By Alexander Jonathan Vidgop
Translated by Leo Shtutin
Something slammed stone-like against the tiled roof and thudded onto the porch. I pricked my ears. Perhaps this was Dorf, my erstwhile hospital neighbour, who would lob stones at cats when afflicted by one of his seizures.
Cautiously cracking open the door, I poked my head out, but disturbed Dorf was nowhere to be seen. On the porch steps lay three tattered bird-clumps. I bent down for a closer inspection. No wounds riddled the birds’ bodies. Raising my head to the sky, I saw in it nothing that might have caused a sudden collision. I pictured the birds as self-destroyers grown suddenly determined to plunge with dumb rapture from some immeasurable altitude, their heavy, fragile forms rupturing the air’s draperies, and to dash themselves upon the naked skull of the earth, whereupon they would shatter into countless shardlets, fragments of porcelain figurines.
The birds lay unmoving. Their little corpses could not dispel the bewilderment that had possessed me. Still unrecovered from my dream, I was in a state of confusion. Deciding that the birds probably ought to be buried, I headed for the square to find out whether a cemetery suitable for such a purpose existed in our town. But the desperate cries of my neighbours soon stopped me in my tracks. Their yards, too, were thick with fallen birds. Frau Breusser screamed without ceasing: the sight of their dead bodies disgusted her. Her husband, a plump, moustachioed gentleman, tried to shunt her back into the house with both hands, but, wriggling herself out of his broad grip, she thrust her head under his armpit, glanced anew at the birds, and let loose another shrill, despairing scream.
Townsfolk came running from all directions with the incredible news on their lips. Four dozen birds had fallen onto the town. The event was beyond explanation. Standing in the square, I threw back my head and immediately discerned several more black dots plunging from on high. As they hurtled earthward, the dots sprouted feathers, beaks, wings, then thudded dully into people’s yards. It was hailing—no, raining birds. One falling corpse killed the dog of gaunt, bony Herr Frohmbruck. Another crashed through the ramshackle roof of Frau Towitsch’s kitchen and nosedived right into the boiling soup. Frau Towitsch now sat atop her bed, face covered with pieces of granular ice, which, so Doctor Ruf assured her, would save her from burns. Herr Frohmbruck, meanwhile, wandered the town’s streets with the dog’s carcass in his outstretched arms, inanely addressing anyone who crossed his path with the same rhetorical question: “Why? To what end?!”
The birdfall continued. We had poured out into the streets when it began, but now we all retreated into our houses and gazed on our roofs in consternation: would they hold firm? Herr Frohmbruck, finding no one else to whom he might pose his absurd question, presently turned homeward, too. But as he approached his house, he was forced to hasten his pace and then to run, dodging bird bodies as they plummeted down at him while pressing his cherished companion tightly to his breast. A little skylark missiled into his shoulder: opening his arms in surprise, Herr Frohmbruck dropped the dog, uttered a shriek and fled in panic.
The streets now stood unpeopled save for Tamar, weedy little Tamar, who strode the empty pavements and exclaimed grandiloquently, “This is a punishment from God!” Birds fell behind her and before her, to her right and to her left. Still, Tamar, like a solitary wanderess, raised her long, withered arms ever heavenward, calling unto her unfathomable Lord.
We all slept badly that night, ears pricked in trepidation. Against roofs, roadways, pavements beat the hooves of unseen horses: birdfall, incessant. Now abating, now rising to a fresh crescendo, the thud continued all night. As if some strange blacksmith, unknown in our parts, was forging chariots for us. One by one, these unfathomable chariots trundled through the town, and the staccato clip-clop of the horses’ hooves set its denizens atremble.
Morning pressed us to our windows. The world beyond the glass dismayed me. The streets were thick with a jumble of bird bodies. Adrift of feathers, heads, and wings had formed on my porch. I cracked open the front door with difficulty and slammed it shut at once. I was loath to step out into this dead world. I still clung to life.
