Staggering, his legs collapsing like wet noodles, Keifer fights upwards, looking for Birgitte. The mist makes everything hard to see. It curls through the apartment like vapor rising when lava strikes the cold sea. Now he sits once more, slouching in his usual male manner, nestling down onto a soft cushion, his right arm stretched along the back of the rattan sofa. Birgitte has snuggled her face into his shoulder. Across the room there is a quick motion along the bottom of a unit of wall shelves. A large frog with a dark blue back, purple almost, and long, bright green legs climbs up the shelves, gracefully hauling itself up over the drawer handles. Keifer marvels at how easily it climbs, its legs strong, its dazzling body fully extended. Suddenly from the right a large crab with a brilliant red shell attacks. It leaps from the shelf onto the floor at the other end of the apartment and rushes, skew-wise, towards the frog which scurries around two or three small, plastic bins to reach the edge of the sofa. Scuttling sidewards quickly, its two stalk-eyes bent forward, the crab gains ground in steady pursuit. The frog cowers just beneath Keifer's left arm stretched along the sofa's armrest. When he looks down at it, the cold mist making it appear remote and misshapen, he can sense the frog ooze fear. Suddenly visible, its bulging eyes have filled with the consciousness of extinction. Keifer sees it quiver in its death-terror. The frog frantically runs beneath the sofa while the crab pursues. Keifer knows that the crab will eat it, though this is not natural food for crabs. He can see that it is a land crab, more like the ones he had seen once in Vanuatu than the crabs he and Birgitte had actually seen in the water, or washed up on the beaches, on Kauai. Crunching and snuffling noises spill from beneath the sofa. Birgitte holds him more tightly, incoherently moaning her empathy. "Birgitte!" Shouting out, Keifer snaps awake.
"Birgitte! Birgitte!" Calling her name, Keifer runs towards her, as she stands under the huge replica gold watch, indifferent to kitsch, to sham. He remembers the green nubuck jacket, the black trim setting off her red hair, the one they had looked at together in Neiman Marcus, just a couple of hours before she had split, walking kitty-corner across Union Square and north up Powell, waving over her shoulder as rain sprinkled slantwise. He guesses she wears it only to prompt him to think of what he has lost. The people sitting at tables beneath the Shot Tower, momentarily concerned, look up at him sprinting, waving his arms. He hasn't seen Birgitte for more than two years, and, eager to touch her, his body crawls with a fiery, worm-like itch. Hugging, only a few people looking up now from their tables, he keeps kissing her, whispering, "Do you remember?" Then. Those times. They hurry, skipping almost, up to the Museum entrance, whirling about within their hugs. When they reach Swanston Street, he tries to kiss her once more, but she has cooled already. Two years have passed. Having halted briefly, time has begun to flow forward again. More calmly, they walk south to Latrobe and head east, up the street to the Lumière. Keifer continues whispering about the past. Then. Then.
At the Lumière, they are screening Krzysztof Kieslowski's 1991 film, La double vie de Véronique. Birgitte feels sympathy for the young woman who leads two lives, one Polish, one French, that do not connect. Sensing Véronique's unhappiness, Birgitte clutches Keifer's arm. When Véronique dies suddenly in her Polish life, then the camera staring unblinkingly up through a glass lid as dirt is shoveled upon her coffin, Birgitte ducks her head down upon his shoulder, her nails digging. He feels their hard, cold points through his jacket. In her French life, Véronique is more unhappy, Birgitte's voice weeps, her affairs so wretched, so despairing. Yet alive, Keifer whispers. His matter-of-factness, or is it just male irony, leaves her unmoved. Birgitte shifts her head away. After the film, sitting in a Carlton bistro, she asks, Would being two have made me more unhappy? Would it only have made me endure repetitions?
Vanished, Birgitte has inhabited his mind. Almost to every step, Keifer can recall the places they have gone together. Do you remember making love on the stairs of the lighthouse on Samsø? The fogwisps off the Kattegat made you look like a silkie splashing within a wreath of fire. You told me about the ocean you grew up near, always cold, heavy with its boisterous mythology. How each June her family would build a bonfire to honor Saint John. How she would ache, all year long, for the Sankt Hans bonfire. In the bistro, they laughed and told stories, the way they had always done though it had been even better that night. Keifer had never forgotten the excitement and laughter of her voice.
