Water and Oil

By Dyana Herron

“Still waters run, run deep in me.”
—Jim White

“I think the devil will not have me damned, lest the oil that’s in me should set hell on fire.”
—Falstaff, in The Merry Wives of Windsor

Water: we think of it all the time. This is perhaps especially true of me, born a Baptist, an Aquarius, and a weeper. A Baptist, dipped into the carp-thick Conasauga river. An Aquarius, water bearer. A weeper, sloshing water from the bucket of the soul.

Water permeates our lives. We are told to drink eight glasses a day. We cleanse ourselves in it. We are mostly made up of it, lakes posing as people, swimming through each hour. When we are ready to eat, our mouths water. When a woman is ready to give birth, her water breaks.

Water permeates our metaphors. A lake is a body. The sea is a womb. Time is a river. When we die, we cross the river into a land beyond time.

Oil, we think of it often too, but differently.

When we think of oil, we don’t think of what it gives us, but of what it costs. We think of the price of it, a nozzle in the tank, a heating bill in the winter, a blistering skin on the surface of the ocean. Water evaporates and gathers in the sky as white clouds then falls again as rain, while oil burns off in black smoke, noxious and thick, and doesn’t fall to earth as anything good.

Water and oil, light and dark, yin and yang, good and evil. We live for dualities, don’t we, believing they structure our lives, thinking they help us order our actions? With two legs, two arms, two eyes, two lungs, two hemispheres of the brain, we gravitate toward the binary. And yet it’s never quite so simple.

Here, five scenes where this heart of water learned the luxury of oil:

One. I am seven, playing on the cement carport outside our trailer, near my father, who is half obscured on his back underneath our yellow Toyota. He’s drunk, there’s an open toolbox beside the back tire, and a can of Budweiser. Beside the can of Budweiser, on the uneven cement, is a puddle clouded with oil. Inside the Toyota the radio blares a ballgame. Inside the clouded puddle is a rainbow.

Two. In our kitchen, there is a green bottle of olive oil on the shelf, displayed between the champagne flutes from my parents’ wedding, which are plastic. Over the years, the bottle gathers dust. To cook, my mother melts spoonfuls of Crisco in the cast iron skillet. I imagine the olive oil is meant to be drunk in those cups, viscous and sugary as Karo syrup. I never see it used. It is like my mother’s turquoise and silver bracelet, kept in a cigar box in her closet with my baby teeth. Admired from time to time, it is never worn.

Three. I am twenty-one, leaning into the mirror and worrying over a blemish. My friend stands in the doorway and says, “You should be glad. It’s the oil on our skin that keeps us from having wrinkles. Wouldn’t you rather look like a teenager than an old woman?” I pull my skin taught at the temples, then release it, and frown.

Four. I am twenty-three, married, and burning onions. “This isn’t right,” I complain, and turn down the heat. My mother-in-law comes up behind me and looks over my shoulder. “You don’t have enough oil in the pan,” she says, tips over the bottle, and squeezes my shoulder. Within minutes, the onions go golden.

Five. I am twenty-six, divorced, living in Boston and working at a home goods store that sells unfinished wooden bowls and cutting boards. On especially slow days, I care for them. They are various sizes, have knots and nicks: some bowls are 21 inches in diameter. They are maple, oak, cherry, walnut. I roll long sheets of brown paper onto the counter, bring one carved piece over at a time, and thickly coat it in mineral oil. Because it is winter, cold and dry, they soak up the oil like parched earth soaks up a downpour. I repeat the process, again and again, until the wood is dark and glowing, and takes in no more oil. If treated only with water, the wood would dry and warp. It would crack, pull apart at the joints, and possibly break.

Water and oil, forever nemeses, never to marry, both hold sacramental implications— baptism and anointing. While Martha scowls over a boiling pot of water, Mary kneels, pouring oil from her alabaster vessel onto the tired feet of Christ.

This after Christ has raised their brother Lazarus, bridging those starkest dualities, between which lies the most unfathomable chasm: life and death. And before he bridges it again by the breaking of his own body.

Our faith is built upon this paradox, life through death, and through it the belief that all can be redeemed. Our fathers, our mothers, ourselves, our failed marriages, our burning food, our labor.

We are baptized in water. We are anointed with oil. And we emerge to go at our lives in a new and singular way.

Note: This post was orginally published on the Image Journal blog Good Letters.