[First Place Winner in Lucent Dreaming’s Autumn Short Story Contest]
Winter was the worst time for Henry—absolutely, positively the most miserable time of all the year. Yes, there was the issue of the cold. And yes, there was the issue of the snow, which fell constantly and turned grey with grime. And, when it was stacked up in big slushy piles on the sidewalks, it slowly melted into puddles that soaked through his worn snow-boots and made his socks feel squishy with ice water. But more than the cold and more than the snow and more than the squishy socks, what Henry disliked the most about winter was the arrival of the gigantic, multi-tiered Christmas cakes in the window of Belly’s Bakery.
The cakes were tall and beautiful, decorated with sprigs of real holly and red piped frosting made to look like ribbons. They were always mysteriously changing, as the ones from the day before disappeared and newer, even more beautiful ones appeared the next day. Even worse than the sight of them was the smell. Henry could close his eyes when they walked past the window, or turn his head. But, if for a moment the door of Belly’s opened, the malicious winter breeze would carry past him the taunting scent of warm sugar and decadent chocolate, cinnamon and sweetness. Then, he would become powerless and distraught. He imagined that must be what heaven smelled like. The process of absorbing the scents was thrilling, which made it all the more horrendous. First came the slow inhale, in which his nostrils enveloped the cruelly divine flavours. Then was the brief pause when his soul itself seemed to swallow the rich and loving aroma of the glorious creations. And finally came the exhale, which was all at once the best and worst part, when he realised in full the magic of the odours he had just experienced and realised that he was forbidden from partaking in the full experience of those sensations.
In the midst of this euphoria, he would find himself being dragged away, a merciless hand tearing him from that paradise. Then, pulling him out of his wonderment, he would hear the voice of his mother, urging him,
“Come along Henry. You know that stuff is poison.”
And indeed he did. She told him every time they passed by the window, which was every day on the path back home from school. Those cakes were the forbidden fruit. He knew this… and yet…
Henry pushed the thought of the cakes from his mind and kept walking, hand-in hand with his mother. And every day, he was successful in keeping his mind clear of the cakes, until the entire cycle would begin all over again the next day. His respite came on the weekend, when he usually stayed home and was not subjected to that torturous walk past the bakery. There, in the safety of the kitchen, his mother would make him eggs with spinach for breakfast, salad or fish for lunch, and varying flavours of chicken with vegetables for dinner. None of these tempted him or taunted him, and in fact, had so little odour and flavour that none of them could have been ‘poison.’ Despite this, and despite his mother’s satisfaction at such forms of sustenance, Henry always felt in the evening, after polishing off his vegetables, that something was missing. Although he felt full enough from the food, he felt an emptiness in his heart, which he didn’t know how to fix.
On Saturday afternoon, the neighbours Jane and George knocked on the door to ask if Henry could play. Henry’s mother said yes.
“Where will you go?” she asked.
“To the park in town, by school,” George answered.
Henry felt his heart sink—on this one day of relief, he would have to make the hike to school and face that tormenting window.
With reluctance, he donned his too-big winter coat, a hat that slipped down over his eyebrows, and his worn-out snow-boots, and went out to play. When the trio reached Belly’s, they were all drawn to the sight there. Henry heard the jingle of the bell signifying that the door was opening and the familiar smells wafted out into the crisp air, where they met his nose. But this time, nobody pulled him away or reminded him of the perils that the beautiful cakes held. Instead of his mother’s voice, he heard that of Jane’s, saying,
“Let’s go in!”
Panic instantly seized hold of Henry. What would he do? How could he resist? But then George said,
“I didn’t bring any money.”
Relief flooded through Henry. He wouldn’t have to resist. He had no money either. But suddenly, Jane’s voice:
“Belly gives free samples!”
George’s eyes lit up and the two scurried inside. Upon realising that their trio had been reduced to two, they popped their heads outside to find Henry, wide-eyed, gazing at the cakes with a mixture of fear and admiration.
“Henry?” Jane enquired, “Aren’t you going to come inside?”
