Chapter 4 Scene 3

by Richard Perkins
This entry is part 16 of 65 in the series Doormaker's Fall

Trying to summon a sense of adventure after his restless night, Devon rose with the sun.

As he dashed from his small room to the water pump behind the inn, the chill mountain air greedily stole the warmth from his face and hands. It sent hungry fingers down into his lungs, foretelling of the icy winter to come.

Devon pumped the worn wooden handle until clear water sluiced into his bucket. Careful not to slosh the freezing water on Mabel’s floor, Devon returned through the rear of the inn to the common room hearth.

There he stirred the remaining coals together and added a few unburned log ends that had escaped last night’s fire. After some coaxing, the reluctant flame took hold. Devon settled his water bucket firmly on the coals and then sat on the hearth stones, leaning back against the mantle. The warmth of the stone had not succumbed to the night. Devon closed his eyes and savored the smoky heat.

A blanket of silence lay over the inn. Devon imagined it spreading over the entire town, soothing the villagers with sleepy peace. Devon sighed, but he knew the vision was an illusion. Already the industrious farmers and craftsmen would be stirring. With the Harvest Bazaar looming only days ahead, idleness was a luxury few could afford.

Mabel’s soft footsteps startled Devon out of his waking dreams. In the kitchen across the common room, she was laying out the supplies she would use to prepare breakfast. His mouth watered just thinking about it.

“Good morning Mabel.”

“Aren’t you the early riser today!”

Devon rose from his seat and padded lightly over to bar which separated the kitchen from the common room. “Couldn’t sleep. Is there anything I can help with?”

Mabel paused a moment before answering. “Yes of course you can.”

Devon had asked the same question on countless winter mornings, and Mabel always found some task or other for him. He wondered what it would be today. Pursing her lips as she surveyed the larder shelves, she wiped her hands on her apron.

“As soon as that water is warm, wash your face and hands. Then put on a clean apron and come back here.”

Devon scrambled to do as he was told. When he returned, Mabel had laid out a handful of simple ingredients on the wooden counter.

“This morning I’m serving some flatbreads. I need a hand making enough for all of the guests. First I need you to measure out the buckflour onto one of those stone sheets.” Mabel pointed to small burlap sack next to a pair of large flat stones.

“You’ll need one handful per person. About twelve should do for today.”

Devon began doling out the coarse flour, but soon reached the bottom of the sack. “There’s only enough here for nine Mabel.”

“I was afraid of that.” Mabel retrieved three large metal canisters and handed them to Devon. “You recognize those plants, right?”

Devon inspected the can she indicated, and nodded. “Wildenrush. I’ve collected it for you before.”

“That’s right. It grows quite well for most of the year throughout the Barrier foothills. Now what about the others?”

Devon took one stem from each container and compared them all side by side. “They’re all very similar. The second type is smaller and darker, but feels tougher somehow. The third must be the largest wildenrush I’ve ever seen!”

Mabel nodded, chuckling to herself. “You’re almost right. They’re all relatives actually.” She took the diminutive grey stalk from Devon. “This is saltrush. It grows in pockets scattered across the Great Desert. It grows very quickly, but only for a few quints after the brief desert rains. Here, smell the bud.” She held the stem to his nose.

“It smells a little spicy!”

Mabel nodded. “Now taste.” She lightly crushed the grey-yellow cluster between two fingers, and then held it to his mouth.

Devon put a small piece on his tongue, and wrinkled his nose. “It’s bitter. And I think I taste salt?”

“Very good. Now try this one.”

They repeated the process for the giant golden stalk. Devon’s eyes widened in amazement. “It tastes like butter!”

“That’s right! This is plainsrush. It is cultivated and grown by the farmers of the Fertile Plains. You can find some strains of it growing wild along the canals there.”

Devon looked at Mabel without comprehension. She smiled. “Any of these can be used to make buckflour. In fact, I usually use all three. Mixing gives the flour a more balanced flavor. Help me bring all the canisters over to the mantle.”

Mabel picked up one of the containers and a broad, shallow tin. Devon took the other two canisters and followed her across the common room.

“Now break the clusters off each stalk until you have a handful of clusters. Like this.” Mabel put a wildenrush cluster in her right hand. She neatly snapped off the stalk with her left hand and tossed it onto the coals. It smoldered briefly near Devon’s abandoned water pail before flaring to life. It burnt to ash almost as quickly.

She added a second cluster to her hand and repeated the process. Devon followed suit with the smaller saltrush. Soon Mabel had a neat handful of clusters. Devon’s handful was not so tidy, but Mabel smiled all the same.

“Now throw those in the tin and finish off with a handful of the plainsrush. Three handfuls of rush will make one handful of buckflour. Put enough rush in the tin to finish the flatbreads and tell me when you’ve finished.”

