The Bread of Ruth’s Unhappiness

by Francesca Forrest
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“I brought home the runt,” said Eli, his eyes begging a smile from Ruth, who wouldn’t grant him one. What business had a smile in this world that no longer held little Hosea in it? The dog Eli showed her was an ugly thing with wiry brindled hair and a squint. Set down on the earthen floor, it looked up at Ruth with what she fancied was a malicious smile. Ruth looked away, out the cabin’s one window at the sunset sky.

“Did you bake bread?” asked Eli presently, and Ruth turned back from the window.

“I didn’t, nor sew nor sweep either. There’s that to eat, from the morning,” said Ruth, glancing at the pot of cold corn mush sitting in the ashes of the hearth fire.

Eli didn’t say anything about the fire, just moved to light it again.

“There were three fish in the net,” he said, then paused to blow some strength into his little flame. “It was lucky they were still there, though. Something tore the net. You can see the hole. Maybe you can mend it? Tomorrow?”

Irritation flickered in Ruth just like the flame on the hearth. The ugly dog. The net. The fire. Why couldn’t Eli let it all be just ashes to ashes and dust to dust?

“I’m so weary,” she murmured. She picked up the net and saw the hole, set it back down on the table by the three silvery fish. She could get a knife, prepare those fish, cook them in the fire he’d started. They could eat them with the corn mush. But no, it was impossible, as impossible as lifting Hosea from where he rested in the grave beneath the yellow rose. Ruth drifted into the cabin’s other room, lay down on the bed, and let sleep cover her.

A tiny child’s nonsense chatter, small feet running round the place. Ruth’s eyes flew open. She could see daylight streaming across the doorjamb, from the window in the other room. Had she slept through the night, then? And where was Eli? She heard it again, the rapid footfalls of a running child. Ruth’s heart raced; she got up and hurried into the other room. Nothing. Just the ugly puppy, staring at her with its impertinent grin.

“Mine’s not the face you hoped to see?” it said, words forming all sharp like a small dog’s bark. “Yes, I’m a poor substitute for the one you’ve lost and a poor choice for a companion, but your mate, he’s fond and foolish, isn’t he? See what he’s left you on the table?”

On the plate on the table was one of last night’s fish, cooked. The sight of it was like a blow, but a blow would be more welcome. Why so gentle, Eli, when the world is so ungentle?

“Yes, my thoughts exactly,” said the little dog. A fly buzzed round the table, and the little dog chased after it, snapping. Ruth shuddered. How could its four feet sound like her own little boy’s two feet?

“What sort of dog are you,” asked Ruth, “that talks like a man and hears unspoken thoughts, besides?”

“The dog’s just a dog, but I’m a devil in temporary residence,” laughed the dog, then took off round the table again after the fly. It stopped at the far end of the table.

“Crossing your arms and glaring won’t make me leave,” it said, fixing her with its squinting eyes. “Will you drive me off with a prayer? No? I didn’t think so. You hate the Big Bully as much as I do, I expect, right now, and that’s why I’m here. Now, let’s have some fun. First, you need to mend that net. Snap to it!” And the puppy snapped again, but this time right at Ruth’s heels. She jumped and stumbled trying to avoid tripping on the creature.

In a daze, she found the netting shuttle and the spacing gauge and even some twine left over from when she had made the net, last summer. In no time she had repaired the hole.

“Good good. I’ll take that and bring you something back,” said the dog.

“You should take it to Eli. He’ll set it up in the stream.”

“Ha! I’ll catch you something better. How about you make some bread. Oh, put away the long face. I don’t mean any old bread. The bread of all your unhappiness.”

“That’ll be a unpalatable loaf,” said Ruth.

“But it’s all you care to eat right now, is it not?” demanded the dog, and for the first time since Hosea had taken ill, Ruth felt herself smile, an ashes and vinegar smile.

“Blood, sweat, and tears, that’s your recipe,” said the dog. “The sweat’s in the kneading, as well you know. The tears–you’ve shed plenty already, and they’ve dried out and lie in the dust under your bed, so you must knead them in. As for blood, just a little will do. Your own. Can you manage it, or do you need my help?” Its mouth pulled back to reveal sharp white teeth.

“I’ll manage on my own, thanks,” said Ruth.

