The Thousand Year Tart

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“And to think the biggest problem the advance critics are having is religion,” Shin says, smiling as he holds the pad in his hand, scrolling through the spotlight on his play in the arts page of the planet newsfeed. “As if it matters if I use New Servitism or not. It’s science fiction. The future. As if the audience won’t get the implication.”

For my part I nod and stir, bring the spoon up to my lips to taste it. Too sweet still, and nothing to do about it other than start over. I suppress the grimace that wants to form on my face, and keep my attention on Shin.

“Like there’s anything new under the sun anyway,” Shin says, putting the pad down and looking over at me. His eyes are bright green, almost glowing, the mark of his enhancement, his genius. I bear no such mark, no such destiny, except to help him, to love him. He stands and walks over, licking his lips, his eyes peering at the chocolate mixture bubbling in the pan.

“Maybe they just want something familiar,” I say, knowing it will come out wrong, that I don’t have his way with words. But he expects me to speak, to act the part of the public that seems so far beneath him. “Maybe they just want some frame of reference.”

Shin laughs, his voice high, towering in the air like a satellite. “They’re human, aren’t they?” he asks, and I just stir the pot. “They’re fully equipped to understand, have all the tools. I think they just don’t like the message. They want God to be the robot, mechanical, logical, putting everything right with pure reason. But the God I show them is a human god, an artist suffering. That’s what they’re afraid of, that God’s just as messed up as the rest of us, that we are all just a work of art that was made and then walked away from.”

“At least you’re getting a lot of press,” I say, hoping it helps, that it deflects the conversation away from God and art and all those things that Shin seems to like talking about endlessly. It’s his genius, I know, but sometimes it gets lonely when he seems so far above, when I just want to feel him close, to be a part of him. I stir the chocolate and he reaches down, sticks a finger in the mix, tastes it.

“Ugh,” he says, his face twisting some. “Too sweet.”

Rehearsals are taking place in the small studio behind our flat, a cramped space barely able to fit all twelve actors and dancers. Since they are all mechanical they don’t complain. I sit in the back with jars of spices, different flours, sugars, all laid out around me. I pick up a jar of cane sugar and smell it, let the pungent sweetness work its way up my nose, as though I am applying it directly to my brain.

The mechanicals, all of them humanoid in shape, all of them completely silent at the moment, sit before Shin as he reads from the script. They are recording, I know, all of them committing Shin’s instructions to memory.

A completely mechanical play has never been done before. The unions are threatening to sue, to get Shin blacklisted, but he doesn’t care; he’s been blacklisted a dozen times before and they always take him back, and he continues to sweep up award after award.

“Okay, now this is where the Messiah is trapped in the temple,” Shin says, “and the armies have him surrounded. And all the people inside with him know they don’t have enough food to eat. They cry to him for bread, but he smiles slyly.” Shin demonstrates, crossing his arms over his chest and looking at them with green eyes tinged with sadness and compassion and, somehow, a boyish mischief.

“He heads to the small cooking area off stage,” Shin says, and the mechanical heads don’t even nod, just stare at him as he pauses for a moment. “And then, instead of bread, little tarts start appearing. More and more are passed out from the kitchen and all his followers break forth in cheers at the miracle. They eat, and they dance, and they rejoice until they fall tired and still with sleep.”

I put down the sugar, pick up a bottle of nutmeg, hold it next to a bottle of cayenne. I will be cooking the tarts. It was Shin’s idea that to demonstrate the miraculousness, the abundance of the Messiah’s gift, the tarts should literally overflow the stage, be made to feed every member of the audience, and give them a taste. I know I am not up to Shin’s vision, but he will not hear it. He wants me to cook for him, to be good enough for him, and I want it too. More than anything.

I sniff the nutmeg and cayenne together, trying to think what faith would taste like, how a miracle would sit on the tongue. There are layers to Shin’s play, to the idea of the tarts, so there should be layers to the actual food. The play is about art, so the tarts must be little works of art.

