The flour scurried like dust from an epicentre. Exploding, it mushroomed and fell like ash, a bullseye ring clear round the impact. The slap of the dough as it hit was dull. Flat. Lifeless. Too loud. For a moment, he stood too still. Betrayed by the loudness. The loudness that made the silence that followed fierce with the irreverent sounds of living. The noises within; his breath, the cracks and squeaks of the fire, the sweep of his hands, slow, against his apron, water being poured in another room. The noises without; a stray cat existing, a baby refusing to be settled, the pierce and rebound of a laugh too deliberate. He lifted and slapped the dough down again, more forcefully, enough to tense the muscles in his shoulder and make him aware of a soreness.
“Is it finished?”. Her hand rested on the door post; her very being almost diaphanous. How? How is it? This tangled web of brightness, this wisp of life curling at the entrance, whose effect was so great on him that she seemed to draw up the sun and lock away the night. How in her physical presence was she no more than the steam in this kitchen? He could lift and throw her down as he did the dough, but he’d still remain defeated. He felt a familiar stab, somewhere in the circle of his ribs. Indigestion; mortality; the dread that lives that could be lived separately. Their earlier conversation remained in the air for longer than the thrown flour; her choices added leaven. He blinked and shook his head.
He turned back to the dough. Pushing it, stretching it, pulling it. So pliable. First the heel of his hand testing its boundaries, then clawing it back, then burying his knuckles in it and pushing it further away. This was the part he liked the most. This was the respite in the day. To the rest of the process he was extraneous. But this part was his. Still needed. His eyes felt hot. He was overdoing it, kneading too much. It could ruin things.
He paused and leant heavily against the table. The evening coloured the windows cobalt and Egyptian blue. The lights of adjacent houses blinked like dumb children with their mouths open. It was a warm evening, and he imagined the cool of the nearby garden, the shade of the olive trees, dark as myrtle leaves at this time. If they hadn’t fought, if she hadn’t pressed him, he could be walking with Veronica there now. Then they’d come home, eat flat bread with Za’atar; laugh at the strays outside; stare at the darkness from their cocoon of light.
He breathed out and divided the dough. Cleaving it from itself, he broke it into many pieces. Taking the first one, he floured the table, placed it down carefully, and rolled, and turned, and rolled and turned. As the pin passed in his heavy hands, he allowed himself the joy of remembering her as she once was, standing on a wooden stool, as malleable as this bread, wanting to be next to him, and rolling the bread out into misshapen beauties. His daughter, with her skinny arms, covered with flour that stuck to the dark downy hairs, a galaxy of white freckles against her olive skin. Just like her mother. Over and over again, he rolled out the small balls of dough. Too thin. He bit his bottom lip to stop from clenching his teeth. Too thin. He was only aware of the passing of time, and the necessity to have the rounds baked ready for collection. A collection in the dark-cloak of evening.
He let time ebb before he stepped back from the table and stretched. Arching his belly forward, rolling his shoulders back, craning his neck to the left, and raising his arms to the side, hearing the familiar crack and pop of each joint. He could feel his very bones. Would she be there, in his dotage? A little hand, like a sparrow alighting, touched his shoulder – “Abba, let me do it now”. He turned and looked at the wisp of life that held him to the earth. For the first time that evening he noticed the smells in the stone-walled kitchen. He smelt the warm, spent wood of the fire. He smelt the history of bread baked that morning, and the essence of the worked flour ready for the heat. He smelt the rosemary and hyssop hanging in bunches and drying near the window and the aroma of garlic coming through the streets from other people’s lives. She did that, somehow, did his little girl. She brought the senses back.
“Veronica” he started, but before the sentence bore flight, she’d lifted the flat rounds, taken his hand, and glided them to the golden warmth of the pit-oven. They had a new practice now, of placing the dough on an earthenware dome over the heated ashes and cooking it this way. He’d been so excited to show her this; to pretend he didn’t grow a little as her eyes widened with the newness of it; to allow her to wipe the flour from his face with her cloth.
As they placed the dough together, the baker looked at his daughter from the corner of his eye. He traced the floured hands, olive-coloured arms, shoulders sinewy from work, more and more since his beloved had died, slender neck and face, soft and wholesome. Little girl. He ached. Like something thrust through him, he ached; he felt something had been torn within, and he was bleeding with love and with the wanting to be loved, and the needing to be needed by this wisp that he had created. And there she was, turning the bread – he’d taught her how to do that – and didn’t she know that he sorrowed? A howl carried in by an uninvited breeze cut the warmth in that room, as a stray dog leaned into life with his hollow guts and his straining neck, and the baker felt the outside world breathe out against his face. He blinked hard, and hardened, and made himself even stranger in his exile, swallowing at nothing. “He is a troublemaker”.
Without looking at him, she turned the last flatbread. Coloured warmth bathed her nose, brows, the curving warm walls of life. The wine skins hung gravid and promising. He swallowed the fear of her leaving. “They say he is mad”, he said. He hated his voice just then. He sounded old, and bitter. A relative of that howling dog outside. “They said last week he was all in all”. Her voice was hot, like the griddle. She took the bread and wrapped it in a linen cloth. Turning, she smiled; it was her way, to cool as quickly as the bread. “Come, Abba, come and see the evening with me; we can drop this off with John on the way.” Taking his hand, she led him outwards. Out towards the olive garden, and the cool myrtle shade, and the smell of mint and hyssop, the flatbread in her linen wrap.