Without a face

My only memory of my grandmother is the one of her grave. My father’s only memory of his grandmother is the one of her funeral. I don’t know what I received from my grandmother by way of heredity. My father doesn’t know what he received from his grandmother, and couldn’t ask her anymore by the time I asked him about it.

Maybe I inherited my grandmother’s moods. My father recalled his mother was moody. He wrote this once in a letter to somebody, a carbon copy of which I later read. Nowadays moodiness is called: sensitivity to moods. Moods are subdivided into depressions, fears, and melancholy. Melancholy is probably the finest among these three moods. Homesickness in a minor key. Maybe my grandmother was homesick for a country she didn’t know, her mother’s country: China. Homesickness handed down from her mother, who was from there. Or inherited from her grandmother, whom she in turn perhaps also hadn’t known.

My father recalled that his grandmother still had those little bound feet. As a Chinese woman she had thus complied with the old Chinese ideal of beauty. My great-grandmother came to the Dutch East Indies from Canton a long time ago, probably with part of her family, because Chinese uncles and aunts wandered around in the stories my father told. Exactly when she came to the Dutch East Indies, I don’t know. She would have been born after 1860, when slavery in the Dutch East Indies was abolished and the Indies had to struggle with a lack of personnel.

The Dutch went to the Mediterranean to scour up guest workers during the sixties of the last century, as they did on the Chinese coasts back then, 100 years earlier. Many guest workers settled in Holland for good, as they did in the Dutch East Indies. There they arrived in rickety little boats, and they were called koelies. I don’t know what she was called, my great-grandmother. She may have had Nio in her name: girl.

My father was about four years old when he lost his grandmother. She must have been slight of build, but in his memory her coffin was big and made of djati-wood and heavy to lift. Under his mother’s supervision, Chinese dishes were prepared and offered to the gods. My father, his two brothers, and two sisters got chalk smeared behind their ears. Those chalk smudges were to protect them from evil spirits at the funeral service.

Who else would have been at the funeral? Did my Chinese great-grandmother leave a husband behind, had he already passed away, or was he living with another, a younger woman meanwhile?

The bier was loaded onto a tjikar, an oxcart. The procession went to the Chinese cemetery in Soerabaja. With Chinese ceremony, the woman with the little feet was consecrated to the earth, flowers were strewn, and the little boy’s mouth watered as he looked at the way the dishes with offerings were being placed around the grave. He escaped the notice of the mourners, and sampled all that deliciousness around his grandmother’s grave. Maybe the gods would be so good as to tolerate a little boy in their midst for a moment?

If they were there, those gods, and if they became wrathful because the little boy had stolen a taste of their foods, then perhaps here lies a clue regarding the bitter fate that later awaited the boy. But I do not believe this. More precisely: hardly. That’s a little more than not. Because you can’t be sure, if they exist or not, those gods, or if they were present at my father’s grandmother’s funeral.

I hope that they were there. That it was the gods who took my father’s fate into their hands. I hope so, because I look for the innocence in people, my family.

As for my great-grandmother on my grandfather’s side, I know her face from photographs. I even know her name: Rabina. According to my father she was Madoerese. According to an aunt of mine, who wrote a private family chronicle, she was East Javanese, the daughter of Pa Grimin and Sayeh. Many East Javanese are of Madoerese origin. Rabina most likely lived somewhere in the Eastern part of Java, when, a decade before slavery was abolished, a young man by the name of George Birnie left Holland and sailed for the Dutch East Indies. He was to bring a portion of East Java under cultivation by planting coffee and tobacco. He married Rabina, pretty exceptional in those days, and Rabina presented him, as that was called, with eight children: Indisch children: Indos. They were sent to the Netherlands to be raised and educated. Later, George also took Rabina to the Netherlands, from where he ran the Birnie empire. There this woman took control of the kitchen in the family home, located somewhere in the basement. God only knows how she felt over there.

In the family chronicle it is written that George passed away in the Netherlands, but it doesn’t state how things ended up for Rabina. The writer only charts the Birnie empire. So I know what the men did. I know that they brought tracts of land under cultivation in the Dutch East Indies. I also know that my great-grandmother Rabina cooked for her husband and children and spoke comically broken Dutch. For the rest I know nothing. Again: how did she feel in the Netherlands? Uprooted? Or did she feel at home anywhere in the world, as long as she was with her husband? I take it that after her husband’s death, Rabina returned to the Dutch East Indies, and that she passed away there. I hope so, because, as the older Indos say, the ground is warmer there.

