The Mighty Morg

2. Berla, the Amazing Breadwoman

Berla cracked open the oven to check on her jelly rolls. Inhaling deeply, she let the yeasty-rich air fill her lungs.

“Why you always got to check on them pastries ten times a minute?” Benko scowled from across the kitchen. He cradled a large bowl in the crook of his bad arm as he slung the contents around with a wooden spoon. “You afraid someone’s going to steal ’em while you ain’t looking?”

“That’s silly,” Berla replied. “No one’s going to steal them from the oven. They’d burn themselves.”

Benko knit his brows. “Gee, I hadn’t never thought of that. You sure got a mighty big head on your shoulders—and do I mean big.”

Berla figured having a big head was a good thing as it could hold more thoughts in it, but she got the feeling the baker hadn’t meant it in a nice way. Fortunately, her grammy had taught her exactly what to do when someone was being mean to her. She should just ignore them and pretend they weren’t there. She had got to do a lot of pretending over the years.

“You wouldn’t have to look so often if you learned how to read an hourglass,” Benko said.

Berla forgot to pretend the baker wasn’t there. “Don’t be silly. You can’t read an hourglass. It don’t have any words on it.” Besides, she didn’t need an hourglass when she had her own two eyes. With one glance at the plump forms pulsing over the coals, she knew her jelly rolls were ready to be born. Using her leather apron as a hot cloth, she pulled the pan from the oven and eased it onto the cooling tray.

“Look a little raw if you ask me,” Benko scowled.

Berla knew the baker was just jealous because she made the best bread and pastries in Manfred’s Mill. Everyone in town thought so, even the old hermit of the hills who said he’d been to the ends of the world and never tasted any better. She wished her grammy could see her now. With her baking, she had shown the town a thing or two about Slow Berla.

Though everyone called her Fat Berla now, the old taunts still rang in her ears. Slow Berla, you’re slower than molasses in December. Slow Berla, you’re slower than a lame snail. Slow Berla, you’re so slow it takes you a month to break wind. Slow Berla, that described her to a point. She walked slow, talked slow, and was slow to grasp the jokes she was so often the butt of. Even kind Master Bokleron had not wanted to take her on at the bakery on account of her slowness. “The pans get very hot, Berla dear. You know, hot.” As if Berla hadn’t known what the word hot meant. As if she had not made piping hot porridges, teas and stews for her grammy every morning, afternoon and evening.

When her grammy died and went to be with the angels and unborn babies in Rho, Berla hadn’t known what to do. Her grammy had left her a small bag of coin, all that remained of the bulging purse she had nestled away in the aristocratic beehive of her hair on their mad flight from Alvaron. There was still enough, her grammy had patiently explained, to last Berla several years until she could find a sweet boy to marry or take up as a nanny for some kind family. Although her grammy had never been wrong about anything before, she hadn’t been all the way right about this. Not only was there a lack of sweet boys and kind families in Manfred’s Mill, but the money had not even lasted out the funeral.

Berla never imagined dying would be so costly. She hoped it didn’t happen to her any time soon; she wouldn’t be able to afford it. Lucky for her that the kind mayor had personally overseen the details of the funeral. Although grammy had given her strict instructions on how to spend the remaining coin, when Berla heard how everyone down to the ten hole diggers had agreed out of the goodness of their hearts to accept half what was owed them, she gladly paid them their due, which the mayor counted out on her behalf since she had never learned her numbers past ten.

A few days later, the mayor paid her a follow up visit. With deepest regret he informed her that her grammy had failed to pay her taxes backwards, which seemed like a very silly thing to do but was in fact quite serious. Berla would need to come up with thirty-three gold (enough to buy a small castle) or pack up her things and leave at once.

The next morning, a very sad and, as yet, a very thin Berla piled all her worldly belongings into a wheelbarrow and trundled through town in search of work and a roof over her head. Her search began and ended at the baker’s shop where the kind Master Bokleron had been a rare source of warm words and sweet treats over the years. Even so, he turned her away at first. But when she returned later that afternoon and proceeded to plop down in front of the bakery and bawl most loudly and disconsolately, creating a scene and generally discouraging business, Master Bokleron soon emerged with an offer of employment. “Perhaps Benko could use some help with the stirring and kneading, what with his bad arm and all.”

