“The Ouroboros Bakery” by Octavia Cade

“The Ouroboros Bakery” by Octavia Cade

“Please take it back,” he says. “Please.”

It’s not the most urgent plea Oksana has ever heard. This one is still mostly sane. He can still look her in the eye, and if his hands are tight-clasped together so that the knuckles show white, his voice has very little waver in it.

A strong man, then, but even strong men cannot fight on two fronts.

He does not touch his tea. Oksana serves it steaming hot, dark and tannic in the pot and her tea cups are the finest porcelain, translucent in afternoon sun. She has always been able to tell a lot from how her visitors drink her tea. Some sip as she does, their mouths unscalded and their cup dainty in their hands. Others are clumsier, aware of the cost of breakage, and these hold their cup in both hands. The polite do it before the tea cools, preferring to be burnt upon their palms than to risk cracks and recompense. And some refuse to drink altogether, whether out of preference or distraction, for Oksana serves her tea with sweet shortbread, with sponges and cream and tuile biscuits still warm from the oven.

Her visitor does not drink. It is not out of rudeness, and he would not eat again from her bakery unless it cost him his life, and there is nothing about Oksana’s afternoon tea that could do that. She finishes her slice of sponge, scrapes the last of the strawberry jam from her plate, the sweet tartness of it vivid against a background of tannin. His knuckles are paler than cream – they are as pale as icing sugar, and were he to try and take her cup in his hands, then all the tea would spill out.

They are like this sometimes. Occasionally there is ranting and violence, a sense of betrayal, however unjustified. Sometimes there is only silence, as if they have curled up into themselves so completely that communicating anything but dumb misery is beyond them. Sometimes, as now, there is still some control left. It always interests her to see how each person responds, but it is almost never good.

Oksana tells them before they buy. She always tells them, and they never listen.

* * *

Her arms are scaled to the elbows, each scale bright-inked into flesh. They are the size of her smallest fingernail, and Oksana keeps her nails short so as not to get caught in the dough. The scales are an advertisement and they are a reward. Oksana began her apprenticeship bare-armed, bare-skinned, and with each recipe she mastered, each bread and pastry and pie, another acknowledgement of her skill was inked onto her.

She still remembers the sting of the needle, the way that the blood ran down the inside of her wrist. She still remembers the smell of the colors, of crushed tints and iron and the tang of rubbing alcohol. The way that her arm was shaved first, to remove all the little hairs so that her flesh would be ready for branding. And afterwards, sitting at the back of the bakery, bandages around her and kept away from the yeast and eggs and ovens until she was healed enough to bake again.

No one wants to see a baker with scabs, she was told. No one wants to see a baker with open wounds. It makes them worry, to think what’s fallen into their butter-custard, to think what’s been baked into their loaves.

Astonishing, then, that Oksana grew to put so much of herself into her work.

* * *

“I never understood jealousy before,” B. says. “Or what it meant to hurt. The most I’d ever had was a broken arm.”

“At least you have arms,” says Oksana, and the spun sugar on top of her meringue is sticky against her fingers, the strands melting. She has always liked sugar-work, the caramel color of heat, the way it turns to shards from flexibility.

His smile is like winter up in the mountains, where the only butter comes from yaks and can’t be coaxed into choux. “For how much longer?” he says. “Will they grow back if they’re cut off?”

“How should I know?” says Oksana, winding the sugar around warm fingers, the fingers she keeps away from whisks and beaters lest she lose them in creaming. “Are you planning to find out?”

“Not me,” says B., and that is when he reaches for his tea cup and it’s a slow reaching, jerky, and Oksana sees in it an under-mechanism of broken things, of scars and burns and shattering. The sugar is melting into her palm, and her skin is sticky.

“Jealousy is a terrible thing,” she says.

“I do not die by hanging,” he says. “Nor suffocation, nor drowning. I did not die when other people tried it, and I did not die when I tried it myself, to escape them.”

He drinks his tea black, without sugar.

* * *

It still excites her, to see the flour spread over the scales. They are a testament to skill, and when Oksana kneads, cuts butter into her pastry, she sees with each twist of her elbow, each rotation of palm and heel, flashes of color. That, around her left wrist, is the scarlet bracelet she got for her brioche. Those, on the back of her left hand and snaking into the hollows between her fingers, are the green scales for choux: the profiteroles, the beignets, the croquembouches…

It bothers her, sometimes, that she has a scale for all her bakings but one. This isn’t anyone’s fault. Oksana can’t even blame the Guild, for the pie is an invention of her own, and a recipe she will not share.

How can we scale it if there’s no standard to measure by? she is told, and while Oksana would like to have put this obstruction down to jealousy, to the need to cover over and control, it’s unfair to do so. Unfair, too, not to realize the spark of malice in the eyes of those who deny her. Truth and resentment live well enough together, and she’s the most famous baker in the city, the only one on the Street of Endings.

