~A Tale of Four Cakes~

A
Tale of Four Cakes
by
Matushka
Anna Crawford
Once
upon a time there was a mossy cottage on the outskirts of town. It
was full, not
very
full, but full of children. There were five: three girls and two
boys, in that order. They ran up and down like steps and it was a
large hop down off the bottom step, the youngest being seven. The
house was usually reasonably noisy and busy, but after the sun set
everything settled down. The light in the back corner room always
stayed on a little longer, but that was put out too after a short
interval.
This
night, however, the light stayed on. Also, things weren’t quite as
quiet and settled as usual. A few women quietly went in and out the
garden door and the priest was seen saying a prayer at the gate
before heading to the rectory. Just about an hour before dawn, when
the first birds were stirring, there was another little stir, a very
little one.
The
stir came from a tiny baby girl. After she was bathed and dressed and
given back to her mother to cuddle and nurse, the rest of the women
went home and the father went out to milk the cow. It wasn’t very
long before the mother’s eyes closed as she was very tired after her
night’s labors.
The
baby lay quietly, drowsing in her cradle next to the big bed. When a
light began to glow in the corner of the room her eyes opened. She
watched, wondering, as the angel carefully laid a wooden box at the
foot of the cradle. He stood over her, smiling, and blessed her
before fading into the dawn. The next thing she saw was the face of
her oldest sister, smiling delightedly at her while stroking her
hands.
“Oh,
Mother! See what a beautiful box was left for the baby by her angel!”
And
there was soon a circle of faces peering at the new baby.
Let
her sleep now, you can see her again later,” and the mother
gestured them out of the room. Her husband came back in the room just
then. He saw the box and picked it up, his work-worn hands caressing
the smooth, carved wood.
“So
her angel came, did he?” He paused. “It’s beautiful. I’ll
put it with the others. Looks like this is the last time we’ll be
receiving one of these.” His eyes were dimmed with tears as he
looked at his wife. “You did well, love. Who would have expected
such a gift?” His wife knew he wasn’t referring to the box. She
smiled down at the baby, now in her arms. 

 ******************
Two
summers later, when the roses were in bloom, the oldest girl turned
thirteen. That morning her mother ceremoniously brought the
daughter’s box to her.
“Sophia,
today is the Beginning Day. You have helped me to bake and stew, to
make cakes, pies and bread, but now it is time to begin your cake. In
this box are all the ingredients you need to make it. There is no way
to replenish them, so take care. You will not finish this cake today.
In fact, this cake will be years in the making. Unlike the cakes you
have helped me make for our family, this cake is just for you and
your husband. On your wedding day you will display this cake at the
reception and then take it to your new home. It will be a cake just
for the two of you, your wedding gift for your husband.”
“But
Mother,” Sophia protested, “I don’t know how to make such a
cake as this!”
Her
mother smiled. “I can help you, but I think you’ll find that you
figure it out as you go along. As long as you work diligently and do
your best, the cake will be just right.”
“So
each box contains ingredients for one cake?”
“Yes,
but each is a little different. You saw the cake at your uncle’s
wedding and then the one at your cousin’s wedding. They were
different, but both were beautiful. Both women spent much time and
effort on their cakes and they were proud to present them.”
Sophia
began to work on her cake. Her mother had been right, this was
nothing like mixing the ingredients for just any cake. She found that
she was able to separate the ingredients and start over and to do
things that she had certainly never been able to do with mere flour
and sugar. Many times as she worked, she smiled, wondering about the
man to whom she was one day to present her cake.
The
years passed. As each of the daughters’ birthdays came they received
their boxes and the same instructions. The cakes slowly began to grow
and the girls did as well. The boys mostly played with sticks and
tormented the girls, as boys will do. The baby, Lucy, grew into a
round and rosy toddler, and then into a merry little girl, and was a
joy to everyone.
******************
When
Sophia was about 17 she came home from a day’s outing to find that
her father had been in an accident on the farm. Her heart in her
throat, she approached the door to her parents’ room and peeked in.
Two doctors were there and her mother was kneeling beside the bed.
She couldn’t see her father but heard a few low groans. One of the
neighbors found her there, and, gently putting her arms around the
girl, led her away to the kitchen.
Your
father will be fine, God willing,” she said, putting a cup of tea
down in front of Sophia. “It was a very close thing, but the
doctors are hopeful.”
Little
Lucy wandered up to the table, her eyes wide and frightened. Sophia
picked her up and rocked her in her lap. “Papa sick?” Lucy asked,
her lips trembling.
Sophia
wanted to cry herself but she snuggled her baby sister and said,
“Shh… We’ll pray for Papa and help Mama keep things going in the
house.”
The
next few days were anxious ones, but slowly the shadowed look left
their mother’s eyes and she ventured the hope that eventually their
father would make a full recovery. The older girls, who had been
helping to cook and clean so their mother could be spared to take
care of their father, worked with renewed cheer and vigor.
Sophia
was grateful, now, at the end of each day to fall in bed with a book.
She had previously been in the habit of reading every moment she
could find, but being the oldest and suddenly having more
responsibility thrust upon her, she seldom had the opportunity to
slip away. In fact, today she had tried washing dishes with a book
propped open in the window sill but the results had been disastrous.
Guiltily, she looked over at the damp book, its pages fanned open in
the breeze from the window.
