The Depths of Cloudberry Pie
by M. D. Flyn
Lelia eyed the flyer hanging in the window of the storefront. The box social was coming up. It was the first year she was old enough to make something.
If only she had the time. Or the money for ingredients.
She had to find a way, she had to find a Unit. If the normal route of teas and entertainments wasn’t open to her, she would do something different. She was smart enough to figure it out. She just needed to apply herself.
She would make something spectacular that they couldn’t resist bidding on, and then she’d have an opportunity to show someone how valuable she could be.
Later that evening she was sifting through the recipe book and came across cloudberry pie. Cloudberries were so hard to gather that most people bought them canned, if they wanted to indulge. But the texture of fresh cloudberries couldn’t be beat. If she could afford the liquer she needed for the recipe, and she harvested the berries herself, she could make a pie people would fight over.
Lelia hurried to her room to count her money. The small pile of coins had been saved for ages. Most of the money she made working at the library went straight to Mother. But sometimes she stayed late and the librarian would give her a little extra. Hopefully it was enough for the expensive liquer.
The next day she hurried through her chores, printing the books that were on order. She delivered them in record time, and then rushed to the general store. They had the liquer she needed, for almost all of her money. She paid up and clutched the bottle the entire way home, fearing she would drop it.
When the precious liquid was safely hidden in her room she quickly packed a bag and headed up the mountain.
It took a long time to climb. The steep slope was a challenge. She made her way up the road until she had to veer off into the forest. There were some tricky spots on the path with steep cliffs. Finally she came to the clearing where the cloudberries grew. They were a low-lying plant growing in a clearing. She picked bunches of them, careful to take the ripe ones. As the berries ripened they became sweeter, but an unripened cloudberry was very bitter and would ruin her pie. She picked until she was afraid she would run out of light on the path, then hurried home.
When she got home she didn’t even have time to clean the berries, it was straight to chores and then dinner and bed.
The next day she rushed through her work again, made her deliveries, and then hurried back home to try a practice pie. She made the filling, which wasn’t hard at all. She stashed the liquer in a cabinet while she worked, hoping Father didn’t find it. It would disappear if he did. She started the pastry, which was the tricky part. It was a very wet pastry, hard to work with. But for a box social fancy pastry would be expected. Fancy packaging would be expected as well, but she hadn’t figured that part out yet.
The first pie was in, Lelia resisting the urge to check the oven often. The pastry would overcook quickly, but if she checked too often it wouldn’t bake right, either.
She was staring at the oven with her arms folded when Teodoro stuck his head in from the stairs. “Hello! What do I smell and when can I have some?”
“You can help me try it, if I manage to not burn it. I think I did the pastry ok on the first try. If I’m lucky I won’t have to go back for more cloudberries.”
He scrunched his face up in mock horror. “You went to get cloudberries without me! You know I’ve been itching to get some climbing in up there.”
“I know, but you were working, and I don’t have a lot of time before the box social.”
“This is for the box social?”
“Sure. I figured I’ll have to wow them, and this will do it.”
“That it will. But they want you to register months in advance for the box social. I thought you weren’t registered.”
“I’m not. Sure they like that, but that’s just so they don’t get too many duplicates. There’s no rule that you can’t bring something.”
Teodoro sighed. “Lelia. There’s no written rule.”
“They’re not going to turn down a cloudberry pie. It will get a good donation for their precious theater project.”
“Ok. But dare I point out, you’re supposed to be all dressed up, new clothes and everything. Show off your prosperity for the prospective Units and all that.”
She opened the oven a tiny slit, peeked in, then closed it again. “Well my strengths don’t lie in prosperity. I might look a little different, but if I can get someone to listen to me I think I can impress them. I have to do something, I’m missing all the usual ways to meet people.”
“I could also point out that you are expected to show up with your full Unit.”
“I know, believe me. But that is unlikely to happen. I will be conspicuous, but better that and visible at all, than home and invisible.”
“Well you know I’m here to help, if you can think of anything I can do.”
“I know. You always are.”
She pulled the pie out. They chatted as it cooled. Once it was ready she took two slices and they tested it, concluding that it was box social worthy. She had managed it on the first try.
