Black Bread

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Why I Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Julie Cadman-Kim introduces Dounia Choukri’s “Black Bread” from our Summer 2021 issue. You can purchase it here.

“If difference has a taste, then it’s rich and earthy.” So begins “Black Bread,” Dounia Choukri’s haunting short story, set in 1983. We follow the winding and unwinding thought patterns of a young girl so trapped in her mother’s past that she struggles to function in her own present, a place as twisted and full of invisible snares as a fairy tale. The title refers to the nutritious black bread sandwiches the attentive mother sends to school with her daughter every day, only for her to let them rot in the bottom of her backpack, creating a foul odor the narrator feels certain is her internal wickedness seeping out.

Of the many accomplishments that stood out to me in these eleven manuscript pages, one of the most stunning is the narrative nuance. It is next-to-impossible (in my jaded opinion) to feature a child narrator without at least dipping your toes into the placid waters of nostalgia and sentimentality. Still, Choukri’s young protagonist remains childlike without ever sinking into the world the other “white bread children” inhabit. She lives inside a reality tainted with potent self-loathing spurred on by her German mother, born a year after the war ended.

“Her love for me is in that bread. It’s a love that shrivels and hardens if you don’t consume it—a love that turns into bitterness.”

Inundated with images and stories about Germany’s inhumanity and genocidal violence, the narrator lives in constant fear that this same evil is inside herself and will, if not tamped down, bubble to the surface. As much as the story is concerned with the legacy of guilt and violence passed on from parent to child, it is also a close examination of the debilitating effects of assimilation, which demands its own kind of suffering before the narrator can ever hope to be like the “white bread children [who] carry their souls on their tongues.”

Form meets function beautifully in this story, and their merging is as seamless as it is effective. Fans of Jane Alison’s Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative—a craft book that delves into using the natural world as an inspiration for narrative shape—will find much to admire in “Black Bread,” which, by the end, seems to fairly pulse with the meandering repetition of the narrator’s perseverating thought process.

If I had eaten my black bread today, I would throw it up now, but my stomach is empty. It contracts like a fish out of water.

I wish. I wish. I wish, goes the tail of the fish.

My wish is terrible.

It’s the wish of a people that stinks. A wish out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.


Black Bread

If difference has a taste, then it’s rich and earthy.

If difference has a color, then it’s the dark brown of coarse rye bread or schwarzbrot—black bread—as my German mother calls it.

If difference makes you gag, if its little grains get stuck in your throat and make your stomach contract, then think again how lucky you are that you have a mother who butters your difference every morning and sends you to school with a slice of yellow cheese and a slice of pink meat.

Difference is the hunger you feel when your stomach is full. 

It makes you big and strong, my mother says.

She was born in 1946, the first year of peace, when people were hungry. She scoured the fields for potatoes. Everybody was hungry for peace and oblivion. The Nazis were like the skin you can peel off a boiled potato. One potato looks like another once you’ve taken off its brown jacket.

Sometimes my mother makes us boiled potatoes with curd cheese and calls it Arme Leute Essen—poor people food, but we aren’t poor. 

My mother laughs. Arme Leute Essen! It’s a half-cooked joke.

As a toddler, she would beg her mother for food. With a high-pitched voice, clasping her hands, she looks up and shows me how she used to do it. “Just like this! See?” Her gray eyes are the color of a cloudy day. They make the ceiling hang lower. They make me stoop and turn away.

Beside her hunger, everything pales in 1983.

“Stand straight,” my mother reminds me.

I have the only black bread in a white bread schoolyard.

When the mothers pick up their children after school, they are as soft and airy as the bread they pack for their children. Something makes me want to bite these mothers and see how far their skin will give. I want to measure the digestion of their anger, the gurgling of their forgiveness, the crustlessness of their love.

“You must grow big and strong,” my mother reminds me always, because I am her fruit.

You do not tell a fruit to grow happy on the stalk.

A happy fruit makes little sense.

*

I used to taste the difference, now I can smell it, too. 

Every time I grab a book, my hands graze the aluminum foil at the bottom of my schoolbag, the rotting bread bending and hardening into some unnatural shape. My fingers smell. I have touched the incarnation of my foiled soul. My exercise books and my pencil case smell.

My second-grade world is sweet and moldy.

