Sulfur: odor of rotten eggs, matchhead, volcanoes, gunpowder, and Lucifer down there in Hell’s fire and brimstone.
Also the smell that pervades thermal spas. Along with minerals such as sodium chloride, iodine, and calcium, sulfur is a key component of manytherapeutic waters. Linked as it is with fire and corrosion, sulfur also has a storied association with the healing of numerous ailments, particularly respiratory and skin-related ones.
GOD Almightie first Planted a Garden. And indeed, it is the Purest of Humane pleasures. It is the Greatest Refreshment to the Spirits of Man; Without which, Buildings and Pallaces are but Grosse Handy-works.
—Francis Bacon, from his 1625 essay, “Of Gardens”
I open the garden on the morning of November 4, after sixteen hours of poll work the day before, sure Trump will be re-elected. The lawn is scattered with red and yellow leaves. The late roses are wan and bedraggled as chiffon ballgowns after a hard night of dancing. Shocking purple aconitum are the finale—their hood-shaped blossoms (hence their popular name, monk’s hood) visible from fifty feet away. The twisted apricot tree is filled with warblers; this English garden in Brooklyn makes a classy pit stop on their way to Guatemala.
It was mid August when my mom and I made the trek into South Central Houston to visit Sidney. We wound through the dense medical district towards the massive complex of 5 buildings making up MD Anderson Cancer Center where Sidney, my mom’s former student, was being treated. As we made our way out of the parking garage, groping toward centralized air conditioning, I marveled at the sheer number of cars from all over the country occupying what was only a single corner of MD Anderson’s campus. I shouldn’t have been surprised. After dethroning Memorial Sloan Kettering as the U.S. News & World Report‘s best hospital in cancer care in 2015, MD Anderson boasted around 140,000 patients a year and rising.
“It’s Borges, the other one, that things happen to,” wrote Borges. This is a statement that makes me think of my other self, the other Laughlin who lived in another world, another time, as another self in another country—as we’re always another when we live outside our native land.
Lusophones love to tout the uniqueness of their (our) language, and in even the most roundabout of metalinguistic conversations, all roads eventually lead to saudade. But aside from a vague quasi-mysticism about loss that surrounds the word, the meaning is straightforward—saudades tuas, I miss you. Saudades de Portugal. I miss Portugal. Loss, longing. We have tools in English that serve to get the point across quite easily.
It’s July 2020. I am supposed to be in Portugal for the tenth edition of the DISQUIET International Literary Program. Instead I’m at my home in Amherst, Massachusetts, about half a mile from the very common the magazine that you hold in your hands is named after.
The Alentejo is the landscape of heartbreak. Or at least it was to me. Even its trees are clearly loners, set apart from each other at distant intervals across miles of sere brown fields. The Alentejo is all about waiting, from its numbered cork trees, with their skinned underbellies between harvest years, to the fabled, and perhaps fictional, nun Mariana, writing from Beja to a lover who will never come back. The Letters of a Portuguese Nun have been awaiting an author, an answer, for three and a half centuries now. Once celebrated for sparking a revolution in the European epistolary novel, now considered out of fashion even in Portugal, they remain a literary enigma, the country’s Mona Lisa.
It begins with her saying I’ve never told anyone and ends with me saying Neither have I. And in between, a single sentence on how the love we feel for a child is not necessarily immediate, on how we need time to get to know and fall in love with another being, even though they were once inside us. We talk over the phone; this may never have happened face-to-face, or as we looked one another in the eye.
She had been dead nearly a decade before she sought me out. I was in my late twenties when she first came to me; then, again and again over a period of several years, whenever I came home to visit and always in the middle of the night as I slept in my old room. Before it was mine, it was hers. In the recurring dream or vision, I opened my eyes to darkness and knew I was not alone. She stood in the far corner by the closet, waiting for something. The air between us, a conduit—even from across the room, I felt her body tingling my skin. You don’t always have to see a thing to know it exists.
In 1969, my grandfather gave the keynote address to the Master Brewers Association of America. He was not a brewer himself, but he had worked thirty years as a consultant to the industry, and by this time he had provided advice to breweries in every state of America and seventy countries.
The title of his speech was “How to Make Beer That Sells—with What You’ve Got!” He focused first on the importance of quality and outlined the industry standards: 1) Beer must be “clean and pleasing in flavor” as well as 2) “pleasing in appearance”; and 3) “it should not vary in flavor or appearance from day to day.” While beer drinkers today, myself included, wouldn’t agree with his definition of “pleasing” as “a complete absence of distinctive flavor components,” I suppose he can be forgiven for being at the mercy of the era’s bland American palate. As an industrial engineer, his main focus was on cleanliness, efficiency, and reproducibility; he did not seek to be a tastemaker, nor did he encourage this in his clients.