Bread and Games

Have the town’s new bakers accidentally unleashed a curse upon its people through their delicious pastries?

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Dearest Miggs,

How are you, Cousin? I was sorry to read about John’s poor feet. Have you tried burying a spoon? It worked for Paul.

I am sorry for my delayed response to your letter. My usual helpers have been distracted by gossip and scandal and I feel as though I am running the farm by myself.

A new couple has taken over the bakery in town. They are outsiders, but pleasant enough. At least, that was our first impression. Now, the town is divided down the middle into two factions: those who think that the new bakers are just fine and those that think they are devils. I will recount the latest and you can decide for yourself.

The baker couple have the surname Miller, which is amusing, but not very much so to the mill owner, Mr. Baker, who is taking a fair share of ribbing over it. His eyes are likely to roll out of his head.

Mr. Miller, the baker, is a normal man for an outsider. Dark hair and eyes. Round at the middle like a proper baker. He seems about 30 years. His wife is very attractive in a lively, sturdy way like a new cow. That is not quite right. Do you know what I mean? She is bright-eyed and healthy. I have been pulling calves nearly every night this month, Cousin, can you tell? I make myself laugh.

Anyway. They are nice-looking folks.

More importantly, their bread is very tasty and word spread quickly around about that. The business was hand-over-fist right away, I could tell. Just the two of them doing all the baking and selling, I told them that they should consider taking on a young one to manage the front sometimes. I offered my Daisy, even. She is lazy, but good with numbers and honest. They said they would think about it.

Everything was going well down there until a few weeks ago. The neighbors say that the two Millers fight like ferocious cats at night. They holler at each other from room to room and heave and smash things. Sometimes, it continues into the small hours of the morning and then they are up to light the fires without any sleep at all.

I wonder if you remember my friend, Ruth? She still lives in town and has heard first-person some frightful noises from the bakery at night — like growling or thumping or a sound like bodies hitting the floor and rolling into things. She is often in the neighborhood, apparently.

I know you are probably thinking that this is none of our business because what goes on between a husband and wife is a private matter, regardless of how shocking or brutal things seem. At most, it would be something for local peace officers to investigate and put to bed. No one wants to get in the middle.

Right. So, why am I writing about it at all, dear Cousin? Partly to entertain you and partly to garner your sympathy, I must admit. I am living in a town of nutballs now. I will not blame you if you do not believe this next part. Consider it like one of those fairy books you favor, but with muffins and witchcraft.

Some of the townsfolk, nearly half, have concluded that the Millers’ arguments affect the quality of their bread. It is not what you think. The bread’s texture and taste are still intact. What they believe is that the arguments somehow infuse the bread with other bad properties. That the bread baked after one of these flagrant disagreements becomes poisoned with disagreement and that, when eaten, it somehow causes unrest to propagate.

Yes, Miggs. People think magic bread is making people angry.

This idea was bandied about as a joke for several weeks and no one took it seriously until the business with Mr. and Mrs. Pike. We all laughed about it, even as we were enjoying their rolls at lunch. One of the boys would take a bite and pretend to go mad and tackle the next fellow and choke with laughter on the crumbs. Then, Mrs. Pike put Mr. Pike in the clinic and it stopped being funny.

According to their oldest child, Nora, the family had just finished a set of muffins from the bakery (reported as raisin or cinnamon, depending on who you speak with), and her father, Mr. Pike, had turned to mending a pair of shoes by the fire, where he began whistling, like always. Mr. Pike is only not whistling when he is underwater or eating muffins. Do you remember him?

Anyway.

No sooner did Mrs. Pike finish the last bite of her muffin when she arose from the table and let out a scream that sent the smaller kids running out of the room and the bigger kids running in. Mrs. Pike then violently swept the remaining breakfast things off the table and leapt at Mr. Pike, brandishing half of a cracked pitcher. The child says there was no provocation at all and, yet, her mother’s eyes were full of murder. It took four of the kids to pry her off of her husband. The doctor says he may not live. They are balancing his humors as we speak.

Mrs. Pike is all of five foot tall and the most timid creature you can imagine. I do not think I have actually ever heard her speak. She is mild-mannered, I can assure you. How can one not be smooth and patient when one has a brood as large as hers? I think they have 11 children. My point is that she is a saint. Until the muffins.

I am not saying I believe this magic muffin nonsense. I am only saying that something strange happened.

The Pike business was the last straw for a few, and what happened next was a town meeting. The little ones were sent house by house to arrange the date and location as a secret. The bakers, the Millers, were not invited, naturally. Concerned townsfolk nearly overflowed Cecil’s root cellar when the time came. I attended too, but more as an observer. It is always smart to stay one step ahead of the mob.

The meeting was orderly at first. One person and then another one would rise and recount their personal experience with bakery items and some strange emotional upheaval after consumption (or, more often, the personal experience of their neighbor’s uncle’s mother-in-law).

Libby Daniel talked about her son, Phillip, who suddenly kicked over two milk buckets after having a large slab of sourdough with his breakfast. He apparently used an unrepeatable curse word during the incident. Poor Libby turned red over the memory of it.

Harris Fagan told the story of his twins, Ned and Theo, and how they nearly choked each other unconscious after a bedtime snack of cookies and milk. (I admit this made me chuckle. Ned and Theo have always hated each other and it is the reason they are no longer identical, owing to that big dent in Theo’s forehead. Not an accident.)

One by one, folks got up and gave their two cents, and each story built upon the one before it like a snowball rolling downhill until everyone was talking over each other and the place got quite hysterical.

