My curried soup looks like a galaxy. In truth, it is not so much curried soup so much as it is water to which I have added curry and, in an afterthought, a single, small, red Idaho potato. This is my attempt to learn how to cook, sitting in a kitchen that is not my own after a winter that was not so much cold as it was hard. If I remember right, the potato is done when you can stab through to the center. The fork, I think, is supposed to cut right through.
I remember the last stew my father made me. It was on a January visit between semesters, a ripe time for soups and stews. Standing in the kitchen, surrounded by paints, my father tells me the one thing I need to know to make a good soup, ladling me out a bowl before adding the meats to the veggies. “This is all you’ll ever need to know,” he says, handing me the bowl. “This is it.”
“Come one, come all!” yelled a scruffy looking gentleman from a nearby market stall. “Roll up for a prize like no other, a gift so valuable that only the finest of tastes will recognize its worth. You there, mademoiselle! What name do you go by?” He continued, brandishing a long, crooked finger at me.
“My name is Sue Denim, sir, and I am not interested in your wares today,” I said politely, hoping to avoid his sales pitch. Honestly, you pop out for some happiness and every parasitic salesman in the market tries to sell you something. Coupled with the cramped stalls, bustling crowds, and noisy children, the market was a hubbub of activity and human experience.
“Why ever not, my dear? Why, everyone needs a bit of pain in their life! Buy some pain and I will show you what failure is. I will show you what it means to cry over discomfort, regret, and bygone times. I’ll break your heart, bring showers to your eyes, and make you all the better for it,” the man exclaimed, leaning on a rickety cane for support.
Annoyed by his tone and perseverance, I raised my voice to say, “Sir, I really have no need of pain. Whoever would? Honestly, I think you’d be better off selling something altogether more cheery. Try pleasure and I’m sure you’ll do a roaring trade.”
“Pleasure?! Why, I would be worse than Alcibiades in his quest to swap copper for gold! Away with you, Sue Denim, your tastes are far too common for my wares.”
“Common! I’m wearing a Louis Vuitton sweater, you cretin!” And with that, I turned on my heel and set off into the heart of the market. How dare that gaunt, scarred salesman speak to me like I’m a fool! Doesn’t he know that nobody wants to buy his pain? Idiot…
As I rounded a corner in the rectangular market place I was taken aback to see a bus parked squarely in the pathway. A conductor stood in the front with a tan that made his skin look like leather. He wore a navy blue cap, a matching jacket, and a frayed pair of khakis.
“Ma’am,” he said as he approached me, in an accent that could only be American. “Would you like to see the world with us? We’re…”
“I’ll stop you right there, mister! My mother warned me never to go anywhere with anyone. Never! You’re probably a robber or a smuggler or a dealer or… or… some other –er related danger,” I yelled at him, angry at all the stupid people in the market today.
“But ma’am! We sell travel, experience, independence, and adventure. How could you possibly say no to all of that?” He replied, visibly a little irked at my implication of his criminality.
“Because I don’t want to die in the middle of nowhere! I have everything I want in my village, and if I leave, I’ll lose it all.” I informed the silly man. “Try selling televisions. You can see the whole world through those magical boxes anyway.”
“Ugh! And to think I was saving a seat for such an ignorant individual. Run back to your safe home and hide, little girl.”
I hate this place, I thought, as I found myself storming off for the second time that day. “Little girl? I’m twenty-one, for heaven’s sake” I muttered under my breath. Why is everyone here so mean? I trudged on through the market, determined to find the happiness man.
“Psssssst, you there!” I looked up from my angry walk and saw a tubby man hiding behind a slab of marble. “I need your help, child, this sculpture will be the death of me without a young assistant.”
“You’re supposed to sell things here, not ask for things,” I told him flatly, in no mood to be indentured into a life of marble sculpting servitude.
“Indeed, indeed, you’re right, young lady! And I am selling, because if you help me by giving me all the physical prowess of youth, I will help you by giving you all the mental agility of age. I will be your mentor and teach you everything that I know.”
“I don’t want a job, sir, especially one so… dirty,” I said to him, turning away to carry on my walk. I just need to find the happiness man and then I can get out of here.
“A pity, you could have learned so much,” he called after me.
“I already know enough!” I shouted back over my shoulder.
