Bodice Ripper

There was a large leather-bound book at the top. It reminded Lucas of the family bible down in the parlor, worn at the corners with the gilt-work nearly gone, though not nearly as thick. Lucas took the book from the chest and tilted it toward the southern sunlight. He opened the cover with care, smoothing the thick parchment pages, and began to read.

——————-

          June 1750 – Istanbul

It is with gratitude for the infinite grace of God and Fortune, I am finally able to take up pen and paper to transcribe my tale. All who once knew me must believe me dead, lost, or forsaken, a woman beyond hope. It is my fervent wish that someone may one day preserve my story, so that the memory of me, and my family, does not simply vanish from the world.

My name is Verity Hightower. I was born in Hathersage, England, near Sheffield, on May 1st in the year of Our Lord 1726. I am the only surviving child of James and Virginia Hightower, may God rest their blessed souls. I grew up in the parsonage in Hathersage, a snug cottage with tilled gardens, fruit trees, and a tidy stable yard. There were grassy hills and forest nearby, open places where I rambled as a girl. I stood for hours on the old stone bridge dropping primrose petals into the stream and waiting for trolls.

My father was an enlightened man. He encouraged my education and love of music and reading. I taught church school for the village children on Sunday mornings, inventing small theaters from bible stories to enact during Christmas and Whitsunday. My mother instructed me in domestic arts, as well as indulging my youthful talent for portrait painting. My life was small and homely. My fondest hope was to marry a young vicar and share the same parsonage with my parents when my father retired.

Alas and woe! Fie to the wanton twists of life, lures to the unwary and naïve, grief to the unlucky, to believe a snug sheltered life is simply an apple ripe for picking! Come the hard winter of 1743, my entire life came crashing down. A freezing fog fell for weeks on end, a bitter pall of frost, with little sunlight to warm the bones or cheer the spirit. Noxious vapors rose from the river and covered the vale. Bess, our lovely white milk cow, took fever at Epiphany and died within a day. Soon after, both my father and mother took the fever and were dead in less than a fortnight.

I was alone and bereft. An ox cart came and bore away my parents’ bodies to be burned. For many days, I scarcely kept the hearth fire stoked to warm a little broth to sup. Neighbors brought bread and porridge, yet I had no heart to brew them tea and listen to hushed words of faith spoken to comfort me.

In March, the spring rains came and the malaise over our township lifted. The roads were slick with mud. With the rains, came the Bishop. If I did not understand that my family was poor while my parents lived, the Bishop disabused me of any illusions I might retain about my prospects. Squeezing into my father’s chair in the rectory, he looked me over and pursed his lips. At last, he shook his head until his jowls trembled.

“Have you any prospects to marry?” He finally asked.

“Marry?” I knew very few boys and fewer young men, only those in our village. I never entertained the question before, in real terms, of securing a suitable groom.

“My dear,” The Bishop looked me up and down. “I am sorry to say that your prospects appear…how shall I say?…severely limited.” The Bishop tutted and scowled across the desk. “By your womanly appearance, I presume you are of an age and fertility to marry. I understand you are well-versed in letters, music and domestic management, however eccentric your appearance. Perhaps you know of a young man who might take you to wife?”

By this, I understood the Bishop to mean that despite mature bosom and hips, my red hair would deter any superstitious suitors from matrimony. Most in the Midlands still held to the belief that a woman’s red hair meant she was wanton, at best, and at worst, a witch.

“I hadn’t thought to marry,” I said. I hadn’t thought to marry because I’d never even kissed a boy, only danced with one at the harvest fair. I had no idea who the Bishop thought I might marry.

“Ah, then,” the Bishop grimaced and shook powder from his wig with a little pinch at his forelock. “There are only one or two alternatives to marriage, you see. You must earn your bread in this world my dear, even as an unfortunate orphan, by the sweat of the brow. Another vicar is appointed to this parish, and he will arrive soon. We must arrange for your removal with all alacrity.”

My heart sank. My lips felt numb. I stared down at my father’s writing desk and the stained blotter on which he wrote weekly homilies.

“You are young and healthy, that is good. Your father left no debt, so you need not fear the poor farm, yet. By the Lord’s grace, I have learned of a position for you to serve as a domestic of the higher order. Though this engagement is somewhat exotic, it is with a well-born family, a noble family. I understand you excel at instructing children.”