“Then I’m off,” said the dog. It caught one end of the net in its mouth and pulled it off the table and onto its back, then trotted out the open door and into the summer morning.

Ruth swept the dust bunnies from under the bed and held them in her hands, a mass of gray. These were her tears, that soaked through the bed and desiccated there below it? She set them on the table, paused, then took a handful of cornmeal from the sack and added it. Then the long and narrow knife for gutting fish, she let it slide along her left index finger and between that finger and her thumb. She smiled again at the crimson mark it made, and as the warm wetness filled her palm, she mixed the dust and cornmeal together and began to knead.

The bread was baking in the Dutch oven in the embers of the fire when the dog returned, the net floating behind him, magically levitating–why?

Bees. There was a swarm of bees in the net, and though the weave of the net was in no way fine enough to hold them, still they stayed within it, and the net, for its part, floated about them as if the whirring of their wings fanned it away from them.

“Take this,” ordered the dog, its words muffled by its mouthful of net. Ruth took the ends and felt a warmth near her neck from the cloud of bees.

“Pah, pah!” spat the dog, and shook itself. It sniffed, and growled.

“You added something to the bread that’s baking. It won’t be the bread I’d planned, now. Well, it can’t be helped; your kind were never much for following directions. Now I told you I’d bring you something better than fish, and so I have. Come to the doorway and release the bees, and follow them. They’ll take you to their honey.”

The brightness of the afternoon sun hurt Ruth’s eyes as she stepped into the clearing that surrounded the cabin, but the cloud of bees led her away up into the woods, where chestnuts and tulip poplars sifted the sunlight so that only the thinnest, finest beams made it down to dance on the umbrella leaves of the mayapples carpeting the woodland floor. Their flowering season was long over; now green fruits were forming. Mayapples–what was it that Eli called them? Devil’s apples.

Further up, a stream jumped and tumbled over and between mossy rocks, its sounds muffled by the banks of rhododendron and mountain laurel that clustered round it. Here, where the bees now hovered, a fallen tree had partially blocked the stream. Water slipped by and beneath it, enough to send a trickle on down, but in the shade, a large, still pool had formed, and by its side long stalks of monkshood bent under the weight of their blue flowers.

“Don’t be picking flowers now,” panted the dog, “and not those ones ever, unless you have a mind to send yourself or your mate to tend to that whelp of yours in the afterlife.”

Ruth cast a lingering backward glance at the flowers, but the dog was barking at a ragged stump, the base of the tree that had fallen. It was rotten and falling apart; the bees were disappearing into it while others flew out from it. As she came closer, she could smell something rich and sweet. Just there, something golden red oozed from a crack. She reached a finger to catch a taste.

“Not for you!” said the dog. “What about the bread of your unhappiness? Wasn’t that all you wanted? That, or a monkshood salad? No, this is for your neighbors. Let them feed on the milk of paradise. Or in this case, honey. I’m sure they’ll pay you a pretty penny for it, too, and then you can buy a fine stone for your little one’s grave. See how solicitous I am? I know just what you want. Now you line the net with leaves while I sing the bees to sleep, and then you can crack open this stump and take out the honeycomb.”

So it howled a dog’s song, and the bees dozed in the shade beside the pool, and Ruth pulled out chunks of comb, dripping with forest honey, and didn’t lick her fingers once. She carried it home in the net and laid the pieces on the table, and then finding herself suddenly too tired even to lie down in bed, put her head down on the table and slept.

She woke with a start at the sound of Eli’s voice, looked up, confused, into his face, that looked down, equally confused, at hers.

“You’re dreadfully pale … are you . . .”

He wouldn’t say “are you ill,” Ruth knew, as if by avoiding the word, illness itself could be avoided. As if their own good health was a blessing instead of a curse.

He glanced across the room, saw the bread on the hearth and the broom by the doorway to the bedroom.

“You swept. You made bread. And all this honeycomb. So much! Where did you find it?”

“In the woods. It’s not for us, though,” said Ruth. “It’s for the folks in town. We can sell it.”

Eli’s face brightened. “Yes–all this comb might bring enough to have the plow mended. Or maybe we can get more chickens, to replace the ones the fox got.”

