This isn’t a story, it’s a recipe.
Millie frowned and pushed the paper aside. When she had asked her fans for reading material to get her through a long stint on the International Space Station, she had been thinking of articles, favorite novels, maybe even an original story or two. The last thing she needed was a recipe for Aunt Jemima’s famous blueberry muffins to remind her of how very far away she was from her kitchen.
She would be on the space station for a full year, it was, as she had told countless reporters “the chance of a lifetime!” Seeing the wonders of the cosmos had been a lifelong dream, but she would be eating freeze-dried meals for a very long time.
Millie looked up at her tidy kitchen with a pang of regret. The highly polished copper pots hanging from the ceiling rack, matching beaten kettle, bunches of dried herbs, even the bright lime-green tiles of the backsplash behind the stove: these were the things she would miss most about planet Earth.
An inability to take anything slowly, combined with relentless curiosity had made her a prodigy. Now, at 33, Millicent Peppers was one of the world’s most celebrated astrophysicists, and soon she would be an astronaut too.
Tomorrow night, she would be on a plane to Russia. A few days later, the shuttle would lift off. It was a very inconvenient time to start wishing she had just become a cook instead.
Millie reached for the next thing in the pile of papers, but her hand settled back onto the recipe and didn’t seem to want to shift off of it. She glared down at her fingernails, irritated with herself. But, part of her mind argued, this would be the last chance she had to look at a recipe of any kind for a very long time.
The sequence was all laid out. Once she was in Russia, she would be quarantined. The night before they went up, they would watch White Sun of the Desert just as Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, had done. On the morning of the launch, she would eat steak and scrambled eggs like Alan Shepard, the American who had followed him.
Then it would be up, up, and up. She would look down and see Earth; the home that was hers, but not hers. It was very bitter and sweet.
Endless medical sampling and monitoring would follow: all for a chance at the array. There, before her own eyes and unimpeded by atmosphere and gravity, she would unlock the physics of the most glorious dance of all. Space and what it was made of: high-speed particles, invisible strings, and the mysterious dark matter that linked them all together. A kitchen was really a small thing to leave behind.
Millie frowned, and picked up the recipe.
I can’t tell you what this recipe will make. It depends on you. You wanted a story. Perhaps that’s what you will get:
1 cup water-(morning dew from flower petals in early June works best. In a pinch, you can use Vita Florum water, which Miss Elizabeth Bellhouse has graciously bottled for us.)
She wrinkled her forehead, not sure of what to think. It did not appear to be a recipe for blueberry muffins, not at all. She read on.
7 lacewing flies, preferably small
33 lavender buds
5 drops honeysuckle nectar
1 shriveled onion, grated
2 cm length 100% cotton thread any color
1 large cup of coffee
Apparently, this was going would require a trip to the market. She did have a shriveled onion. There wasn’t much food left in her kitchen, but she always had coffee. There was lavender too, in one of the bunches of herbs hanging from the ceiling.
Millie hesitated. Concocting some ridiculous potion was likely the last thing she should be doing with her time at the moment. But then, curiosity was never something she had been able to ignore. She folded the recipe in half and slid it into her jacket pocket before leaving to find out what on Earth Elizabeth Bellhouse’s Vita Florum water was.
Not an hour later, with her favorite old apron tied around her waist, and all of the required ingredients assembled, Millie read.
Drink the coffee for protection, set the water on a heat source of your choice until it boils.
Obediently, she drank. It was late for coffee; nearly sunset, but it hardly mattered. The butterflies that had colonized her stomach for the past few days were bent on keeping her up all night anyway.
Add the cotton thread immediately upon boiling. It will shrink. Remove from heat. Steep the lavender and lacewings as water cools
She unscrewed the top from the glass bottle of water, which she had found down the street in a health-food store, and glugged it out into her favorite copper saucier.
It had been surprisingly easy to assemble everything. Honeysuckle grew in the gardens between her flat and the store. Lacewings were trickier, but in the evening, with a butterfly net, they were not so hard to come by either.
She set the water off the stove to steep, wrinkling her nose as she added the bugs to the sweet lavender floating on top.
Skin, then grate the onion over the water once, twirl in place, and grate again. After four minutes, remove the cotton thread; it has outlived its usefulness.
Feeling exceptionally silly, but rather liking it, Millie grated and twirled, glad that the press was nowhere near. She could just imagine the headlines: “Astronaut suffers mental breakdown, seen dancing with cheese grater.”