The fourth of George and Rabina’s children was named Willem, and entered the world in 1868 in Djamber, East Java. This pure-blooded Indo first married his cousin, a woman of another branch of the Birnie family. They had two children. I don’t know how long their marriage lasted. Legally probably their entire lives. But they ended up living apart. That was when Willem met my grandmother, one of the two daughters of the Chinese woman with the little feet. He lived together with her, as my father would say. Others would say: he took her into his house as a maid. Then took her as a consort, a njai , the intriguing Indisch word for concubine.

According to my father she was born in 1893 in Kediri, East Java, and was named Sie Swan Nio, the family name at the beginning. However, the 1925 certificate recognizing him as their child reads: Sie Swan Nio, without profession, residing in Soerabaia, Koninginnelaan 3, according to her admission, thirty-five years of age and unwed. Was the year of her birth 1890, then? It could be that for some reason or other, maybe money, she lied to the notary about her age.

If she is of the year 1890, according to her admission, then she is of the Chinese Year of the Tiger. If she is of the year 1893, then she is of the Chinese Year of the Snake.

There is a big difference between women born in the Year of the Tiger and those born in that of the Snake. Tiger women are born feminists, and therefore the least liked among the old Chinese. Snake women are mysterious and sensual. What is certain is that the date of her birth: July 23, is on the cusp between the zodiac signs of Cancer and Leo in Western astrology. Undoubtedly my father remembered her birthday well later, when he was all alone in the Netherlands, separated from his family for good because he was forced to flee the Indonesians after the war.

Sie Swan Nio already had a previous child, a daughter by a Chinese man. I don’t know if she was ever married to that man. I only know that he was addicted to gambling. Could also have been something my father made up. There is a theory that says that after a divorce, you look for somebody who is like your previous partner, or who at least substantially shares this partner’s traits. My grandmother found another gambler in her second husband.

He, Willem, a privileged descendant of the Birnies’ meanwhile rich and renowned plantation-owners’ empire, had 12 hunting rifles up on the wall according to my father. They say that Indos enjoyed the hunt. They hunted tjellengs, wild pigs. My grandmother definitely would have seen him set off on regular trips into the jungle, to go hunting there. But perhaps his jungle was mostly a mishmash of private addresses, with lovers, and that these were the tjellengs he hunted.

According to my father, Willem owned a steamship, a laundry, and a legal practice. Later, I read in my aunt’s family chronicle that the man had been the enfant terrible of the family, that he dreamed up enterprises with respect to his family, to borrow money from the family funds. A coal mine in Borneo, that kind of thing. Traveling between Holland and the Indies, he always stopped in at the casino in Monaco.

The bon vivant did not walk in his father George’s footsteps, and never recognized the five children he had fathered through her. For this reason she herself had gone to report the birth of my father, a late arrival. According to the certificate, she waited until the last moment to do this, because he was already three months old. The law did not permit a longer period of time. Maybe she tried all that time to move her husband to recognize his son, so that at least her anak mas, her favorite child, could become an heir with the prospect of a privileged future.

Maybe my grandmother was a Tiger and quarreled about legitimizing their last child, and maybe the hunter kept saying that he would think about it but kept on forgetting, a bottle of whiskey at his lips. In the family chronicle it is written that at the end of his life my grandfather was placed under family supervision. He received an allowance of 600 guilders per month and furthermore was not to involve himself in family affairs anymore. When the gambler died, just before the Second World War broke out, he left nothing but debts.

Maybe my grandmother was a Snake and suffered during the regular absence of her man. Maybe he didn’t give her enough money to be able to live decently. I don’t know if they loved each other. If it is the case that he first took her on as a maid, she became his lover afterward. As a lover you could say, or believe, that you were no longer a maid. That you were the wife of a big man, a toean besar, somebody with money, power, and standing.

The toean besar did not have the power to divorce his cousin. This first wife, with whom he had two legal children, refused to divorce, and maybe that had something to do with shares in the family stock. Or did my grandmother feel that his heart had always stayed with his cousin? True intimacy is only possible between two persons, says the I Ching, the Book of Changes, an old legacy of Confucius and his students, my only passport to my Chinese forebears’ thought: Where three are together, jealousy arises, and one of them will have to yield.

