Common crop

by Rudy Mesicek

Midway into boil, what astounds is the way it began: with a sharp blade tempered in Toledo, slicing through parsnip, celery root, the New World’s own favorite tubers. The reduction into small pieces, for consumption, feels substantial. It is a habitual endeavor — less about eating than making a meal. The water roils, propelling shapes in crosscurrents. We break things down so that we can cause them to reconstitute.

Midway through life, I think of fruit anew. Cut, its uneven halves reveal the core, the seed, the pit. And division, which is at the heart of the shared meal. I think of fruit, so easily brought down by the wind and reclaimed by the soil. Full of nourishment. I think of how often we eat alone.

Split in two, one half of the avocado always holds on to the stone, which lies lodged there like a nascent planet. Resisting motion — until a blade does the trick. Such is the way with what we are, with our primordial mess: a swirl of hard bits under assault, colliding, of firsts that do not fade. The mess thickens.

From a high ledge on a temple whose upper parts require some agility to reach, the rainforest is heard as much as seen. A myriad howls, creaks and fritinancies: fauna speaking in tongues. The expanse around Tikal does as the impressionists did. It condenses, one point at a time. And it is evident, as mist atop the canopy softens the hues, that whatever human history is spread through these parts is largely ineffable. The jungle consuming all.

There were six of us seated in a row, backs against the pyramid wall, mincing fruits and vegetables, stirring in canned tuna. Here, where Maya captives had their last look at the world, the shells of avocados became vessels for a supper. Passed from hand to hand. The fruit, new to me and so much of the region it is ever-ripe to be mythified, was no portal to the deep past. Instead, it marked the moment. Of company composed of a desultory crew who crossed paths just days prior but who now seemed like they belonged together.

The sense of place and fellowship inhered in a common crop.

Through which a longer film comes to mind: Of the succeeding night spent lost in the cacophony of the jungle, shivering, with only a hand towel for a blanket, a few steps down from the apex of an architectural masterpiece. One doesn’t readily associate the tropics with cold. But the body quickly lets you know that’s a foolish oversight. When discomfort gets in the way of sleep, long stretches of time can pass feeding on sound. Until the act of listening overrides all other senses.

Abruptly, everything went quiet. Eerily, orchestrally. As if all the animal life responded to a signal from some invisible concert master. I don’t know how long it lasted. But just as suddenly the volume was back on. Fast crescendo to full blast. The magisterial interlude of silence gone, but acquiring a permanence for the witness.

We practice countless hours to achieve synchronicity. Dance till our shoes need new soles, march to the rhythmic barking of a commanding officer. We watch the movement of a conductor’s wand to ensure we come in at just the right time. When a choir sings its last note, the transfer to silence is startling. As if a liquid became solid in an instant. It is a catharsis of quietude, where emotion often seems most concentrated, ready to spill into a distinctly audible form. A gasp or applause or a sniffle. Quietude the exclamation point. Quietude the release.

Almost a decade separates that sleepless night and one frosty midmorning into which I opened the door. Nearby stood a massive cottonwood that had lost all its leaves. It was full of identical birds — hundreds of sparrows, or starlings perhaps — that, at a glance, tricked the mind into seeing dark, wintry fruit. Until the door swung open, all one could hear was birdsong. The sound of a beer hall at the witching hour has this impact: both mellifluous and discordant, owing to countless voices hollering and talking across each other, with perhaps a few ears attuned specifically to any single uttered thing. Should a passerby pause on the threshold and take it in en masse, it is unintelligible.

As I stepped through the door, a blazing silence swept over me. As if the tree and everything in it became petrified. The hush instantaneous, simultaneous — and directed my way with such focus, it felt like a gust of hot wind. Being the object that interrupts, that alters the mood of a place, rattles. And I was left with the confusion of a schoolboy who enters a classroom with a lecture already in progress. It seemed very much a collective shift of attention. If each bird was responding in its own way, the difference was lost to my powers of apprehension. Then, just as suddenly, the chirping resumed. I had been dismissed.

In self-conscious silence I also stood on the stoop of an apartment building in Paterson, New Jersey, which, unbeknownst to me, was the setting of a great study of locality and of city as a metaphor for man. Which thing was an idea that became a rubric to be scorned and loved and scorned again. And it was my silence against the noises of the street that gave the memory its flavor, my inner quietude reflecting a dearth of words, and contrasting mightily with the friendly interrogation that ensued, as the other children who surrounded me tried to uncover how I came to be there, in a place where accents were rare and blondness rarer still. Years later, I read Paterson in the common way, in silence, with stentorian voices filling my head.

Absolute quietude is, of course, an illusion. Not even the mind is ever free of sound. There’s memory noisily retrieving, blood rushing, demons rattling chains. But sometimes, cutting through the flesh of an avocado, I hear nothing but the silence of the jungle, which takes me in its vessel out of doors to treetops, to a meal shared with familiar strangers I’d otherwise never see again.