Wednesday, May 18, 2005
Call Of The Heron, Silence Of The Snake
Drawing By Me
This is one of my translated short stories. The story was translated by Edo Marinus and somewhat revised by me. 'Call Of The Heron, Silence Of The Snake', was puplished by Snow Monkey (US) and by Cadenza (UK).
Call of the Heron, Silence of the Snake
Only when darkness slid off the night, and the world turned into a moist, drab molehill, did Donja feel her despair disappear. Fear was a snake, crawling through the hairy red grass of the nylon carpet, where it remained hidden until the next attack. The weight which had pressed down on her chest all night lifted like a balloon.
She crawled out of bed and sat down on the floor. She was surrounded by empty bottles and leftovers; the carpet was stained with wine and black mould. The table overflowed with rubbish and in the washbasin flies crawled over dirty plates and pans.
She opened the attic window and poked her head outside. She looked out over flower gardens, sagging sheds and balconies with metal rubbish bins. In the middle of the block was a gnarly, knotted oak that must have pushed its way out of the earth long before she was born. Empty crows' nests were scattered among the branches.
She stepped onto the gravelled rooftop and gazed over the edge into a ravine of wet earth and clumps of grass. Last winter, a girl had jumped from the fourth floor, but survived the fall. She would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair, her limp body kept upright by a kind of leash. All she could move was her head. She used her chin, which lay lopsided on her dented chest, to operate buttons on a small panel, and zoomed up and down the street. Occasionally Donja would chat with her. The girl was always cheerful; she said that she was grateful for having survived the fall, because the force with which she had struck the earth erased her memory, after which she had found God.
Sitting on her haunches, Donja looked into the dept below and leaned forward a little more. Her fingers clung to the zinc edge next to her bare feet. She sat for fifteen minutes while her heart ticked away time like a clock inside her. Over the twilit world a heron flew. Fascinated, she looked at the bird, which cried out loudly, as if it was trying to stop her from feeding her body to the abyss. She had never heard a heron's call before. It sounded raw, desperate.
For a moment she saw how she might push off and spread her arms, flying after the bird, floating on the humid morning fog for perhaps a second, then plummeting down to the city's floor.
She flinched and crawled back inside through the window.
The mess surrounded her like ruins. She picked up a wine bottle from the floor and put it to her lips to catch the last drops. Drink was the only means of controlling her fears, but her purse was empty. It would start all over again tonight. The snake would sneak up, entangle her with its cold body and keep her in its stranglehold till break of day.
The smell of excrement permeated Mrs. Kars' studio, as a sewer pipe had burst and was leaking into the earth beneath the floor. Donja came in, teetering on her high heels. A bicycle, which had been standing behind the door, fell noisily to the floor.
"The bike belongs to that new guy," said Elize. Donja's portfolio had fallen to the floor. Sheets of drawing paper stuck out of it like a fan. Donja put the bicycle back up while Elize picked up the sheets of paper. "There he is," she whispered in a hysterical squeak. She pointed with a fat finger over her shoulder.
The young man was sitting naked on a kitchen chair that was standing on a wooden table. Legs spread, he was reading Kafka's The Trial, blithely scratching in his pubic hair, causing his scrotum to jump up and down. His penis looked like a squirrel, skittering back and forth between his legs. For a moment Donja watched it, fascinated. The young man looked up from his book and bared his white teeth in a grin. Donja disliked his face. A shock of black curls framed his bright visage, though his blue eyes reminded her of mentholated cough drops. He raised his hand amicably.
"Never seen a naked man before, then, eh?" he called out.
Walking stiffly on her high heels, Donja passed the room where the sculpting group was working over lumps of rock with hammers and chisels, and hung her summer jacket on the row of pegs in the corridor.
