I am the last to arrive because I have brought the bread. They crowd around the windows and watch me come from the wood. Today is Sigmund’s Day and our meeting marks the year. And although today is a day of joy, a new kind of sadness has begun in me.
This year I am the baker because I am no longer a girl. I don’t know what I did to make this change, or what it will reveal, although I’m hopeful that this black mood is not a defining part.
Grandad would go out on new year’s night and make sure he was the first through the door. The coal he left on the step was in the hope of a warmer spring. This is why the baker arrives last, because some things have always been. They are like the fire under our pot, and the decision it makes every year. There is no change in them like there is in us.
My bread is still warm, wrapped up tight in a kitchen cloth. I fear it may sweat and break apart and hold no stew in its crust. I fear I will trip and fall on the path as I carry it to the door. I fear I will let down all those loving eyes. Perhaps this is a part of growing old.
It’s a relief when Mother Mari opens the door and the faces leave the windows. She takes the bread with her good arm and holds the door with what’s left of the other.
‘New bread for what’s to come.’ She says stopping the door with her foot and unwrapping the cloth. ‘Old stew for what’s gone.’
Delwyn stands on the stairs with his violin. I believe he is better with his one hand than anyone could be with two. Mother Mari closes the door and he begins the first song. The children hold hands and make circles with their arms. They spin and laugh and pull in their mothers and fathers. One by one the parents are cut away from the crowd until it is only the old and alone left to watch.
I sit with Enid, a quiet lady who is both old and alone. She holds my hand and we watch the dance together. She tells me about an old day.
‘The pot was different then. They changed it on our first Sigmund’s Day, can you imagine? David was there, holding the new one steady as they poured in the stew. He left the next day.’
‘Why would he leave?’ I ask.
‘He didn’t understand.’
She looks to the fire and the steaming pot, its bottom as black as coal, and she begins to cry. She cries because today she is less alone, because tomorrow will come and today will go.
I look at her shoulders, her cheeks and closed eyes. I rub her misshapen hand. I try to imagine her young. They say she loved to dance, but now she cannot. Her good leg taps, steady and gentle, the other twitches as it tries to move what is not there. I wonder if she could tell me what it means to be grown, to no longer be a child. I wonder if wisdom has come with her years, and if her sadness and mine are the same.
The dancing brings a closeness into the room and the windows fog. Mother Mari prepares the table. Her granddaughter carries bowls and steadies the loaf as Mari saws us each a slice. It is a good bread.
She has set the table so that the fire and pot sit at the head. We are its body, its dancing legs and arms. We are its movement in the world, and it is our memory. It bubbles away under an iron lid, an oily brown mouth reciting the countless days it’s seen.
‘On the year you were born they scraped the bottom of the pot,’ says Enid. ‘They brought up a burnt black lump and buried it in the woods. I believe it was a sign.’
Mother Mari lifts the lid and spoons in salt. I wonder at what new secrets have grown on the bottom since I was born.
More lights are lit, and the warmth of our bodies pulls us closer. Those that can will dance the night through, but first we must sit and eat. I help Enid cross the room and the dancers part.
Now that I am a woman I sit at the long table and am part of the night proper. I choose to sit with Enid this first time. Behind Mother Mari the children sit at their table and wait. Maybe this is where the sadness has sprouted from; I am no longer a child at the small table, I am a woman at the large. It must mean something more than I know, more than the word itself. I imagine part of myself gone forever, a small piece of joy lost between the cracks of age.
Once everyone has sat Mother Mari leads our prayer. I pray that Enid will feel less alone, and that she may receive the stew’s gift to lighten her life.
‘Now where is my stone, my round earth bone?’ says Mother Mari at the end of the prayer.
The children bang their table and say as one:
‘Look in your pocket, in Sigmund’s wood locket.’
She reaches into the folds of her dress and finds the box. She opens it and tips the pebble into her hand then throws it high over her shoulder to the children.
She takes the lucky child to the pot and lifts the lid. He looks into the depths and drops the stone.
We sing and pass the bowls around the table as they are filled. They travel through everyone’s hands, like a river springing from Mother Mari’s ladle and ending at our mouths. We pass until the bowls are mixed and only the stew knows who is chosen. I pray again for Enid, and in my sadness, I do what is not allowed and pray for myself.
It’s shameful to wish it for yourself, it is selfish and wrong. But the weight of my wish feels real and heavy and good. I repeat it to myself as I bring my bowl close.
A thousand Mother Mari’s have added water and vegetables over the years. A thousand Mother Mari’s tending a fire as old as the forest that feeds it. I feel every one of them as I eat. It tastes exactly right.
And then it is there, the weight of my wish balanced in the cup of my spoon.
This round earth bone.
Enid kisses me on the cheek and begins to clap. Those that can clap join in, those that cannot bang the table and stamp what feet they have. They look at me with both joy and jealousy. She has brought the bread, they think, and now she has the stone. How could one girl, one woman, be graced with such luck?
A space is cleared amongst the bowls and bread and I pick a leg entire. I pick it so that I can join Enid in her giving, so she may be a little less alone. Mother Mari uncovers my leg and straps my thigh and the many hands hold me. As I am prepared the sadness drifts off like vapour from the pot. I feel Him in me, Sigmund reaching up through the deepest of time. He has heard me. He has seen me, and I can see Him. I feel the warmth of His fire and the tight press of hands. I feel the change from girl to woman as the child in me is cut away and given to our eternal stew.
William Nuth lives on the border of Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire. In his spare time, he can be found writing and talking to his dog. He has previously been published in Structo, Bandit Fiction, Firewords and The Bitter Oleander.
photo by Saveurs Secretes (via pexels)