The earth has taken almost a complete wander around the sun since my last lonely letter into this void, and a number of things have changed.
A family has grown up around me the way that I’ve seen old trees grow around old bicycles. Just now a gorgeous woman has her legs tangled with mine, my hands working to remember how to form words by manipulating a series of buttons, hers busy in her knitting. Three daughters are off at three different schools, and tea is cooling in our mugs. Stepmotherhood suits me well, if I’m infrequently as evil as I may have hoped.
The youngest is five, and in accordance with her grandmother’s and against my wishes, attends a Catholic school. Proper theology, I think, I could stand. I was taught by nuns myself, which left me with a rebellious streak, a lean in the direction of weird mysticism, and, no small thing, educated well enough that I was capable of educating myself. But sometimes after school while we walk to the bus, her hand held in mine, she chatters away, explaining nonsense like, “it’s raining because Jesus is crying.” So I try to give her other options, like maths and science the school incorrectly thinks too advanced for preschool, really good books, strange old gods, and shiny bits of magic.
While picking her up after school yesterday, one of the other little girls asked her who I was. “That’s Jack,” she explained. “Jack is one of my moms. I have two moms.” My partner and I shared a smile over it. I’ve only been living with the bairn for six months, so it still (and might always) feel like I’ve won a prize when she calls me her mum. And that she explained it simply, and the other girl didn’t think to make much of a fuss over it, felt nice. Our youngest doesn’t have much need of words like lesbian or queer, but she does know that there are two of us who will make her oatmeal in the morning, read her stories, take her to the doctor, convince her to eat her vegetables, take her for walks in the woods, and listen to her made up songs, and that would seem to be enough for her to like explaining it and want to brag about it a little.
I’m a slave for a tight colour palate, and living now, as I do, on the edge of the wilderness, I’m free to enjoy winter for what it is. I take long, lonely walks through trails in these woods, through fresh snow, grey sky, and a soft gradient of browns: earth, branch, bole, briar, stone, wren. I come home and strip off my warm things, pace the wood floors which, to me, feel long and narrow, like a ship, moving always between kettle and chair, kettle and chair. I measure these months of solitude by the teacup. I go to my fish counter and back, up hills, up the same long road, past churches and houses, an old orphanage, tangles of trees and the beauty of brambles, past crossroads and on highways. I sell my wares and do my work and I come back, downhill in the cold. I wash in and out, my own tide, pulled by a moon that I feel always and so rarely touch.
I do believe in ritual cleanliness. Of course, I also do quite a lot of work while covered in entrails dragged from the depths, using a knife still covered in scales and bile and blood and gods know what else, or with garden dirt so thick under my fingernails I’ll never manage to scrub it off. However: when time allows, I do enjoy a nice bath beforehand. It’s good to give the chi a good exfoliating. Even more than the ritual bathing, however, the dandy in me looks forward to the ritual moisturising. I stand before the gods anointed, vanilla and almond scented, like I’m about to go on a date with the sky.
And I was.
I woke up in the middle of the night and put on my winter things like garb: a knitted lace scarf, cabled mittens, thick socks, a warm woollen hooded sweater, corduroys, a coat I bought in France to keep me safe in Iceland, fish boots, my beloved bear hat, and my keys. I locked my door behind me, groped in the dark down the stairs in my little outhouse of a mudroom, crunched over gravel, and spun in a circle, looking for the moon. I found it directly over my house, all but the tiniest sliver of silver swallowed by a scarlet serpent, a shooting star rushing under it, as if it wasn’t fantastic enough already.
This solstice, for me, more than most, has been a dark one. Terrible Things Have Happened. They carry the seeds of great good in them, hints that the light might now start to grow, although we daren’t say as much.
This solstice was so dark that even the moon was swallowed up. But. If you were to stand on the moon and watch the eclipse from there, the earth, of course, would have been ringed in fire. NASA had my favourite write-up foretelling the event, and although I know them to lapse into poetry with some frequency, it still surprises and delights me when it happens. From the moon, they said, you’d see every sunrise and every sunset all at once.
