I’m delighted that my short story was published on the European Literature Network website. To read it, head over there, or just scroll down below!
The smell hits her instantly: cinnamon. A flush of memory, intense, almost painful. She is sitting on a stool in Oma’s kitchen, surrounded by wood and earthenware. Her hands in a bowl on her lap, she squeezes brown dough through the gaps between her fingers. She loves that bowl, it has been passed down the family for generations. She closes her eyes and traces the pattern on the outside with both hands. Groove ridge, groove ridge, closer together at the bottom and fanning out towards the rim, groove ridge, groove ridge. Oma bends down to take a tray of lebkuchen out of the oven, setting it down to cool on the thick pile of crosswords she cuts out of the newspapers. The hearts are laid out in neat rows, one up one down, their curves nestling into each other but not quite touching, apart from one pair, conjoined twins. She looks forward to picking up the double heart in one piece, a gentle twist and pull will be enough, and the two halves will come apart with just the slightest whisper of a crunch and a soft shower of tiny, spiky crumbs, leaving no wound along the edge but a matching scar, already healed, telling the story of their making. For the next batch, she is still to knock the dough into a ball, roll it, and cut out the hearts – the best part – but she pauses and breathes in deeply through her nose. The air is warm and heavy from the hot oven, rich with the anticipation of the grand ball of the spices: Cheeky ginger takes a bow and leads cardamom out on the dance floor. Honey starts to flow and, in pairs, more revellers join in. Allspice tangos with nutmeg, coriander flirts with star anise. Clove and mace discover a liking for each other. And soaring above it all, heady top notes, an aroma like no other, frozen in time, etched into her being forever: cinnamon. Oma turns to look at her and smiles.
‘Oi, you! Get back to work!’
She flinches under the voice’s sudden harshness, fired straight at her like an arrow sure to hit its target. As she crumples up the envelope, it feels as if scented clouds puff out from it, saying smell me, taste me, I have a message for you. She slips the letter into the folds of her gown and keeps stirring the murky slosh in the pot in front of her. Preparations are underway for the banquet tomorrow, and she is in enough trouble already.
She knows she is lucky to have been smuggled out of Camp Z, very few got the chance, or they did not survive the journey. The change had started slowly, hardly noticeable at first. A few outbreaks of unrest here and there, beaten down by police. At first, these were isolated incidents, then journalists who reported on it began to disappear. Eventually, the papers stopped writing about it altogether. The old leaders were replaced, one by one, first there were no more women left, then not many men either, now there is only the One True Leader, of course. Apparently, the people had voted for this, for change, change is good, but not this change, not this. People were afraid. Who would be next? Keep your head down and mind your own business, don’t talk about what really matters. Truth is not what it used to be. The walls have ears, nobody can be trusted, if you talked about the change you might never be heard of again.
They had come for her at night. Startled, she had called out and felt for Alice in the makeshift cot next to her, but a hand covered her mouth and a muffled voice whispered in her ear to be quiet: ‘ We’re on your side, we’ll get you out but you must leave her, she’ll be safe, you must leave with us now, or neither of you will make it’. She had gone over that moment countless times in her mind since. Had she made the right decision to go with them? She was alive, yes, but what did it mean to be alive if she did not have Alice, what was this life worth if she did not know if Alice had survived too?
Lying on her bunk in the dark, she reaches for the letter. Again, the scent floods out and she is taken to a place that feels like a dream, not a nightmare as so often, but comforting, familiar: a dream about her childhood, only, this is real. She feels a small, flat object, and, acting instinctively, pops it into her mouth, all in one go. It is heart-shaped, smooth all-around, but with some sharp, ragged edges that stick out like tiny needles out of a pincushion. She circles the tip of her tongue around the roughness until she has worn down the snags with movement and saliva, and the shape begins to dissolve. She stops herself from swallowing until she is ready, directing the juices so they would coat the taste buds all over her tongue: the tip, the sides, the middle, the back, then around her teeth, the roof of her mouth. It is only then that she begins to chew, pushing the thick, sticky mixture between her molars, making more saliva, feeling for chunks to break up, now, yes, swallowing, and at last, at last: tasting. The sharp surprising spiciness of nutmeg, lingering warmth of ginger, citrussy accents of cardamom. Clove and mace continue their tempestuous affair, star anise mingles, allspice sneaks forward with a kick. And there it is again, the top prize, so achingly familiar, so very much longed for, the sweetness, the richness, the light that makes all the rest shine: cinnamon.
Her world now is grey, there is no colour, no flavour, no taste. It is different for The One True Leader, everyone is the same and he is the same too, the same but different, they are told this twice a day in the morning and evening chants. If you hear it often enough you start to believe it, even if it makes no sense. Tonight, he will be in the Great Hall, eating the meal she is about to cook. Sometimes she gets punished for sneaking in black market ingredients – a herb, a spice, some salt – a risky game. Other times, no questions asked, they are just grateful that she can make the food taste of something, anything, to escape the blandness for second or two. Tonight, it needs to be the best it can be for The One True Leader. It needs to be special.
She wakes to the dull glow of the morning mist before the bell has been rung for the first chant. When she shakes out the envelope over her mouth to catch any last crumbs, she notices some writing on the inside, faint, in pencil. Oma’s handwriting.
Use just the outer edges of allspice for the first batch of lebkuchen and add the last of your German cinnamon at the end.
