Saffron and Star Anise
Elizabeth Gibson is a Masters student at the University of Manchester and a Digital Reporter for Manchester Literature Festival. She is a member of Writing Squad 8 and has work published in journals such as The Cadaverine, London Journal of Fiction, Far Off Places, The Mancunion, Octavius, Severine and Ink, Sweat and Tears. She spent a year teaching English in the south of France, an experience which inspired many of her poems.
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Imagine an egg – not a creature inside it, but a curving
shell and a white mass and running yellow yolk.
Maybe you are neat and brown, maybe
pink and swollen, or cream with flecks like tiny scars.
Imagine lying in a basket, perhaps in a market in France,
nestled with two brothers, feeling the breeze.
Imagine being stroked, handled like something
precious, a ruby or flame. They hand you to a child, say
“Feel that, a real egg, see the dirt, the earth.”
You rest, waiting to be broken.
You feel cool air swirl around you, are blinded whenever you get used to the dark.
You are finally lifted,
held high like an offering to the gods.
You are brought down, smash, on a white curved edge
and you feel yourself separating,
every part of you sliding in
You feel euphoric. You feel tortured. You feel guilty.
You exist, still, in some other timeline perhaps.
You watch the children eat the cake
and you drift in and out of their reach as they jump
to grab at something that catches their eye from time to time.
You were a before, and now you are an after.
You never had to stop. You are still being.
Right now you are still an egg, and somebody will break you,
and I would stop it but I cannot.
But you will keep on being. I guarantee it.
You are not guilty.
I’d meant for ages to research capers,
find out how the elusive seeds or beans
or whatever they were looked, tasted.
I had heard talk of them, a caper here,
a caper there, and I was curious. Now
I was cold, the windows being open as
always. I should have been asleep. I
remembered capers. I Googled, found
small green triangles. Then something
told me to search their flowers. I was
blinded. Purple tails sprayed up from
white cups like drops from a mountain
cascade, shiny like trout. Why don’t
people sell caper blooms, show them,
lay them at graves, worship them like
cherry blossom? A distant bell. One.
I slipped from my cubicle, edged out
the door, sniffing for caper nectar. I
would follow that scent to the end of
the earth, or the corridor, find a caper,
embrace it, turn my night vibrant as
a mountain cascade. But the boarding
house was silent and still. I retreated,
caperless, and closed all the windows.
I had whims now and then, to get a little
design, broadcast my love for my brother,
say, through a pair of doves – his name is
Noah – on the back of my neck, to air my
appreciation of nature through a chain of
flowers curving gently around my ankle.
I was told only prostitutes got the latter,
but could never let it go. So, as a symbol,
a declaration – I kind of understand. To
mark a milestone, perhaps. Not having
one for the sake of it. An image cut into
your skin that would be a nightmare to
erase – why? Freckles and my one small
scar always did for me. Besides, you are
not the sort of person I would imagine
wanting or getting a tattoo. It isn’t even
a deep and meaningful one, just a clichéd
pseudo-religious doodle. Spiritual, you
might have called it had I addressed it.
It never added up, was the one missing
piece of the jigsaw of your character,
which isn’t difficult to read. You are
open as the sun, and as bright. I would
wonder whether you had it done drunk.
But recently I was looking at photos, of
you then, you now, and the tattoo was
there and it was… constant. Exactly the
same size, shape, colour, like you could
pick up that piece of you from the past,
drop it on your arm now and it would fit.
I think I finally get it, how someone might
want a piece of them frozen in time, so on
mornings after bad nights they can look
in the mirror and say, that is my tattoo, it
is on my arm, so I must still be me. Or…
maybe you just like tattoos. I never asked.
I loved the word spice, its mouth-feel: the rebellious sp,
the call of the i, like a seagull, the gentle hiss at the end.
Like clambering through a gorse bush and making it out:
sharp and prickly, but necessary. I imagined handfuls of
powder, crimson and ochre, sitting in sacks on an Indian
street or thrown like chalk to the skies, or tiny dark dots
slipped into a bowl of dough, changing it infinitely, or a
smell, not many, but one, the quintessential spice smell,
the essence of the exotic. I’d read names on supermarket
shelves, in alphabetical order. I loved this bit of common
sense in the world’s chaos. I’d look out for star anise and
saffron. Star anise because, well, it’s a star, and saffron –
I could never get over the thrill of looking from the jars
of nutmeg and oregano and thyme, full to the brim with
leafy brown nubs, to the tiny tub within a tub containing
a few thin ruby red strands. I have many names lined up
for my hypothetical daughter: Martha, Noelle, Renée…
but for a few seconds every time I go to the supermarket
I know what she will be. A saff like waves lifting, a ron
like rain and a name that is the epitome of preciousness.
It was there every night, the small purple
hovering light, maybe four gardens down.
It was separate from the fairy lights and
the little bulb-topped posts that lined the
paths in our garden-proud neighbourhood.
It was always just there, hovering in the
dark and probably everyone assumed it
was part of some wider installation, that
tomorrow morning they would finally
remember to check and they would see,
oh, yes, it’s attached to x, y and z. There.
But I doubt anyone ever did remember.
Then you came, and you were you. You
were far from easily lovable, far from
easily understood, yet I was patient. We
would talk – that was one thing you were
good at – and you would drink endless
mojitos, with extra sugar. We would bake
and you would do most of the eating. It
was like you needed charging, like you
would fade away without sweet fuel.
I remember the night I looked out the
window as you dusted sugar over a tray
of sand biscuits and I saw that something
was missing but just couldn’t think what.
Then came the fight, and then you were
gone and that was that. Except I never felt
able to look out of that window. Something
was wrong, something scared me, my eyes
filled with tears – not of sadness, of a kind
of creeped-out-ness – at the thought of it.
Until I heard of your untimely death, which
I didn’t believe. I ran to the kitchen before
fear could overcome me, grabbed the curtain.
It was there, purple as ever, shining straight
into my eyes, smug, like it had never left.