And this eclipse… forgive me, I know I’m making a cliché of myself, but I have a difficult time thinking of these alignments as anything other than an orgy. I imagine the cosmic bodies circling one another, curious, for time unfathomable, and once in a great while getting one another drunk and touching only briefly, spinning off again not to speak of it much until, inevitably, it happens again.
So. I stood on a bridge beneath this red and darkened moon. I caught its reflection in the water beneath me, and I caught it also in the cup that I held in my hands, from which I drank. Directly beneath me was the entirety of the world. And directly beneath that was the sun. Turtles. Turtles, all the way down.
I meant to do something under it. I’m not sure I’d decided what, yet, but I’d intended to set my roots down and my branches up. All I could do was watch. I’ve met few things that demanded and deserved simple worship so thoroughly.
How many thousands of us looked to the sky last night? How many of the stars, diamonds set around a ruby, watched the moon and the earth and the sun kiss and twittered and gossiped?
The serpent swallowed the moon and then gave it back to us, a perfect shining egg. Now the light can start to grow. Where I live, however, the darkest of the year passes only to offer us up to the terrible cold. Good luck, friends. Stay warm and brave.
For Halloween, which happens to be the anniversary of my lovely roommate’s birth and of my conception, we covered the house in dead leaves, cobwebs, feathers, and bones. We filled apothecary jars with a cocktail made from rye whiskey, applejack, and cider, and an ornate punchbowl with a champagne cocktail made with creme de cassis and chambord and fresh blackberries. Dressing up, as one must, I did what I could to represent the god Pan. I wore a flesh coloured nothing of a dress, a vintage fox fur stole, pheasant feathers in my hair and a jutting folly of a broach made of oak leaves and dangerously long pheasant tail feathers across my clavicle and over my shoulder. I went barefoot, and had gold dust on my face and on my hands. We had food, drink, and sweets to offer to friends, strangers, and any ghosts who might arrive, but, for the most part, only the living seemed to have been very thirsty.
The house in which I live does, however, have its ghosts. At times I hear the sounds of neighbours moving about, the dragging of a chair on a hardwood floor, the opening and closing of drawers next door, in the master bedroom of a house that was torn down years ago. My roommate hears a woman weeping sometimes when I’m not home, and I feel a strange sense of apprehension at the space at the top of the stairs, just in front of her bedroom door. I only think it strange how mundane living with a haunting seems. I think of them less than my other neighbours, certainly. The dead are quieter; more civilised, too.
I’d seem to have received a promotion. I’ll be moving soon, as a result, to the store farthest away from the city. I found a big, spooky house across the street from a pretty church and a swamp. It’s all white walls, hardwood floors, interesting architectural details, odd angles, old glass, and strange closets. It feels like it has its ghosts, too.
And today, in preparing for the move, I opened the box of letters, photographs, and art sent to me by the people who have read the various incarnations of this blog in the last dozen years. I found a stack from the charming young lady with whom I’d been in correspondence for years before finally luring her to Philadelphia and making her my roommate. There were postcards and trinkets and envelopes filled with glitter from old, lost friends, and from people I barely remember. There were odd, rambling things sent from London in curling script so pretty that I can barely read it. I found pictures of me kissing the sender. Most of these things I discarded. I’ve kept a small pile, a stack of beloved paper ghosts.
In the European mythologies of which I am fond, the land is often personified, deified, implored or commanded or feared, as a horse spirit. Horses are not native here, though. The First Nations words used to describe horses all seem to translate as, “it’s something like a cross between a dog and an elk.” Instead, in the moments in which I speak to the land and hope to hear some mysterious rustle in the underbrush to answer me, I think of the deer that my family saw when I was small and we went for a walk in the woods on midwinter. It stayed still, and we were so silent that we barely dared breathe, and we watched one another from a distance so close that, small though I was, I could have reached to touch its nose. It was the truest form of reverence I’d yet known. I think of the bones of a buck, marked by beak of crow and tooth of fox, that I found scattered in the woods one year ago. The land here is silent and skittish, hidden everywhere, caught only in glimpses before bounding off, or crashing into your car at a high speed.
