Elizabeth Sanders, Historian of Liquids. Pt 1: Dinner and Drinks
Elizabeth Sanders got ready for dinner. She walked into her kitchen, opened the fridge, and took things off shelves. Half a loaf of salty bread. A tupperware of leftover cheesecake. Cooked rice. A marshmallow. She mixed up the soft things and spooned them over the rice and chopped the marshmallow and sprinkled that on top and brought the bowl to the table with a hunk of the bread and sat down and started eating.
Elizabeth ate only white things, and she ate them only very much alone and very late at night. Her cupboards were full of sugar and crackers and cauliflower and peeled potatoes and garlic and parsnips and feta and powdered doughnuts and beans and meringue.
She was a historian of liquids. There were no solid objects in her stories: hers was instead a fluid archive and her craft was a form of digestion. She ate slowly and silently, readying her canvas while arranging the documents she would need for the following day’s work into plump little piles. While she chewed, she chose texts from among those piles and dried some in the oven until they were brittle enough to crumble easily, and soaked others in bowls of milk and spirits until they turned pulpy and began to fall apart. She munched and swallowed and ground up the dried texts with a mortar and pestle and broke the pulpy bits up with a fork and she tucked or shoveled them into little bags before settling into bed.
Elizabeth woke in the morning, famished and eager to begin the day’s work. She kept a library of waters strewn across the shelves and tables of her house — each in a jar that was carefully marked with its conditions of collection — and she chose one from the windowsill and took it to her cupboard. She poured out some of the water, opened one of the baggies she had prepared the night before, stirred its contents into the cup, and drank it down.
Reading, for Elizabeth, was a consuming of language and all that it carried. She brought history inside of her mouth, her throat and chest, her stomach and intestines. Elizabeth would roll the text across her palate, tonguing the grit of the words against her front teeth to taste ink and script. Was this a printed text? (She tended to sip those thin-flowing documents through a straw.) She might catch the rough edges of a serifed font on her lips or trap quick &’s and ;’s between her teeth. She unknotted the letters of manuscript pages without using her fingers. (It made quite a party trick. Let other girls have their cherry stems.) Sometimes she would skim the gold from an illuminated letter off the surface and brush it against her mouth as a kind of lipstick. Thicker mouthsful she slurped like soup, stopping to pull the odd bone or bit of skin that might have reconstituted itself in the cup.
Elizabeth had a particular interest in Chinese documents: she liked the aldehyde savor of the ink and the crunch of the words, and she would drink those documents hot, like tea, sometimes first dropping a preserved plum into the bowl. (She didn’t like her stories too sweet.) She had once begun a history of rice wine, dissolving early accounts of the liquor in large bowls of water and drinking them down in large gulps, but the process made her so tipsy she never managed to finish it.
By the time the text reached her gullet, it would resolve itself back into words that took on voices in her throat. If you sat next to Elizabeth while this was happening, she might sound like she was producing birdsong, or speaking in tongues, or chanting — all without opening her mouth. She had no way of putting the words in order after she drank them: they simply flowed from her, rushing turbulent and chaotic scraping pushing past each other to get out out out and as each pounded or whispered its own name it also echoed, in Elizabeth’s voice, I am here.
Once they were all out, Elizabeth would take a deep breath and drink them all back in. Now they moved into her lungs, they coated the tiny little walls of the tiny little sacs there, and there in their intimacies they found their mates and formed themselves back into sentences, slowly seeping, single-file, into Elizabeth’s blood.
She sweated and oozed out her histories. And so she used special paper that would render them in saliva or tears or blood. Once finished, she gathered up the pages and took them outside and fed them to the river, where they floated downstream as the water drank them in and they muddled with the others she had offered to it before.
This is part of The Elizabeths, an ongoing project devoted to memorializing four historians of the elements who never existed but should have. We’ve already read some of the histories written by Elizabeth Sanders, Historian of Liquids: histories of dew, sweat, perfume, mercury, honey, and paint. The text above returns us to the story of Elizabeth herself, offering the first installment of what will be a serial account of the life of this elemental historian. Stay tuned!