Mrs. Kars was suddenly standing next to Donja. "That's Clemens, our new model," she said in her sharp Indonesian accent. "Don't be shy – he's a nice lad and a charming conversationalist. I'll introduce you in a minute. Get used to his bare bum, because you'll be seeing it a lot from now on." She giggled and pushed Donja through the corridor back into the studio, right up to the table. "This lady would absolutely love to meet you," she said teasingly.
Clemens offered her the hand he had used to root through his public hair. Donja frowned, decided to shake it anyway out of politeness, then turned around. She stood her portfolio upright against the wall and surreptitiously smelled her fingers, then wiped her hand on her blouse. The walls were covered with studies of the young man's body. She recognized him in black charcoal lines and grey watery spots: sitting on a chair, lying on a settee, voluptuously seen from the front or from behind. Facing the door were a number of sculptures of him in greasy clay together with some snow-white plaster moulds, sometimes just a torso without a head or just a head on a wooden stand.
Elize stood next to her. "Isn't he amazing? I bet he's the prettiest boy you've ever seen."
Mrs. Kars clapped her chubby hands. Little puffs of plaster escaped from between her fingers and her golden bracelets tinkled like a triangle. "Now we will all sit and take up the sketchpad and a piece of charcoal. We will make sure we have some feathers and our erasers at hand." Her dark-pink mouth rattled off the words as if they were an order. Donja could not get used to her tart voice, no matter how hard she tried. Sometimes Mrs. Kars would look at Donja suspiciously through her shiny rhinestone glasses. Her eyes looked like slits cut into a cardboard mask with a knife.
Mrs. Kars rapped the table with her nails, which were so long they curled. The students picked up their sketchpads and sat down on the wooden stools, which had been placed in a circle around the table. Donja sat next to Elize. Clemens was sitting on the table like an idol.
"Even his cock is pretty," Elize lisped into Donja's ear.
Donja saw the young man's head floating in mid-air. He smiled at her and licked his fleshy lips with the tip of his tongue. "I think he's revolting," she whispered.
Elize shrugged. Flakes of her psoriasis fluttered from her head down onto her clothes. She was wearing a pair of Roy Rogers jeans with big pockets on the back and legs which were too short. Next to her plump cheeks hung braids with sky-blue ribbons.
"Your shoes are amazing," Elize said after a while, looking at the red pumps which trapped Donja's feet like little torture chambers.
Donja looked at Elize's sandals – heavy shoes with crepe soles and broad buckles at their sides. "They're not comfortable," she replied. "The heels are too high."
"Really amazing," Elize said again.
During the class, Clemens regaled them with amusing anecdotes from the books of Bob den Uyl and pompously recited soliloquies from Hamlet. About Kafka's The Trial he remarked that it was an impenetrable book full of symbols, which could only be understood by someone who knew a lot about the author's life. Then he lay the book down on the table, next to one of the stool's legs, and a moment later put his bare foot on the cover. Everybody thought he was charming, brilliant and funny.
"Has anybody read The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoevsky?" His words fluttered down from somewhere about the crystal chandelier, which sparkled from the ceiling and distracted Donja. When she looked at him to take in the flowing lines of his body, he looked back at her and smirked. In the basement, chisels were rapping on stone monotonously. Donja's fingers hesitated on the paper. She could feel him stare at her, making it impossible to think. The figure on her paper looked like a Neanderthal, a muscular colossus, while the young man himself was slender.
Though she disliked him, she wondered what it would be like to hold that perfect column of human flesh in her hands, to mould and shape him like clay.
"You're daydreaming, young lady," said Mrs. Kars.
Donja hunched over the drawing board. In the groin of the figure she quickly drew a penis, which looked like a finger.
Mrs. Kars clapped her hands.
The students got up and placed their drawing boards upright against their seats. Donja put hers facing downwards. Clemens climbed off the table, walked to the row of pegs and put on one of Mrs. Kars' flowery dressing gowns, then walked back into the studio.
They had tea in cracked mugs. Elize whispered into Donja's ear, "I wouldn't mind giving what's underneath those flowers a quick tickle."
