Ian and the Gingerbread Towers
by Anta Baku
Part 11 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland (read Part 1)
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It used to be that trainees would just shadow their instructor and learn the job, not have big ideas about how to do it better. It was definitely like that when I was a trainee. My instructor would never have put up with me taking initiative, which I guess worked out fine because I’ve pretty much never had any. Booker was different.
Of course, Booker was only still a trainee because the company requires three weeks of probation for new employees, no matter what. Given the choice I’d have graduated him at the end of the first week. It’s not out of line to say that he came into this job more interested in it, and better at it, than I was. Once he’d learned the company procedures he could have been out on his own.
As it was, I didn’t mind letting him take the lead for his last week of training. Maybe I could learn something. All I really wanted to do was negotiate some deals and go home at the end of the day, but Booker wanted to understand how Fairyland worked, and use that understanding to do a better job.
We met in my apartment again on Monday morning, because Booker wanted to talk to Harp. He’d apparently spent the weekend in Fairyland, which is more than I ever want to do. Although my brother-in-law had talked me into going to a Timberwolves game, so maybe work would have been better.
Booker had been talking to people, getting a sense of the politics in Fairyland and how they felt about all this new activity coming in from the real world. And now he wanted to talk strategy with Harp, our best source of information about how Fairyland worked. She was even willing to get off the internet for a few minutes to have the conversation. I took that as a sign that she likes Booker more than she likes me.
“They mostly like all the new trade,” said Booker. “The pig merchants are thrilled to have new things to sell, and the rest of the people are happy to have new things to buy. Everyone in authority I could talk to was looking forward to increased taxes, although there were a lot of different ideas about what to do with the money.”
“I can imagine,” I said. I’d met a few different rulers in my trips to Fairyland, and they all had very different priorities.
“There’s one problem that keeps coming up, though,” said Booker. “They’re all worried about how much metal we use.”
“I wondered about that,” I said. “When I read about Fairyland at the very beginning, every book said that the Fairies are repelled by iron. But mostly that hasn’t happened.”
“Not everyone who lives in Fairyland is a Fairy,” said Harp. “I doubt you’ve ever met a Fairy. They keep themselves hidden, even in the other world.”
“But everyone’s at least a little bit afraid of them,” said Booker.
“They’re very powerful,” said Harp. “And they’re the only ones who can make the gold that Fairyland uses as currency.”
“And they’re repelled by iron?” I asked.
“More than repelled,” said Harp. “Iron hurts them. Enough iron can kill them. It’s the only way anyone who isn’t a Fairy can kill a Fairy.”
“So the more iron we bring in, the more likely we are to anger the Fairies,” said Booker. “Everyone in Fairyland is worried about that.”
“Right, that’s why we haven’t been able to build any cell phone towers,” I said. “Nobody wants that much metal.”
“But we’re running out of obvious places to put equipment, places that are already high up with long lines of sight,” said Booker. “If we want good coverage, we’re going to need to build towers in some places.”
“So we need a way to build towers out of something other than metal. But stone is way too expensive.”
“Exactly,” said Booker. “So I had an idea.”
Booker’s idea was, well, maybe it wasn’t too outlandish. He’d already discovered that we had some control over which stories we entered in Fairyland. Now he wanted to try going to different times in the stories. The thing about Fairyland, and about myths in general, is that almost nothing is ever in the process of being built. Buildings are always just already there, complete, when the protagonist needs to interact with them.
Booker thought there must be some time when all of these things are constructed, and it just doesn’t show up in the story. That the existence of a building must imply the existence of a person who built it. I thought that was reasoning too far from how things worked in our world. But I couldn’t see any harm in giving it a try.
Which is how we ended up intentionally losing ourselves in a deep and dark forest. It wasn’t hard. This forest could have been built to lose people in. There were easy paths to walk, but never in a straight line, and all the trees were so alike they might have come out of the same catalog.
“Shouldn’t we be dropping breadcrumbs, or something?” I asked. “Just for the sake of the narrative?”
“Hansel didn’t find the witch’s house until he was thoroughly lost,” said Booker.
“What if we’ve come too early and it’s not here yet at all?”
“Don’t worry,” he said. “We’re going to find it.”
And we did, eventually, not long before I was ready to use the power to walk into another myth to get the heck out of there. Figuring that out was going to be really useful for this sort of lost in the forest forever situation, which comes up more often than you might expect.
