There are occasional joys in being a borderline hoarder. This week at Bible Study, we were looking at the Gospel for the coming Sunday, and feeling as bewildered as the poor people in the passage wondering what the devil Jesus could mean by offering them his right arm for bread – too hairy, surely! – and his blood for wine.
I half recalled writing a story on the side, more than twelve years ago, when I was meant to be writing for a publication offering resources for church with children. The story was never published, but it did, apparently, travel the ocean from England to Ohio, and move from one basement to the next, until it surfaced this afternoon, to make its inglorious debut on the pages of the internet.
Once upon a time, many, many years ago, a little boy was found next to Barry Island beach in South Wales. The child, not more than one year old, was wrapped in a blanket and laid in a basket to shield him from the stiff sea breeze, and was sleeping peacefully when he was stumbled across – almost literally, by the village baker. Where he had come from was a complete mystery, and the people decided that they must keep him and raise him as their own. Because the baker had found him, he went to live at the bakery with the Master Baker and his wife, and the villagers named him Barry, for the beach where he had been washed up.
Barry Baker grew like any other child, although the villagers sometimes observed that his dark eyes seemed to hold secrets, perhaps of faraway places that they themselves had never seen. Others dismissed this as romantic nonsense. He was liked well enough, though, and was a great help to the baker and his wife in their bakery, as they had no other child.
When Barry was nearly a man, a terrible drought fell across the land of Wales. The rivers stopped running, the crops failed, and there was terrible hunger throughout the Vale in which the baker and his family lived. One day, there was no more flour at all with which to bake bread. The people dragged themselves through the days, waiting to die of thirst or salvation, with barely the bile left to be angry at God, or to plead.
At last, it seemed as though their time had come. The baker and his wife kissed Barry good night at the end of another dark day, and said goodbye, for there did not expect to wake in the morning. Barry held them close, and told them not to worry. They shook their heads and smiled at him – there was still love left to spare, after all – and went off to bed.
But Barry did not go to bed. He went over to the baking counter, and drew together a large clump of thin air. Like a little boy playing at baking, he poured together invisible water and lively yeast, sifted ethereal flour and salt, and brought them together like a conductor directing music, conjuring the very vibrations of the air into something beautiful.
Barry began to knead the nothing that he had brought together. He kneaded away so hard and so long that droplets of sweat ran down his hair and fell into a puddle on the counter. He kneaded the nothingness so long and so hard that it seemed to turn into somethingness beneath and between his very fingers.
If anyone had been there to see, they might have noticed that as the somethingness became more solid, Barry became less so, until a watcher could not only have seen through him, but passed a hand right through his body to touch the bread on the counter. But there was no one to see, and Barry worked on, through the night, the sweat of his brow pooling and cooling beside the new bread.
To their surprise, the baker and his wife did awaken the next morning, and when they did, they smelt the most delicious aroma of fresh bread coming from the bakery kitchen. They thought that they must have gone made with hunger: “Is there such a thing as a smell mirage?” asked the wife; but they crawled down the stairs to look all the same.
They were astonished to see the fire ablaze, and a perfectly baked loaf of bread browning beautifully in the oven. It was large enough to feed the whole village, and the baker’s wife lost no time calling all her neighbours in as her husband broke it into pieces.
Moreover, they discovered a deep pool of water, fresh and clear, on the bakery counter. A dip had appeared, a built-in bowl worn away as though by centuries of erosion, the slow drip of time, and there was enough to wet everyone’s lips so that they could chew and enjoy the bread. The people were overjoyed to find themselves saved from the famine.
Only one person was missing from this great and happy occasion, and that was Barry. As time went on, and whenever they came together to eat of the bread and drink of the sweet, cool water, as they did daily until the drought was done, the baker and his wife and their neighbours would wonder aloud where Barry had gone, and why he had left just as salvation was within their grasp.
But somewhere in their hearts, they knew. And when the drought was over, and the times of plenty returned, and there was meat and fruit and bread to eat in abundance, and wine to drink; still the villagers would find themselves drawn together at the baker’s counter, to break bread and drink from the little pool of water that had given them life when they were sure that death was upon them. And they would thank God for sending them young Barry Baker.