I mean: Thomas Frack, as level-headed and hearty a man as you could hope to find, just stood up at one point, tears streaming down his face, and shouted, “The pretzels are delicious! They are delicious!” A grown man, made nearly incoherent with blubbering about pretzels. It was disturbing.

After the dramatics, there was a kind of thoughtful lull until one little sprout spoke up and suggested that we send in a counselor to talk to the couple, maybe get to the bottom of their arguments. There was no use fighting over whether or not the bread was enchanted. Maybe, though, we could cut off the problem at its source. No one thinks that the Millers are deliberately bewitching the village, do they?

This seemed like as good an idea as any, so there followed a discussion about who to send in as counselor. Our little church is on a rotating schedule of guest ministers and the last one they sent was about 90 years old and could hear precisely nothing. He didn’t seem like a good choice for the mission. Other candidates were suggested and disqualified for this reason or that until someone finally said, “What about Mr. Wise?”

Cousin, when I tell you that I have seen a person try desperately to become a footstool as quickly as possible I am talking about the young Mr. Wise when all eyes in that root cellar turned to him in one motion.

Mr. Wise is the grown son of the former Mr. Wise and the great-great-great-grandson of the original Mr. Wise. As such, he is our town conciliator and decision man. His determinations usually involve wayward goats and wandering fenceposts. This new Wise is a mild, doughy version of his father, good at judging pretty babies and fruit jellies, not as good with confrontation and mayhem. He always sits like he is fixing to curl up into his own navel.

Mr. Wise having been cornered and shackled and hog-tied with the expectations and fate of the whole village upon him, most of the townsfolk were satisfied to head home. What a relief that the situation was finally in the hands of a professional. A few of the men stayed behind to give the lad strategic advice and an encouraging smack on the back.

The following morning, there went Mr. Wise like a good soldier to the bakery, early to avoid the crowd. I was not there, but I got the full story from Ruth who was in line behind our man.

When the Millers appeared from the back to greet our friend Wise and the other customers, there seemed to be traces of a recent tussle on them — the man’s hair was a tangled mess and his wife’s cheeks were red like she had been smacked or pinched. The husband’s shirt was out of his pants, but only by half. Ruth put it as, “Something vigorous had just transpired.” Both Millers seemed breathless but, to be fair, they were hauling heavy bread trays around.

Wise seemed to think that he had walked into the wake of one of the couple’s famous conflagrations, and it filled him with new purpose. He stammered a bit but was able to deliver his prepared remarks.

He reminded the couple that they are now part of a large, supportive community and encouraged them to reach out if they need help managing the bakery or just finding common ground between them. He offered his services as a professional settler of disputes. He then botched an old adage, saying instead, “Patience for a hundred days can prevent a moment of anger. No. Patience is anger in a moment. For days …”

All the while, the bakers were loading their display and listening patiently, smiling at each other from time to time. Then, Mrs. Miller noticed a bit of pastry cream on Mr. Miller’s forefinger. She suddenly snatched at her husband and popped his whole finger into her smiling mouth. To clean the cream off? What followed was a most awkward silence in which Wise was struck dumb and purple with embarrassment.

Mrs. Miller then turned her attention to Mr. Wise, thanked him for his kind counsel and encouraged him to take some cream pastries home to his wife. “They are so fresh, the cream is barely in them,” she said, winking at him!

Cousin, according to Ruth, Wise did not speak another word. He just nodded, put some money on the counter and left with his buns.

Now, it is tomorrow and I am a bit worried for Mr. Wise. He is not answering his door and the shades are all pulled down tight. I am not saying that I believe the magical pastry nonsense. I am just saying that Mrs. Wise is constantly irritable and a full head taller than Mr. Wise. A man would not want to wrestle for his life with a woman like that, with or without the further influence of bedeviled cream buns.

It is true that no one has reported any fighting or other commotion today. I am sure it is just a coincidence, but some folks around here take it as an encouraging sign that Wise’s intervention, however brief and sweaty, has already had a positive effect. I do not know what to believe.

I will write again when I hear more. I am curious for your opinion on the intersection of baked goods and witches.

For now, I must put down this pen and finish my chores, which are doubled today. None of my usual helpers showed up this morning, and there appears to have been some teen-aged vandalism along the road. Someone has hung or flung their underthings into the trees there and I must snatch them down before our grandmother catches sight of someone’s small pants, waving in the wind.

My best to John and Abby and all the rest.

Yours,

Jess

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Comments

  1. Love this story! I have such a clear picture of all the quirky townsfolk . I hope we get to read more about this village in the future!

  2. I enjoyed your short story very much, Jessica. You make skillful use of the story-within-a-story framing technique, composing the work in the form of a letter. For me, the tale unexpectedly recalls some graduate research I did last year. Historical records show there was plenty of intrigue surrounding bakers in the late 18th- and early 19th-centuries at Salem, the Moravian settlement in North Carolina. Accusations of lazy bakers – not to mention conflict over who was allowed to sell gingerbread. Who knew baking could stir such controversy! As in your story, I think the goings-on at the bakery attracted attention because of the bakery’s importance in feeding the community. With its gentle references to witchcraft and magic, “Bread and Games” has a cozily spooky feel just right for reading again in October during the Halloween season.

  3. Unusual, entertaining story. Dianna your comments don’t make sense here. Bob said Southern-fried style in the symbolic sense of their speaking style, and I agree. It has nothing to do with fried foods or anything else you mention.

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