Augustine

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Nasturtium

Last fall I gathered all the wrinkled peas dropping from the blown nasturtiums and dried them on newspaper shoved to the back of the trestle table. I hoarded the dried seeds in a sandwich bag propped behind the dusty tequila and cassis bottles on the sideboard until spring. I planted them everywhere there was soil and hope of water and shade. Nasturtium flowers are edible, peppery, cheerful fellows. Each year the colors of the blossoms shift, mutate, shades and streaks similar, yet not the same.

I took Mercy to the river to swim this morning. We walked the path down to the old boat landing through foxtail grass and swaying bishop’s lace, the sky turning white as the sun rose higher, cool by the water but rising hot mid-morning through the fields. The dog dives like a land seal. I stood at the bank flinging sticks in the water and saluted a passing drift boat.

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Shaking it Off

Wrestling a rewrite on a long stubborn essay, shying from the squintingness of it all, I received an email from Cagibi accepting a 300-word postcard piece for publication in late August. (Thank you, Sylvie and Christopher. Just when one is ready to surrender, something shifts. ) Read “How to Set the Dining Room Table,” a creative nonfiction work in the latest issue by Elizabeth Jannuzzi. It’s a brilliant narrative device flawlessly executed.

Unraveling

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Most things hang by a thread.

I don’t remember why I wanted red currants. I bought two plants as bare-root stock and planted them in deep black pots. When I moved, they came along, as well as the twisted hazel in its half-barrel. Here we dwell still, the shrubs and tree and me, on the dead-end verging hillside these many years. Heavy snow in early March topped the hazel. I sawed the split trunk down and rubbed bee’s wax on the exposed wood to protect it from infestation. I cleared the broken mantle, rubbed it with wax, and set it to season in the dark.

Devoured by the dragon’s head, lashed by the dragon tail. 

The red currants, tiny gems related to gooseberries, ripen in July. The fruit dangles from a thread called a peduncle (a word I just learned and probably will never use again, but sounds bawdy when I say it aloud, so maybe I’ll remember and work it into conversations.) It’s useless to try to pick individual berries as they simply tear and bleed ruby juice. I use a pair of scissors to cut the peduncle from the branch and catch the streaming beads into a chipped porcelain bowl. It’s slow work that I don’t want to end.

In eclipse, what is hidden reveals itself through shadow.

Half the currants are crushed and mixed with apple cider vinegar to make shrub. This mash melds in a sealed bowl for three days, with fruit and vinegar transmuting into a third thing. While the mash ferments, I cut sprigs of fresh thyme to seal in a jar with white sugar. I strain the mash and press the juice through a sieve. The infused sugar is dissolved in water, a simple syrup such as hummingbirds drink, and mixed while hot with the juice. The strings (penduncles) and seeds are dumped out in the brambles on the hillside and the beverage is corked and stored.

Latency is the cold stone rolled, bone-thrown runes cast by a toothless goddess. 

Shirley died two weeks ago on a gray morning before dawn. It started to rain. All the visiting family, caregivers, and hospice nurses drove away. The hillside is empty of cars again. Vic is alone in his house across the road. He puts on his hat to come out to the road and check the mailbox. Thursday evening, after I finished with the currants, he came to the front door and knocked. I drove him to the emergency room.

Shadows fall.

Half of the currant crop I worked at the kitchen table, spreading strings of fruit in a single layer on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Pan by pan, I set currants in the freezer for half an hour and wander from room to room to gaze out windows. Once the fruit is slightly frozen, the tines of a fork run down the string separates the berries to fall into a bowl. Until there are no more.

Ground. Clear. Cleanse. Ward. Offer.

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Anthem

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Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in

You can add up the parts

You won’t have the sum

You can strike up the march

There is no drum

Every heart, every heart to love will come

But like a refugee

–from “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen

In the Grape Arbor

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Grape clusters dangle and swell under leaves fanning larger than my hand. Grape tendrils test their boundaries every morning, fondling the neighboring cucumber’s trellis all-so-wistful before seizing the iron frame to claim it again.

The first cucumber is cut for slicing and the grapes nudged back into the confines of their arbor. Green and red grape vines share one rack and reach to the window on the second floor. I cut grape leaves to line the bottom of a platter yet linger awhile inside the arbor. There is shelter. Here is mystery, inside the breathing green sprung from dried roots.

A succession of caretakers and nurses arrive and leave now in a nearly-familiar rotation. They park out on the dead-end road and walk up the neighbor’s driveway to the front door and disappear inside. Shirley is no longer waving from the hospital bed propped up by the picture window when Mercy and I walk home up the hill. I search the glass, squinting under the brim of my hat, but it’s blank.

I dried a long wand of catnip cut before the herb came to bloom, bundled stalks of pungent mint to soothe the squabbling neighborhood cats quarreling among themselves and tormenting the dog when they sashay along the front deck. (It’s usually the same sashaying cat: the lunatic tabby that once charged and tried to take down a grown turkey.)

I took the wand out into the road the other night before dark and called to the cats, whipping the tip in the air and scraping the pavement to entice them. The tabby bounded along parallel with me, keeping a wary eye out for the dog, pacing down the hill. I laid the catnip wand down on the grass for a midsummer revel and went home to cook dinner.

