She loved the taste of it. The wheat and yeast. The richness of rye. The crunch of barley.
And the fragrance. Warmth, and fire, and sunshine. A family gathered around a table, telling stories. The scent of home.
She’d had none of those things, not really, particularly not the last. Doomed to wander, she was. Forever.
Oh, she met everyone eventually, it was true. Every human being, at least. She looked down upon them, sometimes bending close to hear the final whispering hopes and confessions, regrets and dreams. Sometimes she shook their hands. Other times? Vanth watched as thousands, sometimes millions, were slaughtered, regardless of age or station.
She hated those times.
There were other endings, of course. Vanth tended to subcontract out dogs, and cats, and microbes, certainly. And plants? They had their own ways. But occasionally, an elephant or whale wanted to speak with her, and she made the journey to walk or swim at their sides.
The last non-human species she had paid a call upon was a massive tortoise. She had wanted to hear the secrets cached inside it’s shell. That tortoise, Gordsong was its name, had shuffled off this coil at around about two hundred years of age. It had seen many interesting things. They had talked a long time that day, beneath the desert sun.
Stories were always the payment Vanth desired. For what was a world without them? Stories came from both imagination and from deeds. Some stories filled her belly with sustenance and fire, with the thrill of flight, or with the understanding of a thing long pondered. Other stories were briefly held, like sugar on the tongue. Every story had value. Vanth had a craving for them all.
But if she couldn’t get stories, over the millennia, Vanth made do with bread.
She truly loved bread. If only people were more diligent in their offerings these days.
I really wished I’d worn gloves. Rookie mistake. You’d think I was a tourist or something. Huddling in my favorite old peacoat at the top of this windy hill, peering through gray swirls, eyes trained on the glow of a coffee shop one block down, wishing I was there, instead of here.
Yeah. My fingers could stand to be wrapped around a cup of black coffee.
San Francisco winters seem mild to those who live with sleet and snow, but the cold here is deceptive. I should know, I’ve lived here for twenty-three years, arriving from Florida when I was eighteen years old.
You know that phrase, “It chilled me to the bone?” That’s San Francisco cold. The damp creeps in through every layer you own, through woolen coats, and scarves wrapped thrice around your neck, and those leather gloves you bought that the shopkeeper insisted came all the way from Florence, Italy, but you could have them at half price.
And then you left them on the dresser at home.
Yeah. That kind of cold.
And that’s the kind of cold it was today, November 27th, in the no-mans land between American Thanksgiving and Christmas. Or the Winter Solstice, if you prefer. And I do.
My name is Harry Stegner, and I’m a psychopomp. Meaning, I help people when it’s their time to cross over. “Death doula” is what some people are calling it now, but I don’t care for that term. Doula is what you call a midwife’s assistant. The word smacks too much of birth to me.
Death is not a birth. If you’re very lucky, and subscribe to such beliefs, death is a going home. Other times it feels like getting pushed from a moving train. Sure, you can look at death as a transition, and I guess a romantic soul could call that a “rebirth.”
I’m not. And I don’t.
I’m practical about it. Everything has to die. We know that. The world is crowded enough as it is, without people refusing to leave the room, so to speak.
Where the hell was Vanth?
Hands shoved in the pockets of my pea coat, I peered through the gray mist that wreathed Powell Street as it sloped precariously down toward the bay. This wasn’t the fat, rolling fog that streamed in off the ocean in the summer, rising from the water as it warmed. This was a creepy, spooky fog that hung in the air like a ghost.
God damn fog felt freezing cold, even though the temperature gauge on my phone said the air was only forty-eight degrees.
A cable car clanged by, half empty.
My phone also said she was late. Vanth was never late. If you could be in a thousand places at one time, would you ever be late?
Yeah. You wouldn’t. Not unless you were a lazy slob, which Death can’t afford to be.
They were out of her favorite rye at the Brooklyn deli. The baker, sweating in his fear, promised to make up a batch right away. He had it all ready, he said. It just needed to go into the oven.
Vanth had freaked him out when she showed up that day. She hadn’t had a loaf of proper Jewish rye in ages, and the old man in the tenement up the road had just kicked off, with barely a story at hand. He had told her about the deli, though. His favorite place to eat. Came here every Monday, noon. Best rye bread in town. Put it on his tab.
Almost no one left her upside down loaves anymore, except for children, playing at the table sometimes, until the most superstitious granny, the only one who remembered the old tales, flipped it quickly back again. Hoping Death hadn’t seen it. That she would not be stopping by.
Mr. Moscowitz, though, he said there would be bread for her here, so she had chanced it.
The baker slid the giant wooden paddle into the massive oven, dragging out one dark and perfect loaf.
“It needs to cool,” he said.
The smell hit her like a revelation. Like a deep, dark secret. A mystery made of flour, water, heat, and time.
