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The Warden’s Prowess by Ethan Chatagnier


All week we’ve tasted from the bounty of Ethan Chatagnier’s “The Warden’s Prowess,” presented in serial installments. We are greedy; we wish there was more to share; we hate to bid adieu. This story had us from the opening line. The humor is divine, the prose erudite. The place and setting are timeless, seeming to exist simultaneously in a nineteenth-century prison and in our contemporary living rooms, streaming on flat screens. There is allegory, allusion, tonal precision, and masterful use of the collective first person POV, with a hard-earned POV shift.

And there are so many memorable bakes alongside all our nostalgia for Paul and Mary, that familiar catch of our breath when Chatagnier’s baker first steps up to the warden’s table to examine the religieuse à l’ancienne:

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.

It is our great joy to share “The Warden’s Prowess” in full with you today, alongside Chatagnier’s delightful author’s note, and to say, with utmost respect, “On your marks, get set, bake!”  —CRAFT


 

The warden’s prowess with pastry had improved much over the years. It was all we heard the old inmates talk about. They talked about it the way old men on the outside talked about wars everyone else had forgotten. They talked about it the way people who never read books talked about the weather. Once regally brutal men, our elderly brothers had been dulled by the existential salve of life sentences. New men said it was what always happened when you cut a dog’s balls off. The rest of us were more forgiving with them. Custards curdled into scrambled eggs, they’d tell us. Tart bottoms wet and slick as hog skin. Cakes without a hint of rise, so dense you could carve a shiv out of them. We were kind enough not to tell the old-timers: we don’t disbelieve you, we just don’t care. Anyone who’d been inside a few years had witnessed the improvements. It was not just pastry. The man knew sabayons, knew custards and creams, knew te brisée and sucrée and choux.

We were a mixed group. There were murderers among us, and coat thieves. Whatever our crimes, we all waited for Mondays, when the warden would bring in some ambitious creation he’d spent the weekend on. He lived alone, the guards had told us. He’d had a wife once. That was as much as we got of the story. Those early cakes must have driven her away, the old timers said, which was now less a joke than the fossil of one. But they were careful not to let him hear them. While we had no evidence he was a sensitive man, there were stereotypes about men who baked. That was how it all began, the old timers would go on more seriously. Mondays, he would bring in the baked goods his wife refused to eat. The prisoners, fearing retribution for unfinished portions, had buried their leftovers in the yard.

There was quite a debate, it was said, over whether inmates got those scraps because he didn’t have dogs to eat them or because he did have dogs and the dogs wouldn’t eat them. Either way, all had assumed that when the warden baked something fit for human consumption, he would bring it nowhere near the prison. All were astonished the first day he brought in a risen and luxuriously frosted cake. It was—well, it was edible. It tasted better than bread. And the warden had been radiant with pride. That was years back.

Now he arrived Mondays with gingerbread villages, with finely layered cakes and intricately decorated pies. The guards were given full portions—a whole éclair, say—while ours were cut down to individual bites. We didn’t begrudge them this. There were ten prisoners to each guard, so it seemed more than fair. During the week we broke rocks and dug trenches. We mucked out the sewers, which clogged often, perhaps owing to the amount of sugar and dairy we all consumed. It was still a prison. It had once been a terrible one. The other thing we knew about the warden was that he had been a violent man, lieutenant of a feared unit in the wars of his youth, and once known as cruel administrator of this very same prison. In those days he’d been content to let us war with the guards and the guards war with us. The yard had become quite fertile, if with weeds, owing to all the blood. Only the warden had been able to break up the fights because he was bigger and fiercer than the best of us.

It was no mystery why he was tamer now. We were docile less because we were bribed with treats than because we had a day of the week to look forward to. He baked during the week too, nothing so extravagant, but more humble techniques he was working to perfect, which he called études. Our weekday lunches would be finished off by a Victoria sandwich, a portion of chocolate croissant, or something else of the sort that he baked in the prison kitchen while we did our morning work. His supervisors must have been alarmed by his behavior. A guard told us the warden allayed his supervisors’ concerns with an argument that the better food kept us gentle. The expense of training new guards had decreased dramatically because we no longer killed any. These savings, the guard elaborated, relied upon the warden’s salary subsidizing the expenses of his ingredients. Most of the man’s purse must go to double cream and rose water, he said.

The warden came in one morning in a jolly mood. He was humming—humming!—some festive, martial song. He complimented the aplomb with which we raked oleaginous shit from the pipes. He gave some of the older guards hearty claps on the back, which so surprised them that we feared for their health. There were rule changes for the day. No one brought out trays of lemonade to refresh us. But he did not bark at any of the guards to stand up tall for pride of the country. He gave no ill eye to the most lackadaisical workers. But he did not bake, which usually signaled the foulest of moods.

It was the next morning that the new prisoner arrived. The usual decorum was not to ask an inmate’s story, but we waived that decorum as again the warden was in such good spirits as to unsettle us. Since the warden arrived with no groceries and the larder was low on flour, we could only assume he would not be baking today either. We feared he had gone mad. So we flocked around the new man, as the timing of his arrival was either portentous or quite the coincidence. None could have blamed him if he’d cowered from the enlivened mob of us, but he seemed too morose for that. He sat on the edge of his new bed with his hands on his lap, displaying a case of the blues that even being crowded by a few dozen hardened criminals could not abate.

He told us he had burned down the business of his competitor. Was the competitor inside at the time? He shook his head. We sighed in disappointment. Are you a friend of the warden? An enemy? He was confused. Who is the warden? he asked. Tall fellow, ruddy complexion, we said—always looks like he’s blushing but never tell him that.

