Ivory Tower Residents
by Janis Einfelds, translated from the Latvian by Inara Cedrins
If I were a butterfly, the bony one would turn into a princess. An emerald-green princess, who’d waft like a pillow feather. She’d let everyone near, whose day had ended. I’d be an undistinguished butterfly – rusty grey like my night brothers. The princess would pay no attention to my outer grayness and would invite me to the meadow where many flowers from foreign lands grow. I’d obey, and we’d both flutter off.
The meadow was deep in the forest, and I’d never been there. Suddenly I was no longer interested in my sly fellow traveler, nor in colorful flowers; only the steps interested me. I landed on the first step and sat down. Breathing became easier.
If I were an old blind doe, I’d still be able to see the silver stag with immense horns. Move hooves that had forgotten how to walk and go alongside. My legs would start to move ever faster, until I’d be running.
The silvered swindler brought me into a clearing. Sleep overcame me. During that time snow fell and covered me. In the distance like a mirage a castle appeared.
If I were a person, with only seven days left to me, I’d be tempted by the realm of rattles around my cradle. Would want to scream. Couldn’t. Only moans would come out. Then the bony one would turn into a rattle the size of a ball.
I lay on my back and gazed at the shelf, where surrounded by gum and plaster the shaving razor shimmered. The rattle rose to the ceiling, then came downward whistling. Half my head was chopped off. The part with the eyes disappeared, but the end of the nose remained with me. And I sensed honey, that I had never savored, a taste of honey. Look, that will help me get into the most splendid castle to which dusty steps lead.
If I were a pitcher, I’d try to give milk to the forest children. A bud would fall pattering from the tree and fly into me. It would not sink into the milk, but swirl on the surface like a small insect. The milk would turn blue.
The forest children came, having drunk the milk, they behaved as the case may be. One bit into the earth and became stiff. Another shook a tree. A third had froth gush over his lips. The fourth killed himself. The last, having tasted the least, smashed me with the butt of an automatic so that fragments of me flew here and there. The assailant also fell to the ground.
They went off in a line, climbed the stairs, counting the steps and kicking up dust. I lay shattered in the dewed grass. Later the sun rose and it began to get hot. The dew almost vanished. The pieces of me were transformed to motes of dust and disappeared in the last drop of dew.
If I were a book, then I’d wait for her, when the bony one would turn into battalions of worms. And indeed, soon the letters would disappear down the brown throats of brown gnawers. Only a page with Duke Jacob on it would be left behind.
If I were a rag, I wouldn’t be of particular use to anyone. I’d be demeaned, not paid attention to, but she’d come anyway. Soon I’d get to the castle. I’d no longer be a rag, that swallows dust and puts an end to smudges. I’d be a flag. Gradually becoming conceited.
I fluttered in one of the castle’s many halls. Really couldn’t manage to get puffed up. In the courtyards lived many sorts of breezes, called drafts. I was pulled, shaken, torn, until at last I became a pitiful rag again. In the end I was taken down, and drafts drove my tatters along the corridors and stone staircases.
If I were a potato blossom, then the earth would sway and people along with it. Even Chronos – feathered monster with tusks – would drop the torch, and he’d fall roaring, so that the earth would shake.
If the bony one became a poet and praised me in her odes, I’d understand that the last bell had sounded.
No matter what I did, I’d not get out of the castle tower. There’d be nothing left to do but look out the window.
Inara Cedrins was an artist, writer and translator from Latvian to English. Her anthology of contemporary Latvian poetry, written while Latvia was under Soviet occupation, was published by the University of Iowa Press. Her new Baltic anthology, three books of poetry from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, was published by the University of New Orleans Press in 2013. The latter anthology included Cedrins’ prints as cover art. Inara Cedrins died in July 2015.
Duende would like to thank Guntis Šmidchens, Endowed Professor in Baltic Studies at the University of Washington, for his help with our selection of Inara Cedrins’ translation. Duende was saddened to learn that Inara Cedrins passed away in July 2015, only a few weeks after she submitted this lovely Translator's Note:
Einfelds is a delight to translate, his writing leaves me with resonances that I have referred to in my own writing: “Is there really a planet called Irma, that sings as she spins? What did the poor people do when they came back with their spoons and found the dog had dragged the carefully prepared roast of the tax collector’s body from the banquet table and devoured it? In that country words that are extinct still live – there are dwarves, not the directionally challenged – and cripples who lost legs to a saurian, an arm to a wyvern, but lived. It seemed the villains came singly, like Bluebeard, and if we banded together we could, at least for a while, survive in the thicket.” You don’t know what country you are in, or in what age, but you are happy to suspend disbelief and go along with the surprise turns in the path of the story. I always jump right into the translating without reading through to the end first, knowing that Einfelds will reward me at every step. I have compared his work to Jerzy Kosinsky’s The Painted Bird – maybe it’s not true, but it feels true – and the trance-like maze of Kafka’s The Castle, the brutal reality of “The Penal Colony.” The next work of his that I plan to tackle is The Pig Book, described as ‘a more or less autobiographical parable about the life of pigs and human existence through the past, present, and future’ – according to one critical review, Einfelds’ writing was ‘clinical literature.’ But it is this dispassionate storytelling that combines mercilessness and helpless love that is so tantalizing. Einfelds’ tales are both poetic and matter of fact as someone sitting down next to you and softly telling you a story.