There’s an airstrip on the island and I’m trying to land. I sail over raw number 27, distinct from the air, oil drums embroidering the faint chalky outline of my refuge on earth. Soon the glider’s thorax plunges into the lavender and rosemary until it splits apart and comes to a rest. Beaten up but thrilled to be alive, I abandon the egg and drop down the gravel road towards the coast.
It’s better and simpler: a village restaurant, cold drinks and the nearby beach. My clothes fall away that night at the cove and my body joins the stones, a scarab under the galaxies. The nocturne is intimidating, alive, wet. Something mysterious brushes me. Any moment I expect to be devoured and to compensate I believe in magic, courage, spirits and adventure.
That night I leave, gather my supplies and chase the silver moonlight up the road into the hinterland. An empty town is wedged up the canyon. A sack bumps along my torso, filled with candles, water, cheese, unleavened bread, no torch, just the ash-light of cigarettes. Oak and tamarind, a path of cypress cones and mint-like flickers above in the sky. Swaying olives are smothered red, fall’s aroma is indistinct but there.
High in the valley, a sanctuary, a tusk of liminal silhouette, the sea notched in the cliffs, two islands talking in the distance, spangled with the movement of cars on mountains, words the speckle of fishermen traversing the channels, no sign of the sun but the warmth of the earth.
No one knows my whereabouts and I’m wonderfully alone. No dogs, no power. Yet water and livable, even with bramble and fig for company inside. I rest on the steps of the plaza outside the chapel. The bells and pews have fled.
It’s a last chance to contemplate and I should eat. In the sack, bread and pomegranate, a wheel of fresh cheese and jerked beef, a flask of brandy and blond tobacco to accompany my burial among the rock walls and terraces. My painstaking search among the surfaces of cedar and stone and then I find the right cellar, its doors burst open like a mouth.
The room smells like grease and cobwebs, grapes and salamander. There’s a carpet on one wall. I brush away the grime. Is that how you unravel your heart? Is that how you tune the organs and inner octaves to a minor scale? The pattern frightens me. Somehow I understand it’s always changing, so I pull the door tight, dampen the candles, and open my soft black hashish mouth. Decades transpire as I sing altos and tenors; divine, sublime sounds pulse in my throat and guts, just five notes and their microtones. The dead master accompanies me on his melancholic harmonium, playing all the black keys, and a spectrum erupts inside me — who seems to become a stage. Dancers twirl closer to its precipice, lured by voice and baited by mode. In agreement they plummet down one by one, twirling like umbrellas, landing in the canyon below my outpost of beliefs.
Why am I standing in the dark, my hands tangled in beard?
I scramble for the wine and after uncapping the bottle break the fast. And so I laugh, without concern. The sound invigorates and humbles as I start to stretch.
Once I emerge from the cellar, I stumble down to the sea. I’m tender everywhere. Drunk, too. I remember the restaurant, sit on the patio, absorb the fundamentals of beach and sun. The spot’s filled with customers, alive yet so incredibly dead, awake yet so utterly asleep, you yet so not you.
“When did you come back to the island?”
How I wish to say that I never left.
The writer who cannot describe the city he lives in shares this ineffable feeling with a clique of vigorous males. They’re making music (blowing, singing, squeezing, drumming) or writing poetry and prose; they ignore their surroundings, which is good for experimentation and gives them time to hone their art. They’re not troubled by multiculturalism, exposure to the raw creative forces of a megalopolis, or even deadlines. Their weekly male bonding session happens in a central wine cellar where only white wine is available; it’s often diluted with soda water by a pair of stern maids behind the dark oak bar, who make time between the television in one corner and flirty conversations with the oldsters to ladle out the swill. The friends stand in a circle, intermittently someone going up for another round of spritzers. They recite some ideas and scenes from the annals of literature or complain that they have not seen enough African or Latin people, nor heard their music, nor eaten their cuisine in the city that does not exactly welcome outsiders.
The cheap spritzers sometimes sneak up on them; they reel out into the street and part with their signature protocol of knuckle-crunching handshakes, bear hugs, and lateral kisses. Nonetheless, they’re respectful and amiable with one another and do not interrupt to tell someone that he is telling the same story again, whether it be the paradox of liars on the island of Crete, the Nepali funerary pyre of Angus Maclise, the origins of jazz and a certain plastic saxophone, or a legendary drug dealer in Los Angeles.
Everyone listens again, collapsing into their own faces, puffing on more cigarettes, attempting to go home, until their stamina is exhausted and they retreat, happy or sad, to be just plain dudes.
When not meeting at the swill shack, they assemble at someone’s home for a private version of what they accomplish at the wine cellar. One might bring a bottle of vodka. One might bring a bud of marijuana like a dread or an orifice –shaped piece of hashish. One might bring a bass clarinet or Moby Dick, which the host will keep company on his balcony among the crowns of the chestnut trees, thinking of loose fish, fast fish, and the undertones of Melville’s accomplishment far from the deep seas of the great white whale.
One member of the clique has just returned from Bahia. He only deems to know the rest of them because he once stayed in the nebulous city long enough to write a book and fell in among the crowd for a while. The traveler shifts from one country to another, never anywhere for too long. His home is a pack of cigarettes, a drink, and a book, available anywhere in any language. He eavesdrops and loiters just long enough meet the culturatti and discover the secrets of the city he’s squatting. He will soon find himself attended to by a winnowed, intelligent, artistic female attracted to his arrogance and his attempts to speak her language, but he never allows himself to fall in love or learn the grammar, for he has an unfathomable agenda that leads him to leave. Women litter his life like carrion, and he isn’t the man to say thank you, to them or anyone else who had done him a turn, listening to him slur through a new language and a new logic. Indeed, his affinity for languages, the laborious product of making and reviewing flashcards, make his speech more and more garbled, as if he were Leopold Bloom, and for Joyce the traveler has deep respect, along with a bucket of other suggestions. An unnerving autodidact, he also can pick out scales, melodies, and beats from the likes of market tapes or DJ tip-offs. Not to be outdone, he reproduces all this in the silver bell of his bass clarinet, and when he plays he hears his soul speaking, which surprises him since he always imagined his soul to be no more than an ice cube drifting in one of his daily drinks.
