“Let me tell you about winds,” Almasy says to Katherine Clifton as they shelter in a car from an Saharan sandstorm in The English Patient. “There is a, a whirlwind from southern Morocco, the aajej, against which the fellahin defend themselves with knives.”
I’ve been thinking about The English Patient because it’s one of my movie obsessions but also because I am in the room above the kitchen in the old house here, part of the original structure, a sheep shed, that was all that was here when the owner, Georgina Howard, bought the property. This house reminds me of the villa where Nurse Hana shelters with Almasy, now the English Patient, to allow him to die in relative peace. As the medical convoy moves on, Hana watches from a high window in the villa, chopping off her long hair into a chic bob the way women do in the movies. Disparate characters come and go, a thief called Caravaggio, a Sikh bomb defuser and his sidekick Kevin Whately (that is the actor’s name, I only ever think of him as Kevin Whately) all with their different knowledge, expertise, striving and grief. They come together for a time, and then they part ways.
Let me tell you about winds.
In my room with its view of the roof over the dining room, and then of the valley beyond, I heard the winds around dawn. The nearby wind sounded like the whoosh of the ocean. The approaching wind sounded like a rapidly-arriving locomotive. Not a whirlwind from southern Morocco – Morocco, like all the rest of the world, is far, far away – but a fierce eddy from somewhere that, when it arrived, bent the trees long ago matured into strange undulations like modern dancers.
And then it raised itself up and away.
A few days ago we had a straight, hard rain, after a thrilling prelude of thunder that purred and echoed across the valley. I grated cheese in the kitchen with a keen eye on Chef Carol, who disguises her expertise beneath a mask of amiable vagueness. What’s in the risotto? “Oh, it’s got some shallots and some . . . I chopped . . . did we say 7:15? With risotto, you have to be very precise.”
Outside, the rain stopped. Georgina thundered down the stairs and swept into the kitchen. She is not one to enter a room with hesitation but strides into the action mid-gesture with an urgency to impart, like a herald in a play. But you would not expect a docile demeanor from someone who twenty-odd years ago saw a Basque shepherd’s hut and willed into being a creative manse (or, in Basque, etxe). The central courtyard between the houses is a kind of stage, one where I would happily set a play, a romantic farce, if I wrote plays happily, which I do not.
Georgina cried, “Elizabeth! There is a word for the smell of the earth after the rain! Petrichor!” She rolled the R, so I thought the word must be Spanish or Basque. “Petrichor! From ‘petra,’ meaning earth and ‘cor,’ meaning . . . oh . . .”
From ichor, the term used to describe “the fluid that flows like blood in the veins of the gods” in Greek mythology. According to the Oxford dictionary, the word was first used in a 1964 article written by a group of scientists, which is why we have never heard of it.
“How would you use it in a sentence?” asked one of the writers when we brought petrichor along with the risotto to the dinner table.
I couldn’t think of how to use “petrichor” in a sentence that would not also include the words “smell” or “rain,” which tells me this was not a word clamoring to be coined. I also wonder how these scientists, finding the phrase “the smell of the earth after it rains,” insufficiently pithy to their needs, fell so easily onto “ichor.” Now there’s a word I’d like to use in a sentence. “How do I get this ichor stain out of my dress?”
There is a laurel tree embedded in the patio courtyard. Georgina constructed the patio around it, decided that the tree would be part of the family. In Greek mythology, Daphne, pursued by Zeus, transforms herself into a laurel tree to preserve herself from his lust and other ickiness.
The poem The Laurel Tree by Louis Simpson contains these lines:
“Is there a tree without opinions?/Come, let me clasp you!/Let me feel the idea breathing.”
And ends with these:
“The dish glowed when the angel held it./It is so that spiritual messengers/deliver their meaning.”