Zerelda James isn't a writer. Not that there is paper to spare for scribbled ideas and soft mindful words. She keeps no diary, having no inclination nor the time. She is however a deep thinker, and at times when standing over a hot stove or kneading her problems into the sweet soft bread dough, Zee likes to collect her thoughts, dish them out before her or furrow them away like precious dried herbs for some future consideration. She writes her diary in flour and broth, feeds her children with it, practical and sound.
'Twelve for breakfast today. Cousins from Kansas will be in before noon, and hungry from the trip.'
Today Zee is mixing up a shortening crust to fill with sugar pie, up before the crack of dawn and alone in the soft dim moonlight. She steals this moment, sacrificing much needed rest for a mote of peace from the storm that has taken over her home. Her children might wake up and cry for her at any moment; each second is precious. She presses the dough into little cups, too forcefully but no one eating them would dare comment if her crust is thin in places.
'Easter Sunday is just four days off, and we are fresh out of hens for slaughter. No hams left either, not cured or fresh. Dinner could be a problem.'
Thoughts of the mundane are a talisman against the maelstrom. When she is needed, busy, she doesn't think about him.
'Coffee needs to be roasted.'
She stops in her place, squashes a half-formed tart shell as she catches herself, her weight drooping against edge of the table. Her knees are shaking hard, on the edge of collapsing and she wonders if she has been shaking this hard for days and only in the dull dead silence that has overtaken her mind can she feel how frail she has become. She struggles to hold herself up, digging her fingernails into the hardwood surface hard enough to leave little crescent marks.
No one drinks coffee in this house any more.
No tears are allowed; instead Zee grasps hard at the table edge, breaths deep to chase away any hiccup welling in her craw, and casts herself back.
Zee grasps at a book of cards stored for safety with her spices, flips rapidly through, searching for the right card, the right recipe, the right memory. She hears her heart pulsing and her breath rasping in the silent morning still and struggles to hold the stack steady enough to scan, then flip, then scan the next...
She stops at a coffee-stained slip of paper. It holds instructions for a brandy cake, scrawled in her mother's tightly spaced, no-nonsense handwriting.
The tarts abandoned, she reaches for a bag of flour, and begins.
Jesse was a man with hard edges, and Zee loved him all the more for the way he would soften and smoothen and ease on languid days spent smoking on the porch, a baby on each knee, and always with the newest paper close at hand. He let his depths come out, little bits that he kept pressed way down much of the time, with the boys and Frank.
He spent so much time as a silhouette.
She would bring his coffee, and he would put down his paper and look at her and smile like a right gentlemen.“Thanks, Zee” he'd say, and it would melt something in them both. Those were little moments, before the inexorable pull of the grey-black ink-sticky newsprint and the precious bites of the bigger wider world that it contained stirred up the hot black hole in his heart and he was gone again, gone to a place they didn't share but where he needed to be.
It was just such a morning, warm in the earliest autumn, and Zee was making a brandy cake for Jesse's coming birthday. They were usually so busy on his birthdays, harvesting the garden and stocking up the pantry with canned meats and preserves, if they were lucky enough to have stayed in one place since the planting season. If not, it was a whole nother sort of scramble to beg, borrow, and barter for enough goods to make sure her babies didn't start loosing teeth and yellowing up if the thaw came late and the coffers came up empty. Still, though she was like a hungry bear fattening for the frost, it mattered to her that he had something special to himself. A little something to stop for after lunch and appreciate, to make him feel remembered and loved and known. She had frittered away some raisins and apple chips, and even a juicy jar of peaches and some fresh honey comb to whip up a sweet topping with.
There was a secret and rebellious celebration masked even to her conscious admittance by her best intentions. A skulking presence had lifted from her home today. Robert, the tag-along sidekick-cum-mascot child of a man whom Jesse brought home far too often for her liking had left in the morning with his magpie-brained brother in tow, and already the air felt sweeter and cooler in every room of the house. Zee let her guard drop, unfettered with manners, her garments hiked up and open and immodestly loosened against the unseasonable warmth. She drizzled rum into the liquid batter with abandon, tossing the fruits into the half-emptied bottle to soak.
