Extract > The Green Crow

Kristīne Ulberga is the Latvian novelist of our Baltic trilogy, and the author of The Green Crowan award-winning contemporary novel written in a genuinely surrealist style. The story is narrated by a woman in a psychiatric hospital; her doctors and fellow patients insist that she describe the scenes from her life which feature her corvid companion – a talking green crow…

 

 

 

The Old Buck, having put on his slippers, is now standing in the doorway smoking. Once more I feel like screaming that the Old Buck is Mephistopheles, he looks so composed and sagacious. I find I want to renounce our session in favour of some sort of revelation, but then I glance at the Crow. Some quality time with the Buck presiding over it could be just the thing to get the desperate bird back on her feet. I decide against crying out ‘You are Mephistopheles.’

 

‘Everything is ready,’ the Old Buck says quietly, then, instead of ushering us in, pushes us into his lair. There is no denying that this is rather dubious behaviour, but I say nothing to the Crow. I have no wish to agitate her further, to no avail. In no time at all the Crow has become frustrated, as there, right in front of the entrance four small, male rhinos are sitting on a wall, their snouts extended towards us. I, too, am frustrated. Unbelievable.

‘This is realism,’ the Old Buck smiles.

‘I can see very well that it is realism. I’m not blind,’ I snap.

‘Realism is reality, yet reality is not realism,’ the Old Buck says. He does not seem to be particularly at ease with the Crow and I standing on the threshold. I think it’s rather poor manners to welcome your guests with realism. We squeeze past the rhinos.

‘What else around here is realist?’ I ask. The Buck responds that, as yet, he himself is not but that his apartment, in its essential sense, is pure cubism. We are relieved to discover that the rhinos are no more than a painting, although their horns are real.

‘Have you got a horn?’ I ask the Buck.

‘Yes, I have,’ he answers in all honesty.

I like honest people. The Crow seems to be placated, too. The Buck shows us into his room. Everything is quite normal in there. A sofa, creased bed linen on the floor, a badly renovated rococostyle table, a television, a lamp with a dusty shade, a broken bottle on the floor, a pair of women’s knickers over by the cupboard. The smell is not the nicest, and there is an ashtray on the rococostyle table. Everything is normal. The Crow and I are able to relax completely. I light up, but the Old Buck darts over and snatches the cigarette from between my fingers.

‘But we are indoors! You are not allowed to smoke in here,’ he says and then notices his ashtray on the rococo-style table overflowing with cigarette ends.

‘All right then, just this once, OK?’ he says. I light a cigarette for me and another for the Crow – all this vexation has not done her any good on her birthday. Her beak is looking quite slack, and it worries me. The Old Buck invites us to sit down on the sofa. He urges us to be careful, not to burn holes in the furniture, but we are in no frame of mind to mark the sofa; we want to get on with the session and find out what’s what. We don’t like to rush the Buck – he has hurried his whole life, running away, hiding and all the rest, probably, only to meet us and arrange a session for our benefit. This can provide life with meaning – there is nothing to laugh about. I don’t know why the Scientist was so set against us going to the Buck’s. The Old Buck is just the Old Buck.

‘Isn’t that so?’ I ask the Crow, realizing immediately that she can’t answer as she hadn’t heard the question. And even if she had, her exacting Bible-talk standards wouldn’t allow her to respond with a plain ‘Yes’.

‘Never mind,’ I say, ‘everything is good today, absolutely the best. I didn’t say a word, and you don’t have to reply to anything.’ The Buck hurries away, most likely to the kitchen, as he hasn’t offered us anything yet. Our treat should be coming soon, smelling sweetly of cloves and cinnamon, although … oh, what difference does the smell make?

‘Do you think that mulled wine should smell of cloves?’ I ask the Crow. She says nothing, looking grumpy, until the Old Buck, our cubist host, appears before us bearing two steaming, half-litre jars in his hands. The Crow smiles. Of course, she would do when mulled wine is just a wing-stretch away. A simple truth is suddenly revealed to me – even if the mulled wine were to stink of old socks we would still drink it.

