Sue notices that the front door drifts open throughout the day. She’s perplexed. Are people forgetting to shut it, has a ghost come through, is the door broken? It’s the day after the Chinese New Year, the reason the family has gathered. Outside, it’s freezing in the worst possible way, a joyless and desiccated cold, absent of a good, heavy snowfall. So Sue, being conscientious and dependable and increasingly bitter over these designations that have followed her through the course of her life, shuts the door whenever she sees it ajar.
In the living room, bright red paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. A single potted orchid sits on the coffee table. Neither Peter, seven, nor Ava, three, are wearing pants. Sue put a hard-boiled egg into each grandchild during breakfast, which she felt good about, but then they got into the cabinet when she wasn’t looking, and now they are eating dried marshmallow bunnies from Easter. Sue checks her phone.
“When is Daddy coming home?” Peter asks.
“Just as soon as a doctor removes the googly eye from your brother’s ear,” Sue says.
Ava perks up. “Is William going to die?” Sue is disturbed by the hope in Ava’s voice. She wonders what her granddaughter knows about death.
“Of course not,” she says. “But what can we learn from this very unfortunate incident, kids?”
“Don’t put foreign obstacles in your body,” Peter intones, wagging his head back and forth.
Sue takes a second. “Objects. Don’t put foreign objects in your body.” She turns to Robert, her ex-husband. “Have you heard from Bobby yet?”
Robert doesn’t look up from the football game. “Nope.”
She stares at the back of his head, annoyed. Their son has been at the hospital with William, five, since last night. Megan, their daughter-in-law, is upstairs asleep with the baby, recovering from a C-section. Without exactly agreeing to it, but understanding that she was the natural choice, Sue has found herself running the entire damn ship, and she feels incredibly unsettled by the responsibility.
The doorbell rings, and Robert’s wife, Carla, stands up. “I’ll get it.”
“We should call Bobby,” Sue says to Robert. “They’ve been at the ER an awfully long time. Maybe something’s wrong.”
“Okay,” he says.
Ava says, “Nai Nai, can we go up to our room and play?”
“Sure, honey,” Sue says. The children thunder up the stairs. “Quietly,” she calls after them. “Your mother is sleeping.” To Robert, she says, “I meant you. You should call him.”
Robert closes his eyes and throws his head back. “Sue. He’ll call us if something is wrong.”
Carla returns bearing a covered casserole dish. “That was one of Megan’s cousins. Joanne?”
“Joni?” Sue says.
“That’s it, Joni. Dropping off a lasagna.” Carla lifts a corner of the tinfoil. “Oh wait. Baked ziti.”
Carla is in her mid-fifties, a decade younger than Sue. She has the kind of hair that barely moves, and fingernails that feature entire painted scenes on them. Sue’s style has always skewed towards the unadorned. Yet there is a certain exuberance to Carla’s tackiness that presses at Sue’s vulnerable spots.
“Look, why don’t you ask Megan what’s going on?” Robert says. “I’m sure she’s talked to Bobby.”
“She’s resting. I don’t want to disturb her.”
“Fine then,” Robert says. “I don’t know what to tell you.”
A bowl of potato chips perches on his stomach. He is much too heavy now, can hardly get in and out of a chair, doesn’t exercise. When they were still together, he used to mow the lawn every weekend and refill the bird feeders, paint the walls whenever Sue craved a change. That stopped when he finally married Carla after Bobby and Amanda were grown. Sue believes Carla has made him lazy, has never forced him to rise to his best self. Perhaps that’s not entirely true or fair, but Sue clings to it anyway. Then again, who can blame her? To have to make nice with her ex-husband and his mistress for the sake of the family at large would put anyone over the edge.
Sue goes back into the kitchen to unload the dishwasher. She can hear Peter and Ava upstairs giggling and shouting. There are intermittent thumping noises that suggest they are jumping on the furniture, which they are not allowed to do.
Sue sticks her head into the living room. “Robert, can you check on the kids?”
“They’re fine,” he says.
“Robert.” It’s Carla this time. She shoots him a look that says he better go upstairs. He looks down at his half-finished snack and lumbers to his feet. Both Sue and Carla watch him take the stairs one at a time, hanging so heavily onto the banister that Sue is afraid it might break away from the staircase.
