The Baker's Wifeby Erin Healy
Before Audrey was the baker's wife, she was the pastor's wife. Then a scandalous lie cost her husband a pastoral career. Now the two work side-by-side running a bakery, serving coffee, and baking fresh bread. But the hurt still pulls at Audrey.See more details below
Before Audrey was the baker's wife, she was the pastor's wife. Then a scandalous lie cost her husband a pastoral career. Now the two work side-by-side running a bakery, serving coffee, and baking fresh bread. But the hurt still pulls at Audrey.
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THE BAKER'S WIFE
By ERIN HEALY
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2011 Erin Healy
All right reserved.
The day Audrey took a loaf of homemade rosemary-potato bread to Cora Jean hall was the day the fog broke and made way for spring. Audrey threw open the curtains closest to the dying woman's bedside, glad for the sunshine after months of gray light.
Audrey moved quietly down the hall into the one-man kitchen, where she sliced the bread into toast, brewed tea, then leaned out of the cramped space to offer some to Cora Jean's husband, Harlan. He refused her without thanks and without looking up from his forceful tinkering with an old two-way radio. Over the past month, his collection of CBs and receivers had overtaken the small living room. His grieving had started long ago and was presently in the angry stage. Clearly, he loved his wife. The retired pharmacist dispensed her medications with faithful precision but didn't seem to know what else to do. If not for the radios, Audrey believed, he might have wandered the house helplessly and transformed from smoldering to explosive.
As Audrey arranged the snack on a tray, one of her earrings slipped out of her lobe and clattered onto a saucer, just missing the hot tea. She rarely wore this pair because one or the other was always falling out, but Cora Jean liked the dangling hearts with a rose in the middle of each. The inexpensive jewelry had been a gift to the women of the church on Mother's Day last year.
She put the earring back in her ear, then carried the tray to Cora Jean's room, settled onto an old dining room chair by the bed, and steered their conversation toward happy topics.
Cora Jean was dying of pancreatic cancer, the cancer best known for being unsurvivable. Audrey sat with the woman in the late stages of her illness for many reasons: because she believed that people who suffered shouldn't be left alone; because she was a pastor's wife and embraced this privilege that came with the role; because Cora Jean reminded Audrey of her own beloved mother.
She also went to the woman's home because she couldn't not go. In the most physical, literal sense, Audrey was regularly guided there, directed by an unseen arm, weighty and warm, that encircled her shoulders and turned her body toward the halls' house every week or so. A voice audible only to her own ears would whisper, Please don't leave me alone today. It was no pitiful sound, and Audrey never resented it, though from time to time it surprised her. In these moments she thought, though she had never dared to try it, that if she applied her foot to the gas pedal and took her hands off the wheel, her car would take her wherever God wanted her to be.
This five-years familiar experience had not always involved Cora Jean, but others like her, so Audrey had long since stopped questioning how it happened. The why of it was clear enough: Audrey was called by God to be a comforter, and she was glad for the job.
Audrey had a knack for helping people in any circumstance to look toward the brightness of life—not the silver lining of their own dark cloud, which often didn't exist—but to the light of the World, which could be seen by anyone willing to look for it. In Cora Jean's case this meant not dwelling too long on the details of her prognosis, but in reading aloud beautiful, hopeful, complex poetry, especially the Psalms and the Brownings and Franz Wright. It meant watering the plants (which harlan ignored) and offering to warm a meal for him before she left. It meant giving candid answers to Cora Jean's many-layered questions about Audrey's personal faith—in particular, about sin and forgiveness and justice.
And about the problem of so much suffering in a world governed by a "good" God. Cora Jean seemed preoccupied with this particular question, and her focus seemed to be connected to the yellowed family portrait hanging on the wall opposite the bed.
There were two brunette girls in the thirty-year-old picture. Audrey judged the age by Cora Jean's bug-eyed plastic-framed glasses, Harlan's rust-colored corduroy blazer, and the children's Dorothy Hamill hairstyles. Audrey had a similarly aged childhood portrait of herself with her parents. She guessed the daughters to be nine, maybe ten, and they appeared to be twins, though one of them was considerably chubbier than the other.
A pendant on a large-link silver chain hung from the upper left corner of the cheap wood frame. The pendant was also silver, crudely hammered into a flat circle, like a washer, that framed a small translucent rock. Audrey suspected it to be an uncut diamond.
It would be rude to ask whether she was right about the stone, but on the day the fog broke and the sun brought a wispy smile to Cora Jean's pale face, Audrey decided to ask about the portrait she often stared at.
Audrey lifted her teacup to her lips and blew off the steam. "Tell me about your family," she said gently, indicating the picture with her eyes.
Cora Jean's smile crumpled, and the soft wrinkles of her skin became a riverbed for tears.
