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  • Silt and the Angels' Share
  • Susan Blackwell Ramsey (bio)

This pillar is the nilometer at Cairo,built in the year 861to replace an older model.Arab, of course.Eleven centuries it measuredthe annual flood, allowing prieststo calculate consequences.Too little fertile siltwould lead to famine,too great a floodwould wipe out everything.An interpretationof the marked levels readsHungerSufferingHappinessSecurityAbundanceand two cubits higher:Catastrophe.A cubit's about two feet,so the differencebetween abundanceand catastropheis no more thana modern six-year-old.


We silt up. Each receding sorrow leavesits layer. It accumulates inside, [End Page 558] eventually. Ask anyone who grieves.Work's no cure. You can roll up your sleevesand shovel for a month, but some abides.We all silt up. Receding sorrow leaves

lime around your heart, an earthquake heavessilt up through soil, and loess can ridethe wind to bury everyone who grieves

in deep indifference. Yet Egypt's sheavesfollowed its flood, fertility suppliedby the silt that follows sorrow. Leaves

pile up, rot, feed flowers. Silt achieveswhat love can't—life—so laughter is implied,eventually. Everyone who grieves

will laugh again, traitors. There's no one who believesthat more than I. And it's not that I liedwhen I said we silt up, but each sorrow leaveseventually, alas. Ask anyone who grieves.


Alcohol aged in wood, whether whiskey or wine,profits from the experience, but at a price—some always evaporates, up to half a barrelif managed badly. This is not libationpoured out in thanks or tribute. This is not tithe.This is withholding, a tax skimmed off your takebefore you see it. They call it "the angels' share."

The phrase sounds quaint, as if they were resigned.They're not. They rotate barrels, tweak humidity,do everything to cut those angels off,enforce last call, closing time. The angels stay,swilling their share of unavoidable loss. [End Page 559] Evaporation. When does oxytocinstop wafting from a newborn's pulsing scalp?The angels' share is the opposite of silt.Over a lifetime even cheerful peoplestart to resemble a helium balloonafter the party, ribbon whispering the floor.How much optimism can we afford to lose?Maybe that blank cubit between Abundanceand Catastrophe should be marked Apprehension.Look at those skateboarders racketing down the block.When did we start believing we could die? [End Page 560]

Susan Blackwell Ramsey

susan blackwell ramsey's first book is A Mind Like This. She lives in Kalamazoo, Michigan.