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My father trusted me with the details of his death. “Ania,” he would say, “no whiskey at my funeral. I want the finest blackberry wine. No weeping, mind you. Just dancing. And when they lower me into the ground, I want a fanfare of trumpets, and white butterflies.” A character, that was my father. He was the village baker, and every day, in addition to the loaves he would make for the town, he would create a single roll for me that was as unique as it was delicious: a twist like a princess’s crown, dough mixed with sweet cinnamon and the richest chocolate. The secret ingredient, he said, was his love for me, and this made it taste better than anything else I had ever eaten.
We lived on the outskirts of a village so small that everyone knew everyone else by name. Our home was made of river stone, with a thatched roof; the hearth where my father baked heated the entire cottage. I would sit at the kitchen table, shelling peas that I grew in the small garden out back, as my father opened the door of the brick oven and slid the peel inside to take out crusty, round loaves of bread. The red embers glowed, outlining the strong muscles of his back as he sweated through his tunic. “I don’t want a summer funeral, Ania,” he would say. “Make sure instead I die on a cool day, when there’s a nice breeze. Before the birds fly south, so that they can sing for me.”
I would pretend to take note of his requests. I didn’t mind the macabre conversation; my father was far too strong for me to believe any of these requests of his would ever come to pass. Some of the others in the village found it strange, the relationship I had with my father, the fact that we could joke about this, but my mother had died when I was an infant and all we had was each other.
The trouble started on my eighteenth birthday. At first, it was just the farmers who complained; who would come out to feed their chickens and find only an explosion of bloody feathers in the coop, or a calf nearly turned inside out, flies buzzing around its carcass. “A fox,” said Baruch Beiler, the tax collector, who lived in a mansion that sat at the bottom of the village square like a jewel at the throat of a royal. “Maybe a wildcat. Pay what you owe, and in return, you will be protected.”
He came to our cottage one day when we were unprepared for him, and by this I mean we did not manage to barricade the doors and douse the fire and make it seem as if we were not at home. My father was shaping loaves into hearts, as he always did on my birthday, so that the whole town knew it was a special day. Baruch Beiler swept into the kitchen, lifted his gold-tipped cane, and smacked the worktable. Flour rose in a cloud, and when it settled I looked down at the dough between my father’s hands, at that broken heart.
“Please,” said my father, who never begged. “I know what I promised. But business has been slow. If you give me just a little more time—”
“You’re in default, Emil,” Beiler said. “I hold the lien on this rathole.” He leaned closer. For the first time in my life, I did not think my father invincible. “Because I am a generous man, a magnanimous man, I will give you till the end of the week. But if you don’t come up with the money, well, I can’t say what might happen.” He lifted his cane, sliding it between his hands like a weapon. “There have been so many . . . misfortunes lately.”
“It’s why there are so few customers,” I said, my voice small. “People won’t come to market because they fear the animal that’s out there.”
Baruch Beiler turned, as if noticing for the first time that I was even present. His eyes raked over me, from my dark hair in its single braid to the leather boots on my feet, whose holes had been repaired with thick patches of flannel. His gaze made me shiver, not in the same way that I felt when Damian, the captain of the guard, watched me walk away in the village square—as if I were cream and he was the cat. No, this was more mercenary. It felt like Baruch Beiler was trying to figure out what I might be worth.
He reached over my shoulder to the wire rack where the most recent batch of loaves was cooling, plucked one heart-shaped boule from its shelf, and tucked it beneath his arm. “Collateral,” he pronounced, and he walked out of the cottage, leaving the door wide open simply because he could.
My father watched him go, and then shrugged. He grabbed another handful of dough and began to mold it. “Ignore him. He is a little man who casts a big shadow. One day, I will dance a jig on his grave.” Then he turned to me, a smile softening his face. “Which reminds me, Ania. At my funeral, I want a procession. First the children, throwing rose petals. Then the finest ladies, with parasols painted to look like hothouse flowers. Then of course my hearse, drawn by four—no—five snowy horses. And finally, I’d like Baruch Beiler to be at the end of the parade, cleaning up the dung.” He threw back his head and laughed. “Unless, of course, he dies first. Preferably sooner rather than later.”
My father trusted me with the details of his death . . . but in the end, I was too late.