1 January 1958
Between the hallway photograph of the River Nišava and the champagne flute left on the floor by Vjekoslav Kaleb during the New Year’s festivities
Dear Comrade, Esteemed Hero of Ornithological Quests, and Master of Socialist Alchemy:
Happy New Year!
Josef Stalin is still dead and the Josip Broz Tito Lives! Does this mean there is a God? What kind of God kills one and leaves the other?
I write to you this morning as a rejoinder to our conversation of last evening. I admit it was difficult to follow our discussion of New Year’s resolutions amidst the revelries. Heisenberg’s insistence on performing Bach concertos for two pianos, with you, while we spoke, was quite distracting. Somewhere around the eighth measure, I’m certain you stopped paying attention. Now, without the benefit of Heisenberg’s rambling arpeggios, I would like to finish my list of resolutions. They are as follows.
To locate the *Picus Viridius.
To discover the Unseen Foolishness I Cannot Understand
Visit the *village in Albania where the dehydrated towels and sheets that are packaged and served for my post culinary convenience.
Find the ticket stubs for our next trip to Zagreb. After speaking with *Heisenberg last night, I’m certain we’ve already returned. Though I can’t recall what we found. Do you have them?
Loose one toe as my final concession to what I perceive as a case of gout or frostbite which has yet to arrive. Did we catch frostbite in Zagreb? Is this why my toe feels dead? Why do I have no memory of going to Zagreb?
Purchase a *cover for the hole the street adjacent to the flat. I fell 17 times last year. If I must, I will write to the Marshal directly.
*Picus Virdius – The Common European Woodpecker
*Dehydrated towels – Legends speak of a labor camp run by Enver Hoxha which forced Albanian political prisoners to manually dehydrate napkins and towels with their mouths.
*Yes, that Heisenberg.
*Manhole cover theft was a problem in Belgrade in the late 1950’s. Hipster coffee shops decorated their walls with the heavy, iron pieces. They were once considered the ultimate in socialist realism.
1 June 1957
Prague, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic
Prague Industrialization of the Masses Leading to Revolutionary Peace Workers’ Guest House
Dear Friend, Comrade, and Esteemed Follower of Birds,
The days have faded into a hazy oblivion. Prague is not Belgrade and I fear that Belgrade is not Prague. People seem different here. What is it about their socialism that seems so “Russian”? The streets, language, and food are not as they are in our beloved Belgrade. The manager at the hotel knew nothing of the insurance official or the mysterious number we were given. Could you believe his atrocious accent? He seemed to illiterate of Serbo-Croatian. Was he not warned of our impending arrival? What good does it do to pay a drunken gypsy in the Belgrade station to send a telegram?
Most assuredly, the beasts lurking between the buildings do not fully grasp the meaning or purpose of our quest. It was in a dream, only last night, as we pursued the disembodied pecks through an abandoned city center, I realized that we were climbing an ancient Babylonian Ziggurat. This holy mound, a shrine to the god Marduk, led to a darkness of unbearable lightness. Inside the temple, Marduk handed me a letter, from the angel Gabriel, which I unable to read. Were I able to read Marduk’s Babylonian message for Gabriel, I believe we would now know the whereabouts of the woodpecker.
As I cannot read Babylonian dream writing, I will wait here. The Czech Party has a fine reputation of offering night time adult education seminars in both dream interpretation and Babylonian cultural history. Perhaps we may find one near our hotel that offers better than adequate translation into Serbo-Croatian.
I suggest, tonight, we meet for soup and bread. Are you certain the goat we consumed was well done? I am not. I must post this before the bell strikes four.
With warmest regards,
*Marduk Babylonian Deity
*Ziggurat a type of Babylonian pyramid
25 May 1957
Between Bratislava and Belgrade, The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
After the third tunnel, over the fourth hill, near the curve where dinner is served
Dear Friend, Colleague, and Seeker of Rare Birds,
The letters on my desk grew weary of being unread. Each passing day carried two new realities, the wind was blowing, flowers were blooming, and birds were singing. I lost count of the letters on my desk and the realities beyond my door.
With no other choice than to follow the enigmatic clues left by the People’s Office of Indemnification and Life Guaranty* concierge, we are now bound for Bratislava*. Since we last spoke, over breakfast in Zagreb*, the cumulative uncertainty stalking our journey grows by the minute. How is your cabin? I find mine to be well apportioned with all of the amenities one might expect from first and half class travel in socialist Europe. There is a small table which divides the compartment in half. It is only large enough to hold my typewriter. If I am not writing to you, I remove the typewriter in order accommodate my meals, hands, or guidebooks. My seat, (do you have a seat?) will also fold out into a bed. This is where I intend to sleep once darkness falls. I hope your bed promises a degree of support for your back.
My travelling companion is an Uzbek born falconer, raised in Georgia, now residing in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic. After Comrade Khrushchev’s speech* condemning the Georgian bandit* he was in a camp* for bird trainers. Now, he is a socialist shaman in Almaty*. Called by the people of the Soviet Union to share his wisdom, he and Qush* are teaching socialist shamanism to Russia’s friends and allies.
How fortuitous to be riding with a grand shaman of the tribe of Genghis Khan*. I told him of our quest for the Picus Viridus*. He believes the bird to be hiding somewhere we have yet to search. We have simply not looked in the place where it exists. While I do welcome his presence and company, Qush defecates often and near my pillow.
I hear the conductor approaching. I must finish this letter so he may deliver these words to you.
