The Yeast of Eire
By Alaya Dawn Johnson
14 September 2009
Part 2 of 2
Late that night, when the prince's revels had subsided, I dissolved a few more of the Eiran flakes and set the loose sponge out to ferment overnight. This time I crushed late-autumn grapes into the mixture—maybe that would help the bubbles. One of the old men on Glass Street had told me that the yeast was a living thing, a mass of infinitesimally tiny creatures that needed to be fed and nurtured just like any other animal to grow. And when they grew, our bread rose, and when we baked the bread, they died. This had seemed fanciful to me at the time, like magic, but now I wondered. Could it be that the Eiran yeast wouldn't rise like my own because the Eiran animals needed a different sort of nourishment? Did they know they were in foreign soil, breathing foreign air? Was their refusal to rise a patriotic one?
I laughed. "Lethscal, yeast," I said, in my halting, badly accented Eiran. "But won't you please rise?"
"An aimsir d'eireiofa."
I thought, for a moment, that my yeast had spoken. But it was just Lachlan, quietly come upon me. I knew he spoke fluent Eiran, but it was not a fact he frequently called attention to. He must have learned it in that shadowy period before he came to us, for certainly no one here spoke that difficult tongue.
I felt his steady, quiet compassion, and smiled. He pulled out an open bottle of wine—seven-year aged red from the Querel grapes in vineyards to the east. An excellent year, and the last of its kind since the Eirans captured the province six months ago in a bloody battle that had probably destroyed half the land. The bottle was priceless; not the kind even a generous lord would give to a loyal retainer.
He bore my scrutiny with typical patience and equanimity, not so much daring me to ask as patiently waiting to see if I would. I sighed.
"You didn't steal this?" I said, finally, knowing that he hadn't.
He didn't even smile. "No," he merely said. I poured two glasses.
"Jocelyn made Amery his personal cook," he said, after I'd taken a few heady sips. He'd given the wine time to aerate, bringing the out the full body. It was the sort of detail he considered. "That was clever of you."
I took another, deeper, gulp. "Better than a soldier."
"He's off celebrating with Gisla."
"Maybe she'll at least be kind enough to bed the boy before he gets himself killed."
I'd thought to at least incur his censure, but he seemed full of dark thoughts tonight. He finished his glass and poured another. "You did a good thing, Red. No matter what happens."
Even if he dies? But something in the downward cast of those blue eyes, in the slope of his shoulders, stilled my tongue. In Amery I saw the son I'd never have. But I wondered if what Lachlan saw was himself.
I reached into the oven and pulled out my loaf of Eiran rock. I'd banked the fire, just enough to keep it warm.
"Remember this?" I said, knocking it against the edge of the counter for effect. "My contraband doesn't like me, apparently."
Lachlan smiled—a full, true one that even hinted at some teeth, but it alarmed me, for in his eyes I thought I saw unshed tears. "Shall I eat it?" he asked.
Like the very first days, but seen through time's beveled glass. I was no longer young, or thin, or pretty. Lachlan had long since become a man. And yet we sat in the same kitchen, and he solemnly ate the failed fruit of my labor.
"I remember this. That sour-sweet . . . you should give it to him, Red. Jocelyn is leaving again in the morning. Give it to Amery before he goes."
"But it didn't rise—"
"Rocks keep better, anyway."
The long night after Amery left, I tried the bread again. It still didn't rise.
Four months. A long, dark time while the wind turns bitter, the ground freezes, the cows hate to give milk and the hens hoard their eggs. That winter, Lachlan kept away for long stretches, helping the Huntsmaster at the King's own castle in Breventown and bringing fresh horses and dogs to the front. Each time he returned, he would bring me news of Amery's safety and some food. He seemed to know precisely what we most needed—cinnamon bark, preserved lemons, bulbs of dried garlic. I'd give him a wedge of my latest Eiran rock and then he was gone again. I tried not to miss him. I tried not to think about Amery.
Gisla had wept the morning Amery left. The sight had almost comforted me—at least Amery wasn't going into war totally inexperienced. He had been solemn when he sought me out to say goodbye. Mostly due to an early-morning hangover, but he also anticipated my anger.
"Don't thank me," I said, because I was nursing a hangover of my own and in no mood to hide my feelings. "You know what I think of this war. Your talents are wasted there."
