The air in the New Zagreb neighbourhood where my mother lives smells of bird droppings in summer. In the leaves of the trees out in front of her apartment building jostle thousands and thousands of birds. Starlings, people say. The birds are especially raucous during humid afternoons, before it rains. Occasionally a neighbour takes up an airgun and chases them off with a volley of shots. The birds clamour skywards in dense flocks, they zigzag up and down, exactly as if they are combing the sky, and then with hysterical chirruping, like a summer hailstorm, they drop into the dense leaves. It is as noisy as a jungle. All day long a sound curtain is drawn, as if rain is drumming outside. Light feathers borne by air currents waft in through the open windows. Mum takes up her duster, and, muttering, she sweeps up the feathers and drops them into the bin.
“My turtledoves are gone,” she sighs.
“Remember my turtle-doves?”
“I do,” I say.
I vaguely recall her fondness for two turtledoves that came to her windowsill. Pigeons she hated. Their muffled cooing in the morning infuriated her.
“Those repulsive, repulsive fat birds!” she said. “Have you noticed that even they have gone?”
I hadn’t noticed, but sure enough, it seemed that the pigeons had fled.
The starlings irked her, especially their stink in the summer, but in time she reconciled herself to them. For, unlike other balconies, at least her balcony was clean. She showed me a messy little spot near the very end of the balcony railing.
“As far as my place is concerned, they are filthy only here. You should see Ljubica’s balcony!”
“Hers is caked all over in bird shit!” says Mum and giggles like a little girl. A child’s coprolalia, clearly she is amused by the word shit. Her ten-year-old grandson also grins at the word.
“Like the jungle,” I say.
“Just like the jungle,” she agrees.
“There are jungles everywhere these days,” I say.
Birds are apparently out of control; they have occupied whole cities, taken over parks, streets, bushes, benches, outdoor restaurants, subway stations, train stations. No one seems to have noticed the invasion. European cities are being occupied by magpies, from Russia, they say; the branches of trees in the city parks bow down under their weight. The pigeons, seagulls and starlings fly across the sky, and the heavy black crows, their beaks open like clothes pegs, limp along over the green city swards. Green parakeets are multiplying in the Amsterdam parks, having fled household birdcages: their flocks colour the sky in low flight like green paper dragons. The Amsterdam canals have been taken over by big white geese, which flew in from Egypt, lingered for a moment to rest and then stayed. The city sparrows have become so bold that they wrest the sandwiches from people’s fingers and strut brazenly about on the tables in outdoor cafés. The windows of my short-term lease flat in Dahlem, one of the loveliest and greenest of the Berlin neighbourhoods, served the local birds as a favourite repository for their droppings. And you could do nothing about it, except lower the blinds, draw the curtains or toil daily, scrubbing the splattered window.
She nods, but it is as if she is paying no attention.
The invasion of starlings in her neighbourhood apparently began three years earlier, when my mother was taken ill. The words from the doctor’s diagnosis were long, alarming and ugly (That is an ugly diagnosis), which is why she chose the verb “to be taken ill” (Everything changed when I was taken ill!). Sometimes she would get bolder, and, touching a finger to her forehead, she’d say:
“It’s all the fault of this cobweb of mine up here.”
By “cobweb” she meant metastases to the brain, which had appeared seventeen years after a bout of breast cancer had been discovered in time and treated successfully. She spent some time in hospital, went through a series of radiation treatments and convalesced. Afterwards she went for regular check-ups, and everything else was more or less as it should be. Nothing dramatic happened after that. The cobweb lurked in a dark, elusive cranny of the brain, and stayed. In time she made her peace, got used to it and adopted it like an unwelcome tenant.
For the last three years her life story had been scaled back to a handful of hospital release forms, doctors’ reports, radiological charts and her pile of the MRIs and CAT scans of her brain. The scans show her lovely, shapely skull planted on her spinal column, with a slight forward stoop, the clear contours of her face, eyelids lowered as if she is asleep, the membrane over the brain like a peculiar cap, and, hovering on her lips, the hint of a smile.
“The picture makes it look as if it is snowing in my head,” she says, pointing to the CAT scan.
The trees with their dense crowns growing under the window are tall, and reach all the way to my mother’s sixth-floor flat. Thousands and thousands of little birds jostle for space. Close in the hot summer darkness we, the residents and the birds, evaporate our sighs. Hundreds of thousands of hearts, human and avian, beat in different rhythms in the dark. Whitish feathers are borne on gusts of air through the open windows. The feathers waft groundward like parachutes.
Some Of The Words Have Got Altered
“Bring me the . . .”
“That stuff you spread on bread.”
