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Fiction

How to Abandon Your Sourdough Starter: A Recipe for Disaster

First, three stolen months ago, scroll through fifteen hundred wistful words about a white woman’s transformative trip to Egypt before getting to the recipe.

Only absorb every fourth sentence because your fingers keep straying to refresh Twitter. Soak up words like “nourish” and “sacred grains” and “fauna,” but mostly just stare at the pictures of bread swaddled in linen and tucked inside wicker baskets like baby Moseses, sailing between islands of polished lemons on stone countertops. Text your husband the link and To put in the oven? as you leave the clinic for the supermarket. Smile when he texts back, A dozen baking puns and you picked that one? and feel almost normal. Imagine having time to grow something for your family—just the two of you—in a time-honored bread-ritual.

Next, do not buy nearly enough flour for any of this.

Let time balloon inside your apartment.

Realize with creeping terror that quarantine while married turns out to be “I dunno, what do you want to eat?” but now three meals a day until September. Agitate your husband with your silences; there is no satisfying answer to any of his questions, a preferred menu the least of them, that will dislodge what’s stoppering your throat. Watch the brownstones across the street rebound blue and red light in the wake of an ambulance’s keening every ten minutes. Spend the next week playing “Allergies or Am I Going To Die Alone and Intubated in the fucking Javits Center?” with yourself instead of baking.

When there are layoffs, when there is another death, or when no one takes responsibility, hover in the kitchen looking for anything to eat that you don’t have to cook. Swear with the spleen of a jilted goddess.

Remember the sourdough recipe. Cling to it like a life preserver.

Set your watch by the simple task of mixing flour with water. Nurture your mason jar with your husband as a team, not as excitedly as if it were the dog your landlord will never let you foster, but much more serenely than if it was the child that never came from you. When the starter doubles in size, steep in satisfaction like parents at a college graduation ceremony that will never happen now.

The amount of flour in your pantry should dwindle in proportional inverse to your hubris.

When your first levain fails to thrive, watch how fast your husband shirks his babysitting duties in favor of video games he plays by himself. Do not conflate the state of your marriage with collapsed baked goods. Absolutely do not compare your womb to a waiting bread box. Forbid resentment to ferment too long before reminding yourself that because of all of this, you never actually asked your husband if he was capable of such a commitment right now.

Become Circe on her solitary island instead. Coax magic from the bloom scraped off dried apricots. Keep your cats weaving around your ankles. Let the sagging collar of a worn t-shirt reveal the tops of your breasts when you bend over a jar of bubbling life. Mark that your husband’s first wife and his son also live in Ithaca, upstate; divorce, the war that drove him to your bed. Begrudge her her backyard.

Work until you believe there’s virtue in your labor or until the thought of buttoning up February’s jeans makes you feel ashamed, whichever comes first. Work until the blossoms have all dropped from the tree outside your kitchen window and you realize that your throat stopped being scratchy two weeks ago. Work until you notice that the ambulances have been replaced with police helicopters and sneer at yourself for assuming the world would resume as it was instead of asking if it should.

Stop feeding your family just to fill the empty time.

For your last loaf, shape the dough into an infant with a round belly and your husband’s pinched nose. Flip the dough over. Slap its bottom. Breathe the secret name you wrote on your heart three months ago, the same day you found the sourdough recipe, when the one test you didn’t want to come back negative did and there was no time to decide what deserved your grief first or deeper.

See this child, salted with your tears, cry for the first time from sunken eyes pressed with your thumbprints. Hear their wail in the heart-stopping urgency of a speeding firetruck.

Resist the urge to call your husband into the kitchen too early. This next part is just for you.

Instead, fill the child with a eulogy and your best intentions. Let them expand with each whispered apology for the world that never got to know them and the one they would have been born into. Slide this child into the oven despite your fear, because you understand how motherhood must also include hard choices and doubt. Trust that fire is a trial and a gift for a reason.

Stop pacing when the timer goes off. Arm yourself with oven mitts.

Lure your husband into the kitchen with the smell of fresh baked bread cooling on the windowsill. Present him with the swaddled child, golden and still as possibility. Don’t look away from his stunned surprise when he recognizes what you’ve made. Flinch when you slice the first piece, for him, because that is supposed to hurt, but expect it when you cut your own. Taste it at last, that tang of pity, the pliancy of mourning. Give him time to savor it, too.

Admit that your apartment is not Aeaea-on-the-Hudson, you were never exiled, and it’s too hot to turn on the oven anymore anyway.

Clear your throat.

Speak.

Theresa DeLucci

Theresa DeLucci

Theresa DeLucci’s fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Weird Horror, and on Tor.com, where she also reviews books, TV, and video games. An alum of Clarion West Writers’ Workshop, she’s also gotten nerdy for Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. She lives in Queens, New York.