There were almost 500 entries in Anderbo's 2011 No-Fee Novel Contest,
The Mercer Street Books Fiction Prize.
The Winner is:
A Novel of pain perdu, Lost Bread"
by Dorette Snover of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Contest Finalists (Whole Novel-Manuscript) were:
"ADRIFT IN THE SOUND" by Kate Campbell, Sacramento, California
"HALLELUJAH" by Liz Shine, Olympia, Washington
"PROSPECTS OF JOY" by Charles Holdefer, Brussels, Belgium
"THE HOLLOWING MOON" by Aida Zilelian, New York City
"HERE IS A GAME WE COULD PLAY" by Jenny Bitner,
San Francisco, California
Contest Entries of Note (First 9000 Words) were:
"MR. EVERYTHING" by Jeb Gleason-Allured, Brooklyn, New York
"CeCe’s BLUES (Double Dipping)" by Karen Celestan,
New Orleans, Louisiana
"DELUSION: A LOVE STORY" by Victoria Ludwin, Houston,
2011 Anderbo Novel Contest Assistant Sarah Goffman grew up in Northern New Jersey. After completing her BA and MAT at Bard College, she taught English at a public high school in Manhattan for four years. She recently received an MFA in Creative Writing from Hunter College, where she teaches undergraduate writing. Her work has appeared on Anderbo and in other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.
2011 Anderbo Novel Contest Assistant Bell Cenower is a rising senior at Bard High School Early College in Manhattan's Lower East Side. She is studying to receive her Associate of Arts degree upon her graduation in the spring of 2012, after which she plans to focus her studies on Russian literature and language. She lives with her family in midtown Manhattan.
"THE CITY OF LADIES:
A Novel of pain perdu, Lost Bread"
excerpt from BOOK ONE
Bread crowns of St Gilles feast
Sea horses, coquille, and the snails
Batards with almond teeth
Chapter One: The Path Begins.
I defend my right to find the City of Ladies
The only light at this hour sits before me—the light from Ceres’ bread oven. I wipe sweat from my forehead. It beads against my foulard, the baker’s kerchief. Before Antoine comes back I must finish baking nine more crowns for the feast day of St. Gilles. And pack for my journey. My hands stop kneading the dough. The book! Where is it! I rise on tiptoe and search the shelf to the left of the oven. Carved bones and shells we’ve dug up from the garden tumble down and crack against the stone terrace.
Did the peel shove Maman’s Book of the City back too far? I can’t even see it. Thorns snag my hands. Dead leaves and dried rose hips from the canes that surround and encase the bread terrace.
More sticky spider webs. An empty nest of wasps.
Please, please—let it not be missing—Maman’s book with stories about the City of Ladies. I can’t find The City without it. Did I hide it back there?
With my chest pressed against the oven, my arm stretches as far as I can. One more inch. I push my hands under, through and around the bramble. The scratches don’t matter. I pull back and rest my arm, shaking it to revive any feeling, and scan outside the terrace for Antoine.
My fingers graze the hard, square edge of something. Relieved, I lunge forward over the roof of the oven. Maman’s book scrapes across the stone towards me. If I am caught with it, Maman’s and my life will have been wasted.
Maman copied the book from the original written some two hundred years ago. Maman was a scribe in Arles’ church, St. Trophime, and those stories of a place where women were heard and honored became her life quest. To find the City of Ladies.
I’ve taken to marking the book with the breads Antoine and I make, to keep drawings of them. The pages were made from the bark of the willow, leeks, and fennel; the strong fibers accept the ink eagerly. My hands shake as I dip the goose quill in ink made from walnut shells. Opening the book to a page of drawings I sketch the morning’s three couronnes, our crowns of bread: the sea horses, the coquille, and the snails. These are the breads for St. Gilles because he lives on a river in Provencia, protects mothers, and because my own Maman came from Arles, which the good Gilles could hit with a stone, if he were the type of saint to throw stones, which he is of course not.
