When Grandmother arrived here, she appeared right in the middle of Skip Brook, ankle deep in cool water, carrying a small sack over one shoulder and a baby—my mother—in her arms. I’ve been to Skip Brook often enough to imagine how it must have felt: the fish staring up at her from beneath the tumbling water; the trees swaying with their gossip; the pyskie moths brushing against her ear with their airy whispers. The prayer she spoke—blessed art thou, blessed, blessed—still echoes in the rustle of grasses and the whispering of leaves and the drip-drop of the deepest caves.
My best friend, Yiala, lives in the trees that border Skip Brook, in a cozy home sheltered by leaves in the summer and a tangle of frost-bright branches in winter. With her claws and tail and powerful hind legs, she scampers up the tree in seconds. It takes me longer, but I can follow her as long as I don’t mind a few scrapes and slivers. Together, we perch on a branch overlooking the brook and talk about how funny it must have been to see a person suddenly appear in the water—plop!
Visitors were more common then, when the Buried Sun’s lonely song still echoed across the cosmos. Spiders skittered back and forth between the porous openings, trailing silky threads behind them. Bees bumbled through the glades, carrying pollen from foreign flowers. New species of birds, some brightly colored and others plain and dun, roosted in our trees for days before disappearing again.
Just like the bugs and the woodland creatures, not all the people who made their way into this world decided to stay. The ones who did shed their former worlds like sodden cloaks. Others, the ones who clung to their old lives with tight fingers, disappeared soon enough, back across whatever gateway brought them here in the first place.
My grandmother stayed. She did not simply stumble out of one world and into another. She sought this place, or someplace like it. Her arrival was clear-eyed and purposeful, and she came prepared.
Sometimes Yiala talks about that day as if she were there.
“Your mother was squawking like an angry duck, but your grandmother looked around the woods with a smile, as if this were already her home.”
“You don’t know that,” I tell her. “Even your grandparents weren’t born yet.”
Yiala’s tail swishes back and forth. “This tree was there, and trees have a long memory.”
This is not a satisfying answer, but it’s true, and denying it would insult the tree. I wonder how tall this tree was when Grandmother arrived, and if it welcomed her with kind words or bored indifference.
In some ways, Grandmother’s memory is as long as the tree’s; it reaches back across time and space to the world she abandoned to come here, and to the person she was before she became my grandmother. The older she gets, the more she remembers that world, and the less she remembers this one. Sometimes she looks at me and calls me by my mother’s name. Sometimes she holds a cup in her hand as if she has no idea what it’s for. Once, I found her cringing behind a chair, her eyes wide and frightened, and when I asked her what she was doing she said she was hiding from someone but couldn’t remember who.
But when the Sky Sun goes to sleep, and the suns of other worlds peek their cautious heads into the night sky, it makes her think of the sun that lit her old world, and then the memories tumble out like a secret cache of acorns.
“Where I grew up,” she says, “lights were kept in glass vessels.”
“Why would they do such a thing?” I ask, horrified. A firefly lands on my blanket, and I shelter it with my hands, as if I could protect it from this ancient threat.
“Their lights weren’t alive like ours. They were mechanical—created by people. You could flip a lever or pull a chain, and the light turned on and off.”
I watch the fireflies flit around the hollow, and try to imagine what stationary lights might look like. Lights that shine and darken on command, that never surprise with unexpected swoops and arcs. What a boring, flat world it must be, without the sparkle and dance of light and shadow.
Grandmother tells me about monstrous carriages that moved at great speed on their own power, roaring and bleating and squealing, about enormous buildings the size of our entire wood, full of workers whose job it was to do the exact same small action over and over again, from morning until night. And the people! So many people that their houses were piled on top of one another, stretching up into the sky.
“Aren’t you glad you don’t live there?” my mother asks, squeezing my foot. She has little patience for Grandmother’s stories. Even though she was born in that noisy, busy, alien world, she doesn’t remember it, and she doesn’t care to hear about it. “Aren’t you glad you live here, in this wood?”