She read the rest of the page.
Strain when cool, add honeysuckle drops and drink immediately. To reverse, repeat what began.
Millie plucked out the tiny string, congratulating herself for having the breadth of kitchen gadgets to include a pair of minuscule tongs. She strained the brew into her favorite teacup, then carefully squeezed the tips of five honeysuckle flowers into it.
Outside her window, the sun was setting in a fiery blaze. At the same moment, the moon had risen: a fingernail cutting against an orange sky. Millie raised her cup to it in cheers, and drank.
For a moment nothing happened, then there was a popping sensation in her ears, and a great pressure, as if her body was being squeezed. Millie was reminded of the time she had been scuba-diving in the deep waters off the coast of Roatan, Honduras. Then, her breath was sucked entirely out of her body.
She gasped, and her vision went black. Suddenly, the floor fell away from under her feet, and she was falling.
Millie screamed. Frantically, she flapped her arms against the air. The blackness was slowly lightening, replaced by hazy, grey shapes. She blinked, desperate to see where she was, and what she was heading towards. The shapes around her brightened, and cleared.
She was still in her flat, but the floor appeared to be a very long way away. Directly in her path was the windowsill, which had grown to the size of a jumbo jet runway. Millie strained her arms out, trying to reach the sill with her fingertips to get a hold on its edge.
Just then, a gust of air whipped in through the window. She was blown backward, completely at the mercy of the draft. Then, the air swirled about, retreating back through the window as if the room had given a great exhale. Millie was whisked outside.
She couldn’t see the ground. Everything was enormous, and ranged across vast, blurry distances. She was completely dizzied. The wind rushed past her cheeks. She looked around frantically, squinting, trying to bring the world into focus. Then, her stomach lurched as she remembered what was below her window: the dumpster, freshly stocked that morning with most of the contents of her refrigerator. Even worse, unless something had changed since she had passed by it with the lacewings an hour ago, the lid was open.
Millie remembered a soupy and quite rotten chicken curry she had emptied into the bin, and began to hyperventilate. She fumbled at her waist for the tie of her apron. Her mind, as it was prone to do in times of stress, began to make wild calculations, numbers popping into her head unbidden, as if she could somehow save herself mathematically.
Her education in astrophysics had begun with a good deal of basic physics. At her new size, if her mass had changed proportionally, she would weigh a fraction of a gram. The slightest breeze should blow her off course. If only she could figure out how to direct herself, she might be able to avoid the dumpster.
With her apron freed, Millie held it up over her head like a parachute. The breezes were unpredictable, blowing her far one direction, then the other. She couldn’t tell if she had avoided the dumpster’s maw, but she breathed a little easier, noting that she had slowed down her descent considerably.
She took stock of herself. Miraculously, she seemed to be unhurt. She wondered if she was dreaming, but couldn’t remember falling asleep. It could all be a stress-induced hallucination. Not a good sign, something that the medical examiners would ground her for actually, but anything was more reasonable than the explanation that she had actually shrunk herself down to the size of a fly.
She had a sudden vision of a bug smashing against a car window, its innards spread across the glass in a spectacular splatter of red and yellow, before meeting a final end in a deluge of washer fluid. Panic rose in her again. Before it could overwhelm her, Millie took hold of the feeling and firmly shoved it away. She told herself that there was nothing to do but to carry on, and try to come out of this in one piece.
She adjusted the apron to catch a breeze. There was nothing but a blur of green around her now. She gripped her apron strings tighter. Living in a flat off Central Park had always seemed like a wonderful thing, but even if she landed safely, she would be hopelessly lost in a sea of grass.
A booming drone thundered in her ears and she craned her head back to see a fat, yellow shape bearing down on her through the air. Millie pulled her apron in, hoping to lose altitude to avoid being run down. As the thing went past, she was sucked underneath it by a backdraft of air.
Millie slammed into a wall of some kind, then fell for a second before coming to a stop on a strange floor. It was solid, but springy, and she was reminded absurdly of the wicker chair on her grandmother’s front porch. She felt a swaying motion. The light was dim, but after a few moments, her eyes adjusted and she saw that she had fallen into a basket, which was suspended below the flying thing.
“This is our Dirigible Bee. Hire your own,” said an irritated-sounding voice somewhere above her.
