Hunger, by John Craig

His stomach has begun to growl; his generals have betrayed him in the past, why not now?

Disappointed with the variety and freshness of the blueberry blintzes sent to him by a favored southern province, he considers retribution through a surgical air strike, but postpones any decision until he can consult with his cardiologists, the Department of the Bakery, and the Vice Air Marshall.

The chants from his hungry citizens echo through the streets into the halls of his capital palace.  The people demand fresh baked goods for their families, now, and without delay.  His grandiloquent campaign promise of daily, fresh pastries has gone sour.

His morning assistant presents him a stack of steaming towels perfumed with the scent of mint and cinammon.  He sets his feet on his desk, sighs deeply, tips his chair back and wraps the towels around his head.  He is relaxed and happy for a moment, and then remembers it is his wife’s birthday tomorrow, and he has made no plans for a celebration.

Quickly, he rises and consults a wall map. The blue-colored countries are his enemies, the yellow-colored countries are allies, and the green-colored countries are on the fence post.  He is puzzled about the meaning of the blue pins positioned throughout the northern provinces colored in tobacco brown.  Occupied bakeries?  Surely, his cultural attaché will know what they signify.

A military aide rushes into the room and announces that it is time for the ceremony.  The Premier General is to present medals to fifteen heroes of a special operation.  The General remembers only one recently; it must be the western Muffin campaign.  He checks himself in the mirror:  any signs of flour or frosting on his uniform, no, and he is encouraged to see he has lost weight and facial wrinkles during the past month.  Reluctantly, he strides to a balcony of the palace and quickly pins gold and blue ribbons on gaunt-faced soldiers.  He shakes the heroes’ hands and orders the aide to say some appropriate words for the occasion.  Each soldier is presented with a star-shaped croissant; they come from the last of the palace’s flour.  The men profusely thank the General and then gobble the pastry with muffled grunts.

After ordering flavored espressos for the honored, the General announces that he will retire to his study and contemplate, in solitude, the state of his domain. From his desk, he takes peace in the beauty of the sunset over his south palace garden; the colors remind him of a spread of marmalade spiced with saffron and star anise. How should he squash the recent flare up of northeast civil strife?  Can he persuade the Financial Ministers to free the reserved frozen cognac-dipped Napoleons in the Central Repository?  Shall he rescind the recent suspension of the current Cacao Queen’s powers in the south?  He is more amused than angered at the demands of the agrarian moieties to the west, and their insistence that he attend their May augur and grommet convention, an event that clearly conflicts with his hosting of the capital’s spring Kirsch Buchette festival.  Then there is the alleged shortage of Pate a Choux at the universities–they must think him naive.  Guns or Pate a Choux? is the tired mantra of the academics.

His mistress calls and reminds him he promised to dance both the Rumba and Tango with her at the beachfront Chi-Chi cafe that night, as they enjoy the last of the palace’s Monafaut puffs.  He is firm; he cannot dance tonight, or for the rest of the week, for his appetite is not right.  As an explanation, he cites the disturbing trend of his cabinet to refuse approval of non-aggression pacts with two bordering countries with impressive resources of wheat and cream.  This is no time for dance, no time for pastry.

The palace chef rings his war phone and announces that his raspberry soufflé has exceeded his wildest expectations.  There will be no excuses, the chef declares haughtily, for the General will eat in ten minutes.  This creation will not remain palatable for more than fifteen minutes.

He rushes to the banquet hall and eats the soufflé, alone, as he wonders who stole his personal frosting machine.  If he caught the thief, should he mete out punishment or authorize discipline to the High Consul?  Would his sentence be able to stand the test of future appeals?

Would it be prudent to sleep upstairs tonight with the last Patagonia slings in the palace, or should he heed the advice of his most trusted Field Marshall and stay in the palace bunker until well after dawn?

With brandy and cigar in hand, he reminisces of his struggle to the position of Premier General, a time when his army easily devoured each colony between them and the capital.  His guerillas cut a clean swath of justice through the jungle with machetes and rifles, straight to the heart of the evil capital, a slum steeped in toxic waste, bureaucratic bungling, and shiftless bakers.  The nights around campfires with his men were comforting times, especially when he spoke of a new republic.  The challenge of freezing nights and the sweltering heat of the days, the snipers, the ambushes, malaria, dreams of tea and sour-cherry tarts, and finally the lightning-quick strike into the capital, all flow through his mind.  A cocoa-scented haze lingers over the city amid the cheers of the famished, and the storming of the palace gates.  The elite Foudre Brigade rushes up a column of stairs to the dictator’s lair.  The staccato belch of automatic blintz guns easily dispersed the hungry enemy, then a few well-placed chops of an ax to a door, and he stood face to face with the dictator.  As he has done with deposed tyrants in the past, he says nothing, for it was a time of transition, and his opponent deserves an honorable exit.  It is a time for compassion and swift retribution completed with a simple gesture that satisfies his only craving.  Many times, he has performed the same ceremony for all who surrender to him: a brisk salute, a quick presentation of his pistol to his foe, handle first, and a final exchange of power.

Never, he had promised his soldiers, would his people hunger for flakey crust, powdered sugar, or heavy cream again.