Shoot grows to bud, flower comes to fruit, seeds weave their secrets to unfold in another season. The solstice passes when the sun ebbs south again after hanging stopped in the sky. Eclipses are coming with the next moon.

Rain came to wash away the gold dusted pollen and cottonwood fluff.  Thunder and wind heralded the change of season. Today clouds graze and chew the blue.

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Father’s Day

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Our old green 1954 Ford Tudor sedan sat squat in the driveway. My parents bought it new from a west coast bootleg dealer before I was born. Most Saturdays when I was young, my mother and older sister dressed up to drive downtown in the Triumph and browse department store racks. They ate lunch in the restaurant on the third floor of the Bon Marche, and returned with shopping bags flaunting tissue paper. Dad loaded my younger brother and me into the old green Ford, a shotgun or a rifle, and we drove out of town. Dad joked: Henry VIII was a Tudor; Joan of Arc was a wonder. Barney always came along, our fox-red Labrador, even if, sometimes, he rode in the trunk.

Saturdays I learned to scramble along reeds and brambles bordering the river, pry out  gray stones impressed in the bank to plunk into the current, how to keep moving when the viscous mud fronting the lake sucked to the ankles of my black rubber boots. I studied how to ease through these places, to watch and be still, when to wait, like any wild thing. I learned to trust what the dog told me.

–Excerpt from “Birds the Color of Water”

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Happy Father’s Day Dad.

 

Gold Dust Monsoon

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Dragon Jail

Mercy and I walked down to the river kicking drifts of cottonwood fluff along the trail. In the long thick grass the dog seized sneezing when we crossed a field to strike the southern path to the old boat landing.  She swam after sticks in the green water fresh with snow melt to wash away the pollen. I held a stick underwater for her to dive down to retrieve and rinse the grit from her eyes and nose.  She dashed along the sandbar in loops and didn’t want to be leashed to walk back.

It happens every year, this river of grass seed pollen flowing down from mid-valley, cottonwood tufts like trout swimming south at dusk. Everyone is angry it seems, caught in a riptide gold dust monsoon and flailing out to sea. There’s nothing for it but sleep and showers swimming sideways. Everyone is angry.

I don’t need to buy groceries for the neighbors any more, Shirley said. She’s in hospice care at home. Vic just got released from the hospital after four days. There is traffic up on our hill now with traffic jams when more visitors or the mail truck arrives. Mercy and I still check Vic and Shirley’s gates every morning and I wonder if I can bear it.

Repost – June 2017

This morning my neighbor came out in her nightdress to water flowers in the brick planter fronting her steps. I try not to notice and sit very still. The sun is breaking over the hill and filtering through the birch leaves. I think I am a tabby cat, mottled and camouflaged, in the dappled light. I don’t have a nightdress to wear out into the morning.

It goes to the head, this golden haze of pollen and drifting cottonwood. It’s fairy dust. The trees and grass release their magic as the day grows, to be caught in the wind and blow south. Some afternoons, especially near the river, it seems it’s snowing. My eyes itch with it. People sneeze and scratch. They try antihistamines which only makes them thirsty and angry. It’s easier to try to think in the morning. Later in the afternoon, there’s a full lulling need to sleep, to drift into some new fairy tale, succumb to the spell cast by the gold dust.

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Chowder, Just for the Halibut

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Blackberries are blooming where three months ago the cane was flattened by snow. I admire their resilience while I feel so fragile and take their white blooms as totem.

Yesterday Mercy and I were caught out in a rain storm while walking down in the park and straggled home up the hill soaked, skirting the runoff cascading down the road. Today there are clouds pulling like taffy and hot weather building for the week ahead.  Last call for chowder.

Halibut Chowder

1 Shallot or sweet yellow onion, finely diced
4 celery stalks, chopped
1 red pepper, diced
1 russet potato, diced, or several small reds
¼ cup white wine
2 tablespoons white flour
1 1/2 quarts chicken stock (or vegetable, or fish stock)
Healthy Halibut filet, 1-2 pounds (cod is a good substitute, salmon too oily)
1 cup heavy cream or coconut milk
2 tablespoons tarragon leaf (or substitute mixture of parsley and dill)
Salt & pepper

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in soup kettle or large sauce pan over medium heat.
Add first three ingredients and saute until soft and vegetables sweat. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Sprinkle flour over the vegetables and stir, allowing the flour to brown until roux is golden. Slowly add white wine, stirring to incorporate flour. Gradually add stock while stirring constantly. Add enough water or stock to equal about 2 quarts of liquid.

Add potatoes and tarragon to pot and cover, simmering until potatoes soften, about 15 minutes.

REDUCE HEAT TO MED-LOW

Cut halibut into bite-size chunks. Slide into pot.

REDUCE HEAT TO LOW

Swirl in cream or coconut milk, stirring gently to avoid breaking fish chunks. Heat through about 3 minutes. Serve with hot crusty bread.

6-8 servings

Note: this basic recipe is very flexible and any combination of vegetables, stock, and herbs can be used. A firm white fish is recommended. Halibut is mild and tarragon is a natural complement. It’s important to barely poach the fish by reducing heat and serving immediately. Enjoy!

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Mercedes Athena Pandora Quesadilla, aka “One-Eyed Mercy” the dread pirate