“Bread of Life” by Cynthia McGean

“Bread of Life” by Cynthia McGean

That last moment before they come through the door is sacred. The house smells of hickory and cinnamon. The fire is newly lit. I settle into my gnarled pine chair, its thick logs dotted with scars. The fire catches, flames tossing golden threads across the floorboards, shadows writhing up the walls. The only sound is my old breath in my old lungs and the uneven trudge of my heart.

The door opens. One by one, two by two, three by six, the villagers cross my threshold, their faces eager, anxious, searching. Flush from the long journey up the hill through the cold winter night, they jostle for a place at my hearth. All through the warm spring months they frolic and dance, but when winter comes, they are mine.

I sift through the village news — betrayals, hardships, thwarted plans; arrogance and envy, cruelty and pity, lust and ache and quiet desolation — choosing my threads with care. My mother was an apothecary. They say she poisoned the baker’s wife. But it was only an ill-chosen herb. My choice is much more harmless. After all, no one has ever died from an ill-chosen tale, have they?

A pair of would-be lovers take up stations on opposite sides of the room. They can’t keep their eyes off each other, so confident in the vigor of their youth. A chubby little boy squeals as his stubby legs thump and rattle their way across the floor, dashing a pitcher to the ground. His parents snatch him up onto a lap, stammering apologies.

Outside of the circle, apart from the rest, sits Hedda, the fattest, homeliest, slowest girl in the village. In her hands, she clutches a hawk feather and a hazel twig. The rest of them give her a wide berth. She smells of cow dung and sweat. She’s missing a tooth. Her face is pockmarked, her nose askew, broken at an early age by her brute of a father, who plants himself now between her and the fire. When they look her way, the beautiful young lovers stifle a grin. And I choose my tale.

“Have you ever heard tell of the village of Brune?” I let the question simmer like onions cooking in the pan, tingeing the air with anticipation.

They look from one to another, whisper. Some nod uncertainly; others shake their heads.

“Few have heard because few survived.”

The little boy huddles closer to his mum. The lovers edge towards one another. Eyes widen. Mouths open, ready to gulp down my words.

“The village of Brune stood in a rich and fertile valley not far from this very cottage.”

Like hot spicy peppers, the words spark discomfort and delight in equal measure. So close, they think to themselves. But not us. No, never us.

“In a lonely cottage just outside the village” — outside, always outside — “there lived an old woman. She had neither parent nor child nor husband nor lover. No living family at all.” Give them an exile, someone to mistrust, someone to revile.

In the darkened corner, Hedda sits up and raises her eyes. Outsiders always attend to their kin.

“She lived all alone in her cottage at the top of the hill. The villagers rarely saw or spoke with her. When they did, she stared past them as if she could see something just beyond their reach, some spirit hovering behind them. This made the villagers nervous. So they stopped speaking to her altogether, and she never ventured to speak herself, and so she had few visitors.”

The eyes in the circle are hungry now. And Hedda’s eyes are lit, attentive, filled with intelligence no one sees but me.

“Once in a while, a traveler would pass her cottage and hear singing. If they ever dared to venture closer, they might have seen the old woman rocking a bundle of radishes or carrots or sage in her arms.”

That catches them off guard. They frown and shift in their seats, glancing uneasily from one to the other. The villain of the tale is not behaving as she should. It worries them. Good.

“Now this woman had a great skill in the baking of bread, and the shops in the village paid handsomely for the well-shaped loaves she made. Whatever they thought of her, the people of the village praised her bread — plump and round and robust as a healthy child.” The fire has settled into deep, glowing coals. It’s too soon. I take the poker and stir it back to life.

“One night –” I set the poker down — “at twilight–” I lean back — “the woman sat outside her cottage. A whisper came to her in the softness of the evening air.” Stop. Listen. A hiss from the fire makes them all shiver.

“It was the whisper of a child, calling to her across the dark and unknown world. The woman closed her eyes. The child’s laughter sang her to sleep. That night, she dreamt of its tiny fingers holding her hand.”

