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Love Story

Caleb Klaces



You






Leopold follows the pinprick lights inlaid in the carpet back to Ida’s cabin. He pushes his finger into the soft centre of the condom packet then zips it into his pyjama trousers. Under his other arm is a fresh set of towels.

Everything in the cabin is two-thirds the size it should be and nailed to everything else. Through the porthole the sea is black and buttery.

Ida lies on the bathroom floor with her head in the toilet. She puts her thumbs up.

He gathers the soggy towels into a pile by the door and lays out the fresh ones on the bed. On the tiny desk, beside the integrated pen pot and its pert pen, is the chicken sandwich that made Ida ill. A neat triangle with a neat bite taken out. It is laughing.

He rips opens the condom packet with his teeth. Am I going to do this? he asks his companion. Just don’t make me watch, she replies.

He pulls it out to its full extension. They are always looser, more baglike, than he wants them to be—except now this is exactly what he needs. He slides his right hand inside. He steps over to the sandwich and eyes it up, doing an impression of a lobster.

He uses his other hand to move the rubber down over the item. The rubber returns instead to where it is comfortable, in a tight band. He unrolls it over his wrist and tries again. This time it slides around most of the sandwich but snaps tight, leaving an iceberg of potentially lethal chicken meat jutting out through the rubber opening.

It will get the idea, he thinks.

The ferry is safe, he says to the form singing quietly to itself on the bathroom floor.

As long as I don’t kiss anybody, she replies.

Leopold lies on the bed with his feet up against the wall.

He rubs the lubricant between his fingers. He feels, suddenly, what the boat must feel like, slicing through the water.

Leopold and Ida are the only passengers on the ferry to England. The government has placed stringent restrictions on travel into the country until after the cull of poultry and swine. Ida has a humanitarian pass. Leopold has English relatives, who have filled out the forms.

Ida stands up, hands on the sink, face down. She is wearing a camouflage-pattern pyjama top and knickers. She is magnificently calm. Leopold feels tender, aroused, childish.

She lies down with him on the bed. He faces her. They laugh. She stands up, steps back into the bathroom and brushes her teeth.

When she returns, he breathes in deeply.

I may be incredibly contagious, she tells him.

Infect me! he whispers.

She switches the light off and becomes very still. He puts an arm under her arm and strokes her hair. They kiss. He lays his leg over her legs, hooking them into him. She kisses his neck.

He thinks about the ways he would act only a few years before, moving in on any opening. In clubs and parks and other people’s gardens. He was like a virus.

Be gentle, she says.

He stops moving. As a way of thinking, they hug. His hands feel large and rubbery. She places them on her body and tells him that it is good.

But a thin seam of acid runs upward from his stomach into his mouth. He wants to explain something to this woman.

His body drags his voice down into his limbs, but it surges back to his mouth. He stares at the faint pattern of reflected moonlight on the ceiling and says, He became a saint when he kissed the leper.

She stops kissing his neck. He tries to laugh.

She turns her body away from him. She falls asleep.

He lies in the sanguine sound of the engines, in the bed, in the ferry, in the sea, in the half-read books; and the sea floats inside him, choked with plastic ideas.

When he slips under, his body seeks her body and he pricks awake.

He turns and faces the vibrating wall. He thinks of the card he receives from Amelia and William every year. The same few English coins taped down. The same invitation signed by both of them, in that trembling foreign handwriting that seems to Leopold to hail from a previous century.

He feels something like dread; something like responsibility; something like fate; the pandemic only making him more sure that he must travel, since his certainty’s illogic is its power.

When the boat left the dock he could not tell his mother and father apart. Two figures holding hands, the same in either direction. He panicked, as though watching a terrible natural catastrophe.

He asked the only other person on the boat, a woman—hale and clean, neatly packed, also cocked ironically against the railing—if she saw one person or two.

But they had turned and were almost gone. The railing pushed into his chest. The air was solid. It pressed down from above and up from below. He thrashed but found no resistance. Below him, moss, the suddenness of a fall, a mouth full of hair. In the bed in the dark cabin, she is pulling down her knickers with his fingers. Their lips teem. Limbs have thickened. Something gives way and falls inward. A root bursts its bulb. Milk shoots through a straw.

He rolls off and clings for a second, then slips underwater.