I can make my own scale, she says, in answer to malice.

It will not be recognized.

It will be recognized by everyone but you, she says. That’s the end of her place in the Guild. She pays her dues, still, is technically a member in good standing, but the ground between has been sowed with salt and set alight.

(She doesn’t make the scale. It would be a hollow victory, one she’d feel in the pit of her stomach every time she looked at it. Truth and resentment, again. My perfect ingredients, she thinks. My perfect piece of pastry.)

* * *

L. arrives early, while Oksana is still making butterfly cakes. “I used to make those with my kids,” she says. “Though they never looked as good as yours.”

Oksana carefully slices off the top of each cupcake. She fills them with crème pâtissière and redcurrant jelly. The redcurrants have been soaked in port, and the jelly is the color of jewels and blood. She would prefer to finish them herself – to slice the cupcake tops in half and set them in the crème at a jaunty angle, but L. has curiosity in her eyes and it is not for dessert. “Would you like to help finish them off?” she offers, and it’s hard not to feel a little rewarded at the pleasure it gives, even if the results are less than perfect. Still, they are for herself and her guest, not for bakery display. It doesn’t matter if they are lopsided.

“I’m sorry you’re not happy with your purchase,” Oksana says, when the other woman has drunk her tea, has crumbs about her mouth. They always go so quickly, the children’s cakes, quick refusal undermined by nostalgia. “I like all my customers to be satisfied.”

“It was easier than I thought it would be,” says L. “I loved my kids. I thought it would be the worst part of it, watching them grow old while I didn’t. I was prepared. And then they died, and their children died, and their children. And it was horrible, the first time… but not as horrible as I thought. They’d lived full lives. They were happy. And I was prepared to be miserable, but I wasn’t. At least, not for very long.”

“So… you’re happy in your life?” says Oksana, and there is one butterfly cake left on the platter. Its wings are all askew, and her fingers itch to right them.

“That is a somewhat simplistic question,” says L. “My great-great granddaughter died yesterday. I felt nothing. I was not disturbed, I was not saddened. My equanimity is undimmed. Is that something I should be happy about?”

* * *

There is no scale for her pie. This is something that she can live with, if only because her achievement is marked in other ways with the blood the needle would have spilled.

“What color would you have made it anyway?” she says to herself, floured to the elbow and with butter under her nails. She has to work quickly with it, to grate the butter from the freezer and work it into dough so that the pastry will be light, so that it will not be overworked. It is her favorite ingredient to work with, butter. She loves the color, the smooth taste, the volatility of it – how it melts and chills, how it can be soft as cream and how it hardens out of heat.

It is why she chooses to work with pastry so often – more than she does with cakes, more than she does with breads and biscuits. Pastry is butter and life.

Oksana considers the scale that could have been, the one new to her, made by her and so unencumbered with expectations of viridian, of emerald and magenta. She’s never understood why brioche was meant to be scarlet, and never cared enough to go fossicking in the Guild archives to find out. She expects there was a meaning to it once – as there would be a meaning for any scale that she created and colored herself.

It’s possible she’d never be truly satisfied with it anyway – there’d be no color for it but yellow, no color but butter and that varies with each delivery, depending on cows’ food and climate. It would have disturbed her, grating and sifting and rubbing together, had she looked down at her work and seen a mismatch. It would have seemed as if her baking was rejecting her body. Rejecting her, and the rich, flaky casing that held her blood.

* * *

P. has little round spectacles resting on her nose. She is shaded by maple trees, out on the veranda where Oksana serves her teas. “I am having… philosophical difficulties,” she says.

It is discussions like these that make Oksana wary of selling to scientists. To prepare, she has spent hours at the ovens making baumkuchen, brushing batter onto a spit and turning it to make layers, to make a cake that when cut open has the appearance of tree rings.

“I glazed it with marmalade,” she says. “Sweet clear marmalade that I made myself,” come from the boiling up, the thickening and straining of tangerines and lemons and grapefruit. Something to be tart under the dark outer coating of chocolate, something to be light against the dough. It is a meditative practice, making baumkuchen, and Oksana has had to still herself to silence in doing so, to feel content within herself, and tranquil. This is a necessary thing, for P. is not the type to appreciate cake. She stabs at it with her fork, eats carelessly. There is too much substance to the baumkuchen, too much corporeality to retain her interest.

“I never really believed you,” says P. “That your pies could make people live forever. I thought it was superstition at first. I thought you could be a con artist.”

“There are enough of my customers left to contradict you,” Oksana says. “I grant you the most recent have not lived long enough to be proof of anything, but some of the older ones would have sufficed.”

“I considered it,” says P. “And I considered that perhaps there’s something in your pies that makes people live longer. Longer is not forever, after all. A proper diet can have a salutary effect on the health.” She reaches for the teapot. “May I?”