“When they wake, however, they find their Messiah gone,” Shin says, speaking as if the mechanicals could feel the suspense of his story. For now it the tension is mine alone, the lone person in the sea of clockwork minds.

I put down the nutmeg and pick up a bottle of cinnamon.

“They search and search,” Shin says, “but only find the oven he used to make the tarts. They open it—and at this point they’ve wheeled it onto the stage—and find that it is still warm, that there are still tarts inside. They take them out, discover they are somehow unburned. They close it, open it again, and more tarts have appeared. It is a miracle, but the Messiah is gone.”

The mechanicals listen and I wonder if I shouldn’t add some animal fat to the tarts perhaps. Maybe some bacon. There has to be something that makes them transcend. That makes them truly special.

“The tarts, however,” Shin says, “never stop. Every time the oven is opened there are more. The followers toss them out of the temple and the armies eat them, and instantly they are converted. The wicked empire falls as every man, woman, and child tastes the tarts. They all know that the Messiah somehow has become the tarts, that he has done it for them. They all understand and everything changes.”

I wonder in some ways if the mechanicals even comprehend what it means. They are logical, literal. It’s why no one has ever used them in stage productions before as more than a prop or a dancer. They are precise, yes, but it is universally agreed that they cannot act. There has never been a mechanical actor until this play, until Shin’s The Thousand Year Tart.

The fire flits blue and orange as I adjust the settings on the ancient stove. Next to the new ranges that can boil water in seconds, that can precisely match any temperature down to a degree, the clumsiness of flames is like trying to play the piano with my toes, but Shin says the meal needs something special. I adjust the flames again and then start adding the chocolate. Baking will be easier, as long as I watch it, but even with constant attention there is the chance the chocolate will burn now and spoil everything; no one can unburn chocolate, not even Shin.

“People are saying that your play is going to be the biggest failure since the Broadway Collapse,” the interviewer, some smartly dressed woman from the top aggregator, says as she looks over to me and jots something down on her pad, stylus moving dramatically. Shin, sitting at the kitchen table with her, smiles as if he’s just caught her in a trap.

“People will just have to wait and see,” Shin says. “I’m sure I’ve earned at least an honest assessment of the finished product and not shots in the dark trying to sink the ship before it sails.” Shin laughs, but I know he’s more serious than he lets on. Bad press is not new to him, but he always resents those who want to judge him before they’ve seen his plays.

“But why cast mechanicals as not just your principles, but your entire cast?” the woman asks, again making a show to write something on her pad. I stir the chocolate quickly, turn down the heat. I can smell the aroma lifting up to greet me. The chocolate is dark, which only makes it easier to burn, so I try to pay attention to it and not get distracted.

“Because mechanicals will give the same performance every time,” Shin says, “and I want people to see more than just the actors on the stage. When a play is normally performed, dozens of things go wrong. Every time. There is no way to help it when using human actors, human minds. So I want to make this play as pure to my vision as possible. There will only be two human minds involved, mine and Colin’s.” He motions towards me but I keep my head down, keep stirring as the chocolate melts.

“And you expect this will make the play better?” the woman asks.

The chocolate is close to melting completely or burning and I quickly add some heavy cream. Keep stirring.

“I expect it will make it more meaningful,” Shin says. “There will be no question as to what the audience is supposed to see. The only error could possibly come from us, the only meaning only from us. It places the pressures and the weight of the play on our shoulders alone. No diffusing responsibility out among dozens. If it fails, it will be because of us. If it succeeds, it will be because of us. It’s personal that way, something I think everyone in the audience will relate to.”

I keep stirring, adding more cream, but I can smell the slight burning aroma in the air. I slowly dip a finger into the pot, taste it. Ruined. I don’t sigh, don’t betray my disappointment. I do feel the crush of expectations. Shin’s faith in me hangs like a stone around my neck. But I keep stirring, keep going.

