"The Gift" Alberto McKelligan Hernandez mckelligan@hotmail.com

The question lingers in my mind, it is swirling, taking shape... dancing. It is like waking up into a dream, as though the Sun was shining in my face, and I heard the sound of garden birds, a hoot, a call, and the smell of freshly-baked dough was rising through the floorboards, calling me for yet another day... But my opened gaze falls not on familiar windows, and I hear no bell to answer to... a dream? I do not know.

Finally, I see... I see lights. They are swimming away, to my left, to my right, I feel as if I was flying forward. I am a bolt of lightning cruising through the stars. So odd. I must still be dreaming, would you not think so? What indeed would you think if you were in my situation?

I close my eyes and I sleep.

* * *

Nothing has changed, I am still swimming through the stars. But I feel I am starting to understand... imagination? It is so confusing? I wish I could sleep away... So much time has passed, it must be near dawn. Any minute now, Miss Angela will come and wake me up. I can see her now, pushing the door with one hand, her cane dragging along in the other. "How dare you sleep throughout the day", she will say, slapping my face senseless... and she is right. There is so much to do...

These last few days have been like living in a boiling kettle, waiting for it to scream out at any time. Day and night... work. But I guess one must expect this if you are a cook for the Empire, would you not think so? For you see, this is my godsend, to nurture and to feed, and to care for the Empire in the very best way I can.

I remember my first few days, working at the kitchen. So willing to learn, and dear Miss Angela so eager to teach. "Oh, she is so wicked," the rest of them would say. And they would talk straight through the day, saying she cared about the most stupid of nuances.

I alone saw her power.

Dear Miss Angela would walk into the kitchen, overseeing the gifts. Not the meals, not the dishes, not the entrŽes, but the gifts. It was then that she'd pour a scalding soup in the face of a wretch who had not chosen and selected the finest of the pepper seeds for the soup that was to go the Emperor. It was then that she'd slap the serving girl who had dared not to polish both the inside and the outside of the silver vase that was to pour cream into the sweetest of all strawberries in the patches.

And when she got to my gift, the one dish I had slaved over and cried, and panicked and given my whole soul and devotion to, she would lose control. She would smash her cane into the kitchen walls and let out a terrible scream, cursing me and my mind, and the food and the gods. What had I done this time? Why had I not achieved perfection? Perhaps I had added one eucalyptus leaf too many to the tea, or had spiced the bread too much. Once, when she smashed an entire cabinet full to the top with the most beautiful porcelain from Miranda, I almost cried. But I never did, hoping to be the one, the one worthy to know her secrets.

It was one cold winter day when it happened. She had selected. Miss Angela came into my room that morning, rapped the floor with her cane, and said, quite simply, "Now." I was beside myself with joy, and I flew to the kitchen in a daze. And there was Miss Angela, standing next to the oven, filling a vat with water. She gazed at me with steel eyes and ordered, "Ice." And in her tone, and in her eyes, I read the silent message, what I was to do.

Bitter cold and shattering winds, and yet, there I was, running through Vector, no coat, no mittens, no boots, nothing but the simple uniform of an Imperial servant girl. I coughed, and I gasped, and blew my breath unto my hands, but I could never stop that cold from drenching me, from sticking to my bones and twisting me inside out.

I came to the river, and grabbed for the ice. Oh, my hands were stung, would you not think so? But I had a light to guide me... I was her chosen. I was to produce a gift to match no other, a gift so precious, so beautiful, one had to risk life itself. And there I was, by the river, not daring to pluck the icicles without inspecting them end to end.

Finally I was able to get back into the kitchen. I was shivering, and shaking, but my face did not weep, I did not complain. I think that I might have even smiled. There was no time to thaw out, quite simply, I continued with Miss Angela's instructions to produce the tantalizing treat that was to grace our leader's mouth: Iced cream. And with my hope, and with her words, and with my hands and with my scolding, I continued. My hands were screaming me to stop, to thaw, to stop what insane activity I was carrying out, but I never did. My head was clouded over, my mind was in the clouds... I felt surrounded by the mist, and I was happy.

And when the time came to inspect the gifts, Miss Angela took mine, and for the shortest, most delightful time, she smiled. Then she slapped me. I had dared to smile and feel vain for my work; I had put myself before the Empire. I gazed down and quietly thought of my misgivings.

