Fiona Parott (Creative Writing: University of Glasgow)
I was born in the spring, on a night when the moon was at its fullest. A big red ball of fire spun in the sky when I took my first breath of life, or so my mother says. She believed it was a sign and the midwife said she felt a force like lightening when I came into the world. I was born in the commune's old house, just off Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, California. Everyone was eating avocado sandwiches and cheering at my mother like she was Janice Joplin, as she heaved and breathed and cried out for my father who had disappeared as soon as she went into labor.
The year was nineteen sixty-nine and tension was rising in the commune. Two women had been brought in from another commune across the bay to help out with the cooking but no one knew how to deal with them once they arrived. They had an aura about them that was very strange, almost mystical. The stones they wore around their necks were haunting: dark, sharp, shaped like skulls. It was the sixties and everyone wore tie-dyes and ribbons, but these two were really different, scary different. My mother felt they had come from another place, not another country but another planet. She said they were chanting during my birth, something so bizarre that my father ran out of the room and never came back. Shortly after, Shelter Rise, the father of the commune, asked them to leave. He told them they were bringing bad vibes into the house and if they could have their spirits and bodies out of the house by morning, it would be best for everyone. Nobody saw them leave but the next morning they were gone. Three days later, Shelter Rise died of unknown causes. He was only thirty-five.
My mother decided on the name Seldom for me. To this day that is still my real name. She refused to follow Seldom with my father's last name because, as she said, "he's a bastard's coward for leaving us in the way that he did" and "I'm not naming you after a bastard's coward." So she gave me her last name, Sweet. She believed that with such a name, I'd grow up to be a man with true conviction, a man of character, with a personality that would rattle the world. Until, however, she and the rest of the commune found out about the curse those witches put on me.
During the first year of my life, I did absolutely nothing. Most babies gurgle, smile, make cute noises but me, I didn't do a thing. My grandparents blamed my mother's drug use, others thought it was my father's odd genes but no one thought to question the witches until I turned two. My first words gave everything away. "No" followed by "me". Typical words for a child to learn at that age but I'd say them over and over again and point to my chest, as if "no me" was my name.
Tests were done. First by the commune's medicine man and when he threw his hands up to the air, I was taken to hospitals around San Francisco. When those hospitals came up with nothing, my mother and I hit the road. She was determined to save me and if doctors couldn't fix my low self-esteem and lack of personality, she was going to find the witches and force them to take their curse back.
Years went by. We hitched rides with truckers, bikers, occasionally we took a greyhound bus, all the while listening to the Grateful Dead and Hendrix tracks from Woodstock. Bless my mother. She never gave up. I went with her, sat patiently beside her all the way but nothing ever changed. I had no interests, no hobbies. For a kid of eight, I didn't even like TV. I'd just sit and stare out of windows searching for something pretty to catch my eye.
The turn happened when we reached Portland, Oregon. We were staying with my Aunt Marina in her four-bedroom house with a white picket fence and a green awning on the south side of the city. She lived a traditional life and unlike my hippie mother, she'd married a preacher, had three children - all with normal biblical names. Oh, how I envied their names.
It was on a summer's Sunday morning, when the air was warm and the sky was clear. All but my mother and I had gone to church and that's when it happened. Something told me to go out into the garden and smell one of the many roses that had just began to open. I walked out of the house as if I was in a trance, went straight to the rose and touched it. My body felt as soft as the petals and the scent of the rose wrapped around me like a blanket. I could feel the rays of the sun opening me up. I became that rose.
When I turned around to the house, my mother was standing on the porch with her sunglasses perched on her head and a tall glass of soymilk in her hand. Her mouth was slightly parted and the curls of her blonde hair rested on her shoulders. She was wearing blue jean cutoffs and a floral top that made her look southern. She wasn't wearing any shoes because she hated shoes. She liked to feel the earth between her toes.
I walked up to her on the porch, stood right in front of her, smiled and hugged her as tightly as I could. My head only reached her stomach but I knew that soon, I'd grow. I could feel it, as if I was that rose just starting to open.
We went into the kitchen where I put the soymilk back in the fridge and poured myself a glass of water.
"I'd rather have a glass of water. I prefer water," I said to her as I scratched my head then chin. She fell into the chair behind her, then started crying and laughing all at the same time. The sunlight glided across her face like the wind.
I went over to the window, just above the kitchen sink. Marina always kept everything neat and tidy. She had placed a basket of lemons where fresh cut flowers from her garden normally stood. I picked up one of the lemons and took a long, slow sniff. The lemon's color enveloped me. I became yellow, yellow as the sunlight fingering my mother's face. I became tart then sweet then tart again. I was that juicy lemon. It felt so good to be something. After awhile of basking, I suggested to my mother that we cook something, anything with the lemons. She jumped at the suggestion, as my mother has always been passionate about food.