The boy had a look in his eye that unsettled her; a loving look, a fierce loving. Not a good love- a take-away love, hungry love. When he was around, she would worry for what he could feed into his hungry eyes.
Jesse often woke her with his prayers. He chose carefully, what he read, chosen for them both to hear. Her eyes still closed and mind half dreaming his voice would lull and sooth and stroke with God's words and he would tell secrets, hidden secrets coached in his curation of passages of the Holy Bible.
He spoke to her that morning with honesty, sounding for all the world like a child in wonder, finding such joy in his careful words and letting her in to his world, in past the calm still surface waters and past the angry dark things that lurk just below.
“Bow and sword and battle I will abolish from the land, so that all may lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and in mercy”
And so Zee brought him coffee with his paper, absconded from her morning duties so as to lay eyes on her favourite scene which set itself just beyond the vantage of her kitchen window workplace. She took a long gaze from the front doorway at her beautiful family, nestled together on the front porch stoop overlooking the overgrown yard and backlit by the bright morning sky. She set the hot coffee on the railing ledge and took the baby girl when she needed a changing, her heart skipping a beat to see Jesse instinctively, automatically tighten his arm around the child when Zee tried to lift her, Jesse's eyes and mind never leaving the newspaper but his heart and his body warm and clinging and close. It was only a fraction of a moment, and then he released his girl to her mother's arms and she pinned her in a clean hippen and fresh dress to place her back in her father's lap, all silently and softly and the baby girl cooed in her daddy's strong arms. Their son, their little Jesse Tim who was shooting up like a stalk of timothy seed grass, was giggling under his father's other arm and gaping at the cartoon pictures.
Returning to the kitchen window, still open to the air and without the winter glass, she listened to her husband read aloud to their little baby boy. Still a toddler to her thinking, Jesse read to him and to their tiny baby girl about the big wide world and the people out in it. She heard Tim ask him questions about everything that morning, testing out the new words his daddy gave him to play with, asking for the secrets of the blueness of the sky and the coldness of snow and the big wet nose that all dogs have. Little Mary chimes in from time to time, tasting new sounds in her little baby mouth and squealing in delight at daddy's honest glee and praise, a bounce or a tickle for every curious babble she dreamed up. Jesse was patient and calm and wry as he told their children everything wonderful about the world. She watched the morning sun rise beyond the porch and the fence and smiled broadly to herself, alone in her kitchen, her family content and in earshot loving each other.
They never ate the cake together. Business cropped up before the noon sun and Jesse lunched in town, or somewhere like it- he never did say, rarely even mentioned his life outside the home. Zee knew much, including things that best remained unspoken, lest the hard walls they both built crack and tethered hounds loosen upon their home. The children loved it at dinner, and Jesse ate the cake cold with the boys on the trail the next day. Zee had none.
This is the memory that the brandy cake recipe holds; the conception, raw dough and roasting nuts wafting spices through an open window, listening to soft child's laughter and Jesse's low deep teasing drawl. A tableau in Zee's ears and nose and painted behind her eyelids.
The dawn light imposes, and the little paper slip runs out of words. Zee over works the dough, clinging firmly as long as she can, until at last a little distant cry obliges her attention and all is dropped and left and shattered as she sweeps out of the kitchen in a haze of flour and nutmeg to attend to her child.
The little ones like the brandy cake, the sticky fruit gumming up in their teeth and Mary is shy to ask so Zee shovels a second slice onto her plate without a word. It is gobbled up in a wink. Cake for breakfast isn't questioned today and Tim almost smiles and Mary hugs her tight, a little less tightly than yesterday. As she pulls away Zee tightens her hold, one last squeeze, one last breath, reaches out and pulls Tim in too. This new moment is the new memory of the brandy cake, this one right now stamped atop the fading, bright, blurry autumn that is gone for good into the dying light of the past. Sad, but still here, and Zee takes a long moment to cherish her family, the family they made together.