With my head down, I decided just to finish my walk through the market and go home. Today was clearly a write-off. Yet, much to my annoyance, as I broke onto the last stretch of stalls I saw a huge crowd gathered around a single vendor. I approached to find a frail old man sitting behind an empty table. Why on Earth are these people all gathered here? Maybe it’s the happiness man!
“What are you selling, you old codger?” A rough voice yelled from the crowd.
“Tell us! We’ve seen you give out those tiny pieces of paper all day. What the heck are they?” Another joined.
Curious now, I pushed through the side of the crowd to reach the table of the old man. He turned to me and gave me a long, hard stare that seemed to carry the weight of a thousand years. That was enough for me; I resolved to find out what this man was peddling.
“You can tell me,” I said to him in my most charming, princess-like voice. “I promise I won’t tell any of these horrible people.”
“Were it not for your obstinacy, you would know, Sue Denim, and I could sell to you,” he spoke softly.
“I am not stubborn! How did you know my name anyway?”
“I know all names, child. Now please, stand aside, I must talk with this young lad.”
At that point, I turned to see a boy of about nineteen pushing his way through the throng of curious customers to reach the vendor. His eyes were red, as if he had been crying for a very long time. Two scars were prominent on his muscular left forearm, although his tan made them difficult to see in the light. His hands had thick callouses, and his hair was matted with a combination of sweat and white dust.
I stepped back as he reached the table.
“Sofia,” he gasped, out of breath from jostling through the crowd.
“Sofia,” the old man smiled, taking a small square of paper from his pocket and handing it to the boy.
A grin of pure happiness spread across the boy’s face as he read the note and with that, he turned to make his escape.
I saw an opportunity to discover the truth and said loudly to the crowd, “this seems a little odd, don’t you all think? Why is this man allowed to sell his wares in secret to a chosen few? It could be drugs! I suggest we see what the boy has got and keep our market safe.” I smiled smugly as the crowd nodded in ascent.
The old man looked at the lad and simply shrugged. The boy handed over the square of paper to me.
‘Wisdom,’ was all it said.
“It just says wisdom,” I yelled to the onlookers. “That’s all…”
“Oh, well I’ve got that already,” announced a short man from the front of the crowd. “I read the newspaper every day!”
“Yeah, me too. And I went to college!” chimed another, the pride evident in his voice.
The old man gave a small chortle at these comments as he began to pack up his table.
“What does it mean?” I said to him.
He carried on, ignoring my presence.
“You didn’t even sell it to him, you just gave it away. Why was he allowed to have it?”
“Because he bought from every vendor here, Sue Denim, and wisdom comes free with pain, travel, and mentors. Take care now; I must be off, for there are no more customers for me here. There isn’t much call for wisdom these days.” And with that, the old man picked up his table and walked away.
“Wait! Before you go, have you seen the happiness salesman?” I yelled after him.
“He was here all day,” he said, without looking back.
Silly old fool, I thought to myself. He obviously didn’t look around the market today. I’ll come back to the market next week for happiness, and maybe the salesman will be here then. Although, come to think of it, I haven’t seen him in a long time.
When I consider slate,
and murmur in maroon
or let the cold taupe steel
my thoughts for an hour,
I do not stumble.
No every-day beige paint
or chartreuse mustard sickness
entangles my intestines.
I won’t let olive
drab overcome me.
It’s true that midnight blue
is terrifying. And gray humidity
can rust away at fire’s
bold and burning amber.
Even forest green fades
to brown in winter.
But I wish to live in magenta.
While honeydew still sweetens
my tongue, I’ll run on seafoam
steam. I’ll try to laugh with almond
calm, and gently unfold each moment
as a sweetly peeling peach skin.
And when silver does come,
I hope to return to sand,
just an empty seashell
in the indigo depth of the sea.
Sophie’s kitchen smelled of orange dish detergent and a hint of the chicken she had for dinner. She set her plate and silverware into the dish rack to dry and her stone-cooking sheet to soak in the foamy metal sink. She wiped the table free of crumbs and packaged the rest of the food in plastic containers.
She ran one damp hand through her faun-colored ponytail, stroking her oversized t-shirt front with the other. Her bare feet padded against the cheap, woolly carpet into the living room furnished with one armchair, a sofa, a glass-top coffee table, and sticky mouse traps her neighbor loaned her in every corner.
