Gingerbread by Helen Oyeyemi

Te forme to te fynisment foldez ful selden

(The beginning and the end accord hardly ever)

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Passus II, Line 9


Harriet Lee’s gingerbread is not comfort food. There’s no nostalgia baked into it, no hearkening back to innocent indulgences and jolly times at nursery. It is not humble, nor is it dusty in the crumb.

If Harriet is courting you or is worried that you hate her, she’ll hand you a battered biscuit tin full of gingerbread, and then she’ll back away, nodding and smiling and asking that you return the tin whenever convenient. She doesn’t say she hopes you’ll enjoy it; you will enjoy it. You may think you don’t like gingerbread. Well . . . just try this. If you live low-carb, she can make it with almond or coconut flour, and if you can’t have gluten, she’ll use buckwheat or millet flour, no problem.

A gingerbread addict once told Harriet that eating her gingerbread is like eating revenge. “It’s like noshing on the actual and anatomical heart of somebody who scarred your beloved and thought they’d got away with it,” the gingerbread addict said. “That heart, ground to ash and shot through with darts of heat, salt, spice, and sulfurous syrup, as if honey was measured out, set ablaze, and trickled through the dough along with the liquefied spoon. You are phenomenal. You’ve ruined my life forever. Thank you.”

“Thank you,” said Harriet.

She makes two kinds—the kind your teeth snap into shards and the kind your teeth sink into. Both are dark and heavy and look like they’ll give you a stomachache. So what? Food turns into a mess as soon as you chew it anyway. She sometimes tells people that she learned how to make the gingerbread by watching her mother and that the recipe is a family recipe. This is true, but it’s also edited for wholesomeness. Harriet’s mother, Margot, is no fan of gingerbread. She stood alone over her mixing bowl and stirred with the clenched fist of a pugilist.

Bambi-eyed Harriet Araminta Lee seems so different from the gingerbread she makes. If she has an aura, it’s pastel-colored. She’s thirty-four years old, is always slightly overdressed, and wears hosiery gloves when pulling on her tights so as not to snag them. She has a slight Druhástranian accent that she downplays so as not to get exoticized, and she doesn’t like her smile. To be precise, she doesn’t like the way her smile photographs as forced. So smiling’s out. But she doesn’t think she can sustain a sober look without seeming unfriendly, so she frequently switches between two expressions—one she thinks of as Alert and the other she thinks of as Accommodating, though she’s the only one who can tell the difference. Since her name is far from uncommon, she’s encountered other Harriet Lees, Harriet Leighs, and Harriet Lis. Taken in aggregate, Harriet Leigh/Li/Lee is a hard nut, a pushover, thin-skinned and refreshingly forthright, a hedonist and a disciplinarian. She’s met Harriet Lee who is a post office clerk by day and a stand-up comedian at night, and she’s met Harriet Li the practicing psychoanalyst. She’s met Harriet Lee the Essex princess, Harriet Leigh the naval officer, and Harriet Li the sales assistant so rude that you make a note of her name so as to be able to tell the manager about her. The only thing our Harriet really feels she brings to the Harriet Li/Leigh/Lee brand is a categorical sincerity. Her gingerbread keeps and keeps. It outlasts all daintier gifts. Flowers wilt and shed mottled petals, mold blooms greenish-white on chocolate truffles, and Harriet’s gingerbread hunkers down in its tin, no more attractive than the day it arrived, but no more repellent either.

The gingerbread recipe came down through Harriet’s father’s side of the family. It was devised by a person who became Harriet Lee’s great-great-great-grandmother by saving Harriet’s great-great-great-grandfather’s life. In their time there was a clemency clause for those about to be publicly executed. Before he made you climb up onto the beam, the hangman took one shot at matchmaking on your behalf. Will any take this dross to wed? or whatever it was they said in those days. Marriage was purgatorial, purifying. All it took was for one member of the crowd to come forward and say that they would handle your rehabilitation. This was rare, but it did happen. And then the two of you were married at once so neither party could think better of it later.

Many viewed public executions in moral terms, or in quasi-cosmic terms, as a gesture toward some sort of equilibrium. Others approached them as spectacle, but due to the clemency clause, public executions occupied a space in Harriet’s great-great-great-grandmother’s life not dissimilar to the blind dating and speed dating of today. Plenty of opportunity for a realist who has some idea of what she’s looking for. At the past five executions Great-Great-Great-Grandma’s gut had told her no. But this time, situated as close to the scaffold as she could get, she found herself standing next to somebody sobbing into a deluxe handkerchief, and she thought it was interesting that the woman kept dabbing her face even though not a tear fell. Great-Great-Great-Grandma also found it interesting that the woman kept making hand signals to the man about to be executed, signals the man returned with authentic tears. The ragged reprobate and the lady in silk. And as his list of offenses was read out, it seemed to her that, while brutality had been a near-unavoidable by-product, the motivation was money. Great-Great-Great-Grandma eyed the lady in silk, who was listening with downcast eyes and her handkerchief held up to conceal what must surely be a smile. Great-Great-Great-Grandma took another look at the ragged reprobate and bade him a silent farewell. She thought it something of a mercy for the gullible to die young, as being too often mistaken breaks the spirit.