Her
reading choices had changed over the past year and she was now
selecting books of romance from the library. Being an imaginative
girl she saw herself in every plot, saw herself receiving the
eloquent addresses from handsome suitors. Every book ended the same
way: with a wedding. The bride was beautiful, the groom handsome, the
flowers freshly blooming. The moon, in these books, seemed not to
obey normal astronomical rules for it was always full. The more
Sophia read these books the farther away marriage seemed from her
day-to-day life. She loved her parents dearly but a more unromantic
couple she couldn’t imagine. That they
had ever walked together in the moonlight seemed inconceivable.
This
night she couldn’t seem to get to sleep and decided to slip out to
the kitchen for some milk. Tiptoeing through the house she passed her
parents’ room, the door to which was standing open. Glancing in, she
was struck by the sight of her mother seated in a chair by her
sleeping father’s side. Her well-worn prayer book was open on her
knees, her head was bowed, and one hand was resting lightly on her
husband’s shoulder. Unaccountably feeling tears in her eyes,
Sophia tiptoed on to the kitchen and poured a glass of milk. Settling
into a rocking chair she sipped the milk and thought.
None
of the books she had been reading ventured past the wedding. It was
as if the most important thing were the courtship and wedding itself…
but really, wasn’t that just the beginning? And honestly, could you
really expect a woman with six children to sit about in gazebos
wearing filmy dresses, waiting languidly for a young man to bring
lemonade? Didn’t dinner have to be cooked? Didn’t babies have to be
nursed and changed? Didn’t chickens have to be fed? Didn’t her father
have to go out every day and work in the fields beyond his house? If
he sat around gazing worshipfully into his wife’s eyes for hours at a
stretch, the windows would never be repaired and the porch steps
would sag until they fell.
Sophia
felt very flat and disillusioned as she sat there, contemplating the
dreary life ahead as these vague visions she had cherished started
falling one by one. Looking up, she saw the photo albums on the
shelf. Picking up the oldest one she turned the fragile pages. When
had she last looked at these? There were her parents, hand-in-hand,
smiling for the camera. Here they were on their wedding day, her
father looking a little scared as well as happy. There was a picture
of the cake. Sophia bent over the photo and gazed at the cake. It was
beautiful. She imagined her mother working happily on her cake day
after day, year after year, just as she herself was doing.

Suddenly
it came to her: these “unromantic” years after the wedding were
not disconnected to it. The wedding
was
merely the beginning. With the photo album resting unheeded on her
lap, she gazed over the room. In her mind’s eye she saw her parents
laughing gently over a joke. Her father reaching down something from
a high shelf, too tall for her petite mother. She saw them cooing
over a new baby. She saw her mother working diligently during winter
evenings, knitting new socks for her husband. She saw how they cared
for each other daily, working together to build their home and
family.
Realizing
she was getting cold, Sophia put the photo album back onto the shelf
and rinsed her glass out in the sink. She tiptoed back to bed.
Picking up the book she had left open on her table, she looked at the
cover. The characters seemed almost silly now. She couldn’t picture
either one of them doing a day’s work, and how would that
helpless-looking young woman cope with three children sick at once?
She closed the book and turned out the light.
******************
The
little mossy house was in as chaotic a state as it had ever been.
Baking had been going on for a week and sewing for the past month.
The garden was left forlorn, enthusiastically stripped of its
flowers. Sophia was radiant,
dressed in white. As the sun set, the lights were lit in the large
hall and music drifted out into the dusky evening. Inside, on a table
resplendent with white and lace, was a beautiful cake. Knots of
townspeople gathered at intervals, admiring it. The bride and groom
shone with happiness and the children ran around noisily.
The
festivities continued long after, but the oldest daughter and her new
husband slipped out and walked through the warm night to their tiny
cottage. The cake had been carefully placed in a basket and taken to
the house a little earlier in the evening by the bride’s mother. When
they arrived at the cottage they found it set on their small table,
two plates, two forks and one knife laid out neatly next to it. The
scent of honeysuckle was heavy at the windows, open to the tiny
garden.
“My
darling, here is the cake I made for you with my two hands,” and
she cut a slice and presented it to her husband. He took her on his
lap and they shared the first slice together. And it was very good.
******************
The
following winter, the second daughter, Emma, was getting close to
finishing her cake. She hadn’t yet found the man she was to marry and
was slightly worried about it. She was afraid she would finish her
cake and it would grow stale, waiting for the wedding. She watched
one friend after another get married, and while she was happy for
them, she began to be anxious about her own situation. What if I
never meet anyone? What if things go on year after year..?
Her
younger sister Charlotte started teasing her about turning into an
old maid (at 19, no less). She got into the habit of staring into her
mirror, comparing what she saw there with the images on magazine
covers. Noting that none of the pretty young ladies pictured thereon
wore glasses, she stopped wearing hers out of the house. So what if
the world were a blur? She took a long time every day pinning her
hair up, carefully trying to match the style of this or that person.
One
afternoon Emma was marketing in town. She inquired after some items
and learned that they could be found at another shop several streets
away. She set out, but a few turns later hadn’t seen the shop.
Grumbling to herself, she pulled her glasses out of her bag, put them
on, and paused in the street, looking this way and that. A few doors
down she caught sight of a familiar face leaving a shop. It was an
acquaintance from school, a girl a few years older than she.
Hurrying, she called the girl’s name before she could disappear into
the crowd. The girl stopped and smiled as Emma approached.