Teodoro waved his fork as he spoke, “You know I have a box you could use for presentation. It’s wood with some nice painting on it. It’s the last one and my boss was trying to get rid of it, I bought it thinking it would be a good gift for someone. You can owe me for it and it will increase the value of your pie.”
“That would be excellent, thank you Teodoro.”
They finished their pie and hid the rest of the ingredients, ready for their final use for the box social.
The day of the box social arrived. The first pie had been enjoyed by the Unit, and the pie she would contribute baked beautifully the day before. Lelia spent the day getting ready. She had the box polished. Her trousers and best waistcoat were clean, and she was scrubbed.
Mother helped her with a simple braid. “I wish I could go with you. I’m afraid to leave Grandmother alone, though. You know she hasn’t been that well lately.”
“I know, Mother. I’m sorry you’ll miss it.”
They didn’t talk about where Father had gone. Better for him to make himself scarce.
Lelia made her way downstairs with her box, the pie safely nestled on a clean cloth. She kept watch out the front windows of the printing shop, watching for Teodoro’s wagon. When his father pulled up she hurried out the door.
One of the older mothers from Teodoro’s Unit kept an eye on the young people, six of the eligible children crammed into the back of the wagon. Lelia smiled as she crammed herself onto the bench next to Teodoro. She was sure that package he held contained some adventurous flavors. The young people chatted while they made their way to the town common.
The weather was fine and everyone was out, chatting and socializing. The evening was warm, with a light breeze coming off the lake. There were tables full of offerings to bid on. The older people milled among the tables looking for something interesting.
Lelia approached one of the librarians, who was helping to place items with their markers. “Excuse me. I have a pie to add.”
“Add? What do you mean, add? I don’t remember your name being on the list, Lelia.”
“I know. I’m sorry, I wasn’t registered.”
“Oh dear. Not registered.” The librarian muttered, looking around for someone with more authority to pass this problem on to. “Hey,” she flagged down a clerk from town hall. “She isn’t registered.” She yanked a thumb at Lelia, who was blushing.
“Not registered? Hmm. I think we have extra labels somewhere, but I’ve never had to use them. We’ll have to find a spot.” He waved Lelia on and got her pie settled.
Lelia moved to the side, feeling awkward. Everyone was dressed up, some in trousers and some in dresses according to their taste, but all in fine fabrics and embroidery. Particularly the young people who were placing items on the tables. This was a social event, and an important step in finding a Unit. They all had expensive outfits and hair that had taken care to arrange. They were all dressed nicely, they behaved nicely, and they did not do things that no one else did.
Leia straightened her waistcoat and her back. They would just have to take her as she was. She did the best she could with what she had, and what she lacked in resources she made up for by working harder than any of these people. Someone would see the value in that.
Many Units had brought most of the family, and all of the eligible children. She was the only single person there. She tried not to look like it as she stood alone.
Lelia waved as she saw Mayme pass by with her Unit. Mayme was dressed very properly in a dress, with a complicated braid holding her curly hair back. She stayed behind her elders and said little as the group moved along. When they were past Mayme slipped away from her family and hurried over.
“Lelia! I thought you weren’t registered.” They hugged quickly. Lelia was careful not to mess up Mayme’s hair or outfit.
“I wasn’t. I had a late addition.”
Mayme’s eyes widened. “Oh dear. What did they do?”
“They found me a spot. You look so nice.” Lelia took a step back and gestured for Mayme to spin. “That’s a fine dress.”
“Isn’t it pretty. The embroidery took forever, we had multiple women working on it.”
Mayme nodded at the box. “What did you make?”
“Really! Oh that will go fast. That’s Edrick’s favorite.”
“No. That can’t be happen. I hope someone else wants it more.”
“I don’t see another one. Canned cloudberries wouldn’t do for the box social, and you are the only one crazy enough to go get them.”
“Great. Isn’t there some other person he’d like to eat with?”
“I would assume so, but I doubt he can pass up cloudberry pie. This event isn’t critical for him, he’ll get who he wants for the Unit one way or another.”
Lelia shook her head. “But I need this opportunity, I need to meet someone. I have to find a Unit. I haven’t met anyone interested yet. Can’t you ask him to buy something else?”
“He wouldn’t listen to me. Besides, everyone knows that’s his favorite. Except you, apparently. He has to buy it, it will be expected. If it was safer to get the berries someone would make one just to attract him.”
