Funerals were too expensive, so she had them burn her husband up and stick him in a vase. Only it was oddly shaped and colored in the strange pastel-glaze of a hippie woman’s dress that didn’t match the décor of her house, so she put him in a turquoise mason jar with a latch top and kept him next to the flours, sugars, and teas. She hand-wrote his name on a piece of paper and taped it to the front of the jar: Kenneth D. Sadler.
There’ll be no point in pussyfooting around what happened next. Tammy Sadler always baked something or other for the coffee-hour they held after church every Sunday. They were good Episcopals who ate sweet and drank plenty, and after a few glasses of scotch Saturday night while she was throwing together a blueberry pie, she accidentally grabbed the pasty-white remains of her husband instead of the flour and tossed a few cupfuls into the bowl and mixed it up. She laid the crust and stuck it in the oven. It was a beautiful looking pie when she pulled it out and the house smelled as fresh and sweet as a warm blueberry meadow in springtime, but by then she had already come to the realization that the calcified and pulverized essence of the man who had given her forty-five years of unconditional love was now acting as a binding agent in a sugary treat she would give to the reverend the following morning.
She cursed herself. Waste of a pie-tin, waste of good, fresh blueberries, waste of ash! She tossed it on the counter and got to working on a proper pie.
Sure smelled good though. Steam rising off the crust looked cozy and inviting, and the night had cooled off quite a bit. Pair it with a glass of milk maybe. Did she have milk? She did. She started thinking of the warm, gelatinous-like filling, and well, just because she didn’t want the church folk to eat it didn’t mean she couldn’t…she’d always wished to be closer to Kenneth while he was alive.
Tammy stuck a fork into the warm center of the pie and pulled off a gooey, doughy, crunchy slab that left a hole to be filled with filling running like blood. She shoved it into her face and paused, letting the flavors mingle on her tongue.
A hint of sweetness, a teasing of something savory; robust and rotund and rich like a stew of bone and flesh, a cake of fat and sugar. Her husband had been a portly man, but she never knew he held treasures as fine as this! She poured a mug of milk, sat on a stool at the kitchen counter, and fed herself until she thought her dress might need to be hemmed out a few extra inches, the pie tin empty but for a few measly crumbs—these too she sucked down after a moment of respite.
Rumbling and rolling, she went to the remains of her husband and sang sweetly to them before beginning the process over again. What a delight to be remembered so fondly! There were pounds of him too, and she would use them with care and precision and the town would be filled with Kenneth in a way that would have made him smile with jolly good humor.
The coffee-hour crowd gathered ‘round her the next morning. They sang praises and went for seconds only to find that the pie had been devoured, and when it was gone, they asked for her secret. She would not tell of course. Instead, she blushed bashfully and half-turned her shoulders, as if being courted by suitors for the first time in many years.
She gave them raspberry cakes and exotic fruit tarts with delicate crusts spun from gold, and pumpkin bread as spiced and sweet as any gift from the autumn season could be. The cries of souls who missed their piece by a matter of seconds filled her dreams with sensual delight, and the mass before the coffee-hour was now attended by shifting eyes and restless feet that ran from the pews in a dash as soon as the last of the good word was read out-loud. There was one time where even the reverend himself, mid-sermon, descended the pulpit as he read from bible and backed his way out the door, his voice long and sonorous until he had a good twenty-foot head start, at which point he was bum-rushed and nearly beaten with a hymnal.
It was during one of these coffee hours that the man from the funeral parlor spoke to her. His name was Ernst Dillworth and he was an old man who had turned the bulk of his business over to his son, Thomas. It’d been Thomas who’d suggested cremation to Tammy, as it had by then become most of their business, what with the rising casket prices and the rather perverse nature of Christian funereal services. Ernst, who was an old-fashioned rot-in-the-ground kind of man, asked her how she was holding up and what she thought of the whole cremation thing. He was hoping, God forgive him, there might be a pang of regret within her for not going the traditional route.
