Last month, I was delighted to have a flash fiction piece receive honorable mention in the University of Aberdeen Special Collections Flash Fiction contest. The contest asks you to respond to one of the images from their Special Collection. I chose one that seemed to me vaguely Elizabethan and also made me think of all of the outrageous and clever creations I’d been watching on Great British Bake Off (especially the bread lion from two years ago!). We were given no context or information about the images, but the one that I chose turned out to be printed in 1491, of a woman collecting honey. You can have a look at it, and the other images, here.
Wayne Price, the contest judge, was kind enough to describe my story as: ‘A bravely and artfully written fantasia that contains some wonderful moments of linguistic play and inventiveness.’
This story was published on the University of Aberdeen’s website here. You can read the winning story, ‘Weave’, there too, which I’d recommend. Enjoy!
By Carly Brown
I make things they want to eat: white cakes studded with violet flowers and clotted cream in silver dishes. Pastries in the shape of swans. I knead dough for almond gingerbread until my arms go numb. I boil plums down into sweet paste. My hands are calloused from grinding fennel and nutmeg to powders. They love my roses and gillyflowers, sparkling with sugar.
When they see my work, they smile with blackened teeth, but they lose interest quickly. A visiting noblewoman nibbles at a candy flower and leaves the uneaten petals on her plate. A prince cuts the head off my swan and everyone claps like he’s killed a real thing. But soon my headless swan lies forgotten, and they are on to dancing or playing cards.
By the time the plates are carried back down to the kitchens – my shortbread with bite marks, my half-eaten cakes filled with cherries and currants – the kitchen is all smoke, steam, and dirty plates. I try not to look at the carnage they leave behind. I let the other cooks bicker over who will eat the shattered pieces of my ginger biscuits.
The stag came to me in a dream. I knew it would be the most beautiful thing that I’d ever made. His antlers would be rock candy sculpture, his eyes hunks of sugared plum. His smooth flank perfectly baked honey bread. He would stand tall as a man, taller, and smell of cinnamon and autumn forests.
I baked the stag for three days straight, instructed the other cooks on what to stir and cut. He took shape. Soon he stood as proud as any animal, muscular and oven hot. His candy antlers scraped the ceiling and he pawed at the floorboards with marzipan hoofs. The other cooks gasped as he ran around the kitchen, banging into a pot of stew and spilling it across the floor. Then I opened the door and let him loose into the house.
I ran after him as he galloped into the corridor, tearing family portraits with his antlers and hunks of breadmuscle flying off his body as he ran. I followed when he charged into the Great Hall and all the nobles screamed. He leapt straight onto the banquet table and shattered glasses beneath him. He posed atop the table like the fiercest beast in Christendom. A man nearby fainted.
I stood in the doorway clapping. The stag was still. Nobody dared touch him. All they could do was stare as he pranced out of the room, smashing their glasses underfoot and gazing back at them with sweet, purple eyes.