'Split' by Emmanuela Copal de León
Split, Emmanuela Copal de León, 2000.

 

 

The Pursebread Baker
by Jim Davis-Rosenthal

 

There was a man who was a baker in the town. His product was fair enough, respectable, competitive and fresh. He baked in the early morning and sold his loaves until late in the day.

The townspeople chose from his selections and those of the other bakers. They haggled and bargained when they could, knowing by custom which lines could not be crossed. They were well fed and content, their breads sweet or chewy, golden and black, seeded and also plain. They spread cheeses and nut butters, dipped the breads in soups, or wrapped them around meats, made crumbs or puddings from the driest, and gave what they could to those less fortunate.

One day a woman came to the baker near closing time. She was hurried and loud, insistent. She wore mostly white and was draped in scarves and jewelry, but he could tell she was not a wealthy woman. The baker rushed about the store, proudly showing what remained of his products, holding the loaves to the light, which was by then fading. Each was wrong, and exasperated he showed her the last. "I'll take that," she said, and rushed out.

The baker went to the window and began to shut his shop, first turning the sign, then drawing blinds, covering what remained, putting the receipts in the day bag, counting, marking and checking. He came to sweep the floor, the last of his daily tasks, and found a small purse lying there. He thought it must be the woman's, but she was now long gone.

He opened the purse, of course from curiosity, but also because there would surely be an address, or a clue to one. Hesitating, he drew the string and found inside only a coin or two and a slip of paper. He unfolded it and found there a recipe — a recipe for bread.

The baker restored the folded page, and nestled it in the purse between the coins. No clue, he thought to himself, but perhaps the woman will return and claim it. It was not a large amount of money, but a well-beaded and pretty little purse. She will surely miss it, he thought. He stuck it on the counter, next to the cash register.

Nearly a week passed and the baker had not seen the woman. He had even put a sign in the window in case she came at night, assuring its owner that the purse would be returned intact, if it could be identified. Early in the morning of the seventh day, when she had not returned, he resolved to look again at its contents, in case a clue had been missed.

Finding nothing more, he thought perhaps he would experiment with the recipe. It was a slow day, and the other loaves were rising, shaping their place in the hot oven. The recipe required a special flour, but was not difficult for the baker to quickly master. He thought he should make a decent sized batch and see how it took shape. He found the loaves turned out beautifully, and formed them as the recipe implied, in braids and rounded shapes. Lovingly, he basted the mounds with a wash of egg and water. He knew from experience the warm and golden colors the loaves would turn.

The recipe, strangely, said to take a pinch of the dough and cast it into the hot oven. The baker suspected this was an old superstition, and not wanting to smoke the loaves he had in there, he laughed it off. Why would he waste such expensive flour? He sampled a small portion. The bread was easier to break than to cut, and broke into shapely but uneven sections. The golden crust was firm but not dry, and the inside was soft and chewy. The scent was hearty and warming, and for a moment it seduced the baker from his morning tasks. His own superstitions made him wonder if his ordinary sweetbreads would turn jealous of his attentions and would somehow fail to rise or turn out too dry, in protest.

When his first customer arrived, he was just lifting the last loaf on a wooden paddle into the heat. "What can I do for you?" asked the baker. The customer looked astonished and paused before replying. "That bread," said the customer, "is it for special?" The baker explained that it was only an experiment, but that if it turned out well, he intended to sell what he had made. The customer purchased only a sweet bread and vowed to return.

The baker was pleased—and ideas filled his head. When the bread finished, he made a place in the window and arranged those loaves, surrounded by the others for the day. Many passed by and looked at the new display, pointing. Some inquired about the name and the baker, after so many such questions, felt he should name it. "Pursebread," he decided to call it.

The first customer returned, and now with two friends. Of the first ten loaves, eight were sold right then, and the morning was still young. His assistant arrived, and in between customers, he told her he had found an exciting new product. Eventually his second and third batch had been snatched up.

A keen marketer, the baker had his assistant make a sign: "Pursebread available once a week. Plan ahead," the sign read. He knew people were drawn by the rare, and wanted to nurse the excitement. He hid away the purse.

As weeks passed, his business grew rapidly. Orders for pursebread came as quickly as the assistant could write them and the weekly ritual grew feverishly. The baker began to come earlier on pursebread morning, making more and more batches, until the window bulged with the golden loaves, squeezing out the competing sweetbreads. The smells wafted through the neighborhood, and customers lined up awaiting the shop's opening. The baker was thrilled with his find and came joyously to work each day, anticipating the reward at week's end.