And I am glad, I am. But sometimes, when I’m feeling peevish and unsatisfied, I leave the woods behind and scramble through the caves. Hands pressed to the damp cave floor, I feel the warmth of the Buried Sun. I imagine I can hear her voice rumbling up from underground, calling to the other worlds that bump against our own like so many soap bubbles.
• • •
Grandmother and I wake when the Sky Sun is just beginning to yawn and stretch and poke the top of his head above the horizon. My mother groans and burrows beneath her blankets.
“Go back to sleep, Skelly,” she mutters.
“I’m going to learn how to make Grandmother’s bread,” I tell her. “You could, too.”
“Every day I make flatbreads. That’s enough.”
The tone of her voice is a warning, so I leave her be. But she’s wrong; it’s not enough. Lots of people make flatbreads, but Grandmother’s bread is special. It’s dense and sweet and plaited like my hair, and it takes all day to make. She bakes it once every seven days, and has since long before I was old enough to gum a milk-soaked slice.
It’s dark in our hollow, but the table is illuminated by a cluster of sleepy fireflies bobbing overhead. Grandmother gathers the ingredients one by one, giving each a solemn nod as she sets it on the table. The air in the hollow changes as she works, becomes sacred. This is a ceremony, and for the first time, I’m allowed to help.
We begin by feeding the yeast. Grandmother made the yeast herself, out of flour and water and the juice of fermenting fruit. Then she spread it thin and dried it in the sun and crumbled it into a jar, which she holds with reverence between two hands. There’s not much left; after another few loaves of bread, it will run out. But Grandmother has forgotten how to make the yeast. The last couple of times she tried, she grew a colony of fuzzy mold that my mother threw away before Grandmother could attempt to bake with it.
That’s why I’m here with her today: to learn how to make the bread before she forgets that, too.
I have a scrap of paper and some ink, but it’s a harder process to document than I’ve imagined. Nothing is measured. Grandmother does it all by eye, by feel. When I hold out my measuring spoons for her to use, she pushes them aside.
“Not that way. Not with spoons. The yeast is alive.”
“I know,” I say. Everything is alive, from the Buried Sun beneath our feet to the hollow tree in which we make our home, to the fireflies that flicker above us. But the yeast sounds fussier than all of those things. Right now, it’s sleeping in its jar. We have to wake it up before we bake with it, using some milk that Grandmother is heating in the kettle. If the milk is too hot, it will kill the yeast before it can work its magic in the bread. If it’s too cold, the yeast will stay asleep. Either way, our bread will be hard and flat instead of the way it ought to be.
How does she know when the milk is hot enough? Does she count the bubbles gathering around the edge of the liquid? Does she heat it for a specific amount of time? Grandmother shakes her head with irritation, unable to explain. Instead, she dabs a bit of milk on the inside of my wrist. “When it feels like this,” she says, “it’s ready.” She mixes together the yeast and the milk, and then we wait, our faces close together over the bowl.
Before long, the mixture in the bowl starts to bubble and foam. Grandmother brings her nose close and breathes in deeply; I do the same. The yeast smells of years, and of the distance between stars. It smells of the place Grandmother came from.
My mother finally wakes up when we begin kneading the bread. We are as quiet as flowers growing, Grandmother and I, but still my mother looks irritated when we scrape the dough onto a large wooden board. She trudges to the table with her tea and pretends not to pay us any attention. When she thinks I’m not watching, she closes her eyes and breathes in deeply, and the warm, familiar smell of the dough softens her face into a smile.
Grandmother guides my hands, because while she doesn’t remember a lot of things, her hands remember how to pull and push and turn the dough. Her hands move of their own volition, a dance taught many years ago and a world away.
My hands do not dance. They plunge into the dough and get stuck there. While I struggle, my mother sips her tea at the far end of the table, near my paper and ink. I can’t take down notes with my dough-shaggy fingers, not that I’d know what to write. We knead and knead and knead, and it’s tiring and messy. I’m annoyed with my mother—for watching me with half-lidded eyes, for surreptitiously reading my notes, for not bothering to learn how to make this bread herself.
And then Grandmother makes a soft grunt of approval, bringing my attention back to the dough. It’s changed; we’ve changed it. Beneath our hands, it’s grown stretchy, and springy, and smooth.
