By Emily Belanger
I need dough collapsing between my fingers. I need to feel it shrivel under one jab. When the dough rises and paunches over the sides of the bowl, when it arches in a hopeful mound—then my fist will descend, squishing out the air. These days I’m not sure anything or anyone deserves to breathe.
But today the dough hasn’t fully risen. It’s barely ready to be kneaded, but when I roll it onto the floured table, I pound. I push with nothing but knuckle, enough that the dough smears and I have to scrape it back into a kneadable mound. The bread will bake chewy, but pounding relieves some of the tightness between my shoulders.
My shoulders are always itching to pound something. They have been since the night I pulled my child from the crib. Then again, maybe I’ve always baked bread this way, always torn my frustrations off with chunks of dough and flung them into scorching ovens. My mother was a happy baker, lazily stirring bowls on holidays, humming as she washed the pans. She wouldn’t approve of the cloud of flour that rises each time I smack the stupid, unresisting glob.
For me, baking is a resentful chore. Even as a little girl I hated ovens and pots and pans. “You’ll change your mind when you have your own family,” my mother would say each time I complained. I’m sure she thought motherhood would open the kitchen in my woman’s heart, or something equally saccharine. She never said anything about the doors that would snap shut.
The dough has spread across the table like a child’s model of a hilly landscape, so I coax it back into shape. This time I lean in, roll back my shoulders and shove with the heels of both hands. It doesn’t help that I married in my thirties, or that it took us so long to conceive. By the time I found myself pregnant and sweating in the delivery room, my mother had already drifted away to a safer world. Her death wasn’t her fault, of course. Doors open, doors close, and no woman can stop them from revolving. At least my mother slipped through the right door, in the right order. Mothers are supposed to die before daughters.
The dough clings to the table, but I scrape and tug. When it breaks loose in my fingers, I smack it back against smooth wood like the benevolent creator I am. The church people would probably scold me for that thought. They’d tell me blame shouldn’t be on my mind when it comes to death. I scoop the dough together again and slam, palms against dough, fingers curled back.
To her credit, my mother left me with a community of church women, a clan of surrogates who clamored to fill her empty outline. But the soft-haired women at church didn’t warn me about untimely death or the way revolving doors can turn the wrong way. They rubbed my back and pressed pregnancy books against my stomach. They brought apple butter, cornflake-coated casseroles, and homemade pickles. They told me they would be my mother now, that I would be so lucky, so many mothers to guide. But they didn’t warn me.
Then again, maybe nobody could have warned me. Everything about having a baby surprised me. I couldn’t think of myself as a mother for the first few weeks, and my husband didn’t help. The newness of being a father overwhelmed him too, but he showed it less. If she cried, he would hand her to me. “She’s hungry,” he would say. “Feed her.” Business-like, as if this was the job I had signed onto when I accepted his diamond ring. But having a baby is more complex than a business transaction. Conducting business doesn’t leave stitches in your most private and tender place.
I pat the dough into a circle, and flour forms a crust against my skin. My arms are caked with dough. I still hate how the dough clings to the hairs on my hands and wrists, how it tugs as it dries, like the jab of a needle. I don’t know why I bake bread anymore. It’s a messy habit I just can’t break.
The bowl I used to start the dough has sat patiently by, the sides streaked with dough remnants. Now I lower it into the sink and run warm water over it, scrubbing away dough with my bare fingers. When the sides of the bowl feel smooth, I place it back on the table and grease it with cooking spray. Then I drop the ball of kneaded dough into the bowl, rotating the lump until it, too, is covered in frothy oil.
When my hands are clean, I sit and survey the napkin-covered bowl. Cloth is all I see, but beneath, a colony expands. The yeast stretches its baby fingers, pulling the flour taut with carbon dioxide. I used to think dough filled with oxygen, sweet and breathable oxygen. But, during one of my late nights, a cookbook explained the process to me. How the yeast is a living substance, consuming sugar and excreting air no human can breathe. Dead air.