But Booker was right, and I was wrong. Deep in the woods there was a clearing, and in the clearing were the beginnings of a gingerbread house. It was just a marzipan foundation with breadstick posts at this point, surrounding a large stone fireplace. I suppose you could hardly build a hearth out of baked goods. This one had a very large oven, and a woman taking thin sheets of gingerbread out of it. She looked like she was in her mid-thirties, which might have made her any age at all in Fairyland.
But her cookie sheets were made of metal, so presumably she couldn’t be a Fairy. If Harp was right about them being hidden folk, trying to guess whether anyone I met was one was probably a bad habit. But at the moment I couldn’t stop thinking about it. If Fairies had glamor and hauteur, this woman definitely wasn’t one. She had her hair tied back in a bun, and was wearing an apron, but hadn’t been able to limit her spilled flour to its confines. There was white dust all over the rest of her clothes, and even on her back.
The gingerbread smelled good, though.
She was surprised to see us, but not unhappy, and beckoned us over to the bench where her newly-baked gingerbread was cooling.
“Hello!” she said. “Would you like some? Just give me a minute, I’m sure some of this is cool enough to test.”
She went to the opposite end of the table from where she had just set the latest cookie sheet down, and touched it carefully with her fingertip. She must have judged it cool enough, because she picked it up and examined it carefully. The whole sheet came up in one piece, and she looked it over happily.
“This could be good, this could be very good,” she said.
“It smells good,” I told her.
“Oh, smell doesn’t matter.” she said.
“I always thought smell was the most important part of gingerbread,” I said.
“Not when you’re building with it,” said the woman. She took it to a different workbench, one with blocks on top of it, and clamps on the sides. She clamped it in on top of two of the blocks, and then put a third one on top of the sheet of gingerbread. She waited a few seconds, and then added another block. Then she repeated the process with three more, and the gingerbread didn’t seem any worse for it, though I wouldn’t want to eat it afterward. The blocks didn’t seem very clean.
She seemed to be satisfied, and took the blocks off. “Would you help me with the next test?” she asked. “By myself it takes a lot of clamp setup, but two of us can just do it with our hands.”
Why not? I went over to the workbench, and she had me stand on the opposite side from her. She set me up with one corner of the sheet of gingerbread, that I was to push straight across the bench. And then she took the corner farthest away, to push straight across so the forces were parallel.
It was hard to judge how hard she was pushing, and try to keep mine basically equal, but we managed not to move the gingerbread too much. We quickly got into a rhythm of increasing the force together, and before long I was pushing as hard as I could against the gingerbread. The woman looked like it was becoming an effort for her as well.
“I can’t go any farther,” I said.
“All right,” she said. “Release gradually. Same speed as we ramped up.”
Booker came over and spotted us, because it wasn’t as easy to relax in smooth increments as it had been to push harder. But the gingerbread sheet didn’t move very much, and I’m not sure anything we did could have hurt it anyway.
The woman was very pleased. “I finally solved the shear stress problem!” she said. “Thank you both for your help. I’m sorry I can’t offer you any gingerbread in return. I was just sure this was going to be another bad batch, but now it can all become part of my house.”
“Why would you build a house out of gingerbread?” I asked. I had always wondered that. Hansel and Gretel come wandering along and find a witch living in a gingerbread house, but there’s never any explanation of why she would want one. They must attract bugs something awful.
“People are always abandoning young children in these woods. They get lost and are never heard from again. I thought if I had a house made of gingerbread, they would be attracted to the sweets.”
“And then you could return them to their parents?” I said.
“And then I could eat them! Young children are the best food, so much better than gingerbread. And building this house requires a huge oven, so I can roast even the fattest children! I’ll be the envy of the neighborhood.”
“You don’t think that’s evil?” I asked.
“Oh, no, everyone around here does it,” said the woman, who I was beginning to think of as a witch. “Henrietta, over on the other side of the creek, has a whole garden full of giant pitcher plants for catching children, but she has to lure them into it herself. My house will bring the children right to it on their own. All the dinner parties are going to be at my house now!” She didn’t cackle at the end of that, which was a little disappointing.
“You have dinner parties?” said Booker.
“Oh, yes, whoever captures a child hosts, and the other ladies all bring sides and salads and desserts. You can’t eat a whole child by yourself, you know. You have to share him with all your friends. Or her, sometimes it’s a her. I always get stuck bringing a dessert, but oh, I used all those opportunities to master my gingerbread, and look at me now! Soon I’ll be the one telling Helga and Alice what to bring, and won’t they be surprised!” Again a lack of cackle when I felt like there should be one. If she wasn’t talking about eating children you wouldn’t have thought she was a witch at all. In a world where everyone’s identity presentation was turned up to eleven, that seemed a little weird.
