The Wizard Bakery
- onAugust 2, 2016
- Vol.32 Summer 2016
- byGu Byeong-mo
- The Wizard Bakery
Provided he kept his mouth shut, people saw a man of intellect, an artisan or an expert, unpretentious yet with a certain mystery. They saw his silly paper hat and the ponytail peeking out beneath it, his face the color of finely sifted baking powder, his meticulous, graceful, efficient gestures. A baker with talent enough to keep his shop running on word-of-mouth alone without joining a franchise.
I’d always seen him that way until one day, I pointed a pair of tongs at a piece of pastry that sort of resembled a streuseltopped bun but with some questionable modifications, and asked what was in it.
“Oats, rye and—” the girl behind the counter started to explain, when a voice interrupted her.
I looked up and saw the baker standing in the kitchen doorway, just beyond the girl’s stiffening shoulders.
“Finely ground liver of a newborn baby. Three parts liver, seven parts wheat flour.”
The tongs slipped out of my hand. Clank! The metal scraped the floor. I didn’t really believe he had put liver, dried or raw, in the bun. And if it did contain liver, it would have to be from a pig, and not a newborn. (Refrain from imagining that unsettling taste.) But why was he joking about ingredients? It would only be a matter of time before the rumor would spread that the neighborhood baker was a little cuckoo. The Apartment Complex Women’s Association, with all their concern about falling real estate values, might even join forces to drive him out.
The girl swatted him on the stomach with the back of her hand and told him to stop kidding around. Of course, he was kidding. As I sighed and bent down to pick up the tongs, I spotted wafer cookies on the next shelf. He saw what I was looking at.
“Titi bird shit,” he said. “Spread ever so thinly between two wafers. Glazed with a syrup made from marinated raven eyeballs. They strike a delicate balance between sweet, bitter, and sour, rather like Ethiopian coffee…”
“Are you trying to drive all of our customers away?” The girl jabbed him in the side.
Why was he teasing me with such lame jokes? Just to see how far he would go, I pointed at something that looked like jelly candies.
“Pack of three cat tongues. Persian, Siamese, Abyssinian.”
I slammed the tongs on the countertop with a loud clank. The girl took them in the back to wash them, while the baker adjusted his hat and laughed.
“I’m not joking. I am telling you the truth because a kid like you would understand.”
Who are you calling a kid?
I looked around the bakery. The pink and yellow-checkered wallpaper looked cozy. Hanging crookedly on the wall was one of those crudely designed calendars, the kind they hand out for free at banks or churches every year. The display case, where the pastry lay in straight rows and columns, was so clean there wasn’t a single handprint in sight, and the handle gleamed gold under the overhead lamps. But overall, there was nothing fancy about the place, and in fact, it was closer to run down. Nevertheless, there were no cracks in the walls, and no streams of unidentifiable liquid trickling down the walls and stinking up the place or giving it a creepy air. It was more or less sanitary. Just your average clean and humble neighborhood bakery. The baker looked normal, too. No matter how hard I looked, there was nothing creepy about him at all, despite the things he’d said.
Stuttering, I asked him if there was anything he could recommend for a normal person to eat, and grabbed a bag of plain rolls, no sausages or cheese or anything else in it, and set it on the counter. Surely there was nothing in them besides the basic ingredients, like flour, eggs, and milk. I tried to act casual, but whether he had been joking or not, it wasn’t easy after hearing him recite those atrocious ingredients. But then, as he passed the girl on his way into the kitchen, the baker offered, unsolicited, “Instead of flour, I collected Rapunzel’s dandruff…”
I lifted my hand, stopping him before the girl could interject, and put 2,500 won in change on the counter. Assessment complete: the baker is nuts.
I opened the door and stepped outside. Suddenly, I felt as though the dingy neighborhood bakery was in the middle of a dark forest, the kind of forest that appeared in fairytales: “Once upon a time, there was wizard who lived in a deep, dark forest, and he made different pastries every single day. Each time a breeze passed through the forest, the leaves would rustle, carrying the scent of those pastries out, out, out, to the edge of the woods.”
