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.”
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.
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.
“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”
The full moon arched overhead masked by clouds, a chip-shot eclipse while we slept, a rosy glow lingering on the western horizon at dawn. The last of day of November cruising the Via Combusta, a cursed month in a cursed year.
We held a masked drive-by Thanksgiving. My sister and I filled plastic containers with turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes and gravy, pumpkin pie and whipped cream and stacked them in boxes for family to pick up, although she did most of the cooking. I made wild chanterelle and sage dressing. My caramel-apple gingerbread came out doughy and underdone. I think I overreached by trying to squeeze in the last half an apple.
Eventually, all the Tupperware floats along some inscrutable relay and ends up piled in a bag at our father’s house to retrieve. Christmas trees will be small and potted this year, maybe Rosemary pruned to resemble a fir. We will send the Tupperware circulating again with a spin for the next round of holidays.
I made a pie of leftovers, from dressing mostly and dry bits of chopped poultry. Caramelized onions and spinach wilting on its own formed the base of a roux. Mix in the leftover cup of gravy and mushroom stock, stir in heavy cream that wasn’t whipped and mash it all together. The pie looked like knobby dirt and tasted delicious.
I dreamed the dog was nuzzling at the tawny flanks of a lioness seated in the desert looking far into the horizon. I tried to call her off to me, hissing quietly so as not to break the cat’s meditation and have her devour Mercy. When I woke, I realized the lion was me.
–A Thanksgiving Screed–
It’s late Wednesday afternoon when my father finally breaks away from his practice and comes home to load our big white Chevy wagon for the trip across the state to Idaho. Dogs and shotguns stacked in the back for bird hunting Thanksgiving morning, pastries and coffee cakes Mom baked and wrapped stowed safely away from the dogs, and coloring books for my brother and me during the 400 mile trek over the Cascades, across the high desert, twisting through icy passes in the Malheur, until finally crossing the Snake River and up Olds Ferry Road to my grandparents’ place.
Dad’s clan gathered in the drafty farm grange surrounded by fallow disked fields under light snowfall. Women brought covered dishes and converged to carve three or four turkeys. I snitched black olives from the relish bowl and stuck one on each finger. The food was cold, at best lukewarm. The turkey was stringy and parched, mashed potatoes congealed, and green beans boiled with bacon for hours took on the flavor of the bleak November sky. The women did their best, I know now and understand, with what they had in that rustic grange hall.
The important thing, Mom said, was family and yes, I had to wear a dress until dinner was over, and yes, I must try everything and not just butter a roll for a turkey and pickle sandwich. (The Jell-O salad with fruit cocktail and swirled Cool Whip was palatable.) The worst dish, nastier than gelatinous dressing and greasy gravy, was the platter of sticky yams coated in marshmallows.
Eating a cloying yam, a sickly sweet potato, the stringy fibers of an acorn squash, was a feat too far. The taste of orange mealy vegetables made me gag as surely as the trip over the mountains made me car sick. Butter, brown sugar, and marshmallow are for fools. I was not so easily deceived. Yams are the bottom of the fodder rainbow and better left to beasts. Try it, Mom hissed, but I gagged over my plate and she lifted me up by one arm and hustled me away from the table.
Carving pumpkins for jack-o-lanterns made me retch, reaching down the stinking cavity into a sticky web of seeds smelt of dying earth. Even pumpkin pie, dressed with cream and spice, tastes of swampy rotting entrails. Roasted carrots coated with honey and sesame seed served by loving friends are a problem. I toy during conversation to discreetly hide them under a stray rib of romaine.
“Eat the rainbow,” nutritionists counsel, so I slug down a shot glass of carrot juice every morning and call it good. Autumn markets showcase brimming bins of orange squashes and tubers so I give them wide berth. Cooking magazines displayed at checkout feature glossy butternut and patty pan recipes and I can’t swallow. I look away instead and read the headlines of the tabloids featuring the latest dish on Harry and Meghan.
The first rager of winter bellows in from the Pacific, swirling wind circling southeast in the valley bowl, bends the birch and tears the last frond feathers from the locust. There will be more and they will keep coming.
An inch of rain pounds against the stove cap, wind whistles through the chimney cap, eaves overflow with leaves and water spills broadside. Black moon in a black sign at the end of the Via Combusta, wait for the lights to meet and seed a new turn. Then we will know.
Venus trails and lingers, fingering the Feather and Scales as Maat; she still walks the burning road. The Messenger knows the secrets, where the bodies and the booty lie buried in the bog. The Warrior turns for the third and final battle.
Dress in mist, all the colors of air, to slip between: chalk, slate, smoke blue, steel. Waft through empty spaces like vapor, never noticed by human eyes, observed only by the heron at the river bank who sees and, wishing herself invisible, remains unseen. There is deep pooling water along the trails we tread–sky traps ensnaring clouds and gobbling them whole.
The coipú, the swamp rat, startles as the dog emerges from the mist, slips off the bank and dives underwater. I watch for the creature to surface for air downstream. It is last quarter now, in this cursed Year of the Rat.
Just the weight of a feather~
Even now this landscape is assembling.
The hills darken. The oxen
sleep in their blue yoke,
the fields having been
picked clean, the sheaves
bound evenly and piled at the roadside
among cinquefoil, as the toothed moon rises:
This is the barrenness
of harvest or pestilence.
And the wife leaning out the window
with her hand extended, as in payment,
and the seeds
distinct, gold, calling
Come here, little one
And the soul creeps out of the tree.
American Poet Louise Glück won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature