Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 182 – Give Us This Day by Jennifer Nestojko - transcript
(Originally aired 2020/10/31 - listen here)
This month’s story is the second appearance of Jennifer Nestojko in our fiction series. She sold us a story in 2018 for the first year of the fiction series and now returns with our final story of 2020. There’s one more story that I bought this past January, but it will air as the first story of the 2021 season. I hope you’re all thinking about submitting stories in January for next year.
When I decided to buy “Give Us This Day” I knew exactly when I was going to schedule it, because having Halloween fall on a podcast day cried out for a ghost story. As it happens, I had two ghost stories to choose from, but this one set in medieval Brittany felt like it fit the day more closely.
Jennifer Nestojko is a writer and poet who lives in central California. She is a part time medievalist as well as a high school and college teacher. While writing a paper for fun on the undead in medieval literature she encountered this story about a revenant baker, and it has been lurking in her mind over the last few years asking to be told anew.
I should also note that Jennifer is a longtime friend of mine, though that didn’t give her any leg up in selling me a story. If you’ve read my novel Floodtide, you might notice that the book is dedicated to her.
I’m proud to be able to narrate this story about loss, a baker who doesn’t know when to quit, and the discovery of new possibilities in life.
This recording is released under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License. You may share it in the full original form but you may not sell it, you may not transcribe it, and you may not adapt it.
Give Us This Day
By Jennifer Nestojko
Narrated by Heather Rose Jones
A sudden pounding on the door woke Mari out of her daze. She stared for a moment at her hands; they had continued kneading the dough while her thoughts had wandered. The knocking came again, and her heart started its own pounding. Who could it be? The church had already tolled Matins and most good townsfolk were sleeping.
The door flew open and Mari grabbed her rolling pin in one hand, clumps of dough falling to the ground. Her husband strode in, going straight to the second table, the one where he had always worked until just two nights before, and began mixing ingredients. Mari’s rolling pin fell as she gaped in shock. His hands moved in practiced motions as he began to knead, but they were clumsy and she noted that they were caked with the dark clay that lay deeper beneath the soil.
He was a large man, her husband, and older than her by a good two decades. His greying hair was cut short, but it was unkempt, though the last time she had seen him it had been carefully combed; she had done the combing herself. His beard, which was black with greying streaks, had bits of dirt in it, and the sight of clumps falling into the dough brought her out of her shock. Per would never in his life have been so careless with his baking, but then they had laid him in his grave yesterday morning.
He took no notice of her as he went about his craft, and after a few moments of staring Mari went about her own work, not knowing what else to do. What if this was a demon that had taken possession of Per’s body? She had heard tell of a corpse that had accosted a woman at her prayers, but it was a demon inhabiting a dead man’s body and the woman’s prayers had turned the demon away – that and the cross she had hit him with. The bakery had no such heavy crosses, and the rolling pin seemed a poor weapon.
Despite burying her husband, Mari had known she had to keep the making of bread going; it was why she had been up and working so soon after the funeral. The town needed its bread. She needed to eat. She took comfort in the practiced moves of kneading and shaping dough; after all, she came from a family of bakers. It was what had made the match to Per so fitting. After carefully laying aside the next loaf ready for firing, Mari reflected that she was grateful she had not gone giddy or fainted. After all, the bread Per was making could not be eaten. Mari shuddered to think of it.
The night passed in a silence punctuated by the sounds that came with baking. She and Per had spent many a night working peacefully in this way, though they had also spent many nights talking as they worked. He had been a relief as a husband, considerate of her and never unkind. If he had never been the love minstrels sang of, then he had also never been the tyrant some husbands could be.
This night was not peaceful; Mari wanted to speak to him, to ask what was happening or why he was there. She wanted him to turn to her, and she prayed that he would not. She herself had sewn his eyes shut, had prepared his body after his heart had failed him in the middle of the baking that had been his work, his life. The night of his death had seemed endless, filled with sorrow and worry; Mari reflected wryly to herself that it now seemed swift as a rushing stream compared to this one. She strained to see a glimmer of light through the window, hoping that the coming of dawn would send this corpse back to its grave.
Even though she was straining for the sound, the crowing of Katalin’s rooster made her jump. Per immediately dropped the loaves he was taking from the oven, yanked open the door, and shambled out into the now waning night.
Mari watched him go, then sank to the floor, holding her head in her floury hands. She did not know how long it was before she heard the sound of irregular footsteps, and then she felt warm arms about her. Katalin’s voice whispered soothingly at her, but Mari couldn’t process what she was saying. She kept seeing Per’s shambling figure working the dough with those dreadful clay-soiled hands. Grave dirt. She shuddered, her body shaking repeatedly.
