Falling

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Left eye fluttering yesterday, a tic at the outside corner tracing the track tears and sweat run, squinting against migraine sunshine and air growing thick: a storm rising sensed through lashes and brows, though the sky is clear.

Dwarfs bowl at pins in the mountain.

Dragons spar, red and black, teeth and claws.

Distant thunder sauntering from the southeast to crouch and slash jagged bolts over the Butte bright, violet.

Black dragon, then.

The electrical storm marks the season falling. Another threshold up waterwheel steps, an escalator to climb, or fall and be mangled in the machinery. Life is for the strong and simplest for the distracted. The garden is tired and ready to give up.

Six months ago, after a week snowbound by another storm, at a pub table toying with crusts of toast and scrambled egg, I read the email from Shirley after her appointment with the oncologist. Stage IV. The basketball game on the big screen TV blurred and flooded. The waitress came and took my plate.

Shirley’s oldest son drives her car now up the hill to check in on Vic or take him to doctor’s appointments. When I see it pull in the driveway across the road, I forget for a moment and then stop myself from stepping out on the porch to visit. She wanted to pick the color when they bought it last year, but Vic insisted on white. Statistically, a white car is safest.

Dad and I went to his couple dozen medical appointments, two surgeries, this summer. I carry mints in my purse and a water bottle, enter calendar reminders on my phone. I pickled cucumbers and sugar snap peas, grated zucchini into muffin batter, packed an overnight bag,

After running the dog, I stand in the shower and let the water wash the salt from my eyes.

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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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

Thistledown

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“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.”

–Ray Bradbury

“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.

 

 

Virtue in Herbs

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“Much virtue in herbs, little in men.”

–Benjamin Franklin

A train whistle walks in the middle air, longing in the distance, winding north along the river into the mountains. A solitary motorcycle travels the street below the hill before the commerce of another week begins.

I’m waiting. There is an hour when the dew lifts while the sun is still low: handfuls of Greek oregano to cut and hang for drying, wary of winter just as summer begins for all too soon comes flowering and seed. An herb’s essence remains locked in the leaf before the sun coaxes the oil to the surface, yet dew might molder a bouquet from the core. Thyme. Mint. Savory. Rosemary. It’s May.

Greek oregano is voracious and tenacious, leaping into the strawberry bed, seeding secretly into flower pots, bickering with the catnip. It responds well to rough handling like wrestling an adolescent dog.

Thyme lies low and sidles crablike, spreading rumors and telling tales.

Mint sings arias of sleek pirates and adventure, though the blueberries criticize the key.

Savory is prone and lazy, languishing over visions of love and summer romance.

Rosemary is willful and wild. She scorns containment and flourishes in bleak rocky soil exposed to heat and rain. (I do not dry her leaf, but only cut fresh stems when needed. Rosemary simmered in clean water clears ghosts and cobwebs as well–or better–than burning sage.)

A scrub jay charges a quail perched unaware on the fence rail to knock it down into the yard. I wonder where the dog is. The quail scoots beneath a rhododendron for cover.

It’s time.

Parsley and Pine Nuts

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The kitchen is buttery with pine nuts, pignolia, seeds shaken from pine cone. As they toasted I stooped to watch through the little oven window, yet finally judged them brown from scent rather than sight. These are not the longer oval nuts from the Mediterranean which are even more expensive and difficult to find. These are round and squat, from Asia. They will do. I mostly use pecans now, except for this.

Last night the neighbors celebrated Passover Sedar with the children playing on the hill and out in the street before sunset. Today is Easter.

Orthodox Easter, Pascha, is another week away, as the date must fall after Passover. Easter eggs are dyed blood-red in Greece with dye derived from onion skins. People play a game knocking eggs together, as they knock they say “Christos Anesti,” and the response comes “Alithos Anesti.” The person with the last uncracked egg receives blessings and luck for the coming year.

The pine nuts cool on the counter. I bloom the Greek oregano and thyme in olive oil for a minute before adding the chopped onion to the pan. Mom didn’t make spanakopita, though Toula did. She’d bring over a basket of the pastries filled with spinach and feta on holidays. Mom made baklava and kreatopita, tucking the filo sleeve under a damp dishtowel as she brushed the leaves and stacked them, pushing the hair back from her forehead with a wrist. I julienne a gallon of spinach leaves and two handfuls of parsley to wilt with the onion and temper the greens with nutmeg.

Eostre was an Anglo-Saxon goddess of fertility. Once she healed a wounded bird by changing it into a hare. The grateful rabbit brought her eggs that she still laid despite her metamorphosis.

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