Upstairs

It’s not yet dawn but the air is already damp and hot, heavy and as still as the dead mouse trapped in the wall two flights down. An old woman flips open a tattered black cover on her iPad and places the iPad on a cool granite counter. She googles “hope,” and chooses thefoodnetwork.com.

The cupboard handle she touches is sticky; the large metal bowl, unusually warm. She places the bowl next her iPad in a spot of dried orange juice. Ordinarily she is meticulously clean, but not recently.

She hears voices shouting from inside the bowl, and leans her tiny frame, draped in black fabric and defined by a spinal S-curve, to look inside. On the shiny bottom, images, as if on a newsreel, spin by — of Stalin and Hitler, Ceausescu, Pol Pot, Mao, Mussolini, Spanish and English and Portuguese invaders, Klu Klux Klanners, and wait, is that Trump in there, too, squished in amongst the others, his orange hair catching light like a disco ball. Lies, threats, vitriol rise from the bowl.  Repulsed, she grabs a flour tin, and instinctively throws flour on the fire.  A trail of white powder remains on the mustard laminate floor as the yelling quiets.

Flour tin beside mixing bowl, she collects the other ingredients from drawers and cupboards, her stiff body moving with a temporary agility and excitement, encouraged by the idea that she might make a difference. Drab green measuring cups, a crooked metal mixing spoon, canola oil, dented loaf pans, a chipped, oversized mug with warm water, a jar with active yeast, a cartoon of milk, a tacky container of honey, a tin of whole wheat flour, and salt. She thinks of Gandhi, the salt marches. The last ingredients are thorns — bramble, blackberry, bougainvillea and hawthorn.

The laminate floor moves under her bare feet, undulating in waves.  She’s used to it. The earth is squirming. Outside, the sun has risen, brightening the clouds to light grey.  A flock of pomegranate-stained hummingbirds flies by her window. She turns the bowl upside down, dumps out the flour, wipes the inside clean, pours 1/4 cup of warm water inside and adds two teaspoons of yeast. The tan crystals balloon into gelatinous, three dimensional dots.

She adds a cup of milk, 1/4 cup of honey and two tablespoons of canola oil causing jellyfish to swim among tessellating rapeseed yellow hexagons in the bluish liquid. Next, all-purpose flour and salt.  She guides the milky mixture over the dry ingredients with a metal spoon then drops a few bramble and blackberry, bougainvillea and hawthorn thorns into it and adds whole wheat flour until the dough is shaggy.

She looks outside. A cellophane glaze of iridescent green enfolds the side-by-side high-rises and she feels sad. Taking another bowl from the cupboard, she wipes the sides with oil and draws images of butterflies in the oil.

She drops the dough onto the floured granite surface, a cotton candy cloud rises. Afraid the thorns might cut her hands, she is nonetheless determined to do whatever it takes and squishes the warm, weighty goo through her fingers.  No pricking, only the sensation of an occasional twig as she kneads.

A flock of doves knock at her window. She laughs, leaves the dough and walks toward them, but as she rounds the island, the birds fly away. Mirage? she wonders.

She places the dough on the butterflies, covering it with a thin hand towel.  For an hour and a half, she sits in her old wooden chair near the window, gazing into the green haze from the 30th floor, waiting for the lifting of the ghoulish air, a breeze, the sound of a child or dog, laughter.

All is in stasis but the dough which has doubled in size. With fisted hands, she hits it once, air escapes, twice, more air, and again and again until it’s nearly airless like the world outside. She forms two balls. They rest for ten minutes, then she places them in loaf tins and returns to her chair. The cellophane looks more like soup now.

The oven is 375 degrees when she opens it. Hot air singes her nose hairs.  An eagle flies out of the oven, crashing through a window, shattering glass. Green outside air oozes inside. She places the tins in the oven, sets a timer.

An army of worms envelopes her chair, crawls onto the laminate floor, seethes into nooks and crannies between drawers and cupboards, food containers and utensils. She stands, vapidly staring out, hope disappearing from her gently wrinkled face. When the timer sounds, the last pane of glass drops from the window.  With baking mitts on her small hands, she reaches in. The loaves are perfect – lightly-browned, nicely shaped. She takes them out, looking back into the empty oven, wishing for more.

Feeling defeated and impotent, she carries the cooling loaves to the broken window, squishing worms between her toes, and drops them out.  A child runs by just as the loaf is about to hit the ground. The old woman yells out in warning and the little girl looks up, see the loaf and catches it.  She holds it to her nose, smells deeply, smiles at the tiny image of the old woman in the broken window and takes a huge bite.  The other loaf is floating in the air.  A young man comes down the path, stands beside the little girl and looks up.  The loaf falls into his hands as he reaches up. More loaves appear, more people below, more noses sniff, more mouths bite, more smiles awaken.

The old woman feels the floorboards buckle underfoot and looks down.  The worms are gone and in their place are rose petals. She takes handful after handful and throws them from her window and as they fall they blossom into roses in full bloom, spectacular and complex like only roses can be. They spread like rain.

She falls into her chair exhausted. Baking hope is hard work. The smell of freshly baked bread and trampled roses fill her apartment.  A giant green dragonfly hovers outside, its huge eyes looking at her, its wings breaking the path of red rain.

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