‘The Gingerbread Fox’ was one of the stories shortlisted in the Funny Pearls Short Story Competition 2020. We are proud to share it with our readers.
Alex Prince arrived at the palace eager and ready to bake. He had journeyed across snow-kissed mountains and windswept plains on a quest to win the hand of the king’s daughter. Over three days – declared a public holiday by royal charter – Alex and two others would each present the princess with a dish to tempt her failing appetite. Her six older sisters had all wasted away following their seventeenth birthdays, and now only she remained. The princess came with a dowry: a room filled with gold.
His Twitter profile declared him tall, dark and handsome with a passion for all things sweet and sticky. In truth Alex was below average height with a characterful nose and blackcurrant eyes. He did wear his long, liquorice-black hair swept back into a dashing ponytail and kept his beard trimmed to a sexy stubble, but used a Gingerbread Man emoticon as his avatar picture.
When it came to the draw, he pulled out the longest cinnamon stick, meaning he would go last in the challenge. Alex had a dream and needed a room full of gold to make it come true and, like any good son, he also yearned to make his mum proud.
Day one ended in a vat of bubbling sugar for chocolatier Gustav Mocha when his edible volcano, flowing with molten chocolate and marshmallow boulders, left the princess unimpressed. The palace guards led Gustav to the kitchen, burbling and pleading for his freedom, while the Chancellor, in a cut-glass voice, clarified how the failed suitor must now be caramelised. Gustav’s last request was to take a carafe of sea salt with him into the vat.
Alex skulked near the stables, stuffing Viennese truffles against his ears to dull the echoes of Gustav’s screams. He shivered, the damp snow seeping through his thin boots, as he’d fled without thought from the warm kitchen, leaving his father’s greatcoat drying by the fireside. How had Gustav’s display of chocolate not tempted the princess? Alex had never seen such a wondrous spread of hazelnut swirls, rivers of ganache and milk-white delights, each bite coating your tongue like a rich cloth of silk. Closing his eyes, he munched on a slab of gingerbread, inhaling its bouquet of mixed spices that reminded him of home.
The crunch of teeth pricked him back to the stableyard. A fox had followed his trail of crumbs. Its black ears twitched as it gobbled down the fallen chunks of biscuit.
‘Hungry, huh?’ said Alex softly. He broke off a corner and held it out to the animal.
The fox backed away from his outstretched hand, then spun round like a dancing lady and leapt towards the boundary wall. There was a flash of red against moonlit snow and then it was gone, leaving Alex alone again. Alone to contemplate what the next day held for his fellow suitor, Ricardo the Bread Man. If Ricardo succeeded and persuaded the princess to break her fast, then they were both winners, living to see another sunrise. All Alex dreamt of now was to survive the competition, to return home and bake gingerbread with his mum.
Despite her starvation diet, the princess looked quite satiated the next morning as she watched Ricardo lay out his spread of croissants, iced-buns and loaves glazed with gold-leaf and honey. She disguised a yawn, eyelids trembling as if she could barely contain her boredom and stay awake for the poor man. By the end of the day, without a single sliver of food having passed the princess’s lips, Ricardo helped the guards to carry in more kindling to ensure the fire was burning fiercely. He climbed willingly into the bread oven, tears staining his floury cheeks, and pulled the door shut.
Once again Alex sought sanctuary outside the stables, where the soft whinnies of the palace ponies echoed across the yard. More snow had fallen during the day, icing the palace in a silent shroud. This time the fox waited for him, sheltering against the wooden slats, its bushy tail curled around its feet.
‘Still hungry?’ said Alex, feeling a little silly for talking to an animal. ‘Luckily for you, I’ve brought more gingerbread.’
He tossed an oval-shaped biscuit onto the snow in front of the fox, which it ate quickly. Alex held up his own slab and closed one eye to compare the russet sheen of the fox’s coat with the baked ginger.
Upon finishing the biscuit, the fox blinked, revealing eyes as blue as shadows on sunlit snow. It stared at Alex, as if anticipating a story. Alex stared back, beginning to suspect that this was an enchanted creature and one that fully understood his every word.
‘I’m not interested in marrying the princess,’ began Alex, crouching so that he was almost eye-level with the fox. It stank like wet dog. The fox yawned, gaping wide its jaws, tongue licking over sharp white teeth. ‘I am interested in winning her dowry. A room full of gold would fund my café idea: coffee and gingerbread. I’d start small, open one café here in the capital, then maybe more across the kingdom if the first is successful.’ The fox cocked its head to one side. ‘I’d serve the best home-ground coffee flavoured with the sweetest syrups. All the classics: vanilla, butterscotch and of course–’ Alex threw another biscuit onto the snow ‘–well you can guess my favourite. Each day there would be a new display made from gingerbread, the kingdom in miniature.’ He paused, as if listening to his audience. ‘Good question! What shall I call my chain of cafes? How about: The Gingerbread House?’
The fox let out a long sigh and slumped flat onto the snow, muzzle on its paws.
Alex shook his head. ‘You’re right, too clichéd: Gingerbread Palace, perhaps?’
The fox closed its eyes.
‘No, I have it,’ cried Alex with fake excitement. ‘It can only have one name. The Gingerbread Fox!’
The fox sat up on its haunches, gracing Alex with a glimpse of glacial eyes. It seemed to tip its head, as if nodding. From beyond the palace wall came the sharp bark of a dog fox, slicing the frosty air. The fox quivered, a wave of anticipation rippling over its body.
Alex pulled a rectangle of gingerbread from the pocket of his greatcoat. The fox stepped closer and carefully took it from his hand. He felt the animal’s breath hot on his skin. Then it tore away across the snow-covered paddock.
