Thursday, 24 October 2019

The Black Biscuit Baker


Long-term readers will know my affiliation with Hookland (@HooklandGuide), a mythical county in England where folklore lives and breathes. I set a previous novel there, Creeper's Cottage (UK/US).


Some years back, there was talk of a Hookland anthology, but it went wandering out across the misty moors and never returned. That happens a lot in Hookland, so here's a little story I wrote for it. If you make it to the end, there's a picture of some real funeral biscuits my mum made using the recipe at the beginning. She said they tasted 'gritty'.




The Black Biscuit Baker
or Skulls and Hourglesses


8 lbs. of flour
1½ lbs. of butter
1¼ lbs. of sugar
¾ lbs. of charcoal powder
½ pint of eggs
Milk as required

That is how you bake death.

Like my mother and her mother before her, it has been my duty to keep alive the tradition of funeral biscuits. Each is embossed with a sigil. In the east of the county, they are baked with a skull. In the west, with an hourglass.

Here at Panhurst Drift, we do things proper: one of each.
 
A skull to remind us that we are going to die.
 
An hourglass to remind us that we still have time.
 
You cannot see time, you cannot hear it or taste it, but when there is none left, you know about it.
 
Come, take my hand. I will show you how to make them.
 
Funeral biscuits are an ancient custom, baked black with charcoal. 

In the depths of night on the new moon, I walk the ancient corpse road from Panhurst Drift to the village down the valley. You may choose to light a lanthorn if you wish, but I have walked this path my entire life, and need no such guide.
 
It is only in the dark that you can hear the voices of those who have walked this route before. On late summer eves they whisper to themselves amongst the trees, babbling through the brook and laughing as their spirits chase one another across the marshy morass. See there, those little balls of light which seem to know one another, and move away as we approach?
 
In winter come the angry ones. The olden spirits who died in battle, aggrieved by foes, calling out the names of all their deeds left yet undone. Their voices scream up from Devil’s Scar, intent on stripping flesh from bone. You’d do well to pull your shawl about you tight and make for hearth and home.
 
It is not my place to follow the playful dead, nor fear the vengeful. 

I serve Death, and in so doing, he leaves me be.
 
Follow, a little faster now. Pick up your feet where the road grows rocky.
 
I’ll take you with me on this journey, yet when we arrive hold all complaint. You asked to come, and I am willing, though I shall not have you act surprised, nor listen to you opine upon my methods. The dish I cook has filled the stomachs of those five hundred years dead. It is not for a new-born to curl up their nose at the food of their ancestors, for it will be your food, and the food of your young, and for many a generation left to come.
 
Watch. Take note if you must. But do so in silence.
 
See down there in the valley – the lights of Panhurst.
 
When I was a child, I used to look upon those glowing bulbs as stars. See how dark it is about, as though we step through space itself. Minor gods glancing down upon a galaxy. That bright one there, the glowing sun of John Maudlin School, around which all other planets circle, drawn by the weight of intellect.
 
We will not reach that far tonight.
 
Under the Myrtle bush we roam, thrice together and thrice alone. O’er the moor and up the hills, through the crags and down the rills. When grandma calls you home for tea, go to her or follow me.

That’s a song my mother used to sing as we walked. She sang so that I would never wander further than her voice, lest I lose myself in the dark. My throat is sore from age, so I trust you will stay close behind the sweep of my cloak.
 
There in the dark, that crooked finger pointing to the sky. That is the shadow of the church. When we arrive you’ll see a well before the gate. We each must throw a penny in to pay our way, though you will never hear it hit the bottom.
 
And now that we have paid, the dead will let us pass.
 
So many names here. People I have known in legend and in life.
 
There’s the grave of Mary Bay with weeping angels at her brow. She was the first I ever baked for. Three days in labour for a still-born son. She wept three days more before walking out into the snow and lying down to numb her grief. In some counties they would not allow her a burial on consecrated ground, but here our land belongs to those who sweat and suffer. God may visit if He pleases.
 
There, beneath the yew is the body of Brown Man Muirs. The stone that marks his place is worn by weather, yet some say he walks the valley as a black fox with a silver-tipped tail. Poachers beware on the full moon, for he moves the traps and tricks the hunter into hunting himself.
 