So much has vanished. Often, he can feel it leaking. Keifer imagines mind as many dark bins. At first he had tried to configure his memory as a honeycomb, the different cells containing distinct larvae, each a kind of experience. But now he pictures rows of bins, like a field neatly ordered in stooks or, more usually, a warehouse. He can sort through them, discovering forgotten bits, shards of past experiences, stored and waiting to be retrieved. The bins have names, labels that help him find his way. Go to the first bin on the first right hand file for sex, the second for love, but seek in the third file on the left for beauty. In that file he stores all images of unusual appearances. In the second bin down that file, he keeps not only images of a few extraordinary women, such as Vikki, but also certain rainbows, sunsets, mountains and waterfalls. There he can locate green sunsets, such as the one he had seen a long-ago November evening driving across Gippsland towards Melbourne when the sky erupted briefly in pistachio kernels and guava peel. Vikki had screwed sideways towards him, reaching across the seat to squeeze his arm while sighing in the moment's beauty. Often he wanders aimlessly among the bins, casting about in the darkness, hoping for sudden rushes. Only yesterday, anxious for his meeting with Birgitte, he had found an evening when they had stood together in the garden just north of the Sultanahmet Camii and looked through the spraying water of the fountain while summer lightening skewed in glaring sheets across the Bosporus, illuminating the Mosque like a gothic peepshow. In those flickering moments of recovery, Keifer knows himself split, conscious but doubled, a castaway from experience, hardly more than drying wrack on memory's sands. Then he hauls himself up, and begins poking once more in the murky bins. If Birgitte would come back she might lift the castaway from the desolate shore, from tidal pools, anemones and crabs.
In his dream, he hears the scarlet crab devouring the terrified frog. It makes shrill squeaking noises. The bones crack loudly. Birgitte clutches his arm in fright, but he stands up, his legs quaking, trying to see under the sofa. The wet, hanging mist is much thicker near the floor. He hears quick scurry, scrambling and wild commotion. He knows that the crab will eat the frog, though it is not a natural food for crabs. He understands that the crab is a land crab, like the ones he has seen in New Caledonia, and thus it can run quickly, scuttling across roads, through ditches and over dunes. He continues to hear crunching slurps which the piercing shrieks of terror obscure. The crab is devouring its unnatural food.
Birgitte and he might create again those odd little maps, with all those crazy conceptual crosshatchings, poised aslant just over the surface of things. Like then. She would have understood the woman Keifer had seen this winter. A woman with destination on her face who had walked towards him though blind to him, to everyone.
Keifer likes the gold velour bikini, the fuzzy material crinkling and folding inwards at her crotch as her legs scissor and straighten. Over her shoulder, she carries a silver-grey Fendi bag, the thick black stripes signaling to the world that she has taste, or money or just difference. The bag may hold her beach gear, if she has any, or it may simply emit those signals to the world. She has a matching Fendi case for her sunglasses hanging over her left hip from the cord of the high-cut bikini. In her right hand, she carries a large white sandwich with a muffin balanced on top. There are four men, soldiers from Fort DeRussy, sitting at the table nearest him. They begin to watch her bear down. Lithe and blonde in her gold bikini and Fendi bag, she captures the eye. No one could easily miss the muscular rippling thighs and the firm butt, signs of care, of athleticism, of narcissism. She is somewhere in her middle thirties and, he supposes based on what she does, from southern Europe. Slinky Eurotrash, Birgitte would say. Tell me about cultural shams, he had once demanded, and she, with Scandinavian pedantry, had replied that, first, there is similarity and, second, there is difference. Sisters in the same household, though they do not always like one another, cannot deny the resemblances that link them. Eyes sharp, they watch for falsehood and hidden intent.
Keifer quietly observes the soldiers. He has been sitting vacantly on a concrete bench sipping a coffee from one of the kiosks at the beach-end of the Waikiki Shore Hotel, his eyes peering across the low surf towards the ships slowly outlining the horizon. The soldiers are telling stories about Desert Storm and complaining about the drill at Fort Drum, or Bragg, or wherever. Abruptly, they stop talking and just watch this woman in gold approach, gliding along the promenade like vapor curling into a floating shape.
