Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Magical Cake

None of the four Plum children ever understood their great uncle Alexander. He kept a great many strange artifacts in glass display cases throughout the house and begged the children to be careful whenever they visited. Running within the house was strictly prohibited. While some of the objects appeared to be quite valuable, others seemed questionable. In one case was kept an ugly wooden goblet which Uncle Alexander insisted  was, in fact, the holy grail, though their mother always pooh poohed this notion whispering to them that he had found it at a garage sale. The same sale, in fact, where she had obtained a rather obnoxious chicken shaped lamp.

In another case what appeared to be a potato sack was nestled between a beautiful ball of solid gold and a ring encrusted with diamonds and sapphires. Nearby this display also stood a shabby antique spinning wheel and a case containing a shoe made of milky blue glass that looked as though it might fit the foot of a 12 year old girl. In one case rested a decaying ball of thread, in another a bejeweled statue, and in yet another some aboriginal instruments adorned with feathers and bones. But of all the oddities preserved within Alexander Plum’s home, perhaps the most unexpected was a cake of unknown antiquity displayed on a solitary pedestal beneath a glass dome in the middle of his library.

While Addi Boo and Baby Ray chased bullfrogs by the pond in the garden and  Buddy  pilfered cigars to smoke behind the garden shed, Tilly Plum  stood transfixed for hours in front of the cake in the library. The frosting was an odd grayish color, which she supposed had once been white and probably would have tasted of vanilla. She would stand there wondering what flavor the cake might have been and what flavor it might still be if one were to taste it now. But most of all she wondered for what occasion it had originally been prepared and why it had never been eaten.

As the years passed and the Plum children aged Tilly continued to visit the strange gray cake in the library, memorizing the contours of the shell borders, roses and drop flowers. She took to cake baking and decorating at home, producing many replicas for birthdays, special dinners, and holidays.
Baby Ray once complained that she always made the same boring cake in different flavors. He, of course, didn’t realize that for Tilly, each cake was a different version of one particular cake whose true nature she could never know for certain. On one occasion Uncle Alexander found Tilly in his library deep in her meditations of butter cream, whipped cream, and royal icing. By this time Buddy was off in college and Addi Boo and Baby Ray had graduated to pilfering cigars to smoke behind the garden shed.

“I see something here has caught your eye.” Uncle Alexander said, coming to stand beside Tilly.
She nodded eagerly.
“I’m sure I don’t have to remind you, no touching, nor tasting.” her uncle added.
“Oh no. I know,” she told him emphatically. “I can have cake any other time. I would never touch this one. I just always wonder why it’s here.”
“Oh, well, I have it because it’s a magic cake,” he answered lightly and squeezed her shoulder before taking a book from the shelf and leaving the way he came.

This was indeed food for thought. That brief encounter left Tilly with more, rather than less, to wonder about. In fifth grade she penned a story entitled “The Magickal Cake.” in which a well meaning fairy godmother gave the cake as a wedding gift to a beloved princess. The princess was killed by a wicked witch and the kingdom fell under a dark spell leaving the cake uneaten. Its powers went unused and unknown.
Mrs.Gruber’s comments were written with scathing red ink in the margin, “Why is the cake magical? Why even mention the cake, if you don’t describe what it does? The story did not have the three elements of a story. There is no clear resolution to the conflict. Points deducted for spelling and punctuation. C-”

Naturally, Tilly was incensed. She wrote her own notes in the opposite margin.
“Three Elemints of  A story: 1.The begining: A mysteryous magical cake is made. 2. The conflict: A princes is going to ruin the mystery by eating it. 3. The resolutun: A wich kills her. My story is about a magiCKal cake that survives. Not a stupid princeses weding.”
After re-submitting the story with her own comments on the comments, Tilly was sent to the principal's office. Her parents were called in and the school recommended that Tilly speak with the school psychologist. Her mother, accustomed to accommodating a variety of difficult people since marrying into the Plum family, simply nodded, pursed her lips as if concerned, and indicated that they would consider the counseling. She whispered to Tilly on the way out that Mrs.Gruber had been seeing a psychiatrist for years now, in the same building, in fact, where Mrs. Plum saw a podiatrist for her corns.

For Uncle Alexander’s 106th birthday, Tilly created for him a replica of his magic cake. It was entirely undeniable by this point that Alexander Plum's magic cake had impacted his niece Tilly. After high school and some community college, she graduated from Le Cordon Bleu as a pastry chef and opened a high end cake shop on Colombus Ave.
Now, two years and one lost relationship into the endeavor, her personal funds exhausted, The Magic Cake was closing it’s doors for good. There were some last special orders to fill on Saturday, and then it would be off to the unemployment line and probably Baby Ray’s couch. Nonetheless, Tilly arrived that Friday night, cake in hand, to celebrate her uncle's continuing health and longevity.