If not traveling in the name of collecting music, languages or women, he might take a short-term assignment working in the ranks of the humanitarian business, organizing potable water, sewers, schools, or roads for the poor in some forsaken quarter of the Balkans, all the time collecting evidence about diplomacy, grants, and intrigue, connected in his notebooks by literary quotations interspersed among his research into the dark halls of the American hegemon.
Pouring vodka and rolling joints, merging into one giant underage man, they all moan about the country they abandoned, about the boom they missed in the last decade of the twentieth century, about the new regime of the new world order, about the loss of freedom (if there really was any), about the figures whom they consider to be the enemy. Of course, they might be envious of their peers who enriched themselves. Yet they ask, “At what price?”
No one can really answer that question; stoned, inebriated silence follows until someone emits a groan. The traveler begins listing the evidence. Familiar and unfamiliar names interlace in a network of arms, drugs, precious stones, and wars as they always have. Everyone sits in a stunned, acidic hush; it’s true that there is a frightening efficiency to being human, but they should they feel ashamed? Four friends can’t pause the world and make it think for a moment. But if they could add to their ranks, maybe to twenty, surely they could repeat the Bin Laden’s feat and stop the ineffable orbit of the earth for a single, devastating moment. They might just as well be friends than enemies.
Someone interrupts the monologue. “Anarchy plus peace equals freedom.”
They nod in grim assent, for their disgust of nationalism unites them like a burning flag and they’ll be condemned to Dante’s ninth level of hell to join “a thousand faces made dog-like with cold.”
The traveler recently departed Bahia to the nameless city is trembling with anger. He says, “Sao Paulo is bigger than this godforsaken place.”
Two candles wobble on the glass table akimbo with bottles, shreds of tobacco, and rolling papers. When the flames seem to replace the red pupils of the writer’s eyes, he slips away to the warm body of his girlfriend sprawled in bed at home.
The three remaining friends pour a round of grappa and slug back the shots. Are they elated or depressed?
The traveler is staggering, weaving, a combination of both. The other two sit, morose, listening to the traveler, whose voice quickly drops a tone and becomes accusatory.
“You,” he says, “You who think you’re so damn great. You, with your ego, vanity, and arrogance.”
The two friends look at one another, unsure if the traveler wants to roast both of them or just himself.
“Who are you? Do I know you?”
He punctuates his questions with a chair. He swings it above his head and smashes it on the floor. His words blend together in one breath. More chairs are disabled. Glasses are tossed to the floor. He’s a maelstrom of his own alcoholic creation. The two friends are trying to decipher the blurts of French, Hungarian, Portuguese, Serbian, Slovenian, and Spanish, all the languages zipped in the traveler’s intellect. This isn’t a conversation about the subtleties of Carlos Fuentes or Jorge Luis Borges. This isn’t a conversation about the abilities of Bud Powell or Charles Mingus. This is an accusation without sense.
The most handsome man seems to be target. He smiles and exposes his beautiful row of newly adjusted teeth. He’s entered the maelstrom plenty, breaking his silver flute, his hand, or a window in the process of lacerating the traveler with his own version of hypocrisy, then pissing his bed in shame-faced drunkenness.
Tonight the tables are turned and he listens to the flow of foreign languages coalescing into English, into a rape of his personality, for all its kinks and flaws. The candles flicker in undetectable lulls, the traveler hardly ceasing his monologue.
What’s left of the furniture doesn’t placate him. He grabs the handsome man, chokes him, and throws him against the windows. Their silhouettes bang against the window and startle a woman exercising her dogs on the grandiose circus below the first floor flat.
The handsome man doesn’t return fire.
They fall to the wood floor between the glass table and a drum kit parked in one corner.
The host wonders why he didn’t eject the traveler for the night.
The day’s beginning as it ended, with blows and blood.
The handsome man removes his muscled arms from his ruby blazer.
The punches find their mark, and only with great presence of mind does the handsome man forgive his friend and abandon him on the floor, howling for mercy, curled into a fetal ball, for there on the floor, among the shards of candle wax, glass, tacks, and upholstery, he realizes that something inside him is the problem and has nothing to do with the handsome man who smiles in a grim way, puts on his jacket, turns on his heels, and leaves as the sky transforms from night’s lapis to early violet morning, shining coldly that day.
He says to himself, “One time, okay… two times, maybe-maybe, but three times and it’s over, you’re out.”
The quartet reassembles a few weeks later for a bout of football. The pitch is well-situated, the main lawn of a hilltop park above the great bronze river. The castle looks cute and rotten, pocked by canon and sieges. The great bronze river wavers in the periphery, curling through the indescribable city, sliding under the bridges that traverse its deep, running waters.
The flying white ball begins its strange trajectory, an ancient epic passing from foot to foot, holding the history of an entire people.
No one says a thing as the white sphere passes in a series of juggles, traps, dribbles, and left and right kicks.
A restless look fills the traveler’s face. He remembers nothing of what he said and his eyes have healed, but not the big, black, blank stretch of time of what was, the psychosis mixed with the anger, fear, and insecurity that make him.
The handsome man’s cruel. “The only thing that separates you from the guy on the street is that you have 5,000 dollars, so think about that the next time you have a tantrum.”
“I’ve nothing now,” says the traveler.
“It’s like that,” says one of the others. “You’ll get more next month.”
“You’re lucky, man, because we are soon to be even,” says the handsome man who then kicks the spotted ball directly into the traveler’s guts.
“Yeah, man, very even,” he says and groans.
The handsome man approaches the traveler, shakes his hand, fakes him out, hugs him in a good-natured way; the hard feelings have been eradicated.
The white ball continues its journey, bouncing and skipping across the lawn like adolescence. Camus claimed to have learned everything he knew about life from football. Perhaps Camus was right and there were lessons to learn from the game, for the writer feels some odd joy as his foot sweeps the ball from the grass to the air to another waiting body that might be a wing or equally a fullback.