“Fancy
seeing you here! I haven’t seen you in ages!”
“Hello!
I wanted to ask if you knew the location of…” and then she
stopped. She stared into the shop window behind her schoolfriend.
There on several stands surrounded by paper lace were cakes.
Wedding
cakes. A few girls could be seen inside chatting. “Are
those…
wedding
cakes?

she asked.
“What
a funny, old-fashioned name! Those are merely fancy cakes! We sell
them by the slice.”
Emma
felt frozen in place. “But, the ingredients…where do you get
the ingredients?”
“From
our boxes, of course. We can make it stretch a little farther by
adding some regular flour, but it still only makes one cake, just
slightly larger.”
“But…but,
what will you do when you’re married?”
The
other girl laughed. “
Married!?
she exclaimed, “Who wants to get
married?
We make good money from these slices of cake.” She looked at
Emma appraisingly. “How about you? Have you made a cake?”
“Well,
yes…but it’s not for sale. I’m saving it for my wedding day, for my
husband.”
“But
what if you never find a husband? What will you do with your cake
then? It will grow stale and old, and you will never have had a
chance to even taste it. You have no idea how good these cakes taste
until you’ve tried them!”
“But…”
She was at a loss for words. It was as if the girl had read her mind,
knew her deepest fears.
“I
tell you what. Why don’t you bring your cake around tomorrow and
we’ll have a look at it? You could be set up right away selling your
cake. The truth is, we could use some fresh cake. It would bring in
the customers.”
“I’ll
think about it,” Emma quavered, and she set off in a hurry,
pulling her shawl around her more tightly against the wind. She was
thinking so hard that she forgot all about finishing her marketing,
and soon found herself on the road home. She looked up in time to see
her older sister Sophia coming out of her garden gate.
“How
are you? You look as if you had a lot on your mind.”
“I
have. Do you remember the girl from school who left in my last year?”
Sophia
grimaced. “Of course. She is working in town now.”
“I
know. I just met her there.” Emma noted the wary look that came
over her sister’s face.
“Do
you know what she is doing there?” Sophia
asked.
Emma
paused uncomfortably. She was unable to meet her sister’s eyes.
“I
see that you do. Let me tell you something… but wait, come inside
first. It’s freezing out here.”
The
two sisters went in out of the chill wind and sat down at the table.
The kettle was put on and they began to grow warmer.
Sophia
told Emma all about the shop. She told her something else, though.
Apparently she had met the same girl earlier in the fall. For old
time’s sake they had had a cup of tea at the teashop and got to
talking. The schoolfriend started out confident and gay when talking
about how business was going, but under the sober influence of her
old friend she became more subdued. She admitted that while it had
been lots of fun at first, sharing cake with one young man and then
another, it was a lot more like work now. She told her too that the
cake didn’t taste as good as it had at first. When
Sophia
had spoken happily of her home and husband, the girl had grown sad.
She didn’t say much after that and, making an excuse, left.
There
were a few minutes of silence. They drank their tea. Emma looked up
presently and, smiling, said, “I think you’ve cleared some
things up for me. Thank you.”
Sophia
smiled back. “You’re always welcome here. Don’t worry about
finding the man you will marry. God knows who it is and when the time
is right. Be at peace until that time comes.”
******************
One
afternoon in early spring Emma decided to surprise her mother by
beating all the rugs. In preparation she changed into an old dress
and tied her hair up in a large kerchief of her father’s. It was a
lovely day outside and she felt quite cheerful as she carried the
rugs out and hung them on the line behind the garden shed. Settling
her glasses firmly on her nose (they would protect her eyes from the
dust), she proceeded to attack the rugs with a fireplace poker.
Dust
flew everywhere. For some reason she found herself having a simply
wonderful time. It was so nice to take out her energy on the rugs and
not care what she looked like. One of the cats wandered into the
cloud of dust. It started sneezing immediately and Emma, quite out of
breath, dropped onto a crate and started laughing. It was then that
she heard her mother calling her.
Emma!
Where are you?”
Here,
Mother!” she called, stretching her legs out in front of her, still
chuckling at the cat.
At
this inauspicious moment a group of people rounded the corner of the
garden shed. Jumping to her feet in dismay Emma saw her parents
accompanied by another older couple and a young man who was biting
his lip in an effort not to laugh. Her father looked surprised and
her mother chagrined. There was an uncomfortable silence. The cat
sneezed once more for good measure and slunk under the hedge.
Rising
to the occasion her mother made the introductions and Emma
automatically transferred the poker from her right hand to her left
so she could shake the visitors’ hands. She could feel the heat in
her face and cursed the impulse that had landed her in this
predicament. Mustering what dignity she could she calmly walked back
to the house with everyone else. When they settled in the living room
she fled to her room. Looking in the mirror, she shuddered. She was
positively gray with dust!
She
repaired the damages as best she could and once she was changed and
reasonably tidy she returned to the guests. As she murmured another
apology she realized her glasses were still on but there didn’t seem
to be much point in worrying about that now. Not after she had
appeared as such a ragamuffin! At least they were clean, she sighed.
The young man turned to her and tactfully talked about subjects that
had nothing to do with rugs or dust. She found herself having a nice
time and realized she didn’t mind if he still looked rather amused.
The
evening was spent pleasantly enough in dinner and conversation. The
visitors, it turned out, were distant relations of her mother and had
come to town to stay for a few weeks. When they left the young man
took Emma’s hand and said that he had rarely had a more enjoyable
evening…would she allow him to call again while they were in town?