It’s a small world.

Children in Ethiopia are starving

I cannot bring the black bread back home to my mother. Her love for me is in that bread. It’s a love that shrivels and hardens if you don’t consume it—a love that turns into bitterness.

What am I going to do with you? You’re ungrateful. Go to your room.

When she’s at her wit’s end, it means her love’s end. Her love’s end is the end of the world.

And then it’s my turn to scour her fields, root up her forgiveness, clasp my hands in a country hungry for peace and oblivion.

The teacher is walking up and down the aisle between our desks. She’s getting rounder every day. Someday her baby will drop out of her body in class. It will lie on the floor, an unrecognizable loaf of life. I’m afraid of that day.

On her desk, the teacher keeps a picture of her two other children. They sit under a parasol with white bread smiles as their mother stumbles, smiling in their bathing suits as she swims in the air. I hold my breath until she catches hold of a desk.

She puts a hand across her stomach, checking if the white bread baby has let go. I touch my forehead and somehow I’m surprised that we’re all still here. 

“How many times do I have to tell you not to leave your bags in the aisle?” she shouts, kicking the schoolbag at her feet. She picks it up, turns it upside down, the way I think you do with babies when they’re born.

Books, a ruler, a blue lunch box, and a small bag of marbles clatter onto the floor.

This boy does not carry his soul on his back.

“How many times do I have to tell you?”

What if this had happened to you? 

Please don’t let this happen to me.

But my mother wants me to put myself in other people’s shoes, so I hold my breath at the pool when I watch other people swimming.

“What if this had been you?” she says, pointing at the face of Anne Frank. “She was a little girl just like you.”

We aren’t Jewish. What she means is that the world is a place that has put little girls with barrettes on trains to camps where their hair was shorn. Their hair went on the hair pile, their shoes on the shoe pile, and then their bodies on the body pile.

There’s a rhythm to grim facts same as there’s a rhythm to Grimm fairy tales.

Nazis are Rumpelstiltskins. First, they want this from the girl. Then, they want that. And when she has nothing more to give they want her baby. All the while, they keep spinning gold from lies, soldiers from men, weapons from church bells, brooches from teeth fillings.

When my mother makes me watch educational history programs on Sundays, my grandmother says, “I’m going to lie down for a bit.” Before she goes to her little guest room, she turns around and asks, “Warum muss das Mädchen so schreckliche Sachen sehen?” Why does the girl have to watch such gruesome things?

“We must make sure that such gruesome things never ever happen again,” my mother says. “Nie wieder! It’s our responsibility!”

My grandmother lies on her uncomfortable spare bed in the middle of the day, the deafness and blindness of her youth becoming the judgment of her old age.

So we hide Anne Frank’s ghost in an annex of our minds. She’s in our books, on our TV set, our conscience.

My mother likes to say her name the way she likes to braid my hair, with a vigor that pulls at the root, not to hurt, but to strengthen. “Anne Frrrank,” she says, until the name stops being a name and becomes the sound of a beer bottle breaking, a neck snapping, mirrors cracking. Who is the ugliest of them all? The Germans! 

I don’t want to read a dead girl’s diary.

“Here, for you.” My mother gives me a blank diary, but I don’t use it. I don’t want anything to happen to me that is worth reading about.

My mother speaks of concentration camps, Konzentrationslager, a word she abbreviates to KZ, Kah-tset. The harsh German word sounds, to my ears, like the name of a terrible god.

Kah-tset.

The name of the ground opening up; the name of a volcano devouring man, woman, and child alive like the ashen people of Pompeii.

“There are still Nazis out there,” my mother likes to remind me, meaning that Kah-tset is only dormant. 

I’ve heard the names of concentration camps over and over again, but I’ve never pronounced them. You can’t just open your mouth and say _________ or _________ or _________.

You wear other people’s shoes, but not their tongues.

When she has braided my hair, my mother will not let it hang down in plaits, but fastens the plaits up on the sides of my head with hair clips that bite into my skin with little pointy teeth. The result is a hair-do called Affenschaukeln, monkey’s swings, popular forty years ago. Some boys like to pull on my Affenschaukeln and I beg my mother for plain plaits, but she insists on the loops, history coming full circle on my half-German head.

