A woman sits on a bench not far from the cliffs and, beyond, an ocean. About five yards northeast of her left shoulder is the top of a steep staircase. Each step is formed from hard-packed dirt with a pinewood frame to help the steps keep their shape. The steps lead down to a rocky dirt running trail that hugs the cliffs overlooking the mouth of a great bay.
The woman sits, works, and waits.
We are inside of a state park, named for an old fort. I am on my morning walk, the walk I take each and every day, and I’ve heard of this woman, but I’ve never seen her. She sits at the edge of a large, newly repaved parking lot at the top of a hill. She is pressed between the cliffs and the parking lot, working and sitting and waiting on the edge of both, straddling the borders of both. A narrow, two-lane road goes up the hill and feeds into the parking lot, which is shaped like one of those rudimentary drawings of houses children make. The parking lot is sparsely filled, less than a handful of cars scattered about, and the woman sits near the tip of the house’s roof.
The work must hurt her hands, I think. She works a pestle and mortar a few shades darker than the sky, and it’s so cold out, but she looks content. Though she’s clearly waiting for something.
It’s overcast and foggy. The crows and robins have created a refrain, occasionally broken by the squall of a seagull. More gulls, small, silent, timid gulls, smaller than house cats, move hesitantly through the parking lot, their bare yellow beaks scraping and searching.
I sit down next to the woman. Tall, hunched Monterey pines and even taller eucalyptus trees shield us from the wind. I reach out a hand, so my shadow rests its hand on the shadow of her shoulder, but she doesn’t notice. Her head’s down, though every so often she raises her chin and eyes, looks in the direction of a copse of small, young pine trees on the other side of the parking lot. Occasionally the wind pierces through the trees at our back, but mostly we’re alone. Quiet and alone with the wounded cold laying over us and the birdsong and the scent of eucalyptus oil and, faint, the scent of last night’s dying bonfires rising up from the beach below, and, stronger, the scent of her work.
We sit, and without meaning to I’ve joined her in her waiting. Twenty yards or so to our west is a memorial commemorating some naval battle from World War II. There’s a big plaque with information on it that I always immediately forget after reading it. A few feet beyond that there’s a scrap of the American ship involved in the battle. There are a few gaping holes in the otherwise unremarkable steel, and the metal surrounding each of these wounds blossoms outward. The sea air has degraded tiny spots of the piece of the ship, little leprous spots here and there, but it’s in relatively good shape. Sometimes there’s graffiti on this piece of the ship, but it usually disappears a few days or weeks later. It’s someone’s job to come up here and clean a scrap of metal that once belonged to a ship that once was nearly blown to bits. That’s a job you can have. Remarkable. You can touch the piece of the ship if you like, press your fingertip against the sharp points where the hull or whatever it is of the ship was struck. I have. It’s sharp.
Northeast of us, miles and miles away, over and beyond her head—bent and intent on her work—bits and pieces of a great bridge lay exposed. Suspension cables here, a tower there, a short span of the bridge’s orange deck here, a girder there. The rest is consumed by a thick pall of fog. I get a chill, not from the cold, but because the fog looks like raw wool, a texture that always makes the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.
Anyway, the bridge might be the skeletal structure of the very fog itself, like it might be what the inside of fog looks like, or the bridge could just as easily be freshly unearthed, beautifully preserved ruins.
I ask the woman, What are you waiting for? but the wind and the large gulls and her work all drown out my words, which immediately strike me as feeble. Shameful, even.
The wind remains, strengthens, rustles the branches of the trees, lifts and swirl the fallen eucalyptus leaves and pine needles and garbage from the ground. The wind begins to moan as it moves through the trees. Eddies of this wind wrap around our heads and ears, the wind divides and joins and divides and joins and divides us, the woman and me. On that bench. As we wait.