*Bratislava the capital of Slovakia, then the second city of Czechoslovakia
*People’s Office of Indemnification and Life Guaranty an insurance company in late 1950’s Belgrade
*Zagreb the capital of Croatia
*Georgian bandit Joseph Stalin
*Comrade Khrushchev’s speech Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 speech to the 20th Party Conference of the Communist Party Soviet Union where he condemned the atrocities and abuses of power by Joseph Stalin
*Almaty capital of Kazakhstan
*Qush the Uzbek work for bird
*Genghis Khan as Khans go, the most important Khan of all time
*Picus Viridius the Common European Woodpecker
13 May 1957
Belgrade, The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
In the place between where the mail is relinquished and a letter is received
Dear Friend and Author of the “Epistle to My Cousin Branimir”*,
How can one not recall such an epic work of beauty on such a pulchritudinous day? When last has the sun shone forth so brightly?* My walk down Knez Mihaila*, amid the beclouded monuments of past, started in the pre-dawn obscurity of night. It was with the upmost of ease and gradual displacement of the general murkiness around me, I noticed darkness gave way to morning.
Among the scattered detritus of this morning are the remains of my breakfast. A few crumpled napkins on the corner of my desk and a torn receipt in my pocket are all that tells the story of Vlado, his brioche, and the Serbian perfection of French pastry.
You will remember that after breakfast, I needed to visit my insurance company. Upon presenting myself, you I believe, remained at the door, and I asked the kind woman working at the desk if I might speak with the manager, a “Mr. Jozef”. After 10 minutes (or more), her friendly demeanor completely gone, she insisted that “Mr. Jozef” had left for Bratislava. Should I need to speak with him, she gave me this card and said he may be contacted at the following “address”:
Could this be some way leading us to the Picus Viridius? What does this mean?
Are you able to decipher any meaning? Should we go to Bratislava?
Tomorrow may not be soon enough.
*Epistle to My Cousin Branimir M once authored a play by this title which ran for a short time in Sofia, Bulgaria
*Weather reports indicate sunny conditions on the 3 previous days
*Kneza Mihaila A large thoroughfare in central Belgrade
*Vlado A great Serbian pastry chef of the day
*Picus Viridius The Common European Woodpecker
10 May 1957
Belgrade, The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
After the time the rain began, ceased, and began again
Dear Friend and Esteemed Finder of Lost Things,
As I read my calendar, the week has ended. Accordingly a new week will soon begin. The impending one hundred sixty eight hours offer the chance to listen to innumerable records, eat fourteen breakfasts*, and pursue the most elusive avian between Ljubljana* and Skopje*.
In silence, the sounds of the Picus Viridius* mean nothing. Silence must give birth to sound for us to see the art we cannot hear. The partial experience of beauty so embodied by the dull undertones of a low pecking Viridius are like the seeds from which the total experience of beauty is grown. While we may be prisoners to the calendars of linear time, the Picus offers us a shelter from the gods of chronos* and kairos*; a place to step back from the present without remembering the future. If we are not present to hear and appreciate its song and gentle tapping, are we not like patrons, wandering the museum in pitch darkness? I would argue yes.
I thank you for the lingonberry jam. As you know, I have made many attempts to plant vaccinium vitis-idaea*. Due to my inability to find enough dirt, I’ve been reduced to purchasing lingonberry jam in exclusive Bulgarian markets or in ordinary restaurants selling toast. To know that I may simply walk into my kitchen, remove a knife and spread this elixir upon a piece of bread is almost too much to contemplate.
*fourteen breakfasts some persons ate two breakfasts per day, one early, one late
*Ljubljana the capital of Slovenia
* Skopje the capital of Macedonia
* Picus Viridius the common European Woodpecker
* Chronos and Kairos the ancient Greek concepts of chronological/linear and circular time
* Vaccinium vitis-idaea the Ligonberry
9 May 1957
Belgrade, The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia
In the afternoon, waiting for the parades to end
Dearest Hero, Friend, and Caretaker of the Past,
You know I have never been much for our public victory celebrations. To have lived through the war and survived is a daily celebration in and of itself. Would you not agree? Besides, no one wants to hear stories that begin with, “I knew Tito when he was still ‘Josip Broz’”. *
As the sky darkens in the east, I’ve spent most of the day watching the sound of the wind falling between the clouds. The noise of nothingness is deafening, even on a beautiful day. Sitting high above the Sava*, I wanted to find one gust, a single breeze and follow its course to the flowing water below. So certain, was I, that air and water would meet to produce a new language, I began to compose a verse in Bengali*. Perhaps it was the waiting, or the water, or the late night reading of Tagore*.
অন্ধকার আকাশ নীচে, সেদিনই বৈকালে আমি অক্ষয়বাবুর বাতাস অপেক্ষা, তাদের আর্তনাদ শুনতে,*
Today, many waited upon the Marshal*. On other days, we wait upon our food, we wait upon the Picus Viridius, and today I waited upon the wind. While we wait, in these vast and varied places, may we make our waiting matter? As we listen for the bird, are we listening to those around us and each other? Do the overwhelming sounds of nothingness prevent us from hearing the songs we are seeking?
These were the questions that once dominated our lives. It seems they have come to do so again.
*Josip Broz the given name of Marshal Tito, late dictator the former Yugoslavia
*Sava the river running east to west through Belgrade, Serbia
*Bengali the language of Bangladesh. Many British officers who worked with the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Yugoslavia had served in India and spoke languages of the subcontinent. It is probable V was exposed to Bengali at this time.
*Rabindranath Tagore Bengali Poet and Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913
*Beneath Darkened Skies, I wait upon the winds, and wait upon their cries…
*Marshal Marshal Tito
*Picus Viridius the common European Woodpecker