We spent the entire day cooking. First, lemon cookies then lemon and chickpea soup. We made lemon tarts, lemonade, lemon and pine nut pasta. The colors and flavors kept us going. We were having the time of our lives. The strange thing was, I knew what to do even though I had never cooked before. I was only eight but something was guiding me on the inside. Something was showing me the way. My mother stood behind me, watching in amazement. It took me longer than most but finally, I was finding my personality.
And so it became with almost everything. All I had to do was touch and I became what I touched. I could feel others' emotions and my skin changed fragrances, depending on what I touched. I knew taste, life and thoughts. I understood flowers, fruits, animals, people, trees, air... It was as if I wasn't a body but a vehicle for other things. My auntie Marina said it was God's doing, my mother said it was the rose, but I refused to think about it because it was all so much fun.
We eventually went back to the commune but the new father, Chime Sterling, decided it would be in their best interest if they had some sort of revenue coming in. Times were getting hard and more people were leaving the communal life for one of routine and tradition. So, Chime Sterling decided to transform the commune's dining area into a restaurant and he called it The Mustard Seed. By this time I was twelve, going to school, and although I wasn't saying much, I was very quick at learning. All I had to do was touch a globe and I knew where every river, mountain, ocean and city was in the world. I was some sort of gift my teachers said but to my mother, I was simply the greatest child in the world.
It was during the summer of my sixteenth year that Chime Sterling made me head chef of The Mustard Seed. People would travel across the bay to taste my vegetarian delights. A part of me was in every dish that I always garnished with edible flowers, whether it be a main course or a dessert. Each plate looked like a painting but my rule was that I had to do all of the cooking myself or it wouldn't go out to any customer at The Mustard Seed.
The Mustard Seed grew in popularity. Some said I put drugs in the dishes because they felt so high after my vegetarian lasagna or garden burger. I made a wonderful lemon cake and a chocolate pudding that seemed to melt people right down to the floor. Offers began to come in from restaurants all around the country. The Four Seasons in New York told me they had read a review and that their head manager had eaten in The Mustard Seed. They said how much she loved it and they offered me a job. They wanted to pay me a salary that even in my wildest dreams, I couldn't have imagined. Besides, it was time for me to see the world on my own. The time was right and times were changing. By now it was the eighties.
The problem was, once I got there they wanted me to cook dishes with meat. I had never eaten meat before, let alone cooked with it. The idea made me feel hollow, like a cave at the edge of a sea cliff. But I did try. I didn't get very far, but I tried. As soon as a raw steak was in my hands, I became it. The coldness of it. The lifelessness of it. The cruel death and even crueler life.
I was force fed from a trough beside other cows that all wanted to speak out against their conditions but could do nothing more than moo and chew. Moo and chew on a tiny spot of land no bigger than a toilet cubical, where we stood in our own faeces for an endless amount of time. We couldn't roam the plains like our forefathers; smelling clean air and tasting honey colored grass. Instead, we were caged in by icy steel bars. Like a car in a factory plant, I didn't feel as if I was a living creature but a product designed for mass consumption.
There was a machine hooked up to my udder, squeezing away at my nipples with exaggerated vigor. My udders grew raw and sore from the excessive tugging. I screamed out for help but no one came. My mooing cries blended in with all of the others. I wanted to kick and scream. I wanted to run away. I wanted to be free. Finally, I was released and led to a place full of blood and carcasses. There were men dressed in white cloaks with sharp knives in their hands. There were hooves on the floor. Eyes and noses I thought I knew. I became all of that death and destruction. It made me sick from the inside out and the outside in. I lasted three hours at The Four Seasons with the carcasses and the nightmares then I was back on a plane to Berkeley with a nice red apple in my hands.
It was in San Francisco Airport on my way back from New York that I saw the witches again. I was waiting for the bus to take me home when those two women from my birth reappeared. They stood on either side of me, dark skull stones swaying from side to side and frizzy red hair reaching out in all directions. Their noses were tiny but their lips full. I stood in silence and held onto the bus stop post for a little grounded sense. Oddly enough, after a few moments, I felt a peaceful serenity about them. That they weren't bad but good women. Finally the one on my left spoke up.
"It just took you awhile to discover your gift, child." The heavy one said. She had cool green eyes and a sparkling ring through her nose.
"We never cursed you dear boy." The other one said, smiling and whistling through the gap in her front teeth. "We were only saving you from a life of destruction. It took both you and your mother a long time to figure it out but we gave you an extra sense, not a sixth sense but an extra one. It is this sense that dims or appears to dim a child's personality. But it never really does. It only took your body a little longer to figure out how to use it."
Then the witches turned into air, vanishing just as quickly as they appeared. I closed my eyes and let the air become me as the bus pulled in. The wind picked up and I felt so warm inside. I was being carried away to the clouds, then I came right back to my place before the bus because I like having my feet on the ground. After all of these years I've realized, there are a lot of things I like.
eSharp issue: autumn 2003. © Fiona Parott. All rights reserved. ISSN 1742-4542.