Esme stood alone but for her dog, watching the mountains. She and her new husband had travelled for months in their covered wagon, across vast endless plains of shoulder high grass, fording rivers, their horses heaved them across dusty deserts, through forests. They had been passed by speeding pony express riders. She had talked too long to gold prospectors, thin and crazed in towns that smelt of new wood, gold and hope. They saw towns that had already been abandoned, their silver mines collapsed. It was 1860. They had left St Louis with the last of the snow and now the summer was dying. They were trying to reach Sacramento before the winter. Buzzards as big as dogs rode the drafts above her, watching her. She was tired, tired to her bones. Her clothes were worn and dirty, her eyes were red, her face rough and itchy. Of late they had ridden in the wagon for weeks without seeing a soul. Although Otis would not admit it, Esme thought they were lost. They had traded their belongings clear across the country for food. But she still had her silver forks and her few pieces of good dinnerware, two beautiful oak chairs and chests with the quilts and linen to start a home somewhere. Her peonie tubers for Aunt Celia and her bread starter from her sister Jo. Every night she poured off a little of her mother dough from the small crock, added a little flour and a little water and tucked the starter back away in her rosewood box. Then made the pancakes on her griddle.
Otis came running back down from the ridge. There is a house up farther! He called above the wind. Running toward her grinning. The smoke is from a stack, a chimney! Make a lot of noise as we approach they shoot strangers out here. So they rode on arriving at a little shack as dusk was falling.
Esme spoke quietly to the woman of the house, a big strong good woman. She had chickens and a cow and she had an oven for cooking in her cabin. Esme wanted to bake bread.
Their camp site was under trees by a stream, a hundred miles of darkening sky above them, the stars bright as rain in the sun. Esme, sitting on the buckboard that Otis had detached and set by the fire, carefully poured half of her starter into a small bowl. She squinted as she thought of Jo’s hands doing the same. Her hand rested on her stomach. Her clothes were beginning to feel tighter, she hoped they would reach Sacramento soon. She slowly added a cup of precious flour into the bowl and another into the jar. She had warmed the water from the stream slighty and added that after the flour. She stirred with the wooden spoon Otis had whittled for her as a gift on her twentieth birthday, last month. She stirred thinking how long this bread starter had been in her family. They said that it came from an Italian baker her grandfather had known. She wrapped a muslin across the top of the bowl and left both on a flat rock close enough to the fire to stay warm for the night. She set a pot of red beans to soak, then crawled into the wagon to sleep.
The morning was dark and gentle when they woke, a slither of light under the door of the dawn, reached from the horizon. Otis was stirring up the fire, she ground a little coffee and placed the coffee pot on the trivet. Put the pot of beans on to cook. Then she sat down to pick the biggest weevils out of a bowl of flour. How could she wake from her sleep and still feel tired. She threw weevils into the fire. They hissed as they hit the flames, Dog raised his head and sighed. The sour dough starter in the bowl had stirred in the warm night, there were bubbles and it was filling the little porcelain bowl. It’s smell had changed, it smelt richer.
She took the bowl of Starter and poured a cup full into the big old mixing bowl with the cracked glaze, then added a tin cup of warm water. Stirring she gradually added two and a half cups of flour, gently folding it in. She left the dough to sit, to moisten the flour thoroughly, while she tidied things around the campfire. The dough had started to spread and gather. She sprinkled on the salt and lightly kneaded it in. She left it again, so that the salt could absorb its own moisture from the dough. As the sun rose she began to knead. Adding another cup of flour slowly as she kneaded. She took her time. The day slowly brightened around her. She kneaded as the sun rose, lifting, pressing, lifting, pressing, the bowl on her knee, her knees warm from the fire. The dough began to push back and it became smoother and livelier. The rhythm soothed her heart, her breathing slowed and the heart beneath her heart began to silently dance. Otis quietly stoked the fire, moving to and fro, and soon walked off with the horses to water them at the stream and then stake them out for a days grazing. The mule waited fussily. The dog lay panting at her feet.
She settled the dough into the bowl, covered it with a cloth and set it in a warm spot by the wagon to rise.
She worked. The sun moved across the open sky. Impeded by nothing. Otis heated a vast vat of water and she took down her hair and kneeling on the ground he poured jug after jug of warm water over her hair, she shampooed with precious soap. Then went to rinse it all off and wash in the creek. She washed her underclothing and bashed them on a rock then hung them on bushes to dry, out of sight. Dressed in her other slightly better dress she shook and smacked her long black everyday skirt, picking the mud off the hem and hung it over another bush to air.
Late in the afternoon, she retrieved the risen dough and slid it out onto a tin board, it rested there for a bit, then she began to pull the sides up and across, the dough lost its corners as her fingers moved around the dough fashioning it into a round loaf, pulling up the edges and folding them across the loaf, pulling and folding until she was satisfied. The day was at its warmest, fall was coming though, she could smell it. She rolled the loaf over and then left it to sit like a cat in a new warm spot until the sun was an hour away from dropping.
Her hair dried and braided, her face shining and wearing her cleanest clothes she carefully carried her covered loaf across the open land to the house, where the good woman was waiting for her. She carved two E’s into the top of the loaf and they slid the loaf into the oven of the wood fired range. Esme wondered how they had transported such a monstrous piece of iron out here into the wilderness and was grateful that they had. They sat outside the cottage, surrounded in the scent of cooking bread as though it were a colour. They talked as women do. Esme carefully wrote her sister Jo’s instructions for caring for and baking sourdough bread. She wrote on a linen napkin because she could not bear to use any more paper,with the nib and ink from her chest and gave these to the Good Woman with a portion of the Starter. The Good Woman drew a map on another napkin showing Esme how she could find the wagon trails to Sacramento.
That night she shared the bread with Otis and the Good Woman around their fire, with butter and slices of roasted chicken, sweet potatoes and pumpkin from the garden. It was a feast. They told the Good Woman that they were going to live with Aunt Celia out in Sacramento. How Jo had taught Esme how to bake bread and how Celia’s loaves were a legend in the family. The Good Woman spoke of how her husband had left with their only horse to try his luck at panning for gold, he had not come back. Otis eyed his mule thoughtfully.
In the morning there was a light frost on the ground. It crunched under Esme’s thin boots. They remade the wagon and loaded each piece into its proper place moving in a silent rhythm. While Otis sneaked the gift of a mule into the Good Woman’s corral with the cow, Esme gave the woman a peonie tuber as a thank you. The good woman insisted that they have her little crib with its unused little quilt and unworn baby clothes. Her sorrow mixed with Esme’s happiness and was eased. And so they rode away.
The good woman could see them for miles as they made their way west. She silently wished them god speed and went across to milk the cow.