Open Mouths in Ireland

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Sisters in Ireland, 1974

The soda bread came with a dish of butter curls, a scattering of perfectly chilled O’s.  When no one was watching I pinched a whole curl right into my mouth.  Even today if a single cold shard of unsalted butter lands in my mouth I jolt around to see who’s looking.  Salmon arrived in red-orange sheets that seemed to glow, with balls of capers nestled on them.   My sister called them mouse droppings and pushed them to the side.  But capers were tiny jade alarm clocks.  The more I ate the more awake I was.  Don’t get me wrong, I love sushi.  But when facing a line of it I’ll sometimes attempt a bit of hocus-pocus, a spell to put my mouth back in Ireland.  I’ll wave my fingers over the pink piles of ginger, willing them to turn into salmon.  And likewise over the wasabi, so it might darken four shades of green and roll tightly into capers.     

My dad, Patrick, pulled trout out of the Shannon River.  Their flashing silver bodies flipped on the line lazily, gracefully, and if you didn’t see the hook you might think he was saving them.   He had pulled me up in a similar way, when I got caught with a hand on the boat and a hand on the dock.  I had been out swabbing the boat decks, and I slipped.  I did not open my mouth to call out for dad, the only person on board.  I kept quiet.  My arms shook and then shuddered.  If I had let go I would have been crushed between the boat and the concrete wall.  But Patrick walked up on deck and spotted me, just in time.  In my memory he pulls me up higher than he has to–he lifts me way over his head.  When Patrick jerked a trout out of the river, sometimes the line sailed so far up the fish appeared to fly.  I kneeled by watching him dress and clean it, to show that nothing alarmed me.  I thought without saying so that it was funny to clean a thing only after it dies.  It was funny to say dressed when you meant taking off its skin.  Every bite of trout required hard work. You had to fiddle away all the tiny bones that were the same transparent white as the fish.  But the taste was rich and when the flavour oozed out you got to sense for a split second how it might be to glide at the bottom of a murky, swirling river.       

We walked into this or that village and got fish and chips, which came wrapped in newspaper.  The grease splotches darkened whole blocks of print and that looked neat, the way the black letters and the white page and the grey splotches all competed for my eyes.  Chips were fries, some cut to large ovals.  You could press a warm salty one against your lips and no one would know if you were smiling behind it.  A dog appeared at our bench and waited for something to drop.  When we left school to go to Ireland I was told to keep a record of my trip, but each page of my notebook just described another dog I met that day.  The donkeys couldn’t beg for food because they were out in the green fields.  They might come over to the edge for a carrot but even as one took it he would butt my hand away with his snuffling nose.  We really just got through the fish and chips for the ice cream cones afterwards.  Creamy was a flavour but also a texture.  Very creamy ice cream seemed to stroke your throat as it slid down it.  Into each vanilla soft serve cone they jabbed a Flake, which was a chocolate wand made by Cadbury.  Some kids with will power used their Flakes as spoons: dabbing up ice cream on them, sucking it off, dipping it down again. But my teeth wanted the Flake—so much that they would already be biting down, chomping into each other, as my fingers tugged it out of the ice cream.  At home I would try to tell a friend about a Flake—how it was a candy bar but not shaped like a bar, how the chocolate flakes of it were all pressed together, but when you bit into it they flew apart again.  Weird, he would say.  Or: Gross.  And oh how I wished that instead of feeble words I had a Flake, to shove into his mouth.

In the pubs we ran free, around legs and instruments, meeting other kids or avoiding them.  No one kept track of how many orange or lemon squashes we drank.  The first time a bartender gave me a glass of black current squash I thought it was wine, and I gulped it down very quickly, before anyone could find out.  I waited and waited to feel crazy.  Once the music started everyone in the pub was  deaf to each other, which I registered as freedom.  On T.V. I’d seen a tiny cartoon figure travelling through a human artery, and when the music filled the room I thought of this.  It felt like we’d been placed right inside a thudding, pumping, flowing bloodstream.  On the break a musician handed me his silver tin whistle with a blue mouthpiece and said I could give it a go. It had a strange, sweet taste and as I blasted wobbly notes I realized what it was.  I was eating his spit.

