I owned the only bicycle in town. It was a beautiful shade of blue — the lighter kind, the color that a mermaid’s eyes would be as she looked slyly at you and brushed her long, glistening hair out of her face, pointy teeth flashing before she dove back under the dark waves. A traveling merchant brought a whole cart of goods once, and we’d all marveled at the colorful glass trinkets and tiny toy frogs with obsidian eyes. In the middle of everything sat this beautiful, blue bike, a wonder of handmade craftsmanship. I couldn’t tear my eyes away from it. While the adults began a bidding war over a collection of oak furniture, I ran all the way home to grab a month’s worth of earnings. Riding it for the first time through the streets of town, the brisk, coastal air tickling the smile on my face, I felt like the birds that swooped along the rugged cliffs beside me.
The warm scent of freshly-baked bread wafted from the kitchen and through the wide open doors of Blas, the town’s small bakery. Our regulars shuffled in at the same times every morning, drawn in by the aromatic pull of sea salt flatbread and soda farls. I listened to them talk about their children and the weather as I neatly wrapped up their bread. The mid-afternoon lull was my favorite; Cormick, the red-faced bakery owner, left his apron in the kitchen and went out for his daily pint, and I could lean against the counter and daydream about the worlds beyond Blas. My blue bike would take me to all of them.
“One honey wheat loaf, please,” a voice said, interrupting a sad memory of my sparse savings.
I hastily jerked back to life, my eyes landing on an older man wearing faded clothes and an impatient frown. “Yes, sorry,” I said, rushing to grab his loaf from a basket. He looked around the sparse interior of the bakery, and I stole a glance at him as I worked, recognizing him from his last visit a while back. He had less white hairs then.
We exchanged money and bread, and I smiled politely at him. “Thank you! Come again!”
He didn’t move, choosing instead to stare at his parcel of bread. “Blas. Beauty through taste,” he said, a curious note in his voice.
I nodded slowly. I’d heard that he lived alone in the lighthouse at the edge of town. People rarely saw him anymore, and there were rumors that he’d been struggling with depression ever since he lost his wife a couple of years ago. I could sympathize; loss had introduced itself to me a long time ago. I’d known his wife, too, and felt a pang of sadness when I realized why he’d chosen honey wheat.
He made a small grunt and one corner of his lips quirked upward. “Hope this bread is as delicious as it used to be,” he said, brandishing his loaf in the air. He turned and trudged outside, narrow shoulders hunched up against the cold.
I flew past small, vibrant buildings, taking on every downward slope at full speed. No morning was complete without a thrill ride. My father’s best friend shook his head at me as I whizzed past his fruit stand, his thick mustache practically twitching with disapproval. He probably regretted teaching me how to ride my two-wheeled beauty, but leaving the task to my grandmother seemed like a bad idea at the time.
“Watch out!” I yelled, swerving to the right and managing to halt just shy of a nearby wall. The last slope before I arrived at the bakery was the steepest, but I could never bring myself to slow down.
The shopkeeper barely budged. A jar of yellow paint rested on the ground next to her feet, and her small nose was nearly touching the glass window as she made careful, upward strokes. She glanced at me for a moment before returning to her work. “I don’t understand why you bother with that bike, Meara. The whole town’s full of hills.”
I laughed as I disembarked my fine steed, propping it carefully to the side of the bakery’s entrance. “I just like it, I guess,” I said vaguely. I stepped across the street to her shop and admired her painted handiwork. “It looks wonderful. Your lettering is beautiful as always, Branna.”
The corners of her mouth tried to resist a smile. “Flattery isn’t going to save you on the day you finally crash your bike into my shop. How unfortunate I am to have my store here, both for my safety and my stomach,” she said, shaking her head. She wasn’t completely wrong; sometimes I joked that half our profits came from her purchases of our tomato basil bread.
“And how lucky I am, getting to see your lovely face every morning.” I patted her frail shoulder and returned to Blas, ready to start a new day at the old bakery.
About an hour after lunch, I began to consider it an old day at the old bakery.
I resorted to coming up with wild new bread flavors, like haggis or corned beef and cabbage. My parents would rise from their resting spots on the ocean floor just to try Meara’s signature Sardine-Loganberry Bread.
A figure appeared in the doorway, saving me from coming up with a thirty-eighth flavor.
“One honey wheat loaf,” he said.
I recalled his parting words. “Was it as delicious as it used to be, then?”
“Almost,” he said. He wore his gloom around him like a shawl. “It’s missing something.”
The recipe hadn’t changed, and Cormick was the most consistent baker in town. His garlic bread tasted awful every time. But I recognized his distant expression, and knew that the missing ingredient was not an ingredient at all.