The mother beams at the chubby little boy on her lap. Her husband kisses her cheek. At the edge of the firelight, the young lovers find each other. Their arms intertwine. Hedda’s fingers grip the edge of her stool.

“The next morning, the old woman rose early and gathered the ingredients for a special loaf of bread.” Now I speak for Hedda alone. The others will hear only a story. Hedda will hear something more. “She lit a lavender candle and placed it on the window sill. She mixed flour and water and yeast and sugar. She pulled a small leather bag from a hidden corner in her pantry, opened it, and poured the contents into the dough — a handful of golden sand.”

Hedda’s eyes kindle with the light of the flames.

“The old woman dipped her fingers in rose water and kneaded the golden sand deep into the dough, pushing and pulling, grasping and squeezing.” I close my eyes, lose myself in the story, give my body over to the movements. “When the dough had rested, she shaped it with care, whispered to it in a secret tongue, and covered it with a towel to let it rise. At noon, she returned, uncovered it, whispered and sang, and kneaded again. That night, she put it in the oven and sang to it once more while it baked. At last, she took the bread out of the oven.”

Stop. Let them wait. They know this is no ordinary loaf of bread. But what is it? The question swims from one to the other. Hedda leans in closer. Her father elbows her back with a grunt. The lovers snicker.

“It was more beautiful than anything she had ever seen — soft and rosy skin, strong arms and legs, round and dimpled knees. It moved and cried and suckled at her breast.”

Expressions of disgust scatter across their faces, fast as roaches at a lit candle. But Hedda’s face is still and clear as a mountain lake.

“The next day, the old woman brought her child into the village. When the villagers saw her with a babe in her arms, they stared hard and pointed at the bundle and whispered to each other. How did she come upon this child? The local gossips hurried to learn if any village children had gone missing.”

The chubby little boy shrinks back towards his mother’s breast. I give him the tiniest flicker of a smile.

“The village beauty, bolstered by her sweetheart, stopped the woman on the street to get a closer look. She pretended to admire the child, but the next day the tale made its way through the village of the lump of dough that giggled and squirmed as if it were human.”

The lovers pay no attention to my words. They are lost in their own world. Hedda watches them steal kisses in the shadows, her ache of longing so huge it fills the room. No one, not one of them, notices her pain.

“Now the villagers’ discomfort turned to fear and hatred. The old woman’s bread sat uneaten in the shops. The children of the village threw stale crusts at her and made up nasty rhymes.”

Hedda stares openly at the lovers. They catch her and make a face. Her father growls something in her ear and cuffs her, leaving a bright red hand mark across her cheek. Hedda blinks and looks at the ground.

“The old woman paid no heed to their cruelty. She sang to her child and it smiled up at her and cooed. She told it stories and taught it the sounds of animals and birds and made faces at it just to hear it laugh. At night, she laid it gently down and whispered to it until it fell asleep, and then she kissed it softly on the forehead.”

The crease of sorrow smoothes away from Hedda’s face. She is with me again.

“One day, when the woman returned home, she found a loaf of bread on her doorstep, with raisin eyes, and a cherry mouth, and a knife stabbed right through its middle. That night, cruel voices and the sound of crying invaded her dreams. She woke with a start and ran to the child’s bed. It was not there. She thought she must still be sleeping and she pounded at her head and cried, ‘Wake up! Wake up!’ She pulled away the blankets and searched through the house, but the child was gone. She raced outside. Just past the gate, lying on the gravel path as if asleep, she found the child. She ran to it and grabbed it in her arms, laughing and crying and hugging it close. But the child did not move. Its hair was dirty and matted and sticky with blood, and a knife stood stuck in its chest.”

No one moves. No one breathes. The fire is down to the palest embers. Even the lovers are listening now.

“The woman fell to the ground and wailed and moaned and rocked and sobbed until she had no more sounds inside her. She pulled her dead child’s body to her bosom, rose, returned to the house, and began to bake.