An elderly woman came into the shop one day and eyed the baskets of pursebread. In a thick accent she said she wanted to purchase a loaf, but insisted that the bread was not called "pursebread." He hadn't quite understood what she called it instead, but knew it was not a word in their common language. The baker almost asked her to repeat what she called it, but he interrupted himself and insisted that in his shop it was to be called pursebread, a name, he said, that was true to its origins. The old woman shook her head, took her loaf and left.

Soon, other bakers would stop by his shop, chatty and distracted—their eyes toward his guarded process. He welcomed them and cordially steered them from their spying, sweeping them to the front door where he would greet new customers and then excuse himself to his duties.

One day as he led another baker to the door he thought he saw the woman who had left the purse standing at the window. He quickly went outside but found no sign of her.

In the middle of the next week, the baker visited his banker, leaving the shop to the assistant. His business remained steady through the week, the pursebread customers having become loyal. He told the banker of his successes and asked for a loan, intending to expand his pursebread business—perhaps to sell on other days of the week, and surely to place loaves in the surrounding markets. The banker, seeing that his account was clearly a solid one, wrote out the loan.

As the baker walked home, he noticed people beating their rugs, sweeping and scrubbing. "The spring ritual," he thought. People were rushing with groceries and wines from the market, chatting with friends, buying flowers and candles and enjoying the day. The baker had to leap out of the way when a family rushed from their home gleefully, casting a dustpan's contents into the street. They all laughed at the near miss and he watched as they then took turns beating the broom against the curb. It was puzzling, but amusing, that the family did all this together.

The baker placed a large order of the special flour and stocked up on all the other ingredients. Laborers delivered the orders and the shelves in his stockroom grew to capacity. His niece and nephew, given the day off from school, came to help him arrange his plans.

The assistant told the baker that sales had been good while he was gone, but that no one had placed pursebread orders during that week. The baker was so busy that he had left this task entirely to the assistant. He assured her that the customers had grown accustomed to the easy availability and were sure they could get their portion whether or not they had placed a reservation. Given this revelation, he was certain that he should make the largest batch of pursebread ever. He urged his sister to let his niece and nephew stay the night—the hard work would be good for them, and the next day was not a school day.

After the shop closed he began a frenzy of activity—the ovens were fired and cleaned, the tables cleared and floured, the bowls and mixers prepared. He shouted friendly orders to his small crew, the nephew set to the task of making the sweetbreads and his niece acting as the pursebread assistant. Machines whirred and mixed, loaves were gently shaped and left to rise, washes painted over them. Bowls were piled and moved from one table to the next, making room for fresh batches. Racks of the bread were shifted from one corner to another and back again.

The baker taught the children songs, and they sang into the night. To his surprise the songs came easily—ancient melodies his own mother had cradled him with, their language poetic, but long out of fashion. He remembered their meanings: songs warning children of dangers, songs of love and peace, old stories and lullabies, mournful hymns. Of the latter, he could only remember a few words, and mostly only fragments of the songs. The children fell asleep in a corner and the baker saw that the first signs of daybreak were coming.

Masterfully he put away the last of the loaves and cleaned the bowls and mixers. The sunlight broke and the sky began to turn from a blue black to greys and pinks. He dusted himself off and put on a fresh apron. He arranged the window and waved at a few passersby.

By the time his assistant arrived, no customers had come. The rich scent of the pursebread wafted onto an empty street, the sun, now full in the sky. The baker was alarmed, but was certain some simple accident must have delayed his customers. Still no one came.

The day grew into afternoon and the baker grew angry and hot. He sent the children home, giving them loaves of pursebread to take to his sister. Still no one came but the occasional sweetbread customer. One man even spoke to the baker in his native tongue, but the baker was too tense to greet him and excused himself quickly. He left the counter to his assistant.

Shortly later, the assistant came into the back room and he shouted at her. "How could this happen?" He cursed and accused her, claiming that she must have stolen the recipe and given it to his competitors. He rushed about the shop looking for the purse and the assistant cried, insisting on her innocence. When he didn't find the purse he called her a traitor. She left weeping and when she had gone he shut and locked the door. He threw a loaf of pursebread on the fire. It smoked and burned, filling the shop with a stench. He stormed to the back room, pushing the racks away, and fell in the corner where the children had slept. There he found the purse under their makeshift pillow, the recipe inside and the coins nearby. He clutched it and fought back tears.

In the street the assistant wiped her tears and walked quickly away from the shop. A man came up and called to her. "Aren't you the woman from the pursebread shop?" he asked. Stunned, she nodded, forgetting for a moment what had just happened. "Am I too late?" the man asked. "I'm rushing home for the holiday, but I wanted to place my order for next week."

 

 

Text © 2000 by Jim Davis-Rosenthal

Original Graphic, "Split" © 2000 by Emmanuela Copal de León

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