All that livelong day, I remained indoors. But in the silence, interrupted only by the dull thud of falling bodies, I fancied that I, too, was now ceasing to exist. My neighbours did not venture outside either. Not even the lecherous ringmaster and his vile company showed their faces in the open air. Everyone yelled back and forth from flung-wide windows. The entire town remained homebound.
Townsfolk shouted from window to window to pass on the latest news. Resolving to send word to someone, anyone, about what had transpired in the town, Shai, the boy with the carrot-orange jug ears, tied an alarm-signalling red ribbon to one of his pigeons and released it into the sky. The pigeon arrowed aloft but plummeted lifeless onto the roof of its own coop a moment later. Shai released pigeon after pigeon, only for them to fall, prone and dead, against the sheet metal of the coop. Shai lost all his birds. No one dared venture out of doors that day.
At night I was awoken by an eldritch wail. I leapt out of bed at once. The air rang with the sounds of yowling and caterwauling. I ran to the window. The birdfall had slowed now. In the glow of the street lamps, miraculously ignited by our one-eyed lighter, I managed to discern a deranged feline feast. Cats—bloodthirsty hordes of them, hordes more populous than any we had yet seen hereabouts—were devouring the fallen game. Enticed by the prospect of a wondrous repast, they must have converged on the town from all its environs. It was difficult to make them all out in the half-dark, but those of them illumined by the dull lamplight was a dread spectacle to look upon. Their muzzles were smeared with the blood of the torn-asunder birds and smothered with their own. They threw themselves upon the prostrate little carcasses with a blunt, voracious fury. Their triumphant, throaty gurgle-purring resounded throughout the town. They bared their teeth and hissed at one another even as they tormented the bodies of the wretched birds. As if these pickings were too slim.
But, ears shut to their terrible wailing, you might—so long as you did not scrutinize them too closely in the dark—have taken the cats for wayfarers who had gravitated come nightfall to lonely, smouldering, sparsely sited fire pits where they now sat, shoulder against shoulder, breathing hotly on their frozen hands. These wayfarers, I fancied, had occupied all the streets of our town and were now settled in them, warming themselves by the feeble, fickle flames. It struck me that I, too, was just another wayfarer gone astray. As if I had embarked upon a journey—only to forget its purpose…
The cats exulted until morning. Come sunrise, as if growing fearful of what they had wrought, they dispersed, hid away in lurking places known only to them. What would they do there? Gather strength, perhaps, for a fresh blood-spattered feast?
By degrees, uneasily, our town began to recover from the shock it had sustained. People peered from their windows, emerged, cautious and vigilant, into the streets, and gradually inured themselves to this new reality. An absence of preternatural goings-on gave them all the more reason for doing so. Birds continued to fall, of course, but not as often as before. At any rate, they fell less portentously than they did on that first day. Or did we merely perceive things thus? And although our streets were still scattered with lifeless bird bodies, we had somehow grown accustomed to them. Without filling anyone with joy, this spectacle no longer prompted the primeval horror we had all felt at the outset. Not that this lightened my heart. I felt just like the birds who had unlearned to fly…
A few days later, a scholarly expedition arrived, God knows from where in the town. Clad in blue mantles, its members, stepping over the fragments of Frau Frenkel’s bust, solemnly gathered in the museum next to Herr Dwork’s pupa and deliberated for a long time the possible reasons for our misadventure. Emerging into the streets, they took a stroll about the town. The birds continued to fall. The scholars failed to reach any conclusion and, astonished by this peculiar happening, its causes unknown to science, hurriedly quit the town limits.
The townsfolk devised explanations of their own for what had befallen them, giving voice to myriads of deranged theories. Still, they ultimately came up with nothing that could account for the strange bird deaths. In the town’s environs, the birds lived carefree, soaring on high, weaving their nests, screeching their songs, but no sooner did they cross some unseen aerial frontier than they plummeted dead to the ground. And there was nothing to be done about it. Our street sweepers, headed by Herr Punck, managed, with some difficulty, to remove the freshly accumulated corpses overnight, only for the roadways to overflow the following day with yet more bodies of smashed birds.