Audrey wished she hadn't said anything. Meaning to apologize for having heaped some kind of emotional ache on top of the cancer's pain, she returned her sloshing teacup to the tray, then reached out and placed her hands on top of Cora Jean's, which were clutching the sheets.
That was the second unfortunate choice Audrey made that day, with a third yet to occur before the sun set. The woman's sorrow—if it could be thought of as something chemical—entered Audrey's fingertips, burning the pads of her fingers, the joints of her knuckles, her wrists. The flaming liquid pain seeped up her arms, searing as it went: elbows, shoulders, collarbone. And then the poison found her spine, an aqueduct that delivered breath taking hurt to every nerve in Audrey's body. She yelped involuntarily. here was a sensation that she had never experienced.
She wished that she could save the dying woman from the terror. She also wished that she had never dipped her toe into these hellish waters.
The pain bowed her over Cora Jean's fragile body, a posture at once protective and impotent, and paralyzed Audrey. The women cried together until every last drop of the agony had let itself out of Audrey's eyes.
In time Cora Jean said, "Thank you for understanding," and fell asleep, exhausted.
Audrey, who understood not a bit of what had transpired, said nothing. She tuned the radio to Cora Jean's favorite classical station, then waited, agitated and restless, for the hospice nurse to arrive.
* * *
Audrey stumbled out of the house, forgetting to give Harlan a polite good-bye. She stood on the square front stoop, stunned and spent and a little bit frightened, and leaned against the closed screen door for a long minute. She fiddled absentmindedly with one of her rose-in-a-heart earrings.
She began to wonder if she wasn't as well-suited for her divine calling as she had once thought. Surely sitting with a person through suffering didn't mean sharing the pain like that, experiencing it firsthand. How had it happened? she wasn't sure. She wasn't sure of anything except that she would prefer to avoid that kind of intensity in the future. She would do what she was able to do, and there was no point in feeling guilty about her shortcomings, if guilt was the right name for this emotion.
Audrey sighed and finally walked off the halls' stoop and across the lawn. Cora Jean's windows weren't the only ones opened that day. Because the fog was gone, others in the working-class neighborhood had raised sashes to lure cleansing breezes into their homes. This is what Audrey would later blame for her third poor choice of the day.
Wide oaks offered shade on both sides of the street. The separation from the sun would be a gift from God come summertime, when the air was too tired to stir even a single leaf in any of the towering eucalyptus trees.
The fleeting question of whether Cora Jean would be alive then passed through Audrey's mind. She kicked it out of her consciousness, still feeling raw and drained. She moved toward her car, wanting to go home and find answers in her sleep.
When she stepped off the curb to round her parked car and climb into the driver's seat, she felt the atmosphere move. Invisible but solid, thick air stepped in front of her like a large man who intended to hijack her car or snatch her purse. Her keys, hanging from her fingertips, jangled as if she'd struck something. She steadied herself with one hand on the hood of the car, bracing her surprise. She had never experienced this "leading," as she called it, so close to another event. The effects would either pass shortly or lead her onward.
Heat like a strong arm snaked across the back of her shoulders. Audrey stepped forward to get out from under the weight. The move was reflexive, a whole-body flinch that sent her right into the invisible obstacle again. This time she was met with pressure, square and flaming over her sternum, and a crushing pain went straight to her heart. The grip on her shoulders squeezed, keeping her upright where she couldn't escape the wounding.
The hurt was blunt and weighty, a pestle grinding in a mortar. Audrey's lips parted and flattened, stretching out like a cry, but no sound came out of her mouth. The skin around her nose and eyes bunched up until she couldn't see, but there were no tears. She folded at the waist, her body bending over the car just as she had drooped over Cora Jean. This connection was unwelcome, and Audrey resisted it.
The arm let her sag, all but dropped her, and she lowered her forehead onto the hood. The drill into her heart kept turning, creating a whining noise that grew louder in her own ears until it drowned out everything else on the street. No birds, no cars, no children playing on lawns or in driveways.
And then the violence stopped. The body of heat released her, and Audrey found herself breathing heavily and wondering if anyone had witnessed her bizarre behavior. Her head pounded, every blood vessel in it taxed as if she'd been wailing for hours. Audrey rested her cheek on the smooth shell of the hood and waited for her heart and lungs to find their rhythms again.
The sound of real sobbing reached her then.
Cora Jean? Audrey jerked away from the car, looking, her breathing still deep and quick. The earth tipped, then leveled out again. The muscles at the base of her neck were painful knots.
After three or four seconds she stepped back onto the curb and crossed the grassy easement to the sidewalk. The noise wasn't coming from the Halls' house but from somewhere down the street. She started walking, hesitant to follow the heartache, unable to do anything else.
