This one is known to the members of my former writing group as “the bakery story.” I think it has a wintry feel for this snowy day.

The Nutmeg Tree

Among all the gingerbread towns of the Swift River Valley, with their glittering meringue spires and their streets paved with sparkle-sugar snow for six months of the year, Dana is considered, at least by its own residents, to be the closest to Paradise. Not because of its clear streams, its green surrounding hills, or even its excellent Presbyterian church choir, but because in Dana, standing on the common in the middle of town, across from the old hotel, is Angelica’s.

Angelica’s is that rarest of community comforts, a really excellent bakery. Angelica’s is a sanctuary, a haven where a man can stop on his way to work and buy the most succulent doughnut in the valley, or possibly the world. He can buy a whole box of doughnuts and carry it away with him to the mill, the office, or the station. At Angelica’s, small groups of women sit late in the morning and egg each other on to eclairs with assurances that they can always skip lunch, and two girls can linger all afternoon with one raspberry napoleon and two forks, comparing secrets in the warm coffee-scented air.

            Angelica herself is a quiet woman who rises at four o’clock every morning. In the dark before dawn, with her familiars, heat and humidity, she transforms yeast and flour, sugar and soda and salt. Angelica is a tall woman, nearly forty, as plump and golden as a Parker House roll. With her honey brown hair braided around her head and her arms as white as flour, she is a woman who would have been courted by the most prosperous merchant of any medieval town, and even in these later days she is not without her admirers.

Sometimes a man doesn’t know what impulse makes him suddenly change his mind when his number is called, so that he bypasses the fancy pastry he decided on while he was standing in front of the big glass case, and asks instead for a square of Angelica’s gingerbread cake, and notices as if for the first time that it is spicy, and wholesome, and sweet. Another man, paying for his thousandth cup of coffee and his hundredth cruller, feels Angelica’s fingers brush his as she hands him the waxed paper bag, and goes away dazed, remembering her quiet smile, and hardly tasting the cinnamon sugar gritting between his teeth.

            But Angelica is not only the enchantress of the bakery, not only the woman who trails vanilla and nutmeg through so many of her townsmen’s dreams. Who among us is only her work, no matter how consuming? Angelica likes to read and sew; she is a good but not stellar member of her church choir. She has her likes and dislikes among the townspeople, although she dispenses her muffins and scones with the friendly impartiality business requires.

            Angelica lives over the bakery with a cat and two hundred romance novels. She has a large warm dark living room, a large sunny bedroom, a small bright kitchen and a tiny bathroom with a clawfooted tub. There are always pots of flowers blooming in Angelica’s rooms: crocuses and grape hyacinths, white narcissus and the ruffled pink Angelique tulip she uses as her trademark on the bakery’s bags and boxes. She creates a false winter for the bulbs in the big refrigerator downstairs, and plants them in pots, a few at a time.

It is always springtime in Angelica’s rooms, but in the bakery she keeps all the feasts and seasons. There, every year flows smoothly onward from New Year’s confections through the dark chocolate heart of Valentine’s Day, the pastel-iced Easter egg cookies and the procession of fruit pies and tarts each in their season, from strawberries through peaches to apples, to pumpkin pie and mince, and the thousand cookies of Christmas.

            And Angelica has her own private festivals, days she hastens through time to meet. Six days of the year are holidays secret to herself, because every other month Mark Dalton makes his way to Dana from New York City, covering the Northeast as the representative of Mullen and Sons, bulk and wholesale purveyors of the world’s finest spices.

Mark is a small neat man with a black shiny car and a black shiny order book. He usually arrives after the morning rush is over. He and Angelica sit at the big steel table in the kitchen and wrangle happily over her order, sometimes dipping into his case of samples, while Ruth Mintz stands out front and watches over the counter.

            Angelica orders vanilla from Madagascar, and Dutch processed cocoa, and cardamom and cloves from the East. She allows herself to be coaxed into trying cinnamon from Ceylon instead of the cinnamon from the south of China that she has always used. The Ceylonese cinnamon is spicier, richer-tasting, Mark tells her.