“I’m pleased,” she said. “It was for the best, really.”
“I’m an old woman. Kenneth left me no money to stick him in a bed of oak. And besides, this way,” she opened her arms and gestured to the feasting crowd around them, “I feel like he’s everywhere. He’s in all of us.”
“In here,” he said, and tapped his chest.
She gave him a tight smile and her eyes lit up. “In here,” she said, and patted his belly.
The crowd pressed in on them then, and before Ernst could follow up, Tammy was once again hounded with the endless and unanswerable questions as to what was in this magnificent treat, what was the recipe, what was her secret?
It was three o’clock the next morning when Ernst woke-up from a troublesome dream, called Tammy, and asked her if she was using the incinerated corpse of the man she had shared her bed with in her recipes.
“A good baker never shares her secrets,” she said, and he came over the next day and she baked him a batch of apricot thumbprints that would have melted the moral outrage of a TV evangelist.
“So good it’s evil,” he said, and she nodded and smiled, enamored with herself and those who enjoyed her.
“The only evil,” she said, “is that we do anything else with a dead body.”
He paused, lips puckered, a mess of jellied apricot and cookie crumbs spilling from his mouth like a fat child. Then he downed a glass of milk while his eyes looked over the ceiling, trying to appear as if he was wrestling with some deep ethical quandary. “Is there no sanctity given to the dead?”
And then Tammy said, “You must not have tried my bear-claws.”
When he asked her why she had chosen to reveal this to him of all people, a guilty feeling of excitement planted itself in his gut. She rose and went to where she kept the flours, sugars, teas, and the ashen bone of the man who had held her on long and sleepless nights and grabbed the mason jar with the latch that bore his name and shook it. Ernst could see how little of him remained.
“I need your help,” she said.
It was a difficult decision, but the bear-claws ultimately won him over.
With the help of Ernst Dillworth, who in return received special, by-request batches of baked goods delivered to him in the dead of night as if smuggled through Nazi-territory, Tammy Sadler maintained, and even increased, her output of morbid baked goods. Ernst became a passionate salesman for the cause of cremation, much to the pleasure of his son Thomas, who had until then been considering sticking the curmudgeonly fart into a home if only to stop his protests and cries of blasphemy whenever a poor family unable to afford a plot and a casket and a stone reading a dead man’s name came into the business. Now Ernst was carrying the banner for cremation, screaming about how much better it was for the environment, the ancient nature of it as a sacred ritual, the spiritual connection to the earth and the air that it gifted the deceased, a beautiful and final send-off. He often did this between mouthfuls of chocolate-chip cookies.
There’s an old joke in the business: people who think in mischievous and conspiratorial ways tend to believe that, for reasons unknown to God or man, funeral directors cremate the corpse of someone’s dearly beloved, do God-knows-what with the ashes, and then return an urn filled with kitty-litter or fish-food or sand from the nearest playground to the bereaved. Ernst Dillworth found this particularly funny when he was sneaking into the funeral home in the middle of the night and switching out the contents of urns and nice-wooden boxes with these same materials. God love them, he might never have gotten the idea without such absurdities. He would bag the ashen compounds then, label them with the name of whomever was contained therein (there was still some sanctity to be preserved), and bring them to Tammy, who would spend the next morning baking and formulating recipes and perfecting the science of what ash added what texture and depth of flavor.
The scarcity turned into a surplus, and she used the stolen bodies indiscriminately: failing, succeeding, getting it just right. Here were the remains of old Cal Gillsepie, who’s age, frail bones, and pendulous skin added a chewy texture to whatever he graced; and here was the beautiful and vibrant Janet Vahey, a young mother who died in a car accident and lent a subtle depth to the citrus-notes of a key-lime pie; and here, sacred and used for only the most special recipes, were the twins, Sandra and Samuel David, who were victims of their parents’ opioid-laced dreams, and who really filled out the rich layering of a classic red-velvet cake.
