Wandabella Shrenker was next to her stove, preparing dough. She was springing happily up and down on her spindly ankles. She’d started the fire in the oven-box, and the flames crackled up and snapped out of the hole in the iron sheet. The sour nauseating odor wafting from the head-sized hunk of dough squatting within the dough box did not trouble Wandabella.
She was so happy! What a wonderful day it had been! First, Little Victor had dropped by and told her the stunning news that Adam Green, that cursed boy out north, had gone shrieking through the northlands about seeing a ghost. As if that wasn’t good enough, the mayor of Arcadia visited later to ask her permission to use the store for an important meeting the next morning.
Wandabella was a stringy woman with a softly bulbous, triangular head, puckered lips, and protruding eyeballs which together recalled the appearance of a praying mantis. A nest of tightly coiled grey-brown hair clambered from her head like creeping hoary mugwort. Her spiked fingers extended from skeletal hands and sinewy wrists jangling with oversized bracelets. She was an extravagantly nervous woman whose movements were as unceasing as they were agitated and possessed of ill-intent.
Her happiness at the day’s events charged her with even more energy than usual, prompting her to plunge her sharp fingers into the dough and knead it with jabbing thrusts of her arms. She yanked her fingers out and rubbed her hands together. Dough fell from her fingers in wormy pieces.
Earlier that day, the story of Adam Green had ignited a bonfire of lovely gossip in the General Store, breathing life into what for Wandabella was turning out to be a weak gossip season. It was her routine to stand behind the counter all day, surrounded by a coterie of friends, orchestrating the conversation. The group, composed from the sliver of Arcadian society that didn’t need to work for a living, used its abundant free time to discourse about the bad fortunes of others. It was always a challenge to dig up suitable targets in a land where fortunes were almost always good, and where even the worst habits—such as those of Charlie Glump, the town drunk—were not really so bad. It was always a jewel to come across an act of noncomformity so outlandish that it required no embellishment to make it look scandalous. Adam Green’s head-in-the-box story was the most gossip-worthy news she’d encountered since Mary Lena and her talking mice, or the deaths of Adam’s parents.
It was all connected. Just thinking about it prompted Wandabella to tap the blades of her hands in a little improvised syncopation on the bread dough. Adam Green. For seven years ago, after the wicked behavior of Adam’s parents, a movement had broken out, a group of brave citizens, led by the elder Reverend Branch, who demanded in a town meeting that something be done about Adam. If his parents were witches, the thinking went, so was Adam, because these things were passed on through the blood. Wandabella had been passionate about joining the reverend’s group, but at that moment in history she was abruptly drawn up into The Great Dream. That became such a distraction that she didn’t commit herself sufficiently to the social and physical destruction of Adam Green, didn’t strike while the iron was hot. Then former mayor, Increase Gladford, had stepped in and defended Adam, and the movement to burn Adam at the stake for witchcraft went to hell.
Afterwards, it became unfashionable to talk badly of Adam. Wandabella kept the fire burning as best she could in the gossip sessions she conducted assiduously in the General Store, but it wasn’t the same, because everyone knew that Adam had been publicly vindicated, and most people, even those who had howled for his blood, felt in retrospect that he’d been treated to some degree unfairly. So Wandabella had largely held her tongue about Adam Green for the past seven years. She instead indulged in mean-spirited gossip about others, and in The Great Dream. It was still a problem, The Dream, because she needed to keep it a secret. She had never mentioned it to her husband or to her daughter Hildegard or to the gossipy gaggle of girls who stopped by her shop every day. If she had, she knew that the community might start to think that she was a witch.
A zig-zag grin opened on Wandabella’s face. She sank her nails into the dough and twisted them around. With this meeting in the morning, she was being given another chance to gossip Adam Green to death!
Not only that, but Wandabella had been asked to host the important meeting. The most influential people would be there, the upper crust of Arcadian society. The invitation reinforced Wandabella’s notion, her hopeful notion, her desperate notion, that she too was an influential person, that she stood out from the common herd. Wandabella suffered fits of anxiety over the suspicion that people, especially in the populous northlands, those hordes of smelly peasants who did manual labor on the Grange, those ill-bred yahoos, those pigs, thought of themselves as superior to her and were laughing behind her back because of the new line of clothing she’d designed and was trying to sell in the store.
