Author’s Note: My great-great-great-great-great Grandmother Rosina came from a small village at the edge of the Black Forest, at a time when the forest wasn’t much different from when the Romans gave it that name. At the age of eighteen, she fled to the New World with only the clothes on her back and her baby daughter in her arms. The only thing I knew for certain about her story were the recipes that went with her.
When I was little, I learned to bake from my maternal grandmother. There was a stool placed just for me at the wide counter. At her side in her farmhouse kitchen I learned to bake bread and hearty meat pies, fasnachts, and gooey cinnamon rolls as big as my head. One afternoon I worked up enough courage to ask her why my five-times-great Grandmother Rosina left the forest.
Grandma was silent a moment, the stern lines of her face deepening into something else. “Because of the baker, child.”
“Why the baker, Gramma?” I asked, patting my small ball of dough.
She let a breath of air whistle through her teeth and looked at me then, the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes tightening. “In Rosina’s village, there was a mill at the junction of the river. There they ground wheat into flour, and there the baker lived. Every year a child had to be given to the baker.” She pressed her lips into a thin line. “Rosina stayed away as much as she could. Did her best to bake her own bread and such, but then she had a baby.” Grandma shrugged her sturdy shoulders.
“Why did the baker want the children, Gramma?” I whispered. Her brown eyes met mine, and even though I couldn’t articulate it, I knew she was afraid.
“Come now,” she said in a gruff voice. “Mind the dough, child. If you don’t knead it enough, it will never rise.”
The moment was gone in a puff of flour and a brisk shake of my grandmother’s head. To this day I still haven’t uncovered the truth about Grandmother Rosina and the baker in the Black Forest, but the seeds of that old family tale grew into this new one.
BEWARE THE BAKER
By: Amy O. Rizzo
The bakery arrived on a cold October night in the dark hours after midnight. It grew up from a jagged length of sidewalk through the caress of torn newspaper, feeding on cold moonlight and the carcasses of rats from the alley. If anyone had cared to look they would have seen a grotesque monolith, twisted and hurting, rising up on an unsteady foundation to embrace its new form. They wouldn’t have believed it though. Buildings didn’t actually grow. Especially evil ones.
Callie stood at the corner waiting for the bus with her best friend, Megs. They faced the town’s small square of shops and greenspace, both of them bundled up against the cold and waiting for the sun’s early rays to reach the tops of the trees. Callie watched as the stores slowly opened and wished it were Saturday already. She had a test looming in pre-calc, and the toaster cake she had downed for breakfast was sitting like a rock in her stomach. She must have groaned out loud, because Megs suddenly paused in her furious texting.
“You alright?” she asked. Her blue eyes met Callie’s for precisely two point five seconds before they returned to her phone.
“Peachy,” Callie said, biting off the edges of the word. She adored Megs, but her love life was a total pain in the ass. She had been dating Alex for exactly two weeks, and their love texting was threatening to consume the world.
Allowing herself a quiet huff of irritation, she tucked an errant strand of brown hair behind her ear and tried to ignore the sounds of furious tapping emanating from Megs. She watched for a moment as her breath condensed into a pale cloud and wondered if she should bother to dig the thick textbook out of her bag. Callie chewed her lip for a moment in debate and caught a flash of scarlet from across the square.
“Megs, look across the street,” she said, nudging her friend with an elbow.
“Give me a sec.”
“When did a bakery open on the square?” Callie asked. She squinted slightly against the mounting sunlight and watched as a woman offered a large tray to passersby.
“That’s Jenny Warren,” Megs said, her texting forgotten. “Her stop is almost a mile away. What’s she doing here?”
Callie could have cared less. There were other things more important than snobby Jenny Warren.
“Do you smell it?” Callie’s fingers dug into the sleeve of Meg’s wool coat as she took a deep breath. The air was suddenly tinged with cinnamon and sugar with a delicate trace of vanilla wafting underneath it. Her mouth started to water, and she swallowed automatically.
“I think that lady’s giving out free samples,” Meg murmured.
“Let’s go,” Callie said and started across the street, pulling Megs along with her.
Megs was right. The woman was handing out round, sand-colored cookies still warm from the oven. In their haste, they almost plowed into Terence Longreen who suddenly appeared in front of them to pluck a cookie off the tray.
“Watch where you’re going,” he snarled, glaring at the girls.
