Art by Lidia Tomashevskaya.
From the author: In the house between lives, two bakers usher souls through purgatory with the universal healer: cake.
An audio version is available for this chapter.
It’s amazing how much easier it is to bake a cake when you’ve got an eternity to get it right. The secret to effective baking is patience, followed by the ability to fold the batter with a metal spoon instead of rushing in with a wooden spoon like a hammer. The folding in must be gentle so as not to break the hard-earned bubbles of air. Lastly, a baker must have the willingness to guard the oven, your feet cold on the tile, letting the warm scents of butter and vanilla envelop you and seep into the whole house, holding your breath while the batter rises, goldens, and browns slightly at the edges.
Timing is everything.
“Not quite perfect, but deliciously close,” Luciana proclaims as she places the angel food into her mouth and tastes the air-soft sweetness, the tart explosion of raspberry on her tongue. She takes one red berry and parses each bulb from its partners, rolls it in her mouth.
“What do you think?” Sofia asks their guests. The souls at the table nibble at their cakes but do not speak.
“They’re too new to answer, Sofia, you know that,” Luciana chides. She flits around the table, piping more whipped cream onto each plate in little rosettes.
“I know. It just feels somehow impolite not to ask.” Sofia stands and carries another slice to the last soul at the table. A thin manifestation of what was once a thin man. He still wears the jaundice of the alcoholism that brought him to their table. Watching Sofia warily, he eats the cake with his hands. She pushes the fork towards him with gentle eyes, but he ignores her, shredding the cake into pieces that slip away like pilfered coins. He’s eating to fill a void, but Sofia can tell he doesn’t like the cake by the downward turn of his mouth.
Sofia and Luciana are very good at baking cakes. They’ve made thousands, perhaps millions of cakes, but who’s counting? Being immortal, the constraints of time simply don’t concern them.
Six new souls sit at the table today. It’s a big wooden table, painted white, with sturdy chairs wearing knitted cushions. The house is furnished for comfort, farm-like, although there aren’t any animals, aren’t any fields of corn out beyond the porch. The kitchen is large and airy. Its cabinets are white with wood curlicues carved onto the handles. A modern, or at least modern to them, oven stands on one side. There’s also an old-fashioned wood stove they sometimes roast marshmallows in.
Outside, galaxies pass by in the window over the sink. The flare of a dying world is almost like a sunset, the dusk of a nebula almost like a summer thunderstorm, the billion stars gleaming in the night almost like real stars. Almost.
Sofia and Luciana clear the table and then help the souls upstairs into garret rooms with wood beam ceilings, and guest rooms with neat white furniture, and side rooms with beds tucked between bookcases filled with more books than they could ever read.
The souls will sleep, rest from the shock of transference, and then move along when they are ready to venture into their next body. This is an in-between place. A space between lives.
“I smell cake again,” Hiran announces, watching Luciana shuffle the jaundiced man into one of the bedrooms. The man closes the door in her face.
Luciana is pleased to note Hiran’s gained weight. His soul displays signs of permanence now. His former body, that of an emaciated eight-year-old boy, is now healthy and robust. The curve of his cheek is harder, his dark eyes more distinct, and Luciana sees brightness in their depths now, along with intelligence tempered by humor. Hiran is less transparent, more real-looking in his solidity. When he reaches full embodiment he will depart this former shell, leave Luciana and Sofia, and move on. But for now, Luciana revels in his little boy impatience, his funny jokes and gentle kindness to the other souls. She knows her role in this place, just as each ingredient in a cake has its role to play: proteins bonding with flour to create gluten, eggs making sure the mixture holds together, baking powder and baking soda releasing carbon dioxide to help the batter rise.
“Come get a slice then, before it’s gone.” Luciana tweaks his ear.
“Ow,” Hiran protests, although it doesn’t hurt. “Okay.” He follows her back to the table and eats his cake slice in two gulping bites. “Let’s play a game.”
“Okay, what game shall we play?”
Hiran pauses to think. “What about Carrom?”