My father said that during the war years his mother switched from Confucianism to Christianity. This means: she began to read the Bible, in Malay. Maybe she sought comfort for the sadness that her youngest son caused her with his needless, pro-Dutch, political ideas and particularly with his actions during the war.

When the Japanese invaded the Dutch East Indies, during the first bombing of Soerabaja, half the house was demolished. The family had to find shelter elsewhere in the city. My father’s oldest brother, who had been appointed his guardian, managed to get Chinese identity papers, so the family made it through the war years reasonably well. Thinking pretty much in Indonesian fashion, the entire family clung to Djojobojo’s prediction: that after three years the yellow domination would give way and the Indonesian people would be free. However, my grandmother’s anak mas had lost his father too early, and he had started romanticizing about him, this “real European” Willem, with his Dutch passport. It was now three years after Willem’s death, and he himself had meanwhile turned seventeen. He was neither Chinese, nor Indo, nor Dutch. He walked around with a Chinese brooch pinned to his chest, but at home he hung a portrait of the Dutch queen above his bed. He had acquired a hatred of the Japanese, and for many years would still grieve the loss of twelve enormous Chinese vases during the bombing.

What else did my grandmother do during the war besides read the Bible? She earned her money by preparing ketjap in her back yard. During the Japanese occupation her twin daughters went out to work as serving girls in an establishment catering to Japanese officers. They brought home money, and when my father protested, she said, “Shut up. We have to eat.” When, as a young man in his early twenties, he came home with his first soldier’s pay, ready to hand it to his mother, she said, “I don’t want that money. It’s soaked in blood.”

That story was told to me dozens of times by my mother, a Dutch correspondent of my father’s, introduced to him by a southern Dutch soldier.

The Japanese had capitulated, and the Dutch army tried to grab power over the Indies with what were called Police Actions. The Indonesians did not desire guardianship anymore, took up weapons, and the Indies turned into a chaos that would finally be called Indonesia. My father chose the side of the Dutch-as his late illegal father was after all Dutch-and participated in the First Police Action. He drove over a landmine, and during the Second Police Action had to remain in the barracks.

I got all of this from his memoir, which he wrote at my request some time ago. One day he went home on leave. He was, according to his own writing, in uniform and had his pistol with him. I don’t know if that’s possible, because when on leave, the men had to leave their weapons behind at the barracks. He heard a baby crying, took a peek into the back room, and saw a little child with Japanese features. He took out his pistol, loaded it, and aimed the barrel at the baby. The babus (nannies) wailed, and begged for mercy. He walked away, deeply offended that one of his sisters had had the baby of a Japanese officer, of the enemy.

Where did he go, where did he spend his time? At the barracks? According to his memoir he hung around a lot in the city, where factions were starting to fight one another. He does not write that, or in what manner, one night in the city during that chaotic period, his sister’s boyfriend, the Japanese officer, was murdered.

Later, in the Netherlands, whenever we sat around the coal stove, listening to the war stories that were on his lips every evening, he called his sister Ella a collaborator, a hostess, a Jap-whore. As a young boy I tried fruitlessly to understand what he was always going on about. It was many years later that I started writing her, my aunt Ella. I was to become one of those Second Generation Indos who would take a roots trip to Indonesia. Aside from which, writers need a framework for their stories, as many different voices as possible on the same subject, from different perspectives.

I visited my grandmother’s grave and stayed five weeks at my aunt Ella’s, who was closest to my grandmother because her mother had lived in with her practically until her mother’s death. Now she was living in a new house somewhere in a “corridor,” a street in the Kertajaya, a district in Surabaya. Aunt Ella lived there with her half-Japanese daughter, whom she had called Yosta, after her father, the Japanese officer Yoshida.

Yosta had three children with a Chinese man, a hardworking contractor who came by a couple of times a week, and sometimes stayed over. He had a first wife somewhere in the city. Imitating our grandmother, Yosta was also a consort, a concubine, albeit a Chinese-Buddhist variation.

