We have become lovers. Ingrid is naked. Her blond hair is heavy. There is a fine mist of sweat on her face. Two gold bracelets circle her wrists. The blades of the fan spin and rattle above our heads. We are in the back room of the cortigo, a country house with stables near the tourist resort of San José in the heart of the natural park, the Cabo de Gata. Ingrid’s three Indian sewing machines are laid out on a long table next to the rolls of fabric and the garments she redesigns for Europe and Asia. An archway leads like a colonnade to the shower room. It is supposed to be a workroom but the bed takes up most of the space. It is vast, a bed for warriors. The sheets are soft dense cotton and she tells me they are not just white, they are deep white with no yellow in it and she brought them with her to Spain from Berlin.
The stone fireplace is swept, though a basket of kindling stands near it. A small axe balances on a large, dry log. In winter, someone will use the axe to shatter the circle of time spiralling through it and make a fire but, now, it’s forty degrees outside.
–the way she takes off her heavily embroidered belt
–the way she likes her body
–how her bare feet are covered in red dust
–the jewel in her navel which is like a lake, and how my head rests near it, the way the present is more mysterious than the past, the way she changes position, like a leaf turning in the wind.
From the window which is barred, I glimpse a tall cactus, its six green arms heavy with prickly pears. It reminds me of a time I stood on a stairway waving to someone who was not there, but this memory fades away because I am on my way to somewhere else, to another country perhaps, ruled by Ingrid, whose body is long and hard like an autobahn.
–the way she likes my body
–the wine she stole from her boyfriend’s sophisticated cellar
–the way her strength frightens me, but I am frightened anyway
–the fig bread on the table by the bed
–the way she says my name in English
The curves of her body are female, but sometimes when she speaks she sounds like Matthew. She says things like ‘the size of this room is insane’, ‘the logs are cedar, don’t they smell crazy?’ and then she used this peculiar phrase, ‘mission creep’.
I asked her what it meant and when she told me, I felt weird because it is a term for war. It was as if she were fighting a battle, but a digression had occurred, something over and beyond the original mission. I thought again of Margaret Mead, her husbands and all the rest of it, and remembered that the rest of it was her female lover, who was another anthropologist. This must have been on my mind when I wrote that quote on the wall.
I did not need to go to Samoa or Tahiti like Margaret Mead to research human sexuality. The only person I have known from infancy to adulthood is myself, but my own sexuality is an enigma to me. Ingrid’s body is a naked light bulb. She puts her hand over my mouth but her mouth is open, too. I have seen her face before I met her, once in Hotel Lorca and then in a mirror when the day was slow and now she lifts her back and we change position.
Meeting Ingrid is an assignment that had been scheduled without either of us writing it down. It was there anyway, like a bruise before a fall.
After a while we walked into the shower room. It was tiled from wall to ceiling in squares of flint-coloured stone. The water poured down like a tropical storm, except it was icy and we shuddered as it fell over our breasts.
As we walked out of the shower we both knew something was wrong. It was a feeling of danger. Invisible, but there. Noiseless, but the hairs on our arms were raised. And then we saw it slither out of the basket of kindling by the fire. It was blue, like a streak of lightning as it made its way across the stone floor to the far side of the room near the window.
‘A snake.’ Ingrid’s voice was calm but slightly higher than usual. A white towel was wrapped round her body, her hair dripping wet. She said it again in Spanish: ‘Serpiente.’
She walked towards the small axe that was placed on top of the log. The snake lay very still by the edge of the wall. She crept towards it slowly, holding the axe as if it were a golf club, leaving a trail of her wet footprints on the stone floor. She lifted the axe a few inches and struck hard on the head of the snake. Its severed body curled up and then continued to writhe in two parts.
I was trembling but I knew that I must not shout or show Ingrid my fear. She used the axe to turn the snake over. Its underbelly was white. It was still looping its body. She turned to me, the axe in her hand, the towel draped around her body like a toga, her upper arms muscled and lean from her boxing classes, and she spoke in German: ‘Eine Schlange.’
I told her to move away from it, but she wanted me to come to her. Her fingers which could thread the most delicate needle were still wrapped around the axe and I was frightened, but I had been frightened from the first day I met her. I was not convinced the snake was dead, even though it lay severed in two on the floor. I walked to Matthew’s bottle of wine and drank from it, my lips now purple, my tongue rasping. It was like drinking crushed plums and bay leaves, and I walked over to her and kissed her. While my left arm circled her waist, my right arm removed the axe from her fingers.
We dressed as if there weren’t a dead snake in the room, put on our dresses and rings and adjusted our earrings, brushed our hair and left the room, the white soft sheets with their hundreds of threads, the sewing machines and fabrics, the thick walls and wooden beams, the fig bread, the bottle of aromatic wine and a blue snake lying in two parts, our wet footprints on the stone floor and the shower still dripping.
Deborah Levy, Hot Milk, 2016.