Close to dinnertime, during her second or third hour of playing Mah Jong on the computer in the quiet family room, she thinks she smells a gas leak. The signature sulfuric odor is wafting from the general direction of the kitchen. Her immaculate kitchen. Not that she is a fanatic about cleaning. Motherhood has been a long-term cure, if not balm, for any illusion she might have nursed that a clean house is a house in order, and that a house in order is the nucleus of one’s peaceful place in the universe.
Lately the kitchen has been become, well, her kitchen. She hasn’t been sure how to take full possession of it yet. She started with the stove. She cleaned the stovetop carefully, lovingly almost, hoping to restore its original deep black shine. Then, she moved on to the fridge. She culled bottles of condiments and a variety of soda cans from every shelf and recess. She arranged the remaining bottles and jars into neat rows on a single shelf inside the fridge door.
She wiped down the glass shelves and segregated dairy products, lining them up on one shelf, leftovers on another. This left the bottom shelf for miscellaneous items. She went through two cartons of eggs, neither one full, taking each egg out carefully and placing it in the plastic egg tray that came originally with the fridge. She found it amusing that the plastic egg carton had room for only sixteen eggs, as if a different set of apportioning rules held sway when it came to suspending the lives of perishables.
She went through the vegetable bin, too, throwing out lettuce laced with pink rust and carrots softened by the growth of frail shoots. She washed the vegetable bin thoroughly before she slid it back in its place.
She hasn’t started on the cupboards yet. For now, it was plenty enough to have only the surfaces clean and ready, but she is not sure for what. That next act, she would have said, had anyone asked her. For now, she is between acts. Even so, even with the curtains down, it is good to have everything in place. Somewhere offstage, in a shabby green room, the cast is ready to burst forth with their given lines bearing news of the world or with their acts born of need — all of which could set the kitchen on fire. Well, not literally, but aglow.
The sulfuric smell is unmistakable to her now. Gas leak. She will have to interrupt her Mah Jong game to go investigate. It couldn’t be one of the stove elements. She hasn’t cooked for days, preferring to eat out.
She gets up from her desk and heads for the kitchen. As the smell grows stronger, she has quick visions of the house in tatters, her arms, legs, and head blown apart, shredded and falling in a rain of blood. She sees her two sons in the noisy haze of music in dorm rooms at their respective colleges. She watches them getting the terrible news and she hears the deep-bladed silence after they turn off their loud music in shock. She sees her boys standing in the men’s store awkward and paled by the dense black of suits that hang on them as armor or alien skin.
At the kitchen door, she changes her mind about going in. She yells out to her husband who had gone into the bedroom hours before, about the time she herself had set down to the computer to play Mah Jong. Summoned, he comes into the kitchen, bleary-eyed from his nap. She watches him from her perch in the door. He sniffs the range and declares it okay. He sniffs the garbage, and there is nothing that smells like sulfur in there, he tells her.
Well, then, she thinks, I might as well see for myself. She strides into the kitchen, as if with purpose. She pours herself a glass of wine from the bottle she got at Trader Joe’s thinking herself so clever for paying less than four bucks for it. Yesterday, the wine tasted like wet paper, but today, in the grip of sulfur in her nostrils, the wine tastes good enough to make her want to keep drinking. Fortified with the wine, she goes to the sink and roots around in the garbage disposal, looking for the source of the rotten smell in there.
“It’s the radishes you had,” she says as she pulls out and holds up discarded bits of radish peels. But, when she brings the peels up to her nose, they smell of nothing in particular. He is about to say something, perhaps to defend himself, for lately she is always giving it to him about the radishes and the kohlrabi skins in the garbage disposal. What is he supposed to eat anyway, now that she has stopped cooking?
They both look at each other, about to speak, when the sound fills the kitchen. At first, it comes to them as if from afar, muffled by distance, which makes it almost gentle, but not less violent. When the sound reaches them fully, it is beautiful, like the aching echo of crystal shattering in a vain attempt to match a gifted singer’s perfect pitch.
Her husband runs to the source: the dead space in the cabinet near the fridge, concealed by an ordinary cabinet door. This is where she used hide her sons’ noise-powered toys for days on end, to give herself a break from the dissonance that ripped the silence she constantly craved.
They stand by the door, she with her wine glass and he puzzled. “Open it,” she tells him, and he does. On the rough floor, three eggs in a nest of shells from one that burst, as if whatever it had sheltered in the dark finally hatched.
Written by Maria M. Benet of Alembic.