The friends call to one another in a chain of phony sports commentary, “Renaldo to Zidane. To Maradonna. To Pele.”
But the commentary takes on another hue as they shift among actors, directors, musicians, philosophers, poets, and writers, spilling out their collective knowledge of the history of world, as if Shakespeare were team captain with Herodotus as sweep and Plautus goalkeeping and Cervantes with Voltaire on the wings and Diderot and Maupassant in midfield against a team of André Gide, Billy Wilder, and Lucille Ball as fullbacks and Anthony Quinn, James Joyce, Virginia Wolff again in midfield with Morton Downey Jr., Jelly Roll Morton, and Desmond Dekker on offense, Nusrat Ali Khan refereeing.
Unabated smiles work from their feet to their faces and soon they’re laughing in the grass, free from the stress, denial and lies.
That afternoon even the ball’s laughing.
Babe and Baby
The writer is overjoyed to hear that his best friend has returned to the shores of the great bronze river. They meet at the Goethe Institute’s smoggy sidewalk café. His friend’s head shines in the sunlight. They quickly reacquaint themselves like good neighbors, as if every afternoon they can share the doings of their lives. The two young men’s legs intersect under the wicker table. They share a box of cigarettes as they watch the girls walking. They wait to see if one the luscious, haughty numbers might turn her head, men and women casting for glances on the long smoggy boulevard that terminates at the great bronze river. All the while they round on one another about their reputations, fast and loose behavior paired with quiet reserve. There’s no real achievement for them to celebrate. They’ve vomited out various free manuscripts and screenplays for minor film festivals and literary rags but haven’t found the right technique to massage big-time publishers and producers into believing that they have ideas to add to the archives, that they’re good for six-figure advances, more likely to destroy their ideas than enhance them.
“You still insisting on being famous?” asks the writer.
“It’s gone up a fraction,” says the friend. “You’ve got to lasso it early, then comes the cars, babes, properties, you know, the good life.”
The writer huffs. He’s unimpressed. “Oh yeah, luxury transport, a cohort of horny bimbos and minimal, designer pads scattered among the greatest cities of the world. Fame’s a profession isn’t it?”
The friend stretches his lean body, nods, and lights another cigarette. “I’ve told you before that Aaron Copeland advised Paul Bowles, right? ‘You have to work hard in your youth if they are to love you when you are older.’”
“But the work isn’t over or worse at forty. You’re just getting started. Maybe life’s shit on you enough by then that you have something to say.”
They both hunch over the table, unconsciously writing and composing in their minds, their words no substitute for the curve of the past, a hot vernal night seven years ago.
He’s 23. She’s 34.
The woman smiles, exposes her overbite, and tucks her chestnut hair behind her ears.
“That clinches it,” thinks the best and oldest friend. He’s in his prime and he might as well make a move.
He meets her gaze from the stoop outside a bar that attracts whoever and anybody after midnight. You might find Frank Zappa, Jim Jarmusch, or Hal Hartley as guests, too. The friend ruffles his hair, stands up; she can sense that he’s well equipped as he approaches. They met before the film academy. She’s a student and he’s there to borrow an Arriflex for a fortnight. They exchange an unwavering look, all they need to know. They don’t say anything outside the bar but simply interlock arms in the square and leave the mess of drunken people without a word.
None of their acquaintances see them for some time. Their friends speculate where they’ve vanished.
They speak in hushed, effervescent tones of a continuous post-coital rush. They both like risk and it’s little surprise to the friend when she tells him, “I’m pregnant.”
Would it have been the day they did it eight times?
She doesn’t want a termination; she’s at the exact point when pregnancy is more welcome than unwelcome.
The friend hurries to the writer to tell him the situation, and he soon bursts into tears. They walk together through the warm darkness of the night. They could be teenagers again, the friend perhaps reading a poem under a streetlight, the friend ranting about his anger, the friend disturbed by the side-effects of a magic mushroom party when he went overboard.
The writer cannot advise him, except to say, “Do what she wants.”
The men embrace and comfort one another; the writer hugs the sobbing body stressed about the new person growing in his new girlfriend with the sexy overbite.
The doubt lingers during the length of the stressful pregnancy, during which the friend affirms that sex with a pregnant woman is excellent, the pattern for a regular regime of explicit remarks about the situation when revisiting the tree-lined circuit of streets. As if their age difference isn’t unconventional enough, the expectant couple negotiates what they believe to be progressive, modern guidelines for their nascent relationship, including a deal on affairs, much to the satisfaction of the young father who loves a sordid night out.
But he doesn’t consider how clever she is: that by her freeing him, by her saying, “Yes, go ahead, fuck who you like and when you like,” she actually binds him down. Permission ruins the allure of fornicating.
What woman will touch a man who has just had a baby, especially a woman wise to the rumor that this tall handsome guy with a long prick and plenty of predilections isn’t available. What alternative is there but to bond with and love his son? He’s vivacious, blue-eyed, and crying in the sun-filled room occasionally whirring with the pass of an electric trolley. The new father watches the infant like a brother, helpful and curious. But he hasn’t anticipate that his girlfriend’s priorities may have changed, that maternity may postpone her career, capped with a desire to return home, find a real job, and settle down in a country not plagued by a depressing state of affairs called the transition.
The father and the writer celebrate the birth since they have nothing else to toast. They’re reckless and irresponsible, carousing, driving drunk, and raving until noon, for the authorities seem to be excited by the prospect of the money to be made by 5,000 revelers filling the Foreign Ministry’s diplomatic reception hall (inside of which the writer sets off a handful of bottle rockets) or the city’s baroque bathing palace with James Brown as special guest.
Given the permissions, the father tests his sexual mandate. The writer’s not bothered, getting high and dancing to the throbbing loops, girls perspiring on the marble floor around the stroboscope.
The writer meets his friend later for a short powwow.
