The Staff of Life - Short Story Contest Adult 3rd place

Staff of Life by A. Christina Tari
2020 EFC Short Story Contest Adult 3rd Place 

As a child I learned that there are three kinds of bread: real bread, near bread and fake bread.  Real bread is perfect. It is always delicious, nutritious, and never ever goes mouldy, probably because it is so delicious that it is always eaten to the last crumb as soon as it is served. There was, however, a complication with real bread: it could only to be sourced in the 45,000 square kilometres (what we then conceived of as 28,000 square miles) of the blessed old country, Estonia. And the blessed old country was firmly locked behind the Iron Curtain. Which meant that real bread existed only as a mythical gold standard for comparison and as a perennial topic of conversation whenever expat Estos gathered. Tragically, this also meant that I, as a first generation Canadian, was destined to never know real bread.  

Now near bread is the closest to real bread. It is almost delicious, apparently nutritious, but sometimes goes mouldy. Near bread was at first available in Toronto only in special delicatessens that took us half a day to get to by public transit. Edible bread should be locally available. This is a cardinal rule. When I was growing up, near bread was ubiquitously and misleadingly labelled as 'German bread'. Today, near bread is far more accessible. This, I was told, was due to the sudden emergence in Toronto of upscale Polish bakeries in the 1980s.  Whatever else, the Poles know how to make good near bread. The proliferation of Polish specialty bakeries producing a variety of good near bread is clearly what the media must mean when they go on about Toronto's merit as a world-class city.

Then, there is fake bread. The bread of my formative years. Fake bread is tasteless. It is true that it never goes mouldy, but that is only because there is nothing in fake bread that is fit for human consumption. If you poke fake bread it dents. This is because they beat every bit of fiber out of whatever it is that they make fake bread with. With nothing in it, there is nothing to resist the poke. This was demonstrated on each outing to a "Canadian" grocery store, my mother surreptitiously approaching the wooden shelves on which the loaves of fake bread were lined up, each loaf packaged in brightly coloured plastic, index finger poised for the demonstrative poke.  

Real bread, of course, is solid food, so not dented by a poke. As I recall, the plastic wrap on the fake bread was also offensive. Real bread comes off a bakery shelf proudly unwrapped. Oh yes and then there is the issue with the "crust" on fake bread. It is simply brown food colouring added to make fake bread look like near bread. Real bread, of course, has a real crust. Toasting fake bread is the only way to get it close to having any nutritional value. This is because with nothing in it, it burns readily. Apparently, the ingestion of carbon was believed by some medical authority writing a daily column in the newspaper in the 1960s to be a nutritious event. But as we all know, it is a rare soul that would crave a piece of fake bread charred to the colour and consistency of coal. Real bread, of course, does not require toasting, although toasting is yet another delicious option. 

And then, in August of 1991, the unbelievable happened. The iron curtain suddenly dissolved.  Two generations of Estonians rushed back to the blessed old country to re-taste real bread. Real bread naturally became the souvenir of choice, with local bakers supplying it in various lengths, anxious to satisfy the ravenous expat tourist trade. I laughed when I heard that it was standard for an Estonian returning to Canada to arrive with at least one loaf. For me, after forty-odd years of indoctrination that real bread would forever remain unknowable, it was mind-bending to think that real bread was actually available in Canada for the tasting. 

To my amazement, I was invited to sample real bread. Milvi, my mother’s best friend from high school was now widowed and no longer drove. When her "rotten kids" didn’t take proper advantage of the lake (why else did she pay the property tax and annual phone installation charge?), I began driving her to her cottage. We were at the lake when the call came advising that her Estonian-born son-in-law had just returned to Toronto from Eesti and had brought bread. We were invited for dinner. Real bread. I was about to see it and taste it for the first time in forty years. What would it look like? What would it taste like?  

We arrived in record time. It is true that not too many cottagers return to Toronto in the middle of a Saturday afternoon during an August heat wave. It is also true that it is not every day that a usually-speed-limit-observant driver is incentivised by the opportunity to taste real bread.  

I sat politely through the Estonian-born son-in-law's recounting of his adventure in the blessed old country. He was raised on a farm on the west coast. My mother and Milvi had grown up in Tallinn. I mused that the distance between the two sites is approximately the same distance as that between Milvi’s cottage and Toronto: about an hour and a half. However, there were apparently far more sights of interest in the hour and a half stretch in the blessed old country, and we heard, at length, how wonderfully distinctive was the region in which he’d been raised. While every one else at the table sat riveted in his or her seat absorbing the details of his journey, I sat in agony. I could see nothing that looked like it might be real bread, and there had been no mention of it. This was not auspicious. Was it possible that the real bread would not be shared?  Or worse, was it possible that all the real bread had already been consumed? 

The travelogue finally ended, only to be replaced with the narration of the e-mail news from Milvi’s favourite granddaughter currently living in Japan and teaching English. Canadian food was apparently unattainable there and this granddaughter was rapidly becoming disenchanted with rice. When this detailed discussion of food nostalgia failed to elicit an offer to taste the real bread, I assumed the worst. Then Milvi came through with the never-fail magic mantra: we really-must-be-going. Presto, a yard-long loaf of real bread was reverently produced from the kitchen and ceremoniously placed in the centre of the food altar.  

I thought I would faint. I trembled. There it was. Real real bread. My initial response was an impulse to jump up and try to poke it. Thankfully I was able to restrain myself. My turn finally came, and two notably thin slices were presented on a plate. Eyebrows were raised at my passing up unsalted butter and salted herring to accompany the real bread. But this was jaded company. I was the only initiate in the room.  

My hand shook receiving the offering. I reverted to deep belly breathing in an effort to calm my nervous system. Somehow I was able to balance the plate, break the bread and raise a sample to my mouth. It was certainly delicious and surprisingly moist. Indeed, it had a very different taste from near bread. Thankfully my total absorption with tasting real bread for the first time seemingly went unnoticed. There was no commentary on the fact that I had not uttered a word for several hours. 

Milvi again stated that it was time to go. This time we were encouraged to depart by every one standing up. She was already out the door when I heard a voice say, "Christina, would you like to take some bread with you?"  

"Yes," I managed. "Thank you," I was able to blurt as two slices were placed in a plastic baggie and ceremoniously zip-locked shut. I couldn't help noticing that the loaf had now been sliced toward the mid-point, so that while these new slices were as thin as my original sample, they were considerable larger in circumference. It wasn't that I was being greedy. It was just that I had no idea when I would ever again have the opportunity to sample real bread. 

I hid my treasure from Milvi because I wanted to surprise her and share the real bread at our next meeting, which I correctly predicted took place the very next day. Toronto is unbearable during an August heat wave, especially when you can so easily be lakeside. I was excited with my surprise. “Look,” I said, pulling out the sealed zip-lock baggie that I’d refrigerated overnight, “I got two slices of ‘real bread’ last night. We can each have one.” 

“No thanks,” she replied, to my stunned amazement. “That’s not real bread. Or maybe, that’s what counts as real bread where he comes from.”

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Anne Christina Tari was born to Estonian parents in the late 1950s and raised in Toronto.  She began the exploration of her Estonian roots in the 1990s and is delighted to share the adventure through this short story. 

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Cover photo by Muhu Leib, Muhu Pagarid on Facebook

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