Patrick let me slurp a little foam from his Guinness.  It never tasted like it should—that is to say, like whipped cream.  It tasted bitter, like something not meant to be eaten.  Would sewage foam taste the same?  I vowed never to sample Guinness again, but by the time his next pint came around it would look just like whipped cream.  Whenever we tied up the boat at a new place Patrick would send me and my sisters to the pub for a pitcher of Guinness.  No one kidnapped us, or said we were underage.  No one asked where our parents were.  Even the youngest kid we stopped could point the way to the pub.  We ran there like it was a race.  But once inside our eyes couldn’t see, and we stepped slowly and clumsily, like we were shy.  It took a long time to fill the pitcher.  The bartender couldn’t just spray it—the Guinness had to hit the tilted glass first.  I always wanted to see a reverse Guinness, with white on the bottom and black on the top.  The bartender took a piece of tin foil and pressed it very tightly over the pitcher.  Then she handed it over to us, saying, ‘Twouldn’t do to get a drop of rain in the Guinness.  Once out the dark pub, we shrieked and skipped.  The sister whose turn it was to carry the pitcher lagged behind.  No matter how thirsty she got, she wouldn’t think of sipping from the drink in her hands.  It was all for Patrick, and it wasn’t enough.  Even in pouring rain we could smell the way back to the river.   We tilted our heads back.  We opened our mouths to the sky.

I Never Nearly Died of It

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Is weather the last topic you can rant about without offending someone?  And even then, it is always worse somewhere.  And at this moment—at every moment—someone is losing her home or life to the weather.  So it’s smug and entitled to stand inside a house looking out at the weather, whining about it.  A civilized voice would remind you that once you’re out moving through it, really participating in it—the weather seems fine, lovely even.  The civilized voice would connect the word winter to the word lovely.  This is what I try to hear—a scrap of a civilized voice—as I stand looking out at the rain as it shifts from sleet to snow and then melts to layers of slush and mud and then snows again and then rains again and then the wind comes up and the power flickers and is lost and then the snowflakes start again, hitting the pane in little clicks, and then the mounds of snow melt again, making ponds in the field, and the sky goes from white to grey to black to white to grey to black to white to grey to white.  I will myself to find some green, some brown, some beige.  Or sometimes even—in brief flashes before the clouds clot together again—a strip of pale blue.

Neutrals, though.  They bring me all the way down.  I don’t care how clean or modern your house is, if it lacks orange, turquoise, yellow and bright green I’m never going to relax.  I mean bright green too, not olive or forest or sage or whatever name they give green after they mix mud into it.  And yes, I will talk about myself here in terms of your personal house decor because actually I speak for a whole segment of oppressed people whose souls wither constantly by being forced to choose between some shade of grey or black or white or beige.  People who stifle hope whenever met with the phrase colour choices—knowing the choices will all be terrible muddied versions of colours.  It is true you can find a really bright couch, for example.  If you have a small fortune, and if you operate a small barge.  And yes indeed, you can buy a raincoat that is neither neutral nor some tacky polka-dotted or drapey yellow Christopher Robin thing.  If you live in England, and if you wear a child’s size 6X.  You might be well-stocked and perfectly satisfied If you like bright colour and have a high threshold for gaudy.  And If you have no idea what I’m talking about then you are in the right place at the right time.  In the right weather.   Throw on your brown coat over your grey sweater, slide into your black boots and scamper off happily.   Admire the grey slush tracks your black boots leave behind in the white snow, and later relish the colourless steam rising from your dune stone mug.  Don’t mind me, I’ll just be sequestered between these lemon yellow walls figuring out the most-permanent-but-least-toxic cobalt blue paint I could use on this dark eyesore of a pepper-grinder.

But what if winter were the more brightly-coloured season?  Let’s say the cold made nature and humans more colourful, and being in the tropics was like being inside a black-and-white photograph?  What if swimsuits and T-shirts were only available in grey and beige and black, drab solids—but wool sweaters and long johns came in outrageous brights?  Palm green with tangerine stripes, hibiscus red with sea foam elbow patches.  What if sand was always grey and ocean always black and summer skies always white?  If the snow that fell out of bright blue skies was always a different colour?   So despicably unscientific, I know.  I’m just setting it up like this to ask you—you summer lovers you colour lovers you winter lovers you lovers of yawning neutral—what then would you choose?    I might actually choose to give up colour and  live inside a black-and-white photograph, just to be dependably hot.  That’s how much I love the heat.  Probably because I never nearly died of it.  As a child I would beg to be left in the car on a black asphalt parking lot with the windows rolled up.  All summer I dreamed of this.  Even when I was hot I dreamed of being that much hotter.  But rather than being left in the parking lot I was made to walk along with the cart through the frozen food section, shivering.  Had I been allowed to almost die in the car, I might be a winter person.  I might be filling this page with gracious odes instead of ranting accusations.  But no.  Getting goosebumps fills me with disproportionate exhaustion and defeat.  The first whiff of icy wind and I’m a sulky sore loser.  I was probably this way even before I got lost in the forest, and shuddered all night in freezing temperatures on a bed of leaves.

