My neighbors are using a mortar and pestle again. I can hear the sound of their pounding through the open kitchen window. It echoes off the oddly angled sides of their house and the sound makes it seem like there are two people who are using a mortar and pestle. Why this feels strange, I don’t know. It’s a persistent sound, the pounding, rapid and practiced. I wonder what my neighbors are crushing, and what kind of stone they’re using.
I bought a mortar and pestle a year ago, when I moved into this house near the ocean, now damp feeling and too big for me alone. The mortar was ceramic, and tiny. Really tiny, and completely useless. It weighed nothing. I could hold it in my palm like a bird’s egg. I ordered it online, and when it arrived it had nothing of the cool weightiness I thought a mortar should possess. It slid around on the counter when I tried to use it; I practically chased the thing with the pestle, trying to crush garlic. It would have been more useful to just have used the heavy handle of a knife, but I was sure I’d do it wrong, that I’d hold the knife in some clumsy way, with the sharp end of it pointed straight up. And then I’m always bent so low over the counter. I imagined the tip of the chef’s knife just sliding right into my eye, when all I wanted to do was crush garlic. Ben was the reason I’d bought the thing in the first place, he was always leaving blood on the cutting board from slicing through garlic and the tips of his fingers. I would laugh and say stupid things like how I needed more protein in my diet anyway, but I bought the mortar and pestle to see if there was a less bloody way he could cook.
The first time I ever saw anyone use a mortar and pestle properly was a revelation. It was on a cooking show, a travel cooking show, and there was this woman pounding garlic and spices and onions together into a paste like it was nothing. Cracking peppercorns and dried chiles with her arms moving as though they were separate from the rest of her, her mortar and pestle large and dark and made of some rough stone that I’m sure aided in the grinding. I don’t even know what she was making but I’m certain it smelled wonderful. She was talking and laughing with the host all throughout, her mouth large and her head constantly in motion. I could tell she was looking at the men behind the cameras, that she thought the entire idea of the show, of watching her cook, was hilarious. All the while her arms and hands were moving independently, the left arm reaching for a bunch of cilantro while the right kept up its rhythmic pounding, then they’d switch and the left would reach for something else.
My neighbors are quick with their pounding, and it sounds hollow, like maybe a mortar and pestle aren’t the tools they’re using at all. They could be chopping, but what on earth are they chopping like that, so quickly for minutes and minutes and minutes. The rhythm of the noise is brisk and sharp between occasional protracted pauses. Maybe those pauses are when they need to rest their arms. Look at each other over the never-ending mound of whatever it is they’re working on, vegetables, maybe. Some unspoken consultation because I can’t hear any voices bouncing off the walls of their house and into my kitchen window, though I’m listening, my ear practically pressed against the fly screen of the window above my kitchen sink.
Their pounding starts up again just as the pilot light in my oven clicks on and a second later there’s the full ballooning of igniting gas. It’s on a self cleaning cycle, and it’ll stay on for hours, burning away dripped chicken fat and the molten overflow of all the pies I overfilled. Burned sugar and fruit juice coat the oven floor, becomes ashen, feathery, peeling up and waving in the heat. The oven door is locked and won’t open and I can’t shut the cycle off and the smell is pretty terrible. I’ve taken the batteries out of all the smoke alarms which are so sensitive and now it’s me flailing beneath them with a towel when they go off, trying to clear the smoke from whatever it is I’ve burnt. Bacon, toast, bell peppers, anything really.
I don’t know how many people live next door. I only ever see what must be the grandparents, moving their fleet of cars from one side of the street to another on Tuesdays and Fridays, returning from the grocery store with plastic bags straining at the handles. There are babies in the house, I know because I hear them screaming and crying sometimes, but I can’t understand what they’re saying. There must be more people who live there because the house itself stretches almost the entire length of the backyard, gradual additions that aren’t the same height or width. I would be able to see all the way to the Headlands from my kitchen window, but the side of their house juts out too far and blocks my view. Birds build nests on the corner of the roof though, and I can watch the chicks being fed by one parent and then another, their little bald heads bursting from the nest and waggling about.
The burned grease and sugar on the floor of the oven continues to lift throughout the afternoon, my neighbors continue to chop or pound. The pilot light clicks on whenever the temperature in the oven drops below 500, every five to seven minutes. The smoke alarm batteries are lined up on my kitchen table and I’ve taken my mortar and pestle down from the cabinet, placed it on the counter.
