Bikini Kill | Harper's Magazine
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From August Blue, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Vass decided to sail after all. He said the wind would calm down. The boat was tipping upward for about twenty minutes after we left the port. Max’s friend, Tomas, who was on the boat with us for the day, was feeling seasick. He was about thirty and wore round tortoiseshell spectacles. Vass told him to keep his eyes on the horizon, that would settle his stomach. We both looked out at it. There had been a forest fire somewhere on the mainland, whipped up by the wind. A thick band of black smoke floated across the sky. Its acrid smell was in the air, too. Tomas was promptly sick over his new Greek leather sandals. His spectacles had fallen off and now lay in a pool of vomit. Vass suggested he lie down on the bed on the lower deck. Now and again I was instructed to give “the patient” water. I picked up his spectacles and Vass showed me how to switch on the little shower on deck to clean them. Tomas was lying flat on his back. He was wearing shorts and a white T-shirt, now splattered with vomit. When I gave him his spectacles, I noticed his eyes were gray-blue, perhaps the color of smoke. His hair was mousy and came down to his shoulders. Sunburn on his knees, mosquito bites on his shins.

He had bought a box of pastries for us all, he told me, the box was in his bag, please to help myself, almond cakes, a specialty from this region. I reached into his bag. He had packed a water bottle, a tube of sunblock, six cans of beer, and a book about the French director Agnès Varda. The little cake box was tied with a green ribbon. Before he was sick again, he told me I was kind. Maybe I am.

When the wind had calmed and we pulled into a sheltered bay, Vass dived into the ocean, flipping downward, headfirst. He held a fork in his right hand, an ordinary dinner-table fork, and a blue plastic carrier bag in his left. He could hold his breath underwater for three minutes while he plunged the fork into an urchin, turning it to the left and to the right, wrenching it off the rock. He told me to do the same and together we would slay enough urchins for a feast at sunset. I could also hold my breath for a long time under the deep Aegean, but I needed to surface more often than Vass. As I plunged my fork into the urchin and wiggled it about, I tried to protect my fingers from its spines. The sun burst through the water and I was swimming in light.

There were many urchins on the rocks. My fork reached for one of them, my blue hair plaited and pinned up, arms stretching outward and upward. I discovered I was brutal. There were now about seven urchins in my blue bag. When I surfaced to take a breath, I could see Vass still underwater, working with his fork. I swam back to the boat, three spines in my fingers.

Tomas had recovered. He was showering naked on the deck and he was singing. I kept out of his way while he dressed, which involved washing the vomit out of his shorts and putting them on soaking wet. He walked over to me, holding two cans of beer and the box of almond cakes.

You’re a killing machine in a bikini, he said.

We looked out at the smoke moving across the sky as we sipped beer. What came to me, transmitted through the smell of the forest fire on the mainland, was something to do with the burning of straw on the farms surrounding my first home in Suffolk. The farmers used to burn the leftover hay to make space for their winter seedbeds, but when I was six, a wind was up and there had been a big fire. It had rampaged into the surrounding villages. The woman who taught me piano told us her lettuces had been ruined. The window of my childhood house had been left open and there was a layer of ash on the top of my piano. The Wurlitzer upright. The ash had blown inside the guts of the piano, too. There was talk of finding the child prodigy a new instrument. The day I came downstairs to find that the Wurlitzer had disappeared was a wrench. Like the urchin violently being removed from its rock. I had clung to that piano, and now there was an absence in the space where it once stood. A surge of panic entered my body. I reached for an almond cake, sweet and moist, like marzipan, as if it were medication that might dull a pain resurfacing in the present.

By the time Vass swam back to the boat, Tomas and I were drunk. We had opened four of the beers and Tomas was singing a Joni Mitchell song to me. “Big Yellow Taxi.” It was too high for him but he was enjoying the challenge of finding a voice within himself that was totally alien to his own. Vass got into the spirit of it all and sang the chorus with us as he opened an urchin.

The insides of the creatures were slimy, salty, and intense. Tomas was still queasy. He explained that he could not eat them, but would help take their spines out of my fingers.

Vass had given me a bowl of hot water and told me to plunge my fingers into it. I asked Tomas what sort of films he made. Mostly documentaries, he replied. He liked Agnès Varda because she had once said that she made documentaries to remind herself of reality. Here I was in this reality, living the life on Vass’s boat, while Tomas removed the spines from my insured fingers with tweezers. My right hand was resting on his lap and I felt his erection. It was exciting, the spines being pulled from my fingers and his desire.