“Be a good girl,” she tells me as if my shoes were every girl’s shoes. Then she packs my black bread and sends me out into the world, the undigested morning gruel sloshing around my stomach.

“To make you big and strong.”

I wonder if my grandmother fed my mother these same words when she was my age.

I have learned the word regurgitation

Cows do it for themselves and birds do it for their young. I wonder if I’m a calf or a chick. Am I regurgitating, too, when I whisper into the perfect plastic shell of my doll’s ear?

Children are starving in Ethiopia.

Sometimes I wish I, too, had come in a glossy new box, smelling of plastic.

What am I going to do with the black bread? I whisper into the doll’s ear and suddenly her muteness, her stiffness, the fixed look of her eyes chafe me the way that old photographs of my grandfather in his Nazi uniform do.

I don’t want to smell anymore! I whisper into her ear.

My soul stinks.

If I were keeping a diary, I would write, Every garbage can is a temptation!

Passing them out on the street, my face grows hot, my palms grow moist, but there are always eyes watching and judging.

Children in Ethiopia are starving.

One afternoon I pass a garbage can when there’s no one around. Opening my schoolbag, I look left right left, left right left as if I were crossing a street, as if the eyes of a stranger could knock me down. Left right left, left right left. 

I grab one of the many warped packages I hide underneath my books.

I’m glad I’m not keeping a diary. This black-letter day will be another blank page. But then I put myself in the shoes of humanity. Left right, left right. This is how we walk on our two feet. Left right left right until green turns to brown and the mud sinks into trenches, shoes that walk on other people’s faces, shoes that outlast a lifetime, shoes that my grandfather and great-grandfather have worn before me. They didn’t know better, my mother says.

I must be good. I must be better. I must prove that it won’t happen again. I must be foolproof, germproof, stainproof.

Gesundheit is everything.

What is this sickly complexion? What am I going to do with you?

Throwing away bread would be like drawing a mustache on the face of Anne Frank, which is what white bread children do. I wonder where the white bread children carry their souls. What’s it look like? Its center as white as Wonder Bread, its crust as golden as wheat, its touch as malleable and light as a white bread mother’s wishes?

How I wish that I had a daughter that had skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, and hair as black as night. 

Snow White’s mother was a white bread mother.

Some babies are born with guilt in their navels. The umbilical cord rots like an old root, but the plugged hole in the belly is a reminder of another person’s hunger.

How I wish I had a daughter that had a soul as white as snow, a conscience as red as blood, and a past as black as night, my mother must have said once upon a time.

I hold the bread so tightly that I can feel it pulsating in my hands.

To throw away bread is to throw away oneself. It’s like killing an animal that is really an ensorceled human being, a creature dehumanized by bewitching words. It’s like getting a wish in a fairy tale in exchange for your humanity. I feel this deep in my belly button. This is what they did. This is where it starts. Where I’m standing now. Here.

Making the right decision, I turn away from the heap of red soda cans and snaking banana peels.

I walk away from the garbage can—and yet I stink.

My problem has no solution.

Sometimes I eat the black bread until I gag. Hours later in class, my tongue will dislodge a little grain between my teeth and I’ll push this grain around my mouth, not knowing what to do with it. This grain will turn into a pebble, my mouth into a shoe, my tongue into an inserted sole.

Everything I say is uncomfortable. My words chafe, blister on my path of goodness.

A quiet, exemplary girl, the teacher writes on my report card.

“An exemplary girl!” my mother reads, happy, for every exemplary girl has an exemplary mother.

Every day I fear someone will ask, where’s this smell coming from? And I’ll have to come forward.

It’s me. That smell is me.

If there were another black bread child, its soul also rotting on its back, we could come forward in lockstep, our heads hanging in shame.

It’s us. That smell is us.

It’s always better to stink as a group.

“No one will point a finger in a country in which everybody smells,” my mother says.

I hurry past her when I get home and put my schoolbag in the corner farthest from my door. I wash my hands before I kiss her.

My mother’s cleanliness is her religion. She scrubs my face and our floors until she can see her reflection in both.

“How was school?” she asks and I tell her about the math problems I solved.

My problem has no solution.

Sometimes I close my eyes and wish for something so hard that I see bright flashes in the dark. I wish I were a white bread child.

The wish is as white as marshmallows, as red as cherry lollipops, and as black as licorice.