When he has disappeared, Sue looks at Carla. She’s about to thank her, but then something inside of her hardens, and she retreats to the kitchen again. In recent years, Sue found out that during the height of the affair, Robert had taken Carla to a casino once. This had devastated Sue. No, she has never wanted to go to a casino with its sticky low pile carpeting, where people amused themselves by throwing away their money. But maybe if Robert had seen her as a different person back then, someone open and worthy of effort, he would have asked her. Maybe if Robert had asked her, she would have said yes.
A few minutes later, Carla walks in. “I thought I’d come in and help.”
“Well, you didn’t have to do that,” Sue says. It comes out sounding mean, and she is disappointed by her lack of restraint.
“I want to help,” Carla says, already poking around in the fridge.
They work together in silence. Sue reloads the dishwasher with dirty bowls and silverware. Carla makes a turkey sandwich for Peter and Ava’s lunch. She uses white bread with too much mayo.
“Voila!” Carla says. She holds up the finished sandwich which she has cut into halves and placed onto matching plates.
A sudden flash of anger tears through Sue. What does this woman want? It’s just sandwiches, for crying out loud. Sue must have had a look on her face because Carla shrugs and then busies herself with drinks for the children.
A knocking starts up. It’s coming from outside, against the walls. The sound is hasty and insistent, yet oddly distant. The women look up from their work.
“Woodpeckers,” Sue says. Carla follows Sue’s gaze to the window above the sink. All that is visible is a line of naked trees in the backyard. Sue pounds her fist against one of the cabinets, but the hammering continues unabated. Anyway, even if she’d scared the creature away, the damage is still there, only hidden from view because of where the birds are in relation to the house.
Upstairs, they hear a loud thud and a howl. Sue and Carla look at each other. They drop what they’re doing and run out of the kitchen.
Sue hurries past the front door which has yawned open yet again. When she is at the top of the stairs, it hits her all of a sudden, and she cries out, “Woodpeckers!”
“What?” Carla doesn’t even pause.
“Never mind,” Sue says, but she is smiling. The pecking is the reason the door won’t stay closed! She has figured out the source of today’s trouble.
When the women reach the bedroom that the boys share, they find Robert on the floor with Peter and Ava dogpiled on top of him. The three of them are one wriggling mass, just a tangled mess of limbs. Sue peels the children off of Robert, and Carla says, Robert, Robert, are you okay? He doesn’t respond. He’s curled up on his side, and his entire body is shaking. The women bend over him.
He’s injured, Sue thinks. They have to help him.
Then she notices Carla’s hand on his shoulder. She moves aside so that Carla can roll Robert onto his back. He throws his arms and legs out flat. Tears leak from the corners of his eyes. The women look at each other, and Sue can see the concern on Carla’s face.
Then it dawns on Sue that Robert is laughing.
He opens his eyes. He blinks up at the ceiling as he catches his breath. “That was fun,” he says.
Bio: Christina Yang graduated from Columbia University. She loves the library, a good binge watch, and a hot meal cooked by someone other than herself. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Grub Street and The South Carolina Review, and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and three children.
From December of last year onward, I have thought about bread every day, without exception. It started about six months after I got married. I cried a lot those first few months, and though I would always tell my husband that I didn’t know why I was so upset, I can tell you now that I was afraid that I’d gotten married too young, before I’d gotten to know myself. I couldn’t list things that I liked to do on my own, anything that wasn’t secretly something I’d borrowed from my husband, something he’d introduced to me while we were dating or engaged.
I have it written down in my journal, where it all began. On the left page: “I am still trying to figure out who I am and what my passions are, but I am struggling to explore… I don’t know what I like. I don’t know how to express what I don’t know.” On the right page: “Remember that poem about Jesus being a vampire, due to his association with blood? Do the Eucharistic mirror: Bread”
And so, about six months after I got married, I stalked a girl on Twitter so I could ask her about a poem. Over a year ago I’d heard her read it at some poetry award ceremony, and though the poem stuck with me, all I could remember about her was that during a question and answer session afterwards, one of her friends had said that she often talks about a soda parlor on Twitter. So last Christmas I sought her out. Apparently, Twitter doesn’t approve of someone making an account (not even bothering to add a profile picture or bio), scrolling through the followers of a soda parlor and direct messaging an individual. I got flagged for suspicious activity, but after I messaged her, she sent me the poem. She had compared Jesus to a vampire, made Him a run-away obsessed with the drinking of His blood like wine. And I wanted to write about bread. That’s where it all started. I wanted to write a poem like she did, but about bread instead of wine. More tame, I thought. Less sacrilegious. Jesus is bread just as much as He is wine.
