The Warden’s Prowess by Ethan Chatagnier: Part II
Ethan Chatagnier’s “The Warden’s Prowess” will appear in four parts this week.
The full story will be published on Friday, June 28.
This is Part II. Part I is here.
On Monday morning, the warden revealed his most ambitious showstopper yet. It had nothing to do with almonds, so those who had claimed to smell frangipane last week were called jackasses. The warden brought a tower of éclairs that was three feet tall. The éclairs angled up into the shape of a cone in three tiers, supported only by each other. The center was hollow. Some kind of edible glue must have bound the joints. The individual pastries were decorated alternately with teal and white icings, forming a checkerboard pattern. Buttercream studded the joints between them.
The warden stood behind it with his hands behind his back in a posture of military pride. We were all impressed. Our mouths were watering at the thought of the custard inside. But no one moved to divvy it up. Not the warden. Not the guards. Certainly not us. We watched their pupils wander from face to face. We knew who they were looking for. The warden had not sought out the baker. He did not send the guards to find the new man. He must have counted on the general commotion of a Monday morning to usher the baker this way. But he stood undaunted, seeming to say I’ve stood in my share of parades. Perhaps also, this structure will hold all day if needs must. We used him as our model, standing proud as we could, except for the handful of inmates who broke off to track the baker down.
They prodded the baker into the room soon after, saying “You may have baked well-enough for a workaday crowd, but wait until you see what our warden does.” The warden blushed at this. Otherwise, he made no indication he’d noticed the baker’s arrival, but began to separate the éclairs onto plates and pass them to the guards. He set one aside for himself. Then he spread out the lower tier and cut each of those éclairs into fourths while we queued up for our share.
One couldn’t help but admire the warden’s assiduousness in appearing not to favor the baker. He had not called the man in, and in fact had not spoken a word to him. He did not call the baker to the front of the line, did not save him a special portion. He was, perhaps, like a lovestruck bachelor toning the fire in his heart down to embers so as not to frighten its object away. But the baker did realize his attention was desired, so he stopped next to the ruins of the warden’s creation and appraised his bite.
He first held the plate up at his eye level. He rotated the plate in his hand until it had done a full turn. He held it under his nose and gave a quick sniff-sniff. He dipped his finger into the pastry cream, just enough to put a second skin on his fingertip, and licked it off. Then he picked up the bite, turned it left and right, and popped it in his mouth. Cocking his head to the side like a curious dog, he slowly chewed it.
“For a religieuse à l’ancienne,” the baker began, “you need a stronger flour and a longer bake, so that the structure will hold up over time. The crème pat is a bit runny, which can lead to the same problem. Obviously, when you have a crowd like this, it will be devoured in total and such concerns are irrelevant.”
We had all stopped breathing.
“Any parts he doesn’t want, I’ll take,” said a prisoner, trying to soften the blow. The warden made a dismissive wave of the hand.
The baker ran his tongue over his teeth. He seemed to try restraining himself, then gave in.
“The dough could use another touch of sugar, couldn’t it?”
We gasped. A dart of the warden’s eye quieted us immediately. He looked back to the baker. “Very good,” he said, with a tense nod. With that, the warden turned and walked out of the room. He’d left his own éclair on the table, untouched. The light blue icing gleamed, utterly tempting. None of us dared touch it.
Our consensus: the warden’s failure to erupt in rage was a very bad sign. The minority opinion was that the warden had aged and gone soft just as the old inmates had. But most of us would have felt much better had he thrown a few of us against the wall and kicked the shit out of us. As was his prerogative. Get the poison out.
Or it will come out in other ways.
And of course it did. The guards bore the marks of the warden’s fury. Black eyes, bruised necks, crusted blood around the nostrils. One had an abrasion on the side of his face, in the shape of a shoe. He seemed to have picked the largest and the toughest for his abuses. The frailer guards were left alone. Nor was anyone granted their usual slack in the completion of their duties. No more leisurely strolls down the corridor, making sporting bets with us. No more card games in the guard towers, their backs to whatever pranks we were playing. No more lax deadlines on our work details. No more tolerance for a greasy floor. We were as diligent and peaceful as ever—cows on the slaughterhouse floor—but were watched like a restive mob.
