Mary Rickert’s stories have been appearing regularly in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction for several years, starting in 1999 with her first publication, “The Girl Who Ate Butterflies.” Her work has also appeared in SCI FICTION and the anthology Feeling Very Strange, and has been nominated for the Nebula Award. Her collection, Map of Dreams, won the William L. Crawford Award for best first book-length work of fantasy.
Rickert says that she wrote this story in response to news reports concerning food packages being dropped in Afghanistan which were wrapped in the same color packaging as bombs — which detonated when picked up by hungry children. Many authors have been moved to write 9/11 stories; this is Rickert’s.
The entire text of this story appears here courtesy of the author.
Bread and Bombs
by M. Rickert
The strange children of the Manmensvitzender family did not go to school so we only knew they had moved into the old house on the hill because Bobby had watched them move in with their strange assortment of rocking chairs and goats. We couldn’t imagine how anyone would live there, where the windows were all broken and the yard was thorny with brambles. For a while we expected to see the children, two daughters who, Bobby said, had hair like smoke and eyes like black olives, at school. But they never came.
We were in the fourth grade, that age that seems like waking from a long slumber into the world the adults imposed, streets we weren’t allowed to cross, things we weren’t allowed to say, and crossing them, and saying them. The mysterious Manmensvitzender children were just another in a series of revelations that year, including the much more exciting (and sometimes disturbing) evolution of our bodies. Our parents, without exception, had raised us with this subject so thoroughly explored that Lisa Bitten knew how to say vagina before she knew her address and Ralph Linster delivered his little brother, Petey, when his mother went into labor one night when it suddenly started snowing before his father could get home. But the real significance of this information didn’t start to sink in until that year. We were waking to the wonders of the world and the body; the strange realizations that a friend was cute, or stinky, or picked her nose, or was fat, or wore dirty underpants, or had eyes that didn’t blink when he looked at you real close and all of a sudden you felt like blushing.
When the crab apple tree blossomed a brilliant pink, buzzing with honey bees, and our teacher, Mrs. Graymoore, looked out the window and sighed, we passed notes across the rows and made wild plans for the school picnic, how we would ambush her with water balloons and throw pies at the principal. Of course none of this happened. Only Trina Needles was disappointed because she really believed it would but she still wore bows in her hair and secretly sucked her thumb and was nothing but a big baby.
Released into summer we ran home or biked home shouting for joy and escape and then began doing everything we could think of, all those things we’d imagined doing while Mrs. Graymoore sighed at the crab apple tree which had already lost its brilliance and once again looked ordinary. We threw balls, rode bikes, rolled skateboards down the driveway, picked flowers, fought, made up, and it was still hours before dinner. We watched TV, and didn’t think about being bored, but after a while we hung upside down and watched it that way, or switched the channels back and forth or found reasons to fight with anyone in the house. (I was alone, however and could not indulge in this.) That’s when we heard the strange noise of goats and bells. In the mothy gray of TV rooms, we pulled back the drapes, and peered out windows into a yellowed sunlight.
The two Manmensvitzender girls in bright clothes the color of a circus, and gauzy scarves, one purple, the other red, glittering with sequins came rolling down the street in a wooden wagon pulled by two goats with bells around their necks. That is how the trouble began. The news accounts never mention any of this; the flame of crab apple blossoms, our innocence, the sound of bells. Instead they focus on the unhappy results. They say we were wild. Uncared for. Strange. They say we were dangerous. As if life was amber and we were formed and suspended in that form, not evolved into that ungainly shape of horror, and evolved out of it, as we are, into a teacher, a dancer, a welder, a lawyer, several soldiers, two doctors, and me, a writer.
