'The gift to be simple'

From the other side of the split rail fence, Cousin Henry watches me root around in the compost heap, under the plum tree half in the woods. They're mostly dregs of leaves we raked last fall, and a winter's worth of carrot peels, apple cores, the outer leaves of cabbages, all now tidily disintegrated to mulch this summer's garden. I turn over the rich earth, black as Russian chernozemm soil.

"What are you doing?" Cousin Henry asks, pausing to tighten the horsehair on his violin bow.

"Hunting worms."

"For supper? I thought we were having bouillabaisse."

"This is the first step," I say, "and why don't you play a simple tune to bring them out."

"Ummmm . . . Simple tune . . . Aaron Copland took the old hymn --" and Cousin Henry picks out "'Tis the gift to be simple/ 'Tis the gift to be free/'Tis the gift to come down where you ought to be. . . ."

Gift indeed. Nothing seems to be simple, for him, with him. I too have been accused of unnecessary complexities. But he demands so much complex intelligence from me! From everyone. Most of all, from himself.

Our lives have more layers than any compost pile, more lines and links than this intricate spider web stretching from plum tree to beech, more tangles than our jungle of honeysuckle, ivy, and trumpet vines.

My trowel clinks against old oyster shells -- not ours, which we always return to the sea, but shells dumped here by ancient Indians, or Colonial settlers, in those old and seemingly simpler times. The shells, at least, have not disintegrated.

Followed by the black-and-white cat, Cousin Henry paces the grass, switching from Copland to Bach. How relatively elegant he looks today. He seldom takes pride in sartorial niftiness -- "A writer shouldm look rumpled!" he argues one moment, but the next complains about a popped collar button. "No, I won't let you sew it on!" Then he will launch gruffly into a tirade about living his whole life nowadays with holes in his shoes and his shirttails out and he must pull himself together with no help from anyone, thanks, he can do everything himself.

Meanwhile and first he must, of course, pull together the world. . . . Now he is in the process of pulling at least some of himself together as he runs through Galamian scales. And today, in white shorts and shirt, and even a tiny white flower which has floated unnoticed from some tree onto his white hair ( "silver,"m he insists), he looks immaculate.

I, on the other hand, do not. My jeans are caked with mud. My hair is dusty and tangled, and when I try to push it aside, I can feel my face smudging. My fishing-and-gardening sneakers are aerated with holes worn on the tennis court.

But the angleworms have grown all winter, enormous as Laocoon's serpents. I drop them gently in an old tin can. Cousin Henry expects bouillabaisse. And he probably envisions a tureen from the Tour d'Argent with 25 ingredients. Here in "Eel Country," my bouillabaisse may have perch and crabs and even an eel, plus whatever from the garden. It will cook while I try to write . . . if I have time to write. Life gets so complicated back in the city -- life is a soda siphon super- charger on ball bearings, roller skates.

I turn the compost over and over, filling buckets for the garden, filling the tin can with worms.

Cousin Henry wanders back to the fence and pauses to discuss the superb bouillabaisse he once ate at Maxim's, and once in Deauville, and we must emulate them tonight, and next week when the ambassador from Westphalia is due.

"But what do you think of Westphalian politics?" Cousin Henry is asking me. And what about energy policies, and what about some economist's schemes, and what --

Questions are better than answers: I find too few. Nor are they essential here, and I try to turn his questions back on themselves, like angleworms, so he can respond himself. He is already on to inflation and gold, unemployment and cost-of-living, Donne and Verlaine, Vonnegut, Bartheleme, and where's the economy going, and where's the world going, and you, where are youm going -- ?

I continue shuffling compost and soil, capturing miniature serpents, mulling the problems of the world and bouillabaisse. Were I a Zen Buddhist, might I simply think about the act of digging. . . . not worry where, indeed, I am going. Perhaps I am digging to China.

Suddenly amid his lecture on imports and exports and index and taxes, Cousin Henry looks hard at my smudgy face. "I think today I understand you . . . see your true self. . . . You're just a little girl who loves to fashion mud pies."

"I'm only digging worms," I answer stiffly, "to try to catch you a perch."

"Fishing? That's too complicated."

"No, it's an excuse to sit on the dock."

"No, no. Spend the time writing."

"But your bouillabaisse --"

"Be simple!" he argues, peevishly.

"Just pick a cabbage for our salad. One of those baseball-bat zucchinis for soup. Free the worms to aerate the garden. Let the fish live." As he trudges back to the house to write, he calls over his shoulder, "Don't forget the tomatoes, onions, peppers. And the basil and dill --"

I clutch my can of worms and a bucket of compost and head toward the overgrown garden. Nothing is simple with Cousin Henry, not least the prediction of his whims.

The worms roll out gently onto the compost, wriggle toward the Swiss chard, snow peas, fig trees. Do they know where they are going? Or ask themselves why? The earthworms curl into question marks. They are not so simple, either. . . .

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