“You can’t search for a girlfriend, dude. It’s always an accident. You know too well.”
“You could’ve talked to them. They liked you, didn’t you notice?”
They both strike out that night. The writer’s too out of it and the friend’s too horny.
They settle into the car before dawn and then attempt to drive over the great bronze river. They both fail the breathalyzer, the result of which is overturned by an informal payment.
The father soon slips into bed with fragrant mother and child, his shower little cover for ciggy lungs and boozy blood. He doesn’t suspect that he’ll soon be tagging along with her to a destination that won’t be this paradise of time wasting, slacking, and off-piste experimentation. That’ll be over.
The best friend leaves the writer in the indescribable city along the banks of the great bronze river, and with nothing better to do and no one to hang out with, the writer promptly falls in love.
The writer is studying politics for a new degree; he’s found a new weakness for balsam, honey mead bitter with the slick taste of juniper pitch. One day after a tough seminar he goes to visit an acquaintance who has turned him on to his collection of curious Silk Road liquors.
Although the acquaintance is away, his door still opens. A young woman. She invites him in. He follows. She’s topless. A very naked olive-skinned woman is prone on a towel on the parquet of the large, dark flat. An array of massage oils is spread around them; tea candles burn in a half circle on the floor. They’re both attractive in a way that’s neither artificial nor displeasing. The writer’s stumped, unsure how to proceed, but he introduces himself to the two women who have resumed the massage.
“Can I smoke?” he asks.
They don’t notice or care that he watches the massage bordering on lesbianism. At some point he starts explaining who he is and what he’s doing, though the information isn’t asked for, and the girls stare at him in a manner that seems to indicate that he’s all noisy mouth and acrid smoke. He sits up and excuses himself. Just before scooting out he helps himself to a glass of balsam, agitated by the scene, where he might have landed like good old horny Henry.
It takes the writer a few weeks to forget about the two women. To compensate, he’s set up an outpost in library, pretending to study the theory of revolutions in the library’s tense, sexual atmosphere of looking and learning. He doesn’t expect to spot the olive-skinned babe, but there she is, asking the clerk for something, scanning the room. He bides his time, tucks his head below the banner of the Economist. From there he can see that she’s fine, hard, fiery, and glittering black eyes that offset her cropped sepia hair.
“I could like that,” he thinks.
She’s sequestered herself by cultural studies and he’s actually confident enough to walk over. “Do you want to ditch the library in favor of dinner?”
She shakes her head when he begins to speak. Maybe she doesn’t remember him.
But she says, “I wouldn’t have let you in.”
Somehow the writer wangles a date for that evening, only once she’s finished perusing the books on her table.
They walk together through the narrow, dog-shit-strewn streets.
“You like Syrian?” he asks.
They don’t talk much until the tea arrives. She’s a recent arrival in the indescribable city.
“I’ll have the hummus plate and the stuffed chicken,” she says.
She examines some of the cultural studies books from her bag.
“I stole them,” she says, “I don’t like to check books out since I’d never return them anyway.”
She flips through a book on fetishes, another on feminism, and the current bible by Deleuze and Guatarri.
The writer feels his heart pitter-patter in a loving mode as he looks into the eyes of this unmade, ravenous woman attacking the chicken, sucking the bones and picking off every last bit of flesh, skin, fat and cartilage, the pile of stolen books bracing one elbow.
Over sharp, cardamom coffee, he asks, “Are you gay?”
She stops him. “It was a massage.”
The writer is by imaging all kinds of scenarios as they part on the street outside the restaurant, but he does manage to secure a phone number.
She touches his shoulder for effect. “Can you get me any grass?”
He nods. “It takes time, but yes, for you, yes.”
After he waves good-bye and follows her departure, he dances in the dog-shit-strewn street to the beat of his quirky heart. He wants to go back to the library for a instant until he settles down to enjoy the first shoots of love.
After a few dead ends, the writer scores big time. A mystery helper presents him with a burlap bag of females pulled from the sunny soil of the surrounding plains. He doesn’t complain; it’s free and it’s skunk. The writer, sidetracked for a while by the burlap bag of sticky blossoms and attendance to political theory, suddenly remembers why he got it the first place and promises to call the woman.
A few days later he’s drinking balsam and getting high with her. More of the library’s cultural studies titles have accumulated on the floor. His friend is away again.
“He said I could live here,” she says. “As long as I want.”
She’s dressed in cyan velvet flares and a loose cardigan through which he can see her.
Later that autumn evening he bikes home to his dark room; he’ll see her more.
They meet again to smoke and again to talk after his political science seminars. One evening they kiss, two cigarettes lighting one another and slow dance to the expectation. He’s startled by her manly grip on his penis and the finesse with which she brings him to climax, as if it might be hers. She’s like a man and if she would have a penis, he would take it, though she refuses his outright. He whispers to her, he wishes that he could have a vagina and that his writing is often about this desire. It doesn’t work. He’s got to wait.
“No,” she says as he thrusts against her smooth, muscular loins. “There’s a barrier that I must solve before I let you.”
The writer gives her some space and allows an interlude. “Hey, dude, I met this really fiery lesbian.”
His friend’s envious and the writer’s pleased.
“Hey, I’m on a short leash these days. We go in a few days” the friend says, dreaming of cruising the indescribable city one more time, desire swollen behind the yoke of his jeans, instead packing the crib and assorted accouterments of infancy.
They’re occupied for the present. They know their friendship will dwindle and they’ll pick up the pieces later. In silence dwells the test of friendship, when one does not feel compelled to speak to alleviate any discomfort or unfamiliarity.
The phone rings at three in the morning.
For a week the family dog has refused his lap, perhaps disturbed by the last hours in the man’s red pump. The wife does not hear his pangs when it palpitates, then stops in spurts then expires as his face turns blue like tallow.
“My dad’s dead,” she says blankly.
One solitary clap of thunder sounds at that moment, big puffy flakes of snow falling outside.
Could her father be speeding to heaven?
The girlfriend begins to cry.
“He was only 57,” she says.