“Of course,” says Oksana. “Let me.” She pours again, notes that although the tea is cool P. is not careful with her cup, drinks without creaming her knuckles. She is careless of crockery. Her fingers are confident on the thin handle, her hands do not shake. This in itself is notably different from most of Oksana’s guests – it is enough to make her curious, a little, even in the midst of a conversation she has had before.

“But there is only so much testing that can be done,” says P, “and no one takes kindly to life as a lab rat. It would be unfair to expect another person to undergo the scrutiny that I would have liked to see.”

“A life spent in clinics and hospitals is not much of a life,” agrees Oksana, who has sold to cancer patients and the terminally arthritic – to those with hemorrhagic fevers and those who were in perfect health and wanted to stay that way. “Needles do not bother me,” – and her tattoos, the perfect little scales of color and recipe, flash green and red and gold in the afternoon sun – “but I find most people aren’t so fond of them.”

“Clearly the only ethical subject could be myself,” says P. “And, as I said, there have been… difficulties.”

Oksana, before serving, had made sure to sharpen her knife, to make the blade keen-edged so that she can cut pieces of baumkuchen without ruining the layers by bluntness. She cuts now again, places a second piece on P.’s plate and another on her own. The slices are so straight and so clean it’s almost a pity to spoil them with forks, but cake is made to be eaten. She chews a bite, carefully, savoring the flavor, and sets her fork neatly back on her plate.

“You can’t prove a negative,” she says.

* * *

It isn’t an accident, the first time, but it isn’t what Oksana would call a deliberate act either. She experiments sometimes, when the recipes inked on her arms begin to pall, when the kitchen is quiet and the air is green with spring. Summer is too late for experimentation – the sun then is so strong it burns her flesh, the skin peeling off in pieces. It makes her scales look rough for a time, but Oksana spends her afternoons outdoors, entertaining, and recipes are too exact to be adulterated with the detritus of her body.

When she experiments, it’s with a pen and paper beside her, so that she can recreate any successes, so that she can record the failures. There aren’t so many of these – Oksana is so skilled, so scaled in her baking that most of what she creates is edible, if not worthy of repetition. Most of what she bakes is for flavor and curiosity. She learns she cannot tolerate cloves without citrus, not with any of more than a hundred other ingredients, a hundred other spices. She learns the perfect fennel bread, learns the perfect thyme custard. Learns to use ingredients for their relationship to metaphor as well as mouth.

In this, it’s the commissions that provoke her to invention.

She had been making coffin pastry for a dying man. V. had opted for euthanasia; the prospect of a slow wasting was abhorrent to him, and he had been, in health, a professor of mythology. It pleased him to have poison in his pie – to have hemlock and pomegranate and salt, to have blood baked into the filling to thicken it.

“I’d prefer it tasted good,” V. said, as if Oksana ever made anything that didn’t. “It doesn’t need to kill me – I’ve an injection for that. But I want to go out eating and drinking something fitting, if that makes any sense.”

But pig blood didn’t quite give the taste she wanted, and when she used horse the consistency was wrong. “I’ve used black pudding in my pies before,” Oksana said to her butcher, a quiet, reliable man with the same sense for sausage as she has for sugar. It had been his pudding she used. He gave her goat and yak and boar blood, set it in small sausages and large but none of them were apt. There was no rightness in the taste, and no ripeness either. Death should not be so clumsy in its flavors.

In the end, the blood that she used was her own.

* * *

“Don’t you ever get anemia?” says P. The inside of her elbows are starred with small scars, with little silver pinpricks. “I did, and I was only taking a bit each day for testing. And if you’ll excuse the observation, I can’t see you getting a lot of iron, with your diet being what it must be.”

It’s a fair comment, Oksana acknowledges, chasing the last little bit of chocolate about her plate with one plump finger, but it’s still a rude one so she gives a porcelain smile, translucent, and murmurs about supplements, makes a note in her head – again – to stop selling to scientists. It’s not as if she doesn’t have other options. There is always more demand than supply.

P. looks at her skeptically. “Those must be a lot of supplements,” she says, and Oksana would feel a lot better if P. were to spend as much time digging into her cake as she does other people’s eating habits. She makes a silent bet as to what will come out next.

“I’ve measured how much blood goes into each pie,” P. says. and Oksana rewards herself for winning with the last slice of cake. “At least, I think I have. Obviously, without the recipe I can’t get it exactly right, but I’ve a fair idea.”

“Oh?” says Oksana, too-polite. “Is that what you do when you can’t prove you won’t die?” She shrugs, immaculate, and takes a final sip of tea. “I suppose sometimes we have to work on easier problems,” she says. “Constant failure is terrible for the constitution. I imagine it must be very dispiriting, being in your line of work.”

