30 March 2021

For Aurora Award Nomination Consideration

On Hestian Cuisine

by Mike Rimar

 

 

Afriel flipped open the cardboard box lid. “Ah, angel food. My favorite.”

My lips pressed together. I know. I baked it.

He cocked his head at me and I returned a shrug, abashed at forgetting he could read my thoughts.

Using long fingers as a serving knife, Afriel crammed a fistful of sweet goodness into his mouth. Whispers, like nagging earwigs, floated to me from teens sitting on nearby park benches and picnic tabletops as they watched the kid with dreadlocks and leather coat eat cake barehanded, and his dumpy-looking companion who tried to look cool about the thing.

Of course, I didn’t really hear anything. I doubted anyone saw either of us. Cast in Afriel’s divine shadow, we weren’t exactly invisible as much protected from direct scrutiny. Despite this charmed security blanket my head lowered and my shoulders hunched.

I hated being in public.

“Heavenly.” Afriel licked his fingers.

“Thank you.”

“Did you bring some milk?”

“Sorry.”

The angel shrugged then nibbled at the pastry with a furrowed brow. “You expect a trade?”

“Think of my cake as a prayer.”

The patron saint of teenagers’ smile wasn’t unlike the cynical grimaces of those he protected. “And just what are you praying for, Hearth Master?”

“I’m just a cook.” The Hearth Master thing always made me uncomfortable. “And I wouldn’t mind a few strands of your hair.”

Afriel flipped his dreads about his head. “Sorry, mon. I cut these for no one. Well, almost no one.” He grinned, his teeth incredibly white. I knew who he meant, and I knew better than to argue. This was the way with angels. Sometimes they helped, sometimes not, rarely explaining themselves. They considered their reasoning celestial and beyond reproach.

“Enjoy the cake.” There was little point in hiding my disappointment because, well, angels.

With fore and index fingers raised, Afriel made the sign of the cross in a blessing as he and my cake faded from view.

Head down, I hurried back to my shop, desperately trying to ignore the soft chuckling of happiness and cruelty my therapist had assured me was my imagination and focused on yet another cake I’d have to bake.

Afriel had been the third angel to turn me down this week and time was running out.

 

#

 

“How did it go, my dear?” Julia looked up from the book she’d been reading. “Oh,” she concluded after seeing my expression.

“Oh,” I agreed, hanging up my coat on a nearby peg. “My fault. It was Afriel. I should have passed him by.”

“Afriel.” Julia sucked at her teeth. “And is the original teen angel still as angsty as his charges?”

I fixed my mentor with a baleful glower. My teen years weren’t so far gone that I’d forgotten the constant criticism simply for trying to deal with growing up.

“You know you’ll have to bake another.” Julia went back to her book, brushing back a lock of black hair. As always she wore a dress, this one with a paisley print. “We need some angel’s hair to finish the pasta by the end of the week, not to mention all the other orders.”

What Julia really meant was I…I needed angel’s hair so that I could finish the pasta and the other orders. Grumbling, I shuffled to my desk and switched on the e-reader which sat on its wooden lectern. A pixelated leather-bound book cover with ON HESTIAN CUISINE stenciled in gold materialized on the small screen. According to Julia the Greek goddess, Hestia had begun the cookbook with more recipes added over centuries. From chiseled stone, to inked parchment, to print, to the present digital incarnation, every reagent, literal and traditional, had been transcribed through the ages.

Tapping on the table of contents, I brought up the recipe for angel food cake, reading through carefully despite having made the cake a hundred times over. My neck and shoulder muscles were knots of pain. Dealing with angels was a kind of balancing act. They didn’t believe in trading, or so they claimed. Bribery and threats were definitely out. Yet they weren’t above accepting donations. Offerings such as prayers were especially welcome. The aptly named angel food cake was their favorite and usually netted a strand or two of their oh-so-precious hair. Dissolved in a pot of boiling tears the result was a main reagent for angel hair pasta, a dish that I had on order for the past two weeks. My deadline for delivery was quickly approaching.

