Posts Tagged ‘orange



“You would like coffee.”

It was more a pronouncement than a question and the unfamiliar tone drew my thoughts and my eyes from the surf sparkling at my feet to the old man who had spoken. I watched his weathered hands as he scooped Nescafe from the jar, adding sugar then hot water nearly to the top of the mugs. He handed one to me and I stirred it in silence. I watched a sailboat disappearing beyond the horizon and, much closer, fishermen setting their nets and lines.

“We will drink coffee,” the old man said. “While we drink, I’ll tell you a story. When I’m done, you’ll have the answers you seek.” He lifted his mug to me and, smiling slightly, took a big gulp of his coffee. Following his example, I raised my own mug then took a drink. The coffee went into my mouth then out again in almost the same instant as I scalded my tongue. I thought I heard the old man snort. To cover my embarrassment, I pretended to study the mug. The old man had told me they were handmade in the next town and the solid, simple design and bright paint reminded me, as the coffee’s taste had, how far I had travelled to reach this shore.

A week ago I had closed and locked my apartment for the last time before slipping the keys through my landlord’s mail slot. I had given my mother a Power of Attorney, given a last farewell to friends and colleagues, and exchanged my life savings for traveller’s checks, travelling clothes, and a pair of sensible shoes. I had left behind all the familiar, but unhappy, trappings of my life to journey by plane, boat, and donkey -my butt still hurt- to Coriano where I hoped to teach, to write, and to learn. Most of all I had come to find the sense of community and belonging I’d never known at home. Where I came from the weather and the people were cold. They bundled their hearts as tightly as they bundled their necks in scarves. Maybe coming to Coriano was wrong. Maybe the people would reject me and close me out because I was a stranger, but I couldn’t help feeling that it would be better to knock and be turned away, empty-handed, from the door of a stranger than that of a friend.

“You must understand,” the old man said, refilling both our mugs, “We are very simple people. We believe in the old ways. The power of the Evil Eye or a burning candle. The omen in the yolk of an egg. You have your magic, too, where you come from even if no one acknowledges it.” I looked at him and he said, “The things you don’t ask for in case someone should discern your heart’s desire and tell you ‘no’.” I nodded silently. “Your answers.” I turned my face to the sea again and sipped cautiously from my mug.

“Many years ago, there was a fisherman who was not much concerned with the business of catching and selling fish. He didn’t want to go hungry and he didn’t want his wife to go hungry but he cared much less about the fish than about the fishing. The sun kissed the tips of his ears and the back of his neck. The breeze caressed the planes of his face. The waves rocked him gently, gently until the motion of the boat matched the rhythm of his heart. He learned to tell when the fish would come and when he would have to wait. He learned the moods of the sky and the wind and, especially, the sea and he came to love them. But he was a fisherman not a sailor and it was hard on his wife and hard on him on the many nights when he reached shore without a fish to show for his day.” The old man reached into a basket on a table behind him. He pulled out two oranges and began peeling and segmenting them. A bit of pulp squirted into the air where it mingled with the salty tang rising from the sand under our toes.

“On one evening, after a great many such days, the fisherman came home to find his wife and her sister waiting for him with great anger in their eyes and their voices. The sister said that the wife should have married someone with more ambition. She said that perhaps the fisherman didn’t love her after all and was trying to starve them both. The wife said that perhaps the fisherman didn’t love her as much as he loved the sea and that maybe he would have more ambition if he went to work in the next town making mugs and plates. The fisherman was ashamed and afraid. He told his wife that he would go back to his boat and only return when he had a fish, no matter how long it took.” The old man placed an orange on the table in front of me. The juice filled my mouth as I bit through the membrane. I closed my eyes, focusing on the sweetness running down my throat as I chewed. I could sense the old man smiling at me and I could hear it in his voice as he continued the story.

“The fisherman did go back to his boat. He stayed out all night even through a violent storm. Some of the other fisherman came out to the beach and called to him that he was risking his life, but he trusted the sea. Just before dawn, his faith was rewarded. He pulled in his line and there on the end was the largest and most beautiful fish he’d ever seen. As he pulled it into the boat and prepared to whack it, it spoke to him.” A bit of my orange tried to go down the wrong pipe and I sputtered and grabbed my coffee.

