“C’est When” occupied the penthouse of a modular building on a side street with a
Fifth Avenue address. Flanked by stately towers with balustraded
balconies and marble arches, this innovative edifice stopped me soon as I met
it. Eva, student of the arts, had told me about this kind of wacky
architecture. Tall glass walls and concrete blocks skewed with rough spatial
poetry defined a style called brutalist.
From the street, I could see the top floor lit for a party. Silhouettes of diners clustered along panoramic windows warmly aglow, and the skylight breathed auroras against the night.
I rode up in the service elevator with stacks of boxed meat and a plastic-wrapped tray of lamb fries, known less delicately as sheep testicles, which had been snipped from free range animals fed only clover, timothy brome and pristine spring water. This single tray cost more than all the boxes of cut meat.
A text message I had received on the way here from Logan, the sous chef, explained that the lamb fries would be vaporized, and that this tray would ‘feed’ several sittings, each over a hundred diners. The other cuts had been boxed for a nearby rooftop brasserie, where patrons of “C’est When” could retire afterward to discuss Chef Kaisa Taika’s (ka-EE-sa tie-EE-ka) inhalation art over an expertly seared filet of wagyu beef. She didn’t mention anything about Father Kieran, the vampire hunter stalking me.
I’m a vampyr who can evoke my mirror-image by visualizing my girlfriend Eva, the way she looked before she died. I used the brushed metal doors to fix my blurred reflection by reflecting on Eva.
Feeling her composure, I dressed her in street chic: a tunic top of rose chambray and gray jersey pants with a blue drawstring. When she embraced me in my mind, she and I appeared as solid shadows in the dull finish of the doors – which trundled open on petite Kaisa Taika in peacock blue pajamas and red moccasins.
The silver-haired gnome greeted me in the restaurant’s dry storage room among kegs of Himalayan salt and tuber sugar from the
Andes labeled “yacón.” She took both my hands in hers – tiny, alabaster hands
with green veins that made me weak. And, with a broad smile in her improbably
young face, showed small nicotine stained teeth, and led me out of the
I gestured with a head toss at the boxes of meat needing refrigeration. “Leave for Miko,” she said as Miko dashed by, a wispy Japanese woman in black server coat and crimson slacks. Nimbly, Miko began stacking steak boxes and fillet trays on a platform dolly. “The dead for feed the living.” Kaisa winked. “Next art project for me, roadside diner in
. This serves only living food. Living octopus,
tentacles wiggly. Gasping fish, all organs vital alive, hearts jumping. Ants,
grasshops, scorpions. Alive.” Tuscaloosa
Her hard fingers tightened their grip on me before vats and drums with exotic labels: fonio, grain amaranth, fat hen, einkorn, agrotriticum. “Art answers cruelty.”
“With more cruelty?”
“With knife edge. Life is edge of death. Edge of death is life.” Her whole body vibrated with glee, and those crescent eyes squeezed blue light. “Utmost west is utmost east. Yes?”
“I don’t understand.”
My words cut off her laughter clean as a scalpel. “Don’t pretend. We are alone. I am your sister of need. Need to eat.”
My sister of need? For a whirling instant, I thought she meant that she was a vampyr too. Of course not. Through a cocoon of tobacco pallor, I could smell her bodyheat. “Kaisa, who do you think I am?”
“Who?” A curt shake of her head corrected me. “What.” She let go of my left hand and pressed her palm against my heart, touching the emptiness there. “Ihmissusi. What changes shape.”
“Ihmissusi.” That sounds like ‘Eee! Miss Susie.’
Shapechanger. That was how she identified the immemorial thing she recognized in me. She had known from the very first time she saw me. I was like other “ihmissusi” she had confronted in her long travels. Eventually, she would tell me about her first tragic encounter with an “ihmissusi” in a gloomy
of eastern lake
when, as a young girl, she had witnessed her older brother devoured. After that
formidable event, she knew us by sight. Finland
Her obvious awareness of my plight moved me to ask outright, “Can you help me?”
No luck. Pain flinched in the crone’s babyface, appalled I had not yet embraced my fate as an “ihmissusi.” “You would not be dark existence?”
“I’m nineteen, Kaisa. I want to know what it’s like to be a man – not dark existence.”
She shrugged. “Not your choice.” Wisdom flexed in her stare. “Crave zones.” She pulled a pack of Egyptian cigarettes from the ample pocket of her iridescent pajamas. “For this package, I smoke these.” The packet showed government-mandated photos of an emphysema patient in an oxygen mask and a boy choking on second-hand smoke. “Honesty. I do not pretend outside the crave zone. I smoke.” She stuck a cigarette in her mouth and wagged it at me. “Nicotine for me. For you – dark existence.”