But these are the wrong kind of thoughts. The kind my counselor always says to reframe. Put your life in a positive light, he said the last time I saw him. Negations and absences will only make things worse. What do you still have? I could have told him I have a soft brush with five of her hairs and a black mark in the backyard where I burned the crib and the ducky-printed liner. I could have told him I have Cheerios hiding in the couch cushions and under the furniture. I could have told him I have an economy pack of formula. Instead I closed my eyes and waited for a new question.
With one hand against the table, I stand and pull the apron over my head. Today there’s no use in watching or waiting, no reason to guard the dough. Yeast exhales and flour inhales, and no mother need hover.
I’m free to kneel in the garden
Sunlight blankets my back as I step through the sliding door, and the impatiens curl their leaves in my direction. As a little girl, I loved popping their seed pods, spewing confetti across dark soil. Children are careless with new life. Grass brushes the edges of my feet as I walk to the flower garden at the edge of the yard. Trees surround the house and yard like a seventy-foot fence, so only visitors see the flowerbeds in front. Only my husband and I see this garden in the back.
The doctors said—well, they said many things. Doctors are always saying things, aren’t they? Soil smooshes beneath my calves when I kneel beside the peonies. The ground is wet, but I welcome the mud. The doctors said what happened that night wasn’t my fault, that it couldn’t be prevented. As if that would clear away the mess. No guilt, no grief.
Weeds shoot from the soil at the base of the peonies. I sink my bare fingers into the soil and yank. Weeds creep in secret, and I need to feel—I need to feel when their roots snap. An ant paces one of the buds, trailing the seam between two petals, but I leave it. Without ants crawling all over the buds, the peonies would never open. This ant must smell the sugary center; ants always do. She will alert her sisters in the hill, and the colony will return in mass to open the blossoms. Ants never question sisterhood. They wouldn’t know how.
But I prefer working alone in my garden. Some women distrust solitude, but solitude doesn’t tell me it understands things it cannot. It doesn’t beg me to smile, or whisper how strong I am. Strong. As long as I’m breathing, people will tell me I’m strong. That they would simply crumple and die if they lost a baby.
That’s what the last church woman said. That was two weeks ago, so another must be due for a visit soon. The church women descended just like ants on a peony after it happened. Crawling over my curled body, trying to peel away the layers and reach that sugary center, the sugary center they seemed sure was still there. They filled my freezer with foil-wrapped dinners and washed the dishes in the sink.
Nobody visited my husband. Church women visit church women, and church men watch each other grieve with wide eyes. Sometimes I yearn to be watched with wide eyes, left to curl in the fetal position and wilt into myself.
My knees have started to ache, so I shift my weight and target a new tuft of grass. The grass is creeping toward my lilies, doubtless hoping I won’t notice, but I wrap my hands tight at the base, like I’m making a ponytail, and tug. A few tendrils of root snap, I can feel it give, but the grass only rises a centimeter. Loosened root hovers, tent-like.
It took twenty-two hours for the first church woman to arrive. Long enough to feel abandoned, and soon enough to resent the intrusion. She wore her hair in loose red curls and scrunched her nose when she saw the state of the floor. I suppose she meant well. She brought an aluminum container that smelled strongly of rosemary. Soft bread and pasta spilled over the edges when I opened it later that week. I enjoyed that meal despite myself.
After I finished jamming the food into the freezer, she sat me down on the sofa, her fingers laced in her lap. “I’m so sorry,” she said. I studied the cross-stitch above her head, a gift my mother stitched after my husband proposed. The cross-stitch depicted a young woman in a garden, her skirt billowing forward. She held a small child in her arms. It had made my mother’s hopes clear. After the woman left, I tore the cloth from the wall and jammed it in the attic, between the car seat and the stroller. Even thinking about the cross-stitch makes me want to hurt something, so I stab my trowel at the loosened roots. A network of threads snap.