"But, Red, the prince is going to make me his cook—"
"And good luck finding anything on a winter field but some scrawny rabbits and moldy grain."
He sighed, hurt, but drew himself up. "The prince's train is leaving on the hour. Will we part like this?"
And there. At that moment, both of us nursing our raw resentments and hoarded love, peering at each other from behind our battered carapaces, I realized what had happened. He'd become a man.
"I have something for you," I said. I went to the pantry and pulled out the basket I'd spent all night preparing. It was overflowing with his favorite foods: curried sausages, pickled eggs, gooseberry jam and apricot preserves, a wheel of hard-rind goat milk cheese, a jar of soft clotted cow milk cream, ten fresh currant scones, two bottles of Lachlan's wine and fifty uncooked chestnuts. And at the very bottom, my Eiran rock. If he couldn't eat it, at least he'd have something to remember me by.
Amery grunted a little at its weight, his eyes wide with shock. "Red, you didn't—"
"Oh, let me feed you one last time, boy. There's something special at the bottom of the basket. You know that letter I got from Rodrem? It was a very special ingredient. Like . . . magic. So keep the bread with you and think of me."
"Magic . . . " He grinned. "We'll rout the Eirans before next summer, you'll see."
I hugged him. He groaned, but returned the embrace. I thought of that day long ago in the woods—a different sort of love, a harder goodbye. And then I wept with Gisla.
The more ascetic the table, the more it seemed to please Lady Kyril. So I confined my feasts to the stable boys and housemaids and let Lady Kyril and her ladies-in-waiting enjoy the blandest of beef puddings, boiled fowl and unsalted bread. I focused on my Eiran yeast. I slept most nights in the kitchen so I could rouse myself every two hours to stir and feed the bubbling sponge. I ran through our honey and preserves until Gisla had to warn me we might not be able to bake the real bread before long. Once I watched the dough for three days hoping it would rise, but it just grew mold. After three months, I finally cleared two inches. Gern ate that one, a little wide-eyed at my intensity. I continued to speak to the yeast in Eiran, just in case. But without Lachlan to help, my expressions were sadly limited.
Lachlan had been gone on his latest trip for a month when I made my twenty-fourth attempt. I was running low on the original flakes at this point, though I'd rationed them carefully. If I couldn't get the yeast to take soon, all of that effort at smuggling it in would go to nothing. I set out the sponge, this time with maple sap, and went to see if the guards had any news of Lachlan. They didn't, but there was a letter for me from the front. I rested against a crumbling buttress and stared at the mud-splattered paper. Lachlan wrote in artful, barely-legible loops. But these letters were larger, rounder, inexperienced. "Red, Kitchens, Innskeep" was its laconic address. My hands shook, but I opened it.
Sorry I haven't written Red but it's been very busy with the Prince and also the battle. The prince says I'm leagues better than his other cook, but you were right and I think it is much harder to make a fit meal in the fields. But some of the women collect borage and clary and winter savory from the meadows nearby which helps. I still have your magic bread, but it's not so good for eating.
We've had a hard winter. The Eirans retook Anjou and Carolin. It's all the Valeris fault! The cowards are casting spells so our arrows go awry and our soldiers can't even fight! Why are they helping them? Don't they see the Eirans just want to take over the whole world? Don't be mad, Red, but the prince's last standard bearer was shot through the shoulder a week ago and he's now honored me with the duty. I know you thought to keep me from the fields by cooking for the prince, but don't worry. I've been practicing my sword and shield and I know I'm ready for this. I'm to join the charge tomorrow. We'll recapture Anjou and I'll come home with the prince in the spring, I promise.
I hope you like the present. One of the women gave it to me (don't tell Gisla).
The envelope bulged with small paper packet I hadn't noticed before. I ripped it open, and the smell that assaulted me was at once so familiar and unexpected that I sat down in the packed dirt of the courtyard.
A wild herb of gleaming blue and gray-green, draped like a god's mantle in the sun-kissed edge of a forest copse. It had been summer then, the forest he loved filled with those peculiar, darting fragrances—rich mineral musk from the moss and droppings, sharp woody sap, sweet bluebell blooms. And then we came upon the rosemary bushes, their scent high and sharp as a clarion call. The leaves left a black, sticky sap on our fingers, the blue flowers were so bitter that I puckered my lips and he ate another. We stored some in my kirtle and went that night back to Glass Street. Presented it to the lords of the vats like a new year's offering to the gods. They squeezed the sticky sap, coated their hands with it, kneaded the leaves into their tacky dough and then baked it in their ovens.