Everybody promises during times like those days immediately following the tragedy that lives have been ruined, futures shattered but only Trina Needles fell for that and eventually committed suicide. The rest of us suffered various forms of censure and then went on with our lives. Yes it is true, with a dark past but, you may be surprised to learn, that can be lived with. The hand that holds the pen (or chalk, or the stethoscope, or the gun, or lover’s skin) is so different from the hand that lit the match, and so incapable of such an act that it is not even a matter of forgiveness, or healing. It’s strange to look back and believe that any of that was me or us. Are you who you were then? Eleven years old and watching the dust motes spin lazily down a beam of sunlight that ruins the picture on the TV and there is a sound of bells and goats and a laugh so pure we all come running to watch the girls in their bright colored scarves, sitting in the goat cart which stops in a stutter of goat-hoofed steps and clatter of wooden wheels when we surround it to observe those dark eyes and pretty faces. The younger girl, if size is any indication, smiling, and the other, younger than us, but at least eight or nine, with huge tears rolling down her brown cheeks.
We stand there for a while, staring, and then Bobby says, “What’s a matter with her?”
The younger girl looks at her sister who seems to be trying to smile in spite of the tears. “She just cries all the time.”
Bobby nods and squints at the girl who continues to cry though she manages to ask, “Where have you kids come from?”
He looks around the group with an are-you-kidding kind of look but anyone can tell he likes the weeping girl, whose dark eyes and lashes glisten with tears that glitter in the sun. “It’s summer vacation.”
Trina, who has been furtively sucking her thumb, says, “Can I have a ride?” The girls say sure. She pushes her way through the little crowd and climbs into the cart. The younger girl smiles at her. The other seems to try but cries especially loud. Trina looks like she might start crying too until the younger one says, “Don’t worry. It’s just how she is.” The crying girl shakes the reigns and the little bells ring and the goats and cart go clattering down the hill. We listen to Trina’s shrill scream but we know she’s all right. When they come back we take turns until our parents call us home with whistles and shouts and screen doors slam. We go home for dinner, and the girls head home themselves, the one still crying, the other singing to the accompaniment of bells.
“I see you were playing with the refugees,” my mother says. “You be careful around those girls. I don’t want you going to their house.”
“I didn’t go to their house. We just played with the goats and the wagon.”
“Well all right then, but stay away from there. What are they like?”
“One laughs a lot. The other cries all the time.”
“Don’t eat anything they offer you.”
“Can’t you just explain to me why not?”
“I don’t have to explain to you, young lady, I’m your mother.”
We didn’t see the girls the next day or the day after that. On the third day Bobby, who had begun to carry a comb in his back pocket and part his hair on the side, said, “Well hell, let’s just go there.” He started up the hill but none of us followed.
When he came back that evening we rushed him for information about his visit, shouting questions at him like reporters. “Did you eat anything?” I asked, “My mother says not to eat anything there.”
He turned and fixed me with such a look that for a moment I forgot he was my age, just a kid like me, in spite of the new way he was combing his hair and the steady gaze of his blue eyes. “Your mother is prejudiced,” he said. He turned his back to me and reached into his pocket, pulling out a fist that he opened to reveal a handful of small, brightly wrapped candies. Trina reached her pudgy fingers into Bobby’s palm and plucked out one bright orange one. This was followed by a flurry of hands until there was only Bobby’s empty palm.
Parents started calling kids home. My mother stood in the doorway but she was too far away to see what we were doing. Candy wrappers floated down the sidewalk in swirls of blue, green, red, yellow and orange.
My mother and I usually ate separately. When I was at my dad’s we ate together in front of the TV which she said was barbaric.
“Was he drinking?” she’d ask. Mother was convinced my father was an alcoholic and thought I did not remember those years when he had to leave work early because I’d called and told him how she was asleep on the couch, still in her pajamas, the coffee table littered with cans and bottles which he threw in the trash with a grim expression and few words.
My mother stands, leaning against the counter, and watches me. “Did you play with those girls today?”
“No. Bobby did though.”
“Well, that figures, nobody really watches out for that boy. I remember when his daddy was in high school with me. Did I ever tell you that?”
“He was a handsome man. Bobby’s a nice looking boy too but you stay away from him. I think you play with him too much.”
“I hardly play with him at all. He plays with those girls all day.”
“Did he say anything about them?”
