The Bread Spell
When it rains and Grandma is making bread in the middle of the wooden table, there rises up this incense which is evidence of her sacrifice. The whole dark kitchen is warm with active yeast; the smell of the bread is the smell of her breath. I have watched her prepare our meals, when really she was rehearsing murder. I have seen her bash in Grandpa’s head when his head was a head of iceberg lettuce, which she cradled gently in her hands, before bringing it down like a Viking victor whack! against the countertop to extract its thick stalk all at once. I have stood by in the form of another Stephen, holding the coats of a biblical mob, as she carelessly tossed pounds of squirming, frenetic crawfish into a pot of boiling water. Then, when her Bobby started bringing girls around the house, the tubers and certain squashes she chopped took on an angry significance. The processes she meant for me most often involved the rolling pin and any of her many molded cookie cutters. My insides leap to think what she would do to procure catfish nuggets if the Democrats won an election.
But when it rains, and she is making bread in the middle of the little table, this is more like peacemaking, more the stuff of patience and equanimity, of biding storms and of coming to terms with things. In this bread is where she puts all her hopelessness and her homicide. She poisons it to protect us. I am the only one among us who realizes that we, for decades, have been nourished on her ire. I have learned emotional control from her. I know all of her steps by heart.
First, she adds some flour to a bit of yeast and leaves them in a bowl to wait. It is an arranged marriage. She is allowing them to become familiar with one another, so that the yeast will accept that it is meant to impregnate the possibly unwilling wheat. (She is sending this same message to her rage.) She warms watered milk and oil with sugar and salt in a pot which squats upon a low blue flame; these will serve as its blood and its marrow.
Sometimes, she adds rye and cornmeal to the pot: These are her conflicting feelings on things— Stay and Go or Moon and Sun. The one is dusty and dull; the other is gritty and bright as a citrus. When they meet in the pot, they translate each other, instantly, into homogeneity. This is the very strength of her repression, allowing her to forget offenses and desires. (It is important to note that the mixture never quite gets the chance to roil itself into a full and stormy boil.) She pours it into the flour and yeast with a certain awareness of how her careful attendance to its rising temperature has made it the perfect catalyst. The electric mixer forces intercourse.
Grandma uses only wooden spoons, when stirring the rest of the flour and oats into this sticky, embryonic mess. I always think of being spanked. I think of paddles and switches―It is finished. She pulls the boneless baby out of the bowl and drops it on its flabby head. The surface of the table has been scrubbed and floured, so that it appears to have been powdered in talc.
Now is the time for kneading. The heels of her hands might just as well be boot heels. She folds smashes turns, folds smashes turns. It is a clock or a steering wheel. She drives it into the center of itself. Her thin breath escapes through her nostrils, for her lips have been pressed shut. She has plugged in to something. Outside, the frowning thunder grumbles and murmurs, as though pleading her case; she takes it for a personal megaphone. The assault is always timed to last exactly eight minutes. She has before explained to me that kneading is crucial for developing the gluten, but I have determined it has more to do with the structure of that numeral, eight. (She thinks I do not realize she is tampering with the infinite.) When time is up, she has produced an imperfect ball. It is obvious she has chosen the dull and dusty moon again; even the oats are pockmarks in its lusterless, cracking face.
She has greased the largest mixing bowl. This will act as a surrogate womb for her lambasted magic wrath baby. She rolls it once in the lotion of the larded bowl, then covers it with a short red towel, as though putting it down for a nap. I have noticed she never uses quick-rise yeast. The process is meant to be an arduous one, a miniature lifetime full of rests and risings. For an hour or more it sits on the floor, in the corner of the narrow broom cupboard. It is gathering momentum while her bad things are smothered inside of it for malignant vitamins.
The thunder is a great, empty stomach. I am not hungry. I sit at the table, in a chair against the wall, careful to avoid her floured areas. When I am little, I read comic books about Clark Kent the Superman. When I am older, I read Nietzsche’s Man and Superman. My purpose is the same. I am here to observe, not to be observed.