By some miracle, then, my mind began a diet of bread. After the sacrament had been passed around at church, I immediately closed my ears, ignoring sermons to focus on googling bread things on my phone, letting my mind drift between the etymologies behind “crust” and “loaf” and “crumb.” I read about transubstantiation and cannibalism. I read recipes and tried to find art. I wrote some poetic lines, and thought about writing more. I watched the episodes from the Great British Bake Offwhere they only made bread. I made bread. I tried the religious ones like challah and matzoh, but also baked soft pretzels and naan. In an art class I painted a loaf of bread and it was really challenging, but I learned that the smell of oil paint and the smell of yeast are equally pungent.
I fell in love with yeast. It’s a gross word and kind of a gross thing, but it is inherently creative. Those tiny tan pellets I had always used and watched my mom use are yeast, but delivered in a form that is comparatively new, in the history of humans making the oldest form of crafted food. Yeast is bacteria– little live organisms we invite into the loaf, either by measured tablespoons of baker’s yeast, or by just letting them settle in from the air. They eat the flour and sugar and burp out the bubbles that, when baked, make that fluffy pattern, called the crumb. But before we as a culture started demonizing gluten, we demonized the yeast within bread. Around the time of the industrial revolution, Louis Pasteur discovered germs, and panic broke out surrounding bread. Since nobody wanted these germs in their food, bakers and mothers turned to baking soda and baking powder to chemically produce those bubbles needed, and bread was leavened by chemicals instead of by life itself.
Bakers now are turning back to naturally leavened dough, using the bacteria in the air as humans have done from the beginning of humanity. And I tried it too. I built a sourdough starter, based more off of my own feel for something I knew nothing about than on any recipe or instructions that I had read. In a glass jar I mixed flour and water (and just a tiny bit of yeast to kick start it), and each day would continue to add the two. A sourdough starter is very much like a pet– you feed it daily, you build a relationship based mostly on you just staring at it, and you name it something so that it hurts when it dies. My husband named it “Scoob,” and it lasted one week, after making two very small loaves. I can only guess which of my blind experiments killed it, but I am a little relieved I don’t have to worry about taking care of it every day. Scoob was time-consuming, and it’s easier to just use yeast pellets anyway.
I daydreamed about the first loaf of bread, that first leavening. Adam built an altar, and then next to it he built an oven. While perhaps God boomed instructions down from on high, and maybe He sent down Martha Stewart as an angel to show them how, I prefer to think of the first loaf as a beautiful accident. Adam and Eve let their children try to grind the flour with their weak arms, and then pushed and pulled the dough between them. At first they made pancake-flat bread that had no salt and one had to growl a little as they tore at it. But someone, and I hope it was Eve, left dough out on a warm rock one day and forgot about it, perhaps caught up in this new experience where she cried whenever she saw her babies and their fat cheeks. And the air did something different to the dough. Given the time, the life that had been on Eve’s skin and in her fingers as she had kneaded the dough began to grow and multiply. What a godlike power, to make something grow through touch. Did Eve feel that guilt again, for trying to be like God?
I think about Cain and Abel, staring in wonder as the dough rose, eyes wide as they tried to see the imperceptible, like trying to see the life within grass that makes it grow. Yeast is like the Holy Spirit: invisible, inflicting growth. So maybe Abel was the only one who was watching?
I made so much bread. I fought inside myself between the homemaking scent of dough in the oven, the pride I felt over a swirling, beautiful crumb, and the hate I had for my body, knowing bread was the enemy. Bread has the potential to be so nutritious, as the books I read told me, but I knew I wasn’t doing the right things to make a good loaf, a complicated and nutritious loaf. I used cheap flour and it takes less time to use yeast pellets and just call it good. But I knew I could get so much deeper, if I wanted.