“You know it’s been years since I used butter!”
“Well, what then?”
She scowls, her rage mounting at her own helplessness. And then she slyly switches to attack mode.
“Some daughter if you can’t remember the bread spread stuff!”
“Spread? Cheese spread?”
“That’s right, the white stuff,” she says, offended, as if she had resolved never again to utter the words “cheese spread”.
The words had got altered. This enraged her; she felt like stamping her foot, banging her fist on the table or shouting. As it was, she was left tense, fury foaming in her with a surprising buoyant freshness. She would stop, faced with a heap of words, as if before a puzzle she could not assemble.
“Bring me the biscuits, the congested ones.”
She knew precisely which biscuits she meant. Digestive biscuits. Her brain was still functioning: she was replacing the less familiar phrase digestive with the more familiar congested, and out of her mouth came this startling combination. This is how I pictured it working, perhaps the connection between language and brain followed some different route.
“Hand me the thermometer so I can give Javorka a call.”
“Do you mean the cell phone?”
“Do you really mean Javorka?”
“No of course not, why ever would I call her?!”
Javorka was someone she had known years before, and who knows how the name had occurred to her?
“You meant Kaia, didn’t you?”
“Well, I said I wanted to call Kaia, didn’t I?” she snorted.
I understood her. Often when she couldn’t remember a word, she would describe it: Bring me that thingy I drink from. I usually knew what her thingies were. This time the task was easy: it was a plastic water bottle she always kept at hand.
And then, she began coming up with ways to help herself. She started adding diminutive words like “little,” “cute little,” “nice little,” “sweet,” which she had never used before. Now even with some personal names, including mine, she would add them. They served like magnets, and sure enough, the words that had scattered settled back again into order. She was particularly pleased to use words like these for the things she felt fondest of (my sweet pyjamas, my cute little towel, that nice little pillow, my little bottle, those comfy little slippers). Maybe with these words and phrases, as though with spit, she was moistening the hardboiled sweets of words, maybe she was using them to buy time for the next word, the next sentence.
Perhaps that way she felt less alone. She cooed to the world that surrounded her and the cooing made the world seem less threatening and a little smaller. Along with the diminutives in her speech the occasional augmentative would jump out like a spring: a snake grew to be a big bad snake, a bird into a fat old bird. People often seemed larger to her than they really were (He was a huuuuuuge man!). She had shrunk, that is what it was, and the world was looming.
She spoke slowly with a new, darker timbre. She seemed to enjoy the colour. A little crack showed up in her voice, the tenor became a touch imperious, with a tone demanding the absolute respect of the listener. With this frequent loss of words the timbre of her voice was all she had left.
There was another novelty. She had begun to lean on certain sounds as if they were crutches. I’d hear her shuffling around the house, opening the fridge or going to the bathroom, and she would be saying, in regular rhythm, hm, hm, hm. Or: uh-hu-hu, uh-hu-hu.
“Talking to someone?” I’d ask.
“No one, just me. Talking to myself,” she’d answer.
Who knows, maybe at some point she was suddenly unnerved by the silence, and to chase off her fear, she came up with her hm-hm, uh-hu.
She was scared of the dying and that is why she registered deaths so carefully. She, who was forgetting so many things, never missed mentioning the death of someone she knew, either close to her or distant, the friends of friends, even people she had never met, the death of public figures that she heard of on television.
“Something has happened.”
“I am afraid it will be a shock, if I say.”
“You know Vesna! Second floor?”
“No, I don’t. Can’t say I’ve ever met her.”
“The one who lost her son?”
“The one who was always wearing all that make-up in the lift?”
“Really, I don’t.”
“It only took a few months,” she’d say, and snap shut the little imaginary file on Vesna.
Her neighbours and friends had been dying. The circle, mostly women, had shrunk. The men had long since died, some of the women had buried two husbands, some even their own children. She would speak without discomfort of the deaths of people who hadn’t meant much to her. The little commemorative stories made therapeutic sense; relating them she fended off the fear of her own dying, I suppose. She evaded, however, any mention of the death of those nearest to her. Her close friend’s death was followed by silence.
“She got so old,” she said tersely a little later, as if spitting out a bitter morsel. Her friend was almost a year older than she was.
She threw out all her black clothes. Before, she would never have worn bright colours; now, she was forever wearing a red shirt or one of two blouses the colour of young grass. When we called a taxi, she refused to get in if it was black. (Call another cab. I’m not getting into this one!) She tucked away the pictures of her parents, her sister, my father, which she used to keep in frames on the shelf, and set out the photographs of her grandchildren, my brother and his wife, pictures of me and beautiful pictures of herself from her younger years.
