Loaves of bread.
Oh God in heaven, if he was still up there, the loaves of bread.
Glimmering through the plate glass shop window. Shining in the morning sun. Round loaves. Braided loaves. Long, golden, crusty spears. Loaves with seeds deckling scored tops. A few special loaves, marbled with cinnamon.
Cinnamon. When was the last time Greta had tasted cinnamon?
Stacks, and stacks, and stacks of fresh baked bread.
The door opened onto the sidewalk, announced with a clanging bell. The scent of yeast and warmth and goodness rose on the cool autumn air, moist from the Hudson river. It wreathed Greta’s head.
She almost fainted from it. She could almost taste the memory of butter.
Her stomach was too empty to even growl in response. There had been nothing but weak cabbage broth and a sprouting potato or two heated over an alley fire. One piece of stale brown bread and some lentils after standing in line for an hour, jostled by men.
A woman stared at her through the plate glass window, corners of her mouth turned down, not wanting to face the dirt and hunger Greta knew was staring back at her. The woman had sleek dark hair, pulled neatly back into a bun. Her face was rounded. Rounded like a loaf of bread. Rounded, soft and curved, from her face, to the bosom under her dark dress and white apron. Rounded to her hips.
Greta hadn’t felt round in what seemed like years. The woman looked away. Greta’s own reflection stared back from the window. Gaunt. Hollow. Sharp. Hair pale and wispy around her face, straggling from beneath a scrap of fading blue felt that once looked like a hat.
At least she’d washed at a fountain this morning, after waking up from her nest of cardboard in the lee of the foundry.
Blinking at the broad plate of glass, she saw now that she’d missed a spot. More than a spot. A streak of dirt ran up her cheek, pointing toward one blue eye.
She snuck a corner of wool blanket up, to rasp at her skin, hoping to wipe the stripe from her face.
The rolled up blanket under her arm, which had felt so rich and thick, so warm when her sweetheart had brought it home…was filthy, growing threadbare now.
“This will keep you warm when I’m away,” he had said. “Wrap yourself up, and think of my arms around you.” Gone to Chicago to try for a newspaper job. Three years ago. No word in two and a half.
He had thought she would be okay. So did she, for awhile. Then she lost her job, and unlike a few of the others, hadn’t gotten it back.
Greta adjusted the gray sweater over her flowered dress. Not an autumn dress. A dress of spring days spent walking in the park, or by the river. Days spent at the teletype machine in a clattering office filled with other girls. Days spent with her sweetheart who met her after work, taking her back home to the one room apartment where he’d been writing at his desk all day, pot of rice simmering on the tiny burner.
They would eat, and then make love. Or sometimes they would make love and then eat.
They had all the time together in the world.
Until they didn’t anymore.
Now it was just the long, inexorable sway of time. Alone. Gray sidewalks. Soot stained buildings. People in grimy top coats, battered hats, and shoes with holes in the soles and scrapes on the toes.
No teletype machines clacking. No laughter of the other girls in their bright skirts and dresses, a daring stripe of lipstick on their mouths.
Just a mass of dirty people, just like her. And those other few, the lucky ones, who could afford this bread. The ones who had gotten their jobs back. Or found work with the WPA.
“Miss, excuse me, miss?”
She turned. There was a woman, red haired and gleaming, so clean, Greta felt a slash of shame strike her chest. Good wool coat over a burgundy dress. Real stockings. Black hat canted just so on russet hair. Shined, black button shoes.
The woman held out a nickel in one, black gloved hand.
“Did you drop this, miss?”
“No. No. I don’t think it’s mine.” Greta leaned toward the woman, wanting to snatch the coin. Snatch the coin and run away, in her down trodden shoes.
Or maybe walk through this shop door and buy a golden, steaming, fragrant, loaf of bread.
“I think it is yours. You dropped it just now,” the woman insisted, a tentative smile curling up on her smooth, white face. The gloved hand was still extended, the bright coin winking in the early morning sun.
“Th-thank you,” Greta said.
“Glad to help,” the woman said, before walking away.
A wind gusted through, whipping stray strands of Greta’s hair into her face.
And the woman was gone. Just gone.
“You have to stop doing that!” Reginald paced in front of the cold fireplace on the Aubusson rug he was so proud of, inside of the brownstone he was equally proud of, though as he’d inherited both, Jessica didn’t see what reason he had to take pride in either thing.
The man was insufferable, really.
“You don’t want me to help anybody,” Jessica said.
