Kage Baker loved Shakespeare – all of his work. She was particularly fond of the plays, because ol’ Willy was such a superb dialogue writer – under the Elizabethan parlance and grammar (which Kage learned incredibly well) is an outstanding human immediacy and passion unrivalled by most modern authors.
Maybe by all of ’em; it’s really hard to find passages from plays that speak as intimately to the audience as portions of Henry 5th, Romeo and Juliet, or Hamlet still do. Unless you can sing it, or the dialogue was written by T.S. Elliott, you won’t usually find people reciting portions of Broadway plays.
Kage’s utter favourite, though, was not one the great romances or historical dramas. It was A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare’s tinsel-and-fairies special effects extravaganza. It’s lyrical, hilarious, and yet commands serious drama that sneaks up on you amid the gauzy wings and outrageous yokels. She had every filmed version of that play – she even invented new ones to illustrate Mendoza’s love life. She visited it again in the novella “Rude Mechanicals”, arguing that – deep inside – all of us want to find a way into that enchanted Wood Outside Athens …
Occasionally, one can find a way. Following Kage’s inspiration, asking myself “What would Kage do?”, I have come this very Midsummer Night’s Eve as is into a particularly enchanted garden. Who could say No to an invitation to guest amid a garden in the hills on this of all nights?
Not me, man.
It really is Midsummer Night’s Eve, Dear Readers. Tomorrow is the Summer Solstice, when the longest day and briefest night contest in glory. Outside, the shadows are grown blocks long on the narrow streets leading up from the edge of Oakland; every separate pebble has its own silhouette shivering on the worn stones of the sidewalk as the light comes rushing in like a horizontal wave from the West. And the air at the open windows here where I write is straight out of Faerie.
There are roses, tiger lilies, rosemary and sage and diverse mints and other holy aromatics. Penstemon; some moss with tiny pink blossoms and a scent like incense; tomatoes and geraniums smelling of musk. There’s some kind of lily, I think – no idea what it is, but it has sword-shaped leaves taller than I am and long rows of scarlet blooms on black stalks 8 feet tall, that make the bees and hummingbirds insane with delight.
Directly under the living room window is, I am told, a datura plant. I know datura – it’s a low viney shrub that grows wild all over the waste ground of Los Angeles, putting out pretty little white flowers like albino morning glories. They bloom for a day and then wither, looking like discarded condoms all over the empty lots. Not romantic. All through southern California desperate and/or moronic stoners constantly try smoking it – and under its commoner names of Jimson weed, loco weed and Devil’s Apple, it’s a powerful hallucinogen. It’s also deadly poison, and the line between safely delirious and dissolving your liver is about a hair wide. I have always virtuously avoided it, like the pretty flowers of the equally poisonous rose bay – otherwise known as oleander.
However, what is growing in this garden is not a stringy little weed. It is a tree, 2 stories tall and with branches curved like a dancer’s limbs. It’s covered with enormous trumpets of fluted ivory and tourmaline, a foot long, clustered in hundreds; and perfume is – astonishing. A little lemon, a little tea rose, a little musk, a little of the scent of cool water over stone. A heavy, sensual, carnal scent, that has only begun to rise up as the light has begun to fade away.
Kage would have known what it was. Lacking her years of knowledge, I’ve gone researching here as the room dims and the perfume grows stronger … and it appears that I certainly did not know much about datura. What I’m smelling is Datura inoxia: thorn apple, angel trumpet, love ache, moon flower. Sacred datura, Night’s Fragrance, that the Aztecs planted in temple gardens.
Oh, it’s still as poisonous as all get out – but luckily, not the exquisite perfume. If I can restrain myself from wandering out and nibbling on those enormous white flowers, I’ll be fine.
Or as fine as anyone can be, I suppose, sitting in the twilight in a garden on Midsummer Night’s Eve, encountering a strange new sweet scent for the first time on the night wind …
Well met by moonlight, indeed.