Yosta’s son, Yongky, had one great desire: to see Japan, the country of his unknown grandfather. His ideal of beauty was the Japanese woman. There was a calendar above his bed of Japanese fashion models. Yosta’s daughter, Lily, had a liking for things Chinese and had a Chinese boyfriend. Every evening she would come home from work chattering busily, and would rattle on about everything she had seen, what she was going to do, what she liked, and what she didn’t like. They said that she resembled my grandmother, Sie Swan Nio. But Lily laughed a lot, and my father said that his mother rarely laughed. My cousin Yosta’s youngest child was a girl and she was called Ervina.

When you list the names in a row, descending by age, you can taste the differences: Yongky, Lily, Ervina. The first carries traces of his unknown Japanese grandfather in his name. The second is a nice name for a modern Chinese girl. The third sounds Indonesian.

I didn’t feel at home out on the street in Indonesia. I did on my aunt’s front veranda. Maybe because the veranda was more reminiscent of my father’s stories about the Dutch East Indies. I spent my evenings there and looked at the tjitjaks on the walls for hours. These lizards were always up in brass on the walls of Indo homes in the Netherlands during the sixties, and maybe still are in the homes of older Indos.

Aunt Ella had her spot in the kitchen where she listened to her wajang-radio play every day and preoccupied herself with light household duties. In the evening she would visit me out on the porch, stand behind me, and always greet me with her pidjit-ing hands on my shoulders and my neck, which was stiffly Dutch in tense anticipation of her stories.

I had to wait for days, for weeks for her story about Yoshida, the Japanese officer who was so hated by my father. The story came to me in two versions. First in my cousin Yosta’s version, after that in my aunt Ella’s version.

Yosta told me, while mopping the floor, about how her unknown father had gone out to get cigarettes one night. Japan had capitulated and the Japanese soldiers were waiting to be repatriated to their homeland. It was Bersiap: some Japanese started fighting side-by-side with the Indonesians against the Dutch, others hid in the warehouses at the harbor or in houses that they had confiscated before, when they invaded the Dutch East Indies. There were also those who hid out at the homes of their girlfriends, like Yoshida.

Most Indonesians left the Japanese alone, but desperados roamed around, including Indos who still had scores to settle with their former adversaries. Yes, like my father. You would have had to be an idiot to be out on the streets by yourself if you were Japanese. This is why Yoshida didn’t go alone, but in the company of his cousin, also an officer. Aunt Ella had waited, but not seen him come back. She had gone out to look, and learned that someone had been found dead on the pasar . His face had been mutilated, he was hardly recognizable at the identifikasie. It was Yoshida’s cousin.

And Yoshida?

Well, he ran away of course. He doesn’t dare go back, you see? Mama still tried to track him down, until long after the war. All the way to Tokyo, you know how far that is, through go-betweens. But she never got to know anything about him. Kasian, a pity for my mother, it is.

Days later, out on the front porch, right before my departure for the Netherlands, my aunt Ella comes over and sits beside me. She doesn’t greet me with her pidjit-fingers, she has something to tell me. First she looks off in silence for a while at the corridor, the street where it is dark, and quiet. Then she lays her old hands in her lap, and tells me that one particular evening Yoshida went out to get cigarettes. It is dangerous outside, and that’s why he goes together with his cousin. It will be the last time that she sees her beloved Yoshida, because they will not come back. Both find their deaths in the marketplace, their faces are mutilated by sharp weapons.

Both of them?

Yes, both of them. After Yoshida, your aunt never had another man. But I have Yosta, and Yoshida lives on in her, and so he is always around me. Lily resembles your grandma, you know she would prefer to go to China. And Jongky, he looks strikingly like his grandfather, that’s why he dreams of a Japanese girl and Japan.

But Yosta told me that only Yoshida’s cousin had been found dead.

Yes, I didn’t tell her everything. Kasian, it would be a pity for her. But she’s asleep now, so I can tell you. You can have a man who isn’t always there, or a lover who leaves you. But who wants a father without a face?

* * *
Notes from the author:

I utilize the old spellling Soerabaja when I am talking about prior to or during the war, and Surabaya when I’m talking about after
Indonesian independence. The spelling of Malay words I present in the classical Dutch spelling, because many of these words enriched Dutch dictionaries in this form. Moreover, my story is Indisch and not Indonesian. This is why I decided against modern Indonesian spelling elsewhere.