Inside? Inside Belly’s Bakery? He had never imagined actually going inside the bakery. He had trouble withstanding the smells that drifted outside of the shop—how would he bear to be inside, where the smells and sights would call out to him with even more fervour and force? He could hear his mother’s voice, telling him that it would only bring trouble. It would rot his teeth and make him fat. It would make him slow and lazy. Despite what all of the health experts said, one sweet could hurt. He was ready to turn away, ready to go home, where he was safe from temptation. But just as he opened his mouth to say, “No, I won’t come inside,” a woman emerged from the doorway carrying a towering white box. In a moment of comprehension turned quickly to awe, Henry realised that contained in those four unassuming panels of cardboard was one of the most mesmerising creations on earth: a Christmas cake. He’d never been this close to one before. As the woman passed behind him, cake in hand, the familiar smell greeted Henry with ten times the strength and sweetness than it ever had from within the shop. And in that moment, he knew it was useless to resist. In fact, to resist would have been cruel, cruel to himself. To deny oneself such joy, even on the basis of pleasing someone else, could only be described as self-inflicted cruelty. Now, this is not to condemn Henry’s mother. His mother denied him such joy not out of cruelty, but out of the maternal instinct of protection, and also out of fear.
For what Henry did not know was that before his mother had been thin, she had been not thin. She had become particularly not thin, as is natural, when carrying Henry in her womb. And when, after he was born, she had not instantly become thin again, Henry’s father had lost interest. Her beautiful face, to him, lost all its beauty. He could not see the newfound joy that occupied her eyes and painted her lips with gentle kisses for her child.
He could not see that the softness of her stomach was a marker of the life she had created, or that curve of her chest was a refuge where their child could rest his head in comfort and safety, in the warmth of his mother’s shelter. Rather, he saw only skin and mass and creases that did not appeal to him, did not make him feel proud, did not make him feel virile or alive with passion. And, unable to bear the loss of this feeling of vitality, he sought it elsewhere, in other women, whose bodies were firm and compact. He no longer had any use for the woman he’d promised to love.
She blamed her body for the loss of a husband and for Henry’s loss of a father. From the day he left, she was determined to live a life free of everything superfluous, everything indulgent—she adopted a lifestyle strictly opposed to ‘excess.’ Excess was dangerous. Excess drove people away. She deprived herself of joyful experiences in order not to risk the re-emergence of bodily excess.
And so, Henry was not allowed to engage in anything that could be classified as indulgent, superfluous, or excessive. Nevertheless, he found himself floating toward the door that held within its threshold a whole array of indulgences, all superfluous and all excessive. He floated toward the threshold, then across it. The jingle of a bell indicated the closing of the door. He was inside the bakery, surrounded by decadence, extravagance on every side.
Everywhere he turned, he found himself face to face with pies, tarts, biscuits, strudels, or cakes. In the presence of such an abundance of sweets, he felt overwhelmed and overcome suddenly with a dizzying feeling of warmth and confusion. He was enchanted, fascinated and curious, but at the same moment, he knew he should not be. This produced in him irreconcilable feelings of both wonderment and guilt. Staggering away from the cakes, he turned to see Jane and George standing at the counter, speaking to a tiny old woman with fluffy white hair and a large girth. She was Isabel, better known as Belly. She bent and caught his eye through the glass case where a huge array of chocolates was laid out on display. The chocolates were a plethora of colors and shapes—round, square, oblong, and rectangular. Different patterns adorned their tops—squiggly lines, interwoven circles—some even had little green leaves sticking out of their top. Belly plucked two from the case and slid them across the counter, to George and Jane’s eager hands. Henry watched in awe as his companions swallowed their chocolates in one bite, the tiny morsels gone in a second. Belly smiled at Henry as his friends pleaded for “just one more bite.” She returned to the glass encasement and picked out three more chocolates. Three?
Two were handed over to Jane and George and devoured in a moment. But the third remained separate. Belly smiled at Henry once more, encouragingly, crinkles forming around her eyes, and slid the chocolate, on a small white doily, a bit closer toward the corner of the room where he stood. In her smile, there was a sparkle of good-natured mischief, as if she was playing a joke. There was something in her that was indefinable yet undeniable, which gave her the impression of radiating joyfulness.
Henry remained in the corner, unmoving, staring at the small black square that this jolly matron had set out, seemingly for him. Jane and George, giving up in their efforts to obtain yet a third chocolate, moved on to admire the Christmas cakes. But Henry, in a strange turn of events, was now more enamored with the simple piece of chocolate than with the grandiose cakes that had been the object of his desires for so many winters.
Nobody stood at the counter. The other customers were browsing the pastries and the pies. Belly had retreated into the back room to whip up some new creation. And the chocolate remained.