Before
bed Emma leaned her elbows on her dresser and gazed dreamily into her
mirror. She forgot to compare herself to the latest magazine covers
and didn’t see her glasses. All she could see was the young man’s
smile and the twinkle in his eye. It would seem that all her fears,
and all her clumsy attempts to be someone else, had been unnecessary.
******************
Two
years later the beautiful spring abruptly changed into a hot, dry
summer. Her two older sisters married and living in their own homes,
the third daughter, Charlotte, was lonely. She had her two younger
brothers, but she found them dirty, noisy and unsympathetic. Her
youngest sister, Lucy, was there, true; but she was still very much a
little girl, more interested in dolls and having tea parties under
the trees than discussing the young men in the village. Charlotte sat
on the top step and sighed, spreading her pink ruffled skirt around
her.
Nothing
to do. She had finished her cake six months ago and there it sat, on
the table in her room covered by a linen cloth. She finished it as
quickly as she could, first dreaming of one young man, then another.
But men were fickle. In fact, she wasn’t sure she thought any man was
good enough for all the work she had put into her cake. Hmph.
Charlotte
picked a grass stem and chewed on it moodily. She thought of what she
really wanted in a husband. She wanted someone who would
listen.
Listen
rapturously
to what she said. She wanted someone
romantic.
She wanted…well, she didn’t know what she wanted but it certainly
couldn’t be found in this sleepy village. She knew everyone too well,
all their faults, all their boring habits. What she wouldn’t give to
leave this village and go somewhere else! Go somewhere and find a
real
man who
appreciated
her. She thought about the young man who walked her home from church
yesterday. She had worn her favorite lavender dress with the fetching
bows and her new hat, and
what
had he talked about?

Cows! All the way home! He never
once
mentioned how lovely she looked! Her feelings were as ruffled as her
skirt. Who could marry someone who found cows interesting?!
In
disgust, she got to her feet, not neglecting to brush the dust from
her skirt. Why on earth she had decided to wear it today, today when
she was at home alone with no prospects for company, she couldn’t
imagine. She must have been mad. Her thoughts turned to supper. She
didn’t feel like cooking. Perhaps some bread and cheese.
Bread
and cheese
.
Well, that was romance for you.
Hmph.
Something
caught her eye and she paused in the doorway. There was someone
coming down the lane. A man with something slung over his shoulder. A
pack? She waited, interested in spite of herself. As he came closer
she could see that he had noticed her. He paused at the garden gate.
“Hello!
Could you tell me if there is an inn nearby?”
“There
is one woman who takes in boarders but she’s not in town. Her sister
is sick and she went to stay with her for a while.”
“What
rotten luck,” and he leaned on the palings. He
did
look tired. Charlotte hesitated a moment for she was at home alone.
Then she tossed her head. Bother that! She was bored and here was
someone interesting. In fact, he might have been sent just for her
amusement! She made up her mind.
“Would
you like to come in and rest for a while?”
He
smiled at her.
My,
what a nice smile he had!

“That would be delightful.”
She
waited for him at the door as he came through the garden, suddenly
very glad she had worn the pink ruffled skirt after all.
******************
Charlotte
sat by her window and cried. She wanted to blame someone else,
anyone
else, but she couldn’t.
She
had let him in.
She
had invited him to have dinner. He had been so nice, so attentive, so
flattering.
He
had noticed and commented on how nice she looked, unlike the cow-boy
(as she thought of him). He had talked of his travels, his hardships,
in such sympathy-inspiring terms. He had beguiled her into offering
him a mattress on the floor for the night.
She
had sat next to him by the fire while he told more of his tales of
travel and adventure.
She
had begun to build air castles, to think that she had met the man she
would marry. When she offered dessert, he casually asked if they had
any cake – it had been
so
long

since he had had any good, home-made cake. And of course, he was sure
she was a
wonderful
cook.
They
hadn’t had any cake in the pantry. And he looked
so
disappointed.
So
disappointed that she went into her room and brought out her cake.
Her wedding cake.
She
knew she had no business offering him that cake. She remembered
answering the little voice of protest in her head by saying that
surely
this
was the man she was to marry. What did it matter if she offered him
some cake now? Why did waiting until the wedding matter so much? And
what a romantic story it would be for them to share through the
years!
She
had told herself all of this. But now she knew it was all lies.
They
had shared the cake. He had been so appreciative, had looked into her
eyes and thanked her for it with tones that melted her heart.
And
now he was gone. Gone before dawn, without a trace, with no note, no
goodbye. She had gone into the garden, called him, looked up and down
the road, but in her heart she knew he was gone.
And
here she was, left with a ruined cake. She forced herself to look
across her room at the cake on the little table. What an ugly gash
had been cut into it! She cried afresh. And what would her parents
say? What would her sisters say? She hastily got up and threw the
square of linen over it. No one could see the gap now. It looked as
it had the day before. Only the day before! One day ago she had a
perfect cake and dreams of a husband. Now…
Charlotte
sat back down by the window, hunting for a dry space on her
handkerchief. What would she do now? When she was thinking things
couldn’t get worse, she heard the sounds of her family returning. Her
baby sister ran through the house, seeking her. She quickly dried her
tears and tried to put a smile on as Lucy ran through the door and
threw her arms around her. She explained away the traces of tears as
a bad headache and submitted to a cup of herb tea and being put to
bed.