‘Let’s get started,’ the Old Buck says and pours himself a glass of schnapps. We have jars, he has a glass – this is something that I do understand. What makes the Buck such an excellent host is that his glass holds two hundred grams, whereas our jars take a full five hundred.

‘The session is starting NOW!’ the Buck cries, a television remote visible in his hand. I sulk, and, unfortunately, I believe both the Buck and the Crow notice – she searches me constantly for some kind of explanation as to what’s been happening to the Buck and to her. She sulks, so I sulk, too.

What’s the television got to do with anything? What? We have come to find out, to prove beyond all doubt, who the Old Buck is and what a cubist is. I feel like leaving, dragging the Crow along with me by the wing. The Old Buck needs to do something dramatic, take all his clothes off maybe or pull a dead hare out of a vase, make the clouds move, turn into an ugly old crone who might actually turn out to be very kind-hearted – something at least as impressive as that. What a complete and utter disappointment, and there’s enough of that in the world outside! We were expecting some sort of message from the deep, from the very core of his inner being!

Out of politeness we don’t get up to leave while half a litre of mulled wine still swills, unfinished, in our jars. Turns out that the Old Buck is nothing but an insensitive narcissist. Seeing our indignation, he just turns on the television, meaning we have to keep quiet, who knows how long for.

The session gets going with a wide-open human eye being slashed with a cut-throat razor, followed by a hole in the palm of a hand with ants crawling out of it. It’s not as dull as I expected it would be. Tolerable enough. Some guy, maybe French or Italian, is in the film. We see him dragging pianos with dead donkeys inside them and loving a woman in every which way imaginable. There’s a severed human hand, a man on a bicycle in a nun’s outfit and a woman mown down by a car.

The Old Buck tries to stir our interest, exclaiming, ‘Bravissimo! That’s what I call living! Yes! Fuck her harder!’ However, the film has its down side – it drags on too long, for one thing. I see the Crow starting to yawn. I ask the Old Buck to bring a drop more mulled wine for her. He asks irritably how we can think about drink at such a pivotal point but puts the film on hold and goes to the kitchen to heat up the potion. The film has been paused at a point showing the caption ‘I spit on my mother’ beneath a painting by the leading man, the great artist.

I read it and think. The Crow has stopped sipping. I know that she is thinking the same thing as me. I gather saliva in my mouth. I hear the Crow doing the same.

‘Actually it’s not as simple as all that,’ the Crow speaks unexpectedly.

I amass saliva and spit – we spit. It hits the floor.

‘I spit in my mother’s right eye, but she turns her left to me and asks if I can hit that one, too,’ the Crow says.

‘I hit my mother right on the mouth, but she licks my spit from her lips and smiles. I’m horrified.’

‘If we can spit on our mothers we are free,’ the Crow continues.

‘Yes, we are free, here in the home of the Old Buck,’ I agree.

Soon, the Old Buck comes back with two steaming half-litre jars in his hands.

‘Salvador Dalí, a cubist,’ he says. ‘A great artist.’

‘Was he someone who would spit on his mother?’ I say, wishing to know if his greatness came from being able to do this. ‘Did you spit on your mother, too?’ I ask the Buck.

‘No, she died,’ the Buck answers and laughs at Salvador Dalí’s shoes.

The Crow and I, we are still enjoying the honesty that seems to radiate from the Buck. Especially the Crow. She places her head on the Buck’s shoulder. I feel uneasy. I also place my head on the Buck’s shoulder. The film becomes really dull – no naked bodies or blood. There is an ordinary scene where the famous Salvador Dalí is having an argument with his father. As if that wasn’t as commonplace as spitting on your mother.

‘What is a hero?’ the Buck asks, standing up abruptly. I fall on to my right side, the Crow to her left. Our heads bang together at the point where the Buck had been sitting. We pretend that it doesn’t hurt in the slightest.

‘A hero is the one who saves the world,’ I say.

