Welcome to the Spot Writers. This month’s theme is to write a story that involves baking or a fire, something to take our minds off the chill in the air. Today’s story comes to us from Val Muller. If you’re looking for heartwarming, check out her poignant YA novel The Girl Who Flew Away: https://www.amazon.com/Girl-Who-Flew-Away-ebook/dp/B06XKDFXTZ
By Val Muller
Maxine mixed the dough tenderly. She’d always done it so, always by hand, never with the bread maker or even with the mixer Ron had bought her for Christmas so many years ago. She added the cranberries and walnuts by hand, kneading them in with the dough.
When the bread was resting in the oiled bowl, she walked across the kitchen to the living room. She rolled a sheet of newspaper into the shape of a donut and stuck some kindling through the middle. Then another. And another. She smiled, remembering when Ron had taught her how—his father’s Boy Scout trick for starting a fire. She set the three donuts at the base of the fireplace and stacked them gently with more kindling.
She struck a match and watched the flame lick the newspaper, each donut catching in turn. Her hand at the back of the fireplace confirmed the updraft. The fire would take. As the kindling ignited, the orange glow illuminated the brick hearth, the metal of the bellows glimmering next to the brush and dustpan. She could almost feel Ron’s arms around her as she gazed into the fire.
She stacked a triangular log on the flame, just a small one to start. She sighed, inhaling the familiar wood scent. Then she walked to the sink to wash her hands of flour and soot. She dried them carefully before taking her wedding ring from its bowl on the windowsill.
Even after five years, she still wore it. She would always wear it.
But five years, already…
She glanced at the dough, already lifting the towel that covered it into a rising lump. She poured some wine and padded to the fireplace, adding one more log. The lights from the neighbor’s house twinkled in through the window, the triangle of multicolored lights from their front window and the white icicles hanging from their front porch.
It hadn’t quite felt like Christmas yet this year, even with the cold.
The yeasty scent of the bread rising mixed with the crackling fire, and she stared into the flames until the clock told her the bread was ready for baking. She uncovered the bowl, punched down the dough, and cut it into two sections, shaping each into a ball and plopping them onto her stoneware.
Ron had always wanted to eat one right away, still warm enough that the butter melted. The other he would save for turkey sandwiches or French toast the next day. Maxine’s heart fell a bit at the thought. She had no one to dine with. Only the fire.
When the bread finished, she turned off the oven and left the stoneware on the counter to cool. The two loaves looked up at her, almost as if they, too, were questioning this tradition.
Yet she had to. For Ron.
She placed the first of the loaves onto the plate, the way she always did for Ron. She sliced it directly down the middle three times, choosing the middle two pieces for him. The butter had been sitting out all afternoon, so it was spreadably soft now. She slathered it on extra thick, the way Ron always liked.
She placed the slices next to the two halves of the warm bread and took the plate to the fire. “Well, Ron,” she said. “I hope you enjoy.” She glanced at the fire and up the chimney, imagining the smoke traveling all the way up to heaven, giving Ron his birthday treat from his beloved wife. Thirty-one years she’d baked that bread for him, and then five years after that.
Thirty-one years that just wasn’t enough. She knelt down, taking half the bread in her hand and getting ready to cast it into the fire, the way she always did, when a ringing doorbell jarred her as from a trance.
She put the plate on the coffee table and hurried to answer the door.
A band of children from the middle school—she recognized little John from next door—stood, decked in red and green and silver and gold. They held choir books and smiled up at her. “Ms. Maxine,” John said, his breath making swirling patterns in the cold. “For our school outreach project, we’re spreading holiday cheer through carols. May we sing to you?”
Maxine nodded and crossed her arms against the cold as the group started up a round of “Little Drummer Boy.” When they finished, they looked at her expectantly.
“How about one more?” she asked, clapping. Their little faces looked so innocent, even as old as middle school. They still had their whole lives ahead of them, a lifetime of finding true love, a calling, a passion. She smiled for them.
They were singing “Angels We Have Heard on High” now, and she wiped a tear from her cheek. How did that get there?
When they finished, she held out her hand. “Wait, wait just there, just for a moment.” She hurried in and sliced rapidly, cutting up the rest of the first loaf and all of the second. She slathered the pieces with butter and brought them out on her large snowman platter.
“Just a little something,” she said. “To give you carolers energy. Cranberry and walnut bread was one of Ron’s favorites.”
John smiled. “It’s so warm,” he said, biting into one of the pieces.
“Just out of the oven,” she said.
“Almost like you knew we were coming,” said another caroler, smiling as she bit into the warm bread.
“Someone did,” Maxine said, smiling up at the plume of smoke rising from her chimney into the sky.
It finally felt like Christmas.
The Spot Writers—Our Members:
Val Muller: http://www.valmuller.com/blog/
Catherine A. MacKenzie: https://writingwicket.wordpress.com/wicker-chitter/
Dorothy Colinco: www.dorothycolinco.com