Sarni stirs the soup on the stove, carefully not wondering just why Belle is late coming home from school. Again. She figures that if she doesn't ask, Belle will be smart enough not to tell her, and she won't have to stop anything that maybe shouldn't be stopped.
Sarni does take her duty towards her childrens' moral development seriously, but some parts of it are very hard for a mother to accept. She even went out to the barn and collected the afternoon eggs, which has been Belle's chore for three years now, to make sure that her husband wouldn't ask awkward questions. She did need to figure out how many eggs she could sell that week, didn't she?
Jana hurries towards Sarni's place, bursting with news. As an excuse for the visit, she's carrying an empty measuring cup. She taps on the kitchen door, waving the measuring cup.
Sarni opens the door.
Sarni: Why, Jana, what brings you visiting on a baking day?
Jana tries to look sheepish.
Jana: I'm out of sugar again. Could I possibly borrow a cup?
Sarni: Why, certainly.
Sarni steps back to admit her neighbor.
Jana scurries inside and closes the door.
Jana: It's cold out there today.
Sarni: Yes, it is. Would you like to taste the soup I'm making? There's something about the seasoning that's off, but I can't think what.
Sarni is already reaching for a mug.
Jana: Glad to help.
Jana settles into a chair, not waiting for an invitation.
Sarni ladles a generous dollop into the mug, wipes a drip, and sets it in front of Jana.
Jana cradles the warmth of the mug between her fingers, waiting for it to cool a bit.
Sarni serves herself a second mug full, and sits down across from Jana.
Jana: So what's with that sister of yours, lately? More traffic than a train station at her place.
Sarni shakes her head sadly.
Sarni: Poor Virla. She's gone strange, since she lost her daughter. Setting up a church in her house... a real church should have its own house.
Jana: A real church should have some morals.
Sarni: Virla's a good woman, really. She's just a little confused, lately.
Jana sniffs at the steam rising from the soup.
Jana: Confused? Is that what you call it, letting those filth run all over the place? And with impressionable youngsters, too.
Sarni: Now, now. Virla only had the one daughter.
Jana stares pityingly at Sarni. Doesn't the woman know?
Jana: She's got a lot more than one running around there now.
Sarni: Yes, there's a youngster staying with her, I gather.
Jana: The boy with no boots? Honestly, bare footprints in the snow!
Sarni: I'm told he's never lived in a house before.
Jana: Even savages should know enough to put something on their feet at this time of year. Virla should know better, at least.
Sarni: You can't civilize a savage overnight.
Jana shrugs and takes a tiny sip of the soup, swirling it around on her tongue. How can she delicately approach the main issue?
Jana: Garlic. Needs more garlic. Lots more.
Ezzel marches up to the kitchen door, peers in and taps loudly on the glass.
Ezzel: Oh, Sarni!
Sarni: Garlic. Of course... Ezzel!
Sarni opens the door again.
Sarni: Do come in where it's warm.
Ezzel comes in.
Ezzel: Hello, Jana. Sarni, why are you letting that crazy sister of yours corrupt your poor little daughter?
Sarni moves to the stove and reaches for another mug.
Jana closes her eyes sadly. So much for delicacy.
Ezzel lives across the street from Virla so has a good view of whatever goes on there.
Jana: Hello, Ezzel.
Ezzel: She's got two snakes in there, and I bet she's convinced poor little Belle to let them...
Ezzel shudders delicately.
Sarni: Virla is the girl's aunt, Ezzel. If Belle doesn't understand by now that everything a relative says doesn't have to make sense... well, I'm sure she does. As for Virla, my sister knows better than to cross the line with my children.
Sarni speaks with confidence.
Ezzel: But to let those snakes grab her with those slimy tentacles. It's a terrible risk for her soul!
Jana shudders at the thought of tentacles. She covers her reaction by taking another sip of the soup.
Ezzel: You know what some say about it. It gives the child the... tendency. And even if... that... doesn't happen, they can get so they crave it, if they stay human.
Jana: Now, Ezzel, I'm sure Sarni's raised her daughter better than that.
