Belshazzar

mag pic
Photo by Bassel Habbab.

Stepping down into the bar Tagore’s, I found before him two small cups of port already poured. He wore red pants and a white tunic, bundled up inside a navy trench. His thin black tendril fingers seemed equipped with suction grip, the way he wrapped them around the glass and tucked the edge between his teeth. He limped his left hand slowly through the air, to make a point. A daddy missing three long legs. The glass before me tripped and spilled. The air around him often got this wrinkled, I recall. Relieved of some queer weight that otherwise would keep it taut, the air withdrew into itself, a crumpled thank-you bag. Things nearby had difficulty standing up.

The whole week a verse had been running through my head and I couldn’t place it, then finally I managed to nip its corner. A fragile white receipt, barreling under rows of Suburbans in a Best Buy parking lot: lines from a French folk song my mother used to play on a Walkman plugged with two small speakers while I bathed my body before bed, a song about a lover who loses his beloved by failing to buy her a bouquet of roses, but which I suspect is about the death of a friend who is then reincarnated as a joyful nightingale.

I grabbed a soggy napkin and started brushing my pants furiously. When my gaze re-rose, I found him staring, glazed. Tracing a French redhead, the first that came along.

Besides which, I remember just one more costume of his. The night we met, a baffling Napoleonic cloak enshrouded him in salty coral clouds. He moored his ghostly craft along a rusty drain, bounced ashore with devastatingly light steps as if the granite sands beneath were really undercooked meringue. I like your coat, I said. Ah yes, my coat, like he’d forgotten it was there, and sipped his rum. I was nineteen, I think Belshazzar was maybe thirty-five. When he spoke, it never was to me, but to the walls and windows, kettles, the lemon tree or mattress, or else to nothing in particular; so I would speak to him, and he would to the world.

He had a strange habit of pausing, at the most unpredictable moments, his entire physical machinery during the course of our early evening walks. Slowly, he would turn his head towards me, and his tender little eyes … His eyes, I say. Helpless like twin waxy spiders slipping on two frozen milky pearls.

Sailing — one of us would always wait until the other brought it up. I often said I could come back in three years, a year more than he would yet live, and we could get a boat and sail around the world. We kept a journal where we listed carefully: ports, phone numbers, prices, pieces of equipment. Ropes, chess pieces, bicycles, fishing lines, hooks, limes, suchlike. He’d cross things out, rewrite others, the more he crossed out and rewrote the less room there was left until he had to squint to read the lists. They scared me, his hard squints; I felt his squid-ink eyeballs might just tumble out his head. But would they bounce, or shatter?

Nearly two years after I quit Cape Town, death was lurking in his breast. I, who did not know, was working out a story, a letter series between two prisoners writing little tales, one to the other. A reckless correspondence, two fierce poets, lyrical brinkmanship. It got stale, fast. By the time the third story rolled around, someone had to die. Belshazzar, Story Two protagonist, the safest choice: nothing personal, strictly literary. Two days later, he was dead for real.

Once, I met him. On a separate occasion, he died. One was first, and then the other.

I read a different eulogy for him at the funeral, which in fact I fail to attend, partly because it is in Durban and partly because I don’t find out about his death until he’s three weeks gone. I show up late, I suppose, or imagine it that way, somehow such a truly stupid hallucination comes more to life, in this miserable hour, if I am late. And his friends recognize me, all the ones I never met. There is a silent space between us which they patrol and they respect. Maybe we all go out for drinks, or maybe each goes home alone.

Years ago we met for early evening tea at Hello Sailor, and I told him I was working on a little story about him. Nothing happened in the story; nothing ever happened in my stories. Mainly I would write down the last crazy thing he said whenever he got up to use the toilet, then later puzzle over vapid scrawls and try to rustle up a tale. His lips curled, his shoulders tensed. He put his teacup down. I so well remember the feeling of the light. Golden, thick, the whole street drowning in a flood of ancient honey. I told him of the stories, and the sex, babbled news kept ever flowing forth like vomit. His teacup clinked against the plate, ceylon ripples broke against ceramic. Then, he said: Belshazzar is an artist of whom nothing should be known. Now I break my silence, now I tell him: Eulogies are written for the living’s sake, and not the dead.

I help him on the squeaky bed, switch off the sterile lights. Out slips the nurse, and shuts the door. Close your eyes, and soon I start the track, scratch-scratch, scratch-scratch. Then — you must imagine this, I say, the soothing cycling beat expands to fill the room: it is late one night, a capital city which you could never have imagined visiting, and now you cannot ever think to leave. You climb the steps to enter, bloodroot candles burning in the trees, this music swirls around you. A near-dark air in every inch bears memories, suspended … like never have you had before, I whisper in his ear. A weary smile spreads along his leathered lips, like spidery fractures desecrate a lake’s last ice. Lake Clarity. I swore I’d come back on a boat, and did I break my promise? I beg him: Let me take you there, and pull him up into my arms. I trudge and sweat and by the time we reach the lake it is too much, one drop too dripped, the frozen surface starts to slip apart, reverses course, a violent shiver, crackles outwards algorithmically. I set him on his feet. He squats, inspects a shining block of ice and says, surveying, smiling: now we’ll have cool drinks, at last.

The day before I left the city, he had me by for one last cup of tea. He talked about some job he might take on, I think. As I was walking out, he called: Just SMS me tomorrow or something, OK? I never did. In the end, I think, we were just lonely lighthouses who mistook each other for ships.

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