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Body and Soul

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Despite the brothers and sisters’ fond hopes for no more snow that winter, in the days between Nativity and Epiphany, the wind howled and carried great drifts of snow like billowing sails across the flat land and the choppy sea. When the morning after Epiphany dawned still, white, and cold – like a porcelain cup left outside overnight, Babette thought upon waking – Miss Martine could no longer pretend she was her usual healthy self, and took to her bed with a fever, while Miss Philippa fell into brief despair at the thought of walking through the snowdrifts to visit the poor of three villages, including their own, to check on them after the snowstorm and take them a hot meal.

“Even if I ask the grocer to take me part of the way on his cart, we won’t be back till very late,” Philippa lamented to Babette in the kitchen, while Babette made soup in one of the shiny copper pots left over from the French dinner. “And I do not like to leave Martine alone for so long when she is so weak.”

“I can visit the poor here and Brother Karl too,” Babette said, pinching off a few twigs from the bunches of dried herbs she kept hanging on the wall by the stove, crushing them between her fingers, and sprinkling them in the clear, pale soup. “Then I will prepare a cold dinner, pickles and herring, I think, and sit with Miss Martine until you come back.”

Philippa did not like to take advantage of Babette’s goodness, but Babette held firm, and within the hour, Philippa was off, bundled inside her coat and two scarves. She sat beside the grocer on his horse cart, the tin pail in which she carried several covered clay dishes of soup and a loaf of rye bread, tucked up like a foot warmer between her feet and the wooden seat so it wouldn’t spill on the rutted road.

Babette too wrapped her head in a wool scarf and gathered her old, hooded cloak around herself before she set off, beating a path through the fresh snowdrifts down the village’s one and only street. She delivered two meals to bedridden invalids she knew of old, and came last to the cottage inhabited by Karl, one of the surviving members of the congregation, who had been a sea captain in his youth and was fond of talking about his salvation through the late minister’s wisdom and kindness.

“Good morning,” Babette said, tapping her boots against the doorpost to knock the snow off them.

“Ah, good morning, Babette,” Karl said and was interrupted by a great cough. He had walked home with his coat unbuttoned after the celebratory dinner, but the wine – while it served well enough to make a body feel warm – had offered little protection against the December wind. So he had spent the intervening weeks in bed, but he was on the mend now, if slowly, in the way of those hovering on the threshold of eternity. “How fare our little sisters after this terrible storm?”

Babette told him, and he said that he would pray for Martine’s swift recovery, while Babette put down her tin pail and plumped up his pillow, then fetched the scrubbed pine board Karl used as a makeshift table.

A puff of steam rose from the little clay dish when Babette lifted off the cover, still some warmth left in its contents after the brief walk through the snowed-in village. While Babette cut off a slice of bread and passed it and a spoon to Karl on a clean napkin, he leaned over the dish, so low he almost dipped his beard in the warm soup, and took a deep sniff through stopped-up nostrils.

“What is in this?” he asked, curious as a child, no trace of suspicion in his tone. “I smell sage and something else.” Another long and audible sniff. “Wild garlic?”

Babette shook her head. “Marjoram.”

“Ah, marjoram,” he said like he had suspected as much, then picked up his spoon and began to slurp.

Babette busied herself tidying up, putting a brass candlestick back in its customary place on a low shelf, wiping crumbs off the table, but some devil had got inside her and wouldn’t let her keep silent: “And dried mushrooms.”

Karl swallowed a mouthful of soup and looked up at her.

Babette considered pretending she had never spoken, but some of her old pride in her skill - long dormant and then reawakened the night of the French dinner - would not permit it. “There are several kinds of mushrooms that grow here and there, in the woods and the dales, out of the wind. I collect them in summer and dry them on a string. They regain their plumpness and release their aroma when immersed in hot liquid.”

She had never been in the habit of offering free lessons in her craft, and recognized this for a moment of sheer vanity. But Karl’s slow, thoughtful nod told her it was not a sin, or not a grave one.

Cayes en sarcophadge,” Karl mispronounced, slowly and with great care.

Babette waited, but nothing else seemed forthcoming, and suddenly she was hungry to hear more. “Yes?”

Karl soaked a piece of rye bread in his soup, still thinking – choosing his words. The brothers and sisters were as careful and parsimonious with those as with everything else.

“What kind of bird?” he asked at last.

“Quail,” Babette said.

“Ah, quail.” Karl nodded, satisfied. “And the fruit. Grapes, figs, pomegranates.”

“Yes?” Babette prompted him.

“The Book of Numbers,” Karl said, smiling at her. “Those fruits grow in the Holy Land.”

Babette returned the smile. She knew her Bible too, in Latin no less, and Erik, her kitchen helper and impromptu serving boy, had told her of the snatches of pious conversation he had overhead while serving the meal, with poor General Löwenhielm left to fend for himself amid a group of people intent on talking of matters of the spirit, not the palate or the heart.

