In Memory of John Hawkes

By Maxim D. Shrayer

He decided not to kiss her until the blue caterpillar had finished crossing the red gravel path of the seaside park. They were sitting on a green bench, silent; everything had been said. He dawdled, stared at the red gravel, at the sunset slanting across the path from the meadow-sweet thickets and transfixing the caterpillar.

The caterpillar was fat and glossy, with black sparkling eyes, velvet skin and orange and green rhombuses on its flanks. It was moving very slowly, waddling.

The sea was growing quiet at the end of the gravel path. He could only see the blue-green mass of water from the corner of his right eye. A brown last-year's acorn rolled out of the grass into a creek of sunlight. "Now the damned caterpillar will definitely get stuck," he thought. And the caterpillar drove itself into the acorn.

"Dear Lord, let the wind move the acorn away." The flutter of air from the trouser-leg of someone passing by returned the acorn to the grass.

The caterpillar was now wading the creek of sunlight, stopping every now and then, losing balance, like a woman fording a mountain river, skirt raised above knees.

He glanced at her; she was looking at him expectantly. The sun had almost set, and the caterpillar had finally crawled out of the shifting creek of sunlight. A salty night breeze tweaked his ankles. The caterpillar was playing with a yellow dry blade of grass, twining about it, embracing it. He tasted his words without voicing them: "Please, caterpillar, I can't sit here forever, I've got to kiss her..." He felt her hand growing cold inside his. The caterpillar had moved forward, to the edge of the path, where red gravel met green grass. But then a gust picked the creature up and carried it back almost to the place where it had started.

He clenched his teeth and moved his toe toward the caterpillar. The astonished caterpillar found itself almost at the border of red and green. The caterpillar looked around, and he could see its black eyes blinking. "Come on, Catty, crawl along like a good girl." After half of the caterpillar's flaccid body had woven itself into the grass, he started to breathe more slowly. His right hand traveled between the back of the bench and the lace of her thin blouse, and his left hand felt the bottom of her skirt. His chin touched the dimple on her left cheek. His eyelashes tickled her nose. Only his eyes still watched the caterpillar disappearing in the grass. And as his lips met hers, he saw from the corner of his left eye how a blue butterfly tore itself off the ground.

In vain she tried to bring back his ebbing lips. He was no longer with her, but somewhere in the treetops of the old Baltic pines, watching the blue butterfly that looked like their lips fused together. He was following their kiss in flight.

Copyright © 1988-2002 Maxim D. Shrayer

Author’s comment: This was my second attempt at composing English prose. A twenty-year-old Russian poet recently off the boat, I wrote it as an "exercise on the passage of time" for John Hawkes’ fiction writing seminar at Brown, in January 1988. I have trimmed the original text by one third, changed a few epithets, and tightened up the syntax. A possible resemblance to Nabokov’s "Christmas" is, of course, entirely accidental. Publishing this short piece under its present title gives me an opportunity to remember the late John Hawkes (1925-1998), the first wizard of style I got to know after coming to America.

About the author. Born in 1967 in Moscow, Maxim D. Shrayer emigrated to the USA in 1987. His books include Russian Poet/Soviet Jew and the World of Nabokov's Stories. Shrayer’s fiction recently appeared in Kenyon Review and Agni.

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