I had brown bread for dinner again. Not bread as a sandwich, or bread with stew, or bread with pasta, or bread with anything. Just bread.
I wasn’t hungry—I thought I wasn’t hungry—but I had slice after slice after slice, making trips every few minutes from my table to the serving area. At seven forty-five on the dot, the dining hall workers started to clear away the dishes, and I made one last pass at the loaf. The old Portuguese serving lady, the one who always wore her gray hair cuffed around her ears, was taking away the bread basket. She saw my gaze, and she cut me another slice. It was at least two inches thick, dark-colored, laced with sesame seeds. “Butter is over there,” she said, pointing to a cart by the kitchen door laden with nut-butters and oils and other spreads. Her accent was strong, and I liked the way “butter” sounded. High pitched stress, unstressed syllable. She must’ve seen me walking back and forth with the slices. She must have noticed.
Ma had thick arms.
Tad—we called father “Tad” because he was Welsh, Ma and Tad met on a day-ferry from Pembroke to Rosslare—would come up behind her while she was sifting flour, and he would bend to kiss the tops of her shoulders as her thick arms turned the crank. There was a redness to her cheeks and a fullness through her hips and blouse, but she wasn’t fat; Tad would have made us wash our mouths out with Irish Spring if he’d heard us calling Ma fat. Ma’s arms were thick from carrying the bags of wholemeal flour from the grocers, and because of how well she kneaded the dough. Nan said it was like magic, the way Ma kneaded the dough.
In the mornings before school, me and Maeve—Maeve and I—would be in the den playing with the wood blocks Tad cut for us from the birch he chopped down last August, and Nan would hobble in holding her needlework and swat us into the kitchen. Nan was older than anyone I’d ever met, but she still had ears like a cat. As soon as she heard Ma come in through the mudroom with the flour and the fresh buttermilk, usually around seven, she’d make us go watch Ma at work.
MAW her KHREE un na, we’d whine, we’ve seen Ma knead the bread a hundred times! Nan wouldn’t have it. She’d flick our ears—especially mine—and make us pull up the breakfast stools. “You sit down right now, Saoirse, and you sit still,” she’d say to me, giving me a stern finger. I was always fidgeting, always bouncing my legs impatiently.
By the time Maeve and I’d been herded into the kitchen, Ma would have the tiles scrubbed down and all the ingredients arranged in perfect rows on the counter. Her upper lip would be sparkling with beads of sweat from the walk up the hill, and her round red cheeks would be even redder. That’s when Tad would come in from outside and kiss Ma’s shoulder-tops like she was a precious thing, thick arms and all, and he’d start singing. Tad was rough around the edges, but he was full of songs. While Ma rolled the dough in the pan, caressing it into perfect brown triangles, Tad would sing:
When morning is breaking
O'er mountain and dale,
And sunlight illumines
Our home in the vale.
Everyone in the dining hall eats peculiar things, or eats regular things in peculiar ways. The girl with the bleached tips and the frown-lines gets Wonder Bread and takes all the crusts off, but I never see her eat them. She tosses the soft parts out. There’s a boy who reads a linear algebra textbook at every meal, reads it like it’s a John Grisham—he even laughs at the page sometimes, or makes little O’s of surprise with his mouth. Linear Algebra Boy only seems to eat soup, bowls and bowls of it, which he arranges in rows and spoons away in methodical order. There’s a girl with a pretty smile and very clean shoes who peels at least seven or eight hardboiled eggs, even at lunch and dinner. She only eats the whites, and she’s very careful about it. She gathers the bits of eggshell in a bowl, puts the yolks in, and pushes the bowl away. She never looks at the bowl.
I didn’t eat my last slice in the dining hall, the one the Portuguese serving lady had cut for me. I went back to my room and laid down on my bed, and ate it while I stared up at the ceiling and all the strange pipes connected to the smoke detector. It was okay with me, the fact that she’d noticed. After all, I noticed the bowl. Sometimes I stared at all the little yellow orbs—stared for a long time, until the yolks sort of blended together around the edges, and I thought I was looking at a posy of yellow marigolds like the ones that used to grow by my front door. Really, they looked more like Craspedia—billy buttons, woollyheads, drumstick flowers, silly names—but I thought of marigolds first. I don’t know if the girl with the clean shoes thinks about marigolds or billy buttons. Probably, she doesn’t think about either. But I know she’s still thinking about something, still seeing something, even when she doesn’t look at the bowl.
I wonder what the serving lady thinks I’m seeing when I have brown bread and butter for dinner. I don’t do it every night, or very often at all. But, sometimes, I only have brown bread and butter for dinner. Thick slices, dark-colored slices. Slices laced with sesame seeds, slices spread with pale butter.
There was a reason Ma had a way with the dough.
Nan always told us that when Ma was little, even littler than Maeve, she’d picked a handful of toadstools from around the edges of a fairy-ring. Ma didn’t know any better, on account of how little she was, and she’d awakened the aos sí who guarded the fairy-ring. Maeve would get nervous when Nan told this part, even though we’d heard the story a thousand times. That made me mad—I thought Maeve was a perfect little pretender, but Nan ate it up. “A stór,” she’d purr, uh STORE, “Don’t be frightened, my child. Look at your lovely Máthair today, safe and sound!” Nan explained how the aos sí had risen from its burial mound—its sídhe—to punish whoever had disturbed the fairy-ring, but then had taken pity on Ma when it saw how small she was.
“I wish I were still that little,” Maeve would say in her demurest baby voice, just to charm Nan. I’d pinch her under the table. I hated her baby voice.
