“The Forgotten Bakery in the Valley of Ears” by Beth Goder

On moving day, the city rolled itself up. The great foundation pulled away from the ears and folded over, gently enclosing houses and schools, factories and hospitals, stoplights and towering oaks and urban ponds. A great wave, moving inexorably forward. It was time to leave the Valley of Ears.

In the bakery, Cavora thrust tins into cupboards and cookies into boxes. The city was rolling, rolling. Soon, the bakery would be rolled right up, and anything left out would crash against the walls. All her delicate sugar stars would break. The cupcakes would be pulped to frosted goop.

“Prepare for moving,” shouted the city.

“I’m trying,” said Cavora, shoving milk into the fridge.

As the city retracted, squished ears sprang up and shook themselves–cow ears and kangaroo ears, fluffy dog ears and leather bat ears, ears of zebras and llamas and goats. Ears that flopped over or curled delicate as a porcelain teacup or sprang straight up toward the sky. All the ears that ever were or ever could be, growing from the ground.

The ears wiggled in the sun after their long slumber, waving goodbye to the city. Around them, ear-siblings welcomed them back. Miles and miles of ears, all listening.

The city curled over, buildings and trees interlocking. The ponds covered themselves with flexible plastic. The elementary school squeezed next to library, windows and doors fitting perfectly together.

Inside the bakery, a klaxon sounded. “Breach of protocol,” shouted the city.

Cavora ran through the bakery, frantically searching for the error. She should have prepared for moving day earlier, but she’d been working on the seven-tiered wedding cake. It had taken so long to make the sugar lilies, which still looked too much like squashed ovals. Even after all of that effort, the cake had come out lopsided.

Cavora opened cupboards, looking for unsecured items. She checked the clips holding the bakery to the foundation. Over and over, she closed the bakery doors, making sure they fit into their frames.

The klaxon screamed, loud enough that an elephant ear pounded the ground in indignation.

She couldn’t find the problem. Knives were secured in their holders. All of the pots were attached to the magnetic strip along the floor. The wedding cake was strapped to the wall, encased in a sturdy box.

The wedding cake. Cavora groaned and jerked open the door to the back room. The bakery filled with the smell of smoke. An oven glowed, heat radiating out. Inside, a cake was burning. Cavora had forgotten about the last wedding cake tier, the one she’d tried to remake to get the cake level. Of course, the city wouldn’t move the bakery with an oven still on.

Cavora wrenched open the oven door. Smoke streamed out, choking her.

“Prepare for disengagement,” shouted the city.

“I’ve found the problem,” she shouted. “I can fix this.” She shut off the oven, her sweaty hand slipping on the dial. After shoving on oven mitts, she pulled out the wreck of the cake. Smoke danced up to the ceiling.

Cavora punched open the window to clear out the smoke, forgetting that the bakery wouldn’t be able to fit together with the grocery store if the window wasn’t closed.

Outside, the bulk of the city’s rolled body had almost reached her. The lane where she took her afternoon walk curled up into the city-sky. From the window, she stared out at everything she would lose. Her city, full of life and wonder. Everything she loved, rolled up tight.

The city crunched forward.

“Breach of protocol,” screamed the city.

She slammed the window closed, but it was too late.

With a snap, the bakery popped away from the city’s foundation. Up, up rolled the city, rushing past the bakery.

The city became a cylinder with a bakery-shaped hole in the middle, like a rug with a stain cut out.

Cavora sank onto a pile of flour bags. The city had gone on, without her.

The rumble of the city got farther away. Outside, ears swayed, as if to music.

She couldn’t bear to look out the window, to see the city-cylinder sprout legs and run off to other wonders. This world was full of wonders, the giant waterfall of arms, the lung-streaked mountains, the forest of beating hearts, the bridges that built themselves from bone.

She would see none of those places, now.

The bakery smelled of burnt cake, of ashes. Cavora needed to get outside. By the door was a box of cupcakes, which she scooped up before stepping out. Cool air brushed her face. The city was gone. No other building had been left behind. Nothing but the bakery, surrounded by a forest of ears.

A shaggy dog ear caressed her leg, as if to say that everything would be all right.

In her hands, the cupcake box, and no one to eat.

