by Vladimir Poleganov (translated from the Bulgarian by Peter Bachev)
– For Leena Krohn –
I’ve just finished reading your letter and, frankly, I am struggling to make sense of it. Do you really think I would go the lengths of fabricating such a thing just to excuse my absence and lack of contact? You’ve known me for… how long has it been? Years, decades! Have I ever even attempted to cajole or pacify or confuse you with made-up stories? Have I? Even when a lie could have helped the situation, I’ve always been honest with you. Yes, I concede, oftentimes, while still in the grip of something I’d recently read, I would enthuse about it to you in a way that is more in line with imagination than recollection, but I’ve never knowingly chosen a lie where a memory would’ve done. Never!
My last few letters—five, to be precise—went unanswered and the sixth one… well, it was certainly not the response I’d been hoping for or anticipating (‘Don’t you understand how important it is to try not to do that?!’). Please do accept my apologies if your words have failed to reach me for some reason, but I doubt that’s the case—Avinia’s postal service enjoys its excellent reputation for a reason and its pigeons are the fastest and most adroit in the world. I therefore assume that your current letter is the first one in quite a long time.
Anyway, what’s important is that communication has been reestablished and I can finally talk to you again. I say ‘talk’… But letters are not at all like conversations, are they? Of course, they can be long and nurturing and emotional and bring you a little bit closer across the divide, and yet every piece of paper is a symbol, the physical manifestation of loneliness, of the enormous emptiness they’ve had to travel, of one’s absence, of—let’s be honest here—the inevitability of death. As we know, every absence or separation is a small death. A letter comprises, by its very nature, all the things conversations, especially ones as intimate as ours used to be, try to sidestep, move on from, forget about and delay and escape. I would like to believe that one day the distance between us will be laughable, no longer an obstacle for any bird, let alone homing pigeons; that an extended hand, mine or yours, will be more than long enough to bridge it, that our words won’t have the all that empty space to echo in.
For now, however, we will have to come to peace with the circumstances that have scattered us to the opposite corners of the world. I don’t know about you, but my reconciliation sets in gently, almost imperceptibly, because this place is wonderful. My words are bound to disappoint you, I realise, but I can’t help but write them: Avinia is where I belong. It is also where I think I’ll find the Feather. Remember the Feather? But of course you do! I still haven’t managed to identify the bird it came from, there are simply too many of them here— darting through the air, diving down into the ocean or just jumping around— but it is only a matter of time, I can feel the moment finally approaching!
And there I go again, more excited than I really should be if I am to show you that I can indeed think and act responsibly. I shall end my letter here.
Please write back and do not forget about me.
When they brought me your letter, I genuinely thought they were mocking me. My friends here take great pleasure in playing small pranks on each other. They would make the victim believe something was happening and then, abruptly, pull the curtain, take off the masks and the letter, for instance, would turn out to be an invitation to clean guano off the Southern Rocks or a map for a moa egg treasure hunt in the thick jungle of the Central Island. But your letter is not a joke, it’s real, it didn’t send me off somewhere looking for the eggs or bones of ancient birds, but instead lit up my day, as if I’d heard your stories in person. I am excited to see your new home and I’m sure your puppy is adorable! Also, you are wrong, my dear—reading of that old copy of Birds of the Balkan Peninsula finally falling apart doesn’t make me mad, not even a little—I don’t need it anymore! Avinia has every book on birds I could ever want: its library holds, for instance, not only things like the latest article on the dwindling population of the house sparrow in Europe, but rare publications, such as the original manuscript of De arte venandi cum avibus, ostensibly lost in the siege of Parma, but actually salvaged for the ages by four of the librarians’ carrier falcons. And that’s not all: there are so many copies here of Birds of America that if I sold them, I’d be the richest man in the world—and don’t get me started on what I saw, touched and felt while reading Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, it really deserves its own letter… No, not today, I still can’t seem to tame the images into anything even resembling a coherent story. I felt like a dead or hibernating tree might feel when the weight of the thousand starlings on its branches makes it believe that spring has come, only to be left behind in their shadow moments later as a sudden sound startles them off into the distance…
Forgive me, here I am again, getting excited and running off on tangents. But let me push the parentheses just a little further apart and tell you about how the Hoopoe of Attar visited me in my dream. He wasn’t there for long and barely uttered anything the human ear would recognise, but after he had gone, I slept peacefully: his flock was looking for a whole new God, whereas all I need is to find the body that my Feather belongs to. It’s sometimes a relief to be reminded. Anyway… parentheses closed!