Henry thought it looked lonely and sad, so small on the long expanse of the counter. And quite suddenly, he found himself not in the corner of the room where he had been standing a moment earlier, but standing in front of that forsaken sweet, observing it with a critical eye. It was plain, unadorned by squiggles, lines, or leaves, and was dark brown, with no speckles of color. Seized by unexpected bravery, he picked it up. Unlike his friends, who had gobbled up their chocolates without thought, Henry deliberated. His mother had never said that Belly’s chocolates were poison—they had never explicitly been articulated as off-limits.
He raised it to his nose. The smell was rich and sweet, and drew him in like a magnet. He vowed to himself that if he tasted this chocolate, he would not let himself become slow or lazy. And he vowed that he would tell his mother one day. Just not today. Maybe in five years, or ten, when he was bigger and older and when she could see that one bite of chocolate had not rotted his teeth or made him fat. For today though, his trip into Belly’s Bakery would be a story untold.
Slowly, he lifted the chocolate out of the doily. It was soft and began to dissolve with the heat of his fingers. Finally, his resolve strong, he brought it to his mouth and took a bite.
It was like nothing he had ever tasted before, nothing like the eggs with spinach that he ate for breakfast, or the salad or fish he ate for lunch, or the chicken with vegetables he ate for dinner. It was creamy and velvety, melting in a way that seemed to heighten its flavor and root itself in his memory forever. It was slightly salty, not too sweet, it clung to his taste buds and stuck to the roof of his mouth. It was pure bliss. He took another bite, then another, savoring each one of those tiny pleasures that make life worth living. In the moment the flavor of the chocolate had spread across his tongue, it had also spread into his heart. And he knew what had been causing the emptiness there, and he knew how to fix it.
More than just the chocolate, what had been missing from his life was the joy that comes from truly enjoying every moment, every opportunity, and every taste that life offers. It was a simple thing, this small square of chocolate, much simpler than the elaborate Christmas cakes he had imagined would fill his heart’s void. And yet, because he allowed it to, that simple piece of chocolate had brought him great joy. This is what had been missing—the strength to allow himself to seek out joy and the ability to relish in every small piece of happiness. So that at the end of the day, even if each day seemed ordinary and unexciting, his heart would feel full, because he had found something to be celebrated in every moment of that day—because he had allowed himself to make his own joy.
When he’d finished the chocolate, Henry waited at the counter for Belly to return. Jane pulled at his sleeve. George insisted that they leave for the park before all of the swings were taken. But Henry was struck by inspiration and determined to wait for Belly. Finally, she reemerged and, seeing the empty chocolate doily, granted Henry another smile.
“Did you enjoy it?” she asked him, in a voice that sounded like laughter.
“Very much ma’am. Thank you,” Henry replied. “How much to have one of those wrapped in a little box, like a present?”
“Let’s just call it a Christmas gift,” she replied and plucked from the display another plain dark square like the one Henry had eaten. Digging through the cabinets behind her, she emerged with a small gold box, topped with a red ribbon. She placed the chocolate within the golden package and set it in Henry’s hands.
Thanking her again, he finally yielded to his friends and they went along their way.
That evening, when Henry returned home, he did not tell his mother what he had done that day on his way to the park. Instead, he snuck into her room while she washed the dishes and lay the golden box on her bedside table. In big loopy handwriting unlike his own, he wrote a note to his mother, explaining the happiness the magical chocolate could bring, and, in order to fool her into thinking the chocolate was an early Christmas gift, he signed it, ‘Love Santa.’ He could see that, despite her airs of happiness, she too had emptiness in her heart. And now that he knew the cure, he set out to bring her joy like that which he had found.
Henry entered the kitchen the next morning to find that instead of eggs, his mother was making pancakes. As he walked in, she turned from her spot at the stove and smiled at him. And he could see in that smile a change, an authenticity that carried over into her eyes. She wasn’t plastering on false happiness for him. She was truly happy. So happy in fact that she left her place at the stove, swept Henry into a hug, kissed him on the forehead, and told him, “Thank you.” What she was thanking him for he was not sure, as he was certain his note had been convincing enough to keep her from ever suspecting the chocolate’s true origins. Nevertheless, he was pleased that she was pleased with him and pleased with the joy he had seen in her smile.
When he had finished with the pancakes, he snuck back up to his mother’s room to verify that she had seen the gift he had left. Sure enough, the gold box was empty, and the hearts of Henry and his mother were full.
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