Hit and Run
We are working on herb preparations in the outdoor kitchen up at Joe’s. While Joe instructs us, Edie manages the wood-fired cookstove for our tea water and her lunch of lentils and cous cous. She has thick, chocolate brown hair held loosely atop her head with a single chopstick. Her bare feet match the color of her hair, muddied from ambling over the raised garden beds that terrace the slopes of Celo Knob. I watch as she uses her bare feet to snap scrap wood into small pieces for the cookstove. It is a move I am impressed with and I see that her face scrunches into a dot around her nose each time she presses down with her feet into the splintering wood.
Our main task is to learn variations of the pre-soak post-fry herb preparation protocol. We practice by applying the honey-soaked method to astragalus, the vinegar-soaked method to corydalis, and the brine-soaked method to du zhong. This requires cross-referencing soaking techniques between a hand-made binder of materials that Joe keeps, with the recently updated version of Materia Medica, a Chinese herbologist’s bible. Pre-soaking and post-frying the herbs with different adjuvants enhances different healing qualities of the herbs.
We calculate careful ratios of honey to water to 90 grams of astragalus. The honey in this form and with this herb helps support lung function, the immune system, and adds moisture to the body systems. The vinegar soak, it turns out, is the simplest, and with corydalis it enhances liver function and regulates menstrual cycles, among other things. The du zhong pre-soaked in the brine addresses “bulging,” according to the manual, which we all chuckle at. It’s not unusual to come across odd terms in Chinese medicine but even this one has Joe laughing as he thumbs through the index of Materia Medica to look up “bulging.” Sure enough, there is a page reference and it doesn’t take long for us to discover that what we’re really doing is preparing the herb in a form best suited for patients suffering from a hernia.
Downhill from the outdoor kitchen, Riley saws away at some scrap wood for a last-minute project. In my mind he had already left for Tucson; I felt certain of it. So when I pulled up to the gardens this morning was undoubtedly surprised to see his dirty white Suzuki sport parked at the bottom of the driveway. I am greeted with a hug and a joke, then another hug, before he is pulled to the task of selecting music to play in the background of our herb preparations up in the kitchen. There’s nothing necessarily different about our time together – we work independently but talk about instrumentation, or the landscape, or about recent innovations in film as we pass the time.
It’s when I have to go that I sense something different. All morning there has been a chill of fall hanging above our heads in the forest canopy. All morning Riley has seemed unnaturally calm, content sitting on the porch of the Herb Shop and smoking his hand-rolled American Spirits for long breaks at a time. So when it is time to go, I leave Edie and Joe and the herb preparations behind and walk down the mountain in search of Riley. I holler goodbye again to Edie and then Riley’s voice sounds out from somewhere nearby.
“Bye Katey,” he shouts.
“Well, where are ya?” I ask.
He says nothing, but I follow the sound of the saw and find him crouched in the tool shed underneath Joe’s beekeeper beehive. The sound is ominous and alive, but I’ve become accustomed to it over time so I know I don’t have to worry about getting stung.
“Heya,” I say, peeking around the far corner of the building. Riley looks up from his busywork and greets me yet again. “Look, I just got some movies in the mail. I’m writing a lot this week and breaking it up with a movie or something each night to get out of my head. You and Edie should come over one night.”
“Yeah, sure. We could.”
“Look, are you ok today?”
Riley rises abruptly from his work and reaches for another tool on the wall of the shed. He doesn’t look at me and sounds distant when he says, “Yeah I’m fine. Just working on some trash art.”
“Look, I gotta get back to my cabin. But I’ll be back Thursday to barter more. Call me if you want to hang out,” I reach to give him a hug and slip on the stairs, jamming my chin into his shoulder. “Bye.”
“See ya’.” I make it about ten feet, or five steps down the steep slope when Riley adds, “We’ll I guess I won’t be seein’ you again.”
I stop and turn. “When are you leaving?”
“Today. In a few hours. I’ve give five days to get to Tucson.”
“Well, then,” I say, climbing back up the steps toward him. “Let me give you another hug.”
“It doesn’t make a difference,” he says but I ignore him and the temporary idiocy of his male ego. “I mean, whatever.” I hug him again and this time I don’t slip on the steps. It’s a long hug but I can’t say it’s profound. In it I feel the skeleton of a man whose mind is already halfway to Tucson. A man whose heart is, well, not with me.