The first rule of Hestian cuisine: a bargain made is a bargain kept. If I failed to deliver I’d lose my position as Hearth Master and another would be found. Julia had always remained vague on the issue of failed Hearth Masters. I’d assumed it was a return to normal life, but had never pressed her on the matter.

I didn’t want a return to normal life–and the money was good.

As I read, the tension in my neck eased. The cake recipe was straightforward and I had all the reagents–eggs, flour, sugar, cream of tartar, salt of the Earth, and a small amount of holy water–in my supply pantry. “Julia, will you preheat the oven to three-twenty-five, please.”

She huffed, but went to the rear of the shop and the kitchen.

A few seconds later the front door bell jingled. Archaic, I know, but if you ever saw my shop with its crosshatched glass windows and wooden furniture right out of a renaissance fair, you practically expected a tiny bell to signal your arrival.

The tinkling also helped prepare me for strangers, allowing me those extra few moments to control my apprehension. Money may not buy you happiness, but it bought me therapy I couldn’t afford in the past. I’ll likely never be cured of my social anxiety disorder, but I’m learning to cope. The bell helped.

Afriel stood just inside the doorway in sullen silence, face masked by a curtain of thick dreadlocks.

Hope brought a smile to my face. Had he changed his mind? “Can I help you, Afriel?”

“I was rude to you earlier, Hearth Master.” He’d abandoned his Caribbean patois and spoke in low soft tones, like a mourner comforting the bereaved at a funeral.

Cook, I groused, but quickly pushed those thoughts away. I never had an angel apologize to me. “That’s okay,” I said.

“No. I was wrong.”

“Who is it, dear?” Julia called from the kitchen.

“Afriel,” I answered, followed with an apologetic smile for shouting.

“I would like for you to make me a cake.”

“Who did you say?” Julia asked, each word a slight octave higher.

“Afriel,” I repeated. “You know, the teen angel. I’m sorry did you say another cake?” Realizing my voice was still raised, I paused to breathe. “Sure. I’ll be happy to.”

“Excellent. And for payment…” A dagger appeared in Afriel’s hand. Before I could react, he brought the blade up and snicked off a single dreadlock.

The offer of payment should’ve tipped me off. Angels never offered anything. You have to ask, every time. And the dagger— it was a wicked looking thing with a blade black as obsidian. Finally, there was the whole Hearth Master thing. Afriel knew I preferred ‘cook’ and it wasn’t like angels to tease. But all I saw was that thick cord of black kinky hair in Afriel’s outstretched hand.

Angel’s hair. More than enough to finish my order.

Reaching out, I took the offered payment just as Julia emerged from the kitchen. “Did you say Af– Child! Don’t move!” Her warning came too late.

“We have a bargain.” Afriel smiled, his features shifted, cheekbones became more defined, forehead sloped back and smooth. His voice had taken on a deeper timbre. He seemed to grow taller and older simultaneously. His skin lightened in tone to a deep tan.

“Morningstar!” Julia spat the name out like a curse. She grasped my shoulders with strength I never knew she had and easily turned me to face her. “What have you done?”

“I promised…” My head swivelled to look at the handsome gentleman with the none too friendly grin on his thin lips. Morningstar. Air seemed to clog in my lungs. I knew who Morningstar was. He was Satan. Why was Satan in my shop? “I promised to make him a cake.”

“No.” Julia spun on Morningstar. “We refuse.”

“Too late. A bargain has been made. The bargain must be kept. I want my cake.”

“It’s okay,” I said, trying to focus, confused by all what was happening. “I was going to make another angel food anyway.”

Morningstar’s laugh was a melange of happiness and cruelty. “Who said anything about angel food, Hearth Master? Oh, no. I want…devil’s food.”

