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Blackberries in the Morning

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I

They arrive, and the feeling of sun-warmed, steady ground beneath Will’s bare feet is enough to make him want to crawl back onto the boat. He turns, perhaps to do just that, but there’s nowhere to squeeze through the tiny entrance where Chiyoh stands, bearing the weight of a half-unconscious Hannibal, so he gathers himself and what wits he has left to him, steps forward to help, and digs his toes deeper into the marshy grounds. It’s unsettling, the squish of wet mud beneath his feet as he walks so reminiscent of his childhood, the hem of Hannibal’s expensive pajama pants - loose and low on his waist, smaller with sickness - catching on the offshoots of stubborn plants who haven’t yet died with the winter.  

 

They arrive, and Will looks up at the house. Impossibly ornate against the damp backdrop of the German wetlands, but still just two stretched stories of a modern, bourgeoisie take on traditional fachwerk. It’s foreboding, with smooth, flaxen walls and untamed climbing vines suggesting that the house has been here, preserved in its pleasant present state, for longer than Will is willing to believe. They wind all the way up to the tip of the small, distinctly foreboding spires on the roof. He wonders if a grown man could fit up there; imagines shoving himself into the suffocating space like Rapunzel’s wretched southern cousin. His breath would fog the stained glass while he watched Hannibal and some barely-welcome visitor come down the carefully-battered walkway, bathed in shades of yellow and green that clash horribly with Hannibal’s patterned suits of navy and maroon but Will likes the colors of pus and blood about the same. He’d change in their bedroom, exchanging his thick flannels and worn jeans for pressed slacks and a shirt he’d leave unbuttoned far enough to show his chest in his calculated lounging poses, and stroll down the stairs in just his socked feet. He’d drink wine in measured sips, tangle his feet with Hannibal’s under the table, and watch this guest eat another. After, he’d wash the dishes and throw out teasing comments about the kistchiness of stained glass windows in their small swamp-castle. 

 

They settle in, and Chiyoh stays just long enough to confirm that Will has, in fact, managed to turn his Louisiana creole into passable French and can speak enough German that his driveling backstory makes sense: he’s a Franco-German expat, a writer grown bored with the cultivated pessimism of his overly-wealthy peers seeking the rustic livelihood of his late father’s stories; nevermind the similarly-wealthy, older, indulgent husband and their more-than-humble abode. 

 

She pauses a few paces from their front door, and the slow creak on the floorboards beneath her has Will gritting his teeth. 

 

“I’ll see you soon, Will,” she says finally. She speaks softly and it seems sudden since they hadn’t spoken since debarking: ‘they’ not including Will, who had whispered continuously and unintelligibly to Hannibal as they mostly-carried him through the house. 

 

“You’re going to visit?” he says, shocked. He likes Chiyoh, truly, but gets the sense that she doesn’t particularly care for Hannibal and is, at best, neutral towards him.  

“No.”

 

She leaves and Will watches her until the water stills again.

 

II

The amount of fresh food in the house is suspicious. Will spends three days rubbing Tiger Balm on his jaw and sweating through half of his casual clothing before he allows himself to be calmed by Hannibal’s soothing. He knows that this is their domain: they’d watched the sun rise, spilling light over the mess of papers and half-filled coffee mugs on Hannibal’s dining room table, on several nights spent rehearsing their plans, their roles, the locations of hidden weapons in the house, on the boat, what they’ll need, whether it’ll hurt. He knows that here, at least, he can safely play predator against any threat. 

 

Regardless, the abundance of fresh food comes in handy. They’re far enough out that to get anywhere useful they’d need to boat through their ample acreage to the drier area further inland. They’ve got a small, more area-appropriate bungalow there to use for messier guests, and a nondescript car Hannibal’d rallied valiantly against. 

 

The boat, however, has managed to decay just enough that it won’t start for a week. It seems purposeful. Will spends half of the week cursing his very existence, loudly and dramatically, in as many languages as he can dredge up from the recesses of his mind, and the other half scrubbing under his nails with a small brush whose bristles always break the skin. He bandages his fingers poorly, cuts his steak, watches Hannibal watching the blood pool on the plate. Later, Hannibal will press kisses to their tips and bandage them properly. 

 

“They will get infected, Will; how will you hunt if you do not heal?” he’ll chide softly as though he, unlike Will, can conceive of a world where something so mundane could bring them to heel. 

 

So Will spends his days fixing the boat and shooing away the insects that seem attracted to the mouthwatering smells filling the house: they cling to his pants legs, scuttle under the elastic of his socks, and more than once he’s had to divulge himself of his clothing on the front porch to keep from tracking them inside. It works, mostly, but occasionally he’ll turn his head and catch the eye of a fly, sitting patiently on the wall. On the rare evenings he’s able to convince Hannibal to accompany him down to the typha scattered along the edges of the water, the insects are never there. 