But I throw the quill down on the wooden table. The silly figures have eyes that bulge and clumsy fat faces as if a child drew them. My heart bunches up. I close the book. If you were here, Maman, your copper hair softly waving around your shoulders—your face beaming with tales, fingers busy braiding rosemary with garlic—I would giddily say, never having tasted your death, Sit, rest on the stump of the walnut tree at your oven, drink this barley broth, and I will show you how we make our breads for St. Gilles Day.
I set the book aside. My hands knead dough fragrant with the crushed rose hips that dust the table. I tear three even pieces and roll them into lengths, coil them round into the snail’s house, leaving enough for a long neck. A squashed thumb-sized ball of dough makes the snail’s head. After they come out of the oven, I’ll press sprigs of thyme on to be antennae, and peppercorns for their eyes. The snail protects us, keeping our true self hidden. And warns us if the river water, ten meters away from the bread terrace, turns fetid because something foul—or dead—enters.
I wipe my floury hands on my pants and stretch the scarf back up around my head to keep my hair out of my eyes. Next comes our coquille, a scallop shell the size of a small pumpkin. The shell of St. Jacques marks the way, the path of pilgrimage to Compostele on the west coast of Spain. But I have found no better way to shape a coquille from bread dough than this. Let me show you. Round the thick dough seeded with coriander into balls the same size as your fist, flatten them quite thin with your palms—use a wine bottle if your brother hasn’t flung it off in the woods to roll them even flatter—then mold each one over a quite large purple turnip, or even a small cabbage. When baked in this way, the shells bake hollow; otherwise they would bake into a rock-shape, not the point at all of a pilgrimage! A pilgrimage should fill you, move you; and rocks don’t move unless they’re in someone’s hand.
But then, you already know this, Maman.
I flute the bottom edge of the coquille.
And since you began your journey in Arles, I will retrace your footsteps, which came from the opposite direction of most pilgrims passing through Nerac’s market today.
If it’s humid, the dough may sweat a little and be too sticky to roll, but don’t worry, just reach in the bag of rye flour at the foot of the bright oven. As I dust the coquille with a bit of the rye, and roll it out, I squint at the space where Maman would be sitting. What can I say, Maman, exactly, about the milling and the grain? You know the millhouse. You know it is not the finest in all of Gascony. But I wish it was, how I wish it was! And this wish is what I tell everyone who buys our bread.
I come back to the breadwork. With our small bread knife, the lamé that we keep in a crack in the table, same as when you were here, I carve grooves into the dough. The shell flares out on one side, echoing your small ivory shell from shelf. I cut more dough into strands and radiate them from the top hinge of the shells, to form the raised ridges. Pilgrims who walk the journey to Spain often stop in Nerac’s market. Some, very hungry ones, needing an extra coquille to invigorate their steps, claim the aroma of our breads have led them astray for twenty kilometers, bringing them all the way into Ceres, straight to the bread terrace. Well, I must feed these lost souls if they show up here—and keep them away from the millhouse and Papa.
Outside, everything is still as if my brother, Antoine, might be sneaking back to surprise me with some wild bewildered creature he found at the Gélise River; an owlet, a wandering fawn? He likes to find lost animals because he too was adrift when we found him in Nerac‘s market years and years ago. You see, he is not my real brother. I just say he is—because well, we are seldom apart, and what else could I call him?
Last of the three breads, the seahorses, are the most mysterious to me. Why have I become so attached to them? Their curved tails, their long bodies seem too delicate to survive in the sea. But they laugh, they are happy. They go on. They persevere. The three of them glance over at me from the end of the wood table. Their necks curve down and their chins touch their chests; ready, bursting and anxious to swim no matter the cost. From sunning themselves in the heat of the oven, they have risen to a puffy state. I carefully pick up each one; coddle their long wobbly form on my outstretched arm up to my palm. With my free hand, I pebble their tails with golden millet, my favorite because the birds love it so. The excess falls on the stone floor of the bread terrace, and the birds chirp and fight over the bouncing grains. For St. Gilles Day this year I added seahorses because they graciously accept their duty. Their millet-like eggs float out over the sea, attached to weed, until the male searches them out and carries and nurtures the unborn babies. I admire the seahorse for sharing the load.
