TALES OF THE UNCANNY - QUICKSILVER
@ellowrites @tvansantana @melissadawn @cgwarex @annemio @crumbled
Madness the price paid
For your molten alchemy.
Metal. Planet. God. Elemental Haiku
Yesterday afternoon we went out for a walk in the neighborhood - the idea was to walk up towards Villa Maria and then stop off at Dunn’s market on the way back to pick up some groceries. Right after leaving the house, as we approached the corner of Wilson and Sherbrooke we both noticed a young couple walking towards us pushing a baby stroller, smiling and waving. They were headed east so I turned to see who they might be waving at and there was nobody in sight. They crossed over Wilson to where we were standing and stopped, greeting us as if we were old friends. And there in that stroller was a toddler in a pink snowsuit with her little arm stretched up as high as she could reach waving her tiny mitten at us with all her energy. There must be some kind of law, something built into the structure of the universe that requires a person to respond to this greeting. Something momentous is happening that is quite impossible to ignore. The mom was beaming with delight. So I realized that this was that amazing moment when the child realizes for the first time that something she can do is going to have an effect on other people, who stop and smile and wave back and make much of you. It is the child’s discovery of her own expressive power and the Mom’s excitement about that discovery. “I am here! Look at me! I can wave and make you notice me!”
There is a certain pathos to this moment, because the child is not going to remember when it happened or even that it happened at all. She will soon become blasé and practiced in the use of these newly discovered expressive powers. There is no way she will ever be able to explain how she learned to do these things. It’s called the amnesia of infancy. There are things you do every day that you had to learn or to discover on your own. Before you could even speak you had to learn and practice the sounds that belong to your language, leaving aside other sounds that belong to other languages and losing neurons in the process. If you had half-way decent luck there was a grown up person around who felt a moment of joy as they bore witness to every discovery and every new task you accomplished. Maybe if you were very lucky you would feel your own joy amplified as you solved the problem of climbing out of the crib and surprising your parents when you showed up in the bedroom.
I have to say the little kid in the stroller was irresistible with her black eyes and her courageous little face and the urgency of her greeting, but then I noticed she was wearing a black tuque with an Arabic inscription on the front. It was just the right size tuque for a two-year-old little girl and it looked quite new. Also fetching. So I asked the Mom, what is the word on your little girl’s hat? And she says “quicksilver.” I looked at her because I wasn’t sure I understood and she said it again - “quicksilver.” At this point the Dad was getting impatient, so the little caravan moved on, but as they headed east I could see little quicksilver girl turn around and wave back at us all the way down the block.
Quicksilver is an archaic word for Mercury, a metallic element that is liquid at room temperature. At one time it was used in those little glass thermometers they use to measure your body temperature and you had to be careful you didn’t break the glass because then these little silver balls of liquid mercury would jump out and roll around the room. This was dangerous apparently, or at least my father got wound up about it because you wouldn’t want to cut yourself on the glass and get mercury into your blood stream. Supposedly a kid who lived up the block from us got mercury poisoning one time, and it made him very sick. Notwithstanding any of this, I have to say those little balls of mercury were pretty cool and they were always perfectly spherical, which is why the word quicksilver is used metaphorically and allusively these days for anything that exhibits rapid movement or has a shiny, reflective property. And then, of course there are mercurial personalities, not to mention Mercutio, who gets himself killed trying to defend Romeo from Tybalt. “No, 'tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church-door, but 'tis enough, 'twill serve. Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
Mercury is also a planet, and when I was in graduate school the guy who lived next door to us was writing a dissertation on the precession of the orbit of Mercury, which apparently has something to do with the gravitational constant. His research was supposed to confirm Einstein’s theory of relativity - unless it was supposed to refute Einstein’s theory of relativity, but either way it would have been a significant contribution to Astronomy. Oddly, Jason never became an astronomer, but he did end up having a distinguished career in geology, working on the theory of tectonic plates. It also has something to do with Mercury in retrograde, an astrological event that is supposed to begin later this month. I wish I did not know this, because I have travel plans for that time.
Well, what about the god, that guy with wings on his helmet and on his shoes to suggest something about rapid movement. They used to use it as a logo for something called Flowers by Wire. He was a bit of a trickster, Mercury, but he was also in charge of things like eloquence, and did a brisk trade in carrying messages to us from the gods. You can also see him hiding in words like merchant and merchandise.
I looked up the Arabic word when I got home; it looks like this: الزئبقيةِ You can write it like this in the Roman alphabet: zibiqi. You can even hear somebody pronounce it, not that I can imitate what it sounds like. I wish I had asked the Mom a little more about this, and in particular if quicksilver was the child’s name - probably not - but then what significance does this word have in Arabic? Is something getting lost in translation?
If you happen to think that studying the precession of the orbit of Mercury or Roman Mythology or Comparative Linguistics might somehow be more important than a little girl in a pink snowsuit waving at a couple of strangers on a street corner in Montréal I might agree with you, but I would also want to point out that you could be missing out on something pretty important here.
Paul Eluard once said “un autre monde est possible, mais il est dans celui-ci.” No - I don’t know where or when he said it, I just read about it in a book by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. It's called Mozart's Starling. William Butler Yeats sometimes gets credit for saying this - There is another world, but it’s in this one. We tend to forget about the other world - too much everydayness is happening, we’re wised up, we aren’t easily impressed. Keep your eyes open - pay attention. Another world is waving at you, right up at the end of the street.