I nodded. I felt dumb as old Bess just before she died.

“Very good,” the Bishop scratched at his wig again and stood up. “Pack your things, my dear. We’ll have you on the coach for Liverpool tonight.”

With that I was dismissed. I returned to the cottage to gather my clothes and what few mementos I could squeeze in my mother’s portmanteau. The Bishop was true to his word. I was bundled up with my scant luggage, given a small basket of bread and sour apples, and set on the night coach to the west. In Liverpool, I took ship for Brighton to meet my new employers, the Sackvilles. With that family, I boarded a tall sailing ship to parts east, bound for Istanbul.

Djinn

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.

The Battle of Hastings

tulips

“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.”

Prologue

rosemary_outside_greenhouse

I remembered most of the Prologue from The Canterbury Tales. (Because it is April after all, and the Sun is nearly halfway run in Aries, and somehow, suddenly, we are living in a prologue to something else– pilgrimage perhaps.)

I recited the lines to Mercy while puttering in the greenhouse. She stuck her head through the trap door to listen. Many years ago my cohort memorized the twenty or so lines; each of us in turn reciting them in Middle English to Professor Greenfield. This was to prove our understanding of English pronunciation  prior to the Great Vowel Shift before continuing on to read the Tales themselves.

Mercy was not impressed. She turned around to chase a deer mouse and very nearly caught it.

mercy_head_greenhouse

*Here bygynneth the Book of the tales of Caunterbury

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye,
So priketh hem Natúre in hir corages,
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken straunge strondes,
To ferne halwes, kowthe in sondry londes;
And specially, from every shires ende
Of Engelond, to Caunterbury they wende,
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.
 
 
*Text courtesy of Poetry Foundation

Ladybird

scarlet_quince

For the second year, dozens of ladybugs hatched inside the house. Somehow a nursery took root in the sunny southwestern room and ladybirds awoke and marched across the windows toward the light. We tipped them one-by-one onto an index card and carried them outside, ever so gently so they wouldn’t take flight, and offered them room in the geranium pots.

I keep a stack of index cards in the sideboard drawer. They are useful in many ways besides saving ladybugs: grocery lists, chore lists, recording vaccine registration codes to hand over at intake, or a bench scrappers if salt spills from the cellar.

When I make a sweet I take a portion over to share with neighbor Vic. I write out an index card to hand over as well because he rarely wears his hearing aids. Perhaps he has no reason to, living alone since Shirley died, perhaps they hurt his ears. When I call to tell him I’m coming over, he knows there’s a sweet coming, but can’t hear what it is nor any other news I have. Last week’s card:

Blank side:

Carrot Cake with Buttermilk Glaze, has Coconut and Pineapple
(written in big bold capital letters)

Lined side:

We will take out your garbage and recycling bins on
Sundays with ours, so look for them in the street if needed.

We take Vic’s empty bins up the steep drive on Monday’s, but after he nearly rode the recycling bin down to the street, it’s better we all agree on the take-out as well. Since his last seizure, he walks with a cane to the mailbox and gathers his mail into a bag hung from his wrist. The heavy blue wheeled bin is a beast.

At the farm and housewares store today there were crowds thronging between the nursery aisles and shelves of seed, pet food, and kitchen gadgets. I wondered if it was because it is a sunny March afternoon and spring break from university, if more travelers venture here, or because more people are vaccinated. Everyone wore a mask, but I could hear my own breath and paid and left.

I’m not eligible for vaccination until May. I’m envious.

Allium

Slow Thaw

plum_new_moon

The little chest freezer in the garage is about the same size as a child’s desk. It barely fit in the cargo area of the Forester to haul home after D. bought it for me as a birthday gift a dozen years ago. I wanted to freeze more blackberries, more blueberries, more tubs of Oregon strawberries. Back then, I filled it with berries and jam..

I thought there was a whole chicken in the freezer.  I rummaged among the pounds of butter, frozen peas, beef bones from the butcher for Mercy, lamb bones from summer souvlaki, and cartons of leftover bean soup stashed when we grew tired of it. In the panic of the pandemic, the freezer was stuffed full and the chicken remained mythical or a memory.