I set the three seahorses on the bread peel, a thin sheet of steel as large as a stone tile, and carry them to the oven. With a snap I pull out the peel, leaving the seahorses to bake. Then I scrape it under the first batch of seahorses, coquille, and snails, all toasty in the oven. Nine honey-colored creatures come out of the fire. They slide off by twos and threes and make a pile at the end of the wood table. I’ll miss watching the flames mesmerize the bread. But there must be, there will be, other ovens and other bakers that I’ll find on the way to the City of Ladies. But I fear I won’t find anyone like Maman, anyone of our kind, women bread apprentices like me.
I tear the page with today’s drawings from Maman’s book. Her journal was filled with lines she copied from the forbidden Book of the City of Ladies. Maman would be sad I couldn’t do better on the day I turn seventeen. I roll the page around the quill and tuck them next to the black pan in the oven. Flames travel along, eating the plumes of the feather. The edges of the paper curl. The leeks and fennel give off a wistful small smoke as if they wish they were wrapping a roasted meat or sleeping with a trencher of bread smeared with duck fat. I am sorry, page, today that cannot be. I try to close Maman’s thick journal. But it refuses. I must decide. Risk taking it? Or burn it and lose it forever?
But burned or no, I won’t forget what the book says. And I won’t forget the breads I made in Ceres. I pull the scarf tied around my head down to wipe the sweat from my face, then band it back up to keep my hair back.
I start back in making my crown—a crown just for Antoine. For him alone. Because I am leaving and because it is St. Gilles day. My hands coax out the soft hollows, hills, and valleys that were born in the dough as it slept. I fold in the roasted seeds—caraway, anise and cumin, round grey and brown mustard, coriander, white pepper, and dark blue poppy seeds.
With the bone-handled lamé I then etch our symbol into the underside of the dozen breads. Each baker has a symbol. You will know our breads by ours: two trees growing out of each other. Branches entwined.
Yesterday Antoine took a crown, a simple round shape, from the oven. With linen to protect his hands from the heat, he tore the bread in half.
“What do you think?” he asked.
Steam poured from the soft insides. To me it looked beautiful and perfect. But I felt a little sorry for him. What he really wanted to know was if he was ready for his talmelier test. I looked from his deep green eyes to the cut half; the holes were luscious. Large and small and just enough, as if the bread held captive our huge sadness and small joys.
“What do I think?” I answered. “If you have to ask, you’re not ready!” I wanted to prepare him to think alone for when I leave. It has been only the two of us at the oven, and we depend on each other. Antoine doesn’t like to talk. But put a mound of dough to divide, knead, and shape on the table and he tells me everything as he feeds the fire. How he is scared of being alone. How he wants to be alone. What he doesn’t understand is this; his life in Ceres is full of contradictions. Holes.
For seven years I’ve kept myself hidden in boy’s clothes to work as a talmelier, a bread apprentice, but today I am finished with hiding. Women are not allowed to be a talmelier, but I am one. I wouldn’t care if I were discovered. But I do care about what might happen to Antoine. He’s protected me. He would be banished by the Grand Panetier in Auch, from whom Antoine seeks approval in order to be declared a master. Antoine says no, but I am going, as Epi to get my approval too.
Dawn breaks over the hill in pink and orange streaks. I sense a change in the air before the church bells sound. I open the oven door and pull out the seahorses. The white flames are slowing a little, how will I keep the fire going without more wood? My best chance to keep the oven hot is to load the snails to the front of the oven where they can get started baking. I slide the iron door in place. It’s a wonder in these years of studying Maman’s Book of the City that I didn’t give up—and fling the book in the oven—to be done with the task. No one here would hold me to it, to walk and find the City of Ladies.
No one would know of my promise to Maman to escape Ceres—to find the City, for my little Térèse and for me.
Fire, please hurry. Be strong.
Fire has been a constant of my life since the day smoke billowed out from our church, St. Anguille. On that horrible day, and it was a shadow of me that remembers this, the sight of Papa raising Maman’s body on a pyre and lighting the wheat. How have I even gone on living in Ceres? Fire inside Maman’s oven implores me to pummel the bread, and fire entreats the bread to expand the holes inside. The holes open into rooms; the walls stained red with cherries from Maman’s tree in the maze of trees a kilometer past the bread terrace closest to the church, St. Anguille.
