The Bulldog of the Kitchen
As usual, Anya arrived before anyone else in the kitchen. Soon after, however, a brazen young man with sacks of grains on his bare shoulders came through the door. Anya called out to him from her sink, “Hey, Horace.”
Horace dropped the sacks and nodded. “Anya.” His long bronze hair fell back into place. Perfectly. He donned a sleeveless shirt and ratty trousers which quickly became littered with debris as he refilled the kitchen’s wood and straw supply. Anya noticed his clothes were always as scanty as possible, even when it was freezing cold outside. At first she thought he couldn’t afford proper clothing; but it didn’t take long to figure out what his real problem was, himself. He left Anya well enough alone, but poor Basil was tormented something awful.
Horace’s job was to keep the kitchen fully stocked of anything it needed, so he and Basil ran into each other often. Too often. Like this morning when she came through the entranceway.
“Oh! Excuse me.” She smiled her sweet smile in her normally polite and friendly fashion, and continued on to the storage rooms. A minute later, she came back out with several jars of canned fruit.
Not to be unnoticed, he started flexing his arms any way he could and rubbing his hand through his hair. “Basil. Sweet lady. You’re looking lovely today.”
Basil rolled her eyes and immediately started opening the jars and pouring them into saucepans on the range.
“In fact, you look as delectable as those pastries I’ve seen you make.”
Anya snorted and then tried to cover it up with a cough. She wasn’t very successful, but she doubted whether he noticed or cared. Basil put her hands on the counter, stabilizing herself, and turned to face him. “Horace, if I have told you once, I have told you a thousand times. No. I am quite serious with a young man already. Please stop.”
He winked, pointed his forefingers at her and clicked his tongue. “Later. Sweet babe.”
Basil dropped her head into her hand, hopeless, before turning back to her saucepans.
“I’m glad he’s not after me. That’s sick,” said Anya.
Basil shook her head. “I hate that boy. I really, really do.”
It wasn’t long before the rest of the staff showed up, and the kitchen was again in full swing. Cook was the last to arrive.
“Morning, Cook!” called Anya cheerfully. She passed by Cook, toting a newly emptied bucket.
“Morning, Elf! I hope you’re ready for work today.”
“Oh, yes ma’am.” By now, Anya had the stoves hot, water boiling on a range, a tub filled with rinse water in the floor, and the fresh water barrel completely topped off. Everything was exactly the way Cook wanted it.
Yet, she eyed Anya suspiciously. “Uh, did you sleep here last night?”
There was no pleasing that woman. ”Oh, no ma’am. Today’s the end of my work week, and I’m trying to do my best before I leave.”
“Well! It looks like you might finally be catching on to what work is. It’s a lot harder here at the castle than in the fields, isn’t it, Elf?”
Anya had to bite her tongue to keep from responding. She had always known what work was and had given her all every day she’d been in the kitchen, the same as she did in the fields. Work here wasn’t the least bit harder than in the gardens, simply different. She had more time off, better pay, and better conditions. In fact, the work itself was often easier, but she didn’t dare say that out loud to anyone. Instead, she went over to help Basil sweeten the breakfast syrups while waiting for the first dirty dishes to arrive.
Basil leaned over and smiled as she dragged the ladle through the cooking fruit. “I told you it’d get better.”
Anya raised one eyebrow. “How is that better?”
“She didn’t yell at you this time. She even gave you a compliment.”
Anya shrugged. “I guess so.” Her tongue yearned as she watched the bright red strawberry syrup thicken and trail behind the spoon. It reminded her of the first time she found the kitchen, from its wonderful smell, which in turn reminded her of her first day there. “Hey, Basil. Why do they call me ‘Elf’?”
“I heard there used to be real elves that lived in the kitchen. That they were the ones who did your job.”
“Ah! You can’t go on believing garbage such as that.” Cook said while she filled a nearby pot with grits. They hadn’t noticed her there.
Basil asked, “Then why do we always call the smallest kitchen worker ‘Elf’?”
Cook shuffled her feet. Then she opened her mouth to say something but didn’t. Finally, her face lit up as she said, “Tradition! Same reason we call me Cook, because I cook.”
Basil didn’t argue, but once Cook had walked over to get another pot off the wall she whispered, “I take it you ‘elf’ then.” Anya giggled, but they both quickly sucked in their laughter as Cook came back to the stoves.
Anya held a funnel still so Basil could fill the serving bottles with the syrups. Anya said, “I saw a man yesterday that told me Cupola used to be a happy place. Poor man. He seemed mad. It got kinda scary.”
