A fiction short story by Katherine Elizabeth Walsh
There was a time when The Baker remembered not feeling alone. At that time, his business had been better. The morning rush saw lines out the door and hot cross buns went out faster than he was making them. Evenings came, the bustle of wives scurrying to get loaves of bread on the table for dinner. Their skirts whispering as they rushed in and out. The afternoons, however, were his favorite time. This was the children’s hour. After school, just as the sun was beginning to get lazy, the children would stream in. Filling the bakery with their laughter. Filling the bakery with a scent of summer no matter how cold it was outside. There was a golden light to that time only children can bring. The Baker longed to have it all the time.
‘If only I could trap that light and keep it around,’ The Baker, thought to himself, ‘Then I would be truly happy.’
Things were very different now. There was a new queen who ruled the land. She came down on everyone harshly. Because of this, many people struggled to keep food on the table. Except those in the Queen’s favor.
The bakery remained quiet most days now. Only receiving orders for The Queen’s festivals. On such days, The Baker, had to employ extra help in the form of a youth by the name of, Harmon. Harmon was not yet old enough to leave home and was eager to learn the skills of the bakery. His tanned skin and sandy hair were often powered with flour on such days. His expressive blue eyes taking everything in all at once. As if the world was his classroom.
It was on one such day, when, The Queen, had commanded the use of the bakery, our story really begins. The last embers were going out from the ovens, turning grey. Pastries piled high, glistening like gems and puffing almost to the ceiling. The aroma, of the night’s work still fresh in the air: yeast, amaretto, chocolate, berries, and an ingredient only, The Baker, knew that hinted slightly of nutmeg. Harmon stretched lazily leaving a puff of flour in his wake.
“Another night for the books, old friend,” said Harmon, “You really have out done yourself. Are you proud?”
“I find it useless to be proud,” yawned, The Baker, “We did our jobs, nothing more. Now get yourself home before you fall asleep in my rugula.”
“Yes sir, I will see you tomorrow for the delivery to the castle.”
Harmon was off into the night. Stars glittering behind him. The Baker felt alone once again. The type of loneliness that settles onto you like a heavy blanket filled with the weight of the world, instead of down feathers. To busy himself, The Baker, began to straighten up, an unnecessary task, as it had already been done. The silence in the bakery was becoming overwhelming. He felt unsettled compared to the hustle from even the past hour. When he got to the spice rack, he stopped to stare and their contents. Deeply, as if they held the answers to the mysteries of the universe. Slowly, he ran his hand across their surfaces. They tinkled softly against the impact.
Suddenly, a noise outside startled him, and he removed his hand quickly from the fragile surfaces. The Baker stepped outside into the night. He looked down to the left of the cobblestone street where the banker and milner kept their shops. There, the town seemed sleepy and undisturbed. To the right, the blacksmith and general store, even further down, the courthouse and town green. Still nothing. Finally, he looked up into the starry night and noticed his breath in the chilled air. He closed his eyes for a few moments, taking in the November night. He turned back into the bakery, still unsure of where the sound had come from.
Once inside, The Baker headed to the back and approached an old, worn wooden door. He opened the door to an even older set of wooden stairs, held up mostly by faith. They led down to a pantry that always smelled of Winter. The pantry shared a space with, The Baker’s bedchamber. A simple room, with a simple bed of white lien, wooden nightstand, fireplace, and wash basin. The Baker, splashed his face with water, poked the embers in the fire, and retired to bed.
A quiet came over the bakery. Not the quiet of sleep, when things have settled down for the day. It was as if the bakery was waiting for something. As if the very walls themselves, knew, that by the time the first light had touched them, the world would be a very different place. For when, The Baker had been startled by the noise, he had knocked a vial of spice over unknowingly. This small act set something in motion that would shift him, and the town, forever.
You see, the spices had landed in a very particular spot that night. While both The Baker and Harmon were pristine in their clean up, they had missed the smallest spot of grain and yeast. An amount so small even the mice over looked it. This little pile simply sat there for a good long. Until the wind escaped into the drafty bakery, doing the work that wind is apt to do, and swirled the ingredients together permanently.
