The Warden’s Prowess by Ethan Chatagnier: Part IV
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 IV. Part III is here.
The situation could not stand. Perhaps if our prison had always been brutal, we could have endured, but there’s a special challenge in going from eating éclairs to being peeled. And there was not just the trouble of the guards. With the fire they rained down on us, we turned on each other. Of a sudden, there were hierarchies of size and strength. The populace separated itself into homogenous cultural groups in problematic ways. No man felt safe. And none of us could imagine a better future so long as the baker remained in the prison. None of us could avoid a worsening fate unless one of us stopped him from interrupting the warden’s dream.
I was the one who went to the baker’s bedside in the night. I suspected the guards had singled me out for the worst abuse. But I also supposed that each inmate suspected the same for himself. Confirmation bias can be a bitch. In any case, I was certainly among the least equipped to handle it. I was only a coat thief. Punish me with cold and hunger all you want and I won’t break. Men’s fists? I wasn’t built for it. Bona fide torture? I could not bear it.
I found a pastry cutter in the dark kitchen. Poetic justice wasn’t important to me. It was simply the most available blade. I had never held such a thing before. A fluted, rolling disk at the end of a wooden handle, it reminded me of a child’s windmill. My thumb tested the sharpness of its edge, and found blade was not an accurate term. It would not make my work easy.
I did not suppose I could get rid of the baker with impunity, but I felt only too happy to take an Early Release over having more of my toes chewed away. I crouched down next to the baker. The moon showed me his face. I readied the cutter by the fold beneath his chin. He startled me by opening his eyes, wide and sudden, as if he had been switched on. His eyes met mine.
“I did it for my son,” he said. “My hungry son.”
His eyes had looked so dead since he’d arrived at this prison. They were given-up eyes. Now they were wet and alive. When he spoke it was with fierceness.
“My bakery was the best in the city. For years. For a decade. No one was more precise, more elegant. The most complicated requests—they came to me. The men with the money knew I could not just bake it, but engineer it. My shop window was like a renaissance painting. It spoke of a bounty too rich to be believed. And we lived well, my wife, my son, and I. They did not like how early I left. They did not like how late I returned. But they loved the house I provided. She decorated it as richly as I did a wedding cake. They loved what I brought home, which was never the bombastic, never the grand. It was the simple but perfect: two profiteroles into which I put enough effort for a whole croquembouche. Cheese croissants that contained every ounce of their three-hundred-year history. Puddings of a silkiness known only to God. They grew as plump as I did, and we all bore it with a baker’s pride.
“Last year I invented a mold and tools for a new pastry I called the géodes d’Atlantis. Humble-looking rolls on the outside. Split one open and you would find intricate layers of pink, or blue, or magenta, and closer to the hollow center equally colorful crystals of sugar. The final product came out without a puncture or a seam. It was a work of art and of science. It was five years of design. It was to be my legacy.
“My apprentice ran off with all the tools it took to make them. He had a storefront ready, had been secretly preparing it for months. One day he was in my shop. The next he was opening his own. Fine. Your apprentices become your competitors, if usually with a bit more grace. So be it. But his window was full of géodes, all of them still sealed except one, split open to reveal its treasure, just as I had drawn in my notebook. They were a sensation. My business started drifting there from the first day. Because they were impossible to make by hand, because the apprentice had taken the molds and tools, I could not offer up my own. To remake the tools and molds would have taken weeks. Were I to present the same creation weeks after he did would only cement his new place. He would be the innovator. I would be the imitator.
“Soon my business had dwindled down to old folks whose tastes had calcified. Their custom was enough to pay the mortgage or the shop rent or the groceries. We saw the house grow plain as my wife sold off the decorations, the precious metals. We saw no more of the pastries I baked for them with all the love in my heart. The love was still overflowing. The ingredients were not.
“I saw my son grow thin. At first he just lost his robustness, then looked athletic. Then lean. You could see the hunger in his face. Everyone can tell a hungry face.
“So I went to the plagiarist’s shop in the night. I turned on the gas for the oven and lit a candle on the far side of the room. I gathered my materials in a sack and slung it over my shoulder. Those molds—I returned them to my own bakery—were the evidence they used to convict me, of course. I didn’t care. At least they were in the right place.”
