Stay Awhile, Mephistopheles by Jessica Van de Kemp
He is a man without a moniker, a polyhistor, an artist of experience. To him, the world is all colour and smell, music and light. The ceilings of his memory are vaulted and there are Florentine frescoes if you like.
I met him at five o’clock in the morning in South Dakota. The diner wasn’t open yet, the ‘Closed’ sign dangling from gardening twine, but he let me into the warm air after two knocks, and brought me a cup of coffee.
“Frank’s the owner of this place. He won’t be in for another hour.” He had a very small smile. It was a purse of the lips. “There’s a key in one of the rocks by the door. The black one. If no one’s here next time, just use the key.”
“Actually, I just got here. Took twenty-six hours by bus. I was just looking for a place to go–”
But he wasn’t listening anymore, this man of the world, this man whose voice had coloured timbres, who walked back to his booth in four long strides and set to dusting a painting in gold leaf, as though he met people like this every day.
I sat across from him at the booth. “Do you work here?” He looked more like a professor than a fry cook. He blew softly at the gold leaf, Hoo hoo-hoo-hoo, laughing-like in staccato, specks of gold freckling his wrists.
“No,” he said, glancing up. “I come here sometimes to work.”
“Are you a painter?”
“No,” he replied. “I’m not.”
He kept his head bowed and used his pinky finger to dust a very good rendering of the horses of St. Mark. He left their eyes honey-bronze, frenzied.
“What are you, then?”
He blinked once, twice, seemingly surprised by this question. “An idealist, I suppose.”
He spoke with cadency two lines from Goethe’s Faust, the harsh German tinny like a tack piano:
Grau, theurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
Und grün des Lebens goldner Baum.
This man: a guardian of philosophies, all Artes Mechanicae, all sacrifices made through creatio. My mind already molded by this theory called Lebens goldner, building new Halls of Light and Colour in the vast space of memory. This man’s voice: breathing in the first flecks of gold in the morn.
‘Tis like a dream to me, it could be voiced, or still a thought lost in the vaults, the long pause before the instant, but he looked at me without blinking until he found what he was looking for; μεταμόρφωσις, this strange spilling, scuttling, buckling sensation. He didn’t ask, but I told him about my life in Toronto, the admission to St. Joe’s, the smell of those places. He sneezed and I found this annotation accurate.
“Why were you admitted to St. Joe’s?” He asked. “Did the doctors need to run some tests?”
“No?” He cocked a brow.
He nodded and did not push. He pulled a small roll of toned sketching paper toward him and tore out a neat little square. He began folding the paper and creasing the lines.
“Are you familiar with the behavioural patterns of African buffaloes?” He asked.
I shrugged. “What about them?”
He continued folding the paper. “They are altruistic animals. When they are attacked by predators, the herd will gather the calves in the middle. If one of the calves is captured and voices a distress call, the entire herd will respond in an attempt to rescue it.”
He placed a finished buffalo origami in the middle of the table. “You are an African buffalo,” he said, going back to his rendering of the Greek horses without lifting his eyes. “Your altruism frightens the lions and the crocodiles.”
He has a place in my mind even now, this man of the morning, though I have added many scenes since then to the Halls of Memory. He was born without a name, I know it. He is somewhere in the world uncovering mysteries, thatching the gaps of history, charting the stars. I have stood my ground against the lions and have kept him safe in the center of my heart.
But his words still pierce through the dark:
My worthy friend, grey are all theories,
And green alone Life’s golden tree.
Stay awhile, Mephistopheles. Du bist so schön.
Jessica Van de Kemp is a member of the Ontario College of Teachers and is currently pursuing an MA in Rhetoric and Communication Design from the University of Waterloo. Her work has appeared in Buttontapper Press, The Danforth Review, Vallum, Branch Magazine, The Steel Chisel, ditch, and The Fieldstone Review.