“It isn’t that,” he spat out, running a hand over the thick sweep of his blond hair. It was already perfect, like everything about him, from the gleaming starched white shirt, to the polished brown shoes.
The only thing about Reginald that wasn’t picture perfect was the small hitch in the center of his long nose. Gotten in a battle with a rival sorcerer, he liked to say.
Jessica knew it had been broken when he fell off his bicycle as a boy. He was arrogant, handsome, and sexy as a Rolls Royce Silver Cloud.
“You know we can’t just go around handing magic out to people on the street!” he continued.
“Why not?” Jessica said. “And may I have some tea? I’m parched.”
Reginald rang a bell. Nothing happened.
“Drat! I forgot I gave Harris a half day.”
Jessica raised her eyebrows at that. “And you can’t boil water yourself?”
He just scowled. She plunked herself down on one of the overstuffed leather club chairs that braced the marble fronted fireplace and cross her legs with a swish of silk stockings.
“If I can help someone climb out of the gutter by offering them a nickel, what’s the problem?”
“It wasn’t just a nickel, Jessica! You magicked it! Just because you’ve added Earth to your Elemental Air doesn’t mean you can go around magicking objects willy-nilly. It disturbs the order of things.”
He threw himself into the opposite chair, an aggrieved huff exploding from his lips.
“I do nothing willy-nilly, Reginald. And the only order I’m disturbing is the Powers be damned social order you’re so fond of. Don’t like the lower classes getting a leg up, do you?”
“Just stop it!” he snapped. “Or I’ll have you thrown out of the Association.”
“We’ll just see about that,” she replied, then quirked her lips. “Kiss me.”
Greta stood blinking on the sunny sidewalk, head swirling with hunger and some strange sense of… otherness. Like she used to get around her Gran, the neighborhood herb lady back in West Virginia.
Her stomach tight against her spine, she looked at the golden loaves through the gleaming pane of glass. Felt the nickel between her fingers.
Stepping through the door was like entering the best world possible. A world where life was easy and everything was good. Her heart pounded with the daring of such a simple act: standing in a bakery, with money in her hand.
Tucking the threadbare blanket more firmly under her arm, she walked toward the counter, eyes roaming over the long crusty spears of the french loaves, and the dark rounds of rye.
Moisture flooded the back of her mouth and her stomach cramped.
“May I help you?” the dark haired woman behind the counter said. She had every right to look on Greta with disdain, but all Greta saw in her eyes was kindness now. The frown had disappeared.
“How much for a loaf?”
“Nickel a loaf,” the woman said, “but we have yesterday’s rolls for a penny each.” The woman lowered her voice then, “and since the store is empty right now, I can let you have one of those for free.”
“I have money,” Greta said, and held out her hand. She wished she had washed everything better this morning, but the fountain had been so cold on her skin.
“Why, you have plenty of money!”
“I-it’s just a nickel,” Greta said.
A strange look crossed the woman’s round white face.
“Call it a nickel if you want to, but that’s a silver dollar if ever I saw one.”
“You aren’t going to distract me with kisses,” Reginald said, but the smile creeping around the corners of his ruddy lips said otherwise. “This is a serious breech of Association protocol, Jessica.”
“Reggie,” Jessica leaned forward in her chair, until her silk stockings almost brushed against the brown wool of his trousers. “People need our help. They are literally starving in the streets. If sorcery can help them, why wouldn’t we use it?”
“Because then everyone will know what we can do.”
She stood then, black button shoes pacing the same carpet he had paced minutes before.
“And why is that wrong? People need magic, Reg. We belong to the Association of Magical Arts and Sorcery, not the Association for Hoarding Power!”
An old conversation, and one they never seemed to get past.
The woman gifted Greta with a pat of butter along with the change that now jingled in her sweater pocket. The bread was warm and good. The butter tasted like God. Her ma would have smacked her cheeks for such a thought, but Greta’s gran would have understood.
“God’s anywhere you can find him, girl.” That’s what Gran always said. If that was in butter on fresh bread, what was wrong with it?
She looked down. He was hunched over a broken down pair of shoes, fraying laces holding them onto filthy socks, hands wrapped around the threadbare knees of black trousers shiny with dirt and wear.
His brown eyes stared at the loaf of bread, Adam’s apple bobbing in a painfully thin brown throat.
“C’n I have a bite a that?”
Greta looked from her half eaten loaf, and back to the man. She felt the weight of the coins in her pocket. Gripping the space where the soft bread met hard crust, she ripped the remaining loaf in half, and handed it to the man.
