Return

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To Juan at the Winter Solstice

The Turning Point

Hexagram 24 –  I Ching

Judgment

Return. Success. Going out and coming in without error. Friends come without blame. To and fro goes the way. On the seventh day comes return. There is advantage in choosing one’s path

The Image

Thunder within the earth: The Turning Point. Thus the kings of antiquity closed the passes at the time of solstice. Merchants and strangers did not go about, and the ruler did not travel through the provinces.

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Conjunction of Jupiter & Saturn on Solstice

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

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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.

God Clouds

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“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

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.

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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.

A Feather

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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~

The Turning

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All Hallows

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
Come here, little one

And the soul creeps out of the tree.

–Louise Glück

American Poet Louise Glück won the 2020 Nobel Prize in Literature

On the Water

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This is a color photograph I took standing out on a rock below a riffle yesterday.

Mercy and I went down to the river yesterday morning between storms. The dog hates the wind and hides under the bed, but doesn’t mind rain. I scan as we walk beneath the firs for a hefty stick she can retrieve as we walk down to the water, scouting along the trail for a branch as big as my forearm, still a bit green, but not waterlogged or decaying. If the stick sinks, she’ll dive after it, and I don’t want that now, not now with fall coming and the river rising. The current is coming swift.

Tiny honey locust leaves rain down, a flock of sparrows shot on the wing and stick to the soles of my boots, lodge in the bandanna around my neck. Leaves and stems shore up in drifts against the back door when we come home again and go inside to towel off. A tempo change.

Games of chance.

It’s what I think of, as we walk: rolling the bones, picking a card, spinning the wheel. My right palm itches. I wonder if it’s the first twinge barely perceptible of shifting fortune, some red flickering light suggesting an exit door from this gray cadaverous casino, or whether I’m weary, as we are all weary, and deceiving myself. Either jump in volcano or keep trudging through the ash. Leave the table or double down? There is something in the wind.

Empty Cauldron

Everything smolders.

The fires still burn, but the solid curtain of toxic smoke begins to fold pleat-by-pleat. Lightning and thunder cracked the shell, and rain-O-sweet-blessed-rain fell a bucket full. The smoke ebbs and flows, from yellow to orange, but not the deep purple of last week. The water bucket is still out on the hill for the wild things, but they have gone their own way, braver than me.

Each month of this astounding year taught a new acronym-filled vocabulary of disaster:

AQI= Air Quality Index

Viral Load= Distance x Duration + Density

BLM= Black Lives Matter AND Bureau of Land Management

Sing goddamn.

Equinox arrives tomorrow morning when the sun moves into the constellation of Libra, the sign of the scales symbolizing  justice and balance, when days and nights equalize for a trace moment of exhalation. Then we fall. How hard is the question. There will be neither justice nor balance this season. It’s still the Year of the Rat and though we gnawed off the paw, we are still caught in the trap. There’s a hitch in my left hip from curling downward, especially at night, hugging my knees and straining for rain to fall from the eaves.

Mercy and I went out to the river so she could finally swim after two weeks, picked the ripe feral figs along the way. We fell into polite, socially-distanced step with a young woman and Otter, her red heeler . He hasn’t been the same since the fires, she said. And I nodded. Sing goddamn.

Skiddeth bus and sloppeth us,
An ague hath my ham.
Freezeth river, turneth liver
Damn you, sing: Goddamm.

― Ezra Pound