That was what you’d call a long night.  So long that I’m still in it sometimes, when chilly days darken.  I had hiked out into the afternoon wearing shorts.  It was early spring at high altitude, so by noon the day held no trace of the previous night’s bitter cold, or the bitter cold of the night to come.   I had found a shard of ancient Mimbres pottery in a dry creek bed, and it was so beautiful in itself that I got distracted by the dilemma of whether I would have to hand it over to the museum.   My shard—for I already thought of it as that—must look even better than the whole piece it came from, is what I thought.  Because the chopped design on it only told half the story.  At that time I still favoured half stories, the parts unsaid.  So I was fixated on that piece of pottery, rather than on the trail.  And it’s amazing how long you can believe it’s not getting dark.  Maybe I trained myself for this all those nights we held our ground in the street past dark, still catching the ball perfectly.   As the sky went navy I rushed along various trails, then began running them full-out, but the dark won.  Being lost won.  During that long night my assurance-by-investigation impulse withered completely, so I never looked around to see the source of all the footsteps and rustlings.  I don’t know what animals approached me.  I don’t know that one of them wasn’t a lost toddler, someone I might have saved.  I just kept my eyes on the stars, which had never appeared so kind or so needed, even if they couldn’t throw heat.  From across the forest ridge a few houselights were winking at me too, but I registered those as taunting, even torturing.  I thought of them recently while reading The Little Match Girl to my sons. We got to the illustration where she’s standing barefoot in a skimpy ripped nightgown, looking in on a lit dinner table filled with good things to eat.  Too bad the curtains aren’t on the outside of the window, my older son commented, pointing to the narrow rows of fabric I had missed.  Then she could just close them.  As I answered him—She might not, though—I remembered how often that night I peeked at those houselights across the forest ridge, though they made me so much colder.  The distant dog barks I  heard had the opposite effect.  They were as faint as an animal toy with dying batteries inside a closed drawer.  But they put an idea in my head.  Whenever the cold became unbearable I would conjure each dog I had ever known and recall the details of its dog bed.  I would crawl back into that memory and curl myself up on this or that fur-slashed cushion, beside the warm animal.  In this way one faceless dog I’ll never know warmed me up the entire, eternal night—just by talking once.

Another time I got hypothermia while swimming, and it seemed like a good idea to take a little nap in the middle of the ocean.  Upon entering the cold water I had thought if I swam harder my shuddering would stop.  And it did, finally.  My arms slowed.  Then I became convinced my body was stretched flat for sleep, not swimming.  I felt completely peaceful and dreamy, like a true winter lover.  Though I didn’t get very far into the process of hypothermia, from what I sampled in the ocean I would recommend it.  Imagine all the anguish you’d skip, if you were too confused to know you were dying.  Or you could stay where it’s warm and dry and feed yourself drugs, which might even be better.  I can’t describe how tough it was to swim to shore instead of sleeping. I really only made it due to my calm, rational and utterly supportive inner rescue hero voice, which has only ever spoken when I’m in danger of death.  Maybe four times in my life it has stepped up and taken over.  If this inner voice took over daily I would be so fucking rich by now.  Rich enough to have that bright orange velvet couch delivered by freighter to the beach bungalow I’d also buy.  Anyway, ahem, I somehow reached the side of the bay, where rocks were being battered by small ocean waves.  I got battered along with them while heaving myself up.  The barnacles slashed my knees and upper arms red in the climb, but like my inner rescue hero voice said:  That stinging? Think of it as singing.  Your wounds are just humming a little song to you.  Once safely on grass the voice disappeared for eighteen years and I started shuddering again.  I was alive!  I could be offended by the cold again!   Except the man whose sea-side yard I’d collapsed on thought I was the donkey who had been eating his flowers.  He sling-shot a big rock, which hit me squarely in the back.  It hurt.  But I suppose he could have shot me, and what a one-up to the hypothermia that would have been.  Is it possible that now whenever the weather dips below 5 degrees Celsius (that’s 40 degrees Fahrenheit, for you readers who have been patiently converting colour to color) I am doomed to feel as though I’m again swimming through frigid ocean?  As though I’m being nailed in the back by a sharp rock?  Because that is what the cold feels like to me.  I guess it did to that kid shuddering past the frozen waffles, too.   Even before she ever got lost—or lost her senses—in the cold.   