Three things, of late, have been happening.
My partner and I keep marvelling to discover that we’ve both managed to fall in love with someone who is actually good for us. How unusual. She’ll be moving closer to me in June, once her children are done with school for the year, and getting them here is a task which feels monumental and difficult, and like a truly worthwhile and romantic endeavour.
I’m being sent to a store far outside of the city, a sort of civilised fishmonger missionary to the savage and untaught. A promotion should be forthcoming, and once that is made official, I’ll have to move there. I’ve been saying for some time that I’d like to get out of the city, and, unsurprisingly, the prospect of actually doing so terrifies me. The bicycle ride from the train station to the store, however, is magnificent: trees dressed in their high autumn finery, streams bangled with bridges, crows cawing and white tail glancing at me coyly over their shoulders.
My lover and I have a mutual former partner, someone whom we both loved and love dearly. They no longer speak, and he and I speak infrequently, but I think that we have all been having one another’s dreams. Old scars throb. In quiet moments when we are alone, we feel one another tugging, wondering, waiting silent and invisible in a corner somewhere. There are threads of longing and hope and uncertainty and rage that pull at my chest, that tangle across the world. I’m not normally particularly psychic, but the three of us are becoming increasingly noisy.
So I surround myself with the bones of that buck when I work. Skull and antlers, coccyx and vertebrae and ribs, mark the boundaries of the real world. A trance often feels like something I chase, something I seek. This last time, before I thought I’d found the correct slumped ritual posture of the moment, I felt myself to be surrounded immediately by Too Many Crows. Too Many to see beyond, there was only the black of eye and feather and wing, innumerable black, staring eyes, filling the sky and the earth, keeping only the distance technically required by a small circle of bones. I continued in my usual methods of seeking, thinking the ritual best not broken, wanting to see how the Too Many Crows reacted. They followed. Under water, under ground, they followed. I flew and they gave chase too quickly, moving not like the gliding carrion seekers that they are, but fleet as thought. All of these small crows were one large crow, cells in an infinite body. I chased and they swallowed and kept flying, and their belly was the size of my circle. I thought of Cerridwen, and chose not to have been swallowed, but to find myself riding them, possessing them while they possessed me. There is meaning in this, simultaneously elusive and obvious as a crack in the windshield and a dent in the hood of your car.
In recent years, the drain connected to the moat at the head of my cutting blocks has gone a bit finicky. My night crew has, too. So I’m expected not to leave them much of a mess, and not to allow things to collect in the moat. It isn’t easy for me, however. How am I to know what I have accomplished in a day if I can’t judge the size of the pile of bones and guts, fins and heads that have collected in piles around me and my knife? Bah.
The fish that I can’t afford aren’t really things that I miss. Of course I could steal a bite of them whenever I like while I work, but for the most part I don’t. Those meaty and mild things are, I think, a little boring. I like the earthier, cheaper fish: trout, catfish, salmon, bluefish, mackerel. However, those fussier fish do serve their purpose. They make an excellent stock. I’ve never yet thrown out Chilean sea bass bones without feeling a little guilty for the buttery, rich stock they could have made. So last week I collected the Chilean bones, as well as halibut and bronzino bones, in one of the tubs in which our fish is shipped to us. I simmered them at home with salt, pepper, onion, carrot, celery and garden herbs until the cartilage weakened and the bones abandoned one another. It seems so wasteful that I ever buy vegetable stock, that I don’t do this weekly with the things that I could carry home for free, rather than hauling to the dumpster at the end of the night. And what sort of a crow would I be, what sort of great, great grandchild of the rag and bone men if I left bones so often uneaten?
Last week I used my stock to make a risotto with shrimp and scallops and crab meat. Today I’m making another with Chilean bones again, and with mild, juicy, wild Chinook salmon bones. By late afternoon it should be an Icelandic fish soup.
