Kage Baker loved coloured glass. She collected it: not glass objects so much as bits of broken glass. She lined the window sills with it, turning the windows into room-filling kaleidoscopes. At certain times of the day, rainbows ran through the whole width of the house, west to east, all refracted through broken glass.
She loved it more than gemstones (which she seldom wore, preferring a nice piece of jade, agate or vintage Bakelite), more than precious metals (she wore the same pair of plain gold hoops in her ears for 40 years). She preferred it to sea shells; in the years we lived in Pismo Beach, she filled jar after jar not with exotic shells – which you can pick up there at every low tide – but beach glass.
The metaphor here is so very obvious that I am not going to even pursue it. Instead, I want to talk about where she got the glass. I mean, you can go to garden stores and recycling centers and buy broken coloured glass by the pound – really, you can just scoop it up by the spadeful and carry it home! But for Kage, that would have been like hunting on a dude ranch; you know, where you can go out and shoot tame doves or antelope or lawyers. No, she preferred to stalk feral glass.
If you’re not familiar with beach glass, I will tell you of its wonders. It is a special category of scavenged treasure. There is always broken glass on a beach, but actual beach glass has matured and metamorphosed. The actions of sand and water have softened the contours and frosted the surface; if you can still see through it or cut yourself, it’s not ready – it must be pitched back into the polishing tide to ripen further. That’s part of the Code.
You can find it anywhere on a beach, though it’s most common along the tide line, where the sand crabs and kelp all come to rest. You must pace along slowly, eyes down, watching for the glint of jewels in the wet sand; with practice, an emerald spark the size of a pinhead will leap out to your eye like a spotlight. At Pismo, though, there is also one tiny cove where the glass piles up like Aladdin’s Cave – you can only reach it at especially low tides, the multiple-minus ones a few times a year; but when you do, there are dunes of beach glass and polished rocks. You take off your tennis shoes and fill them with wet cabochons of beer bottle, and climb out barefooted and triumphant.
Kage mostly used empty condiment jars to store it in: British jams and pickles come in especially nice ones. She filled the jars with carefully sorted colours – green, blue, brown, red, purple, frosted opaline transparent – and she lined them up on the window sills where the sun would shine through them. The green and brown jars were the fastest to fill, and the most varied. People take a lot of wine bottles down to the beach.
The blue was rare, and sometimes still bore an identifying Milk of Magnesia imprint, blurred by the sand and water. But it was much more common than either red or purple; in fact, she was never quite sure what the red could have been, aside from ill-fated wine glasses shattered on some romantic picnic. All too often it turned out to be safety glass, which is not proper beach glass and won’t frost correctly: Kage despised it. The purple was often ordinary glass stained by the sun, tinted a fabulous pale amethyst like desert glass; but sometimes you could find a shard of some specialty hue, a deep grapey shade.
The advent of plastic containers may have been good for safety concerns, but it has put a serious crimp in the beach glass trade. If not for specialty brewers and vintners, this class of beach treasure might be extinct now. Luckily for Kage, living in a holiday town like Pismo saw a lot of booze-filled bottles on the beach. The glass tides renewed themselves; they got scarcer, but the harvest never failed.
We last took a walk on the beach in September of last year. After that, between the surgeries and the cancer, she was too weak, though I pushed her down in her wheelchair to the edge of the sand a few times. But it was this time last year that she last actually walked on the beach. We were both still convinced she was going to survive, full of plans on how to make convalescence pass faster, what music to take to the hospital, whether or not she wanted a new nightgown. All through that walk we hunted for beach glass, as we always did. We found little bits of it in the wet sand, and Kage put it in her jacket pockets. Just like always.
That last pocketful was all over her desk when I cleaned it up in February. After she was gone. She’d just emptied her pocket at some point -probably when I was racing around yelling for the laundry to please for Gods’ sake be put in the hamper – and left that last trove in a little drift among the juju and toys and notes. Just like always.
I put it – oh, everywhere, when I cleaned up. A shard in a box of paperclips, another in a case with mystery amber earrings (never saw ’em before; don’t know where they came from); here, there and everywhere. Consequently, I’m still finding them, as I open a box or an envelope. Just found a sliver of sapphire in a box of old checks, as a matter of fact.
Broken glass. I guess I’ll never be free of it. But, oh, the light through its colours is lovely.
Tomorrow: a hymn to hot water