Addi Boo was by then married with two year old triplets. Recognizing the impossibility of managing her brood in his makeshift museum, she hadn’t visited Uncle Alexander since their birth.
Baby Ray, recently divorced, came by often to keep the garden in shape, and particularly to care for the pond. He was absent on that particular Friday night, the occasion of Uncle Alexander’s sweet 106th birthday bash, due to an unavoidable trip to Las Vegas with the soon to be second Mrs. Baby Ray Plum. With Buddy in Brazil, and their parents on sabbatical in Florida, Tilly was the only other Plum in attendance, along with Uncle Alexander, and his live-in nurse, Amalia.

Uncle Alexander was surprised and delighted with Tilly’s replica of his cake. Spry as a man half his age, dinner was merry, the wine flowed. Even after Amalia had cleared the table, washed the dishes and gone to bed, Tilly and Alexander talked and drank. On the subject of his good health he chuckled and waved a hand,
“Gads girl, you know, I have the holy grail to drink from if anything ails me. That and more to scare off death.”
Of politic a weary sigh,
“Once you’ve lived as long as I have you’ve seen it all.”
And at last, of family matters, laughter, until Tilly herself was the subject. Then, too intoxicated to censor her woes, she told Alexander all that burdened her, more than she could ever tell Baby Ray or her parents. Who among them could understand her passion, her obsession with her cake shop?  Who could see the loss for what it really was? Not just a failed business, but the end of a quest.
“You know Uncle Alex, I always thought, maybe one of my cakes would end up some day under glass turning pearly gray, a cake too perfect to ever have been eaten, some little cyborg kid or something, wondering how it got there.”
She laughed sadly at herself then, but Alexander sat silent and perfectly still. His eyes had acquired a fiery gleam and his back had straightened. His manner demanded Tilly’s full attention and she felt herself sober up a little as he rose and left the room without a word.
Within minutes he returned carrying the magic cake, the original in its glass dome, and set it gently upon the table near the remains of Tilly’s replica. Tilly stopped breathing. She could feel the goose pimples rise all over her flesh as Uncle Alexander took his seat and spoke slowly in a tone she had never heard from him,
“I have lived so long you know. You kids and your parents knew me as great uncle Alexander, and you wont believe me, but your  grandfather knew me as the same. As many generations as I’ve watched come and go, and because I endure, no Plum has ever inherited one of my artifacts, nor ever shown the slightest interest in them, with one exception, long, long, ago. That makes you the second exception.”
He paused then, letting the weight of his words settle, observing Tilly’s breathless silence before continuing,
“I feel a certain responsibility to protect the items I have collected, not only from damage but from abuse. You’ve read fairytales, I’m sure, and so you must know that the guardian of a magical item can only entrust it to one whom they deem worthy. At least, that is my approach.”
Gingerly he lifted the glass dome, exposing the cake, and set it aside.
“I don’t know where it came from really. All I have found in my research is vague. I do know that it was passed down through generations of Austrian Princesses. This is the cake Marie Antoinette was referring to in her despair, when she cried, 'Let them eat cake!' And yet, even then, it seems it passed untouched. When the palace was stormed, and the royal family failed to escape, somehow, the cake did. It was returned to Austria until world war II, and then it was collected with a great many other artifacts by Adolf Hitler. After his death it made it’s way into private collections, finally mine.”
He pushed a fork across the table to her.
“I don’t know what the magic does.”
Steadying her trembling hand, Tilly picked up the fork. Slowly she brought it closer and closer to the cake she had spent countless hour admiring, speculating about, and endeavoring to reproduce. It was not, she now could see, the most artfully decorated cake. But it was pretty, if simple. She brought the fork within inches of its pearly surface. Everything was still.
She felt, for the first time, the naked strangeness of the house, its contents, her uncle, a strangeness that had always been pushed aside made into something small and silly, but now it loomed, immense, unfathomable, terrifying, and real. Suddenly, against such a backdrop, her cake shop, her financial worries, her failure in the eyes of her siblings and parents seemed inconsequential. It was her life which was silly.

In that moment, Tilly Plum knew that the cake was truly magical, and that true magic shouldn’t be squandered on petty material concerns. At the last moment she withdrew her hand and set the fork deliberately down. She took a deep breath and looked into the eyes of the man she thought of as her great uncle Alexander and wondered at all the strangeness. And he, whoever he was, whatever he was, relaxed back into his chair, his face melting once again into a broad easy smile, and said,
“Good girl.”

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