“Anytime you want to talk,” the woman continued when I made eye contact, “or maybe just sit and cry . . . . “ I considered telling her that we could braid each other’s hair and watch Jane Austen movies while we were at it, but in those days, I still cared about appearances enough to fake politeness. “We’re all sisters,” she said. “Your pain is our pain. My pain.” It probably sounded eloquent in her mind, something out of a movie or a church service ad.
I lift the trowel and stab again, until a circle of carnage surrounds the clump of grass. This time when I yank, soil and pebbles scatter, but the grass falls limply at my feet.
The next church woman wrung her hands after I opened the door. She waited on the threshold until I invited her in. Back then I still invited them in. “We’ve missed you,” she said, but her eyes turned marble round when she saw the rattle on the table. After that, she didn’t stay long. Just long enough to explain that in God’s infinite plan, all challenges were for our benefit. A few pointed remarks about how I should let nothing, yes nothing stand between me and God—and she was gone.
Dead weeds line the perimeter of my garden, where I’ve scattered them along the way. When I gather them to my body, the gesture feels almost loving, the dirt-smudged grass filling my arms. But when I open my arms, weeds tumble into the compost, a flurry of narrow leaves.
By now, the dough in the kitchen has probably finished rising. This is the time to punch it once in the swollen stomach, the time to suffocate it. I nudge my flip-flops from my toes when I step inside. When I turn on the faucet, water pummels the sink. I lower the pressure and scrub the dirt from my hands. Dirty fingernails and wet dough make poor companions. I peel the once-damp cloth from the bowl. A tan mound sags over the rim. One punch, just one punch, and all that carbon dioxide will escape and rise, lifting a smell like beer. My fist sinks into the bowl, and I close my eyes and inhale.
I still haven’t tasted beer. It’s not because my husband wouldn’t understand—although he wouldn’t. The way he sees it, a promise is a promise, and I made promises. Whole truckloads of promises that now lie bent or shattered on the sidewalk. If you promise God you’ll go to church, or that beer and tobacco will never cross your lips, that’s a promise my husband thinks you should keep. “It has nothing to do with feelings!” he shouted one night, when he’d grown tired of talking in emotional circles with me. “Just do what you said you’d do,” he said. “I don’t care how you feel.”
That night was a Saturday, but I didn’t prepare for the Sabbath. And the next day, while my husband was at church, I went to the store. Just stepping into a store on the Sabbath felt delicious, like I was a child sneaking sweets at Grandmother’s. But when I stepped into the beer and wine aisle, all I could smell was decaying yeast. Something must have spilled. I told myself it didn’t matter—that I wouldn’t even buy a six-pack, I’d just grab one can, one of the cheap brands they sell on its own—and be gone. I could walk to a park and sip it there—somewhere nobody would find the evidence.
Instead I bought a candy bar. I drove home and curled up on the couch, consuming the chocolate in little pieces. I didn’t even chew, just let the chocolate melt on the tip of my tongue, and swallowed. The candy bar was gone before my husband came home, and he never asked about the wrapper in the waste basket. Maybe he didn’t notice.
I jab at the fluffy, porous edges of dough, and it smells sour. I must have stayed in the garden longer than I meant to, long enough for the yeast to consume all the sugar and excrete it as alcohol. So much depends on my presence. A mistimed step, a delayed glance into the crib, and all is lost.
But sugar may salvage the bitter dough. The sugar bowl is empty, so I walk to the cupboard and stand on my toes, stretching till my fingers brush the edge of the sugar container. When I found my daughter, she was still warm, still soft. I thought someone would heal her. The right words or equipment, breathed over her head and into her mouth. That night, words slid off her forehead and rolled to the floor. When the sugar container wobbles I tug on the rim, just once. The lid breaks loose, and the granules pour, like sand, over linoleum. I grab a handful off the counter and grind sugar into dough, let the granules rasp my knuckles like sandpaper.
Instead of sweeping, I pull two pans from the cupboard, grease them with one quick spray, and shove half of the dough in each pan. Ordinarily I would roll it out into two rectangles, roll it gently and pinch the ends together—all the steps my mother’s cookbook spells out. But today, I’m a creator, and I feel like testing my creation.