“I haven’t met him. I did see him skulking around in the background this morning. Seemed rather pleasant, for a warden.”

“Was your competitor perhaps a tall fellow with a ruddy complexion? A relation of the warden, perhaps?”

The new man turned angry.

“No, he was a short, dumpy slob. He kept the front of his shop tidy enough, but in the back you couldn’t turn around without sticking your elbow in frosting and slipping on a jam.”

“Pray tell, was the shop you burned down a bakery? And by logical extension, was your own?”

“Yes.”

“So you’re a baker?”

He nodded.

“Are you a good one?”

He nodded again.

The baker was back to being morose. The rest of us were jubilant at this revelation. You see, with a man like the warden, a buoyant mood is as likely to signal some impending act of vengeance or wild violence as it is to signal good news. He might have come in humming with glee because he’d finally decided to murder us all. But a baker in the prison—a real baker! That offered us a much friendlier interpretation.

The warden did not bake again that week. Or at least, he did not bake in the prison. Several inmates noticed a scent trailing him of frangipane or Amaretto. Almond-infused air hung in a room after he left it. His good mood lasted. He did not speak to the baker, and in fact rather studiously avoided him. Meanwhile, the guards were lazy, so we were able to be lazy. Prison in a torpor. Half a week of Sunday afternoons. The baker, if he ever looked up from his cot, must have thought us a bit soft. The guards, of course, did not ask anything of him. We established some betting odds about what would happen on Monday, whether the warden would ask the baker for a lesson, or turn the kitchen over to him, or present him with a wedding cake.

Before that, though, there was some Saturday commotion. We heard one of the oldest old-timers accosting the baker. He was haranguing the baker about the warden, who was a more sensitive man than most of them knew, the old man said. The warden required a delicate touch. “You should be good with that, Mr. Baker,” he said, with a dark laugh. Play your cards right, he cautioned, or you’ll spell trouble for all of us. These were deadly things to say aloud. To call the warden a sensitive man. And it could be deadly too, we intuited, to harass the baker, whose stature in the jail was already second only to the warden himself. The guards did everything but fluff his pillow.

We pulled the old man away and chided him, if gently. People had a certain fear of the old men. They could no longer fight but wouldn’t stop short of slitting your throat in the night. What retribution did they have to fear? Our term for a change from a life sentence to a death sentence was an Early Release. It was considered an upgrade. The old man turned his ministrations to us. None of us saw the danger this baker posed, he said. We looked skeptically at the baker, whose mustache was sweating. The warden was a hobbyist, the old man insisted, who wanted not to be a hobbyist. The baker was a man who could crack that façade. “We should kill him now,” he continued. “I’ll do it. I’ll take the punishment.” The morose baker was unperturbed by this suggestion. A few of the prisoners seemed to give the old man’s proposal the most basic consideration. As someone who had survived the oldest days of the warden’s tenure, his witness to a darker age made him a historical treasure. Still, he was old, so we found him annoying.

“Who’s the danger to us now?” we hissed at the old man. “Who’s impugning the warden’s manliness and threatening his favorite prisoner?”

We shooed him away.

Some of us discussed the possibility that the prison would now have twice the baked goods. That the warden and the baker would work side by side in the kitchens. Even, perhaps, that a few of us would be taught the craft to speed along production.


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.”


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.”

“We won’t.”

“Right, then.”

“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.”

“God damnit.”

“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.

“Oh my.”

“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.


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 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 the shoveled the last dirt of 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.

 


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 ReviewGlimmer TrainKenyon 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.

 

Author’s Note

This story packed with torture, prison abuse, and murder might not call to mind the bucolic, tranquil The Great British Bake Off, but the two are a pair. The idea came from Paul the collection six contestant (as opposed to Paul the judge), who was a prison warden. I don’t know anything about that Paul’s qualities as a warden and don’t presume to cast judgment, but I was compelled by the contrast between delicate, communal baking and a job more commonly associated with brutality and dehumanization—a job that, a few centuries earlier, might have been called Dungeon Master.

Having conflicting forces in a story—or better yet, within a character—can do a lot to give the story an engine. The push and pull of opposing forces can create several useful things: plot, from the progression of each force against the other; suspense, which I like to define as suspending in the reader’s head a question whose answer they care about (in this case: which force will win the day?); humor, from the mismatch between one element and another.

That perhaps sounds formulaic, and it can be if used as a rigid tool. But when a writer finds an asymmetry that compels them and leans into it, those elements can emerge organically. Another inherent danger to this kind of story is that it seesaws back and forth without ever gaining complexity, that it never grows into three-dimensional space. I tried to avoid that in “The Warden’s Prowess” by cross-hatching the brutal-vs-soft warden with a separate duality: the warden is in charge of the prison and thus the baker, but only the baker can speak to the divine truths of pâtisserie. Further, there are the conflicting forces between the communal nature the prison has taken on and the every-man-for-himself bloodbath to which the baker’s presence threatens to return it.

But let’s not get too academic about it. I didn’t set out to write the story with a three-point plan. That’s just where I discovered the fun in writing the story. Like a lot of my stories, this one began with something I found funny. Then as with balancing an entree—or should I say a dessert?—you have to balance the sweet with the sour, the rich with the salty.

Like most craft tools, conflicting forces in a story can easily fail if used too plainly as a device. Craft elements can’t be used indiscriminately. But recognizing appropriate opportunities to use them can help writer unlock a lot of new rooms in a story. Pull your characters, themes, plots, etc., in opposing directions, and you’ll get tension in the line.

 


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 ReviewGlimmer TrainKenyon 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.