On the ground between us is a large, brown paper grocery bag. The wind gently rocks the bag. I can hear the wind pressing its fingers against the stiff, crisp surface of the bag. The woman has placed a foot behind the bag, like a doorstop, to ensure it won’t get taken away by the wind. She notices me looking at the bag. She nods her head as if to say, Please, take a look, be my guest. Or maybe she wouldn’t talk like that, maybe she’d say, Go ahead, look if you wanna.
Inside the bag there are pungent, dried leaves that smell of licorice, though there’s another smell present I can’t identify, a deeper, heavier smell. The leaves are curled in on themselves, resemble the husks of dried insects, are the faded green of fatigues. I reach my hand deep into the bag, some of the leaves crumbling at my touch. The bottom inch or two of the bag is filled with these small, cool beads or grains.
I take out a handful to get a look and find seeds of some sort. Burnt yellow-orange, ridged seeds. She stops her work to still my shaking hand, then returns to her work. Her hand is warm, rough, and strong. I watch her hand move in slow, deliberate, uniform circles. Two veins pop out on either side of the knuckle over her middle finger, then converge as they run down towards the base of the tendon of her finger and her wrist, where the veins seem to merge, like tributaries joining a river.
I return the seeds to the bag, then return the bag behind her foot. I close my eyes. I listen to her grinding, working. The more she works, the stronger the smell of licorice, the stronger the earthy, warm, nutty smell of what I can only guess are those ridged, little seeds. I open my eyes, see that she is looking again towards the copse of trees, her expression blank.
The wind shifts and circumvents our shield of trees. I imagine the wind climbing up the face of the cliffs. The wind etches its body against the rocks and sends bits of the earth back down into the water. The wind climbs over the cliff’s edge, susses out the staircase, rushes up the steps, and finally finds the two of us sitting there on the bench. The wind pushes her dark brown hair into her face. The wind cuts at an exposed patch of my throat. It’s probably not how wind works or moves, but I like to think that this wind that hit us has touched the surface of the ocean.
What are you waiting for? I ask again. The question seems less feeble, feels like less of an imposition now that I’ve joined her in her waiting, now that we’ve shared the wind and bench.
Head down, she continues to work, as though she either didn’t hear me or chose to ignore me. Finally, after maybe thirty seconds, without looking at me or interrupting her work, she asks, What’s your favorite smell?
I think about a few things. I think about a few people I’ve known and loved. Lovers and friends and relatives and enemies. I think about places I’ve been. And then, I think about the smell of a freshly washed dog that has just been released onto a beach and launched itself into the ocean, only to sprint back to you with the brine clutching fiercely to its coat and skin.
Instead, I tell her what I think she wants to hear, what I suppose is or might be the right answer, the smell of copal burning. Black copal. Not white copal—too sweet—not golden copal—sweeter still—but black copal.
A towheaded sparrow lands near the paper bag, walks right up against the bag, just there, and sits down, resting its ragged little body against the bag.
She says, Black copal. Good answer, she says. She smiles at me, her hands still working. The light is dulled by the clouds, but there is a bit of a glare, and it catches a gold tooth near the back of her mouth, a molar maybe.
A second towheaded sparrow comes, this one on foot, and nestles in next to the first sparrow. It’s not the right time of year for these kinds of sparrows to be here, they should be south by now. Or maybe not, maybe I’m wrong. The first and second sparrow face the same direction, their beaks face the ocean, and soon they are fast asleep.
An old Peugeot drives up the narrow road feeding into the parking lot, then begins to weave through the lot, scattering the gulls as it goes. She ignores the car, takes out a large Ziplock freezer bag from somewhere inside her coat. She turns her body to obstruct the wind and quickly pours the finely ground leaves and seeds from her mortar into the bag.
When I ask her if she needs my help she laughs. It is kind, warm laughter.
The Peugeot is the color of a freshly picked poppy or marigold, and the driver maneuvers into a parking spot not ten feet from the two of us. She sets down her pestle and mortar. The driver turns off the engine, and for a minute or two the engine and fans and belts click and whirr and sigh.