The night it happened, I was home. I wasn’t with her because two church women were visiting me. We’d timed it so well; her nap would coincide with the visit. They were doing their duty by visiting, fulfilling one of the many promises they had made. And I was doing my duty by welcoming them in.
Forty-three minutes. They visited for forty-three minutes.
I leave the bread to rise in glass pans and find my way back to the backyard and my garden. The weeds are even thicker on the other side of the peonies. One weed has spiky leaves and blooms in yellow circles. Its petals are medium-sized, and its blooms are flat, not fluffy like dandelions. It could almost be a pansy. But it’s not a pansy. It’s a weed.
We played games with dandelions when I was a little girl. My best friend was a neighbor named Jessica, whose hair was blond and straight. We loved picking apple blossoms together and tangling the stems in our hair. Most flowers ended up in our hair, but not dandy lions (as we thought they were called). Those we used in rhymes and games. We smudged their pollen across our noses and chins. We held their heads between our thumb and forefinger. Mama had a baby, and its head popped off.
My mother never laughed at this rhyme. She didn’t tell us to stop, but she always frowned a little. Once she even snapped at us and said we wouldn’t laugh if it had happened to us. I couldn’t understand, back then, why it would bother her. None of her children had so much as a broken bone.
Maybe she knew someone who’d lost a child. Maybe there is something to communal grief.
I yank the weed-flower and throw it on the lawn. That’s when I see another church woman coming. Like clockwork. The woman says, “You didn’t answer the front door.”
Her hair is short and black, and she pushes it behind her ear while biting her lip. I have never seen her before.
She glances behind her, like she’s worried about the grass she stepped on. I return to ripping another weed from the garden. Lawns are just one area where the church people and I don’t see eye-to-eye. They guard theirs like Persian rugs. But I think lawns are meant for walking on. For children to ride bicycles round and round.
“A lawn is a lawn,” I say. But when I glance up, the woman doesn’t seem comforted. If anything she looks more alarmed. Her hand plays about her throat.
I grab the trowel and stab another weed, before making eye contact. “I’m not coming back,” I say. “I made that decision months ago.” It’s what I tell them every time they come, though I usually take longer getting to the point.
“Oh,” she says. Her hand is inching its way even higher up her neck, and I wonder if she’s going to strangle herself if I don’t say something nice.
My thighs ache from crouching in one position, but if I stand she may see it as an invitation.
“You can leave,” I say. I mean it kindly. I’m releasing her from whatever misplaced sense of obligation brought her here in the first place. But she just nods, and when she turns to walk away, her shoulders look tense. I’m not used to frightening anyone.
Night passes, and the morning sun creeps through my curtains, beckons me back to my flowers. Today I tackle the geraniums in the flower beds along the front of the house. I’m snapping wilted leaves and tugging root from earth when the latest church woman parks in the driveway and steps from her car. I can’t tell where she’s found the nerve to return, given the way she blinks her waxy eyes and lingers on the edge of the driveway. Her feet barely touch the lawn.
“I don’t know much about gardening,” she calls, in a voice that is at once strangled and loud. I consider asking if she’s hoping for a lesson, but she might mistake sarcasm for sincerity.
In all fairness, though, she probably doesn’t know what to say. I never did when I was in her position, when I was a church woman parading as a ministering angel, beckoning to some lost lamb and begging her to return.
“I’m still not going back to church,” I tell her. Aren’t there religions out there where people don’t care enough to track you down? “The other women haven’t convinced me,” I say. “My husband hasn’t convinced me.”
“I wouldn’t presume,” she calls.
“You can walk on the lawn,” I say, but I stay on my knees and return to tugging slender green shoots from between my geraniums. Over the tops of the irises and lilies, I watch as she takes one step. “It’s just a carpet of weeds,” I add, motioning for her to come closer. If we continue shouting it will feel like an argument, and today I have just enough strength to fight weeds.