It’s worth it, I remind myself. All this work. All this time. It’s worth it.
• • •
We set the dough aside to grow, and when Grandmother sees that I can’t be quiet and still for the length of time this requires, she sets me loose. I find Yiala stalking back and forth near her tree, a scattering of feathers—the remains of her breakfast—at her feet.
She flicks her ears at me. “Skelly! Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you forever.”
“I’m helping Grandmother today,” I tell her. “I have to go back in a bit.”
“Don’t you want to know who I saw earlier this morning?” Yiala grins, wide and toothy. “A traveler!”
Traveler. The trees echo the word in their paper-thin whisper. Traveler traveler traveler…
“Liar,” I say. “There hasn’t been a traveler here in ages.”
“If you don’t believe me, come see for yourself.”
When Yiala and I play, we run as fast as the brook. We are loud as thunder, and strong as the wind. We can be silent, too; perching in the treetops, we spy on the Hill People as they make their slow, ponderous way across the horizon, and they are none the wiser. Today we make ourselves invisible. We creep through the underbrush, flatten ourselves to the trunks of trees, dart from shadow to shadow without making a single sound.
Yiala stops me with a touch of her paw and points. There, in a clearing, is the traveler.
He’s human, like my mother and Grandmother—like me—but he’s dressed unlike anyone I’ve seen in the wood. His pants, worn close to the skin, are ripped at each knee, as if he’s never learned to sew, or perhaps he simply doesn’t care. His coat and bag are adorned with straps and toggles and metal clasps—far more than would ever be necessary—and the bag is the breathtaking yellow-orange of the Sky Sun, so bright it makes me wince.
Yiala nudges me. “Maybe it’s your father!”
“Quiet,” I hiss.
My mother has never told me who my father is. If I ask, she’ll say that he was a fish, slippery and flashing like sunlight. Or an Esakot, all horns and wings and fire. The people in town say my father was another human who stumbled into our wood and then was gone again before I was born, back to wherever he came from. I never really cared one way or the other.
But now, looking at this traveler, with his improbable clothes and radiantly colored bag, the fact thunders like a stone down a mountain: he is from elsewhere. He is from Earth.
That means there’s a gateway somewhere close by.
We sneak away, back to Skip Brook. Yiala wants to try to find the gateway immediately, before it closes again.
“I can’t,” I tell her. “Grandmother is expecting me back.”
“So?” Yiala doesn’t live with her parents or grandparents. She’s shared a home with her littermates, two brothers and a sister, ever since they were weaned. It’s the way of her people. She goes where she wants, when she wants, and it’s impossible for her to understand how I live otherwise.
“I just can’t,” I say, and head back home.
Part of me worries that Yiala will go off and find the gateway without me. But what would I do if I found it? I’d never step through it; if I did, the gateway could close behind me and I’d never be able to come back. I’d be trapped like Grandmother, in a world not my own.
I wonder if Grandmother feels trapped here, even though she came willingly. I wonder if she misses Earth, the world that looms larger and larger in her memory the older she gets.
• • •
I can tell, even before Grandmother uncovers the bowl, that the dough inside has risen. When we covered it earlier, the cloth she draped over the bowl lay flat. Now, the dough pushes up from inside, making a dome. When she carefully lifts the cloth and reveals the smooth ball underneath—glossy and puffed-up and smelling gloriously of yeast—it’s like the Sky Sun bursting up over the horizon. My mind returns to the traveler’s yellow-orange bag, and then to the traveler himself. Grandmother told me that on Earth, there was only one sun and one moon. But with a bag like that, you could carry sunshine around with you wherever you went.
Grandmother pokes two fingers into the dough, leaving a pair of divots like eyes. Then she instructs me to punch it down. It deflates right away under my fists, soft and satisfying. I punch it again and again, my knuckles covering the surface with dimples. Then Grandmother gently pulls my hands away and gives the dough a kneading right in the bowl.
