Searching for Words


Searching for Words

Our bedsheets never really needed washing before. Could have had them on for months and they wouldn’t get as dirty as they do after one day with David. Sand. Biscuit crumbs. Bits of banana. When he has a cold, smears of snot. As if our bed were a giant handkerchief. A catch-all. Like the Chinese term for bib: 围都都 [wei dou dou], which means, literally, to cover or protect everything, to enclose or surround. Except it’s colloquial.

The term. Can’t find it in the dictionary. It’s what the Taiwanese lady at the local fruit and veg calls a bib, in her language alive and kicking like the baby in her belly. She smiles as she stands on a crate, reaching up for the cucumbers, stopping to shift the tomatoes, the hands that lovingly lift soft fruit sometimes coming to rest on the bulge beneath her shirt, as if she were patting it into place, like some strangely quivering melon. There is an art to arrangement. Ripe peaches on top. Grapes sit next to bananas, and beside the bananas an embankment of navel oranges.

I think about this as I survey our garden. To the right, the neat order of the semi-circular bed, clipped hedges of box, everything trained into symmetry. To the left, the madcap riot of the vegetable patch, feral watermelon threading its way through the mesclun lettuce.

Perhaps it’s colloquial. Most of the vegetable seedlings brought in from the shops get chewed up by slaters or snails. What survives comes up from the compost. There must be a word for this. Something specific to a time, a place. Something idiomatic. Like the precise shape of a pregnant woman’s belly. Like the state of our bedsheets after David’s been in them one Thursday afternoon: sand, biscuit, banana, and snot in cunning arrangement—an unforeseen gift, given with intention and the grace of reckless abandon.


First published in Meanjin, vol. 63, no. 2, 2004, p. 96.

Header photo by  Piotr Łaskawski on Unsplash

Watermelon plant photo by Jason Mitrione on Unsplash

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