“Drink this,” Katalin said, gently lifting Mari’s face and handing her a flask. The taste of the miller’s peach brandy startled her back to herself; the miller was not fond of subtler drink. Mari looked around, almost surprised to see that not much time had passed. She could smell her loaves baking, and there was no hint of burn yet.
“There, now,” said Katalin, smiling at her. “That always wakes me up of a morning. Da, now, he makes it strong for a reason.” She stood up, using the table’s sturdy edge to lift herself. Mari missed the warmth of her touch; it was Katalin who had comforted her after Per’s death and who had sat vigil with her that long night. “You don’t need to talk, if you like. I saw who left your door this morning.”
Mari stood slowly, brushing her hands against her apron as she got up. “And just what did you see?”
Katalin snorted. “It wasn’t young Paol, the minstrel.” She looked directly at Mari, and there was fear in her glance. “I saw Per, sure as I breathe now and he no longer does. Why is he walking?”
Mari looked at the ruined loaves on the floor, and the clods and smears of soil marring the countertop of Per’s workspace. She shook her head; none of this seemed real, but neither had the funeral of the previous morning.
“I think,” she said softly, “I think he doesn’t know when to stop working.”
“No,” said Katalin, “I don’t think he does, at that.” She sighed. “It is just like the man, too.”
Katalin helped Mari set the kitchen to rights, though Mari took the loaves from the oven when they were ready. She saw how much the miller’s daughter was leaning on her crutch, for the morning was damp and mist shrouded, but she said no word as Katalin swept and cleaned the tables. She felt protective at times of Katalin, though that wasn’t quite the correct feeling. Katalin was more than capable. Mari had found herself watching for her new friend more and more over the last three years, studying her movements, the way she held her head or limped across the floor. She was fascinated by her laugh, and Katalin was working hard this morning to laugh and make merry, trying to distract Mari from the night’s fears. The kitchen was ready well ahead of the time for the lord’s workers to come for their daily baking, as was the law, and Mari was ready to set up shop for the morning, selling what untainted loaves she had.
Of course Anna, the blacksmith’s wife, came in during her daily rounds. She looked carefully at each loaf, shifting her babe slightly and rocking her hips gently, soothing the child almost reflexively.
“Now who,” said Anna, “did the baking of these?”
“Why, I did, of course!” said Mari, indignantly. “Who else?”
“By your savior, you swear this is true,” she asked, giving Mari a hard look.
Mari gave her a hard look back. “On my faith and hope of heaven,” she replied, and Anna’s eyes softened. She nodded.
“That’s all right, then. I’ll take my daily bread,” she told her. “Late last night this little one was fussing – it is the time for new teeth – and who did I see but the baker walking right past my window. I could not sleep then, myself, even after the babe was soothed. I saw Per return, with flour mixed in with the clay on his hands.” She clicked her tongue against her teeth. “Everyone knows the dead bring plague and disease when they walk; their sins infect all others.”
“I didn’t know Per had all that many sins on his head,” Mari said dryly. “He rarely left the bakery or shop.”
“Well,” Anna began, and then shrugged. “He was a good man, and a hard worker. He never did make time for much else; festivals saw him working double the time and never resting. Perhaps you are right, and it is not sin that brings him from the grave.” She put the bread into her basket, but lingered. Anna always liked a bit of gossip, and Per’s death had been the biggest news since fall. At least, it had been until last night. “Shall you keep on as bakester, then?” she asked.
Mari winced. “I haven’t,” she began, then her throat closed and no further words came. Her eyes pricked with tears.
“Shhh, shh,” said Anna soothingly. Her hips rocked a deeper rhythm, as if she were jiggling Mari instead of the infant. “I spoke too soon. You should stay, though. Get young Katalin to help you with the bread.”
Mari nodded, and was grateful when the woman went on her way. Still, she felt some amusement. Anna was fond of matchmaking, but with no youngsters mooning about at the moment, she seemed to be branching out.
Katalin came in to the shop from the kitchen door, leaned her crutch against the wall, and sat on the stool Per had made for her. “Anna is up to her old tricks, it seems,” she said, laughter in her eyes.
“At least she will pass the word that the bread is not diseased,” Mari told her.
“It’s not so bad an idea,” Katalin began after a townsman had stopped in. He, blessedly, had no questions about the dead and just wanted food for his table.
“What idea?” Mari asked, her thoughts elsewhere.
“Having me work with you,” she answered. “I grew up underfoot, what with me being neighbors and the miller’s daughter and all. Per taught me. Especially after my accident at the mill, he gave me something to do. He was rather like an uncle to me.”
“Me too,” said Mari, and then she reddened. “I mean, he was a good husband, but he was twenty years older, and, well…” She shrugged.