For the next few days, things continued much the same. Until the day the Empire sentry came into the kitchen, and shocked us with the news. We were to make a meal for the Returners, those who dared to stand up against the Emperor. Our orders were quite simple: "Prepare a feast for the evening Meal." Would you not be shocked?

Miss Angela stood from her chair, and tapped the floor with her cane. "We must follow the Emperor's orders... He knows best, he does. He is expecting... our finest." And when met her eyes with mine, I shivered... I knew what she meant me to do.

That afternoon, the kitchen overflowed with dishes... the pheasants had been killed, cleaned and prepared in the tangy, spicy sauce so unique to South Figaro. The juiciest, most succulent roastbeasts had been selected and broiled using the traditional Doma recipe, which calls for twenty-seven different spices and oils. The finest and strongest black chocolate, shipped straight from Jidoor the day before, had been melted to prepare the frothy, hot drink served between meals to wish for long life and happiness, a tradition stemming from Vector's colonial past. But I was not there to marvel over the smells and the tastes, or to gasp at the exquisite perfection of the brilliant tablecloths or the shimmering silverware brought out for the banquet tables. I was in the mountains.

All that day, I slaved over my gift. I ran out to bring the ice, the very last pieces that had braved throughout the spring, proving themselves worthy of the Empire. I followed the recipe to the letter, not daring to think myself so great as to improve upon it: not one grain too much of sugar, not one sliver less of milk. And in the end, there it was my gift, so white and pure that I almost fainted at the sight of it. Had something gone wrong? But then Miss Angela tasted, and gave a strong firm nod. This time I did not smile, but my heart sang a song of joy and happiness.

How can I explain what happened next? You must think of a bridge or a house collapsing before your very eyes. For that is what happened in my mind's eyes. The banquet started, and I helped the other carry each gift with grandeur and festivity. Miss Angela said we must show our glee in working fot the Empire to show who dared stain its lands." Our leader is one of kindness... show them that." And with these words in my mind, I carried the first gift into the room: roasted leaves, fresh from the Imperial garden, stuffed with pork and wild rice.

How sad, how sad... but I remember. The banquet table had been perfectly set, each gift beaming with a light of its own. And there were the guests, oh, they kept on talking, and The Emperor, so serious and correct, listening with attention. It was then that I noticed a girl... and I knew she was the witch. The dreaded witch of Vector, who had slain our innocent brothers. I almost gasped at her sight, for she seemed to follow me with her eyes... as though the words and thoughts of our leader were very far away, and we were alone in the room... And for a moment, I felt the same, as though we were both in a mountaintop, the mist flowing all over us, and we were at the center, speaking to each other, laughing and sharing gossip and sweets as sisters and friends.

"Emperor... you must forgive me..." she said, with a voice so delicate and fine I feared her vocal chords would snap."

"Ah, yes?" was his reply, his hand caught in midair. He was not the only one surprised, the rest of the guests seemed to hold their breaths. "The food, it is truly exquisite. I wish to thank your... staff. I had never tasted anything so fine in my life, and I do declare I shall never have another meal without thinking of this first. Cheers!" And then she raised her cup, and looked at me square in the eye. I blushed. Who did this girl think she was, interrupting our Emperor? And yet I felt... proud. Such an extraordinary, overpowering feeling...

I flew to the kitchen, and tried to concentrate, for Miss Angela was watching me as fiercely as ever. And with a smile in my face, I picked the last silver tray, the gifts that were meant for the guests. I entered the banquet hall, and under the clear crystal light from the moon streaming through the windows, and the hundreds of candles flashing in the walls I stumbled... and my gift was strewn all over the floor, so much work gone to waste.

"Stupid girl" was all I heard Miss Angela say as she came to the room in a hurry and dragged me outside. And then, I do not remember. We scurried over hallways, over floors, and we came into... the dungeon? Ah, ah, Miss Angela, I was not ever mistaken. You were smart, but then again, so I was.

You beat me to death, for I saw the truth under the light. My gift that had been crystal clear, so perfect was no longer winter snow lighted by the moon. You tainted it for the "the witch"... I hate you, I despise you! Never again will I work for the Empire, I am leaving! You wretched...

* * *

I open my eyes and I see the lights streaming by. I know where I am. My question is answered. I know where this road takes me. I see through my hands, and I laugh and I smile. The passenger to my right smiles as well. Ah, yes, you might not think so, but the dead have reasons to smile. Ah yes, they do.