As this happened, the light slowly, ever so subtly, began to change. Change in ways only the smallest of people would even notice at all. It came in shimmering, golden cascades. Filled every corner of the room, and because circumstances were perfect, a miracle occurred.
Bubbles began to form, slowly at first, and small. They gradually built into large, perfect circles, the size of a small adult. On they built, until a form took shape. A girl with shimmering golden hair, just like the light she had come from. Her name was Winny, and just as the yeast, and the flour, and The Baker’s secret ingredient had changed into her; she would change the town.
Winny moved through the bakery on unsteady feet. She ran her hands along every surface. Feeling the smoothness of the bottles, the roughness of the wooden shelves and counters. She dug her hands into the flour and closed her eyes, as if she was more settled now. She continued her exploration, leaving delicate, floury footprints in her path.
Downstairs, The Baker, was just stirring. A stray cat stared in the window at him. He opened the window and gave the cat a friendly pat good morning. The Baker, put his feet on the floor and quickly retracted them, cursing the cold of the morning. He stretched, getting up this time, the cat at the window taking his place in the warm bed.
“Spoiled animal,” he said with a smile.
Unaware of what had transpired while he was dreaming, The Baker, ascended the stairs the bakery, having gotten dressed for the day. A quick task in the cold months. Upon hearing noise on the stairs, Winny hid behind a shelf of pastries meant for the day’s festivities. The Baker, lazily stretched in the middle of the bakery, oblivious to the change waiting for him.
Winny watched him carefully, not moving, barely breathing, like the hunter and the hunted all at once. After some time watching, The Baker prepare for opening, Winny took a deep breath, stood up, and said “Hello,” just as he was rounding a corner to count the register. Startled, The Baker jumped back, dropping the coins he was counting.
“We aren’t open yet…. how did you get in?”, exclaimed, The Baker.
“I’ve just…arrived”, said Winny, not as meekly as expected.
Just the, Harmon, walked into the bakery, whistling.
“What’s happened in here?!”, he said, noticing the floury fingerprints Winny had left.
“And who are you?”
Both The Baker and Harmon look at Winny, in shock and confusion not knowing quiet what to do. After a few more, silent moments, they watched Winny turn her head to look around, find a rag, and begin to clean the fingerprints off every surface she had touched. The Baker, and Harmon, continued to stare at her, jaws agape. They stood for so long, looking at this curious newcomer that the morning customers began to shuffle in. Both were then knocked back into reality and began to work in order to distract themselves from the questions rolling in their heads.
After many hours, it was time to make the delivery to the castle. They weren’t sure what to do with Winny. Instead of facing the problem, both chose to ignore it and prepared for the delivery with out word. Much to their surprise, Winny jumped in to help. They looked at each other, shrugged, and as they closed the door to the carriage, all three hopped in to make the journey to the Queen’s festival.
The ride was a silent one. Filled with side-long glances between The Baker and Harmon. Winny peered out from the rickety carriage as if the world was new, unaware of the stares being given to her. After what seemed like centuries, they arrived at the Queen’s castle. What used to be the pride of the land, now stood a looming, grotesque shell.
In its prime, the castle had been a beautiful, ivory color, with rows of tulip gardens. Doves and rabbits frequently called this home, as did a delicate flock of hummingbirds. Inside, hundreds of rooms, each decorated in soft, pale colors and florals. There was always the hint of jasmine and gentle music.
Now, the castle had fallen into a dingy grey. The animals scattered. The gardens overgrown to thorns and poisonous weeds. Inside, dust clung to everything. Rats and moths chewed away the fabrics. The only music came during the festivals and in, The Queen’s taste, which is to say, haunting fiddles and bagpipes that left the guests with nightmares for days after.
None of this seemed to bother Winny. She gazed upon the castle in awe and wonder. Eager to see everything the moment they arrived.
“Stay close, girl,” The Baker bellowed, “who knows what lurks in these walls.”
The trip carefully and quietly unloaded their parcels and headed toward the servant’s door. Having done this before, many times, The Baker needed no instruction or direction on his place in the festivities. He was to come and go quietly. As if he never existed at all. Once they had finished their set up, they turned to leave.
“Well, where is she?” asked Harmon.
“What?”, inquired The Baker
“The girl. She seems to have run off in the process.”
