2. Berla, the Amazing Breadwoman

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Berla cracked open the oven to check on her jelly rolls. Inhaling deeply, she let the yeasty-rich air fill her lungs.

"Why you always got to check on them pastries ten times a minute?" Benko scowled from across the kitchen. He cradled a large bowl in the crook of his bad arm as he slung the contents around with a wooden spoon. "You afraid someone's going to steal 'em while you ain't looking?"

"That's silly," Berla replied. "No one's going to steal them from the oven. They'd burn themselves."

Benko knit his brows. "Gee, I hadn't never thought of that. You sure got a mighty big head on your shoulders—and do I mean big."

Berla figured having a big head was a good thing as it could hold more thoughts in it, but she got the feeling the baker hadn't meant it in a nice way. Fortunately, her grammy had taught her exactly what to do when someone was being mean to her. She should just ignore them and pretend they weren't there. She had got to do a lot of pretending over the years.

"You wouldn't have to look so often if you learned how to read an hourglass," Benko said.

Berla forgot to pretend the baker wasn't there. "Don't be silly. You can't read an hourglass. It don't have any words on it." Besides, she didn't need an hourglass when she had her own two eyes. With one glance at the plump forms pulsing over the coals, she knew her jelly rolls were ready to be born. Using her leather apron as a hot cloth, she pulled the pan from the oven and eased it onto the cooling tray.

"Look a little raw if you ask me," Benko scowled.

Berla knew the baker was just jealous because she made the best bread and pastries in Manfred's Mill. Everyone in town thought so, even the old hermit of the hills who said he'd been to the ends of the world and never tasted any better. She wished her grammy could see her now. With her baking, she had shown the town a thing or two about Slow Berla.

Though everyone called her Fat Berla now, the old taunts still rang in her ears. Slow Berla, you're slower than molasses in December. Slow Berla, you're slower than a lame snail. Slow Berla, you're so slow it takes you a month to break wind. Slow Berla, that described her to a point. She walked slow, talked slow, and was slow to grasp the jokes she was so often the butt of. Even kind Master Bokleron had not wanted to take her on at the bakery on account of her slowness. "The pans get very hot, Berla dear. You know, hot." As if Berla hadn't known what the word hot meant. As if she had not made piping hot porridges, teas and stews for her grammy every morning, afternoon and evening.

When her grammy died and went to be with the angels and unborn babies in Rho, Berla hadn't known what to do. Her grammy had left her a small bag of coin, all that remained of the bulging purse she had nestled away in the aristocratic beehive of her hair on their mad flight from Alvaron. There was still enough, her grammy had patiently explained, to last Berla several years until she could find a sweet boy to marry or take up as a nanny for some kind family. Although her grammy had never been wrong about anything before, she hadn't been all the way right about this. Not only was there a lack of sweet boys and kind families in Manfred's Mill, but the money had not even lasted out the funeral.

Berla never imagined dying would be so costly. She hoped it didn't happen to her any time soon; she wouldn't be able to afford it. Lucky for her that the kind mayor had personally overseen the details of the funeral. Although grammy had given her strict instructions on how to spend the remaining coin, when Berla heard how everyone down to the ten hole diggers had agreed out of the goodness of their hearts to accept half what was owed them, she gladly paid them their due, which the mayor counted out on her behalf since she had never learned her numbers past ten.

A few days later, the mayor paid her a follow up visit. With deepest regret he informed her that her grammy had failed to pay her taxes backwards, which seemed like a very silly thing to do but was in fact quite serious. Berla would need to come up with thirty-three gold (enough to buy a small castle) or pack up her things and leave at once.

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