You may remember how I never told you I was leaving, to chase after the Feather’s original owner, that Feather that I found the last summer day you and I went walking down the promenade. ‘Look! What a strange feather,’ you said, and then, as I picked it up, ‘Isn’t it really strange? It looks unreal, almost like it’s been drawn by a human hand’. You may remember how, for days after that walk, I would stay silent: you thought I was sad or angry, I was really just speechless—thoughts of the Feather had completely usurped my mind, I could not care about or concentrate on anything else. I spent weeks trying to find the species of bird It could have come from, to no avail. I am sorry for that time I called you up at four in the morning, to complain, to talk to someone, really, about how the unknown— no, the unknowable bird’s dark silhouette, of which I had only a single bright and clear piece, the Feather, tortured and terrified me, its vortex pulling me into an ever-expanding void, every time I closed my eyes. Here, that silhouette no longer holds power over me. I still see it, perhaps not quite as clearly, in the corner of my eye from time to time, like a diorama of death or a small shadow—a haze, rather—of suppressed desire, but it doesn’t jump out at me anymore from the depths of my subconscious. It is indifferent to my frantic attempts to pull myself out of its invisible, murderous tide.
Ah, the Bird island… I still don’t have the words, I’m afraid, to tell you how I made it to Avinia’s shores, maybe they too will come one day. But don’t go looking for me, dear, if that’s what you’re suggesting in your last sentence. Don’t go looking for me.
With all due respect, Avinia is a fairly well-known island between India and the Arab peninsula. Even Alexander the Great visited it once and is often quoted saying he would’ve liked to stay forever because he had fallen in love with a swan. Well, at least the local history books claim it was a swan, it could’ve been a commonplace tufted duck for all I know, the lakes around here are teeming with them. Napoleon was heard saying he’d ‘rather be exiled to Avinia’ too… Please excuse the firmness of my tone (I hope the ink softens by the time it reaches you), but do some research, because your last letter’s opening paragraph is downright insulting.
I wanted to tell you about this ostrich competition I witnessed, and the invitation I received immediately after to train as an ostrich rider, and about the glow in people’s eyes as they assured me I’d have a bright future as one, but I’ll leave that for another time. I’m enclosing something instead that was supposed to become a diary of sorts, written for you and you alone, but that ultimately remained a single sheet of paper; a nice memory dried up and framed by words. I don’t really feel like writing today, I’m sorry.
The first few days I stayed with a local bird- painter. Old, bald, hunchbacked, he looked like a flat-faced marabou stork. He would scurry about his flat for no obvious reason, rummaging in this or that cupboard or chest, peeking into rooms and behind curtains, as if looking for his missing beak. Power would go out at night—at his request, he later explained, so that he can revel in the complete darkness of the world. ‘It is the only way I can truly see the birds,’ he would say. ‘Nothing looks like its true self in the light of day, everything is polluted: the colours, the lines, everything’. The surprise in my eyes must’ve been obvious— isn’t it contact with light that makes colours and shapes possible in the first place?—so he would smile and explain: ‘The images one receives as a dream or a vision, or those impressed upon the underside of one’s eyelids by ecstasy or insanity, those are the most beautiful and the clearest of all images—they are like feathers, they fall softly onto the memory, but leave an indelible trace.
‘Have a look at any one of my paintings, take a good long look and then close your eyes firmly and try to recall it, flow back to it through the prism of your memory the way light does. It is very different, isn’t? Only then does the painting respond, only then does it talk to you. I have no interest in producing pictures that are mute—so I paint them the way I see them in the darkest depth of my mind, the way they are in the midst of my innermost night.’
I am positive I heard two old ladies talking about you today. I know it sounds improbable, but I swear it is true! I was having a stroll through the Park (the full name of which is as long as it is banal—the Garden of the Feathers That Fell From the Sedge of Cranes And Foretold Sarama Ecka’s Future—but the story behind it is really interesting and has little to do with either cranes or Sarama Ecka herself. I’ll tell you some other time, for now I will refer to it simply as the Park, the beautiful Park with alleyways powdered with fine grey sand and emeraldgreen pines) when the sharpness of their conversation pierced through the stillness around me. I say pierce because if their words were tangible, they would have darted through the air, clawing and biting and tearing it to pieces, the way swallows and bullets and screams do with the low- hanging summer clouds. Be it because of the animation in their voices, or one’s peculiar laughter, however, what I heard when I started paying attention was more of a crackle than a whistle: in fact, they sounded like a pair of magpies, excited by a glimmer in the grass.
One of them was saying: ‘X has such a beautiful face, I can’t help but wonder why it’s fading?’ ‘It’s not fading, it’s just drifting further away,’ answered the second one. ‘You know how it is in other cities around the world, don’t you?’ ‘I know, I know, faces there… They don’t endure, do they?’