After she had said goodbye to Karl and stepped back out into the bitter cold, Babette wanted only to follow the same narrow path through the snow back to the sisters’ cottage and warm herself in her kitchen for a bit, before she took Miss Martine some soup and hot tea.

“Babette,” a voice called out to her, followed by the clack of a wooden door shutting, sharp as a rifle crack in the frozen stillness. The wind had died down, heralding a bad frost to come in the night.

Babette saw Anna approach her from across the street, thigh-deep in snow, the center parting in her iron-grey hair as straight as ever.

“Good morning,” Babette offered, but Anna had other things on her mind than pleasantries.

“Did you know that Erik, Hans the fisherman’s son has decided to go to Stockholm?” Anna pronounced the city’s name like it should have been Gomorrah.

“No, I didn’t. Is he looking for work?”

Anna scowled fiercely up at her. “Work? I should say so! He told his mother and father that there is a cook in Stockholm. A French cook,” again that damning intonation, “and Erik intends to apprentice with him.”

“Oh.”

Babette wondered if she had heard of this chef, and what misfortune or quest for gold and glory had brought him so far from home. She thought back to Erik sounding out the names of French wines, not content merely to serve without knowing what it was he was pouring into people’s glasses.

“He is a bright boy, attentive to detail, and curious,” Babette said. “And he likes to eat and drink. These are useful qualities for a chef to have.”

Her attempt at levity and reassurance fell on deaf ears.

“And what are his mother and father supposed to do once he is gone, lost to the world? They have no other children. Did you think of that before you filled his head with temptation?” Anna folded her frost-bitten hands in front of her, glaring her challenge at Babette.

Babette knew that reasoning with the old woman was useless. She reined in that devil inside her, which urged her to quote the minister’s own words: May the bread nourish my body, may my body do my soul’s bidding. Apparently Erik’s soul aspired to great things, or at least greater than this village and the world hereafter.

“That is unkind,” Babette said softly and watched with a mixture of satisfaction and shame as Anna flinched and then swiftly puffed herself up again. Just like a quail, Babette thought: small, brown, and quarrelsome.

After Anna had waddled back her cottage, muttering about Papist trickery, just as she had used to do when Babette had first arrived in the village, Babette completed her journey home and went to sit with Miss Martine. They read and sewed, and spoke but rarely. All was stillness and peace, with only the occasional crack of a dry tree trunk breaking in the cold to disturb them.

Night came early, and Martine began to fret about Philippa still not being home.

“Miss Martine, I wanted to ask you something,” Babette said, half to distract her, and half because it seemed to be a day for all her wildness, so long suppressed, to spend itself all at once. “Would you and Miss Philippa be amenable to the carpenter building us a beehive in the spring?”

Martine turned away from the window, through which she had been peering anxiously, and regarded Babette with blank astonishment on her pale, still-beautiful face.

“A beehive?” Martine repeated. “You wish to keep bees, Babette?”

“We would save money on sugar if we made our own honey,” Babette said, calm and reasonable, although in her breast the desire to have and keep her own bees suddenly burned as violent as a forest fire. She knew it would run counter to her purpose to persuade Martine, so she did not describe how the little round biscuits she sometimes baked for the brothers and sisters’ daily prayer meetings would melt on the tongue if she made them with a dollop of clear, golden honey instead of a spoonful of cane sugar, the intensity and texture of their sweetness altered entirely by the substitution.

Martine was thinking, her lips still twisted with uncertainty. “I believe my father once spoke of bees in a sermon. He said that bees worked all day to make honey as the souls of the faithful strove for God’s favor,” she said, each word dropped slowly into the air between the two women, and Babette wondered whether Martine was remembering or inventing this, and whether she even knew herself.

“One beehive,” Babette said softly, like she was soothing a frightened child. “We shall have honey aplenty for all the brothers and sisters.”

“Oh Babette.” Martine moved away from the window, crossed the room, and placed her hands on Babette’s shoulders. “I am so glad you didn’t return to Paris!”

No sooner were the words out of her mouth than Martine’s face, always the more expressive of the two sisters’ countenances, changed again. She looked stricken.

“It’s all right, Madame,” Babette said and embraced her employer. Philippa had been the one to hug her the night of the French dinner, so for Babette to hug Martine now felt right and not at all impertinent. “I am glad to be with you too.”

In that moment, she meant it. Not merely indifferent in her grief or grateful for the sisters’ hospitality, in that moment Babette truly loved the two kind sisters, so different from herself, with all her heart. Martine and she parted and smiled at each other, both a little uncertain what to say next. A sound from outside came to their rescue: the creak of cartwheels, a tired snort, horseshoes muffled by the snow, and Philippa’s voice calling softly to them, her hellos rising up like a song of the sleeping earth winging up to the star-strewn heavens.