“Again?” Luciana teases, retrieving the game from the closet, which is chock-full of every board game imaginable, from nearly every culture. The house provides what they want. They only need think of it and it appears.
As Luciana and Hiran trade strikes Sofia walks back into the kitchen. “The crying man passed on. I gave him his hat and sent him on his way.”
“Good,” Luciana replies. “It was time.” It’s been many years since Luciana felt the need to escort every soul on. She now knows some people go better alone, and others prefer her or Sofia only. She pockets a man with a smile at Hiran, who sighs.
“You’re too good at this game,” he moans, and Luciana and Sofia laugh because he always picks the same game to play. “If you called Joshua ‘the crying man’, what do you call me?”
“We call you boy who eats all the cake!” Sofia picks up the empty metal tin on the table and shakes it.
Hiran hides his pleasure, like most boys of his age do with older women. “You’ll make more tomorrow.”
“This is true,” Sofia says. “We probably will.”
Cake is universal. Everyone likes a certain kind of cake, even those who claim not to like it at all. Sofia’s found the right cake for most every soul that enters their home, although some go too quickly to enjoy it. Some linger, clinging to the last life, unable to settle the worries of what they left behind. Others revel in cake, never able or allowed to eat it in life.
Sofia lies awake before sleep and listens to Luciana’s breathing next to her. It’s a sound she’s memorized like the sound of tres leches sizzling in the oven. It was her favorite cake as a child. All the things she wanted in her past are hers now. At first she worried not growing old might be hard, that she might regret not bearing a child, but she doesn’t feel that way anymore. She used to think she’d miss Death, her erstwhile lover, but she can hardly remember the smell of his skin. Those were the wants of another Sofia in another world. That Sofia didn’t know how to bake, didn’t know how to show kindness, and didn’t know how to love. This Sofia treats each day as new and never rushes the air out of the batter, knowing so much of the tender, melt-in-the-mouth sweetness of cake comes from space and time.
The jaundiced soul doesn’t like angel food cake. He doesn’t like tres leches, apple bottom, birthday, turtle, pumpkin chiffon, cheesecake, or cookie cake. He perks up momentarily on the day Sofia and Luciana make chocolate rum raisin cake, but Sofia suspects it’s just the rum.
His words are on her in the kitchen before she allows herself to sense his presence. “How did you get this job anyway?”
Sofia falters as the scent of rum fills the kitchen. She stirs the raisins until they melt down to sugary glory. The hesitation is a holdover from her old life, but she relents. This man won’t remember this story after he’s gone. “I fell in love with Death.”
“The guy with the scythe?”
“Well, he doesn’t carry a weapon anymore, but yes. I met him when he came for my mother. I traveled with him for a few years. Then he needed an assistant so I signed on to do this work. And that’s how I met Luciana.” Sofia waves a wooden spoon in Luciana’s direction and Luciana winks over the batter.
“The work of baking for dead people?” The man asks.
“No, that’s just a perk of the job.”
The man tries to poke a finger in the rum mixture but nothing happens.
“It doesn’t come into being until it gets baked in the oven,” Sofia explains.
The rum bottle goes missing that day. Sofia finds it on the porch but doesn’t have the heart to tell the man alcohol doesn’t have the same properties here. He won’t tell them his name. His soul stays as glass-thin as the day he arrived. His skin is streaked with the threads of addiction like cinnamon in swirls. His head is shaved down to nicks and cuts but stubble is heavy on his chin. He wears a tattered shirt. His fingers are cigarette-black, his teeth yellow. His once-beautiful blue eyes shimmer with disgust.
“Do you think we bother him?” Luciana and Sofia are preparing a German chocolate cake. Luciana’s face is pink with the effort of beating the egg whites by hand with a metal whisk. After grating coconut and chopping pecans, Sofia rubs her hands together to distribute them in the icing. It’s happened before—but usually souls only fear them for a few days before realizing the conventions of their former society, whether they be about women or lovers, don’t apply here. The only law is the one outside their doors.
“No,” Sofia says. “He’s still clinging to his former life. He needs more time.”