Julia squeezed her eyes shut. “No,” she whispered. “Why? Why do this?”

“You know why.” Morningstar’s baritone was low with condemnation.

“Your fight is with me, Morningstar.” Julia raised a defiant chin. “I’ll make your damned cake.”

“My bargain is with the Hearth Master.” He tapped me on the chest. His touch felt like darts of fire. He then pulled out a silver pocket watch and snapped it open. “Oh, and I expect it done by the end of the day. I’m having a very special welcoming party.” He spun on his heel, the tiny bell signifying his departure.

“Julia,” I said, leaning on the counter for balance. “What just happened?”

She didn’t answer, lost in her own thoughts.

Something had gone catastrophically wrong, but I wasn’t exactly sure what. I’ve baked hundreds of cakes but never a devil’s food cake. No one had ever requested it. Opening my e-reader, I searched my cookbook for the recipe and quickly went over the reagents. Eggs, flour, oil, salt of the earth, chocolate, and…I tried to swallow but my mouth had gone dry…my heart and soul.

 

#

 

Hearth Master was never my first career choice. Actually, I was an order-taker for a large pizza conglomerate. People, strange situations, they freaked me out. Not the shy wallflower way, but lock-my-doors-and-hide-in-my-closet kind of freaked me out. A simple trip to the local store meant hours of struggle and anxiety. Taking pizza orders was perfect. I worked from my home and rarely dealt with anyone face to face.

The trade-off was that the pay sucked. I struggled more often than not, but I eked out a meager living. When I wasn’t taking orders for double pepperoni I read. A lot. Hello, e-reader my good friend.

Problem was ebooks were expensive which meant titles in the public domain or offered for free download. That’s how I came across this weird little cookbook called ON HESTIAN CUISINE. No blurb or description of the contents, just a JPEG of an ancient-looking book. The price was right so I figured what the hell and downloaded the book. A quick scan through the recipes made me chuckle. The book had to be some kind of satire. Boston cream pie needed cream from Boston; toad in the hole, an actual toad found in a hole; and spotted dick…point at a random person and say, “I see you, Dick,” and hope their name is actually Dick. Richards also qualified.

I considered deleting the book when a knock on my door distracted me. Usually, I waited quietly until whoever it was went away, but the knocking became persistent, a flurry of quick raps, pause, then another flurry. Irritated, I snuck up to the door and peered through the peephole.

An older woman stood on my front step. Black hair formed a braided crown above a round friendly face with a wide friendly smile.

“Go away,” I said.

“Don’t be silly, my dear,” she addressed the peephole. “You’ve read the cookbook. Now step aside.”

My mouth dropped with shock just as my door opened, bumping my nose and forcing me to retreat. Alarm ramped up to terror when this stranger entered my home. My scream faded when she held up a single finger.

“Just hear what I have to offer, child.” Up close I saw she wasn’t that old, yet talked like a grandmother. “If you refuse, I promise to leave and that will be that.”

I crossed my arms hoping to look brave but only felt awkward and let them drop to my sides. The phone was too far and my only weapon was my voice. All I had was her word, and so, with a curt nod, invited her to speak.

As if to belay my fears, she left the front door open. She introduced herself as Julia, an ancient priestess. Julia told me the cookbook had been created by the Greek Goddess Hestia, and now that I owned the book I was to become the next Hearth Master.

Insane was the first word that came to mind. Then Julia held out her hands. In the left was a letter sealed in wax, and in the right a very thick wad of hundred dollar bills. “An order for a Scotch egg,” she said waggling the money, “and typical payment.”

“Well…” My eyes fixated upon all those bills. “What could it hurt, right?”

Julia snatched her hands away. “There are rules. One: payment always comes first, and two: payment accepted means a bargain made; a bargain made is a bargain kept. You must complete the order.”