Bitchery never comes as easy to her as bakery, but she’s surprised, even so, to see P. smile at her as if her skin’s been shed, as if there’s more behind that round, quiet face than certitude, as if her calculations come with curses.

“As I said,” P. says. “Philosophical difficulties.” Her hands do not shake on the tea cup. She is as calm as if she were Socrates, as if it were hemlock. “We can’t always find our answers in the places we prefer,” says P., and it is then that Oksana realizes that the conversation she thought she was having is quite different to the one that she is.

It’s a change, that’s for sure.

* * *

The bakery is full. Unusually so – Oksana is a morning person, as most bakers are, and she tends to sell her wares and close her shutters by noon, once all her cakes and pastries are sold out, once all her bread bins are empty. It’s an occasional thing, her staying late – she only does it when she has a pie to sell, and not one made of venison, one not layered with vegetables and cheese or open-topped with custard and sweet fruit. Those are not the pies that she is known for, the pie she isn’t scaled for.

It gnaws at her, that absence. She polishes her arms before the presentation, dusts the flour from her tattoos, the color of them like stained-glass windows on her arms, like snakeskin. They are vibrant, alive, and the golden crust of the pie, new-taken from the oven, glows as if it were part of her, as if it were her skin come to life and covering over, a substitute for flesh. It doesn’t seem right that the skill should not be marked, that her arms are replete with the symbols of her trade and yet fall so horribly short.

The door has not been shut since opening. It is a sign to those who wish to eat, and they have crammed into the bakery, crammed themselves into the smallest spaces and those outside have their faces pressed against, have flattened themselves against windows. All sorts, all comers, and she can only choose one.

It is the fourth hour after noon, one minute before the quarter bell. Oksana places her pie on the counter before a man from the docks, a man who stinks of fish. An angler, then, and nondescript, with scales under his fingers even though they are a different sort than hers.

She tells him before he buys, and he does not listen. They never listen.

“Who wouldn’t want to live forever?” the fishermen says. He pays her in little shrimps, in tuna steak, and sits at the counter with his arms hunched round, eats under jealous eyes and has no idea of ever returning.

“If you want to, you can,” she tells him.

* * *

“Please take it back,” he says. “Please.”

Oksana has heard this before, heard it many times. The prospect of infinity pales in comparison to the experience of it, and swallowing infinity has, for many, a bitter aftertaste. So many of them come back, tired of life. She feeds them little cakes, iced biscuits, sweet tea – small things, small pleasures. Sometimes they are even appreciated, but rarely enough.

“You said I could come back,” he says, this strong man with knuckles like cream. “I got what I asked for, I know I deserve it. Don’t think I’m ungrateful.”

It’s surprising how polite they are. Rarely are her customers rude to her. It’s as if, Oksana thinks, they are afraid of her, of what she could do. Of what she could make them endure, simply by turning away.

“I thought it would be a gift,” he says.

“One cannot return a gift,” says Oksana. “But one can pass it on…”

When she opens his wrists over a bowl filled with spices there is nothing on his face but relief. Oksana concentrates on that, on the gratitude in him, because to do otherwise would be to give too much notice to P., hovering in the background. Disapproving. Oksana is sick of hearing about ethics, though it is her own fault, she reminds herself, for selling to a scientist in the first place. The life of a baker is easier in that respect. Her eggs are free-range, her butter organic, certified by animal welfare organizations, but her Guild has no rules for human testing, no regulations for experimentation.

Still. “Supplements,” P. says, her plain round face critical, censorious.

“I thought you people were into recycling,” Oksana says as she covers the bowl, stoops to cover the face. It doesn’t get her any reaction but rolled eyes, although P.’s fingers twitch to the pocket of her baker’s smock, to the notebook she keeps there – a sign of a former life, to be tucked on top of the kitchen’s smallest, newest fridge, tucked away and filled with test tubes, with samples and solutes and little eye droppers.

“This doesn’t make any sense,” says P., and Oksana sighs. This is the attitude one gets when raised on scales of a different sort, on empiricism and measurement and the logic-steps of reason instead of pastry, instead of butter and metaphor and life.

“Go fetch the undertaker,” she says, “while I check on your dough.” Oksana might not have a tattoo to show for her work but she is a member of her Guild, still, and technically in good standing for she pays her dues. That entitles her to an apprentice.

Later, when she inks the first scale onto P.’s arm, the bright, glowing blue of barmbrack, she wonders if these arms, these hands, these fingers, will be her legacy of scale: the imprint of her pastry made flesh.

“I warned you,” she says.

“I know,” says P.

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer who has sold stories to Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, and Shimmer, amongst others. Her most recent novella, “The Convergence of Fairy Tales,” was published by The Book Smugglers and won a Sir Julius Vogel award earlier this year. She enjoys writing creepy stories about food and is an avid baker. Octavia attended Clarion West 2016.