She draws parallel to Keifer and just a few steps from the four soldiers, then gives an exasperated shake of her head, a grimace almost, and throws the sandwich and muffin onto the tiny square of sand at the foot of a palm tree. He stares, fascinated. Birgitte would remember how clean Waikiki is. Lots of sleaziness, but of a high order. Official people pick up whatever slough gets left behind. There are bins everywhere, with Mahalo written on them, that make it easy to throw trash out of sight. And here, he thinks, is this woman from Italy, or wherever, slinging her sandwich down onto that neatly groomed square of sand.
There was a bin, Mahalo, just to her right, not more than two steps out of her path. Keifer thinks, Eurotrash, self-absorbed, what a cretinous doll-woman. But he doesn't say anything. Vikki, rational judge of all male behavior, has taught him never to speak rudely of women. He remembers. The four soldiers respond as if they have heard hostile gunfire in the distance. Starting erect, they gape at her as if she were a sudden enemy patrol.
"Hey, mam', what'd you do that for?"
"Mam' there's a garbage can just behind you."
"Lady, that ain't the right thing to do."
The blonde woman glances at them obliquely. Then, with extravagant leisure in her gesture, she gives them the finger American style, bending forward and thrusting her right forefinger, the one now freed from the sandwich, into the nearest face like a stiff, vertical tongue. Fuck off, jerk. A thick-faced redhead, flushed by ruptured vessels, starts back, on the edge of diving for cover. Saddam Hussein could never have unnerved him more. That long, slow finger with its pointed vermillion nail registers a possible barrage of in-coming shells. The soldiers shut up completely, pivoting slightly on the concrete stumps to watch her pass. She swishes onwards.
Birgitte would remember the time in Frederiksborg, in front of the royal castle, when they had watched the Danish man watch the Spanish woman throw her cigarette under the tree. By her norms, the woman was behaving well: grinding out the fag-end on the footpath and then kicking it circumspectly onto the dirt under the tree. A Jacques Tati moue pursing his lips, the Dane had seen her do this. His mouth flapped open in shock. He moved off a few steps, bent forwards, hands clasped behind his back. Keifer could recall that the Spanish woman had looked rather imperious, dressed in a dark tan leather pantsuit with boots up to her knees and long, dark hair streaked with gray falling beneath her shoulders. It was the gray more than the leather that made her seem peremptory, confident. Unsettled, puzzling, the Dane had watched her board the bus again, all the while circling the crushed fag as if it had been a dangerous insect. Keifer had felt certain that he would pick it up and throw it into a nearby trash bin. Finally, he had simply stared in profound dejection, trying to pick her out through the bus's tinted windows. Morosely, hands still clutching each other behind his back, he walked on. At that moment, Keifer would have bet that he was thinking, Euro-monsters, and wondering what would happen to Denmark as the South, ever more assured, edged north. Birgitte would remember. The soldiers at Fort DeRussy seem to feel a similar culture shock, the desire to pick up after barbarians.
A big dark man, maybe Hawaiian, with green tattoos on his legs and arms, rises from the soldiers' table and heads over to the sandwich. He kneels down and picks it up, balancing the muffin on top just the way the woman had done. He carries the trash over to the bin, but before dumping it in an idea strikes him. Holding the muffin squished between his left arm and chest, he opens the sandwich and with one finger scrapes the contents, junk meat or processed turkey, into the trash. He dumps the lettuce into the bin and rubs hard at the smear of tomato sauce. Then he shambles onto the lawn behind the tables, breaks the bread into chunks and throws it out for the pigeons.
"Look kinda hungry."