She crosses the lawn in small, rapid steps. She reminds me of how I would hop across the wet kitchen floor when I was little, just after my mother had mopped it. I thought I’d inflict less damage if I moved faster.
“You must be new,” I say. As she moves closer, my view is obstructed for a moment, but I shift until her face is visible over my speckled ornamental grass. “I don’t recognize you from before.”
“I was baptized last month,” she says, and the hand is back at her throat. They’ve sent a novice. I’m not sure whether to be relieved or insulted. Either they’re passing me on to someone else out of exasperation or they think I’ll be humbled by her tender faith.
When I stand, my knees are slow like rusty hinges, but it seems cruel not to at least acknowledge her. I wipe mud on my shirt and hold out my hand. She takes it, quickly, relaxing in the shoulders as if I’ve just offered an olive branch. “Welcome to the rest of your life,” I say. “You’re part of a family now, and families are forever. Whether you want it that way or not.”
I shouldn’t have said that. I shouldn’t have alluded to families at all. Now she’ll be wondering why that doctrine doesn’t bring me joy. Why I don’t sing when I think of my child waiting just out of reach. She wouldn’t understand the cruelty of holding a child just beyond arm’s reach. Or the paradox of families being together forever, but only if you wait until forever. Only if you endure the endless now and now and now. If she’s this new, maybe she’s never even thought about those complications.
“I lost a brother last year,” she says. She hasn’t told me her name, so why is she telling me this? I turn away from her again and kneel, focusing on a new patch of weeds. I grab handfuls of green and yank furiously. “Those aren’t weeds,” the woman says, and I look down—my geraniums are in my hands. Does everything die while these women are around?
Leaves and petals crumble in my fingers, and the woman makes a sound halfway between a sigh and a whimper.
“Does it hurt less?” I ask her. I’m not sure if my question is a challenge or a plea, and I’m afraid to look at her face for some reason, so I stare ahead, where her knees are bent from leaning down. A polite host would stand again, but I’d rather stay close to the ground.
“I don’t know what you mean,” the woman says, and I will my eyes to stay down. These geraniums are white, but fine lines of red bleed from the center of each blossom and pool on each petal like a fingerprint.
“Does it hurt less,” I repeat, “now that you know you’ll see him again?”
“No,” she says, and my hands drop from the flowers. She doesn’t even have to think. She just says it. Just like that.
“Then why should I go back?” I ask.
When she doesn’t answer, I shade the sun with my hand and look up at her. The light forms a halo around her head. There was a time I would have taken that for a sign, but today I’m more concerned about the expression on her face. Her mouth twists in a shape I can’t quite read, and her forehead wrinkles.
Finally, she speaks. “I feel peace now,” she says. There is a jab in the region of my heart. It’s the jab I feel from time to time, whenever I think Maybe I’ll go back, in a little while. Because I do think about going back. But then the jab fades. It always fades.
So I say the thing I know will drive her away: “Two women from church were visiting me the night my baby died.” I snap the head off a wilted lily and watch it bruise between my fingers before looking up again. “I found her as they were leaving.” Her eyes are wide. “So I’m never coming back,” I say.
The way she’s acted so timid, I expect her to mumble, “I’m so sorry,” and run across the lawn, back to her car. I would feel sorry for her, but she’s not my responsibility.
Instead, she makes a guttural noise. The kind of noise that comes from deep within the throat. I close my eyes, and when I open them she is tumbling towards me, a mess of legs and arms and hair. Her arms coil around my neck, and I fall back into leaf and stem, barely sitting up, hands shoved into soil and flowers. Her elbows jab my side, and her cheek rubs against my ear. She continues making broken, choking sounds.
And suddenly I wonder how old she is. She can’t be more than nineteen. She’s a novice in so many ways. Young enough to be my daughter, if I’d given birth when I was a teenage child myself. And here she is, in my arms, sobbing. I don’t know if she’s crying for me or for herself. And I don’t want to care.
