Bone Bread

In a warm kitchen, yeast froths and comes to life

C6H12O6 → 2C2H5OH + 2CO2
Equation for alcoholic fermentation


Late on Halloween night at the kitchen window. She catches a glimpse of her reflection; she looks tired in her grandmother’s apron tied over the witch costume she’s still wearing.

Most years, she buys the pan de muerto from a panadería in the Mission, selecting the bread shaped like bones from a smudged glass case, but this year, she needs to make it from scratch.

Get out the flour, the sugar, anise seed. Wipe down the butcher block. Two large bowls, clinking stainless steel from the depths of the cabinet. Find the rattling measuring spoons, all linked together in a ring. Butter. Salt. Yeast.

Often when she cooks, she wings it: a pinch of something, a shake of another. She eyeballs it. But with the bread of the dead, you need to be careful.

After her husband left, after her divorce, the fear grew in her belly. She grew a cactus fence of spines to keep outsiders away. Long-married friends told her it would be delicious—all that freedom! But she scanned dating websites in the dark, and the doubts clouded her mind. She dreamed she had cancer in her breast; she dreamed of dying with no one near her.

Drop a stick of butter into a saucepan; add a half-cup of milk. Crank up the heat. Cut open two packets of yeast with an expiration date far in the future.

She was sloppy. She let a man into her kitchen, a friend’s husband. He ate up everything about her: her sopa de lima, her writing, her garden. He told her his marriage had been dead for years. He had been dead for years.

He started coming around for dinner without his wife. “We’ve opened up the marriage,” he told her one night as he fished a tea bag from her drawer. She listened and poured steaming water into his cup.

Fill a bowl with warm water, body temperature. Too cold, and the yeast won’t come to life. Too hot, and it will die and the bread won’t rise. Such a disappointment. After all that.

The man bought wood to build her children a sandbox. They hiked in the hills, and he carried her daughter on his back when she grew tired. Dressed in a new sweater and lip gloss, she cooked him carne asada, the onions and cumin sputtering in hot oil. They watched a gladiator movie with their children, laughing at Spartacus’s haircut. They sat cross-legged on the floor, their thighs touching. Her family could be complete again, she thought, dizzy with possibilities. She could be complete again.

Dissolve the yeast into the water. Add the sugar. Wait.

He knocked at her door one morning, uncertain hands jammed into pockets. He proposed they become lovers. “We’ll fall in love,” she said. But she kissed him anyway, there in the kitchen.

In the right environment, the chemistry ignites and yeast multiplies. It expands, reproduces wildly. Consuming sugar, it gives off carbon dioxide, alcohol.

illustration by stephen knezovich

They rubbed each other on her couch when he could sneak away from meetings. He left messages. “I feel like I’ve been kissing you all day.” “All I can think about is you. I even love your nose.” She replayed them a dozen times. “I would rather die than be without you.” He came over late, breathless, urgent, crashing his mouth onto hers, squeezing her scapula, biting her collarbone.

When he said he was going to end his marriage, her heart pounded, but she told him he needed to slow down. “You can’t think straight,” she said, knowing a thing or two about that. She knew about divorce, about children sobbing and attorneys arguing over where the kids would spend Thanksgiving six years from now. “We’re intoxicated,” she said.

They plotted a vacation to the Galápagos Islands, a backpacking trip to the Nydiver Lakes. He led her on a packed earth trail, and they made love on a grassy mountaintop, the San Francisco Bay gleaming below, deep and cold. She cried, and they talked about love, about combining families. “Plans,” he said afterward, grinning. “I have so many plans for us.” He was looking out at the hillsides and the poppies, but she was watching his face.

Stir in the milk and butter, yellow and white swirling together. Tiny bubbles form around the edges of the bowl. Rich and creamy, it doesn’t smell like alcohol. It just smells frothy. Complex. Alive.

She wanted a whole relationship, not an affair, she told him. He called a few days later while she was stirring oatmeal, breakfast for her children. “I’m leaving her.” He was crying. He said he wanted to start from scratch.

Break the eggs.

“Fuckingcuntingwhore!” the wife’s voice shrieked through the phone line. “Thieving bitch!”

