Are Common Serbian Woodpeckers Frightened of Bulgarian Scarecrows? (The 19th Letter)

29 May 1958

Beograd, Yugoslavia

Between the green leaved oaks lining the boulevard to the rear of the cathedral, to the left of the fourth shadow of the second grandest leaf, ninety two meters from the national library, where Dimitri Shostakovich is playing in my head.

Dear Comrade Milos, Twice Recipient of the Order of Marxist-Leninist Nature and Recent Guest Speaker at the All Republic Gathering of Socialist Ornithologists:

The seconds became minutes and then compile themselves into hours. I am afraid, like the time I encountered the darkness of my house without electricity, that eternity is unable to be contained by my words alone. Do you also fear time and the dark? Dear friend, does this mean we are getting old? In the hours since breakfast, I now feel even more alone and compelled again to write both questions and answers; as I am the only one who knows what I seek.

The juice, made from the Montenegrin apples was so fresh, do you not agree? The Kosovar woman who waited on our table reminded of both my second wife and mother. Perhaps it was because they were both kindly in the early morning way and provided me juices without asking?

Summer has arrived early this year. Don’t you think so? To be this warm in late May leads me to forecasts a warm summer. Tourists from as far east as Moscow and as north as Warsaw will come to beautiful Belgrade. Must everyone holiday in Dalmatia? Our work, dear friend, does not stop because every machinist in Prague needs a week’s leave.

I know you are busy for I can hear you at work. Might I propose both a question and idea? As our streets grow crowded and summer falls upon our beautiful land, shall we head east? It has yet to be proved that the Picus Virdius* migrates beyond the mountain passes. Could this not be the time, even the reason, to travel to Bulgaria? The lush Bulgarian cornfields, rolling for miles, are guard by hundreds of плашило. We call them scare crows. Bulgarian birds are frightened of these stick figures made to resemble Ottoman sultans and Nestorian heretics, and Russian generals. It is known, however, that images Ottomans, heretics, nor Russians frighten the common Serbian woodpecker. What say ye? Shall I call the station and purchase two tickets to Sofia? Perhaps Shostakovich will perform?

I do think this could be our opportunity to capture the elusive Serbian woodpecker. Unlike like the time we were in the place with the man who told us about the road that went to the other town that was near the city where the trees were that might have contained a single bird, I feel much better about this new plan.

If this is to reach you before tomorrow’s post, I must find make haste for the evening post.  I humbly await your reply.  And the arrival of my stamps.

Your friend,

Slava

*Picus Viridus-Common European Woodpecker

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An Interview with Lowell von Sourpuss

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I cannot tell you how unhappy I am at being forced to reveal any information about my past, whether it is happening now or occurred the day before yesterday.  For the record, I did not know Ethel Rosenberg or Lee Harvey Oswald’s uncle.  At the time you ask, I was with Princess Grace Kelly aboard the Monaco Falcon in a galaxy far, far away.  This is my unimpeachable alibi.

What is it you seek to know?    Remember, dear friend, nothing suits me like an ill-worded interrogation.

Where was I born?  Isn’t my living presence proof enough?  I am here.  Do you want to know that I was born on the only privately owned island in a floating national park some 25 miles off the coast of North Carolina?  Then yes, in a shack, on such a strip of land, named for a victim of the War of 1812, I left my mother’s womb.

What was I like as a child?  I had two hobbies, owing to the relative isolation of our island and my own interests.  Beyond taxidermy, crocheting, and composing for the harpsichord, little piqued my fancy.

Why did your first wife leave you?  She was captured by marauding pirates after leaving our home in a fit of rage over my persistent body odor and gas passing.  I did not know the pirates.  I am only guilty of smelling extremely bad.  Come closer as I raise my arm.  Do you doubt me?  Rancid, no? Sadly, the pirates left no forwarding address and I was forced to move on to less algae infested waters.