I roll my neck. Antoine should have returned by now. Maybe he found a patch of cepes mushrooms for the roasted and stuffed shoulder for the Fool’s Feast tonight. I wonder what I’ll be eating instead. If I’ll be eating at all after I leave.
Sweeping the floor, I plan what to take with me. The church bells begin. Ringing five times for the hour.
My heart sinks. That only leaves me half of the next hour to gather my things, feed the levain and—I’ve decided—burn Maman’s book. But the bells keep on. The sky lightens. But Monsieur Os, the sweet old bell ringer, keeps ringing—nine, then ten bells toll. How strange. He knows too that even one mistake in Ceres is not tolerated by Papa. Monsieur Os loved you so desperately, Maman. Perhaps he is upset over it being St. Gilles Day, and my turning seventeen.
Before I see his unsteady gait, I hear his gravely warbling at the outer edges of the maze of trees, swinging past the cherry tree. Through the rose canes I watch Monsieur Os enter the garden of cabbage, lettuce, roman carrots, and a plentitude of herbs for eating and healing. The garden separates the bread terrace from the maze of trees. Monsieur Os walks as Maman did, feathering the tall leeks with his hand. “Where is my Epi?” he calls.
Monsieur Os calls me Epi, my boy’s name, the name I took as a talmelier. He sways into the bread terrace through the iron trellis archway, doing the dance of St. Gilles, the one that will be stomped around the fire tonight at the Feast, always held in the North Field. His burlap leggings drag on the ground, his bare feet stained with the damp earth, his blue wool cape looped closed with carved chicken bone. “Epi, your wheaten hair is down!” He whirls and swoops along our stone floor, then extends a gorgeous bunch of white and green chive flowers and two apples he had hidden under his cape.
“Don’t worry; it’s much too early for Papa. Why, his drunken self probably just fell into bed.” I roll the walnut stump over for him. His unshaven cheek is coarse against my lips. We sit. His deeply lined face is like the scored face of our bread. His white eyebrows like straw from our broom. I bury my face in the chive flowers. They smell green, like sweet little onions rolling with eggs in hot duck fat, and then tucked in bread like Maman made for my birthday. I keep my face buried a little longer than I might on any other morning. I lay them next to the cooling seahorses. Let these chives be their seaweed. “Here.” I hand the larger apple to him so we can eat together, something I crave as Antoine eats by himself like a wild animal. The bite of the yellow-splotched apple fills my mouth with sweet juice. He pushes it back to me.
“Keep it for that half-starved brother of yours.” He sits and rests his cane against the oven. “Never will there be eyes more blue than yours.”
I shrug and chew. I hadn’t known how hungry I was.
“Were you not going to say adieu before you left Ceres?” he asks.
I start. “Time has a way of disappearing here at the oven. It’s hard to believe I’ve been baking since yesterday morning and this is all I’ve got done.
Monsieur Os looks around at the crowns of sea creatures piled in baskets. “Your Maman would be so proud.”
“Why don’t you come too? We’ll celebrate in Nerac. St. Gilles market is the largest market till Toussaint in November.” If I invite him, that will quell any suspicions that I am leaving for good. I toss the apple core out the archway and hand him a warm seahorse.
“Not for an old man.” Monsieur Os claps my hands around the seahorse. “But Epi, swim quickly.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve been waiting to tell you. Once I knew you were seventeen as Maman instructed.” He sniffs the snail, sighs, and tucks it in his cape.
“Ready?” I ask, afraid.
“I’m glad you listened to me and burned her book long ago. Maman knew Ceres wasn’t safe. Her Book of the City was only the teachings. Epi, Maman was much wiser than even I thought. Maman made a map, a plan, marked with breads and lands she found as she traveled, searching for the City. She kept it tucked inside her Book of the City, but then when she died so suddenly the plan was removed and swept away from Ceres. Someone has been keeping it for you.” He shakes his head. As if now hearing them, he agrees with his own words, and remembers the days of Maman’s murder.
