THE SNOW CAKE

 

My mother, a baker with a handsome shop on the ground floor of the former Kornhausmarkt, was the first to build a snow cake.

 

This was a year after The Winter; not so long after the first snow that she couldn't have made a normal cake with flour and eggs and whatever else it was that went into a cake before the snow.

 

I remember The Winter. It started as a thick fall of feather-like flakes. By the end of the week, the whole town was blanketed. I remember my father, an official in the Chamber of Labor, and Herr Kilma, a minor bureaucrat from the burgomaster's office, talking about how the snow was falling everywhere around the world. My father shook his head. He acted as if the weather were a minor, but acutely embarrassing public faux pas from somebody too important to censure or correct.

 

I once, after four months of steady, slow, and gentle but relentless snowfall, heard my father refer to it as God's blunder. He was reacting to the news that the burgomaster and the citizens' council had elected to stop plowing and shoveling the snow. Instead, it was decided, tunnels would be dug throughout town.

 

I don't remember how deep it was then. Friedrich, the pastor's boy, and I once tried to tunnel to surface, but we grew bored and stopped. Friedrich announced there was no surface. The snow was infinitely deep. This was untrue. The Committee for Public Health regularly dug air tunnels to the surface. I knew this, but Friedrich's certainty was still unnerving.

 

It was Herr Kilma who told my father about the snow cake. The burgomaster's office thought it was some sort satire in particularly bad taste. By this time, several traditional foods were no longer available. The snow had killed off many farm animals and destroyed vast sections of crops. To put on public display food made of snow, especially something as frivolous as a desert cake, when the snow was snatching food from the mouths of good citizens? It was too much. No official action, of course, would be taken. The burgomaster was not in the habit of meddling in the commercial affairs. Something, however, must be done.

 

My father left the house and walked through our tunnel to the main branch. I followed closely behind. We waited in tense silence for a downtown bound lamplighter. When the lamplighter did arrive, we joined his long train of pedestrians without comment.

 

When we reached mother's shop, my father made me stay outside. I watched them through the storefront window as they fought. The cake, which was on display in the very same window, was magnificent. It was several layers high and decorated with intricate leaves and flowers. I could even make out where the frosting knife had made strokes. It looked like any other cake in the shop window. Only, being made of snow, this cake was a solid, monotonous, pure white.

 

My father left the shop alone. Mother would not be coming home with us. She would, he explained, be staying at the shop.

 

The next morning, while walking to the main branch, heading to school, I came across my father talking to a small group of men. They expressed dismay and shock over the turn of events. My father tried to dismiss my mother's open rebellion as a particularly cold and distasteful joke, but a freak that would not last long. As I approached the men, all fell silent. My father wished me a good day at school. He added, as a deliberate afterthought, that I should come directly home. I was not, he said, to go to mother's bakery.

 

On the way home, I stopped by mother's shop, but I dare not enter. I stood in front of the shop window. My mother was talking with a customer, a young lamplighter-in-training named Anton Makart. My mother saw me through the window and waved to me. I waved back. Then she made a gesture for me to wait, but I did not wait and ran down the main branch towards home. I did not wait for a lamplighter and got lost. It was nearly 20 minutes before a random lamplighter, several tired-looking businessmen trudging behind him, came upon me huddled in the darkness.

 

A week later, my mother had still not returned home. Friedrich told me that my mother's cake had been joined by several tarts and various snow pastries. Nor were my mother's baked goods the only snow foods that could now be found in the central market. The fishmonger had reopened his shop and now offered a bewildering variety of sea creatures, many species of which could only be found in the vast waters of the fishman's own imagination. Grocers began offering fresh fruits, including varieties that had been unknown in our town before The Winter. Ministers from the burgomaster's office and various representatives from a plethora of committees and chambers and departments frowned, denounced, and made appalled statements on behalf of the good citizens. Rational, healthy, logical systems of food production and rationing were in place. This mania for snow foods would come to no good end. Still, governmental powers were loath to intervene in what was widely perceived as a manner of commerce best left to shop owners and their customers.

 

I was told the snow food was delicious. I tasted it. My father forbade it.

 

The authorities maintained this posture of disgusted non-involvement until Anton Makart, the happy young lamplighter-in-training, sculpted himself a snow dog. It was a small mongrel, playful and mischievous. Only its monochromatic whiteness and its utter silence gave away that it was made of frigid matter. Like the falling snow from which it was made, the dog was incapable of making a sound.

 

Considered a blasphemous mockery, the small dog provoked the already uneasy authorities into action. Police officers were dispatched to every home bearing a copy of the burgomaster's emergency legislation. The new law forbade the creation of new snow sculptures. Existing snow sculptures would have to be destroyed with three weeks. The creation of simulacrum inanimate objects carried a steep fine. The creation of fake life was punishable by a lengthy jail sentence.

 

Herr Makart fled the town. It was believed that he fled with his dog to prevent its destruction. Slowly, the fantastic snow items disappeared from shop windows. The miraculous cold creations were replaced by the warm, cruelly solid matter of the real. By the end of the second week, it seemed as if life had returned to the way it was before my mother constructed the snow cake.

 

One day before the end of the third week, the town awoke to a horrifying development. Several of the town's citizens, merchants, and even government officials were gone. In their place were snow people. Pale, icy, these cold creatures walked out streets and performed their original's jobs. They waved to citizens their originals knew. At the end of the day, they walked to their original's homes. All this they did as silently as Makart's dog. As quiet as snow.

 

My mother was among the replaced vanished. But her cold replacement, like the warm-blooded original, never returned home.

 

There was a second emergency ordinance. This one legalized the destruction of the snowy replacements by relatives of the originals; though, as far as I know, nobody ever destroyed a snow relative.