The Yeast of Eire
By Alaya Dawn Johnson
7 September 2009
Part 1 of 2
A few years ago we hosted a Teuton man-at-arms who, among his expected effects, also bore with him a giant silver goose. He had named this beast Tridanesus, which he alternately defined as either "bird of heaven's feather" or "great man's penis-pearl."
Tridanesus was a lord among fowl, with a great black beak that would only sup the sweetest mare's milk, the most marbled meat, and—on one memorable occasion—the tip of my pot boy's left pinky. Amery had made the mistake of attempting to pet it. He ran sobbing to my skirts, afterwards, though as a great man of twelve he was later very embarrassed. I refrained from teasing him—it had reminded me of when he was six and newly employed in my kitchens. I knew those days were lost and so savored them like the last honeycomb at the end of winter.
I mention the goose (stuffed with a lemon, cornbread and sage and blood sausage and gibbets, soaked in a marinade of Lachlan's wine and my nutmeg, then slow-roasted for six hours over the fire with Amery doing most of the turning and Gisla and I taking turns basting from the drip; gods strike me dead if it wasn't the best goose any of us had ever eaten), because the grip our long-departed Teuton used to send the bird to the bosom of his god was precisely the same as that which I was currently employing on Amery's neck.
"Come on, Red! Ease up!" Amery shouted. In the three years since the goose incident, Amery had grown until he was a head taller than me and nearly as wide, but I'd been stirring plum puddings since he was in his mother's belly, and easily his match.
"Then give me my letter, eh?" I released my grip, and he dashed safely out of range behind the kettle.
"Don't you want to hear the news from the front?"
I smacked my cutting board with enough force to rattle the knives in their holders. "Don't test me, Amery. I don't give a spavined horse's shit for that war, and you know it. Let the lords turn our best grain fields into a blood-soaked mud pit; maybe they'll reconsider come winter. Me, I wash my hands of it."
I recalled the taste of quinoa plucked fresh from the Eiran fields, its hidden coils unfurled, boiled and dressed with just a bit of lemon and cut radishes. Tart and sharp and rich like the smell of sun on a field after a rain. Prince Jocelyn had taken me along as his personal chef during one of the brief attempts at peace between our two kingdoms, years ago. And I recalled, too, the face of the gilt-haired man with whom I'd shared that dish, the smell of him, and all I'd left behind in the Eiran earth.
"Red?" Amery was worried now, all mischief gone out of him. "Are you okay?"
"Of course," I snapped, knowing I shouldn't. "Now give me the letter before I smack you."
Amery, a veteran of my moods, hardly noted this threat. "Hey, I made some chestnut elderberry tarts. I figured out how to do that thing you always do with the crust, you know, to make it flaky. I used some duck fat."
I allowed this unexpected revelation to distract me. "You'd better not have used the last of it. Prince Jocelyn is coming back tomorrow!"
"Oh, you're worried about Prince Jocelyn now? The way you hate this war . . ."
"At least he likes my food. Unlike his lady." His wife, the Lady Kyril, ate food the way monks wore hair shirts, and she stifled my every attempt at flavor.
I tried his tarts. Amery was my star pupil, the only one from my staff I could see running this kitchen after I retired or keeled over. The tart elderberries cut the smoky sweetness of the chestnuts and dark molasses. The crust was as flaky as he claimed, a consistency that crunched between the teeth and dissolved on the tongue.
I ate two, and Amery's grin seemed to split his face in half. "Who do you know in Rodrem, anyway?" he said, handing me the letter. "Cowards can't even take a stand against the Eirans—"
"Amery . . ." My voice held a warning.
His jaw clenched; a childhood gesture. "Don't know why you're the only one allowed to talk about the war."
"Because it's my damn kitchen, that's why! If you knew all the food you'll never eat because it can't get past the front . . . I'll never taste draping rosemary again because of this war!"
"There's more important things than food, Red," Amery said, and ran into the courtyard. Amery was too young to know his arse from his elbow, but his unhealthy fascination with our never-ending war still made me furious. I ate another one of his delicious tarts to calm myself and then considered the letter.
A paper packet had been sealed and affixed to the inside of the covering envelope. No writing of any kind, of course. The postmaster's mark made it clear that the letter had traveled through Rodrem, but I knew from reputation its true origin would be utterly untraceable. At least, that's what I'd paid my five crowns for. I removed the bit of gray wax that held the packet and, ever so gently, tore it along the edge.
