Who is Martha?

In this rollicking novel, 96-year-old ornithologist Luka Levadski foregoes treatment for lung cancer and moves from Ukraine to Vienna to make a grand exit in a luxury suite at the Hotel Imperial. He reflects on his past while indulging in Viennese cakes and savoring music in a gilded concert hall. Levadski was born in 1914, the same year that Martha – the last of the now-extinct passenger pigeons – died. Levadski himself has an acute sense of being the last of a species. He may have devoted much of his existence to studying birds, but now he befriends a hotel butler and another elderly guest, who also doesn’t have much time left, to share in the lively escapades of his final days. This gloriously written tale, in which Levadski feels “his heart pounding at the portals of his brain,” mixes piquant wit with lofty musings about life, friendship, aging and death.

Excerpt from Who is Martha?

I

Love is cold. Love is cold. But in the grave we burn and melt to gold … Levadski waited for the tears. The tears didn’t come. In spite of this he wiped his face. Disgusting!

With a fixed stare he had just put the receiver on its cradle. What else, if not impatience, had he sensed in the breathing of his family doctor? Impatience and the buzzing of thoughts that had nothing to do with him, Levadski: Mustn’t forget the baking powder … moth repellent, furniture polish, what else? … He could smell his own tiresomeness through the receiver. Breathe in, breathe out. Hang up, old man, hang up …

Levadski went into the bathroom and threw up. He was overcome by tears. Whimpering, Levadski vomited for the first time in ages. The last time it had happened to him, he had still been wearing knickers. What had the girl’s name been? Maria? Sophia? The young girl had allowed her hand to be kissed by a man with a moustache. In front of her a slice of cake. Jealousy had grabbed the schoolboy Levadski by the throat. He had stopped in front of the window of the café, taken a bow and spilled the contents of his stomach onto the pavement. Touching his chest, he’d slowly assumed an upright position again. The girl had looked straight through him, her dilated eyes filled with a delight not intended for him or the man with the moustache, solely for the slice of chocolate cake.

What made me touch my chest back then? In the mirror, Levadski was clinging on to a glass of water. Had my heart had dropped to the pavement when I was throwing up, had my arms and legs failed me, I would have noticed that something was missing!

Levadski rinsed out his mouth, took the showerhead and aimed it at the dentures he spit out into the bath while throwing up and which now reminded him of a boat capsized in the sick. The jet of water jerkily inched the outrageously expensive and highly impractical ball-retained dentures in the direction of the plughole. He leant forward and skeptically picked them up – a dead creature, from which a final prank was to be expected.

No, he did not want to encounter this girl again. If she were still alive she would either be blind or demented or confined to a wheelchair. What was her name again? Maria? Aida? Tamara?

After Levadski’s performance in front of the window, had she finished her cake? It didn’t matter.

A tablet dropped into the glass of water. After a brief deliberation, it started to fizz and circle: a drunken bee. Carefully Levadski let the dentures fall in after. Plop … Since he had acquired artificial teeth he found this sound soothing, perhaps connected to the fact that it invariably accompanied the arrival of the Sandman. This must have been where its magical sweetness came from. Plop … and Levadski’s eyes would already be falling closed. Plop … and he was already whirring into the sunset on the scintillating wings of a rose beetle. What is sweeter than your chocolate cake, girl? Only sleep. And what is sweeter than sleep? Only death.

On the short and laborious way to the living room, Levadski was annoyed to see his telephone glowing as if nothing had happened, as if he, Luka Levadski, Professor Emeritus of Zoology, hadn’t just had a death sentence pronounced down the receiver. “We need to talk about your results – at the hospital, right away.” Levadski had understood. There was nothing left to discuss. Talk about what? If the results were okay then you didn’t call on a Sunday around lunchtime when old patients were possibly enjoying their deepest sleep. You also didn’t call if the results were bad. If you had any manners, as a doctor, you knocked on the door personally in order to convey the news of someone’s death. The blood was still pounding in his temples. Come in! he said to the doctor at the other end of the line. Or had he merely thought it? More and more often Levadski caught himself barely able to distinguish between thought, speech and silence, and it was becoming less and less important to him.

