The Bread Baker
“Salome, we have guests for the upper room tonight.” Simon’s deep, gravelly voice boomed.
“Oh,” she thought. “More work”.
“I suppose they want the full Passover meal?”
“We are almost out of bread.”
“Well, bake some. And make sure the room is clean.”
Salome was not happy. Although renting the upper room provided extra money, it also meant extra work, mostly for her. The thought of cooking, especially baking more bread in the unusual heat and humidity of this April day wasn’t a pleasant one.
“Do I even have enough barley,” she wondered? That thought in mind, she went into the storeroom and checked. With a sigh of relief, she saw the jar that contained the barley was more than half full. “No need to use the more expensive wheat”, she thought. “ If they are renting our room, they don’t have much money.”
She poured half the barley into another jar, a small amount of salt in a bowl, and took it to the inner courtyard. The thought that in the last year she and her father had been able to afford their own oven was a comfort. It made things so much easier. Returning to the storeroom, she dipped water out of the large, water jar. No need to make a trip to the well since she had replenished the water earlier in the morning from the common well. When her mother died, this became one of her chores even though she was so young and small she could barely see over the rim of the well. Even now it was a stretch for her.
Carrying the water jar to the courtyard and placed by the barley. Strange, the inner courtyard door was open and she was sure she had locked it securely. The upper room had an outside staircase and vagrants had been known to shelter there for the night only to be discovered and turned out the next morning. Locking the gate was an important part of her duties.
While locking it, she happened to look across the dusty street. Strange. There were two men standing at the corner of the house directly across from hers. Although their clothing was plain, it appeared to be made of expensive cloth. She had been sewing since she was old enough to thread a needle and she knew good cloth when she saw it. They seemed not to notice her but kept looking at the upper room staircase at the end of her house. When they did notice her, they moved away out of sight. Something about them made her feel uneasy, but she went back to her baking, mixing the barley, water, and a bit of salt. Again she felt so fortunate she had her own oven although it was really just a large jar. It was much better than using an oven that was basically a hole in the ground.
The bread baked quickly and she used the salt bowl to stack it and take it inside. Simon had not told her when the guests would arrive, just that it would be between the evening, sometime between noon and sunset.
Still uneasy, Salome went out to check on the strange men several times after the noon hour. Each time she went to the gate, she saw the same two men in the same place and each time they saw her they moved to the corner of the building as though they were trying to stay out of her sight.
She kept watch for the guests through the afternoon as well as watch on the men who were acting so oddly. Just before evening, she heard the sound of voices nearing the gate. The guests had arrived.
“A scruffy looking bunch,” Salome thought as they came up the street to the gate. Robes clean enough but of poor quality, some patched and darned. They came, laughing and talking. At first she thought the leader was the one leading the group. He was almost charging up the street with the others lagging behind. The fact he appeared to have a sword was a concern. The last two were quite far behind, obviously having a conversation. The smaller, darker one appeared to be arguing with the taller, well built one who was bending down slightly to hear what was being said. The taller man was listening patiently. He was quite ordinary in appearance it was only his quiet manner, the sense of calm that seemed to surround him, that told her she was wrong and this was the true leader.
When the men reached the gate all of them stood waiting for the taller man to enter, she knew she was right. As they entered, Salome glanced across the street. The two men who had been there all day were moving deeper into the gathering shadows but did not go away.
Salome opened the gate and directed the men to the stairs. The leader thanked her in a quiet voice, yet a voice easy to hear above the babel of the others.
“I will check later to see if you need anything,” she said as he started up to the room. He turned and smiled at her, a smile that started in his eyes and seemed to travel through his body and reach out to her.
Coming down the stairs, she found herself looking for the two men. One was still standing in the shadows but the other seemed to be gone. Salome should have felt a little better that there was only one but for some reason it added to her unease.
An hour later, she decided to check on the men in the upper room. Starting to climb the stairs, she looked for the single man. There were two again. One looked up as she looked down, said something to the second man, and they both disappeared around the corner into the darkness.
At the top of the stairs, starting to open the door, she paused at the sound of the leader talking. Opening the door, a crack, standing as far out of sight as she could and peeked through the partially open door. The leader had bread, her bread, in his hand. He held it up and said something so softly she could not hear, but when she looked at the others, their faces seemed puzzled, and their eyes were all focused on him. He passed the bread to the man next to him who got up, walked to the end of the table and started giving a piece to each of the group. The room grew quiet. Softly closing the door she went back down, moving slowly as she puzzled over what she had just seen, even forgetting to look for the men outside, and went in the house.
It was growing late and time for the guests to leave. Salome was on her way out the door to tell them, but she saw them coming down the stairs. In the same order they came up the street earlier, but this time there was no chatter, no conversations. Instead, they moved more quietly with solemn looks on their faces. Uneasily, she looked for the two men across the street. If they were still there the night cloaked them. She went to the gate, opened it, and stood behind it as the guests departed. As before, the leader was the last. He stopped and said, “Thank you, Salome.” It took her by surprise because she did not remember telling him her name. Then he did something very odd indeed. He took her hand in his and passed her a small piece of bread. “Your bread will be remembered. Bless you and all those who prepare and all those who eat it.”
With that, he followed the others up the street. As she puzzled over what had happened, and why the piece of bread in her hand was still warm hours after its baking, the two men emerged from the shadows across the street and after waiting for a time, followed the guests back into the night.