I'll never taste draping rosemary again, because of this war, I'd told Amery. And he'd remembered. Even dried, I dreamed of how this would taste with my yeast, if only it would rise. Reunited at last.
Gods, please keep him safe.
The starving goat herself found me a week after I received Amery's letter.
"Cook," she snapped, forcing me to pause my careful kneading.
Her expression was filled with its habitual distaste, but also something a little wistful, as she looked around the cheerful disarray.
"To what do I owe this honor, my Lady?" I asked.
She took a few steps closer to me. "You look tired, Cook."
I shrugged. I'd forgone sleep the last few days, thinking of Amery and Lachlan when I wasn't stirring or punching or kneading the bread. "I'm working on a new recipe," I said. Why was she here?
She was silent for a moment, almost resembling a wild deer in her stillness, her fascination and fear. She looked at my rough ball of dough, sprinkled through with just a pinch of the precious rosemary.
"New recipe?" she said. "But it just looks like bread."
"Every bread is different, my Lady," I said. "Especially this one."
Her nostrils flared, her tiny hands clenched. I supposed she could tell I was laughing at her. "Then, Cook, I demand you serve it to me. I've noticed you do not treat my table with the same care you give to my lord husband. You were always preparing some special meat or pudding or whatnot when he was here."
Don't laugh, Red. "But, my Lady requested—"
"Then I hereby rescind the request. I demand you feed me just like you would my husband. The richest flavors, the sharpest spices."
Had she lost her mind? This was a woman who blanched at the sight of a walnut saffron pudding. "My lady, I'm afraid—"
"I order you, Cook. And I order that special bread first of all."
We locked gazes, her milky green to my red-shot brown. What did she think to prove? That I should I respect her as I did her husband? I snorted.
"No," I said, because I was very tired and the thought of serving my Eiran yeast to this harridan was too much to bear.
She blinked. "Dare you refuse me, Cook?"
"That is an act of treason against your liege."
I laughed. "My Lady," I said. "Our liege is hundreds of leagues away, losing a war he shouldn't fight. I'd say he has bigger worries."
I expected to infuriate her. But I was still a little surprised when she threw me in the dungeons.
One month. I ate very well, since Gisla and Maiuel, my guard, took turns sneaking me food. And my accommodations were relatively clean, if dark. Prince Jocelyn kept a light hand on his affairs, and the cool, dark rooms were ideal for wine storage. I missed the sun. I missed my yeast and my rolling pin and cutting board and hearth fire. I missed Lachlan, but I made do. I thought of recipes for spring herbs (basil flowers on twice-cooked curds and fresh Eiran bread; mint and ginger lemonade; marjoram, thyme and fowl liver pie). The Lady Kyril appeared determined to forget about me until her husband returned. I didn't expect him until at least the summer, but when the days began to lengthen and the air seemed a little less chill, I heard a curious commotion through the high grille in my cell. It opened up onto the main courtyard, so it was easy to hear the gates being hauled open and the guards calling to one another.
"That Lachlan with him?"
"Is he wounded?"
The bottom seemed to drop out of my stomach. Wounded? But Lachlan hadn't been able to fight for years. I scrambled off my lumpy straw pallet and pounded on the bars of my cage. Maiuel didn't respond and so I stopped. For some reason, I was reminded of the weeks and months after I returned from Eire, that despairing wakefulness. It was nearly two hours before anyone thought to find me. And the sight of the one who had deigned to visit my cage shocked me nearly as much as Prince Jocelyn's return.
"He wishes to see you," Lady Kyril said, her voice cold enough to freeze ale.
I barely registered this. "Can you tell me, is Lachlan, the Huntsmaster—"
"You will hold that ungovernable tongue of yours or I'll hold it myself. My royal husband wishes to see you, and so I must obey his wishes."
For the first time, it occurred to me to regard her with pity. It could not be easy having a man like the prince for a husband. She was young, and pretty enough, and must have imagined she had made the luckiest match in the kingdom when she'd wed the prince. But instead she found herself in an empty castle with impertinent servants and strange, rich food and a whole world her rank forbade her to access. And so she covered that great disappointment with ice and haughteur. Was I any better? I wore my feelings on my sleeve, but I was always more eager to access anger than compassion. I preferred to rule than befriend. Without Lachlan . . . I shuddered, but did not ask her again.
