Thursday, December 9, 2010

French Salt


Last week, my two younger daughters had a fever. The fever would rise and rise, then break for a couple of hours before building up again. Four days it rose and fell; four days they perspired and grizzled and napped on my body; four days they woke at midnight, and two, and four in the morning; and on the fifth day, they were well.

But on the fifth day, my husband was headachy. Then his forehead became hot and he began to sweat. After three days in bed, hot and delirious, with headaches and muscle aches and nausea to boot, he went to the doctor. Unlike the kids, he was diagnosed with strep throat, and is now on antibiotics.

The next day, my oldest complained of a sore tummy and a pain in her throat. And my youngest started sweating again. So we went back to the doctor, and the oldest has strep throat; but my youngest just has a rotten cold.

It's now Day Ten of illness. Two members of the family are on penicillin, a third has a hacking cough and is pouring snot, and a fourth still has the pale face of fever. And this morning the fifth, the well one, that is, I, woke up with a sore throat and a bad taste in the back of her mouth. But I am determined not to be ill; I don't have time. In desperation I quaffed scalding hot drinks, and then I remembered salt gargle.

The only salt we have was a gift from a friend, who brought it with him from Europe. It's an unrefined product harvested from the salt marshes of GuĂ©rande. The crystals are large, damp, and blue-grey. It may be artisanal, it may be precious, it may be highly desirable, but it does not look like something I want to put in my mouth – I usually throw it onto my food without looking too closely.

But I had to make gargle. So I dumped some into a shallow coffee cup and dissolved it in hot water. Clear against the white cup, residues floated: black and brown specks suspended in a grey solution.

I sighed, took a mouthful and threw back my head. And was immediately thrown into the waves at Port Beach in Fremantle, where we used to swim as children in a landscape of container ships and silos. I remembered the slow rollers pushing my body, and the elation the first time I managed to leap up at just the right moment, paddling frantically until the wave caught me and I bodysurfed into shore.

The salt water pushed at the back of my throat, and I recalled hot nights and burning vinyl car seats and the way my thighs would stick to the seat so that I'd have to peel them up one by one. Going home from the beach, I'd sit on my wet towel and feel the weight of my hair hanging in a heavy rope against my back. My bathers would be full of sand; my lips, delicious with salt.

We lived in a narrow terrace on the hill overlooking the jail. The tiny front garden was filled by a single small tree, a frangipane, and the terrazzo veranda was heady with its scent. I'd pick a creamy white flower and sink my nose into its golden throat; my sister and I would pin the blossoms in our hair.

As my breath petered out, I spat out the first gargle and looked at the water in the cup. Small grey filaments were forming; they looked like little sea worms. I shut my eyes and took another swig. I felt the salt water hit the back of my throat, clearing out the passages, opening it up just as sea water channels through a limestone cliff.

And remembered a day long ago spent playing in a deep rock pool. Long straps of kelp were rooted to the ocean side. My sister and I swam across and clambered up the rough wall of rock, fighting the waves. At the top, we grabbed the kelp as the water roared over us, pulling and sucking at the heavy strands and at the girls wrapped around them holding on for dear life, hearts pounding, heads ready to explode for lack of breath. The kelp forest was filled with a golden light, and lime green and pink seaweeds drifted past. My body rolled with the kelp and scraped against rock, and as the current surged I heard the rattle and clank of rocks tumbling across the sea floor. Short of breath in the here and now, I opened my eyes and spat.

I took a third mouthful, and remembered sitting outside away from adult eyes and gargling. My sister and I would tip our heads back and gargle until we giggled so helplessly that we choked. I remembered hacking away, great strands of mucus and water shooting out of my nose and mouth, and the two of us howling with laughter, sides aching. And when we'd recovered, we'd wipe our faces, and do it all over again.

I couldn't remember the last time I had gargled, or blown bubbles with a straw, or laughed until something went nasal. I felt the salt water scouring my tonsils, and my throat relaxing at the thought of old laughter. I smiled. Water sloshed out the side of my mouth; I spat, and wiped my chin.

I took the last mouthful and as I tipped my head back I thought of my friends in Berlin who had given us this healing salt, this key to old memories. I recalled the friends this week who had phoned or dropped in to see how we were; the friends who took two daughters for the day; the friend who wanted to cook us a meal; and all the other offers of help. As water tumbled around the back of my mouth, small rivulets breaking loose and trickling down my throat, I felt myself floating on an ocean of friends and family and memories.

My eyes pricking with salt tears of gratitude, I gave the water one more swirl, leaned into the sink, and spat.

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