Up there by the porch is a plaque to Lady Eleanor Mordant, see the eyes carved beneath the inscription? She watches all who walk beneath, trusting none. For they say it was poison what took her, administered by the hand of her own husband who caught her once with a stablehand.
 
And there, over by the wall, a twisting cross of ivy for the resting place of Marjory Blue. She was a healer in my great grandmother’s time, walking the woods and the moors, collecting all manner of herbs. She mended bones and calmed the cough of infants and the elderly. They call her Blue because the whole summer through, a bright ring of forget-me-nots flower about her grave.
 
Enough now, we have work to do.
 
Follow me to the back of the bone hall, and mind you step on no one’s grave. The dead consider that an insult and your dreams will be disturbed for a month.
 
To make this dish, we must make charcoal. Only the wood of the weeping willow will do, and here is an ancient one. Take my slicer with the bog oak hilt, that wood is five thousand years if it’s a day. Burry the blade in the earth, kiss it, and repeat these words:
 
I come to you mother of sorrows, to take from you a branch or two. You, whose roots lift the shrouds of the dead, whose friends, the worm and grub, will be my friends too someday. I take no more than I need. What I take will comfort the grieving. Within three days I will return your kindness with flesh to strengthen your bow.

Mother Welig, Sallow Sue, she never minds a branch or two.
 
When women have their monthlies, or a young buck breaks a bone, I make a tea of willow bark to ease their pain, though I never take from a tree in the old bone hall for that.
 
So, now we have what we came for, it’s a slow steady march back to the Drift. You’re thirsty. I can tell, but don’t let food nor drink pass your lips in this place. Let’s get beyond the wailing rock, there’s a stream there with water fresh from the hills.
 
They call this the wailing rock because they say it’s the furthest point that mourners’ heartbreak can be heard. When they inter the dead, when mothers cry for their daughters and fathers their sons, their laments echo up the valley. Yet grief must have its end, beyond which life continues its merry jaunt. Here is that point.
 
Sip from my cupped hands and quench your thirst.
 
Always drink from the fast-flow, never the eddies, for it is in the silent pools that fay folk dip their feet and enchant the water.
 
Here, now, as we enter the Drift, keep your quiet. The folks round here know that I hold my own hours, but it does no one good to remind them. If you should meet someone on the path, hold your breath and bow your head. Come morning, they will have forgotten they ever saw you.
 
Come, wipe your feet upon the mat. I do not want bone hall soil across my floor. Stoke the fire and let us take some bread and cheese before we set to work. We have journeyed far and not every footfall met with solid earth. We must bring ourselves back to this world before we go further.
 
Throw your crumbs into the fire. These flames helped to cook that bread, and now must reap their reward.
 
Yes, please. A little cheese for Sula, for she protects the house when her mistress goes out walking. There has always been a cat at this cottage, black as the biscuits we bake. She welcomes guests, as you can see.
 
You are warm and your belly full, so let’s begin before you grow tired. Stoop your head, for the back door is low. People were shorter once upon a time, when this house was built. Its stones have absorbed many ouches and buggers from people who were not wary.
 
Can you smell the lavender and the rosemary? That is bergamot over there, it flowers flame-red at summer’s end. And here, lemon thyme. Rub your fingers through it to improve your mood. There is sage, and fennel, and over by the wall a shaded patch of jack-in-the-hedge, which smells of garlic and garnishes leafy salads.
 
Bring logs from the wood stock and help me place them in this pit. We’ll build a fire high, and let it burn low. Once the embers rest and sigh, we’ll strip the willow of her bark and place her in the dottie pot.
 
Pass me a branch and watch how I do it. First you pull away the leaves. Put them in a pile, we’ll compost later. Take your slicer and cut it gently just behind the brown. Hold the bark to the blade with your thumb and pull, peeling it down top to tail. If it snags, slice and pull again. All the way around until the stem is green.
 
My thumb is hardened from years of this, but if you start to sore, I have a plaster you can wrap about. We’ll need maybe twenty of these to make enough for baking. Five for you, fifteen for me, it’ll only take a little while.
 
Now cut the stems three inches each and put them in the dottie pot. This one here’s the oldest. A gift to my grandmother of buttered shortcake. That was a true luxury in those days. This one here you might recognise, an old tin of Quality Street, the memory of a long-ago Christmas past, all the colours burnt black.
 