It was during a cold winter pot-luck at the church, held annually to raise funds for the local Scouts troop, some months after this whole mess began, when Ernst and Tammy understood that they had a grave problem on their hands. The hubris of their consumption had caught up with them. She had made a massive and magnificent chicken pot pie with a glowing crust that looked as if it had been carved out of the sun, only to run out of all but the rarest ash. So, she put in an order with Ernst for more. He went to her at the potluck, mittens and hat on, scarfing pot-pie without heed for the molten temperature and told her that they were clean out. These would be the thin years, as people in town simply weren’t dying at the rates they would like, and people in the rest of the county were apt to go to funeral homes with less feverish directors.
It wasn’t so much that they had nothing now—death is an untouchable business—but they had become a gluttonous people. The townsfolk, the institutions and functions that relied on her contributions to rouse interest, and they themselves. Tammy could not remember the last meal she ate that didn’t contain the ossified vestiges of someone she once knew as a glutinous framework or seasoning, and she didn’t care to. The earth was filled with the dead and the soon-to-be, but this was a local operation that she had no plans of expanding. Couldn’t an old woman just put a few teaspoons of Johnny-Someone-Or-Other into her morning tea without the shame and guilt of a hundred-thousand-years of western moralizing? Apparently not. But her and Ernst agreed to just take what they could get and bake more sparingly. And if people asked why she’d slowed down, she would blame her arthritis—while secretly wishing the speaker would keel over so she could bake them into a nice apple crumble.
It was a late night that same winter, and Tammy was trying to knit while she listened to Jerry Blavat on the radio. At some point, she began to notice the speed with which her needles were knitting the fabric, the speed with which she was rocking back and forth, the speed with which her mind was racing, careening through thoughts aimless and hungry, and she thought she might give Ernst a call and see what he was up to. And at that moment the phone rang and it was him and he told her that he couldn’t stand it anymore and so they met out in the cold winter night and roamed the streets like greasers in their parkas and shaking bones until they found a kid named Donovan who couldn’t have been more than thirteen-years old bumming cigarettes off patrons going in and out of the gas station.
They lured him into an alley to get his cash, saying they would buy him a pack. Ernst brought out the hatchet and buried it in his skull. They hid him behind a dumpster. Ernst had brought the hearse and a spade from the funeral parlor, and they shoveled out the bloody snow, the whole world deserted and frozen like an Inuit ghost town. They got him to the parlor, threw him into the incinerator, and shared a cup of cocoa while the flames ate the boy’s body up. Ernst showed her The Cremulator, a massive device that looked like a cross between a wood-chipper and one of those line-chalkers used on a baseball field, and they threw Donovan’s bones and remains into it, and out came the ash, a thick powder.
They cleaned up the mess, jarred the cremation, and said nothing about guilt or fear or regret. They said nothing at all, in fact, and didn’t even wink at each other when they joined the community in the town-hall late the following afternoon as people organized a search party.
There were no suspicions, just panic and worry as the town was swept up in a search for the young boy until, in what was supposed to be a moment of brief respite following twelve hours of searching, they became distracted by a remarkable peach cobbler that Tammy baked for the good citizens. Even Donovan’s mother, a single woman working two jobs, was able to forget her terror and pain between gobs of the sticky-sweet miracle—there was such freshness and vigor to the flavor! They gorged as a mass.
The search carried on after, but the townsfolk were bloated and weary and ready for a good nap. It wasn’t until the next morning that it started up in earnest again, but by then any warmth that the trail had held froze over in the dead winter night and all that remained of the boy were his boot-tracks in the snow around the gas station. The clerk there thought he had seen strange, hooded people outside that night, but they were all strange, hooded people in this weather, and the police and the search party had nothing to go on. Within two weeks it was given up except by a few detectives, and within those same two weeks the remains of Donovan were beginning to run light as Tammy had baked quite a bit for the good searchers.
