My mother taught me to spin magic from a whisked egg. She showed me how to weave enchantments into the dough with my hands.
“Witches have to be clever,” she said. They had to hide their magic in the everyday, make the uncanny seem dull, make spells from chores. When a witch cured a sick man with a mere touch, she was taken away by the crown’s vanguard and never seen again. Killed or tortured or worse things still, only imagined in nightmares. But when a witch cured a sick man with an especially good brioche, no one suspected the brioche of witchcraft. It was bread, and the things that made bread. There was nothing magical about brioche, or so everyone thought.
“Balance is key, Albie,” mother told me in the chilly dawn as the bakery grew warm in the light of the oven. The magic had to be good enough to help, but not so good as to cause miracles. Like all ingredients, it had to be measured out in exact proportions. Mix up a teaspoon with a tablespoon, and you get an arcane mess. Not to mention people shouting, “Infidel!” outside your bedroom window. Mother always smiled when she spoke of the crown. She always smiled when she was angry.
This frustrated me when I was young, a feeling my mother taught me to bury. I complained of freedom, of hating lies and hating hiding bits of myself that I wasn’t ashamed of. Mother taught me how to wrap those feelings in a tight bundle in my chest, and how to eventually drown them out with mundanity. After years, the frustration quieted, and at times, was even silent. Mother was pleased with my diligence.
But sometimes, in that ethereal light of early morning where it seemed there were only the two of us in the entire world, I imagined life without hiding. A cherished daydream, my greatest secret.
Mother died on a dreary night in winter. It was a simple death, an altogether dull affair that didn’t fit with how big and present she’d been in life. A fever took her and all that was left of mother was the ever-present absence of her. For months, I would wake up and expect to smell the yeast as she began the prep work for the bakery. But that was my job now.
I began to fall into my mother’s routines: rising before dawn, making dough, mixing and kneading and rolling, my hands coated in white flour before the sun had risen. In this way, my mother never left. Her habits kept her close. This was a comfort.
And of course, I practiced my magic and remembered her lessons. Balance was key. Never too much, always just enough to make the world a bit sweeter. The bakery did well enough. I remembered my mother’s warnings: never bake a miracle.
“We must remain bakers rather than become witches in the eyes of our friends and neighbors.” These had been my mother’s most dire cautions, and I tried to live by my mother’s teachings.
I tucked cures into biscuits, folded love in with the butter and cast spells over the oven. It was important to not take away the world’s problems, my mother had told me; we had only to dull the edges a bit. So I never completely took away the heartache of a lost lover, or completely cured a flu. I dulled the pain, eased the suffering, and made sure the customer was on the path to recovery. They had to walk that path on their own, though. Otherwise, even something as simple as brioche could become suspicious.
Ultimately, it was the simplest thing that doomed me. A careless moment on a busy day. Overwhelmed, frantic, and baking leavened white bread, the carpenter’s apprentice came in, his freckled face pinched in consternation. We weren’t close, but we’d grown up together. Both children of craftspeople, raised in their footsteps to replace them in their absence. I could tell something was wrong.
“What’s the matter, Thomas?”
He shrugged his narrow shoulders. “Kaya’s had cramps. They weren’t so bad at first, but…” Thomas’ voice became distant. When he looked at me again, it was with a forced smile. “It’s fine. I’m sure it will be fine. Thanks, Albie.”
I could see, the way I always could, the path Thomas’ wife’s pain would take. The blessing and curse of all kitchen witches: the sight that guided our magic. I could see in an instant the long, arduous death as the cancer inside of Kaya multiplied. I could see, clear as day, the doom that would fall over Thomas like a cloud. His life would be unhappy from this moment forward.
I was no stranger to death. And certainly no stranger to these visions. And yet…
We weren’t close. But we were closer than most.
Mother’s warnings seemed so useless against a family’s happiness. The magic spilled out of me and into the dough. Just a bit too much. But wouldn’t it help him and Kaya? Wouldn’t the world be better if they ate it? For the first time, I disobeyed my mother, and allowed a miracle to rise in the bread. It would just be the one time, I told myself, handing the carpenter’s apprentice his basket, the warm loaf tucked inside. One time, one couple. He didn’t even see how doomed his wife was yet. The miracle would be invisible, written off as mere stomach cramps.
How was I to know the bread would be happily shared with friends on the street? My miracle was broken into crumbs and spread across town, and my fate was sealed with every bite as the magic’s intention spread thin, inciting chaos.
When you add too much water to bread, the loaf won’t hold its shape. Your intention disappears, and you wind up with something entirely different from what you envisioned. Not quite a disaster, but unintentional and often ugly. Magic is the same way. A bit too much, and a tiny push becomes a catapult.