Hold the tin up to the fire and you’ll see the dots. Eight little holes through the lid to allow the spirit of the wood to escape. Pack your strips of willow tight, and pop the lid on tighter. Now place it across these two sticks and I’ll lower it into the embers.
 
See now, as it starts to smoke? That’s Mother Welig breathing out. It’ll take an hour or more for all her breath to leave her. Pass me that stick there and I’ll poke it in the ashes till it catches, then set light to the vapours. That’s how you know it is done. When you light the dotties and nothing burns, that’s when the dragon sleeps.
 
Let’s you and I refresh ourselves whilst we wait. I have dandelion coffee on the shelf. Baked the roots myself and ground them down to powder, a little honey to sweeten.
 
Raise your cup to the sky and keep your eyes wide for falling stars. We see them often round these parts. Christ folks say it’s God casting another angel out of Heaven, but stars have been falling long before angels walked on earth, so perhaps it is simply the Infinite waving hello.
 
Tonight we bake for the dead, but many’s the living I’ve bake for, too.
 
We call the biscuits titch cobs, little lumps. If a woman be wanting a brood and all her huffing and puffing beneath the blankets yields her none, then she comes to me for a red cob, baked of her monthly blood and carmine. A lover’s cob, with a dash of a man’s seed or a woman’s slick excitement, means the one who consumes it will never leave. Bake a briny cob, mashed with spit, and ill fortune will afflict the one who eats.
 
Folks round here pretend they’re above it, but every moon I have a dozen customers or more.
 
Though it doesn’t always work the way they’d like. When I was still a cub myself, I baked a lover’s cob for Anabel Clark. She’d had her eye on Duncan Polter, as had all the girls. Duncan worked the fields beside his father, sleeves rolled up, muscles slick with sweat. What a fine sight he was. All the women, maiden, mother and crone, would find an excuse to pass by the field when Duncan was hoeing.
 
She paid me handsome with coin and pheasant. We mixed the batter together, cinnamon and sugar, baked until the butter crumbled to the touch. She placed the biscuits in a little box, tied it up with a green ribbon, and left them by his door.
 
The young man came home hot from the sun, washed himself down in the trough and ate the entire lot in one sitting.
 
When he awoke, all he could think of was Anabel Clark. She weren’t the most attractive girl in the Drift, nor the plainest neither. Yet something about her sparkled. A little voice whispered to him that she was special, and that he would be a fool not to seek her out and propose before the day was done.
 
That night she went passing by his place and he happened to be awake, fondling thoughts of her, as you might well imagine. He looked out his window to see Anabel there, lit up by the swollen moon.
 
That night he took her to bed, next month they were wed.
 
A happy story, you might think. Two young’ns in love.
 
Three years they were happy, two sons they had. Duncan was still a handsome man. Briding hadn’t turned him to wine, nor stuffed his belly fat with oats and stew. He continued in the field, working that extra weight into muscle. Many women tried their luck, but he refused them all. Faithful to the core, was Duncan Polter.
 
Then, come harvest, a terrible misfortune befell.
 
Duncan, his father, and his men were out loading hay onto the cart, when a flock of birds took wing, spooking the horse. It shied and reared, twisting in its harness. Duncan’s father ran to calm it, but all too late, for the cart came over, right on top of poor Duncan.
 
There was naught to be done, for it crushed his legs completely. They brought him to Old Shrewdie, who patched him up proper. She kept the rot out, splinted him straight with wood and clay. He lay like that for months. Anabel was by his side every day until they lifted him into the chair. She broke her back pushing him up that hill to home, for she wouldn’t let another do it.
 

Yet, as the days went by and the seasons changed, her feelings towards him waned with the harvest. No longer working, the oats and stew began to fill him out, and the wine pitcher lay empty. Her children kept her busy all the hours long, yet when night falls, a woman needs her husband’s warmth.
 
Duncan would not die, and he could not leave. The spell she’d cast in youth had aged into a burden. He would weep whenever she left his side, and cling to her skirts like a babe. Three children she had to wash, not two. Three to feed, three to dress, three pots to empty every morn.
 
Eventually she found the warmth that she’d been missing. A farmhand called John Under, who had no qualm in sharing her bed whilst her husband slept by the hearth.
 