“He said some people are prejudiced.”
“Oh, he did, did he? Where’d he get such an idea anyway? Must be his grandpa. You listen to me, there’s nobody even talks that way anymore except for a few rabble rousers, and there’s a reason for that. People are dead because of that family. You just remember that. Many, many people died because of them.”
“You mean Bobby’s, or the girls?”
“Well, both actually. But most especially those girls. He didn’t eat anything, did he?”
I looked out the window, pretending a new interest in our backyard, then, at her, with a little start, as though suddenly awoken. “What? Uh, no.”
She stared at me with squinted eyes. I pretended to be unconcerned. She tapped her red fingernails against the kitchen counter. “You listen to me,” she said in a sharp voice, “there’s a war going on.”
I rolled my eyes.
“You don’t even remember, do you? Well, how could you, you were just a toddler. But there was a time when this country didn’t know war. Why, people used to fly in airplanes all the time.”
I stopped my fork halfway to my mouth. “Well, how stupid was that?”
“You don’t understand. Everybody did it. It was a way to get from one place to another. Your grandparents did it a lot, and your father and I did too.”
“You were on an airplane?”
“Even you.” She smiled. “See, you don’t know so much, missy. The world used to be safe, and then, one day, it wasn’t. And those people,” she pointed at the kitchen window, straight at the Millers’ house, but I knew that wasn’t who she meant, “started it.”
“They’re just a couple of kids.”
“Well, not them exactly, but I mean the country they come from. That’s why I want you to be careful. There’s no telling what they’re doing here. So little Bobby and his radical grandpa can say we’re all prejudiced but who even talks that way anymore?” She walked over to the table, pulled out a chair and sat down in front of me. “I want you to understand, there’s no way to know about evil. So just stay away from them. Promise me.”
Evil. Hard to understand. I nodded.
“Well, all right.” She pushed back the chair, stood up, grabbed her pack of cigarettes from the windowsill. “Make sure not to leave any crumbs. This is the time of year for ants.”
From the kitchen window I could see my mother sitting on the picnic table, a gray plume of smoke spiraling away from her. I rinsed my dishes, loaded the dishwasher, wiped the table and went outside to sit on the front steps and think about the world I never knew. The house on top of the hill blazed in the full sun. The broken windows had been covered by some sort of plastic that swallowed the light.
That night one flew over Oakgrove. I woke up and put my helmet on. My mother was screaming in her room, too frightened to help. My hands didn’t shake the way hers did, and I didn’t lie in my bed screaming. I put the helmet on and listened to it fly past. Not us. Not our town. Not tonight. I fell asleep with the helmet on and in the morning woke up with the marks of it dented on my cheeks.
Now, when summer approaches, I count the weeks when the apple trees and lilacs are in blossom, the tulips and daffodils in bloom before they droop with summer’s heat and I think how it is so much like that period of our innocence, that waking into the world with all its incandescence, before being subdued by its shadows into what we became.
“You should have known the world then,” my father says, when I visit him at the nursing home.
We’ve heard it so much it doesn’t mean anything. The cakes, the money, the endless assortment of everything.
“We used to have six different kinds of cereal at one time,” he raises his finger instructively, “coated in sugar, can you imagine? It used to go stale. We threw it out. And the planes. The sky used to be filled with them. Really. People traveled that way, whole families did. It didn’t matter if someone moved away. Hell, you just got on a plane to see them.”
Whenever he speaks like this, whenever any of them do, they sound bewildered, amazed. He shakes his head, he sighs. “We were so happy.”
I cannot hear about those times without thinking of spring flowers, children’s laughter, the sound of bells and clatter of goats. Smoke.
Bobby sits in the cart, holding the reigns, a pretty dark-skinned girl on either side of him. They ride up and down the street all morning, laughing and crying, their gauzy scarves blowing behind them like rainbows.