She turned her head, and saw three faces looking down at her curiously. Millie blinked. It was indeed, the underside of a bee above her. It was covered in fuzzy yellow and black stripes. Six hairy, jointed legs hung down outside the basket.
“I’m sorry,” she stammered, opening her eyes as wide as she could as she looked at the people. They appeared mostly human, but they had insect antennae. All of them were wearing particularly fine examples of Victorian-Era clothing.
“Oh shut it Louise. That was some entrance,” said a male voice.. “What is this, some kind of glider?” He was wearing a suit-coat with tails, and had picked up her her stained kitchen apron, examining it with great interest.
“It’s an apron” Millie whispered. With each passing moment, she was becoming more convinced that she was hallucinating. The idea that she had shrunk herself was hard enough to comprehend. Tiny people with antennae were a whole new level.
“Flying with an apron . . . ” sputtered the third person, an elderly lady, who was very tall and thin. She drew her eyebrows together so that they appeared to become one. Then, she put on a determinedly polite expression, and straightened up, extending her hand to Millie. “Madam, since you have deigned to drop out of the sky onto us, I think that we must all be properly introduced.
“I am Gertrude Merrywell, this is my nephew Clive, my niece Louise.”
Millie stared for a moment before remembering herself and extending her own hand. The lady’s hand was dry, papery feeling, but undeniably solid. Millie swallowed.
“P-pleasure” she stuttered, then added belatedly “Millie… Millicent Peppers.”
“Aunt Gertie, she hasn’t got any antennae!” the little girl exclaimed.
“Quiet Louise” Gertrude said, “don’t be rude.”
The male, Clive, had crouched down beside her. He reached out a finger toward her hair, and she got her first clear view of his face.
He was older than she had first assumed. He looked like he could be her age, with kind eyes surrounded by laugh lines, and a slightly oversized nose. His eyes were twinkling, and bright blue. It was not a handsome face, but something about it was striking. It was also definitely not human.
His antennae were long and grey. Besides that, his whole face, indeed, every inch of skin that she could see, was dusted in very fine, light hair. Reflecting the light of the swinging lantern that lit the basket, it gave the impression that he had been rolled in fairy dust.
Millie looked down her own arms, examining her skin. They appeared unchanged. If she hadn’t been surrounded by gigantic bee parts and tiny bug people, she might have thought nothing had happened at all.
“It’s true though Gert, she doesn’t have any antennae,” Clive said. Millie blinked experimentally, as if she could make him disappear. He did not fade.
“What are you? Where did you come from?”
Millie opened her mouth to answer, but couldn’t come up with a response.
“Clive, how many times do I have to ask you not to call me that?” Gertrude said with a weary sigh. “And, no matter what the . . . circumstances . . . we must still conduct ourselves as the ladies and gentleman that we are.”
“Alright Gert,” Clive said. He had picked up Millie’s hand and was examining it.
“You’re almost like us,” he said. “Are you from . . . another place?”
Millie realized that her mouth was hanging open, and that she had been staring at him for quite some time.
“Um,” she said.
“Perhaps we can give you a ride somewhere?” he asked.
Millie blinked. She wondered what the pre-launch medical examiners would say if she told them she had shrunk herself to the size of a bug on the eve of her mission. Clive was still watching her curiously, his eyebrows pulled together in concern.
“Well, I do come from here, but I am usually a bit . . . bigger,” she said. “A lot bigger, actually.”
The three of them stared, showing no comprehension. Gertrude appeared to have concluded that Millie had lost her mind, because her worry relaxed into pity, and she patted Mille awkwardly on the shoulder.
“Are you one of the giants?” Louise blurted.
“Louise!” Gertrude put both hands on her hips. “A giant? How on Earth could she be a giant? Honestly!”
“The giants have faces like people Auntie!” Louise said. “Jenny saw one outside her window just last week. She says she looked right up its nose and it was like a huge, dark cave. It was full of slimy hairs.” Louise appeared delighted at this prospect. She tilted her head slightly, as if trying to steal a look up Millie’s nose to evaluate its cave resemblance.
“Nonsense, it has never been proven–” Gertrude snapped, some of her genteel self-possession apparently beginning to wear thin.
“If she says that she is a giant, maybe she is,” Clive said.
“Oh, this is ridiculous! Of all days for something like this to happen.” Gerturde was becoming very flustered now. Her cheeks were red and splotchy. She reached over to the edge of the basket as if to steady herself.