Last March, California locked down to the south. Seattle was ravaged early by contagion to the north and paralyzed. We were caught in the middle between the anvil and the hammer. Lettuce, citrus, avocados, and other vegetables travel I5 from Mexico and the San Jaoquin Valley to feed the West Coast. We didn’t know if supply channels would hold. I couldn’t find seeds to buy.

Dad eats a banana and fresh berries on his oatmeal every morning. He was bewildered by the bags of frozen berries I shoved in his freezer.  California locked down, I said. Butter freezes well, I assured him, and four pounds is not too much. It may not be enough. Toilet paper was scarce, as was hand soap and bleach. I filled the freezer week by week and bought cans of tomatoes, salmon, tuna, and pineapple to add to the pantry shelves.

There is a cardboard box next to the freezer filled with anchovies, tomato paste, sesame oil, shoyu, a kilo of basmati rice, and cans of dog food. The box is slowly being emptied. I rummage through it, taking from the hoarded goods to use, resisting the impulse to buy more to drop into the box. I wonder what I was thinking when I bought the package of grilled artichokes or dried bing cherries, but realize it was not thought so much as premonition. We’ve come through better than many, better than most.

I found the chicken down at the bottom of the freezer. I rolled it out like an icy bowling ball, cradled it to the kitchen, and dropped it in the refrigerator so heavily I thought the plastic drawer cracked. Every morning for four days, I put the frozen chicken in the sink for an hour to thaw.  On the fifth morning, I put the chicken in the sink and took up my cauldron. Mercy ate simmered giblets for dinner.

The garlic planted in the dark of winter is now two hands high. This year I found sets of red and white onion and golden Dutch shallots. I put them in the ground flanking the garlic on the waxing water moon. The green tips are barely visible now.

In the I Ching, after Heaven and Earth, follows the third Hexagram of Difficulty, which gives birth to all the ten thousand things, the tao of “Bursting, Sprouting, Hoarding, Distress, Organizational Growth Pains, Difficult Beginnings, Growing Pains, Initial Obstacles, Initial Hardship.” Of this, like the onion first spying sky, the commentary notes: “It is visible, but has not lost its dwelling.” 

It’s a slow thawing spring.

Year of the Ox

mercy_new_moon

When Rat finished with us, it scuttled away under the brier whipping a naked tail in a long last lash. Cursed Year of Rat.

We crossed under the tall firs down to the river edge but saw no sign of Ox. It’s the Year of Metal Ox come along with the new moon and Lent. Ox is a slow beast like the freight engines pulling across the water heading east into the mountains across country, strong like a big yellow bulldozer. I found a small river rock painted by a child among mushrooms and lichen sprouting from a fallen log; it was a dragonfly, a totem. I put it in my pocket.

I drove Dad and Jo down to the fairgrounds after the new moon. I printed  their names and confirmation codes in big block letters on an index card and handed it out the window at intake. The volunteers guiding traffic at the 80-and-over vaccine clinic were from Lane County Search and Rescue. They waved light wands to direct us to the next open tent as if we were a plane lumbering toward our gate.

We parked to wait 15 minutes afterward to ensure neither Dad nor Jo had a reaction to the shot. Jo opened the thermos of coffee Dad brought. He packed the same bag they always use to go on day trips to the bird refuge or Irish Bend. They nearly quarreled over the coffee cups and the coffee. I offered around  diamond-shaped pieces of Revani, a coarse semolina cake I baked, soaked in blood orange syrup and topped with crushed pecans. We sipped coffee and ate the crumbly sweet while we waited.

In October, when I took Dad to his local pharmacy to get a flu shot, I choreographed the operation as carefully as a jewel heist. As we walked out, his pharmacist called out behind us “I love you.” Dad turned to me and asked me what she said. 

In the Rat, I made vats and kettles and cauldrons of soup to share out, pans of spanakopita and lasagna, stews and sesame soba noddles, coconut cake, banana cake, gingerbread, and oatmeal cookies studded with bing cherries. I’m weary of my own cooking.

