The Chocolatier by Anna Marie Laforest (Copyrighted material, January 2016)
There was something so satisfying in the pre-dawn schedule of Mr. Jon Mergeles, master chocolatier in a cheerful town in Lithuania, something so orderly, so careful and tasteful, that it was surprising to him, when the earthquake came, that he remained so calm.
The factory’s conching vats and tempering machines had come to a standstill after days of kneading and smoothing the beautiful chocolate, favored food of the gods. It was now cool enough to add hazlenuts and honey, and all the apprentices gathered at the marble topped tables to watch and help their master. They wore white hats, similar to but shorter than his, and so rapt was their attention to his hands, his food-gloved, quickly-sculpting fingers, that their hats did not bob a millimeter. Until the earthquake came.
Mergeles was the hallowed creator of the most light-hearted chocolates one would see in the town shop windows: there were lavender chocolates in the shape of musical notes in honor of national soprano Violeta U., chocolates in the shape of euro-coins to celebrate Lithuania’s Presidency of the European Union in 2013, chocolates in the shape of a belly-button to depict the geometric centre point of the continent at 26 kilometres north of Vilnius. Chocolate busts of Lithuania’s first female head of state were enrobed with a special ganache and called Dalias; and, currently Mergeles was figuring out how to represent, in chocolate, the fact that Lithuania ranked first in the world in internet speed. Should he use one flavor for upload and another for download?
This question was on his mind while his fingers deftly worked the soft chocolate into shapes and his workers watched solemnly, perhaps even enviously. But Mergeles was not to find any more answers in chocolate that day. The ground began to shake, the chocolate-spattered marble table tops tilted, the twenty or so white apprentice hats bobbled and came together as if a single white sheet, then dispersed, out to the edges of Mergeles’s sight, and gone.
Mergeles found himself walking through wreckage of the type one sees in American movies - dark, dire, not particularly related to reality. He passed scorched iron scaffoldings that seemed symmetrical in their arrangement, although the buildings they had leaned against were gone. Piles of burning debris on either side of his path showed now and then something recognizable, a smooshed ball, an eyeless teddy bear, maybe over there a wooden spoon. The strange thing was that there was a path, as in a movie, and Mergeles did not have to step over anything, but could simply glide along on his way.
On his way where? His chocolate kitchen was at 54°54′N 25°19′E, the centre of Europe, so whichever direction he was going in, it must be outward. There were no people about, neither dead nor alive, no bodies at all, no shopkeepers, no customers, no apprentices, no mewling cats or barking dogs. But on the horizon ahead of him it seemed the dawn was finally breaking. He was walking eastward, then.
By dawn on a normal day, the chocolates were tempered, molded, and set in their wrapping papers. In the first hours of light his apprentices would be lining them up carefully in the showcases, reserving any imperfect ones to cut in half and serve as samples. Shouldn’t he be walking back to the store, to assess the damage? But instead, Mergeles kept going outward on the path, and deliberately put his eyes on the dawn-line so he would not have to absorb any more rubble as he went.
When he got to that horizon, he lowered his eyes and saw that all the rubbish was behind him. Before him, down a gently winding slope, the sun was shining into a river, and to the north of the river he saw a fresh pond. Unlike the peat bogs near his home, the pond was surrounded by duckweed and grasses, and was perhaps a stone’s throw from a forest of broadleaf birches, aspen, oak, and ash. It was a setting with the sparkle of a country travel brochure, yet very real.
Mergeles approached the river and, despite a strong urge to wash his hands and face in it, he skipped over it like a thrown stone, in his excitement to see the pond just beyond. He pulled at his trouser legs to kneel at the edge of the water, but there was no need as he noticed he had no discernible trousers, legs, or hands for that matter. He could, indeed, bend himself next to the water, but it was a self without a body as he knew it. Now he saw how it was that he had been gliding rather than taking actual footsteps out of the town. He was not in his body but in a sort of shining corona.
This subtle body seemed to have layers, like the cakes he baked to sell at Christmas, or the rings of a forest tree, and each layer had its own shimmering color. Mergeles moved his hand over the pond without dipping into the water. The colors in the layers shot out like atoms from his subtle wrist, sprinkling themselves over the water as though he had sneezed into a bowl of holiday sugars. He stood well back on the ground and danced his whole new self into little granules, which sprayed out like powder as he whirled, then returned to his new form.