The vanguard’s report was a laundry list of suspected witchcraft. Villagers reported euphoric visions of prosperity, or momentary clairvoyance. A man with a broken leg woke up with healed bone and flesh. Another woke up with a full head of hair where there had been nothing before but a bald scalp.
Other, stranger things were reported as well: a woman who sang so beautifully she brought the entire tavern to their knees, weeping. When pressed for an encore, her enchanting voice was gone. A child who grew several feet overnight. One man, a farmhand, became a master builder overnight, building an elaborate stage in the town square for a play he was writing in his head. By morning, his clumsy thumbs had returned, his play forgotten.
Even a dog, presumably fed a scrap of bread at the table, was heard speaking in a human voice by several witnesses. According to them, the dog was very rude and all were glad when it returned to barking.
Like my mother’s death, my arrest was defined by banality. It was the careless kneading of bread that brought the vanguard to my door, nothing more. What a foolish way to die, I thought as my hands were bound and I was paraded through the streets of my home. What a boring way to punctuate the end of my life, I pondered as my neighbors looked at me with newfound scorn and wonder. None had suspected a witch lived amongst them. And certainly no one suspected the baker, who lived a simple life in her humble cottage, in the shadow of her dead mother.
I was not surprised when no one said a word as I was carted away. No one dared to defend me, not even Thomas. He didn’t even know my bread had saved his wife’s life. I was saddened, but certainly not surprised. There was a reason we hid our magic in the simplest of things, and that reason was hatred.
The crown’s vanguard brought me to the Crevasse, and as I watched the granite walls rise from the horizon, hope cauterized. It wasn’t just witches who wound up here; criminals of all sorts disappeared behind those impenetrable gates. This prison was a place where you became forgotten. It was an erasure, a death knell, a portent of your own downfall. I had hoped for a quick death, but as the iron gates rose and fell behind us, I knew my death would not be swift.
I was escorted beneath the surface into the dark, where the only light was the infrequent flickering of torches. I ached for the sun and the warmth of daylight, down there in that hole. I was left alone in my cell for many hours. Days, perhaps. The hunger grew, and my thirst became the only thing I could think about. When someone did come for me, it was for the strangest of reasons: an interrogation.
A thin, pale man in a black and red robe brought me to another room. Rusty chains hung from high ceilings. They appeared to move in the flickering torchlight.
The man asked me about other witches. Every day, he brought me from my cell and asked me, the vanguard watching on and intervening at his discretion. He never told me his name, but I learned every line of his face, every vein in his ropey arms. I learned the shape of his ears and the curve of his chin, the freckles that dotted his entire body. I memorized him, nameless but ever present.
No matter how many times I told him, he did not believe me: “There is no coven or secret network. There was only my mother, her recipes, and me.” The man hated this answer. He believed it was a lie. He lectured me extensively on his theories, for how long I couldn’t be certain: without the sun or even meals to measure the length, time was an amorphous torture device in the Crevasse.
“Your cabal cannot help you here,” the man said through spittle and devotion. “The witches and heretics who have controlled you have no power here. Only the crown rules you now.”
A network of witches, secretly manipulating the world. It was preposterous. It was what he believed, down to his bone marrow. He resonated with fervor. He sang his song of conspiracy and threats from the shadows at me for hours. He insisted I was a part of it. After a time, I stopped trying to convince him otherwise. There was no changing his mind. The best I could do was remain silent in the wake of his ardor.
Of course, there was torture. My interrogator rarely participated. He left these to his vanguard. Acts of violence that will forever be burned into me, often literally. I will not devote more time to their description. Know that it was horrific. Know that it was hell, down in the hole where the man in red and black ruled.
When they were done with me, I was always deposited back in my cell, where my only creature comforts were a bed of straw, a bucket, and a meal of water and bread brought once a day, or as close to once a day as I could guess. Even down here in this pit of despair, I couldn’t turn off my baker’s brain. The bread was repugnant. It was old and stale, certainly, but there was no love in the making of it. It wasn’t food as far as I was concerned; it was ingredients with heat applied. A mechanical, cold, calculating crust, imitating the real thing. Poorly.
I ate the faux bread ravenously. I only knew hunger, thirst, and pain. The former two were never satisfied. I grew gaunt, my bones protruding where before there had been flesh. When I finished my meager meals, I’d lick the crumbs from the stone floor and run my finger around the interior of the tin cup, sucking every last drop of moisture from it.
But even in my starvation, I remembered to pocket a morsel each time, securing each saved crumb beneath the straw mat that served as my bed. The time of my execution would come eventually, and I needed to be prepared.