She is dressed. She wears a shirt buttoned to the top. She has tied her hair back.

Today, the invalid would like to take the air above deck, Ida says.

Leopold goes back to his own cabin to pack.

He brings his small bag up to Sky Café on the top deck. It is a vast collection of nailed-down chairs, all swirled with a continuous pattern of baffling complexity, grey, brown and purple, like a riverbed.

Ida is already there. He is startled to see that she is talking to another passenger, a man wrapped morbidly in a blanket by the window.

Ida sees Leopold and waves.

Leopold waves back, but stays on his side of the boat.

The waiter tells him that the man was picked out of the sea during the night. He should have been killed by the ferry. They have no idea where he is from. He will not speak.

As he tells him this, the waiter sprays an antibacterial on his own hands. That man should be dead, he repeats, as though in living the man has offended.

The waiter allows Leopold to order, explains that nothing that he has ordered is available, and then that nothing is available, and then leaves.

Leopold wraps himself in a coat and stares out of the window.

When Ida joins him, she says: That explains why the engines cut for so long in the night.

She is alert and efficient and happy in a way that he has not seen in the twenty-four hours she has spent in his company. He feels tense.

You were awake in the night? he asks.

She looks at him. Her face shows disappointment, rather than anger.

He offers her the rest of his packet of curry-flavoured pretzels—the only item the crew themselves will dare to eat—and she accepts them.

She explains that when the ferry docks, she will stay with the man. She will contact the English charity she is working for and let them know that she will meet up with them as soon as she can. But it could take a while: he is malnourished and disorientated.

If he is showing signs of the flu, I am worried they might not let him into the country, she says.

She reads all the signs, he thinks. She knows everything. He tries to focus on the man who should be dead. He tries to imagine all the people that he has left behind and what they will be feeling right now. Instead, Leopold wants to ask Ida if she can feel what he has left inside her.

On the walk out through the wide, empty ferry, along the metal wall that becomes a bridge, he lets himself look lost. She hugs him. He snatches at her mouth and she holds him there, neither passionate nor reluctant.

She turns and places her hand on the back of the survivor and leads him without fear into a swarm of uniformed guards.

England’s capital city is a familiar landscape of tall, dense buildings and building sites. The food is the same, in more excitable packaging, and the people are shabbier and thinner but affect hurry just as the people he knows from home do.

Only the language is novel. Have me, he thinks, as though in reply.

He wakes early and upset. It occurs to him that he is in love.

He decides to leave the city. The train is empty. There are burning mounds in every other field. The smoke joins the smoke of a power station to form a glittering black rainbow.

He breathes deeply. The landscape is miniature and unintelligibly green. Water foams. Hedges glisten. Unseen animals blare complaint. In the garden of a wistful pub, he is moved almost to tears when a papery moth drowns in his pint.

He speaks to three young men in the words that pop songs and adverts and football give them in common.

They take him to a field with a burning mound and he accepts a pill and stands by the huge speakers and for minutes at a time shudders back into the vibrations of the ship, waking standing up and finding any pair of black, hungry eyes and bellowing Yes!

He wakes under a stranger’s coat. The stranger’s face is affectionate but somehow locked. He gives Leopold water. The energy in Leopold’s bones is cold.

He follows his new friend around until he offers him a lift. Leopold shows him the address.

The weathered wooden gate is overgrown with fairy tale. A surviving seam of pleasure glows down one side of Leopold’s body as he pushes it open. He clenches his jaw and bites down on the sight of a thousand flowers, more than he has ever seen together in one place, which splits open like a fruit in his mouth and runs sweetly down his throat.

Taped to the door of the house is a sign. The handwriting is familiar. He cannot read what it says but its simple generosity of spirit flows into him. His children will come here, he thinks. They will flow out of him and float along the waves, as he had done, on the buttery sea, and see this place, as he is seeing it now, a house that breathes and sweats and speaks.

He follows the mossy herringbone path around the house. The garden opens into a shy square lawn. There is no sign of his relatives. He takes his shoes off and walks along the dewy grass, feeling it twinkle. On the other side are a series of low pens. Inside one is a rough pink slab of pig, spread blissfully out into every corner.