I don’t hug her back. I don’t cry. I’m not willing to become a limp and salty watering can. But I can’t shove her away. Not when she might be crying for her brother. Not when she might need comfort. So I sit still and wait until she quiets.
“They shouldn’t have sent you alone,” I say. “They should have given up on me.” With my hands pressed to the ground, I shift my weight so she is only hugging me, not leaning into me.
“But I wanted to come,” she says and her voice is thick. If I weren’t afraid of encouraging her, I would bring her inside and offer her some lemonade and some of the bread I baked yesterday. But vulnerable people are like stray cats. Feed them, and you’ll never be rid of them.
So I pry her arms from around my neck and push her away a little. I rise, and when I look down I can see we have tumbled on the remaining geraniums and a patch of irises. We’ve smashed them into the soil. She’s acted so naïvely, I half expect her face to look angelic and pristine, like a crying woman from a Hitchcock film. But when I look down, her face looks blotchy, and she wipes her nose on her arm.
“You don’t have to come back to church,” she says. “It’s just sad. It’s just so sad.”
I don’t know if she’s talking about the daughter I’ll never hold again or the women I won’t associate with. Either way, it changes nothing. Her brother died before she came to the church, so maybe it offers her solace from a hard life. But everything bad that happened to me happened before I left. The emotional hang ups that drive her deeper into the fold only push me away.
“Please go,” I say. “And tell the others to stop. I don’t want to see them. I don’t want to remember.”
“Your husband—” she says, but I cut her off with a shake of the head. If he’s asked them to keep coming, I don’t want to know about it. My husband and I can solve our own problems. He married one woman, not fifty. And we already walk a fine line between love and regret.
She’s still on her knees, but now she rises, too. I offer her my hand to help her up. It’s difficult to hold back that small gesture from someone who has been crying on me, but I hope she won’t take it as a sign that I’m going to open up to her.
Back when I went to church—when I was still part of the fold, when I held a child in my arms and smiled wanly every time someone asked me how motherhood was treating me—back then I remember how the leader of the women’s group encouraged us to never give up hope on a fallen sister.
“Sisters,” she said. She was always calling us by that title. “Sisters, you are planting seeds. Your warm loaf of bread may be the first stepping stone on someone’s pathway to the Savior.”
The woman is already walking away from the garden. She takes slow steps, her shoulders occasionally rising with what must be deep breaths. “Wait!” I call to her. She turns around. When I see her blotchy cheeks and smudged mascara, I’m grateful her face doesn’t shine with hope or love or charity, or something equally pious.
I jog up the stairs and into the kitchen. There, on the counter, sits one loaf of bread. I ate half of the first loaf last night, and my husband brought what was left of it to work. I don’t know why exactly I’m doing this. Maybe it’s a lingering habit from my years in the church, but I wrap a thick paper napkin around the bread and run back outside.
I’m nervous that she’ll be gone when I get back, but I know what church women are like, so it’s not really a surprise that she’s still standing in the middle of the lawn, her hand shading her eyes as she watches me move toward her.
“I’m not coming back,” I say, “but take this.” I hand the wrapped loaf of bread to her. “You need it more than I do.” She nods, but her expression doesn’t change. Then she turns and walks across the lawn, slides into her car, and drives away.
Her car shrinks between layers of leaf and twig, until it is only a glint of metal. But I watch the spot where I last saw the glint of her car, until the sound of her engine fades.
When I return to my geraniums, I find a huddled mass of crushed stems. Dirt fills bruised blossoms and torn leaves. Only a few stems are unbroken. I slide my hand into the soil and feel for intact roots. When I find one flower that seems almost whole, I lean close to the earth and brush soil from its petals. I blow softly until I see white and red beneath a brown film.
I nudge the flower upright. With one hand, I hold the stem steady, and with the other hand, I pack soil firmly at its base. I sprinkle water from my water bottle. When I release, the blossom falls to the ground, tugging the stem into an arch.
The roots hold.