When I was a child, there was a woman in my building who baked bread every Sunday. The aroma would begin to waft from beneath the door of apartment 2F in the very early morning, so that you could smell it in your sleep, and it put you in this half-conscious state where you had dreams that you remembered. In the one I had most often I was sitting at a table in a small log cabin in the middle of a forest, one with tall trees like in California, and she was there standing over me, a headless body spreading jam with a long knife carved from wood. The jam was deep red and stained the edge of the knife blade, and slid in fat clumps off the crust with a decadent sound that filled the silence. She was headless because I had never seen her face.
I tried to stay asleep as long as possible, to prolong the dream, and once I woke up I tried to forget it, because in my real-life kitchen with its green linoleum countertop and the fridge that smelled like cheese, it seemed like one of those embarrassing secrets which you should keep to yourself. So I stood over the table and sawed like a logger through the grey loaves that came in plastic bags from the grocer, and opened the fridge and nearly passed out from the stink. But at least the flat bitterness of it ate into the horrible richness of the baking, took the sheen off the dream. It would be unseemly for me to think of her bread, of her, in that way – whatever way it was – firstly because I was getting too old to dream in fairy tales, and also because she wasn’t the sort of person you were supposed to think about much at all. I didn’t even know her name for sure, only that it was either Ms. Ellismere or Ms. Ellis; she did not arise frequently in the conversations of the adults around me, which was the main way I came to know people’s names. When my father referred to her it was in a practical sense to illustrate the concept of a “good neighbour.” A good neighbour, apparently, was the kind of neighbour you never saw or heard from.
To my friends and I, at least, her ambiguity made her the perfect background character for the elaborate stories we acted out in and around my apartment building, religiously, on weekends and during summer vacation. On days when our plots were to be more ordinary, and we needed her to be simply quaint and good, she was Ms. Ellis, a gardener or sales clerk labouring dutifully in the background, perhaps mentioned once or twice. As Ellismere she was fit for legend, the sort with a quirky cast, minor tragedies, and a light-hearted moral, in which her apartment door would be the entrance to a stone hovel housing a silent yet loyal subject, or a friendly witch.
I say I was too old to dream in fairy tales, but that didn’t mean I was too old to play them. In this situation no maturity was sacrificed, because there was nothing at all personal about it; it was a mandatory, even methodical activity, an official process wherein everybody was assigned a role, and decisions were made beforehand as to plot and the scope and type of events which could and could not occur. It was, indeed, an exercise in authority: we felt ourselves, as children, to be the rightful namers and dictators of everything in that building, like Adam in the garden. Our Eden was predictable: everything, everyone, was either one thing or another, and they did just what they were supposed to do. She was the woman in apartment 2F, and what she did was make bread. As it was, we wouldn’t be certain of her name, or the way she looked, up until the night they took her away.
But on the days when my friends weren’t around, or on the nights after they went home, all those strictly-crafted stories we created faded into the background, and my future – or what I thought of then as my future – rolled out from inside my hall closet in the form of a scuffed blue basketball. Being a professional player was by far the most long-lived ambition of my childhood, one which began when I was about eight and consumed my imagination more with each passing year, until by the time I was in high school it was no longer a private goal, but practically all I thought and all I talked about. In those middle years, from about ages ten to thirteen, I would hurry down the back stairs after dinner, the ball crooked under my arm, then dribble it out into the back parking lot like some famous player entering a court. I would spend the evening, until long after dark – long after my mother had stuck her head out her bedroom window and gestured silently but dubiously for my return – throwing the ball again and again against the back wall, because there was no net.
As it happened, Ellismere’s window was just above the spot I always chose, the spot that gradually got black and indented like a small meteor had hit it. I soon discovered that every Sunday night, a loaf of the bread which we had all smelled her baking all day would be set out on the window ledge. It looked funny up there, like a flying boat, or an abandoned baby; indeed, actually seeing it after just sensing and imagining it for so long was quite surreal, like beholding a tooth finally fallen out from the back of your mouth, or God. When I got a bit older – maybe eleven, the age when I began to wish vague harm on others for no particular reason – I began trying to use the ball to knock the bread off the ledge. Usually this was a simple matter of sharp angle and medium force, so that the soft overhanging edge of it would be jarred, but no harm would come to the window, and no one inside would notice. It became a skill in which I took great pride, and which, for no particular reason, I thought boded particularly well for my future. This would usually be my last move of the night, because after the bread fell to the pavement I liked to sneak right back into the stairwell and eat it, sitting there on the bottom step with the basketball cradled between my ankles, tearing the loaf apart with my hands covered in grey parking-lot dust, and go back upstairs as if nothing had happened, licking the tell-tale crumbs from the corners of my lips. It smelled good enough but tasted slightly sharp, almost peppery, on the back of your tongue. Though my friends were never with me at these moments, I imagined the fun we would have had with this scenario, how it might have changed the opportunities for her character somewhat; no doubt we would conjecture from the taste that the bread was somehow grandly tainted. Ms. Ellismere has poisoned us, we’d say, and when we said this her legend would become a slightly sinister one, but not too sinister that we did not still enjoy it.