"That's no good," Mrs. Kars said after the break. She stared over Donja's shoulder at the paper covered with smudges and lines. Her breath smelled of garlic and nicotine. "Look closely at his physique, that supple body, full of beautiful muscles..."
Her deformed nails rapped snappily at the drawing. "And you turn it into a gorilla."
Clemens craned his neck to look at the sketch, but Donja quickly lifted the drawing board. He gave an amused chuckle and she wished he would fall off the table, chair and all.
She spent the remainder of the lesson erasing lines and sketching a new figure, but no matter how she tried, it remained a gorilla.
"That's because he's such a gorgeous man," Elize said. "Makes you bloody nervous."
Mrs. Kars looked at her watch, took off her apron and snapped her fingers. "That's all for today." She draped her apron over a chair and lit a small, thin cigar.
"Oh, what a shame," Elize whined. Proudly, she showed Clemens her handiwork: a charcoal figure sitting on a chair, legs wide apart. Between his thighs she had drawn what looked like a witch's nose.
Clemens feebly clapped his hands and said: "L'art, c'est mourir un peu."
The sky was the color of dark prunes. Bats wheeled around the spire of the Westertoren, which was just striking ten. Donja let the door of the studio slam behind her. It opened again immediately.
"Shall I carry your portfolio?"
Donja turned. It was Clemens. A square of light fell from the studio's window.
"I think you're a really good artist," he said. "There's a huge amount of drama in your work; I noticed that straight away. You're enormously talented and I think you're great."
"That's because of you, you're an irresistible model," she replied flatly. "You're built like a gorilla."
His laughter resounded in the dark alley. She gave him the portfolio, and as they started to walk she could hear the scraping of her stilettos on the cobblestones.
After maybe a hundred yards, Clemens stopped at a pub. Cigarette smoke billowed from the maw of the open doorway, and behind the windows dozens of people were talking and laughing.
"Come one, I'll buy you a nice glass of wine." He dropped her portfolio on the street where it landed with a gentle thud, took his wallet out of his pocket and started to count his money. "A very nice glass of wine," he continued.
Donja took another good look at him. If she refused his offer, she would have to bear the snake without alcohol that night. She gave a hollow laugh.
"Alright, I guess I can spare a minute or two."
They sat opposite each other at a little wooden table. Stirring waves of music seemed to rise from pots of ferns on the windowsill. Messages were scratched in the tabletop in different hands: SONJA LOVES LEX; BIBI COME HOME; SUZY'S BIG BOY CAME; KILLROY WAS NOWHERE; CALL ME HANS!
They were drinking Chianti. Clemens was giving a long-winded lecture on different writers. He was delighted by The Brothers Karamazov and surprised to learn she had not read it.
"I'm disappointed in you," he said, as if he had known her for years and only now found out that did not live up to his expectations.
Donja had never read anything by the authors he spoke so highly of. She knew nothing about Chekhov, Dostoevsky or Kafka, and even Bob den Uyl meant nothing to her. She could never find the tranquillity to read.
She was afraid of silence, of perfectly normal sounds like creaking floorboards or mice scurrying in the wardrobe. The fluttering of a moth in the hot bowl of a table lamp, casting a shadow on the wallpaper, caused her to be seized by panic. Often her terror was so powerful that she barricaded the attic door with the few pieces of furniture she possessed in order to keep imaginary intruders out. She would crawl into a corner of the room and spend the night moaning, curled up like a wounded animal.
Clemens rattled on about world literature, completely unaware that he was sitting opposite a lunatic. He was probably studying Dutch at the university. After graduating, he would spend his life teaching passionately at some mildewy school.
Donja was not the only lunatic in the house where she lived. Downstairs was Brenda, a skeletal girl who starved herself by never retaining anything. From early morning until late at night she would gorge herself on vast amounts of food. After every meal she regurgitated like an albatross. The whole blessed day she ambled through the house in a pink quilted dressing gown, from fridge to lavatory, from lavatory to stove. She habitually stole Donja's food. Once she ate a pound of salmon salad which Donja had bought because she was having visitors. When Donja reprimanded her, Brenda spat it out on the carpet and said: "There you go."