The kitchen at the theater is huge. Shin has spared no expense in installing the old gas and flame ovens and ranges. To offset the archaic equipment are a number of mechanical aides. They’re not humanoid like the actors or dancers but instead are designed for cooking, each floating around the room, their six arms making them look like metal squids.

“Doesn’t it wreck the whole point, having these here?” I ask, more because I don’t feel comfortable with them around than because I don’t think they’re appropriate. The play is days away and I still have not perfected my recipe.

“Colin,” Shin says, putting a hand on my shoulder. I feel a rush at the contact, like my whole body warms to the touch. “It is the whole point. Just as I will have mechanical players, so will you. I know your skills are great, but there’s no way you can cook for two thousand people all by yourself, and having human assistants would dilute the message.”

I hear him, but it hardly registers. I’m looking into his green eyes, alive with intellect. He seems like an angel flying upward, burdened by my weight.

I nod and move to the stove, turn on one of the burners, start adding chocolate to a pan. Arranged around me are jars of various sugars and creams and spices. I have a few different crusts prepared, cooled and ready. I need to find the right combination. Shin is beside me, gazing at the slowly melting chocolate.

“Don’t you heat the cream before the chocolate?” he asks, and I smile, blush with embarrassment. He’s no chef, but he has a point; it would be easier to heat the cream first and not the chocolate. Burning is much less likely, labor less intense.

“I thought this way would be more appropriate?” I say, hoping he doesn’t hate me, doesn’t think of me as the idiot I feel like. “I thought… there’s a much higher chance of failing this way, for not much gain. This way the chocolate is heated directly, which changes it subtly, and I think produces a better flavor. If it doesn’t burn.”

I can’t quite look at Shin to see his expression, but he takes in a small breath and then I feel his lips brush against my cheek. I want to swoon, or turn and embrace him, but just as quickly he is back away and I hear his laugh. I look over to see his green eyes glowing.

“I knew you’d be perfect for this,” Shin says, and then walks back toward the stage. “Let me know how it turns out.”

I remain in the kitchen, where I will perform, where Shin’s vision will live or die.

The theater hops with excitement, movement, everything coming together now as Shin takes a group of investors through the motions, waving to the minimal props, the assembled actors.

“The universe is a work of art,” Shin says, giving a low bow to the men and women, all of whom are dressed in shades of off-white, creating a stark contrast to the glowing colors of their eyes. All of them are enhanced, like Shin, and all are expecting something they will be able to talk about for weeks.

“And, like any work of art, its beauty comes from its peril,” Shin says, “from the chance it has to fail miserably. We are taking huge risks here, in hopes of creating something very special. Thank you for bringing this vision to reality.”

There is applause and some light cheering, the crowd quite pleased it seems with everything. I am sitting in the back with a small tray of tarts, tasting each one of my new creations. The play is tomorrow and I still have not decided on the recipe, but I am done cooking until tomorrow. I have samples to taste, but otherwise I tell myself I will decide tomorrow, as the play is starting. It seems best that way.

“Will you give us a preview?” one of the investors asks, eyes a fiery red. Shin shoots him a look that kills the thought, and he shakes his head. There will be no preview. The book might be done and the songs all committed to memory by the cast, who could perform them perfectly, but Shin hates previews. And besides, my part is not ready.

“You will have a chance to see what your generosity has bought tomorrow,” Shin says, and the investors grumble but don’t ask more.

I take a bite of a tart, roll the creamy filling over my tongue. The crust was made with bacon fat, the chocolate infused with smoked, ground chipotle pepper. I can taste the spice, the savory and the sweet bitterness of the chocolate. It’s close, but seems lacking something. It’s me, I know. I’m just not the artist that Shin is. Tomorrow we will all know it, but for now I keep it to myself; I want Shin to think for one more day that I am there with him, his equal.