I follow a couple of sourdough breadmakers on Instagram, and they all describe their work in these mathematical terms: “100% whole grain freshly milled blend of hard white spring/warthog/ spelt mixed at 72% and bassinaged up to 90% during autolyse/ fermentolyse… then completely ignored for a 6.5 hour RT bulk. Bench rest was rushed and shaping was punctuated by aberrations in the kids’ bedtime routine (including being headbutted by a six year old who is closer to my size than any other six year old you’ve ever seen, completely deflating one of the other loaves).” Look at that jargon, kneaded right into this mother’s life.
I love the auditory qualities of jargon, though I’m always hesitant to use jargon myself. One time, I helped collect sound as my husband filmed a short documentary of a Magic the Gathering event. I pointed a gun-shaped microphone at some men who kneaded their cards like they were casting spells (which I guess is the point), sliding and slipping their deck around like an animal puffing out his chest to intimidate his opponent. I’ve never played Magic, and so the way they talked was so interesting because it made no sense to me. It obviously had the potential to be understood, but I just let words slide across my ears, and made sure I was capturing all their sounds. I guess I bring this up because the biggest part of this whole bread thing is what it means to me from a religious perspective, and there is nothing I know that is more full of jargon or acronyms or recycled terminology than my church, my faith. I could make you, reader, play a guessing game at what I do believe, and avoid vernacular. I try my best to translate, though. I sometimes wish I were Catholic, or the etymology of “Catholic.” That I were universal, and universally understood.
Bread is almost universally associated with the hearth, the home, the mother. I think about my mom every time I think about bread. She used to bake all the time. She made loaves of whole wheat bread, and sometimes I helped. And by help, I mean that I would sink my hands deep in the bucket under the end of the counter that was full of kernels of wheat, and let them slip slowly from my fingers. After a few minutes of this, my hands would be soft from the chaff and tingling from touching hundreds or grains. The wheat then went into my mother’s grinder, which was a wooden box that made the lights in the whole house flicker when it roared to life. I would lift the lid and my mom would pour them into the broad funnel, where each kernel would jump about and then drop into the dark and dangerous hole in the center. My mom always warned me not to put my finger in there because, “The grinder doesn’t know the difference between a finger and some wheat.”
Ever since my dad stopped eating carbs and sugar (due to a totally serious fear of contracting a fungus that will take over his body and control his actions, like a zombie virus) my mom has stopped baking bread. It goes bad before she alone can finish it. I remember as a child I would only eat her earthy, brown wheat bread if it had just come out of the oven and was drowning in butter, only then. I hated bringing her crumbly sandwiches in my lunch, and I know it hurt her feelings. I know what it’s like to bake a pie and bring it to a hangout with your friends, and you’re the only one who has a slice. But baking is a sacrifice, which makes it a great metaphor for Christ.
I learned about things that I wanted to write but couldn’t find the best way to do so. Like how at Easter, we talk about how Jesus, the Bread of Life, is Risen, and I wanted to laugh at the pun. Or how when I was looking into the etymology (I know I’ve mentioned this a lot; it’s the history and origin of words, and is like a second religion to me) of bread words, I found that the word “Lord” comes from an old English “hlaford,” or loaf-guard. And though the term wasn’t applied to Jesus until the King James translation of the Bible, it’s a beautiful translation of the name of God, since He has said that He is the bread of life, and will feed us. The old English word for servant comes from this same relationship to bread, and means loaf-eater.
These more recent months I have been attracted to the concept of communities. It bled over from bread very easily, because bread is a community food. It’s designed to be broken and shared, and it brings those who eat it closer together. Makes sense why it’s used for the Eucharist, for communion.
The time I felt most alone in my whole life was during the first few months of this year, during church, sitting in a congregation of at least 250. We had tried, my husband and I. We’d brought cookies to neighbors, we sat next to couples and introduced ourselves. I’d even taken a page out of some psychology-based hacks off the internet, and literally asked my neighbor if I could borrow a cup of sugar, but she just texted, “Sorry, I’m not home right now.”
