I measured ingredients while I listened with patience to Hyacinth's giddy recounting of a dream she had. One and a quarter cups of whole wheat flour…
"I dreamed that Cynthia's head ballooned to twice its normal size, and I tied a string to it and floated around campus. Are you listening, Ella?"
One half cup of stone-ground cornmeal… Ms. Littleton, the Headmistress, loves these when they've got just the slightest texture. I was standing in the school's enormous brick-floored kitchen at an island in the center, covered in flour. A fire roared in the cavernous fireplace behind me. At my absent nod, the girl continued.
"So, there we were – me and Cynthia Quaddlebaum – floating thirty feet in the air and suddenly, we were swarmed by a flock of blackbirds made entirely of licorice." Hyacinth paused for a moment in her story, and licked her lips. "So, I started kicking my legs, trying to get closer to the birds because I do love black licorice, and every time I'd get close enough to almost grab it, Cynthia would unmake them and they'd turn back into real birds." The young girl grimaced slightly. "I kept getting a mouthful of feathers. The worst part of it was that when I woke up this morning, I'd chewed a hole into my down comforter. Feathers everywhere, Ella. Everywhere!"
I choked slightly on my laughter. I kept my back to Hyacinth so she wouldn't be embarrassed. Two teaspoons of sugar, one of salt, one of baking powder, and a pinch of baking soda. Mix well. I started cutting in one-quarter cup of butter with a pastry cutter.
"Cynthia does have a particularly nasty Talent, dear. I'm sure she'd have done something similar if such a thing were to happen in real life. Remember when she melted Mrs. Avignon's nose job at Genevieve's Coming of Age party?" I asked, working the pastry cutter vigorously but with a light hand to mix the butter into the dry ingredients. Buttermilk biscuits are supposed to be fluffy and sweet, and none are better than mine. I smiled at the dough forming in my hands, and started humming softly as I poured in the cup of buttermilk and continued mixing.
"Well, yes." Hyacinth thought for a moment. "Whichever priest decided to gift her with such a malevolent Talent should be beaten with sticks… or even better, be made to live with her for as long as we have."
"Hyacinth, that's enough. Wishing ill upon the clergy is in poor taste. And it didn't have to be malevolent. That is merely Cynthia's application of it. Unmaking other people's Talents could be quite useful in the right situations. For example, remember when you accidentally sneezed polka dots onto your favorite pink skirt? She could have salvaged it if she'd been of a kinder disposition."
The girl's lips turned down. "I loved that skirt." She chewed her bottom lip ferociously. "You know, since then, I haven't had the heart to buy anything that isn't already green. Stupid Talent." She flushed painfully and examined her hands.
I mixed until the dry ingredients were just wetted, and quickly scooped it into a muffin tin. Usually, biscuits are done on a flat pan, but I put mine in a muffin tin so that they grow tall and fluffy instead of wide and dry. Again, I smiled, and sent a small surge of Talent towards the tin.
"Be tender. Be sweet. Be nourishing," I admonished, shaking my finger lightly. The dough puffed up as if aware of its duty to fill hungry girls' bellies, and I nodded encouragingly. Behind me, I heard Hyacinth sniffle, and I sighed and pushed the tray into the oven and shut the door before she lost control and ruined my biscuits.
"It's just not fair!" she wailed. Her hands covered her eyes, trying to hold in the Talent that threatened to break free. I saw a quick flash break through the pointer and middle finger of her right hand, and my kitchen apron was covered in fat grass green polka dots. It was actually rather fetching. "Everyone else has a Talent that's useful. I not only have one that's pointless, I can't control the darn thing!" she sobbed.
"Language," I admonished in a kind tone. I wiped the flour from my hands onto my pretty new apron, and sat down next to her at the long oak table where the servants ate their meals. I crossed my jean-clad legs, and pulled out my ponytail. My long black hair fell onto my shoulders and down my back. The kitchen was terribly hot, and it felt wonderful to have it loose. I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and tucked her in close to me.