Cook butted in again, “Ah! You’d be talking about ol’ Methuselah. Batty as they come. Claims he’s been around for over two hundred years. He looks that old, but don’t you believe a word he tells you. He’s not dangerous, just crazy.” She handed a dirty pot to Anya and then disappeared into the storage rooms.
Anya took the pot readily, but right when she turned to mind her post, a girl with very short black hair threw a filthy dish across the cooking ranges, dropping bits of food into Basil’s syrups. It hit Anya in the chest, covering her with rotten sauce. “Hey!”
“You got a problem? Elf?” the bully asked her.
Anya made it a point to stay in her corner of the kitchen most of the time and therefore had only seen the girl from a distance until now. She had a scrunched up face with deeply etched frown lines, even though there was no way she was older than Basil. She faced Anya with her hands on her hips. Basil kept her head and eyes down as she cleaned up the sloppy floor and attempted to salvage her syrups.
Anya yelled, “Why did you throw that at me?! I’m covered in food now!”
“To make your ugly face look better,” said the bully with a smirk.
“My face is not ugly!”
The bully watched as Basil took the dirty bowl from Anya and led her to the sink. “That’s Canis. Simply ignore her and avoid her as much as you can.” She nervously helped Anya clean herself off to where it almost looked like nothing had happened.
“Her? I’m supposed to be afraid of her?”
“She gets anyone she doesn’t like fired. Once you’ve been fired, hardly anyone else will hire you.”
“How could she possibly have that much power?”
CRASH! A ceramic bowl lay on the floor in front of Canis, shattered. “Becky! Becky!” Food covered Canis from head to toe. It looked like she had dumped stew on her head before throwing the bowl on the floor.
Anya turned to Basil. “Becky? Who’s Becky?”
Basil acted more uneasy now. “That’s Cook’s name. Canis is the only one who calls her by it.”
Cook ran back into the kitchen from the storage rooms. Canis stood there in convincing shock. “That new girl threw food at me!”
Anya stood with her mouth agape, not knowing how to respond to something so ludicrous. Cook turned on her. “Elf! Why did you do that?”
“I didn’t do that! She’s the one who threw a bowl at me!”
“Then why am I covered with food with a broken bowl by my feet and you’re not?”
“That’s enough! Elf, I’m taking a day’s pay off of your first check, and if this happens again, it’ll be a week’s pay! Stay to your sink and leave others alone!”
Anya started to say something, but Basil covered Anya’s mouth with her hand and frantically whispered into her ear, “Don’t say anything. It will only make it worse. Trust me.” She took her hand away, watching Anya as though to make sure she didn’t do anything else.
Anya was so angry, she couldn’t speak. Tears filled her eyes as she turned to face her sink. It was so unfair. She wanted to hurt Canis, to punish her for what she did, but however hard she tried she couldn’t get her mind to come up with something vile enough to do. It just didn’t work that way. She couldn’t think of mean things to do to people, even mean people. Anya roughly handled the dishes, knowing she wouldn’t be paid for washing them today.
Basil finished up the sauces and brought her dirty pans to Anya.
Anya asked her, “How evil do you have to be to think of those things?”
“Pretty evil.” She lowered her voice. “A couple of years ago, she tormented one girl so badly that she finally quit. Her name was Tammy, and Canis started in on her before she even got here. She went around to everyone in the kitchen and told them Tammy said she couldn’t believe she was having to work with kitchen staff, that she was so much better than that. So when Tammy showed up, everyone already hated her. They were so mean to her, even the boys. After getting her pay docked several times, she didn’t show up one morning. I don’t know what happened to her.”
Anya calmed down some. “I think there was a girl named Tammy that I worked with last year in the fields. Was she really cute with dark curly brown hair, olive skin, and brown eyes?”
“Yeah. That’s her.”
Wow. “Basil, how does Canis get away with it all?”
“She’s pure evil. The first thing she did when she got here was buddy up to Cook. They’d never even heard of each other before then. She’s best friends with her now. Goes over to her house during their off time together and everything.”
“Then why didn’t she get your job? Aren’t you higher up than she is?”
“I’m a lot higher up than she is, but that doesn’t seem to matter. My guess is she didn’t want my job. Hers is easier than mine, and she doesn’t need to be Cook’s assistant to keep all of her power. I heard Cook made it to where she gets paid as much as I do anyway. I try to keep my head down around her and hope she doesn’t bother me.” Basil got back to work.