They comfort one another about death until dawn, drink coffee and tea, smoke cigarettes so they can die quickly, too.
The writer’s girlfriend leaves that morning in a taxi. She stops to borrow some money from her boss, incidentally the writer’s acquaintance, too. For once he’s not wracking up points on his black million miles card while covering the Silk Road.
He greets his shocked employee. “A thousand bucks seems pretty damn reasonable for a burial.”
She hates her job, and by default him, although she might deceive herself into thinking she likes the business trips to Kyrgyzstan.
The writer also works for the same foundation in an opaque manner in a different department, so there’s no clash of interests. The foundation’s interests cover any unpopular cause, supported by a host of academic departments, institutes, and its own press, plus the advisors and cling-ons like him that feed off the grants and contracts. The rightist thugs threaten its doors on national holidays with offerings of graffiti, spit, and dung, and rattle the doors in defiance. Touching the foundation is bad business and signals the arrival of the police, for once effective here, unlike many cases when they turn a blind eye to the skinheads’ shooting and burning of Gypsies in the villages outside the indescribable city.
“You can’t disguise yourself as a dumb blond guy,” she mysteriously tells him before her departure.
“But I am dumb and blond,” he says.
She makes the morning minibus in time for the ten-hour journey to her hometown.
In her absence, the writer writes on the bed, almost praying, before he does the last of his packing and heads to the airport, bound to Blighty.
She rides toward the border with regular stops for a smoke and a slash. She stands by the cold road at the checkpoint. Her father’s dead? She doesn’t bother to cry but looks throatily into the snow. She guesses fathers and mothers have attributes that are impossible to judge. Like them, she’s frozen in time, in her own body and its reflection in the grim pictures of family life. She didn’t understand or know him yet he died.
She takes a Polaroid of him in the chapel on the night of his wake; she later looks at the photograph but she doesn’t recognize him. She won’t believe it. Pardons aren’t posthumous. She remembers that Easter is coming and she will be without him.
“If you wipe my son’s ass, don’t be surprised if he shits himself,” her father says to her in his wickedest voice. “When he’s grown up he might encounter a shit and it can be deadly, enlightening, or both.” He refuses to say more, retreats from the kitchen with a plate of stuffed lamb and boiled ham, a double schnapps, and his paper pack of filterless cigarettes, Carpati; he’d rather read another field guide to trees.
The writer digests the lamb’s head soup. The girlfriend shares the eyes and brains with her father. His thoughts sweeten later in front of the television until he tires of shark week. “Don’t you want to go into town?” he asks. At its heart is a well proportioned and frequently portrayed clock tower once copied by the local Fauvists; the town’s cemeteries are not far from the cute stone phallus.
Willows are etched on the black granite and cement tombs and wild asparagus among the graves. Would he peel off one of the gilded black and white ceramic portraits pasted on? He knows better; he’s been many times to his favorite spot in Baia Mare. The couple sit together under a giant blowing apple tree for a moment. The weather keeps them lingering in the shade until they move on for Cokes and Goldenbrau at a parkside bar. The proletarian crowd inspects every detail of each passerby promenading on Easter afternoon. They slobber over cotton candy. They pop squash seeds. They candidly grip erogenous zones. The men are made from the villages and the mines. They don’t stay along, just enough to be refreshed, and later duck into the low hall of an apartment block downriver. A relative welcomes them with ginger snaps; her deaf husband shouts about a dead Gypsy chief interred in his sarcophagus with phone, record player, carpets, car keys, suits, and pictures of his clan, family, and favorite troop of musicians. There’s a piano (Rozencrantz 1917 it says above the keyboard) that is louder than the deaf old man, and the writer plays it half-heartedly because he knows the old fellow will start harping again about Gypsies, Jews, and Romanians. The writer’s glad the girlfriend seems to share none of these ideas with her relatives; as far as he knows she’s like him, has erased her links, and lives more in the present than the past; however, she’s stubborn, hard, and incontinent when she expresses an opinion.
“Don’t you want to leave?” she says.
“Oh, I’m fed up,” the writer replies. “I’d go anytime.”
Fog and fires compete with dawn. The hills mysteriously appear to unfold. They open the compartment window. A tractor slides on a hill. They must change trains in a terrible black valley dominated by a range of smokestacks, water and cooling towers, burnt warehouses, acrid hydro-sulfuric smoke, and a thick polluting haze that makes the people, the plants, and the land black. Row houses on the hillside overlook the factories and mills. The writer buys a black melon from nearby before returning to the platform in the wasteland. A dilapidated train stops and they board. A lake is somewhere ahead hidden by the black poplars and clouds.
Here, they fought for and against the Ottomans and competed in many other skirmishes; the nobles fortified themselves in high castles and drank their serfs’ blood to pass the cycles of reign or siege. The chaos and peace are mapped in at least three languages, and every village has three names and three different sets of clergy who denounce the others as heathen; they have their own shrines for worship and calendars that tell them when to do so. One reckless priest sparked the revolution that removed the dictator and his wife from power on a few cold December days.
The couple glides in a taxi through a medieval town washed with pewter and peach colors, the buildings acutely angled with steep, tiled roofs dotted with what could be eyes surveilling the warren of cobblestone streets, steps, and passages designed to bamboozle any invader. It’s virtually deserted since most of its Saxon inhabitants were exchanged for hard currency in the 1970s.
They enter a white villa in the suburbs. They walk up the plant-filled stairwell and enter a large apartment with an untuned piano (Prokieoff 1906) in the hall. Two proud parents hold their infant daughter. A large and extensive bookshelf of raw pine is the backdrop. Schnapps is rapidly decanted and everyone drinks to everyone’s health, except the little girl, who’s whisked away by a minder. They must speak and interpret three languages simultaneously so everyone can understand. They plant their elbows on the rustic table when the soup and bread from the wood stove arrives; circumstances seem good at that moment with the sun shining in through the windows and the two couples enjoying themselves. Tomorrow they’ll visit the host’s documentary film studio off Strada Filharmonic and watch the archive, reports from the islands of New Guinea, Cape de Verde, Falklands, and Marquesas as if they might be woozily swimming after the Beagle, but tonight they digest the soup and the roast lamb with polenta; the young mother hugs her hobbit-like husband, bearded and hidden behind thick glasses, still wearing a dark jacket and tie even at this late hour in anticipation of a folkloric screening at the studio. Their quirks and strange love for one another are those parents about whom a future Franz Kafka or Bruno Schultz would reminisce. The writer would like to spend more time on them, but it is too much to ask the girlfriend to delay their journey to the next morning.