Mr. Mergeles was “there,” but weightless. He was also not sure he was Mr. Mergeles anymore, suddenly his gender did not matter to him. Then again, he was not sure he was even Mergeles anymore, though he could remember when he was. He kept on dancing, and heard a voice alongside him.
“Fun, isn’t it?” said a being who, though not physical, was healthy, elastic, and full of life. He danced aside the chocolatier and Mergeles saw he was quite well-versed in throwing and catching his layers of energy quite far, across the river and back, showing off, as it were. He also had tiny silver wings at his ankles decorated with gleaming button-pastilles.
“Who are you?” asked Mergeles.
“I am Hermes, and I’m here to guide you across the river. Or not. Whatever you want.”
“I have read about you in literature,” said Mergeles. “My classics teacher told me that you are the ruler of Virgo, after whom I’m named.”
Hermes thought for a moment. “Mergeles. Ah, Lithuanian, were you?”
“Were? So I am dead.”
“Yawp. May I call you by your first name, Jon?”
“Then where are the others?” asked Jon.
“What others?” said Hermes.
“The apprentices from the earthquake.”
Hermes thought again. Thinking back and forth from here to the slower-moving physical plane was tiresome; it was so much more fun to dash himself across nether-rivers and back.
“Oh, I see. Your apprentices are fine. They are figuring out what to do with your body.”
“They didn’t get hurt in the earthquake?”
“Ah. No, there was no earthquake.”
“No, you simply had a stroke from all the cocoa fat, lost your footing, and fell over onto the table.”
“But what was all that I walked through?”
“Oh, everyone has to go through the rubbish first. Sorry. But you did very well; you came straight to the dawn.”
Oh my, Jon thought. And now, in spite of having no physical body, the chocolatier felt again an urgent need to wash his hands and face, and he went down to the river.
“Wait!” called Hermes.
“What?” asked Jon.
“Did you, by any chance, bring along any of those honey-cream chocolates?”
“What? No. I thought I was removing myself from an earthquake.” Though if truth be told, he was starting to forget how he got here at all. “What do chocolates have to do with it?”
“Nothing. Just thought I’d have one,” said Hermes.
Then, as Jon again reached for the river, Hermes shouted, “Stop!”
Now what, thought the chocolatier.
“You must choose between the river and the pond. One wipes your memory and sends you back to the physical plane for another life. The other washes you clean and sends you forward to try for a higher spiritual level. Choose carefully.”
“Okay. Which is which?” asked Jon.
“Hmmmm, well -- guess!” And Hermes started dancing around again.
This cannot be fair, thought Jon. But then he wasn’t sure which way he wanted to go. If he went back, with his past life erased from his memory, perhaps he could do bigger and better things. He might study something other than chocolate and make enough money to help people who are in real earthquakes. He might study the environment and find the solution to the global warming argument. He might fall in love again, this time with someone true. He might have children who would become apprentices.
On the other hand, wasn’t the whole point of everything to go forward and become ever more spiritual?
“I love that you are overanalyzing this,” said Hermes, and then he quipped, “If you go back, your arteries will be clear and you can start over on all that chocolate.”
“You make it seem so flippant. I thought the after-life was more serious.”
“It is, Jon, it is. I am flip, but the after-life is not.”
Jon Mergeles thought back to his literature days and remembered that Hermes, or Mercury, his namesake, was indeed a jokester, and an over-analyzer, and a psycho-pomp or leader of souls to the Underworld. He also was the patron of people who work with their hands - which is me, he thought.
There were pages and pages of literature he had read, and pages he had forgotten a few years later. But without his physical brain, he found he had room to remember more. Suddenly he knew that the river was Lethe, lethal to memory, where souls washed before re-incarnating, and the pond was Mnemosyne, refresher of memory and mother of all the arts, including chocolate-making, the food of the gods.
“You will accompany me, either way?” Jon asked Hermes.
Jon was curious to see if he really would, and tried to grab Hermes’ arm as he went toward one of the bodies of water. He could not get a very good grip with his subtle fingers, and the energy from the trickster’s arm felt like little lightning bolts pelleting his hand, but at any rate, the next thing he knew, they were both there.