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How to Spell Bread

March 6, 2011

NOTE: this story won first prize in the 2010 Burlington Public Library short story contest. ©Margo Karolyi, 2010.  All rights reserved.  No portion of this story may be reproduced without the express written permission of the author


Meg poured the scalded milk into the bowl and added the sugar, salt, and shortening, then the yeast.  She held her breath as the acrid smell of the mixture wafted upwards.  Quickly she added the first few cups of flour and started beating vigorously. Specks of damp flour exploded out of the bowl and scattered across the black granite countertop like stars in the night sky, white on black.   

As Meg stirred the mixture, so too did she stir memories.  She’d learned how to make this special bread by carefully watching her mother perform the steps.  The recipe wasn’t written down anywhere, and Meg had never been allowed to actually participate in the process.  But, sitting quietly at the kitchen table with her colouring book and crayons or, later, her sketch pad and pastels, she had observed each step, calculated the volume of the unmeasured ingredients, and painstakingly memorized everything her mother had done. The knowledge had been passed to her, unspoken, in the time-honoured tradition. She had learned the ritual, and now the time had come for her to execute it herself.   

Meg’s body swayed to the bluesy rhythm of the steel drums, electric guitar, and keyboard melodies emanating from the CD player.  Her mother had listened to more traditional Creole music, and the multi-layered cadence of her voice had reverberated through the house as she’d sung along.   

At the time, Meg had wondered why her mother had never become a professional singer; the velvet depths of her voice had been enthralling!  It was years before Meg realized that her mother only sang when the two of them were alone in the house; when Meg’s father was home, her mother’s singing voice stilled.  Too often during those times, the only sounds that had filled the air were angry shouts, bellowed accusations, and occasional cries of pain.  It was as if evil permeated the house then, forcing out the good.    After the worst of those terrible flare-ups, Meg’s mother would make the bread.  Then Meg’s father would go away for awhile, and things would be peaceful again.

Meg was finding it more and more difficult to work in the last of the flour.  She persisted – counting slowly to seven and then backwards to one seven times as she stirred – just as her mother had done so many years ago.  Seven was a sacred number and repeating the sequence this way was symbolic.  Not for the first time, Meg wondered if she would ever have a daughter who would observe the process and learn from her, as she had done from her mother.

“Not with Jack”, she muttered, adding a surge of angry energy to the last three rotations. “Definitely not with Jack”.

A single tear slid down her cheek.  “Never let them see you cry,” her mother’s voice whispered from the ether world. “No matter what they do. No matter what they say.  Protect your own. Protect yourself.”  

Meg wiped the back of her flour-covered hand across her face and focussed back on what she was doing.  She rolled the lump of dough out onto her mother’s ancient wooden bread board, now lightly sprinkled with flour, and began to knead it.  She recalled how fascinated she’d always been by the sharp contrast of her mother’s dark palms against the light-coloured flour as she’d repeatedly pushed and pulled at the mound of dough.

Her mother had never punched the dough, but Meg couldn’t resist taking a couple of quick jabs at the springy mass.  It felt good to hit something that couldn’t strike back – physically or emotionally.  Love and revenge, she thought. Love and revenge.

Wary of robbing the dough of its elasticity and having it turn out tough, Meg returned to the steady folding and kneading, folding and kneading. After ten minutes she shaped the dough into a ball, covered it with wax paper and a damp cloth, and set it aside to rest.

Meg wiped her hands on her the brightly coloured apron she’d tied around her waist – the same apron her mother had always worn for making the bread – and began the next part of the ritual.  She filled the kettle with water and plugged it in, then carefully took the little ceramic tea pot from its pride of place on the shelf above the sink.  She held it reverently, recalling how her mother had taken great pains to hide it in the highest cupboard in the kitchen to keep Meg’s father from breaking it during one of his drunken rages. She had assured Meg that someday it would be hers. Now it was.

Meg scooped the unique blend of herbs she’d prepared herself into the strainer, poured the hot water over it, and then closed her eyes as she recited the words she’d learned from her mother, “And in these things we take great delight.”  