They’re heading to an popular spa town next to a reputed iron dam that stems the flow of the great bronze river, creating a giant reservoir surrounded by lush green mountains and leading to a particular overgrown valley where they’ll find a room for not much money and hot springs situated at various strategic points next to a cold fast black river. The water has corroded and eaten away most of the buildings from the resort’s heyday some two centuries ago. Flaky rust, crumbling brickwork, the empty spaces of looted decorations, tiles, and mess litter the floors of the worst examples.
The couple is excited by the situation; they’ve already walked up the dramatic valley to the spots along the road where one improvised tub is 45 Celsius and the other a less exhausting 34. One can risk a coronary with a dip in the cold fast black river.
The high trees of the forest sing around them. Clouds drift overhead. A plumb woman rests her rubs swollen feet in the grass. A heavy boy soaks next to them in the water. He’s smeared in prison tattoos — serpents, lesbians, dragons, and skulls — characters made leaky by the scars of cuts across his gut, forearms, a zipper on each cheek, more gashes on his neck and thighs. The fat must have saved him. A redhead pampers him with ice cream and Tuborg.
Moisture blankets the valley. They walk, he dried off in his linen togs, she in her scarab skirt and red v-neck sweater even though it is hot, shiny patent leather boots, and a brick-patterned umbrella. A weir tumbles with water, feeds a canal. The water runs off the lip like crystal or ice. It’s appealing. Plastic bottles turn in the turbulent feedback. Steam rises off the water, damp condensation off the thick canopy above. Rain dimples the river before its subsequent cascade. Tiny trout dart about. An iron grill runs halfway across the black river. They walk out on the structure and want to fuck. They lick each other wet, then hesitate, don’t do it and turn back. They amble along the crunchy gravel road. The writer unwires an old insulator from a fallen electric post. Yeti, King Kong, and Godzilla could live on these cliffs fortified with conifers and ferns, pitted with caves and sheer faces and seams. There’s no open horizon and the gorge closes perception to a chink of sky and the rippling of the river, sounding like rain from a distance.
The spa comes into view through a slot in the valley. The writer feels the temperate rain forest heavy with jungle atmosphere, such is the mist, wetness and numerous decayed pagodas scattered around the cultivated grounds of the resort’s imperial buildings, wearing rusting tin crowns, and dressed in what remains of decorative cast iron, leaking pipes, jagged broken windows, molding walls, locks to the foyers spun with spiderwebs of chains, all of it waiting for the auctioneer’s block, the investment of Marriots, Greshams or some of other hotel group willing to undertake the massive refurbishment. Socialist hotels substitute the domestic vacationer’s state-issued apartment with another low-ceilinged, nicotine-stained room in a giant blocks erected in the valley. The resort’s grounds are commemorated with plaques to writers, leaders, poets, and rebels. Much of the turmoil of 1848 was plotted in the name of sovereignty here, before the thirteen plotters were caught and shot for their rebellion along the ever-changing border where people bury and unearth monuments, posts in their fight against one another and for the memory of the land.
A foray to the market in a village below the spa town brings more than they bargained for. The writer’s girlfriend deals with the old ladies, gets the price right for half a lamb cut in half with a penknife in front of their eyes. Two dollars. They get a front and hind legs, the spine and a kidney, but no head for soup. The writer pays for sheep’s cheese, honey, a few handfuls of ceps, baby carrots, and dill. He drinks fresh buttermilk while the girlfriend bargains. They walk back to Pension Esperanta, which is to their liking, unpretentious half-finished rooms, a kitchen, and a terrace where they can barbeque the lamblet, and a bed where the writer can admire the girlfriend’s derrier made hard from day hikes when they might walk up to a waterfall and then duck behind. They reward themselves at the Dixi Buffet with trouts, douse the fish with garlic sauce, gouge out the filets in their cheeks, and smack their fingers in delight. A German-registered Mercedes parks, driven by a thin woman cloaked in gold. Smuggling petrol in the car’s double tanks over the border must be lucrative. The Dixi’s owner, upper row of snappers replaced with gold, kisses the woman and then her entourage. She’s only missing a diamond stud from her nose to complete the atmosphere of madam extraordinaire. More people pay attention and convince the woman to flash their phones with her number. She does so politely, smoking Dunhills all the while. Her fingers are like spiders spinning gold. She’s the boss, entirely capable of the commissions and protection that can guarantee an ease of crossing borders, defying embargos, and streamlined paperwork.
The couple grabs their gear, slips into a taxi. They hire it up the valley to the dam. Glassy skinks scatter along the road into the brambles and nettles. They scuff over the parabolic face. The woman feels queasy, 150 meters to the gates below, the structure of the dam buckling underneath, but in the meantime she wraps her shirt on her head as if expecting betrothal, hikes up her skirt, and looks ridiculous, both in and out of tune with the vibe of the valley, minus the glades of bamboo to convince them it’s a lost world. A sign directs them to the cascade. Since the woman has forgotten her socks, her boots are useless. She slips up the trail in sandals and then opts for bare feet.
A dirty man in a suit stares at them at the beginning of the trail. Boulders dot the path; a stream forms hundreds of aerating pools as it tips over rocks, stumps, and branches. Small fords allow them passage, to and fro, from one bank to another as they trudge upwards through birch, elm, and pine; they’re far from a whole forest of wild orchids renowned in the area. More lizards slide over the black earth. Sweat stings the writer’s freshly-shaven face. The girlfriend scrambles somewhere behind him, moving like a spider when the trail steepens. They find the waterfall. Water rushes down a crag. There’s no geyser, no oracle, but they mostly smell a wild boar’s body melted into the water, butterflies hovering over the corpse, the eyes eaten away.
