‘Herring,’ by Daniel Blokh

Cheap in the Soviet Union, Dedushka would bring it
for my mother to eat with bread. No sauce needed,
its salty skin enough to keep his children full for days.
In that time, that country, herring flowed
in rivers, fell from the sky like snow, the whole Union
one big herring waiting to break away into the ocean.
Some tastes can hang inside a mouth for years,
my mother says. The price may change, the mouth
too, but these flavors catch on your teeth, your tongue.
They keep you company. They cross the oceans for you.
They cross oceans.

Daniel Blokh is a 16-year-old American writer of Russian-Jewish descent, living in Birmingham, Alabama. He is the author of the memoir In Migration (BAM! Publishing 2016), the micro-chapbook The Wading Room (Origami Poems Project 2016), and the chapbook Grimmening (forthcoming from Diode Editions). His work has been recognized by the Scholastic Art and Writing awards and the Foyle Young Poet awards, and has appeared in DIALOGIST, Permafrost, Blueshift, Cleaver, Gigantic Sequins, Forage Poetry, Avis, Thin Air, Cicada, and more. He’s bad at taking naps, which sucks, because he really needs a nap right now.

featured image via Pxhere.

TIE Essay of the Month: ‘Mayonnaise,’ by Jess Barish

Growing up, mayonnaise was a tradition. My mom could have had sponsorship with Hellmann’s. The signature yellow and blue label and matching blue lid was never not in our refrigerator. As if in a shrine, the large jar was placed on the top shelf and was seemingly always full, ready to be consumed.

Until I moved away for college, Mom made my lunch everyday to take to school. At times, it was a disappointment. I didn’t get to have pizza, chicken nuggets, or celebrate taco Tuesdays like most of my friends, but somehow even in elementary school, I knew how I should’ve appreciated it, even when I acted like I didn’t—there were occasional fits of pouting and whining after asking to buy lunch and not being allowed to.

Before my parents divorced when I was nine, my mom was essentially a single parent. She was there for almost every moment and made sure she did all she could for me with very-little-to-no assistance. She chaperoned field trips and went to all my recitals and games, and, of course, made sure I had a homemade lunch for school—that was one of her top priorities.

Lunch was always a sandwich. The deli meat and bread varied, but the one consistent feature was the coating of mayonnaise on the inside. Sometimes when I would go find her to say goodnight, she would be in the kitchen preparing my mid-day meal, standing over the counter scooping mayonnaise onto the bread and spreading it out in a sweeping, smooth motion with a knife.

When I was a little older and wanted to return the favor of all those sandwich-making hours she had clocked in, I made sandwiches for her. This was met with some criticism though. For Mom, there was never enough mayonnaise. No matter how much was lacquered onto each slice of bread, there was no reason why a bit more couldn’t be added. Why are you being stingy? It won’t taste like anything if there isn’t enough. The condiment had to have a luxurious thickness for her to be satisfied. The constructed sandwich was simply the apparatus to deliver the tangy, unctuous emulsion to her mouth.

Moderation was never a practice in our household. My mom thought anything food-related should be enjoyed to its fullest extent. The only thing that came close to her love of mayo was her love of butter and anything chocolate, which was passed down to me. I was never denied anything when it came to food. Our pantry and fridge were stocked with real sugar and full-fat everything. Having sweets before dinner was completely acceptable too—as long as I asked politely first.

When my parents separated and ultimately divorced, a lot came down on my mom. She struggled. My father, who had been predominantly an absentee figure in my childhood, became cruel and spiteful according to Mom—I don’t recall him always being that way, but that’s all I remember of him now. Even though he had moved out, he would come by the house and snoop around while she and I were gone. It was never confirmed but assumed he was breaking in to rearrange things on the dining room table or turn on the TV. These subtle domestic disturbances made my mom paranoid. If something went missing, it was your father.

He was also very good at terrorizing her with more overt actions. “Anonymous” complaints were made to the township about the dangers of our rundown house. A neon orange notice tacked to our front door became a normal happening. Mom struggled to keep up with her responsibilities while working full-time as a waitress at our town’s country club. The lawn didn’t get mowed, leaves piled up everywhere, the gutters sagged and eventually broke away from the roof, the backyard pool transformed into an algae-infected swamp. The garbage and recycling cascaded over their respective bins because neither was brought to the curb often enough.

