The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

All Issues
MAY 2017 Issue

Brown Seaweed Soup

Brown seaweed soup is a kind of a soup with brown seaweed in it. Brown seaweed soup is an important food as well as a healing medicine. With its profusion of ferrous iodine, brown seaweed soup surpasses other soups and can reanimate women after childbirth. A cleaner of blood vessels, this soup has become synonymous not only with health and birthdays, but with painful, vital hindsight.

Brown seaweed soup is uncommon in communities such as those surrounding Lausanne, where pride is taken in cheese. Bruce spent time in Lausanne and other points far afield. So many places to explore and imbibe, even during a cutoff of hope. I was taken by this soup, which can also mark life’s wholesale trend toward disappearance.

It was Bruce who incited my interest in brown seaweed soup and the forest of lore surrounding it. I decided to prepare the dish for his birthday.

Through the years, it was crucial for Bruce to keep a distance from his snotty tribe. He fortified himself against the entire marketplace, in fact, socially and otherwise. Bruce was unrooted. Yet as all Bruces tend to have short, brushy hair, he fit in comfortably amongst them.

Bruce was not famous, but he was famous with me. He was utterly gentle. He lived at the verges, a wry contextualizer standing athwart all the downtown summer fairs, at times debating softly to himself. Often he stood near the Rockridge Station, observing the myrtle trees.

Bruce is not the only human being to have died. Long ago, Bruce’s mathematician father lugged the family to Cote d’Ivoire in order to teach introductory calculus to a sugar baron. With his now-dead eyes, Bruce as a child watched the tall standup boulders off the coast, the lacquered Atlantic gulf ankling him to the sand.

The dead get vulnerable near their birthdays. They get under the weather. As Bruce’s birthday was enroute, a celebration of his life would soon take place. As I stood in the kitchen’s doorframe, my desire to cook grew more powerful than I had anticipated, nearly an autonomic mechanism. The problem was that I had never cooked any food in my life. I didn’t know how to cook at all. But the mailman told me, laughing, his blue bag gaping, that standing on a kitchen chair and dropping seaweed into a pan of hot water produces good results. About this method I had a few doubts.

I needed a recipe badly. I found one on the Internet, near a tree. It had been posted by a user named Lime. As soon as I saw it, I knew this recipe was the one. Those who believe in free will may quibble with this. In a rambling comment beneath the recipe, Lime begged readers to be free with the cooking instructions. Impluse and spontenaiety were essential for the pleasure of the soup, she wrote. I discarded this idea. It was weak. I would adhere to the recipe. Below Lime’s comment appeared a long, ragged note straying into a hazy remembrance of a some long-ago picnic. The entire file was scrambled, I decided.

Admittedly my perception of Bruce was not really who he was. All of his troubles which I, artist with a can of paint and fog, covered over. Bruce spent much time in a Paris jazz club carved like a cave below the street’s grade, even played there once in a band called Les Swings. The band had produced a record titled Hey! Years prior, I had watched Bruce practice guitar relentlessly in a shed. He could pull much warmth from his instrument. But Les Swings was too bouncy to absorb his sound.

Life’s breadth is measured in surprises. In Paris, Bruce got lost repeatedly. Easy to do, of course. He solved the problem by simply strolling to the Gare du Nord, omnipresent brown leather purse swimming at his hip, and taking a train to Milan. He knew Milan and there was never lost.

He was a wild west of a friend—oddly employed, 3 a.m. cappuccinos, spontaneous calls to friends even after unplanned phonecalling became the most heinous form of personal infringement. Bruce avoided fashion conventions such as boots and tattoos and was chronically late, owner of a chocolate gun which he pointed at friends, and, in sum, Bruce avoided most standard human protocol like breathing. Bruce was annoying. He did not fight time, everyday gruel they say is unreal, yet which dictates our thin realm.

When thinking about the dead, you have to stay warm. I proceeded with the cooking, not really understanding. Use a large stockpot, the recipe told. Collect an outsized amount of water. Scald several strongly scented vegetables. Use a stewing agent if you please. Shred everything. Simmer the soup. (During this phase, I struggled to remember. They say memory is friable. You will lose the more eloquent details of his face, the kinesthetic sense of where he is.) Throw in a clam. The broth will hint at the ocean’s sense. Make it stronger.

Have seaweed on board. The Welsh word for this is laver. Travel north and the term is slake. Relentless miles east, it is gim. Dried, the vegetable is complex, calcium-crusted, diatomaceously rigid; when drenched, the taste is complex and salt-ridden.

Remember the importance of kitchen scissors. Store them on a narrow sideboard. Snip the seaweed into strips the size of a schoolboy’s pinkie. Combine everything. The taste may be painfully spicy. That is okay.