Deprecating his own kindness, he slopes back towards the table. His comrades give him five highs, and turn away, looking for a surf that never comes. Just then, two Japanese girls, both in their early teens, run over to the bread. They have been sitting at another table closer to the Waikiki Shore and Keifer hasn't noticed them until now. They chase the pigeons away and begin picking up the bread-chunks. Bemused, he experiences a strong surge of unreality. The soldiers wheel around, speechless. The girls are suspicious movements on the periphery of their position. Keifer feels amused that the girls are even more civic-minded than the tattooed soldier. They won't even allow the bread to remain on the grass for as long as the pigeons need to eat it. The girls take the bread in big handfuls over to their table and then (he imagines Vikki saying, "amazing, simply amazing") something unexpected takes place: they spread the bread out on the table and begin to crumble it into small pieces. Keifer realizes they are breaking it into rice-sized bits, trying to achieve the optimum magnitude for pecking. They gather up the bread once again and start throwing it back to the birds in wide arcs. Now the birds can pretend that the bread is rice. In their own anomalous manner, the girls are also being civic.
He had wanted Vikki there. He had needed to hear her say that every culture has ideal solutions but only bizarre practices. Shams are the punishment for panoramic shots. She would have laughed at the gold bikini, smiled at the soldiers, and told him that every cultural stereotype, seen from within its use, is a form of prayer. He would kiss her then, or nuzzle her hair as if he were sucking licorice, and feel that the world was more straight-forward in its intricacies, though these might well be greater, in her company.
When they had swum in the small bay at Lindos, St. Paul's harbor, she had jumped from the rocks while he watched her hair stream out behind her, rising to the surface like coils of tar, and, following her, he dove straight for the sunlight glinting off her shoulders. They swam into a sea-cave and he had wanted, so passionately then, to make love to her, but she, treading water, touching his cheek, her blunt nails striking down over his lips, said, as if in admonition, that once St. Paul had visited Lindos. Vikki's grandfather had come from Rhodes, and that was why she knew about Lindos, why she could speak serviceable Italian. Would St. Paul have made love in this cave, unchanged since then, still home to urchins and squid? Oh, Keifer, probably not, she exclaimed, pursing her lips in her serious, reflective way, but his student did. A handsome young man from a village in the Galilee, from Capernaum perhaps, a tiny spot north of Tiberias, a scholar who spoke Greek in strong Attic formations but with a definite Aramaic accent, he had met a pagan girl with hair like Thetis. He rowed them out to this cave, Pindar's ode evoking Rhodes echoing in his mind, and they made love here in the dark. With only reflected starlight to guide him, he had kissed her unsandaled feet, holding her head above water with the crook of one arm, her legs with the other, nuzzling her toes. Moments later, in his rapture, he had called out, "Thetis!" "Thetis!" The next morning he walked behind her up the stairs to the acropolis where she would worship Athena Lindia. He stood within the stoa and wondered if it were possible that he could see the one, true God in her hair. Did Thetis have black hair? No, probably not, the gods of ancient mythology are always blond and fair: moon-pale Artemis; flame-capped Apollo. Even sea nymphs? Yes, Vikki had laughed. When he had dived just now, he imagined that she was a nymph, even Thetis, had he been wrong? Yes (very serious now), you were wrong. The young Jewish scholar was wrong too because he had thought that the girl he loved, who had flowing hair black as obsidian, resembled Thetis, wife of Peleus, mother of Achilles, sadly the lover of Zeus along an earlier pathway.
Keifer walks slowly down an aisle. As he walks, he softly fingers each bin. Today, he is seeking something extraordinary. He wants to find the memory of a palimpsest. He is looking for the archaic mythology of the Aegean, for a cave on Rhodes where St. Paul's follower might once have copulated with a pagan girl, where he and Vikki had made love. He touches one bin cautiously, feeling its density and quick heat. Would Vikki have forgotten Lindos? He, never. In the cave, holding her from behind as she clung to a rock ledge, treading, like a sea-god rutting in surf and dark pools, he had pressed, then slipped, into her, the hot pleasure rising like a film between his body and the cold water. She had shrieked out a mythological splinter, "Poseidon!" "Poseidon!" twisting backwards to brush his flushed cheeks with her lips, one hand holding the shell-encrusted rock ledge. The flat lapping of the water had rinsed their mouths, filling them with the acrid taste of brine. Afterwards, pushing through beads into the darkness, they ate yoghurt and honey in a small kafeterion near the Panaghia. Vikki said the best honey in all Greece comes from Thessaly. Not from Sicily? Not Hyblaen? No, always from the cool highlands, from Thessaly or Macedonia. The day after, she had left for Nauplion, casting him off for good.