And then I stepped out of range and could no longer hear them. I know it is impossible that they were talking about you, but it felt so logical. They were right too: I don’t think your face will endure for much longer where you are. I’m not trying to scare or threaten you, I’m just warning you. Your face will fade, will become transparent, like a veil to a void. I’m not sure even your eyes will be able to withstand—they may remain as black and strong as I remember them, able to keep burning the gentle flame that contours your features for a little while, but this world you are stubbornly clinging to, this world will always try to efface you, to make you so weak and thin that it could disassemble you, scatter you like ash or a lingering scent, with a stroke of its hand. Believe me, I know what this world is capable of, it almost happened to me.
This letter will be very short. It should hopefully reach you quickly and not take too much of your time: I have read Leena Krohn, heard of Jan Morris, and am very much aware that there are dozens, maybe hundreds of authors who have written letters from imaginary lands. I understand what you’re hinting at, but you’re wrong. I also don’t think we can communicate in any other way, I am sorry. You’re wrong about that too.
I know that the Feather belongs to none of the many different species of owl that call Avinia their home, but for some strange reason I can’t stop thinking about them. Do you remember what you wrote that night we stayed up, sleepless, with nothing but the old farmhouse’s collapsed roof between us and the dark sky? Here, I know it almost by heart:
The owl is the most silent of birds. In flight, even the air that parts to let her pass doesn’t quite realise she is there. The owl can fly through dreams and memories, her shadow does not cloud the eye or weigh on the heart. That’s because the owl herself is so light—lighter than the gentlest part of the night and the sweetest hour of the day: a recollection of a dream. The owl’s golden gaze is the longest thing on Earth. They claim it stretches from ancient times to the end of days, even beyond. The owl’s feathers are the slowest to fall—neither night nor day want to surrender them to gravity, so they rarely ever reach the ground. They say the earth is most thirsty not for water, but for owl feathers. The owl’s beak can tear anything apart, especially that which does not belong—flesh or stone—so that order can be restored. They say that if the owl didn’t hunt or feed, the world would be thrown off balance—one side will descend into chaos like quicksand, the other float away untethered into nothingness. In the darkest midwinter, when snow has covered flesh and stone alike, the owl feeds on synchronicities. In the height of summer, when even the Earth is clawing its own face off, looking for another pair of lips to taste the sky with, the owl feasts on wishes.
Both wishes and synchronicities abound, but are usually hidden for anyone but the owl. The owl sees everything: flying over, tugging their corners closer together, sewing up the world where it threatens to come undone. It is a difficult, time-consuming task, they say, hence why the largest part of the owl is her tomorrow—a limitless tomorrow, of the kind rarely seen in nature. With a tomorrow that size, one would think the owl’s number is eight—infinity upright, a vertical gaze, Siamese suns—but it is not. The number of the owl is five. Because 5% of her weight is concentrated in her eyes (and that’s mostly her soul); because five are the eggs she lays in those years when the most wishes come true and synchronicities are the strongest; because five are the colours of her feathers; because five are the directions the owl can fly in: East, West, North, South and towards you.’
It was then, I think, and for a little while after, that you and I were on the brink of discovering this new world we had spent so much time dreaming about, this world we had populated with stories about ordinary animals with extraordinary habits and abilities. But then something pulled us back, just as we were learning to read the map of these new places we suddenly had access to, something yanked the invisible chain around our necks and made us lose the thread. What was it, X? What held us back? These days I can’t help but think it was the shadow of that bird, the one my Feather belongs to. I don’t believe we actually found the Feather that last summer day, I think, careless in our ignorance, I think we tore it out… What did you have to notice it for? Had we just walked on, like so many other passersby that day, we would now be in that other world, where owls hunt not mice but wishes and where birds of paradise can no longer fly from all the wonder that sticks to their feathers.
Your last letter made me think of Death. Are you so petrified of it that you’ve allowed yourself to forget things as important as your writings on the owl? Were you not more afraid of all the empty lines, empty white walls and smooth sand, of all the places one could leave a mark, write a message, tell the truth? Isn’t that what you used to say—that you fill them in so you never forget? I spilled a little of your ink just now, I guess I got excited again, but I won’t bother starting the letter over. The more I look at the stain, the more I am reminded of the bruises on your skin that night—I couldn’t find the right words then, any words, really, as I was leaving, but we both knew (or at least felt, instinctively) that we shouldn’t have picked the Feather, or even noticed it. But by then it was already too late—the bird- shaped vortex of darkness had already started spinning.
I’m sending this second letter without waiting for your response, hoping that it catches up with and erases the first one from your memory. I wasn’t quite myself writing it. That tends to happen to me occasionally and the ink preserves it like an impatient and inept photographer. But it doesn’t matter, really—photographs fade, and I see you too have learned to forget. Forgive me.