John wanted Anabel to wife, and she was desperate to accept. So, one night they conspired beside the flames, to press poor Duncan’s pillow about his face until his broken heart gave out.
 
How many biscuits do you think I had to bake that month?
 
Three batches.
 
One for Duncan, and two for those who had put him in the earth.
They said Anabel and John had died of grief for their wicked sin, found swinging from the ash in Ploughman’s Copse. Yet round these parts, there are those who hold to justice tight. Those who come for others in the late hour of the night, to remind them of their wrongs.
 
You may well ask why I still bake, when my own flour-dusted hands played a part in their sad story. Well, baking is my business, and fate is theirs. Of more than twenty-dozen lovers’ cobs I’ve mixed, that was the only tragic end as I recall. Every baker’s batch turns out one duff cob now and then.
 
Speaking of which, look there, you see? The dottie pots have ceased to squeal, the flames have tapered out. Help me lift them from the fire, we’ll place damp cloths atop them and then we’ll head to bed. We’ve worked the night away, and soon dawn will grey the horizon. We’ll wake late and I’ll crisp bacon on the pan until the sides turn brown. We’ll eat it with goose eggs and a steaming pot of coffee, then set upon our next task.

*

Rested, let us pop the lids.
 
Have you ever known such black velvet in your life? Take a piece and break it, see how it crumbles, leaving your fingers sooty and smooth as silk. Artists down in Panhurst bring thicker branches for me to turn to vine. They sell it in the shops in Hook, to Bohemians and students who like to draw in old-fashioned ways.
 
This is destined for the pestle, though. Come, bring your pot to the kitchen and we’ll lay down paper to catch the black. One small handful at a time, we’ll add it to the mortar and grind it into powder so fine it feels like flour.
 
Now for the dough. Measure out the white flour along with the charcoal, we’ll sieve it together to remove the crumbs. Mother’s earthenware bowl is large enough. Add the butter, fresh churned from Greenfeather Farm. Get your fingers in there, nice and sticky, rub between your tips until it starts to bind.
 
Pass me the wooden spoon right there. We’ll make a well in the middle to crack in the eggs. We have a hundred biscuits to make, so you take five and I’ll take five and we’ll take turns to break them. Leave a couple of shells on the ground, Sula likes to lick them.
 
Now to add the sweetness. Roll up your sleeves and beat that batter hard with the spoon. Try not to think of angry thoughts or lustful ones. They’ll help you beat the batter harder, but a baker’s thoughts flow into the mix and will haunt the dreams of all who eat. Fix your eyes upon a single spot and whip and whip until your arm aches. If you must think on something, think on that ache. Enjoy it, for it means you are working hard.
 
When the spoon gets stuck, lay it aside and get your hands back in there. Knead with your knuckles, get your full weight behind it. Don’t worry if your sweat drips, the salt will mix with the tears of the mourners. Pummel and punch, roll and raise.
Bring it over to the table here. I’ll dust it with flour and we’ll roll it out the full length.
 
Over there in the wall beside the fire, you see that iron door? Put on the oven mitts and pull it open. We’ll stoke the hearth and that will heat the box. That’s how everyone used to cook in the old days. You can do a fine roast in that, chicken with sage stuffing and skin that melts on your tongue. A nice leg of mutton with rosemary and plum sauce.
 
It’s small, though. We’ll have to bake the biscuits in lots. I’ll cut the dough into quarters and we’ll likely work through until midnight. Another late night, but you’re not tired, are you?
 
That’s it. Roll it out nice and thin, then take the glass, hold it upside down, and cut those circles close together.
 
Remember what I said about the sigils?
 
Well, I’m going to show you a family heirloom. Rosewood handles, solid silver stamps. See how they’ve tarnished through time. My mother held these, and her mother, and her mother before. Ancient, these are. Tonight I will allow you the honour of holding them, for all the help you’ve given an old woman at her work.
 
We’ll do one batch of skulls and one of hourglasses. They’ll go in separate baskets. Each guest is offered one of each.
 
Now, onto the tray and into the oven with them.
 
It will rain tonight, I can smell it in the air, and the pine cone by the window has closed.
 
They say it is good luck to have rain before a funeral. It means the sky is weeping, and it only weeps for those who have lived a good life. People buried in dry earth are forgotten quickly, but those buried in the damp bloom memories in the minds of others for years to come.
 