One Sunday someone got up and spoke about how they had just moved into the area (months after we had) and they were making so many friends and had gotten assignments in the church and were loving it. I stood up and left then, crying my way up the aisle. In middle school, when a girl cries, she is swarmed by half-friends, and one mom-friend will rub her back and whisper “give her space” to the other girls. What I mean is that crying in middle school at least gets you attention, but in this bizarre place, nothing happened. After that day I stopped going to that congregation. Nobody ever checked up on me or my husband. We disappeared and nobody noticed. I was a tree falling in a forest, trying to make as much noise as I could, because I did not want to fall.
I didn’t understand what was happening to me. I Googled what makes a community, and I read the definitions from social scientist to psychologist. I took notes. I thought about things like initiation, trying to guess what might be initiation for a church community. Looking back, I realize that I was already initiated, at least by the books. I had gotten baptized, hadn’t I? What more was I supposed to have completed? I’m still bitter. In my journal, right next to my list of the factors of a community, I have a quote from Montaigne: “Every man has within himself the entire human condition.” I think I was entertaining the idea of an internal community. I have these separate elements within myself–body, mind, spirit, conscious and subconscious. Could I be my own friend? Or maybe I was thinking about bread again, and how Jesus, the perfect example, is symbolized in the communion, which I watched each person in that room eat every week I was there. I watched them partake, and then Jesus was in them. Each of those people were visibly and literally integrating Jesus into their lives and yet I was being lost, left out, despite doing the same. Shouldn’t we all have been gathered as one, as the Body of Christ?
I read a medieval riddle about bread, but it was basically an overt metaphor for male genitalia. It turns out bread is sexy. As a wedding present I received a great big red kitchen mixer but it sits in its box in my closet, never opened, because my kitchen is too small almost for the toaster we have. I can’t complain too much though, because I have come to develop a relationship with kneading. I could recommend yoga to any stranger, but I would recommend kneading dough to my friends. It’s a sensory and sensual experience. I take my rings off to keep them clean, and I scoop the dough from the bowl, trying to catch all the flour at the bottom. I drop the mass on my counter, careful to keep it within the either oiled or floured area. I think about how taffy is made. It’s pulling taffy, and it’s pushing bread. I sink my hands in and push the dough over and over, the scent of the yeast in the dough, and I think about how I don’t have enough patience for sourdough. I think about things like saturation and hydration–things I’ve learned are important for a good loaf, things that I have chosen to ignore. I drop my lump of dough into a greased pan and slip it into the heat of the oven. Baguettes, when they come out of the oven, start to sing. They pop and crackle as they start to cool and contract, and I like that.
Adam Gopnik says, “Stovetop cooking is, at first approximation, peeling and chopping onions and then crying; baking is mixing yeast and water with flour and then waiting. The difference between being a baker and being a cook is whether you find waiting or crying more objectionable.” I waited, and let time bring levity to my pain. I’ve found a new congregation, one that has older ladies with European accents and babies who stumble around sucking on their own fingers. There are girls my age who don’t terrify me. We get together on Sundays and have tea together. Someone came over and gave me a loaf of bread, just to be nice, and I almost cried after the door shut.If someone asked me what I like to do, I could say a few things that are all for myself. I like reading, doing yoga, writing, and making new food in my crevice of a kitchen. I like watching black and white movies, and being a socialite at work and at church.
We’ve hit our first anniversary together, and I talk to my husband about the difference between transubstantiation and transelimination. I feel more at home in my body. But the biggest aspect of my life that changed as a result of this obsession is how I feel about God. My feelings started out as ambivalent and, I’ll admit, apathetic. But as I read about bread and its role as the staff of life, a chaotic fear settled into my mind as I realized that God is so distant, and so unlike me. I felt a desperate need to understand God, and a terrifying knowledge that it is impossible. When I was a child, I imagined God was a giant so large that I could curl up in his hand, like a mouse-sized cat. Now I just imagine a sort of amorphous entity who exists somewhere above my ceiling. A watch-clock god, a fly-on-the-wall god. He hovers above my headboard, He hides behind the chapel rafters.