She begins to clean the mess she has made, as the bread continues to rise in the dark. The water spilling out from the scuffed-up faucet is soundless against the rills of rain, surging and spewing from the faded green gutters. She never hums or smiles as she scrubs the dishes, like women in commercials for yellow dish detergent, but I attribute this oversight to the sheer efficacy of her focus. She is allowing the yeast and the warmth to bloat and transform her. This is a powerful ritual. Ah, and the smell! The bread is a ghost which fills up our space. It is invisible, but we sense its presence. From my chair, I hallucinate a fireplace in place of the oven, even though the oven is not turned on.
When it is done, there will be the illusion of abortion. She will punch down the fat belly, trying to un-conceive the frustration and resentment she has beaten into its pith. Her speckled wrist will be flush with the rim of the bowl. This is her voodoo; she is expelling all of the old breath, as the food balloon collapses. But then comes my favorite part, that black instant when mitosis occurs. She scoops the newborn from the bottom of the bowl and centers it in the remaining flour. I study her as she studies it, trying to determine how best to proceed. The separation must be exact, or her loaves will be uneven. She never comprehends that they are the conjoined twins Apathy and Animosity; she only wants them fully balanced and in check. Her hands act as a scale. The dough is sticky, but uniform and resilient, as she tears it apart down its middle. Her fingers dig in and pull, to curl two seams at once, beneath the two lumps. It is both slow and quick, both blunt and sharp, and looks like plants screaming. I think of watching Bobby chopping night crawlers in half with the short blade of his pocketknife.
She has done it. She looks for her red towel again and covers them as though ashamed. The three of them will be permitted another ten minute rest. She greases two bread pans with shortening on her fingers. It is finally time to preheat the oven. The timer ticks backwards to zero, as she waits for the lumps to recover from their separation anxiety. I never make conversation with her at this time. I remember, once or maybe twice, listening for a tornado, because the sky had looked green before the rain. I want to ask her what everyone means, when they say a tornado sounds like a train and which part I should listen for―the rumbling of its steel weight on the tracks or the wrecking wail of its whistle?
Her internal clock alerts her, before this other timer can. She almost always shuts it down, three seconds from the end. Up come the silent siblings from the floor of the broom cupboard, to be expertly appraised in a single, cursory glance. The operation has been a complete success. It is time to be molded and shaped. Here is where she will put her signature on them, to make them understand they are her children, though they be amorphous and confused. She never rolls the dough into rectangles, like the cookbook tells her to, but gently pulls and pats it into shape until it resembles loaves. Now they are only modeling clay; they are harmless, a plaything. She flips them onto their heads and commences the ceremonial pinching of their bottoms. Wake up! her fingers reproach the sympathetic sisters. Wake up! You Are Alive! You Are Real, And This Is Really Happening! Pay Attention! She directs the indolent wads. Know That You Have Been Called According To My Purpose! I Have Made You, And You Are Mine! You Are My Alchemy! Bring Me A Reconciliation! she demands of them. Once she is satisfied she has made her point, she places the loaves, seams-down, in their silver cradles. See her two healthy nurslings, offspring of umbrage! They will do her proud at the dinner table tonight. She covers them again, lest we males become covetous of her witchy ability, and hides them away in the broom closet.
In half an hour, they will have doubled in size again. In their middles, they will be full and protruding, a pair of pebbly breasts. But once they have been baked through and are brown, they will look more like sleeping toddlers, huddled against themselves, with heads down and legs tucked, the backs bulging out like barren knolls. She will brush them with water and sprinkle them with oats. When she does this, it will seem very much like a burial rite. The humble kitchen oven will become the kiln in which her intentions are fired and set.
She will know when it is time to remove them by rapping with her knuckles on the centers of their spines. Knock Knock. They never ask Who Is It? so she never has to answer. She will hear the vacuum inside of them and discern the threat has been contained.
Everything will be fine. The rain will pass through, and the birds will resume their regularly scheduled program. If it is Saturday, Bobby may wander in, with or without the key to Grandpa’s gun cabinet, twirling like a coin over the backs of his fingers. He sometimes kisses her on the cheek and asks What’s For Dinner, but she never tells him the whole truth.
Khrynn McManus has been published in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Word Riot, Ink Pot, decomP, The, Clockwise Cat, and other journals, both online and in print. She drinks more black coffee than you.
© 2009 prickofthespindle.com