The play starts with great fanfare and Shin kisses me on the lips, lightly, before retreating to his position, making sure everything is ready and running smoothly. In some ways his part in this is already over. He will enjoy the show from the control room, surrounded by a crew of mechanicals. My own helpers zip around the kitchen, extensions of my vision as I am an extension of Shin’s.

The recipe I have is committed to memory, but I know even now that it won’t be enough, that though it is probably the most delicious thing I have ever made it still falls short. The mechanicals around me start mixing together ingredients. I don’t move. There are a few things I will need to see to myself, but for the most part the mechanicals will finish the tarts, will bake them as I have programmed them to do.

On stage the drama is unfolding as the mechanical actors give their lines. I can hear them mimic emotion, pulling from recordings of all the great human actors. The words are there, and yet even I can tell that something is strange about it, not quite right. It all hinges on the climax, on the tarts, on the few human elements left to the production. I start melting the chocolate in small batches, stirring constantly.

Shin’s face flashes in my mind, his eyes like stars to guide me, my hands clumsy as they stir. If I was a robot I would be testing the temperature of the chocolate, would be timing everything based on stirring speed and volume, heat and air pressure. As a human I have only my own eyes to watch the chocolate melt, my own nose to smell for the first sign of burning. But it doesn’t burn, and I add the cream, keep stirring. I add the cayenne and a bit of cinnamon, the smallest amount of clove. The tart must taste of the promise the Messiah is making his people. It needs to be warm and exotic and yet familiar, nostalgic. I taste it. Almost there. Still, something is missing.

I hand off the stirring to one of the mechanicals and wonder again what could be missing. When the Messiah cooks, he becomes the tarts. I start cutting walnuts with a knife, chopping them coarsely to be added to the top of the tarts. Outside, act one is falling on the audience, the rise of the Messiah. My knife deflects off a bit of nut, and I recoil sharply but feel the bite of pain in my finger. The cut isn’t deep, but I see I’m bleeding. I bring the wound to my mouth, suck the blood. The metallic tang of the blood mingles with the spice and the sweetness. My eyes widen.

Moving across the kitchen, I take one of the mechanicals waiting to watch the ovens, and start to reprogram it. There is time left, I hope. I move back to the chocolate mixture being stirred by the other mechanical, hold my finger over the pot, and squeeze it. Pain shoots up my arm as a few drops fall down into the mixture. Then I move back to a new pot, begin melting more chocolate. When it is ready I add cream, then the spices. The mechanical that I reprogrammed hovers over, waiting, and I nod to it as it reaches out a knife and cuts my arm near the wrist. Blood pools and starts to drip, and I carefully measure out some into the pot.

I keep going, and with every pot of chocolate I melt I add a bit more of myself. I wonder, strangely, if this was Shin’s aim all along, if he knew that it would come to this, if he believed that I would figure it out. I wonder if this is all his will, his vision, or if there is some of mine there as well. I cannot tell. It seems impossible to distinguish what I owe to him and what is coming from me, just from me. The blood, at least, is mine alone, and as the mechanical cuts and cuts and my arms start feeling heavy I think that might be enough.

By the time the chocolate is all ready I can’t move far. I collapse to the floor and the mechanicals pour the chocolate into the shells and begin baking them. The smell is intoxicating but fading, like my vision. If I call for help now I’m fairly sure that someone would hear. Out on the stage the mechanical actors are performing, and beyond that the audience is watching, and beyond that Shin sits in the control room. But I won’t stop the play, especially not now.

By the time the third act is reaching its peak the cooking is done and I can’t feel my body. I can barely hear the play outside, can barely see the mechanical helpers start to cart the tarts out to be distributed around the theater. I hope that Shin gets one, up in the control room. I imagine him taking a bite, those green eyes glowing in the relative darkness of the room. I imagine a single tear escaping him, and then no more.

end article

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Charles Payseur

About Charles Payseur

Charles Payseur currently resides in the frozen wastes of Wisconsin with his partner and their growing herd of pets. He survives the long winters thanks to companionship, books, and more beer and cheese than is strictly healthy for him.