Three minutes later, Meg poured the tea into her favourite mug and – settling on a tall stool with her elbows resting on the kitchen counter – turned her thoughts away from her mother and towards Jack, the man for whom she was baking this very special bread.  

Most of Meg’s earlier boyfriends had been like her – ‘in it for a good time, not a long time’ types.  But as she’d matured, she’d come to realize that she needed something more.  She needed someone she could settle down with, raise a family with, make a life with.  She needed someone like Jack.

Jack was the exact opposite of Meg.  When they’d started dating six months ago, she’d thought his solid, serious, and steadfast demeanour perfectly offset her out-going, creative, and sometimes unpredictable personality.  

She’d been so sure he was a man who would always treat her with kindness and respect, and never do anything to hurt her – the opposite, as it were, of her father, who had made her mother’s life a living hell. 

“Ha,” she said aloud – because she was alone and it didn’t matter that she was talking to herself.  “He’s no different from all the others.”

With her tea finished, and her thoughts of Jack still burning in her mind, Meg turned back to the bread, which was now ready to be formed and set aside for rising.  This was one of the most important parts of the ritual.  It was also Meg’s favourite.

Before beginning, Meg lit a red candle for power and a blue one for love – because, after all, this was ultimately about love – or, rather, the absence of it.  She carefully withdrew three items from the satin bag tied around her waist, under the apron, and placed them in front of the candles.  From right to left she laid out a seashell from the beach in the Dominican Republic where she had first told Jack she loved him, a carefully folded copy of the email he’d sent four days ago saying he was breaking up with her, and a one-inch square cut from one of his favourite ties that he’d carelessly left at her house when he’d slept over just last week.

Satisfied with the symbolism, Meg began to work the dough.  Care had to be taken to get the shapes just right.  A wicked grin crossed her face as she strategically positioned the last of the seven essential parts.  It wasn’t anatomically correct, of course, but it was clearly a male form.  Next, the seven raisins were precisely placed on the piece at the other end.  Meg tilted her head this way and that, contemplating her handiwork.  The end result pleased her enormously.  Satisfied, she covered the loaf with oiled wax paper and the damp cloth, and left it to rise.

Each time her mother had made the bread – eight occasions that Meg could recall – she’d spent the hour and a quarter ‘doubling time’ cleaning the house, or washing and ironing, singing while she worked.  Meg had usually gone off to her room, or outside to play, until it was time to finally put the bread in the oven.

Now, here, on her own, Meg took twenty minutes to meditate on how she wanted her hopes and dreams to manifest in her life.  Then she filled the bathtub with hot water and added special scented oils for healing the mind and invigorating the body.  She lit a white candle for positive energy, and a purple one for spirituality, then lay back in the tub while flutes and mandolins resonated with the sounds of harmony, tranquillity, and triumph of the human spirit.

Renewed and refreshed, Meg slipped a vibrant multi-coloured caftan over her head and felt the cascades of silk caress her body in waves.  It had been an extravagant purchase, but the moment she’d seen it in the little shop in New Orleans, she’d known she had to have it.  That she had found it in a nondescript store after wandering down a backstreet not far from where her mother had once lived was no coincidence.  She had been guided there – of that she was sure.

She’d also picked up a number of ‘souvenirs’ during that trip – items that others might consider questionable, but that she knew – deep down in her soul – she would need one day.  And that day had, indeed, arrived.

Meg relit the red and blue candles in the kitchen and focussed, with the utmost of clarity, on the bread as she slipped it into the oven.   After she shut the door, she extended her arms – hands out, palms up – over the stove, closed her eyes and chanted the seven phrases that she’d learned from her mother.  As she hummed the final words of each line – ‘mu unna te’ – she paused to make sure the message got through. 

When she was done, Meg set the timer and waited – both for the bread to bake and for her company to arrive.

