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Salinity (And Other Measurements of Brackish Water)

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Art by Camillo1978

Art by Camillo1978

“When you are falling in love it is always already too late: dēute, as the poets say.”

Anne Carson, Eros the Bittersweet

 

Tell me about the end of the world.

Tell me about after. Who gets the tales?  We can talk for hours about Achilles, we know all the things anyone ever needs to know about Electra. We are fascinated with ache, sounding it out with a little probe.

This is the South Downs and Crowley likes to haunt the docks. There's not much to do down here, is there? He's sniffed about all the bars and the record shops. He's been about the edges of the place, this dull village, scaring his roses into submission. So he has come to the docks with his whiplash body. (He is a snake first, a snake always. Snakes only lie straight when they are dead and so his body moves like a serpent. Like an apostrophe or comma, from saunter and stride to a strange and sudden curling in upon himself.) He is curled now, his head bent over the water, watching for water spiders and algae, the slap of a fish. His red giant hair (the color of a dying star) caught in the seawind. His leather shoes willed, no, instructed to not get wet, to not feel the seep of salt. You must be careful in rockpools, do not go barefoot. The edges of your skin, your bareness on the rocks, ready to be torn open. Keep your sandals on, your leather shoes. Do not expose yourself.

He has always been fond of water. God had really been on fire then, inventing water. Crowley had been a snake once, though he prefers two arms and two legs these days. A snake on its belly, curled up in the reeds of a river. Yes, through the water, the moss, the muck too.

How does it go? The fall? The stumble? The saunter vaguely downwards? It starts with the lines in the face. They are there, around Aziraphale’s eyes, there in the chin and the jaw too. The cotton curl of his hair, the dandelion spit of him. That unsure half-smile, that flick of the eyes. Crowley and his hunger. Can you ever blame a starving man for reaching for the table? I won’t do it again this time, I won’t. (He glares his own hellhair into submission, skeptical at his strange jaw and skinny nose.)

But still, it doesn’t matter. It never matters. What we say to the mirror never matters. It is never more than twenty minutes in before Crowley finds himself performing for Aziraphale again, trying to tease out that impish grin (not a good look for an angel, Crowley thrills to it). I am ridiculous around you. It is impossible, he might claw his eyes out if it would help. He doesn’t think about it, this sick want. (He always thinks about it.) He has bullied the river of his consciousness, sending the polluted want, that steady stream of want (and worse) so somewhere deep. A water table. Unseen. Untapped. What would you do if I told you? (Impossible to know.)

The sun is getting long. He should get back.

He's promised to cook tonight.

 


 

The oddest dance are two trains running parallel, trying to look in each others' windows. Two bodies of water, trying to guess the depths. How do you ask? How do you say I am one-hundred-and-seventy-four meters deep. My salinity is thirty-five parts per thousand. How about you?

I will tell you how we do it. The lead line, this bit of white vinyl rope with a lead ballast at the end. We drop the long rope into the water, measure how deep it goes. This is how we can know of places we have never been. No, I have not felt that but I have cast my lead line into the water and have felt the bottom of the ocean with a bit of lead. There are other ways to do it now, electronic devices using echoes against the ground. Thrown out and back again. But they are imperfect. Some things do not change, not really. We still measure the unknown the way the Greeks did, the way the Romans had. You and I, this little boat, this length of line.

Who gets the tales? The well-traveled sea, the well-measured depths. We forget about these quiet spaces, the bays and the shoreline, pools of gentle water. Oedipus gets everything, you know. The stories and the crown too. No one talks about a little cottage, about Baucis and her pies, Philemon and his fishnets. No one remembers the one about the quiet sea.

So, just once, let us look.

 


 

He is standing in the kitchen, scowling at a pot. Let me explain why.

They had, of course, been drunk. It wasn't entirely Crowley's fault (not this time). Aziraphale had been the one to suggest breaking open the case of 2007 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon. ( "Angel, angel, you know me and Californias. Pick something else." But Aziraphale had insisted.) If, after finishing a few bottles, Crowley had rather suggested moving on to the collection of very fine Sauternes wines, he cannot be entirely blamed.

Yes, they had been very very very drunk by the time Crowley had picked one of his questions out of his pocket, one of the little ones never spoken for fear that they might be misconstrued in the exact way that they are meant. For fear that they are too betraying, too obvious. "I certainly owe you a demonic miracle of my own for this wine, you know."

