“Close your eyes. A lover is standing too close to focus on.”
— Richard Siken, "Snow and Dirty Rain"
Count D doesn't usually read American poets. Not for any particular reason, though he does have a little bias against Americans' tendency toward free verse. It often, to him, seems like an excuse to avoid craft and intentionality in favor of instinct and natural talent.
A human flaw, for sure, and one that Americans have perfected. Like the French, he thinks, though the French have a history before their bloody, visionary long nineteenth century.
Americans have only blood before their revolution.
He supposes it makes sense, though. Walt Whitman to Allen Ginsberg to now, this slim little volume on his coffee table. Crush by Richard Siken. A young man, a winner of a prestigious award.
A man in love, D supposes, turning the book's pages with his long, dark fingernails. At least in fits and spurts, the man must have been in love, and loved deeply.
He knows how that feels, now.
The diurnal animals are all asleep, and the nocturnal ones mainly keep to themselves in the back of the shop at night. He is alone, and here and only here can get admit the truth: he loved Leon Orcot more than he could bear, and the love would not fade with time.
His eyes land on a stanza:
I had to make up all the words myself. The way
they taste, the way they sound in the air. I passed
through the narrow gate, stumbled in, stumbled
around for a while, and stumbled back out. I made
this place for you. A place for you to love me.
It aches in him to know that Leon had done that, had passed into his life, stumbling around, turning the shop into a place that really did deal in love and dreams, if only for a little while.
The shop feels lonelier now, though the animals keep him occupied enough not to think on it.
No cakes have tasted sweeter than the gifts Leon brought him in L.A.; no shade of blue thread in the fine silk of his cheongsams has shone brighter than the blue of the man’s eyes; no touch or embrace from any of the animals can ground him the way Leon had.
He knows Pon-chan and Tetsu can tell — they, in their own ways, had come to feel affection for the Orcots, after all.
His world is quieter, duller without Leon in it. He should be thankful. Proud, even; he mastered his desires and pushed the human away, despite his own shameful tears.
In Grandfather’s eyes, it would be termed a redemption. He has returned to his mission, his purpose, his fate.
Grandfather would be so disappointed to find that the shop has changed — now, there is less death, and he has become soft for love stories and for children. Another thing the Orcots wrought, if unintentionally.
He sips his tea, flipping through a few more pages.
Then, he settles in to read.
The gunshot is a shocking crack that D can hear too closely and too loudly — it’s inside Neo-Chinatown. On this floor of the complex, even.
He moves toward the front door, the animals scuttling, scampering, or flapping toward the back of the shop as he does so. He only intends to shut the door and hope no one breaks in, but when he reaches the door —
Leon Orcot is leaning heavily against the wall, and he he is bleeding.
“D,” Leon says, his eyes sparking as a pained smile tugs at his mouth. “Finally.”
D pulls him inside and shuts the door — and not a moment too soon; another gunshot leads to a bullet embedding itself in the heavy wood of the door.
He leads Leon to the couch and makes him sit before either of them says anything. There’s a beat of stillness and silence, but D breaks it by going to find bandages. He’s only alone for a moment, getting them from a cabinet, but he still crumples in on himself, just a little.
Somehow, Leon Orcot is here.
Here, and bleeding on D’s favorite couch.
D brings the bandages back to Leon. “Where were you shot?”
That, after all, needs to be the most urgent priority.
“My side. Think it’s a through-and-through, feels kind of like the last one.” Leon hisses through gritted teeth as he twists out of his jacket — and sure enough, there’s a bullet hole in the garment.
D kneels in front of the couch, clenching his jaw as Leon hikes his shirt up. The gunshot is clean as it comes into view, and Leon was right — it’s a through-and-through, as he called it.
It is still horrible.
Do we simply stare at what’s horrible and forgive it? The line from a poem strikes him, and he pushes it away. There is, here, nothing to forgive. He begins to wrap the wound, to try to staunch the bleeding.
Once that’s dealt with, he will bring Leon to the Caladrius, and she will help them.
“You okay, D?” Leon asks, his hand coming up to D’s face, tipping his face up to look at Leon’s. “You’re shaking.”
He is. Another shame on top of all the others.
He takes a breath. “I’m...alarmed,” he allows. “This was unexpected, after all.” He looks away and begins to wrap the wound.
Leon’s hand does not leave his face. “Okay. It’s okay.”
It doesn’t feel ‘okay,’ but D supposes it’s just one of those things that humans tell each other, to fill dead air and pretend that things are all right. He finishes wrapping Leon’s waist and stands, Leon’s hand falling from his face as he does. “The Caladrius will help,” he says. “Can you stand?”
Leon does, and there is hardly any space between them.
“Count,” the Caladrius says, her voice light with joy. “It is so rare for you to come to me.”
In her human form, she is garbed in white, her olive-toned skin and dark hair standing out against the stark, beautiful linen she wears.
“Is that — is she —?” Leon is leaning heavily on his shoulder.
The Caladrius laughs. “Yes, I am a bird,” she tells him. She approaches them. “And I have my gifts — gifts you seem in dire need of, at the moment.”
“I’ve had worse,” Leon insists, and the worst part, D thinks, is that it’s objectively true.
“Of course,” she says, and places her fingertips under Leon’s chin. “Now, good man, look into my eyes.”
She has done this before — it is what she was born for — but it is still difficult to watch her do it. Her eyes meet Leon’s, and her gaze is full of warmth and sweetness. D can almost ignore the slow bloom of red blood in the white linen of her simple Roman tunic, a mirror of the bullet wound in Leon’s side.
After a long few moments, she closes her eyes and steps back from them. “Count? If I may fly...”
“Of course,” he says, and behind her, a window creaks open. She transforms, and a beautiful, bleeding white plover flies out over the skies of Tokyo.
Leon watches. “Wait, she’s — did she...?” His hand goes to his side. “Did she...absorb my wound, or something?”
“Yes,” D says, simply. “She is a Caladrius. Her kind would visit wounded and sick people during Roman times, to heal the worthy.” He steps away from Leon, turning to face him with something approaching a smile.
Leon smirks a little. “Well, that’s a first.”
D takes his hand. “One a long time coming, if I’m not mistaken.”
Leon laughs, and pulls D in. Within moments, Leon’s mouth is on his, and D can only sink into the feeling of it all.
Rome burned long ago; L.A. is a distant dream. There is no returning to the past. Here, now, with Leon against his body, he has found something a thousand times more beautiful.
We are all going forward. None of us are going back.