Her mother had only shared the bread with Meg.  Since Meg didn’t have a daughter, she had chosen her two best friends, Beth and Eve, to share this special sacrament with.  It seemed appropriate – given that she’d also shared Jack’s sanctimonious email with them – that they participate in the final step of the ritual.  Whether they would understand it or not didn’t really concern Meg – she just didn’t want to do it alone.

The two women arrived together and were soon giggling in horrified amusement as Meg slid the oddly-shaped loaf onto the breadboard. 

“Is that what I think it is?” Eve asked.

“Don’t you mean ‘Is that WHO I think it is’?”Beth corrected. 

Meg just smiled, poured three glasses of wine, and passed them around.

“To the generosity and friendship you have given me,” Meg said, holding her wine glass aloft.  “You are as my family.”

Her mother’s ceremonial toast – with wine for herself and grape juice for Meg – had always been about family, daughters, tradition, and an end to oppression. Meg would have to improvise slightly. 

“To the end of tyranny, greed, and selfishness,” she intoned.  “To honour and self respect. To protecting one’s heart and one’s soul.”

“Hear, hear,” Eve and Beth agreed in unison. 

They each took a sip of wine and then watched as Meg picked up the long, and unquestionably sharp, bread knife in her right hand.  Beth raised her eyebrows at Eve, who merely shrugged in return. 

Meg neatly sliced off one of the extended upper parts of the loaf and cut it into three pieces.  After adding a sweep of honey butter to each slice, she passed one to Beth, one to Eve, and popped the third one into her own mouth, smiling blissfully as she chewed.

Looking apprehensive, but clearly curious, Eve and Beth nibbled cautiously on the still-warm pieces of bread. 

“Hmm, this is really good,” Beth purred. 

Eve signified her agreement by asking, “Can we have some more?”

Meg again raised the bread knife over the now-lopsided loaf and then – with a quick, downward motion – slashed off one of the longer end pieces with perfect precision.  

When they’d consumed that section, Beth regarded the loaf and said, “I’m almost afraid to ask which piece is next.  Is there some order to this?”

“Absolutely,” Meg replied, eyeing the two most centrally located – and carefully constructed – parts of the bread.  “Bottom, then top.”

The other two women grimaced as the next two cuts were deftly made.  No one looked at the first piece Meg sliced off but all eyes were on the rounded section at the top as – complete with its raisin eyes, nose, and contorted mouth – it rolled and then tipped off the end of the bread board onto the counter.

“Where ever did you get this crazy idea, anyway?” Eve asked, frowning at the decapitated head of bread that appeared to be staring up at them.

“From my mother,” Meg confided with a wry smile, as she picked off a raisin eye and popped it into her mouth. “She called it voodoo bread.”

– – – – –  

Two hours later, at the hospital across town, a doctor finished writing up his report about a patient who had been rushed into the emergency room after collapsing on the street – “screaming like a lunatic” according to the witness who called 911.    The report read:

The patient claimed he first felt a quick piercing spasm in his left arm.  Moments later, he says he experienced excruciating pain in the right leg, and the limb collapsed under him.  He asserted that shortly thereafter he suffered intense trauma to the groin area – ‘as if I’d been stabbed’ – followed almost immediately by ‘an explosion’ in his head (‘like being struck by lightening’).  This, apparently, was followed by an immediate loss of sight in one eye.  When the paramedics arrived on the scene, the patient was delirious and told them repeatedly that he was ‘being sucked into some kind of black hole’.  [NOTE: all quotes taken from patient statements to EMS personnel and subsequent interview by attending ER physician.]

A thorough examination of the patient, including a full blood workup, revealed nothing unusual.  There was no evidence of external or internal trauma, no drugs in the system, and no apparent residual effects of the episodes described (despite the patient’s repeated declarations that he ‘was being tortured’, no corroboration could be established).  In my opinion, the individual was suffering from delusions brought on by stress, and the symptoms described were psychosomatic. 

I have recommended that the patient [Jack Belmont] follow up with his personal physician early next week.

Dr. U. R. Karma

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