By Stephanie Greene

I’m making soul cakes for Jesse, my lost brother. In times of turmoil, we turn to charms. I don’t have fingernail clippings or tender little bouquets of his hair to include in some spell; I’m improvising here. 

The medievals have us beat, reaching as they did, beyond death.  On All Souls’ Day, mendicants went door to door, offering prayers for the errant souls still trapped in Purgatory, in exchange for raisin-studded cakes given out by the nervous rich. Prayers on this holy day are like a file baked into a cake and brought to the jail under a checkered cloth.

Were certain supplicants known to be especially effective? Or was it a question of volume, like thumbs up on Facebook? 

There must be some modern tradition of putting food out for hungry ghosts, but I don’t know it. The closest we came was a fry pan nailed to the barn, the hobo signal that there’s a meal at this home.  

Now I bake oatmeal raisin cookies, Jesse’s favorite, flavored with cardamom, soft and surprising– a far cry from the leaden jaw breakers of yore. Baking my prayers might be a little far-fetched, I see that, only half believing. I bring my offerings to school, feeding the growing number of hungry kids who drape themselves too casually in my classroom before the bell. But they are always for him.

I don’t even know if Jesse’s alive or dead, but I remain convinced he needs my prayers. The truth is that I need him to return, tired and dirty, full of adventures to recount, my sweet little brother.  

To be clear, Jesse is my foster brother, a heartbroken casualty. His absentee father appeared, out of the blue, at his grandmother’s house where he lived, and offered to take Jesse camping. A Boys’ Life dream: camping with his own dad! They loaded gear into the car, and drove to a huge building. It looked like a castle, with turrets and spires. His dad slipped out, saying he’d just be a minute. He emerged with two guys who lifted Jesse by his armpits, like a trunk. His father said, “You gotta live here now. I’m sorry. It ain’t you.” Jesse was eight.

He stayed there four years and then came to live with us; a miracle! We set him up in the baby’s nursery, with new cowboy wallpaper, but I think he knew. Ours was a house haunted by buried grief. He was always jumpy, resisting oasis, one foot out the door. 

He didn’t even age out. He took off at 15, right before his June birthday. His note said, “Sorry. Got to find someone. I can’t be your son.” He took some money, a sleeping bag, and a backpack. We’d have given him all that and more, but gifts made him antsy. He didn’t want to be indebted to us.

We notified police in three states, even hired a PI who came back with a sighting in Fresno, but then lost the trail.

I told myself I want to rescue him, to make him all right: happy, whole, loved. What I wanted was a redo. 

I could never have predicted I’d find him seated in Times Square. I’d brought my bio class to the city, driving vans down from Vermont to tour the Museum of Natural History and the Bronx Zoo. Rural kids: some have never been in an elevator. They gawk in laughing amazement at the hundred screens, all big as houses, the lights bouncing off their clean, innocent faces. 

Jesse sits on a blanket and has a coffee can in front of him, but no sign. What tips me off is his cowlick as he scans the surge of pedestrians. He is still beautiful. I pass, then double back. “Jesse?”

He takes a minute to recognize me. “Ruthie,” he says, clear as glass. 

Then I see his hand, or stump, rather, and fall to my knees. “I found you!” I cry, everything dawning on me at once: time, revelations, loss. “What happened?” 

“Ms. Morse! Are we crossing the street or what?”

He looks amused. “I’m right here, Sis.” He glances at his arm. “A naval accident,” he explains. “My hook itches,” he adds, with a wink.

“Come with me,” I urge, mindless of my charges. “I’ll give you supper.”

He glances at the confused teens. “You look pretty busy. And I’m waiting for someone.”

“Oh, Jess.”

“My dad’s in New York. I saw him on the subway, and here on Broadway, but I couldn’t catch him.” He sees my look and explains, as though the math makes a meeting inevitable. 

“Three hundred thirty thousand people pass through this square every day. That is only about three percent of the city’s population, and many of them are tourists, I know, but eventually, with a little serendipity….”

Tears scorch my cheeks. “You’re out here begging.”

“I’m not a beggar, I’m a seeker.” 

He regards my clogged emotions with kindness. “I’m looking for luck in all its disguises,” he adds, the horizon in his eyes.

2 thoughts on “Soul Cakes

  1. I really enjoyed the way this story closes off, it’s a well-executed tangle of emotions! Thank you for sharing your writing!


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