Salt Elegy

January Elegy #4

I brought back a gift for you from Bali. Salt from the north coast and your choice of two, small, white plates from a local pottery. One of the plates must have been made by pouring slip into a mold that gave it the form of a plate woven from some part of a botanical – leaf or stem or root. It occurs to me that both plates were probably made using the same process. Only the aesthetics of the molds were completely different.

The botanical plate had the asymmetries of something handmade. The mold of the other plate was perfect and unremarkable. What is interesting about that one is the texture of the glaze. It’s rough like a cat’s tongue; it grabs your skin like that invasive weed (the Latin name of which I don’t know) Bedstraw. It was my intention to give you only one of the plates. I don’t remember now which you chose. Maybe it was the one that looks like a basket. I gave them both to you and silently regretted it. But I also thought they would come back to me at some point. Like you, I had the conviction from when we first met that we would be together. You used to say it was inevitable; we were designed for one another. I don’t think I ever understood what you thought was so perfect that you saw it as design. I never felt that way. But I wanted to join my life with yours anyway, even if I didn’t understand why, even though it was hard. I will never understand it. It has to be sufficient that I was compelled to try over and over. I could make no other choice than to be with you until you died. I thought we would have more time.

The rustic metal box you used for salt is one of the things I inherited from you that I treasure. There are not so many objects I would suffer harm to protect; that is one of them. I imagine clutching it against my body, curling around it, refusing to give it up. It’s filled with the handmade salt I brought to you from Bali years ago. I promised Joe I wouldn’t give you any but I gave it anyway. As you poured it into the box I said – this is my love gift to you.

It’s a simple thread of associations that constructs the equivalence. Based on older tales, Shakespeare’s King Lear demands declarations of his daughters. His youngest daughter loves him like salt, which he misunderstands after his older daughters asserted they loved him like silver and gold. Deceived by flattery, the King banishes Cordelia, the most loving of his children, because he doesn’t understand the import of her valuation until, years later, when unbeknownst to him, he begs for shelter at her house and she takes him in. He has failed to recognize her. So she serves him a meal without salt. When he refuses to eat the meal she asks for an explanation; why is he rejecting her hospitality? He confesses the meal has been prepared without salt and he finds it unpalatable. It’s then she reveals herself and he recognizes what he had been unable to understand years before.

When did I come to share this sense that salt is love and a gift of salt a declaration? I have written about it before. Maybe I don’t need to again. But this is part of the story. Because I cooked without salt for you once, thinking that by withholding it when you asked for it, you would also feel loved. We had been talking about the poetics of submission and domination, about how pleasure can emerge from pain and the sublimity of suffering. I didn’t for a moment imagine that you would not discern the absence of salt. The idea of salt as love was too subtle for Lear. But he could tell when it was lacking.

I placed salt sellars on the table out of reach. I cooked Indian dishes; that was my mistake. I waited as you started to eat, then became confused as you took seconds. You didn’t notice what was missing. How would our relationship have gone from that moment on had I cooked something simple that needed only salt to complete it? Perhaps I would have felt confident that I could love you in a way that was powerful and legible to you. Perhaps you would have given yourself to me. And maybe I would then have given myself to you too, secure in the conviction that you wanted me.

I don’t know when was your last meal that I made and salted before you couldn’t eat anymore and instead delivered liquids through the tube in your abdomen. When was the last time you or I dipped fingers into your salt box to pinch that precious seasoning, enough for the dish we would share?

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