In two shuffling steps he reached the middle of the living room. Levadski’s books sat stiffly on the branches and twigs of an impressive library. In the dusty sunlight they seemed to be awaiting a small show; the books held their breath, word-for-word. Not today, Levadski thought. A rainbow-colored drop glistened at the tip of his nose before exploding on the parquet floor. Another shuffle and Levadski was already sitting in his rocking chair by the window.

He closed his eyes and was certain: he looked imposing like this, genuine and alive, just as he had in front of the café window. The way he was sitting there with the beam of sunlight on his chest. Or perhaps the beam wasn’t a beam, but a spear driving through an old dragon’s body? He smiled. If someone had observed his face at this moment they might have believed that a wafer-thin slice of lemon had dissolved beneath the old man’s tongue. But there was nobody who could have seen Levadski’s face. Since he had started aging, he had always been alone.

He started to age as a small boy. He aged when a robin redbreast hopped onto his shoulder while he was mowing the lawn. Like the red sky in the morning. Like a freshly baked soft rosy loaf of bread, it perched on Levadski with its thin legs. The robin redbreast decorated him more than any medal. It made him a human being. An old man! Levadski’s watch started to tick, growing louder and louder with every movement of the bird.

He aged when from the window of the school building he observed a jay hiding its booty. The way it let two acorns, one after the other, roll out of its throat, buried them in the ground and marked the spot with colorful leaves. The jay. The blue on the hem of its robe and its jet black sapphire eyes, nodding its head mischievously: Levadski, Levadski, I know that you know! Levadski aged when he gnawed at almost cold chicken drumsticks at weddings or funerals. He aged when with a spoon he dealt a breakfast egg a shattering blow. He aged when in the spa town of Yalta a black-headed gull snatched a piece of cake from his hand. “You have robbed me of the pleasure!” Levadski shouted after it, stamping his foot, and yet immediately knowing: Nothing and nobody can take pleasure away from you. Pleasure is not a piece of cake. He aged especially on an autumn day when he stopped in front of an advertising column covered in film posters, threw back his head to read and was hit in the eye by pigeon droppings. Levadski was stabbed in the heart, in the middle of his aging heart. With every explosion of pigeon wings Levadski aged, with every daub of color that flew by, recognizable as a golden plover, blackbird or starling. He aged when he kissed a girl for the first time and suddenly in the dusk saw a shadow flit past. “Devil take it! A pygmy owl!” he shouted into the frightened astonished eyes of the girl, and he aged, turning a little more into the Levadski he was later to become.

In the end it was music that dealt the ripening old man the crushing blows. It devoured him and spat him out, only to devour him again. The child Levadski, the old man Levadski, too naïve to curse the day on which he imagined he found music. It found him, and it drove into him like an almighty whooping cough, making him more and more hunched, so that he squinted up at it more dwarfed than a dwarf. This is how Levadski wandered through life. His hunch grew like his awe for music and birds. Yet neither the music nor the birds thought about condemning Levadski.

Done, damn it! Levadski feebly tapped his scrawny thigh. So, the suspicion that he had carcinoma of the lung was confirmed! The patient and pseudo-respectful whispering of his doctor at the other end of the line said as much. The news hit Levadski harder than it would have if the diagnosis had been roared down the receiver.

He would have liked to say a prayer, something sublime, but everything venerable seemed either unspeakable or defiled by mortal fear and self-pity. Impure, simply impure. Ultimately everything in this world referred to man, to man alone. Even in the purportedly altruistic stirring of the soul yapped a little I! I! I!, and a tiny actor stood whistling in the wings of the most deceptively genuine feelings. Disgusting, thought Levadski, you can’t even face a stroke of fate candidly. He thought this and knew that another Levadski, as if to confirm his thought, hovered the height of a hat above him, amusing himself at this sight: an old man with lung cancer sitting in a rocking chair, with a pretentious strip of sunlight on his pigeon chest and how strange, all the particles of dust, how they danced in the ray of light making it visible in the first place.

