The glass-enclosed sign above the door declared it ‘The Plum’ in orange neon lights that sparkled softly as little drops of water slithered down its length. Here and there the foot traffic exhaled in time with a breath of the wet wind that blew through the evening. People in different shapes and sizes hunched against the drizzle inside their respective umbrellas and coats and walked nimbly in directions that required their immediate attention.
The evening ‘rush-hour’ never lives up to its name in my opinion. The faces streaming past were heavy like the clouds that stalked this June evening. The pace they struck seemed a reluctant shuffle of inmates returning to their cells after a day in the sun; like the sulky pace of children going back home after a wonderful day at the playground park. For me, standing still in this moving stream, it was self-evident that not one of these souls wanted to go back home to the dark and lonely thoughts that were the reality of adulthood.
The Plum stood there in the middle of the street like an orange beacon in a dark room pulling my attention. The door was below street level and the steps that led down to it was of some stone that was different from the concrete of the pavement. This stone was of some darker stuff and looked worn from ages of patrons treading up and down its length. It is a wonder how the owner of the bar had gotten to keep it that way; its resemblance to a dungeon entrance was not something that would sit well with the town planners. But there it was, sitting belly-heavy below the street line like a cat snoozing in the afternoon sun. The bar itself was quite unpopular with the daytime loving folk, who trudged despondently past its twinkling lights and the clinking sound of the doorbell as it swung open to reveal a stocky man fiddling with the catch of his black umbrella. Eyes turned in his direction laden curiosity that quickly skidded away. There was nothing out of the ordinary with this man. His close shaven face and dark curls was just like that of any other man. The black of his umbrella was just as dark as that of the next man or woman on the street. But, as he ascended those flight of steps to where I stood, the traffic parted in anticipation. He nodded in my direction when he reached the top and headed in the direction of the train station. The crowd seemed to melt into a halo around him as he walked away.
They warned me not to come here. Whispers crowded my head with voices filled with foreboding and fear.
But I needed a drink.
I needed to drink something, anything, that would separate me from these people who did the same thing every evening and lived their lives in glass bottles where tranquility and routine are more poison than solace. I needed to free myself from the dull smoke that floated between the spaces of the three-floor apartments that dotted the streets of where I lived and the high-rise builds of where I worked. The song of cursing taxis and relentless sighs that escaped their throats everyday had played itself to stupidity in my mind’s ear. It was all dull. Life was dull and lusterless in the safety that was guaranteed by a stable income and the security of a city filled with people who have lost all hopes of ambition and desire; people who could not stir themselves to selfish acts of passion or malice to save their placid lives. And so I find myself standing entranced by the orange lights of The Plum with the will to walk down those steps and into the waiting arms of her polished doors. And so I stepped.
There was a striking sound at the back of my head with the first step I took. I stood, one leg on the pavement and the other on the first step listening to the reverberation of a sound like the struck chord of a grand piano. I took the second step and waited for a few heartbeats to see if it would come back but it did not. This displeased me and I felt cheated; it was such a beautiful sound. Taking a deep breath, I continued on my way down with the phrase ‘fallen from grace’ riding on my lips as I put my fingers to the door and slowly turned the knob. There, the chord came again. This time it rang clear and true like the call of robins on a clear morning in spring.
The music was coming from inside, it seemed. I wondered how no one above had heard it all these years that the bar had stood stoically against the passage of time. I do not recall ever hearing any note of music as I made my way home passing before those steps but there it was; a faint tinkle of keys, and that clearglass sound that pianos make, pouring out of the crack of the slightly opened door before me. I pushed the door all the way and walked in to the scent of old wood and strong spices amongst other aromas.
The first thing that caught my eye was the rug. It was simply red; not red as freshly spilled blood, not red as the color of good vintage spilled on a white cloth. It was just red; a shade of the color so rich and so deep that it was unlike any I had ever seen. It was a red that deserved a name unto itself in its uniqueness as it spilled the richness of its color onto everything in the room and painted all in a glow that made even my skin look healthy. The tables, of a very dark wood with a luster that made them shine like oiled metal, were scattered across the room like pebbles on the sands of a beach. Each had four sturdy looking stools of the same wood cloaked in velvet tucked beneath them but not quite out of sight. There were flowers too; chrysanthemums, primroses, yasmins and honeysuckle, and fragrant candles on each of the tables and at the bar. The air was rich with a rosy smell reminiscent of freshly turned earth and a faint citrusy aroma and the colors ranged from the brightest of yellows to the deepest of purples; all painted with the rich red from the rug underfoot.