“I’ll eat it now,” she said, then gestured to the loaf.
The baker wiped his nervous hands on a flour streaked apron, then picked up the loaf, juggling it a bit from palm to palm.
“No,” she said, and gestured again. This time turning her upright palm downward.
He looked at her, confused.
“You have to turn it over. That’s how I know it’s mine.”
I wanted to meet her down around Washington Square Park, across from the double white spires of Saints Peter and Paul. I could’ve stopped at the place on the corner for a latte. Or better yet, a meatball sandwich. Either way, I would’ve been inside, out of this godforsaken cold.
But no, the windswept, mist crowded hilltop with the cable cars clanging by was the only acceptable spot in the whole, goddamn city.
I even tried to tempt her, dropping in a mention of rosemary focaccia from the meatball sandwich spot. Two birds with one stone and all.
But here I was, looking down at the black, steel banded face of my phone again. Definitely late. And no texted explanation. No Facebook message either.
That’s a joke. Death hates Facebook. I do what I can to amuse myself.
“Come on…” I tapped my ratty sneakers on the concrete. Death was never late. Sometimes, much to my client’s chagrin, she even showed up early. No matter what, though, like any good psychopomp, my job was to wait around.
“Tapping your feet, Harry?”
I whirled at the sound of her voice. Smooth as silk, that one.
“We had an appointment,” I said.
“And here I am.” She swept one perfectly manicured hand down her perfectly proportioned body. Black wool trousers, nicely cut. Black cashmere turtleneck. Dusky golden skin. Lush hips. Lips I would be tempted kiss if it wasn’t Death Herself standing in front of me. Every psychopomp in the world is attracted to Death. Man or woman or something beyond or in between, she’s always just our type. Shapeshifter? Or we just see what we expect? I don’t know.
She says the skin tone is original though. Etruscan. I have no way to check.
Apparently, she’d taken over from some other Death-dealing-deity, and in another couple thousand of years, she’d hand the scepter over to someone else.
At any rate, I’ve learned three things in my years as a psychopomp.
One: Prepare yourself as best you can, because you never know exactly which moment you might get called away.
Two: Always take Death’s word for something when at all possible.
Three: Make sure your bread is fresh.
Death really likes bread, and too often people forget this step. I think a proper offering eases the transition. Can’t hurt, in any case.
You gluten-free, celiac prone people? You people on diets who clear your kitchen of any trace of starch? Figure something out. I hear there’s a lot you can do by leeching the proteins out of the grains these days. I even tried some gluten-free challah recently. It wasn’t bad.
“What are you doing here?” I blurted out.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk,” Vanth clacked her tongue against her perfect, pearl white teeth.
Shit. I knew better, but the freaking cold was getting to me.
“Sorry.” I cleared my throat, and dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my coat. “What I meant to say was…I didn’t know we had an appointment. You know. Officially.”
She arched an eyebrow at me. A row of cars whooshed by. Down the bay side of the hill, the cable car clanged, ready to make it’s ascent back toward Market street. Every sound was muffled by the weird mist.
“I mean, sure we had this appointment, but I’ve got no one on the docket. Not until tomorrow, earliest, unless there’s something you know that I don’t.”
It happened occasionally. A blood vessel burst when I was in the middle of lunch, and I missed the exact moment of death by a minute or two. I try to be good about that, though, and make sure that if I’m pre-occupied, one of the other local psychopomps is ready to stand by. There are ten of us in the City itself, and another hundred or so in the larger metro area.
We still sometimes get caught with our pants down, so to speak.
“No,” she said. “No one’s about to pop off in the next hour, at least, not one of your people.”
The cold was making my right knee ache. I know I shouldn’t be impatient with Death, but…
“So what gives?”
“I need you to do something for me.”
Back in the the middle ages, people knew the value of life and death. Life was often cut short. You were lucky if you lived past the age of thirteen. If you were one of those who survived your early years, you had a decent chance of living to the old age of sixty or more.
Oh, perhaps you would get thrown by a horse and trampled. Or influenza would sweep through your village, taking three people out of five. Or you’d die pushing out your fifth child, taken by a hemorrhage.
Or you were caught stealing, or murdering, or poaching, or any number of sins.
In that case, the psychopomp on duty would stand near the gate of the prison, and the executioner would sharpen his ax, or make certain the rope was hung just so.
Vanth was very busy in those days, even though there were significantly fewer humans breathing in the stinking air.
The point of this story –never one of her favorites, but a story nonetheless– is that in that time, when bakers got ready to open their market stalls in the morning, they always set a loaf aside. That was for the executioner, who would not make it to market until long after the morning rush was done, leaving behind only the sorriest turnips, the rankest cuts of meat, and all too often, no bread at all.
