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Simile-ing with you, not at you

by Thomas Dillon

“Hey . . . Get that!”

A simple husband-to-wife request in what had been the hush of a peaceful morning.

“Get what?” she said.

“What do you mean, ‘Get what!?’ “

Because at that moment our tea kettle was foaming at its metal mouth and peeping a tune so shrill it could both wake the dead and make them dearly regret the experience.

A screech I found I could only illustrate by adding a particular emphasis. Like by stating our about-to-burst kettle was . . .

“Screaming like a banshee!” Adjective omitted.

Words that hit my wife like a magic spell. She froze — with one hand but inches from the gas — and turned her head. Her eyes sparkled with an enchanted twinkle. A twinkle that announced she had just entered . . .

English Lesson Land!

Sort of like Disneyland, only without the rides and entrance fee. With her free guide being not a mouse, but me.

“What was that?”

“Turn off the gas!” Two adjectives omitted.

“No. Say what you just said again!”

So I repeated the adjectives.

Not quite what she was after. Yet the detour at least returned her to the gas switch, and our kettle soon panted with relief.

“A par three? A birch tree? A bumblebee? What was it?”

“Banshee. ‘Like a banshee.’ “

She was smitten. “Oh how lovely! And what is a banshee? A kind of bird perhaps, like a nightingale?”

“Almost. Actually, it’s a ghost, an Irish ghost, a woman.”

“. . . Oh.”

“So if the nightingale was dead and from Ireland and female, you might be right.”

“And these female ghosts scream?”

“All the time.”

“At Irish men, I bet.”

My Irish blood — several generations removed — warmed a bit. “No. Of course not.”

“Then why not say, ‘Screaming like a Swedish ghost’? Or a Polish ghost?”

“We just don’t.”

“Or an Italian ghost? Or a Mexican ghost? Or . . . “

“OK, OK. Banshee come from Ireland. Or maybe Scotland. That’s the only reason. And they hang around your window sill and give a scream when someone’s gonna die.”

“Oh . . .” She nodded. “Like a train announcement then? ‘Now departing for Sendai . . . ‘ “

“No — it’s a kind of warning. Or a prediction. Anyway it’s scary. You have a ghost that cries, don’t you? Like her.”

“You mean O-iwa-san?”

“Yeah, O-iwa-san.”

She wrinkled her nose. “O-iwa-san is not a ghost really; she’s more of a monster — obake.”

“Close enough.”

“No, we Japanese never confuse ghosts and monsters. It’s unheard of. That would be like mixing pigs and bananas.”

“C’mon. Ghosts, monsters — they’re both from the same creepy box.”

“And pigs and bananas can both be eaten. But they are not the same.”

Somehow this logic threw me. She then maintained her momentum.

“And when O-iwa-san cries it is truly scary. But a scream is not scary at all.”

“Yes, it is.”

“No, isn’t it.” And to prove her point she stepped up to me and screamed.

And this morning had been peaceful?

I rattled my head, to hear her say:

“See. You weren’t scared at all. And — please — don’t tell me it would have been different if I was dead. Or Irish.”

How did we get here? I remembered . . . the kettle.

“Right!” she said. “And were you scared by the kettle? Not one bit! Yet it screamed, didn’t it? But if it would have sat there and wept, you would have been petrified.”

She glowed in victory. I could see only one way out — appeasement.

“Yeah, you’re right. I suppose the expression ‘like a banshee’ is better used with something intense, like a kettle whistle.

“Oh.” She blinked in understanding.

“You can use it like that.”

“Oh.”

Her thirst for English thus slaked, the quiet of morning returned — temporarily.

I heard her shuffling about in the kitchen. She sipped long at her teacup. After a full swallow and exhale, she spoke . . .

“Well, here I am. Drinking tea like a banshee.”

I buried my face in my hands.

Then a few minutes later, with an “intense” flutter of newsprint . . .

“And now I’m reading the paper, just like a banshee.”

To be followed by:

“And I can hardly wait till tonight. When I brush my teeth like a banshee. And then I’ll bathe like a banshee.”

“Wait, wait,” I told her. “Something’s missing. I think it’s an element of noise.”

“You mean I need to splash around? I can do that.”

“Maybe you should just forget it.”

“But it’s too fun. I have to use it.”

“Yet it is rather uncommon.” And, with second languages, it is not always safe to handle uncommon expressions. I suggested she let it go.

“We don’t want to offend the Irish, do we? Or their ghosts.”

But now she was crestfallen. She moped about until I could find only one workable solution.

I put on more hot water.

In a moment she stood by the stove with her eyes ablaze. “You promise you’ll let me say it!? And not you!?”

I promised, I promised.

But of course I tossed in the adjectives.