With Lime’s recipe, the learning was good, so good. The instructions stressed that the cook should have patience, maturity. Here I came up short. But we all have a desire to grow, and to taste even a bit of infinity.

On the stovetop, the pot’s contents crept to a rippling boil, its surface twisting. I tried to keep it in check, but the soup jumped up, overflowing the pot, slapping down the burners and scalding onto the oven’s vault. It made a flipping mess on the floor. I bent to scrape the soup into a container, but some of it slid ribbon-like down the cellar stairs. Leaning on the banister, I remembered European fables of broths that develop a sensibility or will in order to provide a moral warning. This seemed old-hat. Yet I grabbed a mop and headed downstairs to scrub the soup clean on the offchance that it had acquired sentience.

Bruce was not the height of everything. Long ago, he pitched a scrunty tent behind the Circle K Market in Petaluma to study tree phloem. He did this accompanied only by birches and a clipboard. He brought no supplies and documented the trees’ health and growth while practically starving. During our road-long junket to death, we meet with pressure and must choose a life. Unlike anyone I knew, Bruce strayed from the path of productivity. He was poor on purpose. He was stubborn. In his tent near the trees, Bruce frustrated his family and friends but he never seemed to regret. He shrugged.

Raising the mop, ready to slap down the soup, I slipped on some seaweed and went face-down. Something cracked. During a long fall, time becomes lavish and expanded. You realize that everything already has happened. My head bled.

Frequently at sunset Bruce walked the Oakland Hills. He hated running and deliberating on gender. He was never happier than when he and Paul traveled to Berlin, at some point sub-subletting an apartment from a Norweigian professor. Once on a Sunday morning hike, Bruce accidentally tumbled down a rock chute at the Rudersdorf Quarry and could not get out, phoning Paul from the bottom of the pit, unable to reach him. A sign said the quarry was 700 years old. From the deep hole, Bruce called the professor, who lost his temper, saying that to call a sublessor and ask for help out of a pit on a Sunday morning was a sign of a terrible flaw. Finally Paul, fuming, drove to the quarry and pulled Bruce out with a rope. The two stopped for a beer at the quarry café, and from their corner table, watched as a small wedding commenced. The groom stepped over and invited Bruce and Paul to take part in the ceremony, though Bruce was covered with dirt and bleeding arm scrapes.

With my backpack, I rode to the hospital in my neighbor’s backseat, thinking of Bruce’s short life while the town coiled past. The medical assistant looked at my head scrapes and asked who my assailant had been. It was soup, I said. He wiped me with Betadine and skin glue. No doctor ever came. The hospital hurt. I ran from the gurney and into the park, realizing that the celebration of Bruce’s life was about to begin.

On the day Bruce was set to arrive in Berlin, Josép hurried to the Turkish market to find bedding, because he already had two guests staying at the apartment and no blankets for another. Josép refused to pick Bruce up at the train station. “Let the pig find his own way to my flat,” he told Paul, as usual expressing his feelings for his dear friend in the inverse. “Let the pig get lost in the streets.”

Josép returned from the market with a blanket of white and blue wavering stripes like a reduced national flag or an extralarge tallit. In the living room, he handed it to jetlagged Bruce, who took it and without speaking lay on the hardwood floor, covering himself, already within a flawless pupa sleep.

Bruce’s friends Paul, Josép, Diane, Janice, and even Gabriel stood in the park’s windblown grass. I stood beside them to remember Bruce. Peace Park had always been his favorite. It felt funny to walk where he had walked. His tiny birthday, a warble in space, pulsed as we waited, and, heartsick at the prospect of commemorating him, we remained in the dark as to why we all had met and lived.

I announced Bruce’s birthday soup and pulled it from my bag, stunned at its insignificance—a plastic container of liquid. The soup and its recipe had not been prodigious or life-giving, as I had believed. I set the soup on the ground. Grinning, Josép made as if to shove it with his foot. I shook my head. Josép did not kick, but the soup container somehow toppled over anyway. I looked at my friends. With Bruce’s face in our minds, we began speaking to one another, and in fact knew how to make him come to us, but for a word.

—for Bruce


Stacey Levine

STACEY LEVINE is the author of The Girl with Brown Fur (Starcherone/Dzanc), Frances Johnson (Clear Cut Press), Dra---, and My Horse and Other Stories (Sun & Moon Press), her fiction and reviews have appeared in Tin House, The Fairy Tale Review, Yeti, Bookforum, and The Seattle Post-Intelligencer. She wrote a libretto for a puppet opera performed in Seattle, where she lives, and translations of her short fiction have appeared in Japanese and Danish.


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2017

All Issues