The Flour Maestro

by on April 17, 2024 :: 0 comments

photo "Age of Wreckage" by Tyler Malone

Heloise poured the chickpea flour into a bowl. She added baking powder to the legumes that she had pulverized in her coffee grinder. She hoped that chickpea pancakes would be tasty. Meanwhile, every time that a fighter jet boomed overhead, she’d stop measuring. She paused for air raid sirens, too.

Normalcy was becoming as scarce as fresh meat or fresh lettuce. The war had interrupted the supply chain and both farmers and grocers were short-handed as foreign workers had returned to their homelands and as junior employees were serving in battle.

Because Heloise had fortified her cupboard, she was able to distract herself. For as long as her provisions lasted, she meant to create scones, danishes, and more to brighten the days of her neighbors and their children.

The wee ones were shaken by the months of unpredictable events, especially by the kidnappings and deaths, as well as were missing their fathers, i.e., men who came home unannounced every few weeks. What’s more, those tykes, like the adults in their lives, were troubled by the food shortage.

With each passing week, Heloise became more passionate about her vocation. Indulgences elevated lives.

As for her, sometimes, only shutting off convergent media soothed her. Other times, her ability to cope required unplanned naps. At least, pouring pastry cream into phyllo and related acts calmed her.

Yet, there were days when the stress made her too ill to accurately separate yolks from whites (given her chickens, she still had eggs. Their feed, though, was almost gone). On such occasions, Heloise made do with sprinkling sugar over drop cookies or with making no knead bread. Blessedly, she was usually able to craft palatable solace for her neighbors, fruitless pies for soldiers, biscotti for displaced families, and zwieback for terror victims.

So far, every time that she thought she’d be unable to undertake more baking, someone rang her bell to deliver homemade preserves, a portion of the flour that they had hidden under their bed, or just enough oil for a batch of cupcakes. Not only did those saviors get to enjoy the imperfect goods with which she thanked them, but they partnered with Heloise in gifting needy others.

So it was that during those endless seasons, that after Heloise awoke, spent time in the bathroom, dressed, and prayed, she strewed her dining room table with flour and assembled whatever she had on hand. Whereas her cake shop was a casualty of the war, her fingers still itched to form appetizing hugs.

One day, a neighbor, who was really no more than an acquaintance, knocked on Heloise’s door. Inside her basket were edible flowers; pansies, roses, lavender buds, hibiscus, and honeysuckle. Heloise imagined cake toppers and scented fillings.

While that visitor sipped tea and nibbled on broken cookies, the baker washed, dried, and sugar coated some of the blooms. The rest she simmered in syrup.

Someone else then knocked on her door. That small boy clutched, in each hand, candy bars that his mother had found at the back of a cupboard. Heloise coaxed him to release his gift and then handed back to him half of a bar to savor.

Not too long after, the postman knocked. In the box that he tendered were “donations” from her North American friends. Flour, sugar, spices, baking powder, baking soda, yeast, shelf-stable milk, vegetable oil, and dry fruit filled that oversized carton. Underneath one of the sacks of flour was even a small bottle of real vanilla extract!

Heloise smiled. The postage on that box cost nearly ten times the worth of its contents, which, themselves, were enough for her to bake for several more weeks.

Another day, three girls from the local high school knocked at her door. The first carried a violin, the second held a guitar, and the third clutched a flute. Their principal had sent them to play for Heloise in gratitude for the many treats that she had provided for the soldiers posted at their school’s entrance.

Such guards were needed because robbers had become so brazen as to enter homes when residents were still inside. The limited number of menfolk not serving in the military had repurposed themselves as champions of schools, hospitals, and other susceptible places. Accordingly, Heloise regularly gave them delicacies.

One day, however, she made neither muffins nor buns, crackers nor brownies. After being unresponsive for who knows how long, she woke to her cat licking her face.

Heloise rose from the floor onto which she had fallen, realizing that her furry companion just wanted its chow bowl filled. Upon reorienting herself, she likewise noticed her living room’s caved-in ceiling and its windows’ broken glass. Additionally, she heard no bird song. The baker shook her head at that silence; the tall trees visible from her windows and their feathery residents had long been an endearing feature of her apartment.

After dishing out kibble, she opened her front door. Other buildings were damaged. Police cars and ambulances were parked nearby. As needed, neighbors were helping each other into the awaiting vehicles.

The small boy, who had gifted her with the discovered chocolate bars, came to her door. He held out his hand. Huffing and puffing, his mother followed and said something about caring for Heloise’s cat and feeding her chickens.

One of the high school musicians, too, appeared. She offered Heloise her shoulder to lean on as they made their way to an ambulance; the medics were busy helping people who could no longer ambulate.

After being released from the hospital, Heloise and her cat moved in with her married daughter. Her chickens were slaughtered for the poor. Government-funded building repairs would wait until officials could guarantee her nation’s survival.

Eventually, her old neighbors came to visit. They brought along all that they had scavenged from her kitchen. Heloise made chocolate chip cookies for them, for her grandchildren, and for the guard of her daughter’s building.

editors note:

What do we do with war? We survive, everyone, holding one another and ourselves higher than smoke. Like this story? KJ’s short fiction is now collected in An Orbit of Chairs, available now. ~ Tyler Malone

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