Clearing the table to make space for dinner, I find a slim package, left there by mailbox-checking elves, addressed to me. Me? Not remembering what it could be. A book! “Tell Me A Riddle,” by Tillie Olsen. Thin volume, second-hand, slightly battered. Ah right. Ordered online after comment-chat with Ellen. “Ellen! Wonderful Ellen.”
Opening the first pages, as the rice simmers, and the onions glaze. Then smacking it face down open, on the counter. (“Never face down, the spines will break—” school librarian, third grade.) Add a splash of water. Sizzle and steam! Eyes weeping. Butchered onions, rebelliously emitting S-oxide from broken cells.
Now slicing courgettes lengthwise, then crosswise, the firm flesh in cheerful chunks. Non-resistant, perhaps delighted with their fate. Tumbling merrily, clattering thickly into the pan, before my zinging wedge of steel.
A slim enough volume to hold easily, comfortably in forked fingers: terra-cotta cover, garnet font. An impressionistic woman on the front. Baking bread of the dead? No, it’s Degas. “I Stand Here Ironing.” I peer through tears, other hand on wooden spoon, directing an unseen dance of onion and courgette. Deciding to slog through the introduction. (May as well be thorough.) What a writer though! “This gal knows how to turn a word. Fuck. When you can write a preface like that!” Unexpected delight. Slogging turned to leaping, language forgotten in farseeing phrases. The courgettes becoming golden.
“As well as radiance, she gave me scruple.” “O Yes”! But then: “there was the oddest thing” – “there I am, pretending to be an adult, a father with his own” —
wait. A father? O, such harboured stereotypes. These old ships in my mind. She is not a she.
Who is he then? The writer of such undulating, prefacing, poetic prose? John Leonard. “First critic to review Toni Morrison.”
“Only in print does he light the night sky of my ignorance and intellectual lassitude with sizzles and bangs, and gorgeous blooms of fire.” (—Kurt Vonnegut)
Another Leonard, Cohen song
fingers on the piano. My voice in wavering unsurety. Opening
the window, that the hills might hear, if no one else.
beneath the golden hill.”
“It is your flesh
that I wear.” )
Had I grown so middle-aged? To think only women could understand women so well? When once I believed men, and only men, could.
No matter. Book smashed face-down again. Squinting saltily, stingingly through chopped tomatoes, pausing to wipe lachrymosed lashes with back of wrist. To splash more water in the eyes. “Hey sailor, what ship.”
“Who took my onion goggles!” (called through ceiling)
“It wasn’t me!” (responding through floor)
“Someone keeps taking them!”
“I didn’t do it!”
“It was probably Z!”
“It wasn’t ME!” (screamed).
“Soon time for dinner! Devices off!”
“It’s not fair!”
“Why should we!”
“If you want to use them again tomorrow.”
“We never get to do anything fun!”
Can of beans. Rinsed in sieve; the shining garnets. Chopping rosemary, fragrant breath of garden. Something noble and pure in each tiny shiny evergreen blade. Survived my neglectful tending, thriving relentless in the sun near the mailbox. It was T who’d planted it? I like to believe so; romantic idea. All that is strong and good in our home originating with him.
Z’s half-eaten apple on the counter. I take a bite, exiting the frivolous lie, or incomplete half-truth. Enjoying the fresh sweetness, it won’t go to waste—
“Mama, why is it called Adam’s apple?”
Attempted: “In the garden of Eden —”
Maybe in the myth, the truth got stuck, was hard to swallow, made life real, creating death —
“Ouch! Mama he’s kicking me!”
“Because HE won’t stop staring at me!”
“Knock it off or we’ll get in an accident! I’m trying to drive!”)
I add tomato purée. Salt, pepper, herbes de provence.
But this book! On the ends of forked-again fingers, I finally devour something worth feeding on. Everything inside it I ever wanted or needed to know. I eat it savoringly but ravenously; a devoted cannibal. The meal is ephemeral: what took seasons, background centuries to create, consumed in small sessions of a single summer’s day. Near a stove, then (guiltily) in a hammock, then (with still-starved eyes) near a night-light.
“I hate rice!”
“I hate this life.”
“Tomorrow it’s burritos, with the leftovers.”
But the sudden pleasure of them, around the table, happy; T closing his eyes, savouring, mmm. Such a moment! There and this way, I shall remember you, when I am old.
- “Tell Me A Riddle” by Tillie Olsen — a novella-length book (115 pages) of four short stories (I Stand Here Ironing; Hey Sailor, What ship?; O Yes; and Tell Me A Riddle). Gratitude to fellow blogger Ellen Hawley (of “Notes from the UK”), who mentioned it in a comment thread on one of my recent posts (“A woman of hope”). This is going on my top-favourites bookshelf. It has sliced through my layers and changed my chemistry.
- The lyrics of Nick Cave’s rendition of the Leonard Cohen song “Avalanche,” mentioned by blogging plumber/poet Ivor20 in the comment thread of In Mind and Out‘s latest poem, “Sunday hues.”
- Also from this, read this morning, via Geist’s Erasure Poetry Contest: an excerpt from A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder by James De Mille, published by Harper & Brothers in 1888. Something about cannibalism.
- Images of Tillie Olsen gathered from DuckDuckGo.
Nadine inhales & exhales words & images from current vantage point in Zone of Emptiness, France. Thank you for reading. ❤︎