A Literary Romance
Two lives are interwoven across time.
The moon grows full tomorrow at the penultimate degree of the zodiac to herald the coming equinox. Night grows longer.
Persephone is damn tired and ill-tempered. She’s leaving early, ready to shrug off the birthing work of the field. The Goddess casts down her seeds, takes up her torch, and returns underground into welcome darkness. Comes the cusp of the fallow season.
Tomatoes gathered and stacked on the table before the rain forecast finally arrives to split their skins. Squash and feathers. Clusters of dusky grapes. Rain came, crowned by thunder, fast and fierce and flooded the street.
A cusp is a pointed end where two curves meet. Such a cusp is seen in the pointed ends of a crescent moon, the lip of yet another precipice, molting away one cracked skin for another.
I remember rain.
Wildfire smoke is pushed by a high-pressure bellows to the east, dispersed again when the wind changes to pull marine flow from the Pacific. The grass crunches underfoot; the hill is a tangled warren of burrs and foxtail, all things sere and seeding. Weary of drought and heat, wonder at the prodigious flooding in the east, scanning the sky for rain before the west is ash and withered bone. The cracks in the earth grow wider.
Birch and locus leaves float on the surface of the scrying bowls clouded with wasps. A fresh pail of water set out on the hillside every day during these three months of drought for birds and wild night creatures is drained or toppled by morning. At first, while a trickle of water remained in the creek, they eschewed the metal bucket. Now they depend upon it.
The garden presses to her longed-for languishment and release. The grapes are ripe. The tomatoes sigh and sag under a harvest of Romas, Brandywines, and Sungolds.
The zucchini, the courgette, the green summer squash the Greeks call kolokithia, now dominates the terraced beds and relentlessly births thick heavy fruit. Somehow, through camouflage or inattention, great squash clubs grow overnight. With their large seeds muffled in pulp, these giants are useful only as filling for nut bread, fritters, muffins, or pita. Shred the flesh against the box grater and squeeze out the water between two cotton kitchen cloths while resolving to pick the smaller squash before they transform.
At least the flesh is mild, versatile, and forgiving–
A zucchini cake filled with crushed pineapple and coconut, finished with a buttermilk glaze; oatmeal muffins studded with blueberries, kolokithia scraped and broiled stuffed with tomatoes, feta, and breadcrumbs; slices layered with potato, onion, and tomatoes, bathed in olive oil and baked into Briam; stewed with fresh bay leaves, eggplant, tomatoes, and olives to eat on crusty bread; sautéed in a frittata sprinkled with goat cheese and topped with yet more tomato.
Hungry for a change of season, I remember rain.
Like Shrek with his gourd green head, this thirteen-pound watermelon watered by the Columbia River, ripened outside Hermiston, was trucked west to the valley to be sliced open with a wide sharp blade; it’s bigger than a man’s head, this, the size of an ogre’s, rich in sticky red juice flooding the sluice etched into the cutting board.
Hum-sing the theme chorus “Accidentally in Love” from the second Shrek film, cube the flesh, and suck the nectar from the board. Come on, come on/Turn a little faster-
The first dangerous slice along the scalp steadies the rocking. Then carving rind shells away along the broad curve until the melon is flayed raw and crimson. Come on, come on/The world will follow after-
This is nature’s Gatorade, this sweet pink water. Chop the rind to set out on the hill for the doe still nursing spotted twin fawns. The rind is nearly gone by morning, gone by evening. Come on, come on/’Cause everybody’s after love.
Drought and wildfire, smoke and thunder, cracked earth and dying trees: Only the moon can bring rain, and who can rule her?
There are thresholds before and after, an Old English word with Norse roots. A threshold defines the barrier or bar used to contain the threshed matter lining dirt floored cottages, a boundary to keep the reeds dry within. Some thresholds are as visible as the plank or stone that lies under the door. Others are unnoticed, until they are crossed.
The wild blackberries are ripening early, blistering under this relentless western drought, three weeks before their custom at cross-quarter. In another day or two, the plums will be ripe enough. I’ll pick some low-hanging fruit for a jar of jam before the deer take them all, or they wither on the branch and fall. With the third cutting of rhubarb, I loped off the parasol leaves and washed the thick pink stalks under the hose.
There is no rain in the forecast. The dog is dumbfounded. Last week there was sparse early-morning dew with a phantom scent of rain, little else. We walk early and then I water the garden.