I do wonder about weather.   I wonder, if someone writes about it hard enough, furiously enough, deeply enough—if she writes about it right enough—can she change it?  If not the weather, then her weather?  If she paints with an electric palette and complete focus, can she lift herself out of a black-and-white day?  And for how many days?  I wonder if we can happily ignore what weather our bodies like?  And if by staying out of that preferred weather long enough will we find, upon re-entering it, that our bodies don’t even like it anymore?   Just as it is our responsibility to get happy and treat others kindly, is it our responsibility to get to—to live in—the weather that makes us happiest and kindest?  Was it easier before airplanes, when you had no experience of what other weather might be?  Even then, did some people put up black curtains against the sun, as simultaneously a neighbour dashed out tearing off layers, to better feel it?   Some people who nearly died in blizzards might be sad every spring to see the snow go.  Whereas others who barely got any snowfall would feel as though the wet weight of it was melting off them instead of the ground.  As though the snow and slush had been packed in heavy piles on their heads and shoulders all winter; it had dripped into their eyes and filled up their ear-holes, making them blind and dumb.  I wonder if way back when an entire town was comprised of identical white farmhouses, someone had the deep-December urge to paint a front door turquoise?  I wonder if right now some child who has never left the desert is dreaming of living in a room that, though invented in her head, resembles exactly an urban movie theatre?  A giant room without windows where rows and rows of people can go and sit in the dark and have cold air beamed at them out of vents.  If she never leaves the weather she was born into, will she always find light and heat oppressive?  Will her grown-up self forget the dark cold paradise she dreamed?

I’m done talking about the cold now.  It’s the 7th of March and the snow and rain have been battling all day for who gets to take up the sky.  I have just gone through this essay and cut out most of the expletives.  There were so many.  Each one warmed me up in its own way.  Now that I’ve reached the end, the child who wanted to be left in the sweltering car with the windows rolled up won’t leave me alone.  Maybe she thinks I’ve forgotten her all these winters.  And maybe she’s right.  At least she’s being quite clear in her bullying.  Tell them about the time you went to Key West! She’s demanding.  Why haven’t you told them about Key West!?!  I don’t know what she wants me to say.  I was nine. It was a long time ago.  I write a sentence including the words Key West, but it lacks heart.  It lacks context.  Do you want me to say the houses were all painted nice bright colours, like popsicles? I ask.  She winces as though stabbed, and starts to dictate:

For spring break I got to leave winter.  It was snowing hard when the plane took off.  But the sky above the clouds was blue blue blue and it stayed that way the whole time, except at sunrise and sunset when it got nice and bloody.  We went to a place called Key West.  It was like being in a warm bath but the water never got cold and even when you were walking around with clothes on it still felt like you were in the bath.  I didn’t have to wear socks or pants once.  Most of the grown-ups I saw were smiling and not rushing.  They were like balloons.  They floated and bounced along the streets, or their strings got caught on porch swings.  Lots of people sat a long time on porches.  Some even put beds out there.  They were like me, never ready to go inside.  Every sunset we’d walk to the beach for a full sky view.  The people there acted happy and crazy, like it was their birthday.  I ate my coconut ice cream cone and watched the guy on the unicycle swallowing fire.  He needed ice cream more than me but I ate it.  Every day I chose coconut.  I tried to put flavours in my memory for when I got back here, where there is no shrimp or conch or coconut ice cream.  But there must be a glitch between the tongue and the brain that keeps you from remembering taste.  In Key West I could stare at people all day and they wouldn’t care.  They wouldn’t even notice or change their words because a kid was around.  Maybe they thought the air and sky muffled their voices?  I’m still figuring out some of what I heard.  We went to the house where Ernest Hemingway lived and when the tour moved on I stayed back in his writing room.  I wanted to sit down in his chair but a cat was asleep on it.  The place was crawling with cats and even though I’m a dog person and allergic I really liked how the paws looked on the ones with six toes.  They looked so wide and round, like they wearing puffy mittens made out of matching fur. I walked over to the window by Hemingway’s desk like I lived there.  No one was in the room so it felt like my room.  I pretended the palm leaves at the window would help me decide my next pages.  Some day I’ll sweat when I write.  I’ll live somewhere really hot with my desk under a ceiling fan on the slowest speed and I’ll leave all the windows open, so the plants poke in.   The next day after our beach swim we had to go to the airport.  I wanted to hide.  I begged not to shower.  On the plane home my skin was stretched tight from salt water and sprinkles of sand kept dropping out of my hair onto the seat-back.  The airplane was freezing.  But that morning I had only pretended to put on sunscreen when my mom said to.  Luckily I had a sunburn, so I got to feel like the sun was still out.