The woman was kneading her daily bread when she realized it was a child.
She doubted at first — bread is not flesh — and kept kneading, feeling the chewing gum dough swell and sigh as she smacked and punched it into shape. As she razored three, quick notches along the belly, it made no protest, but when she placed it upon the breadstone and into the oven, its honey-rich aroma bore a hint of socks and spit. And when she extracted it a half hour later, the loaf began to cry.
The man returned to find the woman in the kitchen with her ear over the largest loaf he’d ever seen.
The bread is crying, she said. Listen.
He leaned in and listened and discovered that she was right.
The woman picked up the loaf. It was the size of a grown pug at least, and just as heavy and dense. Placing her lips to one curved end, she inhaled the distinctive scent of wheat and boy.
Our son, she said.
The man recalled some holy link between bread and flesh.
Let me touch him, he said.
The boy of bread was easy to raise. He neither ate nor shat and required no bathing nor burping, though he did cry at times to be held. He had neither hands to hold nor legs to kick nor any face to gaze happily upon. But the woman and the man loved him all the same. They rubbed his freckly crust and smothered his hard, shiny ends with kisses.
He grew quickly. In less than a month, the boy of bread squeezed against the sides of the drawer used as a crib, so the man fashioned a box large as a flight bag, finished with a ribbed cover that opened and closed and offered protection from ants and mold.
Although the boy never spoke, his moods grew apparent: shiny-bright when happy, soggy and slouched when tired. Sadness never plagued him. His joys were simple as a cat’s: he loved being held or else lying alone in a patch of sunlight. He rolled from place to place like a lozenge, filling every room with the scent of freshly baked bread. The miracle of his existence never ceased to amaze the woman and the man. And while they feared mice, birds, and serrated knives, they comforted themselves with the knowledge that other parents faced far greater threats.
Then the neighbors spotted the enormous brown shape rolling past the windows and gossiped, suspecting alchemy. After all, no one liked the woman and the man who lived in the house at the end of the street. They had no television, and their yard contained flowers bearing the faces of the dead.
A meeting was called, and all the neighbors gathered before the house. They brought knives, jam and butter. The boldest of them yelled, “Let us see his crusty face!”
The woman and the man locked the door tightly. Frightened, they peeked through the curtains and did not notice the boy rolling up the stairs to the top floor, where he slipped out an open window and tumbled down the roof to land in the front yard with a flump!
The neighbors stood in silence as the boy righted himself, then cartwheeled down the street. The smallest children and a number of dogs followed, cheering and barking and leaping alongside him, parading away and leaving the neighbors gaping among the dead-faced flowers.
The boy of bread brought new life to the town, which in recent times had been hit hard by recession. Within days of his public appearance, the national press invaded the town, colonizing lawns and shining lights bright as supernovas onto the once-dark streets.
And the neighbors said oh, we love the boy of bread. We love the woman, we love the man. We are a tightly-knit community.
He’s so kind and miraculous, everyone said.
He’s a sign of something better, everyone else said.
They hoped this was true because otherwise, the world was ending. Water was vanishing while whole countries slipped into the sea. Strange illnesses spread: ones that caused men to grow ovaries and dogs to grow thumbs and babies to be born as old people who died months after birth. And now all the flowers bore the faces of the dead.
The boy of bread, who by now had grown into a man of bread, remained a novelty until the famine came and with it, the worship. For here was flesh made into bread, which everyone knew was a holy thing. And although the man of bread could still not speak, he could sigh in such a way that one felt the weight of his sadness. Those who flocked to his crusty side built an enormous church with an oculus in the vast domed ceiling. Sunlight streamed down to the center, and the followers asked him to remain there. Yet the man of bread no longer enjoyed this because the sun was now too hot, the worshippers too numerous and too needy. He sensed their suffering and could do nothing to ease it but lie in the sun like a great wheat sarcophagus.
It was only a matter of time until someone recalled that it was the woman and the man who first grew flowers of the dead. Rumors spread: the man of bread was not a god, but a devil sent to hasten the end of the world. Pain and suffering had reached their peak and people needed something bigger to have faith in. So they accepted it because believing a lie is far more powerful than believing the truth.
The man of bread grew sad. He lay helpless in the church, in the killing sun as he considered the problems of the world: the ceaseless wars, the dying animals, the thirst, the lies, the hopelessness. No longer did he revel in the miracle of breath. So he summoned within himself an ancient magic – the very power that gave him a first breath. Now it would provide his last and with it, the only words he ever spoke:
The crowds descended, tearing the sacred body and feasting upon it. Word spread that eating the flesh of a god would make one invincible, that it would taste of divine desserts. In fact, it tasted like stale bread. Yet the many thousands ate until there was nothing left but a fist-sized morsel they brought to the woman and the man. They were not barbarians, after all. They were not so callous. They traveled to his hometown, to the woman and the man who were by then very old and very sad and, like everyone else, ravaged by despair. The return of this small part of their boy’s body cheered them just a little, so they placed the fist-sized morsel in a small box and hid it in the attic. Sometimes, they would take it out and imagine they could hear it cry.
In the end, they died too, along with the many millions of others that year. Some people survived, as they tend to do (humans are nothing more than pests, after all), but it wasn’t until many, many years later that a young girl discovered the box with the fist-sized remnant. But by then, the world had run out of miracles. So when the girl picked the up the bread chunk and held it to her ear, it was silent and hard as stone.
sharon mcgill has published stories and reviews in many places, including Harpur Palate, PANK, Opium, and New Letters. Her website is sharonmcgill.net.