Here’s my short story “Sourdough” …
by Angela Slatter
My father did not know that my mother knew about his other wives, but she did.
It didn’t seem to bother her, perhaps because, of them all, she had the greater independence and a measure of prosperity that was all her own. Perhaps that’s why he loved her best. Mother baked very fine bread, black and brown for the poor and shining white for the affluent. We were by no means rich, but we had more than those around us, and there was enough money spare for occasional gifts: a book for George, a toy train for Artor, and a thin silver ring for me, engraved with flowers and vines.
The sight of other children in other squares, with Father’s uniquely gleaming red hair, did not bother Mother at all. After he died, I think she found it comforting, to be reminded of him by all those bright little heads.
Our home was in one of the squares at the edge of the merchants’ quarter – the town was divided into ‘quarters’ that weren’t really quarters. Seen from above, the town.
It was a large square, made up of groups of much smaller squares (tall houses built around a common courtyard); in the centre of the town was the Cathedral, high up on a hill, then spreading around it in an orderly fashion were rows and rows of city blocks, the richest ones nearest the Cathedral, then the further out you got, the poorer the blocks. We sat just before the poorest houses, not quite good enough to be in the middle of the merchants’ rows, but still not in among the places were rats shared cradles with babies. We had several large rooms mid-way up one of the tall houses, and Mother leased out the big ground-floor kitchen for her business.
From the time I could walk I would follow Mother around the kitchen, learning her art. For a while she was simply annoyed by my constant presence, as I got under foot, but when I learnt to sit on the bench next to the huge wooden table on which she kneaded the bread, and be quiet, she decided to share her knowledge. I was her firstborn, after all, and her only daughter.
When I could see over the top of the table, I started to help her. Baking tiny child’s loaves at first for practice, much to Mother’s amusement, then making the dark, ‘poor’ bread for those who could not afford refined flour. Finally, I was allowed to create white bread to grace the tables of the rich: those born to wealth and knowing nothing else, the higher merchants, the bishop and his like. I began to create complicated twists of dough to look like artworks. At first Mother laughed, but the orders kept coming for them, so she watched and imitated me.
One morning, after we’d finished baking for the day, I began to play with the leftover dough on the board in front of me. Soon a child formed, a baby perfectly copied to the life, with tiny hands and feet, an angel’s smile and a sculpted lick of hair on its forehead.
Mother came up behind me and stared. She reached past me and squashed her fists down on the dough-child, pushing and kneading until it was once again a featureless lump.
‘Never do that. Never make an image of a person or a child. They bring bad luck, Emmeline, or things you don’t want. We don’t need any of that.’
I should have remembered the dough-child, but memory is a traitor to good sense.
There was to be a wedding, arranged, a fine society ‘do’ and we were to supply the bread.
The parents of the groom – or rather, his mother – insisted on being involved in every decision pertaining to the wedding, so there was a power struggle in train between her and the bride’s mother (two titans in boned bodices). Things were getting tense, apparently – this information we had from Madame Fifine (about as French as Yorkshire pudding), the confectioner who was to supply the bonbons for the wedding feast. We were to appear at the groom’s parents’ house, goods in tow, to show our wares.
Mother and I tidied ourselves as well as we could, pulling flour-free dresses from chests and piling our hair high. Artor and George were press-ganged into carrying the wooden trays of our finest white breads to the big house near the Cathedral. We were shown into a drawing room almost as big as our ground-floor kitchen.
As soon as the boys gingerly laid the trays on the big table, Mother shooed them out. I knew they’d be in the stableyard, bumming cigarillos from the stable and kitchen lads, eyeing the horses longingly, waiting for the day when Mother could afford a horse and carriage (that day was a long way off, but they hoped the proceeds from the wedding would speed up the process).
The drawing room was awash with boredom. The parents sat stiffly across from each other on heavily embroidered chairs whose legs were so finely carved it seemed that they should not be able to support the weight of anyone, let alone these four who almost dripped with the fat of their prosperity. The bride, conversely, was thin as a twig, nervous and sallow, but pretty, with darting dark eyes and tightly pulled hair sitting in a thick, dark red bun at the base of her neck. The groom did not face the room: he had removed himself to the large French window and was staring at the courtyard below (probably watching my brothers watching his horses). He had dark hair, curly, that kissed the collar of his jacket, and he was tall but that was all I could tell. Madame Fifine had said he was called Peregrine.
Mother nodded to me and I took the first loaf from one of the trays, showed it to the clients so they could observe its clever shape (a church bell with bows), then placed it on a platter and cut six slices for them to taste. The two mothers, the two fathers, the bride all took their slices and the room was silent but for their well-bred chewing. I crossed the room and offered the groom the last slice. He didn’t turn, merely raised his hand in a ‘no’ and shook his head. I noticed his hand bore the stain of a port-wine birthmark.
