Tag Archives: Annabelle Bechamel

A Postcard Homage on the Occasion of the Nth Burning of the Civic Archives

For the last six days I have been holed up in Brooklyn, blissfully enjoying a writing vacation that I’ve spent working on the second draft of a new manuscript that, at the moment, I’m simply calling Charlotte Underground. Yesterday I wrote a page for the beginning of the book, introducing the location. As you might’ve guessed, as I’m posting this here rather than on my “professional” site at www.clockworkfoundry.com, this story is set in Nagspeake.

Charlotte’s story touches on a lot of the things I love about this city: feral metallurgy, architectural drift, the legendary smuggler known as the Gentleman Maxwell, and Bud Chell’s wonderful Shore to Shore radio program that, unfortunately, currently only broadcasts in Nagspeake and along the Odd Trail. The opening page doesn’t remotely get into all of that wonderfulness, but maybe it gives a little bit of the sense of the city anyway. In any case, writing it made me a little wistful and homesick–if the term can be applied to a place that isn’t, technically, your home–for my little flat in Shantytown with its restless fire escape, Annabelle Bechamel’s homemade lavender madeleines and rotgut gin, and the constant warring of the muddy, vegetal smell of the Skidwrack River with the clean brackish breezes off the Magothy Bay. And since I haven’t posted here in ages, and since it’s Burning Day, which despite my mixed feelings on the subject seems to demand some marking of the occasion, and since anyway I have no way of knowing if this page will survive the next draft, here it is.

There is a city on a bay.

It is a city of shifting identity: it has been a pirate stronghold, a smuggling hub, a derelict ruin, a major beach destination, the victim of ruinous plots and depredations, and the architect of others. It is a city of shifting nationality: it speaks the languages of nearly every country that ever colonized North America or sent ships in that direction (you have to really, if you’re going to be a halfway-decent pirate hotspot), but it had never truly belonged to any of them. These days it is connected by train, one mostly-forgotten road and a very patchy uplink to the country it shares a continent with, but those are the extent of its ties.

It is a city of shifting history: several times every century the citizens burn the Archives building and all the records in it, then spend the years until the next burning vigorously debating the past they spent so much time and effort erasing the evidence of. It is a city of shifting alliances: it has sheltered thieves and lawbreakers, maniacs, visionaries, dissenters, and saints; it has been under the thumbs of terrible mayors, a despotic mail order catalogue empire, and at least one prophet (there might’ve been more, but if so, records of them have been lost). Sometimes it has even turned on itself like a snake rearing back to bite its own tail. And that’s just the citizens, doing what people who live in close proximity with thousands of other people sometimes do. But cities are more than just the sum of the people who live in them.

This is also a city of shifting waterlines. It is a city of shifting sands: great dunes that sweep across streets and have to be fenced in. And it is a city that sometimes simply, inexplicably, shifts itself. Sometimes the shifts are small and amount to nothing more than disorientation and inconvenience: a fence, a balcony turning up in an unaccustomed place, or a garden one day having two gates rather than one. Other times (to the eternal annoyance of tour guides and printers of street maps) they are larger ones that require people to file changes of address with the postal service. To be fair, though, these bigger shifts are rare enough that most people in the city ignore them, if they believe in them at all.

Happy Burning Day, Nagspeake.

Annabelle the MMA Goddess and the Mystery of the Missing Pots

Annabelle Bechamel and I have been friends since basically the day I arrived in Nagspeake. I have been a regular at Magothy Treats, the eponymous confectionery shop on Bay Byway, if not every day then at least every third day. Annabelle has heard every gripe I’ve had for the last two years, and I’ve listened to plenty of hers. You share enough of Annabelle’s liquors with somebody and you get to be friends or you start worrying about blackmail; Annabelle and I became friends, something we’d probably have done even without the drinks, and I can’t imagine this city or my life in it without her. But something happened a couple of weeks ago that drove a bit of a pike into our friendship. Actually it was two things: 1) my husband a care package to Nagspeake, and 2) Annabelle and I joined Twitter.

Before I explain how these things caused the rift they’ve caused, let me explain that Nathan mailed the package to me in care of Magothy Treats because my apartment in Creve Coeur is notorious for “losing” mail. Creve Coeur is one of the slightly less-squalid neighborhoods of Shantytown, but it’s still Shantytown, and it’s just better–safer–if you keep a post office box someplace else. Annabelle offered her shop as my post office box, which was wonderful of her until this particular mailing. I’m sure she had no intention to steal anything, but suddenly a flurry of tweets from Annabelle’s account demonstrated a sudden fascination with mixed martial arts, which suggested to me that she just might have gotten into my mail. My husband, you see, is a mixed martial arts geek, and was concerned that I might have been missing our domestic evenings at home with a few beers and the complete history of the UFC, which we were working our way through. So he mailed me every single one, including a bunch of other promotions he particularly likes. I suspect that if Annabelle has been plowing through them as fast as her growing obsession would indicate she’s almost done with them, at which point Nathan’s care package will miraculously appear and make its way to me. That’s fine. I have plenty to keep me busy. Annabelle of course denies that she intercepted my mail, although she has more or less admitted to the crime on her website. Whatever. I’m willing to accept her apology along with the DVDs whenever she’s done with them. But someone out there who was reading our tweets back and forth, which anyone would be forgiven for reading as evidence of animosity between the two of us, then called me anonymously claiming to have Annabelle’s long-missing collection of antique copper pots in case I wanted them.