The flags droop listlessly from flagpoles and porches. Butterflies flit in and out of gardens. The Whitehall twins play in their backyard and the squeaky sound of their unoiled swings echoes through the neighborhood. Mrs. Renquat has taken the day off to take several kids to the park. I am not invited, probably because I hate Becky Renquat and told her so several times during the school year, pulling her hair which was a stream of white gold so bright I could not resist it. It is Ralph Paterson’s birthday and most of the little kids are spending the day with him and his dad at The Snowman’s Cave Amusement Park where they get to do all the things kids used to do when snow was still safe, like sledding, and building snowmen. Lina Breedsore and Carol Minstreet went to the mall with their baby-sitter who has a boyfriend who works at the movie theater and can sneak them in to watch movies all day long. The town is empty except for the baby Whitehall twins, Trina Needles who is sucking her thumb and reading a book on her porch swing, and Bobby, going up and down the street with the Manmensvitzender girls and their goats. I sit on my porch picking at the scabs on my knees but Bobby speaks only to them, in a voice so low I can’t hear what he says. Finally I stand up and block their way. The goats and cart stutter to a stop, the bells still jingling as Bobby says, “What’s up, Weyers?”
He has eyes so blue, I recently discovered, I cannot look into them for more than thirty seconds, as though they burn me. Instead I look at the girls who are both smiling, even the one who is crying.
“What’s your problem?” I say.
Her dark eyes widen, increasing the pool of milky white around them. She looks at Bobby. The sequins of her scarf catch the sun.
“Jesus Christ, Weyers, what are you talking about?”
“I just want a know,” I say still looking at her, “what it is with all this crying all the time, I mean like is it a disease, or what?”
“Oh for Christ’s sake.” The goats’ heads rear, and the bells jingle. Bobby pulls on the reigns. The goats step back with clomps and the rattle of wheels but I continue to block their path. “What’s your problem?”
“It’s a perfectly reasonable question,” I shout at his shadow against the bright sun. “I just wanta know what her problem is.”
“It’s none of your business,” he shouts and at the same time the smaller girl speaks.
“What?” I say to her.
“It’s the war, and all the suffering.”
Bobby holds the goats steady. The other girl holds onto his arm. She smiles at me but continues to weep.
“Well, so? Did something happen to her?”
“It’s just how she is. She always cries.”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake, Weyers!”
“You can’t cry all the time, that’s no way to live.”
Bobby steers the goats and cart around me. The younger girl turns and stares at me until, at some distance, she waves but I turn away without waving back.
Before it was abandoned and then occupied by the Manmensvitzenders the big house on the hill had been owned by the Richters. “Oh sure they were rich,” my father says when I tell him I am researching a book. “But you know, we all were. You should have seen the cakes! And the catalogs. We used to get these catalogs in the mail and you could buy anything that way, they’d mail it to you, even cake. We used to get this catalog, what was it called, Henry and Danny? Something like that. Two guys’ names. Anyhow, when we were young it was just fruit but then, when the whole country was rich you could order spongecake with buttercream, or they had these towers of packages they’d send you, filled with candy and nuts and cookies, and chocolate, and oh my God, right in the mail.”
“You were telling me about the Richters.”
“Terrible thing what happened to them, the whole family.”
“It was the snow, right?”
“Your brother, Jaime, that’s when we lost him.”
“We don’t have to talk about that.”
“Everything changed after that, you know. That’s what got your mother started. Most folks just lost one, some not even, but you know those Richters. That big house on the hill and when it snowed they all went sledding. The world was different then.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Well, neither could we. Nobody could of guessed it. And believe me, we were guessing. Everyone tried to figure what they would do next. But snow? I mean how evil is that anyway?”
“Oh, thousands. Thousands.”
“No, I mean how many Richters?”
“All six of them. First the children and then the parents.”
“Wasn’t it unusual for adults to get infected?”
“Well, not that many of us played in the snow the way they did.”
“So you must have sensed it, or something.”
“What? No. We were just so busy then. Very busy. I wish I could remember. But I can’t. What we were so busy with.” He rubs his eyes and stares out the window. “It wasn’t your fault. I want you to know I understand that.”