He ripped into the loaf himself, shoving pieces in between cracked lips.
Greta stood there for a moment, thinking. No. Not thinking. Feeling.
Rooting through the pocket, she felt the coins slide against her fingers. Two of the coins felt smaller than the others.
She pulled two bits of worn copper from the pocket and held them out to the man.
“Here,” she said. “Take these.”
He paused. Then transferred the disappearing bread into one hand. The other hand slowly reached out, palm up to the winter sky.
Greta dropped the coins inside.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Do you feel that?” Jessica asked. Standing in the middle of the brightly colored carpet, she was practically bursting with the power of sorcery. Filled with the power of Earth, the strength of Air. Her legacy and all she had worked for in her twenty one years coiled inside her, and caressed the edges of her skin.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Reginald said, head in his hands, still sitting in the club chair.
“The sorcery. It’s working. You mean to tell me you really can’t feel the change in the air?”
He looked up at her then, blue eyes considering her, blond hair still in its perfect sweep atop his head.
“All I feel is that you are going to be called on the carpet for spreading magical objects to untrained people. And what gave you the idea to charge up objects anyway? That’s not…”
She threw her arms into the air. “A sorcerer can do any kind of magic she damn well pleases, Reggie! Stop being so damned persnickety about the Powers-damned rules! If I want to call on the Elements, I will. If I want to charge objects, I will!”
He stood up then, holding his arms out toward her.
“Jessica, don’t,” he pleaded. “My father…”
“I’m not engaged to your father Reggie! Right now, I’m not even certain I should be engaged to you!”
The mustached man at the fruit and vegetable stand held two oranges in his white, blunt fingered hands which were criss-crossed with pinkish scars.
Greta could smell the citrus from the sidewalk where she stood. She’d been drawn by that smell, not interested in the pitiful greens in their wooden boxes, or the squashes that needed a cook fire to be edible.
She wanted the oranges.
“Two dozen for twenty-five cents,” he said. “One dozen for fifteen.”
“I only want the two,” Greta replied. “How much for that?”
“Two cents each,” the man said, grudgingly.
Greta set the blanket on the sidewalk, and pulled the small tumble of coins from her pocket. She was hoping for a nickel in the pile.
Staring at the tiny mound in her own pale hand she blinked. Then blinked again.
“That can’t be right…” she whispered.
“You want th’ oranges or not?”
“I…” Greta looked up at his square face, the shadow of whiskers on his cheeks. The brown and gray mustache.
“I want two dozen, please, in a sack if you have one.”
One of the grocer’s bushy eyebrows raised. “Don’t be playing games with me, miss.”
She showed him the bright pile in her hand. Added together, the coins totaled one silver dollar.
Jessica had always known it could be done. That was why, along with the sorcery she was born to, and the magic she trained with every day, she had undertaken the study of alchemy as well.
Her teachers smiled benignly. Ah, the ancient art. Not much to it. Mostly philosophical, but good training for the mind, so let the girl play.
Except she’d done it. She had turned metal into magic and magic into metal. And it was working. She could feel it in her bones.
She had to go out in the streets and try it again.
Greta retraced her steps and found the man again. He was rolling up his own ratty blanket.
“Going to find some soup, miss. Thank you again for the pennies.”
“I need your help!” Greta said, blanket tucked beneath her left arm, right arm being pulled half way from it’s socket.
“What you got there?”
“Oranges!” Greta said, a huge smile splitting her dirt smeared face. “I need your help to hand them out.”
He smiled back at her, one chipped tooth marring an otherwise beautiful smile.
“’d be happy to help, miss.” He uncurled one of the string bags from her fingers. “Name’s Terry.”
“Greta,” she replied. “And I think those pennies I gave you may be magic.”
Terry threw back his head and laughed, winter sun casting a warm glow on his brown cheeks.
“I sure could use some a that, long as it don’t come from the devil,” he said.
“They came from a beautiful woman in a burgundy coat.”
Terry gave her a look and smiled again. “I guess that’s alright then.”
They moved down the sidewalk together, putting oranges into outstretched hands, or tucking them into blanket corners.
For the first time in a long while, Greta felt happy. Content. She could sleep inside tonight. Have a proper bath.
And maybe find that woman in the burgundy dress again. Greta would like to thank her. And ask the woman what she knew. If magic was something real.
And how long the luck would last.
The strange, bright coins jingled in Greta’s sweater pocket as she walked, as though to answer her.
The scent of oranges filled her hands.
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