He’s already stayed the longest of any soul yet. They don’t say this out loud. They aren’t gatekeepers. It’s not their job to judge; this isn’t really a job. They are feeders of the weary, their house a waystation for ways they themselves will never travel again.
Hiran comes running into the kitchen laughing. “Look, Sofia, Luciana, look!” he cries.
They look. He’s reached full embodiment. He holds his fingers up to the light, marveling at their texture, their warmth, their realness. “Good boy.” Luciana hugs him. For a moment his embrace feels as tangible to her as her own body, as real as any boy. She memorizes the feeling of his warmth, folding it into herself to keep for another day.
Sofia places a hand on Luciana’s shoulder. “It’s time then.” Sofia and Luciana walk with Hiran to the back door. The jaundiced man is sitting on the couch, and he watches them open the door.
“What’s out there?” Hiran wonders aloud.
“A new life. Perhaps a better one,” Luciana says. She whispers a small prayer, a hope Hiran’s next life will be better than the last, that he will be born to a loving parent who holds him close and perhaps bakes him cake.
Sofia bundles Hiran in a warm jacket despite his protests. “It might be cold where you’re going.” She doesn’t know if this is true, but it feels right. Hiran complains the coat is too big, but he doesn’t remove it.
On the porch, they watch the house float by nebulas, moons, stars, planets. A comet streaks through space like the flash of a knife in dough.
“Will I remember you?” Hiran asks at the last moment.
Luciana smiles. “No, dear. But that’s alright.”
Hiran gives them each a quick hug, his face red with little boy embarrassment at the show of affection. He waves, then steps off the porch steps. He disappears into the next world like fruit plunked into batter.
Sofia takes Luciana’s hand in hers and squeezes it.
The jaundiced man steps past them. He reaches into the air where Hiran stood, but a slim barrier stops his fingers—invisible glass. “That’s all it takes to get back?” His voice is incredulous.
“He’s not gone back, he’s gone forward,” Sofia says.
“Why am I still here?”
“You have to let go,” Luciana says.
“A lot of bad things happened to me.” The jaundiced man scratches at transparent skin pockmarked with self-destruction. Years of self-loathing and habitual greediness shine on his body, just beneath the surface.
“That doesn’t matter anymore,” Sofia says.
“A lot of people deserve to pay for the things they did.”
“You won’t see them ever again,” Luciana says.
“If I go on,” the man pauses. He curls his fingers around the porch railing. “I’ll forget my daughter. I owed her more than dying in a stinking puddle of my own piss like an old man.”
Sofia sighs. “She won’t know that. You’re dead to her.”
Luciana gives Sofia a look. Things are different for Luciana, who learned baking at the apron-strings of her mother so many years ago. “We can send her a message if you like. We can’t guarantee she’ll get it, but we can still try.” Sofia tuts at her.
“Will it help?” He asks, looking Sofia in the eyes, as if he knows she is the more practical one, as if he knows Sofia was called first to this work, choosing immortality over life. Eternity with Luciana over Death, both the man and the next life.
Sofia says, “For you, maybe.”
So he writes a letter to his daughter.
I’m sorry, the letter begins. I did bad things. I should’ve been better, for you. You should do better, for you. And a lot of other things, he explains. The drinking, the women I thought I loved, the family I destroyed. I hope you go make it to college. I hope you get married one day. I love you, he ends the letter, and it’s the truth.
Luciana and Sofia roll the letter into a scroll like a brandy snap. They slide it into a soda bottle. The jaundiced man stands on the porch and flings it as far into space as he can.
“A part of my heart is in that bottle,” he says. “The human leftovers, I guess.”
“You’ll be human again,” Sofia replies.
Later, when the man eats the German chocolate cake, he cries and laughs. Sometimes cake does this to people. A certain flavor can bring back a thousand memories, a certain smell can awaken a million dreams. As he eats, Sofia thinks she can see him a little more clearly.
“I haven’t eaten this in years,” he says to Sofia and Luciana. “My gran used to make it.”
Sofia smiles. She opens her recipe book as Luciana goes to the back door, where someone is knocking to be let in.
This story originally appeared in Luna Station Quarterly.