Nightshades – Flash Fiction

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NIGHTSHADES

Stephen is coming to dinner for the last time. Everything I need is in the garden. Nightshades ripened in late summer into globed dusky eggplant, blushed tomatoes, tart bell peppers. They flower at night and drop fruit calving under cover of darkness. The eggplant, the brinjal, the aubergine shines purple-black like a bruise growing in clustered elongated teardrops from violet blossoms. All members of the nightshade family contain small quantities of capsaicin and solanine, which may explain why they are currently suspect in culinary fashion, or perhaps that is only potatoes.

Yet Stephen wants moussaka, for old time sake and all the good years we shared together. If it isn’t too much trouble, he said, please no lamb in the dish. Lisa Ann is vegetarian and Stephen is giving up meat. Béchamel is fine, he says, but presses on to nearly growling that I should cut back rich foods and finally lose some weight. Stephen will bring a bottle of Pinot Gris and the documents. I ask for a Noir, if it’s not too much trouble.

I begin in the morning, when the light is solemn before dawn and hummingbirds hungry after their overnight fast jab at dewy blooms. This dish must be served cool, as the Greeks do, not loose and hot from the oven. Even an eggplant picked fresh from the garden has a rhino tough skin; its woody flesh is dispiriting to beginners unwilling to take their time and sweat the beast. I carry my basket full of nightshades and herbs inside with a brace of flowers picked for the table. The eggplant is sliced and salted to weep.

I make both sauces: one with lamb and one without. Fresh thyme and oregano bloom in the olive oil before sautéing the shallot, garlic, diced peppers and crushed tomatoes until finally stirring in slices of softened aubergine. While the sauces simmer, I arrange the ruby-red dahlias in an Ikebana vase and snap a crisp white cloth over the table. It is an occasion, after all.

Stephen is late, of course, but it doesn’t matter. The moussaka is set and cooling with the vegetarian pan and the lamb side-by-side on the counter. Stephen knocks with one knuckle and opens the door.

“Smells good in here,” he hands me the bottle of Pinot Noir. I look at the label.

“Perfect,” I wave Stephen to sit while I rummage for the corkscrew.

“I’ll put this here,” he lays a manila envelope next to my seat. “We can go over it while we eat.”

I dish up moussaka and turn for the salad bowl.

“Let’s enjoy the food first,” I raise a dark glass, “we can talk after.”

Stephen sniffs his plate.

“Is there lamb in this?”

“No,” I shake my head, “there’s lamb in mine,”

 “Ah, good, Lisa Ann hates meat on my breath,”

Stephen stabs through the thick layer of béchamel and scrapes half aside. He chews mechanically, eyes fixed on the vase, and I know he’s counting each bite. When he returns to the kitchen for another serving, I refill our glasses and offer more salad.

After wiping the sauce from my lips and smoothing the napkin on the tablecloth, I open the envelope and take out the document containing Stephan’s proposed separation agreement. I rifle through the pages. Stephen drains his glass and smacks his lips.

“Is it warm in here?”

I look over my reading glasses. A shine has come to Stephen’s forehead; there is a glisten on his rapidly receding hairline. His palms are splayed and pressed on the tablecloth; I see his wedding ring is gone.

“Maybe it’s the wine,” I turn my attention back to the page defining how proceeds from sale of the house will be split.

“Maybe,” Stephen sways as he struggles to stand. I peer over my glasses. His pupils are dilated.

“Leave these,” I shuffle the papers back in the envelope, “I’ll look at them tomorrow.”

“Okay…wow, must be the wine…I better get going, while I can still drive,”

I pack a generous portion of moussaka in tupperware and snap the lid.

“For Lisa Ann,” I hand the tub to him at the door and wave as he backs his Jeep out of the driveway.

When I return to the kitchen, I cover the lamb dish and put it in the fridge. I shovel the last of the vegetarian version down the garbage disposal, humming with the faucet over the growling sink. Everything I need is in the garden, everything, especially the dark sweet berries of my beautiful lady, belladonna.

Ginger

dawn_pearl_harbor_day

The southern sky burnished fire at dawn, orange and brass, under a haloed last-quarter moon.