Now, if you’re not in Nagspeake or if you are and somehow have missed the fact that Magothy Treats hasn’t sold caramels since last winter, here is the quick background. Annabelle has always been justifiably famous for her seasonal caramels. In the spring she makes Bouquet Caramels, flavored with things like rosewater and orange flower, hibiscus and lavender and plenty more exotic blossoms. In the summer she does some amazing thing she calls Saltwater Caramels, which are like a weird hybrid of taffy, caramel, and summer honey. In the fall and winter they get warmer, flavored with spicy liqueurs and things like clove and ginger and cardamom and whatever more interesting spices she happens to have on hand. I was heartbroken that she didn’t make them this year, because they were going to be my Christmas presents to just about everybody. And the reason Magothy Treats has been without caramels (and plenty of other things it usually stocks) is the disappearance of Annabelle’s heirloom copper pots and pans.

You will have to get her to tell you the story of where they were made and how they came to her. I have suggested over and over that she write it down somewhere. The tale involves romance, smuggling, ciphers hammered into the surface of a turbotiere that lead to the negotiation of a very secret treaty by codes based on flavored candies made in the same pots Annabelle now uses to make her confections. In honor of her collection of pots, Annabelle had plans this year to introduce a gift box of Treaty Caramels, reproducing as faithfully as she could the candied correspondence that enabled the Magothy Concord and set Nagspeake on the path to becoming the great city it sort of is. But everything went to hell when she took a nap at the counter one day and woke up to find her kitchen pillaged.

Annabelle claims she knows who did it. If she does, she’s never named names, probably because it’s a little unnerving to have somebody waltz past you and steal a truckload of metal without making so much as a sound. She also claims she knows how they did it, and you have to know Annabelle to understand why this would be a logical conjecture on her part, but she says the thieves must’ve used a Hand of Glory to do their dirty work.

A Hand of Glory. Where to start? Well, like any good sinister bit of old European weirdness with any kind of history to it, there are plenty of variations. Some say you use the left hand of a hanged man. Some say you want the hand of a murderer, and it should be the one that committed the slaying. It’s used for home invasion, basically; either the hand is lit like a candle, or it’s made to hold a candle that can only be put out by very specific means. As long as the candle’s lit, whoever you rob will sleep, enabling you to abscond with her copper pots without having to worry about noise. Whatever variation you make your Hand of Glory according to, though, there are other tricky ingredients to source before the Hand will work. You need, for instance, a substance often translated as Lapland Sesame. There is supposed to be no such thing. Annabelle, being obsessed with weird spices, actually went looking for Lapland Sesame not too long ago. She hadn’t found it, but she thinks somewhere along the way in the course of her search she must’ve talked to someone who not only knew what she was talking about, but knew what it actually is and what it was used for. She clearly also thinks she knows who that person is.

I think I know who that person is, too. There just aren’t that many people in Nagspeake who both wish Annabelle ill and seem likely people to know about the arcane history of strange spices. I can think of two off the top of my head: John Pinnard, owner of Nagspice, Bayside’s premier spice shop; and Salvie Edmondson, owner of Cryptic Messages, a psychic parlor a few mileposts down the Byway from Magothy Treats. Neither sound precisely like the strange voice that called me a week ago offering the pots up for sale, but then both of them could safely assume I’d recognize their voices if they weren’t disguised. Of course, there could be an unknown dark horse out there whose grudge against Annabelle or her landmark candy shop I don’t know about. I presume, though, that whoever it is has read our Twitter conversations but not my Expat archives, or they’d have understood our spat for a spat rather than any kind of real animosity. My money’s on Salvie because although Pinnard’s a pretentious bastard, I don’t think he’s got a shred of real evil-spiritedness to him. Salvie, on the other hand, is a real bitch. She also happens to have recently been divorced by Annabelle’s brother Ted. We’ll see. I’ve arranged a hand-off meeting to buy the pots this evening. I have an itemized list from Annabelle to make sure I get the whole lot, and in my correspondence with the anonymous caller I’ve hinted strongly that if he/she is willing to sell the secret to stealing a heap of metal without waking a sleeping confectioner, I will pay extra. We shall see what it all turns up. More to follow!

(From 14 January, 2009)

Annabelle and the Hand of Christ

The first thing I did when I moved to Nagspeake was find the local candy shop.