Jesus, though. Jesus is the man. He’s the superhero, the best friend. He’s the holiest of holies and also the most accessible. But Jesus told us to pray to the Father and prayer is hard because it doesn’t do any good unless you say it out loud, and it’s really never any real good unless it’s in a group, where you know someone can hear you. Why can’t I just whisper to Jesus, instead of trying to form a telepathic link with the God of the Universe?
I thought about bread being re-formed. A loaf is made to be torn apart, to be split between people. Jesus was the same way. The Catholics believe that one piece of the eucharist is Christ wholly, and so I thought about how many pieces of bread, or wafers or crumbs are set apart as the body of Christ, and what would happen if each person, each member of the body of Christ, brought their pieces together and re-built His body, like building that temple in Babylon. So many people claim to have a splinter of the cross that Jesus was crucified on, that was found by Saint Helen and later divied up as gifts to bishops and cardinals who had pleased the Pope. If those were all brought together too, would the giant Jesus-golem fit on the giant recreated cross? Maybe that sounds more science-fiction than anything else, and maybe it doesn’t make any sense at all, but it does go to show how confused I was about God. I wrote and wrote trying to figure it out.
I had never allowed myself to explore my faith so freely before. I wrote things like:
Blood. A name. Bread like a stone
Blood has a tang like iron
Bread made from the dust of the earth, like us.
Dust to dust, unholy to holy to unholy
Mary was barren, and God said, “Well, I DID already say she was chosen.”
And Mary made bread and the bread saved souls.
I don’t talk to the Baker anymore.
It’s not easy to get bread without talking to the Baker, but he’s not what I’m here for.
I’m here for bread.
I read that last bit out loud to a few people, testing the weight of the words as potential lines for this vision of a poem, my end goal. My brother and his wife shook their heads and said, “I don’t get it. We love the baker. We want to be close to Him. I don’t think your metaphor works.”
Let me spell it out then: I believe in Jesus much much more than I believe in God. I can at least imagine a face for Christ. I can understand that He lived and can imagine Him as a child or as a teenager. But God is so weird and so perfect. Perfect isn’t a personality trait. And I don’t even know what God likes to eat. But Jesus? He talked about bread.
Bread of Life
1 Mary, human, the dust of life, or pure flour
1 God the Father, deity, living water. If you can’t get living water, regular is fine
1 bitter cup Yeast, or all the sins of the world
A bit of olive oil, to remind us that God loves gardens
A bit of salt, untrodden
Knead ingredients together, until the whole is leavened. Abuse the dough as you see fit. Bake for 3 days in an oven, or in a cave. Partake by sharing with friends and family. Don’t leave it in the breadbox, or you will have defeated the purpose. This bread is designed to be torn and broken apart. Do not slice.
We bring them down from high shelves in guest room closets. We carry them up from basement boxes where they rest next to strings of Christmas lights, enamelware pots, rakes, trunks full of mothballs and wool.
Unbox, unbin pumps in leather if winter, patent if Easter has passed, heels thicker than strumpet but not too thick because we are not dead yet. We will strap one safe hole past comfort. It would not do to trip.
Black Kiwi polish we keep for such occasions. We do not buy the modern bottles with their sponges. We buy the round tins, circles of black wax that remind us of our weekend fathers with chamois cloths on wingtips.
Underneath we wear our stockings nude. Above we are smartly dressed. We look our best for the dead who cannot see us. We look our best for the people who are left who are alive. We are alive and so we have taken care.
Wine-red carpets pocked with thin spots thready from years of salted boots stretch down the aisles we walk. We pass our people. They too have taken care and we do not stop to catch at their hands.
We sit in pews with backs that keep us wakeful. We sit, we do not kneel. We look our god straight in his eye. Someday we will shake his hand with our firm grip that will tell him exactly who we are.
How Great Thou Art, we sing. Our voices swell, our souls. Again we sit. We hear the gospel John. We hear Corinthians. We hear the beneficent reverend remind us of the good that is within us, of the good that was in our dead.
Tissues balled in fists, we do not wail. We are not hiding sorrow. We are not ashamed of our distress. We are heartache restrained, our loss full and contained, correctly expressed by the straight of our spines and the shine of our shoes.