"Oh," Aziraphale says, fussing at his sleeve. "Never. I wouldn't share it with anyone else."

"No, pick something. Anything you like." Crowley is thinking of nicking stars and hiding them in his breast pocket, he is thinking of taking Aziraphale back to that cafe by the Left Bank. He is thinking of stealing the Pieta (maybe not that - he'd taken the Mona Lisa once, had only put it back at Aziraphale's frown).

Aziraphale had done that funny smile with his mouth then. The bit of a smile, the pull back, that smile again. That cast-over look to Crowley. "I want to see you cook."

"Time to ease off the wine, angel."

"I'm serious."

"You're mad. We could go to that sushi place, the one in Osaka, with the fresh -"

"Crowley."

Crowley studies his glass very intently, wondering if the wine has acquired hallucinogenic properties from being stored too long in Aziraphale's preternaturally damp bookshop. "What kind of cooking?"

That ridiculous, absurd, wondrous smile. Like a flower to the sun. Dawnbreak. "Any kind," Aziraphale pauses, "I will dare you, my dear boy, if I must."

"Listen, when you're rotten with food poisoning, don't blame me."

 


 

The cottage is in the South Downs.

Aziraphale had needed a place to stay. The London bookshop is now burnt. The heap of char is no more recognizable than the old witches on their stakes, no more obvious than the dead on their pyres. Crowley had offered his flat, of course, though Aziraphale had made that funny serpent-line of his lip and quite plainly informed him that Crowley's flat was, in fact, dreary. (Ridiculous, that. Nothing dreary about taste. What does a stuffy angel with no idea about Lou Reed know about the concept of taste ?)

So here now, this cottage set on rolling chalk hills, this mess of blue sky and green and nothing, nothing at all of the grind of the Tube, the smell of piss and vinegar of a pub, the litter windswept from overstuffed rubbish bins. There is too much sun, too much brightness, without tall buildings to keep it out. Crowley and his too-dark jacket, his oddly-long self, a sore spot in the bright.

And then there is chalk-hill-white Aziraphale, this insistent creature. He is a spot of white around a corner, a surprise of a smile. That soft-focus mouth and those steady-set shoulders. Crowley frowns, an itch between his shoulder blades. He cannot reach, not quite, and scrapes his back against the wall. Aziraphale had been so pleased, so enthusiastic about setting up a place down here. Of course, it is not forever (you cannot promise forever when it is, in fact, a very real possibility). But just while Aziraphale gets his new business started, his new little village bookshop. Of course, Crowley had said yeah, sure, I'll come for a bit. Keep the windows secure, the plants intimidated, the floor swept.

Yes, just for now.

And somehow, that has put him here, in the kitchen, standing in front of a window, his hands soaked with brine. He is making cabbage rolls. Sarmale. First, you brine the leaves. Take a bit of cabbage and peel each leaf off. Keep the good ones, toss the torn to your dog. Crowley and his quickwork fingers, saving them for compost (Aziraphale had insisted). There is a pot of salted water on the stove, turned to a boil. You don't need to cook them long, three minutes perhaps.

The cabbage is falling apart in his hands. The rolls won't tuck quite right, nothing like the ones he and Aziraphale had eaten once (a table in Sighișoara, a bottle between them, looking out at the medieval walled city, the towers and the churches, the birthhouse of Vlad Tepes, that long stretch of sun on the river, the Târnava Mare). He is furious. This could be easily fixed, so easily done with a little imagination. (But Aziraphale had asked for Crowley to cook. In the human way. The mortal way.)

Fuck fuck fucking shit fuck. I can't serve this muck. This is awful.

But Aziraphale had asked. There's the rub.

Crowley's face flares red. There is a disconnect between his mouth and his mind. Wait, he wants to say, I have thought this through. It is like the pleura that separates heart and lung, the silverskin connecting sinew to sinew. Yes, on one side, his mouth, Crowley lays out casual words, lazy slang, indolent jokes. Internally, it is another story. He watches from a distance, grimacing. What has he forgotten? The duality of blue. Blue is calm, placid as a summer sky. Wild as an ocean storm. Orderly as ice, yet the hottest part of the flame, deep in the center, is blue. Look at the beardstart there at the jaw, around the mouth. The straight nose, the pale eyes. God, you’re fucking beautiful. (He cannot think that, it is a sin against Hell. He should not think that; he has known it for so long. Has fought the knowledge forever.  I belong to you. ) He feels faint with the sight, the rush of blood to his head, pushed from the heart outward. Like a plant unfurling to the sun.