Consumed
with shame, she listened to her mother praise the cleanliness of the
house. Of course it was clean! She had scrubbed the house as if to
scrub away the memory of the previous evening. There were no traces
of the stranger now, no traces but the gaping wound in the cake,
hidden under the innocent linen square.
******************
Summer
gave way to fall, and with fall came the realization that she wasn’t
going to be able to fix the cake. Charlotte had tried, sometimes
daily, to make a “patch” for the cake, using regular baking
ingredients. No matter how carefully she iced over the patch to match
the rest of the cake, the slice inevitably fell out. Countless times
she looked desperately into her box, now empty, hoping against hope
that more ingredients would appear. Once she thought she had fixed it
for good and went to bed in an almost ecstasy of relief, but in the
morning the gap was as wide as ever and to add insult to injury, the
cat was eating the slice that had cartwheeled off the table onto the
floor. (The cat never touched the
real
cakes.) That was the morning she had given up. She moved the table
containing the cake into the farthest corner of the room, tucked the
linen securely around it, and tried to forget about it.
Her
parents couldn’t help but notice the change that had come over their
daughter. She wasn’t as cheerful as before, didn’t take as much
interest in social things and avoided walking home from church with
any young men. They talked it over, but didn’t come to any
conclusions other than to leave well enough alone. Her mother pointed
out that Charlotte had been rather
too
social previously and that this change might be for the best.
One
beautiful fall afternoon Charlotte was walking home from town after
marketing, rather low in spirits. She had seen her older sisters that
day, one in town and one in her garden as she walked by the little
cottage. Sophia was out walking the baby in the warm sunshine. They
had talked and laughed, Charlotte exerting herself to be cheerful.
She held the baby, forgetting for a moment her pain. When she left
for home she was more depressed than ever because she despaired of
ever sharing in the same marital happiness that her sisters
possessed.
She
paused on the bridge, leaning on the rail, and watched leaves float
quietly downstream. The beauty of the day helped soothe her wounds
and she lingered there for several minutes until a voice startled
her.
“Hello!
Out enjoying the lovely day?”
She
turned to see a young man approaching; it was the “cow-boy”.
He stepped up to the rail next to her and, leaning heavily upon it,
gazed over the water to the distant trees. He smiled appreciatively
and said, “This is my favorite time of year. Every season has
its merits, but fall is my favorite. It seems put here by God purely
for our enjoyment.”
She
murmured an assent and cast about for something else to say. While
she was hunting he continued to stand there, taking in the fall
afternoon. He didn’t seem bothered by her silence. After another
minute he sighed heavily and stepped back from the rail. “Enjoy
your walk! I’d better get on home.” He strode off, whistling and
she watched him leave. What she wouldn’t have given to have had such
peace of mind! Charlotte slowly turned toward home.
As
she walked she found herself thinking about him. She had always
scorned his lack of manners, his inability to flatter, but now that
seemed unimportant. She thought about a similar encounter with a
different young man the week before. When he had flattered her
appearance she’d had uncomfortable memories of the stranger, and
making excuses, had quickly left.
This
young man was comfortable to be
with
her, not merely trying to come up with pretty things to say. She
shook herself mentally. What did it matter what she thought of him or
what he thought of her? The
cake
had ended all hopes on that score.
The
sun set in a blaze of glory, the trees reflecting the rich color, but
she didn’t notice.
******************
The
dancing had been going strong for at least an hour when Charlotte
stepped out for some air. There were a few knots of chattering
couples grouped around the porch. She sank into an empty chair
gratefully. Whereas formerly she would have delighted in such an
occasion, now she felt like she was merely enduring. The ache in her
heart wasn’t as sharp, but it was never absent. This, the wedding of
her brother Matthew, the “oldest-younger” as she had always
teased him, was a happy event, and she was determined to appear
happy. She didn’t want any shadow of unhappiness to be present. She
had left despair behind with the winter and found a certain
contentment, if not outright happiness, in playing with Sophia
and Emma’s
children, helping Lucy with schoolwork and
generally helping to run the house.
The
warm, dark spring night reminded her of Sophia’s wedding anniversary,
coming up in a few weeks. So many happily married couples. Under the
cover of shadow on the porch she permitted her smile to fade. She sat
there for some time, lost in thought.
A
young man approached and she looked up. She didn’t recognize him and,
uninterested, supposed he must belong to the bride’s family. He sat
down in the seat next to her and started talking. At the sound of his
voice she jumped slightly for this was no stranger; it was the
cow-boy.
“You
look rather tired this evening; is everything alright?”
“Oh,
of course, just the dancing, you know…” and she trailed off,
still stunned at the drastic improvement in his appearance. Where
were the heavy boots caked with mud? Where was the rough thatch of
hair? The patched pants? She reasoned with herself that of course he
could not appear at a wedding dressed as if her were to take care of
his herd, but still!
“Well,
perhaps after you catch your breath you wouldn’t mind taking a turn
about the room with me?” and he smiled shyly. Still in shock,
Charlotte gave her consent. A little while later, as they danced, she
realized she was having fun. She didn’t have to pretend to be happy
or flirtatious, she could just be herself.