She reads it again, and again. Oma had to be careful, she took a big risk by even trying to get in touch with her. But what does it mean? There are more ingredients in this lebkuchen than it says in the note, she can still feel faint echoes of their taste in her mouth, why just allspice and cinnamon, German cinnamon? She has never heard of it, cinnamon is from Asia, everyone knows that. She reads over the line once more, whispers it to herself as loud as she dares. She looks at every word, feels for the letters with her fingers as if they could make the graphite swirls leave the paper and speak to her, relinquish their message. Then, slowly, she lies back. A smile begins to appear from somewhere deep inside of her, until, eventually, it reaches her face.
When someone opens the door, she catches a glimpse of the Great Hall from her usual place at the kitchen stove. The glow of hundreds of candles, mounted on candelabras, is reflected in the silverware along the two long solid oak tables and benches, set out like a mirror image. The High Table, on its platform, overshadowed by The One True Leader’s banner, looks down head-on. She blinks – she is not used to seeing bright colours. An ashen sea of women bustles about, dressed in hooded cloaks like nuns of the Untrue Ages, rising in peaks where there is still work to do, revealing troughs of shiny floorboards where there is none. They bend in between nooks and crannies to brush away a speck of fluff, pick up a glass here and there to polish away traces of a fingerprint, straighten a piece of crockery so the One True Leader’s symbol is at the top, not a fraction out of line. Today of all days, everybody wants to get it right, needs to get it right. The stakes are high.
The banquet is nearly over. The One True Leader did not reject any of the courses she cooked, a careful balance between what was possible to conjure up with the scarce ingredients, and what she could get away with adding from the black market, without attracting attention. A pinch of salt on the watery porridge, a twist of pepper on the boiled eggs, a charred twig of rosemary stroked over the potatoes. The assembled dignitaries relax enough to start breathing normally again, the skirts of the helpers carrying trays in and out of the kitchen settle into a less abrupt rhythm when they swish along the floor, turning a corner. But she cannot relax yet. Ever since she felt the explosion of flavours from Oma’s lebkuchen and read the single scribbled line, passed to her by unknown allies, she has been sure that she cannot live like this, a world without tastes, without flavours, and she knows she will have the strength to do what needs to be done.
She starts to knead the dough for the dessert. Mainly plain flour, eggs, honey – it is but a pale imitation of the rich and fragrant doughs of the past, but it will have to do. Then she opens the small glass jar.
‘It’s cinnamon,’ she had told the guard at the kitchen entry checkpoint.
‘Doesn’t smell like cinnamon.’ How would he know? He was bluffing.
‘It’s…’ she hesitated. ‘German cinnamon. A present from my grandmother for the One True Leader. I have a permission slip.’
She had begun to fumble through her pockets for the fake note, but there was queue building up, and the guard had waved her through. She rolls out the dough, then, holding her knife at a steep angle, she cuts in an unbroken line, twisting the tip as she makes her confident incision: the shape of a heart, just one, a special treat for the One True Leader.
When she is called into the Great Hall she trembles, but on the inside, she is firm. She carries the heart on a silver plate in front of her. It is still warm from the oven, she can feel the metal sending the heat from the middle to the outside. Tiny droplets of sweat form underneath. All eyes are on her as she walks straight towards the One True Leader, seated in the middle of the High Table, his brutal banner behind him assaulting her senses, covering up the paintings of the scholars of the past. Knowledge is not what is wanted these days. As she walks through the middle of the Hall, the men on the benches turn to follow her progress up the aisle.
There is silence as she places the heart in front of the One True Leader. In one swift move, he clutches her arm. Alarmed, she looks straight into his eyes. A barely audible gasp lower down the Hall is stifled as soon as it erupts. He runs his thumb over the tattoo on the inside of her wrist, almost a caress, but not quite: his symbol.
‘I hear you have baked me something special today?’ Still fixing her gaze, he picks up the lebkuchen from the plate and begins to chew.
‘Yes. It is made with cinnamon, a valuable treasure of old, sweetness and spice, fit for the Gods, the Kings and Queens of the Untrue Ages, and now for my One True Leader.’
Chewing, swallowing, he takes another bite, nodding approval. A relieved murmur echoes around the Great Hall. She curtseys and starts to back away, but still, she looks at him. Now. Surprise begins to surface behind his eyes. He grabs his throat, his chest, the arms of the men either side of him. With both hands, she pulls her hood up over her head, flicking it like a whip. A whooshing noise, everywhere at once: suddenly, the Hall has filled with hundreds of female figures in grey cloaks, outnumbering the guests, hoods over their heads, indistinguishable from each other, part of the plan: the women. In the confusion that follows, she slips away unrecognised. She runs towards the woods, things will never be the same again, she did it, she did what she could do, what she had to do. In her mind’s eye, she sees the One True Leader on the floor, a commotion, desperate attempts to bring him back to consciousness. But there is nothing anyone can do to stop the poison from working its way into his heart.
The outer edge of allspice: al, ice. The first batch of lebkuchen: leb. German cinnamon: zimt. The last of zimt: t. Al-ice leb-t. Alice lebt. Alice lives. Alice is alive! Oma knew that even after so many years, she would not forget the language of her childhood, the crosswords they used to do together. Alice is alive – this is all she has ever wanted to know. Even if they never meet again, she now knows she has everything to live for.
She has made it into the woods, and she can make out a column of smoke amongst the trees. This must be the cottage she heard about. She recognises a faint flicker of a feeling long buried, but never given up on: hope for a future worth living. As she picks her way towards the cottage, a roe deer turns its head to watch her. After a moment of stillness, it bounds away with effortless leaps, white flashes in the dark like a signal from a torch, long after the deer itself has disappeared.