Etching from a limited edition artist’s book, The Creation from the Book of Enoch: “And Adam was five and a half hours in paradise.” by Natalie d’Arbeloff of Blaugustine.
What would your life
if no one ever told you
what you wanted?
no artificial desires.
only the nodding of your heart
as you walk around
saying yes to this, yes
What if nothing had
shoved down your throat?
What deep breaths
you could take.
Written by Whiskey River
Monoprint by Pica of Feathers of Hope.
The liminal seasons are all about waiting. At one pole of the year I want proof that my jealously-hoarded store of light minutes is increasing; at the other, I leave the potted ficus outside as long as I can, tempting fate, not wanting to consign it to the dry indoors until it’s absolutely necessary.
In the last few weeks before cold, everything pops. Goldenrod puts forth its profusion of blooms, corn stalks rattle, every wildflower and weed opens wide and lets its seeds fly. Our garage takes on the sweet pine smell of freshly split cordwood, piled and waiting for stacking.
Everything smart is stocking up for winter. The chipmunks pillage birdseed, the cat takes down field mice, we oven-roast plum tomatoes and pack them in oil. And when the jelly jars prove not-quite sterile they seal shut, foam around the edges, explode in a yeasty haze.
I want to see my folder of poems growing fatter, too, the comfort of crisp papers piling high. As if the advent of splintering ice means my creative impulse will hibernate, sleeping off the long dark night of winter, waiting for the first rivulets of melting spring to announce the right time to burst.
Written by Rachel Barenblat of Velveteen Rabbi.
Yours is the graven image made
for my idolatry. Let’s not call it fate—
it’s clearly karma.
I bypass all the other buddhas now,
pay my admission & stride quickly
through the main hall, past the pagoda & out
the back gate to visit you
alone in the convent.
I lift my eyes to the glow
of your in-drawn smile, meditate
on the perfect arch of your eyebrows,
like crescent moons, & the one
delicious finger pointing
at your lips.
So began a mash note to the object of my first adult crush, a beautiful hermaphrodite with balls on her head, two of them, side by side—a high-fashion hairdo, no doubt, back in 8th-century Korea where she was born. She occupies the place of honor in the main hall of an ancient Japanese convent, the Chûgûji, attached to the famous Hôryûji temple outside Nara. She lounges on her pedestal in a relaxed half-lotus position, reaching her right hand toward her chin, her extended middle finger almost touching her cheek. Her faint smile hints of something wonderful to come. The folds of her robe ripple around the T-shaped intersection of crossed leg and knee like sand dunes formed by alternating winds.
I knew that, in all likelihood, she had been built around a wooden frame, and the sculpted wood was probably as thin and hollow as a cicada’s shell. But being an inveterate tree-hugger, I preferred to imagine that she had been carved from a single block of wood, that the sculptor had lifted her with a few strokes of his chisel from the heartwood of some mighty cypress. Even as she sits eternally poised a half-second away from some earth-shaking realization, somewhere back behind her navel, concentric rings might still mark the spot where the tip of the original sprout once unfurled.
After the first two or three centuries of intense borrowing from China, a native Japanese aestheticism slowly took root. The wooden temples and sculptures, once painted in the bright colors that the Chinese have always considered auspicious, were allowed to fade and weather; the resulting patina and play of shadows became highly prized. Some thousand-year-old sculptures, if stored properly, can still retain traces of color. But this one—believed by most scholars to represent Miroku, or Maitreya in Sanskrit—wore a shiny coat of black lacquer. It couldn’t have been too many centuries since she was last retouched.
The first time I saw her, glistening in the natural light filtered through rice-paper windows, she took my breath away. The downward gaze suggested not submissiveness, but the opposite: a great power to transform, held in reserve. Behind her, attached somehow to the back of her head, rose a large nimbus with miniature embossed buddhas floating in full lotus position around a ring of flowers and a central, open blossom. In contrast to the main figure, it was stained in various shades of faded red.
Since Miroku is the Coming Buddha—virtually a Buddhist Messiah—the halo took on a special significance for me. I figured it was meant to represent Miroku’s own vision of a future buddhaverse, presently gestating somewhere in the otherwise still waters of samadhi. If it didn’t make her sound too cartoonish, one could say that this halo functions as an 8th-century thought-balloon—the kind with a light bulb in it. But perhaps a better comparison might be with a soap bubble. Indeed, her upraised hand looks very much as if it might once have held a small wand with a loop of bamboo at the end for dipping into a bowl of soapy water, and her smile signals just the right hint of bemusement. In imagination I sit again on the hard tatami mats, gazing up worshipfully when I should be meditating on earthly transience, my nostrils prickling once more with the smell of sandalwood. I’m waiting for a perfect sphere of her breath to float down in front of me like a fishing lure, its fragile container glistening with the five parts of light.
please don’t give my salvation a second thought.
