Rafael closed the bakery at precisely 4 pm and turned the key in the lock. In his arms, he cradled the last of the bread remaining: two baguettes and one round sourdough–all the ordinary kind. He walked up the street and around the corner to the homeless shelter, scouting, as he always did, half in and half out of the physical world.
People lay like heaps of refuse on grass and sidewalk, molding, rotting; their lives decomposing. The locked gate kept them from entering their temporary sanctuary until the appointed hour when meals and beds and blankets were given until none were left.
The demons, yetzer ra, the appetite for evil, lay with their humans: perched on their shoulders, pressed against them in intimate repose like mother and child, or with their backs resolutely turned, as though seeking escape.
But all Rafael’s magic was used for the day. There was never enough.
Rafael buzzed the gate’s intercom, heard a tired voice query him; gave his profession, rather than his name. One of the cooks came out to meet him, take his bread, wish him a good evening, not bothering to even unlock the gate.
He walked down 2nd Ave, heading home.
Passing Christ Our Hope Catholic Church, he saw a man sitting on the steps, head hung, staring at his feet, drawing thoughtfully on a lit cigarette, looking lost. He had no demons; a thing so rare, Rafael stopped abruptly and stared. He asked, “Are you in need of anything?”
The man exhaled a slow cloud of smoke, pondering the question with more seriousness than even Rafael had intended. He answered, “More of everything, but mostly hope and compassion and grace.” He raised his head as he spoke and Rafael saw the white and black collar of his trade in faith. “So I don’t feel empty, doing the work that must be done.”
Rafael nodded but had no response. He moved on, walking home; ate, slept, rose in the dark of the night and walked back to the bakery.
He lay a fire in the ancient cavern of the brick oven and filled the clean stainless electric mixers with flour and salt and water and yeast; his fingers already thrumming with the day’s magic, ignored. He kneaded and then shaped the doughs: sweet for cinnamon buns; dark rye; sourdough; the simplest of French doughs for baguettes. All the ordinary kind.
Perched on a battered wooden work table in the corner, a lidded crockery pot–webbed with the fine lines of age and worn dark with the patina of many hands–stood, waiting.
The heat in the kitchen peaked and the ordinary doughs rose to puffy readiness, and the contained magic in him grew insistent. Yet, he hesitated.
He stepped outside into the grey, cool pre-dawn, wiping flour from his hands with his apron, feeling the sweat drying on his back under his white t-shirt.
Across the alley, a police officer viciously kicked a pile of rags sleeping in a doorway. The demon on the officer’s back was a monstrosity which draped around her like a cloak.
The baby in the apartment across the way screamed. Rafael looked up and saw the child’s mother on the fire escape; her fingers clasped, white-knuckled, on the railing. The woman’s demon was a frail, starved thing, but Rafael had seen the three stitched to the child’s back, waiting to be fed as the child grew. Too many who needed help. Never enough magic.
He turned away from them, went back inside, spooned flour and sprinkled salt into his old cracked bowl. Enough only for a single loaf.
He reached for the crock, opened it, inhaling the scent of the yeast–ancient and primal and comforting, edged with the sharp sourness of earthy fermentation and the tang of spells–and scooped out a handful of soft, viscous liquid. He added this and water to the bowl. The dough stuck to his fingers in wet, sucking globs, then gradually became a ruffled dough, soft as feathers falling through his fingers.
His magic was like the wild yeasts which white-washed the grapes that had made this sourdough starter long ago: ever-present, invisible and undetected until it gathered in him.
He let it flow from him now, squeezing it through the dough with the starter; feeling the dough come alive with the wild yeasts and the wild magic; feeling it elongate and collapse and shift under his touch. He kneaded it, nurturing it, until it felt ready beneath his hands; shaped it into a long baguette. A single loaf with all the day’s magic in it.
He swept the floor and wiped down the long wooden shelves, waiting for the loaves to bake. The scent of the warming bread wafted into the street, luring customers.
He opened the doors when the line grew long, even though it was too early by the clock, and served his customers through the day, changing bread for coin. The one loaf sat in solitude on the shelf.
He closed the shop at precisely 4 pm and turned the key in the lock. Cradled in his arm he held the last remaining loaf. He did not go to the shelter. He walked along 2nd Ave. to the church. The priest was there, as before, another cigarette dangling loosely from his fingers.
Rafael cradled the paper-wrapped baguette in his arms, like a precious thing, then passed it to the priest. “This is for you,” he said, “no one else.”
“There are those who are hungry,” he replied. “Best give it to them.” He didn’t reach for it.
“I made this for you.”
The priest looked at him, met his eyes. Maybe there was just enough residual power in Rafael for the priest to understand and acquiesce. He took the bread.
The magic was not permanent, a month’s worth, maybe two. But for that time, the priest’s endless work would seem easier, more hopeful. There was never enough. But there was always some.
© 2017 Sheila Frances