Levadski pursed his lips and, in his mind, spit on the carpet. What was he still supposed to think, when what he knew of human beings filled him with disgust? This scrap of knowledge ruined his pleasure in the unknown, in the mysteries of nature that were yet to be revealed. That he would no longer come to discover them made him livid. May youth divine the secrets of creation; the thought triggered a dull pain. It was not that he begrudged the others, those left behind, the revelation, no. Levadski just thought that mankind, if anything, had a simulated reverence for the simple and the great. It was the simple and the great that he felt sorry for, because it was pure curiosity that led man to pursue the wonders of nature, every solemn gesture was pure hypocrisy; every action, even if it was a self-experiment with a deadly outcome or involved years of sacrifice in the name of science, was nothing but egotistical defiance, nothing but pure self-assertion.

Levadski rose trembling from the rocking chair. Even now he had lied: regardless of mankind, it was not the simple or the great he felt sorry for, but that he would be denied coming one step closer to this mystery. He was envious and jealous and he begrudged the others, knowing at heart that all effort was in vain – the mystery of life would just grow further out of reach, for as long as this world still existed.

I have tramped around on this globe for long enough, Levadski thought. He opened the balcony door and sat back down in the rocking chair. The dusty curtain enveloped the figure of its guest for a moment, the street air. The road itself entered Levadski’s library, filled it with the bothersome yet welcome signs of life, the honking of car horns, the shouting of children and the perpetual hurry of women’s heels. He could also hear snatches of a conversation between ravens: “I love you,” “I love you too,” “Feed me!” “Antonida! Put your trousers on! Now!” a mother’s voice ordered. Levadski raised an eyebrow; when he was Antonida’s age, names like hers didn’t exist, and girls still wore skirts.

“Oh dear,” Levadski sighed. Why the intimation of his imminent demise hadn’t allowed him to die on the spot, but had instead stirred up a lot of dust was an enigma. His chin dropped to his chest like an empty drawer onto a table; there is nothing to be had here, thieves, leave me alone. He opened his mouth. The ray of sunlight now rummaged in his mouth. Levadski stuck out his tongue and rolled it back in. Birds are better than we are, he thought, not least because they are able to open their beaks properly, unlike human beings, whose mouths only open by dropping their bottom jaw; birds simultaneously raise their upper beak slightly!

Slowly Levadski shut his mouth again. He remembered that many decades ago he had observed a common redstart through a pair of binoculars with a fat tick close to its eye. The bird didn’t seem bothered by the tick. On a sun-drenched wall, it gently quivered with its orange-colored tail in front of its bride. At the time, Levadski could have sworn that the female was smiling at the male while it trembled in courtship. He had always suspected that birds smiled. Now, sitting in his rocking chair, he suddenly realized how this worked: The female bird smiled at her sweetheart just by looking at him. In spite of the ugly tick close to its eye. By being near him, she was smiling at him.

The thought that his body was at the mercy of a parasite, that his lung had been thrown to a sea creature as food, made Levadski peevishly swing back and forth a couple of times in his rocking chair. I am at the mercy not only of that bloodsucker but also of a cocktail of chemicals if I let myself in for chemotherapy, thought Levadski, and clenched his fists.

He noticed that following the telephone conversation he far too frequently used inappropriate language, words that he had always avoided in his life, “bloodsucker” or “damn it.” That he had even been sick was outrageous and a certain sign of his decay. Who cares, Levadski thought, if I kick the bucket soon. His eyes widened. There you have it, kick the bucket, that’s the kind of language I hear myself using! I should just die! Die and rot! Levadski gestured dismissively, rose from the rocking chair with a groan and shuffled to the shelf with the medical books.

Cyclophosphamide, sounds like a criminal offense … checks the multiplication of rapidly dividing cells. Side effects: nausea, vomiting, hair loss. May damage the nerves and kidneys and lead to loss of hearing, as well as an irreparable loss of motor function; suppresses bone marrow, can cause anemia and blindness. Well, Bon appétit. Levadski would have liked to have called the doctor and chirped down the line.

Tjue-tjue

Ku-Kue-Kue—Ke-tschik-Ke-tschik!

Iju-Iju-Iju-Iju!

Tjue-i-i!