‘It would be a shame, sir, to waste something so fine.’
Perhaps struck by the fact that I spoke to him, he looked at me and broke into a smile.
‘Yes. You’re right. It would be a shame.’ He took the bread, green eyes bright. ‘What hair you have, miss.’
‘Emmeline.’ Mother called me and I began my task over again: now the loaf shaped like a flower, now the one like an angel, now all the animal shapes (rabbits, doves, kittens, a horse), the one like a church. Each time I saved his slice until last and we spoke in low voices, he asked me about my life and laughed at my pert answers. When the tasting was finished, the mothers began to argue; the design to choose was the cause of combat. Finally, they turned to the girl, Sylvia, and made her decide. She had the look of a trapped animal and I felt sorry for her.
‘Perhaps…’ I began and all eyes turned to me, the mothers’ brimming with affront, the fathers’ with boredom, the groom’s with amusement, my own mother’s with something like dread, and the bride’s with hope of rescue. ‘Perhaps Miss Sylvia has a favourite animal or flower. We could make the bread to her choice if she does not like what we have brought today.’
‘A fox!’ she cried, clapping her hands to her mouth as if she had said something a-wrong or too bold. I smiled and she said more firmly. ‘Yes, a fox. That would please me.’
‘As you wish, Miss Sylvia.’ Mother’s voice was a relieved breeze. ‘My Emmeline can make anything with her hands; she has great skill.’
So it was settled. The bride had spoken, and defied both her mother and future mother-in-law. Mother and I hefted the wooden trays scattered with the remains of butchered loaves and made for the door. The groom was there before the footman and ushered us through. He smiled and I felt as warm as bread fresh from the oven.
In the months before the wedding he came to me many times.
The first time I was alone in the kitchen – Mother was ill, spending half her time sleeping the other half shouting delirious orders (which I ignored) from her bed. Artor and George took turns delivering the bread and sitting by her side, while I kept the kitchen running.
I dropped the tray when I saw him at the door. I was covered in flour, my hair covered by a scarf, and barefoot because I loved the feel of the kitchen flags cool and covered with a light dusting of flour. He laughed and held out the largest bunch of flowers I had ever seen. I examined it as he picked up the fallen tray and placed it on one of the benches. This was no posy picked from the fields outside the town, these were exotic blooms, blossoms grown in hothouses and afforded only by the rich.
‘Hello, Miss Emmeline. Are you baking for my wedding yet?’
‘That’s months off, young sir, as you well know. How would it look to serve stale bread at your wedding feast?’
‘It would be appropriate, more appropriate than you know. My fox bride might even tell you that herself, if she were truthful.’ He touched one of the florid roses in the bouquet and smiled. ‘Do you like these?
‘They are very fine, sir. Fit for your bride.’
‘But I think you will like them best.’
We did nothing more, that first time, than talk. Subsequent times were very different, but that first visit, I think, made us friends and stood us in good stead. He brought gifts, even though I told him not to; something for me always, sometimes things for Mother and the boys. Artor and George, hostile and suspicious at first, were won over when he brought the horses. Two of the finest creatures I’ve ever seen, with a red-gold fleck to their coats and white stars on their foreheads. Peregrine told me later that their colouring reminded him of our bright hair. The most beautiful thing he gave me was a ring, rose-gold with a square-cut emerald.
‘A dangerous stone,’ I told him.
‘What do you mean?’
‘An emerald will crack, if given by a lover whose heart is unfaithful,’ I replied. He laughed and dragged me down.
‘Yours will be safe.’
I had no expectation of marriage – I was friend and mistress. He would marry his fox bride, as he called Sylvia, and I knew it. I only expected constancy and for many months I had it.
When my belly began to swell, he laughed with delight, his fingers lightly dancing over my taut skin, stroking the curls at the apex of my thighs, and gently showing me how pleased he was at what we had made together. I thought then, briefly, of the dough-child, but put it from my mind.
One day, a fortnight before his wedding, he ceased to visit. Instead, the fox bride came one morning as I kneaded dough in the kitchen.
She was different to the nervous girl I had met months ago. She eyed the kitchen – and me – with disdain, as if she might somehow find some uncleanness clinging to her silken skirts from the mere proximity of such a place and personage. I put my hands to my stomach. She snorted, a brief, sharp laugh that cut.
‘You will not have him anymore,’ she said. ‘He will be my husband.’
‘You do not love him,’ I replied. It had not occurred to me that the fox bride would not share.
‘But I want this marriage. I want to be away from my parents. I want to be mistress of my own house. But if he keeps running to you, keeps loving you more and more then he may decide not to marry me.’ She glared. ‘I will not allow that to happen.’
‘Stay away from here. Stay away from me. I will tell him.’
‘He does not remember you.’ She laughed, came close, and showed her sharp white teeth in a smile. ‘Why do you think he isn’t here? With his love, watching what he’s planted grow? You’re not the only one who can make things; potions are more powerful than bread, little Emmeline.’
