One long summer in a mountain town in northern Idaho, my husband and I invented a game called “Nut.”
The days were incredibly hot, dry, and still. Air conditioning isn’t a common household feature in the mountains, and this heat was an uncommon fairytale that reminded long timers of some particular summer of their childhood decades ago. The town slowed down for it, steeped in it. We spent our days either drowsed in the shade, or with ice cream and our feet in the fountain in the middle of town, with icy beers in the local, cave-like bar, or skinny dipping in a creek rushing with snow melt.
After a day in thin air, soaked with sun, topped off with naps too hot to do more than drape one leg over the other’s, it would get dark, so dark, and the dry thin mountain air would not hold the day’s heat and a kind of delicious cold would creep over the town, like ice shards in the draft beer from the cave-like bar. After a day sunning on our rocks, moving hardly at all, sleep was unnecessary and the town, by mid-July, was fully nocturnal. We’d spend the first, navy blue part of the night with our sun-burnt skin huddled in fleeces, walking hand in hand through the little town listening to laughter as it banged from yards and front porches into the night.
Restaurants stayed open late, all the walkway lights stayed lit in the park, we were all as children, up past our bedtimes, giddy with the cold, getting away with pleasure.
What passes for conversation during the day doesn’t fit a life lived at night, and we needed a metaphor to carry us.
I promise I’ll get to Nut, but indulge me just a little, in a writerly way. Metaphor is from Old French via Latin, meaning carrying over, but of course, there’s that Greek bit in there that also means transfer, or between, or better, to bear.
It was the poet Caroline Forche, when I met her in a different mountain town, before I knew my husband, who shared a glass of sherry with me, the first I ever had, and explained that a metaphor must have a tenor and a vehicle—the tenor is what is described by the attributes borrowed from the vehicle.
Use them, she told me, when the words themselves are unable to bear what you are trying to say. A metaphor is to carry what is too heavy otherwise.
Later that evening, she read her poem The Colonel for the assembled, which is utterly devoid of metaphor and holds only a single, terrorizing simile:
What you have heard is true. I was in his house.
His wife carried a tray of coffee and sugar. His
daughter filed her nails, his son went out for the
night. There were daily papers, pet dogs, a pistol
on the cushion beside him. The moon swung bare on
its black cord over the house. On the television
was a cop show. It was in English. Broken bottles
were embedded in the walls around the house to
scoop the kneecaps from a man’s legs or cut his
hands to lace. On the windows there were gratings
like those in liquor stores. We had dinner, rack of
lamb, good wine, a gold bell was on the table for
calling the maid. The maid brought green mangoes,
salt, a type of bread. I was asked how I enjoyed
the country. There was a brief commercial in
Spanish. His wife took everything away. There was
some talk of how difficult it had become to govern.
The parrot said hello on the terrace. The colonel
told it to shut up, and pushed himself from the
table. My friend said to me with his eyes: say
nothing. The colonel returned with a sack used to
bring groceries home. He spilled many human ears on
the table. They were like dried peach halves. There
is no other way to say this. He took one of them in
his hands, shook it in our faces, dropped it into a
water glass. It came alive there. I am tired of
fooling around he said. As for the rights of anyone,
tell your people they can go fuck themselves. He
swept the ears to the floor with his arm and held
the last of his wine in the air. Something for your
poetry, no? he said. Some of the ears on the floor
caught this scrap of his voice. Some of the ears on
the floor were pressed to the ground.
Consider again what Forche told me, in light of this poem. Metaphors are to carry what the language itself, the naked language, cannot bear, and here we are with a poem where the language is so naked it’s a telegraph, but what is in it is nearly, nearly too heavy, unbearable. She gives us that single simile, they were like dried peach halves, and then tells us, with regret that there is no other way to say this. And I think, I know, that the reason the Colonel’s ears were not carried into the vehicle of dried peaches, were not dried peaches, is because she had to invest them with action, with the ability to listen and catch his voice, keep alert on the ground, avenge the wrongs they represented, the murders they represented.
She could not let a metaphor bear this darkness, this weight, and had to apologize for the necessity of a simile, because there was no other way, the language failed in every other way to telegraph the horror of the Colonel’s display.
This is a kind of miracle, what she accomplished, but understand, it is only a small palmful of craft. A truth about how to smith words that is easily passed to another over a glass of sherry in a dark room.
We never need much more than that, really. A small knowledge we can hold in our hand that is meant to compress what can be carried no other way.
Nut is a game of words and imagination, that is simply played, easily understood during long nighttime walks, after the kind of lovemaking that leaves you more awake than not, particularly when the air is unexpectedly and deliciously cold and you are anticipating watching the sun rise over the mountains.
It begins like this:
I give you a nut.
Which, the partner accepts, and I always imagined a pecan in the shell—smooth and woody. The nut is kept and then you must offer a gift in return, and the rules are this:
It must be able to be held in the palm.
It can be refused, and if you do refuse what is offered, you must give your partner a nut.
It must be something you think your partner could not refuse, and must be described beautifully.
You cannot lie against your greediness. If you want it, you must take it.
You must remember everything you keep.
At any time, anyone can call “nut” and if nut is called, the players must recite everything they have been given, and if the list is complete, you have won that round of nut.
A round of nut cannot last longer than a day, or a night.
A partial round of Nut, then, may be played as follows:
I give you a nut.
I give you one of those expensive cakes of bow rosin you love, the ones that come wrapped in pink velvet and smell just like balsam.
I keep the rosin, and I give you the baseball card you sold too soon when you were a boy, the Roberto Clemente in mint condition.
I keep the Clemente, and I give you that little metal German pencil sharpener you lost, the one with the hawk embossed on the side.
I’m over it. I give you a nut.
And so you see, with nothing but plain words in the dark, something can be passed hand to hand, these vehicles meant to stand in for the tenor that is a relationship with another—where the relationship is a collection of paying attention enough to compress feeling down to an object that is rejected or kept. He tells me he knows how I feel about my music, I return with my memory of his childhood, he learns that my love of something he thought was important was only superficial. These metaphors pile around us, all night long, carrying everything else we meant to say, or would like to but might be too heavy for a beautiful respite of a night.
Craft needn’t be heavy, merely something beautiful to carry heavy things. In fact, it likely should be small, and explained well while drunk or post-coitally. It isn’t always necessary either—try first how much the smallest possible words can hold, then test the weight. The smallest and most beautiful words, delivered without lying, accepted in greediness, regretted only if painful, unavoidable, awful, but still said.
A voice in the dark—I give you a nut.