King Jojobojo, the “Javanese Nostradamus,” ruled over one of the Hindu realms on Java around 900. The king had two residences: in Daha (unknown) and in Kediri (East Java). One day he received a visit from the Arabic scholar Maulana Ali Samsujin. Jojobojo was impressed by this Moslem’s supernatural gifts, and steeped himself in the science of the occult. It turned out that he, too, possessed prophetic gifts. By means of seven platters of food, Jojobojo predicted seven periods during which seven great realms would succeed one another. Among them were seafaring nations, the Dutch and the Japanese, respectively, who would transform Java into a cesspit of vice. These would finally be driven out, after which the kings of Java would be able to regain the power to rule. As with all true predictions, Jojobojo’s is capable of more than one explanation on various points. Thus the length of the domination by the strange yellow people (the Japanese) was compared with the time corn needs to mature, namely three-and-a-half months. But the faded handwriting in which the prediction is written has become illegible in some places. Was the king referring to “djagoeng” or “djago”? Corn or Rooster? If it was “djago,” rooster, then it would take three-and-a-half years before liberation, because this is how long it takes a rooster to reach its full maturity.

Copyright ©2000, Alfred Birney. Original title: Zonder gezicht. From the collection of stories and essays on the Dutch East Indies Vertrouwd en vreemd. Ontmoetingen tussen Nederland, Indië en Indonesië. A compilation by Esther Captain, Marieke Hellevoort & Marian van der Klein (red.). A publication of Uitgeverij Verloren, Hilversum, The Netherlands, 2000. This biographical story is translated from the Dutch by Wanda Boeke. No reproducing is allowed in any form without written permission from both the author and translator.

Waking Up

The background was black with a few strokes of indigo, randomly brushed in so it seemed, or were they the first attempts of a budding Chinese calligrapher? Then there was a noise. I couldn’t bring the sound home. But the sound took shape: in the dark distance, wasn’t I seeing the contours of a mountain appear? Pattering footsteps approached. They seemed to be those of some kind of animal that was invading my domain. Before I could brace myself, it jumped on my bed. I uttered a cry and bolted upright. The animal shrank back, took on the guise of a five-year-old boy.
Without further discussion they roughly pulled him outside.
It stood beside my bed, looked at me in bewilderment, and asked, “Daddy, can the TV be turned on now?”
“Sure, kiddo.”
My small son had rapidly collected himself, already seemed to have forgotten my fearful reaction as his cartoon heroes flew across the TV screen. Had he honestly forgotten?
Things that really make an impression on somebody usually require a delayed response. Perhaps I had seen my father scared by me that way once, but forgotten about it because the ex-marine had the ability to roll out of bed in a flash, to then jump to his feet and assume a catlike fighting stance. You’d rather see your father ready to fight than scared, somehow.
In particular, I remember this: “What do you want?”
Toneless question, threatening nevertheless. A provocative smirk glimmers in my father’s eyes. The Indo, tormented by memories of war, does not see his son. He sees a Japanese soldier or an Indonesian freedom fighter there in front of him. Rattling little hammers on typewriter arms leave a trail of printed letters across his frowning forehead: Who are you and what do you want in my room?

There was no television set at home, it was during the fifties, and I was just as old as my little boy is now. There was a coconut mat in the hallway that hurt my feet. I had sensitive feet, wasn’t used to walking barefoot like my father was in the country he had fled six years earlier right after the war. There was the kitchen with its yellow tiles and small Formica table, in the crystal ashtray lay cigarette butts with my Dutch mother’s half-moon lipstick prints on them. It was cold. What was I doing in my parents’ bedroom?
My father didn’t want me there and chased me away by assigning me the task of stirring up the coal stove.
I hurried to the living room. The stove stood on bowed legs in front of the mantelpiece framed by dirty yellow bathroom tiles. I pulled the drawer holding the hot ashes out of the black cast-iron monstrosity which bore the brand name Etna, the name of an Italian volcano. In the kitchen, I tipped the ashes into the metal garbage bucket. Out of the hallway closet I loaded a sack of coal onto my shoulder, although I heard my mother complaining to my father that these kinds of chores were nothing for little boys.
I opened the door to the stove and in its depths saw the glowing remains of the coals that had made it through the night. Small black diamonds conserved in the rictus of a hell. I ripped up newspapers, made wads, tossed them into the maw of the stove, and lay kindling on top. Lugging the sack over, I let the egg-shaped pieces of coal roll into the fire. I watched the black smoke that developed, waited until the stove began to roar, and closed the door.
Forty years later with a simple motion I adjust the thermostat on the wall to turn up the central heating in my apartment. I place a child’s breakfast in front of my little boy on a small table beside the couch and go back to bed. Maybe I’ll be able to sleep another hour for a better start to the day. Without a scare, without recollections of my father and what all is lurking there.