Cavora scattered cupcakes among the ears, setting chocolate frosted cakes next to an aardvark ear, and her special coconut cupcake by the ear of a tiger. She twirled a sugar star above the sweet pink ear of a rabbit. Although the ears couldn’t eat, they settled gently upon the cupcakes, stretching out as if moved by an invisible current. A forest of ears, all undulating toward her. An elephant ear covered the chocolate ganache, and a mouse ear mucked about in blue frosting.

Cavora stood among the ears, imagining the outlines of the city. Why hadn’t the city given her more warning? Perhaps the city didn’t need a bakery anymore, or perhaps they didn’t want a baker who burned her bread, whose brownies came out too goopy, who made lopsided wedding cakes.

“Why did the city leave?” asked Cavora.

The ears stood silent, listening.

She wanted to sink down among the ears and tell them every secret she’d ever had. These ears, who perhaps pined for their missing parts, who perhaps felt whole on their own. They weren’t even in pairs, these ears.

She laid down in the field of ears, listening to the smooth murmur of their movement.

An elephant ear patted her head, its wrinkled skin warm against her face.

In the city, she had been like a mis-measured building, never quite snapping into place, but here, she didn’t have to be any particular shape.

As the ears swayed, the story of her life unspooled from her mouth. Her late nights in the bakery. Traveling with the city, being rolled up and carried away. Burning her hands, again and again, heating sugar to make delicate stars. The ears listened, bobbing in the wind. They were good at listening.

It wasn’t right that no one would taste her wedding cake. She’d worked so hard on it.

“Call your friends,” she whispered.

* * *

The most sensitive ears heard the sound first. The buzzing.

Over the hills flew mouths. All kinds of mouths–snapping turtle beaks, pig snouts, elephant trunks, shark jaws. Wide mouths and small, teethed and soft jawed. All the mouths that ever were or ever could be, descending from the sky.

The ears waved. Next to Cavora’s nose, a tiny cat ear bounced in excitement.

Mouths covered Cavora, landing on her head, worming their way under her arms, nuzzling against her stomach.

The mouths chorused, a cacophony of barks and chirps and grunts. All of the sounds merged, words muddled beyond recognition.

Cavora gently brushed away the mouths.

“Give,” chorused the mouths together. Teeth gnashed. Jaws crushed the air.

She rather liked these mouths, who said so clearly what they wanted.

“Wait here,” said Cavora.

She ran into the bakery and brought out cookies and brownies, delicate sugar stars and braided breads, berry pies and loaves of sourdough. Some were undercooked. Some were burnt. She’d forgotten to brush egg wash on the morning buns. The pastries weren’t perfect, but they were hers, made in the best way she knew how.

Last, she brought out the wedding cake, seven tilted tiers, with lilies that looked like squished ovals.

“Eat,” Cavora cried, as the mouths swarmed around her.

Into the pastries dived the mouths, filling their maws. Shark jaws chomped the wedding cake, until pieces of it rained down. The cat ear flicked away frosting.

What a joy it was to see the mouths feasting. Cavora filled her arms with baked goods, running out again and again to feed the mouths, until the bakery was empty.

At last, the mouths settled down among the ears, content.

Cavora pointed in the direction the city had gone. “Can you help me get home?”

“Wait,” said the jaws of a shark, still smeared with frosting. “We will eat, we will eat.”

“The city left you,” said a fox snout.

“Unwanted,” chorused the mouths. “Unwanted, unwanted.”

Ears gathered protectively around Cavora’s legs. She reached down to pet the shaggy dog ear. The elephant ear wrapped itself around her knee.

A part of Cavora wanted to stay in the Valley of Ears, telling the ears her secrets, feeding the hungry mouths. Maybe what the mouths said was true, but she still wanted to find the city.

Cavora sang a little song for the ears, a new melody. The ears swayed. A whole forest of ears, dancing. She twirled around the elephant ear, dancing too. Singing was easier than saying goodbye.

She stood up, still singing, and motioned for the mouths to follow.

A mouse mouth, tiny and pink, floated up to her ear. “A city misses you. A city. A city.”

The mouths surrounded the bakery. Cavora scrambled in as the mouths buzzed around the building. She barely had time to sing the last verse to the ears before the bakery was lifted into the sky.

Cavora vowed she’d make a new wedding cake, and maybe it would stand a little straighter, now that she’d had the practice.

Soon, the bakery was flying in the direction the city had gone.

The ears waved. Goodbye, goodbye.

Beth Goder‘s fiction has also appeared in Escape Pod, Clarkesworld, and Analog.