weekend-readsOlives

Gail Galloway Adams

In the supermarket where I shop there is a new feature: At the end of the deli counter where ham haunches wait
to be sliced and cheeses and breads are heaped as in a European market, is a counter made to look like a surrey cart. Under its fringe are galvanized buckets filled with false grapes and plastic bins the size of troughs; most of these bins are filled with olives. The ones on the end present mixes of peppers and onions and mushrooms, but the inner containers hold olives only. How beautiful they are! So glossy they hardly look real.

I bought two tubs of them, so many they’ll probably never be eaten, but I put them on a plate and admired their differences: the plump, slick, khaki ones, the eggplant-dark that look like small prune plums or deepest bruises, and the strange, shriveled ones, the cadavers of the olive world. They look like mummies’ eyes and their taste is oily and musky at once.

I bought so many because olives are what must be bought when I want to remember my mother; when I want to ask myself what I am doing with my life; when I want to be thankful that I was born in America.

My mother was born into a poor family in the village of Aelintakos on the edge of Greece that borders Turkey, a paring of land so poor that the earth is bleached as white as the sky; yet even now, battles rage over who will own it.

“It seems,” my mother once said, “that when the sun fled to rest, the earth became its rightful color—the red of blood.” So I buy olives to remember all those lives lost to strife and hardship and the wearing away that a hard life brings. Aelintakos was a poor village and it was not redeemed by kindness. Poverty rarely ennobles or enriches the spirit of man.

“Only those who have a soul can feel it move for the pity of life.” That too was something my mother said.

Sometimes as I lick an olive’s thick matte skin or sip the brine that puddles in the bottom of a dish, I imagine that I hear my mother’s voice in a slow murmur behind the door. She prayed every night and there was not only a click of beads, but a strange thump and then a soft thud that I later learned was the beat of her fist at her breastbone, the lowering of her head against the floor.

From my mother I learned that olives were life, to be eaten every day; to eat the fruit and the oil and with them the staff which was bread, baked each morning, a flat round the size of a wheel, a rude cross cut into its face. And, also necessary, coarse salt, and water carried from the town’s well which sat squat in the center of the square, its circle of chipped blue and white tiles glistening; its cool slosh a promise of some deep, unquenchable freshet beneath the parched earth that would provide as the heavens
did not.

These olives arrayed on the majolica plate seem to me like the girls of that village. My mother told me their names: Hers Melaina, her best friend Irina, her sister Zoe. Daphne, Cleota, Olympia; these are the names of maidens in myths, nymphs or mortals stolen away from their homes by the gods. Ariadne and Danae, Elektra and Chloe. In this fruit’s progress I see the girls of Aelintakos as they emerge into first womanhood: thick fuzzy braids tied with twine, a perfect line of brow above dark eyes filled with life. I see them wear down until in their forties they are kerchiefed crones, like a Greek chorus. They are the tragedy’s keening; they are the harpies shrieking; they are the dark and shriveled flesh I lift to my lips.

“Dark bitterness—it’s delicious,” my mother said of these wrinkled olives that she most loved. And it’s true. This taste is the essence of years: salt and lime, earth and must, and at its core the hardness that will break into flower.

Beyond the hills of that village, olive groves appear in the dusk as one great tangle; and when I dream of Aelintakos in the nights when my mother is still alive to me, there is a stand of women arrayed against the rise. What an odd gate it makes, those pickets in black. But against that parched white earth, those dark green vines, these dreamed black sentries are my link to memory, and my link to all those other lives when mortal women spurned Elysian lovers and were thus transformed: spider, laurel, willow, olive, echo echo echo.

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