“I mean you kids, that’s just the world we gave you, so full of evil you didn’t even know the difference.”
“We knew, Pop.”
“You still don’t know. What do you think of when you think of snow?”
“I think of death.”
“Well, there you have it. Before that happened it meant joy. Peace and joy.”
“I can’t imagine.”
“Well, that’s my point.”
“Are you feeling all right?” She dishes out the macaroni, puts the bowl in front of me and stands, leaning against the counter, to watch me eat.
She places a cold palm on my forehead. Steps back and frowns. “You didn’t eat anything from those girls, did you?”
I shake my head. She is just about to speak when I say, “But the other kids did.”
“Who? When?” She leans so close that I can see the lines of makeup sharp against her skin.
“Bobby. Some of the other kids. They ate candy.”
Her hand comes palm down, hard, against the table. The macaroni bowl jumps, and the silverware. Some milk spills. “Didn’t I tell you?” she shouts.
“Bobby plays with them all the time now.”
She squints at me, shakes her head, then snaps her jaw with grim resolve. “When? When did they eat this candy?”
“I don’t know. Days ago. Nothing happened. They said it was good.”
Her mouth opens and closes like a fish. She turns on her heels and grabs the phone as she leaves the kitchen. The door slams. I can see her through the window, pacing the backyard, her arms gesturing wildly.
My mother organized the town meeting and everybody came, dressed up like it was church. The only people who weren’t there were the Manmensvitzenders, for obvious reasons. Most people brought their kids, even the babies who sucked thumbs or blanket corners. I was there and so was Bobby with his grandpa who chewed the stem of a cold pipe and kept leaning over and whispering to his grandson during the proceedings which quickly became heated, though there wasn’t much argument, the heat being fueled by just the general excitement of it, my mother especially in her roses dress, her lips painted a bright red so that even I came to some understanding that she had a certain beauty though I was too young to understand what about that beauty wasn’t entirely pleasing. “We have to remember that we are all soldiers in this war,” she said to much applause.
Mr. Smyths suggested a sort of house arrest but my mother pointed out that would entail someone from town bringing groceries to them. “Everybody knows these people are starving. Who’s going to pay for all this bread anyway?” she said. “Why should we have to pay for it?”
Mrs. Mathers said something about justice.
Mr. Hallensway said, “No one is innocent anymore.”
My mother, who stood at the front of the room, leaning slightly against the village board table, said, “Then it’s decided.”
Mrs. Foley, who had just moved to town from the recently destroyed Chesterville, stood up, in that way she had of sort of crouching into her shoulders, with those eyes that looked around nervously so that some of us had secretly taken to calling her Bird Woman, and with a shaky voice, so soft everyone had to lean forward to hear, said, “Are any of the children actually sick?”
The adults looked at each other and each other’s children. I could tell that my mother was disappointed that no one reported any symptoms. The discussion turned to the bright colored candies when Bobby, without standing or raising his hand, said in a loud voice, “Is that what this is about? Do you mean these?” He half laid back in his chair to wiggle his hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of them.
There was a general murmur. My mother grabbed the edge of the table. Bobby’s grandfather, grinning around his dry pipe, plucked one of the candies from Bobby’s palm, unwrapped it, and popped it into his mouth.
Mr. Galvin Wright had to use his gavel to hush the noise. My mother stood up straight and said, “Fine thing, risking your own life like that, just to make a point.”
“Well, you’re right about making a point, Maylene,” he said, looking right at my mother and shaking his head as if they were having a private discussion, “but this is candy I keep around the house to get me out of the habit of smoking. I order it through the Government Issue catalog. It’s perfectly safe.”
“I never said it was from them,” said Bobby, who looked first at my mother and then searched the room until he found my face, but I pretended not to notice.
When we left, my mother took me by the hand, her red fingernails digging into my wrist. “Don’t talk,” she said, “just don’t say another word.” She sent me to my room and I fell asleep with my clothes on still formulating my apology.
The next morning when I hear the bells, I grab a loaf of bread and wait on the porch until they come back up the hill. Then I stand in their path.