I wanted to say that I remembered his wife and all the wonderful stories she told during her frequent visits to the bakery. I wanted to describe her scent of warm cinnamon when I’d cried into her shoulder during my first and only breakdown, and joke about how embarrassed I had been to sob in the arms of some lady who was more of a friendly acquaintance than a deeply trusted friend. I wanted to tell him that her soothing words had somehow eased the ache in my heart and made me feel less alone.
Instead, I wrapped my useless apologies up with his bread. “Thank you, come again,” I said — but I knew that he would. People like us held on to those embodied sentiments that we could, like bread that a wife used to love, or a bike the same color as a mother’s favorite dress.
He returned every day, buying a loaf of honey wheat each time. I could sense his demeanor change over the passing months. He became one of my more talkative and friendly regulars, although I still caught hints of sadness in his small sighs and vacant stares. His name was Hugh, I learned, and he’d worked as a fisherman for most of his life. After his wife Sorcha’s death, he put down his fishing pole in favor of a pen. “Telling stories has always been my true calling,” he told me one day as we made the usual exchange.
“Although.…” He trailed off, averting his gaze to stare at nothing in particular. “Writing hasn’t been as easy these past two years.”
I pretended not to notice the tiredness written all over his face, busying myself with the cash register as I patiently waited. He could continue at his leisure.
He spoke with no urgency, carefully choosing his words. “I’d stare at the sea until dark, as if the waves below could crash into my heavy emptiness and destroy it, or carry it away, leaving even the slightest trace of emotion behind. I could seize that trace and weave it into a story. Ink and paper could once again lend her physical form.” He snorted and shook his head. “It was useless, of course. Water can’t wash away an anchor.”
His words brought me back to the days I would sit alone at the dining table, finally old enough to take care of myself but feeling just as lost as the child I used to be. Eventually I learned to wave away the house’s emptiness with flurries of movement and all the colors that my parents used to like.
“Sorcha,” I began, watching him closely, “used to tell brilliant stories, too. Sometimes she’d try to bargain a story for bread, since she knew that I loved hers so much.”
Hugh raised his eyebrows at the news, then broke out into big, booming laughter. “Sounds like her.”
“There was the tale of the changeling who sang like a lark, and the one about the merrow who lost his….”
“Brandy? I remember that one,” he said, then continued on about how they used to tell each other stories over dinner. I watched light return to his eyes as he talked about the memory.
Hugh didn’t come the day after that. As the afternoon trudged along, I kept glancing expectantly at the door in between bringing loaves of bread from the kitchen and cleaning the countertop. When Branna walked in at the end of the day for her tomato basil bread, she was surprised by how talkative and inquisitive I was being. “Company deficit,” I explained. She tutted and shook her head, looking at me with sympathy, then waited for me to finish up my duties so we could walk together on our way home.
The next day, afternoon arrived and so did he, bringing with him a startling brightness. “Meara! I’ve thought of a story! Would you like to hear it?” he asked.
“Like to? I’d love to!” I searched his hands for paper, but they were empty.
Hugh beamed and tapped his head knowingly. “I’ve memorized it. It’s not too long.” He sniffed once, cleared his throat, and began.
As I listened, the images he was describing were painted clearly in my mind; I saw the dragon gliding past mountaintops swathed with clouds, watched the creeping tendrils of fire begin to build up and illuminate past rows of sharp teeth. Enraptured, I hung like a starving beggar onto every word. The colors I’d splattered throughout my house were finally inside my head, and I couldn’t get enough.
He finished his tale and made his usual bread request, and I couldn’t stop gushing about how wonderful his storytelling was as I wrapped up his honey wheat. I must have exhausted his ears with my praise. “You’ll tell another story next time, won’t you?” I asked, looking at him hopefully. He laughed and agreed, and left the bakery with his head held high and an upright posture that challenged the blustery day.
The few weeks following Hugh’s first story were idyllic. I’d ride my bike happily to work and chatter away with my morning regulars as I waited for afternoon to roll around. He’d come for his honey wheat, most days with a story, some days with the promised beginnings of one. I started bringing out a chair for him to sit in as he told his tales with gusto, hands waving about emphatically and fingers indicating the silky tresses of selkies or the majestic antlers of talking deer. Occasionally he would pause and look at me with confusion, trying to continue but stumbling on the right words, but the odd moment would pass and we’d reabsorb ourselves in his tale.
Sometime during the final week, he claimed he had a headache and refused to tell any story at all. In the wake of my disappointed silence he asked me for one instead, and I shook my head violently and waved off his request like it was the silliest thing I’d heard all day. I was nowhere near creative enough, I told him, and conjured a few more excuses, anything to mask my fear of exposing something so raw and personal to someone else.