“It spoke to him,” the old man said again, not seeming to notice my distress. “‘If you will spare me my life,’ it said, ‘I will give you whatever your heart most desires.’

The fisherman thought for a moment then said, ‘I will spare you but it breaks my heart for my wife will surely leave me if I come back in the morning with no fish to give her.’

‘Throw me back over one side of your boat and your net over the other, ‘ the fish replied, ‘and you will have more fish than you can carry home.’ The fisherman did as he was told. He rowed back to shore with his boat so loaded down with fish that he feared for his life as he hadn’t done the night before during the storm.” I held my mug out to the old man to be refilled.

“So his wife was happy then?” I asked. “Because they had so many fish?” The old man turned away to get more hot water and I read my answer in the slump of his shoulders.

“She was happy for a time,” he said, measuring out more Nescafe, “but her mind was working even when her mouth wasn’t. She began to wonder how the fisherman had come by all those fish and whether he couldn’t get more the same way. A plan was forming in her mind and one day she brought it to the fisherman. ‘If you could get so many fish in one night,’ she said, ‘think how many you could catch if you spent more nights out on the boat. We could sell those fish as well and move out of this shack. Maybe we could move to the city.’ The fisherman looked around at the little house he and his wife had shared all the time they’d been married. He looked at their bed with the sag at one edge. He looked at the table, at which they ate their meals, with its fourth leg shimmed by a brick from the road. He looked out the window to the hill where he had sat as a boy and waited for the fog to lift so he could catch a glimpse of the sea. He looked at his wife for a long time. Then he nodded and went out to the boat for the night.” A woman, much younger than the old man, whom I hadn’t noticed before approached the table to set a plate on it. She bowed deeply to the old man, and less so to me, before moving away with the grace of a Balinese dancer. The old man uncovered the plate and placed a still-warm ball of dough in my hand. Nearly crisp on the outside, it was filled with bitter chocolate and a creamy cheese that dribbled down my chin before I could catch it.

“Just before dawn, the fisherman once again pulled the large, beautiful fish into the boat. He told the fish of his wife’s plan and the part she intended him to play in it. ‘Is this your heart’s desire?’ asked the fish.

‘It’s not what I would have chosen,’ said the fisherman, ‘but it will break my heart if my wife must live in a little house by the sea when she would be happier in the city. She is, after all, my wife.’ So the fisherman and his wife moved to the city. Many times he returned to the sea to fish and each time he caught enough to maintain the house and the clothes and the parties that his wife now loved.”

“Then she was happy?” I asked, taking another bite and rolling it around on my tongue to savor the blending and contrasting of the flavors.

“She was happy for a time,” the old man said. “But then she began thinking of all the time the fisherman wasted by living in the city with her. She started to think that if he had a second boat and even a third he could stay at sea most of the time and send the fish ashore in one of the other boats. One day she brought her plan to the fisherman. ‘If you were at sea, I would handle the selling of the fish,’ she said. ‘We rarely see each other now and you’re not fond of the city so why not spend your time on the water. We will both be happy that way and there will be even more money.’ The fisherman looked around at the luxurious house he and his wife now shared. He looked at the plush bed with its satiny sheets and velvet coverings. He looked at the marble and ebony table weighed down with the finest fruits and meats. He looked at the textured, insulated drapes which protected the inhabitants of the house from the sights and sounds of the city. He looked at his wife for a long time. Then he nodded and went back to the little town where his boat was waiting.” A tear was about to sneak from my eye and I tried to hide behind my hand as I raised my mug. I felt embarrassed because the old man had made me cry and embarrassed because I couldn’t let him see that he had. I wondered if there would ever come a time, here in Coriano or somewhere else, when I would feel free to show my tears to the person who had caused them without fear of appearing weak and at a disadvantage. The old man pulled a soft, faded cloth from his pocket and laid it over my hand. He hadn’t been fooled but he knew that I was so recently come from the city myself that I would be uncomfortable with his doing anything more.

“Did she miss him?” I asked hopelessly. “Please tell me she wasn’t happy.”