Callie lurched to a stop, her heart in her throat. She and Terence were in the same Trigonometry class, and he was the object of her long-lived, lust from afar. To see him so close and blond and irritated made her heart threaten to burst. She thought of five million things to say, but failed to form one coherent word.
“Don’t be a douche, Terrence,” Megs said. “They’re not running out any time soon.” She prodded Callie brutally with her elbow. “Say something,” she hissed.
“Uh, cookies, huh.” Callie felt her cheeks grow hot.
Terrence stared at her as if she had suddenly spouted Arabic. His eyes clouded for a moment, and his lips peeled back from his teeth.
“It’s all right,” a smooth voice interjected. “There’s plenty for everyone.”
The voice seemed to pull Terence back into himself, and he gave himself a brief shake. A sheepish expression settled on his face, but Callie was too interested in the new baker of Small Springs to comment. From across the street, Callie had thought the woman was older, maybe around her mother’s age. Upon closer inspection, she second guessed herself. The woman had smooth pale skin and merry dark eyes, her dark hair pulled back in a sloppy ponytail. She wore a red silk dress that Callie’s mother would have deemed inappropriate for the daytime with a full-length white apron tied tight around her slim waist. Her attitude was that of a cool older sister, knowledgeable and slightly rebellious. She gave Callie a conspiratorial wink and motioned for her to take another cookie.
Callie looked down at her empty hand in surprise. She had eaten a cookie already? The second cookie disappeared as quickly as the first, but by the fourth cookie, Callie slowed down and relished it. When she bit through the crisp exterior of cinnamon and sugar, the tender inside melted in her mouth with a swirl of butter and vanilla. She almost groaned out loud at the utter delicious perfection of the cookie.
“They’re called snickerdoodles,” the woman said, her faint accent making the cookie sound exotic. “It’s a very old recipe in my family.” Even though Callie knew she could buy snickerdoodles at the grocery, it didn’t stop her from reaching for another one.
“Eesenn…” Megs mumbled around a mouthful of cookie. “How do you say the name of the bakery?”
The woman looked down at the name embroidered in black across the top of the apron and smiled. “You pronounce it I-sen-bise. Where I come from, it means iron bite.” She peppered the explanation with a playful snap of teeth.
The sound jerked Callie’s attention to the woman’s gleaming, even teeth. For a moment she thought she saw a glimpse of something dark and pointed beneath the teasing. A ripple of unease glanced through her, threatening to upset her stomach. With another bite of cookie the apprehension was gone, and the woman was once again the smiling older sister.
“Please go inside and look around,” she said and nodded towards the door. “You can spread the good word to your parents. We bake everything a busy family needs.”
Callie didn’t want to go. She wanted to stay beside the bakery and eat more cookies, but Megs had spied a case full of fruit tarts and tugged her along as she pushed open the glass door. The ring of a brass bell signaled their entrance, but after taking two steps inside, both girls stopped to breathe in the warm scent of baking bread and fresh muesli. The floors shown with a golden hue in the morning light, the sun sparkling off shiny countertops and spotless glass cases. Someone brushed her hand and Callie looked down to see her little brother, Ryan, standing beside her.
“What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be catching the bus with Derek.”
“I was, but someone said there were free cookies. We got a ride with Alan Casey’s older brother.” Ryan was four years younger than Callie and hadn’t caught up to her yet in height. The top of his head reached her shoulder, his thick black hair smothered under a forest green knit cap. Now it bobbed in excitement, his boots stamping an impatient rhythm on the parquet floor. “Look at those cupcakes. There must be a hundred of them.”
Callie could only nod and stare. The cupcakes sat on an enormous cast iron stand painted white, the arms twisting up in clusters to display the cupcakes in groups of four or five. The icing lay like puffs of marshmallow clouds along the tops, each a varying shade of the rainbow. One group had a frolicking group of woodland fairies made from marzipan with wings of spun sugar. A different cluster sported gnomes with shovels and red pointed hats of fondant, picking daisies made of fragile sugar petals. Each group was more elaborate than the next: dancing bears, frolicking wolves, and a parade of dragonflies that seemed to hover over the cake by pure magic.
“Mom is going to lose her sh…”
“Don’t swear,” Callie said and punched his arm. “She’ll never have to bake another cupcake fundraiser again. These are amazing.”
“And we won’t have to put up with the fit of crazy that goes with it.” Ryan looked up with a devilish grin. “Dad’s going to be so happy, I bet he doubles our allowance.”