“We will just have to drop it off at the nearest landing point. We can’t afford to be late. Not today.” She took a deep breath.
Millie looked down at the woven floor. Her vision blurred, and she bit her lip, determined not to let things get the best of her.
It was all too much. She probably wasn’t far from her flat, but she might as well have been miles away for the state she had found herself in. Even if she had not been trapped in a basket with a trio of bug-people who had now relegated her to the status of “it”, she didn’t have the first clue of how to get home, much less how to get all the way to Russia for her mission.
Of course, if she could find a way to reverse what had happened, getting home would be as simple as a stroll across the lawn and up the stairs. Then she could get into bed and forget about the whole thing.
She pictured the recipe in her mind, remembering each ingredient, trying to analyze how it had worked. Was the shrinking cotton thread significant, or merely symbolic? The lacewings were certainly something. She wondered if, despite her normal-appearing arms, she had been given some fly DNA. Given the number of problems that would arise when stuffing a five foot, two-inch human into a body half a centimeter tall, it was one of the only reasonable conclusions.
But no, she realized. She didn’t have to figure out every detail of the process to counter it. The solution had been right in the recipe. To reverse the effects, repeat what began.
Millie laughed out loud. The old lady turned to stare at her, appearing alarmed.
“Sorry . . . I just . . . never mind” Millie mumbled. She looked back down at the woven floor of the basket. Before she had shrunk the thread, she had boiled the water. She wondered if all she had to do was boil it, or if she should drink it. Would standing in the steam be enough?
She stopped, remembering something else. The water hadn’t been the beginning. Before it was the coffee. It had been an entirely ordinary cup of coffee. Nothing about its chemical makeup should be able to reverse what had happened, but then, nothing about the rest of the recipe should have been able to do any of what it had either.
The recipe had clearly included the coffee drinking as part of the process, as much as it had included twirling in place while grating the onion. So that was it, all she had to do was find a cup of coffee, and everything would go back to normal. Millie sighed with relief, and, she was surprised to find, a tiny bit of disappointment.
It was a natural thing to feel, she thought. She was an explorer, a scientist. If she didn’t already have celestial obligations, this would have been a truly amazing opportunity. Her transformation alone could lead to untold discoveries: advances in medicine perhaps, or technology. To say nothing of what she might learn from these miniature people.
She glanced covertly at her traveling companions, to find that Clive was already watching her. She met his eyes. They were incredibly blue. Her heart quickened, and she felt heat spreading up from her neck to her cheeks.
“I . . . ” she said, and looked away, taking a breath and collecting herself. “Do you know where I might get a cup of coffee?” she asked.
She was met with a panel of blank stares.
Clive had just opened his mouth to say something when the bee stopped its forward progress and began thrashing about in the air, buzzing angrily. The basket swung violently, and its occupants were tumbled off their feet.
“Oh!” Louise said. “It’s gotten itself caught in a web again! Why did we have to get a Bumble Bee? They’re so . . . bumbling!” She whined as they were tossed back and forth.
“I’ve got it” Clive said. Bracing himself against the wall, he got to his feet and scrambled up and over the side.
“Where has he gone?” Millie asked, feeling that something about the situation was very wrong.
“To cut us free of the web, naturally,” Gertrude said, eyeing Millie..
“Web? You can’t mean a spider . . . web?” Millie asked. Her voice came out as a squeak.
“What other kind of web would it be?” Louise said.
“Oh my heavens,” Millie said. There was a good deal of disconcerting thrashing, then there was a cry. At the sound, Millie jolted to her feet. Her heart was racing. She scrambled to the wall, and clambered up over the edge without waiting to see if Louise and Gertrude were following.
It was foggy, and the light was a fading glow. Gingerly, she lowered herself down from the basket, and tested her weight on a strand of spider-silk. It dipped slightly, but held. Even at her new size, the silk was not as wide as her foot. She craned her neck around to see where Clive had gone.
Above her, the bee was still entangled. It jerked back and forth, trying to free itself. They were near the bottom edge of the web. Near the bee, all the dew had been shaken off the web, but towards the center, it remained undisturbed. Millie caught her breath at the sight of hundreds of beads of water, rising upward along ropes of silk. They spun into the center of the web in a perfectly constructed Fibonacci spiral.