There's a street in Telin, the capital city of Eire, with pink marble for pavement and delicate spandrels of blown glass arcing across the street. At night, the moonlight spills through these fantastic baubles, shattering into blue and green and orange swirls. A few shops with unobtrusive awnings crowd the end of this street where the marble has cracked and the glass has long since shattered, and there I ate the finest wheat bread I've had in my life. These were the places only locals knew, and the bakers were at least partly magicians. I remember watching, entranced, as they stirred bubbling, blackened vats of ancient wild yeast; as the soft, tacky dough ballooned overnight into a gargantuan mass that had to be beaten back with paddles. I lingered over the smell of fermenting starter, the sharp bite of the draping rosemary they sometimes folded inside, the warm, sour-sweet exhale of first-risen dough. And oh! the golden crackling crust, the dense, pockmarked treasure inside.
Spread some butter on and eat it, he told me, the gilt-haired one who always laughed, and dear gods I cried—but never mind, the past is back there and gone forever, like its wheat fields trampled to bloody mud. I try not to remember, but sometimes shadows wait for me around unexpected corners, sometimes I taste his name on my tongue and I swallow to keep it inside. The woman who walked along Glass Street all those years ago isn't the same one smelling contraband yeast from an enemy nation. And yet, our griefs are the same.
I tipped the packet onto my fleshy palm and sniffed the thin white-yellow flakes that emerged. Perhaps I detected a slight musk, but almost odorless. I frowned, because I remembered the nearly overpowering scents of the finished product, but this smuggler had been recommended as highly as such people could be, and anyway, it was too late now. Yes, these innocent-looking flakes of dried flour paste were contraband of the highest order. Yes, if Prince Jocelyn, Lady Kyril, or certain of Innskeep's retainers recognized its significance (and the true origin of the packet supposedly from neutral Rodrem), then I'd be driven to the stocks at best and tried for treason at worst. I did not care. I'd longed for this for the past ten years and now I was done waiting.
"Amery informs me you're consorting with the enemy."
My heart sped before I recognized his voice. No need to act guilty in any case, but certainly not around Lachlan. Of all the battery of servants and retainers Prince Jocelyn kept at his personal castle, Lachlan was the one I'd trust with my life. I'd known him since he was a little boy of eight and I a girl of fifteen, a second sous-chef in far over my head. He'd been a preternaturally intelligent and quiet child—so much like a small adult we often treated him as such. Nearly twenty years later and Lachlan had turned his natural quiet into a careful asceticism that I sometimes felt he used as both armor and weapon. And like the boy, I often caught glimpses of something brighter beneath.
He was tall enough to block the doorway, the sun behind him casting his dark hair and face into shadow.
I took a few steps closer and rolled my eyes. "The enemy, is it?"
Though I bandied about my negative opinions without the slightest care of who might be listening, Lachlan had cultivated the ability to invest utter blandness with the barest hint of derision. I recognized it, but I wondered how many others did. Our Huntsmaster was an enigma, and one I suppose most of us viewed warily.
Lachlan raised his hands to grip the lintel. His lips quivered. "Well, I told him he might want to get a better grasp on politics before he goes off to war. Rodrem is neutral. Still . . ."
I snagged on the implications. "Amery, he . . ." I looked away and cleared my throat. "He wants to fight?"
"Red . . ." Lachlan put a hand on my shoulder. "You know he does."
"Oh gods. I guess I do." I caught myself sniffling and couldn't be bothered to stop. Lachlan didn't say anything; just led me to a chair and squatted beside me. Little Amery. My weasely pot boy and now my best student, my protégé . . .
"Off to fight in a never-ending war for a few stupid provinces whose value has long ago been destroyed."
Lachlan gave me a clear, piercing look that might have been sympathy or reproach. He stood up and fetched two of Amery's tarts. He gave me one and kept the other. I watched his face as he took a bite and was rewarded for my attentions by a smile, fleeting but as true as gold.
"He told me to try one," he said. "I think . . . he wants to stay almost as much as he wants to go—"
"Then let him stay!"
He frowned. "You're a mother to him, Red. He'll go without your blessing, but it will hurt him. You know that."
"Gods, do you taste this, Lachlan? He saved some duck fat for the crust. I never told him to do that! He could be a great cook . . ."