Mabel returned to the kitchen while Devon worked on the task she had set him. It took longer than he expected, but soon he had nine handfuls off mixed rush clusters in the shallow pan. “The rush is ready Mabel. What next?”

Mabel called out from the kitchen as she worked. “Put the tin on the fire. Mound up the coals around the edges so the clusters will toast faster. Then come help me with the filling. Bring your water bucket.”

Devon removed his bucket from the hearth to make room. He stirred the coals, breaking up the grey curls of ash left from the fast burning rush stalks. When the dull embers had been revived to a bright orange glow, Devon settled the tin deep into the coals. He banked the pile high up the sides of the tin, and then returned to the kitchen.

Mabel had spread out a second batch of ingredients. “Dice these sourpears into small pieces. One per person should be enough. Remove all the seeds, but save them please.”

Devon used his belt knife to cut twelve of the small fruits. He scraped the small hard seed out onto the counter, confused. “Mabel, what do you want these seeds for?”

“Ahh. The seeds are the secret to sweet sourpear filling. I’ll show you.”

Mabel laid out a small square of cloth near the sourpear seeds. “The hulls of sourpear seeds are harsh and bitter tasting. But the kernels inside are very sweet. You can extract the sugar by boiling it out.” Mabel deftly scraped all of the seeds onto the square of cloth, and then tied the corners together.

“We need to crack the hulls so the sugars can be extracted easier.” Using the flat of a kitchen knife, Mabel mashed the bundle she had made. Devon heard the seeds cracking.

“Now the boiling. We add just enough cold water to cover the sachet.” Mabel emptied the water pail and dropped the seeds in the bottom. She added clean water from the tap, and then handed the pail to Devon.

“Go take the rush off the fire and put this in its place. Bring the rush here when you’re done.”

Devon obediently took the bucket with it’s cargo of seeds to the hearth. There he exchanged it for the crackling tin of rush kernels. Holding the hot tin carefully with his shirt hem, he rejoined Mabel in the kitchen.

Mabel had set a rounded stone and a joint of ham leftover from last night’s roast on the counter. “Let that cool for a spell. Dice this ham into very small cubes please.”

Unable to hide his curiosity, Devon worked on the ham joint with his belt knife. “What is the ham for?”

“Some folks like sweets for breakfast. But some prefer a bit of meat. We’ll make half the flatbreads sweet, and the other half savory. Smaller cubes on that ham please.”

Devon made his dicing efforts even finer and Mabel nodded her head in approval. When he had salvaged as much meat as possible from the bone, he rinsed his knife clean and looked expectantly at Mabel. She was laboring over a large pot of sweet porridge, intermittently tasting and seasoning as it bubbled merrily away.

“Now that’s off to a good start. Pick up that round stone, Devon. Good, now use it to grind up the rush a bit.”

Devon hesitantly mashed the mixture in the tin. He found that the clusters broke open quite easily after their light toasting. As he ground more vigorously, the rush separated into two distinct layers. The bottom of the tin was soon covered with a coarse, heavy powder, which was slightly tacky. A layer of light, broken husks of rush kernels sat on the surface of the powder. The more he ground, the more empty hulls rose to the top of the tin. When he thought there were no more whole kernels left to crack open, he showed the tin to Mabel.

“Does this look right?”

Mabel eyed the tin. “I’d say you’re ready for the next step. Bring that along.” They crossed the common room to the hearth. The seeds were boiling, and Mabel pulled them off the coals to cool.

She took the tin from Devon’s hand and began to swirl it over the hearth. “Devon, have you ever panned for metals in the mine raceways?” Devon shivered involuntarily, but nodded all the same.

“This is similar, except that you use the draft from the fire instead of water. The lighter husks rise to the surface where you can blow them into the draft like this.” As Devon watched, she blew a small puff of breath across the tin into the fireplace. Her hand never stopped swirling the tin. A tiny cloud of empty rush hulls eddied above the rim and then were drawn in by the fire’s draft. They drifted over the edge of the tin to whirl a few times before settling onto the hot coals. With a quick flash they burst into flame and were reduced to ash. Mabel handed the tin to him. “Your turn. Blow lightly or you’ll loose all the meal you’ve ground. When you’ve blown off all the husks, bring the tin back to the kitchen.” Mabel rose, carrying the water bucket with its boiled packet of seeds, and returned to the kitchen.

On his first attempt, Devon managed to get face full of husks and nearly dropped the tin. As he wiped his stinging eyes, Mabel’s soft laughter drifted across the common room to him. After a few more attempts, he grasped the proper technique and began to make progress. He soon had cleared all but the last few empty husks from the tin. These he picked out by hand and dropped on the coals.

Mabel inspected the tin after he returned from the hearth. “Good. Now take the stone and grind the meal as fine as you can get it.”

While Devon broke the meal down into buckflour, Mabel filled pitchers with sourpear cider and pressed berry juice.