My father chipped away at my mom, and the cracks of duress gave way to her falling apart. She indulged herself not with food but instead with drinking. My mayonnaise-saturated sandwiches were still made the night before school, but it was while she drank white wine from tall water glasses—the cheap kind sold in giant green glass handles. So many times, I found her passed out on the couch or in the bathroom. Her alcoholism was something that was never even acknowledged until I was in high school when she was hospitalized for complications related to it. She then knew that I understood what was happening for years. And besides witnessing it, my father would frequently bring up the subject as an attempt to make her look like the bad parent when I spent weekends with him. His smear campaign worked on me. I loved how my mom applied generosity to everything, but resented the application of it to drinking.

Strangely though, she maintained an upbeat, spirited attitude. She knew she was being dragged through hell but didn’t let it show. The only telling sign was the unhealthy relationship she fostered with wine and, apparently, vodka. I found the biggest bottle of Popov I would ever see hidden next to the dryer. God only gives us what we can handle, she would say to me. We weren’t particularly religious, but she believed anything was manageable and was so sure that eventually our situation would open up to better times. Her projection was that good things were in her future and, especially, mine as I was entering the arena of young adulthood, young womanhood. She prayed and hoped I wouldn’t let anything—not even this undesirable, dark chapter—hold me back from the brightness she knew was ahead.

I was far more skeptical and cynical. How strong does He think we are if He only gives us what we can handle? was my doubt-riddled rebuttal to Mom. As I traversed through high school during all of this, it was getting to be too much to handle. Harder and harder it became to imagine daily experiences that weren’t tinged with grey around the edges. The two of us fought. A lot. I held my mom in contempt for bringing this—my father’s despicable existence—upon us and upon me. I spread guilt and blame over her like a condiment. I began to believe that she was a loser, as Dad had put it so many times and in so many different iterations. While she still managed to take care of me in the same loving way as when I was a child, I could tell she cared less and less about how she took care of herself, and she didn’t see how that affected me. It became hard to respect a woman who was succumbing to the dirty, pathetic actions of a sorry excuse for a human being, my father. What kind of example was she setting for me?

My mom died when I was 24. Mayonnaise wasn’t the cause. She was blessed with a body that naturally fought off gaining weight and, as far as I know, she wasn’t affected by the high blood pressure and cholesterol issues that ran in her family. It was a three-year feud with bile duct cancer that took her life. Throughout which, I cared for her.

It was the second semester of my junior year in college when first she was diagnosed and then went through an attempt to surgically remove the tumor. After finding out the disease was inoperable, she then began chemotherapy. My senior year I barely fulfilled the requirements to graduate. Going back and forth between where Mom lived in southern New Jersey and where my school was in the northern part of the state was about a three-hour drive. I insisted on being with her most weekends and even during the week if things were particularly rough after treatment. Homework, projects, and papers fell to the wayside. In the end, I had a withdrawal, a couple incompletes, and three F’s on my final transcript, most of which occurred in my very last semester.

By the summer of 2009, I was done with the distraction of school and could focus entirely on Mom. There was no euphoric feeling of achievement. It was just a relief to be finished. Anything that was once considered an accomplishment—like maintaining a high GPA and being asked to go to China as a student journalist to cover a university sponsored trip—was overshadowed. After Mom became sick, I viewed anything I had done as an insignificant, idle action to unburden myself with the task of school. I was no longer interested in what I wanted to achieve now that I was technically out in the “real world.” I moved back home to be on duty full time for my mom. Nothing else held importance except caring for the woman who had made my lunch every day.

Through these unkind times, she never lost her passion for making jokes, laughing, and, most of all, food. She couldn’t eat more than a few bites at a time because of a stunted appetite and chemo-induced nausea, but she did make every bite count. More than ever, it became important that she baked cookies, banana bread, or a spur-of-the-moment batch of brownies from scratch when she had the energy to do it and the craving to eat what she made. Knife-full after knife-full of mayonnaise was applied to the turkey sandwiches she could stomach. But after a while, her wish to get better pushed aside her epicurean desires. She started changing her diet after reading about natural and holistic cancer-fighting remedies. She talked about whey protein and pomegranates and extolled the power of juicing. I remember checking her forehead for a fever because I had never heard such crazy talk come out of her mouth.

About a year and a half after her diagnosis, she talked to her oncologist about having surrendered to eating healthier and cutting back on the rich foods she adored. He told her there was no reason why she couldn’t eat whatever she wanted. From what I understood about that simple conversation with her doctor—who was a man of very, very few words—it wasn’t that he was saying eating nutrient-packed foods wouldn’t or couldn’t do any good. It was that she should enjoy food and enjoy life as much as possible while she still could.