In March, on the day before California locked down, I asked Dad not to go to the grocery store anymore, not to go to any store, to stay away from crowds. I made him a mask from a bandana and hair bands. I buy his groceries every week as well as our own.  (Though I know he and Jo snuck out to Costco to buy a cheesecake this summer for my birthday, I didn’t say anything.)

Even after he gets his second shot, I’m still uneasy about letting him go out among many people again. I feel the thaw coming, slow like learning to walk again, yet still feel like an anxious parent rather than his child. That’s beside the fact our weekly grocery exchanges go roughly like this:

“You got two turkeys but no chicken,” Dad drops deli meat in the refrigerator drawer as I bring in more bags from the car. I push the front door shut with a toe shove.

“There wasn’t any chicken,” I hoist double-bagged sacks up onto the counter.

“No chicken,” he’s disappointed. His dogs get strips of the prepackaged deli meat on top their dinner kibble, nibbles from slices he doles out while eating his lunch.

“What’s this?” Dad rummages in a sack and pulls out a bottle of dish soap.

“It’s soap, Dad. Palmolive, like you asked,”

“This is the green. I use the blue,”

“There wasn’t any blue,” I set the bunch of bananas, green enough to ripen and last through the week, in the ceramic bowl next to the kitchen window.

“No blue? I can’t believe that,”

“There’s a lot of empty shelves in the store,”

“What?”

“A lot of empty shelves, in the store,”

“What?”

“Do you have your ears in?” I gesture to my own ears, asking in pantomime if Dad is wearing his hearing aids.

“No, I was going to take a shower,” Dad hobbles along the counter to the nook where he keeps his wallet, keys, and hearing aids and fiddles the devices in to his ears.

“I need new batteries,” Dad returns and rustles a hand in another brown bag and pulls out a box of instant oatmeal.

“Now? You need them now?”

“The left one is dead, I think,”

“Sure it isn’t ear wax again? Are you using those Q-tips I brought you?”

“What?”

“Q-tips.” I shake the box of swabs next to the prescription bottles and vitamins lined up on the shelf above the counter.

“Those hurt my ears,”

“Dad, I don’t want to go back to the audiologist already, we just had them cleaned,”

“I just need batteries,”

“Fine. Ok. I’ll go back to the store after we put this away,”

“Go to Bi-Mart, they’re cheaper,”

“I’m not going to Bi-Mart. I’m trying to stay out of the stores. That’s why I want you to think about your list every week. Make sure you have everything,”

“I can go to Bi-Mart. I’ll wear my mask,”

“No Dad, you need to stay away from crowds, or why am I doing this?” I bang the cupboard door shut and, turning, stumble over Dad’s German Shorthair, Emmy, hovering at my heels. She yelps. “Dammit, Emmy, get back,” I clap my hands above her head and holler “Snap!”

“Come on, Em,” Dad shifts down to the stove and offers the dog a crust of bread from the big plateful he toasts every morning. They both avert their eyes.

rocks_new_moon

Let the thaws come soon

Air

gryphon

Last year an eclipse bloodied the full moon in her home sign. It was after solstice, after the holidays, the demarcation of the before-time.

Under this year’s full moon, a wasp queen woke from her secret winter nest inside an oak haunch stacked for the fire. She circled madly through the kitchen hammering the light above the stove.  While I chopped vegetables for soup, her gryring shadow fell across my knife magnified into a furious gryphon on the wing. She was finally trapped and set free into the December night. 

A flood of narratives are on offer everywhere reflecting on the old year gone, but I do not read them. It is air now, not stone. Watch the blade and not the shadow.

Down along the river the sky and water blend together at the horizon, smelted iron without inflection, my boots sinking down in the saturated loam. The dog reads the shades of scent in the air and tells me their story. She presses her nose to the long grass, following, to raise a pheasant. When the fireworks started, she slipped under the bed.

I cut my hair on New Year’s Day. Six inches of hair grow in a year. I picked out the moss and twigs and mud with a wide-toothed comb and sliced away old handfuls with sharp steel shears.

