Short, Sweet and Sour

Fred opens the lid on the sourdough crock, sniffs, nods. It’s time. After all these years he can tell by mere subtle smell when his cultured friend needs feeding. This particular starter has been handed down through generations from his own great‑grandfather, who cooked for crews building the Canadian National Railway, and Fred has to be careful not to let it die. He has been tending it for the forty-one years since his mother passed away, and he hasn’t failed her or it yet.

As he begins measuring flour, testing water temperature, weighing amounts, his mind suddenly turns back upon itself, slips into vivid memory, as he finds it so often doing now. He’s cooking for McAmity’s, a remote lumber camp in North Ontario, September, 1947. He takes the big White Super Power with the wooden side-rails jutting from its flatbed and drives along the raw, rutted road that leads from the camp to the lake. The bush plane is due in with his food supplies. He’s ordered five hundred quarts of blueberries so he can make pies for the men. When he arrives at the lakeside, he finds two planes waiting there, and milling about on the sand and the makeshift wharf are 12 women, huddled together to ward off the chill, talking nervously amongst themselves. The pilots explain to Fred that these girls have been flown in by the McAmity Brothers themselves as a surprise for the men before the long Winter sets in. They are intended to dance with the lumberjacks that evening.

Fred looks at the girls, thinks about the lumberjacks and past dances: the bearded, unwashed men dancing rowdily with each other to the raucous creak of squeezeboxes and fiddles, the off-key singing, the inevitable brawling and all the other ways the men had to relieve themselves of their terrible loneliness and boredom. The girls smile back at Fred, nervous, unsure, each of them clutching a small bag of personal belongings. They appear to him very young, almost painfully fresh, and suddenly he feels a great, cloying sadness wash over him.

The truck loaded with its crates of blueberries and other food, he helps the girls climb into the back of it, gets in the cab, starts out down the ridiculous excuse for a road. Fifteen minutes later, he finally notices –above the continuous roar of the truck’s engine– human voices yelling, screaming, cursing, calling his name from behind him on the flatbed. He stops, gets out, and the stench hits him like a stove length of wood. The girls are already jumping down from the bed, running into the trees.

He has run over a skunk, and the body of the poor animal is now caught between the rear‑passenger‑side double wheels. The intensity of the smell is almost unfathomable. Fred fetches the big tire‑iron from under the front seat, uses it to pry out the remains of the skunk. He manages to coax the girls back into the truck and sets off again, the smell lingering unpleasantly in his nostrils. He expedites his cargo as instructed: unloads the berries and other supplies at the mess hall, delivers the girls directly to the camp supervisor.

He makes his blueberry pies that night, stays up until long after the music and noise in the mess hall has died down, kneading, rolling, mixing. The smell of the baking pies fills the woods all night long. In the morning, he feigns being too busy to drive the girls back to the lake, suggests one of the kitchen staff take them instead. He doesn’t want to see them now, changed, transfigured, prefers instead to remember them jumping from the stench in the truck, laughing and cursing, running into the woods on youthful legs that still throbbed with the energy of expectation, the sensation of going somewhere.

Fred closes the lid on the renewed sourdough, knows it will be bubbling and burping within an hour, pulsing with its strange life force. He wonders for a moment if anyone will tend it when the fermentation of past and present that is his own diminishing effervescence finally ceases, but knows he already has his answer.

A black and white photograph of an abandoned White Super Power industrial truck

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