The rules sounded reasonable at the time. I’d looked up the recipe for Scotch egg in the Hestian cookbook. All I needed was an egg laid by a hen drunk on Scotch whiskey. Weird, but do-able. A year had passed since that day. A year of bizarre online orders, of discovering a strange parallel world to what I’d thought was reality.

A year of making a lot of money.

Julia had taught me, guided me, showed me how cooking was alchemy, both art and science. Most importantly, while reagent substitutions weren’t an option, they were often open to interpretation. More than ever I needed interpretation and searched out my mentor. I found Julia stretched out in her room, stretched out on her chaise lounge, wine glass in one hand, open bottle in her other.

“Heart and soul,” I said. “Does it have to be my heart and soul? Can’t I use the heart of a chicken and, say, the sole of a shoe?”

“No.” Julia took a long pull directly from a wine bottle. “Morningstar is extremely particular about these things. Gets some perverse satisfaction, but then, he is the Devil, so…” She tipped the bottle in my direction in a depressing toast.

“A refund then. I’ll have to give up being a Hearth Master, but–”

“It doesn’t work like that.” Julie pinched the bridge of her nose. “Punishment is decided by the aggrieved. Yes, usually it’s a simple refund, but some customers can be unnecessarily vindictive. I’d put Morningstar atop that list. He will ask for your life.”

“My life! Why the hell didn’t you tell me about this rule?”

“I did, in a way. I just didn’t elaborate.” She avoided my glare by scratching at the wine label with her thumbnail.

Panic settled into my stomach like curdled milk. Nervous fingers combed through my hair. “I don’t get it. Why me? What did I ever do to Satan?”

“Nothing, my dear. Morningstar is punishing me for what I did to him years ago.”

“How is giving up my soul punishing you?”

“It’s how the bastard thinks.” She wiped a dribble of wine from the corner of her lips. “He gets your soul for eternity and the pleasure of my anguish for allowing it to happen. Call it a Lucifer two’fer.” She giggled.

My hands clenched into fists. “Look, you got me into this mess. Can you stay sober long enough to get me out of it? What did you do that got him so angry?”

Her face scrunched. “I stood him up.”

“What?”

“Yup. He asked me out on a date. Oh, I knew what he was about, what he wanted, but he can be very persuasive, and you saw him. He’s a dream. Anyway, I came to my senses and just didn’t show up. I should’ve told him I wasn’t, but…” She shrugged. “Later I heard how he’d gone over the top. Moonlight dinner, dancing by the music of a full symphony orchestra. Had I known, I might’ve gone.” She snorted. “And I’d probably be his for eternity.”

“Oh, boo-hoo.” My head bobbed in mock sympathy. “Well, I’m the one going who will be his for eternity. Julia, help me. What am I going to do?”

“Bake the cake,” she said, her words a slurred mess. “There’s a chansh he might not ‘ccept it.”

“What happens then?”

Julia raised her bottle. “Then all’s good and you keep your soul.”

“And why would he do that? Why would he reject my cake?”

“Because I’m going to give him what he wants.” Julia hiccupped, peered down the neck of the bottle. “I’m going to give him his date.”

Gawking, I asked, “You would do that for me?”

“I se—serve Hestia. You,” Julia pointed at me, “serve her, too. You are un-under our protection. I’ll offer myself…if he’ll ha—have me.” She belched softly and closed her eyes.

Julia was old; I knew that from the beginning. Not old-looking but magical old. She was a priestess of Hestia, but for all I knew priestesses changed as often as Hearth Masters. About as tall as me, thin streaks of light grey shot jet black hair she wore either in a braid or done up like in movies of ancient Greece or Rome. When angry her dark brown eyes bored right through me, at all other times she made me feel truly loved. She had a lithe figure with a thin waist and modest breasts. Would Satan still find her attractive? How could he not?

What was I thinking?