The rains tapered and ceased. Freezing fog abated. The moon ebbs to black now until she eclipses the sun. The Butte is a weather vane, a barometer, the day’s augery.

Ginger it is, then.

Mercy and I walked the north canal paths, crossing away from the level south bank where ever more people pass, picking our way through mud, sodden leaves, and marshy grasses. Some wear masks, some do not.

As we came up one slippery rise, I looked down on to the stadium parking lot with white tents pitched in the gravel in the same space tailgaters reveled before kickoff last year. Lines of cars waiting to pull inside a tent and park, a driver tilting back a head to be probed by a nasal swab, and then pull through the other side and drive away. Wait for the results. And then the next car, until they close the gates because the swabs are gone for the day.

Along the trails we find three things. The dog found the first at a fishing spot along the canal bank. I roll up the line the fishers leave behind, tie it and put it in my pocket, pick up the interlocking plastic rings left behind after the six-pack is emptied, scan for hooks and weights, anything more dangerous to water birds than we are and stuff it all in the game pocket of my vest. Mercy unearthed a scruffy stuffed animal with a stiff blue tail and a red nose. As she thrashed and tossed the toy, I realized it was Rat. Leave it, I said, and we walked on. Cursed Year of the Rat.

We found a hot pink Frisbee. I threw it for Mercy in the long soggy grass. The hapless Golden Retriever, Bailey, came splashing through the puddles with his owner calling for him away in the distance and stole it, leaving behind a bright yellow tennis ball. A good trade, I told Mercy, and put the ball in the game pocket.

As we left the trails and came up to the road, we happened upon a playing card, face up. It’s a Knave, I thought, but no. It was a Joker.

I made cake with blackstrap molasses, sliced apples caramelized in butter and sugar, with cinnamon and heaps of bright burnished ginger.

Not Yams

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–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.

Cross Quarter

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The corner of the top deck leads south-southwest, a prow of an old sailing ship leaning into harbor. I drink morning coffee under the awning, even in the winter,  even with my down coat zipped and a slippery mug gripped by fingerless gloves. Unless there is typhoon, when even the crows and jays are grounded, and instead I pace at the window.

Barefoot on soft cotton July mornings, the plants that wintered the darkness flower and tiny seeds planted in April now sprout fruit. A chorus of black-eyed susans lean and nod as I tell them secrets learned during the night. Outside the kitchen door are pots of dill, parsley, tarragon, thyme, mint, and oregano. Rosemary is wild and refuses to be bound. She grows in the ground, tosses her hair against typhoon.

In March there was nothing but bones.

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Perhaps we are only the reflected magic of what we cultivate, a passing breath blown on a silver mirror. Cross Quarter Day comes, a reef to bank and tack against, halfway between solstice and equinox, the feast of first fruits. In other years there would be fairs, music and contests, and young couples hand-fasting, but not this year. This year we offer up the grain on a solitary alter after Lugh of the long hand.

hydrangea

Days grow shorter. Light leaks away more spilling sand.

mercy_july_river

It’s nearly my birthday

Stone

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“Women cook and clean to keep the holidays”

–Amy Tan, Joy Luck Club (apocryphally attributed)

New Year broke already, arrived Christmas night.

There’s only stone now. Pour from the kettle in fingerless gloves, scant the honey, and save the bones for stock. Turkey vultures perch in the dying fir and spread their wings, not enough wind to dry in the mist, no rising thermals to hunt. They fly away north. It’s a long way down.

Solstice day the rain fell a river into the valley howling in from the Pacific. We lit the fire with rosemary limbs salvaged after February’s snowstorm, lengths of white holly from the tree cut down last fall. (Beware the Holly King I tell my son before he leaves for New Orleans.)

Take up the cauldron and brew. Sunday to the market, early with first light, where the staff are surly in their rumpled holiday sweaters stacking eggs and carrots, fresh loaves of rustic bread, hams and brisket for the crowds coming after me. Simmer soup from barley and beef shank, handfuls of thyme, Marsala wine, enough to share these days in the darkness when the sun stands in this liminal space loud with silence and phantoms.