If you should happen to be in Philadelphia, I ought to mention that as we usually throw them out, if you call ahead to request that we save them our fish bones are free for the taking. A day’s notice makes it more likely that you’ll get what you want if you had something specific in mind, but a sufficient pile of bones of some sort can be saved within a couple of hours.
I barely had time for the equinox. I took a few stolen glances at that gorgeous, pregnant harvest moon. I savoured a few guilty thoughts about how much better I’d like to care for my garden next year. I was in a bit of a frenzy at the time. The cold months are when I sell the most fish, and as the world turns darker and my customers more ravenous, my boys and I seem to have been caught a little unprepared. I’ve worked summers where every afternoon is a long lull, a desperate search to find something to clean in order to have something to do. I only experienced that once this year, and on that day I scrubbed so many things that the fishmonger with whom I shared the shift laughed at me. So our slowly getting back to business has us really quite busy. I enjoy it, but my body, I’m afraid, isn’t quite used to the pacing. And when I could have been biking into the coming fall, finding the patches of collected dried leaves to stomp in, to roll and play and worship in, I was attempting to do honour to my household gods, putting things in order, making things ready for the approach of my ladyfriend and her youngest daughter. And that felt right, somehow. Spring cleaning is nice, I suppose, for chasing the winter out. But I prefer making preparations. I want to gather in, to set my house in order for my long stay there. I’ve picked up my knitting needles again, and I am, for the first time, looking suspiciously at patterns. Up until now I’ve basically been practising various stitches in swatches and calling the results a scarf, or tearing them out and using the yarn to attempt something else. And I suddenly find myself in possession of a somewhat sizeable stack of books on gardening so that I can be better prepared for the first workable soil next year. And I scrubbed, and set things in order, and made some (mostly inadequate) attempt at hiding the things that a particularly destructive three-year-old might get into, or break, or on which she might impale herself. I planned recipes. I hauled food home in what felt like massive quantities, given that I’m only used to feeding myself. So it is possible, I suppose, that what I experienced was actually one of the more honest and encompassing second harvests in my memory.
I’ve learned recently that perhaps one oughtn’t announce that one has a new blog at the same time that one obtains a new bicycle. Writers, take note.
I went to Volpe Cycles on their first day in the new center city shop after their move from Fishtown. I admired their collection of art nouveau bicycle prints and accepted their offer of a locally brewed coffee porter and my first taste of Marmite, offered by a young man from the town in Staffordshire where it is produced as a by-product of beer-making. Once we’d attended to that business, I got to inspecting their newly arrived collection of Linus bikes, who bill themselves as “a simple, affordable, elegant bike for riding around and doing stuff,” and cite midcentury French film as a primary design influence. I’d planned on getting their three-speed cruiser. I’m used to hand brakes; I like being able to go up hills. But seeing the machines in person, I was strangely drawn to the roadster classic, the pretty simplicity of it. I asked if I might ride it around the block, expecting a brief romance, some taste of what other people’s bicycles might feel like. On the third leg of the block I paused next to a church to dismount and admire, to collect my thoughts alone before going back to the shop. It was a lovely little thing, weightless compared to my first cruiser, and fast. A man in the church had a microphone, and was serenading us with the love song from Ghost.
Needless to say, the bicycle and I embraced, and when I did return to the shop, I was flushed and speechless. Once I managed to compose myself with the aid of another cheese and marmite hors d’oeuvre, I asked if I might try the Dutch style bicycle. On the road, I couldn’t believe how sluggish it felt despite its being quite light. I paused at the same spot in order to reflect, and the gentleman in the church was singing a sub-par love song. My choice seemed obvious. I got the single speed roadster in cream with brown leather, and I named him Errol Flynn.