I open the fridge, and it’s mostly empty but I’ve got some eggs and milk left. There are two mostly eaten heads of lettuce wilting in the crisper drawers. The steam from the small pot of water I set to boiling on the stove rises up into the kitchen vent. I don’t like its deep whirring because it covers up the pounding from next door. The pile of whatever my neighbors have been working on has grown retroactively in my mind, the two people pounding–I’ve decided that no, it’s not chopping after all, the rhythm is off–must have needed to lean around the mound to look at each other and say what they needed to say, the things I can’t hear. What are they saying to each other?
Are they preparing for a feast, is this a family reunion? How big are the bowls of their mortars, and where are they storing the pestled food? Are they grinding their own spices, cracking cardamom pods or coriander? I drop an egg into the boiling water and it bobs there, little bubbles forming on the surface of its shell and rising to the surface; there’s air escaping from inside. A few minutes later I reach into the water with a spoon, the egg fits perfectly into the hollow and I place it inside my own mortar. With smarting fingertips I take a butter knife and slice the top of my egg off. I could never do this as well as my mother, I’ve made the incision too close to the middle of the egg and the yolk pours over the jagged shell and gathers in a weak yellow pool.
My toast is buttered and sliced into strips. Standing at the counter I plunge the toast into the egg, sending more yolk oozing wetly over the shell. I haven’t cooked the egg long enough and along with the yolk comes uncooked white, clear and dangerous looking. Gelatinous, unappetizing. There are crumbs on my lips and I leave them there. I use a spoon to dig the rest of the egg out from its shell.
I take the pestle and begin to crush the shell, my own pounding can hardly be called that, the tiny sound it makes. I hold the mortar steady, twist my wrist as I press down. The shell cracks and breaks but is held together by a still wet film. I work at it, matching the rhythm of the pounding next door, pausing when the sound ceases, stretching out my shoulder blades, hopping from one slippered foot to another like a boxer, and beginning again when it’s time.
The oven door snaps unlocked and I wait for a pause in the pounding. I run from the window to open it and with a pastry brush I sweep the ashes from the oven floor into my palm with quick, strong strokes. I bring the handful to the mortar and tip it in, then work it into the crushed shell.
In my neighbor’s pauses I search through my pantry for peppercorns, sea salt, large grained turbinado sugar. I place them all in the pestle and grind them as finely as I can, moving the powder to a small glass bowl that used to hold candies, spare change, keys, before Ben left. I find whole seeds of nutmeg and these are especially difficult to work with, they jump around the bowl underneath pestle and refuse to be cracked. When I can I find a microplane and use that instead, stamping my feet a little to match the pounding next door.
I pound a banana piece by piece, since the whole thing certainly can’t fit inside my tiny mortar. I work at steel cut oatmeal for a long time, and it flings itself out of the bowl and onto the counter with every stroke. I add some honey and watch it turn cloudy with the crushed oatmeal, then move it to the glass bowl as well.
With a wooden spoon I stir everything together, the banana and honey binding the dry ingredients together. I’m still stomping my feet to my neighbor’s pounding, and now I’m thinking that the pile of garlic or chili peppers or spices that they’re working down must have covered the kitchen table and almost reached the ceiling when they started.
I scoop my mixture from the bowl with my hands, and dancing with the rhythm of my neighbors’ pounding I spread it over my face. It smells good, and it stings my skin. The eggshell and the salt and the sugar are great exfoliants, the honey and oatmeal and banana soothe and moisturize and all the spices seep into my pores, giving me goosebumps and allowing me to feel keenly the breeze coming in through my kitchen window.
I’m sweating and my arms hurt, my back is tight from bending so low over the counter and I incorporate some torso twisting into my dance to loosen my muscles. I get this pain between my shoulders whenever I’m bent like this for a while, doing endless dishes or preparing finicky food, and I have to loop my arms behind me and bend backwards to ease the stiffness. I raise my arms up and I fling them back down, then freeze when the pounding stops, like this is all a game. How long can I stand here in the middle of my kitchen, not moving?
I’m staring out the window as the sun sets, the light pulling away over the rooftops until I can just see the silhouette of my neighbor’s wall, illuminated slightly from their kitchen, the sounds of clattering cutlery and heavy plates being set down and picked back up again.