My son wants his own iron pot as his gift. I go to a department store in the mall, out again at first light, and buy a fine red pot, the largest and iron heavy. I navigate down the escalator carrying it somehow, though I couldn’t see over the box, waiting behind two older women afraid to take the first step onto the unfolding case. “It’s a long way down,” one says to the other.

Wash the holly leaves and berries, dry it mindful of the barbs, arrange sweets around the sprig on a red platter. Bake the first pan of pasta, set to broil the final minutes to crisp the crumbs on top, pack everything into a basket insulated under a thick blanket. We go out in the early dark to join the company gathering to crack crab and hear O. Henry’s story read after dinner, The Gift of the Magi. Home then in the dark, sleepy and wine-filled, to feed Mercy and stroke her head beneath the starry lights of Christmas Eve.

What does it mean? I don’t know. For now, in this time of stone, the only certain succor comes from the kitchen; the dragon head in the moon’s own sign rages and needs feeding.

Talk won’t cook rice.

 

 

Cornucopia

scramble

In November I gather up cereal and nuts, corn oil, Lea & Perrins, check the cupboard for garlic salt from last year. I find Mom’s recipe in the back of my battered Betty Crocker cookbook. I know the game now, but pull it out anyway and smooth it on the counter. I look over the instructions, typed in Courier on an IBM Selectric, for the oven temperature and Mom’s note that she used more cereal, more nuts, more of everything.

It’s an all-day roasting affair in a low oven with frequent gentle stirring working through two batches. I stick to tradition, never adding cheese crackers or mini shredded wheat, just the Chex and the Cheerios, five jars of mixed nuts without peanuts, stick pretzels. It’s been 20 years since Mom died in another November. Before Thanksgiving she always made gallons and yards and acres of this Scramble to give away in jars and tins saved throughout the year. I ship off a jar to Auntie in Davis, priority mail.

We should be driving across the state, through snow and ice, just across the Snake River, for Thanksgiving. My lumbar still feels the pull and ache.

Yesterday before sunrise I walked out in the dark in falling snow to check the road. I drove downtown through the muffled gray to High Street where snow turned to rain. I met the HVAC tech, Lonnie, in the parking lot for scheduled winter maintenance on the old building; it was built in 1909 as a boarding house and now divided into offices and upstairs flats. The heat pump arrays are fenced in and locked on the alley. I have the keys.

We work our way through each lock. I check the wall I painted last weekend over the same tag, same tagger, different color, when the temperatures held high enough. I walk over to Dutch Brothers kiosk and buy a hot chocolate for Lonnie and an Americano for me. We are outside in the cold for hours, Lonnie cinching down his hood and me fumbling for keys.

After I sign the work order, before Lonnie leaves, I hand him a bag of the Scramble. He asks if it’s trail mix and I shake my head and smile. Oh, he says, it’s that stuff, because does it really have a name we all agree upon? It’s a relic from mid-century America. He opens the bag and takes a handful to shake into his mouth, wipes salt from his whiskers when I wish him Happy Thanksgiving and hugs me.

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Heron

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Fog seeps in during the dark morning hours and licks at windows and jambs. It may dissolve by noon, or it may settle and weep for a week. Out of the valley, above, the sky is bitter blue and the sun radiant. Waiting in traffic, playing with the radio.

One or the other, not both. Choose.

At some point the building inspector comes to check the new hot water heater installed yesterday. There’s a sign stapled outside displaying the permit number. The old tank started leaking and a towel laid to soak up the rivlet needed changing twice a day, wringing out one and barricading with another, hanging the wet one out on the deck railing to drip. It’s a hybrid hot water heater with wifi, warming a tank of water via heat rummaged from the air. It looks like the robot from Lost in Space.

D. managed the replacement, as with all the structural and engineering things that go wrong in a household because he’s a wizard, moving my plastic bins packed full of salvaged wrapping paper and Christmas ornaments from the garage shelves to run the condensate line along the wall to drain outside, and then stacking them carefully back. Before the young men came to install the new heater, I took a long hot shower and combed through my hair with my fingers to shed any honey locust leaves, because civilization is held together with duct tape.