Mice had invaded the apartment complex during the winter. The first and second floors had it the worst. Back in early March, Sophie spotted a nimble, fuzzy body scuttling under her bed among the boxes. She never had a mouse problem before. In the pet shops, Sophie would smile at their twitching noses and whiskers. Wild mice, however, sprung images of breathlessness from Hantavirus, the black bulges of the bubonic plague, and scarlet rashes of Lyme disease in her head. Sophie shuddered and nearly held her breath as she stood rooted in her bedroom and called her mother.
Her mother simply said in a soft, tired voice, “Just lock your food away and clean up after yourself. He isn’t going to bother you, Sophie. He just wants a crumb to eat and warm bed. That’s all.”
Sophie didn’t want to have to call and pay an exterminator. That being said, she couldn’t have the mouse bringing his plague-infested friends. She asked her neighbor for traps. She sealed up all her food, even her tea, in Tupperware containers and cleaned the kitchen religiously every night. The mouse hadn’t shown himself for weeks, and Sophie showed no hazardous symptoms. She imagined the tiny body curled up in a corner with his head on his paws, waiting for popcorn or pretzels to fall under the couch. Every now and then, she’d even find herself talking to him. There wasn’t anyone else there to talk to after her brother moved to Northern Ireland.
Sophie plopped herself into the gray armchair and grabbed a spiral-bound journal from the coffee table. She uncapped her pen to begin a letter to her brother. The year was 1997. The IRA had bombed London only a year ago. Sophie’s Irish Catholic brother wrote he wanted to help people. Sophie wrote back several times how she wished he would come back home to the US. Now she had given up and could only write for him to keep safe.
That day, she wrote very little. Her week had been slow. Work was work. Thanks to the spring weather though, Sophie had taken her bike to a nature trail after work to ride for an hour. She spotted a couple of deer that day and got pictures with her dad’s old Polaroid camera.
“There were two females and a couple of babies,” she wrote. “I think they saw me, actually, but they didn’t run away immediately. I didn’t want to get too close because the mothers were there, but they didn’t seem too bothered by me.” She smiled. “I kind of like it when they don’t run. I get that they’re supposed to, but I just like to watch them.”
Sophie had also stopped to get pictures of cardinals squabbling in the trees, a squirrel climbing over a rock, and white wildflowers sprouting near a stream.
“I’ll mail some of them to you,” she wrote. “But you’ve got to start mailing me pictures too.”
She ended her letter there and tore it from her journal. She folded the paper and set it aside on top of her monthly donation to the Humane Society. She next pulled out a brown photo journal and a woven box with pens, glue, and paper clips that she kept under the coffee table. Her father had kept a photo journal. He’d paste pictures he took of people during the day and simply write whatever he thought.
“Why?” Sophie asked.
“I just like people,” he said. “I like to write and try to walk around in their skin.”
Sophie always grinned at her father’s references to Atticus Finch. Once she started college, she took up photography—but with an interest in both humans and animals. She wanted to get into the skin of all creatures if she could.
Sophie uncapped a glue stick and spread it over the back of her first Polaroid picture of a baby deer in the tall grass. She worked in silence except for an occasional shuffling sound. She glanced at the window. It had started raining when she got back home and must’ve still been drizzling.
She held up a picture of one of the females and two babies standing in a patch of sunlight. She placed it on top of the letter to mail to her brother. She pasted in her journal one other picture of the deer and one clear shot of the cardinals gazing at each other in a tree.
The shuffling sound hissed from nowhere again. Sophie frowned and stared at the window. It sounded like paper gently scraping against paper. She heard the wind outside tap her window, and she figured that had to be it. She bent down once more over her work until the sound whispered to her again. She slapped her hands against her thighs.
“All right, Mouse,” Sophie said as she strode to the kitchen cabinet for her broom. She smacked the broom around under the furniture, expecting to see a flash of brown or gray. Maybe she could shepherd him out of the door and to the stairs… or to room 203 with the loudmouth couple. The noise, however, had stopped. Sophie didn’t see him. She leaned the broom against the couch and curled back up in the armchair. Five minutes passed before she heard the sound again.
Sophie sighed. “All right, you little bandit. Where are you?”
She poked around some more with her broom. She peered around the corner of the couch and noticed one of the sticky box traps had been moved.
“You’re kidding,” she exhaled. “You’re messing with me now.”
