The Warden’s Prowess by Ethan Chatagnier: Part III
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 III. Part II is here.
The beatings continued, but once we slipped word to the guards of the baker’s vow, they did not worsen. By Saturday, we had adjusted to the new normal. Sunday was the sabbath, and anyway the guards must have had sore arms and been ready for a break. Dare I say that we spent Sunday anticipating, as we had in the past, what confectionary treat might await us in the morning? We lay in bed, took our rest, and tried to think happy thoughts.
Monday morning found the baker, if not in a good mood, at least less of a bummer. He no longer seemed made of clay. He smiled in response to jokes. The first time in the clink can be an especially hard transition for those who never pictured themselves here. Also for those for whom it’s a bit, you could say, of a career change. Who have no starter network. You won’t believe it now, some of us told him, but eventually you may find it preferable here. We asked: “Have you read L’Étranger?”
On Monday, he shuffled to the kitchens with us. The prize sheep, invisible in the flock. The warden stood in front of a tray of forty mille-feuille, holding a wooden spoon. In his big hand, it looked almost like an ordinary spoon. His shirt was spotted with the same cocoa dusted on the marbled fondant topping, evidence that he’d still been working on assembly this morning. They were meticulously put together. We’d seen his mille-feuille before, but never like this. The pastry cream was a beautiful ivory, topped with layers of whole glazed raspberries, arranged neatly as soldiers in a row. You could have checked the layers of puff pastry with a level. We could tell the warden was nervous, and found that encouraging. Nerves were an easy wound to salve. Anger would have been a bad sign. Apathy, even worse.
The baker did just right, not crowding to the front of the line, not filtering back to the end—continuing the I-don’t-see-you, you-don’t-see-me nature of their culinary flirtation. You couldn’t find a single witness to testify that when the baker reached the front of the line, the plate the warden slid to him contained a whole mille-feuille. That the line stopped—that time stopped—while he performed his appraisal.
He stood the plate on three-fingers and a thumb and rotated it with his other hand. His eyes never left the pastry in front of him. He held the plate under his nose. He broke off a small corner from the top layer of pastry and icing and tasted it. He broke another corner and used it to scoop a bit of the custard and a single raspberry. After that, he took a bite of the thing entire.
“You have the crème pat just right. The texture is thick enough to hold the construction up, but still silky. The decoration is lovely. And the tartness of the fresh raspberries is the perfect kick of flavor.”
We’ve all seen men gathered together during wartime, waiting for news of defeat or victory. At the news of an armistice, of course, people jump from their chairs and hoot to the moon. This was more like the announcement of a single battle won. A step toward peace is even more fragile than peace itself. Men glanced around from face to face in an almost girlish manner, unable to meet each other’s gazes for more than a moment. Even the warden was glancing about in this way. We got the chance to see the relief in his eyes.
“The problem is with the puff pastry,” the baker continued. He held up the plate so he could point at a pastry layer. “You see how close the layers are? They haven’t properly separated, so they lose that crunch that makes mille-feuille so satisfying. You can see this one big vent here, where all the butter ran out the side while it baked. Can you tell me what caused the problem?”
The warden looked down, abashed. “I must not have chilled it long enough before putting it in the oven.”
“Precisely. Which is good. When you know what the problem is, you’re able to remedy it the next time.”
“Very good,” the warden said. The wooden spoon in his paw snapped in half with a sound like a lightning strike. He put his hands behind his back and walked out with air of a man in a funeral procession. The guards followed him out with a look at the baker that said, “To be continued.” A dozen mille-feuille were still left on the tray. This time we had at them. We were going to get our asses kicked anyway.
We had to wait our turn with the baker, of course. The guards held the first rights to him. A crew of guards whose beaten faces looked like roughly treated hams took to making the baker’s face look even worse. Then we had our own turn with the baker, and made it look more like a piece of uncooked beef.
All that was just prologue. Prologue to another week. Woken early to labor; kicked in the back when the back is bent from the swing of a pick; many of us bumped into the shit; not enough water; not enough food; pissed on in the night; made to lie down in the hallways and let the guards walk across us like rugs—our kidneys were ever tender after that. For the rest of our lives, most of us made urine that looked like iced tea.
The guards did not revisit their punishment upon the baker, but made it known that they expected us too. Perhaps they were eager to escape the place where they now got their own drubbings from warden and get home to their wives. Or perhaps past a certain point, mauling a man takes an existential toll.
When the baker looked ten times as bad as we did, we couldn’t bring ourselves to bash him anymore. We talked to him again. He had understood this would happen? What purpose did he see in antagonizing the warden? Was he seeking punishment to allay some guilt of his own?
He had vowed not to critique the warden’s baking. Why had he broken his vow?
The baker let out a brief chuckle.
“Sorry. I’ve always made false vows. To my wife: for certain I’ll bring more money home from the shop. I vow I’ll close the shop early for our anniversary. To my son: I vow I’ll be home in time to see you to bed. A vow always mollifies people. Gets them out of your hair. I’m sorry to say it, but you should never trust my vows again.”
“You look like a sauced meatball. The last few days—a real pleasure cruise for you?”
“An unending sieve of pain.”
“Then you’ll praise whatever the warden brings in on Monday? Even if it’s dog shit.”
“I vow it.”
“Do you think I can lie to a man like that?” the baker cried. “Do you think he wouldn’t know? And he’s not the type to take the lie happily. Approval isn’t what he wants. Brutal men always want perfection. Think about what he’d do if I lavished him with compliments but he saw me holding some complaint back in my head?”
“He’d probably open up your skull to get it.”
“You think he’d stop there?”
It was late. We were at an impasse.
“Well then,” we said. “Same time tomorrow?”
You can anticipate what happened next.
When the warden brought in his three-tiered cake he nodded the baker directly to the front of the line and spoke to him. The top tier was on a lean, the warden said. The decoration was rushed, the piping uneven. The texture of the cake was too close; perhaps he had measured the raising agent wrong. The strawberry coulis he’d used between the layers was passable, he speculated. The bright spot in a disappointing cake.
Despite all the self-flagellation, the warden cut the baker a fat slice. The baker did his usual inspection. He thought the decoration looked quite precise, he said. He wouldn’t have hesitated to put the cake in his shop window. The texture was a little close, he agreed, but not so bad as the warden made out. It still looked quite edible. He tasted the filling and the frosting and complimented both. Finally, he took up his fork and tried the cake all together. His expression darkened.
“What is it?”
“You’ve used salt instead of sugar.”
Confusion and disbelief crossed the warden’s face. He grabbed the fork from the baker’s hand and took his own bite from the cake. His face seemed to pause as soon as his lips closed around it. He turned as red as his strawberry coulis. The warden was silent as he stormed out of the room, but we heard him bellowing as he departed the hallway.
What had been rough beatings turned into sadistic torture. Let’s spare you the gory details; suffice it to say, it involved toes. Toes, rats, and fire.
To be continued…
The baker must contend with heavy emotions coming through from the prisoners, as he gets more than a good rise out of the warden. Tune in tomorrow for the conclusion!
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.