A text from the The Alone Together series, an initiative of the Elizabeth Kostova Foundation. Josip Novakovich (Canada) is a Sozopol Fiction Seminars fellow 2009
To defrost from a long Arctic Vortex and to draw mangroves in charcoal I flew to an artist colony near Fort Myers, Florida, on an elongated and thin island, a Key. I didn't know there were Keys on the West Coast of Florida, only south of Miami, where I had never been. It seems a Key is a glorified sandbar which has gained solidity through vegetation sinking roots and tides bringing in more sand, mostly white but with specks of black. Some of the black came from thousands of years of shark teeth, and every morning I could see people collecting the teeth. It was an art form. You had to gaze into the sand to discern a little smooth triangle, a shark's tooth. First you just don't see them, but once you see one, you see others; your eyes have been trained. If you collected enough, you could make a necklace. Anyhow, it was all entertaining.
As were the living sharks. The first day of my stay there, I swam and saw the dolphin fins, nicely curved backwards. Passers-by said, Isn't it too cold? I said, No, just right. And they said, you must be Russian. I live in Canada. Oh, OK, that's similar, they said. Well, there's another guy swimming, I said. Let's ask him where he's from. And we did. I am from Sweden, he said to the delight of “native” Floridians. The next day I swam some more, and a helicopter flew above me creating wind. I got out and walked along the beach and soon a cop showed up and said, I just saw you swimming from up there, and let me tell you, you weren't alone. You swam among a bunch of sharks. Wow, that's an uncomfortable thought, I said. They come out at dawn and sunset, he said. They won't do anything to you, but it's still good to be aware that they are there. I thanked the guy. The next morning as I swam in deep waters I saw fins gliding and thought, great, more lovely dolphins, but these fins were straight up, triangular, indicating sharks. I was about to panic to get out of the water, but that would do no good as the sharks would be much faster than me. The fins slid gracefully past me at a distance of some fifty paces though of course you can't count in paces in deep waters. Well, I got out of the water and told Robin, an elegant lady who ran the artist colony, about the sharks, and she said, These are nursing sharks. What does that mean? I asked. I don't want them to nurse me. Well, she said, they won't do anything to you. You are more likely to lose a limb riding a bike on Manasota Key road than swimming here. Will you at least wear a helmet when you bike around? The road is so narrow and some of the retired people who live here may be half blind and not see you. You've heard this, that the old people retire on the West Coast of Florida and their parents on the east coast?
It was a paradise to have a lot of time in a cottage, look out at the sea, draw sketches or shark teeth which were shaped just like shark fins on the drawing board, open the windows and listen to the waves, and then stroll to the Main house to fix a grouper paprikash in the kitchen (my fusion, combining Florida and Hungary), past a resident Turtle, named Toulouse. He was supposedly 50 years old, but nobody knew for sure, not even Toulouse, at least not in our terms. Or maybe he knew it all, and he looked like he did with his bald head, like Churchill. I have no idea who gave him the name. Iguanas ran around, like velociraptor babies, and men in orange uniforms, like garbage collectors with nets, ran after them. What are these guys doing here? I asked Robin, who seemed to know everything. Oh, they are just catching iguanas. They are quite a pest. This is not their natural habitat, and they threaten the sea-turtle population because they eat their eggs. So, what do you do with them? I asked. We catch them and drive them to an area which is their habitat, near the Everglades. OK, that's interesting, it would be like catching the Quebecois who live in an environment which couldn't possibly be their habitat and loading them up on a cargo plane to dump them on Virginia Beach, I said. But isn't that what you do? Robin said. Who dumped you here?
During my fourth day of stay, there was a gluey smell and I sneezed and closed my windows and turned on the AC. The next day the smell grew smellier. I wanted to go for a swim but saw on the beach hundreds of fish, belly up. What is that? I asked a leathery-faced walker, who was with his metal detector looking for wedding rings and Spanish gold. A couple of ships with gold had sunk on the eastern side of Florida but that didn't prevent people from hoping that something similar had happened on the western side. And the walker answered, That's the freaky Red Tide. Some bacteria in the water multiply and use up all the oxygen, so the fish can't breathe, and they die. Sharks too? I asked. Well, they don't, they go deeper, but they may starve if too much fish dies and washes up on the shore. The problem with the bacteria is that they consume all the oxygen which could be used by plankton to grow, so there's not enough food for the fish.