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Eventually, Herr Korp, who had devised a special chair for Frau Fisch, invented a certain contraption and demonstrated it to us one day. His invention was akin to a Chinese parasol, but one that had been strengthened, made more robust, and atop protruded several sharp little points. Herr Korp explained to us that the force of a bird’s fall, or rather the force of its impact, would be diminished if, instead of crashing flat onto such a parasol, the bird’s body was impaled on—that is, transpierced by—one of the protruding points. Having tried out Herr Korp’s contraption, we felt a measure of relief. To a certain extent, we were now protected from the blows raining down on us. Our joiner, the corpulent, thick-necked Pohlman, immediately set about fashioning these marvellous contraptions, and within a week, there was not a single unparasoled passerby to be seen on our streets.
Truly, the denizens of our town were inventive folk. With a great number of birds impaled on these magnificent parasol-spits, my former neighbour, the culinarian Ruther, wasted no time in cooking up an exquisite stew made of assorted varieties of fallen game. Thereupon we, who but recently had understood nothing of matters ornithological, at last, came to grasp the fine differences in how these wondrous viands tasted on the tongue. We learned that throstle made for a fine luncheon when accompanied by dry white wine. That skylark baked in a pie numbered among the lightest and pleasantest of breakfasts. That nachlieli was remarkably good in a stew, providing, of course, that it was served as a second course after a luscious hors d’oeuvre—braised pelican head. And that, without a shred of doubt, there could be nothing more wonderful than a formal candlelit supper at a festive table adorned with a dozen minuscule hummingbirds threaded onto a spit, roasted to a crispy finish, and garnished with foie-gras made from the liver of a wild Muscovy duck.
This unexpected surfeit of remarkable bird dishes transformed everybody into such gourmets that culinarians from neighbouring towns began penning us regular missives with a view to wheedling recipes from us. But since no one in our town could read, they never managed to winkle out our secrets.
Our cats grew fat, becoming so gargantuan in their dimensions that they struck fear into our dogs. If the quiet yowl of a cat, hungering in a basement somewhere, should reach canine ears even during daylight hours, canine bodies pressed themselves at once against the legs of human masters. Things came to such a pitch that the town’s fire brigade, led by the splendid Herr Esch, embarked upon a special hunt for these behemoths. As witnesses would later testify, the hunt was nothing if not a danger-fraught nocturnal safari. The cats, staggering in their hugeness, leapt at the foolhardy firemen, seeking to sink their claws into the humans’ throats while simultaneously pinning them to the ground with the weight of their bodies. A few brave souls who had undertaken to assist the firemen sustained injuries that night, with some bitten so severely they suffered massive blood loss. The accursed cats, who themselves had incurred heavy casualties during the hunt, gathered the remainder of their forces came daybreak and avenged themselves by tracking down the wretched Dorf.
When still fancying himself a tamed-and-trained white mouse, he hazarded a step beyond the threshold of his home, the merciless brutes pounced upon him from all sides and in an eye-blink had ripped him asunder before the eyes of his stupefied family. The very next night, the fire brigade, its ranks swelled with fresh volunteers, squared off against the cats in a final battle to the death. The cats fought with a fury that defies description. They were a far cry indeed from the hares we had vanquished with a few clyster pipes. The town rang with the din of battle. But the firemen emerged triumphantly. The cats retreated. Some of these behemoths, succumbing under the onslaught, fled the town. At the same time, the rest took refuge under buildings and remained long in hiding, not daring to show their faces. This battle was not one they would forget in a hurry. It was now only rarely that they snatched fallen birds from the roadways and dragged them, furtive, back to their basements, forever glancing about them as they did so. And, with Herr Esch keeping sentry every night, the cats’ sorties were seldom crowned with success. Their meagre diet, the boy Shai informed us, left them so emaciated that little by little, they were forced to kiss goodbye to their colossal dimensions. Those of them who survived at all on the starvation regimen eventually regained their former commonplace look. Having rid itself of the insatiable, voracious cats, the town began to flourish. Now that the bird meat formerly devoured by the nocturnal marauders was ours in abundance, a wonderful idea suggested itself. Mere days later, the efficient Herr Prück had already delivered the first batch of a magnificent game ragout to the railway station, from where it would be dispatched to different towns. Orders poured in from every direction. Everyone wanted to treat themselves to some delicacy or other. Our street sweepers no longer dumped yesterday’s carcasses beyond the town limits. The town began to grow rich. Birds fell as regularly as ever.