Sarni: Surely you jest. The only person in Gumgeeville who's claimed to have such a craving was the Mullins boy, and if you ask me, the lad just wanted off of that miserable excuse of a farm.
Ezzel: But two snakes, loose in there, with a child... it's disgusting, just to imagine.
Ezzel has had to rely on her imagination, since she can't see through Virla's curtains from across the street.
Jana: I'm sure the girl's classmates will stop her from doing anything rash, Ezzel. She went in there with two of them this afternoon.
Sarni: There, you see? No doubt they were just hoping to sample Virla's cookies. It is baking day, you know.
Ezzel looks at Sarni pityingly.
Ezzel: Belle must have brought them to see the snakes. You see how fast the corruption spreads.
Sarni gives Ezzel a ~~ pitying ~~ glance.
Ezzel: Or maybe the snakes are bribing her somehow. You know they're always hungry for fresh victims.
Sarni: Ezzel, please. I happen to know that Virla was planning to bake a batch of her famous meringue cookies today: she came over last night to borrow the eggs. You know how Belle dotes on those cookies.
Ezzel: Lure them in with cookies and then let the snakes talk them into....
Ezzel shudders again.
Jana: And that's the danger, Sarni. First a cookie, then a little tentacle.
Ezzel: And before you know it, their innocence is destroyed and they're doomed.
Jana: You've got to stop it, while she's still a child. While there's still time.
Ezzel: I hope it isn't too late.
Sarni: Oh, please, both of you. If greed for cookies could make children turn Sime, my husband would have been dead these twenty years.
Ezzel: If greed for cookies gets them in there where the snakes can get at them with their smooth talk and slimy tentacles, it does.
Jana: It doesn't matter what the bribe is. What matters is what follows the bribe.
Ezzel: I don't mind if Virla is a bit crazy, but when she starts corrupting children -- well, that's going too far.
Sarni: My Belle refused to go to a party a few months ago because it was too near the Gegg barn. I don't think she'd let the Simes stay in the same room with her.
Jana: Do you really want to see your little girl with those slimy ropes gliding across her skin, wrapping themselves around her vulnerable flesh...? Are you willing to risk that?
Ezzel: She seems to be visiting her aunt a lot this week. Maybe she's already got the craving.
Jana: Once, I'd understand. On a dare, or simply because kids are curious. But she's gone back at least three times, now.
Sarni: The craving to be spoiled by her aunt? Certainly. A craving to kiss Simes? Not hardly.
Jana: Kids change fast, Sarni. One week they're best friends with someone, the next week they're mortal enemies. One week they're avoiding snakes, the next...
Ezzel shakes her head sadly.
Ezzel: You're fooling yourself, Sarni. You got your head stuck in the mud.
Jana: Don't say we didn't warn you.
Ezzel gets up and puts down her mug of soup. It really needs more garlic.
Ezzel: Well, I've got to go warn those other two mothers what Belle is leading their poor children into. Mark my words, Sarni, or you'll be sorry. The soup's fine, but I'd add more garlic. See you in church, I hope. Bye, Jana.
Jana: And some cabernet, if you've got any. Cabernet would improve it a lot.
Jana drains her mug.
Sarni: Thank you, Jana. I don't have any Cabernet, but there is a little bottle that my man doesn't know I know about.
Jana: We're not trying to hurt you, Sarni. We just think you need to be aware. So you can do what a mother must.
Sarni: I think you're making a tempest in a teapot, but I do appreciate your bringing it to my attention.
Sarni has lived in a small town all her life, and learned the important skill of lying with conviction before she graduated from high school.
Jana: Well, I'd better be going. I'll see you on Sunday.
Jana exits, deliberately leaving her measuring cup behind so she'll have an excuse to come back tomorrow.
Sarni notices the abandoned measuring cup and debates calling Jana's bluff. She knows, however, that one excuse to visit will do as well as another, and forbears. She sets the measuring cup aside, and starts to add a bit of garlic to the soup.
Belle hurries towards home, as fast as the slippery footing will allow. She slows down just before she comes within eyeshot of the house, and goes up the steps at a sedate pace.
Belle: Hi, Mom, I'm home. Mmmm, smells good.