In the future, my little boy will not wake me up like that again. Not that I told him not to. He has come up with all kinds of strategies himself. He’ll take out his first wooden toy train and walk through the apartment with it, the way he did when he was two. One of its wheels rubs and makes a squeaking sound. It’s a sound that I know and that shouldn’t frighten me. On occasion, he’ll sit on the couch and softly start singing the familiar songs he has learned at school, waiting for me to come turn on the TV for him. Sometimes I catch him peeking around the corner of my open bedroom door, quiet so as not to scare me.
My bedroom door is always wide open. My father’s was always half-open. After he was left to himself, separated from his wife and children, he had put a daybed in the living room. For his Indisch siesta, I thought, but later I suspected that he slept there at night as well.
A daybed in the living room can be a friend to frightened people. Bedrooms can be serious enemies, no matter how hard you try to make them cozy. They do, you think, happen to hide the memory of your most terrifying nightmares. A daybed in the living room is surrounded by the familiar elements of your days: the television, the sound system, your books, somewhere a scarf left lying around by somebody who visited you, your small son has left his little train in the middle of the room.
I don’t have a living room like that. When my little boy is at his mother’s again after the weekend, I bring all his things back to his room. In order not to stifle the memory of his presence, I leave the door to his room wide open. My living room is as empty as possible, nothing is allowed to disturb me when I’m sitting at my desk. Green linoleum, black blinds; a cell with a hint of Japanese austerity. The sight of a daybed would hopelessly paralyze me.
My bedroom has the same emptiness. I sleep on a Japanese futon. There is one white chipboard closet, nothing more. The room is separated from the living room by folding doors. By leaving them open, I am in a certain sense sleeping in an extension of the living room. Not that it helps. Why else would my little boy give me such a turn?
Your little boy’s one overnight a week is a break in your reclusive writer’s existence. By the time his presence seems natural, he already has to leave again. By the time you have reconciled with the day, night is coming on.

* * *
Copyright © 2001, Alfred Birney. Original title: Wakker worden. From Yournael van Cyberney, a collection of prose. Haarlem: Knipscheer Publishers, 2001. Translation by Wanda Boeke. No reproducing allowed in any form without written permission from both the author and translator.