The baker’s assistant turned the special loaf upside down on the shelf, so the morning customers knew not to take it. Every hand steered clear of the upside down loaf. To do otherwise was to take a terrible risk.
It was bad luck to eat the executioner’s bread, everyone knew that. You might end up next for the noose or ax. What people didn’t know was that the executioner, in the secret of his room, always split the loaf in half.
One half was his, for dinner, or the next morning’s breakfast, soaked in grease if he had it, or eaten dry before he sharpened his ax to go to work again. The other half? It was for Death herself, and would always, ever, be.
These days, executions comes via close range bullet, straight to the head, or in poison injected in a cold room at midnight, a handful of people watching through shatterproof glass.
The executioner can buy bread at any time of day now. There’s no rush.
“You want me to ask every bakery in town to start turning loaves of bread upside down?”
I didn’t voice the Are you crazy? But it was probably clear enough. She gave me another one of her Looks.
But I felt genuinely flummoxed. In all my years as a psychopomp, and in all my years living in a place where every freak and pervert was welcomed with open arms – because that’s just how we roll – this had to be the weirdest request I’d ever had.
“I miss my bread, Harry. People are barely superstitious anymore. Science has taken over, and we old entities too often don’t get our due.”
“But the stories…”
She flicked her long fingers in dismissal. How in the world was she not even wearing a goddamn coat out here? I turned my collar up, still kicking myself for not bringing gloves.
“The stories are fine. Great even. But I really, really, miss bread. So many people don’t even eat it anymore, which is a waste, if you ask me. What is more delicious than bread, fresh from the oven?”
It seemed as if she actually wanted a response to that one. I just shrugged. What the hell was I supposed to say?
“Yeah. Bread is tasty. But I still don’t get what exactly you want me to do.”
“It is so simple. The simplest thing. Much easier than the rest of your job. Just go to the bakery – you don’t even need to visit all of them, just a few select bakeries – and put in a daily order for me.”
“Of bread. That they can’t sell. Because they’re supposed to turn it upside down in the hopes that you’ll show up and claim it.”
Her face brightened. The mist cleared. The goddamn sun actually shone for one instant.
“Exactly,” she replied. “I’ve got a particular hankering for sourdough.”
To make proper sourdough requires the right conditions. San Francisco has those in spades. The proper water. The right air. Some sprinkle of baker’s magic that doesn’t exist elsewhere. Go to Missouri sometime. Order sourdough. What they’ll offer you will taste nothing like what you’ll get in any restaurant or dive cafe in the City by the Bay.
Vanth wanted that. The Brooklyn rye had reminded her. There was nothing like the crusty edges and the moist, yeasty, air-filled pockets, of a top rate sourdough.
I did what she asked, and got my two favorite local psychopomps to help me. Thank the Gods Death had backed off on asking me to visit every bakery. We met one day, over sushi, and discussed strategy.
Lifting the tiny cup of sake to my lips, I nodded along at the list Rebecca had going.
“Yeah,” Raquim said, mixing more green wasabi into the little dish of soy sauce in front of him. “The place on Nob Hill? Their sourdough is dope. Best I ever tasted. We should ask them.”
A grin lit up his dark face, pushing up his cheeks and wrinkling the edges of his eyes.
“Thing is,” I interjected, “we’ve got our list, but what’s our plan?”
“What do you mean?” Lisa asked, sweeping blond hair back off her pale forehead, and into a ponytail. I watched as she wound the rubber band around the thick, glossy locks. We were quite the trio. I was the scruffiest of the three, by nature. And the oldest, too. Made me wonder who would psychopomp for me when my time came.
I rapped my knuckles on the table, to scare off any listening gremlins. You never knew how news could spread.
Don’t court Death. Not ever. No matter how gorgeous she is.
Raquim gave me a strange look. I stopped knocking on the tabletop and shrugged. That seemed to be my go to these days. Besides, someone had to keep the old superstitions alive. If more people had, we psychopomps wouldn’t be in this dumb position.
“What are we gonna actually do? Waltz into a bakery one afternoon and say ‘pretty please, would you take your best loaf of sourdough bread, turn it over on the counter, and not sell it? Yeah. We’re saving it for Death. That’s right. Oh, you want us to pay for that?’”
Raquim and Lisa were silent, and not just because they’d both taken the opportunity to shove both pieces of unagi into their mouths before I could get to it.
Damn. Barbecue eel was my favorite.
I poured us all more sake.
This was going to be a long meeting.
Vanth paced the Lagos high rise, walking past the sleek, sectional sofa, and the graceful wood sculptures, occasionally pausing to gaze out the floor to ceiling windows at the red and yellow lights of the cars driving by below. It was almost midnight, and the psychopomp wasn’t doing her job. She was supposed to have prepared Mr. Oduwole to meet his ancestors. He was a very wealthy man, so the funerary celebrations to follow would be no problem. His family and children would be well taken care of.