Dancers learn to spot during an extended turn, during a fouetté, a pirouette, to maintain body line and balance without becoming dizzy. A dancer focuses her eyes on a fixed point as she turns, whipping her head around ahead of the turning body to maintain equilibrium.

Pick a farther spot, one in the middle distance, and don’t let go.

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Hallow

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Terry comes on Wednesday mornings. He drives an old gray pickup with a cracked windshield and garden tools lashed in the bed: mower, edger, leaf blower. Terry works for neighbor Vic across the road; he backs his truck into the hammerhead atop our hill and lets down the tailgate to roll out machinery. Mercy races from the front windows downstairs to the back yard yammering and howling, hammering at the back gate until I catch up to let her out to greet Terry and his dog, Aggie.

Hard frost in a moonless night, leaves skitter to drifts, bank against stone.

When Mercy was a pup, we went over to properly introduce ourselves beyond a nod and wave. She’s shy with strangers other than children, flitting and flirting, but determined to avoid strange hands reaching out to pat her square head, fumble at her silver doeskin ears. Mercy took a shine to Terry. She’s not startled by deafening gas-powered machinery now, quite the contrary. While riding in the car, she attends to every stranger out mowing we pass, as if each one might be Terry.

Dry cold air, sparking static from doorknobs and grocery carts, tentative metallic taste, another sort of lightning. Ground. Downward into this tilting northern darkness, a sinking ship, unsounding leviathan.

I walked out after Mercy with a bag of Halloween candy for Terry and chicken jerky for Aggie. I don’t know why I buy the candy anymore and stage it on the hallway table close to the front door when no one knocks; the steep hill and dead end road are a bad bargain for costumed children.

My son is grown and on his own, well beyond trick-or-treating–those years I insisted he eat some dinner before we ventured out in various storms to canvas the neighborhood and collect sweet booty in a plastic jack-o’lantern.  He was always the Dark Knight.

Snow above high in the wind, barometer of falling. The Wasp Queen driven out from her nest under fallen timber wanders, seeks shelter before the storm. 

I throw a tennis ball for the dogs, throw a stick Mercy stole from the wood crib when the ball is lost, and talk while the wind lifts my hair like Medusa because I’ve forgotten my hat. Terry has a backstage pass for the show at MacDonald Theater tomorrow, he says and asks, what do we plan for Halloween?

Prepare a fine meal, I explain: a lamb chop, an apple cut for the star seeded inside, a glass of red wine, arranged on linen with the blessed dead invited to dine.

Do they come? He asks.

Yes.

 

 

Coyote

“The coyotes roamed the edges of the neighborhood at dawn and dusk, big eared, serene, drawn tight as bow strings. Coyotes love to trick domestic dogs, to play with them and draw them away from their yard and out into the hills, where they then set upon them as a pack, kill and eat them.”

–Cameron Mackenzie, Cutbank Weekly Flash Prose

The heat pump register bangs, laboring to filter and deliver warm air against condensing fog, heavy morning mist. It may burn off by noon, or not at all. Sometimes we don’t see the sky for days, with rain and fog and full-spectrum gray from dove to doe. Sink down in the loam like locust backing into the earth to wait. Dread, over the left shoulder and behind, yet looming ahead.

This is not the season for the hopeful. They come in the summer, go to school, fall in love, find a job, and stay. When the light drains away and freezing fog fills the valley for days, they ask how long it will last. When a far line of sight is blocked, the only view is inward down to the bone.

I once hired a brilliant network engineer named Jonathan. He moved here from the mid-west with his girlfriend after she was accepted into a graduate program. Get the best rain gear you can afford, I advised, walk outside every day; get candles if you don’t have a fireplace, grind spices for tea and bathe in the vapor. Jonathan lasted until early December. He apologized, and I argued, but he had to leave he said, else he would hang himself.

Solace of apples, perhaps the same alchemy that extracts antivenin from venom, the honeycrisp as cure. Core and chop the fruit to simmer down to chunky sauce, spike with cinnamon and nutmeg. Heat a cup of amontillado to a near-boil and soak red flame raisins to plump. Mix a muffin batter with applesauce and raisins. Give away the batch to those who politely refused the crisp imperfect apples from the tree.

Temporary measures, taken in sequence, become strategy.