My cheeks burned, guilt and shame waging a war for dominance. As a priestess of Hestia, Julia had taken a vow of virginity. No wonder she was getting drunk. Giving yourself to Satan took some preparation. I couldn’t allow her to make that kind of sacrifice. “There has to be another way,” I said.

Julie squinted. “Child, you think too highly of me. I’m only offering Morningstar an opportunity to finish our date. If I know him, he’ll reject me out of spite. His one and only true love is tormenting others. Tormenting innocents just sweetens the icing, and no one is more innocent in all this than you.

“Bake that cake, Hearth Master, and when you finish, join me in getting right pickled. At least we won’t feel much…until the alcohol wears off.” She settled back and reached behind the chaise where she found a fresh bottle of wine.

Reality settled upon my shoulders like a block of ice. Julia was right. Morningstar wouldn’t accept her offer. She wasn’t getting bombed to prepare herself for sacrifice, but to numb the inevitable guilt of my impending demise. My only hope was that he might reject my cake.

Leaden with depression, I went to work on Morningstar’s cake searching for a loophole in the recipe I had missed earlier. What I found was misery. Devil’s food cake was a trap in itself. The two main reagents, my heart and soul, required my death. There was no way to finish the cake while dead. Morningstar’s vengeance was perfect, all because of my greed.

Morningstar’s dreadlock lay nearby like a taunt. I wanted to burn it…instead I scanned my e-reader for Angel Hair Pasta. If nothing else, I could finish that last order that got me into this mess. First thing was to get a pot of tears boiling. I kept a jug in the storage pantry. Any tears would do, but I preferred children’s tears. It’s not as cruel as it sounds. Children cry at the drop of a hat and with a promise of a cookie were more than willing to collect their tears in vials.

Two quick stirs with a wooden spoon and the dreadlock dissolved in the boiling tears. Setting the tears aside to cool, I replaced the pot with another, this one filled with tap water. While waiting for that to boil I worked on the pasta dough, adding small amounts of the tears and hair mixture as the recipe required. My pasta maker turned the dough into thin strings of pasta noodles. After adding a small sample of my freshly made noodles to the now boiling water, I arranged the rest into small bird-like nests and set them aside to dry.

Satisfied, I removed the few noodle strands with a pasta ladle; Julia always said it was good business to test your food so you don’t accidently poison your clients. Blowing on them to cool, I raised the ladle high and dropped the noodles into my mouth.

There was good reason why Hestian epicures sought out literal translations of certain dishes. Angel hair pasta is an excellent example. When properly prepared, the gourmand will feel an overwhelming feeling of inner peace and harmony as though blessed. It was in this state of consecrated euphoria that I realized another interpretation of the devil’s food recipe and got to baking.

 

#

 

The front doorbell jingled.

“Morningstar,” I heard Julia call from the front room. She sounded very drunk, and very, very angry.

“Julia,” Morningstar oozed. “I’m tickled to see you in such a state. Fancy a drive through a busy intersection?”

“Oh, shut up,” she slurred. “I’m drunk, not stupid.”

Licking chocolate icing from my fingers, I gave my creation a final assessment before carefully placing it upon a small wheeled trolley complete with china plates and cutlery of solid gold. Despite the prospect of my impending death, I was in a surprisingly good mood thanks to the residual effects of my pasta.

“Enough,” said Morningstar, sounding more bestial than human. “Where is my cake?”

“Forget your cake,” said Julia. “I’ve a better proposal. Let us finish our date. No tricks. We can go right now…for a coffee…or whatever.”

“Or whatever?” Morningstar’s laughter was crueler than any insult. “You make that sound so appealing. No. Where is my cake?”

The trolley wheels squeaked as I trundled through the curtained divider, elated that Morningstar had refused Julia’s offer. It made everything easier. “Here we are,” I chimed too cheerfully, but I couldn’t help myself.

Morningstar’s glowing eyes narrowed. “You’re still live.”

“Why, yes!” I patted my chest as if to check. “Yes, I am!”