She dropped the receiver, ran to the toilet, and vomited.

I can’t see you right now, he texted her. Then, deadly silence.

Broken. Shattered into ragged, delicate shards. So raw from the guilt and loss she could scarcely cobble together PB&Js for her children, she slogged through the summer, eating bowls of pasta and slices of drippy pepperoni pizza.

Squeeze the gooey wet dough. It oozes through your fingers. Slap it. Slam it. Flip it over. Sink your fist into it. A battle.

The wife showed up at her house and shouted. Sent scathing emails. “Viper,” the wife hissed into the phone. In early autumn, she was invited into the wife’s kitchen. She apologized and drank the wife’s tea. The wife said she didn’t know if she wanted to be married anymore, didn’t know if she wanted to be alive anymore. They spent long minutes saying nothing at all.

Arms, hands, back—all ache from the kneading. Pinch and poke, flip and punch. It is difficult, hard, unwieldy. She is so tired, late at night, on the eve of the Day of the Dead, a day when the veil between the world of the living and the dead is thinnest. The spirits will be enticed by the smell; they’ll come. Bittersweet, this day, because the spirits visit but only for a moment.

She ran into him on the street. It was hell, he told her. “I love you,” he said. “But I have to keep my family together.” He hugged her, a bony, lifeless embrace. When she got home, she cried and cried and cried.

Stretch and pull, press and fold. Hand over hand, back and forth. The strands of gluten stretch; the ingredients bind. What was sticky becomes smooth; what was unwieldy becomes pliable. She tests the dough like her grandmother taught her: When it’s ready, it should feel like your earlobe. She pinches her flesh with floury fingers.

She hiked alone in the crisp sunshine, breathing in the eucalyptus, sucking the freshness down into her body. She looked up at the hillside where they had been, the grass now brown.

There is no starting from scratch at this season in life, with children in the mix, with midlife fermenting inside. She exhaled, breathing out the regrets she had and the ones she knew she ought to have but didn’t.

The glaze: sugar warmed slowly over a low heat. Grate in tangy streaks of zest from a thin-skinned autumn orange.

She had been clumsy, stumbling. She’d lied, cracked her integrity, but she was not sorry she’d made the decision she had: to go after love. “Now I know what’s possible,” she said to other middle-aged friends, deadened by their own lifeless marriages. She’d taken the risk. She was broken-hearted, but not broken.

Dough needs to rest. Drape a clean tea towel over the top. Set it in a warm place. For now, it’s all she can do. She clicks off the light and tiptoes upstairs to her chilly bed.

She dreams of her dead grandmother, whispering poetry in her ear. She dreams of him, in a hair-thin wedding band. She dreams of her dead cat leaping onto her bed and kneading her belly. She wakes before dawn to find the bread dough grown to twice its size, poofed clear out of the bowl. She smiles. Worth it.

Heat the oven and, while the house warms, shape the dough into bones. Bake until the loaves are golden. Brush with sweet glaze.

Her children clump downstairs on the first day of November, rubbing sleep from their eyes, grumpy with candy hangovers. The house blooms with scents of incense and orange and anise. She lights the candles on their altar for El Día de los Muertos, illuminating all they have lost. She has hidden a photo of the lover and her empty wedding band among the marigolds, pictures of her grandmother, scarlet cockscomb, and gleaming sugar skulls. “So beautiful,” her daughter says, nose in the peppery flowers. “So sad,” says her son, fingering the collar that belonged to their cat. Clear-eyed, she says nothing as they break open the loaves, the sweet steam escaping in a swirl. Like ghosts.

She savors every mouthful: sharp, clean nubbin of anise; melting sweetness; the delicate texture of the bread created from the chemical alchemy and the power of human touch. She sucks one ringless finger clean. It is nourishing, this bread. Because it was made carefully, painfully, from scratch. With love.

About the Author

Collier headshot
Suzanne LaFetra Collier

Suzanne LaFetra Collier has been building Day of the Dead altars for twenty-five years. Her writing has appeared in publications including Brevity and The Sun, and in more than a dozen anthologies.

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