"Now then, I'll hear none of that talk, Miss. It's not the Talent, but what's done with it that makes you special. Look at my apron! I had a boring old white one until you came along and look how pretty it is now! I think I've never had something so fine. So, stop your belly-aching, and dry your eyes." I sent a surge of comfort towards her, and was gratified to see her sit up. I was a little less gratified when she wiped her nose on my apron, but it's one of the downsides of my Talent. The students often become a little too comfortable with me.
The door opened from the parlor, and Cynthia Quaddlebaum pranced into the room. "Don't mind me," she sang. "Just here for a little snack before tea!" With her bony, over-manicured hands she plucked an apple from a basket on the table. She bit into it with every appearance of enjoyment. Her eyelids fluttered closed, and her mouth formed a moue of pleasure. "Delicious. I swear, Ella. What you do with your talent of Homelyness is just magic!"
Hyacinth piped up. "Oh, Cynthia dear. I don't think you realize what you've said. Her talent is Homeyness, not…"
"Hy, did you know you have a huge smudge of flour on your cheek?" Her tone dropped in a conspiratorial fashion and she put a hand to the side of her mouth so that I couldn't see her lips. "It's what I warned you would happen if you persisted in hanging out with the servants!" she murmured just loud enough for me to hear her.
"Cynthia, did you know that you have a huge pimple on the tip of your nose? It's what I warned you would happen if you persisted in your lack of hygiene," an acerbic voice said from behind me. The smile dropped from Cynthia's face and she flushed a furious red. She glared at the speaker before turning on her heel and stomping out to the parlor.
I turned with a smile to see Elizabeth Brownwell entering the kitchen, her arms wrapped around a large object covered with a cloth.
"What on earth are you carrying?" I asked, curious.
She grinned, pushing a lock of hair out of her face. "Ms. Littleton told me that I should work on applications of my Talent. She suggested art since it's ladylike." Elizabeth placed her hands on the table and made a rude noise. "As if I'm not already ladylike! I thought I'd give it a try, and anyway, I had this horrid crystal vase my Aunt Ninian sent me that I was never going to display. So, with judicious application of my Talent, I have reshaped it. I have made it better! Stronger! More meaningful! Behold my masterpiece!"
Elizabeth pulled the cloth off of the sculpture, and I gasped.
"Oh, it's very well done. I can tell just who it's supposed to be, dear." I cleared my throat. "However, as impressively endowed as you have made her, I think Ms. Littleton would prefer not to display a naked sculpture of herself as a rearing centaur."
The girl's mouth turned down slightly. "You think it's too much?"
"Maybe just a touch. I'd at least mold a shirt on her before gifting her with your fabulous artwork. Now, shoo. Dinner isn't going to prepare itself."
Sixteen girls sat clumped around two dining tables. Six teachers and Ms. Littleton sat around another. All were hungry and waiting expectantly for me to bring out dinner. This was my favorite part of the day because I could see my Talent at work – the children's eyes glowing, the flushed cheeks, the silence at the tables as they let themselves be wrapped in warm memories of family dinners.
I brought out lovely platters heaped with moist turkey – light and dark meat, and homemade gravy as smooth as silk and made aromatic with rosemary. The turkey had been baked with apples and cinnamon stuffed in the gullet, and was just as mouth-watering as I could make it. Behind me streamed Marta the Maid and Rodney the Second Assistant Footman in a triumphal procession of garlic green beans sautéed with olive oil and tossed with almonds, and my fluffy homemade buttermilk biscuits, and mashed potatoes drenched in sweet cream butter.
The room was totally silent except for the muted clink of sterling flatware on porcelain. I saw Hyacinth close her eyes as a biscuit dissolved in her mouth. Jennafleur sighed in contentment around a mouthful of turkey. I circled my heart with my forefinger in memory of God's Talent–-Love-–and promised myself that I would light a candle at the church later in thankfulness for my Gift.