As a prisoner, I would like to be able to say I was hardened to such a tale. I was not.
“What’s become of your wife and son?”
“Do we get letters in here? For all I know she’s marrying the apprentice. The judge gave him my shop as restitution, so the only difference from her old life would be the face that comes home to her.”
I sighed. “The things we do for our children.”
I told him my own tale. “Being a poor student did not rid me of my desire for a family. So my wife and I had a daughter. Just one, which was more than we could afford. In the first years my wife bundled herself and the baby up in blankets, warming them both with the engine of her heart. They moved about like a walking heap, a shamble of cloth. But as our girl turned three and then four, she needed to walk around on her own. We watched through the year as her pigment turned different tints of blue. Poor girl, she never had much of her own furnace. Blankets and sweaters did too little to hold it in. She needed something truly made for the cold.
“One day at the university, I saw a visitor with his own girl in tow. She was about the same age as mine. In their fine coats, they were both so warm their cheeks were flushed. They stopped into the restaurant on campus. I followed them with no ill intent, simply drawn to them as sunflower to the sun. As they sat at their table, they took off their coats. And what was under the young girl’s coat? Another coat! I waited, staring. I thought about all of the choices I had made in my life. I thought about how few remained to me now. And when the man took the girl on a trip to the toilet, I made one. I took only the girl’s overcoat, though the man’s would have seen me through the rest of my life.
“I was apprehended before I made it to the edge of the campus. Now I am here for life. Can you guess why I was given such a long sentence for such a small crime? I arrived at the courtroom and who do you think I saw I sitting up in the judge’s stand? Oh, it was no coincidence. The judge whose little girl I had stolen a coat from had arranged my path to his courtroom neatly. I testified about my poor cold daughter, about how I wanted only a coat to warm her. I pointed out that I had stolen no coat for myself. I did not hope to spare myself, only that I might move the judge’s daughter, who was in attendance, to sympathy, to charity. But I could see on her stony little face that her anger was the driving force of the whole charade. They locked me up. They sent me here forever. So like you, I know nothing of my wife and daughter. Their life or death. Their happiness or unhappiness. Their warmth or chill.”
I thought of them now, as I did every day at some point or another. I would never see them again. Then I thought of all the days and months and years left in front of me in the prison. Those I would see. I looked down at the exposed bone of my little toe, smaller than a tooth, poking out of the flesh like a stud in a cushion.
“But this isn’t about that,” I told the baker. I did what I had come to do.
I was surprised to see that the baker was surprised to be killed. He had seemed resigned to it from the moment he’d arrived in the prison. “If it’s any consolation—” I said, but I stopped there, because I had no thoughts of consolation. Before I could come up with any he was gone.
When I turned to leave, I was startled by the audience of guards waiting behind me. I held out my hands as if for shackles, but they walked around me. They rolled up the baker’s body in an old rug. Together, they carried it out to a place in the yard where a hole was already dug. I stood in attendance while they filled the grave in on top of him. When the hole was nearly full, they sprinkled handfuls of seeds on it. Strawberries, they said. The warden had always wanted to grow some fresh strawberries. While they shoveled the last dirt over the seeds, I thought to look over my shoulder at the warden’s tower, and saw, as I’d suspected, that the light up there was on.
We gathered in the kitchen Monday morning. The warden told us he hoped we brought our appetites. We had. He’d made too many cream horns. There was enough for a full portion for each of us. Amazing, after all this time, to hold a whole thing in your hand. We could feel the butter on our fingertips. We could hear the little crackle of the pastry. They were filled to the bottom with a chocolate cream so rich it took us all to jungles where the cacao had been grown. At their ends, they were each studded with a beautiful star of whipped cream, and speckled with chocolate shavings. We gave them a taste. The atmosphere was less convivial than reverent. Less a party than a shared prayer. Together in silence, we ate them as slowly as we could, stretching out the time. If there were any imperfections in the bake, none of us could tell.
Tomorrow, the entirety of “The Warden’s Prowess,” alongside Ethan Chatagnier’s Author’s Note and CRAFT’s editorial introduction, will be laid upon the gingham altar. We hope you’ll find it scrummy!
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.