Cake

“Now, quieten down children. I said quieten down! Ally, didn’t you hear what I said? Sshhh!” The teacher turned to the museum guide and said, “Sorry about this, they’re usually much better behaved.”

“Not to worry,” said the guide. “It’s understandable.” She turned to the children. “Children? Children! Thank you. I’m going to tell you a little story. It won’t take too long. I think you’ll like it. And then you’ll get your cake.”

“Cake!” shouted a fat white girl.

“Cake!” repeated her friends.

“Yes, I promise. But first you must listen. Who has heard of Azir?” Most of their hands went up. “Good! Well Azir woke up one morning wanting some cake. He wanted something sweet and eggy that melted in his mouth, with strawberry jam in the middle, and chocolate icing on top…”

The fat white girl interrupted. “And cream in the middle, Miss?”

“Yes, child – and cream in the middle. Azir licked his lips. But before he could have any cake, what must he do?”

There were several answers, including, “Bake it”, “Mix it”, and “Order it”, before she got the one she was looking for: “Brush his teeth.”

“Yes, brush his teeth. Azir always brushed them as soon as he woke up. That’s why his teeth shone like pearls.”

“Do you brush your teeth?” asked one of the children.

“Yes I do, I have a special way.” She gave her a big smile, and said, “He didn’t have to bake the cake himself because he was from the Rulers. He was Lord of this estate and had lots of servants.”

“How big is this house, Miss?” asked the fat white girl. Her enthusiasm was to be expected.

“Well, the house is 12,000 square feet, and the estate is 12,000 acres. Azir liked things to match. He also had 12, 000 servants – the rule was one servant per acre. But only a few served in the house. A buttery-baked smell filled the air. He put on his morning clothes and went down from the Tower into the hall, and peered into the kitchen. The servants seemed busy and happy. They were sharing cake. But as soon as Azir entered, they hid it away in their aprons.

“Azir said, ‘Good morning everyone.’

“‘Good morning, Master,’ they replied.

“‘You seem very busy,’ Azir said casually.

“The Chief Servant stepped forward and bowed. ‘Yes Master. We are busy because we are finishing work early today. It is our festival of Zolly.’

“Azir became conscious that he was delaying them. As soon as he had entered the kitchen, they had all lined up and work had stopped entirely. ‘Well, I’d better let you get on with it then. Happy Zolly.’ It was only when Azir returned to the hall that he realized he’d forgotten to ask for cake.

“Cake!” said the fat white girl. The guide smiled and continued.

“He was wondering whether to return to the kitchen, when Mitra rushed in. She had a duster in one hand and a net in the other. When she saw him she froze, and looked down immediately. ‘Sorry Master,’ she said. ‘I thought you were still in the Tower. I didn’t know you were here. Please excuse me.’

“Azir had never liked this formality, but the castes were regulated, and Master-Servant relationships were set. Here was a woman who had raised him from childhood, who wasn’t allowed to speak to him unless spoken to. How ludicrous!

“‘It’s really no problem, Mitra. You weren’t in the kitchen just now, so I’ll wish you Happy Zolly.’

“‘Thank you Master.’

“‘Listen Mitra, could you get me some cake?’

“‘Master , Cake?’ she said.

A child raised her hand. “What kind of cake was it?” she asked.

“It was a cherry-fruit cake with golden raisins,” said the guide, and continued. “Azir said, ‘They were baking it this morning. I smelled it when I woke up in the Tower.”

“She looked uneasy, but said, ‘Of course Master, I will bring it.’

“‘What’s wrong Mitra? You seem uncomfortable with my request.’

“‘The cake was not on today’s menu. The cooks used some old flour to make it. It’s a Zolly tradition.’ She stopped and looked up. ‘And Master, you can’t eat it. We didn’t use the cook machines. It was made by hand.’

“‘Don’t be silly! Bring me some cake immediately!”’Azir hoped that he’d got the tone right – friendly not bossy.

“He expected her to return quickly, but she took forever. He used the time to enjoy the view through the huge windows of the hall. Beyond the misty fields and forests was Mt. Alba, its wide base rising to a sharp peak. A fitting symbol, it was said, for human society.

“Mitra entered the hall, her face flushed. Azir saw that her discomfort had increased. She held a silver tray with a covered plate. ‘Here, near the window, Master?’ she said.

“‘Yes thank you Mitra. Now take off the cover.’

“She did so, wobbling slightly. Reflected in the window, Azir saw kitchen staff peering into the hall. He said, ‘Now break a piece off for me.’ She reached for the knife. ‘No, with your hands.’

“Her body shuddered. ‘Master I cannot. It is forbidden.’

“‘But isn’t that the tradition? To feed people with your hands, as Zolly once did?’

“‘Master, yes it is. But only between ourselves. Not between Servant and Master.’ She held the knife in the air, not knowing what to do with it now.

“‘Do you not wish to follow the example of Zolly?’ he said.

“‘Master I do. But I am not as strong as She.’

“‘Well I think it’s time to update that tradition. Mitra, feed me with your hands.’

“‘Master I am an old woman now, and don’t have too long to live. But I value the years I still have left. I am not sure that I could spend them as Zolly did. But you are my Master. Your wish is my command.’  She broke off some cake and fed Azir, with tears rolling down her cheeks.

“Azir hugged her and said, ‘Mitra, in my home, your hands and your heart will be honoured always. As will those of all others.’ Then he called in all of the white-skinned servants and fed each of them cake with his brown hands.

“So that, children, is what happened here in this room. You listened well, thank you. It’s time for your cake now.” The teacher cut the cake into slices. Then the children broke off pieces of cherry-fruit cake with golden raisins, and fed each other beneath a bust to Azir, and a gleaming plaque saying, “Who shares cake shares all”.

The children also fed the guide. She was unable to feed herself for she had no hands. The story of Azir feeding Mitra had been sweetened for public consumption. The guide was Mitra’s daughter, and had loved Azir. For this she had been punished in the traditional way, as had her mother for touching Azir, as had Zolly for preaching such acts long before. None of these mothers had ever held their children. It had been a long, hard, bitter struggle to change the old ways.

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