There is a graveyard in Avinia, perched upon a hill close to the city, which birds and humans share. Scientists are yet to come up with an explanation, if they’re even looking for one still, but this is the place where all birds go to die. Whether they know when Death is about to transpire and circle the hill in waiting, or whether there is something in that particular starry strip of sky that cuts them off from life, is unclear. In any case, during the day, the graveyard is white and shiny, like a Greek village in the midst of summer: tombstones are always polished, the names of the dead carved in stained-glass. The bones of birds are also white, so that when the sun rises, it sets the whole hill alight. I often find myself staring at it, hypnotised by its brilliance, but also hoping, almost half-expecting, to see a phoenix fly out of the incandescent pyre on its skyward way home.
At night, on the other hand, be it due to phosphorus residues or by magic, the graveyard bathes in a light that some may call ghostly, but to me looks more submarine. Whenever I come here after dark, I feel like I’ve just sunk to the bottom of a crisp mountain lake. I look up at the stars, barely visible through the greenish light haze, and all I see is the eyes of some predator, come to hunt at the watering place. I once met an old woman, an augur, negotiating her way across the overgrown alleyways, looking for small bones suitable for divination. It is an art well-preserved in Avinia and people really believe in it still. I didn’t dare ask her anything, even mundane things like whether it is hard to collect enough bones for a whole session, or what birds carry the brightest futures under their feathers and flesh. I just watched her for a while, her feet dancing between the fragile skeletons, collecting the white letters of tomorrow’s histories.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that your answer is running particularly late this time around, especially after that story about the graveyard, but that doesn’t mean that days don’t drag agonisingly slow or the empty hands of my friends, hands that I had often regarded with suspicion, expecting prank letters but hoping for a real one, are any easier a sight to take in. I remember you saying that I mistake imagination for longing. Everybody makes mistakes, I guess. But if you forget me, it would be a conscious choice, not an inevitability; not the unfortunate symptom of confusing memory and desire, but a decision to regard the two as tantamount to each other. (You used to say that we remember things as they are, not as we want them to be. Yet in my experience, that rarely happens. And remember: the objects of desire are not as constant as desire itself, you used to say that too.) I’ve been wondering lately if you no longer remembering me is something that has already happened, rather than an impending possibility. I visualise myself reading your past (dragged here against its will, in the form of a stack of old letters or a full notebook, by four nimble carrier falcons, the letters on the page small and faded to mere braille dots), and the moments we’ve spent together are written in some foreign language I don’t understand. Someday, I am sure, you’ll tell yourself and your friends that I don’t exist, never have. You will laugh and use words like ‘fiction’ and ‘mirage’ and ‘stupid’, or perhaps even ‘just a fragment of my dream history’. I don’t seriously think you are punishing me, that’s not it; I do know, however, that part of your silence is, if not malicious, than at least on purpose. The part that corresponds to your conviction, the belief that you’ve shared with me, more than once in the midst of a heated argument, that if we don’t leave space in our lives for the silence, the emptiness, the inexplicable, they will eventually take over and we will slip into oblivion, paralysed by confusion and terror. I still don’t know if I understood you then, if I understand you now. Maybe you really are no longer afraid of empty lines, white walls and smooth sand, maybe you can now erase, rewrite, and rearrange as freely as you want to, wherever you want to, yet I would still rather explain away your unresponsiveness as a lesson of some sort, the same way I used to rationalise the strange gaps in your accounts of everyday life when you still wrote to me. What lesson? Well of course, the one about the End, the one that has always moved and impressed you, the only thing you were ever able to lecture on.
I can feel the coming winter, it has been in the air for a few days now. The Bird I’m looking for has probably already flown south. Or north. Or back to you. I have no strength left to follow it. The Feather is still here, I can see it from where I’m sat. I don’t suppose you remember what it looks like anymore, do you? If asked now, you would probably describe it as belonging to a pigeon or a crow, grey and unremarkable. You wouldn’t have noticed it or asked me to pick it up, the way it now is in your mind’s eye. Too bad we can’t go walking anymore…
I wrote you a few more pages, but then changed my mind and burned most of them before placing the rest into the envelope. These few pages, now nothing but ash or ‘wind ink’ as they call it here, outlined some of the reasons why I’m never coming back and why, even if I ever did, I wouldn’t answer your call if I happen to run into you in our empty room or on the dirty, congested streets of your city. There is a wall between us, X, an invisible and insurmountable wall, and your words will break silently against it, little more than condensation on the other side of a window, and I will never understand them. And even if I were to try to respond from my side of the glass, to use that brief moment of being every circle of breath has to scrawl something, like a simple ‘yes’, it would look like the ultimate mockery, the ugliest scar, on your side.
I’m sorry, X.
Please write back.