The next day there were perhaps a thousand fish, shimmering in the rising sun, silver bathed in golden rays. But the air was heavy, like fumes in a tire factory. My eyes watered, I sneezed and coughed. I hoped this would improve in a day or so but the following day there were more dead fish and I coughed more. Nearly everybody around me coughed. Some elderly people developed pneumonia and perhaps a few deaths resulted from this sea-plague. I wondered why this heavy bacterial air didn't bother some and did most of us. After a week, I had a full-blown bronchitis. I wondered how long the sea would be giving up its life, its fish. Black vulture appeared on the island: hundreds of them swooping down onto the dead, filling their beaks and throats. When I drove to town to buy oranges and avocadoes, I saw several trees without leaves, and hunched black birds like old monks, sitting on the branches. It seemed like doomsday trees on which vulture grew. There was a certain deadly beauty to it all—I took a photo of them to use as a base for a charcoal drawing. Charcoal was not good for mangroves, which came in hundreds of shades of brown and green, but it was perfect for the vulture. I wanted to leave the paradise now, coughing and breathing hard, as though afflicted with MERS or something. And maybe I was, I thought. What came first, the bacteria from the air or from the water? And how about viruses? Do viruses and bacteria get along?
At night, my cough tortured me, and even gagged me. What is this? TB, like in my childhood? I couldn't sleep and listened to the sea, which grew loud, and each waves sounded different. Winds howled, palm branches flew, a coconut hit the roof; and it was a near hurricane, and some said it was a hurricane, and most of the beach was gone when it was all over. All that sand and the shark teeth that the sea was spitting out for millennia were swallowed back into the sea. All the vultures were gone too and so were the dead fish. Maybe they came back to life in the water, but I doubt it, unless there's submarine Jesus resurrecting the dead fish but not dead people. The iguanas were gone, and I was about to be gone too as my time was up.
Now, a couple of nights before my departure, a writer friend of mine, Melvin, and I drank a lot of red wine with an opera composer, a curly-haired Catalan, Sandra. I faced her and the house on the porch and she faced out to the sea and the sky. My friend Melvin said, I am sleepy, I want to wake up early to finish a chapter, and he went to his cottage. And Sandra said, the sky is so incredible now, you can see the Milky Way and the constellations. I said, yes, if you don't have astigmatism and aren't near-sighted. You know why people imagined that stars have limbs? Because most people are at least slightly astigmatic and the light from the stars breaks into lines. That could be true, she said, but I can see them sharply, beautiful dots, ending many sentences. You don't see the text, lost in the darkness, but only the periods, and you can imagine what the sky could reveal if you could read the darkness. Wow, that's cool, I said. Why don't you sit next to me so you can see the stars? OK, I said, and as we looked up to figure out the constellations with our hands outstretched, our hands touched and we kissed. And I said, let me show the stars on the other side of the globe, and I pulled my I-phone with an app that showed the current position of the planets and the constellations. It was a surprise, maybe a result of the Zinfandel. That's amazing, I said, totally unexpected. Oh, don't tell me that, she said. We walked on the beach now and I suggested that we follow up, and she said, Not so fast, I am married. Let's see how we feel tomorrow when we are sober. What, you aren't sober? Of course not, she answered. Neither are you. Let's sleep on this, and if we like the idea in the morning, we'll walk on the beach for hours together. That's a good idea, I said. Like the Persians, they used to make a decision while drunk and then reexamined it while sober, or the other way around. It had to stand both states of mind. Exactly, Sandra said.
I was ecstatic, and so I listened to some Schubert impromptu, I think number two, performed by Alfred Brendl. I heard Sandra through the partition, in the other half of the cottage, talking loudly, arguing about something with her husband, a concert pianist. Lucky man, he could play the same impromptu probably just as well as Brendl and he lived with this beautiful Catalan genius. Then I coughed. Although the air had cleared, my lungs didn't.