The terrible sound pulled her toward one of the neighborhood's nicer homes, a single-story brick house with an attached garage. The cries came from an open window at the front of the house. Audrey stepped off the sidewalk and cut directly across the lawn, getting as close to the window as the bordering juniper hedge allowed. The dirt underfoot was still soft from the rain that had escorted in winter's final batch of fog. a sheer curtain in the window blocked her view of anyone on the other side.
"Hello?" she raised her voice. "Hello? Are you okay?"
Abrupt silence answered her.
"I'm sorry to intrude, but do you need help?"
The house in front of her was as still as her own when her husband and son were out. Audrey waited.
"Are you injured?"
She understood that she might be facing a delicate situation in which her confident desire to help someone could cause more problems than allowing that someone some privacy. But in her view, it was worse to be lonely than to be embarrassed by a good samaritan—and even worse for her to disobey God's clear direction—so she decided to persist at least until the person told her to stop.
"Maybe there's someone I can call for you?" she offered.
"I know how to use a phone." It was likely that the female speaker was the same one who had been crying. Her N sounds were nasal and stuffy. But the tone was far more irritated than grieved. As a pastor's wife, Audrey understood the fine line between the two emotions.
"Of course you do," Audrey said gently. "But sometimes it helps to assign tasks to other people. Take a load off your own shoulders."
At the edge of the elevated windowpane, the curtain flickered.
Audrey's defenses went up. Her compassion had been rejected on many occasions, but never beaten back with accusations.
"That's true, I am. I'm sorry, but I ..." She had yet to land on an easy explanation for the experiences that led her to other people. Geoff 's position as a church leader required that Audrey's choice of words—and confidants—be discreet. Anyone who thought she was outside of God's will, or heretical or occult or misguided or just plain loony, would frown on her husband too. Even so, Audrey believed people deserved simple, no-frills truth. The world was so full of deceptive spin that most days she worried it might gyrate right out of orbit.
"I just sensed you could use a friend right now. My name's Audrey and I go to Grace springs Church. My husband's the pastor there. Maybe you've heard of it? Doesn't matter, I'm not trying to recruit anyone. Anyway, do you like fresh bread? Geoff and I bake bread as a hobby, to give it away. I'd like to give you a loaf. I have some with me in my car because I was visiting one of your neighbors before I heard you crying. I'm parked right down—"
A door slammed inside the house and the curtain rose, then sank.
Audrey waited for a minute while the juniper leaves tickled the legs of her jeans. Sometimes people came back. Sometimes they wanted relief so badly that they didn't care if it was offered by a total stranger.
But not this time.
Audrey left the yard, returned to the sidewalk, and started walking back toward her car, thinking about the woman inside the house. She passed the mailbox on her left, and her thoughts were interrupted. Her feet took her backward two steps, and she took another look at the side of the black metal receptacle. The name MANSFIELD was applied to the box with rectangular stickers, black block letters on a gold background.
Mansfield. As in Jack Mansfield, the church elder? she glanced at the house number. She'd have to check the church directory. Mrs. Mansfield, Jack's wife, was a math teacher at her son's high school. Ed had her for geometry his sophomore year.
Audrey resumed walking, trying to bring up the woman's face. They'd met once, at a school event. Mrs. Mansfield refused to attend church with Jack, and Audrey had understood this reality to be a tender bruise on the elder's heart, maybe even on his ego.
Julie. Her name was Julie. And their daughter's name was Miralee, which was easier for Audrey to remember because until last week, the start of spring break, her son had dated the girl for a brief time.
If that had been Miralee crying, her refusal to come out was completely understandable. And Audrey was a fool not to have realized where she was. She still wasn't sure if the kids' breakup had been Ed's call or Miralee's. Audrey's nineteen-year-old had been so strangely tight-lipped that she assumed Miralee had broken things off. Secretly, Audrey wasn't sad to see that relationship end, though she hated that ed was in pain. Now, after being subjected to the sounds of the broken heart in that house, she wondered if her assumptions had been wrong.
The thought passed through her mind that she should go back, knock on the front door like a respectable friend, apologize, and get to the bottom of things. Fix what Ed had broken, if necessary, though Ed wasn't prone to breaking very many things in life. He was a good boy. A careful boy. Man now.
Audrey looked back at the redbrick house.
A flash of light, a phantom sensation of liquid fire tearing through her body, prevented her from returning to the Mansfields' property. She had no desire to press Miralee for details of the heartbreak. Especially not after the girl had refused.
She had done what God asked of her. This excuse propelled her back toward her car, the sunny air rich with the scent of rosemary-potato bread pushing against her face.
Excerpted from THE BAKER'S WIFE by ERIN HEALY Copyright © 2011 by Erin Healy. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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