“What?” I had kept Maman’s book, despite the danger for me, and for Monsieur Os, if it were found. I glance to the top of the oven to be sure it is not poking out. From her pages I learned much about the City of Ladies—but not how to find it.
“Uncle Auvillor.” Monsieur Os stands.
“He’s still alive? He didn’t perish on a chariot in Rome? Or barging down the Nile? I thought he was afraid to return to Ceres after Maman was killed.”
“Afraid? Oh, no. No! Uncle swore to return Maman’s plan to you on your seventeenth birthday. Maybe he’s even found where the City lay. He’ll be looking for you in Nerac’s market, but he won’t know you, you’ve grown so.” Tucking the bread under his cape, Monsieur Os pretends the seahorse is Uncle, its head looking and hiding and looking again.
“This is a surprise. But, how can I possibly trust Papa’s brother?”
“Let the crowns reveal him. Then, invite Auvillor to return to Ceres.”
“For the Fool’s Feast where we obliterate everything Maman stood for? Why would he join such a ridiculous farce?” Suddenly my voice sounds very tall though I barely am the same height as stoop-backed Monsieur Os.
He swoops in to hold me. His rough calloused fingers rub my neck, run along my cheek. Calm me. But nothing can calm me today. I trace the scent of Maman’s sage oil on his clothes. After a long embrace Monsieur Os ducks under the archway curved with roses. He turns and waves and I blow him a kiss. What will the shadow of me remember in the days when I am far away? With his cane he taps the small bell hung at the apex that Antoine and I sound the bell when the bread is ready. Monsieur Os clacks his cane along the willow fence of the garden, singing into the maze of trees, hurrying to get back to the bell tower.
At best it’s only ten minutes till the next bells. I have to make the fire strong enough to burn the Book of the City.
Sweat runs down my neck. I take the breads from the fire. They slide and fall on the stone terrace at my feet. I bring the big, round crown just for Antoine across the hot oven floor close to the door and reach around it to push Antoine’s deer-shaped bread deep into the red coals.
Deer bread, dear bread, feed the fire. It’s not that I don’t love you. Not at all. We are bound together, especially on St. Gilles Day. As a hind, a small deer, you helped the good Gilles survive by feeding him your milk after the King’s hunters shot him.
St. Gilles, feed the fire, make it big enough to burn Maman’s book. The smoke of the burning deer and her book will distract Antoine from noticing I’ve gathered my things. Even Antoine’s long arms will never reach you in time.
I cover the mouth again with the iron door, urging the fire to build.
I sweep my hand across the shelf in a panic, knocking down bulbs of garlic, bunches of yellow tarragon flowers drying for their seeds. I can’t leave Almathea behind. Almathea is the snail-shaped stone Maman told me she found near St. Gilles. Almathea was the name of a Sibyl, a wise woman, from Sicily—born in the light of Mt. Etna, a mountain that spews fire. My hand feels the stone, as big as a walnut. Her coat of ashes rubs away to show her blue and copper veins.
I wrap her in a bread linen from the end of the table and shove both inside my pocket for the ride to Nerac.
At the table I add the cooled snails and coquille to the basket piled with seahorse breads. I duck under the archway, walking down the path, but carry them back when I see the barge is still on the other side of the Gélise.
I want time to watch Antoine, remember his arms covered with flour, his fingernails white under the beds. But if he sees me watching him, he’ll think I’ve gone crazy. But I have looked up from kneading the bread to see him watching me. I never ask him about it. I’m afraid if I do, he’ll shake my shoulders. And then?
The red bird that makes her nest in the roses rings the bell in the archway. White petals shake loose. I break a coquille bread into crumbs and toss it down for her, eating a bite of the warm bread myself. With a piece in her beak she hops under the wooden table to the back of the bread terrace. She flits through rose canes to her nest. I go in after her. My hair catches in the branches, my knees crush the fallen leaves. I squeeze through to the small space, big enough for me to lie down but not Antoine, not any more, inside the canes. The trough of Maman’s bread starter, the levain, sits at the foot of our beds of straw and anise hyssop stalks. Our blankets are old bread linens. The bird perches on the linen covering the trough, and then flies through the dense thorny canes, and out the other side of the canes. She sits on the willow fence at the garden to eat her bread.