While I was leaving the following day, she did give me a kiss on the cheek but that all reminded me that we didn't have a real kiss. And the artistic director, Robin, also kissed me on the cheeks. I didn't know that would be the last time like that either. And we all coughed. My cough lasted for two months after that February, and I suspected that I had the coronavirus but didn't want to go near any hospital as long as I didn't deteriorate. Maybe Sandra had brought it back from Spain. Maybe Robin had come back from Italy.
A year later, after a million people had died of the disease, and the virus seemed to be gone, with a new vaccine developed by Pfeizer, I crossed the border and visited NYC. There I visited Melvin, who had just finished a huge novel about the Popes. We shook hands, and his wife said, You shouldn't do that, that's a barbaric custom. That's true, he said, but this is an old friend, and the customs die hard. Melvin, you promised you'd never shake hands again. Yes, I know. I promised I wouldn't smoke either, but that hasn't worked so well.
But haven't we developed herd resistance to Covid-19? I asked. Or has it mutated into Covid-21, and it will hit us after a few handshakes and shared glasses?
I think that's quite possible, Melvin said.
I had communicated with Sandra, and she invited me to see the premier of her opera in a dying Catalan dialect. I thought Catalan was a dialect, but no, it's a language, and like any language, it has dialects. Only 500 people in a couple of villages spoke this dialect—the Spanish flu had taken with it many of the speakers of the dialect--but here, Sandra resurrected it in an opera. Now, the Metropolitan looked different from what I was used to. Every second row was taken out and moreover, every second remaining seat was taken out, so that it looked like a first class on British Airways rather than economy class on Delta. I liked that—I could stretch my legs and lean my elbows on the arms of the chair. And the choir was like that too, not standing together. And even in the opera, there were no kisses; the lovers blew kisses to each other from far away.
That evening Sandra was too busy with her crew but she met me for a drink in a wine bar with crimson sofas, and she said she still remembered the stars we saw together. I remember more than that. Our first and last kiss.
This Covid thing started. Maybe you gave it to me?
Or you to me? You traveled in Spain and Italy. But now we are probably immune if we've had it. We could even kiss again.
It would be a crime against humanity, she joked, and said, Chin chin, and we drank some Royal Rioja, and I had a big gulp, listening to my Adam's apple pop up.
Wow, it's twenty-five bucks a glass, I said. Hard to get carried away at that rate!
Don't be a cheap Canadian! Haven't you saved enough money in this long self-isolation? I have. Now we can splurge. Anyway, we aren't going to get carried away. I am not going to kiss—at least not until I know you much better and you provide the results of a test that can't be older than a week. I'd sooner have sex with you than kiss. The technology of sex is safe, you know with all the condoms, gloves, and facemasks and goggles.
Oh, that's so depressing, it resembles surgery, like we are getting rid of an appendix.
But it's way safer than exchanging liquids mouth to mouth. Anyway, this is all theory. We might look at the stars, however, on your I-phone app.
By the way, I missed the meaning of your opera. What is it about?
About the Black Plague. In the plague many dialects disappeared, you know that.
Kind of the reverse from the Tower of Babel?
We knocked our glasses. Sandra's eyes sparkled under sharp eyebrows. The glass rim got a fresh print of her cherry lipstick, just the lower lip, and I looked up to see what the glass missed and I missed, a red wave with a drop off under her nasal septum, a wonderful wave reminding me of the red tide in the stormy sea. I would be sure to paint the upper lip in cherry and crimson.
The Alone Together series presents literary work by Sozopol Seminars' faculty and fellows written in the confines of our authors' homes during the coronavirus outbreak in an attempt to connect each other and to carry on the magic and spirit of the Seminars, which for the first time in thirteen memorable years has had to be canceled. The Elizabeth Kostova Foundation asked writers from five different continents to look through the windows of their studies, literally and metaphorically, and share their literary imagination. The project was launched in March 2020 and culminated in the end of May 2020.