Often, Donja would catch her in the kitchen in the morning, frying up a stack of pancakes. She could hardly stand on her scraggy legs from weakness. She would gobble up ten pancakes garnished with syrup, slices of apple or bacon, or heaped with fruit, ice cream and thick gobs of whipped cream. Rolling them up in her bony fingers she stuffed them into her insatiable gob while a milky juice ran down from her chin into the collar of her dressing gown. She washed her meals down with gallons of Coca Cola. Then she would go to the bathroom where she spewed the undigested food into the toilet bowl, after which she began anew. Donja felt sorry for her but also feared her. She had attacked Donja on the landing once because she thought she was hogging the phone. She often played her music loud enough to vibrate the windows of the house.
One day Brenda asked Donja to look at her back because she was suffering from strange pains. As Brenda slid the dressing gown from her undernourished body, Donja had to hold on to the doorframe, dizzied by the sight of her concentration-camp body. Her back was ruined – her skin full of pocked holes oozing pus, her shoulders covered in white fuzz as if her body was enshrouding itself in some mysterious pelt. Donja flinched at the sight of a piece of bone shimmering through Brenda's skin.
"My God, you're dying," she whispered in horror.
"Tell me something I don't know," Brenda replied.
The Chianti was making her drunk. A whining voice was asking her if she knew that Dostoevsky had written The Gambler in two weeks. Donja lethargically shook her head. His blue-eyed face loomed.
"I think you're beautiful. You're so beautiful," his voice sang.
She felt his leg rubbing against hers. Numerous legs had pressed against hers in bars before. Unimportant legs, belonging to unimportant men. Legs attached to bodies that sweated, told lies, stank. Bodies with heads that had nothing to say to her. Heads that burst into tears after several glasses of beer. Heads confiding in her the anguish of their souls and their bizarre secrets. Pretty heads without brains, or ugly heads harbouring gentle personalities. Heads that declared their love for her and then approached her with drooling lips to kiss her against her will. Stone-drunk heads that vomited on her shoes. Heads yearning for love, understanding, sex.
Every time she went into the city at night it seemed a theatre in which men were looking for a way out of the labyrinth of their sordid, deformed lives. Once the night was over she threw them away. She never answered the telephone. Love letters were torn into shreds and fed to the wind through the attic window.
Clemens' leg rubbed against her knee like a pushy dog. To sort her chaotic thoughts she put her hand on his neck, drew his head close and kissed him. He laughed and seemed incapable of stopping.
"Christ, this is like something out of Kafka," he said, panting.
"Let's go," she said, getting up and putting on her coat. She put the bottle of Chianti to her lips and greedily emptied it. He brazenly put his hands under her breasts and licked one of her earlobes.
"Piss off, windbag," she barked.
They squirmed through the laughing, chattering patrons to the door. Sweaty men's heads turned in her direction, red heads with bloodshot eyes. They were shouting incomprehensible words with breath smelling of beer. One belched a subterranean burp into her ear. His sour breath clung to her hair like a puff of noxious gas. She stamped as hard as she could as she ran, hoping her stiletto heels would shatter somebody's toes.
When at last they fluttered into the dark-blue night like two escaped birds, Clemens wanted to carry her portfolio again.
"Do you know Dostoevsky wrote The Gambler in two weeks?" he repeated drunkenly.
She looked at his beaming face. He seemed chronically carefree. He knew nothing about snakes emerging from carpets to paralyse your mind.
"I don't give a damn about Dostoevsky," she snapped. Her heels scraped loudly on the pavement, as raw as a heron's call. He walked next to her in silence. Back home, she would overpower him, feed his body to the snake until the fresh-green break of day.