The light was harsh and clear, and the sea was near, but desert plants
grew outside my window. At night, I played Scrabble with the other
residents, then copied the words we had placed on the board into
my notebook. Crowing roosters and circling, stray dogs woke me
every morning. For breakfast, I ate fresh, fatty yogurt from the milk
of the goats that lived on a nearby patch of scrubby land, sweetened
with honey from a local hive. It was like nothing I had ever tasted
before or have ever tasted since. Why am I telling you all this? Because
last night, and most nights when I wake to my own heart’s desolate
cries, I make myself a snack of plain yogurt with honey, swirling
the spoon fervently around the inner circumference of the bowl
while I worry for my children’s present and future. Also, because
there was an artist there – a painter from New York City – who became
my friend. She fetched me clay from the hillside and helped me make
a pinch pot, misshapen and dear. Then she told me how
she had photographed Madonna as a fledgling dancer in her studio; that
the not-yet-international-superstar was fierce and innocent and sat so still. And
when another artist – young and brazen as myself – asked if she would ever sell
the pictures, she stared back at us, surprised. And I felt shame and unexpected
elation that this had never once occurred to her. I want you to know that
my daughters are like princesses in a fairy tale, each other’s nemesis and opposite, one
dark, one fair, one sweet, one strong; that they cannot load the dishwasher without
entering into epic battles of such ire and venom that I wonder which spell or potion
I must procure through the sale of my soul or my meager fortune to somehow
heal their perpetually-picked-at wound. And I am borne back to that same
window of time, on the night when our benefactress, a woman of grace
and wealth and flowing white tunics, came to dinner and was seated
next to me, self-possessed as a mountain. The table was set with heavy
stoneware; there was rich Spanish wine in a carafe to be poured. I served
her by tipping the carafe and my palm open to the right, so the wine would flow
into her waiting glass. Gasps. Exclamations. Because it was bad luck, of course,
to pour in such a manner. And for such a person. I don’t put much stock
in superstitions, in fact very little at all. Still, I can count the curses I have
unwittingly brought upon myself, to be visited in turn on my children.
Does it do good to mix honey into yogurt, store bought and lightly
counterfeit, in the small hours of the night?
Yes, I believe it does. The smooth whiteness and the sour sweetness
tell me so. And the stirring, the stirring, the stirring.
Heather Birrell is the author of a collection of poetry, Float and Scurry (Anvil Press, 2019) which recently won the Gerald Lampert Award, and two story collections, both published by Coach House Books: Mad Hope (a Globe and Mail top fiction pick for 2012) and I know you are but what am I?. TheToronto Review of Books called Mad Hope “completely enthralling, and profoundly grounded in an empathy for the traumas and moments of relief of simply being human”. Heather’s work has been honoured with the Journey Prize for short fiction, the Edna Staebler Award for creative non-fiction, and ARC Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Award. She has been shortlisted for the KM Hunter Award and both National and Western Magazine Awards (Canada).
Heather’s essay about motherhood – its joys and discontents – appeared in The M Word, an anthology that broadens the conversation about what mothering means today, and her essay about post-partum depression, “Further Up and Further In: Re-reading C.S. Lewis in the Wake of Mental Illness” (Canadian Notes and Queries), was a notable mention in Best American Essays 2017.