The Lady unlocked my cell and led me up the stairs. I'd attempted to do rudimentary exercises in the dungeon, but the stairs quickly exhausted me. We went up three flights before we reached the prince's private apartments. This surprised me. Surely he'd rather receive me in his banquet hall? I had no breath to ask, even if the Lady hadn't threatened my tongue's safety.
She gestured to the door, and I stepped through. It took a moment of me squinting against the glare of the sun through the slitted glass windows to resolve the scene. The prince was seated on a chaise lounge, his right arm bound to his side and his face pale and tight with pain. He looked gaunt and old. Lachlan stood by his side, mercifully unhurt.
Our eyes locked; I felt his matching concern and wished, suddenly, that I'd been allowed a bath and a change of clothes. He cocked his head and I remembered to curtsy.
"My Lord," I said.
"My wife tells me that you uttered treasonous statements in her presence. No, no, don't deny it, the Lady Kyril is nothing if not punctilious with the truth. I'm going to release you. As you can see, I could use some of your cooking, Red." He laughed, a bit unsteadily. I wondered what had happened at the front. Normally the royalty were kept well-guarded. "In any case, I trust you'll learn to curb yourself in the future? My wife does act in my stead while I am at the front."
I opened my mouth to thank him, but Lady Kyril stepped from behind me, her face white with fury. "You cannot. Husband, you cannot. I refuse to allow you to release this . . . this impertinent, fat beast—"
"My Lady, that's quite—"
"Oh, and she did more than just utter treasonous statements and insult my person. Oh yes! She also illegally traded with our enemies for some of their evil potions—"
"Lady Kyril, you're quite mistaken . . . "
Lachlan and the prince spoke at the same time, and I was struck by the similar timbre of their alarm. Lachlan wouldn't even look at me. Gods, he had warned me, after all.
Prince Jocelyn looked up at Lachlan, who fell silent. "Show me," he said, simply.
The Lady seemed to hesitate, surprised by the intensity of their reaction. But she reached into her satchel and pulled out the envelope containing the last of my Eiran yeast. "The pot boy tells me she uses this powder to make a potion every night, speaking evil Eiran incantations, and when it foams the next morning she mixes it with blood and drinks it."
Oh, poor Gern. The laughter escaped my lips like a bolt from a crossbow. The prince, after a moment's surprise, joined me. And then a third voice twined inside mine, as familiar as my hearth and rare as the wine he'd given me to mark Amery's leaving.
The Lady seemed as though she was near tears. "But, my Lord—"
The Prince ceased his laughter and winced. "I'm sure you speak sincerely, wife. But you're merely mistaken. Red, am I correct in supposing these incantations of yours to be some sort of aid in making a special variety of bread favored by the Eirans?"
I glanced at Lachlan, but his eyes were filled with remorse. So, I merely nodded.
"Then I have your bread to credit with my life. This wound you see here had turned and would surely have taken my arm, if not my life, had your Amery not thought to use your magic bread as a poultice."
Magic bread? But I remembered I had said something like that to him when he left. I'd meant it as a metaphor, a reason for him to keep a memento of me since it couldn't very well be eaten. But it could cure a weeping wound? Four months after I baked it?
"But, Prince . . . wasn't the bread, well, bad?"
"I thought so. It was covered in mold, but Amery insisted. And I was willing to try anything, at that point."
I had to smile. So my rock had some use after all. For all I knew, the Eiran yeast did have some strange curative properties. "Did you bring Amery back with you, my lord? I'm sure he'd love to cook in a proper kitchen again . . . "
I trailed off. I wondered, suddenly, at the reason for Lachlan's remorse.
"Red," said the prince.
"Red," said Lachlan.
"The boy's dead, Cook," said the Lady.
A memory I cannot swallow: mushroom season in the woods, that golden summer in Eire. We took along his cousin's pig, who was not a champion sniffer, but had been known to discover the occasional prize of morels and, every so often, truffles. We were laughing; I'd brought along a basket filled with meats and fruits and two loaves of Glass Street bread. I wanted mushrooms, but he was after draping rosemary. His hair was bright as gilt, but he said he loved my dull brown best. The eyes of lovers, I suppose. Up ahead, two shadows. The pig wasn't interested; in fact, it tried to get away, but my lover laughed and we went to explore. One ill-advised turn, one shadowed corner, and everything ended.
