The New York Times
Bread for the Baker's Child: A Novelby Joseph Caldwell
At first glance, the siblings at the heart of Bread for the Baker’s Child couldn’t seem more different. Rachel is a devoted nun, while Phillip is a faithless accountant in prison for embezzlement. It soon/i>/b>
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Connections emerge between a nun struggling to keep her order afloat and her imprisoned brother fighting to save his own skin
At first glance, the siblings at the heart of Bread for the Baker’s Child couldn’t seem more different. Rachel is a devoted nun, while Phillip is a faithless accountant in prison for embezzlement. It soon becomes apparent that the two share a painful past, and though separately confined, their spirits and struggles intersect dramatically. Rachel attempts to both run her order and tend to a beloved Mother General on the brink of death. Meanwhile, Phillip comes to the aid of a vulnerable inmate, precipitating a romantic bond that could prove fatal. Intricately structured and psychologically acute, this is a gripping novel exploring the balance between good and evil.
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Sister Rachel, teacup in hand, stood at great window of the mansion and looked out toward the abandoned shoe factory on the far side of the river. She was wondering if she should tell the Mother General, asleep, dying in the bed behind her, that her brotherRachel'swas not only in jail, sentenced to four years at Chevaren medium-security prison, but was revealed to be the heretofore anonymous benefactor who had donated to their Order more than a million dollars, all of it stolen money.
She took a sip of tea. It had begun to cool, and the lemon slice she'd squeezed into it floated under the tip of her nose, then slid alongside her upper lip. She put the cup back onto the saucer. Some pieces of lemon pulp were floating around on top of the tea. Or maybe they were dust motes. She began to speculate, trying to decide: pulp or dust. Or were they microbes, invisible microscopic bacteria, bloated now into visibility? Rachel's speculations came more from a habit of bewilderment than from any fear of contamination. She had, as usual, a wish to know and to understand, even though experience had told her that this was a wish not always granted and a hope seldom fulfilled.
What seemed to be a piece of pulp floated toward a dust mote. The two of them joined, then stuck themselves to the side of the cup. Rachel knew she should stop staring, that she should go ahead and make up her mind: should she trouble Mother with her news or not? She took a fair-sized gulp of the tea and punched her fist down into the pocket of her smock, crunching the letter and the check. The check was for onehundred eighty-seven dollars and thirty-two cents. The letter was from Mr. Thomas Tallent of the firm Barbour, Tallent, Dempsey, and Hayes. Both Mr. Tallent and the firm were famous throughout the Order. From them, over the years, had come the benevolent checks, made out in dizzying sums, the actual donor never to be known. But the letter in her smock pocket now informed her that this closed out her brother's account. The name of Thomas Tallent, the firm of Barbour, Tallent, Dempsey, and Hayes appearing now could not be a coincidence, especially since the letter also told her that her brother, Phillip Manrahan, was in jail, and for embezzlement. But the amount mentioned at the trialuncontestedwas, according to Mr. Tallent, a mere (mere!) twenty-three thousand dollars. Rachel didn't know what to think. Surely the Mother General would explain everything.
But if the moneythe million and morehad been stolen, would they have to give it back? It was built into the new wing of the college library, plastered and painted into the walls of several schools, nailed onto the roofs of three different convents, and locked into the plumbing of the Motherhouse. Through its pipes had passed the water to make the tea she was, at this moment, holding in her hand.
Rachel looked out the window trying to decide what to do. The factory, high on its own bluff, had, after all, an unending fascination for her. Its design had been inspired, according to legend, by a Roman villa, replicated now in glass and steel instead of stucco and stone, but with four big-bellied urns, one at each corner of the roof, like offerings to the gods of plenty, an attempt on the part of the shoe baron to insinuate the splendors of antiquity into the squalors of the Industrial Revolution. In actuality, the factory resembled, quite rightly, a shoe box, oblong, its height in fine proportion to its length and width. But it was made mostly of windows, of glass, as if claiming a lineage going back to Cinderella's slipper when shoes were involved with magic and central to the workings of romance.