Ernst came to her home late one night around this time. The air was dry, the snow crinkled underfoot, and stretches of hard blackness and hard stars that twinkled like chips of rare stone ate up the sky. They were people troubled by what they could not have. Ernst told her that he dreamt not of the kill—he didn’t care about the kill on any level—but of the warmth that came after. The warm fires and the cold raging air that would scream outside in bone-crunching agony, him draped in a blanket while he ate a still-warm batch of homemade brownies.
“I know,” she said to him. “Oh, how I know that feeling.”
“How much longer do you think we can get away with this?” he asked her.
“How long do we need?”
“I’m thinking I’ll croak in the next five years. If there’s a time to indulge, this is it.”
They were sitting in her parlor, the radio playing, the fire humming. She had no treats to indulge them with, but a little bit of Donovan was in each of their mugs of hot cocoa. Tammy was thinking about the word ‘indulge’, the perversity of it, the excess. It had been a foul word to her at one point in her life, sacrilegious almost. When had it changed? She’d become a filthy pig hunting for truffles. The idea came to her and she asked herself if she was mad and the old man’s voice answered for her, rickety and stubborn like an old wooden shed, and he said, “You know you don’t give a damn anymore.”
She told him her plan and they were wild and ravenous like old drunks on moonshine, sitting and waiting in their chairs and sagging skins and decaying minds. The next day they were gifted a dead man, some old coot from a nearby nursing home, and he had no family and no heirs and his body was burned up and feasted upon by the two of them and given more meaning than it had ever had in life, the poor fella. Meanwhile the town starved and awaited Tammy’s next treat only to be told that her arthritis was too bad and it would be some time before she baked again.
Some time indeed.
No one told her but she could imagine it because she had felt the same things herself. She could imagine the fast-tapping fingers, the knotted stomachs, the sleepless nights, the lifeless taste of all the other food, no matter how delicious or time-tested. People pressed her and they got irritable and they got desperate, offering to trade her goods or even money for a something, anything, baked and given to them in secret. Tammy, however, was playing the long game, and some weeks later, after another cremation happened down at the funeral home, she invited a select few friends down to her house.
She would bake for them, she told them, if they kept it a secret.
They came bright and feverish and greeted her like a person beatified, one of them, a middle-aged woman named Martha, even kissing her hand. Tammy did her best blush and they all gathered in the parlor and drank the sweetest coffee and ate the sweetest batch of mixed-berry thumbprints until the jelly was smeared across their faces. They looked like feasting wolves. She brought in a tray of croissants and cream cheese Danishes and topped it all off with a platter of homemade donuts stacked in a tower and which fell about the floor like a Jenga structure when the first was plucked from it, and just as quickly picked up and devoured.
When they were good and full and half-digested bits of pastry could be seen peeking out of the backs of their throats when they laughed, Ernst leaned forward in his chair and sniggered and said, as if on a whim, “Should we tell them the secret, Tam?”
Everyone fell silent, and then Donnie Walker pointed at Ernst and said, “You know?”
“ ‘Course I know.”
They whispered and shushed and wondered out loud until Tammy, who had made her face as red as a hummingbird’s breast, said, “Well…all right, I guess I should tell someone before it’s too late for me,” and with twinkling eyes as slick as rain-battered pavement she told them. No one said a word.
Stillness had crept in like fog and there was a moment when Tammy thought that it might not have worked, that her hunches and inklings about people and their cravings were wrong. But then Tommy Doyle, a fresh retiree, took another bite of donut, a Boston Crème, and said, “Boy wowza. Do they each have a different flavor?”
She explained the nuances and idiosyncrasies of different remains. He nodded and took another bite.
“Well,” he said, “no harm no foul, right?”
“That’s the problem,” she said, and explained their crime and their future plan and again she thought she had overstepped, was almost certain of it this time, but God or genetics or maybe just the bacteria in her gut had gifted her an innate sense of time and place, a deadly instinct, as all things, cannibalism and child-murder included, have their moment under the sun.
Jenna Carmichael ate a thumbprint and patted the roundness of her belly. “Just like the Indians. Not a thing goes to waste.”