A fletched arrow, a thud, a cough and spray of blood.
I didn't understand what had happened, the significance of the sprinting feet and stolen picnic basket, until much later. The woods were infested with soldiers unemployed because of the cease-fire, but still in the habit of violence. I wonder if they enjoyed my cheery meal or if they threw it away, disgusted they didn't kill for a better prize. There was blood on my kirtle, when the pig led me back to town. They thought it was mine, and I couldn't find the words to tell them otherwise. Even now, smashed open by fresh grief like a black walnut, a great deal of that time escapes me. The Prince himself escorted me in his entourage back to Innskeep. This did not strike me as strange. I was hollow as a bell; dull as rotting wood.
Lachlan took me to his apartments and made me sit before his fire. I hadn't known he lived so fine—for all our friendship, he had carefully circumscribed its limits. He came to my domain, but I never entered his. He poured me some wine and covered my trembling shoulders with a quilt. And then he told me what had happened.
The Valeri could use their magic to call up great fireballs on the battlefield. They could only do this once every few days, so they timed these attacks to cause the most damage. Amery, very soon after treating the prince's wound, had been told to run a message to one of the King's commanders at the other end of the field. And so he had run, and reached that commander, at the precise time that one of the Valeri fireballs roared over the field and incinerated the nearly two hundred souls standing there.
"Did he . . . do you think?" I could not cry. I could hardly speak.
"The fires are very hot. He wouldn't have felt much."
His eyes were nearly as anguished as mine. I remembered that he had told me to treat Amery as an adult. "What do I do, Lachlan? I let him go, and now . . . "
"Accept futility," he said quietly. "That's what my mother used to say."
He'd never mentioned his mother before. I thought, this is what the war makes of us. Women who force themselves to eat their husbands' hated food, who won't sleep so they can bake impossible bread. Who wait.
He hugged me. I thought of the wound I had never seen on his right shoulder; of the little piece of himself Amery had lost in a goose's mouth.
"I think you should see this," said Gisla, when Lachlan and I walked into the kitchens. Nearly everyone was there, brooding and silent. Gisla led me to the corner where I'd kept my illegal yeast sponge. "I've been stirring it for you," she said. "Look."
She lifted the cloth covering the wooden bowl and I stared. During my stay in the dungeons, the mixture had long since passed over a normal bubble and foam. Strange purple and black streaks ran through the white of flour and water. But when she stirred it, I could tell from the way it crackled and parted that it hadn't gone dead. And it smelled. . .it smelled like glass and moonlit streets, like vats of sour, bubbling potions, innumerable tiny animals belching their florid exhalations.
"Go raibh mo ga," I said. Thank you. It had just needed time. And in my desperate anxiety, that was the one gift I'd refused to give.
I made the dough, folding the rosemary, Amery's last gift, inside. My month of inactivity had allowed my kneading muscles to atrophy, but in some ways I relished the burn of overexertion, punishing the dough and myself. I kneaded until I wept, until the ball stuck to the counter and I could have stretched it thin as pastry sheets. And then I coated it with oil, set it in a bowl, and waited for it to rise.
We sang while we waited; or, at least, they sang and I listened. Gisla started with a tune from her home province about a trickster Valeri and the road through the moonlight kingdom. And then Gern sang one of those interminable ancient ballads about Roland made bearable by his boy's soprano and then, to all of our shock, Lachlan agreed to our teasing suggestions.
"This is a song for youth and mourning," he said. And then he sang. My Eiran was by far the best in the room, but I only caught a few of the words: sea, cairn, wheat. Oh, but that sound! His voice was deep and rough, but it cradled the notes like sparrow's eggs. In the foreign words I thought I could see Amery, his fingers covered in juice from stolen blackberries, his look of concentration as he determined the perfect density of glaze on a pie crust, the promise unfulfilled. Had he recognized death as it claimed him? And what of the gilt-haired one I'd loved so many years before? They all left me behind. Only futility stayed close.
At least I still had Lachlan. By the time he finished singing the dough had ballooned to three times its original size and I laughed as I punched it down. The smell of baking bread and draping rosemary filled the kitchen like sunlight. The bread was out of the oven the next morning; we broke it at dawn. I laid out gooseberry jam and clotted cream, but I spread my slice with butter, and fed it to Lachlan first.