Just Desserts —Elaine Bonow
Once Upon a Time, never happens here in the real world because everything we’re sure of has already happened in the past. I have to sit ponder the meaning of real verses fantasy after all that’s happened to me so far. Sitting here now at my Antique Bookstore, the Unicorn & Dragon, Once Upon a Time has become mythical apparition. This has to be a dream.
Just two days ago. I was sitting here just like I am now. My best picker, Sam who specializes in only the best antiques called right at ten this morning. “Jerad, old man, I found the best sale today. My God you’ll have to see this to believe it. It looks to be a fabulous book really dusty and old. I’ll bring it over now.”
The special book was encased in an old cardboard box wrapped in a thick layer of old newspaper. When I unwrapped the final layer I could see that this was no ordinary book. It was very small about six by nine inches, not very thick, much like the size of a modern paperback. The ancient leather binding was embossed with swells and curlicues and illustrated with fanciful golden gothic letters.
I opened the cover of the book. The smell of old book assailed my well-attuned nose. My nose was actually famous for being able to smell the origins and provenance of antique items. This book, was evading my usual means of detection. I could tell it was a real antique but I couldn’t put my finger, no excuse me, my nose on it.
The title page was in English. I didn’t need any super powers to figure that out even though the lettering was fanciful and twisted. The title read, “Just Desserts,” by Anonymous. There wasn’t a publisher or a date anywhere on the front page but that’s not unusual for such an unusual book. It was probably a one-of-a-kind handmade book.
I turned the first page. There was a well-drawn picture of a young boy, wistful of face seated at a sunlit table. His eyes reflected a steaming slice of what appeared to be apple pie. He looked so happy with his fork raised in anticipation of the first bite.
The scene was so real; I could swear I could smell the cinnamon, sugar and delicious baked apples.
“Mama, mama. What have you cooked up today?”
“Ah Peregrine, just a simple apple pie, and just one piece for you before the villagers comes.”
I studied the illustration. It was remarkable in the fine detail and realism depicted. Not only was the actual drawing superb but the woman’s beautiful white teeth shone and sparkled in great contrast to her dark brown skin. I had never seen anything like this. The boy, her son called her mama and he was blond and fair.
“My, oh my,” I said to myself. “ This is going to be a very interesting tale. I have never seen anything like this.”
I turned the page. A procession of villagers danced across the pages, up the path leading to the cottage. They were all colorfully dressed in a mash-up of styles and colors. The faces of the people were also a mix of races, all sizes and colors. The swirling parade of colorful hats and flowing scarves jumped off the page. I swear I could hear the lively bantering of the crowd like they were alive.
I rubbed my eyes but the vision kept animating. I could hear the footfalls of the crowd crunching on the gravel pathway. I turned the page and the villagers were leaving the cottage with pies in hand, steam flowing into the clear blue sky. The smell of baked apples and butter and cinnamon and sugar filled the bookstore.
My stomach growled and a hunger overcame me. I actually drooled down the front of my sweater. I jumped up and closed the book. I rushed to the door and closed the shop. I hurried down the street to my local café. I ordered a slice of apple pie but it was dry as dust and tasteless as cardboard. I craved sugar and cinnamon and butter but was sorely disappointed. I tried to choke it down with a cup of coffee and almost cried when I couldn’t get the memory of the taste to subside.
After a fitful night trying to quiet my cravings for pie I went back to my shop. The book was where I left it. For some reason my belt felt tight. I felt like I had put on twenty pounds overnight. I studied the front of the book and the writing seemed to make a pattern I couldn’t quite make out.
The book fell open to Chapter Two and there he was, little Peregrine, sitting at the same table his head turned toward the open doorway. The scene unfolded like a movie.
“Mama, mama where is the…”
She appeared carrying a magnificent chocolate cake almost two feet tall and two feet around. The smell of deep rich chocolate permeated the bookstore and grabbed me by the back of my throat that I though for a second I was drowning in chocolate.
She put the cake down on the table and cut into it with a very large sharp knife and laid the huge slice reverently on its side filling the beautiful pink floral china plate. The cake looked so tender and chocolately and between the four layers rich thick whipped cream filling smelled like Kirshwasser. The chocolate frosting shone in the clear sunlight streaming into the room. Peregrine laughed and clapped his chubby hands together in glee.
A miasma of chocolate overwhelmed me. I thought I would pass out. As before, the parade of villagers arrived this time their faces were closer. I could see the smiles of delight and actually hear the squeals of joy they made when seeing the cakes she was bring out for them.
I stared in disbelief. I could swear I was there. Everything was so clear the chocolate smear on Peregrine’s lips, the rustle of the lemon yellow dirndl skirt of the cook. The wide full sleeves glowing white against her smooth mocha skin. The deep pockets of the rosebud pink apron bouncing joyfully as she placed plate after plate into the arms of her faithful followers.
I closed the book and rushed outside into the rain which helped wash off the smell of the dense chocolate. I had to eat cake. I drove to the best bakery in town and bought cakes and pies and cookies by the dozen but nothing tasted as good as my precious fantasy.
I could not sleep a wink and had to restrain myself from going to the shop until daybreak. I worried and pondered about the next chapter. My pants wouldn’t fit at all. I looked in the mirror and could hardly recognize myself. I looked like a ready to pop balloon.
It all could have been a dream. In fact I could still be dreaming after all I am now very fat after just two days of having the book. I must be in a fantasy world right now. Maybe the story starts, “Once upon a time there was a man who suddenly got so fat he exploded.” No that won’t do at all I have to just open the book one more time and that will be it. I waited until late afternoon.
The pattern on the cover had changed again. I can almost tell what it looks like but the book opened itself to Chapter Three. There was little Peregrine seated at the table he smiled and looked toward the open doorway.
There she was drindled in pink and green. She smiled at me. “Welcome Mr. Jerad. I’m so glad you decided to stay. Call me Shiniqua. Look what we have today for your eating enjoyment.”
I could smell the intensity of lemons stinging my eyes and nose. The cloud of meringue was magnificent. Little Peregrine clapped his hands together and cheered, “Oh boy, Lemon Meringue pie. Hooray.”
Sam stopped by the Unicorn and Dragon a few days later to get the check Jerad was giving him for that last book. The door was closed and the lights were off. “That’s odd. Jerad never closes during the high season. Jerad, Jerad where are you?”
Sam pushed the unlocked door open, went inside and found the light switch. He walked over to the desk. There on the top was the book he had sold him. The book was open and the pages showed a procession of villagers carrying huge pies. One of the happy smiling faces looked exactly like Jerad.
He slammed the book closed and stared at the ornate cover. The pattern Jerad had seen and couldn’t decipher had now turned into a face, a face with a huge gaping mouth.