After that, her lust for sinful, sumptuous foods and mayonnaise became wilder. If she had to go to Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia for a scan, we either went together afterwards or I went for her to pick up a corn beef special with extra-extra-extra Russian dressing from Hershel’s East Side Deli. The dressing had to be seeping from every crevice of the bread and fat-marbled meat. It was endearing to see this rail-thin woman smile at the sight of a giant sloppy sandwich. It was even more endearing to see her eat it—her first bite was always the biggest and she would let out a bliss-filled sigh while a third of the extra dressing she had requested draped and dripped down her chin.

At times her insistence on more was embarrassing. Once we were at a diner and whatever she had ordered required her favorite condiment. She sent the waitress back multiple times to get more of the white stuff. I pleaded with Mom to be considerate since she used to be that waitress. I want more and why shouldn’t I get it? was all she said.

And she was right. It made her feel alive to be able to eat what she wanted, however she wanted it. I was awe-struck by her recklessness. I wanted to be the kind of woman who attacked life the way my mom attacked her menu choices. She couldn’t control her health or the outcome of her marriage or even necessarily her compulsion to drink, but she could choose the way she ate. That’s how she lived the rest of her days, making the most out of what she could. Her body gave out far before her spirit.


✕          ✕          ✕          ✕


It was a huge adjustment from being a young woman to being a young woman who had lost her mother. I had to figure out how to navigate everything without motherly guidance. I had to face the hard fact that our relationship, aside from her being my best friend, was a fairly codependent bond. Having become defined by my need to be needed by her, I was unsure of how to take care of myself. Purpose and direction were foreign languages. I was more fluent in being lost.

I was left with this single question: what do I want out of life? Throughout the time I cared for my mom, I didn’t think I could handle the challenge of finding and starting a “real” job. Also, my prospects were something to be desired because of the job market and the tough economic times 2009 brought. I settled for waiting tables, just like Mom, to make money. The thoughtless monotony was welcomed. I could lose myself in the petty problems of an unhappy diner and take a break from thinking about how I was losing her a little bit more each day. Not much changed after she died: I continued to serve—just with a more somber demeanor.

Is there a point to doing anything anymore if she isn’t around to be proud of me and to see the person I’m trying to become? That was always on my mind when I was half and heavy-heartedly trying to get it together. It was a small yearning that pushed me to join the rest of my friends and peers who were trying to or already were fulfilling their long-term goals and maybe even their dreams. But I was mostly jealous of them and ashamed of myself that I was playing catch-up. Inserted into the space of time when I should have been enjoying post-graduate life’s trails and tribulations and the rollercoaster of being a person in their twenties, I was dealing with situations that even most of my cousins, who were in their late-thirties or early forties, hadn’t gone through. My timeline played out in fast-forward, but after she died I had to switch gears and go through a regression of sorts—my twenty-something youth had been stripped from me and then given back.

I was depressed, enveloped in grief. Falling into that place of comfortable discomfort, my favorite kind of celebration became the pity party I threw myself at least once a day. I was paralyzed by a lack of confidence in my search for actual work that would utilize my talent and skills, which were of no use anymore since I hadn’t been actively using them. And besides that, I was on the lower end of my competition because I would be pooled with people who were fresher than me and had participated in opportunities I had to forego.

I was locked into this mindset, and it cost me friends and strained the relationships I was able to maintain. No one wants to be standing under a dark cloud all the time, and I couldn’t blame them—I didn’t even want to be around me. That became my first sign. I knew something had to change.

I can’t render it down to a specific moment, but eventually I did the brave thing and carried on. I kept faith that the weight of my past and present was building the future I wanted to come to fruition. Consciously, I made a promise to myself that there was a point to doing better for me, because Mom would want it that way. She always wanted better for me and believed so confidently I would obtain it.

Weirdly enough, remembering my mom and the mayonnaise helped. Memories of how she found power in something as simple as her love for a particular condiment made me feel emboldened. I looked back at how she gracefully persevered through an unforgiving divorce, addiction, and cancer by enjoying what she loved without any apology. I knew I had to start living the same way. The place to begin was making myself mayonnaise saturated sandwiches.

Jess Barish is completing her MFA in Creative Writing at The New School. As a nonfiction writer, her family has already asked, both jokingly and seriously, if their names have been changed in her essays about love, loss, and being adopted. Originally from southern New Jersey, she now calls Brooklyn home.

featured image via Pxhere.