Troubles forgotten, Berla donned the baker’s spare apron with all the reverence of a priest donning a stole. Master Bokleron directed her to the provision shed where she could store her belongings and spread a blanket at night, introduced her to the chief baker, and promptly disappeared upstairs.

Benko had his own ideas about how Berla could be helpful. The moment the master was out of earshot, he began barking out commands. Peel those apples. Move those bushels. Chop up that wood pile.

Though resentful at first, it did not take Benko long to discover the true worth of his new apprentice. In Berla he found not just an eager helper but an obedient slave willing to carry out his every order to the letter, no matter how strenuous or mundane. If it took her twice as long to perform most tasks, that hardly mattered so long as he wasn’t the one who had to do them. Teaching her was a trial of patience, but once a lesson took root in her thick skull, it was planted there for good.

Taking her under his one good wing, Benko showed Berla how to mix and knead dough, palm and pinch out pastry crusts, and mash and boil jellies. Before the year was out, she was doing most everything around the bakery. Benko would pitch in during the morning frenzy then settle down for a lazy afternoon at the coin table playing skip-stones with Long Jak while Berla tended the ovens. That suited Berla just fine. She loved baking.

The first time someone turned up their nose at the bread on the racks and asked for a loaf off the cooling tray, Benko obliged with a good-natured chuckle. It did not escape his notice, however, that the racked loaves were his while those on the cooling tray were Berla’s. When the scene played out a second, a third, and then a twelfth time, he failed to find any humor in it. Subsequent requests were met with dark looks and unsavory curses under the breath.

Deeply affronted, Benko set out to reclaim the baking crown of Manfred’s Mill, matching Berla batch for batch and dreaming up new pastries that he gave fanciful names to like wagon wheels, rabbit ears and turtle backs. But it would take more than clever catchphrases to win over the townsfolk. That afternoon Benko had been in an especially foul mood after a patron inquired whether there was real shell in the turtle backs and, if not, how had he managed to get them so hard?

“What do you think yer doing?” Benko snarled across the kneading table.

Startled, Berla backed away from the pan of rising rabbit ears. “I was just going to put them in the oven.”

Benko came charging around the table. He looked angry enough to hit her, but he just snatched up the pan of rabbit ears instead and, using his shriveled arm to pry open the oven door, shoved them inside. “Just cuz I got one arm that’s shorter than t’other, doesn’t mean I can’t put a bleeding pan in the oven.” He flipped over the hourglass and brought it down so hard it raised a cloud of flour. “I’ve been baking since before you learned to crawl and don’t you forget it.”

“I’ll try not to forget,” Berla said. “I’ll try real hard to remember.”

“Oh, for Rhojë’s sake, why don’t you just shut that fat trap of yours.”

If Berla was uncertain what part of her resembled a trap, she had no such uncertainty about the word fat, which applied to every part.

Fat. That was the word little Marcus Millwright had used the last time they had spoken. They had been in love once, she and the butcher’s son. Little Marcus used to give her leftover beef trimmings for stew, and he once carved their initials into the big oak with his cleaver, at least what he thought their initials were. Little Marcus couldn’t read and spoke with a severe lisp, owing to a harelip. But this had been no impediment for Berla. On the contrary, she felt that Little Marcus was the only one that truly understood her, and she had continued to feel that way right up to the fateful afternoon he asked to meet her under the big oak behind the butcher’s shop.

“Lerba, I can’t be your huthband,” Little Marcus said. “I’m little, thee. Thath why they call me Little Marcuth. But you’re not little, Lerba. You’re fat. You’re very fat. Thath why you’re tho big. I need to have matrimony with thomeone little tho we can be happy and little together.” True to his word, little Marcus Millwright wed later that year to a farmer’s daughter, a thin waif of a girl with a lazy eye.

Berla knew Little Marcus was right. She was too fat to love. Since she had begun working at the bakery, she had swelled to twice her original size, her buttocks and breasts bulging out like opposite facing loaves. If Benko was looking for new inspiration for his confections, he need look no further than Berla, the amazing bread woman.

Hot tears filled Berla’s eyes. As she wiped them away with the heels of her palms, her gaze was drawn to a misshapen jelly roll on the cooling tray. There was always one in every batch that didn’t quite fit in. It wouldn’t be fair to sell it. She picked it up still steaming and bit into it. Delicious.

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