I had no idea what to do with this jolly cannibal. To be honest, I was glad that the whole thing had been Booker’s idea, and not mine. And that I hadn’t eaten any of her gingerbread. Who knew what secret ingredient was making it structurally stable?
While I was thinking about all that, Booker was figuring out how to handle it. “Eating children is dangerous, isn’t it?” he asked “They don’t want to be eaten.”
“Oh, yes!” said the witch. “My great-aunt Doso was killed by a child she wanted to eat. They tied her to a sawhorse and cut her throat. Oh, and there was that wolf, Garon, about ten years ago, tried to eat some children and they tricked him into drowning.”
“And what about children of your own?” asked Booker. “I’ve heard that capturing children from outside can be dangerous to yours.”
“Well, there was that incident last year with Yubaba, a girl came right into her house and stole her baby. And I heard one about a witch up in the mountains who got tricked into eating her own children instead of the ones she’d captured. I’m not sure if I believe that one, though. I think you’d recognize the taste of your own children.”
“By the time you tasted them,” said Booker, “they’d already be cooked.”
For the first time the witch’s confidence was shaken. “I suppose that’s true,” she said.
“Maybe stealing children and eating them isn’t such a good plan,” said Booker.
“There’s one story I heard,” said the witch. “From a long, long way from here. There was a witch named Yondu, a male witch, not very many of those. He stole a small boy and was going to eat him, but instead he fell in love with him and raised him as his son.”
“And what happened to Yondu in the end?” asked Booker.
“He sacrificed himself for his son.”
Sometimes I’m lost in all of these fairy tales, but I remembered that story. I even remembered the Cat Stevens montage. I don’t mind admitting that it made me cry. Cat Stevens is like that. But at this point I wasn’t sure if someone from our world was telling tales here or if somehow all of that had happened somewhere in Fairyland. If all the old stories were here I supposed there might be room for the new ones.
“That’s a touching story,” said Booker. “But is it the future you want for yourself?”
“But what else am I going to do?” whined the witch. “Keep bringing gingerbread to the potlucks while all the other witches laugh at me behind my back?”
“That’s why we came here,” said Booker. “We heard that you were building with gingerbread, and we need someone who can do that.”
“You want houses?” she said. “The only reason to build gingerbread houses is that they attract children. They’re not very practical otherwise. Pigs won’t buy them, cause gingerbread won’t hold up against the Big Bad Wolf.”
“We need towers,” said Booker. “Not houses. And they don’t need to be fancy, they just need to be high.”
“What do you mean they don’t need to be fancy?” said the witch. “If I can’t put gumdrops and licorice on them I’m not interested.”
“You can add candy to your heart’s content,” I said. “As long as you can build us high towers that are cheaper than stone.”
“Oh, of course, much cheaper than stone,” she said. “Even the maintenance is cheaper, you wouldn’t think so, you have to do it so much more often. But the low materials cost makes up for it.”
“That’s great,” said Booker. “Our company would be happy to pay you to build gingerbread towers all over Fairyland. And my boss Ian here will help you organize it.”
“Hey, hold on a minute,” I said. “This is your deal.”
“I’m just a trainee.”
“Only until the end of the week. You’re already better at this than I am, and you know it. This is your deal, you figured it out, you should get credit for it.” All of that was true but I also didn’t want to get too heavily involved with an admitted, even enthusiastic, cannibal. Booker seemed to have her talked out of it for now, but without him who knew what would happen? His plan was that she would build towers instead of eating children, but I had a feeling that if I were in charge she would find a way to do both.
Besides, going different places all the time, having different negotiations, was at least a little bit fun. Doing the logistics of a thousand identical gingerbread towers was pretty much my idea of hell. I wasn’t sure it would be great for Booker, either, but there are some privileges of being the boss, and one of those was making sure you didn’t get stuck with your employees’ ideas.
Most managers, I think, want to avoid the bad ones. If you think I’m not cut out to be a manager, you’ll get no argument from me.
So I clapped Booker on the back and skedaddled while they were starting to negotiate the contract. If anything went wrong I’m sure management would be happy to blame me, but after two weeks and a bit of knowing Booker, I was a lot more worried about what was going to happen if things went right.
Part 12 of The Cell Phone Towers of Elfland is Ian and the Fairy Godmother.