Maeve loved what happened next. I did too, but I never made a fuss about things like Maeve did. Instead of turning Ma into mist, or seafoam, or the fog that rolls over the Irish countryside, the aos sí gave Ma a gift. I always thought that seemed pretty fishy. Everyone knows it’s bad luck to tamper with the homes of the fairies. Before he passed, Daddo told even more stories than Nan. I only remember the edges and the shiny bits of most of them, but I know he used to warn us against playing too close to druid mounds or rings or forts. It’s strange; in my memory, Daddo doesn’t look like much more than a few thin strokes of gray and a couple concentric black lines. For all the times I sat on his lap, or cross-legged on the ground after his knees became too weak to support me, I have no idea what Daddo’s face was like. Old, I guess. But other than Old, I don’t really know. His eyes have become two green dots to me, his nose is a quick swoop, and his wrinkles are just marker squiggles in a vacuum. When I think about him, he’s more of an abstraction than a person in a body. But in a weird way, I guess that makes sense. I never really was looking at Daddo, anyways. I was listening.
I wonder if Daddo would have told the story the same way Nan always did. She wasn’t very climactic about it—one minute Ma was collecting the pebbles from around the ring and tucking them in her coat pockets, and by the next minute she had a gift. Probably, Nan just didn’t want to scare Maeve with descriptions of the aos sí. Maeve was too young to really understand the stories Daddo would tell, but something in the candor of his voice seemed to terrify her. Once—I remember this—Maeve screamed for most of the night and into the morning after overhearing Daddo telling me a story about a fisherman who cut a new pole from the branch of a Whitethorn tree. Fairy rings and mounds were precious to the druids, but Whitethorn trees were sacred. None of us really knew if she’d understood what Daddo was saying, about what terrible things happened to the fisherman—but she’d been happy as a pig in mud before the story, just rolling balls around in her playpen, and afterwards she was like a bean-sídhe. When I think back on it, I can still hear her shrieking.
So, probably for Maeve’s sake, Nan never gave us details about the aos sí. I bet it was very beautiful, though. Beautiful and cold, like the restless sea-spray against the sheered Cliffs of Moher. Nan just said that when Ma came home that day, she was changed. She had magic hands. According to Nan, as Ma grew up, she could make almost anything with her magic hands—but above all, Ma could make bread.
Everyone in Ireland makes brown soda bread—sláinte!—and has since the time of the Celts, but Ma’s bread was different. Tad left for work late every single morning just so he could be with Ma while she made the day’s bread. I never understood why. He always seemed so tired when he came home by the end of the night, so thin and stretched out, like Nan’s watercolor paper. I secretly thought it was from all the rushing he had to do, getting to work late and then making it back home by six sharp for dinner. I couldn’t comprehend because until I was much older, the only bread I’d ever tasted was Ma’s. But I understand now. Ma’s bread wasn’t bread. Ma’s bread was draíocht.
DREE-oct. Magic, enchantment, THAT WHICH IS UNSEEN. Ma’s bread had wholemeal flour and sugar and oats and baking soda and buttermilk, but it was really made out of unseen stuff—the same unseen stuff that made Tad kiss Ma’s shoulder-tops while she worked, that made Maeve curl up beside me when she had bad dreams at night, that made Nan’s eyes sparkle when she watched her daughter bake. That’s why Tad stayed in the mornings. That’s why he sang.
Fresh, soft balmy breezes,
The lark's thrilling lay,
Are heralds foretelling
The gladness of day.
Legend has it that the aos sí were descended from the "Tuatha Dé Danann," or tribe of Danu, who came from Spain and settled in Ireland millennia ago. When the Milesian Gaels arrived in Ireland with their bows and scian daggers, they encountered the Tuatha Dé Danann. The two groups fought at first, but eventually agreed to divide Ireland between them. The Gaels took the world above, and the Tuatha Dé took the world below—the Otherworld.
Daddo told me a bit about Gaelic Ireland, but he wasn’t really concerned with the history of it all—the political and social order, the economy, the constant warfare. Daddo just liked the stories. He and Nan brought us all up on the Creideamh Sí, the "Fairy Faith. Rain or shine, there was always a saucer of milk and an apple by the windowsill for the druids. Nan and Daddo wove their craft differently, but the important part was that they were both storytellers, and they both believed.
DREE-oct. Magic. I believe, too. I do think Ma’s bread was draíocht; I just don’t know if the Gaels took the world above, and the Tuatha Dé took the world below, and that the aos sí really live in earthen burial mounds around the valley. Ma’s magic was something else that you can’t see or touch or pick apart or scatter. It was a different kind of enchantment.
When ev'ning is closing
On mountain and dale,
And darkness o'er shadows
Our home in the vale.
I think about home often. I imagine Tad, and Maeve, and Nan and her fairytales, and Ma—Ma, with her thick arms and magic hands. I hear Tad’s singing like a heartbeat in my chest.
Tonight, there were two extra loaves in the bread bowl. I saw the Portuguese serving lady with the cropped gray hair putting them out. As I walked through the serving line, I caught her eye. I didn’t say Thank you, but I know she noticed me cutting a slice anyway. I wonder what she thinks I’m seeing when I have brown bread and butter for dinner. I don’t do it every night, or very often at all. But, sometimes—
Sometimes, I only have brown bread and butter for dinner. Thick slices, dark-colored slices. Slices laced with sesame seeds, slices spread with pale butter.
The field flowers drooping,
As fast fades the light,
Give warning foreboding,
The sadness of night.