The moment I got home, I would have to tell someone about the place and ask if someone shouldn’t do something about the crazy man in the bakery located on the first floor of the third building from the bus stop, you know, if only for the sake of the neighborhood children…
But who on earth would I tell?
Returning home and opening the front door, I would confirm that no one was there to listen to me. Wasn’t that why I bought the rolls on my way home in the first place? So I could take a mouthful of bread and a sip of milk, chew on the sentiments of a day that was neither too dry nor too soggy, then store them in an airtight container and pack them away somewhere deep inside?
They are coming after me.
The spiral cleats on the bottoms of my sneakers claw at the ground, rapidly, savagely. The smell of rubber burning from the friction hits me in the face. The shrieks, the cries, and the fury that cling so tenaciously to the cleats are kicked off in the wind.
As I race down the street, I realize I have nowhere to go. I could spend the night at an Internet cafe or something, but it all happened so quickly that I ran out without grabbing anything.
The cellphone I almost never use (since I don’t speak) is still in the bag next to my desk. Not that having the phone on me would make any difference now. Do I have any “friends” I can call? Who would have the patience to invite me in with open arms in spite of my stutter? There’s my maternal aunt and grandmother, but I haven’t heard from them in six years. I don’t know if they are alive or dead, let alone where they live. How much longer and farther can I run? I am about to run out of ideas when I see the bakery.
I gasp for air. I spot the baker past the anonymous handprints stamped on the display window.
I have become a regular at the bakery for reasons beyond my control, but if it wasn’t for my speech impediment, I would ask him:
Why is your bakery open twenty-four hours? Does anyone ever come looking for bread this late at night?
He does seem busy all the time, but he can’t be immune to the stir of emotions, between the hours. Isn’t he lonely working there day after day, all by himself? More importantly, when does he sleep?
But thanks to his twenty-four-hour bakery, I now have a place to seek refuge.
I push the door open. The store is warm from the heat of the freshly baked goods. He looks at me with his bright, brown eyes. He doesn’t have his hat on. He’s wearing his regular clothes, not his usual white baker’s uniform. Is the bakery closed for the day? Hurried and desperate, the words rush out all at once.
“Hide me,” I say without a hint of a stutter. They will never suspect I’ve hidden in a bakery just a few hundred meters from the apartment complex instead of running as far as I can.
He doesn’t ask questions, or speak, or nod. He simply opens the door to the kitchen where the sweet smell of chocolate still hangs in the air. He says nothing, but his broad shoulders usher me in.
The kitchen is identical to any other that I have ever glimpsed from across the counter at other bakeries. There are two enormous ovens. He opens the door to the slightly larger oven, pulls out the racks, and looks at me. In there? All of a sudden, I am reminded of the scene where the evil witch falls into the oven and is burned alive—the witch who bided her time fattening Hansel up, but fell headfirst into the woodstove thanks to Gretel’s cunning. I am momentarily confused as to who should be pushing whom into the oven.
But there is no time for musings. I put one foot into the stillwarm oven. Why isn’t he telling me to take my shoes off first, if this oven is for baking? As he gestures with his chin to get in, I say, “O-o-o-kay, b-b-but d-d-don’t t-t-turn the o-o-oven on.”
And so the tables turned and turned again. Muhee consistently identified the English teacher as the offender three or four times in a row, but by the time the prosecutor repeated his question for the seventh time, her behavior became erratic as she began to claim she couldn’t remember, refused to pay attention, or burst into tears, and so put Mrs. Bae in an awkward position.
“Look. The current legal system in Korea requires physical evidence to prosecute someone. It’s realistically difficult to take a child’s testimony as evidence. They say that the very first testimony made in a calm environment in the presence of a psychiatrist and a child psychologist should count as evidence, but that works only in theory. They should try applying that in the field themselves. That’s right. You’re a teacher, aren’t you? So you know how often children lie without knowing what they’re doing. They don’t mean any harm, do they? Children are like ostriches with their heads in the sand…75 percent of all child sex offenders are someone the child knows. Of the 75 percent, 38 are someone from the neighborhood, 19 are relatives, 17 are from educational institutions… So stop picking on one person and cast the net wide.”