“Do you want a tooth?” asks the writer; she holds her nose. She cancels the idea. She doesn’t want him smelling like the dead boar melting into the water.
They slide back down to where they came from; he doesn’t really enjoy the way down, losing altitude with the deities and the masters of the universe.
The dirty man in the suit has found a patch of shade. “Did you meet any shepherds?” he says. They nod. “Do you own the pasture up there?”
Further on they find a cold green swimming pool but the hottubs along the gravel road seem much perkier. Picnics and tents have sprouted among the hummocks of grass. People are openly drinking jugs of wine in the water. One woman disrobes into a red thong. Her lips are the same color.
The writer rubs his skin with a river stone, plunges and rinses, sips the sulfurous water at its source on the bank. Yellow beeswax candles line the rim of another tub around the bend. A rough ladder leads into its milky copper maw. The writer splashes under the spout; the water has a primordial stink of ancestor and twilight. Someone has brought a radio tuned to manale, Turkish-like pop.
An accordion and hand drum tease out the only verse, “I’ll visit a real woman tonight,” with intervals of chants for “Marki, Dollari.” It’ll suffice.
The writer rations himself to a few dips in the pool; the girlfriend’s not having it. When he’s ready, he should just be her pillow-bearer and carry her heavy blue nylon bag.
They refill their plastic bottles at a drinking spring back at the center. Other springs are recommended for eye washing or cleansing the gall. They smoke cigarettes as the town echoes with the knock of wooden mallets on log, a giant one-note xylophone outside the church, for it’s Easter again according to Orthodoxy, and the notes ring through the valley, convening even death herself, sitting in her black coat and black skirt, black woolen leggings wiggling at the dirt, her black scarf tight under her chin, gossiping with her friends.
Back in their room they’re lucky to receive two plates of stuffed grape leaves and stuffed peppers from the proprietor’s family meal. Asleep, he can feel the magnetism and of the stars and the deep late sky.
The next day they discover that the barely functioning resort will host a yoga conference to coincide with Easter. Yoga is immensely popular in the old Dacian country due to the work of Mircea Eliade, a blend of eastern mysticism and patriotic thread. Already saffron-cloaked disciples are promenading through the resort like everyone else.
The girlfriend soon makes the acquaintance of bearded, thin guru from a small provincial town. Like all gurus, the guru has a disciple, a taxi driver, who has escorted him to the conference. The guru seems to enjoy his plastic bottle of goat’s milk.
“Where’d you get that from?” she asks.
The guru calls to his disciple and chauffeur and she’s driven to as much pungent goat’s milk as she could ever drink.
“It’s all I drink,” he says. “Shall we hike later in the morning?”
Fire burns in the writer’s legs until the group comes to its objective, the valley’s rim; near the top the guru flushes up a purple asp, coiled around his wrist like a bracelet. The disciple is asked to pet the snake. He’s already been toting the guru’s large VHS camera and he simply adds the snake to the contents of the bag.
“People who fall asleep in a meadow with their mouths open may wake with a snake in their guts,” says the guru. “There’s no way to remove the snake except by hanging him by his heels over a cauldron of hot milk or a soup cooked from a stork.”
The party halts above a waterfall. The guru plays with the snake. The writer angers it by piping on a sourna from his canvas bag. The viper strikes at the guru, almost notches his fingers, then he’s allowed to crawl off.
The guru suggests a meditation session with his hypnotic, popping eyes. The girlfriend indulges, but the writer resists and gazes at the valley falling above and below, a few villages splashed on its slopes. Apparently once a year all the houses are open and any newcomer is treated to a meal.
Rain patters on the picnic of goat’s milk. Spiders and ants hunt one another in the pungent meadow of flowers, grasses, and herbs. The trees creak and their canopies timpani with rain and thunder. The company scampers back down, but not before stopping at a musical waterfall. The writer expects the guru and the girlfriend to levitate to their end, up and over the edge of the cataract, no chance to hear the big words of the big guru from the big sweltering capital ruled by wild dogs.
Everyone rallies around the tiny yellow taxi. The chauffeur dusts his car, pauses to sip the milk offered by the guru. When the writer mentions a pass by the thermal pools, the guru tuts with disgust. He’s got the big conference to prepare for.
The couple refills their plastic bottles at the spring. They rinse their eyes with a green glass demitasse. It being the last day, they’re more enthused now; they sample some of the seventeen different springs around the campus-like resort; they revisit Dixi’s trout shack; they’re mesmerized by lightning bugs along the river, but have to hurry because they need to pay and pack.
Doric columns stretch down the platform. Hercules is etched on the station’s glass door. A few travelers mumble deliriously. Two peasant women guard buckets of cheese. A tricolor droops in the dewy night. An antique upright clock ticks over the waiting room and ticket office.
The slight impression of their feet on the frosty yellow brick platform is all that remains of the couple once they board the express, just five minutes late. Maybe they sleep or smoke cigarettes in the corridor or intermittently do both, knowing they will have to disembark before dawn and change trains again. They’re enough time to breakfast near the station; they sit on the stoop of a bookshop, humanist titles by the likes of Cioran and Steiner reflecting in the windows. A woman passes and wishes them good appetite; she pauses, returns, ruptures open her purse, and pulls out a purple, blue, and red egg. They accept it. She seems relieved to fulfill her obligation to charity on this day to the higgledy-piggledy cobbled tramway crossing the open cobbled square where the revolution began thanks to one insolent and courageous priest.
Trouble had been brewing all over the country despite a vast network of civil informers, spies, and blackmailers living in everyone’s midst; an end was needed, but no one knew what kind. The weather was unseasonably warm and people were unafraid shouting at the dictator’s palaces; gangs of miners bussed in to break the people’s heads in retaliation didn’t stop it. More people joined the crowds and suddenly he was gone. Only after the dictator and his wife’s execution did the winter return to deep funk.