“Into her dough she mixed the blood and bones of her dead child. She pounded it out over and over and over, kneading and shaping, letting it rise, pounding it back, kneading and shaping again, ferocious and silent and grim. She let the dough rise for three days, growing bigger and bigger until it filled the house. Then, the woman lit a bonfire.”

A draft blows into the room, fans the embers. The charred and jagged remnants of the yule log blaze back to full flame. The chubby little boy begins to whimper. Children see the things adults will not.

“She fed the hungry flames until they filled the house and burned her flesh. She threw her flaming body into her doughy monster. The great blaze devoured the house, melted the woman into her creation, and wrapped them both in its crackling embrace.”

Hedda’s shadow leaps across the room, dwarfing her father and everyone else in its path. The chubby boy bursts into a terrified wail. His parents try to hush him, but he will have none. They gather their things and scurry away through the door. The young lovers prepare to follow. Hedda’s father grabs her arm and yanks her towards the door. The boy’s cries have broken the spell. I must work quickly to weave it again and pull them back. Space, safety, a tiny bubble of calm is needed.

“A passing peddler saw the blaze and stopped to help.”

Ah. That has them. A trusted character. A chance of rescue. A happy ending is in sight.

“Tugging with all his might, the peddler drew a bucket of water from the well.” Yes, yes. They will stay now. They have to know. “He approached the cottage and threw the water on the flames.” In the sunset light of the fire, Hedda has never looked more beautiful. Our eyes lock. This is my gift to her. “The water hissed and screamed. The flames leapt up high. Out of their roaring dance stepped a giant — naked, broad-hipped, full-breasted, with golden brown skin and a mane of flaming tresses.” Hedda’s eyes are wide in delight. She is tall, strong, straight, her shadow an extension of herself, her father a shriveled gnome.

“The peddler fled in terror. The feet of the giant pounded the ground. The earth shook. Huge boulders crashed along the path and down the hill into the village. The giant raced after them with the thunder of a thousand raging storms. She flamed through the village. Her hair set fire to the homes of the gossips. Her hands ripped out the cruel hearts of the lovers. She howled her anguished rage through the streets and painted it in flames across the sky.”

They are clinging to each other for dear life, every last one of them, even the lovers. All of them cower before Hedda’s towering shadow. All except her father. He has no one to cling to. He clutches his breast. His face contorts in pain. He falls in a crumpled heap on the floor. In the final moment before the flames of my fire collapse with him, triumph and freedom flash across Hedda’s face.

“When at last the giant’s rage was spent, nothing was left of the village of Brune but ashes and bones, and a story whispered on a winter’s eve.”

The last of my words sink slowly into the gathered faces. The spell relaxes its grip. The fire is nothing but fading coals. The lovers are pale and shaken. Bit by bit the clusters of villagers shuffle their way back out into the night, lanterns well lit, huddled close, their safety uncertain as next year’s harvest. Hedda’s father lies in the corner, a dark, lifeless mound. No one even remembers he was there.

Hedda rises to lumber out. I stop her and take her hand. Onto her thick and calloused palm I place a small leather pouch of golden sand. I fold her other hand on top of it, lean in to her ear, and whisper, “She lived happily ever after.”

A published writer, director, actress, social service veteran and educator, Cynthia McGean‘s credits include publication in The Saturday Evening Post and awards from Writer’s Digest, Oregon Writer’s Colony, Carve Magazine, the National Audio Theatre Festival, SCBWI-Oregon, and the Kay Snow, Mark Time and Ogle Awards. Her scripts have been presented by theaters and radio stations throughout the United States. She is also an experienced trainer who has presented workshops on topics as wide-ranging as Writing for Audio Theater and the Effects of Domestic Violence on Children. Ms. McGean currently teaches third grade in the North Clackamas School District and serves as resident playwright and dramaturge for the award-winnng Willamette Radio Workshop.