He calls for his palace generals to join him in the banquet room.  As they enter, he eyes them warily.  What have they been plotting now? They show humorless mouths and a mysterious desire in their eyes.  The Defense Minister speaks of new threats to the south.  Without proper ground support, the enemy could break through the final line of defense during the night.  Should he send in a single amphibious expedition force, or a light-armored truck battalion?  Would two artillery batteries and a single air combat wing suffice?  He could use the Special Weapons Tactical Corp and two semi-automatic platoons armed with the persuasive pumpernickel bazookas, a weapon that nourishes compromise as well as any he knew and was responsible for the positive outcome of Operation Pegasus, a success that secured a half dozen urban creameries. He decides on a diversionary, light-armored battalion and one semi-automatic platoon to be mobilized for the capital’s southern defense lines.  He lights a cigar and dismisses the generals.  He will be in his central study assessing the situation, and he should not be disturbed unless someone has designed a novel stratagem for next week’s Plan Hermes, a defense of the remaining free-range dairies.

In his study, he contemplates a chess move.  It is a move he has considered for over ten days with little success.  He chooses B-Q4, seals the code in an envelope, calls for a messenger, and is confident that his strategy will bring him the winner’s spoils: complete control of the Valery family’s coastal boulangeries.

He orders a dozen sour cherry tarts delivered to each of his wife’s summer estates, signed “Love J.” This should take care of her birthday until he can arrange the proper celebration and restock her traveling entourage with flour, spice, and fruit.  The brandy and cigar have gone to his head; he has forgotten her middle name and favorite citrus flavor.

From his dressing mirror appears a child with a familiar face.  He judges the boy to be three, maybe four-years old – could this be one of his sons?  He feels light-headed – when was the last time he ate?  He asks the boy his name.  It is Jacque.  Well, he thinks, it is possible he could be a son or nephew, but such a name would have been an unlikely choice.  Still his wives, all without exception, had their extraordinary means of persuasion.

The boy is sharply dressed in a blue blazer and white pants, the school uniforms of the very best state-sponsored culinary clubs; the boy is receiving an education the General always dreamed of having.  The boy’s face is smeared in chocolate.  With an eastern province accent, the boy offers his last chunk of banana-mango “gateau for the General,” but the General senses the boy’s reluctance to make leave of his prize. The General smiles.  This is a trait he has seen in himself — Il veut avoir le beurre et l’argent du beurre.  The General, delighted by the generosity of the boy, takes the cake and eats it with a smile.  They speak to each other contentiously for fifteen minutes, finally agreeing on only one issue: Jasmine tea is wholly unpalatable without copious amounts of goat cream and honey.

A phone call from the capital’s Field Marshall breaks the peace in the study.  Xavier’s treacherous Southern Brigade partisans have attacked and broken the final defense of the honored Torta al Cioccolato Brigade at 34th and L Streets.  Air support is requested to cover the Southern Quad to the National Aviary, L Street to the palace – there can be no delay.  “You shall have it,” declares the General.  With a single phone call he scrambles 35 fighters from the aerodrome capable of pummeling the advancing assaults with dozens of appeasing Brazil-nut tortes, mandarin turnovers, and cognac-soaked elephant ears, all baked with non-toxic Décor powders.  Why would any army advance after this offering?

As he listens to the distant air strikes, and watches ominous clouds of gray flour and burnt flake billow lightly into the city’s skyline, he wonders if it is too late to meet Daniela at the Chi Chi cafe.  Maybe, he was too hasty in canceling their dancing engagement, but the brilliant flashes of fire from the window remind him that dancing would be awkward with so much on his mind and the prying eyes of the media assessing his every move.  She would not let him near her without at least a satchel of citroen scones, and he knows he would not make it a block through the rioting street with such an aromatic trophy.

He sips the last of his brandy and leans back in his chair.  His eyes are heavy, he drifts into an uneasy sleep, his palace is ablaze, and Xavier has ordered his army to plunder every sack of the palace’s prized Tortinierre flour from cellar to rookery.  Unknown to the General or his intelligence bureaus, a junta is formed by his wife, his palace chef, and Daniela.  As he has suspected, they are determined to see his regime toppled.  The trio rush up the stairs and batter down the huge door of his study.  They need say nothing; he never did.  Their intent is clearly expressed with the hunger in their eyes, and the roar heard from the chef’s dairy beaters and whirring serrated servers mercilessly moving closer to his desk.  They stand in front of him and perform mock salutes and deep bows, and then present him, handle first, their pistols and gold-plated, Flex cake icer bags.  As he leans back in his chair, he is startled awake by the distant sound of exploding patisserie kilns along the coast’s gated ghetto.

The study is vacant, quiet, but the dream has been all too real.  From the window, he can see the distant sparkle of dairy flak rise from various parts of the palace into the dusk.  Silhouettes of cream-splattered half-tracks glimmer across the horizon as long lines of people swing looted bags of Danish from the palace storage cellars into the streets.  A band plays a Tango over the happy shouts of street dancers, and again, he feels the hunger of his people.  From outside the door, men shout, heavy steps up the stairs, the unmistakable roar of rapid-fire, croquembouche automatics echo in the halls, and then the thunder of axes split the door to pieces.

Bio: John Craig lives in Centennial, Colorado and is the author of “Peculiar Liaisons in War, Espionage, and Terrorism in the Twentieth Century”.

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