He trudged back to the palace, following the fresh paw prints in the snow. They led to a window on the ground floor, left open despite the freezing temperature, and then stopped. A sprinkling of gingery crumbs dotted the stone windowsill.
Before the sun rose on the final day, Alex worked through the night in the palace kitchen. A scullery maid took pity and helped him with the constant pile of washing-up that needed to be cleared before each batch of baking. Alex filled all the spare ovens with his trays, though couldn’t face opening the bread oven where poor Ricardo still smouldered. As he worked, the maid shared the palace gossip. Fascinated by the ugly sprouting wart on her cheek, Alex tried to focus on her words. And when she finished her story, he knew he had but one chance. If he failed, then his fate would be cruel and brutal. Would he be rolled flat like a slab of raw gingerbread, then baked until golden brown? Or his bones and flesh ground to a powder in a giant pestle and mortar?
In the great hall the courtiers gasped when Alex’s masterpiece was finally carried in. He had recreated the palace and its grounds in gingerbread, miniaturised in every detail. The turrets of the towers were edged in white icing with tiny fondant doves crowded on the rooftops. Gingerbread ponies peered over the doors of their stables, watching a biscuit fox trotting through drifts of meringue snow. Propped against an open window of one of the turrets was a figure with a saffron crown and a tumbling mass of caramel curls: the princess. Alex scratched at his morning stubble and smiled, pleased with his modelling skills. Okay, the animals and princess weren’t truly to scale against the buildings, but any judge would have to be particularly picky to mark him down for that. Only one judge’s opinion mattered. The great hall fell silent as the king’s daughter arrived, a golden cloak wrapped close around her, concealing her face and body.
Alex stood as tall as he could and spoke directly to the princess. ‘Last night one of the scullery maids told me a fabulous tale. How the king, who loved to hunt, tracked a fox to its den and cubs. Hating vermin, the king ordered all seven cubs to be killed, but their mother escaped.’ It unnerved Alex that he couldn’t see the princess’s face deep within her fur-lined hood, but he couldn’t stop. ‘The vixen fled to the wise woman’s cottage at the heart of the forest. The old woman was a midwife, healer and a weaver of spells. She broke a gingerbread tile from her house and fed it to the vixen. The fox transformed into a beautiful young girl with flame-red hair. Of course the king claimed this girl for his wife and she became the queen – your mother.’
The princess pushed back her hood and leant close to Alex. Her perfume was sweetly damp, like a hedgerow after rain, but her breath stank like a butcher’s shopfront. He’d been mistaken about her eyes, they no longer reminded him of a midsummer sky and instead conjured the ice-blue of an alpine lake.
‘We have no scullery maids in the palace,’ she said. Pressing a finger to her face, she added, ‘Did this maid have a large hairy wart?’
Alex swallowed several times. ‘I didn’t really notice.’
‘If she did, then I hope you never shared any food or drink with this storyteller. As dusk falls tonight you may regret that decision …’
‘If I live that long,’ Alex spoke his thoughts out loud. He took a breath and continued his story. ‘The queen had seven daughters who, on reaching the cusp of adulthood, all fell into an enchantment. They fasted day and night, taking no food until they’d reached a decision about their fates. But your sisters would not choose, unwilling to anger the king with whatever they decided, and so they wasted away.’ Alex waved his hands towards the gingerbread model, pointing first at the biscuit princess and then towards the fox. He was particularly proud of the fox with its chocolate-dipped paws and a pinprick of blue glacé icing for its eye. ‘I suspect, Princess, you already break your night-time fast and scavenge for scraps after dark.’
‘The penalty clause was my idea, along with the forfeits.’ Her words slipped out like a snarl. ‘My sisters were foolish. I don’t want to die, but neither do I want to be your wife. I love another.’
Yes, thought Alex, remembering the bark of a dog fox from beyond the palace walls, I bet you do. He would have added that not for all the gingerbread in the kingdom would he want to be her husband, but her flushed cheeks made him cautious. Alex leant in, as if to kiss her, and whispered, ‘Then choose well, my lady.’
She plucked the fox from the display and broke off its tail. Sniffing the gingerbread, the princess smiled, showing sharp white teeth, and then shoved the tail into her mouth.
The courtiers, palace guards and the king all shrieked. The great hall erupted with cheers, clapping and the stomping of feet. Incredible, but the final suitor, a lowly unshaven baker, had broken the enchantment. Now the king’s daughter would live a long and happy life.
The cheering stopped abruptly. The king had surged forward to embrace his daughter, but her cloak collapsed into his arms. Empty.
Realising the king’s shock would quickly turn to rage and then focus in on him, Alex decided to scarper. He didn’t want to end up as a gingerbread facsimile.
Alex allowed himself a moment to watch the fox weaving between the legs of the courtiers as she slunk towards the kitchen – and freedom. He snatched up the gingerbread princess, bit off her head for a much needed sugar fix, and ran for his life.
Tracy has had over ninety short stories published in online and print
journals, including Granta, Brittle Star, The Nottingham Review, Spelk,
Reflex Fiction, Firewords and Popshot. She was the 2017 Regional Winner
(Canada and Europe) of the Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and has been
shortlisted for the Bridport, Fish, Brighton and Willesden Herald
prizes. Tracy tweets as @theliterarypig, and regularly feeds the foxes
who visit her garden, but never gingerbread.
The photo of Grand Place in Brussels that accompanies this story has absolutely nothing to do with foxes or baking competitions. It is just a beautiful image taken by an old friend of Funny Pearls. ♥