But with no lasts, no lathes, no hammers, with no poundings, no whirrings, no clankings, the factory, in its silence, had become yet another empty dwelling committed to the slow process of surrender. Sumac had already broken through the asphalt near the docking platforms and along the factory foundations. Oak, maple, and sycamoreand a possible cottonwoodhad staked their claims in the parking lot, and there was a sapling, close to the edge of the bluff, that Rachel had hoped might be an elm. If it were, it would announce the end of the blight, the return of the great fountainlike tree that had seemed to her surely the tree of Praise. She had wanted at least one elm to be among the rising trees that would, at a future day, surround completely the forgotten factory, then advance within its fallen walls, not as a conquering army, but as a sheltering presence shading the wind-shattered glass, the bending steel, the crumbled urns, and the collapsing roof. Oak and maple would bring dignity to the trees' destined occupation of the space, but only the elm could speak some final praise for all that had been accomplished.
There had been times when Rachel had stood where she was standing now, looking out through the high casement windows, trying to will an elm into being. She would gaze at the slender sapling and, with near-painful concentration, try to force onto it the configurations and properties of the elm: the rough, layered bark, the oval leaf with the toothed edge, the green of the leaf somewhat pale as if there were a modesty, a humility, even in its praise.
But today, she had no power of concentration to give to the incipient elm; she had no appreciation of the afternoon light caught in the reflecting glass of the factory wallsthe first kindling of an evening glowor of the glint of gold given off by the rusting metal that framed the windowpanes. She could think only of her stupid brother, Peppy, and his million-dollar prank.
Again Rachel lifted the cup to her mouth. This time, when the lemon peel hit her upper lip she slurped it in and began to chew. Why had Peppy, who was not just her brother, but her baby brother, done such a thing? Never had she made known, to him the Order's needs nor had she ever hinted at any particular want. Still, the money had come from Barbour, Tallent, Dempsey, and Hayes, beginning with two thousand sent a month after the fire at St. Michael's school, where Rachel had been principal. That Peppy had paid for the sanitarium and for the treatment Rachel had been given shortly after the fire, Rachel knew. But, in the light of this new evidence, she had to consider that that money too had been stolen.
No wonder her cure had been so strange: thievery had paid for it. Since her cure, she had often suspected that she would have been better off staying at the parish convent, in her room, until she could have pulled herself together. She'd been tired, that was all. She'd needed some rest, a good night's sleep, a few deep breaths. Instead of allowing herself to be carted off to an expensive hospital, she should have given her cheek a quick slap, straightened her spine, and squared her shoulders. Surely that would have shaken off the threatened madness. But she had failed to do so, and, to this day, this was a source not of guilt but of bafflement.
True, the treatment she'd been given had relieved her of her terror, but it had taken away her sense of certainty as well, the easy trust she'd had in herself and her judgments. Since the cure, as far as she could tell, she would seem to know, seem to understand, but she could seldom be sure. A possible answer was cause for further question. Did she really know? Did she really understand? The chance of error and misapprehensionsuppressed or blithely discarded before her illnesswas often present to her now. She would move among her perplexities like a troubled housekeeper searching for something misplaced, something needed or cherished, but now hidden from her. At times she would be exasperated with herself, at other times exasperated with what was lost, but more often she would simply keep herself alert, on the lookout for the old assurances, mourning their toss even as she begged for their return.
Exasperated now, she felt that if Peppy were there in the room with her, she'd give him a good swift knock on the side of the head. Because she loved him absolutely and beyond question, she had the right to hit him whenever she felt like it.
But these thoughts, in turn, made her see Peppy at age five, and herself at twelve. They were in the backyard of the house on Gedney Street. He was wearing his bib overalls with no shirt and no shoes, so it must be summer. She couldn't see what she herself was wearing except that the arm swinging out toward his head was bare. She could no longer remember what he'd done to deserve punishment, but that didn't matter. Her hand, palm open, landed on his skull, tipping his head away from her. His nose wrinkled upward and his eyes squinted in protest. He'd just had a hair cut, and the bone above the ear was almost bare. It was the memory of the bone and the shorn head that made Rachel uncurl her hand now. Had there been hair to hide the exposed skull, she might have wanted to hit him again but, as she remembered it now, he seemed so unprotected, all plucked and ugly, with almost no hair left. He seemed marked, an outcast. He had no protector, because he deserved none. He shouldn't have let his bones show. He shouldn't be so exposed, so shorn. Which was why she couldn't hit him, even now, knowing what she knew from the letter and the check in her pocket. With no one to protect him, she would become his protector. With no one to care because he was so ugly, she would care.
Again Rachel felt the great surge of protective love, fierce, defiant. She would defend her brother to the last shred of her own flesh. She would take to herself whatever might threaten him, there to do whatever evil it might choose to do, but not against her brother.