I made a galette, a rough shaggy pastry of almond meal, a stone so-called in the old French. The blueberries went in, the two nectarines I bought that ripened too fast on the counter, a shake of nutmeg and sherry. I dreamed about rain. I dreamed of abalone and mother-of-pearl.
It feels like August, but it’s June. The cornflowers blow over the long grass bleached white with a sun pressing too close to the earth. It reached 111F in the south valley, 44C, at a time when dew should linger and rain still scatter into July.
Queen Anne’s lace, the flat white flowers of the wild carrot, bows down. I put a small bucket of water out on the hill for the wild things, changed the water each morning, draining the old out slowly over a squash planted outside the fence. There’s a lizard in the greenhouse between the pots of dill.
I give the deer mouse that lives under the deck a pea pod when I finish picking. I leave it the crack between the wall, the place she darts away and dives to safety when surprised during her foraging in the morning.
It’s a different sort of storm.
I stayed in my light lawn pajamas all day and read Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet beneath the heat pump register laboring to filter cool air from the wet cotton heat. The dog found it too hot to dig a hole to hide in and crept under the bed.
The book is nearly done. The manuscript is finished. The front matter, back matter, and cover design are final.
Everyone publishes a first novel.
An adept astrologer might offer more insight than a mediocre psychologist. Some quandaries are mythic, rather than mental, and some truths need tracking along a higher dimension of story.
The first bowl of strawberries from the garden, before the squirrels pick them, or the deer mice sample mouthfuls of several berries for ripeness, daring Mercy to charge out of the house and catch them. The dog lies out in the sun until it’s too hot, waiting for strawberry thieves, but I think the deer mice creep out in the evening or early morning when she’s dreaming.
The first sugar snap peas came on all at once, white blossoms like moth wings folded around their pods.
There’s so much garden to water. There’s so much to learn about publishing a novel.
Wishes come in a set of three, the same as a spell of bad luck. The slant between a wish fulfilled and a curse is slight.
Consider carefully before rubbing the lamp, cutting free the magic fish, or holding aloft the monkey’s paw.
The first wish alters the fabric of world. The second twists the wish. The third, if wisely used, returns the wisher to the world as it was before wishing.
“Did the arrow go all the way through and out the back of his head?” James points at his own eye showing how that might happen at various angles.
“Maybe,” I say, “what do you think?”
“His eyeball probably popped and smooshed out all over,”
“No doubt,” I nod, “now finish your homework and I’ll finish dinner.”
James looks down at the spelling list on the table in front of him. He turns the page over and begins to draw the battle scene on the back. I feed linguine into the pot of boiling water and call over to James: “How do you spell beautiful?”
“B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L. Mom, where’s the red crayon?” He rummages in the box of art supplies. “I need it for blood,”
My beloved bastard native tongue English: how many invasions, wars, and conquests did it take to build your astonishing agility? New words are invented every day. We select from a rich catalog of component parts: prefixes, roots, suffixes, bits of language like James’ plastic Lego blocks, to form new words and express new ideas. How to describe an orbiting satellite matching earth’s rotation, now that we have such a thing and need words to define it? Make it up. That word is “geosynchronous.” Geo=Earth. Syn=With. Chron=time.
Other languages and grammars are beautiful in their own way. English rummages through the languages she encounters like auntie at the Saturday flea market selecting the best to take home. For example, “pajama” is an Urdu and Persian word that literally means “leg clothing.” Yet it was assimilated into English usage in the early 19th century through the conquests and adventures of the British and East Indian Trading Company. These days we’ve shortened the word even further to the cozy term “jammies.”
While some cultures seek to maintain the purity and integrity of their languages intact, English plays the field fast and loose. The French established the Académie Française to try to restrain the ranks of French speakers and the discipline of their own language. The purpose of the academy is to promote the French language and stamp out lingual interlopers and the creep of unorthodox foreign terms. Unfortunately, useful words and terms go viral in a world connected by instantaneous information technology. “Le Weekend” the French still say, despite the disapproval of the academy.
Irony is not lost here. The decisive Battle of Hastings in 1066 brought William, Duke of Normandy, to the English throne. The Anglo-Saxon infantry fought fiercely against the greater Norman cavalry and archers from morning to dusk, until at last, near sunset, King Harold took an arrow in the eye and died. The Anglo-Saxon forces broke and retreated. The French language, with William the Conqueror on the throne, gained ascendancy in the English Court and left James the frustrating legacy of learning to spell words like “beautiful.”