‘The only hero is Jesus, the Son of God,’ the Crow preaches.

‘No, my dears,’ the Buck says coldly.

The professors are quite right to keep quiet. They plainly don’t wish to sound silly.

‘A hero is anyone who stands up to his father’s authority and trumps it.’ The Crow’s esteem and mine for the Buck rises. The topic of mothers and fathers is always an interesting one – it resonates with everyone.

‘Which comes first? Spitting on your mother or standing up to your father’s authority?’ I ask the Buck.

‘If Jesus had cast off his burden …’ the Crow chips in with a rhetorical question.

‘In that case, he would be a hero,’ the Buck says, although it is clear that he has something more important than Jesus on his mind, something emanating from his inner self. All the same, the Buck says no more and sits back down on the spot where the Crow and I had knocked our heads together. The Crow places her head back on the Buck’s shoulder. I start thinking that the Crow would willingly allow the Buck to fondle the underside of her wing, which I have heard is incredibly silky and beautiful. The Crow can be won over with honesty. That alone, naturally.

The Buck flips to a music channel. There is a little mulled wine left in our jars. Cubism is perfectly clear to me now, although I still don’t know who the Buck is. I want to initiate a conversation about the essence of things, but I feel frustrated for the second time that evening. This time it’s because of the Crow. She presses her beak to the Buck’s ear but not to whisper; instead she sticks her tongue out – which I am surprised to see is forked like a snake’s – twirling it around the Buck’s ear as suggestively as a woman in a film. What Bible-talk is she going to whisper in his ear? I’m genuinely concerned. For the time being, however, she does no more than tickle the Buck’s ear with her tongue, the same tongue that a second earlier had defended Jesus. I feel a bit awkward. I don’t like the way this is going at all. The only logical explanation is that I’m hallucinating. The Buck is not reacting in any way; he isn’t sticking his tongue out or trying to touch the underside of the Crow’s wing. Something here is not quite real. The Crow seems to sense this, too, and stops wiggling her tongue around.

‘Any more mulled wine going?’ I ask.

‘I only have schnapps left,’ he replies, thus confirming that it is all real and for real. I don’t object, telling him to pour me some schnapps, but the Crow stands up.

‘I thank our host and go in search of pastures new,’ she caws. I, too, get to my feet.

‘You must journey alone down the long road,’ the Crow says, looking me straight in the eye, her beak curved in a smile. I like the Crow very much. I sit back down next to the Buck. The Crow spreads her wings and flies away, revealing briefly the under side of her wings. The Buck waves her farewell and locks the door.

‘Who are you?’ I ask the Buck.

‘I’m the Old Buck,’ he answers and passes me a full glass of schnapps.

‘And who are you?’ he asks me.

‘I’m me,’ I answer the Buck.

‘Pleased to meet you.’ The Buck extends his hand, which is large and clammy, but the schnapps is sweet.

I’m enveloped by a pungent warmth. It smells of freshly mixed concrete. I’m unable to open my eyes. I hear the dust on the lampshade, I feel a broken bottle piercing the linoleum, I feel the breath of the rococo-style table on my foot and the sofa cursing at my temple, I smell the knickers on the floor – now there are two pairs. I recognize my own smell. There is an advertisement on television for mobile-phone rates at two santīmi a minute. The door creaks and water runs. Someone touches my shoulder – yes, it probably is my shoulder.

‘This is for you,’ the Old Buck says. I stretch out my hand and take whatever it is the Buck is handing me. It’s a glass. Oh, merciful gods. I keep my eyes closed and feel the rim of the glass; saltiness touches my lips.

‘Ugh, what’s that?’ I spit.

‘Your blood,’ the Buck says. No way could there possibly be a whole glassful of it.

I open my eyes.

 

The Green Crow
Kristīne Ulberga
Translated from the Latvian by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini

 

The Green Crow by Kristīne Ulberga is part of our Baltic World Series.

It is available to order now.

The Green Crow

 

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