They smiled and nodded and talked it over and everything came to bloom like a field of animal traps.
The morning of was in late February. There was snow, but it was melting, and the sun was out and hanging like a ripe thing waiting to be plucked and shared about. Blades of green grass poked through the thinning white blanket like myriad spindly creatures emerging from underground hibernation, and people were shedding their coats for sweaters and Sherpa pullovers.
Tammy and her company came early with their pies and cakes and batches of still-warm brownies and their stews crusted over with golden flaky bread. It was the festival of planting, an old tradition for a town that had long abandoned the earth as a source of income, which marked the loosening of winter’s grip over the land. Tammy had revealed about a week prior that she would be baking for the event, and the announcement was enough for people to celebrate and get drunk and pick fights over nonsense. She was, effectively, the caterer, as no one else dared bring something to compete with her; she would enlist helpers and they would assist her and after the event was over, she would share her recipe for all to use and enjoy. The woman was celebrated like a queen.
People came like scavenging ants, the whole town, not a one missing, and after the opening ceremony and speeches were rushed through, the feast began. People were jolly and drinking and sharing forkfuls of mashed together savory-sweetness. Amidst the good tidings and revelry, stomachs began to rumble and quiver, heads felt woozy, but the fervor of the event intoxicated them, and the food was too good to pass up. Grown men and women were covered with jellies and icing and flecks of crust and bits of carrot, peas, and a gravy-like broth until they could feel their heart-rates double, tripple, quadruple, licking the messes off the tips of their fingers and sticking their tongues out as far as they could and spinning them around their mouths like grotesque floor sweeps. Not a crumb went to waste.
Tammy Sadler climbed the podium as the crowd began to falter. People stumbled on their feet. Their bellies ruptured over their beltlines like raging water busting through levees, and then their insides burst out and their stomachs were split open and their organs spilled forth in a tidal of gore and clay-colored matter. They collapsed. The field was a shallow pond of inter-mingled blood. Not a soul who ate (and everyone ate) was left.
“Oh no,” Tammy said. “Oh my.”
Even old Tommy Doyle had been unable to resist the temptation, and he took a bite amidst the pandemonium of it all and then another and then soon he was stuffing his face without heed for his knowledge. He too popped open like the bulb of a jellyfish poked with a stick.
My, what a mess. The potent combination of boric acid, lathe, arsenic, Coca-Cola, and pop-rocks did more than rupture the organs of those who took part in the feast; it blew them open like balloons inflated with tacks. Tammy worried that the loss of blood and organs would negatively affect the taste of the overall product, so she corralled Ernst, Donnie, Martha, and Jenna. The five of them fell into a frenzy. They spent the rest of the day in the field on the edge of town, loading truck beds with the dead, sorting the organs and bile as best they could into labeled trash bags and Tupperware containers. It hardly seemed worth the effort by the end of it.
But as the night crept towards dawn and the smell of body after smelt body filled the soft air of the funeral home, the wearisome fight turned into a triumph, the kind that greets a bloodied battalion after a battle.
Even with the inevitable failure of the separation of organs, the result, a strange pile of stomachs and intestines and kidneys and appendices and hollowed-out cadavers all thrown into the incinerator at once, gifted a heft of ash as fine and delicate as any spice traded on the silk road.
The intention of the plan had not been to jettison the organs of the townsfolk, but Tammy was not a chemist or a biologist, but a chef: a baker, a creative spirit. She did her best to kill those who would serve her art and she did her best to make good out of what they served.
Over the next seven days, they burned and sifted and cremulated the remains of people they had once loved, put them in jars and labeled them as if they were preserves to be put into crates and carried into the basement—and for all intents and purposes they were.