TIE Poet of the Month: ‘Friday,’ by Jen Mediano

I’ve observed you
sized you up
selected you from the tangle.
Now my fingers pry your underside
and I rip you open with a hollow crack.
Your serrated defenses useless now,
my teeth grip the membrane that divides
top from bottom.
I pick at your insides,
shatter your limbs
roll your guts in newspaper.
But you are not enough.
I push you aside, and
tear through the next
like you never existed.

Jen Mediano is a writer and digital content strategist. She lives in Virginia.

featured image via Maxpixel.

Greek Salad by Toni Silber-Delerive

My above-view paintings of food bring together an appreciation of unconventional views and timeless human habits. While the colors and shapes are traditional, the oversized proportions painted from above display the subject in ways that are both original and recognizable.

These paintings are conceptually related to my aerial paintings of landscapes and objects. From their above ground perspective, they offer a modern outlook and fresh visual vocabulary, combining elements of abstraction and representation, pattern and grid, surface and illusion, as well as observation, imagination, and memory.


Born in Philadelphia, Toni studied painting at the Philadelphia College of Art and graphic design at the School of Visual Arts. She is a Manhattan-based artist, her work is represented in private and corporate collections and has been in many exhibitions, including a two month solo show at the James Beard House Gallery. More information is available at www.tonisart.com.

‘The Pleasures of Peace,’ by David Lehman

It’s not just the absence of war, Scott said, but Hemingway
had the last word, and for decades driving an ambulance in
Europe in World War I was how you made your mark as a man.
Peace in those days meant Paris and a wound and an aperitif.
No sooner do I write those words than I visualize a rocks glass
with a big rock of ice in it and something sweet but not too sweet
like Byrrh or Cynar or Campari if you have a taste for it.
That aperitif is one of the true pleasures of peace. (There are false ones.)
So I go upstairs to see what we’ve got in my homemade bar
and I decide on two jiggers of ice-cold gin, one jigger cold vermouth,
with an onion and an ice cube to keep it cold, and I make two of them,
one for me, one for Stacey, and I sip my gibson, not too fast,
and this moment is one of the pleasures of peace as I see it,
though nothing beats a summer afternoon, a book, and a stream.

Stacey & DL La Grenoulle 2016 David Lehman has taught in the New School’s MFA Writing Program since its inception in 1996. His new book of poetry is “Poems in the Manner Of,” coming from Scribner in March 2017.

featured image via via Pixabay/a>.

TIE Poet of the Month: ‘Northerner,’ by Jen Mediano

You flay its skin.
You roll the pit in your mouth.
You swat the swarm.
Your blood and calamine stain
your clothes, your collarbone.
You smell of smoke.
Your scar
your chest
your eyebrows sweat.
You roll the bottle, wet
your brow.
You grasp at sparks.
You stake them, burning, in the grass.
You drink from my glass.
You say: This isn’t mine.
You laugh.

Jen Mediano is a writer and digital content strategist. She lives in Virginia.

featured image via Pxhere.

TIE Story of the Month: ‘The Bend in Newell Road,’ by Emilia Monell

It starts with a dessert.

You see, Leonard Black was someone who did not particularly care for meringue cookies. He found them a bit too deceptive for his liking. How could it be that they looked so wonderfully crunchy on the exterior and then, within seconds, that same hearty crunch would disintegrate into piles of tiny, grainy crumbles after only one chew? No, Leonard was not a meringue man. He preferred foods with more strength, that would last long enough to leave him feeling a little drunk off the whole thing, his head spinning with meaning by the end of the final swallow. He wanted food that feels like a giant antenna had just downloaded the purpose of life and planted it inside his taste buds. Meringue cookies, on the other hand, were sneaky little twenty-second previews that managed to a) tell him nothing at all about anything important, and b) still leave him feeling abandoned when his saliva carried their remains off into the dark canal of his esophagus.

Now, another thing you need to know about Leonard Black is that he loved to drive his car an hour or so before sunset, when the light began to strike through windshields and blind every driver on the road. With most people, this is a time when sunglasses are grasped frantically from the depths of purses or the tops of heads as shields against this attack from the heavens. But for Leonard, this time was a strange mixture of thrill and meditation. He would concentrate as best he could on staying in between the sentries of raised orange and white squares on the ground that divided the fast from the slow, but once per drive, and only once, he would allow himself to lift his gaze and let the sun tumble through his eyes, kidnapping his consciousness so completely that he’d forget about lanes and roads and destinations and everything else besides the ceremony of this momentary sacrifice. His palms locked around the steering wheel, he would stare ahead and the slow chant of a phrase that had come to him years before in one of these sunlit trances would climb from his lips and stay in the air for the remainder of the heist:

To have, give all to all.