Once the plates were pushed away, and the girls began slouching almost imperceptibly in their seats, faces soft and relaxed, I brought out dessert–-a lovely fruit tart with a buttery crust covered by a layer of fine chocolate and Devonshire cream. It was topped with fresh blackberries and strawberries. Interest sparked in their eyes, and they sat forward. I felt like a maestro conducting an orchestra – the juicy fruit eliciting a sweet trill of anticipation, the thick cream drawing forth a soft bass thrum of contentment. Their voices were hushed as they clenched their napkins in their laps, and behind them a merry hearth fire crackled in the grate.
I set down the tart at the main table so that Marta could cut it and serve the girls their dessert. I tucked a loose strand of hair back into my bonnet and stepped back as Ms. Littleton cleared her throat at the head table. The girls turned to look at her dreamily, still lost in the magic of dessert.
"Ladies! We've received an invitation to a ball." The Headmistress of the school was a soft-spoken woman of seventy with steel gray hair. Her posture was ramrod straight, harkening back to an era of whalebone corsets and calling cards. Her hands moved as gracefully as sparrows as they opened and lifted into the air to draw the students' attention. "The occasion is to honor the return of Mr. and Mrs. Huffington's son Edward from England and all single females 16 or above are invited." Immediately an excited whisper traveled from table to table, interspersed with a good bit of grumbling from those girls too young to attend.
The wording of the invitation bemused me. Technically, if I wanted to, and I wasn't saying I did, I could attend the dance. My mouth quirked downwards as I thought. I could attend if I could afford to buy a dress in which I wouldn't be embarrassed, and if I could hire a car to take me. Which of course meant I wouldn't be going anywhere. I poked at the calluses on my hand, and ran my fingertip over the scar I received from baking Hyacinth a birthday cake from last year. It was still vivid pink and shiny and numb. I looked up to find Cynthia watching me through narrowed eyes. I had grabbed the hot cake pan in order to remove it from a flare of Cynthia's Talent. It was a lemon cake with fondant icing, and it was delicious. My mouth tipped up slightly.
"Ms. Littleton?" Cynthia asked. "Does it really mean every girl over sixteen? Surely it doesn't mean servants." Her eyes flicked towards me, leaving no doubt in anyone's mind to whom she was referring.
The headmistress's eyes were cool. "This year we have eight girls sixteen or older, and I could use all the help I can get." She turned towards me, the edges of her mouth curling upwards almost imperceptibly. "Ella, can I prevail upon you to come to the dance and help me to chaperone? Provided you can find a dress in time."
"Yes, ma'am," I said demurely, and bobbed a curtsey.
Cynthia stared at me malevolently.
I looked at the small pile of coins in my hand and sighed. It wasn't going to be enough to buy a dress. I cocked my head. Maybe I didn't have enough for a dress, but I did have a plain white gown that had been my mother's. If I took on extra work I could save enough money to buy ribbons and lace to enhance it so that while I wouldn't shame myself at the Huffington mansion. I bit my lip. I wouldn't have enough for shoes. My Sunday slippers would have to do. They were old and worn, but with just a week before the dance, I had no time to try for anything more fashionable.
Using some of the smaller coins, I purchased flour and sugar and yeast and cream and butter and bittersweet chocolate. I set to work in the kitchen. I whispered to my ingredients, melting the butter, soaking the yeast in water, forming a tender dough. I sang to it while it cooled in the refrigerator developing its mouth-watering flavor. Telling it of the mysteries of good food, I cut the dough into small squares and folded the chocolate inside, leaving them seam side down. I covered them with a kitchen cloth, and hushed them and told them to rest. As I shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhed them, they rose, dreaming of light and air. Finally, I put them in the oven. I jumped as a door slammed behind me.
