''YOU'D feed anything the cat dragged in,'' I said. ''Yes, even the cat,'' my friend answered equably. ''Now, what will you have with tea? Scones? Cinnamon slices?''

She, a nurturer who fed multitudes with crumbs, was feeding me.

There were plastic packets in her fridge marked: red squirrels, Canada geese, Joannie's pony. Her pockets bulged unbecomingly with scraps and seeds as she walked in the woods, dispensing, like St. Francis, largess to wild creatures.

Privately, I belittled such behavior. Connections were safer, I felt, if they were cerebral rather than sentimental. Surely the rational force of intellect should shape relationships and events? Never sloppy emotions.

Then why, with all my cool calculations, was I drawn to her steamy kitchen with its mysterious smells? And drawn to her, unkempt as she often was, with well-used, flour-flecked fingers? But drawn I was.

One morning, nibbling one of her incomparable crumpets, I watched as she braided yeasty ribbons of bread dough, and for once I listened. Twining tendrils of history into her plaiting, she told me about bread.

Centuries ago, she said, a flat flour and water cake was baking on hot stone when a stray wild yeast spore settled into it. The Egyptian baker watched it rise as though it were bewitched, and transform itself into high, light, crusty bread. Taking no chances, he set aside a fragment to ferment his next day's leavened loaf. That was sourdough, she said - elemental nourishment. It lives forever, if renewed after use, and is portable in a pocket.

''Bread hasn't changed much after thousands of years of unholy and holy history,'' she said. ''Here am I, still working grains, liquid, sugar, and yeast together by hand.''

Her head and hands were performing archetypal rites. Yes, and heart, I added to myself. Inwardly I acknowledged how capable she was, how fundamental. I'd had no idea she was so clever. Coming to cleverness, why hadn't I known all that lore? I, who set sights on being smart and looking it?

So, of course, I accepted a cup of sourdough when she offered it: potent, practical, poetic mixture I now knew it to be. I imagined it out of its mediocre cup into a more suitable container: a priceless pottery jar, perhaps, with primitive traceries of terra-cotta grape leaves.

At home I gathered ingredients and set to measuring and mixing. As I kneaded, the living yeast in the dough stirred under my hands with a will of its own, resisting, then complying. Respectfully, I placed confidently risen loaves in the oven for baking. When I took them out, pungent perfumes rose from their hot crusts as though centuries of transforming sweet smells had been released. They were tantalizing enough to summon everyone in my house, as well as a neighbor, gardening under my open kitchen window. I turned out plates, knives, butter, jam in a hurry, and we all broke bread together.

The happy ending has several elements. You've guessed that my fridge is full of plastic pockets with offerings for lost dogs, stray cats, and wounded birds who know me for what I now am: a soft touch. When I go out, my pockets are full - yes, they bulge, for I never know who might need what when. If you were to come into my kitchen there I'd be, steamily disheveled.

I seem to have lost myself in a ''live and help live logic of the great chain of life.'' I seem to have found a satisfied spirit, as elastic as yeast. ''What hymns are sung, what praises said, for home-made miracles of bread.''

Clever? Yes, quite clever enough.

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