Sarni: Hello, Belle. How was school today?
Belle: Not bad. I got seven out of ten on that history quiz.
Sarni: Now, Belle, you really should try for a bit better than that in history. It's one of your better subjects.
Belle: It was a hard quiz.
Sarni: Not if you'd studied properly, I'm sure. How did your Aunt Virla's meringues turn out? She was so worried yesterday, when she came to borrow the eggs.
Belle drops her schoolbag on a chair. She's startled that her mother knows where she's been, but figures the cookies are the perfect excuse.
Belle: You know Aunt Virla's meringues. They're always so good. Light and sweet and just the right amount of crunch.
Sarni: She does have the touch, doesn't she? You should ask her to show you how she does it.
Belle: She's offered to teach me, if it's okay with you.
Sarni is hoping that Belle will stick to the cover story being offered, and not let slip any indiscreet comments about anything else she might have been up to at her aunt's.
Belle has, in fact, never discussed the possibility with Aunt Virla, but figures it would make a wonderful cover story.
Sarni: You should accept her offer. My meringues are passable, but I'm no expert, and they do make such a nice treat for when company comes.
Belle: I'll tell her you said yes, then.
Belle decides it's time for a bit of buttering up.
Belle: On the other hand, Mom, your nut squares are the best in town. And your coffee cake.
Sarni: Why, thank you, dear.
Belle: Did you know that S...
Belle had been about to say, "Simes have a real sweet tooth." She stops herself in time.
Sarni: Yes, dear?
Belle: Saturday's supposed to be a bit warmer.
Sarni hopes that Belle learns to cover a bit better than that.
Sarni: Really? Do you think it'll snow again, then?
Belle: I don't know. If it doesn't, I was thinking maybe I could go over and help Aunt Virla chop some firewood, in return for the baking lessons.
Sarni: Well, don't make yourself a nuisance.
Belle really wants to spend more time with Pinecone, listening to his stories about the Free People.
Belle: I wouldn't do that, Mom.
Sarni gives her daughter the Look.
Belle tries not to cringe visibly.
Sarni: Just remember, a young girl's company can be a drag on an adult conversation, and you're not Virla's only visitor. A brief visit is one that's appreciated most, usually. You wouldn't want people to be questioning your manners now, would you?
Belle raises an eyebrow. Just how much does Mom know?
Belle: Uh, yes, Mom. I mean, no, Mom.
Sarni hopes the not-quite-warning will be taken to heart. And that Belle has the sense enough to.
Sarni: Good. Your aunt is very kind to allow you to visit. Don't abuse the privilege.
Belle: I won't.
Sarni: And make sure that you leave enough time to finish your chores before dinner, next time.
Sarni nods towards the basket of eggs on the counter.
Belle: Uh, sorry. Uh, Mom?
Sarni: Yes, dear?
Belle: Doesn't learning to bake meringues take some time?
Sarni turns to stir the soup, wondering if she added enough garlic.
Sarni: Learning anything takes time. A good student learns quickly, though. And doesn't try the patience of her teacher.
Belle: Yes, Mom.
Belle figures she's gotten as many concessions as she dared hope for, and had better quit while she's ahead.
Belle: I guess I'd better go wash up before dinner, then.
Sarni: Good. And remember, if I hear that you've been making a spectacle of yourself, your visiting privileges will be cancelled.
Belle: Yes, Mom.
Sarni hopes that warning will be sufficient to ensure that any questionable activities take place behind drawn curtains.
Belle had started this conversation expecting her mother to flatly forbid her to visit Aunt Virla unaccompanied. Now she wonders just how much Mom knows, and what she thinks about it.
Belle: Uh, Mom...?
Sarni: Yes, dear?
Belle thinks better of her dangerous curiosity.
Sarni starts ladling the now-garlicky soup into the tureen.
Belle: Uh, nothing.
Sarni: Wash up, then, and come and set the table.
Belle's curiosity is overwhelming her.
Sarni: Go! Your father will be here any moment.
Sarni makes shooing motions with the ladle.
Belle: Yes, Mom.
Belle gives a little sigh of cowardly relief, and goes to wash up.