 

Sometimes, he looks up from undressing to find that Hannibal is watching him, spread out and unimaginably regal in a wicker chair. There’s heat in the gaze, and something else, something concerned and territorial. 

 

Hannibal doesn’t bring it up and neither does he. He snuffs out the candles lining the railing one by one, crushing them between the pads of his damaged fingers. The smoky scent of extinguishment clings to him as he approaches. He looks feral and unreal with only the moon to light his features. 

 

Hannibal rips his stitches. The blood is plentiful and dark, dripping from his stomach to Will’s, traveling down his side to stain their sheets. Will digs his nails into the edges of the wound, sucks one slick finger into his mouth. 

 

Neither hurries to get up, change the sheets; Will drags his wet tongue across an old, faded scar.

 

In one week and two days, when Hannibal can finally move regularly without fearing another tear, they set off to a nearby market. They stop halfway to eat lunch under the sun, enjoying its warmth in contrast to the crisp, late-winter air. Will takes great pleasure in leaning over the side of their small boat to fill his hands with murky water and fling it at Hannibal, slightly less pleasure in being thrown overboard by his smirking partner, and perhaps one of the singular greatest pleasures in watching the smug look slide off of Hannibal’s face as he overcompensates for Will’s absent weight and falls backwards. Hannibal comes up quickly and laughs, louder and more unrestrained than Will’s ever heard. He stands, grinning impossibly wide in the cold, chest-deep water and wishes he could carve that expression into Hannibal’s face to look at forever.

 

They leave their filthy clothing at the bungalow, and Will tangles their fingers as they pull away.  

 

III

It’s quiet these days. Eventually, one of them will succumb to boredom and get a job but for now, Will spends his days watching the sky change colors as he learns to cook. It happens so quickly here, sometimes he swears he’s just blinked and it’s gone from late morning to early evening. He scrapes breakfast from the pan and decides to make dinner instead. He sends pictures to Chiyoh from different numbers using the same app because he’d gotten used to her caustic presence; she never responds and he can’t even see if she’s opened them, but he never goes further than sending pictures of food he hasn’t burned. 

 

The dishes are complex, not like him, so he wonders if she thinks Hannibal is sending the messages. He sends a photo of a grilled cheese: processed cheese on processed white bread, cut into triangles, looking a bit sad on their unnecessarily fine dishes. He laughs hysterically to himself. He doesn’t get a response. He throws the grilled cheese away and remakes it with goat cheese and blackberries. 

 

The juice stains his fingers; he wonders if he isn’t real. 

 

He brings a plate to Hannibal and coaxes the berries between his lips, watches his lips turn purple. He dabs sweat off of Hannibal’s brow with one of his pretentious handkerchiefs and turns his head just enough to kiss both of his cheeks. His fingers leave prints that look like bruises on his jaw, he wants them to stay forever, he wants to beg Hannibal to answer his questions, he wants to follow Hannibal to the place he retreats but he doesn’t speak the language. He wants to thumb through their small box of handwritten recipe cards and choose the perfect one and make two bowls of black chicken soup and he tries but he blinks and it burns and he tries but he blinks and it burns and he tries but he blinks and it burns and he tries and he keeps his eyes wide open and he dishes it into two small bowls and sends a picture to Chiyoh and bends over Hannibal trying to spoon feed him but there are tears dripping down his cheeks at odd angles and he chooses another patterned square and he jokes that when he imagined seeing Hannibal cry for the first time it wasn’t over a bowl of chicken soup but Hannibal doesn’t answer so he sets the soup aside and climbs into the bed. 

 

It’s cold and he’s happy. Hannibal had been so hot before, red-faced and kicking off the top sheet, but now he’s cold so Will sticks his feet under his calves and curls up close. He plucks a book off of the top of their stack and reads aloud. He reads the beginning of Vor dem Gesetz three times because he can’t pronounce Türhüter and he doesn’t get frustrated and he doesn’t feel the telltale trembling of Hannibal’s silent mirth and in fact, everything is perfect and peaceful and calm, so he sets the book aside and lets himself drift off to sleep with his head on his already-slumbering lover’s shoulder. 

 

He wakes and brings Hannibal a bowl of blackberries, the only thing he seems to eat these days. 

 

They run out quickly. He goes to the market three times in ten days. He jokes with the owner of a fruit stall about how his husband only seems to sleep and eat blackberries these days. She asks how long they’ve been married, did it happen recently, she tells him she remembers the early days with her husband, she jokes about wearing him out. She tells him he can get rid of the smell of mothballs in their closet by using charcoal. 