“No!” said Ruth, standing up. “It’s to buy a stone, a marble stone, for Hosea’s grave.”

Eli stared at her for a long moment, then went to the hearth and retrieved the Dutch oven.

“Let’s have the bread, at least,” he said.

The dog opened an eye and watched as Eli cut slices, handed one to Ruth, and bit down on his own piece. He coughed and made a face.

“It’s very dry and bitter!”

“And so it should be; it’s the bread of my unhappiness,” Ruth said, the words clinging to her tongue like dust in a forgotten corner.

“And yet,” said Eli slowly, “There’s something else to it too. There’s more to it than bitterness. The aftertaste is … is … it’s a hopeful taste.”

The dog had raised its head and was looking at him with both eyes open now. A faint growl rumbled in its throat; it got up and wandered out the front door.

Ruth let the flavor of the bread linger on her tongue. Why had she added cornmeal? Was there hope in her, after all? Was she a traitor to her own grief?

“Look!” said Eli, spreading coins on the table the following evening. “Everyone wanted some. I hadn’t gone as far as the Chapin house after selling some at Crossing’s Inn, and Mr. Fell’s daughter and old Joseph Reed came up to me, inquiring after it. And on my way home, Mary Chapin, who never has two kind words to say to anyone, came right up to the cart, and I swear her cheeks were as pink as yours on our wedding day, and she wouldn’t stop talking about the honey until her housemaid called her in … it’s most unusual stuff, Ruth. Is there more, do you suppose, or did you collect it all? If I go back to town tomorrow, with more, we could buy a marble stone and pay to mend the plow–both.”

“Maybe–yes, I think. . .” said Ruth, glancing over at the dog. It was smiling at her again–could Eli see the smile?

So the following day Ruth took him to the old stump, the puppy trailing after them as if the path was as new to it as to Eli. Beside the pool, Eli seemed entranced, glancing up at the cascade of water and the glossy leaves of the rhododendrons and the mountain laurels.

“In June, this place must be just filled with flowers … what a sight it must be. A paradise.”

A devil’s paradise, thought Ruth, thinking of the carpet of mayapples they had waded through, and the nodding monkshood, leaning over the pool. It almost made her laugh, thinking of the happy folk in town, so eager for honey from a devil’s paradise.

They brought home twice as much again as Ruth had carried yesterday, and Eli put it right away into a bushel basket, strapped the basket to the mule, and headed down the path that led to the road to town, whistling.

“Well, we’d better get busy,” said the puppy, once Eli had disappeared from sight. “I’m not sure how much time we’ll have. You have some cloth, don’t you? Something you were weaving, before?”

“It’s still on the loom. . . it’s not finished.”

“What’s there will have to do. Take it down and bring it here.”

It felt soft for linsey-woolsey. Once upon a time, Ruth might have felt proud of how fine she had spun the thread and how tightly it was woven, but now the weight of it in her lap as she crouched beside the dog in the doorway only added to the heaviness in her chest, and for the first time in days she felt tears prick at her eyes.

“It would have been clothes for Hosea,” she said.

“Yes, yes, I know. But we’ll make it into something else now. Something for you. It needs a special thread, though, a mortal thread, bright and attractive as life itself. That cut you gave yourself on your finger. Now if that should open up again. . .” The dog tilted its head to one side, and even as Ruth met his eyes, she felt the tickle of slippery wetness slide down her finger.

“I’ll cut the cloth; you spin that blood into the finest thread you can manage.”

Ruth opened her mouth to say that such a thing couldn’t be done, but since when could dust make bread, or a fishing net catch bees? She wet the fingers and thumb of her right hand in the blood from her left and rolled it between them, and a shiny red thread started to form. She went to fetch a spindle.

By the time the dog presented her with pieces of cloth to sew, Ruth felt lightheaded from the quantity of thread she had spun and glad to stop. She sewed long pieces together and then short ones, and when the dog told her to sew along the edge, just for decoration, she did it, and in the end, when she held it up, it was a traveling cloak.

The dog went over to where the broom stood and came back with a green package dangling from his mouth. It set the package down beside her: a mayapple leaf that fell open to reveal a fragment of honeycomb.

“Take that. Then put on the cloak and follow me.”