“She wasn’t happy for a time,” the old man said, as I blew my nose and snuffled into the handkerchief he’d given me. “The fisherman sent fish to the city and his wife sold it. The more he sent, the more she sold and the more she demanded that he send. The fisherman loved the sea and, because that love was returned, his fish was the best in the market and sold for the highest prices. The fisherman’s wife knew a lot about the business of selling fish and soon she had created an enormous, fish empire. A factory was built, trucks were purchased, roads were improved. Then a truck arrived at the factory and it was only three-quarters full. The next one was only half full and in a few more days the fish stopped coming entirely.”

“He wasn’t dead?” The old man reached across the table to place his warm, broad hand over my cold one. To my surprise, but not his, I didn’t pull away.

“It wasn’t the sea that took him,” the old man said. “Not in the way you’re thinking anyway.”

“But what then?”

“It was love.”


“One night the fisherman was in his boat waiting for the fish to come. The moonlight kissed the tips of his ears and the back of his neck. The breeze caressed the planes of his face. The waves rocked him gently, gently until the motion of the boat matched the rhythm of his heart. All at once, the large, beautiful fish jumped into his boat. ‘What is your heart’s desire?’ it said.

‘My wife,’ began the fisherman.

‘Your wife has all she needs for her happiness,’ said the fish.

‘What is your heart’s desire?’

‘I would like to live in a little house with a view of the hill,’ the fisherman said. ‘I would like a small bed with a sag at one edge and a table shimmed with a brick from the road.’

‘And love?’ Asked the fish.

‘I guess I don’t know about love,’ said the fisherman, ‘but maybe there could be someone to pick oranges for me and to rub my shoulders when I’m tired and to
hear me talk about the sea.’

‘That is love,’ said the fish. And a great storm blew in and the sea turned black and the fisherman’s boat was dashed against the rocks until there was nothing left but splinters that the townspeople carried to the city to show the fisherman’s wife.”

“So she had nothing then? No husband? No empire? All because she was greedy?”

“No,” said the old man. “The fisherman’s wife was greedy and smart. She, too, knew a bit about the ways of the sea and she had insurance in place just in case something like this should happen. In time she found a new source of fish with new men to catch them and her life went on as it always had.”

“But the fisherman?” The tears came again and this time I made no effort to hide them. The old man patted my hand and gave me another cream-filled bun.

“The same wind that had smashed his boat on the rocks carried the fisherman over them. He awoke under the bed in the little house he had shared for so long with his wife. He was wondering if he had fallen and it was all a dream when he heard a knock at the door. He opened it to find a young girl with an armful of oranges. ‘I picked these along the road,’ she said, ‘I hope you don’t mind. I just arrived a few days ago. I’ve lived all my life in the city and I’m looking for someone to teach me how to love the sea.'” The woman who had brought us the buns had returned. Standing behind the old man, she squeezed and pressed the muscles in his shoulders with obviously experienced and practised hands. Leaning forward she winked at me as she dropped a kiss onto the tip of one leathery ear. Looking at them, I realized I didn’t even wonder if the fairy story the old man had told was true.

“You will have the answers you seek,” the old man had said. I would find many answers during my time living in Coriano, but most of all I would discover which questions were worth asking. Sometimes the old and simple ways are the best and believing is all that’s necessary.

[Found this in one of my old notebooks. I was surprised how much I still liked it just the way I’d written it. See what you think…]


I Wanted A Sweet Potato Not A Yam

For days, the word tzimmes had been floating in my head.
(Something my heart needed? Something my body craved?)
Apples, carrots, honey-
Jewish comfort food.
Cooked low and slow
Until chewing is almost an afterthought.
But where was the time?
I called my mom.
“What you need is a baked sweet potato.”
I drove to the store and bought two.
I carried them into the kitchen and sliced off their ends.
I called Mom again.
“They’re pale yellow inside,” I said. “Does that mean anything?”
“It means,” she said, “you’ve got yams.”
Arrrggh! Yams!
“You can cook them the same way as sweet potatoes. And they’ll still be good.
But they’re not sweet potatoes.”
Sweet potatoes: that’s what the Produce bin said.
And that’s what I bought-
Not this dry, pallid tuber.
I wanted their vivid orange sweetness
As stand-in for the tzimmes I could not (would not?) make.
I longed to be comforted with apples…
Instead I had a yam.