My pants cake with dirt as I crawl out backwards. The trough is heavy. I drag it, scraping across the stone terrace. I pull it to the kneading table. I sit on my heels, lean over the trough and pick out a red feather.
The long leather feed bag hangs on the iron trellis under Antoine’s flour-coated tunic, next to a row of leather buckets. Maman traveled with the leather bag full of levain from Arles. I roll the bag down, scoop out the levain; and it plops in the bag. Coating it in some rye flour, I take the linen wrap and Almathea from my pocket, gently lay them on top of the levain, and roll it back up. I hang the bag back on the trellis, cover it with Antoine’s tunic again and slide the trough of levain under the kneading table to wait. Antoine will never notice any changes. He’ll be too enraged about his burnt deer bread.
I take off the oven door. Flames of white shoot up against the oven roof. The peel grabs the round crown. Antoine’s deer bread sends out a hideous smoke. I replace the iron door.
Still, I gently turn towards the book and pull it towards me. It springs opens, to say something, but I press it closed. No, book. Not today. Even in this terrifying moment I have to smile at Maman’s cleverness to keep her plan inside you. My hand runs over the cover of soft sheep hide. Maman etched three ladies in fine dress into the sheep’s cover with a baker’s lamé. But the ladies seem much too small, fragile and finely dressed to lift and lay the stone wall of the City of Ladies. Maman engraved their names inside the front cover.
I trace my finger over the fat letters.
Lady Justice, Lady Reason, and Lady Rectitude.
These words walk in the space below their names:
“We are as one and the same. We could not exist without one another.”
I always guessed Maman meant that to mean the two of us. But who was the third Lady? My sister, Margot? Or little Térèse?
A thin volume when Maman thrust it in my hands, I have so stuffed it with bits of Ceres, it more resembles a roasted cabbage, its leaves edged and crisped, and the inside stuffed with chopped pork and onions and mushrooms. In the light of the oven, the cover is luminous. The pages are washed with hues of mustard seeds, egg yolks, and sage. It is big for my two hands. Papa has been hunting the book like a wild boar, a sangliare, for ten years. But he is looking for her book as it was.
How could Maman ever have trusted Papa? But the sad truth is she must have, at one time. She must have. She must have showed him the parchment pages she made in St. Trophime from parsley and leeks. The drawing inside the back cover of St. Gilles with a long ancient beard that flowed off the page; his saint’s cap of red, pointed to a sky filled with birds. What did he say when she told him the recipe for her sienna-colored ink was made from crushed oak apples where gall wasps had laid their eggs, and that she mixed this with walnuts and white wine. She scrolled her words with a fat goose quill. The crest of pages decorated with vines. Vines of Arles?
I take off the iron door to the oven. In its light, I turn the pages. I find the one decorated with the royal blue Fleur de Lis, the symbol of the Trinity, all its portions measured true. Like we did, Maman said. Like the three ladies of the City.
The city is a refuge for all valiant women and ladies abandoned for so long, and exposed like a field.
When Maman was discovered for her crime, for copying the Book of the City, her arm smudged the ink in her hurry to escape St. Trophime. Blurred by accident, or on purpose? I used to think these long trails of ink covered over important words that told where to find the City of Ladies. How many days I studied the black marks made by my dead Maman, as if they held every secret I needed to know. Now I realize this was not the case.
I am your book, Maman. Every word of how the City of Ladies began as dug up earth built a wall in my heart. Especially the story of Judith who cut off the head of Holopheres to save her people. Holopheres least expected that a woman could hurt him so grievously. This angered Papa. And made him fear for his life.
I open the oven. Antoine’s deer smolders black. Fire curls towards me.
I lay the work that condemned Maman on the peel and in the mouth. I know everything by heart. My head bows to the flames. The book opens to the fire, pages fly like small frightened birds. Flying towards Maman’s dreams.
“Epi,” a cry comes from far away, “what’s burning in the oven!”
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