Photo by Jerry Hsu This story is based on several drinking sessions that I had the joyous privilege of experiencing in Petersburg a couple of years ago as a guest of a writers’ workshop. I will never forget the effects of absinthe and hope that I have a chance to sample this divine beverage again as soon as possible. Russia’s tales clang from the tongues of bells; and her cannons point outward. Ghosts guard the tall red notches of the Kremlin Wall. In Petersburg, the ice-clad trees of the Summer Garden aim at the stars; if necessary, every branch can be converted into an antiaircraft gun. The largest cannon in the world frightens off Germans with its lion-face. A red star upon a tapering greenish pedestal shines ready to detonate invaders. Below the fourteen escalators of the Congress of Nationalities, snow howls through vast, shining squares, but stills when golden domes like helmets of soldiers begin to nod and clang. (In Russia they add gold and silver to their bronze for finer sound.) Onion-domes bristle with crosses, and within each gilded church, haloed saints stand ready to leap off the golden walls and fight. Napoleon once burned the Yellow Arsenal, but saints rushed forth from their metal-topped tombs; and afterward the arsenal’s white arched windows grew back. Then the girls decorated everything with green and yellow tiles; and electric-colored light striped the Moskva River, which is lined with regular snow-walls and tapering towers. On the subject of girls, I would like to report the following. Within Russia’s gray days dwell two kinds: the stern ones and the ones with curved and sleepy smiles. They come and go from yellow cities, refashioning gray buildings, gray sky and snow into the gilded silver frames of icons. Their blood is red velvet. They tend crowds of sarcophagi, offering themselves to a stern, faraway bearded face. The ones who smile are forbidden the inner labyrinth of cobbled streets, where the stern ones tend the great Russian bell, brushing snow from its black, anguished figures, crowding around each saint like the details of illuminated manuscripts. The ones who smile hide themselves in winter; perhaps they drowse underground amidst the frozen onions. But spring assaults the ice-heaps and snow-heaps; water trickles down old bells while the greatcoated sentries chat; and Russia’s fingers—walls and fences, towers and stone staircases—open under the sun. Soon the first summer day will come, oppressing minuscule human beings with its gilded dome. The sentries watch against it, just in case Napoleon will come back. As long as they succeed, I marry one stern girl after another. When I am lucky, they dress up as Cossacks and beat me with birch twigs; while in exchange for seven ice-coins, a sentry will guard us from the other sentries. Then our sentry goes home to his stern wife; and I cool my hot hands on my stern wife’s buttocks. How I love her! Whenever I drink with off-duty sentries, we clink our glasses in prayer that winter will last forever. But spring insinuates her black and rainy morning: My stern wife must go to work. Idle always, lonely in my uselessness, I pass between buildings which remind me of frozen fog. I am one of the dark figures who trudge, illuminated by the occasional rain-gleam on the pavement. Men in fur caps shovel slush; a woman in a fur cloak blows her nose; and I remember the single frozen tear on the cheek of the stern lady now divorced from me; that was what I licked up for breakfast. Between winter ice on monuments and summer proclamations on a few glowing billboards, people stand in the snow, waiting for their buses; and I, afraid to be found out in my improvidence, wander from queue to queue, searching for the winter woman who will take me home and save me. Icicles lengthen on my chin; I have become an old man, so I need an old woman, a chubby little white-haired sweetheart who will make me tea while I am sneaking around trying to steal us both vodka. If I could steal a saint’s halo I would; the gold is so pure that it would both light and warm us. My poor old wife is shivering! What wouldn’t I do for her? She falls asleep with her head on my chest, snoring in barrages while I worry about today’s bad news: The largest cannon in the world is melting, the barrel getting soft! Thank the saints I’ve nearly lost my desire! And then—how could I ever explain this?