I like the smell of rain. It reminds me of the night I gave birth to my own daughter. She was small and pale, and did not last the night. Yet when I pressed her to me and smelled her forehead, it felt as though the world were at peace.  The rain hammered against the window so hard I thought a hundred souls had risen from the bone hall to come look through the glass and love her.
 
When eventually they took her from my arms, I set about baking straight away. The whole of the Drift came, and half the inhabitants of Panhurst. I did not cry, for although she would never live, I knew that she had been born whole, complete.
 
Those stamps there will go to the grave with me. Once I am gone there will be no black baker left in these parts. Some may remember the tradition and try to copy, but baking titch cobs is a lifelong calling. It is not simply something one does, but something one is. Few would give up their modern lives for the dedication it demands. Why walk to a graveyard and grind your own charcoal when you can simply order it online? Why take the time to learn the names of the trees, and their courtesies, when lumber yards in Coreham split the logs and deliver to your door?
 
It is not only people who die, but traditions also.
 
Come, let us not think on sad things this evening. I can taste the charcoal on my tongue, that batch is close to baked. Let’s ready the next so that the heat of the oven won’t be lost.

*

And so all the cobs are crisp and cooling.
 
We have worked hard these past two nights, and now it is time to rest. In the morning we will pack them into Oval Eddies, tuck them in with blankets, and take them down to Greenfeather Farm. Elmen keeps an ice house down on his land. That’s where we store the dead until it’s time for them to go along the corpse road to the church.
 
Old Man Merriton will be tuning up his flute, and little Arthur Arnot has been practising his drum all week. He plays in the cadet band in Coreham, and can keep a marching beat well enough for a ten-year-old.
 
So, to bed with you. We must wake early, for the procession starts at sunrise.

*

Were your dreams pleasant?
 
I find that mine are often far-reaching the night before a day like this.
 
Sometimes I feel as though I leave my flesh beneath the quilt, whilst I head out across the moors. I swoop and reel like a kestrel at its prey. The wind sweeps me high across the burnt landscape, the marsh lights and the mist weaving a shroud below until I barely feel I know my way home.
 
You still have sleep in your eyes, but the sky is starting to lighten and we must leave if we are to do our duty well.
 
Take your waterproofs. The dew on the grass will seep through your soles, soaking your socks. My father taught me from the war, that the most important thing a person possesses is a dry pair of feet.
 
Come now, leave Sula in her basket. Her paws are twitching, she’s off across the field chasing phantom mice.
 
I can hear the call of Merriton’s flute already. His fingers never miss a hole, though when he practises I do not know, for he only ever plays in public for funerals and births.
 
When we get down to the farm, you mind your footing. The cows walk the track twice a day to the milking parlour, and they’re none too mindful where they spread their dung. It’s slippy along the path, and there’s no dignity in turning up to a funeral covered in ripe.
 
There’s more people here than I’d expected.
 
Make your way over to that corner there. I’ll take an Eddie of skulls and glasses, whilst you watch the stock. Mrs. Witburn already has her eye on me. She knows I’m needed, but she’s one of those Christ lovers who dislikes reminders of the old ways. I’d best go give her a smile and a cob.
 
My basket’s empty already.
 
Here, let me take the second round.
 
You just stay and watch. 

*
 
That’s it. All our hard work handed out. A sombre breakfast for a sullen crowd. Only Old Man Merriton seems to be enjoying himself, and little Arthur Arnot. His mother is so proud he’s leading the march, and he’s so proud that she’s so proud.
 
The procession is lining up outside and the pallbearers taking their places.
 
Here is where I must leave you.
 
I’ve never been much for the pew. The bone hall calls me down at night, but come daylight I prefer to give worship to the hills and the rivers. They birthed me, and when the time comes, they’ll claim me.
 
But you go with them now. They’re all good folks, they’ll see you right.
 
And when they put you in the ground and cast that first fistful of earth upon you, do not be afraid. Remember these two nights we’ve shared, and know that where I roam I will remember.
 
You will not be forgot.
 
And know that though you leave us, others will come to take your hand. Mary Bay and Eleanor Mordant, and Marjory Blue with her delicate wreath of forget-me-nots.
 
We are none of us ever alone.
 
Where they’ve been, you shall go, and I will follow after.


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