Ming Zhao looked up and saw a figure approach the Bird House, and from her particular shape and the distinct sway of her walk he recognized her at once.
Madame Alouette lumbered toward the Bird House with the short happy steps of a baker devoted to her work.
The baker stopped at a park bench close to the Bird House, plopped down and tried to catch her breath. She looked up at the sky. The unstoppable morning had arrived.
Sunup and sunrise, she thought.
First light and dawn.
Time to bake cakes.
Zhao waited a moment for Madame Alouette to stand. When she didn’t, he got up and walked over to her.
“Good morning, Madame Alouette,” said Zhao. “I have a question. Do you feel a change in the air this morning?”
“A change?” said Madame Alouette, still breathing heavily. “Some slight alteration in the day? A modification, or variation? Let me check.”
Madame Alouette put on a thoughtful expression and looked all around.
“Nope,” she said. “No, nada, uh-uh.”
“Oh,” said Zhao. He thought about this. “Are you sure?”
“Yep,” said Madame Alouette. “Yes, yup, uh-huh.”
“One hundred percent sure?”
Madame Alouette put on her thoughtful expression again.
“Never mind,” said Zhao.
One hundred percent, thought Madame Alouette. That is a lot. Can anyone ever possibly be one hundred percent sure of anything at all? One hundred sounds far-fetched. It sounds unattainable and unreasonable. It sounds like too much.
She stood and reached down and took Zhao’s hand, and together they walked slowly to the Majestic Teahouse of Many Delights.
As they entered the Teahouse, Madame Alouette noticed a whispering, wandering breeze drift across the room. She followed the breeze and saw the window by Harold’s cage stood open. A little sparrow sat in the window with her eyes shut tight.
Harold looked down at the sparrow.
“You’re not really asleep, are you?” he said.
Ella shook her head. She did not open her eyes.
I’m hungry, he thought.
Madame Alouette looked around the room.
Something had happened.
One hundred percent, she thought. I don’t even think you can measure these things with numbers. But now I am definitely not one hundred percent sure.
Zhao straightened the chairs and greeted the birds and opened the rest of the windows. Madame Alouette watched him. She wanted to say: Did you see that? Did you see the open window? But if Ming Zhao didn’t notice anything, she thought, maybe there was nothing to notice.
Maybe? There was something different, though. There was a change, an alteration in the day.
I am not even fifty percent sure now, thought Madame Alouette.
Zhao went through his morning routine without noticing the chairs he straightened and the birds he greeted. He thought instead about the dream he had dreamed earlier that morning. What was that strange, dark wind?
Zhao turned to Madame Alouette.
“Are you sure you don’t feel a change in the air?” he said.
“Only possibly,” said Madame Alouette. “Perhaps? Maybe.”
“Does that mean you don’t?”
“Hold on,” said Zhao. “Then you do?”
“Feel a change,” said Zhao. “An alteration.”
Madame Alouette nodded.
“Oh,” said Zhao.
They stood and looked around the room without speaking. Harold turned on his perch and grumbled.
“I’m still hungry,” he muttered.
“It’s the window,” said Zhao. “The window by Harold.”
“That’s it,” said Madame Alouette. “I saw it right away, felt the breeze waft and wander.”
“It’s off the latch, unfastened and open wide.”
Zhao frowned. “Is this a bad change or a good change?”
Madame Alouette looked toward the kitchen, and back at Zhao. They walked to the kitchen door and pushed it open.
Madame Alouette gasped and covered her mouth.
“This is a bad change,” said Zhao.
In the kitchen they found another window open, and the entire room turned upside-down and topsy-turvy. Flour bins, sugar bowls, and various containers lay tipped on their sides. Packages had fallen from their shelves and spilled where they landed. Shards of teapots and teacups scattered the floor. Wooden spoons and steel utensils rested in random places. Honey dripped from an overturned jar and spread in a slow, sticky pool across the floor.
“A housebreaker!” said Madame Alouette. “We’ve had a cat-burglar, a plunderer, a thief!”
“A thief?” said Zhao. “What is there to take?”
“All our property, our paraphernalia and accoutrements!” said Madame Alouette. “Our odds and ends and bits and bobs and stuff and things and whatsits.”
“I didn’t think we had anything worth stealing,” said Zhao.
“We don’t!” said Madame Alouette.
She looked at the wreckage.
“Where’s the book?” she asked.
At the Bird House, the young Ming Zhao served one hundred and fifty-six varieties of tea. Some were as delicate and bright as the dew that hangs from spiderwebs. Others were as fresh as newly mown fields, or as playful as monkeys, or as dark and smoky as a blacksmith’s hearth.
