LETTER TO A STRANGER: PARAKOU, BENIN
“I want to know you,” you said to me once, and the heat rose up my spine. “I want to see you,” you said, in case I had missed your first statement. “Do you understand?” I did understand, but pretended I didn’t get it. I felt so wound up around you I didn’t know what to do but wait it out until the end of training when I would be shipped to a faraway village and rarely see you.
I haven’t known how to explain this, only that I needed to get to know you more slowly; I needed to know the language better and not be so new to Benin.
No one is guarded or unguarded for no reason. There is a game in the United States called tag, and this game teaches you that a touch can freeze you and another kind of touch can unfreeze you. Where I come from, girls are sometimes treated like a game, like that time two boys I knew pulled me away from a party, where music was playing, and I was dancing…
To read the full essay, please visit Off Assignment.
Dust squalls swirled in the headlights and flew up the windshield like ghosts, the cab rattling so furiously it seemed everything just barely held together. If the frame cracked in half or a wheel flew off, I shouldn’t be surprised. The old man kept falling asleep on my shoulder, but he was so old and frail I didn’t mind. In such close quarters, you had to go a little numb. You had to pretend you couldn’t feel the whole car shaking or the mangy upholstery or the chicken beneath the seat feathering against your ankle. Yet I wondered, what held it all together? What wire thread or bolt? What god? We hadn’t passed a village for miles, and there was no one else on the road. I kept thinking about the women in back with babies on their laps. I was so grateful there were other women in the car. I wanted to believe that if anything were to happen, if any of the men got an idea, at least one of us would step in.
To read more, please see the Fall 2014 issue of the Bellevue Literary Review.
We found the woman in the maize field. She was propped up on her elbows, her head lolling between her shoulders, her belly collapsed as a sling-back chair. She was nearly knocked out. She’d already given birth, and the baby was gone.
To read more see the Summer 2010 issue of the North American Review.
It was because of Hannah that I read The Brothers Karamazov. We met our freshman year of college, and later, when Hannah was a camp counselor in the Redwoods one summer, she wrote me a letter in which she quoted a passage from The Brothers K about having a longing for life and an instinct to go on living in spite of logic… “I love the sticky leaves in spring. I love the blue sky….” I couldn’t remember the rest, only that Hannah had become openly affectionate that summer, whereas before she’d been guarded and sarcastic, like you weren’t supposed to ask her anything personal because that would be sissy or weird. Sometimes I felt inadequate around her because I thought she wished I were more stoic and funny like her. But once, she got really angry with me. “You never ask about me,” she said. “Why don’t you ask about me?” I thought she didn’t want me to, but when I learned that her father used to come into her bedroom and put his hand in the sheets, I was livid, so livid I kept thinking, A brick. A brick. A brick. I wanted to have known Hannah as a girl. I wanted to build a brick wall to keep him away from her. A brick. A brick. While reading The Brothers K I kept looking for the sticky leaves passage, and when I got the end and still hadn’t found it, I flipped through the pages, troubled I’d missed it, and went back again and again—sticky leaves, sticky leaves—as if finding them would change anything.
To read more, please see Contrappasso Magazine: Long Distance, November 2015.
FORTRESS OF CONFECTION: LESSONS FROM MY YANKEE GRANDMOTHER
When I was a girl, I’d look for her out my bedroom window, and when I couldn’t bear to wait any longer, I’d wander, forlorn, into my brother’s room. “She’d better hurry up,” he’d say. We couldn’t wait to get our hands on her Swedish thumb cookies, those buttery shortbread pillows filled with frosting and sprinkles. Grammy Taft was the only person in the world who made them. All afternoon we trained our ears on the front door, listening for her entrance, the moment when we’d hear her knock the snow from her boot heels against the stoop, and we’d go flying down the stairs, not to throw our arms around her—Grammy would not be mauled—no, we halted before her in our tracks, ready for appraisal. Grammy laughed. “Well, how’s my Jim? And how’s my Erica?” We were bashful little gremlins eager for the cookie tins, the cookie tins! Where were the cookie tins? We would never be so rude, though we could barely contain ourselves from hurtling straight out to her car to hurry them in.
This is an excerpt. The full essay is featured in What’s Cooking, Mom? Narratives about Food and Family, Demeter Press, 2015.
COME AND EAT
At roadside stands for beans and rice and pounded yams, patrons held up their bowls. “Come and eat!” they called. “Come and eat!” called the tanti frying up dough. But I’d just wave, say thank you, and keep walking. When I got home, my neighbor was punting peanuts on her shady terrace. Her children were at school, her husband at the cotton factory, and we said hello. They were the Sotindjos. We shared a well, a yard, and an outhouse. When I moved in, I thought we’d be cordial but otherwise keep to ourselves.
This is an excerpt. For more, see Gastronomica, Summer 2013.
Sometimes you have to steal experience. Mama and Clari wouldn’t allow me to draw water even though I’d tried to explain that learning to draw water would help me to function better. I wouldn’t be living with them forever, so I hoped they’d understand I had to learn some things for when I was on my own. They didn’t think it was necessary, though, so I lay in wait for a time when no one was around. The moment came, and there was the puissette, the “little drawer” they used for wells and cisterns, a black rubber sack with a wire mouth and handle attached to a rope, and the rope was in my hands. Down the sack dropped and softly slapped the water, going under like a broad fishtail. It filled reluctantly. As I’d seen Clari do so many times I tugged and dunked the sack under once more to fill it completely. The rope pulled against my palms, and it felt so good to have something in my hands.
Winner of the Jeffrey E. Smith Editor’s Prize, The Missouri Review, Spring 2006.
FEEDING THE FUTURE
A photo essay about the world-famous Polyface Farms, featured in Michael Pollan’s bestselling The Omnivore’s Dilemma and the film Food, Inc., and its role in addressing the fact that “for every farmer under 35, there are six over 65, and the USDA predicts that within the next 20 years a quarter of all farmers will retire. ‘There’s a brain-drain of knowledge about agriculture,’ said Joel Salatin, Polyface’s founding farmer.
The full essay is available at the Wilson Quarterly.
An essay about Benjamin Banneker, “a free black, self-taught in math and astronomy,” who in 1791 worked with Major Andrew Ellicott to survey the land that is now the United States capital.
Read the full essay at the Wilson Quarterly.