The phenomenal catfish

I don’t know what I’m supposed to think, Birney, confronting me with a fish and then your just staying mum for the rest. You’ve changed, buddy. You’re not the free spirit of the old days who trekked around with his guitar and played on street corners and in cafés to earn his daily bread, with never a thought of the morrow for the rest. I see you’ve found a place in the new apartment complex jungle that gets whipped by downdrafts from the residential and office high rises that are located around it and that are supposed to give your city some appeal. And how did the writer imagine he was going give himself some appeal? By choosing an inconspicuous hideaway here and sporadically meeting his obligations? I was supposed to come over to get a portrait of you for the paper, a fine opportunity to dig up old memories, I thought, but evidently you only see me now as a future character for a book, or worse, a short story. Somebody who, for instance, in one day has to go back to the writer three separate times before the latter deigns to open the door, which, by the way, has a peep hole and is missing a nameplate. Someone who is then witness to a remarkable change of attire in three acts and on top of this has to make the acquaintance of a fish! That irritated expression on your face was like a slap in mine, bud. You had a warlike black kimono on and for the briefest instant I thought that you fancied you were in a cheap Chinese stunt-fight flick, and mistook me for a punk. But you were still half-asleep, and disappeared into the bathroom with vague apologies. In the living room I was struck right away by the aquarium, which divides your desk from the rest of the space. No, there still wasn’t a fish to be seen. I imagined that you might find it amusing now and then when bored to let a pencil roll off the blotter and into the water, or to let crumpled wads of rejected pages float around on top of the water, or to rinse your prewar fountain pen in it. The water doesn’t look black, though, and I have the impression that you like that shy fish, in any case have some kind of relationship with it that is not to be contaminated by residue from your writings. In any case, you’re living with a fish now. Must have had your fill of all those women who couldn’t swim in that muddy water of yours. Or was it the other way around? Who, after all, would want to accompany you on your nocturnal wanderings with your pen along that sexless, ruled skin on which you allow so much or so little to happen? No, I’m not saying anything about your books, Birney, I’m talking about your behavior. Invigorated after taking a shower, you popped out of the kitchen with a tray in your hands, and invited me to come sit out on the balcony. The sun was already at its peak. Good morning. You left me alone. Good afternoon. You went into your room again. While I partook of my lunch alone, I spied through the blinds and saw you busy doing a series of those spacey tai chi exercises, then saw you go to your bedroom again, and come back out dressed, to my surprise, in a cycling outfit. Out on the balcony, you drank your cooled coffee with me in silence, ate a bowl of muesli, apologized again, then put on a pair of sports glasses, and left me entirely alone this time with that invisible fish, without first even having properly introduced me to it. The ride through the dunes on your racing bicycle wouldn’t take long, you promised, it was part of the ritual of waking up, but still you stayed away the entire afternoon. All a fear of death, buddy, that mindless fitness stuff, merely cures for thirty-somethings who don’t know how young or how old they feel. I’m not saying I didn’t entertain myself: I passed the hours alternately sunbathing, nosing around in your bookcase, and studying that weird aquarium. You’ve created a biotope with a labyrinth of branches, somber in tone, macabre in form, with hollows and slits, in which your fish plays hide-and-seek during the day. No, I still hadn’t discovered it yet when you came home with an exhausted, I should say suicidal, look in your eyes. You lowered yourself onto the floor, massaged your legs, took a shower, put on a pair of blue jeans and a T-shirt -then you were beginning to look a little like the bohemian of the old days- and made a quick run to the supermarket across the street just before it closed, stretched out on the couch on returning, smoked a cigarette, and laconically fell asleep. What a host! An hour later you woke up, stretched like a cat-a black one-and proceeded to shut yourself in the kitchen for two hours to fix dinner. Not specially for me, of course, but out of habit. I wasn’t allowed to be around, you don’t like distraction around you while you’re performing magic with those spices, and you also didn’t want to take advantage of the opportunity to have a friendly chat with me at the counter about the old days, how night after night we tried to summarize life in a single sentence, and would make our way to the park, stoned and drunk, and count the UFO’s that only we could see in the firmament, because they were there only for us. Now where am I supposed to go with my nostalgia? Your friendship exists only on paper anymore, bud, although I have to admit that you have taken good care of me. Your food tastes superb, maybe you should try dipping your pen in ketyap and writing an Indisch cookbook, a tasty bestseller for the nonfiction top-ten, so that you could devote yourself to one unfinished novel free of financial worries, and have time once again to party with me and all those others from the old days. I still see them once in a while, those others, and I can tell you that none of them ever communicates with a fish, and that nobody other than myself would have been so good as to listen for an entire evening to a drawn-out lecture on the phenomenal catfish. By now I know just about everything about the fish, and they would certainly get bored listening to me if I told them that you own a specimen from the family of the actual syno catfish, an Angel Catfish, Synodontis angelicus, a scaleless fish with polka-dot markings, a creature that exhibits the tendency to swim upside-down at night when it looks for food on the water’s surface, and during the day relaxes in all kinds of weird positions. After squinting for a long time I finally became aware of that fish, in a vertical position, its head down, its naked body pressed against a branch. Once it shared the tank with another of its kind, a Berney’s Shark Catfish, an Arius Berneyi of all things, but for reasons that are not obvious, that one gave up the ghost. It wasn’t very old yet, that fish, when you heard a weird noise in the tank one night, so different from the speech sounds you claim they are able to produce. You went to have a look, and saw it swim into an immobile condition with a last flick of its tail. You compare it to a pen which, without a protective hand around it, hovers above a sheet of paper. And what are you comparing this fish to? Maybe you’ll buy a larger tank sometime so you can swim around in it together? Your ultimate leave-taking from humanity perhaps? That fish of yours, that African catfish, I saw it finally move, when, close to midnight, you got up from your observation post, and I out of politeness expressed my hopes of sometime getting to see a collection of your stories which contain all those unbelievable anecdotes about it that I got to hear tonight. And you: restless, you kept walking over to the balcony and back again, while that fish carefully left its hiding place and warily scouted out its surroundings, as if it had landed in a new world. It was looking for food while you were taking a walk around the block and getting cigarettes for the night. Every vibration that I caused by walking around the room was picked up by its long feelers, and made it go back to its hiding place for a little while. And now you’re finally sitting at your desk and I’m lying on the couch in the corner of the room, exhausted, staying as quiet as possible not to disturb you. Am I actually invisible enough? The desk lamp makes the aquarium light up strangely, and I see the shadowy form of the backstroker glide along the surface of the water. Its movement is synchronized with that of your hand across the paper: slowly it swims in mirror image toward the left and at the end races like crazy to get back to the margin. Maybe I’m imagining this meanwhile, and you just caught me in ink. Should that fish of yours suddenly swim into its death and you, stiffened, let your pen drop, then, I believe, I won’t wake up here again.

