing outrageously-feathered chickens and floofy bunnies and long-haired goats. She samples kettle corn and pulled taffy and fried pickles. She gazes at the prizewinning cross-stitches and quilts and embroidered doilies. She walks slowly but steadily through the fair, blending in with the crowd as this unremarkable female body is uniquely able to do.

Then, she reaches the preserves.

Oh! The preserves! Lined up in clear jars, they shine in every color imaginable, from pale grapefruit marmalade with suspended chewy slivers of peel, to smooth Concord grape jelly that’s a blue so deep it approaches black. Some of the flavors are outrageous with flowers and spices and bits of herb. Some of them let a single fruit shine in all its sweetness and depth.

The being who calls herself Helga Tillinger wishes she could plunge a digit in each jar and lick it clean. She wishes she could chat with the judges who purse their lips and prod their tongues against their cheeks with each taste. She wishes for sweetness and color.

When the fair closes, Helga returns to the farmhouse and spends the rest of the night cooking jam. In the kitchen garden, she grows blueberries and strawberries and raspberries and blackberries. She grows rosehips and lavender and rosemary, and chiles for a touch of spice. In the house’s ancient kitchen, she experiments with flavors and textures. She leaves some preserves chunky, while others she strains smooth. While the preserves cook and gel, she sterilizes jars in boiling water and, once the jars are full, she plunges them back into the water to seal. It’s hot, steamy work, at the end of which she has a row of jars full of preserves that no one but she will ever eat. It would be much easier for her to bring the fruit back home with her once the Sturgeon Moon sets. But easy is not the point.

Last year, after many moons of growing and picking and cooking and boiling, Helga achieved the perfect jar of strawberry-lavender jam. With trembling digits, she covered the metal cap with a square of pink-and-white-checked gingham and affixed a label to the neck with string. As her house faded from existence in Chickasee County, she placed the jar in the cabinet and closed the door.

Now, when the Sturgeon Moon rises and the being manifests within her house once again, she opens the cabinet. She half expects the jar to have vanished, just as the house does each year. But it hasn’t. It sits on the shelf right where she put it, whole and perfect and just as beautiful as she remembered. The being who calls herself Helga Tillinger knows she musn’t draw attention to herself while she’s here. But she can’t help but feel that this is a sign. And the fair beckons.

• • • •

The entry form is confounding, even to a being as advanced as Helga, and in the end she simply slips the jar onto the table with the other preserves when no one is looking. Then, she blends her unremarkable body into the crowd and waits for the judging.

The humans assigned to taste and rate the preserves move from jar to jar. They use identical plastic spoons, and they sample the jam both straight from the jar and atop plain dry crackers. Oh, how Helga wishes to stain her own teeth purple with the cardamom plum preserves! Oh, how she yearns for the jalapeno jelly to bring tears to her eyes!

And then, the judges come to Helga’s jar of strawberry-lavender jam. They examine the label and shuffle through their papers.

“Excuse me,” calls one of the judges, a man with thinning blonde hair and wire-rimmed glasses. “But who is Helga Tillinger?”

Helga is not used to speaking in this form. But she lifts up one digit and croaks, “I am.” She coughs. “In a manner of speaking.”

“We can’t find your entry form. Did you fill one out?”

“No. I . . . didn’t have time.”

“Well, I’m terribly sorry, but we can’t accept anything without an entry form and a fee.” The judge barely glances at her. Before he finishes speaking, he’s already moved his attention elsewhere.

Helga takes back her preserves and backs away from the table. This body’s throat feels strange from speaking, and its face flushes hot. She ought never have done this. She ought to have left well enough alone.

A hand taps her shoulder, and Helga turns to see a young woman with a long brown braid smiling at her.

“Hey, I hope you’ll come back next year and try again. Your jam looks beautiful.”

“Do you want to try it?” Helga blurts out, then flinches. “What I mean is . . . I’d love to share it.”

While the woman grabs a spoon from the food tent, Helga pops the top off the jar with an opener she keeps in her pocket. The woman dips the spoon into the jar, scoops out a perfect, glistening mound of jam, and tastes it.

For a moment, she’s silent. Then, her eyes sparkle. “Oh, wow,” she says. “Oh, wow. You definitely have to enter this next year.”

Beneath her drab clothes, Helga feels herself glow. The woman with the braid smiles broadly, and the being who calls herself Helga Tillingham feels, for the first time in this form, seen. She feels, in fact, remarkable.

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Jennifer Hudak

Jennifer Hudak. A middle-aged white woman with long, wavy, salt-and-pepper hair, wearing a green sweater and a silver hand necklace, smiling at the viewer.

Jennifer Hudak is a speculative fiction writer fueled mostly by tea. Her work has appeared on both the Locus Magazine and the SFWA recommended reading lists, and has been twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Originally from Boston, she now lives with her family in Upstate New York where she teaches yoga, knits pocket-sized animals, and misses the ocean. Find out more about her at jenniferhudakwrites.com.