Who could say how long I was down there, in the darkness? I only spoke to the man in black and red, but I could hear the screams of the other prisoners. At first, they kept me awake. But after a time, I grew numb to the sounds of pain. Another shame to carry until I died.
When the guards came for me that final time, I could tell something was different. There were quite a few more of them, for one thing. And the man in black and red wasn’t with them. This was it. The day had finally come. I carefully scooped the ball of hoarded bread from its hiding spot and hid it beneath my clothes before I was dragged upright and carried from my cell. The vanguard either didn’t notice or didn’t care; what could I be hiding in my cell that they would want to see?
They had all forgotten in their haste to cast me as the wicked witch that I was, first and foremost, a baker. This mistake would be their ruin, in the end.
The light of day nearly blinded me as I was brought up from the dungeon caverns housed beneath the fortress. It hurt. I hated them most for this final injustice: trapping me in darkness for so long that the simple light of day was yet another violence to endure.
As my eyes adjusted, I was led forward. We were near the sea, I realized, the smell of brine and ocean winds filling my lungs. The first refreshing sensation I’d felt in a long time. I could make out the courtyard where I’d first arrived, but now it was filled with bodies. More of the vanguard, and more people in black and red. This was apparently the uniform of the Crevasse; black for darkness, red for blood. I found my man in black and red immediately. He was awaiting me on a platform lined with wood soaked in oil. The crowd was silent as I was dragged to the pyre. No one spoke as the vanguard bound my wrists and tied me to the stake where I would be burned alive. The eyes of the Crevasse were upon me as my tormenter began to speak:
“Today, the crown celebrates the death of a heretic, a witch who sowed the seeds of chaos in her community, handed down by her own mother in a matrilineal line of demons, wooing men and–”
I had learned long ago how to tune out the rantings of the man in black and red, who was now just one of many men in black and red. I was eager for them to get on with it, but my interrogator forced me to wait through another lecture, one final humiliation before they killed me for the crime of existing. He finally finished and stepped down from the platform. The vanguard pressed their torches to the logs, the flames quickly catching and rising. The heat was immediately unpleasant; I choked on the smoke, careful to not let the ball of bread I’d saved fall from my breast. Luckily, I did not need my hands. I only needed to feel it against my flesh to work it.
They should have starved me. They never should have given a baker the tools of her trade: they saw me as a witch, but forgot I did not cast spells from nothing. I made magic from salt and sugar, yeast and flour, eggs and butter. It was like handing a sword to a knight and being surprised when they wielded it. A blunder they would quickly regret.
The only component I’d been missing this entire time had been heat.
As the flames took over the platform, I finally had what I needed. I did as my mother taught me: I wove my spell from the loveless bread, extracting its components and using the fire intended to kill me to save myself. The bread burst, no longer bread but something more, reduced to its base ingredients and remade into a shimmering amber armor that coated my entire body. It unbound me, protected me from the fire as I descended the platform. The shrieks of my captors was sweet music. Swords bounced harmlessly off my candy coating, too hard to penetrate. Hands slipped as they tried to grab me, the caramel-spell too slippery to hold.
And as I walked back down into the pit, my armor doubled as a weapon. It became pointed, hard as steel, penetrating the flesh of my attackers easily. I did not even look at them as I walked over their bodies to the cells below.
When I’d entered the Crevasse, I’d been a baker. But the man in black and red had made me into something new. I was fearsome. I was merciless.
The cell doors opened easily, the candy shaping to the locks or simply ripping the doors off their hinges. My fellow prisoners did not shriek at my approach. They shuffled behind me as we ascended once more into the courtyard. We walked together out the main gate. Most fled at my approach, but some resumed their attack. I was no longer required, however: the prisoners were hungry for revenge.
I did not seek out my tormenter, but I found him nonetheless. A gaunt prisoner with a long beard was pommeling his already limp corpse with a rock. I paused for a moment, watching his thin, freckled body convulse automatically with each hit. I did find some satisfaction in the fear I saw in his cloudy gaze, but not enough.
As I left the Crevasse with a half-starved army at my back, I no longer wanted what my mother wanted. I had died long ago in my cell, the me that had been content to live without miracles, in hiding, and in a fear that I had not even known I’d felt my entire life.
I wanted to offer my own children more than recipes. I wanted to offer them hope.
e.e.w. christman (they/them) is a horror and fantasy writer working in the Seattle area. their work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines, including The NoSleep Podcast, Uncanny Magazine, PULP Magazine, Exploits, American Gothic Horror (Flame Tree Press), and others. they are an active HWA member.