“Julia, if this is another trick of yours…”

“I’ve no idea what’s going on.” The Hestian priestess sounded distant, perhaps praying to Hestia, begging forgiveness for her failure.

Morningstar glowered at me, then at Julia, then at me again. “Fine. Whatever. Bring that thing over here, Hearth Master. I’ll know if one way or another.”

I stopped the trolley before Satan. “Shall I serve?”

“Shut up.” Morningstar bent over the cake and inhaled deeply. When he straightened his smile revealed teeth long and jagged. He jammed a glowing fist into the devil’s food. Smoke billowed from burned pastry. Laughing with anticipation he shoved moist cake into his mouth and swallowed without chewing. Eyes, red as charcoal embers, opened wide. “What is this?”

Bits of cake and icing and spittle peppered my face but I couldn’t stop smiling. “It’s the cake you wanted.”

Morningstar reached out, fingers splayed. “Don’t lie to me you little turd. You should be dead. Your soul should be rotting in my hellfire.”

I giggled.

Even Julia sobered at my antics. “Child, what did you do?”

“Nothing much. I did use his hair to make that angel hair pasta. He is an angel after all, a fallen angel but an angel all the same. I tried some, like you taught me. You know, ‘always sample the cooking to make sure it’s just right.’” I winked at Julia. “Well, it was more than just right. It was…enlightening.”

Morningstar held a fistful of cake under my nose. His breath stank of chocolate and sulphur. “Enough! Where is your heart? Where is your soul? I want them, now!”

“Why, in your hand,” I said, “and there on the trolley.” I wiped cake bits from my face and showed him my fingers. “Here, too. You see, this cake is quite possibly the best thing I ever made, a thing of beauty to be worshipped. So, I am…worshipping it, that is. I’ve pledged my undying fealty to this cake…with all my heart and soul.”

“But that’s…that’s…” Satan looked to Julia for confirmation. “You can’t make a cake a god!”

“We worship whoever, or whatever we wish,” said Julia. “What’s the difference between a chocolate cake or a golden idol? I dare say, Morningstar, the bargain is complete.”

Morningstar’s hand curled into a fist. Blackened cake oozed from between his fingers and plopped onto the floor in a smoking ruin. For the first time since leaving the kitchen I felt fear.

Pissing off the Devil can never be a good thing.

“This isn’t over, Julia.” Morningstar whirled on her. “I’ll be back for the both of you.”

“I don’t think so.” With a shaking hand I wiped more flecks of cake. The courage I’d gained from the pasta’s euphoria quickly waned. “Julia offered to finish your date. You declined. Therefore, that bargain is cancelled.”

Julia broke out into laugher. “That’s right,” she managed to say.

Violence oozed from Satan like a thick mousse and I knew I’d pushed him too far.

“Don’t do anything rash, Morningstar,” Julia said in a low even voice. “There are rules even you must follow. Now, get out.”

Morningstar’s eyes flashed blood-red fire. “This isn’t over,” he said, but sounded petulant. He looked ready to sweep the rest of my cake onto the floor. His clawed hand wavered. Once I declared my cake a deity it had certain protections. Hissing like a snake, he disappeared into a brimstone cloud.

Julia threw her arms around me. “That was brilliant!”

“Never mind that!” I broke away from her embrace and pushed the trolley back toward the kitchen. “I need to get this cake into the fridge. It shall be its temple.”

“Of course, dear,” said Julia. “Of course.”

 

****

 

If you liked this story please consider giving it a nomination for the Aurora Awards Best Short Story Category. Just follow the link. Warning: To nominate you will have to join the Canadian Science Fiction Association, but doing so only costs $10 CDN and we’d love to have you aboard. While your there feel free to vote for any other Canadian stories, novels, poems, or artwork you may feel worthy.

Mike


Copyright 2020. All rights reserved.

Posted March 30, 2021 by mikerimar in category "Uncategorized