Keifer had walked up the hill behind Ródhos, to the ruins of the temple of Zeus, the ancient columns patched with Italian concrete, and looked across the channel to Taslica. He could imagine Fethiye, further off in the other direction, where they had slept among bedbugs and eaten grilled eggplant for breakfast. Near the Blue Mosque one day, she had been shocked, startled from her self-absorption. She had spun around quickly, looking for the man who had touched her, pressing a finger between her legs as she had bent forward to read a plaque in German. He had read the outrage in her face. The man was gone already, even as she turned, vanished into the colorless crowd. It was her hair. He had tried to explain that her red hair flamed, seemed to blaze, a revulsion to women, an attraction to the men, and that she should cover it. But she laughed at deference, at Islam, and continued to let her hair blaze. Respect, Keifer had grumbled is not cowardice, neither giving in nor accepting. Birgitte only laughed, brushing her hair briskly until it shown like the glowing red-tile roofs south of the Bosporus. On Ordu Caddesi, near the covered bazaar, watching the dancing bears, so uneasily wrung from reality, a man touched her and a woman had tried to steal her purse. Istanbul had stunk in her Danish mind like excrement.
Keifer ran north on Powell calling her name. "Vikki!" "Vikki!" When he caught her at the intersection with California, he saw that it was someone else. The November wind blew east towards the Contra Costa hills. His heart felt colder than his face. Vikki would remember how the sun sprang each morning from Turkey as they swam? They had walked up the long stone stairway to Palamedes's castle to look across the Gulf of Argolis towards the Peloponnisos. He peered westwards, across the innermost tip of the Gulf, and tried to imagine the Spartan armies marching northwards, towards Athens, in the year when Pericles had been archon. Vikki showed him the islands that she had visited as a girl, her father sailing the Gulf as he might have done his private lake, often as far as Psli. She had dived for octopus among the rocks and, in the early morning twilight, caught timid squid there. She remembered that, once, they had reached Spetses where they sat on black rocks near the beach, eating urchins, her father squeezing lemons, and drinking retsina from a leather bag. The shallow surf had licked her feet. Keifer imagined her curled sideways in the bow, the limestone cliffs looming, or sitting in the stern, next to her father, dipping her hand in the racing currents. Once in a restaurant in Ródhos she had been able to smell the rotten fish through the cooking oil. She had learned that trick sailing the Gulf of Argolis, beneath Palamedes' walls.
Keifer liked to imagine of the hero building the castle above the Gulf. Was it before Aulis? Before games? Afterwards, after Troy, Vikki said, since when life has always been peering through surfaces, distrusting what is given. Palamedes taught us to pull hidden rule-matrices into light, like squid, opalescent but still dark as they writhe above the surface. (Or, Keifer remembers, the black scorpion, hurtling up from under the rock Vikki had overturned, tail arched, while she stumbled back, clutching his arm, her blunt nails rubbing his skin.) Then the experience of the underneath, that rich hidden life that sham obscures, had not yet been entirely submerged, not yet needed rediscovery, in the thick growths of Mediterranean civilization. Palamedes's castle had been rebuilt by the Venetians, doubled and transformed, so that now only an archaeologist could tell what was original, what added more than two thousand years later in the Renaissance. But he still liked to imagine the hero in Bronze Age armor, directing the building, telling the Trojan slaves how to work, how to lay one ashlar stone upon another, just so, the walls mounting skywards as the gulf began to seem less threatening. Troy rose to music; Nauplion to play. Vikki snorted, gesturing sharply towards the Gulf of Argolis, people have always worked, fishing or hewing stones. Fierce as Athena's, her face, mouth anger-slashed, had tautened.
They saw La double vie de Véronique at the Lumiere. Afterwards, they walked up California Street through thick rain. He had touched her arm when the dirt is thrown on Véronique's glass-lidded coffin, filled with the sadness of passing, but she snarled under her breath that the film was the silliest she had ever seen. Later she had asked, What sense does it make to imagine a single woman as two? You might as well suppose another Keifer, right now, even now, sitting in a coffee bar in Buenos Aires or dancing a tango, just being himself which is also yourself. When they reached Powell, she asked, Would that Keifer know about this one, here now in San Francisco, who has just seen Kieslowski's senseless film? If the Argentinean Keifer doesn't know you, if neither of you are conscious of each other, then how could you two be one?