Kaisa believed in heightening sensual pleasure with permitted behavior, whether tobacco, sex, bungee jumping or, in my case, blood, while at the same time emphasizing strict denial of restricted food through ‘crave zones’ of spirit power and invincible focus.
“Dark existence isn’t like nicotine.” Hope eroded to despair. “I want human blood. That’s the lust I’ve got locked up in my crave zone. How do I live dark existence without endangering people?”
“Live far away in deep forest. Or on mountain and drink blood of goats.” Her vague eyebrows elevated with conviction. “Human craving must stay in crave zone. Yes? So be dark existence far away.”
A manic impulse urged me to throttle her. “
working? Your sous chef?” Logan
“Yes. Working.” She grabbed my wrist in an alabaster hand, and I looked away from those extravagant veins, paying attention to bushels of black potatoes, red cucumbers, pink pleated tomatoes. “
’s working.” Logan
Miko rushed a stacked dolly past us and out the wide doorless entry of dry storage. A yellow path of pebbled concrete ran around the back of the kitchen to a walk-in refrigerator behind a rainbow of plastic slats.
Dry storage and the walk-in cooler flanked the kitchen like wings of a theater. And like a stage, the kitchen presented a dramatic scene. Naked flames stood among elaborate glassware, a mad scientist’s lab. At one end, glassblowers puffed on long pipes and spun goopy incandescence into fanciful vials and ampoules shaped like scarabs, dragon whiskers, barbed devil-tails. At the other end of the kitchen, cooks in red jackets fitted these fabulous transparencies to stems atop a toaster-size convection vaporizer.
Holding center stage,
in understated white chef’s jacket and black
headwrap handled rare and luxurious delicacies with swift dexterity, like a
close-up magician transforming whatever she touched. A long and tilted mirror
on the ceiling captured her performance for the diners. Logan
They sat in the dark of a sunken amphitheater, invisible behind a glass partition reflecting the bright kitchen. A wash of Sami music, aboriginal Finnish flute and drum spirituals, mesmeric and sublime, heightened the sense of something magical happening in that luminous kitchen.
Combined in thumbnail-sized crucibles with enigmatic herbs and a drop of black truffle oil, the bold ingredients met the chef’s flaring nostrils. She fathomed fragrances by lightly heating the crucible, then sniffing and dashing for some flakes of wattleseed or a filament of Moroccan argan oil.
She hovered in stillness, in meditation on the teeming aromas from each thimble of food. Once she finally got the nose right, she signaled with a satisfied flourish, and a red jacket whisked the crucible to the shiny convection vaporizer.
Milky fumes swirled up the glass column fitted to the vaporizer, and the whimsical vials and ampoules attached to the column filled with savory essences. Red jackets snipped the glass tines with miniature butyl torches and placed each smoky vial on a nest of seagrass in unique baskets woven of liana twine and devil’s claw. A humanoid robot, like at a Japanese auto show, carried the baskets to the diners.
I sidled away, not wanting to distract
. Obviously not a good time to draw lifeforce from
her to strengthen Eva’s ghost. A pang of anxiety troubled me that I had ever
robbed her of strength. Who was I to impair this dramatic artistry? Logan
As if in reply, Eva’s ghost floated out of nothing and followed the very deliberate steps of a humanoid robot down toward the tables.
I nearly bumped into Kaisa as I edged toward a better view of the minimalist dining area and the people
entertained. Maybe ‘dining’ is the wrong usage, because nothing substantial
accompanied the hermetic vials of vapor except a few kelp chips artfully shaped
like emerald butterfly wings. Logan
“You like my art?” Kaisa pulled me by the elbow, out of the glare from the kitchen lights. “Thirty tables. Filled every night. Two sittings.”
Wonder spread numb warmth through my forever cold. The packed restaurant glowed. Literally glowed. Optical fibers trimmed the floor perimeter and suffused breezy hues onto the walls. Through a geodesic skylight, the big moon poured marbled silver into the air. And, to my shock, a phantom crowd appeared, the shadowless carnival of the Bornless Realm pranced and cavorted, unseen by the living.
Eva in ivory cling gown danced in the moonlight among firesnakes and corkscrew sylphs of the Bornless Realm. She twirled right through tables and diners – and bumped up against a tall harlequin. His red and black features split to a startling grin. And he gracefully spun her into a slinky, close-fitting dance.
Their languorous turns swept moonshine off the glass tables and set that gloss swirling in the air sticky as fog. Around them, masked Dancers pirouetted. These mysterious figures disappeared sideways, reappearing front and back, expressionless masks waxed with moonlight.