He
walked her home and they talked of many things. She didn’t even
notice when he mentioned his herd and how he was planning to increase
it. When he left her at the gate it was only after she agreed to a
picnic the next weekend. She dressed for bed but sat for a long time
by her window. She was very conflicted. On the one hand, she had had
a nice time – really the nicest time she had had in almost nine
months. On the other, she felt like she was standing on the edge of a
precipice. She felt herself in danger of losing her heart, but she
couldn’t: she had no wedding cake, at least, not a whole one. Then
Charlotte reflected that the young man’s demeanor was not that of
someone in love, he was merely being friendly. Surely she could be
friends
with him. And a picnic would be fun…
******************
The
picnic was followed by a walk, which was followed by a trip to pick
blackberries. The summer weeks slid past and Charlotte found herself
in a predicament. In her mind there could be no doubt that her friend
(for now he was) had no intention of ending their outings. He was
friendly, very friendly, but something told her he was eventually
hoping for more. Every other day she told herself very firmly to end
it now, before it was too late. Yet she couldn’t. For one thing she
simply enjoyed being with him too much. For another, she couldn’t for
the life of her come up with a plausible excuse! Something that
sounded reasonable at bedtime sounded ridiculous in the morning. She
tried to put it out of her mind entirely, but the cake loomed
silently in the corner. She began to have nightmares.
She
spent two weeks staying at the home of Emma during her lying-in,
helping to cook and clean and assisting in caring for the new baby.
She had developed a knack for caring for babies and enjoyed them. As
she deftly bathed the new little one she reflected amusedly on how
she had always thought of them as breakable frogs. Kissing the damp
head she wished she were kissing the head of her own child. Her mind
wandered to the cow-boy …but no, better not go there.
Charlotte’s
family had begun to rely on her in a way they couldn’t before. Her
mother never hesitated to leave the house in her hands, her older
sisters came to rely on her for help with the babies, and even
neighbors knew that if they needed help suddenly they could call on
her. She was no longer impatient with her youngest siblings or indeed
with just about anyone. When she began to get angry or impatient she
would remember what she had done and think,
Who
am I to get angry? I’m no better than anyone.
The
habit of pretending to be cheerful had turned into genuine
cheerfulness. She didn’t dwell on unpleasant memories but exerted
herself to make life easier and more pleasant for others. There was a
satisfaction in being needed and in being useful. The only place she
felt on shaky ground was with her relationship with the cow-boy. She
still hadn’t come to any conclusions and her resolutions one day all
came to naught when she was actually with him.
One
evening in late summer they were sitting on her porch, listening to
the crickets. Neither had spoken for a while, both being rather tired
after a long walk. She was beginning to feel sleepy, lulled by the
rocking chair, when he suddenly asked her to marry him.
Charlotte’s
heart stood still. She tried to form words but nothing happened. He
waited patiently.
“I
– I…can’t.” There. It was said. She didn’t look up.
He
did not sound surprised but calmly said, “Why not?”
What
could she say? She frantically tried to remember some of the excuses
she had invented.
Nothing.
“I
can’t tell you,” she finally said miserably. Tears came to her
eyes. This was dreadful. She wanted with all her heart to say
yes,
but that was impossible. Now she couldn’t bear to tell him the truth,
couldn’t bear to see the look of disgust come over his face. The
tears turned into sobs. He gave her his handkerchief when she
couldn’t find hers. The crickets sang on, ignoring the drama on the
porch.
All
this time he sat next to her. He gently took her hand in his. “If
you do not wish to marry me, don’t be afraid to tell me.”
“It’s
not
that…”
she hiccuped, then realized her blunder. He looked considerably
brighter.
Oh
dear
,
she thought.

That was the perfect excuse and I’ve gone and wasted it.
“Well,
what then? I hope we’re good enough friends that you can tell me
what’s wrong.”
Realizing
that there was no help for it, she steeled herself and wiped her
nose. Hiccuping once or twice she told him about the stranger last
summer. She told him about the cake. She told him how many times she
had
almost
told him but couldn’t. She was calmer now but it was the calmness of
despair. This was the end of everything, the end of the summer, the
end of her vain hopes. She had been talking with her head down,
cringing to think of his expression. When there was no response after
a moment, she looked up.
He
was looking at her, but it wasn’t with disgust, it was with
compassion. On seeing her red eyes (and nose), he smiled slightly and
squeezed her hand. Swollen and red as she was, she still looked
lovely to him.
“I
know.”
Her
pitiful expression changed to shock and some of the color drained
from her face. “What? What do you mean, you ‘know’?”
He
thought a moment for he loved her and wanted to spare her any more
humiliation. “Let’s just say I met him and…found out.”
“When
was this?”
“Last
summer.” He watched her turn from white to red again.
“You
mean…” She digested this. “You mean…all this time, you
knew…and you still…” Tears sprang again to her eyes. “You
still want to marry me? After what happened? After what I did?”
He
smiled gently and took her other hand as well so he was cradling both
in his. “My dear, I’ve watched you change from a rather vain and
frivolous young lady into a woman. I cared for you before last
summer, and on finding out what had happened was grieved. I kept to
myself but continued to watch you, for I wanted to see what you would
do. After the dance we shared at the wedding I realized I loved you
for who you were, regardless of the past. But I wanted to give you a
chance to tell me yourself. And now you have.”
She
could barely think. This was too much at once. “So…you…we…”
He
laughed to see the different expressions chasing themselves across
her face. “I hope this means you’ll still find my offer
acceptable.”
It
was as if dawn had broken. The tightness around her heart loosed and
she cried, but now for happiness. Heedless of propriety, she threw
her arms around him.
