Part 6 (The Final Part)
“This is my pride and joy,” said Mrs. Eplibrod. “My workshop.”
“It’s wonderful,” said Mizha. I leaned forward and looked inside. An enormous oven dominated the room, with tables along the walls filled with various baking projects. My eyes darted to a large fish bowl filled with a thick pink liquid, because it was full of candy fish happily swimming about, just like they were real fish. I realized they were real, just not like any fish I’d ever seen.
The oven itself looked nothing like I expected. Far from being a pot-bellied black iron thing, it looked more like the oven back at my house. No, it was more like the oven at my Aunt Mazie’s house, because it was larger and fancier than our oven. It was stainless steel, and was made of two-ovens stacked on each other. Over the top oven was a grill-grate, with blue flames on top of it, burning down.
“This is where the magic happens,” said Mrs. Eplibrod.
“What kind of magic?” Mizha asked. “What exactly are you? You don’t look like a regular witch.”
Mrs. Eplibrod cackled. “And what does a regular witch look like, exactly?”
“You know. Made out of skin. Not bread and raisins.”
“Have you met many witches, then?”
Mizha shook her head. “Not yet. Mawbri took me to meet pale people and flying children and a sea-dragon, but you’re the first witch.”
“Well, maybe none of us will be what you expect. I’m a Bakavǫlur, just like my sisters.”
“Oh,” said Mizha. “Neat.”
I looked at Mizha and furrowed my brow. I appear to have missed something. “You’re a what?”
“She breathes vitality into the seeds of the soil,” said Mizha, “and weaves them into constructs of wonder. She whispers to sucrose as it grows its crystals, and theobroma oil as it tempers into form, and wills them to be alive.” I stared at my friend for a second, and she said, “She does baking magic.”
“Indeed,” said Mrs. Eplibrod. “Baking and chocolate work and candy-making, these are the crafts of my ensourclement. And this oven is very special, it’s heat provides catalysis for the transformation of prima matter into vitalis materia, and allows me to bake the animating principle into my creations. It also provides electric convection and has a very low heat variability due to the polymer-blend construction, perfect for laminated doughs. And let me tell you it was a bitch to get this model delivered all the way out here. This is a Hobard Professional 2850, normally only available to hotels and large-scale restaurant establishments. But Mrs. Elplibrod knows people.” She brushed her finger against her nose.
“Oh,” I said. Then a thought occurred to me. “Isn’t it hot in here?”
“Well, you know what they say: if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the Baked Forest.”
“No, I mean…you’re made of dough. Doesn’t it cook you up?”
She laughed. “You’re made of meat, which cooks up very nicely, I’m told. Doesn’t it cook you up? No, we Bakavǫlur are tougher than that, just as the Master Baker made us. To bake me into a pane-tonne you’d need to put me in the oven, just like if I wanted to cook you into a roast.”
I swallowed heavily. “But you’re not going to cook us, right?”
She sighed. “Haven’t I already said I wouldn’t? Besides, why would I?”
“To eat us,” I said. “Witches eat children.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Mizha. “She’s made of dough. Dough doesn’t eat meat. It eats…yeast, and sugar, and flour, and spices.”
“That’s right,” the old woman replied. “You could eat me just fine, but I’d have no use for you other than maybe to feed you to my cat. And your meat would spoil far before she finished you and you’d rot and your rotting child fumes would ruin all of my recipes. It just doesn’t add up.”
“Oh,” I said. That did make sense, but something still bugged me. You might think I’d be too intimidated to keep going, but Mizha’s casual attitude made it hard to be too worried. Plus, the old woman really didn’t seem dangerous. “But what about the stories? In the stories, witches that live in gingerbread houses eat children.”
“Do they?” She asked. “Do they really?”
Mizha let out a laugh. “They don’t! In Hansel and Gretel, it’s the witch that gets eaten! The children shove her in the oven!”
“I don’t remember them eating her after that,” I said, thinking back. It had been a while since I heard that story.
“They would if she was made of bread,” said Mizha.
Mrs. Eplibrod nodded. “You may think my house and garden delicious, but there is nothing so tantalizing as a warm, sweet loaf straight out of the oven. And I’ve had a long time to prove and develop dense and subtle flavors. You have to learn to think about these things, child. Stories are like history. They’re written by the winners. Do you think those children would have wanted to admit that they baked a sweet old dough-lady just because they hadn’t had dessert?”
“I guess,” I said. It did make sense. I relaxed a little.
“Oh, sometimes my sisters and I have been known to kill the children, but we never eat them.” I gasped. “Can you really blame us? I’ve lost most of my sisters to lost children, and the Master Baker hasn’t made any more of us in a very long time.” She sighed.
“It doesn’t happen often, though. It’s not in our nature, no matter how much danger we’re in. And it’s hard to blame the children, of course. Most of them just can’t resist when we’re standing next to the oven. Young ones like the two of you are rare. I don’t see a hungry look in your eyes. I don’t know why we always feel the need to bring them in here. Some of my sisters think that’s what we’re made for. We’re prey animals, like it or not. I’ve been lucky. I’ve always managed to tempt the predators that wandered in here with my special recipes, so they leave happy and well-fed. But it’s bound to happen, sooner or later. One day, a rosy-cheeked, hungry young child or her brother just won’t be able to resist.”
“That’s horrible,” I said. In that moment, I found it hard to blame the old lady and her sisters for whatever might happen, all things considered. “How can you live like that?”