When the buckflour was nearly the same consistency as what he had measured out earlier that morning, Devon showed it to Mabel. “Can I add this now?”

Mabel checked the consistency by running it through her fingers. Then she nodded. “I usually would dry this over the fire for another hour or two before storing it in burlap. But since we’ll use it immediately, it doesn’t need the extra drying time.”

While Devon measured out the last three hands of flour, Mabel fished the sachet of seeds out of the bucket. She wrung the cloth bundle out carefully, and Devon watched as the last of the light tea colored fluid dripped back into the bucket.

“Here. Taste this.” Mabel held out the corner of the sachet for Devon to lick. He smiled in surprise. The sap was very sweet, and slightly thicker than water.

“That’s sourpear glaze. If you boil it down further you can make a thick syrup. If you boil all the water away, you can even make rock candy. But that takes many more seeds.”

Mabel continued. “Add the sourpear pieces to the glaze, and stir them well.” Devon gathered the diced sourpears and transferred them into the bucket with the glaze while Mabel looked on.

“Good. Now add water to the buckflour on that stone a little at a time. Kneed the mix and keep adding water until it forms a dough you can pick up in ball without it crumbling.”

This was tricky and time consuming for Devon. He had never mixed bread dough before. He quickly learned that there was a bit of an art to it. Eventually, his arms aching from the effort, he had a large off-white mound of dough on the stone. Mabel inspected his handiwork. After flipping it a few times with practiced flair, she stretched it all around the edges. Then she tucked all the edges under neatly and flopped it solidly down on the stone with a resounding thwack, and nodded in approval.

“Well done boy.” Devon beamed, despite his protesting arms. “Let the dough stand for a while, then you’ll need to divide it into twenty-four parts. For now, come help me season the ham.” Devon was only too happy to take a break from the heavy dough.

“Taste the ham and tell me if you think it needs anything.”

After a hesitant taste, Devon shook his head. “It tastes good. But a little bland maybe?”

Mabel smiled. “You can be honest Devon. That ham has so little flavor you may as well be chewing snow, and I know it. That’s why we need to season it. You can use any herbs you have at hand. And salt, if you can get it, is always helpful. But not too much.” Mabel sprinkled a few pinches of salt into the ham, and then added a liberal handful of aromatic crushed leaves. After stirring the bowl thoroughly she looked to Devon again. “Now taste.”

Devon took another bite. The difference was striking. The salt had drawn some of the juices from the ham, making it more moist and tender. The crushed leaves imparted their own peppery tang. The contrast enhanced the flavor of the ham, increasing its hamness, if such a thing existed. He nodded enthusiastically. “This is much better.”

“Of course it is. Now get busy and divide that dough.” Devon divided the dough in successive halves three times, then in thirds for the final portions. It was a laborious process, and his arms were sore again when it was done.

“I’ll prepare the savory rolls while you handle the sweet. Flatten out each ball with the heel of your hand. Then spoon some of the sourpear filling into each and fold it over into a pocket. Pinch the edges and make sure they’re sealed up tight.”

Devon did as instructed. Mabel was finished well before him, her hands exhibiting an economy of motion developed through years of experience. Devon lined up his somewhat lopsided looking pastries alongside her more symmetric ones. The rolls covered both of the flat stones.

“Help me get these stones into the fire.” With Devon carrying one stone and Mabel carrying the other, they returned to the mantle. There they dropped the stone trays down on clever rails built to hold them over the coals. After raking the bed of coals smooth and even, Mabel dusted her hands on her apron.

“There. Those should be ready before most of the guests are up for breakfast.”

As they returned to the kitchen to wash up, Mabel tousled Devon’s hair affectionately. “Thank you for your help Devon. For smaller batches I usually wrap the rolls in wet leaves or damp cloth and bury them in the coals for an hour. But with this many to serve, stone sheet cooking is faster.”

“You’re welcome. I’ve always liked helping in the kitchen.”

“Always liked getting close to my pantry is more like!” Mabel’s smile faded and she bit her lip. Devon did not notice as he scrubbed his hands clean. After a moment she nodded to herself.

“Fronek went out early this morning. He said you might be looking for him.”

Devon looked up. “I am. I mean, I was. But with getting cleaned up and the rolls, I lost track of the time. Where did he go?”

Mabel snorted in exasperation. “You think that man would tell me what he’s up to? If you want him, I expect you’ll have to find him.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes, but Devon was still a bit too young to notice.

He dried his hands before returning his apron to Mabel. “OK. Thanks Mabel. I’ll see you later.”

Mabel called out as he headed for his small room at the back of the inn. “Devon. You do whatever Fronek tells you now, you hear?”

Devon flashed a nod and a sunny smile over his shoulder before dashing out the back.

She whispered, “Wherever your path leads you boy, stay safe.” But the single tear ran glistening down her cheek, unnoticed. She was talking to an empty room.

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