 

He wants to learn to make fish balls but he can’t seem to catch a single fish. He knows he’s not doing a good enough job ridding himself of the insects that cling to him from the marshes, he swats them away from Hannibal and tells him he’s sorry. He leaves the room and Hannibal’s voice follows him downstairs; it’s strong and sweet and it’s been so quiet and lonely without anyone to keep him company that Will almost cries when he hears it. He brings back another bowl of blackberries. Hannibal’s bleeding. He swipes a tissue under his nose. He doesn’t think the bubbles are healthy, but Hannibal assures him that everything is fine. He doesn’t need to worry, there’s only one doctor in this relationship and it ain’t him. He slips under the sheets.

 

He goes back to the market and the fruit seller offers him a paper bag filled with lemon and cinnamon, to get rid of the smell of old fish. He thanks her happily, tells her it’ll come in handy if he ever manages to catch any.

 

He runs out of books and it’s gotten a bit boring just reading anyway. Hannibal, ever the pragmatist, suggests that he find books that will teach him a hobby. He browses the shelves of a small, family-owned bookstore and runs his fingertips along the deteriorating spines of old books he wishes he could bring back to life, keeping up a constant chatter with his dutifully accompanying husband. He hadn’t thought the people in the town were openly opposed to couples like them, gay marriage has been legal for some time, but perhaps same-sex couples as a theoretical occurence were more acceptable than in practice. He knows they can win them over with time but for now, he makes his way to the register and lowers his head so he can pretend people aren’t averting their gaze as they walk past. The books aren’t heavy, just the three of them, so he carries them under one arm and feels a bit like he’s just left campus to pick something up on his lunch break. His fingers itch to put his glasses back on. 

 

He stops again at the fruit stall. She inquires politely about the books he jokes that he’s been reading Jack London again, he feels the call of primitivism, he wants to learn to work leather, he wants to learn to preserve bones to use as tools. He wants to feel young so he’s going to recreate the suffocating feeling of sitting through literary classics in tenth grade. He wants to teach Hannibal something for once, and he gestures at him as he speaks but Hannibal must have wandered off. He looks at her sheepishly, she looks at him strangely.

 

She says that he can have the berries for free today.         

 

IV

Chiyoh arrives on a Sunday. She looks at the spread on the table: a bowl of blackberries for Hannibal, a plate of french toast for Will. He’d wanted something simple and artery clogging, drenched in butter and powdered sugar, but Hannibal insisted on nutrition and good taste so he’d crusted the slices in pistachios and drizzled them with fig syrup before dumping heaping spoonfuls of powdered sugar on top. She doesn’t sit at any of the available seats, she doesn’t want blackberries or french toast. She’s confident in his cooking, she’s gotten the photos, Will, it looks fine, they don’t have time.

 

She says they have to leave. 

 

He protests, Hannibal protests. She ignores him.

 

He has emergency bags packed for situations like these. They’re on a shelf in the top of the hall closet and Hannibal, the giggling bastard, does nothing to help; he strains to reach and he’d curse him for at least a half hour if they had the time, but they don’t, so he settles for dragging a chair over and putting his shoes all over the expensive upholstery. 

 

On the boat, Chiyoh waves away offers to help and banishes him to the lower deck of their beat up trawler, assuring him that she can handle rough waters with a sharp reminder that she’d manned a good portion of their first journey while he tended to Hannibal. 

 

He settles into their old room easily, unpacking their clothing once, twice, settling only after deciding that he likes the look of their belongings mixed together like their lives. He layers their shirts by alternates, hangs two pairs of the similar pants in different sizes one one wooden hanger, and drapes one of Hannibal’s insufferable, tweed, professor-sportcoats over his shoulders. 

 

He pads over to the lone unpacked bag, socked feet slipping on the polished wood. He’ll admit he’s annoyingly proud of his little creation, that he spends a bit too much time caressing the fresh leather before he can do anything productive. From it, he pulls out his three books and a poorly preserved skull. It’s okay, it’s his first. It’s special. It goes on the nightstand facing their bed. He presses his fingers to its jaw.

 

He settles on top of the sheets, cracks open his book, unfolds the page he’d marked, and with as much dramatic flair as can be mustered, reads:

 

“Ach der arme Yorik,”

 

and laughs and laughs and laughs.     

 

 

V

Jack arrives that same Sunday, but the waters have already stilled, the market has already closed, and their informant is nowhere to be found. It doesn’t matter. The door is unlocked, there are no traps to greet them, no wanted men either. 

 

The house holds but a few significant things: in the kitchen, a half-eaten plate of french toast. 

 

In every room: open windows, recent; a younger agent retches. 

 

In the upstairs bedroom: bowls and bowls of rotting fruit, two servings of a congealed black mess, a thick cloud of flies, a bed with soft linens and pillowcases that don’t match the sheets.

 

On one of the pillowcases, the indentation of a head, a loose strand of brittle gray hair.