While she works, she mutters words under her breath, in the language her family back on Earth used for prayer. I recognize this one; she says it at dinnertime on the nights we eat the special bread. The pyskie moths, drawn to the sound of a foreign tongue, cluster close and whisper their translation into my ear:
Blessed art thou, Lord our God,
Ruler of the Universe
Who hath brought forth bread from the Earth.
“Who’s the Lord you’re praying to?” I used to ask her, back when I was little. “Is it the Buried Sun?”
“We had different gods in the old world,” she’d answer. “This is a prayer to the God of my ancestors.”
“Why do you still say it here? Or why don’t you change it to pray to the Buried Sun?”
“Because what matters is the tradition. The ritual. I used to say these words with my mother, and she used to say them with her mother, and on and on back through the ages. Even though I left that world far behind, speaking the words is a comfort.”
I think of that now. Grandmother’s words layer on top of the pyskies’ translation, and together they thicken the air, blending with the smell of the wakeful yeast. I think of ritual, and of tradition. I wonder if it’s possible to miss a place you’ve never been.
• • •
Grandmother covers the dough and sets it aside to grow once more. Making this bread is an exercise in patience, but I am not patient today. I leave the hollow again to wander around the wood. I tell myself that I’m not searching for the traveler. That I’d never have the courage to talk to him if I found him. I tell myself that I’m just concerned that he might need help.
And then, I look up and see the gateway.
I might not have found it if I’d been with Yiala; together, we’d have been looking for the wrong sort of thing—a doorway, a hole, a rip in the air—but the gateway is much quieter than that: just a shimmering between two trees. A pucker. The hint of a sharp, unpleasant scent.
It would be easy to miss it entirely. To walk through it unawares.
Behind me, footsteps tromp their way through the underbrush. I know it’s the traveler even before I see him; no one from these woods would walk so loudly. Even so, it’s startling to see him up close. Everything about him is new and different and exciting—his chunky boots, his jacket with its dangling metal tags, his sun-bright bag—and even though he’s human, he doesn’t look a thing like my mother or Grandmother.
He’s walking around like he’s in a dream, not even looking down for roots and rocks, and the trees are being very kind not to trip him. When he spots me, he freezes, and stares at my bare feet and at the leaves woven through my hair as if I’m the strange one.
“Hey,” he says. “Are you okay?”
“Why wouldn’t I be?” I answer.
“I don’t know.” He laughs, like I made a joke. The pyskie moths flutter in a cloud around us, and the traveler tries to swat them away. “I think I’m lost.”
I swallow hard. “Where did you come from?”
“I must have wandered off the trail.” He looks around the wood. “I’ve never seen a forest like this before. Everything’s just… off.”
“Different. Weird.” He looks me up and down and laughs again. “Not normal.”
It shouldn’t sting, but it does. I wonder if he’d feel more at home here if I was wearing boots or carried a bright bag, or if the things that make us different run much, much deeper.
“If you want to get back home, go that way.” I point at the gateway.
He doesn’t seem to see the shimmering between the trees, but he walks toward it anyway. I’m expecting something dramatic to happen when he passes through, but it’s not like that. He’s just gone, suddenly, like a frog disappearing into a lake.
Stepping closer, the shimmer glistens. There’s sound within it, things I’ve never heard before, and that smell, acrid and new. I wonder what I’d see if I walked through it. I imagine myself following in the traveler’s footsteps, darting silently from tree to tree behind him. I reach out my hand, letting the tips of my fingers brush against the shimmer. It feels like pushing at a blanket, soft and inviting.
I drop my hands and whirl around. It’s my mother, carrying a basket of berries she’s gathered, piled loosely around a cloth-wrapped jar. Her eyes find the gateway immediately, and a brief look of alarm flashes across her face, but when she speaks, her voice is carefully neutral.
“So,” she says. “Here you are.”
“I just found it,” I stammer. “I wasn’t going to—I was just…”
My mother holds out the basket, just out of reach. Behind me, the gateway hums like a living thing. When I step away from it to take a berry, she visibly relaxes.
I roll the berry between my fingers. “Would you ever want to go back?”
“No,” she says immediately.
She looks at me, measuring out her words like a cup full of flour. “Once, when I was young, like you, I considered it. But that was a long time ago.”