She squished some dough between two fingers, sniffed it, and winced. Since the most connected people in the land would be at the meeting tomorrow, it was a chance for her not only to destroy Adam Green but to impress them with her superior skills at cooking and her cultivated sense of fashion.
The lady’s garments that Wandabella had designed sold well among the small clique of friends who loitered at the store, but hadn’t caught on with the far more numerous farm wives. Wandabella Shrenker was fond of birds and flowers, and she decorated her sartorial creations with enormous, wildly colored fakeries of both. At the meeting, she planned to model some of the clothing and dazzle Mayor Gladford.
William Gladford! Now there was a man! Those keen brown eyes! That handsome white beard! That manly protruding belly! If only he weren’t married. Then again, in regards to her fashion line, his being married was precisely why he was valuable. After he was dazzled by her clothing, he would mention them to his wife, who was friendly with many of the lower farm women and could inspire them to buy her clothes. And he would certainly be entranced by her baking skills, and mention that to her wife too, and she would encourage more customers to come to her shop and buy her clothes and her bread. That would destroy that haughty Virginia across the street! That would allow her to add more floors to her building! That…was all part of The Great Dream.
Wandabella wiped spittle that was dripping from her lips. Then she spasmed at a movement by the window. She narrowed her eyes. There. On the sill. A mouse.
It was gazing up at her, its whiskers twitching.
She snatched a cleaver from a hook on the wall and brought it down on the creature. In the nick of time, the small animal darted out of the way. By the time she pulled the cleaver out of the wood, the creature had disappeared. Wandabella pouted and looked out the window. Across the way was the Broke Bakery, the foul edifice subsidized by her brother and harboring that Virginia Baker, that horrible girl who everyone found so enchanting and whose disgusting bread everyone thought was so delicious.
Broke Bakery. Her goddamned brother, Obadiah Broke, he was the one that financed the construction of that unnaturally tall building and tricked that ugly girl and her empty-headed father Hugh to move in and start baking the bread that destroyed Wandabella’s monopoly on baked goods and humiliated her in front of the town. In Wandabella’s opinion, her brother deserved every bit of the ostracizing he got because of his deformities, his hairless and wrinkled body, his monstrous fish face. Served him right for playing around with chemicals and for making her look so bad. Obadiah would be at the meeting tomorrow, Wandabella realized with a twinge. She hadn’t spoken to her brother since he’d opened the bakery almost seven years ago.
She laughed nervously and swatted at a phantom insect on her check. She started pummeling the dough. It was a tough one this time, a grey-green mass of compressed wheat, water, salt, flour and baking powder that was already strong enough to patch wall-cracks. She had added extra baking power because at first the dough had slipped from the dough-bag queerly, wobbly as a pudding, then split straight in half, as though an invisible, knife-wielding hand had cut it in two.
Wandabella ground the knuckles of both hands into the dough. The substance only gave an inch.
There it was again. That mouse. It was in the same place on the windowsill. Wandabella leapt to the window, grabbed the mouse with her left hand while lifting the cleaver with her right. She threw the animal on top of the dough and chopped it in half.
The legs on both halves twitched a few seconds, running nowhere, then the portions collapsed on their sides. The mouse stretched its front paws toward the candlelight.
Wandabella reached out with the cleaver and touched the head lightly. She raised the cleaver again and slammed it into the mouse. It caught the back section, chopping it in half. “Three,” she whispered. She brought the cleaver down again, again, a dozen more times, converting the animal into a splash of red and brown nuggets. She pulled down a butcher knife from its hook on the wall and minced the mouse even finer, then brought out a potato hammer and ploughed the body through the dough. When she stopped, gasping for breath, the material had softened to a point where she could separate it into balls and bake them.
(Excerpt from The Language of Bears, priced at 99 cents on Amazon for one more day)