Thursday, August 14, 2008
Weep for Adonis, or Wilted Lettuce
Yesterday Cebah and I inspected our lettuce bed, home now to six rabbit-ravaged radiccio. The bed is enclosed in a rectangle of granite blocks, trimmings from a friend’s mortuary monument works. It was a sunny, breezy day, promising spring without quite delivering, too early to sow lettuce, but time to plan for it. The bed needs moving. Last year it had an infestation of dodder, yellow parasitic strings twining and strangling the lettuce, not killing it - but picking through the tangles was a nuisance. I don’t know where the dodder came from, but paranoia suggests that once a parasite has located a host it frequents the neighborhood. We had another name for dodder, “lover’s knot”, and a saying that if you could tie a knot in one of the very breakable yellow strings that true love would come to you, or something like that. “Just make it up, said Cebah, when I asked her, - they can’t dispute you.”
She and her friend Goldie Shaun used lettuce picking as a ruse in an ambush she set up for my dad. She had seen him once, he came in and stood at the back of a church revival meeting. In her words she saw the black curl hanging down his forehead and “that was it.” Their home-places were hardly a half-mile apart, hers just above the springs that fed Dry Branch, his on the side of “Dutton Hill”, above where the branch runs into Pitman Creek. Somehow the conspirators found out that he was riding a horse up Campground Road on a certain day, to be bred at a farm near Science Hill. The Shaun’s had a tobacco bed situated near his route, and the two young ladies contrived to pick lettuce there continually until he passed by. Whether out of manners or interest, he did pause to speak - “He just sat there on that old horse - I’m sure he knew what we were up to - he wasn’t that big a fool.”
Lettuce was always grown in tobacco beds in those days. The variety was a pale yellow-green one, still popular, “Black-seeded Simpson”. I was always served wilted, with bacon grease and green onions. The lettuce went in the salad bowl, the new spring onions were chopped over it, bacon was diced and fried crisp – at the last moment the sputtering hot grease was poured over the lettuce, followed by a shower of salt. This is very good.
There’s a story that Venus, the goddess of Love, fell herself for Adonis, the handsomest of mortal men. He however, like my dad, loved hunting more than women (Cebah, laughing, confirmed this.) and could not be dissuaded from going after a wild boar. The boar, in synchrony with his lover’s jealous fears, charged him and gored Adonis mortally, in his thigh. The blood that dripped from his wound dyed the petals of the wild white anemone, or windflower, to their present pink. This pretty conceit was transferred to the rose, an easier to locate emblem of true love. “Since in his prime death doth my love destroy, they that love best their love shall not enjoy.” wrote the bard. My dad claimed owned four hundred foxhounds, a sign of status higher to his thinking than literary acclaim. And it was he who taught me the name Anemone for the little trembling flower that blooms, sheltered between rocks and roots, on the steep bluffs above the branch.
The women of ancient Greece were said to have marked the passing of Adonis with roof-top parties. For this occasion they grew pots of lettuce, and cried, “Weep for Adonis – he is dead!” The parties, which men were not invited to, were the suspected source of an infamous plot, carried out in dark of night, to knock all the erect phalli from the door-guarding Hermes of Athens. On the morning after this ceremonial mourning, the pots of lettuce were tossed into the sea.
Of course my dad wasn’t entirely bereft of romantic sensibilities. Every spring he would ceremoniously present Cebah with a little bouquet of the delicately perfumed wild phlox we call sweet William. “That was just something he did. He would be off down there in the bottoms, checking on the cows, and here he’d come and just hand them to me, never saying a word.”
“I knowed what was in his head, said Cebah, he didn’t have to tell me any more.”