“What made you change your mind?”
She pops a berry into her mouth and chews it thoughtfully before responding. “You were born right here, in this forest, right in this hollow. With the fireflies clustered overhead, and the dragons rising up from the sea to weave between the moons, and the trees peering inside to catch a glimpse of your sweet face. Your grandmother and I are of two worlds, but you belong entirely to this one.” She smiles. “That makes this world good enough for me.”
“What if I don’t feel like I belong entirely to this world?”
“I’m not sure any of us ever do,” she says. “It’s a choice we make, to be where we are.”
Between the trees, the gateway shimmers and churns. There’s no telling how long it will remain open. Just like there’s no telling how long Grandmother will remember how to make her bread. But I know she’s waiting for me, right now.
I follow my mother back to the hollow. I leave the gateway behind.
• • •
It’s time, finally, to braid the loaf. But the ropes of dough seem to confuse Grandmother. She twists two strands together, forgetting the third, and when she undoes the twist, her fingers twitch and shake. Her face gets the tight, pinched look she wears when the present moment bumps up against everything she’s forgotten. She mumbles something I can’t quite hear.
“Grandmother?” I put a hand on her shoulder and lean closer. It’s the prayer.
Blessed art thou
Blessed art thou
She repeats the prayer as if it’s a spell, as if she could find within it all the answers she lacks. Her words are ineffable, intangible, so delicate that they evaporate in the air—but they’re also deeply embedded within her memory, like the rings of a tree. I imagine the words weaving together like rope, like strands of dough, tying us together, linking our past and present and future selves. I wonder if the ingredients we’ve kneaded together—flour, milk, yeast, words—make more than a simple loaf of bread. I wonder if they make our hollow a place out of space and time. If they connect us to Earth, and to Grandmother’s ancestors, and to all the loaves they made with all their varied hands, back and back and back through the ages.
“Can I try?” I ask her, gesturing toward the dough. “You can tell me if I’m doing it right.”
She steps aside reluctantly. “It’s very difficult.”
“I know. But I want to learn.”
She watches me, her face anxious, but she gradually relaxes as I start passing the strands over each other, weaving them together. Three strands: one each for Grandmother, my mother, and me. One each for Earth, for the wood, and for the space that exists inside our hollow every seven days. The space we’re in now.
My paper and ink are still sitting on the end of the table, but I know I won’t write anything else down. It’s not that kind of lesson. The trick isn’t to record the process, or to memorize. The trick is to be here, now. To breathe in the smell of the yeast. To feel the dough stretch and spring back.
“That’s it,” says Grandmother, watching the loaf take shape. “That’s exactly it.”
• • •
Just before the Sky Sun sinks into his bed, we gather at the table. Fireflies hover near the ceiling, clustering and dispersing, clustering and dispersing, casting their glow. My mother slices the bread and gives the first piece to Grandmother, who sprinkles it with a bit of salt. Then she bows her head and says the prayer. I join her, so that she won’t forget the words. I join her, so that I won’t forget them either.
On a shelf behind the table is a jar of spongy dough that my mother got from a friend who lives across the forest. It’s a kind of yeast, she says, but unlike Grandmother’s yeast, this one will never run out as long as we keep feeding it.
“It might change the recipe a bit,” she adds, hesitant, afraid I’d be upset. But I’m not upset. The bread will still be Grandmother’s bread, even with this new yeast. But it will be different, too. Like my mother, like Grandmother, the bread will be of two worlds. The yeast is alive, Grandmother told me, and so is the recipe itself: not a light trapped in a glass jar, not a series of instructions written down in a book, but something that grows, and changes, and speaks if you listen to it.
Maybe the gateway will still be open tomorrow. Or maybe another gateway will open someday, one that leads to Earth, or elsewhere. Maybe I’ll go through it.
But today—now—I’m here. In this hollow, with my family. I take a bite of bread. All the hours of work it took to bake it collapse into this one mouthful. It’s yeasty and sweet and rich. It tastes of centuries ago and of worlds away, and it also tastes of this night, of this moment. Each bite is a choice. For now, I choose to be just where I am.