There was a grand piano in the far corner and from it issued the soft yet striking music that had propelled me inside. Seated before it was a thin woman dressed formally in a plunging black dress that sparkled and flowed to cover her feet. She played the keys to the lilting music that hung with each refrain. Her eyes were closed and lips were quivering under the lids as she sat entranced in her music. The strong emotion on that pale face pierced my heart at how absorbed one could be with something as simple as music. At once, I noticed the paleness of her bared arms and chest, and the rest of her exposed skin that did not drink up the flavor of color springing from the benevolent rug. This made her look like a ghastly apparition rather than a finely dressed pianist strumming away at my heart’s chords. I stood there at the door for an eternity staring at her and listening to the sweet music flowing from her fingers.
Eventually, the pianist took a quick break to drink from a decanter of red liquid that sat on the piano. I snapped out of my trance and tried to plot my bearings. The tables were lightly occupied with a scattering of people artistically arrayed in their ones and twos as haphazard as the arrangement of the tables. Some were talking softly with their companion or companions and laughing lightly over this or that. Those without companions were nursing what smelled like wines of different sorts and absorbed in their thoughts or the music. All in all, they looked to be enjoying themselves. The relaxed feel to this gathering, as well as how formally they were all dressed in their different shades of black fabric, made me feel out of place. I was also dressed just as formally but it did not negate the fact that I was in my work clothes. Their clothes looked like they were meant to be worn for the sole purpose of sitting in The Plum and chatting away and drinking wines; their clothes had that refined touch of clothes to be worn for leisure. The clothes I had on were more austere and rather suitable for a funeral in the face of these beautifully clothed men and women.
The Plum was a place where creatures in human skin hid in the dark. They crept into the mind of any who got too close to it and bewitched them into going down that flight of steps. These were the rumors that circulated up in the city. Standing there, I could understand the roots of that rumor however unseemly it was. Looking at them going about their evening in such leisure, the people seated before me were like creatures different from the daytime loving folk who trudged desolately home that very moment. They were too happy for a time such as the evening when the dregs of life made its daily appearance in a bid for a recognition that would send any who was not careful into a state of deep depression. But these people had none of that; no burdens or frowns, no bags under their eyes or emptiness in their gaze. Well, to be fair, their eyes were just as empty as those of the people above. But the only exception was that these ones had a shine in them that their counterparts did not possess. It is hard to describe it; this shine. It looks like a hint of mischief and a blend of some eternal resignation to fate and destiny. To put it simply, they looked happy and resigned. The people of The Plum had the airs of elder citizens who had lived life to the fullest and waited for that sense of fulfillment that was always late in the coming at the end of the road. This was the shining in their eyes. From the bartender wiping studiously at a piece of glassware in his hands to the waitresses, buzzing with orders as they came and went through a door that probably led to a kitchen of some sort. Even the patrons had it in their eyes. The lovers in their twos, lost in each other’s eyes, to the people who looked like friends laughing boisterously across from the pianist and her piano. The pianist herself was not left out as she nursed her drink and rummaged through her mind for what to play next.
A clicking sound behind me turned my attention back to the door. I quickly stepped aside as a woman in a black rain cape rushed in and headed straight to the bar. It seemed she was a regular judging by the familiarity with which she related with the man behind it. Their voices were low but the authoritative tones coming from the bartender and the slight look of rebuke on his face made me realize that he was the owner of the place. A brief exchange ensued and the figure made her way to the door that probably led to the kitchen. At this point, I had finally decided to take a seat that would offer me a good view of the pianist.
Making my way to a table that was two seats from the piano and one seat behind the loud band of friends, I was assaulted by different scents. Different scents, like islands, coming from individual tables with no two the same. The flowers and candles on each varied in size and color so much that I wondered if they were placed as requested by the patrons. Some tables had such a profusion of flowers that there was scarce enough space to place their orders. Others had a chandelier’s worth of scented candles with wax dripping down the very edges of the table and onto the boots of the patrons who graced the tabletops. My chosen table was of a more modest demeanor. On the face of the glossy surface sat a lit candle and a single flower stalk. The flower was of a kind I had never seen before. The stalk, leaves and flower were all white and as I positioned myself to sit, I stole a quick whiff at it to ascertain its scent. My nose came away empty. The sheer absence of smell coming from that flower was so strong that it seemed to wipe out the smell of anything around it. The candle was the same; a fat tallow with an expressionless white flame dancing flaccidly on its head. These artefacts nullified my sense of smell just by sitting at a table with them. The rich scents of The Plum that surrounded me and called for my attention just moments ago had vanished like snow under a radiator.