He didn’t really know what it meant, or why those words must be spoken at that time, but he would say them over and over for about a minute and release the rays from his mind, before refocusing his attention on the drive. Leonard preferred to be alone for these private communions, but it just so happened that on the afternoon of September 5th, his sister Louisa was in the car with him. She had been exiting the parking structure of a mall, where she was visiting a friend’s boutique nail art shop, when she heard the disappointing sigh of air leaving her front tire. Luckily for her, she had an older brother. Unluckily for him, he now had a younger sister occupying the passenger seat that was normally reserved for things holier than bodies. Unaware of her intrusion on his daily ritual, Louisa was now attempting to cajole Leonard into accompanying her to one of her many social “appointments,” as she called them.

“Did you know that the Webers are opening up their new gallery next week? Come with me to the party, Leonard. Wednesday, 8 o’clock. You’d love it. Well, maybe not. But it would be good for you! Mingle a little, talk to people. You really don’t engage with the world enough. Oh! And I heard Helen will be there.”

Leonard flinched. Helen was the woman he had loved from afar for a little more than six years, and to whom he had finally confessed his devotion at last summer’s “Solstice Soirée” – an invention of Louisa’s that was centered mainly around the collective pouring of such creatively named, season-appropriate drinks as “Fire in the Works,” a concoction of whiskey and strawberry liquor that was his sister’s personal favorite. Stoking his own fire a few too many times with this mixture, Leonard had stumbled over to the glorious Helen, laid both hands on her bare shoulders, and gave her a smile that he thought conveyed everything necessary about how she was his vision of salvation, how he saw her as a gentle queen who could merely look upon the raging arms of hurricanes and instantly inspire them to fold into prayer. He thought that his shining white teeth and sea-green eyes translated these sentiments perfectly, and that surely, surely, she understood them even more perfectly than he could express. So when all Helen did was laugh a little at this unexpected gesture and continue talking to her fellow partygoers, Leonard crumbled back into the crowd and swore that the reign of Helen the Great was dead.

“I don’t care about Helen. She’s not who I thought she was,” he said stiffly.

“Oh come on, Leonard. She laughed, she didn’t slap you in the face! I mean, you practically fell on top of her and then you didn’t say anything. What was she supposed to do with that? And how is she supposed to know how you really feel? I think this party would be the perfect opportunity to actually talk to her and communicate your emotions like a normal person.”

Leonard stared ahead and yearned for the curve that was coming up on Newell Road, a bend that gave him an exquisite view of the valley below, which would soon be tucked under a golden blanket of the most sublime sunlight.

“You just need to appreciate things as they are,” Louisa continued. You’re so caught up in all your musings that you get distracted and can’t connect with anyone else even if you wanted to. You’re handsome, Leonard, but you know, women, we can sense if something isn’t quite right with a man’s emotional attunement, and we stay away. No matter how good looking he might be.”

Leonard scratched his face. He always had an appreciation for aesthetics, but one that was without emotion, and aligned with an understanding of philosophy or cartography. He saw pleasant features the same way he saw numbers. Symmetrical eyes were usually encased in a misty purple fog, as were eights. Straight Roman noses met the world from a backdrop of burnt red, like every kind of seven. And full lips had the same attribute as threes, a gorgeous blue that lapped over itself in never ending waves. His so-called “good looks” were merely a series of colors and figures.

At that moment of contemplation, almost as if it knew that its subject was needing some reassurance about how the world worked, the chant of his sunset ritual popped into Leonard’s mind.

To have, give all to all.

“What I’m saying, Leonard, is that you’ve got to play up your strengths and, you know, don’t let them see your weaknesses too early on. Make them swoon with those eyes, and keep the talk about floating in the air, or whatever it is you think women do, to yourself,” Louisa said as she touched her brother’s arm.

Leonard gripped the wheel tighter, flexing his forearm slightly to intimate that his sister’s fingers should remove themselves from their current location. They would soon be approaching the curve on Newell Road, and he shifted closer to the edge of his seat. It was almost time.

To have, give all to all.