We forget the brackish. Obsessed with the extremes, the distal ends of our experience, the lake and the sea. Fresh and salt. We forget the middle, the in-between, the I-don't-know. It is absurd to judge the middle, it must exist. There must be the mixture, the center space. We do not walk the length of the Thames from Battersea at Gravesend, yelling at the brackish river to make up its damn mind. (We do not say you have to decide. One or the other, are you in or are you out? )

I want you. The mornings too. I want to watch you make your ridiculous toast with butter and that sick sweet strawberry jam. I want to watch you on the water, the stern of a boat. Even the sun, if you want the sun, let’s have that too. (I want you other ways. I can lie but what is the damn point? I want you rough and raw, I want your teeth to get stuck in the meat of me. I want our vocal cords to tangle up. I am not a saint, I have never never never been a saint, so you cannot be surprised at this sick want.)

He isn't sure when it'll happen, if it will happen. It is hard to tell, isn't it? It is always easy to read too too too much into the hand on his shoulder, into the quirk of a smile, into Aziraphale's grin at yet one another of Crowley's mischievous demonic miracles. But by the middle of the day, by the fourth hour of Aziraphale's absence in his cramped, dust-mottled bookshop, Crowley is quite certain that he's misread it. Yes, he's been wrong. You've always been real good about getting things real fucking wrong, haven't you?

The door slams behind Aziraphale. Hard yet unintentional. Crowley grimaces. Aziraphale always forgets to shut the door gently when he's gotten a good shipment in. Too full of thirst and delight, too full of sun, a cup left in the rain and set to overflow.

"Crowley, that smells marvelous ."

"Well, obviously," he says, not looking back. "Go bless the termites or something, whatever it is you angels do." (After Aziraphale leaves the kitchen, Crowley breathes in deeply, pulling the scent deep inside of him, deep into his lungs. Keep it sound, keep it safe.)

 


 

"I want to see you cook." (Something made from his hands. Something purely Crowley. Nothing pulled from the ether. Nothing sourced and given, no. Something made from his hands.)

He looks at his hands. Holds them up, splays them against the shale backdrop of his ceiling. His hands are always the same, day to day. They are clean but stained. His long and dawdling fingers, his bit of knuckles, his veins and tendons beginning to show a little more. Yes, more, he doesn't know the age of his body but he keeps it somewhere here, at indeterminate forty. There is a hangnail on the ring finger, there are stains of belladonna on the sides, on the rough spots.

Belladonna, that green plant sick with chlorophyll, sick with poison. Crowley is a gardener and he grows belladonna in his bedroom. He knows poisons the way Aziraphale knows the Dewey Decimal System. Yes, he knows them intimately, bent over his long counter, pulling the leaves apart, peeling the stems. Crushing the seeds. He knows not to lick his fingers after, that the leaves and berries are toxic to a grown man, that maybe even Livia had used it once, dripped into Augustus' wine. Not, really, that poisons would matter . It’s one of those little perks of the demon gig, that whole immortality thing. What can get at him; what can cut it short? Only holy water and other blessed things. (Aziraphale is an angel, made out of blessed things. Crowley does not know how it might be to kiss him, mouth to wet mouth. If holy water might burn him, what can he expect from the freshwater mouth of an angel?)

He thinks of cooking.

There are so many recipes for hearts. Dice them, braise them, pressure cook them, yes. A bit of salt, a bit of acid. Parsley and thyme too. You can tenderize them like you might an octopus. Stand there, stand back. Slam the beast over and over and over again into a stainless steel table. It will cook well then; it will be good to eat.

Yes, these are all better things to do with a heart than what he’s done instead.

 


 

“That was wonderful,” Aziraphale sets the fork down in the way he always does when he is particularly fond of a meal. The tines upside-down, perfectly set at ten o'clock on the white plate. His hands and the bit of folded linen napkin, brushing unseen crumbs from himself. “It reminds me of that day in Romania. We had cabbage rolls there too, didn’t we?”