“Well that won’t do. He just has to change his mind about his favorite. I need to make some connections and my options are limited. He can have whoever he wants.”
Mayme shook her head, “I wouldn’t try to tell him that.”
Lelia sighed. “What else can I do? I can’t just give up.”
“I think you may have to, picking a battle with Edrick is unwise.” Mayme patted her hand. “Next time you’ll have a better chance, just don’t make cloudberry pie.”
Mayme made her way back to her Unit. Lelia tried to keep her expression welcoming and pleasant, but no one approached her to talk. As the young person she was expected to wait for people to approach her.
The chatter died down as the town Elder Demaris made her slow way to the gazebo, leaning on her staff. The Units had arranged themselves in groups, Teodoro’s Unit comfortingly close to Lelia. The elite were arranged closest to the tables. They had registered first and their boxes would be called first.
The auction began, with Demaris leading the proceedings. It was quickly Mayme’s turn and she came forward to display her box. She had an expensive cut of meat, prepared with the help of their chef and kept warm on a special plate that the purchaser got to keep. The bidding got a little heated, and the amount large, before the item was settled and Mayme went to join the Unit of the winning bidder.
There were quite a few offerings and it was much later when the final item was offered, her pie. “We have a late addition.” Demaris frowned as she picked up the card and read. Lelia moved forward. “Lelia’s Cloudberry Pie.” Demaris’s head jerked up and she glared at Lelia for a moment before smoothing her features. “What will I have for this pie?”
Edrick had not so much as glanced at Lelia, but he also had not bought anything else. She was hoping he didn’t want it, but he squashed that hope as he raised his hand. He called out a hefty donation. The theatre was his mother’s pet project so this was no surprise. No one would dare bid against him no matter what he bid. He probably would have offered one coin if not for his mother’s interest in the donation, and gotten the pie without a fight.
Lelia’s shoulders slumped as she eyed the crowd, hoping someone would bid. The crowd was talking amongst themselves, some already eating. Demaris closed the bid and finalized the auction, motioning Lelia on. Edrick came forward and swept up the pie.
“Well now. I guess I got myself a pie. How thoughtful of you to make my favorite.” He grinned as he gestured for her to sit at a table. He sat next to her and immediately cut a slice of pie. He cut a piece for her as well, but she couldn’t touch it.
“It wasn’t for you.” She said as she stared at her plate.
“You made cloudberry pie from scratch, of course it was for me. No one else would have gotten it.”
“I was not aware of your obsession at the time.”
“If you had been to events like this you would have known.”
“Well I did not have the privilege. Now I know and can make something else.”
“That would be a shame. I doubt anyone else would pay for anything you make. In fact you might embarrass yourself even more, being the first person who couldn’t give their food away. At least this way you save some face.”
“But why? I never did anything to these people. I can contribute, if they’d give me a chance.”
“I’m afraid your family has some history that makes them undesirable, and their unsociable habits haven’t helped you.”
“But that wasn’t me. Why can’t people give me a chance?”
He shrugged. “That’s just the way our world works. You play by the rules or you suffer the consequences. If I’m not mistaken you have made a misstep today. Demaris does not like things that don’t fit, and you set your cap far above your place when you made that pie. Now I understand that it was an honest mistake, but most of the people here will assume that you are reaching above yourself. And my mother will not understand anything. Here she comes, to tell you what’s what.”
He snatched his box and fled as Demaris descended on Lelia, her mouth a grim line. “Young lady, I will have no more of this. First you show up with an unregistered box. Then you have cloudberry pie. I can only tolerate the foolishness of youth so far, and this is beyond. You will set your sights on a more moderate goal. My family is off limits. I know you have a friendship with Mayme, but I only tolerate that for the sake of her condition. If I think it is necessary I will terminate that friendship. Do not test me on this.”
She swept away, leaving Lelia gaping. She could already see people glancing at her and whispering. Apparently she already had a strike against her, and now they all thought she was overreaching herself.
She just wanted to find a connection, to find somewhere to belong. But this world and its rules didn’t have room for someone who didn’t fit. She’d have to make herself fit if she ever wanted to find a Unit of her own.
*2800 words, 15 minute read