Zhao also served cakes: tiny, kaleidoscopic cakes, presented on ornamental plates as if they were the jewels of a maharaja. No one could ever agree on exactly what the cakes tasted like. The flavors were always right there on the tip of the tongue, but they blended, and shifted, disguised themselves and got turned around, and in the end became something both faraway and familiar at the same time.
Because of the way Zhao and Madame Alouette crafted their cakes, two separate bites often tasted like two different things entirely. The first bite might taste of autumn fruits—the kinds that hang on branches almost out of reach. The second bite could taste of the bright snap of spring clover, or the long, tangled aromas of deep jungle flowers, or the small celebrations of tiny peppermint explosions.
Those who ate Zhao’s cakes also found that they conjured memories—memories previously lost, or misplaced, or hidden away.
When Zhao’s mother tasted the cake she took from the large plate, all she could say was a single word in a small voice:
Her husband took a bite, chewed slowly, and stopped.
He looked at his wife, and from her distant gaze he knew that the same wave of memory that swept over him had also washed over her. It was a memory of a summer long ago, back when they were two small people.
“We were different then,” said his mother.
“We were different then,” repeated his father.
“A girl and boy who wandered,” said his mother. “We walked and wandered through shadowed groves and searched for adventure.”
“We found adventure,” said his father. “I remember a field of lilies, taller than us. As we slipped between them, they swung back and we vanished without a trace. No villains could pursue us. We founded kingdoms in meadows and ate wild berries that stained our lips violet. We promised we would live there forever.”
“We climbed a mountain because we knew that from its peak we would be able to see the entire world,” said his mother. “For some reason, we never reached the top.”
“But what exactly did we want to see from up there?” said his father. “It must have been awfully important to want to climb so high.”
“I’m not sure it was important,” said his mother.
“But what did we need?”
“I don’t think we needed anything,” she said. “I don’t think the important things were as important then. Maybe they weren’t important at all.”
“Do you think our meadows and kingdoms are still there?” said his father. “I want to go back. Right now. Right away.”
“I don’t know,” said his mother. “I don’t know if we can. Maybe it’s too late for us.”
“We could try,” said his father. “It’s not impossible.”
They ate their cakes and listened to the canary sing. The bird flew from the cage and landed on Zhao’s shoulder.
His mother turned to Zhao.
“Maybe we shouldn’t mention this to your uncle,” she said. “After all, you are only a boy. Maybe we don’t need to speak of this again.”
Ming Zhao bowed low.
She licked her fingers and looked at the empty plate.
“But maybe you could bake your uncle a cake?” she said.
“Maybe,” said Zhao.
Because of their memory-conjuring qualities, and even though the cakes were small, most people found they never wanted more than one per visit. Because there were so many varieties, many people had never eaten the same kind of cake twice. And because all of the recipes for the cakes were kept in one place and one place only, Ming Zhao and Madame Alouette knew the book containing their catalogue of recipes was gone. An empty space gaped on the shelf where it used to stand.
The small, blue-covered book had disappeared.
Just in case they were mistaken, they began a three step search.
“Step one,” said Zhao, as they searched in all the places where it might possibly be.
“Step two,” said Madame Alouette, as they searched in all the other places where it probably wouldn’t be.
“Step three,” they said together, as they searched in the few remaining places where it absolutely couldn’t be.
It wasn’t there either.
“We weren’t mistaken,” said Zhao, when they finished looking in the few places where the book absolutely couldn’t be. “It really is gone.”
“Gone,” said Madame Alouette. “Unavailable and departed.”
Zhao picked up a broken teapot from the floor and looked inside it. The book wasn’t there.
“Do you remember the recipes?” asked Madame Alouette. “Do you recall the many directions and instructions?”
“There are over five hundred recipes,” said Zhao. “I remember some.”
Madame Alouette sighed. “I remember some as well. A few. A short supply. A handful.”
“Enough for today?”
Zhao placed the broken teapot on a table. “I think the change has arrived,” he said. “Last night I had a curious dream. I dreamed that all the windows burst open and a strange dark wind flew into my house. It flew through the rooms, picked up my belongings, and carried them all outside—even the bed from under me. It arranged them in little rows, and teetering stacks, and funny combinations. Then a bell began to ring, and everything collapsed and tumbled into a pile and the dark wind vanished and it was quiet again.”
Madame Alouette leaned over and picked up an apron from the floor.
“I suppose it was just a dream,” said Zhao. “I’ll talk to the police, although I don’t know what they can do. Maybe it will work out somehow. Today feels like the sort of day when everything could happen.”
Madame Alouette put on her apron and tied back her hair.
“Let me know when it does,” she said. “I’ll be making cakes.”
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© 2018 Colin Lewis · Brought to you by Unlikely Objects