“He was always busy,” Katalin finished for her. “Don’t worry, Mari, I know. When Malo, the other baker, as you know, died Per was lonely, and Anna told him to marry a daughter of the guild – get him a wife and a bakester in one. Still, Per was set in his ways.”
“He was kind, always,” said Mari softly. “I enjoyed his company, especially when working. He seemed most alive, then.”
“Except for last night,” Katalin responded impishly.
Mari surprised herself by laughing in response, but Katalin did that to her. She then felt a chill. The day was passing. Would the night bring her husband back to the bakery?
Alan, the blacksmith, stopped by before Mari closed up the shop. He was a big man, but gentle. There was concern in his eyes when he looked at her.
“I wanted to tell you,” he began, looking about to make sure no one was lingering, “that my lad, Jon, you know – the eldest - and I went to the grave. We had the sexton come and help, and we dug Per’s casket up.” He paused for a moment, taking a deep breath before continuing. “His shoes, the ones he went to the grave with, they had been clean?”
“Of course,” replied Mari. “I cleaned them myself. I laid out all his things proper.”
“Yes,” Alan said. “I thought as much. Mari, girl – they were caked in mud. His shirt was all over mud and flour, as were his hands. He walked last night – that he did.”
Mari stood still. The morning’s fog had burned away with the bright springtime sun, and she was half convinced that last night had been a strange dream. She was still partly sure that this last few days were some strange sort of dream, like one that court poets would write and later wandering storytellers would recount, where the dreamer toured hell or the dead visited their loved or despised ones. Looking at Alan, she knew that she was awake and not dreaming and that night would come again all too soon.
“Not to worry,” the blacksmith said, correctly reading her fear. “I have arranged that some of the village men, those stout of heart and limb, will barricade his way should Per walk this night. Jon will be with us as well. Get you your rest, if you can.”
Mari could not rest that afternoon. She lay on her bed, but stared blankly at the cross on the wall of her room, running the beads of her rosary through her fingers. Was there a special prayer to keep the dead from walking? She would never have thought to have need of one. She remembered the thump, thump of a dead man’s hands kneading dough, and her heart beat faster in fear. Then she realized she was actually hearing thumps coming up the stairs, and for a moment her blood turned ice, but then a familiar voice called out, “It is only me, Mari.” Katalin. She rarely climbed stairs, but she had her own careful method of getting up them when needed, She came into the room, leaning on her crutch. Mari drank in the sight of her, with her soft brown hair slightly mussed, as always, and a slight flush in her cheeks.
“I figured you wouldn’t be sleeping,” Katalin said. “Shall I keep you company?”
“Please?” Mari asked, and Katalin propped her crutch against the wall and limped over to the bed, lying down beside Mari, slipping her strong hand into Mari’s own. Mari held her hand tightly, letting the tears come. Katalin put an arm about her and began smoothing Mari’s hair, and the tenderness of her touch brought the much needed sleep she had been courting.
Katalin quietly came with her to the bakery when it was time to prepare the bread, leaving no room for argument. Mari would not have argued; she dreaded the coming night and had no wish to be alone. They worked together companionably, but anxiously, starting at any sound. Mari had carefully prepared a space for Per, should he return, so that he would need touch nothing that she and Katalin would be using. She remembered tales of dead men and curses and plague and prayed that the men at the barricade would come to no harm.
The mist had been curling around the buildings when they had opened up the bakery; it lay still and silent on the trees and hedges, on the sleeping homes of the townsfolk, but through the silent fog came shouts and strange noises. Mari froze, staring at the dough in her bowl, more frightened than the night before. The door flew open, and she jumped, letting out a small shriek. Katalin, on her stool, exclaimed, “Anna, what is the matter?”
Anna closed the door, her face white. “Per is throwing rocks at Alan and Jon and the others. My Enora has the children down with my mother for safety. I thought I’d warn you.”
Someone yelped in the darkness. Anna moved quickly from the door and went to a corner, picking up a large baking paddle. Katalin passed something in a small gold box to Mari.
“Take this,” she said. “I got it from Father Brendan this afternoon, with his blessing.”
Mari took a quick look; it was a piece of communion bread. Mari knew that bread; she baked it every week specially for the church. “Consecrated?” she asked.
“Yes,” said Katalin, and then the door swung open again. Per came in, head swinging from side to side. He was agitated, knocking bowls off counters, moving to his table, slamming flour down and spilling water. He was much clumsier than he had been the night before. Mari could see that his eyes were still sewn shut; how he navigated the road here much less the kitchen was beyond her ken. One of the good bread bowls hit the floor and cracked. Water hit the side of the oven and sizzled as it steamed.
Katalin lunged off her stool and hit Per with her crutch as Anna hit him on the head with the baking paddle. There was a soft sound, like hitting a feather mattress, and then both crutch and paddle broke. Per swung his arms about clumsily; Anna dodged his blows, running back to her corner. One flailing fist caught Katalin in the chest; she fell back to the ground. Mari wanted to run to her, to see how she fared, but she couldn’t.