Out of curiosity, one month she orders a small amount of saffron, the stamens of fall-blooming crocuses that are plucked one by one by hand in Kashmir. She imagines women in bright robes working in the fields, slim brown hands flashing among the purple flowers. It takes seventy thousand stamens to make one pound of saffron; it is the most expensive spice in the world. Mark has told her of how chefs in Europe use a small amount of saffron to perfume a whole bin of rice; she puts her saffron in a bin of flour and produces a ring-shaped, almond-studded saffron bread, purple flowers hazy in her mind as she kneads and braids the dough.

            After the order is complete, Angelica always asks Mark to stay for lunch, and for the past seven years he has always accepted. Over the meal in Angelica’s little kitchen upstairs, Mark tells her stories of how the Crusaders brought pepper home with them from the East and how it inspired explorers, and of how greedy men will soak the bark of other trees in cassia oil and sell the bark as cinnamon.

He tells her of how nutmeg and mace come from the same tree, and how when the pale golden fruits are split open the mace is like a net of red thread holding the brown kernel, the nutmeg. The two spices are cured, and then separated, and then cured further. Whole and ground nutmegs and ground mace are shipped to all the ports of the world. Mark cannot tell Angelica what the nutmeg fruit tastes like. He has read that it can be made into jam, he tells her, mostly it is discarded.

            Mark does not tell Angelica much about himself. He lives near his office, she has learned. He is a Presbyterian like herself, he has no children, he wears no wedding ring. It is not wrong to think of him. After seven years, she still wears her favorite dress when she expects him, but she no longer makes the bed in the bedroom he has never seen. After lunch, Mark heads home; Angelica’s is the most distant point on his route.

He will be back on the second Friday of the month after next, she tells herself. In the meantime, his days run alongside hers in her mind. She knows that when she gets up he is still asleep but during the morning rush, about eight thirty, she often thinks of him getting up and showering, knotting one of his dark ties with his small neat fingers, having a soft-boiled egg in an eggcup, making a cup of tea. Mark drinks tea only; she keeps his favorite on hand for his visits.

She pictures him walking to his office, looking through his mail, going to lunch. He swaps stories with other men before meetings in the afternoons, then heads home to the newspaper and dinner, maybe back out to see a friend or an early movie. When she knows he is traveling she pictures him drinking tea in hotel coffee shops, stopping on the road to fill up the car. She imagines him sitting in restaurants and bakeries and the finer greengrocers, chatting easily with chefs and businessmen while he fills in the pages of his order book, and all the time working his way back to Dana, and Angelica’s, and her.

But then the second Friday in July comes and goes without Mark. He was last here in May; she checks the order date on the last shipment.   A week goes by, two weeks. Finally she dials the New York offices of Mullen and Sons. It is the first time she has called in her seven years as their customer. After she hangs up the words are still there: a short illness; arrangements; hours. She has a piece of paper in her hand.

She does not go to New York. Mark has never spoken of any relatives; she has no idea if his parents are living or dead, if he has brothers or sisters. And what if she now discovers a wife or a sweetheart? She has feared such a discovery for so long, while what she should have feared was circling above her in a future sky. She has been to enough funerals to know that Mark will not be there; she stays home.

She sends flowers to the address she was given by the office in New York. Three weeks later, she receives a letter from a man named James Ziegler. He thanks her for the flowers, explaining that he is the friend that Mark lived with, as she probably knows, he says, just as he has heard so much about her from Mark. Angelica tries to rearrange her picture of Mark’s house: two eggs in matching china eggcups, two cups of tea, cozy chats about the customers, about her.

That night, Angelica dreams of a small tree with one pale golden fruit glowing softly under the dark leaves. In her dream she knows the cool smooth skin, the peachlike texture of the flesh, the taste like spiced honey. Suddenly a hand wrenches it from the branch. Fingers tear open the fruit with sharp neat movements, ripping out the red-veined nutmeg, dropping the two empty halves on the dark earth.