While the staff trade insults in Serbian at Café Colt, the writer manages a coffee and a shit in the dirty toilet, that’s all he needs; on the way back to the station, he wastes a few lei on some local hiphop cassettes. On the platform passengers greet one another with “Christ has risen,” to which one replies, “True, he has risen,” for Easter is still on people’s minds. The couple boards another regional express. Flocks of ducklings materialize from the plains, buffed bright like a mirror. Beggar kids run down the passage. They’re all scars from wars with other vagabonds but they still manage a rib-like smile under layers of grime and sores. They’ll leave the train upon reaching the border. They soon see water lapping at the tracks and train slows near the Tisza, the river far beyond its banks.
The writer and the girlfriend look from the window and see the safety of their memories; they build an altar out of sand, burying one another in turns as the altar rises higher from this deserted portion of the beach along the Black Sea. In the distance lies the border watch. If you wander too close, the guard will wave you back with his gun. Out in the water is a derelict cargo ship, beached on a sandbar not too far out in the unguent water. Other bathers, semi-clad on the long stretch of beach, frolic under the heightening sun. The couple busy themselves, burying one another, digging around the rising coffin of sand, kicking it up and covering themselves in its tacky grains, and listening to the glassy water as gentle ripple touch the sand, indelibly blue, unconcerned by trivia like this being Ovid’s exile.
The writer launches into the cool waves and disappears into the emerald midst. He hears the sharp clicks of schools of fish undulating in the green distance like chain mail. He feels like a single piece of bait as he strokes out to the ship, really much further than he thought, and his patience and energy wanes as the water gets colder and deeper and he can feel the depth of the sea turning irrevocably anti-aerobic, black, and impenetrable, from where artifacts and even people do not decay but remain suspended forever in the dark sea. He grinds his teeth. He doesn’t want to get lost. He quivers and it reminds him that he shared a clean blotter of acid with his girlfriend earlier that day. She’s beachcombing in the tide.
This is the last beach before the border. The village road turns into the beach, which has been the meeting place for naturists and nudists for decades. Otherwise dun fields of wheat, corn, and melon skirt the bluff, rocky and unsuited for a fortnight’s camping. One can find a cold coffee or a hot beer during one’s time here, living naked under the sun and donning the minimum for entry to a beach bar. Aside from a few caravans staked out at the perimeter, few facilities exist. In theory, it’s possible to stay in the village; more likely an old woman might offer to fry you a fish. So garnering a meal is up to the donkey in your legs, the lure of your thumb, or convincing a fisherman to sell when when he heaves the brow of his boat onto the sand shore.
The blotter accelerates, begins its distillation, pulling him and his companions who are sitting in the safety of the silty sand further than they had ever been. Already he feels structures deteriorating, decaying, reducing. The acid bores into him and pries away his self.
He’s tripping on another trip, crawling over a field of heavy stones.
No moon, no light.
He puts each stone to his shoulder. The ground’s muddy, wet with the smell of the great bronze river. Some stones can be turned over. Others not. He repeats this task. He leans into the big ones. They budge a little. He kneels to feel what new facet had been revealed, forgetting the other facets he had touched before. His life continues like this, turning stones in a muddy valley, its walls compressing and widening at intervals, sometimes a trickle of water passing among his toes, then a season of flood and a refuge far from the wild waters. He’s lost in the matrix of the stones thrown up on the island, unable to release their spell. He runs down the beach with a brand burning like a headlight. He grips a peach, still unbruised and uneaten — its breast-like fuzz a tonic for his possessed hands, the only sweetness of the entire acid void. When the sun rises he eats it.
He pulls at the girlfriend’s lithe, strong, dark arms and legs even though he knows it terrifies her. She’s braver where she can touch bottom; they wrestle themselves into the sand, competing to win. She’s on the fifth layer on the altar; he can’t build it any higher without a tool. He’s sunburned, tired, and cold as he stares into the orb of the sun retreating over the sea. It has sustained them since morning at the end of the beach, a few bottles of water and a box of biscuits for company. They rejoin their friends that evening; massive amounts of energy still course through their heads.
The writer’s impressed. Good acid — what a wise move.
Memories dislodge from his loosened mind. A reflecting pool surrounded by groves of bamboo. In the center, an obelisk. The bottom is azure and smothered with coins. Next to this, an octagon with heavy oak doors. No one. But the writer and the girlfriend. At least he thinks it’s them. It’s infinitely dark except for a faraway hatch of light high in the vaulted ceiling. Two, or one, or three canvases cover each side. The immediate impression is they’re black. But they’re also every other color, bright, dull, explosive. His eyes travel over the color that seems omnipotent, omniscient, and god-like.
“Be true,” she says.
“Be mine,” he says.
“Be there,” she says as her legs engulf him for a moment.
The writer crawls on the black hardwood floor and peers at the paintings; he appeals to each one for compassion and mercy.
“Some force must have lived here forever,” he says.
“I can’t feel it,” she says.
It shifts among the constellation of color, scented with opium and pollen.
“Where are you?” he asks. His voice echoes through the space.
He basks in the layers of black wine, tablets, carpets, souls, genesis. He rushes with creation. “I like this,” he says. He makes a pact with the beautiful black sanctuary. Haggard thoughts are cast aside as he contemplates the black womb.
At one point he says, “There’s a dog peeking in the blackness.”
She says, “Listen to the blind owl hooting.”
The owl and the dog veer out of the blackness and expectorate their rotten eyes into their mouths, then disappear into the illuminating blackness. They chew on the eyes.
“They taste like Goya,” she says.
“You’re the eye expert,” he says. The writer opens the oak doors of the temple. The rusty obelisk darts around the pool.
They shake their souls from their hearts into the sand.
The sea is contused with anger and bitterly cold. Rain and water visits their tent night after night. They eventually give up, no matter the possibility that the cold weather and sea might turn. He knows the story is developing, so like life that he loves so much.