Return

rosemary_lights

To Juan at the Winter Solstice

The Turning Point

Hexagram 24 –  I Ching

Judgment

Return. Success. Going out and coming in without error. Friends come without blame. To and fro goes the way. On the seventh day comes return. There is advantage in choosing one’s path

The Image

Thunder within the earth: The Turning Point. Thus the kings of antiquity closed the passes at the time of solstice. Merchants and strangers did not go about, and the ruler did not travel through the provinces.

solstice_rainbow

Conjunction of Jupiter & Saturn on Solstice

Nightshades – Flash Fiction

pale_nighshades

NIGHTSHADES

Stephen is coming to dinner for the last time. Everything I need is in the garden. Nightshades ripened in late summer into globed dusky eggplant, blushed tomatoes, tart bell peppers. They flower at night and drop fruit calving under cover of darkness. The eggplant, the brinjal, the aubergine shines purple-black like a bruise growing in clustered elongated teardrops from violet blossoms. All members of the nightshade family contain small quantities of capsaicin and solanine, which may explain why they are currently suspect in culinary fashion, or perhaps that is only potatoes.

Yet Stephen wants moussaka, for old time sake and all the good years we shared together. If it isn’t too much trouble, he said, please no lamb in the dish. Lisa Ann is vegetarian and Stephen is giving up meat. Béchamel is fine, he says, but presses on to nearly growling that I should cut back rich foods and finally lose some weight. Stephen will bring a bottle of Pinot Gris and the documents. I ask for a Noir, if it’s not too much trouble.

I begin in the morning, when the light is solemn before dawn and hummingbirds hungry after their overnight fast jab at dewy blooms. This dish must be served cool, as the Greeks do, not loose and hot from the oven. Even an eggplant picked fresh from the garden has a rhino tough skin; its woody flesh is dispiriting to beginners unwilling to take their time and sweat the beast. I carry my basket full of nightshades and herbs inside with a brace of flowers picked for the table. The eggplant is sliced and salted to weep.

I make both sauces: one with lamb and one without. Fresh thyme and oregano bloom in the olive oil before sautéing the shallot, garlic, diced peppers and crushed tomatoes until finally stirring in slices of softened aubergine. While the sauces simmer, I arrange the ruby-red dahlias in an Ikebana vase and snap a crisp white cloth over the table. It is an occasion, after all.

Stephen is late, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The moussaka is set and cooling with the vegetarian pan and the lamb side-by-side on the counter. Stephen knocks with one knuckle and opens the door.

“Smells good in here,” he hands me the bottle of Pinot Noir. I look at the label.

“Perfect,” I wave Stephen to sit while I rummage for the corkscrew.

“I’ll put this here,” he lays a manila envelope next to my seat. “We can go over it while we eat.”

I dish up moussaka and turn for the salad bowl.

“Let’s enjoy the food first,” I raise a dark glass, “we can talk after.”

Stephen sniffs his plate.

“Is there lamb in this?”

“No,” I shake my head, “there’s lamb in mine,”

 “Ah, good, Lisa Ann hates meat on my breath,”

Stephen stabs through the thick layer of béchamel and scrapes half aside. He chews mechanically, eyes fixed on the vase, and I know he’s counting each bite. When he returns to the kitchen for another serving, I refill our glasses and offer more salad.

After wiping the sauce from my lips and smoothing the napkin on the tablecloth, I open the envelope and take out the document containing Stephan’s proposed separation agreement. I rifle through the pages. Stephen drains his glass and smacks his lips.

“Is it warm in here?”

I look over my reading glasses. A shine has come to Stephen’s forehead; there is a glisten on his rapidly receding hairline. His palms are splayed and pressed on the tablecloth; I see his wedding ring is gone.

“Maybe it’s the wine,” I turn my attention back to the page defining how proceeds from sale of the house will be split.

“Maybe,” Stephen sways as he struggles to stand. I peer over my glasses. His pupils are dilated.

“Leave these,” I shuffle the papers back in the envelope, “I’ll look at them tomorrow.”

“Okay…wow, must be the wine…I better get going, while I can still drive,”

I pack a generous portion of moussaka in tupperware and snap the lid.

“For Lisa Ann,” I hand the tub to him at the door and wave as he backs his Jeep out of the driveway.

When I return to the kitchen, I cover the lamb dish and put it in the fridge. I shovel the last of the vegetarian version down the garbage disposal, humming with the faucet over the growling sink. Everything I need is in the garden, everything, especially the dark sweet berries of my beautiful lady, belladonna.