Rachel knew she should stop staring at the shoe factory. She knew from experience that, when she wanted to think a particular problem through to its solution, she should focus on something more manageable, less evocative. It should be an object that would suggest nothing beyond itselfif any such object existed. Something simple, not too intricate. Maybe a button on her smock would do. But no, the buttons were daubed with paint; the whole smock was splattered with all the colors she was using for her mural. The button would make her think of the painting, and the painting would lead her so far afield that her mind wouldn't come back for who knew how long.
She looked around the spacious room. A brass spindle on the foot of Mother's bed. No. Too close to Mother herself, to her illness, to her suffering. There was the huge fireplace, its carved and fluted columns suggesting a temple where a burning fire might be offered to the deity of the hearth. The grate was cold now, in May, but even in the freezing months a fire would be the last thing on which Rachel might try to focus her concentration.
Until Mother's illness there would have been Sister Angela's sewing machine to examine, or even the knobs and pulls on the TV set, but both had been taken downstairs to what had been the servants' sitting room. Because this had been the original owner's study, it had the one still-working bell device that connected with the pantry downstairs. With a press of the pearllike button in the alcove, a delicate "ping" would sound in the kitchen quarters below. Someone could then come, if not running, at least at a fairly brisk walk. Since Rachel was often in the refectory (no longer in use) painting her mural, she would hear the summons, quickly clean and wipe her hands, and come up to see what Mother wanted. What had been the convent's Common Room was now converted into the Mother General's sickroom, not because her status required so grand a chamber, but because the room had the last connection to the back of the house.
At first, at Mother's insistence, the sisters continued to gather there in the evenings, to sew, to read, to watch TV, to exchange gossip, or to do nothing at all. Mother had been grateful for the company. But when her condition worsened, all the communal artifactsincluding Sister Martha's picture puzzle of the Brooklyn Bridge, still not finishedwere taken away, leaving the room somber and emptied with little remaining but the old leather chairs, the bookcase, and the Mother General's narrow convent bed.
Rachel considered examining the books, but she'd already read all the titles, if not the books themselvesthe Waverley novels of Scott, the complete works of Bulwer-Lytton and Thackeray, a stretch of shelf filled with Guizot's History of France, Strickland's Lives of the Queens of England. Oliver Wendell Holmes, Emerson, and James Russell Lowell, Carlyle and Ruskinall by the yardalong with the ten volumes of Lincoln, A History by Nicolay and Hay. She'd also studied, more than several times, the spines, the pressed gold lettering, the often elaborate decorations that seemed Coptic in origin. The worn leather, the fading titles attracted her now, but she let her gaze wander to the wall opposite the window. There, above the dark oak paneling, rising almost to the ceiling, was a portrait of the man who had accumulated all these stately tomes, Mr. Timothy Flynn, the benefactor who had deeded the mansion to the Order, to the Sisters of the Annunciation.
Mr. Flynn was dressed in a tweedy brown suit with pants altered into knickers by his high laced boots. Perhaps some part of the portrait, some article of clothing, would provide Rachel with a particular point of mindless study so she could think without distraction. He had a reddish brown beard, a color the artist had reflected in the pink of his puffed-out cheeks and in the deeper red of his tiny up-tipped nose. He had almost no lips, but the lift of his cheeks suggested he was smiling. His eyes seemed dark gray; his forehead was high and untroubled; his hair less tawny than his beard and less curly. His right ankle was crossed in front of his leftwhich threatened to tilt the massive ovoid body off balance at any moment, especially since his hands were in his pockets and he'd have only his elbows to break the fall.
Because Mr. Flynn had flourished in an age when wealth was taken as a proof of God's favorand God's favor was best exemplified by a well-fed corpulent bodythe artist had done nothing to modify the fact that Timothy Flynn was fat. The body had a diameter rather than a waist; the sloping shoulders were a part of the general circumference; the arms, legs, and head were additions, embellishments to the spherical perfection of the torso itself. It was a telling commentary on the presentation of Mr. Flynn that it had never been suggested that his portrait be removed from the Common Room. Never had he been considered a temptation; never had anyone thought that he might be a troublesome reminder of what the women had so willingly renounced. (On the contrary, he might well have suggested what they had been spared.)