Scrawny Tamar was no more to be spied darting about the vespertine streets, no more to be heard calling unto her God or raving madly about a mystical punishment. Restored to health and grown plump, she was the first of us to leap out of doors each morning, raring to pile the birds that had fallen overnight into a roomy trolley. “God’s blessing!” could have been her mantra now.
I, too, began to feel better. My gloom-ridden thoughts abated somewhat. “Well now,” I would ask myself, “why not at long last indulge in a little happiness along with everybody else?” The money raised from the sales of the game delicacies went towards purchasing a tremendous number of exotic trees. These we planted far and wide, each and every street now bristling with branches, our yards now thick with baobab and eucalyptus, Japanese spruce and silken Scottish heather. No birds sang in the trees, of course, but no one grumbled at fate: beneath the trees, after all, were birds aplenty.
I ought not, perhaps, to have shared in the general delight. Why would it seem I should care anything for culinary delicacies and exotic flora if I did not know who I was or how I must proceed with my life? Yet, the acuteness of my inner turmoil began to soften. The sensations that had only recently afflicted me were dulled somewhat as if my memory grew gradually enfeebled. I revived them ever more seldom in my recollections.
The town, meanwhile, was witnessing new developments. One day, Frau Breusser, the selfsame Frau Breusser who had threatened to faint at the sight of the wretched bird-corpses, drew our attention to the extraordinary colouring of their plumages. As yet unused in our commercial endeavours, the birds’ feathers, in point of fact, where simply being discarded at the dump. Frau Breusser took the lead in fashioning herself a dress, stunning in its beauty, from condor plumes, swallow down, and black crow wings. So subtle, so refined was this combination of colours that the town’s ladies all set to dressmaking without delay. No more than a week later, these mistresses of seamstressing, headed by the indefatigable, once-enamoured-of-me Frau Fink, were parading about the square in astonishing fineries. Again, however, Frau Breusser outshone them, fashioning for her plump husband a mantle of sorts from the long tail feathers of a wild swan. The mantle was trimmed with jay-plumage, which iridesced blue-green. Roused to genuine envy, the other men—myself included—soon acquired wondrous raiments of our own.
I no longer deliberated the worth of continued existence. Such deliberations had come to seem odd to me. I forgot what prompted them to begin with. So exuberant were my fellow townsfolk, so beautiful our surroundings, that lamenting my lot would have been absurd, unwarranted. An extraordinary lightness, a genuine elation suffused my spirit at long last. How good, how glorious life had become! What elan, what euphoria reigned over the town! I felt capable of exulting in it alongside all and sundry.
Come evening, our alleys metamorphosed into wondrous, fantastical gardens beneath whose trees strolled townsfolk arrayed in bright attire fashioned from the many-hued gifts of fallen birds. But five days ago, the birds suddenly ceased to fall. We failed to take this seriously. We simply could not believe it. Everything that had happened here of late, everything that had transformed our lives so absolutely—it could not, had no right, simply to cease all at once! But not only had these strange birds stopped falling, they no longer so much as ventured into our town. We awaited them every day, but no one crossed the town limits, even by accident. Could it be that they had communicated to one another by some mysterious system of avian post that our town held danger for them?
We tried to lure them in, scattering grain about the street and courtyard. But even the sparrows made no response to our desperate call. Nimble-minded Herr Prück then purchased several birds in a neighbouring town and brought them to ours. But no sooner were the birds released from their cages than they soared aloft and quit our town at full tilt. Ah, how we wanted to take to the air in pursuit! Were we truly incapable of compelling their return?!
There followed a collective throwing up of hands. Could it be that our birds would never reappear? Would not a single one fall anew from the sky, venturing, at last, to rupture the air’s quilted draperies in the act of self-destruction? Would we, leaving our houses of a morning, never again find their bodies warm, prone, open-winged in our yards?
