A Literary Romance
Two lives are interwoven across time.
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.
One hundred years ago my grandmother was a child when the Spanish Flu finally reached Nez Perce, Idaho.
The Great War ended. Uncle Non returned with a limp and a spray of shrapnel lodged in his back, shards sometimes found in the bottom of the wash tub, spit out by the wringer. Grandma called him Non, although his given name was Tom–she gave pet names to anyone she loved.
Grandma gave me Non’s moon lamp, the Art Nouveau style I admired, still fitted with the original frayed cord that sends moonlight rippling over the water when lit. Heat from the bulb turns the cylinder balanced over it to project behind painted glass. The iron base is sculpted with a gondolier and his passengers, The Lovers. It’s ingenious.
The family was as poor as all the other families in Lewis County, farm scratching in the panhandle, mending and re-mending brace and harness, hoping for rain but not too much. They lived in a small wooden house at the edge of town, a young father and mother with three children not yet of school age before the influenza epidemic arrived, a pale horse, pale rider.
The family was struck, along with many others, with the fever. Cows went unmilked, horses were set out to forage along the dirt roads of the town before a farmer became too weak to tend them. Alone in the silent mottled shafts of sunlight falling through cracks in the siding, my grandmother, Angela, did not succumb. She drug a chair to stand on from the kitchen table over to the crank telephone on the wall to call for help. Her own mother lie upstairs dying.
“How do you know this?”
She asks me twice after I read my response to the exercise to the group, then further: “How could you know this?”
I am in a workshop exploring the intersections of poetry and essay, the lyric weighting of nonfiction narrative. I’m taken off-guard by the unexpected question as response.
“My grandmother told me,” I shrug, as if it must be obvious. Yet, apparently, she doesn’t believe me.
“How is that possible?”
I didn’t understand the question. I spent my childhood in my grandmother’s company. I assumed other grandmothers told stories, shared memories, showed one how to take a cutting from a rose to grow a new plant. I shrug again and repeat my answer.
My grandmother is the only person who ever really slapped me, if I discount the offended young Spaniard in Salamanca whose blow I dodged. Grandma was trying to work a brush through thick tangles in my hair before we drove to town, hair just like her own, and I resisted each tug. I earned it.
“Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.
I am haunted by waters.”
“It doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that’s like you after you take your hands away. The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
“It doesn’t matter what you do, it matters that you do,”
–Me, to my teenage son
Walking out on the hill in the rain this morning into that sweet earthly scent of rain on dry grass–petrichor, the blood of the old gods falling on stone–to shrug off the hood and let the drops burnish my hair.
Since the deluge in April, there was little rain, not the soaking female rain of spring that trickles to the root. Days have been warm and mornings spent carrying water in cans and hoses, swearing at sprinkler heads with stripped threads and leaking faucets forgotten in October, sprinkling, spraying, misting, playing the rainbow in the arc of falling water.
Zucchini seeds burst above ground yesterday, waiting until I was distracted, between morning watering and evening’s final tour. There are globes forming on the artichokes that are still small as thimbles. I let the thistledown bloom lavender blue and invite the bees to a buffet. The plums are red and hard as olives.
I gleaned wild asparagus with Grandma from the banks of irrigation ditches and pastures when I was a child, keeping a wary eye out for a bull or vexed mule. No two spears were the same shape, size, or color, as they are cultivated now. Some were thick and squat and purple; others willowy and pale green, with an occasional natural albino, a bouquet of spring phalli jutting from earth into the light.
Local asparagus is coming in season and to market, tender and firm (however disappointing in uniformity.) I buy a braces of it, while it lasts, to saute simply in a splash of stock and butter, a drop of white wine, and a drizzle of maple syrup, simmering off the liquid and shaking the pan to finish with a blister. The cure is always growing nearby.