The Colors of the Earth

By Maria Exarchou

I have to find pomegranates.

Punica granatum. Oblong, paragon green and glossy leaves, pointy and hard. Slender trunk and branches of a grayish brown hue. Flowers like surprising gifts: They appear when you least expect them and make you smile. It’s their flaming orange-red that makes your heart flicker.

I remember loaded pomegranate trees beside the front doors of the humble cottages of childhood holidays. Every self-respecting garden had at least one. It was a bearer of good luck back in the old world, where a tree was still venerated as it should be, and the gods were still feared. A melancholy taste: when the pomegranate bore fruit, it meant that holidays were over. It was time to go back to the city; it was time to go back to school. September had come. The nights grew longer and the winds stronger. No more sapphire blue for me. No more scratched knees and feet full of dirt.

 I’d love to have a pomegranate tree in my garden. Along with a fig tree, a pear tree, a lemon tree, possibly an apple tree, and an orange tree too, an almond tree, a grapevine, a needle bush, a jasmine, a magnolia, a hibiscus, a bougainvillea, lilies and many more. But if there were room for just one, I’d most definitely choose the pomegranate tree. If I had a garden, that is. When I have a garden.

 The pomegranate is a beautiful tree with an irregular – almost polyhedral – hard, crowned, red and orange sphere of a fruit. The apple of Grenada. Now there’s a fruit you can’t bite. A fruit you can’t cut. It’s a fruit you have to score and break to get to its core. This is the fruit that gave its name to the deadly grenade. And once you get to the core, you find a million ruby red droplets, like evidence of the most horrible crime.

I saw quite a few pomegranate trees today in old deserted yards as I was strolling aimlessly by. I grew up in this very suburb, south of Athens, a suburb so posh that it never felt like home. Never before had I noticed that so many pomegranate trees had been growing up with me. I got this uncanny feeling, as if they appeared out of thin air just because I was on the lookout for them. They were loaded with ripe fruit.

It’s September again. No school or scratched knees for me, though. Just some back pain. I’m aging, and lately more on the inside. I haven’t got a single gray hair yet, and this surprises me. And while I wait impatiently for the insignia of time in this place, which never felt like home, I still feel like a child, adolescent at best, whenever I walk the streets. In fact, today I considered jumping fences to get to the fruit of my desire – it wouldn’t be theft, now would it – but felt too exposed to do it in broad daylight. And then I wondered how many things I’ve missed out on for fear of being seen. Perhaps I should return to those yards after nightfall.

You see, I really have to get some pomegranates, and they’re nowhere to be found. It must be this antioxidant business that has merchants squeezing the fruit like crazy, juicing it up, confining it into little fashionable bottles, plastic or glass, take your pick. It’s the new superfood, after all. Besides, who has the time nowadays to get to the seeds? To do the ritual, to score the skin, to break the fruit, first in two and then in four, to separate the arils from the peel? Such a hassle, and for what? For a few spoonfuls of that sweet and watery substance with the harder astringent seed in the center. And you’ll stain your shirt, too. Such a mess.

But I’m desperate for the ritual. My hands need to repeat it. My senses crave remembering.

My father loved pomegranates. He could spend the whole evening breaking the fruit and extracting the arils. He would fill a plate and urge me to have some, while he indulged happily. I used to hold the seeds against the light and admire their color and smooth edges, and then take the peel and examine the empty hollows, which brought a honeycomb to mind in some abstract way that probably had more to do with their size and number than with their shape and arrangement.

I can’t find any pomegranates in the supermarket. But I know a guy who knows a guy who cultivates the fruit down in Crete. I wonder if I could place an order. I wish I were Persephone and there was a Hades interested enough to lure me into the Underworld with a pomegranate. I’d go willingly. Six months under, just like her. And there’d be winter on Earth. It isn’t such a bad deal.

Bah, never mind. I need more than one, anyway.

A faint memory of a past New Year’s Eve: a pomegranate bursting violently open onto white marble. We’re all gathered at the front door, and it’s midnight. It’s a sacrifice, for prosperity and abundance. A dead fruit-body, split open, guts spilled on the floor. Somebody must have cleaned up after. There were kisses and celebration. There were many New Year’s Eves, but not enough. Not enough for me to seize the long gone moments and drag them with me into the future, as tokens of a life shared.

Pomegranate: A crucial ingredient of koliva, along with wheat, dried nuts (peeled almonds, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios), pine nuts, shiny silver sugar, ball- and pill-shaped, powdered sugar, raisins, parsley, toasted breadcrumbs, roasted flour, sesame, as well as cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, anise and cumin, for seasoning. The result is dark and light brown, dotted with shiny silver, white, balaustine red and lively green. Such a playful array for such a mournful occasion. It’s a paradox, really. All the colors of the earth for those taken by her. More symbolism than you can digest.

The recipe is a ritual in itself: Boil the wheat and let it dry overnight, spread it on white sheets. Wheat, for the resurrection of the soul. You can’t have a death ritual without a touch of the macabre, so there you have the white almonds, that stand for the naked bone (the image of a freshly-picked-to-the-bone body pops up in my head), and the parsley, which typifies the coolness of the earth, where the body is relieved of all pain. And what about my pain? Add the toasted breadcrumbs, which signify the lightness of the earth, underneath which your beloved ones lay. How fortunate.

The raisins remind the living that death is sweet, for resurrection will come. And they remind me that life would be so much easier if I could just stick to a dogma. The heavy-scented seasoning represents the fragrant, earthly world that the dead leave behind, heading towards a purely spiritual existence. 

And then there are the pomegranate seeds. These stand for the richness of the soul, but also denote the passage from Earth to Heaven, or to the Underworld, if you feel like tracing the ritual back to pre-Christian times. A quite befitting function for a food traditionally believed to have sprung from Adonis’ or Dionysus’ blood. Think of the pomegranate as a kind of passport. Just don’t try to show it at the airport.

Finally, if you’re planning to decorate the offering tray, for example with a cross and the initials of the departed, then the powdered sugar (white, representing the spiritual light) should be added on top and not in the mix.

I can see my mother, this coming Sunday – for it has to be a Sunday – silent, dressed in black, above the kettle, boiling wheat for one hundred and fifty people, conferring with the dead like a witch of old, submitting to an act of collective consciousness. I should lend her my black cat, to complete the picture. She will mix the ingredients knowingly, like an ancient priestess preparing the offering to Hermes, the conductor of souls. But this won’t be the third day of the Anthesteria festival, the day of the dead.

Still, it will be a time-consuming preparation followed by a soul-preparing consumption. There will be no wearing of masks, no delirious dancing. Just a wish, uttered thrice, for “memory eternal.” Through the senses, through the mouth, spiraling down to the stomach, and from there further down, deep to the soul, the living will then attempt to converse with the dead. They will seek to experience and remember death. For death is a communal interest to remember. It is there for you. And you are meant to meet the ones you lost in its charitable embrace, relish the delicacy, draft the fine line that connects you with the dead. There is no end, says the ritual. It’s just a cycle.

I have to get the pomegranates. Red seeds, like blood. I’m not sure why I undertook the task. It must be something besides the fact that my dad liked them so much. It must be something in the urgent tones of the red. All my feelings are red. Red is for anger. Red is for fear. Red, for the festive dress I wore just a week before wearing black. Red, for the raw reality that creeps in and settles, drop by drop, in my brain. Red is for remembering. Red is for love. Red is for the point of no return. Red is for the heart that failed him.