Before gingerbread was ever shaped like men, and long before gingerbread boys popped from cookie sheets and ran out the doors of European homes taunting lonely old women and sly foxes, it was baked in the shapes of all the wild beasts on earth—some not seen for at least ten centuries before the very first Christmas.
Making gingerbread was the specific duty of men in a time when giants ruled the earth. While the giants read books and invented new games, the humans prepared all the giants’ food, sewed all their clothing, and conducted all the business that involved numbers larger than 2, 499. Men and women inherited their occupations through their parents. As for the orphans of uncertain parentage, the villages allowed them to choose their apprenticeships at the age of 14 to offset their lowly and lonely beginning.
Of all the jobs available to the humans, baker was the most coveted. Giants allowed humans to use everything they created in their factories, with the exception of sugar products. Getting the chance to bake in a cookie factory provided the deprived workers the opportunity to smell and almost taste through their lungs and nostrils the forbidden fruits of their labors. In their clothes, they carried the smells of sweet cinnamon, candied fruit, and vanilla pudding cakes everywhere they went. They had a certain syrupy magnetism about them and it showed. Men who worked there were the first to marry and often reported higher numbers of offspring than their neighbors who smelted iron and whose smocks often smelled like blood and smoke.
During the reign of Omatz II, the gingerbread factory was the premier place to work because the giant king preferred gingerbread to any other sweet food. He would occasionally make personal visits to the factory to make suggestions about flavorings and baking methods. Every day he would have a fresh dozen of the best gingerbread cookies delivered to his breakfast table. If he ever received an unsatisfactory batch, he would immediately order the deliveryman and the master baker at the cookie factory to be executed, the first to mollify his ire and the second to serve justice.
After three deliverymen and three bakers had been done away with, at an emergency board meeting, the foreman moved to randomly select a taste tester from the factory crew. He suggested not telling the king about this plan because it was not necessary: the king wanted cookies, not reports. The foreman called his idea “quality control.” The board agreed unanimously, and the secretary clipped all the workers’ numbers from the roster and threw them into a basket.
Just before the whistle blew at the end of the work day, a small and tired man named Lopine was chosen when he picked the number “34” from the basket. Everyone knew he didn’t appreciate his great luck in working at one of the sugar food factories, so his indiscriminate appointment satisfied the pessimists and grumblers in the group.
As the foreman shook his hand, he handed him a packet of instructions with his other hand. When Lopine was to return after his day of rest, he was to report to a brand new room where he would test and then box the first of every batch the factory made. His co-workers glared at him enviously and mouthed threats at him about exposing his ungratefulness. That evening, Lopine walked home confused and tired. He didn’t understand how he could have had such luck and be so disinterested in it. He built a fire and thought about it while he whittled a long switch he’d found on his last walk home. He hadn’t decided what he was going to make yet. Once, when he paused because he’d cut his finger, he wondered what it would be like to taste the cookies he’d been making for the past 15 years. He thought that, and then forgot about it.
The day after the next, Lopine went to work and was given a new title. He had expected that it might be “tester” or “taster”—maybe even something having to do with that new phrase the foreman had used. Yet it was none of those because the nametag maker in HR begrudged Lopine the job. He was, simply, the “gingerbread man.”
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Many thanks to Daniel O’Brien for the image of Lopine, and to Brock Weaver for the cover image. PG is proud of having talented friends.