“Oh, it’s not so bad. I’ve had a very long, quiet life. I’ve lived long enough to see your people finally figure out proper ovens.” She stroked her oven affectionately. “My gingers are far cleverer lads then they used to be, bringing me fish and all. I’d never have been able to keep a proper meat-cat in the olden days. And what is a witch without a cat? The cake-cats I’ve baked over the years could never get the purr quite right.”
I didn’t know quite what to say to that, and I fell into silence. Mizha didn’t, however, but nor did she seem fazed by these revelations. She started asking Mrs. Eplibrot about her baking magic, and the two of them launched into a discussion that was equal parts weird occult jargon and baking terminology. I couldn’t follow any of it. Mizha, for her part, didn’t seem to know what the terms meant either, and asked innumerable questions. The witch seemed delighted to answer them, and the two of them ended by each making a cookie-butterfly and then baking them in the oven.
Mrs. Eplibrot warned Mizha that hers likely wouldn’t be animated at all, and was surprised when Mizha’s black and red butterfly came out moving, flapping half-heartedly like an insect with a broken wing. Mizha was disappointed that it didn’t take to the air like Mrs. Eplibrot’s blue and orange creation, which fluttered all around us. But the old woman assured Mizha that this success was very impressive and something to be proud of. Then each of them plucked their cookies up and took big bites. I at first refused, but after they insisted that this wasn’t any different than stepping on a bug, and that the butterflies wouldn’t live long anyway, I had a piece of each of their wings. They both tasted very good, although Mrs. Eplibrot’s was far, far better. I had never had a cookie that tasted like that, so warm and sweet and bursting with secrets. The fact that it quivered a little in my mouth should have been creepy, but it felt delightful.
Eventually, I realized something that I hadn’t really thought about.
“Mizha, we’ve been gone a really long time. Shouldn’t we, like, be going back to class?”
Mizha frowned at me. “Yes, I suppose we should.” She turned to Mrs. Eplibrot and gave her an enormous hug, which the old dough-lady returned. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Eplibrot.”
“It was my pleasure, dearies. And keep practicing. You have the making of a Bakavǫlur master, even if you are unfortunately made of meat.”
“We’ll be sure to come back and visit,” said Mizha.
“Please do. Only, make sure to be careful who you bring along with you. Not all children are as open-minded as your friend here.”
Mizha laughed. “Definitely. I wouldn’t want you to get eaten up.”
“No,” said Mrs. Eplibrot with a grin. “I wouldn’t want that, either.”
The trip back was uneventful compared to what had come before. Now that I knew what to look for, I could see that this entire forest was made of edible things. Only instead of being baked goods or candy, it was more like they were ingredients. The trunks of the bare trees were towers of unrefined sugar, like those brown cones you can find in fancy bake shops. Still others were stacks of piles of wheat berries, or enormous cinnamon sticks.
When we got back to the part of the path where we entered, Mawbri took us back to the coat room the same way we had come. I had that same sensation of passing into dark water, only not getting wet. By this point, the strangeness of it all had worn off enough that I was getting panicky how much time had passed. But as Mizha had said, time seemed to work differently. We got back only a minute after free play ended. When we walked past the coat room wall everyone else was sitting in a circle.
“There you are,” Mrs. F said to me as we emerged. She seemed to take no notice of Mizha, although from the looks of other people in the class, they had seen the two of us walk out of the private coat room area together. I realized I was going to have to deal with that, but I was more worried about the look on Mrs. F’s face.
“Where have you been?” she asked.
“Just playing,” I said with as much contrition as I could muster. “Sorry, Mrs. F.”
“Just make sure to be on time,” she said. “Please have a seat.”
And class resumed. It just went on, as if nothing had happened. I barely paid attention. My mind was full of everything I had seen and done that day. Mizha was now even more of a puzzle than she had been before. I knew that the strangeness anyone could see when they looked at her was a facade. A shroud, covering hiding far, far more strangeness underneath. And I understood none of it. I didn’t know why she looked like a walking corpse, or why she seemed to be incapable of fear. Or, you know, how she had a living shadow-creature for a pet who was able to take her into impossible fantasy worlds for hours at a time only to return a few minutes later.
All of this weighed on me and consumed my mind for the rest of the day, and into the weekend. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Surely, everything was different, now. My life would never be the same. I was enraptured, but also scared that I couldn’t return to my normal life.
But by the next week, it didn’t seem so important. And a month later, it was just one of those things. I was very young, and I had a full life. And I’ll admit, part of me was scared to hang out with Mizha again, even though it was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me.
She didn’t approach me again, although she did give me looks when I caught her eye, and I knew without having to think that those looks were an invitation to play again, whenever I wanted. But there was no pressure there, and when I looked away, every time she did it, I didn’t see hurt or rejection in her body language. It was as if she was saying, “Oh, okay, maybe another time.” I was so inside my own head, and she was so self-possessed, that it never occurred to me that she was lonely. That she really wanted a friend.
And so I didn’t play with Mizha when I was little, not for the rest of the year, and not for the few years that followed. It gives me a sick feeling in my gut when I think about it. Part of that is that I was denying her my friendship. That’s the generous part of the interpretation. But another part of it is selfish. If not for a few coincidences later on, I would have skipped out on becoming friends with Mizha entirely. And then I would never be gifted with the fascinating, intoxicating, and sometimes terrifying life that I have now. I never would have seen the wonders that the world has to offer. Or the horrors. But those are out there, and it turns out that if they’re out there, I need to see them. I would never have known that, and I never would have found out who I truly am. Because it was true that Mizha wasn’t afraid of anything, not even the people that we all are, deep down on the inside.
But that’s another story, for another time.