Callie fought a smile in return. “Yeah, right. Dream on, little brother.” She pushed the cap down over his eyes, and as he squawked and flailed, she scooted out the door, laughing.
The school day passed quickly with everyone talking about the new baker. There were heated debates about what exactly she looked like and almost no one could agree. The boys talked endlessly about the glimpse of ample cleavage from the v in her dress and her full, cherry lips. The girls discussed what designer she was wearing and whether it would be cool or not to dye their hair that deep midnight color. When the bell finally rang at the end of the day, Callie was relieved to escape the constant chatter to the relative quiet of her mother’s minivan.
Ryan had already claimed the front seat and was describing the bakery with enthusiastic hand gestures. Callie slid into the seat behind him and rolled her eyes. “I guess you heard the news already.”
“Your brother has fallen in love with cupcakes it seems.”
“Don’t be disgusting, mom. I’m not in love, I’m in lust,” he said and attempted to leer.
“Ew!” Calli shrieked. She swatted him on the back of the head, and it only took him a second to unhook his seatbelt to turn around and retaliate.
“Both of you cut it out. NOW.” Their mother stomped on the brakes, causing them to scramble back into their seats. She gave them each the Look of Death. “Seatbelts on, and if I hear one more cross word out of either one of you, we’re skipping the bakery all together.”
Callie slumped back in the seat with her hands crossed over her chest. “It was his fault,” she muttered. Her mom flashed a warning glance but pulled the minivan into the after school traffic.
The bakery looked almost the same on Callie’s second visit. There was the sweet smell of brötchen stuffed with Nutella in the air and a tray of meat pies cooling on the counter. Callie and her brother immediately presented their mother to the smiling baker while they ventured further into the store to admire the cupcakes again. Later on Callie would think about the differences in the baker; her slightly aged appearance with the soft wrinkles around her eyes and the ample hips. Her lips remained the colors of cherries, but her hair was now captured in a smooth bun streaked with gray. Callie would wonder about all these things later, but at the moment, she couldn’t stop staring at the cupcakes.
Just like the baker’s appearance, the cupcakes had shifted as well. The wings on the fairies had taken on the jeweled color of fresh blood, and they now dragged a childlike figure between them who was clearly missing a head. The gnomes’ spades had traded flesh for earth, and they hovered over a corpse hacked into chunks. The wolves had dug up something twisted and blackened from a hole, and when Callie saw the meat dangling from the bears’ jaws, she had to close her eyes. Her stomach lurched as the first butterflies of fear struggled for freedom.
“For my best customers, a little something for the ride home.” The baker’s voice was a welcome relief against her rising panic, and Callie managed a smile as she opened her eyes again. Her older sister stood there offering a white cardboard box wrapped in black ribbon, and the cupcakes had rearranged themselves back to normal.
It was probably that box of extra cookies that did it, but Callie was in no mood for dinner. The meatloaf tasted particularly loathsome, and both she and Ryan excused themselves early. She didn’t say much when her father came to check on her, and after an hour of tossing and turning and debating about whether throwing up would help the situation, she lapsed into an uneasy sleep.
The dream began with taffy, taffy the color of the setting sun that rippled in golden curves as pure and smooth as silk. The problem was that it came from within the center of her chest. It pulled and stretched in excruciating undulations that stole Callie’s ability to scream.
The pain was so intense that she thought she’d die from it, and with a snap that shook the bed beneath her, the taffy suddenly disappeared. She tucked her knees under her chin as her body trembled, tears coursing down her face. She didn’t open her eyes once.
It was still dark when Callie awoke, and she pulled on her clothes and heavy coat without bothering with a light. Megs was waiting for her outside, her look of reproach telling her she was running late. At the corner of Sycamore and Marshall, they met up with seven others, and by the time they made it to the bakery, their group numbered a hundred.
“You’re late,” the baker said when Callie presented herself. “Lucky for you, you’re one of my favorites.” She winked at Callie and pinched her chin.
“Here are your tools.” The baker walked up and down the rows of waiting children with a seductive sway of her hips, handing out wicked cleavers and long lengths of rope. “Remember, the blade is a threat. I don’t want any parents delivered to me bleeding. All blood is to remain inside them for the tribute.”
She stopped in front of Terence who had pricked his finger on the finely honed blade. “Bleed them, and I will hurt you. Do you understand?” Her hand snaked into his hair, and she pulled it back so hard his neck cracked.
“I understand, Baker.”
“Good boy,” she said, and her cherry red lips smiled.