A Hymn to Ninkasi

Photo by Terrye Turpin

She glanced at the end cap filled with burnt umber bottles as she walked past the display. Garish labels in shades of hot pink and fluorescent yellow wrapped each glass container, and she stopped to draw a bottle from its cardboard carton. Beer was, had always been, her father’s choice. Memories of picnics and backyard barbecues spun recollections of bright aluminum cans pulled chilled and dripping with ice water from Styrofoam coolers. She begged for that first sip of pale yellow foam from the can, but never developed an appreciation for bitterness.

Her husband, a tall man with dark wavy hair in need of a trim, wandered over from the snack foods aisle, his arms cradling an assortment of chips. “What’s that?” he asked as she placed a six-pack into their cart. “Are you buying beer?” He dropped the snacks in with their groceries and looped his thumb into his belt as though measuring the tightness at his waist.

“I thought we’d try it.”

He shrugged in reply but she knew he would fuss with every sip, worrying over the extra weight that each year added. If her father ever had those middle age fears he kept them to himself.

Each morning during her childhood she awoke to the alarm of her father coughing up the night’s cigarette smoke, followed by the pop and slow hiss of a can opening. By the time she dressed for school and met him at the kitchen table he had finished his first beer of the day and chased it with a peppermint to hide the odor as he left for work.

She pushed their groceries toward the cashier, passing the Seasonal Aisle filled with summer toys. In line to pay, a small boy with dandelion blond hair sat in the cart in front of hers. He covered his face with his hands and smiled through his fingers. She turned away toward her husband.

“We should pick up a movie,” she said.

“Oh sure. We can grill steaks, the weather’s nice enough.”

When she was young, before her parents’ divorce, they went out to eat most meals. A table for three at the seafood restaurant where she mourned for the doomed lobsters in the large murky tank that occupied one wall of the dining room. The beer there came in a thick glass goblet large as a goldfish bowl and coated with a skim of frost she touched to her tongue when her parents weren’t looking.

She stopped on the aisle and purchased the beer because she recognized the brewery. It seemed a different woman had toured that place, with the man she thought she would marry. They walked through steamy rooms crowded with hot steel vats. The moist, yeasty air and the constant thrum, thrum of machinery made her nauseous, and she escaped to the lobby. Framed exhibits, spaced along the walls, told the history of beer. The first communions were not held with watered down wine, but with hearty ale, a gift from the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi.

Her father gifted her with his first year of sobriety coin. She wondered at the sacrifice it took to earn that bronze token, the confessions he undertook in meetings where they bound their fellowship with black coffee. Years ago she tucked it away with her memories, wrapped in a soft blue blanket that would have belonged to a child. Her confession was she mourned the loss of the man more than the loss of the child.

Her husband stood at the grill, waving his hand over the ash grey coals to judge their heat. She pushed open the screen door and walked up to stand beside him. A breeze puffed hair across her cheek and she imagined a chorus, singing praise to fermentation, as she twisted the top from the beer bottle. The chant swelled as she brought it to her lips, the ancient scent of grain, the salt of tears, the bitter taste of regret.

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