Do you have any pets?  Do I look like the type of semi-autonomous European nobility to hold onto pets for any certain period of time?  You’re fearfully nodding your head.  What did Lord de Montefort tell you?  Yes.  When I’m writing for the harpsichord and crocheting, I enjoy the company of my cats:  Gloria, Mark, and Snowball.  Two years ago, a cat named Jasper came to dwell with us.  Jasper eventually disappeared while I was training staff members at the first Wal-Mart in Phnom Penh.  I know nothing about this ill-mannered beast’s ill timed departure.  I was elsewhere.  You will find this alibi as solid as Romeo’s love for Helen of Troy.

Do you belong to any secret organizations, clubs or societies?  If they are truly secret, why would I confirm their existence or my membership therein?  However, I will admit to being in the Illuminati, the Mickey Mouse Club, and the United Methodist Church.  5524379004_11cdc16710_b

We’ve been told all three organizations one in the same?  I can neither confirm nor deny this.  Though I have never seen Walt Disney and John Wesley together.

What are you most proud of?  My work as a theater critic has brought me great acclaim.  I haven’t been able to sleep one night in the same location since I wrote about Hamilton, “I’m not sure how historically accurate rapping is in 18th century America.”

What would you do over?  I would advise Lincoln to say 87 years ago.  No one says “four score and seven  years ago” any more.  I would not vote for a Whig.

Where do you buy your socks?  I knit my own socks with homemade thread, spun from the hair of my two dogs, Ruby Sue and Hurley Jean.

Would you add anything further?  My sincere hope that you remain squarely in the dark and grasping at straws.

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Game of Fishing Tournament Thrones

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Saramok, the Goddess of the West Sound Marshes was angry.  Spring had missed the last ferry from the Swan’s Quarter and no mosquito harvest was reaped.  How were the people to know she was bitter?  Her rage, so vital and yet undetectable in the ever changing winds, frightened the mice who came to play backgammon on the steps of the local food pantry.  Because they were small, people paid little notice to mice addicted to a Byzantine board game.  It was not until the eve of the eve of the last quarter moon that Saramok’s acrimony became clear to the entire village.  In the night, teams of local fisher-dwarfs were dispatched along the shore of eastern sea.   This annual festival, dating from ancient days, pitted humanity against the sea gods to see who might remove the most and mightiest creatures from our darkened waters. Through the nocturnal hours they waited and no fish were caught or creature came forth.  The ocean waters of the east were barren.  Saramok, Goddess of the Western Marshes, was angry.

What does one do when the sea offers nothing but a place in which to see your own reflection?  The elders of the village gathered in a hastily formed council with the conveners of the festival.  How does one fish with no fish and an angry goddess lurking the shores of the western sound?  Outragoth the Elder spoke for many in the community, “An offering to the Goddess needs to be made.”  Yes, this seemed obvious.  “Outragoth,” asked Tourisatha, “what kind of offering do you propose? The mosquito offering was sparse, we have no grain, and the mice left once the meeting began.”

“Well, whose turn is it to die?” asked Wellmeanthsuggestionth. Yes, Wellmeanhtsuggestionth was proposing the idea of human sacrifice.  Good ideas, had been sacrificed before on the altar of the God “Proggesor”.  No one had ever made a human sacrifice to Saramok, the Goddess of the West Sound Marshes.

In days before recorded history, the prophets on the north end of the island proscribed many rules for the villagers living on the southern tip.  Without the prophets of the northern kingdom, the southerners wouldn’t know where to live, how many ducks to rear in October, or what to sell the voyagers who journeyed to the island after the Summer Solstice.  Despite their dependency on the northern prophets and having established a functioning society based on these rules, no one had ever covered, “What happens if Saramok the Western Sound Marsh Goddess becomes angry and the fish of the Eastern Ocean stop biting during the festival?”  Now, some wanted to sacrifice a person to guarantee more fish.  Was anyone opposed to this idea?  Perhaps we could reason with Saramok?

“Does anyone know her tastes in food or if she even likes human flesh?” asked Youthor, one of younger members of the village.  “We can’t assume she like people if we’ve never sent her a menu, so to speak.  Isn’t a bit presumptuous to think that just because she’s a God she’ll be appeased by dead people?”