—even loyalties melt away. Perhaps there never was any loyalty in this world. The red star dims down its shine, then shines a new red that no one’s ever seen before. Now, when summer refuses to come soon enough, Russia sends out stern girls to construct it. In wet dirty snow, beneath trees and lights, construction cranes lit blue and green begin to grapple with icicles, and the stern girls strike out with shovels until they’ve chiseled winter down into the white bust of some hero alone in the snow. What about the ones with sleepy smiles? A newly unemployed sentry insists that they’re last century’s hard-currency girls, waiting out the cold in hotel lobbies, wearing black leather miniskirts. But how would he know, and how would I? My wife died of old age during the spring thaw; she passed away without a struggle; and then the grandmother next door took in her cat. The police tell me I have to go: Now that my wife’s dead, I am staying in her room under false pretenses. They allow me to take one lump of yellow sugar to remember her by. On the street I lick away a trifle of it. Then I take the rest to the Yellow Arsenal, dedicating it to the saints. At once, I hear a crash. The stern girls have pried up all the ice and hurled it into the river. Birds swim across the sun, which hangs from crystal trees like a ball of glass. Summer grows high within iron fences. Summer gives birth to green-clad soldiers lounging in yellow doorways. I begin to remember how much the Summer Garden’s branches remind me of a dancer’s arms. Now it comes to me that all winter I refrained from leeching off a certain barmaid who has sometimes been good to me in a pitying way. Perhaps I could coax a drink of summer out of her. I ask for just one more favor, and she makes me promise that this will truly be the last time. I want my summer, my summer! Inside the green bottle I will taste the blue flame whose leaves are trees, whose trees are forests forever. The song of the bird is the sound of a little spoon upon a glass. Pouring sugar and blue flame, oh, yes, a waterfall of blue flame, she teaches me one more time the color of an absinthe flame. She knows better than anyone how to set the sugar spoon on fire and dip it in the glass, then pour blue flame. The noise of sizzling sugar makes me so happy that I no longer care that she won’t kiss me anymore. Some prefer to drink it quickly down before the sugar crystallizes; others would rather inhale the hot sweet absinthe breath trapped in an overturned glass: the breath of all the women I’ve loved. The bell of one glass rests within the bell of the other. In other words, she pours the blue flame-stream back and forth between the two glasses, then blows it out with her own delicious breath and immediately inverts one bell upon another. We watch together, she and I, until the vapor has risen into the topmost glass. Already she has prepared a napkin with a straw protruding through a hole in the middle of it. Lifting the topmost glass just a trifle, she slides the napkin underneath it, trapping that blissful mist as I once trapped bees when I was a child. Then she flips the glass upright and gently presents it to me. I rush my lips to the straw, sucking absinthe-mist into my lungs as ravenously as I would anything from a woman’s nipple. Now here comes summer. (I do remain aware that winter and summer are icons, the same few scenes repeated over and over from biblical stories, colorful yet oppressive like the plaster texture beneath an old fresco. But if it ever came to seem to me that there was nothing else, wouldn’t that be my failure?) Already I have begun to rise out of my ever-heavier body; before I have passed through the ceiling and lost the residuum of my joy, I snatch up the lower glass, the one with hot absinthe liquid in it, and drink it down. And in that instant, as the glass comes almost level with my eyes, almost everything else happens: Within the glass I see people passing over the shadow-sea, passing over sun-islands. The liquid now on the verge of tilting into my mouth remains for that first and last moment a green world of its own, flecked with water-light and softened by the Summer Garden’s shaggy shadows. If I could go inside the glass, I could stroll down the long canal of sand that is really sugar; and become no more or less than those other pale-dressed souls going in and out of shadow. Life’s yellow and white churches, death’s black and white clocks hidden behind iron fences, these I shall drink within a single glass of absinthe, which must be the Summer Garden itself. How could I have ever been anywhere else? I wander past the girlette in a bonnet, the indulgent-lazy blonde who pushes the baby carriage; now here are wandering ladies in the white dress of sunlight. This is the time to look upward, until midnight when courtyard-light falls pearly gray. The branches in the skies become capillaries in the eyes; I am gazing into my own retina, behind which my saddest, most perfect memories have hidden like the women who smile, so that they would not cause me pain. They are out of focus, white ovoids shifting on dark trees. I wish I could be one of these people who are clad white in clothes of sunlight; dwelling among them within the glass of green summer, I forget myself; and, as I did this winter, I forget you, or believe that I have; and then, thanks to the medicinal properties of absinthe, I find that I see you here among the ones in sunlight-dresses, and although you are one of many, no closer to me than any of the others (and never will you be again), I see you without sorrow, not even wondering why the sun is whiter than your hair. The canal is