Yes!
******************
Preparations
for the wedding were going smoothly, but there was one problem: what
to do about the cake? It could hardly be exhibited in its current
state. Charlotte had pondered this for a while but come to no
conclusions. One afternoon when she was taking a short walk with her
fiance she brought it up. They happened to be passing by some
flowering bushes and vines and he suggested just garnishing the cake
with flowers.
So
that was what they did. The morning of the wedding she carried the
cake, still under its linen square, to the hall where the reception
would be held. He met her there (secretly) bringing with him roses
and honeysuckle vines. Together they placed flowers delicately on and
around the cake. The crowning touch was a perfect rose which he
placed right in the center of the cake.
That
evening everyone said it was the most beautiful cake they’d ever
seen. More beautiful than the cake was the young woman who had made
it. Her dress was surprisingly simple, not the befrilled confection
she had often dreamed about. She had long ceased to care about frills
and outward appearances. Other things were more important to her,
such as constancy, devotion, kindness and selflessness, and all of
these she had unconsciously adopted. From being one more frivolous
girl in the village, she had become one of the most quiet and kind.
Everyone was joyful on the day of her wedding, wanting only the best
for her. Only one person there knew what silent pain and struggle she
had endured to arrive at this day and at the person she had become.
They
carried the basket containing the cake between them on the way home
that evening. When the time came to cut a slice her husband took the
knife out of her hand. He carefully cut a thin slice from one side of
the divide and a thin slice from the other. Gently putting them
together into one slice, he presented it to her. “Just as I have
healed the divide in your cake, so I hope to heal your heart.”
He wiped away her tears and they ate the slice together.
******************
Another
year passed. The youngest son, Stephen, married and went to live in a
small house on a property adjoining his parents’. He came frequently
to help his father with the livestock, now reduced to a few cows and
chickens, and the large garden. Lucy was still at home and had only
just begun her cake the year before. She was a delight to her aging
parents and cheerfully helped in the house and garden when she wasn’t
in school.
She
was often at her sisters’ houses, playing with the children, helping
care for the babies and simply enjoying their company. The family was
growing and every year there were more babies. The children were
always thrilled to see their young aunt coming and they flocked
around her. Her sisters remarked to her that she would have plenty of
experience for when she had her own family.
Time
flew by until she had finished school. She was always busy, helping
at home and running out to help others. She was as lovely a girl as
she had been a baby, and there were plenty of young men who would
have been glad of her company, but she wouldn’t single anyone out.
She enjoyed outings with friends but always in a group. On feastdays
she would always be found in the village church and spent much of her
free time there, helping the older women clean. “A veritable
angel,” they would exclaim as they saw her bright face coming.
One
day Sophia and Emma were talking. They were sitting on the porch
watching the children play together under the trees. Sophia brought
up the subject of Lucy. “Has she shown any particular interest
in any of the young men?”
“No,”
replied her sister, “and I can’t think of why, unless she’s
afraid to leave our parents alone in their house.”
“Our
parents are hardly so old as to need someone to live with
them!” Sophia exclaimed.
“Not
yet, but we have to face that the day will come. You know, she does
so much of the cooking, canning and cleaning now that she may feel
that she can’t be spared.”
“We
really ought to do more over there so she will see that it is
perfectly fine for her to marry if she desires.”
They
sat and thought. The children had found a turtle and brought it to
their mothers for inspection. After christening it “Turtle”,
they carried back to the trees and started constructing an elaborate
house for it.
“What
if several afternoons a week we watched each other’s children so the
other could go help for a few hours? We can keep it to just the two
of us.” They both smiled, thinking of the twins that were due
any day to their younger sister Charlotte. What a blessing that was
going to be! Congratulating themselves on their foresight and
planning, they allowed themselves to be tugged out to the turtle
house.
When
they presented this plan to Lucy she protested, saying that they had
far more important duties at home with their families. They insisted
and began coming several afternoons a week. Lucy enjoyed their
company and worked along side them. Their mother too enjoyed the
extra company.
When
they suggested to Lucy that she spend some time out of the house
while they were there, she at first said it wasn’t necessary, but
finally allowed herself to be persuaded. When Sophia stopped by
Emma’s house to collect the children on her way home, she told her
sister smugly that Lucy had spent a full three hours away from home
that afternoon. They were delighted and kept it up.
Several
weeks later Emma stopped at Sophia’s house on the way home. She had
laughter in her eyes and instead of simply gathering the children and
going home she followed her sister to the porch.
“You’ll
never guess.”
“She’s
found a young man!”
“Oh,
no, but I found out where she’s been going in the afternoons.”
Emma paused, savoring the moment.
“Where?”
“The
church!” She laughed. “She’s been going during the
afternoons we’re there to weed in the cemetery, plant flowers near
the door and wash windows.”
“Oh
no!” Sophia moaned. “And we thought we were so smart!”
They both laughed until the children asked what was so funny. They
decided that if going to the church and putting in labor there gave
Lucy pleasure, then they would pretend they had never had any other
ulterior motives and continue to arrange things so that she could go.
******************
Lucy
did
enjoy going to the church. She liked the quiet hours tending the
graves. She liked to beautify the temple. She began to slip out of
the house many evenings when she heard the bells ring for Vespers.
Her mother tentatively brought up the subject of her daughter’s cake
one morning. It had long ago been finished and was sitting quietly on
a shelf in Lucy’s room.
