When words fail me: 7.3.16
by jade crystal harmon
She sits at her work table that’s cluttered with little clay pots, plastic baggies full of brightly colored powders cinched with frayed twist ties, ornate wooden boxes with lids askew. There’s a jumbled stack of sandwich-sized plastic bins packed with oddments from her travels – smooth river stones, blue egg shells, arcade tickets, green pennies. A tall rack of scents stands in the corner, hundreds of little amber vials organized into tight rows and labeled with yellowing slips of paper: wood smoke on a wool sweater; wet cat fur in the sun; rising dough; bog mud.
In front of her is an empty mortar, the pestle resting nearby. The crushing end is stained and shiny. Six unsuccessful mixtures sit abandoned in buckets by the door to the garden. They give off a burnt and bitter smell. She’ll dump them on the compost pile later.
She stares at the clutter on her table and sips a strong cup of coffee from a blue mug. She drums her fingers on the mortar, absently plucks at her chapped lip. Her eyes wander across the room lit only by the window tossing in optimistic morning sunlight, little dust motes sparkling in lazy flight. That sparkle suddenly brings to mind a sky filled with an intimidating number of stars seen from a sleeping bag in the desert when she’d been barely out of girlhood. Suddenly her hand shoots out and snatches a plastic baggie of turmeric-yellow powder, a plastic bin of tiny vertebrae and small bicycle gears, a clay box of gritty New Mexico sand sparkling with flecks of mica, and a vial of a scent that makes her think of a sky so big there was nowhere to hide from it.
The coffee sits to the side, going cold, while she plucks a pinch of yellow into the mortar, measures out bones and gears, guesses at the ratio of scent to grit. Now she’s gripping the pestle, arm muscles straining, pulverizing it all into a homogeneous powder the color of a rusty paint can.
In the kitchen, she sets the kettle to boil over the hearth fire. She could microwave a mug of water more quickly, but finds that fire-heated water makes a stronger plot. To pass the time she leaves her workroom and wanders around in the garden outside. She breathes in the scent of dew on overgrown blackberry canes, and inside in her work room, a droplet ploinks into a labeled vial of scent.
She gets preoccupied subduing an overgrowth of jewelweed invading the herb garden. By the time she snaps out of her weeding fervor, the kettle has steamed itself empty. With a sigh, she adds another log to the coals, fills the big iron vessel again, and vows to stay in the kitchen where she’ll keep a closer eye on it. She’s halfway through a batch of cilantro-basil-garlic paste and green to the elbow when the kettle begins to whistle. Another sigh. She leaves the recipe half-finished, rubs her hands on her apron. She pulls the hot kettle from its hearth hook with a singed dishrag and pours the steaming water over the morning’s rusty-colored mixture. Some of the green basil goop drops from her arm into the steaming concoction and she wrinkles her nose. Oh well, she muses, we’ll see what comes of that. She leaves it to steep.
Six jars of green herb paste later, she has settled back at her worktable with the tepid tea, shoving aside pots of ingredients and opening a book to a blank page. She pulls a pen from behind her ear and sips the tea cautiously. It warms her belly as if it’s spiced with chilies. Memories begin to flit back, shy at first, then coming in flocks: a long, treeless, sun-bleached landscape with pointy black mountains jutting out of the horizon with no warning; splodges of juniper bush dot the sand like a child’s drawing.
A pinkish ribbon of highway winds through it. Someone is walking far ahead of her on the road, their pace surprisingly quick for one carrying so large a pack. She runs to catch up with them, noticing the cracks in the sun-baked pavement, the tiny lizards that skitter away from her feet, the half-buried bones of some small unfortunate roadkill in the sandy shoulder. The sun has just set and the sky is turmeric yellow. When she reaches the person, she is out of breath, a stitch in her side, sweat burning her eyes and making her squint. She hobbles to keep up, trying to catch the walker’s eye. She knows from experience that she mustn’t touch them or it will all dissolve.
Please, she says between panting breaths, please. Could I walk with you a while, and hear your story?
The figure’ face is an unfocused blur, but she notices the small rusty bike gear on a string around their neck. The walker nods and begins to speak.
Her workroom is dark when she returns to herself. Crickets keep the beat for a veery’s night song. Her hand is gripping the pen in a stiff claw. In the dim light she can see that the pages of her blank book are covered in her own tight, messy handwriting, though she can’t make out the words. She is hungry, tired to her bones, but glowing and giddy.
She rummages through the pantry for some peanut butter and a spoon and does one last chore. In the twilight gloom she carries each bucket of failed concoction through the garden and dumps it onto the compost heap. As she turns to go, something bright catches her eye. A big fleshy squash blossom is peeking out from a vine growing vigorously from the compost. Over the crickets and night birds, she hears a tiny hum. She bends low, lifts up the canopy of prickly leaves, and listens to the lovely little melody drifting from the chorus of blossoms.
Well, she muses. You just never know what’s going to sprout up from a mess of failed words.