While we mucked out the sewer that afternoon, one of the battered guards bumped an inmate down into the pool of shit.
“Hey! It’s not our fault the baker’s a dick,” the inmate shouted.
His tone was aggrieved. More than his clothes being ruined, his feelings were hurt. That guard and inmate had an ongoing wager involving the stray cats outside the prison and how many kittens they’d have per litter. The guard had worked up quite a debt of cigarettes, but we could only assume now that the ledger had been wiped clean.
Later in the afternoon, we heard a guard whacking the baker with a sack of flour dropped in a pillowcase. Oof, the flour seemed to say. Oof. Oof. An airy sound, like a yeast bun thrown against a door. It took about five second between each blow. In other circumstances we might have sent word to the other guards, but the old terms of parley were over. They found the flour-toting guard anyway, and pulled him aside.
He explained that he had chosen the sack of flour as a weapon because it would not leave a mark.
What followed was a quite academic debate, actually, over what would serve the warden best. The intervening guards argued that the warden’s protection was still on the baker. The warden had not taken to beating the baker with a flour sack. He had not even spoken a harsh word to the baker. In fact, he had spoken to the baker as if to a superior. If the warden himself would not harm the baker, neither should they.
It was not about the warden harming the baker, the flour-toting guard countered. The baker had harmed the warden. The baker should be harmed in return.
No, no. We must consider what the warden would want.
“Or,” said a different guard, who’d been swayed by the flour-man, “should we consider what would be best for the warden. For a man may not always know what is best for himself.”
The flour-man jumped on this. “See. Would the warden be best served by continued insults? By stirring up his old demons.”
“I think the warden would argue that he is improved by critique. That he cannot improve without it.”
“But is it really possible for us to know the mind of the warden?”
It was interesting to see how closely the parameters of their discussion mirrored our own. Their concerns were our concerns. Guards. They’re just like us. We peeked in. They were sitting on the edges of neighboring bunks, discoursing as if at a coffee house. The baker looked like a powdered donut in the shape of a man. In the end, they decided to not beat the baker further, because the mind of the warden could not be known with any certainty, and it was a lesser transgression to leave well enough alone. The flour-man was still not happy with this verdict. “If you get stuck on your anger,” they told him, “just beat a different prisoner. It’ll make you feel better.”
That was Monday—Monday!—and things only deteriorated from there.
The flour-man did indeed beat us as proxies for the baker. The other guards, seeing what fun he was having, decided to partake as well. As it was perfectly fine to leave marks on us, the guards did not use flour sacks. Our injuries were perhaps to serve as visible evidence to the warden of their devotion.
We talked to the baker too, of course, after a few more days of abuse. We did not threaten or cajole. If the guards had decided not to be physical, we weren’t about to contravene them. Instead, we tried to explain: the warden is not your student. He is your master. He is the hand that feeds you. He controls the levers of your comfort, your pain. He is a proud and powerful man, and he is not to be trifled with.
“I don’t disagree,” said the baker.
“So only compliments from here on out?” we said, crowding around him, sensing our chance. He shrunk from us a little. He was wheezing from all the blows to his lungs.
“I vow it,” he said. We relaxed. At our relaxation, he relaxed.
“Here,” said an inmate, handing the baker a wineskin. “Have some pruno.”
To be continued…
Will the warden’s next bake have a soggy bottom? Tune in tomorrow to find out!
ETHAN CHATAGNIER is the author of the short story collection Warnings from the Future (Acre Books, 2018). His short fiction has appeared in literary journals including The Georgia Review, Glimmer Train, Kenyon Review Online, New England Review, Five Points, Michigan Quarterly Review, Barrelhouse, Witness, The Cincinnati Review, and Ascent. His story stories have been awarded a Pushcart Prize and listed as notable in the Million Writers Award. He lives in Fresno, California with his family.