The scent of cinnamon and honey rolled in the breeze, and I followed the trail down the cobbled road. The pastry shop was small and old, but was well-kept and clean. As I entered, a small bell on the door chimed.
An old woman was rolling dough out on a stone slab, and I watched her for a while. She patiently rolled the dough paper-thin, folded it over on itself, and rolled it again. She held up the strip, measured it with her eye, and cut it with kitchen shears. She laid a thin cloth over the dough, her eyes came up to me, and she gave me a sly slight smile.
“Welcome to Âmes Douces. My apologies. Our filo is the hardest dough to roll out. You have to finish what you have started. Then you must cut it short.”
She wiped her hands on a towel, and came up to the register.
“What can I get for you, monsieur?”
“What is your best? I fancy myself to be a gourmet.”
“We have a famous baklava. It has a rich, subtle flavor.”
“May I try some?”
“By all means. Here.”The morsel of pastry vanished as it entered my mouth, and a symphony of flavors emerged – honey, cinnamon, almond, and a smoky undertaste gave way to a mournful sweetness of lemon zest. Suddenly I imagined a small girl playing at the beach, throwing a ball in the surf. Then I was back in the bakery, and I shook my head.
“I’ll take some of that. It’s incredible. A very refined taste.”
The old woman smiled and slid some of the treat into a bag.
I walked back to my hotel, and laid the bag on the dresser. I opened the top, snagged a piece, closed the bag, and plopped down on the bed, intending to watch the news. I took a bite of pastry… She was walking along the sidewalk, looking in windows, and I could feel her sadness. Where was her mom? The girl stood up on tiptoes, holding a small purse in one hand, and craned her neck to see inside the store. There were toys and stuffed animals inside, so she skipped inside. The light seemed different somehow, hazy and colorful…
I was back. I looked at the pastry in my hand, and took another bite…
She picked up a stuffed bear with large eyes and a blue ribbon around its neck. A remote voice spoke, with no words audible. Her head turned, and a rush of sensations poured over me – a hint of perfume, a slight coppery taste, a chill on her skin, and a view of a well-pressed red skirt, nylons, and black shoes. The voice gelled and became coherent. “Can I help you, miss?” A hand softly gripped my shoulder…
The hotel room had a slight smoky taint to the air. I got off the bed, shakily, and stumbled to the bathroom. I stared at my reflection. My eyes were shiny and cruel-looking, my skin taut. I splashed water on my face.
When I returned to the bed, the bag was still there, of course. There were a few crumbs of pastry on the bedspread. I opened the bag and looked inside. There was enough pastry left to spend the whole night, perhaps, being… what, precisely?
The aroma from the baklava was enticing…
I was haggard the next morning, and my feet moved by themselves. The bell chimed, I passed within, and faced the old woman again.
I leaned wearily across the counter and whispered to her…
“How do you do it? Why?”
Her smile was an amiable web of wrinkles.
“I hope you enjoyed your treat, monsieur. I recommend the miniature Apfelstrudel…”
I interrupted her and gripped the edge of the counter so hard my fingers turned white.
“No! What happened to me? Why did I see those… things? What is in your pastry?”She tightened her lips, though her smile did not disappear, but simply became sardonic.
“Vous êtes drôle… Monsieur, you see our sign. Vous parlez français. Would you ask the butcher whether he puts blood in the sausage? You are a gourmet. You know that great cooking, like all art, requires… sacrifice.”
She wrapped up the strudel in a bag and placed it on the counter. Her eyes gleamed.The world spun around me and I looked into the fires of Hell.
Âmes Douces… Sweet Souls. How low and foul a being would I be if I did this?
I laid the money on the counter, took the bag, and left.