This present longing, impossible as it is,
is sweeter to me than the most certain
Written by Dave Bonta of Via Negativa.
Outskirts of early anti-Vietnam war demonstration, New Haven CT March 1968.
Photo by Jonathan Sa’adah.
Sometimes I’m not sure I had an adolescence. The personal details of those years seem forever pressed, like a prom corsage, between heavy events: inseparable now without tearing either the pages or the petals.
I was eleven when Kennedy was assassinated: we heard about it over the loudspeaker wired into our sixth-grade classroom. The teacher put her head down on her desk and cried. One girl was terrified to walk home alone because the killer hadn’t been found; someone said, Bonnie, are you nuts, he’s in Texas, do you think he can get to New York State in two hours? I left school and walked my safety-patrol route and went home; later that week my father and I were watching our small black-and-white television when Oswald was shot.
That year we still had girl-only birthday parties where we wore dresses and white ankle socks and danced the twist. The next fall we moved up from the long brick elementary school into the junior/senior high school building — and childhood was over. At another pajama party we squealed over the Beatles, and later the girls whispered in the dark about French kissing and having periods and making babies.
“I think it will be gross,” one of them said.
“I won’t know, I’ll be asleep when he does it,” said another, envied by all of us for already having a boyfriend.
Bob Dylan wrote The Times They are a Changin’ in 1964. I was twelve that summer, when Los Angeles erupted into the Watts riots. Already the bard-poets – Dylan, Simon, Lennon – were planting the idea in my head that vibrant, powerful poetry could grow out of one’s own roots and alienation both.
They called us flower children, but really we were children of the Cold War, raised on fallout and expected conflagration. The explosion finally came in 1968: the My Lai massacre happened in March, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in April, Bobby Kennedy in June while we were taking New York State Regents’ exams. I had long hair and wire-rimmed glasses; spent hours listening to music and reading, playing a half-hearted guitar and trying to sing like Joan Baez or Joni Mitchell. Part of that summer, I knocked on doors in my hometown to campaign for Eugene McCarthy, witnessing the fissures in the country at close range as people I’d known all my life invited me in to talk, or kicked me out of their houses.
The first day of senior year we stood around the black tables of the physics lab and listened to two kids who had managed to go to Woodstock; it wasn’t all that far from where I grew up — in fact, my cousin, a state livestock inspector, used to test the cows for mastitis on Yasgur’s newly-famous farm. That December, just in time to coincide with the deadlines for our college applications, the Selective Service held the first draft lottery for everyone born between 1944 and 1950. We were two years younger, but we knew what was coming: the thunderheads were piling up, the leaves turning upside down in the wind. Country Joe and the Fish sang the Fixin’ to Die Rag; Jimi Hendrix demanded to know if we were experienced. Everyone was going through the motions of SATs, college essays, relationships, career choices, but none of us were sure we’d live to grow up, or what life would be like if we did.
I spent a lot of that year in the library or the art room talking to my friend Kip. In the absence of any AP classes in our high school, we’d both been pulled out of English and American History and were doing those classes as tutorials with two barely-motivated faculty members. It was a loose structure, to say the least; we had big term paper assignments and lots of books to read, but mostly we talked about politics and history, art and poetry, racism and class warfare. Kip wore his poor background like a breastplate and chided me constantly for having come from the middle class. “What do you know?” he’d taunt. “I had rats in my cradle when I was a baby. What makes you think you have anything to say?” He made oil paintings and wrote long Ferlinghetti-inspired poems on the back with lines like “bombshelter brainrooms in crystal and silver”. I argued back, and painted a twice-life-size nude on a cooperative mural that scandalized the cafeteria staff; together he and I edited the yearbook and, without ever saying so, prized our stormy friendship.
In April Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, in May the country blew up over Kent State… and a month later we graduated.
I was bursting with unexpressed feelings, experiences, longings. I wanted to be a writer, but I was enough of a self-critic to know that the stuff I was writing was crap: my voice inauthentic, my eye too close to the lens. Kip’s words would haunt me for another decade and a half, as I struggled to understand the carnage left by Vietnam and the tumultuous trajectory of a personal life emerging, finally, from those dense pages. It would take a new set of mounting injustices, together with a long inward journey, to finally swell the seed planted back in the sixties – the seed with the words inside.
Written by Beth Adams of the cassandra pages.