“I don’t like the dead,” she told me. “I’d rather be in the company of the living.”
Her attitude towards the dead changed, too. Earlier they had each held their place in her memories, everything was set out in a tidy manner, as in an album of family pictures. Now the album was disintegrating and the photographs were scattered. She no longer spoke of her late sister. On the other hand she suddenly began mentioning her father more often—who was always reading and had brought books home, and who was the most honest man on earth. Yet she was compelled to bring him down a peg. The memory of him was permanently tainted by the greatest disappointment she had ever known, an event she would never forget, and which she simply could never forgive him for.
The source of the memory was altogether disproportionate to the bitterness with which she spoke of it, or so at least it seemed to me. My grandparents had some good friends, a married couple. When Grandma died, these friends looked after Grandpa, especially the wife, Grandma’s friend. My mother once happened on a scene of tenderness between the woman and my grandfather. Grandpa was kissing the woman’s hand.
“I was sickened. And Mother said over and over: ‘Take care of my husband, take care of my husband!’”
It is highly unlikely that Grandma said anything of the kind. She had died of a heart attack. This pathetic plea—Take care of my husband, take care of my husband!—had been inserted into my dying grandmother’s mouth by my mother.
There was one more image that overlapped with the “sickening” scene of the hand being kissed, and this was an image that my mother could not easily dismiss. When she was in Varna for the last time, Grandpa asked Mum to take him back with her, but she—drained by my father’s protracted illness and the gruesome throes of his dying, and then finally his death—feared the burden of the obligation, and refused. Grandpa spent his last years abandoned in a home for the elderly.
“He tucked a little towel, my gift to him, under his arm, turned and went back into the house,” she said, describing their last encounter.
It would seem that she had smuggled the towel into this last image. We always brought a pile of gifts every summer for my mother’s Bulgarian relatives. It wasn’t just that she liked giving things to people, she also liked this picture of herself: she would come back from the Varna she had left so many years before, feeling like the good fairy after distributing the gifts she had brought. I wondered why she had inserted that towel into the farewell scene with her own father. It was as if she was lashing herself with it, as if the towel he tucked under his arm was the most terrible possible image of a person’s decline. Instead of undertaking the grand, sincere gesture, which would have meant jumping through troublesome and time-consuming bureaucratic hoops with little guarantee of success, she stuffed a towel into Grandpa’s hand!
Her need to taint her dead was something new. These were not feasts but snacks, focused only on details, which I was hearing for the first time, and, indeed, she may have fabricated them on the spot to hold my attention and confide a secret she had never told a soul. Perhaps the fact that she was in possession of information relating to the dead gave her a glow of satisfaction.
Recalling her late friends, sometimes, as if she’d just then decided to take their grades down a notch in the school records, she’d add importantly: I never took to him; I never liked her much either; They didn’t appeal to me; She was always stingy; No, they were not nice people.
Once or twice she even made as if to taint the image of my father, who was, in her words, the most honest man she’d ever known, but for whatever reason she relented, and left him on the pedestal where she herself had placed him after his death.
“You weren’t exactly crazy about him, were you?” I asked cautiously.
“No, but I did love him.”
“Because he was so quiet,” she said simply.
Dad was, indeed, a man of few words. And I remember my grandfather as being a quiet man. It hit me for the first time that both of them were not only quiet, but the most honest men Mum had ever known.
It may be that with this tainting of the memory of the dead she was easing her feeling of guilt for things she hadn’t done for them but might have, her guilt for what she had let slip by. She camouflaged her lack of greater attentiveness to the people closest to her with a hardness in judgement. She simply seemed afraid of caring more for others. At some point she had been scared of life just as she was scared of death. That was why she held on so firmly to her place, her stubborn coordinates, and shut her eyes to the scenes and situations that moved her too deeply.
Onion should always be well sauteed. Good health is what matters most. Liars are the worst people. Old age is a terrible calamity. Beans are best in salad. Cleanliness is half of health. Always discard the first water when you cook kale.
It may be that she had asserted things like this before, but I had paid no attention. Everything had got smaller. Her heart had shrunk. Her veins had shrunk. Her footsteps were smaller. Her repertoire of words had diminished. Life had narrowed. She uttered her truisms with special weight. Truisms gave her the feeling, I suppose, that everything was fine, that the world was precisely where it should be, that she was in control and had the power to decide. She wielded her truisms as if they came with an invisible stamp of approval, which she smacked everywhere, eager to leave her mark. Her mind still worked, her feet still moved, she could walk, though only with the help of a walker, but walk she did, and she was a human being who knew for a certainty that beans are best in salad, and that old age is a terrible calamity.