“Leonard, say something. You can’t honestly believe that you’ve given a good enough go with Helen and that’s that now. I’m trying to help you. Just keep that wild little brain of yours under control and it’ll be fine, I promise.”

Closer, closer, closer. Leonard pushed down on the gas pedal and leaned forward towards that stunning clearing which was coming into view now. He could see the tips of the trees with their light drenched branches and knew his thoughts would be swarmed by the sun soon, and that they would become nothing less than almighty.

To have, give all to all.

“Think of it as an exercise in containment. Show only the part of you that is relevant to the situation. So, for example, if you meet Helen next Wednesday at the Webers’ and she asks you how you’ve been doing, answer that you’ve been working on a new novel and that it’s going very well, and then politely ask how she’s been doing. See? You match her question with a response that doesn’t go too far above and beyond what she was originally asking. It’s really so simple, Leonard.”

Here, here, here it was, the curve, the bend in the road, the chance to have the crown of the sky imprint its image in his eyes and flood his being with the rays and offer the one escape from this wrong world. All he had to do now was surrender everything.

To have, give all to all.

“Leonard, listen to me. You’ve got to get a grip on yourself, at least in public, because, well, there are rumors going about that you’re not quite all there in the head. Now, I know that couldn’t be further from the truth, but they don’t know that. So remember your new motto, alright? Containment.” Louisa, proud of her successful diagnosis and treatment of her older brother, reached into her bag and pulled out two things. Having put the first, her sunglasses, over her eyes, she tapped Leonard on the shoulder and held out the other.

Leonard, trying desperately this whole time to ignore his sister’s ramblings, looked down and saw an open box of meringue cookies.

Now, the sentries of the road – those orange and white raised squares we mentioned earlier – reported that Leonard, usually quite in sync with their silent warnings, repeatedly ignored their commands to start turning right on the curve of Newell. But perhaps his vision was just too strained from trying to see the figure of his illuminated lord, and he couldn’t see that the bend in the road was before him, that he had to turn the wheel at that very moment. Or maybe the sight of meringue cookies was simply too stark a contrast for Leonard’s mind to handle in his space of devotion. Maybe he thought that the blitzes of sugar that dominated his world were too much, too much, too much, and now they were encroaching on the only thing that was truly sacred to him. Maybe everything that stood by meringue cookies was holding him back from his one home with that beautiful glowing creature hovering over the valley.

So at exactly 6:58 p.m. on September 5th, Leonard began his voyage back to the sun, and as his car flew for a few moments in the air after he did not turn his wheel for the bend in Newell Road, you could hear him whisper, “To have, give all to all.”

Emilia T. Monell is a proud second-year Narwhal in The New School MFA program and has the Christmas sweater to prove it. She is working on a novel about a writer in a coma and the parallel life he experiences inside his mind. Before coming to TNS, she completed a MPhil degree in American Literature from the University of Cambridge. Although her work has been published in England, she sadly cannot read her stories with a convincing accent. When not writing, Emilia likes to channel her spirit animal, Whitney Houston, and dance with somebody who loves ants on a log too.

featured image via Pixabay.

TIE Poet of the Month: ‘Host,’ by Jen Mediano

Stars, cigarettes
bright, oblivious
to the dawn, the dew, the ground
damp beside you; enfold
in crook and sweat and slough.
I breathe and
you labyrinth through to
the tips of me, to wrists you
release to pinpricks:
splayed hand, closed fist.
Mosquitoes braille me, welts
rise and itch; ticks
break my skin, burrow
my nape. In my blood
they taste your breath.

Jen Mediano is a writer and digital content strategist. She lives in Virginia.

featured image via Pxhere.

‘Sitia-Style Snails,’ by Joan Haladay

Water is the most elemental ingredient of a Greek meal.  It is life and survival reduced to the contents of a glass.  As Henry Miller wrote in The Colossus of  Maroussi,  “…everywhere I saw the glass of water.  It became obsessional.  I began to think of water as a new thing, a new vital element of life.  Earth, air, fire, water.  Right now water became the cardinal element.”  So it was during my Greek stay too.  Yet, as much as some travelers to Sitia, wanted to follow Miller’s path, to contemplate and speak poetically about the elements and their sacred qualities, such aspirations were being altered by fate.

A few were immediately conscripted, and most transportation stopped.  Instead of just water, visitors were forced to be preoccupied with vehicle fuel.  We were grounded in Sitia and on Crete, while preparations were being made for war.  While there was still a functioning taxi or two in town, gasoline was being rationed, and the taxis could only be used for emergencies.