My first bike, a red vintage Dutch-style cruiser by Schwinn, was a mad, desperate love affair. I talked about her constantly. I’d joke that my bike was a fat girl, but I loved that fat girl, and couldn’t imagine hauling anything else up and down my front stairs every day. She was always broken and breaking, but she got me to work in half the time that it took to walk or take the subway, and she turned getting there into such a grand adventure. I called her Whiskey Glitter Run Away, and I sang her Irish drinking songs while I laughed and dodged cars on these tiny South Philly streets. She’ll always be my first love, but I see now that I tried to make it work for far longer than was reasonable. I imagine the poor old girl seething in the basement, cuckholded by this prettier, faster, more expensive toy. I do intend to take her into the shop to force her back into a reasonable condition, mostly because I’d like a winter bike that I don’t mind beating up with road salt and bad weather, but for now I’m too distracted with riding this pretty young thing to think about it.
The freshest squid I’ve ever seen was brought to me, not to be sold, but in the belly of a fish. (It feels terribly rude, but I cannot recall what kind of fish that may have been.) I have a small assortment of fish hooks of several sizes at home, and a larger collection stuck into every spare piece of wood near my cutting block at work. We tend to find them still caught in snapper gills, but I’ve also found a hook as long as the palm of my hand in a mahi’s mouth. And a fishmonger friend of mine swears that a friend of his caught a bluefish off the coast of New Jersey, and found a tied off used condom in its stomach.
I was cutting a mahi mahi today, and nearly tossed the head and the attached viscera without checking the contents of the belly. I noticed at the last minute, however, how firm the organs were, and paused to admire the fresh texture of the roe sack, a cheerful yellow in colour like sunflower petals. I noticed something hard in the stomach, still nearly aiming it at my rubbish bin on the other side of the room, anticipating the pleasing thunk sound of a hit, or the more enjoyable splatter and streak of blood if I miss and it slides down the wall behind it. But I paused for curiosity. I took the point of my knife to the veined membrane and split the stomach, squeezing out the contents onto my cutting board. I was expecting squid. Instead, when I washed off the slime and stomach acid I found two baby sea turtles. They were perfect; I expected them to pull themselves about my butcher block on their little fins. They were a little smaller than the largest fishhook in my collection, and their shells hadn’t yet fully hardened. Their eyes had faded, but beyond that one never would guess that they’d been swallowed. The mahi must have caught them and then been caught itself immediately.
I pulled everyone I knew into my cooler to look at them. One by one every cashier, cheesemonger, and coffee buyer heard the rumour and stole away from their work for long enough to step daintily through the puddles that comprise the floor of my workroom, into my back room, and waited while I pried open the plastic container in which I was keeping them. Some thought it strange or sad. Few thought it disgusting, which is the more usual reaction to such things. Everyone asked if they were still alive, and most asked what I’d do with them.
They’re in a glass jar now with a better than ninety percent solution of isopropyl alcohol on my desk, next to a labradorite sphere, and a painted lady butterfly and a Japanese beetle I still have to pin and mount.
I made a pilgrimage to the north, to my lover, to celebrate the skies crashing down. She invited me to join her for this year’s Perseid meteor shower even before I was certain that I was to her what she was to me. She brought me there to meet her children and some small sampling of her immense band of relatives; certainly she is connected by blood, through a series of diplomatic, mysterious, and occasionally romantic ties, to half the North American continent?
We walked from her house to the river where we sat at the end of a dock, dipped our feet in, held her youngest daughter’s hands and let her play in the current. We collected smooth river stones. Had we chosen to swim the short distance across, we’d have climbed ashore in Canada. She took me through the woods, showing me tangles of brambles, high reeds, shifting sunlight, ogham carved in a birch, strange mushrooms.
And she took me out of the town in the middle of the night to a dock in the middle of a lake. We wrapped ourselves in blankets and clung to one another for warmth. Every three seconds a star fell, writing its name across the whole length of the black of the sky. I grew up in cities, you see. I’d have been amazed if they’d stayed still, impressed by their numbers alone. But she brought me there so that she could make the stars dance.
I made my way home in a small propeller plane, watching the sun pour itself in flashing sections from one bit of serpentine river to the next, from one lake to another, fire caught in the land, an undiminishing cordial shared as it is passed from cup to cup to cup. The earth split under me, showing the gold pulsing beneath. It hasn’t escaped me that water and land, sky and fire press close and writhe together when we meet.