My mother had two. One, she rarely used, of a lovely dark wood from an extinct forest, the kind of thing you admire and keep on a high shelf. The pestle was thin, light, flimsy in the hand; when it struck the bottom of the mortar's deep bowl, the sound produced never had that satisfying, solid thok! you expected.
To crush: in my clumsy baby's Khmer, it is bok.
Bok the garlic, Na, as many as you can fit inside the bowl, then the chilies.
Pulverize each ingredient until their original nature is unrecognizable.
Through the mortar and pestle, I was introduced to the idea of imperfection. Or, more specifically, to the radical idea that my mother was not as invincible as a mother should be to the child who adores and at the same time fears her. Strength alone was not enough; you could taste that from what was produced in that dark wood mortar.
But the other one, the one of stone, was magical, in the way only a child, and her older self, can see and taste. Heavy and gravid, it absorbed light. Blackest black, its surface coursed with tiny white veins.
But I must have hated washing it, as if it was an unwanted baby brother.
Heavy. Unwielding. Noisily rolling in that white sink.
The weight of it pulled all 60 lbs. of Cambodian American girl off-balance, tugging her from the centre of a small-boned universe called me, me, me.
Be careful, Na!
I can still hear it, two decades later.
That singular sound, signifying childhood: bok!
With memory, scents and colors bloom. The oil of crushed garlic, forever staining the skin of my fingers. The spices, so many of them, with names I could never pronounce, pounded awake. Those colors that defied my Crayolas.
Nothing, not even memory, comes close.
Years later, Shilpa gave me a set, my first kitchen implement aside from two china bowls and a small long-handled pot that I had requisitioned from chez Sun. The mortar was small, only a sparrow could lie in its bowl. White marble, with emerald veins and an old man's face carved into the edifice. I kept it on my desk until I came to my senses, months later.
She had found it in a charity shop in Paris, on a trip between trips, I think, between London and Minneapolis or Milwaukee, a cold city in the middle of a nowhere defined by my limited sense of the world.
Knowing hardly anyone in Paris, she had wandered along the Seine on long lone walks, before returning to a loaned apartment where she read and cooked, alone all the while. This time I envied of her: secret, deeply interior, rare. You have to fight for that kind of time, later, when you are also hers, and his, and theirs.
Was this before graduation? Well, before the husband and the child. Before everything became irreversible. Thinking of her gift, I see her: long, lean, lone, the other Shilpa who stayed forever in Paris, tasting summer fruit from corner shops and walking along a hazel river. Near the Louvre, a willow has grown so low, the branches dip underwater, and she is always a girl.
My mother was once a girl, too.
"Thinking of that . . ." I no longer have the set. One day it was among the spices, on a narrow shelf. The next day, . . .
I'm not above speculation: K., she drank every night and snorted coke off jewel cases on the coffee table for breakfast. She had habits. Perhaps . . .
It was that cool a thing. Things have power.
That, perhaps, was the other lesson, all those years ago, crouched on my haunches over a black beveled hunk of stone with all the power of a black hole.
The white veins? That was light, trying to escape.
Now I have a very fine one, from Williams and Sonoma, a wedding gift. Somehow it followed Jimmy and I, to Galway.
The mortar is smooth cream stone, the pestle both stone and wood; the way it feels in the hand, somewhere between light and heavy, insubstantial and cumbersome, then and future.
The sound the pestle delivers is nice, yes, nice, nothing so heavy, so resolute, so final as the last sentence of a serious novel, inscribed on your memory for the rest of your life.
Elegant and small, this set will do, for now. Handy when you need a quick vinaigrette. Crushed peppercorns or cumin seeds. When the time comes to mix this and that and explode what was into something entirely new.