“It is best we look for her then, we don’t want trouble,” sighed The Baker, knowing full well this would cause trouble.
Harmon and The Baker methodically searched the now cavern like rooms of the castle, disturbing only dust as they moved. Suddenly, they heard all too familiar words.
“How did you get here!”
“What sort of answer is that! Are you a jester? Do you speak in riddles?”
Peering around an enormous door, much to the sickening and unsurprise of Harmon and The Baker they found Winny, speaking to none other than The Queen. In his shock, Harmon clumsily knocked over a nearby vase. The Queen looked sharply at the noise.
“Who’s there now!” she barked
“Merely a baker and a humble servant, your majesty,” said The Baker
“Come forward at once. Do you know this exquisite girl?”
“Yes and no your majesty. That is, she has only just arrived into my care.”
The Baker and Harmon looked at each other in shock. Surly they couldn’t leave Winny with The Queen. A demand from The Queen was not one to be ignored, however.
“The two of you may leave now. I have no more use for you. “
With one last look toward Winny, The Baker and Harmon left the castle. Fearing the fate of this girl they barely knew at all. For weeks they waited and worried. Hearing nothing of the girl who so strangely came and went. With the festival over and the land in disrepair, there was barely any work to keep their minds occupied. So, they waited. They waited so long it seemed that the girl wasn’t possible. As if they both had heard a story and their imaginations had been so vivid, she had only been imagined. The more they waited, the more it seemed, she had never been real.
Meanwhile, in the castle, the real Winny was locked away. Only to be taken out at, The Queen’s discretion. She spent many hours alone in a dark room, with only a single, very high window for sunlight. It wasn’t all bad though. For during that time, Winny discovered something very curious about herself. Having been created in magic, some of that magic still remained. Winny discovered that she could create boxes, that when opened, contained whatever her heart’s desire, if only she gave up a piece of herself. She had discovered this after, in a moment of desperation, she had tried to climb to the window in her room. She fell. And upon cutting her knee, a shape from within the drops of blood formed. At first, a tiny box, then bigger. Until it grew just big enough for her two hands. It was silver with a bronze plate on the front. After a time, Winny opened the delicate clasp. Inside, an entire world for her to enter. A forest, unlike anything Winny had ever seen. Pale light and butterflies landing on flowers bursting into bloom. A world where Winny felt safe. The worlds were never permanent, lasting depending on how big a sacrifice she had made. Sometimes, Winny went back to the woods. Other days, the bakery.
One night, a guard witnessed Winny going inside of the boxes and reported this to The Queen. She demanded Winny demonstrate her magic. It did not take long for word to spread all across the land about the girl and the magic containers. It was said, all you needed to do was merely think of your desires and it would come to you in one of her boxes.
Soon, people were traveling from all over to take things from Winny. Sooner still, people began to get greedy. Wanting more and more from the box each time and showing up more often. Poor Winny was being torn apart by the town. Her skin raw, her hair and nails pulled out. Just like the castle, she was a shell of what she had been.
News of the girl with the magic containers finally reached The Baker and Harmon. Intrigued themselves, they traveled to the castle. By the time they arrived, Winny was unrecognizable to them. Try as she might, they did not realize the creature creating magic was the same beautiful girl they once knew.
Winny could barely stand now, having resorted to giving bones to keep The Queen and her people happy. Although she had felt her situation intolerable until now, she sunk to misery when she realized her only hope, The Baker and Harmon, did not recognize her. So Winny took a breath and created one more box. Upon the exhale, it appeared to those around her that she had disappeared, nothing but a pile of flour and a hint of nutmeg in the air. The town’s people looked on in shock and rage. How would their desires ever be fulfilled? What of their needs?
A search party was sent out for days to find Winny, but to no end. As time passed, many forgot about her, many believed they came upon their own desires by good luck. Still others, especially those young and young at heart, claim to see a girl with golden hair walking in the forest now and then. The hint of nutmeg trailing behind her.
As for The Baker and Harmon, they continued to live out simple but busy lives. For ever since that fateful time, the bakery began to flourish once more. As if, some unseen, kind hand, had finally given them their desires.
“Well she amuses me. I shall keep her here from now on.”