"But boys want to be soldiers." There was a note in his voice that made me sit up and meet his eyes, a wide, deep blue much remarked upon because of their uncanny resemblance to King Guillemot's. They were distant, his mouth a pale line. I remembered, suddenly, that he had left when he was sixteen for the front, but that was just after I'd returned from the diplomatic mission in Eire and very little of that time remained with me now. He'd been eighteen when he returned with a shoulder injury that made it hard for him to lift a sword. Prince Jocelyn had named him Huntsmaster then, to the chagrin of his more senior staff, but no one formally complained. Lachlan had fit so seamlessly into our world I'd forgotten (or chosen to forget) that he'd ever left.
"I don't want him to regret it, Lachlan," I said, holding his hand. It was sticky from elderberries.
But Lachlan wouldn't meet my eyes. "Let him go. It's his choice to regret. And you, Red, are too old to wave around contraband food like no one knows Rodrem trades with the Eirans. Something tells me that package started its journey in Telin."
I laughed. "No one will touch me. I've been part of this place for too long."
"And that's your choice."
The bread wouldn't rise. I'd dissolved the flakes in a bit of well water and then swirled that into a wet paste of flour and honey and left it out for a day. It had foamed and bubbled as expected (though maybe not foamed or bubbled enough, and I cursed myself for not paying closer attention all those years ago in the Eiran bakeries). When I folded flour into the sponge to form dough, the texture had felt properly firm and tacky. I had worked it until my elbows and back ached until I could pinch a lobe that stretched so long and thin I could see the silhouettes of my staff through it. I wet a cloth, put the dough in a bowl and set that bowl on my rising shelf.
And the bread wouldn't rise.
"Red! The pudding!"
I scrambled down from the rising shelf and over to the stove, where Amery held a plucked duck in one hand and the stirring spoon in the other.
"Oh, so you're talking to me now?" I said, taking the spoon to stir the nearly-burned mixture of milk and cardamom.
"I thought you were ignoring me," he muttered.
I had to laugh. "I guess I might have been. Peace, Amery?"
"In this kitchen?" He spied something over my shoulder and raised his voice. "Gern, take those oysters out, you imbecile! The prince likes to be able to chew his food!"
Gern—the same age Amery had been when he first came here—shouted an apology and rushed to lift the oysters from the steam bed. I didn't admonish Amery for being too harsh. I'd have reprimanded Gern myself if my bread would rise, if I hadn't been plunged into such a maudlin, sentimental mood by Amery's incipient adulthood. That's his choice, Lachlan had said.
But, "Peace," Amery said softly, and gave me a quick hug with that familiar nuzzle, and then dashed off to supervise his oyster bisque and sparrow pies.
And thus we executed the feast for Prince Jocelyn's return to Innskeep. The rumor was that the waning autumn had been grim for our troops—we'd suffered massive casualties while the Eirans had finally managed to recruit the enigmatic Valeri to the battlefield. Why that ancient, long-lived race would deign to involve themselves in one of our petty squabbles I didn't understand, but given their magic and superior fighting skills I had to wonder if we'd soon be flying Eiran pennants. Amery was high on the latest rumors of King Guillemot forming an alliance with the "cave-dwellers" who lived along our northern border with the sea. They had a proper name, these squat creatures of only one apparent sex (who, it was said, ate limestone like potatoes and diamonds like truffles), but no one could pronounce it. I doubted the story, but Amery spoke with such determined relish that I'd gritted my teeth and neglected the pudding to check again on my dough.
It was still clammy and stiff by the time we had to relay the food across the courtyard and into the banquet hall.
"Maybe it's just a slow riser," I said absently. "It looks a little larger than it did this afternoon, right? An inch or so?"
Gisla gave it a professional appraisal. "It's a dead one, Red," she said. "You ought to try again."
I scowled. "Well, what do you know about baking?"
"I know you got a bum rise, that's what. You could wait till next Sunday and all you'd get is some mold."
"Help Gern with the venison," I said, because I knew she was right and felt like maintaining my childish peevishness for a little while longer. I didn't carry anything myself—I was not disposed very favorably towards my employer and Prince of late. If he was going to take away Amery, he could damn well do it without my encouragement.