If the doctor had asked him what this was supposed to be, Levadski would have stuck with the truth: A female pygmy owl attracting its mate, you idiot! And hung up. He felt like a real rascal. At the age of ninety-six Levadski was game for playing a prank. The dusty lace curtain stretched towards him, slowly as if submerged in water, behind it the spruce that lay in front of his house, with a little gold in its green beard and birds, birds, birds that hopped, as voices, as light and shadow plays, from branch to branch, from tree to tree, from cloud to cloud, from day to day, angels, always among people.

Levadski suddenly had the feeling he needed a walking stick. He leaned against his bookshelf, amazed he had been able to live without a walking stick up until now, shook his head and put this oversight down to being a scatterbrain.

“Adieu,” said Levadski to the medical dictionary in his hand before he shut it. He looked around his apartment, undecided as to what he should do. Instead of watering flowers, making himself some porridge or dusting, he took a walk around the four corners of his library to calm his nerves.

The only thing that really seems to belong to man is the genuine. And the only genuine thing about man, Levadski thought, breathing on his magnifying glass, is his pride! He was proud of the bookshelves that filled the walls. Though this trait belonged to the department of deadly sins, how could it be bad and depraved if it was purer, more sincere and unselfish, than the love that man imagined himself capable of? It was only pride that had no foundation and needed no admirers to sustain itself. Maybe it did poison the soul. But it also elevated the humble species of man a little, albeit to dubious spheres, from whence it became aware of the flicker of an immeasurably greater providence. The most beautiful thing was: A single surge of pride banished any breeding ground for loneliness. So why shouldn’t man commit this sin?

“So what if I was never capable of love?” Levadski asked the back of a slim volume with the tight gold lettering Manual for the Domestication of Extremely Reluctant Parrots. “At least I was capable of being proud, I was proud of you, little book. Just as love allegedly pulls the rug from under lovers’ feet, my pride pulled the rug from under my feet. I didn’t soar high or for long, so I didn’t land on my snout, but softly and in my element – in my library. I was never disappointed …”

Levadski would have liked to cry, but he suspected that these tears would have been because of the doctor’s call rather than the solemnity of the moment, and so forbade himself to. My decorum will be the death of me, thought Levadski, for even the most natural thing suddenly seemed inappropriate to him. Honesty, he said to his books, is a slippery customer, it always slips away methinks when we believe we are surrounded by it. Levadski breathed on the magnifying glass again and polished it on his sleeve. Methinks! What a way to express myself! That he had a long time ago thought of winning over the opposite sex with this pathetic affected behavior, when his head had been filled with nothing but the mating dances and brooding habits of birds, was something he did not want to be reminded about. But he did think about it, he thought about it with a hint of bitterness. After a fulfilling academic life he knew: Women would have interested him more if they hadn’t constantly insisted on emphasizing that they were different from men. If they had been like female birds, a touch grayer and quieter than the males, perhaps they would have awakened his interest at the right time. Levadski would gladly have procreated with such a creature. Only he didn’t know to what purpose.

Levadski took a book from the shelf and blew the dust from it. Dictionary of the Language of Ravens by Dupont de Nemours, incomplete edition. A French ornithologist colleague had hidden the facsimile inside a cake, smuggled it through the Iron Curtain in time for Levadski’s seventieth birthday. Levadski’s delight in the facsimile had gotten the better of his reason to such an extent that he kissed the Frenchman on his moustache in front of the entire professoriate. Somebody raised his glass, he could remember that, and said, “A kiss without a moustache is like an egg without salt!” Everybody drank to international friendship and raven research, the words “May the day come when …” and “A clear conscience should not be a utopia” rang out. People clinked glasses and patted each other on the back. “From the primeval fish to the bird: a stone’s throw!”; “From the lungfish to the human: the bat of an eye!” They hoped he would gain many years of pleasure from this unique and scientifically-speaking totally uninteresting book. His anniversary was at the same time a farewell. He left the university and the students – everything that he had never really been attached to – with the thought that he would not live much longer. “Adieu, mon ami!” Levadski had tried to joke when he stood opposite the Frenchman at the airport. The Frenchman nodded hastily and withdrew from Levadski’s brotherly kiss feigning a coughing fit. In the airplane the man with the moustache suffered a heart attack. For a time, Levadski was under the illusion that he had brought about the demise of his French colleague with his collegial kiss. If he’d explained to him that it was the custom in his country, like a weak handshake in central Europe, perhaps the good man wouldn’t have died.