It was a pattern that she had seen time and again, repeated throughout the cosmos. As the orbs of water reflected the light of the setting sun, they could have been stars: the arm of a galaxy, wheeling in space.
She saw Clive. He was climbing across the bee’s back, and was wielding a rapier to cut it free of the silk. His efforts were being hampered considerably by its movements, and he had cut his arm. It was bleeding freely, staining the bee’s yellow fuzz with a splash of red.
“Are you alright?” she called. He turned about to see her.
“Yes, but we don’t have much time. The spider will come out before long,” he said.
“Can I help?” she asked, without the faintest idea of what she could do. The thought of a giant spider prowling along the web was terrifying.
“Keep it still” Clive called, pointing to the bee’s head. “Try talking to it.”
She was going to talk to a bee. Without thinking too hard about how ridiculous it sounded in her mind, she climbed, knocking the occasional water droplet out of the way, holding on to the strands with both hands with each step up.
“H—hello,” she said once she reached it. The bee stopped its thrashing for a moment and looked straight at her. Its eyes were astounding. Thousands of black facets glittered in rows across their surface. The bee clicked its mandibles at her, and she drew back quickly, startled.
Forcing herself to keep calm, she slowed her breathing. After all, bees didn’t bite, did they? They stung, and the stinger was quite far away. She glanced down and saw that Clive was quite near the stinger in fact, freeing a back leg.
She looked back at the bee’s face. Once you got over the shock of it, it was actually rather cute. A tuft of yellow fuzz came down between its eyes, where its antennae grew. One of them was waving in the air. She noticed that the other was caught in the web.
“Right then, Mr. Bee, you hold still now,” she said, and reminded herself to take a breath. Her heart was hammering, she cast a glance over her shoulder to see if the spider had appeared. It hadn’t. Carefully, she stretched a hand up to untangle the antennae. The strands of spider-silk stuck to her fingers. With a good deal of difficulty, she ripped them one by one, until finally, it was free. The bee shook its head, and let forth a cacophonous buzz, forcing Millie to slap her hands over her ears.
Seeing that Clive had freed the leg, she made her way back down. The bee beat its wings and rose into the air, hovering above the basket. She climbed up onto the edge, but paused before sliding down inside. The bee took off, and she griped the wicker tightly.
There was unexpected beauty in this tiny world, she thought, feeling a surge of joy as the bee flew through the air. Just a short time ago a bee in a spider web would have been a small thing to her, too insignificant for notice. Now, she had begun to see everything in a new light. The world stretched out around her, a place of infinite possibility and wonder. After a few minuted, she slid down into the basket, remembering her predicament with some reluctance. Gertrude and Louise were fussing over Clive’s arm, and had bound it up with a strip of cloth.
“We are going to be late now anyway,” Clive was saying.
“Really, Millie, you must let us bring you somewhere,” he said. Millie hesitated.
“Actually, there is a place,” she said. From her vantage on the edge of the basket, she had seen a distant white shape. She might not have recognized it from this perspective, but she had seen enough around them to know where they were. They had not traveled far, hardly any distance at all. The shape was the coffee kiosk just down the street from her flat, the same one she passed by every morning on her way to the subway station.
If she could get there, it probably wouldn’t take more than a drop: a bit of coffee spilled on the counter, or left over in a cup. There would be something.
She closed her eyes. For some reason, the thought of finding a way back did not immediately strike her with excitement, or relief. Millie chided herself. She had places to go and things to do. Very big, important things. At this moment, she should be going to sleep, preparing for the flight that would take her to the launch site, to her chance for real adventure.
The chance of a lifetime. Her stock phrase echoed in her mind. But, instead of visions of galaxies, she thought of the spiraling spider web with its glistening orbs of dew. Instead of the pictures of faraway stars that she had always studied, the field of stars in the bee’s eyes came to her mind.
Millie looked around. The swaying basket, the tiny people, the bee, and the glimpses of the world beyond its furry abdomen: there was a universe in her own backyard. For her entire life she had searched for adventure. She was ready to leave the Earth to find it, but it had been right outside her doorstep all along. She couldn’t leave. This was a true chance of a lifetime: one that she may never get again.
Her heart thudded.
“Wherever you need to go” Clive said.
She hesitated. Then, meeting his eyes, said. “No. I’ve changed my mind. I think I’ll go wherever you are headed.”