Youthor had a valid point.  We might alienate Saramok even further by seeming rude and arrogant and immediately jumping to human sacrifice as our default choice.  Surely, there had to be some other way to please a god than by killing something?  It was a novel idea but people were having trouble holding on to the concept.

Suggestions were flying in from all over the place.  “Has anyone thought of this,” asked Commonsensthia, “maybe the fish not biting on the Eastern Ocean side has nothing to do with what’s happening on the Western Marshes.  Could it be that the fish simply aren’t biting because of how cold it’s been in the air, the water, and the fish are swimming somewhere else in the sea?  Besides, I’m not sure there’s even a Goddess on the Western Marshes.  I was over there all day yesterday.  I caught plenty of fish.”

Outragoth raised his hand, “Well friends, I think we’ve volunteer.  Congratulations Commonsensthia, you’re our first human sacrifice.”

 

Food for Thought-Heisenberg Says We’ve Already Been to Zagreb (The 18th Letter)

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1 January 1958

Belgrade

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.

Your friend,
M

*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.

Food for Thought-A Theory of Everything

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Between now and then, there and here, dawn and dusk, I remember little more than the remains of my most recent meal. It came on a plate. The plate was round, full of a complete wholeness unseen in the baked goods of my south Moscow youth. From the beautiful northwest of the plate’s painted circumference, I witnessed the watery mass of potatoes fall from the plate to the table. North of the fork and northeast of my dulled knife, they began a journey through the fibers of my dead grandmother’s sacred tablecloth. These Ukrainian potatoes, ignorant of the history born by this simple fabric, marched to the table’s fading varnish like Hitler’s armies to the gates of Moscow. By adding these facts together, an infinite progression of indisputable realities, I witnessed the unfolding nature of my day. Were I to quantify the beauty of a perfect sphere, a chaotic system of poorly farmed Ukrainian potatoes, and the incalculable speed at which they fell from the plate; I might derive an equation for the impending, now entirely predictable horrors which awaited me after breakfast.

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As the tablecloth was destroyed and grandmother’s legacy of smuggling people to safety while dodging Nazi bombs was ruined forever under the stain of watery Ukrainian potatoes, I had ample space to write and work. I did not want to leave the table and move to my desk. This, to my own supposition, would instigate the beginning of the entirely predictable horrors as noted in:

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Unwilling to accelerate the process of predictable horrors, I would use my knife as a pen, the leftover borscht as ink, and the remaining 12 meters of potato free tablecloth on which to write. My premise, while theoretical, was simple. The square root of overflowing, spilled potatoes was too consequential to ignore or avoid. If such a disturbing, cosmos shifting event occurred so early in the day, was it not the square root of something identical, guaranteed to occur later in the day. If your precious kitten scratches you at dawn, might you also be mauled by a Siberian tiger whilst visiting the Moscow Zoo only two hours later? Yes. This is what my equation supposed. It was a theory of calamity, of abhorrent, loathsome, evil things; all of which occurred if one thing went horribly wrong while you were eating breakfast. Burnt toast and spilled goat’s milk need no longer be variables. If bad things started your day, run the numbers to see how odious events will conclude your day.

When I had finished the first proof, mama appeared in the dining room. “What have you done with your grandmother’s table cloth? Have you bled all over it? I give you dull knife for a reason,” she said. I am not allowed to play with sharp knives, spears, or sharp anything. This is why I’m blind in one eye.

No, I carefully explained. I was not dying, bleeding to death, or intentionally destroying grandmother’s memory. Nor am I now blind in the other eye. With as much pride as I could muster, I said, “Dmitri, using only a dull knife, wrote in borscht ink, a new theory of why bad things happen all day long-especially after your mother spills potatoes when callously throwing the plate at her genius son.” It really seems to irritate her when I refer to myself in the third person and as a genius. For some reason, I do this often.

“Really,” mama says. “Bad things happen when potatoes spill and you write on table,” this is what you believe? “God has given me blind borscht writing idiot.”

I guess this may be half true.

Dmitri, the half blind genius, sometime idiot, shall now shovel snow.