“Such a beautiful book,” said Levadski. He said it loud enough for the other books to hear. “This, children, is how the destiny of a man fulfils itself,” Levadski continued ceremoniously, “a stranger arrives, makes a present to a stranger and gives up the ghost!” The books listened as if Levadski hadn’t already told this story twenty times. “When, you won’t believe it, on that very day, I was thinking that I would have to die soon! Such a beautiful gift …”

Levadski opened the book and smoothed out the pages, his knuckles cracking. He made a cracking noise with every motion, he always had since he was a child. Even when he sighed or sneezed. Once he had a bout of hiccups where every hiccup was accompanied by a cracking noise and he kept on cracking. A whole day passed by like this. Levadski turned the pages of the dictionary with a great sense of pleasure.

Kra, Kre, Kro, Kron, Kronoj

Gra, Gres, Gros, Grons, Gronones

Krae, Krea, Kraa, Krona, Krones

Krao, Kroa, Kroä, Kronoe, Kronas

Kraon, Kreo, Kroo, Krono, Kronos

It’s a blessing I know French, thought Levadski, otherwise I would have had to learn it at the age of seventy to read this gem of a book. Simply and unassumingly the content of the language of ravens had been scraped together and distributed over twenty-seven pages, silent and powerful. Levadski remembered the bad mood he had fallen into every time he read the dictionary. Every time he stumbled over the word that suggested that man, in his search for enlightenment, had possibly overlooked the decisive junction – a word from the language of ravens. Which one was it? Levadski turned the pages and felt a surge of heat creeping up his hunched back.

Kra (quietly, deliberately, talking to himself) – I am

Kra (quietly, drawn out) – I am fine; or I am ready

Kra (short staccato) – Leave me

Kra (tenderly, coquettishly) – Hello; or Wake up; or Excuse the tomfoolery

Kra (questioningly, long) – Is somebody there?

Which word was it then?

Krao (loud and demanding) – Hungry

Kroa (chokingly) – Thank you, thank you so much, such a pleasure

Karr (resolutely) – Adieu!

Kro …

Kronos! Kronos was the word! “Let us fly” in the language of ravens, chronos in Greek. Levadski shut the book. It was this junction that mankind had rushed past, past its own kinsfolk – past its brother animal. And along with it, consideration of the existence of a common primeval language had been buried! “Dear books,” Levadski said to his library, “that contemporary animal psychology stubbornly refuses to credit the higher vertebrates with the power of abstraction and a center of speech is not only a scandal. It is a disaster! The existence of a common primeval language is perfectly obvious. Tell me, does the animal give the impression of being apathetic? On the contrary, the animal looks lively and inquisitive, not because it has just laid an egg, but because it possesses language. Language …” raved Levadski, craning his neck. “Just like us the animal has named and internalized all the objects and impressions known to it. Otherwise the animal would long ago have died in isolation, darkness and silence, and even its heightened animalism would not have been able to compensate for its lack of speech. The animal has made sense of the world like we have, by naming this world!”

Moist-eyed, Levadski shuffled along the bookshelves and continued in a more hushed tone: “When humanity started to hone its mental and manual skills and continued to improve them, a thick civilizing fog spread over it, so that we either thought ourselves close to God or abandoned by God. But, my God, how pathetic! All we ever did was widen the gap between him and us. Between the animals and ourselves.”

Levadski spoke to his books as if to his most gifted students. “A common primeval language appears to be physiologically and philologically undisputed. But from where is philology meant to take the means to prove that animals have a faculty for speech and explore their grammar?” The approving silence of the books spurred Levadski’s eloquence on. “The day will come,” he continued, “when the dictionaries of animal language will no longer cause their authors to be taunted and ridiculed, but bring them fame and honor. The authors will demurely lower their eyes.” Slightly embarrassed, Levadski stared at the floor on which balls of dust were being driven back and forth by the draft. “Despondent because they arrived too late at the thought of recognizing in the animal an equal neighbor, a friend who can be confidently ascribed a language and an immortal soul once again, after such a long time …”

The books maintained their silence. Let us hope it is not too late to create this bond of friendship, Levadski wanted to say, but he only thought it to himself in silence.