Anya finished up the breakfast dishes, all the while looking over her shoulder, waiting for Canis to do something terrible again. Canis laughed as loudly as she could whenever she thought Anya was watching as if someone had just said something hysterical, and ignored Anya completely otherwise.
Nothing else interesting happened that morning, but Anya couldn’t get it out of her mind. Basil stopped by on her way to lunch. “You can’t stop thinking about it, can you?”
Anya shook her head. “What did I do to make her hate me so much?”
“Well, it could be because Cook was starting to like you. You work hard and do a good job. But that’s only a guess. In all honesty, you don’t have to do anything to make her hate you. She’s just a mean, hateful bully. But you are pretty, and that’s another good reason. She hates anyone she thinks looks better than her. Come to think of it, she never bothers the boys, only the girls. Maybe she just hates girls.” Basil shrugged and shook her head in bewilderment as she left to eat.
Me? Pretty? Anya had never thought of herself as pretty, especially when covered with dirt and baggy old clothes. But if she looked good like this, there was little chance she could hide it. She decided to forget about it all and stay out of Canis’s way in the future.
But putting it out of her mind was much easier said than done. If she did her best and did what she was told, Canis could get mad and make sure she lost her job. If she slouched up a bit, Cook could get mad and then she’d still lose her job. Night couldn’t come soon enough!
When it did come, she grabbed her supper and whatever scraps had been left for her, and ran out the door for home. She slowed down when she saw Gevin sauntering on the main street. “Hey, Gev. Why are you getting off so late?”
“I’m not really, just hangin’ out.” He shrugged.
“I’m glad you’re here actually,” she said between mouthfuls. “There’s this bully at work, Canis. She’s real good friends with Cook and tries to get other girls dismissed all the time.”
Gevin eyeballed her food before reaching over to grab some. “Only the girls? What’s wrong with her?”
Anya pulled her supper away to stop him from devouring it all. “I don’t know, but I don’t care what her problem is. I just want it to stop.”
Gevin scratched his chin and drew out his words. “Welllll, you could always try and get her back.”
“Get her back?”
“Yeah, you know, revenge?”
“I tried that already.”
Gevin jerked his head back in shock. “You?!” He grinned deviously. “That’s my girl.” He tried to sneak another bite.
She smacked his hand and gave him a daring look. “I couldn’t do it.”
“My mind doesn’t work that way, Gev. I’m a nice person. I can’t even think like that. There has to be another way to stop her from being so mean and making everyone’s lives miserable.”
“Right, and how do you think you make her stop? You can’t go to Cook, right?”
Anya sighed in defeat. “Right.”
“You can’t be nice to her and ask”—He folded his hands under his chin, raised his voice, and batted his eyes in mock imitation—“‘Would you please stop?’” He went back to normal. “Now can you?”
She chuckled. “No.”
“So you get her back. Give her a taste of her own medicine.”
“I’ll think about it, OK?”
Gevin shook his head and made one last attempt at her meal. But she shoved what was left into her mouth, dusted her hands, and smiled as much as one can with one’s cheeks packed with food.
Anya honored her decision of not discussing her work problems at home any more by putting on a cheery face when she went inside. “Hey, Mom. Where’s Terrence?”
“He’s with Fergus. It’ll just be us for tonight.”
Anya’s face fell. She wasn’t sure how long she could keep up her charade, and without Terrence’s usual loudmouth, it was going to be a never ending night. Soon she found herself staring off into space, her problems playing on her mind. She wanted to ask her mother for help, but didn’t want to upset her. So when her mother asked, “Anya honey, what’s wrong?”
“Oh nothing, Mom,” she lied, instantly feeling guilty. “Why?”
“Something’s on your mind, sweetheart. You haven’t said anything all night.”
“I’m just tired. That’s all. You know”—She stood up and stretched loudly—“I think I’m going to go on to bed.”
Her mother watched her worriedly as she changed and lay down in Terrence’s bed. Anya didn’t think her mother believed her of course, but which was worse? Real worry or pretend worry? Deciding it was best to let her mother think there was something wrong without in truth knowing it, she rolled over and closed her eyes, looking forward to the darkness of sleep.
Her dreams weren’t much better, unfortunately. A giant bulldog with glowing red eyes chased her through an impossibly long kitchen. It kept throwing food laden bowls at her. She had to jump over stacks of dirty dishes and water-filled sinks while trying to avoid the flying objects. A great canister of basil kept shouting at her, “Don’t stop! Keep running! She won’t hurt you if you keep running!”
She woke up drenched with sweat, tangled in her sheets, and more confused than ever. Maybe Gevin was right after all.