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.”

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.

Not Yams

blue_oak

–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.

Fire

Half the water is gone from the bucket when I check it this morning, but there’s less ash than the day before.

They come at night, creep up from the dry shaggy woods in the dark to drink. I dump the water and carry the bucket back to the house and rinse it out. I refill it with as much water as I can carry without slopping out most of it walking back to the hill where the deer trail opens from the withered bramble. With the fire so close, the wild creatures are fleeing the forest and moving down toward town. 150,000 acres of wildfire burn a few miles to the east-northeast, ash flurries sift down. I wear my best mask, pull my hat down low.

The West is on fire.

The red flag warning for strong dry easterly winds was issued over the weekend. Labor Day skies dawned clear and blue with the coppery mellow light of early autumn, a crackle of birch leaves skittering across the drive. By evening smoke enveloped the valley in a sickly thick fog. Hard winds swirled up born of the high pressure and heat in the heart of the state and dropped trees and power lines. Power lines sparked fires in the parched forests.

Evacuation alerts for the eastern county into the Cascades woke us in the night. The fire jumped the river and consumed homes and towns along the watershed, fire burned down river insatiable. Rainbow trout, summer steelhead, and Chinook salmon hatchlings were released downstream from Leaburg moments before the fire overtook the hatchery. It’s too soon to know what is lost, but it is incalculable. The fires are still burning.

My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things — trout as well as eternal salvation — come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”

–Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It

“Probably most catastrophes end this way without an ending, the dead not even knowing how they died…,those who loved them forever questioning “this unnecessary death,” and the rest of us tiring of this inconsolable catastrophe and turning to the next one.”

–Norman Maclean, Young Men and Fire

In August

roses2

For August, a checklist:

Buy roses, an odd number as the French do, rather than an American dozen–white roses, with a blush, to suit the bleached sky in the afternoon and the crumbs on the tablecloth. Cut the stems very short. Wipe the dark cobalt vase to place on the dining table. Fill the bowl with water each morning and sigh.

Water the monster red geranium, the one that managed to survive three winters, the one that spilled out and overwhelmed its large ceramic pot to litter petals on the deck that look like jam-stained rubies.

Check the Orthodox calendar to confirm the feast day of the Dormition of the Theotokos. I am not Orthodox, but the stores close in Athens and it would be difficult to find a taxi if I was there. It was yesterday.

Count the cantaloupes swelling on the vine. I tickled the yellow-starred blossoms with a twig because I didn’t trust the bees. They seemed distracted.

Make more refrigerator pickles, grate zucchini and salt it, squeeze out the water in a clean cotton rag. Bake muffins. Bake pastitsio. Grind handfuls of herbs from the garden with garlic, olive oil, anchovy, fresh lemon and blend in creme fraiche to drizzle on watermelon.

Listen for distant thunder.

Move the hanging fuchsia to the backyard; a doe crept up on the front porch early one morning and ate two-thirds of it. The dog warned me, but I stayed in bed.

Bundle up the wool Flokati rugs and lug them down to the local laundromat. (Laundromats are damp and dismal places, even with all the supposedly hopeful scents of detergent and fabric softener.)  Load a bag of quarters in three industrial-size machines, cold water only, and work the crossword puzzle in the free weekly newspaper while the machines spin. Lug the wet wool home again and flatten the rugs to dry in the sun for several days, turning as needed.

Let the young repair men inside to replace the tattered canvas of the awning. Though I tugged the monster geranium and its fellow potted roses and nastursiums  out of the way, the trailing petunia managed to be crushed underfoot.

Walk Ben to the park and loop down Walnut Lane to see the enormous house under construction. Let the workers pet Ben, but avoid the nice woman with the yellow Lab, because Ben is sketchy sometimes. Throw sticks for Mercy on the hill and let her greet the neighbor’s landscapers who arrive every Wednesday.

Wash the grime, the dust, the layers of cedar off my old pony because it’s hard to see out the windows when Mercy and I head down to the river. The car is 22 years old and I paid much more to have her rebuilt than her resale value, but she’s a trusty manual transmission and survived my son learning to drive and his powerslides into curbs, although she is missing two hubcaps and the right side mirror.

Strain the red currents that soaked in apple cider vinegar for a week and blend the juice with a thyme-infused simple syrup. Bottle the fruit shrub and tuck it away, satisfied with sampling the overfill.

Think of calling the chimney sweep, but sit on edge of the front porch and roll the white blossoms of summer savory between my fingers instead.

[A revised repost from August 2018]

Descry

ben_as_angel

My father still lives in the house I grew up in, lives alone since my mother died twenty years ago. For twenty years, Dad kept the last Mother’s Day fuchsia I gave her alive until the old knot of roots finally failed. I repotted it twice, each time doubtful. He brought it inside each winter, placing a plastic yellow bucket underneath to catch the watering runoff. I cut stems before it faltered, grew new roots, grew two new plants. It’s not the same, I know. It’s something.

We might save our lives but not our flagrancy.

Dad finds dogs on sale with varying outcomes, lost causes in need of rescue and rehabilitation, German Shorthair or Brittany Spaniels. Emmy is the prize. He found Ben up the valley on a farm, a food- jealous, resource-guarding bright Puck unable to make eye contact.

I started him on a leash around the little block of the old neighborhood using Mercy’s hefty retractable that we run through fields after pheasant scent, though Ben is half her size. (You can never be a bigger asshole than from the beginning.) I landed him like a Chinook at the end of the line when he bolted. Then we talked.

For two years Ben and I walked the old neighborhood, under old trees with leaves and without, in rain and fog and steaming July heat.

A woman we met walking told him he carries Buddha’s thumbprint on his forehead.

Another woman gave him a plaid bandana to wear around his neck.

Ben catches my scent out back when I tend Dad’s garden and calls for me to come, it’s time to walk.

Solvitur ambulando

 

 

Stone Road

stone_road

“This harmful road into the New World, quickly became a ruthless, angry search for wealth. It set a tone in the Americas. The quest for personal possessions was to be, from the outset, a series of raids, irresponsible and criminal, a spree, in which an end to it–the slaves, the timber, the pearls, the fur, the precious ores–was never visible, in which an end had no meaning.”

–Barry Lopez, The Rediscovery of North America

Barry Lopez lives upriver, below Sahalie and Koosah, close by the landing at Finn Rock. I believed it was mine, this river; these were my own moss ferned trails down to rock and rapid. I read Lopez’s River Notes.

Each spring I ranged over stone deltas along the river channels to study the flow, after winter floods remapped the current, before wading into the water and letting snow melt wash me down stream. The black dogs walked up river beside me and then floated along behind, waves of August bleaching the bend where we would land.

I was young and proud in presumptive possession, but long years teach, even if one does not learn:  I belong to the river, bearing the same nativity as heron or trout, not the other way around.

A green university town, emptied of students in March, ordered under curfew two nights, a text alert announcing the second restriction was delivered eight minutes after it was already being enforced. Windows broken in Starbucks; fires set.

Traffic stopped Sunday over the Ferry Street Bridge, made way for crowds marching north to the river front park, mostly masked and carrying signs, a young woman riding her small gait horse bareback, so many people so close together after so many weeks, panting for breath.

“We would have to memorize and remember the land, walk it, eat from its soils and from the animals that ate its plants. We would have to know its winds, inhale its airs, observe the sequence of its flowers in the spring and the range of its birds…To be intimate with the land like this is to enclose it in the same universe we occupy, to include it in the meaning of the word community.”

–Ibid