I was making gingerbread for my nieces, but when I took the trays out of the oven the little people shapes started walking around.
I watched them step awkwardly off their sheets of baking paper, nudging the gingerbread stars out of the way. Along the kitchen counter they went. They skirted around the jar of hundreds and thousands and the bowl I had put out for the icing. Blank faces turned to me one by one, then turned away.
The gingerbread people set about climbing down to the floor, swinging from handle to handle between the cupboards and drawers. They crossed my kitchen floor, leaving dappled footprints in a patch of spilt flour.
The big window by the pantry was open. They climbed on top of each other to reach the sill and then pulled each other up. They reminded me of ants or bees.
I checked that the oven was turned off then poked the star-shaped gingerbread with a spatula.
They didn’t move.
I considered eating one, to check I’d gotten the ratio of spices to honey right, but somehow that didn’t seem appropriate.
One last jagged line of gingerbread people hauled themselves onto the sill and jumped away. I closed the kitchen window behind them and watched them toddle around to the front of the house. I stopped for a moment, looked around my empty kitchen, then grabbed a pair of shoes and my house keys, and hurried out the front door.
I followed them past the church and the pre-school, the bus stop opposite the service station, the sports oval. They followed the footpath, moving around tree roots and weeds like a school of fish. It was a long way on their tiny legs.
I must have looked very strange, following a swarm of walking baked goods around the neighbourhood. But nobody seemed to pay us any attention.
The afternoon was darkening. What would I give my nieces tomorrow? Just a small batch of iced gingerbread stars? But they always liked my gingerbread people, the way I decorated them with sprinkled hair and different facial expressions.
A few of the gingerbread people threw me scathingly blank glances.
Eventually they led me up a short cul-de-sac at the top of a hill. They walked directly to the very last house, an unassuming place with a dark green roof and an almost overgrown garden. The front door was painted a glossy brown. What would I say to the people inside?
But the gingerbread people veered off the driveway and went down a narrow passage between the garden fence and the house’s brick wall. Bushes lining the fence poked me with twigs and sharp leaves. There were spiderwebs too, and I cursed these gingerbread people, forgetting I was the one who had made them. Then I wondered, had they been born? Or rather created?
At the end of the passage was a garden shed in the corner of a wide backyard. The shed had a sliding door and a latch to unlock. The gingerbread people built themselves into a moving mountain again, climbing up together to the latch. I reached over to help but they stared at me again, blank and warning.
They opened the latch and inched the door open with a metallic screech.
I peered through the crack. There was only empty darkness and shadowy gingerbread people pouring into the corners. I shoved the door further open to let some light in. It was warm—the air inside was heavy against my face.
The wall opposite me was a smudged grey, blackened in places as though with charcoal, and lined with a pattern of horizontal ridges. I leant forward to run my hand down them. To my right the wall felt rougher, more like mesh, but to the wall to my left was as smooth as glass. I drew my hands away, fingertips nearly blistered.
The heat buzzed. I had one foot inside the shed now, the other on the grass. My clothes were sticking to me and each breath was a searing swallow.
There was more scrabbling in a corner and the door squeaked in its metal frame as the gingerbread people started to push it closed. I watched their little shadows working.
I shifted my weight in indecision and pressed my hands to the walls to steady myself. They burned. I gasped and suddenly thought—had I left the oven on? I couldn’t remember.
I slipped out of the shed and fell onto the grass as the door caught at my knee. Out of that mad heat, the afternoon air was cold.
I wiped sweat from my face and looked at the sliding door. I stared as a gingerbread person’s head appeared in the last few centimetres open. They reached their arms out towards me, face blank with anger, but—
The rest of their fellows pushed the door closed with a crisp finality.
The lone gingerbread person was cut in half along their gingerbread waist.
Their torso dropped to the grass, immobile. Inanimate homemade gingerbread.
I sat there, looking between the shed and the broken piece of gingerbread. Then I remembered my own oven. Surely I had turned it off?
Yes, I thought. I had.
There was no need to hurry home.
I picked up the gingerbread and made my way back through the tiny passage at the side of the house, down the driveway, out of the cul-de-sac. I turned left down the hill. It was nearing dusk. There was a flash in the distance as the bright lights over the sports oval came on.
I held up the leftover half of the gingerbread person in my palm. It didn’t look too bad.
I bit off its head.
The spices were perfect.
Emma Charlotte Green is a writer from Sydney, Australia. She lived in France for a few years and in 2021 earned a Master’s degree in comparative literature from Université Grenoble Alpes. Now back in Sydney, she is spending a lot of time reading, writing and laughing.
photo by Jonathan Taylor (via unsplash)