Food for Thought-A Play About Nothing in Downtown Ouagadougo

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I’m not sure where I was. To be honest, I’m never quite sure where I am these days. So many of the places I inhabit tend to blend together in the darkness. Lit only by second hand lamps, I am led among frayed extension cords, one eyed orphans, and hastily arranged curtains. The villagers, I am told, are taking me to their local “théâtre”. According to an obscure local tradition, I am blindfolded and addressed only in the pluperfect tense. After the third bridge and fourth turn, this becomes confusing, as I am required to answer my driver in the conditional perfect tense. I distinctly remember telling the driver, “I would have baked a cake had I known I was being kidnapped and taken to see one of my plays.” No cake. He didn’t want cake.

The play we are about to see is something I authored over a decade ago. There were no actors, no plot, or scenery. Inspired by the work of Samuel Beckett and Jerome Seinfeld, I wrote a play where nothing happened. The curtain remained closed for two hours. Behind the curtain, the audience could hear the occasional sound, light, or gestational groan. Depending on my available resources, I might use a clashing symbol or a recorded explosion. But here is my point. Nothing happened.

One person (in the early days, it was usually me) sat behind the curtain making noise. Later on, once a few of the trendier theater journals reviewed my descent into nothingness, I was able to bring on a few stage hands to bang wooden spoons against my kitchen pots. Eventually they wanted to be called actors so I fired them and hired the one-eyed orphans. This was a play without a plot, actors, or any of the conventions of modern drama. I was going to ask my audience to stare at a closed curtain and listen to random sounds for two hours; all in the name of culture. What might a play about nothing say to a culture searching for something? This is the question I asked myself, printed on the programs, and hoped willing audiences would choose to answer.

While the New York critics were tough, we were huge in France. The French ate this up. The best negative review I ever received came from Le Figaro. “Could less have occurred on stage?” It was a good question. Could I do nothing at all and still call it drama? Would people pay good Euros to stare at a closed curtain with no sound or any physical interaction at all? Yes, I thought they would. I would go for all and nothing. Nihilism was still profitable in France. My nothing was as lucrative as any French nothing, wasn’t it? It was until I had nothing. Nothing goes fast in France. The only thing which runs out quicker than nothing is the beer, the bread, the meat, and the women. Nothing’s just another word for no beer in the cooler or meat on your table, not to mention the absence of actors on the stage.

Why the people of the capital city of Burkina Faso cobbled together enough central African francs to buy the rights to produce a 10 year old American play about nothing was beyond me. I had a theory. I once wrote a book on Dom Deluise as a recurring Christ figure in the Burt Reynolds’ Cannonball Run Story Saga. (I sold 12 copies, 4 of which were to Reynolds himself). In the text, there were a few un-translated French footnotes, referring both to my play and Dom Deluise’s inspiration in forming the core narrative of my drama about nothing. Deluise’s comedy was widely revered throughout French-speaking West Africa, with his work featured in film festivals in Guinea, Ivory Coast, Togo, and Burkina Faso in alternating years.

So let me clear things up. I didn’t know where I was beyond a dank basement and hastily assembled theater somewhere on the northeast side of Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou. And even when I’m in Ouagadougou, sober, and watching a play I wrote, I couldn’t find myself on a map with a GPS if I had to. As of now, that wasn’t in the cards but I wasn’t ruling it out for later.

One question still vexed me. Had they seen any of my work? Did they know what they were getting into? How would they respond to spending their hard earned money to get nothing in return? That’s all fine and dandy for first world theater goers with disposable incomes.

I can hear it now, “Où est le dialogue, homme blanc?” Were they expecting a DeLuise to be a character? “Quand le gros homme drôle arriver?” When does the funny fat man arrive? Oh, he’s here, sitting with his back to the wall waiting for a one-eyed orphan to bang rhythmically on a pot while the orphan missing the other eye (alternate) plays with a flashlight to a soundtrack to air blown over bottles. That’s the funny white man, sitting in the corner, a piece of paper in his hand, furiously writing a part for a man named Santa Claus in a play about nothing.