Okay, it was actually about the fourth thing. I did have to find someplace to live, and I did have to find someplace to buy alcohol, and I did have to pee. Actually that last thing was kind of the priority after I got off the train, and no one who knows me will believe me if I claim I did anything else first. But then I decided to find a nice little place to have a drink before I went apartment hunting and found myself, as a result, looking for the local candy shop, where I was assured I could sit on a porch with a water view and have a nice cocktail.

Annabelle’s way of serving a nice cocktail is to shove through her screen door with a bottle of what she calls her “heirloom gin” under her arm, a tray of little bottles full of thick, jewel-colored syrups in one hand and an ice bucket clamped in the other. The glasses, shortbread, and grape salad took another trip.

It really should be said right away that Annabelle’s heirloom gin is the refined great-granddaughter of the bathtub variety. I’m not kidding. I’ve seen the bathtub. It is a loud cocktail party of flowers and herbs–juniper (of course) singing just a bit louder than the other partygoers–tipsy as even the most genteel of ladies can get when drinking in the sun, but managing to harmonize perfectly nonetheless. Then she tips in the contents of one of those little bottles, adding a few drops of some indescribable elixir the color of sea-glass, the result of which is a gimlet plus ultra, without the syrupy sweetness of the conventional variety but with an extra kick of juniper and basil.

“I like gin in my gin,” Annabelle said as she added tonic to our second round.

Magothy Treats sits on the inland side of Bay Byway, the main beach road through the Bayside Quarter, and by some miracle of zoning or possibly some homeowner’s bad luck, there’s nothing to block the view of the water across the street. Just one empty lot with a birdhouse and a faded For Sale sign stuck in the scrub grass at an angle that suggests it’s been buffeted by the wind for a couple seasons, if not years. After a couple of gimlets the waving of the sign actually takes on a sort of restful quality as it waves back and forth in the beach wind. At some point after I reached this stage of mellow communion with the For Sale sign that Annabelle said conversationally, “I’m on an alchemical quest, by the way.”

By the way? How does anyone go on an alchemical quest by the way?

I don’t self-edit well at the best of times, and this was after drinks. I can only imagine what the look on my face must’ve been.

“More shortbread?” Annabelle pushed the tray across the table. Was it my imagination, or did she shove it a little to the side of me, so it wound up in a patch of sunlight on the table instead of the shade directly in front of where I sat? Was it my imagination, or did the shortbread actually sparkle a little bit in the sun? Sparkle a bit more than one might chalk up to butter and sugar crystals reflecting the light?

It tasted perfectly normal, but still.

“An alchemical quest?” I repeated, holding my wedge of shortbread up to the light and turning it this way and that in what I hoped was a subtle manner.

“I’m looking for the manus christi,” Annabelle said. “It’s a very mysterious sort of candy. Or cordial. Or something. Nobody really knows. It’s different every time someone writes about it, but pretty much all the accounts are from centuries ago. But I have a theory.”

“…?”

“It used to be that confections were mostly made for medicinal reasons. Sweeteners came into Europe from other places, along with accounts of sweets in those more exotic places. Bear in mind, this is at a time when the same traders were telling first-hand stories of dragons and weird monsters. They’re not all exactly reliable. Take marzipan.”

“Which is like a weird monster…how?”

“People have been eating it and writing about it for hundreds of years, but it means something different depending on where it’s made and when, and since nobody really can prove where it originated, nobody knows what recipe is the closest to what it was when it was invented.”

Since it hardly seemed polite to pull out a notebook and pen, I had to reconstruct a lot of the conversation afterward, but the upshot of the afternoon was this: Annabelle’s theory was that the manus christi represented no less than a confectionery form of the elixir of life–the holy grail of alchemical pursuits throughout the ages. She theorized that someone, somewhere had seen it or tasted it, and brought the account back to Europe, where it made perfect sense for an essentially medicinal marvel to be equated with a confection, since European candy, she said, originated in the apothecary world. All recipes for the manus christi, which means, roughly, Hand of Christ, descend from attempts to re-create that original recipe. None of them, she said, are correct.

I have, since that conversation, done a little research on my own. Nothing like the scope of Annabelle’s scholarship on the subject, but enough to realize that on some level, Magothy Treats is like a little alchemist’s lab in its own right. Sure, there are candies you know and recognize, but there are little red flags, the markers of her quest, for those who know where to look. And there is always one round tray of something special sitting on a domed cake plate on the main counter. Usually it has a vague luster to it, as if something golden or pearlescent has gone into it. Often when you lift the domed lid, the smell of roses wafts out at you.

But on that first afternoon on the porch I had yet to see her kitchen with its collection of copper pots and mortars, rows of jars of spices and herbs and glittering powders; or the distilling room full of retorts and alembics straight out of an old laboratory woodcut. That first afternoon I thought it all sounded a little bit crazy, and to be perfectly honest, I think I can be forgiven for it.

“How will you know when you find the right recipe?” I asked.

“The alchemists knew what they were looking for,” Annabelle said. She paused to refill my glass again, mixing the gin with a few teaspoonfuls of something the color of bruised rose petals. “I’ll know.”

(from 14 August, 2007)