He holds the pig’s snout in his glitchy hands and he knows what he must do. He understands how he can become the vessel for another’s love, and how he will return every drop of love with a drop of his own. He sees his life laid out in front of him, gushing forwards in a river of many streams, and he is overjoyed to see his relative sprinting over the grass towards him, his relative who he feels immediately a great kinship with, an understanding deeper than language, as though they are merely separate vessels for the same lucky water, but now his relative is pulling his arm and pointing, pointing at the pig as though it is about to explode, and yanking his arm hard, so that it hurts and so that he pulls back, frightened now, and ends up on the grass beside the pen, where all of a sudden he feels dizzy, filled unevenly with fluid, which is rising with that tingling pleasure—he remembers one day with a runny nose a serious girl with taut new breasts under her school shirt explaining that a tickled knee = 1⁄4 orgasm; a sneeze = 1⁄2 orgasm, and him wanting never to sneeze, so as not to use up the store of orgasm that he had been allotted at birth—and now he feels that same reluctance again, gripping tightly onto what is rising, refusing to let the goodness fly out, knowing that what will leave him will leave him with nothing, and he cannot resist, his head angled back, his eyelids slammed shut in anticipation

Me






We viruses remember how we came to be. We recollect before our births. We feel the tails swish at our backs, though they have long tailed off.


One pre- of me is avian flu. That strain, the feathered side, made journey to the island on a tyre inside a ship. From there a wading bird gave me her name. She flew me in her neck, from wormy dock to lousy battery chicken.


While there inside a chicken breast, i liked the rhythm of the chicken life, banging one’s head and thanking it each time. i liked a chicken’s pretty little organs, cute as little England.


We travel half the globe in hope and love. Yet you despise your body’s openness. Before we blow in through the windows in your skin and warm your cold interior, you order us destroyed.


Two days ago, this avian-flu-of-me comes into contact with a woman named Amelia. On the phone a man informs her she must stop the automated feed machine and isolate the chickens in the earth.


Though debeaked, a chicken deep in love with avian-flu- of-me grows thorns. Amelia thinks of pruning roses, leaves the tractor, works her leather hands.


She breaks the chickens from their cages, rolls groups in tarpaulin, which she places on a wheelbarrow.


i am warm inside the giggling ruck of chickens that unfeather one another in the hole. She sees the tremble of my love. She seals the sight with soil and lime. i weep farewells and trickle on the chicken tears to hers.


i travel in the tight, smooth crevice under bitten fingernail. My friends the dust mites follow on.


That evening wife and husband—William—inspect their wilting garden. They do not know he brings my other ancestor: the common flu. Both humans throw out peelings for the spoilt pig, who squeals with joy and welcomes the two flus-of-me right down his open throat.


This is my conception and my birth.


Inside the pig: two souls, cool sheets, shrink-wrapped in breath as sweet as death, boil one another, marinate, lush, weeping gusts of cells, insistent, finding their slick holes, meat sliding into cavities that grease themselves, swap the code, repeat already, trick the pig to make more of the mixture, inward explosions, hidden liquid, fall of pinprick stars...


My parents merge inside the pig to make a strain of virus never seen before.


Imagine you are only memories. Then suddenly you are a present tense! The draught of love grew me a stomach, lips and eyes. At once i loved and was the body that i loved. i was not she nor he, but dreams of endless purple mud, of ceaseless rolling, turnip rings. i was cascades of body; flow of love’s experiment.


At first—yesterday—he fed me with his breast. He opened up his porcine heart and there i went. i went there and its walls dissolved.


But now, one day and sixteen generations old, my dreams are flies and gravel. Now he turns away from me, toward himself, at his expense. He hides behind immune system, false friend, unbeautiful. The flags have changed and i am citizen no more.


There is no dignity in how his body craves some congress with itself. Black liquid trickles from his anus.


But soft, here enters Amelia. She returns from one more day of choking hens.


She strolls straight through the gate. Her husband smiles and picks an apple.


She strips herself of clothes.


She calls her husband. She asks him: get the hose. Hose me clean.


He comes out with a floral dressing gown instead. He holds it up.


She runs. She runs around in circles. Then she spies the pond.


Her body empties it. Glossy frogspawn spews between her legs. She rubs the orange water in her eyes.


She trails pondweed through the house.