I wish. I wish. I wish. Three times should do the trick.

“I wish someone would speak up,” says the teacher.

Her white bread baby hasn’t come out yet. She says it’s due during the summer break, which makes me slightly sick, since she said the word break.

“I’ll ask one last time.” The teacher is scanning our faces. “Whoever took it will have nothing to fear if they come forward now.”

I put myself in the thief’s shoes. Guilt is a strand braided into my being.

The teacher looks less human every day. Her big belly makes her lean back with her hands on her hips as if to keep from falling over and crawling on all fours. Leftleft righright. Leftleft rightright.

The baby must be as big as my doll now.

“Put your schoolbags on your desks,” the teacher says.

I wish I were home now, playing with my doll. I’d comb her hair, feed her, hold her in the crook of my arm. Her blue eyes blink when I hold her upside down. Put yourself into my shoes, I tell her.

My mother likes to watch me mothering.

The teacher goes through the schoolbags one by one, getting closer and closer. Her hands, pawing through our bags, fatten and grow stronger. She advances another row and she has become the world, rotating towards me, making the ground tremble under my feet.

This is the end, the death of the exemplary girl.

When that girl is gone, nothing will be left, except for an exemplary mother with empty arms.

If I had eaten my black bread today, I would throw it up now, but my stomach is empty. It contracts like a fish out of water.

I wish. I wish. I wish, goes the tail of the fish.

My wish is terrible.

It’s the wish of a people that stinks. A wish out of a Grimm’s fairy tale.

I know it’s wrong.

I wish. I wish. I wish.

My schoolbag stinks. Everything I touch stinks. The stuffy cabinet in which my grandmother keeps photos of the other past, the other side of the story, stinks.

I turn away from the world. 

I wish. I wish. I wish.

The world stops turning.

“I’m very disappointed,” it says to a girl three seats over. “Why did you steal my golden pen?”

I’m sorry.

The girl shrugs at the world.

So sorry. So sorry. So sorry.

This same girl once asked me why I wear Affenschaukeln if I don’t like them.

“Just tell your mother you don’t want them,” she said.

White bread children carry their souls on their tongues.

“I’ll have to tell your parents,” the teacher tells the girl, while I watch for it to happen. A whiteness in the teacher’s doughy face, a redness on the floor, an eternal blackness closing in on my soul.

But this girl does not care. She will run through her mother’s fields. Her roots won’t trip her up, her harvest is constant and droughtproof.

I walk home in my own shoes. Left. Guilt. Right. Relief. Or is it the other way round? The doubtful symmetry makes me dizzy.

“I got you something,” my mother says, handing me a book.

When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.

“It’s about a little girl,” she says, “who has to flee her home in Berlin when the Nazis come to power. She has to leave behind all her friends.”

I don’t want to read this ugly book, but I take it to my room where I whisper into my doll’s ear. I Almost Stole Pink Baby.

The doll wants a new dress.

I undress her, which is awkward because her center is not made of plastic, but of white cloth. When she’s naked her flaw shows—she can’t be real and soft at once.

We keep her clothes in a large hamper. The best dresses go on top, the sensible woolen outfits that my grandmother knits I keep at the bottom.

I carefully comb my doll’s hair. It’s as pretty as straw spun into gold. I will not put her hair up in Affenschaukeln—my girl can wear her hair any way she likes.

I am nothing like my mother.

I open my schoolbag and throw all the black bread into the bottom of the hamper. I cover it with my grandmother’s coarse knits, then the fine dresses my mother stitched, and, finally, the most beautiful dress, which is the one the doll came in, in her beautiful box marked MADE IN WESTERN GERMANY.

Already the smell of the black bread is rising to the top of the hamper, though it’s fainter with every layer.

I close the lid.

My girl looks perfect in her dress.

Soon, the smell settles in the stitches, collars, and frills of all her clothes. I will think twice about picking her up, about holding her close, about whispering into the perfect shell of her ear.

She can taste the difference now.

It will make you stronger, I tell her.

German fairy tales don’t end with people living happily ever after. 

They end like this: If they have not died, they are still alive today.

This is the version that my mother reads to me, our faces lit by the bedside lamp, our shadows filled with the stories of the people who would be alive today, had they not died.