Yes. Crowley shrugs, moving his too-sharp angles called shoulders, the dark fabric stretched from bone to bone. “Might have, you know. Picked it up somewhere.”

“When was that? That day?”

“15th century sometime.”

“Oh yes, Vlad and the Turks.” Aziraphale nods sagely, that soft smile over edges. Over the edge of the table, the demarcation of a glass of wine. Separate nation states. Angel and demon. (Salt and fresh; sea and sky.) “Which one was yours?”

Crowley frowns, “You know - I don’t remember.”

"You and Vlad were quite friendly."

"Ah, he was a good old sport. Dull thing, the 15th century. Wasn't quite as bad as the 14th but listen, angel, such a drag."

"You know," Aziraphale swirls the glass. Wine like waves. Like drowning waves. "I thought you two were -"

"What? You mean -"

Aziraphale has colored slightly. Just the tip of his nose and the cheekbones. A brushstroke on the ear. When you have learned something by heart, you can tell any changes. Crowley stares. "Well, you were awfully close."

"Satan spare me," Crowley drawls, "Absolutely never."

"Do you mean never never?" Aziraphale pauses, "Oh dear, nevermind. I shouldn't have asked, of course."

"Never. Never."

"Oh."

Crowley drains the last of the glass. It will be millennia before he can look at a cabbage leaf again. He might bully it into evolution just to be rid of the thing.

 


 

The cottage is on the water. The docks are there, in the estuary, where the river spreads out into the sea. This strange mix of salty and sweet water, this brackish mess. There is no telling here of what you'll find. This mix of worlds, two things that do not belong together. It fascinates him, these edges and transition zones. His acid rain eyes are unnatural, he can look at the bottom if he likes. So he looks, what else is there to do? He watches seagrass and barbel, perch and bream. He measures salinity with his breath, with his pupils.

He is a pillar of salt. Lot's wife had looked back in doubt. Crowley had once let doubt trip on out of his mouth, had fallen down asking questions. He's still doubtful, still unsure, still sick with needing to know. He thinks of sounding. Of dropping a rope into the water. He can do this with any human, read any mind.

But not this river. The River Aziraphale, freshwatered and gentle.

"I thought I might find you here," the river says, standing next to him. Crowley is slightly taller, looking over at a puff of cotton-white hair. Dandelion junk.

"Oh, just giving the fish a thing or two to think about, you know."

"Crowley," Aziraphale says, frowning a bit, still catching his breath from the walk. "Do shut up."

Crowley blinks. "What?"

You see, that's the thing about rivers. The sea will never flow in, the river is always flowing forward. The freshwater is the one that knocks first, breaking into the bay, saying hello hello are you there? May I come in? Aziraphale and his wave, his snowmelt overflow, pulling at Crowley's grey scarf and there, mouth to mouth, lips fitting together like setting a book finally upon its given shelf. This grip of desperate fingers, this clash of quiet and nothing and no words. There are no words. His eyes ache, his mouth aches, yes yes yes yes I love you.

(He might have accidentally prayed.)

(He did not, in fact, burn.)

"Is this okay?" Aziraphale says to his mouth, putting the words in there himself.

"Yes." Yes, always yes, please, please, please. Who can think when there is a chest against you? An echo from across a valley, heart to heart, pulse to pulse, this mix of us together. You and I, me and you. Please.

"You will tell me if it's not, won't you?" (Mirrored hesitation.)

"I will." Always, it will always be right.

In the beginning, there was nothing. We know this from measuring light. There was a steady state, this gas giant, denser than comprehension. A day without a yesterday. Yes, then the great big bang, the explosion outward, the creation of matter. Yes, the Universe had been created and then existed in nothingness, black space. It would take billions of years before the first particles of light would form. Yes, there was a time before light. Yes, let there be light.

When we look only at the lakes and the sea, we forget about rockpools. Let us look at brackish water. The Sea and the River, this brackish mix of them together. Fingers and mouths and foreheads touching. This flutter of mouth to eyelid, tongue to collarbone. Not all edges are sharp, sometimes the lines are wide, sometimes there are spaces between in which we can set up a little home, have a little kitchen, where you and I can live in a quiet and blank space. Just the two together.

There is the end of the world.

But, you see, there is also after.