Tamar once again walked the streets with mad lamentations on her lips. How were we to live now? We could not, after all, return to a time when the birds did not fall upon us from the sky. We wandered senselessly in our variegated raiments amongst the silent trees. Living in this town has become more than we can bear. Donning mantles and dresses fashioned of the finest feathers, we all proceed to its outer reaches. A field spreads out before us. There are no birds here either. Silence. Unable to contain himself, a townsman breaks into a run. The wind ruffles his plumage. And now, shot with flash flickers of bird-colour, we all run across the empty field, onward to wherever birds may still be falling from the sky. We all run: Herr Esch sporting his shiny, eagle-crested fireman’s helmet, the boy Shai flourishing his peacock-tail, Frau Breusser flapping her black crow-wings, Herr Frohmbruck kicking high his crane-legs, the culinarian Ruther squawking, the joiner Pohlman craning his thick neck. I, too, run with all my might, doing my utmost to break free—even for a single instant—of the round, ponderous earth. Up ahead, Tamar flaps her wings faster and faster. Only Dorf, devoured by the accursed cats, is not in our midst. We dash across the field, wings aquiver, taut-feathered tails outspread, heads craned, beaks agape, screeching, screeching… Another moment and an updraught shall send our flock aloft. We shall soar into the sky, and trace in it one furious circle, and then, wings folded, plunge, heavy stoned, stone-birded, down to our damned town.
Testimony is a Russian-language novel by an Israeli author. Reminiscent, in its power and scope, of Süskind’s Perfume, it is, in the words of one critic, “the ultimate psychedelic phantasmagoria.”
The plot of the novel isn’t complicated. A man who considers himself a writer accidentally ends up in a town whose inhabitants cannot read. In all other respects, the denizens of this place are almost indistinguishable from those of other similarly sleepy, godforsaken settlements. But no, come to think of it, something else sets them apart, too: they’ve become remarkably adept at forgetting. Forgetting all their tragedies, troubles, misfortunes, and even their workday worries.
Exuberant and cruel, these simpletons come to regard the newly arrived man as a Messiah of sorts. But he fails to live up to the hopes they place on his shoulders. In fact, he fails to live up even to his own hopes since the book on which he has expended so much time, and energy ultimately vanishes from his mind. Doing his utmost to understand who exactly he has become now that he’s no longer a man of letters, the former writer realizes, with some surprise, that his own failure is gradually slipping from his memory. In a newfound state of happiness, he hurtles rapidly towards his end together with the other denizens of the deranged town.
This is a novel about hope and the futility of aspiration, about the isolatedness and insularity of our consciousness, about the tragicomic, absurd nature of human relations, about the insane passions of the people surrounding us. Little by little, the narrative takes its readers into a reality that borders on phantasmagoria and immerses them into the world of the human unconscious – a world of clandestine hopes and secret fantasies.
Attempts to peer into the unconscious give rise to myths. The more said myths become part of daily life, the more they frighten people away or, on the contrary, suck them into a vortex of being, endless and unknowable. The novel’s protagonists – ordinary, run-of-the-mill men and women – become participants in inconceivable events; mirages and chimeras become an everyday reality.
The language of the novel is, if anything, the language of parable; it is concrete in its details yet simultaneously metaphorical.
Alexander Jonathan Vidgop is a theatre director, author and screenwriter. Alexander is the founder of the Am haZikaron Institute for Science and Heritage of the Jewish People. He is the recipient of the Zeiti Yerushalaim Prize and the medal “For contribution to the development of the national spiritual heritage of the Jewish People.”
Alexander was born in Leningrad in 1955. In 1974 he was expelled from what is now called the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts “for behaviour unworthy of the title of Soviet student.” Having worked as a locksmith, loader and White Sea sailor, he was drafted into the army and sent to serve in the Arctic Circle. Graduating from the Russian State Academy of Performing Arts in 1982, he was involved in 23 productions across the USSR, 12 of which were shut down. In 1989 he emigrated to Israel, where he has worked as a director, editor and researcher. He is the author of several books. You may find him on Facebook.