Game Animals of a Lesser God

Agnieszka Stachura

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The customer wants a giraffe to feed ten. Not a static drawing, mind you, but a bona fide, three dimensional beast, carved whole cloth and complete, no doubt, with shiny black hooves and those little vestigial horns. Lacking for nothing but breath. As a cake decorator, I suppose I should be glad. It’s certainly a break from the daily clamoring for Dora, and Thomas the Train, and SpongeBob SquarePants, and the current darling from Disney’s stable of plucky, interchangeable heroines. Here, at last, is the opportunity for something original. Here is the chance to be creative. 

But it has come, perhaps, too late. It is the tail end of a long week spent dutifully applying the regulation colors to an endless line of paint-by-numbers cakes, their décor thoughtfully predesigned by DecoPac, complete with individually baggied and trademarked plastic tchotchkes. It has been a week spent facing the shrill disappointment of mothers who’d clearly expected sage green, or blush pink, or taupe with no yellow tones, on their firstborn’s three tiered first birthday cake, the colors as nuanced as paint chips. And polka dots that were meant to be fondant, and not buttercream. I’m not exactly feeling up-with-people.

And giraffe-lady wants her cake so soon. She’s scheduled pick up for early Saturday morning, and it’s already late Friday afternoon. Even God had five days to warm up. I have at most ninety minutes before the sheer weariness of a ten hour breakless workday sends me staggering to my car, to be caught, no doubt, in the hot despairing line of cars stretching motionless to the I-40 interchange.

Still. Maybe one of the other drivers is this customer, this woman dreaming of safari, charged with energy, laughing inside already, as she imagines her guests’ surprise, their gasps of delight at her ingenuity. The thought of their happiness lightening her own mood as she sweats in traffic, fingers drumming the steering wheel, half-listening to the soothing murmurs of a low volume NPR. With her request she is inviting me to be complicit in her joy, a partner in its creation. And isn’t that what I want? Surely it is what I intended when I took this job, to be creative, to work with my hands, to contribute to the stock of happiness in this world.

And so I gather my supplies and assemble them on the wide wooden table; cake, spatula, buttercream, knife. I add a long toothpick, and three googled pictures of a giraffe. I don’t know if the photos are considered public domain, but I don’t much care if they’re poached. As far as I’m concerned, nature holds the copyright on its creations. Besides, I doubt that my version will do justice to any living template.

The bakery is silent. Everyone else has gone home. There is just me and my scarcely above average talent. It feels like being alone on stage in a darkened auditorium, at the moment when the curtain creaks up. I envision an audience, squirming, attentive. Ready to be entertained. It is dismaying, the burden of expectation. Would that I could abdicate this throne, that I could be one of the faceless seated crowd, an armchair decorator, passive and indulgent, murmuring thoughtful critiques to my seatmates. “Oh, I could do that.” “Isn’t that neck a little thin?” “So that’s how she does the tail.”

             I stare at the uninspiring blank rectangle before me. “Figure is there, only release it,” my sculptor father would say, echoing his beloved Michelangelo. “Think of what is beneath skin; where is muscle, where is bone.” But I know nothing of big game animal physiology. Whatever accident or giggling celestial plan went into the design of the astonishing original, I have none of that energy, or that power.

But I try. I etch thin lines into the cake’s crumbly surface with my toothpick, carefully gauging the proportions of neck and leg. I use a paring knife to gently saw out the rough shape of a giraffe, from memory, from imagination, from photograph, trying to wrestle the form through sheer will from mind to hand. I am a clumsy god, modeling awkwardly from clay, breathing not life, but only a rough approximation. I’ve always thought it the height of hubris for artists to deliberately cripple their own work, as though without a conscious flaw, their creations would be effortlessly perfect. As though the act of failure is deliberate.

I push away the excess scraps, blow away crumbs, and appraise my creation with narrowed eyes. I stroke its side gently with my spatula, God’s finger stretched out to casually spark Adam into life. The neck, at least, is good, long and gently curved. The back, beyond the hump of shoulder, is sloped, and the rest of the body, like that of every animal I attempt to recreate, be it deer, or lion, or fox, is horse-like, the result of a teenage obsession. The head, as yet free of buttercream ears and eye, is a sort of triangle, and the long thin legs have knobby knees and hooves that will disappear, mercifully, into long frosted grass, when I am finished. There is no god in these details. Still, I think it will do.

I smooth a thin coat of buttercream on the raw form, sealing in any remaining loose crumbs. I mix my colors, according to nature’s dictates, and then I frost the whole animal as neatly as I can, awkward angles, golden brown spots, and all. I turn some of the cutaway pieces into clumps of pampas grass, and pipe a thin brown tail. I wipe my fingerprints from the shiny gold cardboard with the corner of a clean white rag. I place the cake gently in a fresh box, and label it with the customer’s name. A humble offering from a penitent god. Only she can deem it worthy of praise.

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Agnieszka Stachura is a Duke University graduate who has adopted North Carolina as her permanent home. Her work has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, Damselfly Press, The Broken Plate, Prime Number, Still Point Arts Quarterly, Minerva Rising, Prick of the Spindle, Swink, Southern Women's Review, Passages North and The Sun, among other publications.