“Well
Mother, I’m happy I finished the cake and I think it’s a nice one,
but I’m not ready to give it to anyone.”
“Is
there no one you like?”
“I
like many people! You know I enjoy spending some time with my friends
and care about them very much, but I just don’t feel that I love any
of the young men enough to marry them.”
Her
mother let the subject drop. Her father advised his wife to give
their daughter time. “She’ll meet someone one day and that will
be that. She just hasn’t met him yet.”
Lucy,
however, began to worry. She wasn’t worrying about meeting someone,
she was worried about making her parents unhappy. She had seen how
happy they were on the weddings of their other five children, how
they delighted in their many grandchildren.
She
walked over to the church cemetery and sat down on a bench. Picking a
wayward dandelion she examined it and thought. Didn’t she like
children? Yes! She loved her nieces and nephews. Did she think she
couldn’t take care of a house? No, she had been helping to take care
of her home for years. Why then was she reluctant to get married?
The
bell began to ring for Vespers. She dropped the dandelion and walked
slowly inside. Leaning on a pillar she tried to clear her mind. The
prayers soothed her and she forgot her troubles.
******************
Sometimes
the most obvious things aren’t revealed in a flash of lightening, but
slowly, like the rosy light of dawn creeping over the trees. Lucy
gradually realized that she was resisting marriage, not through a
lack of love, but simply because her heart had already been
given away. It was God, and only God, that she loved with all her
heart.
Even
after she realized this she continued to live in her parents’ house
and help them, help her siblings and their children, work at the
church and see her friends. She didn’t know how she could leave her
parents, didn’t see how she could disappoint them. She was torn, but
felt the duty to her parents too strongly.
It
was her mother who noticed first. Her daughter seemed to be seeing
something no one else could see. She worked and visited just the
same, but she was like a balloon which is just barely tethered to
earth. The mother called Lucy to her one day and asked her to sit
down.
“You
have something on your mind.” It wasn’t a question. Her mother
took one of her hands. “I can see how you are pulled. Your
father and I want you to be happy. We want you to do what you need to
do, what God has called you to do.”
Tears
came into Lucy’s eyes. “I can’t leave you alone here.”
Her
mother smiled. “Child, you’re not leaving us here alone! Rarely
have parents been as blessed with children and grandchildren as have
we!”
“But
they have their own houses and families…”
“Yes,
they do. We have been talking to your older brother Stephen. He and
his wife and their baby are willing to live here. We have too much
room! I will be glad to have a baby in the house again and your
father will be glad of the help with the animals. Stephen’s herd will
be pastured here and we’ll rent the small house they’re in now.”
This
was a great relief to the daughter’s mind, but there was one more
worry. “Mother,” she said hesitantly, “my brothers and
sisters are happily married. They care for their families. Yet I know
they love God. Is one way of life better than the other?”
“No
my child. To be a nun is hard work. But marriage is hard work too.
Think of it this way: when you were there for the birth of your
youngest niece, you saw how hard your sister worked.”
“Yes.”
“Well,
before Stephen brought his bride home, he spent weeks painting and
repairing that little house. That was hard work too. And look at the
blessings both brought! For your sister, a daughter, for your
brother, a wife. Likewise, marriage and the monastery are different
paths, but can be equal in virtue. Both involve the sacrifice of
self-will, the learning of love and humility. Both are nurtured by
prayer. How can one be better than the other?”
Her
daughter’s face was radiant with joy. Suddenly she had a thought.
“Mother, what about the cake?”
“You’ll
take it with you. It’s no different from your sisters giving the
cakes they made to their husbands.”
******************
On
a glorious spring morning, a young woman dressed in white and
carrying a basket emerged from a mossy house at the edge of the
village. She was accompanied by an older couple. They walked down the
road and past a house with a garden in front. There another woman and
several children joined them. This happened a few more times until
there was quite a crowd following the young woman. She didn’t speak,
she was too happy. The children made enough noise for everyone as
they ran and skipped.
The
procession turned down a grassy lane. After almost a mile a low stone
wall appeared and then a group of buildings surrounding a church. The
procession approached the gates and a nun opened them. The young
woman entered the gate accompanied by her parents; her siblings and
the children stayed outside. Tears were seen on the faces of some of
the women but there was happiness in everyone’s hearts.
Still
carrying the basket the young woman approached the church. At the
steps, she knelt and took a cake out of the basket. Her mother took
the basket and they walked into the church. The daughter didn’t look
back, but steadily walked down the center of the church with her
cake. Her parents stood in the back and watched. Several nuns stood
quietly to the side.
At
the steps leading to the altar the young woman stopped. She knelt,
then placed her cake on the top step. The abbess stepped forward and
gave her blessing, then took her hand and raised her.
Suddenly
the church was suffused with light. Shielding their eyes, the parents
could just barely make out the outline of wings. The young woman
looked up, recognizing her angel. The angel bent, picked up the cake,
and after looking steadily at the young woman for a long moment,
smiled. The light became blinding and he disappeared with the cake.
Outside, the children exclaimed at the sudden light emanating from
the church. They all wondered what it meant. The parents appeared at
the door of the church and slowly made their way down the walk to the
gate, the mother still carrying the basket, now empty.
“What
was it?” they all asked.
“A
glimpse of heaven.”
~The
End~

7 thoughts on “~A Tale of Four Cakes~

Comments are closed.