I move to grab the bag, to open the bag and grab leaves and seeds to help refill the mortar, but one of her arms shoots out and latches on to my forearm. Her nails dig into the skin of my forearm, and she tells me to let them sleep.
I had already forgotten about the two sparrows, nestled next to one another and the bag.
With care, she takes the mortar and pestle and places it over a corner of the bag, so as to act like a paperweight.
She stands directly in front of me, puts something between her teeth, then arranges her hair into a sloppy bun. She pulls a rubber band from her wrist, and using what I realize is a hairpin between her teeth, she secures her hair.
Would you like to stay here with the birds, or would you like to watch? She asks.
The driver of the Peugeot is older than me, perhaps fifty-five or sixty. The car and its driver smell of citrus, burnt pork fat of some kind, and faintly of old books.
She is strong but inelegant as she drags the driver down the steps, her hands under the driver’s armpits. She curses as her dark brown hair falls out of her rushed bun and gets in her face and mouth. Still, her steps are certain, confident. The driver’s boots knock one at a time as she drags the dead body down the steps. Left right, left right, left right.
She drags the driver across the rocky dirt running trail. A man and woman in their mid-20s out for a jog are forced to stop their progress. They run in place, ask each other what they want for dinner, remark about the cold, laugh about how cold it is. Ridiculous, one says. Absurd, says the other.
With her back to me, she props the body against her own, then undoes her hair, taking her time to place it in a more secure bun. The last I see of the driver is an arm wheeling over the edge of the cliff.
I can hear the waves now, though the wind here is more violent and severe. I can hear the fading steps of the joggers. I can hear my breath. There is a lighthouse due north of us, on the other side of the bay, but it casts no light, even though I can hear the foghorns of great ships to our west.
To the east, the center of the bridge is visible, but nothing else. The fog has overcome the rest, so what remains of the bridge appears to hover there over the ocean, suspended by its own will, the will of the ocean, the blind faith of the drivers, or some combination of the three.
When we return to our bench at the top of the steps the driver’s car is gone. In our absence a third and fourth sparrow have come. These new sparrows sit opposite the other two. They’ve squeezed their faces close to the heads of the first and second sparrow. They’re roughly in the shape of a little square, their bodies rising and falling in waves, their breathing patterns unsynchronized. I try to find an order of some kind, but their breaths are so shallow and quick, I can’t do it, and soon my eyes burn from not blinking.
They remain undisturbed as she retrieves leaves and seeds from the bag. She crumbles the leaves into the mortar quickly and without attempting to muffle the sound, which often prolongs a sound and makes things louder in the end, I think. Like when you slowly try to open a can of soda or a beer in a quiet movie theater and the noise becomes deafening.
The woman looks into her mortar. Head down, she asks me for the second time what my favorite smell is. Before I can say anything she asks a second question, asks me if I’m feeling glamorous. The woman pauses, and then asks her third and final question: Am I ready and willing to work?
I look at the sleeping sparrows, their ruffled, dirty feathers. Each of those tiny bodies contains a life, I think. I dig my chin into my chest to warm myself, and tell her, finally, that I’m ready and willing to work.
About the Author
Patrick Holian is a Mexican-American writer from San Francisco, California. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from St. Mary’s College of California and a PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. His fiction and poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Suburban Diaspora, Mosaic Art & Literary Journal, Arkansas Review, Bennington Review, Black Warrior Review, Gigantic Sequins, Oculus Vox, Yalobusha Review, and Whiskey Island Review. Patrick was a semi-finalist in the 2017 American Short[er] Fiction contest, was longlisted for The Masters Review 2019 flash fiction contest, was a finalist in the 2019 Ploughshares Emerging Writer’s contest, and was a runner-up in the Black Warrior Review’s 2019 flash fiction contest. To view more about them click below.