He folds the dressing gown and picks more apples from their tree. He throws one at a squirrel. Then he picks it up and puts it in the basket.


Clean! she shouts down from the window.


Clean! i think, as more and more of pig erupts inside with more and more of me.


William brings a pot of food outside. They sit. Wife and husband are afraid of food.


The black smoke from the fires is all the sky is now.


Amelia turns the sprinkler on. William turns it off.


From the beat of my collapsing heart their pulses rise! We would be good together, them and me. With me they would be more than they have ever been.


i thicken in the garden like a mood. But they are out of range of touch. i cannot penetrate.


You paw yourself before you eat, the husband says. Don’t do that when our Leopold comes.


Every chicken has a patch of always-raw. Pink stubble-skin below the neck. It is in Amelia’s fingers, hand, her wrist, her arm, her heart.


From the air i feel the ingress of Amelia’s thought. As a child, one day she was a woman and she looked up at the crucifixion wound and saw smashed blackberries and laughed. She never crossed herself again.


Then she started chicken work. A ghost of crossing-hands returned. A hand above the wound, above her heart, before she held a fork.


She tells her husband this. The creatures have rubbed off on me, she says.


Have you made up Leopold’s room? Amelia asks.


He says: I can’t go in the baby room.


There is no baby room, Amelia says.


They sit as humans do, as though they do not grow. She moves towards my pig then stops. Her blood screams in its lonely purple voice.


She puts a hand on her husband’s hand. He jumps, then they embrace. She walks away.


She stops and tells him to make sure he clean her off himself before he goes to bed.


He doesn’t follow her. He lies down by the table on the moonlit grass.


i feel the greasy spin of William’s eyes. The neon pink over the field. The scarecrow bathed in motes of chicken ash like sherbet rain. i feel the lovely juice that forms his head.


i can cure him of his awful fate. The fate of being bounded by himself.


He thinks he hears the ants spit-smoothing tunnels underground. He thinks he hears the liquids trickle down the earthy brain. He intimates that there are mingled selves out there, if only he could open up.


He sleeps.


By morning i disperse so wide that now i feel the deference of every blade of grass that bends beneath his back. The pig is me and almost gone.


Leopold comes through the gate.


William wakes and sees a young man in his garden.


i watch from ten thousand points. Think of your satellites, the way they stare! Now give them want. Now want the glittering boy from everywhere.


Leopold can’t stand still. He walks close to the sign Amelia left. He does not read it, then bustles through the garden—to my pig.


You come to me! You seek me out!


i trickle down the snout. The pig’s insides collapse into a kind disorder. His acids burn his hate. i am his gift.


The husband starts to smile. He feels a kind of fullness never felt before. Full of his English pig; his English field.


This is my baby come at last, thinks William.


Leopold, you will hold my pig’s snout in your glitchy hands and you will know what you must do. You will understand how you can become the vessel for another’s love, and how you will return every drop of love with a drop of your own. You will see your life laid out in front of you, gushing forwards in a river of many streams, and you will be overjoyed to see your relative sprinting over the grass towards you, your relative who you feel immediately a great kinship with, an understanding deeper than language, as though you are merely separate vessels for the same lucky water, and then William will be pulling your arm and pointing, pointing at the pig as though it is about to explode, and yanking our arm hard, so that it hurts and so that we will pull back, frightened now, and end up on the grass beside the pen, where all of a sudden we will feel dizzy, filled unevenly with fluid, which will be rising with that tingling pleasure—we will remember one day with a runny nose a serious girl with taut new breasts under her school shirt explaining that a tickled knee = 1⁄4 orgasm; a sneeze = 1⁄2 orgasm, and us wanting never to sneeze, so as not to use up the store of orgasm that we had been allotted at birth—and now we will feel that same reluctance again, gripping tightly onto what is rising, refusing to let the goodness fly out, knowing that what will leave us will leave us with nothing, and we cannot resist, our head angled back, our eyelids slammed shut in anticipation










Caleb Klaces’ stories and poems have been published in journals including Granta, Poetry, Conjunctions, The White Review, The Threepenny Review and Five Dials. He is the author of the poetry collection Bottled Air (Eyewear, 2013)—which won the Melita Hume Prize and an Eric Gregory Award—and the forthcoming novel Fatherhood (Test Centre, 2019).








2019


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Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.

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