She swept the box back into place with the end of her broom. That’s when she saw the flash of gray. She gasped, covering her mouth with her hand. Her chest froze, and her body felt cold. A little, round rear-end poked out of the trap. Sophie slowly turned it around with the end of the broom.
The mouse crouched flat, shrinking into himself, trying to keep clear of the sticky top. He had white spots around his feet. He was no bigger than Sophie’s hand, and he was still very much alive.
Oh no, Sophie thought, biting her lip. The mouse didn’t squeak. He gazed helplessly around.
Oh God, Sophie thought. Damn it. Why couldn’t you just leave? You would’ve been fine!
Sophie tried to call one of her neighbors for help as she paced around her living room, closed her photo journal, and flipped her pictures face down. The neighbors weren’t in. Sophie refused to call room 203.
She dropped the phone on the couch and stood in the center of the living room like a woman on a messed up game show. Sophie took a small step forward to reach for the box but pulled back sharply. The mouse shivered. Did the shivering hurt his skin? Did he know it was going to kill him?
Tears stung her gray eyes. Sophie felt herself slowly slide into the trapped, tearing skin of the mouse. She breathed slowly, her muscles tightening around her, and she tried to follow the mouse’s gaze. Does he see the pictures I took? she wondered. What about the words in my journal, or the donation to the Humane Society? She bit her lip at the chain-cold irony she couldn’t escape from as the mouse looked helplessly at her. Surely this kind of person would love all creatures. What had he done wrong?
Sophie once again tried to reach down but pulled her hand back. What was she supposed to do once she got the box? The mouse continued to shiver. It’d tear his skin. She willed herself into her kitchen for a pair of gloves. She hesitantly returned to the living room and picked up the box. The mouse tried to jump. She hurried it out of her apartment, down the stairs, and outside. She closed her eyes and slowly set the box into a trashcan on the street.
Sophie remembered her mother’s words while the mouse looked around his new, horrible lodgings: he just wanted a warm bed and a bite to eat—things all living creatures wanted.
A bomb went off inside of her head. Walls closed in around her much like the darkness of the trashcan must’ve closed in on the mouse. She saw her brother in Ireland, the history, the protests, and the violence. People anywhere even being forced out of buildings, running for protection, looking for a safe place: they’re own space.
Sophie willed herself not to look back as she hurried into her apartment. How can humanity be such bleeding hearts for something only after it’s stopped being an inconvenience, she thought.
Once inside, Sophie stared at the letter, the donation, and the pictures, but the pair of soft, dark eyes followed her everywhere. She hung her head and ground her teeth. She went around her apartment, picked up every last trap, and threw them in the trash.
With every spring time that we throw away,
it seems our tangled roots do grow away
from one another. You blossom and your seeds
are spread like wishes, but please don’t blow away
to distant lands and grander plants than me,
a simple dandelion, wanting to know a way
to fertilize our garden, make it stronger.
For my roots in you feel frail and go away
with every passing winter. I want to be your
budding Rose, but wilt, like melting snow, away.
Riding the bus from Dublin to Cork, I felt as though I were back in Maryland. As I leaned my head against the window, you were driving me past fields at night, and we had no idea as to the meaning of the word funeral, and we had no idea of what it meant to be alone, and the road lulled me into the seat’s embrace, as you could not.
My father told me that he would be buried in the bog, that I would find him out there, smaller, but the same, the old stories still on his lips, petrified to bog-oak black, but I found nothing out there—only the bones of sacrifice and the Great Irish Elk.
The son sat in the room of whiskey and smoke and smiled. He sat in the corner seat at the end of the bar, the stool dangling his legs, like principal offices, like funeral homes, and he was stirred by the air and the music that would not stop playing, and he was stirred by the bodies that would not stop clinking, sipping the last dregs of a ginger ale left by a friend.
A thug beats up a junkie outside a fish and chip shop, the thug thinking, I will never be as loved as I am loved by you. With that, he throws another punch, breaking the junkie’s teeth. Some coins remain in the soiled cup, which he takes. On the sidewalk, his lover crumples, seeps, pools, sleeps.
A man with an Eastern European accent will take her away in the early hours of the AM. Crossing a Christmas tree bridge, you’ll know that you should have had her look at the river one last time, or something. Passing by the alley of the most recent bombing, the sidewalk will demand of you, “Don’t be fooled,” to which you’ll reply, “Or else what?”
When you do reach the door, you’ll look up and think what a nice night it is for seeing stars.
All six of them.