“Now what d’you want?” Bobby says.
I offer the loaf, like a tiny baby being held up to God in church. The weeping girl cries louder, her sister clutches Bobby’s arm. “What d’you think you’re doing?” he shouts.
“It’s a present.”
“What kind of stupid present is that? Put it away! Jesus Christ, would you put it down?”
My arms drop to my sides, the loaf dangles in its bag from my hand. Both girls are crying. “I just was trying to be nice,” I say, my voice wavering like the Bird Woman’s.
“God, don’t you know anything?” Bobby says. “They’re afraid of our food, don’t you even know that?”
“’Cause of the bombs, you idiot. Why don’t you think once in a while?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The goats rattle their bells and the cart shifts back and forth. “The bombs! Don’t you even read your history books? In the beginning of the war we sent them food packages all wrapped up the same color as these bombs that would go off when someone touched them.”
“We did that?”
“Well, our parents did.” He shakes his head and pulls the reigns. The cart rattles past, both girls pressed against him as if I am dangerous.
“Oh, we were so happy!” my father says, rocking into the memory. “We were like children, you know, so innocent, we didn’t even know.”
“Know what, Pop?”
“That we had enough.”
“Oh, everything. We had enough everything. Is that a plane?” he looks at me with watery blue eyes.
“Here, let me help you put your helmet on.”
He slaps at it, bruising his fragile hands.
“Quit it, Dad. Stop!”
He fumbles with arthritic fingers to unbuckle the strap but finds he cannot. He weeps into his spotted hands. It drones past.
Now that I look back on how we were that summer, before the tragedy, I get a glimmer of what my father’s been trying to say all along. It isn’t really about the cakes, and the mail order catalogs, or the air travel they used to take. Even though he uses stuff to describe it that’s not what he means. Once there was a different emotion. People used to have a way of feeling and being in the world that is gone, destroyed so thoroughly we inherited only its absence.
“Sometimes,” I tell my husband, “I wonder if my happiness is really happiness.”
“Of course it’s really happiness,” he says, “what else would it be?”
We were under attack is how it felt. The Manmensvitzenders with their tears and fear of bread, their strange clothes and stinky goats were children like us and we could not get the town meeting out of our heads, what the adults had considered doing. We climbed trees, chased balls, came home when called, brushed our teeth when told, finished our milk, but we had lost that feeling we’d had before. It is true we didn’t understand what had been taken from us, but we knew what we had been given and who had done the giving.
We didn’t call a meeting the way they did. Ours just happened on a day so hot we sat in Trina Needles’s playhouse fanning ourselves with our hands and complaining about the weather like the grownups. We mentioned house arrest but that seemed impossible to enforce. We discussed things like water balloons, T.P.ing. Someone mentioned dog shit in brown paper bags set on fire. I think that’s when the discussion turned the way it did.
You may ask, who locked the door? Who made the stick piles? Who lit the matches? We all did. And if I am to find solace, twenty-five years after I destroyed all ability to feel that my happiness, or anyone’s, really exists, I find it in this. It was all of us.
Maybe there will be no more town meetings. Maybe this plan is like the ones we’ve made before. But a town meeting is called. The grownups assemble to discuss how we will not be ruled by evil and also, the possibility of widening Main Street. Nobody notices when we children sneak out. We had to leave behind the babies, sucking thumbs or blanket corners and not really part of our plan for redemption. We were children. It wasn’t well thought out.
When the police came we were not “careening in some wild imitation of barbaric dance” or having seizures as has been reported. I can still see Bobby, his hair damp against his forehead, the bright red of his cheeks as he danced beneath the white flakes that fell from a sky we never trusted; Trina spinning in circles, her arms stretched wide, and the Manmensvitzender girls with their goats and cart piled high with rocking chairs, riding away from us, the jingle bells ringing, just like in the old song. Once again the world was safe and beautiful. Except by the town hall where the large white flakes rose like ghosts and the flames ate the sky like a hungry monster who could never get enough.