out of sight, the dark water hidden but its openness white beyond the trees. Here is leaf-hair, new stubble in your snowy armpits. Your menstrual blood becomes the rusty evening light of courtyards, and each stone of the necklace I bought you so long ago is now the ultramarine Neva. Upon the border of a canal’s chocolate green, the green hem of summer darkness, both reflection and shadow, irregularly superimposes itself, laced with hurrying light; this must have been how it was when we made love; and I almost want to beg you to let me adore you, but there is no pain; our days and moans are now tranquil bridges in and out of greenness. With folded hands you sit in green shadows. Seagulls of light circle you. Your naked legs, your legs of light, aren’t they sunnier now, like the lemon-yellow walls bleached by sugar? I see white sugar terraces shuttered and balconied; perhaps those are your legs, your thighs; and I sometimes dip the spoon in the absinthe, then pull it out of you. Together we add the sugar and light it. We wait until the pale blue flame comes, then I place the spoon back in the glass, the bell-shaped glass. Sometimes I simply pour sugar grains into the bell-shaped glass, then turn it round and round, and light it so that all the while the sizzling sugar rings the rim of the glass; wasn’t this how it was when my tongue was on your anus? I pour blue flame back and forth between the two bell-shaped glasses. A lump of brown sugar, bearded with bubbles and flame, sizzles in the green absinthe. The sound comforts me, like the boiling of a tea kettle in a grandmother’s house in winter. Once upon a time I met an absinthe girl who became happy and sad and talkative; then we made love, after which she fell so fast asleep that even when I lifted her to her feet she remained a corpse. With her I tasted the green taste; but only with you did I taste the burning bittersweet taste, both hot and strong. It is true that when she slept, I felt an overpowering love; but what does my love mean? It comes out of me like milk from the breast of a mother whose baby just died; only with you did I ever taste the bittersweet taste. Just as the Kremlin Wall’s reddish jaw runs high above the snowbound walkways of the city, so the bell-line of the absinthe glass encloses my world of morning light on uneven summer grass, of splendidly ragged trees, beer bottles, the puffed-out chests of tree-giants. What do reflections mean? I think I see your image in the canal. And your hair-sun, your spread fingers, they remind me when we made love in the leafy position. Amidst Russian schoolgirls with sunny plaids and shady braids, you, no younger than their mothers, are sunny, shady, leafy, grassy. Here within the bottle, everything around us is so bright that it’s pure white sugar, but that might simply be the whiteness of your dress; perhaps I’m drowsing with my head on your lap, all the other girls shrinking into shadow, ducks swimming across the sun. Gazing up your skirt I see green lace and blue sky. No, I look up through a forest of umbrellas. Their black ribs reverse a million suns. What will happen? I want to gaze up your skirt. Where are you? I see a crowd sitting on a grassy hill. Don’t you remember me? How could you have left me? At the bottom of summer’s bottle, rectangular grass-islands alternate with canals of white sand. A mother perambulates her sleeping baby, gazing sleepily into space. I must be in the bottle itself now; the barmaid has brought me several glasses. And the slow turn of a perambulator’s wheels reminds me how you wanted to have my baby. A sweaty skirt clings to the mother’s buttocks; deliciously she scratches her sweaty buttock. You are a tree. Every breath makes you younger, because there is no end here, not until the end. The remembered smell of your hair is sunny patches of sidewalk, sunny hair, sunny fingers on shady knees. I smell your skin with all the secret nostrils of tree bark. The sunny, shady reticulations of you and me in the bed have become pleasurably complicated by leaves in the sky, leaves like clusters of green grapes. Your leaf-eyes see me without distinguishing me from others, but my sorrow sleeps beneath a blanket of liquid jade; and my desire for you is a single gilded leaf on a black trunk. In the absinthe bottle, blackish trees grow blacker by dwindling up into the light. Now my skull has become as heavy as if it bore an entire winter’s ice. But I will not sleep. I want to lick your leaves melting into light, pools of butter-light around trees, pancake light. And all this happens as I raise the glass for Russia’s sake, the bell-shaped glass of absinthe. Some are taught to rush it down; I have been one of those. Copyright © by William T. Vollmann
This story is based on several drinking sessions that I had the joyous privilege of experiencing in Petersburg a couple of years ago as a guest of a writers' workshop. I will never forget the effects of absinthe and hope that I have a chance to sample...
December 1, 2007, 12:00am