Rachel considered studying the tip of Mr. Flynn's right bootbrown and slightly scuffedbut the way it touched the ground so lightly, so tentatively, made her sense the precarious balance of the body it sustained. She would look elsewhere. She then noticed that his trousers just below the left knee were beginning to look a little threadbare. The pocket, too, of his jacket was beginning to reveal signs of wear, a lighter brown showing through the dark tweed, and the weave of his lower left sleeve was slightly frayed. She looked again at the dusty boots. Mr. Flynn, it seemed, had not been idle in his gilded frame. It was as though he, too, had been laboring away, scuffing his boots and bringing his once splendid jacket to this shabby state, as if art itself offered no exemption from the consequence of daily toil.
It was of course time, not labor, that had worn through the expensive tweeds. Even to this lofty eminence above the dark paneling, the hours had reached and made their gentle rubbings of the boots, their slow, near-imperceptible loosening of the expert weave, the eventual rot of the sturdy thread.
It was as if Mr. Flynn, the revered benefactor, had chosen to follow the Order itself into poverty; that he had found this particular way to share its tattered fortunes and had asked no exemption from the general disintegration that had overtaken the object of his benefactions. He, no less than the sisters themselves, would submit not to the ravages of time, but to its caress, to the fond touch, the gentle graze that would wear away all that had seemed beyond the reach of years.
Yet he was somewhat less advanced in his disrepair. There he stood, still reasonably well-clothed, still robust, basically unaging except for one troubling blemish, a disturbing gray blotch just below the left eye. Given his present rate of dissolution, he would outlast by many years the imminent dispersal of the Order he had so generously endowed. Seven sisters remained of the once thriving community. With the death of the Mother Generalwhich could come at any moment nowthe remaining six were to be transferred to other Orders, other ministries, other missions, and even the great stone mansion that had been for them a sheltering parent, the Motherhouse, would be torn down to make way for the housing development that had long been approaching from the south and was poised even now just beyond the woods, impatient for the departure of the final nun.
If Mr. Flynn wanted to make his own disintegration concurrent with that of the Order, he would have to do better (or worse) than sport just a few worn threads and slightly marred boots. There would have to be nothing less than a savage rending of garments, a quick proliferation of the sickly gray blotch below the left eye. The boots would obviously never catch up; the tweeds would hold their weave for far too long. Well-intentioned Mr. Flynn might be willing to share with the Order even its demise, but the paint would never flake to dust in time for his own disappearance to coincide with the approaching dispersal. He would survive. That much was known. He was, eventually, to be removed to the state Historical Society, a donation by the Order after no buyer had been found even for the picture's frame. It would be in the gallery there, or in an attic or basement, that Mr. Flynn could continue his pursuit of the oblivion into which the Order would already have dissolved. Unnoted, his tweeds could coarsen and unravel, his boots take on the dust of many roads, and his face become increasingly disfigured by the already present blight.
Rachel was staring at the worn sleeve, trying to decide how she might apply her needle and make poor Mr. Flynn more presentable for his expulsion into the great world. It then occurred to her that this was a painting. It further occurred to her that she was a painter, that her days were given mostly to her mural of The Last Supper in the refectory downstairs. It then occurred to her that sheshecould patch his pants and jacket; she could bring back the shine to the boots. She might even find a cure for the threatened cheek. Slowly she reviewed her stock of paints. She had the ochres, the yellows and greens and blacks with which to restore the tweeds; she could mix a brown to repair the boots; and she already knew she had the colors needed for a healthy flesh. Mr. Flynn should not go disgraced into public life. He would be in his prime, clothed and booted like the gentleman he had always been.
Rachel took another gulp of tea, but it tasted bitter. She drank it all the more quickly to get it over with. But she still hadn't made up her mind; she hadn't even begun to understand what her brother had actually done. She hadn't gotten beyond the knowledge that he was a thief and in jail. She did consider that that was all there was to know, but she wasn't ready yet to stop troubling herself, to give up the search for something less terrible, less wounding. She had yet to deal with the pride she felt for her brother, who had been so reckless on her behalf, on behalf of the Order. She had yet to feel the full anguish of his being imprisoned, shamed and reviled. She had yet to realize that all these irrefutable facts had anything to do with her brother, that this convicted felon was her brother.
Looking up at Mr. Flynn, it occurred to Rachel that a picture of Peppy, too, as a prime benefactor, should be hung up on the wall where time could slowly have its way and bring him to tatters and creeping death. Before she could repent of this appalling, forbidden thought, she heard a voice say, "You don't seem to use any yellow."