Reeling in confusion, I looked about me to see if the other patrons were experiencing the same problems. But, unfortunately, their evening was going just as fine as it should be. There it was: a barren table, devoid of menu or cutlery, with two pieces of alchemy that I did not understand. And there I was sitting at table with them.
A commotion at the door that probably led to the kitchen brought me to mind and I was just in time to see a lady making her way to my table. She was dressed in black like everybody else and wore her dress with an ease that I felt familiar with; she wore it as a uniform just like me and my work clothes. Of course, my mind could not reconcile these two pieces of information and I stared at her in a fashion that might be deemed rude by some. On reaching my table, she produced a napkin and placed it in front of me.
“Good evening, sir. I am Yuiko. Welcome to The Plum, I trust you’re having a good time?” she said.
In her black dress she stood there, hands behind her back, and she spoke to me in such a clear strong voice. The smile on her face was genuine and her eyes also had the shine in them. Parts of her black hair was wet in the bun that she fashioned it into and there were some stray wisps of it dangling down the side of her head. And her skin, by the light and all that dwelled beneath the rotten ice of creation’s lake, was a dark-brown the color of glazed honey. She seemed to be clothed with flesh that was one note away from being gold. She was like the rind of a ripe mango near bursting with juices. Her skin was so smooth that it would have put the tabletop and the piano both to shame. And as she stood there in front of me, all I could think about was how much I wanted to sink my teeth into that beautiful flesh of hers and drink myself to satiation. I wondered what the fluids running through her insides would taste like and for a moment I was sure it would be sweet. A sweet golden ichor that would stain my black clothes with its richness.
“Have you decided on your order?” she piped, insistent.
Looking at the table, I could not see a menu of any sort. Fearing to make a fool of myself, I decided to leave it to her discretion.
“What would you recommend?” I asked, feeling sheepish.
She picked up the napkin she had placed before and stretched it to me.
“Take a whiff of this and let’s see what your palates would prefer tonight” she answered.
This statement confused me, but with much gusto I did as she asked and collected the napkin. It did not smell like much when I put it to my nose, just warm fabric and a bit of moisture. Folding the napkin nicely, I returned it to her.
“I’ll be right back” she said, retrieving the napkin and placing it gingerly in the palm of her right hand. She swooped the dull candle and flowers away too as she made her way back to the door.
As she walked away, I had a flash of lancing pain shoot up through my left eye. In the flash I saw a gold to rival the color of her skin.
The pianist, done with her break, tentatively pressed a key that pealed through the room and dived right into her next song. It was a rather mid-tempo piece with the high pitched keys, waltzing here and there, to much heavier undertones. Listening to this new song brought me in mind of a baby taking its first steps and then going on to waltz a waltz not much unlike the manner in which the pianist played the keys. I cannot say, for sure, that it was a sad song. But like everything in life, there is a sad undertone to everything. At once I understood the need for the heavier keys underlying each piercing note. I visualized the baby slowly dancing alone in a semi-dark room whose sole light source was a little fire burning in an abandoned chimney of an abandoned room. Its first baby steps going unnoticed by its parents or any adult for that matter. That feeling of awe and wonder that adults always have when a child does something extraordinary would forever be lost to this babe. Where, I wondered, were the parents of this dancing child? On and on the pianist took my thoughts until I lost myself and lived the images of the song she was playing. A sad song it might have been but I cannot say for sure. It was just like her, pale and clothed in black, sitting on a bench before a grand piano with tears filtering their way to her lips. The song was just like her and everyone else in the room; it had the shine. And with that resigned smile and that longing sigh that wishes for a place over the hills and faraway, it waltzed and stumbled on baby feet.
A light tap on my shoulder brought me out of my trance. It was the lady named Yuiko.
“I see that you have submerged yourself in Korlat’s music. She would be very pleased to know that someone else finds her music powerful enough to move them to tears” she said as she handed me a handkerchief that appeared in her left hand.
I accepted it and dabbed at my eyes. To my utmost shock the handkerchief came away with stains of black. Black tears that I did not recall shedding painted the fabric and I felt a wave of embarrassment as I realized that I had been very much affected by a piece of music. Yuiko waited patiently with a covered platter balanced expertly on her right hand. I returned her handkerchief with many thanks and she accepted it graciously. She immediately set to work to laying out what she came with.
The platter, thus uncovered, held a heap of orange lantanas that lifted into my nose with a haze of citrus scents and a short golden candle that had a heavy aromatic smell that reminded me of maple syrup. Yuiko stood there staring at the platter like she was seeing the contents for the first time. I looked from her to the blossoms before me to ascertain what was wrong but could not discern anything out of the ordinary. The only thing I thought of note was a black swallowtail butterfly picking its way through one of the blossoms and ignoring the rest of the world.