One morning after a Sunday night when I had eaten one of the loaves, near the strange rainy end of what had been a long dry summer, my best friend’s ear infection flared up, and her parents made her stay in bed. At the same time another friend, the one I didn’t really like but tolerated for the sake of the other, was taken to Disneyland by an uncle. Of course I was inappropriately excited about this, as it meant I could go out to throw much earlier in the day than I normally would; I took full advantage, heading out to the parking lot when the sky was still a little pink from sunrise. I had heard somewhere that people who achieved their dreams got up early to do it, and when I achieved mine I wanted to be able to say that it was true. Of course because it was a Monday there was no loaf on the ledge that morning. Instead, as I put my concentration into throwing the ball and letting it come back to me, again and again, I saw a line of white moving upward somewhere above. The window sash – her window sash – was sliding up, and after a moment something stuck out that looked like a small yellowish cloud. For a moment I could only stare, because the cloud didn’t seem to belong out there, like some sort of rare gaseous specimen escaped from its jar. It was her, of course, with whitish blonde frizz standing out stiff on the sides of her head. With this realization I felt a weird lurch in my stomach, and my hands went numb; I got the urge to run away and crouch behind the dumpster, but for some reason couldn’t move, so I just stood still while the ball bounced back, collided gently with my shin, and rolled away into the street. A strange, puzzling anger rose within me. I didn’t like her looking at me like that, from above, though I didn’t know why. But she wasn’t looking at me.
She was running a hand over the empty ledge, nodding slowly to herself. When she’d done this a few times, she turned to look upwards, and then she switched to nodding vigorously, as though some very important and indisputable bit of information had just been confirmed yet again. Even at that distance I could see that she smiled, smiled at the sky, distinguished the way the thin line of the mouth pinched upward and pressed desperately back towards the hidden ears. Then the head withdrew obediently from whence it came, and the window was closed.
After that I began to go out into the parking lot intentionally very early every Monday morning, as much to throw the basketball as to watch her – without fail – open the window, find the bread gone, and nod and smile at the sky, as though it had somehow done its duty. It still disturbed me, though, to be seen by her, so I hid dutifully behind the dumpster until she was safely closed inside again.
On that final night, things went a bit differently. That Sunday evening, when I went out into the back parking lot with the ball as I always did, there was the bread on the window ledge, as it always was. But there was also her – Ms. Ellismere – the window pushed open behind her, red checkered curtains blowing out like a wild shroud around her thin shoulders. She was sitting beside her bread, her creation, squished into a tiny, tiny corner, looking about to fall, but not seeming at all aware of it. Her ankles were crossed beneath the fringe of an oversized apron, her hair springing thick and pale around her lower jaw, all this visible in the strange orange glow of the streetlamp, which seemed to have come on too early. Her eyes and forehead were drowned in the shadow of the window-ledge on the floor above, and yet I knew that she was looking up, always up. And on the bottom of her face there was that same silent smile, except that this time it was a bit firmer, the desperate pushing of the cheeks more clearly rendered.
The event quickly entered the realm of public discussion; suddenly it wasn’t only my father who I heard talk about Ms. Ellismere, but the grocer, the bus driver, the people at the laundromat, and for a few days, the newspapers. The details would be meticulously repeated, person to person, over and over, until it became a sort of legend in itself. First the firemen had had to break into her apartment – the superintendent was out for the night, and no one else had a key to her door. They tried to coax her back in through the window, but she only turned to them briefly and reiterated her smile, almost as though she were expecting and quite pleased to have an audience, as though the moment called for it. Then she turned back to the sky, clinging to the windowsill with hands covered in flour or baking soda like some burned-out white stardust. Her radio was turned up, loud, to static; in the kitchen cupboard someone found an old address book with a series of journal entries written thickly but neatly in the back of it. I calculated, to myself, that they did indeed start around the day when the bread had begun to disappear from the ledge, thanks to my mischievous efforts. For pages and pages, weeks and weeks, months and months – yes, as it ended up, a full two and a half years – she wrote about how the disappearance of that bread provided irrefutable evidence of something that she had known to be true her whole life, but hadn’t had the courage to really quite believe. Until now.
They were real after all, weren’t they? And better yet, who had they chosen to commune with, whose sustenance had they selected to beam up and sample in their big sucking alien mouths, than her Sunday best? Of all places, of all things, of all mortal beings – in all time – they, they, had chosen her. Her bread, her home, her. Ms. Ellis, Ms. Ellismere.
As she had always known someone would.
About a year and a half later, when I entered junior high – the same day that I made it onto the sophomore basketball team, the day that I felt sure was the beginning of the rest of my life, about six months before I developed severe tendonitis from practicing too much and never played again – we learned in geography class about the islands of the Arctic Ocean. Apparently there was a place called Cape Columbia, the northernmost point in Canada, which had featured in a famous exploratory voyage. It was from this point that Robert Peary set off on the final leg of his last expedition to the North Pole, an endeavour which he claimed was successful.
“The pole at last!” he wrote that day. “The prize of three centuries, my dream and ambition for twenty-three years. Mine at last. I cannot bring myself to realize it. It all seems so simple and commonplace ...”
With their superior knowledge of navigation and the advantage of hindsight, of course, today’s historians know that on this count he was either lying, or delusional.
Cape Columbia was on Ellesmere Island.
About the Author
Stephanie Sushko has been writing since childhood, and has won several local awards for her poetry and fiction. She holds a Bachelor of Arts and Science from McMaster University, and is currently pursuing a teaching degree. She has previously had work published in Literary Orphans and Ripples in Space journals. Her favourite themes to explore include illusion, transformation, eccentricity, hereticism, unity, and isolation.