They rotated turns manning the stores and walking the streets so that people who drove through and caught the sensation of isolation and abandonment that had draped itself over the town like a blanket from a god who had decided he’d had enough of such a blasted place wouldn’t stop to see family or grab a package of coffee from one of the corner stores or get gas from the station and think the town uprooted or decimated but only mysterious in the fact that its main inhabitants appeared to be over-the-hill bipolars who shouted at them from across the street that the store that they were attempting to go into was closed because the town had saved up its money and gone on a group cruise to the Bahamas, yes even the police, no we’re not the first town to ever do such a thing. It was a small town, anyway. Many of the family trees internal.
There was a sense shared between Tammy and Ernst that this charade was just that—a game that would end as soon as reality decided that it would no longer suspend itself. In moments—literal seconds, that is—of clarity, Tammy would think to herself that ever since Kenneth had died, she’d felt drawn-up and set to life like some cartoon character. Not so much that her actions were not her own, but that they were only as logical as the world around her. She might be licking dough off a spoon as she thought this. Or sitting in front of the fire with a cup of tea, in a silent house, in a silent town, alone. But it was always drawn forth in her mind like honeycomb from a hive, hard and fearful, and soon melted and distorted and corrupted by circumstance that made it sweet as sugar glaze and just as desirable.
Ernst’s thoughts were less robust and more fearful. What would he do without ash? Without death remains in his sandwich bread or birthday pies or coffee cakes? He’d forgotten what it was to eat real food, to be human and live for things other than need. The week passed and it was time for phase three and Tammy hosted them all for dinner—only Ernst didn’t show, because he was sick, eating his very own batch of cookies and watching cable news, as Tammy fed Donnie Walker and Martha Jones and Jenna Carmichael a less-explosively poisoned meal, and the whole lot of them suffered cardiac arrest at the dinner table and keeled over. She called Ernst over and they did the dirty deed, rolling through town to the funeral home without a sound beyond that which the tires made over the hard tarmac.
Their friends’ remains were jarred and labeled and put away in Tammy’s kitchen and Ernst moved in that night. They were apocalyptic now, two survivors awaiting the end times. Those rare and crystalline moments of thought made Tammy believe that the harbinger would come in the form of flashing red and blue lights, the click of metal clasping around her wrists. That would be fine, she would tell herself then, diving back into the illusion she had made. For now, she could eat as much as she wanted and need for nothing.
And then Ernst happened. Sure, he’d put on his fair share of pounds, but they all had. Still, she’d found him in the bathroom a few days later with his pants around his ankles and a stench in the air, magazine in his lap and a slice of yellow cake with fudge icing in the crease of the page he’d been reading. Death by sweetness. Oh, such sweetness!
Only the whole thing had a sour taste to it. Maybe it was only wafts of what Ernst had left for her in the most convenient possible place fermenting in the ass-enclosed toilet bowl, but something bitter had come to rest on her tongue. It was tense and alien, like a stranger showing up on the doorstep.
She did something odd.
After cleaning him up and laying him on the floor, she dragged his corpse across the kitchen and out the backdoor. It was late daylight and spring birds were singing. She could see their black fluttering bodies hopping along the shadow branches plastered to the dead grass. There was a spade in the shed and the ground was hard and she just about gave up but the sour taste would not leave her. She could not stand it, and so after night had fallen, a rough rectangle, some six feet long and three feet deep, was cratered in the yard next to piles of dirt, as if some strange angel had hurtled through the atmosphere like a meteorite and landed on her property.
She dragged him like a sack and kicked him in, her chest heaving as if her heart might give out at any second. Hands on her knees, hard stars and hard black above, she wailed like some lost and beastly creature. There was nothing left to respond.
When the moment had passed, she stared up at the sky. The sensation came upon her that the blackness above was nothing but the canopy of a large circus tent; the stars were the designs of a skillful painter, or, perhaps, they were a hundred-thousand blinking eyes watching her perform.
If they were, they watched rapt as she sat before the fireplace, cutting hunks of flesh from her legs and roasting them over open flame.
Evan Rodenhausen currently lives in Philadelphia, where he works in immigration law and advocacy. A graduate student at Arcadia University, his research focuses on the principles cognitive linguistics in literature.