Amidst this state of siege in picture paradise, Jo, a Greek student, who I’d met during the Piraeus-to-Crete ferry ride, stopped by the villa. She invited me and Chris, an Australian, to go to pick grapes at her aunt’s vineyard.  We met at five in the afternoon in the plaza.   Jo’s aunt had succeeded- under false pretenses- in convincing one of the cab drivers to take us to the vineyard.  It was only up the road, another kilometer or two past Madame Victoria’s, but Aunt was not the type of lady to walk.  Predilections aside, she was also wearing-high-heeled shoes that weren’t suitable for walking very far in comfort.

When we reached the vineyard- rather than finding a sickbed or another woeful destination- the driver realized that he’d been duped.   It caused a row with Aunt of considerable length and drama.  While I couldn’t follow the verbal argument in Greek, their hand waving and wringing provided the gist of it in gestures.  He was worried about both fuel and fines.  Without reaching a resolution with Aunt, the driver finally abandoned us to the land and drove off.   In spite of Aunt’s pleading, he would not return to take us back to town.

My focus quickly shifted to the lovely spot.  I soon forgot both the driver and the war preparations.  There were sand- and rock-covered tracks leading back to the grapevines, which sat on a slope amidst almonds and pomegranates.  By then, the afternoon was heading toward the blue hour:  The sea in the distance was a particularly deep blue color set off and intensified by a frame of almost equally blue mountains.  The ripe grapes were violet blue, and I imagined that I was tasting the color as I swallowed my first bite of their succulent sweetness.   Once again, a sensual border had become fluid.  I wished that I could paint the grapes.  It seemed like a way to capture their essence, yet I knew too that no still life could fully contain the spirit of such grapes.  They too responded to light as heat and were living and flourishing and changing even as we stooped to pick them.

Chris and I were mostly useless as workers.  We probably ate more than half of what we picked.  We couldn’t resist, for we were unaccustomed to warm grapes, fresh from the vine, a taste that seemed like an edible spirit of place.  Jo and Aunt excused us nonetheless.  They seemed less interested in the quantity of grapes that they took home, and more concerned with preventing waste.  Aunt knew- in spite of her town clothes and physical languidness- that the grapes would begin to ferment if they baked on the vines for another day or two.  She had to seize their moment, whether there was a war going on or not.

After we’d picked the grapes, we also collected snails.  They seemed to be everywhere.  We picked them off the base of trees, off the grapevines, and off other unidentified, fragile plants that seemed too slender to bear the snails that they were supporting.   Jo said that the snails would be good to eat and told Chris and me to keep them.  She instructed us on how to prepare them in the tiny communal villa kitchen that neither of us had ever used.  Jo became insistent that Chris and I should eat a simple repast in Sitia that we would prepare with our own hands.

We walked home at sunset.  Along the way, we collected a few sprigs of flowers that Jo said opened only at the sunset hour.   I wanted to press at least one in my journal as a souvenir of the excursion.  It felt as if the blue hour, the dark, juicy grapes, the unexpected snail gathering, and the place-induced sense of well-being had made us open up like sunset flowers too.  I wanted to carry away a memento of the occasion and hoped the flower would embody its essence:  In the future, when I looked at the flower, it would be a trigger for remembrance in the way that a wine can be the pressed essence of sun, soil, and grape history.

En route, we stopped at the trough of a neighbor for a drink of water.  The pause was another watery step in a Sitia day that seemed to be fueled by careful relationships with water.  Aunt grumbled some of the way, since her shoes pinched and her soles hurt from the high heels.  She may never have walked that far before in her life.   However, even she grew quiet as time passed.  Maybe Aunt could see the magic of the evening through our thrilled traveler senses.   Sometimes the traveler without even realizing it also bears gifts.  When we reached the villa entrance, we all embraced as much to heal any outstanding disgruntlements as to say farewell.  Then, Chris and I departed with our bags of snails.

We deposited them in the communal kitchen and found some battered and blackened pots and mismatched dishes of irregular sizes.  Neither of us had prepared or even eaten snails before.  Our efforts became quite a fumble of Jo’s meticulous instructions.  We let the water boil over and extinguish the light on the stove.  Then, we let the boiling stop once the snails were in the pot.  When we realized what had happened, we had to bring the water to a boil for a second time.  Our final recipe was an improvisation and mélange of Jo’s original instructions, our bungling efforts to execute them, the German guests’ kibitzing, and Madame Victoria’s gift.