Her hand shot out and she laid her palm against my belly. I moved back, almost falling over an uneven flag. ‘Watch nothing goes into your food, Emmeline. You wouldn’t want to lose this last piece of Peregrine.’
I heard her laughter even as she walked down the street. I thought only to run to Peregrine, but my nose began to bleed and my belly contracted so hard that I did fall this time, and mercifully found the dark balm of sleep.
Their wedding day dawned grey and overcast as summer slipped into autumn. The weather kept all but the most enthusiastic of wedding goers at home – the old women who wait outside the church, knitting and yammering, commenting on all aspects of the event: how the bride looked, how well her dress suited (or not), if she was glowing and if so, why (honeymoon baby, my sainted aunt!), and how long the marriage would last.
It was with these ancient birds that I waited on the first day I had managed to leave my bed.
The child had come too soon, a little boy, looking not unlike the dough-child, and leaving me bereft. Mother had barely left my side, worrying that I would not speak, would not touch the still little body before she took it away. Artor and George brought me posies but they only made me cry. I missed the brief funeral that was held for my son, confined to bed by a bleeding the sad, gentle little doctor could not stop. Mother brought an old woman one night who gave me something foul to drink and applied a sweet-smelling poultice of moss between my legs. My body started to repair itself then.
Mother told me that the boys had tried to speak to Peregrine; he had simply looked at them in bewilderment, saying he did not know who they were. They had hidden the horses he had given them in a stable at the outer edges of town, in case someone accused them of theft. Mother had presented herself at the big house, ostensibly to discuss the wedding bread, and Peregrine simply looked through her. She felt that she must be a ghost, so empty was his face. The old woman who had tended to me told her there were things that could bewitch a man’s mind and make him forget his dearest desire.
The fox bride was more than she seemed.
I watched her as she left the Cathedral on her husband’s arm. I would have let her have this; it had never been my intent to take it from her, but she had stolen my lover and my child was dead. She stepped into a puddle of mud as she headed toward the carriage, and shrieked her distaste as her silk shoes and white lace hem turned the colour of dirty chocolate. I smiled in spite of myself and slid the hood from my head, my bright hair shining out in the dimness of the day. Peregrine looked up from his wife’s distress and saw me. His face twisted, distracted and uncertain, but he did not know me. His attention turned back to his bride and I slipped away before she could see me and triumph.
In my kitchen, I found the remnants of the wedding bread dough and began to sculpt another dough-child. I fashioned it as cunningly as the first but this time with intent and not a little malice. Such magic requires only intent and ill-will but no great skill.
I drew from my finger the ring Peregrine had given me. The emerald gleamed at me, intact, unbroken; his heart was never unfaithful, only his memory. The ring was pushed into the dough-child’s belly. I made a bellybutton to cover its ingress.
When it came from the oven, it had a fine golden crust and looked like a cherub. I delivered it to the cook at the house the newlyweds were to share; she was a friend of Mother’s and took the dough-child gladly.
‘Tell them it’s for fertility, to bless them with a child.’
She nodded. ‘They shall have it for supper this very eve, Emmeline.’
He told me later how the dough-child had been served to them on a silver tray, with butter and a selection of jams. Sylvia had ooh-ed and aah-ed over the silly little thing and happily cut herself a thick slice, slathering it with sugary conserve. Peregrine ate the bread dry and unadorned. When the sourdough touched his tongue his memory returned.
The fox bride continued to eat as he railed at her. She greedily chewed and swallowed great bites of bread, laughing at his rage and talking around her food, telling him she would do it again, too. Then she began to choke. Her face went red, then blue around the lips as she struggled to draw in air. She pointed at her throat, threw things at him as he stood, staring in horror. When she was finally still, he called for a doctor.
The little doctor, the one who had attended me so unsuccessfully, found the emerald ring lodged in her throat. He, I’m sure, recognised it and placed it in Peregrine’s hand, closing the young widower’s fingers around the piece of jewellery. ‘Someone will be looking for that, young man.’
I no longer wear it very often, knowing what I did with it, although I do bring it out now and then to remind myself of his constant heart. We live in another house, as far away from his parents as he could get, but still in one of the nicer squares. My mother runs her business out of a real shop not far from us, and has two young girls apprenticed to her.
‘They don’t have your touch, Emmeline,’ she sometimes says but she knows why I will no longer bake, why my hands will never again knead dough. She is happy, for she knows her grandchild comes. I am content to visit the small grave where my first child lies. I speak with him often and tell him about his father and sister, who comes to us soon. I tell him I am sorry I could not protect him and that I will never forget him. My memory is true.
“Sourdough” first appeared in Strange Tales II, (Rosalie Parker, ed.) Tartarus Press, December 2007, then again in Sourdough and Other Stories, Tartarus Press, 2010.