by Toti O’Brien
She liked carrying her supper outdoors, she said, far from the house, past the gardens and orchards. Sneaking through the kitchen door, her palm held over the bowl like a lid, a spoon—loose into her apron pocket—drumming against her thigh, she hastened her pace gradually yet decisively. For no reason, fleeing nothing, only moved by a sort of urgency, a sort of exhilaration.
As she reached the usual spot, she melted slowly onto a concrete step—her back turned to a chunk of wall against which she could have leaned, but did not. The place was a forsaken construction site, an aborted something. Maybe a stable or a barn forever unfinished. One of those things the master’s eye obliterates until they become invisible.
The ugly thing, the rubble of bricks and leftover boards, felt cozy. It provided a kerchief of shade—the small drop she needed—without being an obstruction to the rest.
The rest was what she sought. Immensity, though she couldn’t have named it.
The only way she was able to define it, half a century later, was “a kind of light… blinding… not quite…” Then her voice split, frayed, pulverized itself.
The interviewer neither had much imagination, nor had researched ahead if not superficially. Otherwise she would have immediately pictured what the aging queen tried to recall.
She (the interviewer, distracted as she looked intent, face down, thumb lingering on the recording button of her phone) would have known the borderless expanse of the plains, the blurring of green into gold, the un-forgiveness of ocher and rust, the ebullient red. How the sky started loosening, its seams coming undone, imperceptibly sinking at its center—an immense parachute lowering itself, mesmerized by the ground. How the brushing of earth and sky caused sparkles—a dizzying shimmer, a temblor.
So this is what she seeks, each time. Gravity.
She is not hungry yet. She puts the bowl down, besides her—on the step there’s just enough room. She needs for the light… for the infinite view—the air—subtle smell, stillness—dulled noises—subdued presence—remoteness—to fill all of her cells before she can fill her stomach.
That she does later, apparently sluggish but with sheer de-light, spoonful at a time.
The rough pudding (often yesterday’s bread dipped in milk, sometimes a sprinkle of cinnamon, sometimes lemon zest) sits on her tongue while she keeps her eyes up, staring front, staring at nothing, soaked within the landscape. Then all is tranquility.
This is what she came for.
Eternity. She likes how everything curves. The horizon, the entire view converges into a single point of perspective—tiny dot—herself. Her body—V-shaped, like a funnel—is sucked in by her iliac bones, fused to the concrete supporting her weight. And the bowl, loaded with food, slowly bares its bottom against which the spoon—oval, deep—rests like a vessel buried underwater, peacefully sleeping in sand.
Everything bends gently and irreversibly. All is sickle. All is moon, though the light—just before sunset—is blinding.
On her way back, she hooks her finger through the handle of the empty bowl. She always picks the same one, once provided with two symmetrical twirls coiling on both sides, then a twirl fell off.
She always picks the same lopsided container while the spoons vary, as she grabs them in haste from the kitchen drawer where spares are relegated when the set they belonged to have fallen out of grace. Incomplete—too many broken or lost—obsolete.
So the spoons are always different, and gorgeous. Gilded or silver coated, nicely moiréed by oxidation, ornate, curlicued, emblazoned with the royal escutcheon. She sees them without seeing, though—her eyes…
When she retraces her steps, her bowl dangles by her finger. It drums rhythmically on the side of her thigh, which bring several marks. Faint bruises veering from pink to dark as the sky does, right now.
Advice to Young Writers:
Penelope, queen of Ithaca, is a literary character from Homer’s Odysseyand a mythological figure. We don’t know much about her. She spends endless time waiting for her husband, who is not returning from war. As she guards the kingdom for him, she weaves. Only when the piece she is making will be finished, she says, she will concede he might be dead. Then she will remarry, move on. But at night she systematically unravels what she has done all day long. Therefore, her work never progresses and time doesn’t either. She has stilled it. Penelope manages the secret of eternity.
This is what we know about her. She is depicted like a negative space—the trace of an absence. She is the fixed point, the anchor allowing the hero (the active character) to perform his adventures. Her main feature is patience.
As an ESL writer, patience is what has helped me the most. I had to accept the slow pace at which swift turns of phrases, natural constructions, nuances of meaning—all that makes the written page flow—are acquired. Such abilities (cumulatively defined as ‘usage’) are achieved by relentlessly ‘perusing’ the language, that is to say reading and reading and reading.
It is common advice one should read the type of literature one intends to write (novels for to-be-novelists, poetry for poets and so forth). I believe experiencing language in its widest variety is a more effective strategy. I believe that we should read what attracts and delights us, what is both understandable and linguistically stimulating, what we find enchanting and wonderful. Those texts catalyze attention and minimize effort. As we make ourselves permeable, we osmotically absorb the features of language that we will be able to handle in our turn.