After the food had been delivered, the staff dispersed for their meal. I sat alone by my rising shelf, staring at a lump of dough that resembled a day-old corpse covered in dew. What had I done wrong? I baked dozens of loaves a week from our conventional yeast. Looking at this unleavened hunk made me feel like a teenager again. At fifteen, several stone lighter and woefully inexperienced at all forms of cooking, I'd ruined dozens of loaves before I finally mastered the nuances of bread making. I remembered that Lachlan—so young then, but already noted for his skill with the hounds and falcons—had patiently gnawed through all my incipient efforts. He never criticized, and yet each time he bit into one of my unleavened rocks I grew more determined do it properly.
I sighed. Gisla was right; I'd have to try again. I slapped the lump of dough onto a baking stone and slid it into the oven. It could at least feed the chickens.
Amery dashed inside as I stood. He had changed his clothes—his best red hose and a dark blue tunic just a few inches too short. His hair under his cap seemed to have been hastily washed. His cheeks were flushed with excitement, but his expression turned wary when he saw me. I thought I knew why.
I wanted to scream at him. But, peace, we had said. It's his choice. "Forget something?" I said, mildly.
He nodded, apparently relieved by my reaction. "Just something I made for the prince. Here, I'll show you."
Amery ran to the storage room, and when he emerged I could scarcely credit the sight.
A gray goose, neck delicately curved so that its head nuzzled its left flank, rested in confectionary perfection on a silver platter. As he drew closer I could see what he had done: a massive cake of appropriate density carved into the shape of the bird, and then carefully decorated with hard-drying frosting colored with roots and herbs from the garden. I glanced at Amery's left hand, where the tip of his pinky ended in a swath of scar tissue.
"I wouldn't have thought you'd like to remember that," I said.
He shrugged. "She was a beautiful bird. And the Teuton taught me to fence."
And I understood. He only saw himself valiant on the battlefield, crushing the conveniently evil Eirans, returning to rapturous adoration—preferably and especially Gisla's. He wanted to become a man. How could I deny him? But how could I let him go?
"Amery . . ."
"I could . . . present it to Prince Jocelyn. On your behalf."
He grinned, but didn't hug me. He was too old for that.
Lachlan, given the honor of a seat at the second table, was the first to notice my entrance into the banquet hall. I read the play of emotions across his face like a musical score: surprise, confusion, worry and then a certain kind of quiet pride. He knew what I was about to do. Prince Jocelyn, his head bandaged but otherwise in apparently fine health, was refilling his wife's wine goblet while laughing about something one of his field commanders had said. The prince was two months older than me. His father had given him the duchy of Taurin just a few weeks before I got my first job here. We had known each other for a very long time, and though the relationship had never been more than that of master and servant, I thought we understood each other. I was halfway to his table before he noticed me. When he did, he laughed and lifted his glass in my direction.
"You've outdone yourself again, Red! I swear, it'll be your food and not the Eirans that get me in the end!" His face was florid—he tended to humor in his cups, a quality in a lord for which his minions can only be grateful. His wife, the Lady Kyril, regarded me with her usual distaste. She was pale, blonde, thin as a reed, and younger than Lachlan—the prince had wedded her nearly a year before and had so far eschewed the marriage bed for the battlefield. As well he might. "It'd be like pukking a starving goat," Amery had joked, once, and Gisla asked him if he had personal experience.
Poor Gisla. And if she couldn't convince him to choose the hearth over the battlefield, I knew I had no chance.
"My Prince," I said, when I was a respectful yard away from his table, "I beg leave to present you with this humble offering from my kitchens."
He nodded with drunken grace and I set Amery's confection before him.
"What a curious bird," the prince muttered, and behind me I heard Lachlan take an aborted breath, like he might laugh.
"It's beautiful, Cook. A shame to cut it apart."
"My sous chef, Amery, created this for you, my Prince, to honor your return and support your valiant efforts against the Eirans. In fact, he wishes to be your field cook." Gods, but I wanted to vomit. Amery owed me his life for doing this. At least now he wouldn't have to slog his way in the infantry. The Lady Kyril narrowed her eyes but the prince, as I had known, appreciated this appeal to his vanity.
"Does he? Well, maybe I should meet this talented patriot. Gods know we could do with some men of heart at the front." He took a bite of the first slice, from the bird's posterior. "Not to mention one who knows his food. You spoil me, Red. Show him in!"
Amery dashed past me as soon as I opened the doors. I heard his conversation with the prince in drowned-out echoes as I walked away. I could have stayed and watched my best cook receive the honor of being taken into the Prince's personal entourage, but the one art of war I support is the retreat.