Weekend of rain and sunshine, friends over for lunch, ripe quinces and pomegranates from the farmers’ market, These were the old hardwood hedges of the Cape, quince hedges lining dusty roads, pomegranate hedges dropping red into ditches. I have a shelf of old Cape cookbooks, recipes that assume the mistress of the house is capable of regulating her woodburning oven, cheerfully wringing the necks of poultry and singeing off feathers, delivering the calf of a bellowing cow and then cleaning up in time to gracefully ice a cake for dessert.
Our foremothers may have been made of sterner stuff. As I said to a friend as we walked along rows of yellowing vines, ‘If my life was a piece of knitting, you would see more dropped stitches than anything else.’
Dropped stitches, failures, misunderstandings, unskilfulness. But on we go, and try to do better next time, if we are lucky enough to get a next time. My friend, who seems to have survived everything except an atomic bomb, a tall grey-eyed woman with shining silver hair swept back and up in a coif, is also a Quaker and has the kind of patience you find in those who have glimpsed the Light and can wait on it to shed radiance again. Dropped stitches to her are all part of a bigger tapestry, a meaning we don’t get to glimpse most of the time. I think of her as an agnostic mystic, someone who is at home anywhere in the world and just sits out the darker hours and precipice falls.
Last night I dreamt I was riding an underground railway in Chile, sandwiched between rock strata and roaring along in darkness in the heart of the mountain. I was busy searching for a window with a view and wouldn’t give up the search.
And of course I’m thinking here about pomegranate seeds and Persephone descending into Hades and the weeping mother Ceres who searches the whole world for her daughter and will call her out of hell. And the poem by Eavan Boland I first read 30 years ago when I was Persephone and lost without knowing it. A long poem but rich in meanings, now that I am both a maternally loving Ceres and a wiser sadder Persephone.
By Eavan Boland
The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and
the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.