And then you add a secret ingredient, to bind the mixture to you.
The words stuck in my mind like part of a litany, the same way a baker might mentally mark off all of the steps between opening the flour and setting a pie on a windowsill.
My hand stayed in mid air, stopped about halfway between the jar (formerly of purred Chicken Orzo and Zucchini Dinner, now half-full of powdered herbs) on the shelf and the bowl in front of me. The sweet, sharp, green smell of apples, wine, honey, cedar, and cypress wafted it up, waiting for the last few ingredients that would finish the incense and make it mine.
The recipe was one I’d worked on and finally arrived at by trial and error– figuring out which would stick best to what, and which ingredients wouldn’t counteract each other. The result was an offertory incense that would be left to cure and dry for weeks after mixing before being broken up into bits and burned to care for the dead. All it needed now was that last pinch of herbs.
I let myself go back to work instead.
Making incense is something that lends itself to long periods of (sometimes self-indulgent) introspection. It takes time to weigh the herbs, grind them, soak the fruits, pulverize everything together, add the oils, and pour in just enough liquid to give everything the right consistency. Then there’s mixing, kneading, forming, aging…
At the very least, it’s an exercise in patience.
As I mixed, I thought. Not only about the ingredients, but the blend’s intended purpose. Even though this would be burned for the ones gone before me– a long line of friends, relatives, and ancestors going as far back as time– it wasn’t really for me. Not the way a purification incense is a way to cleanse my space, or a luck incense is a way to give myself a little extra good fortune when I need it. One of the most important things I’d learned in making incense is that is isn’t always pretty-looking and it doesn’t always smell pleasant. Herbs are chosen for what they do, not because you like them.
Much like bitter medicine, what matters is getting the job done.
My aunts, uncles, grandfather, grandmothers, and beyond would be getting an offering made by my hands. If I didn’t make it, no one would. Did my stamp matter as long as the food was made?
Adding the last pinch of herbs would feel… well. Self-aggrandizing, in a way. Like making a charitable donation with my name written all over it, just so everyone would know.
I folded the mixture over, before kneading and shaping the stiff, brownish paste. It would be left to cure and dry for weeks, before being broken up and burned to care for the dead.
Sometimes, things aren’t about me.