And then, one night, when the gloom and disquiet of the household had reached its height following these events, it happened. Father had been good about getting home from work on time of late, but it did nothing to alleviate the sinister atmosphere in the house.
On top of that, the English teacher had a change of heart when Muhee changed her testimony, and he pressed charges against the lot of them for defamation. Mrs. Bae was served a subpoena from the prosecutor’s office. That night, Mrs. Bae grabbed Muhee by the hair and swung her about, whipping her with a wire coat hanger as Muhee begged for her life.
“Say it! Say it! Who did it? If it wasn’t that bastard, who was it? You bitch, you made me look like an idiot by going after the wrong person and now I look like an ass! You don’t deserve to live, you bitch! Which asshole was it? Tell the truth!”
She was pummeling her in my presence as if she wanted me to play audience. I felt no enmity toward Muhee, but I didn’t feel chivalrous enough to save her either, so I didn’t try to stop Mrs. Bae. I had learned from experience that if I butted in, she would shove me aside with some minor insult and hit Muhee even harder.
And then it happened.
I stood there, my mind drawing a blank as I tried to understand the meaning of Muhee’s arm rising slowly to a ninety degree angle, her finger pointing at my face.
Mrs. Bae’s dry palm flew at me in slow motion and scratched my cheekbone. The back of my head hit the wall as she seized me by the collar and shoved me up against it. Only then did I understand what was happening to me. I heard a vein pop at impact, sending a tingling, warm sensation through my head.
It’s not true! No! Why would I?
I have no way of knowing if these cries and protestations actually burst out of me. The shower of punches and slaps that followed immediately obscured my senses and perception. I wasn’t small or weak. I now reached Father’s shoulder, had the strength to stand up against her blows, and could have returned the attack and then some, but I didn’t. Father was watching. I couldn’t do that to Father’s wife. I wasn’t intending to lessen the impact of her fists, but I wound up kneeling with my face to the floor. Her slippered foot came down over my neck and my back.
Feeling a warm stream of liquid flowing from the corner of my mouth down to the chin, I raised my head to look at Father. The look on his face suggested that he didn’t really believe Muhee’s accusation, but didn’t have sense or sympathy enough to protect me. Overall, his expression was full of ambivalence.
You know it wasn’t me, right? You believe I wouldn’t do such a thing, right?
I don’t know if these thoughts turned into words and made their way out of my body, or if they just echoed in my head. What’s clear, however, is that the flushed Mrs. Bae finally stopped kicking to rush past Father and pick up the phone.
“Hello? Police? I would like to report an underage criminal.”
At that moment, something snapped inside me. It was no time for lofty beliefs that I would be released soon even if I were arrested because the accusation was untrue and there was no evidence. Father didn’t stop Mrs. Bae from picking up the phone, so how could I expect an idyllic fairytale ending of forgiveness and reconciliation in this house? Hope for the restoration of everyday peace? We were caught in a storm, and I was the prisoner of war or foreigner they were throwing overboard to reduce the weight of the vessel.
The moment this occurred to me, I pushed Mrs. Bae, who was off the phone and strangling me again. Mrs. Bae fell over and knocked Father over as well. Leaving the two to struggle like a pair of overturned turtles, I opened the front door.
Before I dashed out of there, I briefly made eye contact with Muhee who was standing by the bedroom door, her nose still bleeding. I didn’t have time to dawdle, but I was able to give her a slight nod to say, It’s not your fault. I didn’t have to ask to know that she had to point at someone to save herself, and that someone just happened to be me. She simply thought that burying her head in the sand would make her invisible, too.
I heard Mrs. Bae screaming behind me, “Stop him!” and Father shuffling to pick himself up. They’re coming after me.
Translated by Jamie Chang
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The French editions of Gu Byeong-mo’s Greatest Fish (Fils de l’eau) and The Wizard Bakery (Les Petits Pains de la pleine lune) were published by Philippe Picquier. The Wizard Bakery was also published in Taiwan and Mexico, and became a bestseller in Mexico. Gu has won the Changbi Prize for Young Adult Fiction, the Today’s Writer Award, and the Hwang Sun-Won Rising Writer Award.