The dead man turned back to his work, trying to turn water and flour into dough as he had for so many nights before.
“Per,” Mari cried, walking up to him. He stilled for a moment, calmed, it seemed, by her voice. He turned to her, his sewn-up eyes gruesome, his mouth open. “Your work is done now. We can carry on for you.” Per turned back to the table. “Per,” she repeated. “You have earned your rest. In God’s name, rest.” He turned to her again, his clay-stained hands reaching for her, but Mari stepped closer and brought out the communion bread and reached up to lay it on his tongue. His forehead was cold as she sketched the sign of the cross in the dirt there. His eyelids ripped open, tearing her careful stitches, and for one moment he looked at her. Tears ran down his face, making small tracks. He nodded once, turned, and left, shambling into the night.
Mari stood, watching him go, knowing somehow that he was returning to his grave. She whispered a small prayer for his soul, tracing his way down the street in her mind. When she was certain that he was gone, she then went to where Katalin had fallen. Katalin was sitting up, looking a bit dazed, but unhurt. Mari threw her arms about her friend and Katalin relaxed into her embrace.
Anna was leaning against a wall, and she straightened slowly. “Well,” she said. “That’s a thing.” She caught her breath, moving her hand down to her ribs. “I think I strained something there, but that was quick thinking, the both of you.” She looked down at the two on the floor. “I did say you’d make good partners. Think on it.” She limped toward the door. “That was my Jon, I reckon, earlier – I know that yelp from when he was younger. I should check on the rest of the menfolk. They always need looking after.”
Mari lifted her head from Katalin’s shoulder. “Thank you, for your aid tonight. You are a brave woman.”
Anna shrugged. “I think that poor man will rest now. And now so can we. Peace to you and to your home.”
Mari watched her disappear into the night and then turned back to Katalin. “Are you hurt? He didn’t injure you did he?”
Katalin shook her head, and then took Mari’s face in her hands. She leaned in and then kissed her, softly at first, and then more deeply. Mari found herself kissing her back, holding her closely, feeling that this was what she’d been watching for these past three years.
She thought of her husband with a pang and pulled back, gasping, “Is this - is this right?” She did not want to walk with dead feet through her own streets after her death.
Katalin seemed to understand. “Yes,” she said soothingly. “Per is at rest. This harms him not one bit.”
“How do you know?” Mari protested. “Perhaps this will set him to walking again.”
“Tell me true, Mari – would this set Per to walking? Was he burning in his passion for you?”
Mari’s lips twitched. “Well, no. I believe he will rest now.”
Katalin stroked her hair. “I’ve been wanting to do this for a long time.” Her eyes were soft, vulnerable. “Anna did say we made a good pair.”
“She was talking about the bakery,” Mari protested.
Katalin looked mischievous. “That as well, I suspect, but Anna is a hopeless matchmaker.”
Mari stared at her. Had Anna meant that? She was a respectable matron, mother of five, town gossip. Did she think Mari would want to be kissing Katalin like this? Mari found herself leaning in, initiating the kiss this time. That wandering storyteller would never have added this onto her strange dream poem, she was sure of that.
“Wait,” she said, ending the kiss, her worries asserting themselves once more. “If this is wrong, will I be walking from my grave some day, pelting the town with stones?
“Mari, dear heart,” said Katalin gravely, her face serious. “You just gave the holy sacrament to the dead, blessing him back to his grave. You have sent him onward to his new home. Can you so soon fall into darkness?”
Mari stared at her. It seemed she didn’t need a court poet or a wandering storyteller; she had a poet with her. “I just did what was needed.”
“With love,” Katalin said. “As this is love. And needed.” She kissed her softly, gently on the forehead, on her lips.
They held each other for a long moment, Mari feeling a sense of wonder. She let go of Katalin finally, got up and took one of the new loaves, one that had been finished before the upheavals of the night. She knelt before Katalin, broke the bread with her hands, and gave Katalin a piece, quietly taking a piece for herself. They each ate their morsel, this small act a promise and prayer. Mari then gently helped Katalin to her feet, Katalin leaning against her.
“This may require an adjustment for you,” Katalin began somberly, in a different tone from her serious one before. There was laughter lurking beneath her seeming sternness.
Mari thought about what adjustments would need to be made. It was not unheard of that two women, one a widow and one a cripple, would share bed and board. No one need worry about anything else, especially if Anna acted as protector. “I think I can become used to more of your company,” she said lightly.
Katalin laughed, limping heavily. “Will you mind moving the bedroom to the ground floor, though?”
The fourth story in our 2020 fiction series
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