Mother was awake, but unmoving on the bed. Rachel, after the moment it took her to realize the meaning of the accusation, looked down at the smock she was wearing. It had been white to begin with, the kind a doctor wears to convince the patient he's antiseptic. Except that Rachel's smock was no longer white at all. Instead it came close to being a rather active abstract painting. Greens, browns, blues, reds, purples had been streaked, smudged, dabbed, splashed, or spattered onto the starched cloth. She had been trying to work on her painting, but the letter and the check had distracted her. Even though there was still an hour before she was supposed to give Mother her medicine, she'd fixed the tea and come upstairs anyway, hoping Mother would be awake.
Mother was awake now, but Rachel hadn't decided what to say to her. She kept her head lowered and continued to examine her smock. Mother had been right. There was almost no yellow. "Some of the figures have yellow hair," she said quietly.
"I don't mean on the painting. I mean on your smock. It's incomplete. More yellow. The upper right-hand corner. But not too much. Enough to bring out the blue." Mother raised her head a little. "Ah, and you've brought me some tea." A smile had lengthened Mother's mouth, giving her face the foolish look of someone whose expectations are founded on a misperception. Rachel looked down into the empty cup. She may have brought Mother some tea, but she'd just swallowed the last gulp herself. She'd even eaten the chunk of lemon.
"I hope you remembered to put in some lemon," Mother continued.
"Yes," Rachel said. "I remembered." Her voice was even quieter than before.
"Good. Without lemon, tea is so dingy. No wonder those English people put all that warm milk and sugar into it. All by itself, you might as well be drinking ditch water. Here. Help me sit up."
Rachel put the cup and saucer on the bedside table. She placed three pillows against the brass spindles of the headboard, then punched and plumped them. She put her arm under Mother's shoulders. "Ready?"
"I think so. Let's give it a try."
Mother bent her knees and drew her legs up under the blanket, then gave herself a shove backward. Rachel managed to lift the shoulders higher as Mother gave herself another push, both legs straightening as her body was moved up toward the brass bed frame. Rachel slid her hand up under Mother's head and brought it forward, out of the pillows.
"Is that better?" Rachel asked.
"I'm not sure. But let's just leave it." She was breathing heavily as if she'd just run up a flight of stairs.
"Would Mother like another pillow?"
"Just hand me the cup."
"Mother, I I"
"Just give it to me." Because Mother hadn't caught her breath, there was a desperation in her words. She began to cough.
Rachel took the cup and saucer from the bedside table and put them into Mother's trembling hands. Fortunately both saucer and cup were sturdy, thick white earthenware bought years ago from a diner that had closed during World War II. Mother started to bring them closer to her chin, but when she'd raised the cup halfway up the front of her nightclothes, she stopped. "Oh," she said. She was looking down into the cup. Before Rachel could explain, Mother said, "I've had my tea. I've already had it." She let out a small laugh from somewhere behind her nose, an attempt to diminish the seriousness of her mistake. "Of course. It was a little too hot, but by the time I'd eaten the lemon peel, it was just right."
The cup, as if it were about to tattle, began to clatter against the saucer. Mother's hand had begun to shake. "Here," she said, "Take it. I can't hold it anymore." As if in growing insistence that the truth be told, the cup rattled again and Rachel grabbed it just in time to keep it from toppling over the edge of the saucer. She steadied the cup, holding it firmly in her own hand.
"I drank the tea myself, while you were sleeping," Rachel said. She gave the cup a half turn in the ridges of the saucer, then put her hand over the top to hide the emptiness. "I ate the lemon too," she added. "And this morning" She blurted out the words before she even knew she was saying them. "This morning I got a check for one hundred and eighty-seven dollars and thirty-two cents. It's really from my brother and he stole it. And he's in jail and"
Before she could say anything more, Mother made a sudden jerk with her head and let out a quick gasp. Her body stiffened and she held her breath, trying not to make any sound. But the moan came out anyway, then a gasp, again trying to cut off whatever sound she might make. "Medicine. Quick."
Rachel put the cup and saucer back onto the bedside table. "Is it time? Did I forget?"
Excerpted from BREAD FOR THE BAKER'S CHILD by Joseph Caldwell. Copyright © 2002 by Joseph Caldwell. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Meet the Author
Joseph Caldwell is an acclaimed playwright and novelist who has been awarded the Rome Prize for Literature by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He is the author of five novels in addition to the Pig Trilogy, a humorous mystery series featuring a crime-solving pig. Caldwell lives in New York City and is currently working on various writing projects.
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