“First, clean the snails by scraping them with a knife,” Jo had advised.  “Then put them into cool water.  Discard the ones that float, since they are probably dead.  Transfer the remaining snails to a pot of boiling water.  Cook them for about five minutes.  Drain them and shell them.”   We added- “assembly-line style”- to her instructions for shelling.  This involved use of a board, a stone, and a strong male German arm for cracking. Finally, there were two sets of hands for picking the snails out of their shells.  “Serve them with a sprinkle of lemon juice, salt, and pepper,” Jo had concluded.

There were variations to her last instruction to consider.  Even she had offered the alternative to eat the snails au natural, but added, “Then drink ouzo with them.”  The Germans insisted upon contributing thick slices of bread for mopping up the lemon juice, after they had also provided the lemons.  We found the salt and pepper stashed among the kitchen utensils.  There was also some discussion about using olive oil and vinegar to flavor the snails.

Madame Victoria had come out of her own kitchen, when she heard the unusual frenzy that was emerging from the guest kitchen.  She watched our efforts and negotiations attentively and silently, but offered no new advice about how to salvage and serve the snails.  Finally, she headed off to her own larger and better stocked kitchen.  She wasn’t gone for long.  Madame Victoria reemerged a minute later.  In her hands, she carried a platter of earthy, garlicky olive oil-dressed potato cubes, slender green beans, and peppery tomatoes that were nearly dissolving into a rough sauce.

Her garnish for the snails, which was really a dish in its own right, was the most delicious of the choices.  How could it have been otherwise, since so many of the ingredients in the dish came from her garden?  In their vegetable flesh, they contained the miracle of the water, the balance between heat and light, and the tender and devoted care of Madame Victoria.  Through her vegetable dish, she extended the same nurture to us. Chris and I bloomed for the second time, becoming evening flowers under Madame Victoria’s tending.  If there were any still-closed shells left among the other guests, they opened as we ate.  There were no longer strangers among us as we were all susceptible to friendly warmth.  We had responded to Madame Victoria’s hospitality and generosity.  They seemed to never stop growing inside her.  Amidst a war, through her guidance and the thin line between Greek public and private space, we’d established our own peaceable queendom at the villa.

Joan Haladay lives in Northern Manhattan. She has prepared indexes for many books. Luso-Brazilian interests are her avocation. She likes to write fiction and non-fiction about place, travel, food, and literature. Her work has been published in Travelers’ Tales Provence, Travelers’ Tales The World Is a Kitchen, The Brasilians, Under the Sun, Small Press, Independent Publisher, and the New York Times “Metropolitan Diary.”

TIE Poet of the Month: ‘I Prefer To Be Amazed,’ by Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani

after Wisława Szymborska

I prefer black tea.
I prefer the green olives.
I prefer depth to shoreline, the marshlands
to the safety of the riverbed.
I prefer noticing.
I prefer to bend the corner of the page.
I prefer to let the rice be.
I prefer to be curious.
I prefer to wash my vegetables.
I prefer the pop of my teeth
through the apple skin, to the smooth grain of its flesh.
I prefer Madrid to Barcelona.
I prefer wandering.
I prefer to breath.
I prefer to be spanked.
I prefer duende.
I prefer the dad who cooks breakfast
to the one who drinks.
I prefer not to trust my wiring.
I prefer to pin the tail on the donkey.
I prefer a soft mouth—to be kissed often, deeply.
I prefer heat.
I prefer the authenticity of your flaws
to the implausibility of perfection.
I prefer the palest flower of your heart to the red one.
I prefer the bullet in the gun
to sweet blood syrup.
I prefer the symmetry of placement
to the absurd chaos of the random.
I prefer to wait my turn.
I prefer to list the ways I am alone,
to accept this ripe truth.
I prefer to say less.
I prefer you.
I prefer never to regret
what I’ve had to do to survive.

Sabrina Hayeem-Ladani is a native New Yorker, poet, and multi-genre performer. Her work weaves poetry, dance, and song to explore themes of love, family, grief, and what it means to human. She has performed across the United States, as well as in Europe. Sabrina’s poems can be seen in various publications such as in the anthology So Much Things To Say: One Hundred Poems of Calabash (Akashic Books), and The Wide Shore, a journal of global women’s poetry. She currently resides in Brooklyn.

featured image via Alpha on Flickr.
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