Ruth followed, and it seemed to her that it was only the weight of the cloak that kept her body in place on the ground, perhaps only the cloak that kept her, indeed, from blowing apart like dandelion seed in the evening breeze.

“Not that way, no–away from town,” the dog said, when they reached the road.

“But … I don’t even know where the road goes in that direction, and it’ll grow dark soon. Eli will be coming home.” Ruth looked at the rosy sky and then down at the dog. For a brief moment the madness of the situation struck her. Why was she standing here, at the edge of the road to town, with lump of honeycomb in her hand, letting a dog tell her to head into the wilderness?

The little dog laughed a barking laugh, laughed so hard it fell over, then sighed, picked itself up, and shook itself.

“What do you care about your mate, now that your little one is dead and gone? He wants to forget the little one, you know.”

So Ruth had often thought, these many weeks, so now, when the dog gave voice to her bitterness, why did she suddenly recall Eli’s words as he tasted the bread of blood, sweat, and tears, remember him saying the word hopeful and not hate him for it?

“Oh, hopeful, hopeful,” sneered the dog, as if it were overhearing her memory. “It would have been much more entertaining if you had made the bread the way I told you to. Cornmeal–who needs it? If you had kept the recipe simple, he might have choked instead of coughed. Wouldn’t that have been something, to see him choking on your unhappiness?

“Well, it will be almost as entertaining to see him come up the road this evening, after trying to sell that second batch of honey. While you were spinning that bright beautiful thread and sewing up this cloak, would you like to know how he was passing his time? His welcome in town wasn’t so warm today as yesterday. Now let’s see. . . didn’t he mention Mr. Fell’s daughter asking for honey? It seems she shared hers with a peddler and left town with him last night–her father rode out to find her and bring her back, but the earth seems to have swallowed her up. And old Joseph Reed was another, wasn’t he? He had some honey; he said it made him feel fifteen years younger. Then he said he’d never shoe another horse, and he’s been playing the fiddle up by his wife’s sister’s grave all afternoon, and his wife sits at home and weeps. And as for Mrs. Chapin, she brought some over to Reverend Ellis’s household yesterday, then called there this morning and would have stopped by again this afternoon, but her oldest boy had been helping himself to honey on toast in the meantime and announced to both his parents that he was going to seek his fortune back east on a whaling ship out of Nantucket.

“There are as many stories like this as there are people who’ve tasted the honey, and they all know that it was Eli Hale’s wife that found it in the forest and sent it into town by her husband. Loss of a child can make you bitter, they’re saying, can make you jealous of the fortunate–and bleak hearts can turn to black magic. They’ve been telling your mate he must set things right, must deal with you, Ruth Hale.

“Yes, upon reflection, maybe we had better not wait around to be entertained by him as he returns from town. Or you had better not, anyway. I’ve helped you make this pretty cloak, sewn with your own life’s blood–there’s nothing so attractive as the glow of life, you know; men will flock to you like flies. And you have some of the honey of paradise to share with whomever you will. Share abundantly, or choose just one, or two, or three to share it with–no one who sees you will refuse you.”

“What? What sort of future have you made for me?” cried Ruth. “I’m no witch. It was you who told me about the honey, you who said it was for my neighbors! The bread, the honey, the cloak–it’s all your doing!”

“No, my dear,” said the dog softly, “you’ve been my willing partner throughout. And look, now we’re too late to avoid your mate. That’s him isn’t it? Coming up the road? I’ll leave you one last present, should you need it–there by your foot, can you see it?–and when you’ve sorted out matters to your satisfaction, I’ll be waiting for you.”

The dog disappeared into the lengthening shadows. Ruth looked down by her foot. The knife for gutting fish lay beside it. The sight of it sent a chill up her spine and set her left hand to aching, but there was no time to pick it up or even to kick it aside, for Eli and the mule were upon her now. The fading twilight could not hide the droop in Eli’s shoulders, or, when he looked up, the tiredness in his eyes.

His tiredness turned to surprise and wariness as their eyes met.

“Good evening,” he said. “It’s late for a young woman to be out alone on this road. Where is your family? Are you … heading for the town, or. . .?”

“Eli, can’t you see it’s me?” said Ruth.