"Whatever do you think you are doing, Ella! How dare you steal ingredients from Ms. Littleton!" Cynthia's shrill voice cut across my reverie. Alarmed, I looked up, and put my finger to my lips silently begging her not to cause my pain au chocolat to fizzle and fall. Her face turned red like a cherry, and I knew she was pulling her Talent together to wreak havoc upon my innocent dessert. "You think you are so special, Ella," she hissed. "But you are nothing. Less than nothing!"
"I bought those ingredients myself, Cynthia," I whispered, desperately trying to salvage what I could. She sneered, and her finger jolted out towards the oven. An instant later, I was by the oven, absorbing most of the Talent blast, and weaving homeyness back into my pastries, hoping they would survive the fight.
I felt my clothes begin to lose shape as the Talent-enforced stitching pulled out. The colorful polka dots that Hyacinth had accidentally bestowed upon me ran in ugly streaks down my apron, and my servant's cap fell into tattered pieces on the floor. Tears of effort poured down my cheeks.
I was losing. I could feel it. My Talent was nearly exhausted, having been in constant use for the last four hours, and Cynthia was fresh. Slowly my will began caving to hers, and I saw a look of stupid triumph curl her thin lips. The door from the parlor opened.
"Whatever is going on here?" And just like that, the barrage stopped because it was Ms. Littleton herself who had come through the door. I collapsed onto the floor wearing nothing but my unmentionables and the tatters of my uniform and panted for breath. "Cynthia? Ella? I'd like an explanation immediately." Her voice was sharp but bewildered, taking in my state of dishabille and the shambles that was normally my orderly kitchen. I shook my head, still unable to speak.
"I caught Ella stealing, Ms. Littleton! She admitted that she was planning on selling her pastries for money instead of serving them here. Thieving servants would never be tolerated in my parents' household." Cynthia's arms were crossed in front of her, and her voice was triumphant but clipped. I smiled slightly when I saw that she too was panting from exertion.
Slowly I pushed myself to my feet. Ms. Littleton looked at me, her sharp face was softened by a kind expression, and I relaxed. "It's true that I was planning on selling them, ma'am, but I bought the ingredients myself. I found I didn't have enough money to buy a dress fit for a dance at the Huffington's. But I had enough for a little flour, butter, and chocolate, and I thought I'd sell some homemade pastries at Miss Rose's Bakery to earn enough to add some frills and embellishments to one of my mother's old dresses."
"That's very enterprising of you, dear – a fine use of your Talent."
"But, Ms. Littleton! Surely you aren't going to believe her – "
"That will be all, Cynthia. It's clearly a misunderstanding." Her voice was calm, but her eyes were hard, and Cynthia, knowing the battle was lost, turned to me.
"I'm ever so sorry, Ella. It was wrong of me to jump to conclusions. I can only hope that your pastries are all right." She was speaking through bared teeth. I nodded to her, and clutched the remains of my dress around me tighter, refusing to meet Cynthia's eyes. She turned and walked up the servants' steps towards her bedroom.
"Why don't you check, dear?" Ms. Littleton's hazel eyes were soft, and she put a hand on my shoulder. I turned to the oven, and pulled an oven mitt over my hand. The door opened with a creak, and I gasped. The first platter I pulled out had shriveled into sullen rocks of butter and chocolate. Fine charred marks covered their surface. I tried to blow some life into them, but they refused to become more than muddy blobs of tooth decay.
The second tray looked just as I had imagined them. The pains au chocolat were a beautiful golden color, and the chocolate looked decadent. I pulled them out of the oven, inhaling their life-restoring scent.
I straightened, and put the tray on the table next to its brother. "So, twelve pastries are gone to waste. Twelve are saleable." I pressed the heel of my hand into my eye and sighed.
"I'll pack these up for you so you can sell them while they are still warm. Run upstairs and change your clothes; you're still in your skivvies. While you're gone, I'll have Marta put your uniform back together. She's Talented with a needle." Ms. Littleton patted me awkwardly on the shoulder, and grateful, I pressed my cheek to her hand. She smiled gently. "Go, child. Don't make me wait here with your dessert or I'll eat them all myself."