* * *
Copyright © 1989, Alfred Birney. Original title: De fenomenale meerval. From Fantasia, a collections of stories. Amsterdam: Contact, 1999. Translation by Wanda Boeke. No reproducing allowed in any form without written permission from both the author and translator.

The good mole

raaf One morning the good mole was turned out of his bed by two ravens in uniform. They told him to get out of his hole immediately. When he asked for their identification they sniggered a little, made jokes about his blindness, and then said: ‘We have a weekend contract, a gig, badly paid, so do us a favour and leave your hole.’
Without further discussion they roughly pulled him outside.
‘Any family members indoors?’
The mole shook his head and mumbled: ‘Divorced.’
‘Good,’ said the first raven. ‘Listen, you had the temerity to dig underneath the king’s flowerbed which had been especially created for this weekend. Therefore the chances are that it is about to collapse. And the king has already such trouble with his back. So clear off! We’ve given you more than enough notice now.’
‘But I was not given a temporary digging restriction at all,’ said the mole in defense of himself. ‘Therefore I am not guilty of anything!’
‘Ah,’ said the second raven, ‘who’s talking about guilt. You won’t get a fine you know. C’mon, have a good look around you and explore this spacious land. You wouldn’t make a fuss about a bit of land, would you?’
The good mole was getting nervous because of the bright sunlight and did not protest any longer, and a little further up he disappeared under the ground again. The ravens fitted a sign on the flowerbed which said N0 TRESPASSING, drew their swords and stood sentinel on either side of the hole.
That night the good mole could not get to sleep. His new hole, dug in a hurry, did not meet the regulations of containing at least one emergency exit. Worried about this defect he started to dig all over again. But once he got going, he came upon a thin obstruction which instantly ruptured. He heard the shrieks of a woman, a man swearing and then a call for help. Barely had he recovered from the shock when he was grabbed by the collar, taken outside and given a whack on his head by two feathered men.
When the sun stood high in the sky he regained consciousness in a hollow tree flanked by the two ravens. The ravens were of the opinion that the mole should be on trial for a disturbance of domestic peace. The good mole, however, appealed on the grounds that circumstances beyond his control had forced him to dig without preconceived plan.
‘The case is very precarious. Notwithstanding your circumstances you shall at least have to be arrested and charged with voyeurism. You caught the king with his mistress, didn’t you, and what’s more, in a compromising position,’ sniggered the ravens.
‘But I haven’t seen a king at all, let alone his mistress!’ said the good mole in defense of himself.
‘Hmm ye-es, we didn’t take your blindness into consideration a moment ago.’
Relieved the good mole made a move to leave the hollow tree.
‘Hold on, just you wait a minute! Now that you know about the whole affair… You only need to make a phone call to a journalist and the king hangs.’
‘That’s what I would never do. I swear! And isn’t it because of your thoughtlessness that I came to know about it?’
‘Well, yes, it’s distressing, but it can’t be helped,’ they decided shrugging their shoulders.
It was a long trip to the sea and to relieve the boredom the ravens took turns in hurling the mole to each other. When they dropped him, somewhere over the water, they said to each other: ‘It was well worth the trouble. The king’s mistress looked superb.’
And chortling they tossed their stained tissues after him.

* * *

De Volkskrant, 4 jul 1984

Mikado pers, Den Haag: 1984. Bibliofiele oplage van 75 genummerde & gesigneerde exemplaren. Illustraties: Alfredo Prein

Copyright © 1984, Alfred Birney
From Fantasia, a collections of stories. Amsterdam: Contact, 1999
Translation by Amy Horn. No reproducing allowed in any form without written permission from the author