Magic Bitter, Magic Sweet - Charlie N. Holmberg

CHAPTER 1

I craft influential cake.

The people of Carmine don’t realize this, and for that I’m glad. I wouldn’t know how to explain it to them, and I’m not sure they would appreciate the truth, no matter how positive my influence.

I bake inspiration into specific flavors to make it easy for those who frequent my little bakeshop to find what they need. Those with a taste for the olive oil cake crave strength, while those who come back for the berry tarts are, unknowingly, seeking wisdom.

Today I am mixing the batter for love, which I flavor with cocoa beans and pepper. Love is my most popular confection, as well as my favorite to make. Everyone deserves a taste of love. My soul drinks in a deep sense of peace as I steady the wooden bowl in the crook of my left arm and whisk with my right, leaning against the long counter that stretches nearly the full length of the narrow back room, lit only by sunlight.

Love. I think of the scent of corn roasting in Arrice’s oven and the perfume of sun-warmed leaves. I imagine the soft fur of a hare under my fingers, the sound of children laughing as they clash sticks together down the street, and Franc, Arrice’s husband, plucking the strings of his mandolin by firelight while stars twinkle overhead. I remember warm embraces and diving into cool ponds until my fingers brush the silky earth at the bottom. I ponder the affection between mother and son, man and wife, friend and friend.

These thoughts vibrate over my arms and shoulders as I sprinkle salt and cream butter. I know the ingredients absorb it. I’ve witnessed the sternest of men smile as they savored this cake. My food has been this way since I started baking four years ago, first in dear Arrice’s kitchen, then in this small bakeshop at the end of Wagon Way, a few blocks from the village square. I make enough to pay the rent on the shop, and to repay what Arrice and Franc spend to keep me.

I can’t explain why. All I know is that four years have passed since I first baked something I knew to be extraordinary. Four and a half since Arrice and Franc gave me a home. Beyond that, I don’t remember anything.

There is a gap there, though perhaps that is the wrong word. A gap insinuates that there is a beginning, and I do not recall one. My mind is like a pan of cake torn apart by eager hands, leaving only the outer crust. It’s strange, this story of mine. A tale that starts somewhere in chapter twenty and ends who knows where.

I force myself to release the spoon and step back from the bowl as the thought of all of those memories hiding in the shadows of my mind sends a chill down my skin. Squeezing my eyes shut, I try not to dwell on the who-am-I’s and what-ifs of my dark and uncertain past. I don’t want that coldness, that emptiness, to influence my cake. I don’t want to have to throw it out before I’ve even baked it. Arrice was once the unfortunate recipient of such a cake, and she didn’t speak to me for two days after eating it.

Slowly, surely, the chill recedes, replaced by the heat of my awaiting oven. I smile, for smiling instantly brings me cheer.

It’s not so terrible. I remember the more important things, like my name, and I’m fairly certain of my age. I also remember arithmetic and baking and everything else a person needs to get by.