“Is anything the matter?” I asked, feeling a little uncomfortable with the turn of events.
She looked at me and simply asked:
“Are you sure?”
“Sure about what?” I asked in return.
She seemed to take a deep breath to steady herself. Her whole demeanor was of someone who had just seen a long lost relative who they had thought was dead after a thousand years after a devastating war. Slowly, and I feel like it was in answer to my question, she reached for the lantanas and picked a single petal. She took this petal, put it in her mouth and audibly swallowed.
“Do you see?” she asked, insistent.
“I don’t think I do” I said, apologetic.
Deciding to play it cool, I followed suit and picked a petal. Slowly, I placed it in my mouth and swallowed. It was bitter and it brought the lancing pain back to my left eye with a force that felt like that side of my face had exploded. I sat there gasping, wondering what it all meant and wondering what this woman named Yuiko had done to me.
Was I wrong to have disbelieved the rumors of the people above? I asked myself this question a million times as I floated in that world of excruciating pain Yuiko had fashioned for me. How was she even calm, standing there so still and undisturbed? I wondered why she was not smiling any longer. I think she was wearing one when she brought me the platter. I think I remembered seeing a flash of her teeth when she took back her handkerchief. But there was none there now except for the pain that painted the left side of my vision as I sat gasping for some respite.
“What’s happening?” I managed to squeak.
“I think we have been bonded. Follow me” came a female voice from the inside of my head over a roar of oceans.
A hand grasped my hand and all was chaos.
The world was lurching in all directions from what I could see with my good eye. We moved, the hand in mine and leading, towards a red door that reared and loomed until it swung away from view. The pain had started subsiding and I could make out Yuiko’s golden skin holding my hand. Her hand was warm and soft in it. Her touch was none too gentle but it was firm and comforting. I felt like I was born to that hand that clasped mine in such an embrace that can only be called intimate. We were in a corridor of some sort that seemed to stretch on for eternity and Yuiko was hurrying us along with purpose. I stole a look back but the red door that probably led to the kitchen was nowhere to be found. There was nothing behind us but the corridor stretching away into infinity. I could not help but notice how peaceful it was there. The quiet was a rich one; not eerily silent and cold like empty buildings but rich and present like the quiet just before the first sounds of morning; like the quiet on a mountain covered in deep winter snow; like the quiet of flying or swimming slowly in deep water. I almost felt like I was floating through time heedless of wherever Yuiko was taking me.
We came to such a sudden halt that I almost pulled Yuiko along with my momentum. We stood before another red door that had no knob that I could see. Yuiko was breathing hard from the flight here and leaning on the door. Her skin was starting to glow faintly. I marveled at the beauty of it.
“Come” she said and pushed the door open.
It was a dark room, even darker than the corridor, with no furnishings at all. It had probably seen much use one upon a time but now it just held nothing but a patch of red light that filtered through a hatch in the ceiling. I entered and the door closed tightly behind me. Yuiko who had been watching me enter the room turned away from me and stretched her hands out to the sides.
“Could you help me get the zipper at the back?” she asked.
I walked over to her and did as she asked. I slid the zipper and watched the black drees fall to the floor. The skin on her back bore a tiny scar that looked like a brand of some sort. It was in the center of her sternum and was all angular; a triangle with horns extending from the apex. She turned back towards me and looked me in the eye. We were close enough that I could feel her fast breath on my lips and chin.
“I want you let me in, okay?” she said reassuringly.
I wanted her. I could not think of anything else at that point. She was so smooth and golden and I wanted everything in my mouth and on my tongue. I wanted to taste every bit of her and drink her golden hue to the last drop. I needed a drink and it seemed she needed me too.
She took my hand in both of hers and brought it up to her mouth. With a quick darting of her tongue, she licked it and I felt a sharp pain race up my arm. Black blood dropped from the cut in my hand where her tongue had touched it. I stared at the drops as they floated soundlessly to the ground. There was a hunger in her; I could see it now. A hunger to match mine; a hunger that was kin to mine and meant to satisfy it.
She lapped at the blood flowing down my fingers while I snatched one of her hands. I licked her palm just as she had done and it opened into a wound where gold blood poured in a rush. I rushed to stop it with my mouth and I finally tasted it.
It was glorious.
The circle was complete. We kissed and our tongues sliced each other off at the roots. We spat them out like seeds from cherry plums and proceeded to drink from the fountain that flowed from our ruined mouths. We laid there entangled in an eternal kiss of black and gold juices that slowly flooded the dark chamber behind the red door that was behind the red door that probably led to the kitchen of The Plum.