By Anne K. Yoder
For lunch I eat brown rice with chili sauce and fish sauce. The scent of fish sauce lingers, a bit putrid. The kitchen smells of fish as do my fingers. I wash my hands and once dry they smell like coconut cream. Scents coat everything. What do we want from a scent? Mostly we’re neutral, unaware of those we carry with us.
I walk towards the Chicago river and as I approach the bridge I smell fish again, this time mixed with the dirty sweetness of decomposition. Is this from pollution or sewage or is it a natural emanation of a living system? There’s a graffiti mural on a building, and at the far end of the mural is an orange fish with three eyes, the variety indigenous to Springfield, not Illinois but of the Simpsons, with pools of water polluted by nuclear waste.
Film director Andrei Tarkovsky spent a year gathering footage of outdoor scenes for his film Stalker. The film was shot downstream from a chemical plant dumping waste into the river. The pools of water are a gorgeous, unworldly color; foam floats on the river, flies through the air, like bubbles, like snow. Many members of the film crew died early deaths, Tarkovsky included, and it’s been speculated their deaths were related to this.
Colors are deeper, bolder today in this afternoon light. The sky is a robust blue, one I want to fall into. There’s a tree with no leaves, that stands up spindly and lifeless, with thick pods hanging from its branches, waiting for warmer weather to drop off and fall to the ground and reproduce.
I am entering a stage of rewriting a manuscript of a novel, of finding a way into it again, of imagining depths and colors, sharpening characters, portraying what is emotionally true. This is a process of excavation.
Sometimes though I want to tie in something grand and distant, bring in adeus ex machina, a distraction but also a reprieve from dealing with the forces at hand.
And then I pause and let the dust settle.
It’s still cold enough outside that dogs wear coats too. Mostly, they wear red.
An old sports car is towed on a truck bed. Its passenger side door is open a crack, and on the seat there’s a box. The truck driver pulls over to the side of the road, climbs out to the back, and shuts the car’s door.
A black SUV with tinted windows and prices penned in fluorescent green circles the block with a flat tire that’s flop flop flop.
Crossing the river again I see stairs leading from the banks down to docks, some with boats. A silver canoe lies upside down. Others float waiting.
I think of Maggie and the Pirate. I am going back to books that once worked magic. The book is filled with wonder, and so much of that is tied up with image and color, the deep blues and bright red of Maggie’s hair. Maggie has a wild head of curls and a pet cricket that she carries in a red cage her father made. She and her family live by a river. She has a raft that she takes out and she goes into town alone, and there is a pirate bully who steals her cricket from its cage.
The cricket is killed and mourned. A new one is left in the cage.
There’s a copy of Where the Wild Things are on my reading table.
I haven’t thought of these books in years, and I’m not sure why I do now. They were magic and I’m looking for magic in language, in story. What ignites, what casts a spell. I remember sinking into these wild things, such playful, friendly beasts.
And these boys are able to be rascals and angry and at times apologetic and remorseful. The women, they may be angry and vindictive but they are nourishing, emotionally resilient. The pirate is a boy who wears a hat made of newspaper on his head. Maggie is strong and intelligent and has to put up with his scare tactics, his intrusion, she must forgive.
Have these stories changed? The ones told today must be different.
I want to be a rascal, a trickster, a shaman.
I walk to the Middle Eastern grocery across the street. I had been living in my apartment two years before I discovered it. At the end of a nondescript strip mall, the market’s windows are covered, almost camouflaged. There used to be a Korean barbecue next door. Inside the store there are bakers and a wood stove for baking bread, a kitchen where sesame seeds are ground into tahini. Shelves of delicacies, of olives, of dates, of halva, jordan almonds, pistachio-and-honey combinations, create a maze. It’s hard to believe this was always right there. It seems like it’s magically appeared.
In revisions I sometimes feel there’s a similar evasion, or a hidden space I still haven’t uncovered. Writing is a process of excavation, of exploration. A process where I am not always sure whether or not I’ve discovered what’s already there, so close to home.
Anne K. Yoder’s fiction, essays, and criticism have been published Fence, Bomb, and Tin House, among other publications. She is a staff writer for The Millions, co-editrix ofProjecttile, a journal of nontraditional writing with a feminist bent, and a member of Meekling Press. She lives in Chicago, where she’s at work on a novel.