He thought for a moment, rubbing his nose roughly with the back of his hand. “Tell me a story about your bicycle. It’s special, isn’t it?”
I stared at him, searching for hints of mirth in his face but finding none. “My bicycle? No one wants to hear a story about my bicycle.”
“I do. You don’t have to tell me a story about fantastical creatures. There are all kinds of stories, Meara. You can start with something you know.”
I looked in the direction of the vehicle that rested outside, the tip of a handle barely visible through the glass windows. Maybe I’d tell him a silly story about riding my bike to a world where all the bears wear yellow hats, or describe a daydream about riding it down the main road and away from this small town. Maybe I’d tell him that I really just wanted to ride it away from myself.
“I just like the color, that’s all. And it gives my legs a good workout,” I said.
He tilted his head and scrutinized my face for answers. I wondered how much of me he could read. “It is quite a nice shade,” he replied. It became clear to me that he wouldn’t push it further.
But as the silence grew, I found that I wanted him to. One little push and I’d stop holding on so tightly to my thoughts and let them roll haphazardly off my tongue. Next time, I assured myself.
Hugh’s last story was about a dragon again. He usually avoided telling stories about the same creatures, but I could tell he harbored a large fondness for those scaly, flying beasts who dominated their realms. There was a bit more charm lovingly woven into the details of his dragon tales, and I listened to him describe the dragon’s powerful roar with a smile on my face.
I heard the official news from Branna, although the sinking feeling in my stomach had been getting worse all week. Hugh had abruptly stopped coming to the bakery, giving me no warning, no message of apology or assurance that he was off to explore the world with a pen and notebook, as he sometimes talked about doing. When I thought back on our encounters, I realized that the signs pointing toward his impending stroke were all there; I had just been too ignorant and self-absorbed to notice. My fault, I thought over and over again. Old memories resurfaced, bobbing precariously in my waterlogged mind.
Branna’s husband had been with him when one side of Hugh’s face began to droop and feel numb. He immediately rushed him to the hospital a town over, and stayed with him for a few days until his condition had stabilized enough for him to return home. The town doctor tried convincing Hugh to stay in a bigger town’s rehabilitation center, but he stubbornly refused, saying “Sorcha” and “home” repeatedly until the doctor gave in and agreed to pay him regular visits instead.
He’ll be okay, Branna assured me, he’ll be fine. A speech therapist would be coming to his home twice a week. I nodded and smiled. Thanked her for telling me.
My house that night felt cold and dark and empty, and even turning on all the lights did little to soak up the familiar guilt within me. I rubbed my blue blanket between three fingers, remembering when I’d wrap it around my shoulders like it was my seal skin, running all the way down to the shore and standing, barefoot, in the sand and sea, letting the cold water rush around my legs and hide my tears. Now I curled under it and slept.
Cormick let me leave work early, and I tossed my apron onto the counter and headed straight for the exit. I stepped outside and paused beside my bicycle, fondly resting a hand on one handlebar as I thought about all the adventures and good company that it had taken me to after all.
Leaving it propped against the bakery wall, I secured my loaf of honey wheat under one arm and continued on my way. I walked up and down the rocky terrain, watching shearwaters soar leisurely through gray skies as I traveled along the cliffside road.
I found him leaning against the lighthouse handrail and watching waves crash against the rocks below. I called his name, but the strong wind buffeted my voice away, and I had to shout again and again until he finally turned and saw me waving my bread in the air. Hugh slowly made his way down and unlocked the front door, gesturing for me to enter.
I followed him up the spiral staircase, passing an intricate clockwork mechanism and glass prisms caked with dust. He noticed me staring at the broken wonder that cut through the center of the lighthouse. “French,” he said.
We stood outside together in silence. I handed him the honey wheat, and he took it with glassy eyes, swallowing hard as he clutched it to his chest. He opened his mouth to speak, but couldn’t seem to find the right words and closed it again, eyebrows furrowed in helpless concentration. I placed a hand on his thin shoulder. Even though I could still articulate sentences perfectly well, I didn’t know what to say.
The stories in Hugh’s head were scrambled and twisted and trapped, his dragons crawling underwater with their flames oozing from the deepest crevasse. He could write, but his brief words were barely coherent and captured none of the magic of his old tales. In the face of all his losses, he simply looked tired.
As we watched thick, white foam line the steep cliffs below, I gathered the courage to speak. I had brought more than just bread; I’d brought a story. I inhaled slowly, tasted the ocean air, and began.