There was no reason for Mr. Oduwole to resist the crossing. Nonetheless, breath still wheezed and moaned in and out of his bony chest, as his children wept around his bed.
No one but the psychopomp knew Vanth was even in the lavish apartment, of course. Only the most sensitive could feel Death, and far fewer could see her.
But this was getting ridiculous.
She wandered over to the kitchen, a white and gleaming place, with goldenrod yellow dish towels hanging from rods, and ochre red plates stacked in glass-fronted cabinets. A small feast had been set up on one long counter.
Vanth sniffed at the air, then stalked around the counter. There it was. Agege. A soft, fluffy bread. The kind of bread that squeaked between your teeth each time you bit down.
Sometimes agege came in loaves, but today? Laid out on a pretty, painted earthenware dish, were several fragrant rolls.
And one of them was upside down.
Mr. Oduwole rattled out his final breath. His children shrieked and wailed. And Vanth reached out, taking the roll into her hands. Holding it up to her nose, she inhaled. It smelled of spring.
Then her sharp teeth bit down into the soft, sweet, bread.
My client was a kid. I always hated getting the young ones. Every week, it seemed, there was a teenager shot in the back, or some ten year old with cancer. You’d think after all these years, I would be over the heartbreak of it. But I’m not. It gets to me, every time.
The hospital stank of disinfectant, vomit, and piss. The antiseptic smell of isopropyl alcohol assaulted the back of my throat.
Sad Sack, the kid’s name was. At least, that’s what his friends used to call him, back when he had friends. Turned out he was a sad sack because a stealth sickness was slowly sapping away his life force. By the time the doctors figured out what it was, it was too late for anyone but me.
The job started pinging at me two days before, leading me here, to San Francisco General Hospital. A good place. But not a place you ended up if you were rich.
Sad Sack’s parents definitely weren’t.
I snuck into his room. The light was turned down low. Machines beeped, and breathed, and whirred. Someone had brought in a bouquet of lilies. The stink of them was almost overpowering.
The boy’s parents, two women who looked careworn, older than they should have, huddled over the rails of the adjustable bed.
One of them turned, her eyes rimmed in red, ashy brown hair standing up in shocks on her rounded skull.
“Are you the chaplain?”
“Yes. Did you want to pray?”
The other, dark-haired woman, gave a harsh bark, as though her throat was raw from held back screaming. “It’s a little late for that, don’t you think, Candice?”
Candice squeezed the dark-haired woman’s shoulder.
Then she looked at me, those red-rimmed eyes blinking in the dim light. “Would you pray for us? I mean, pray for our son? We…don’t seem able to anymore.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “I’m happy to pray on your behalf.”
That much was the truth. Part of my job was to do whatever would help ease the path. Prayer was often part of it.
I looked around the room, and saw an abandoned food tray. I rolled it out of the way, to give myself a better place to stand. But really, I was looking, hoping, for exactly what I saw. Next to a half eaten plastic cup of chocolate pudding, was an untouched dinner roll.
I turned it upside down, then bowed my head.
Vanth was pleased.
Somehow the psychopomps of San Francisco had managed to convince the bakeries to leave her offerings. It started with one man. French, of course. They were the first to have begun offering the executioners bread, after all. Next was an Italian woman, who had taken over from her grandmother. She was the closest thing to an Etruscan Vanth was going to get these days.
Both of them were superstitious enough to believe the strange stories Raquim, Lisa, and Harry had spun for them, some mishmash about selling funeral bread to their clients. That some of their customers wanted to set aside a loaf to feed the dead.
Then they turned around and told their clients that these three bakeries made special funeral bread, “in the old tradition.” Exactly what old tradition? They didn’t need the whole story, did they?
Word began to spread, and people began buying memorial loaves of sourdough to turn over at funerals.
“It’s to feed the souls of the dead on their journey,” the people said. “It’s a custom from olden times. We thought it was a nice touch.”
The psychopomps conveniently left out the part about the loaves originally being for the executioner. In most cases, there wasn’t an executioner anymore, except disease and time. And the offering had never really been about them, anyway.
There was only ever Death. Vanth. She-who-walked-among-the-living.
And if you wanted her to pass you by? To not take you in her arms, the way she took Cousin Sally, or your brother Diego?
You gave her a loaf of the finest San Francisco sourdough or Crown Heights rye you could make or purchase. And you turned it, crusty side down, on a painted plate, or a piece of white linen, or a countertop, or an old trash can lid.
Where you left the offering didn’t matter. Death would have her due.
Vanth smiled, and inhaled the yeasty scent of sourdough, still warm from the baker’s oven. At long last, she had her favorite bread again.
Freshly baked bread and stories. That was a good way to live.
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