I’d never beheld such a throng of invisibles in one place, and I cast a startled look to Kaisa. Did she see these disordered revelers? Had she perhaps ... summoned them? A weird sister disguised as an artist? Was this arctic shaman using her alchemical inhalations to mingle the emanations of her patrons and attract moon spirits?
I scrutinized her merry face, seeking awareness of the eerie revelry before us. She delighted in the visceral chills of her paying guests as fragrances rarified and indescribable escaped the genie bottles and transfigured their expectant faces into vigorous smiles and drop-jaw astonishment.
“For you, I have this gift.” Kaisa held up an ampoule of red glass deftly shaped to a bulging heart braided with veins. With a flick of her thumb, she snapped the wee aorta, and a torch of rapture blazed through my nose into a throat jet of hot elation.
What had been my heart exploded to pounding flames. Fangs burst open in a hideous snarl. And my body hulked with frenzied strength.
“My blood!” the crazed witch shouted with imbecile hilarity. “Vapors of my own blood!”
Thriving speculations hurried through me, vanishing with the lit ghost of the man I had been: did this old woman want to die? Suicide by vampyr? Or was she risking all at the tired end of a long life for the bite of the undead and immortality?
Unutterable fury seized me, a spasm of silence before the paralyzing cry and killing strike. With the next eyeblink, bloodlust charred me blind. And Eva breathed in my face. The cold depth of her scent shoved me backward. I felt the chill of her final fear, heaven lost to eternal damnation.
I flung myself away from my voracity and collided with Miko coming out of the cooler. Frothing a mouthful of fangs, I squatted over her with a lethal glare intent as steel. The taut mask of her face shattered to madness.
“Jordie! Don’t leave me!” my ghost-lover cried.
Magnetized by Eva’s despair, I hoisted my rage and fled. The fire door in dry storage banged open, and I leaped headlong into the stairwell. Down I flew, shadowfire twisting behind. Heat crackled raw around me, jagging into a transparent blaze that bounced me violently off the concrete floor at the bottom of the stairs and heaved me lashed in lightning through double doors onto the street.
Under avalanching fury, I rushed down the avenue toward the darkness of the park. Traffic screeched. Pedestrians howled. And from a nearby coffee shop where he had patiently awaited my helpless attraction to
, Father Kieran stepped out. Logan
I had calmed by the time I got to the park. Eva waited near a streetlamp under a tree that shed illumination in ripples like snakeskin. Her features shone with an expression I can’t name without belittling the devotion she stirred in me. Again she had preserved my humanity. I wanted to seize and hold her, to pull her to me out of the suffocating emptiness between us.
“Jordie – Father Kieran is here.”
I faced about. The priest came toward us with a sizable crucifix grasped in both hands. I could see the pitch of his determination in his long stride.
Backstepping, I warned, “Stop. Or I’ll go.”
He did not stop, and I withdrew deeper into the slender moonlight let down between the trees.
“I’m gone if you don’t stop.” To prove my point, I disappeared into the emphatic shadows of an outcrop. “We need your help, father.”
He paused and swung the crucifix about, afraid I’d flank him. “Unholy thing, come forward!”
“Look, we need to talk,” I said and edged out from behind the rocks. “I’m not alone. There’s a soul here that needs your help.”
Convinced, of course, that I taunted him as a deceiving scion of Satan, the priest hurried toward me with his sacred weapon.
I backed up against a boulder, coiled to flee. But I couldn’t flee. I had to stay still so my dead lover could use the ectoplasm I had pulled from Kaisa and Miko. If I ran, she would remain invisible. And this priest wasn’t about to listen to anything I had to say. “Eva!”
A cool wind gathered her out of moonlight, and she appeared beneath the skinny trees. The priest stopped cold at the sight of her, and I cringed beneath the shadow of his upraised crucifix.
“Mother Mary!” Kieran sobbed and turned toward the ghost.
She advanced slowly, barefoot in a christening tunic, long hair flowing about her in watery light like a bereaved lover in a ballad.
The priest’s heavy face pulsed with shock. “Who are you?”
Eva spoke. I couldn’t hear her, but Father Kieran did. She floated directly to him, and he thrust the crucifix at her. She embraced it. Radiance splashed into sparkles with the fervor of stars where the holy object entered the place of her heart.
The priest’s uncertain face shuddered and gaped. He saw what I saw. Moon sylphs descended in gelatinous frills, and phantom freaks like motley jesters converged from out the woodsy shadows.
Eva pushed all the force of her gentle smile into his widening distress, opened her transparent arms and enclosed him in the ghostly repose of her soul.