Black Cake by María Alejandra Barrios

Black Cake

“Did you know that to get black cake right you have to leave it five days and five nights to rest before putting on the icing?” Abuela asked me while I sat in the kitchen licking my cake-battered fingers. I was little then and didn’t really understand Abuela’s cake rules that she had imposed on our family. 

“When you’re done mixing and baking the cake, you have to spray it with wine and then rum, not the other way around, and then you let it sit for as long as it needs to,” Abuela instructed. “Do you understand?”

I nodded but I didn’t know what she was saying yet. Five days was a lot. Everyone in the family tried to speak to Abuela about how five days in the fridge was a long time, there were other cakes to store and with so many wedding cake orders, there was barely any room for anything else. But Abuela was always right, so she would say five and that was that.

Abuela started a cake business back in the eighties. Back then, Mamá insisted on going to wedding parties with her so she could steal a piece of the black wedding cake and shove it in her purse. When Mamá got home, she would put a slice of the cake under her pillow. When Abuela did the laundry, she would see the light blue and pink icing on the white-laced pillow, and a coarse black hair belonging to Mamá covered in cream.

It was not a secret to anyone that the only thing that Mamá wanted then was to marry. It’s not a secret now, a couple of husbands under her belt. And yet.

Mamá, who never fails to eat all the cookies on the counter and who eats a piece of dark chocolate religiously every day after lunch, can’t eat black wedding cake anymore, for it has brought her nothing but bad luck and me a parade of stepfathers who do nothing but sit around eating the food in the fridge, calling Mamá names and starting fights over cold food and clothes folded wrong. Bite after bite of black cake over the years still hasn’t afforded her a dream of the right husband.

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Mamá starts making wedding cakes for business after she finds my Abuela’s notebook with cake recipes. I question her because she doesn’t want to try the batter, so how is she going to know if they’re any good? But she smiles and tells me to have faith. “If your Abuela had her magic touch for baking, I should have it too. The key is in the flowers.”

So she spends days and nights loosening her wrist. She squints at late hours of the night so the petals of the icing flowers turn out delicate instead of clunky. She learns how to mix colors so they don’t stand out but complement the cake. She never tastes the cakes but encourages me to try them. 

“I bet it tastes just like the ones your Abuela used to make. I swear these wedding cakes are like a time capsule.”

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Mamá opens her golden purse and reveals a perfect slice of wedding cake with a classic white icing flower on top of it. “For you.”

“How was the party?” I ask, and open the fridge to look for a glass of milk. We walk to the living room and sit on the couch cross-legged. My Abuela would hate seeing us sit like that, like little children instead of grown women. Mamá says the party was beautiful, with a live orchestra that made the room vibrate with the sounds of trombones and the tucu-tucu of the tambores for merengue. I can smell the whiskey on her breath. 

When Mamá goes to sleep with all her clothes on, I hide in my room with the piece of cake in my hands. I put it under my bed and close my eyes. The smells of butter, cream, and powdered sugar lull me to sleep. I hope to dream about something else but what I dream about is Abuela in a kitchen that existed way before I was born, manipulating cake batter with her own hands, saying that it was the only way for cakes to turn right. I see her with her straight black hair down to her shoulders, so right before she would divorce my grandfather and cut her hair short. Around the time when Mamá came home from school and told Abuela she had been kicked out because her parents didn’t sleep in the same house. I see Abuela ordering me around, telling me to mix faster. 

A cold breeze wakes me up and I see Mamá opening my window. 

“I couldn’t sleep,” she says, “so I baked a cake.” We go to the kitchen and I see a black cake covered in a thin white layer of frosting. I check the time and realize she barely waited a couple of hours before decorating. Mama for the first time in her life didn’t wait five days. She cuts a piece for us and takes a bite first. 

“It’s not as good,” she says, taking a second bite. “But you should try it.”

María Alejandra Barrios is a Pushcart-nominated writer born in Barranquilla, Colombia. Her stories have been published in Hobart Pulp, Reservoir Journal, Bandit Fiction, Cosmonauts Avenue, Jellyfish Review, Lost Balloon, Shenandoah Literary, Vol.1 Brooklyn and El Malpensante. Her poetry has been published in The Acentos Review. Her work has been supported by organizations like Vermont Studio Center, Caldera Arts Center and the New Orleans Writing Residency. She is the 2020 SmokeLong Flash Fiction fellow.

More by María Alejandra Barrios On January 18, there are still bombs

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