His brow wrinkled and he frowned. “You don’t look like my wife,” he said, voice just a whisper, eyes traveling over her cloaked form. She undid the ties and took off the cloak, then staggered with lightheadedness. Eli caught her arm and steadied her.

“You look like a ghost,” he said.

“I’m not sure I’m not one, without the cloak. It’s got my life’s blood in it,” said Ruth, starting to wrap it back around her shoulders, but Eli stopped her.

“Don’t put it on.”

“You don’t find me irresistible, in it?”

Eli looked away. “Suppose I do? Ordinary men don’t fare too well with fairy ladies, or spirits, or witches. I prefer the Ruth I know.” His eyes lit on the knife, lying at her feet, and he took a step back.

“You came to meet me with a knife?”

“The dog gave it to me. It said folks in town set you against me. Is it true? That Grace Fell ran off with a peddler and Joseph Reed fiddles by his sister-in-law’s grave, and they blame me?”

“You know about that? So you knew, did you, what would happen?” His voice was shaking.

“No! I didn’t. Maybe. . . maybe I should have guessed, but the dog. . . I thought. . .” She looked down, and there was the knife, waiting. Tears burned in her eyes. Enough was enough. She’d never touch that knife.

“The dog. You keep saying the dog.” Eli said. “You mean to say that puppy’s been speaking to you?”

“There’s a devil in it,” said Ruth, “and I’ve been all too willing to listen to him. I can’t say there was no malice in my heart, but I- I’m sorry for the harm I’ve caused. Oh Eli, I don’t know if I can bring back Grace Fell or set things right for Joseph Reed and the others, but I can certainly try. I’m no witch. I promise I’m not.”

“It’s not only the honey that made those things happen,” murmured Eli. “Young Grace was meeting that peddler in secret, her sister said, before I brought the honey to town, and everyone knows Joseph Reed only started courting Joanna after her sister took ill and died. There’s them that blame you, and me, but it’s not the whole town.”

A menacing growl came from the shadows, and the little dog appears, not seeming quite so little with its hackles raised and its teeth glinting in the light of the moon. Eli reached for the knife.

“No, no–it’s surely only the puppy you’ll kill, not the devil,” said Ruth, pushing his hand away. How to deal with a devil? Could he be intoxicated by his own honey? “Maybe this will turn him aside,” she said, kneeling down and unwrapping the honeycomb she had been carrying.

“Maybe with some of your bread,” said Eli, taking a crust from his pocket and handing it to Ruth.

The dog was much closer now, and its growl was approaching a snarl.

Ruth pressed the bread into the honeycomb and pushed it toward the dog, then jumped back to stand with Eli.

The dog laughed. “In this form I may be small, but I’ll rip out both your throats, all the same,” it said, coming closer. But within inches of the bread and honeycomb, it sniffed, stopped, and then bent its head and snapped up the crust in two bites.

In moments it started to cough and tremble.

“Pah! Pah! Hopefulness! Awful! Awful!”

It gagged and coughed some more. A shudder ran the length of its body, from tail to ears, and then a shadow rose from its shoulders like smoke from a fire, passed by Eli and Ruth, and blew away, leaving behind a faint odor of ashes and honey.

The dog shuddered again and barked twice, then came the rest of the way over to Eli and Ruth, head lowered, tail wagging. Ruth hesitated, then reached out and stroked its head. It was not so ugly, really, even with the squint.

She felt a hand on her shoulder.

“How do you feel?” Eli asked, helping her to her feet.

She thought a moment.

“Hopeful,” she said, surprised.

Eli put his arm around her, gave the mule’s halter a tug, and they started up the path to the cabin.

5 Responses to “The Bread of Ruth’s Unhappiness”

  1. cinda-cite says:

    ~wonderful story. thank you.~

  2. Helice says:

    Very interesting. I liked the weaving of meaning with reality.

  3. Julia Rios says:

    Lovely story. I really liked the distinct voices each character had. Every time the dog spoke I heard him yapping the words out. I also loved Eli, who seemed like a very good sort of person.

  4. A well-told extended fable that is both original and paced to perfection.

  5. Emilie Leming says:

    I don’t usually read short stories but I’m so glad I read yours. Beautifully done, well chosen descriptions… a story one wants to finish to find out what the outcome will be. Thank you so much for sharing it.

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