"I might take a photo from a bus window, someday traveling in Argentina, in which the other Keifer happened to be caught, couldn't I? Then if someone else, back here in San Francisco, saw the photo and recognized me, the doubling would become obvious."
Her dark eyes glistening, Vikki was unyielding in her insistence upon rationality, upon lucid consciousness. If the two of you, each a true Keifer, each distinct, do not share a consciousness, how can you be one? You are confusing appearance with identity, just as Kieslowski does. She laughed. What did the two Veronicas have to do with each other? Their minds are different, alien in their difference, how could they be identical?
In his dream, Keifer stands up from the sofa, feeling terror's rising sludge. Then he begins to read an explanation to Vikki, or an account of some kind. It is printed on the back of his blue anorak. He can't make it out, the mist is impenetrable and, now, the message seems only half there. He tries to read it on his fleecy black windbreaker, the one that usually has a Weiss Kookaburra soaring up the front. It drapes carelessly over a scruffy bin where he must have thrown it. He cannot focus and his eyes fill dimly with confusion. The words dance crazily. He can hear the crab munching beneath the couch, though what it eats is not its natural food. There must be an explanation, there on his windbreaker where he feels certain he has already seen it, if only he could make it out. His armpits feel drenched and drops of sweat run chilly down his ribs. He is conscious, hotly aware, that his crotch has begun to stink from fear. Vikki must smell him. The phone rings. Who would call him?
Vikki pivots away, striding through the drizzle down Powell, passing Borders without turning, her charcoal nubuck jacket, the green trim setting off her black hair, fading through the fog. She waves over her shoulder, carelessly, like one saying farewell to a casual shipmate, as slantwise gusts of the thin rain prick against her. Keifer follows her through the crowd across Post, beyond the Saint Francis, but loses her. Perhaps she has gone down into the BART. Or perhaps she has turned east walking farther on to the Montgomery station. He continues down to the Market Street platforms. He takes the first Richmond train over to Berkeley, thinking that she may have gone over to the art gallery. She might want to look at the Hans Hofmann paintings, where they had once walked, holding hands or letting their fingers link, among the collections, looking at Hofmann's work while pretending it was Greek vases and Ottoman tracery. He runs up the Museum exit, taking the escalator steps two at a time, into the Diamaru Centre. On the level above the Shot Tower restaurant, he sees Birgitte standing beneath the gold watch, her hair luminous as a blazing wick above her green jacket. He runs forward, calling her name, "Birgitte!" "Birgitte!"
The scarlet crab emerges from beneath the sofa. The death noises have ceased. Keifer steps back in terror, but the crab turns slowly to peer towards him. Its two stalk-eyes fasten on him and seem to pause in consideration. He tries to call out for Vikki, but his mouth now feels dry, as if puffed with paper words, his tongue blackly swollen. Vikki has vanished and he understands that he is alone. He can hear the phone ring, but he doesn't know where to find it. Having deliberated, the crab starts towards him, its two claws scuttling, click-clack, click-clack, over the tile floor. It edges between two small bins, heaving one sidewards. Click-clack. Clack-click. He steps quickly back, holding a chair between himself and the hungry crab. The phone rings insistently. The crab grabs one leg of the chair and shakes it furiously as Keifer stumbles back once more, this time into a corner where he grovels. The stalk-eyes follow him. He can hear the scuttling noise of the claws once more. Clack-click. Click-clack. Still waking up, he screams and then calls out weakly, impotently. He has the ringing phone in his hand now. When he answers, "Hello?" "Hello?" a confident female voice, though muffled and distorted, wishes him a happy birthday. "Happy birthday," the voice repeats. Keifer's mouth thins, narrows, then purses into a piercing shriek, more shrilly as each moment he understands more clearly that, alone and powerless, he is the crab's natural food.
About the author:
G. L. Mind was born in New Brunswick but grew up in Montana. She studied Art History in university and taught in several colleges in Australia and the United States. She lives in Helena, Montana, but spends time in Canada. Her most recent essay was "Being Gazed Upon" in archipelago.org.
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