You stand frozen in a field of corncockle. Your armpits are damp with sweat. You got very drunk last night. You’re not really in a field of corncockle, but it’s as if you are: you think of the toxins contained in these types of wild carnations, you think of saponins and muscle spasms. You see yourself chewing on a plant like a cow because you think it’s healthy, then dying. Dying in agony, but no one will help you. That ugly thought suddenly vanishes. As if someone has lifted a veil from your eyes. You look out at the cultivated terrain and the field-research forms you’re holding in your hands. How many minutes have you been standing still? Five or more? Ten? Time encircles your legs—not time, stalks of wheat. You kick them away. You’re stepping on someone’s bread. You lose your mind and you don’t know why. Clouds are gathering above you. It was clear until a little while ago. You even wrote on the form that there were no clouds, but now? You update the cloud cover to 60 percent. The whole document will be illegible: as soon as you write one thing, you have to change it. Nature contradicts your every word.
There are numerous sections to fill out. You had to enter your full name, the date (May 5), the locality (Mala Mlaka), the temperature (17 °C), the transect number (E4788 N2530), the coordinates (x: 457245 y: 155715), and a brief description of the habitat (a blend of shrubs, meadows, low and high crops). You paused at first when filling in your name; for a moment you couldn’t remember it. Elis, your name is Elis. Your father gave you that name because he loves Trakl: A golden boat, Elis / rocks your heart in the lonely sky. You know the whole poem by heart; you’ve heard those verses from your father’s mouth so many times that you’ve grown sick of them. You despise your name, but the birds the poet wrote about—those you could never hate. The gaze that others turn inward, you’ve turned to the sky. Every day you thank Trakl for that.
Yesterday you were at your sister’s birthday party. You were nervous because every now and then your eyes wandered to your brother-in-law’s hands, cutting the cake. He held the knife like a sword. They don’t have children; that matters to you. You would feel worse if they did. You will never admit how much you love him.
“Do you want a piece?” he asked you.
You nodded, but you didn’t mean the cake. His movements were much sweeter. You’re in love. You don’t dare tell anyone. You’ll take the secret to your grave.
You take a sip of black tea from a thermos. The break is over, and you move on. You have to finish your survey by nine o’clock. Every hundred meters you stop, you take pictures in every direction with your phone (as proof that you went out into the field), and then for five minutes you calmly observe and listen to the landscape. The form has two concentric circles printed on it: a smaller one, representing thirty meters in diameter, and a larger one, representing one hundred meters in diameter. You are in their center, stuck like a scarecrow. But you’re not here to scare off the birds. Your job is to count them and note their location in the circles: those that fly over, and those that perch in the field, on branches and stumps. You also have to document the species that can only be heard, not seen. The farther the birds are from you, the farther you are from yourself, but there’s nowhere to write that. The form doesn’t have space for private observations. The Croatian Ministry of Agriculture doesn’t pay fifteen hundred kuna for the work of reflecting and remembering.
Your eyes move over the circles. On the first page you recorded Mot. fla., Syl. atr., Syl. com., Stur. vul. (eight specimens), Cor. corax., Cor. corni. (in flight). After that—nothing. You’re not satisfied. Too few birds. They’re avoiding you. You hear a cuckoo in the distance. Again. You write it for the fifth time outside the circles, on the margin: Cuc. can. You put a bold question mark next to it. Did you really hear the bird or did you just imagine it? Again: Cuculus canorus. You try to spot it, but in front of you stretches only the lush field of wheat and barley. There’s nothing in the sky, Elis, nothing. The empty circles tighten around you like an iron band. And you feel depleted. Just before, you were sitting on the cut grass, breathing deeply, but you don’t feel at ease. The quieter the environment, the deeper your turmoil.
Nature doesn’t rest, however. The sky diligently keeps gathering clouds, as if it wants to collect them all. According to your rough estimate, the cloud cover now exceeds 75 percent. The air temperature drops sharply. You can feel the difference on your skin. The wind, which was completely absent at first, now upends the papers in your hand with great force, threatening to blow them all over the field. You don’t understand the sudden shift. Is this kind of weather common for early May? You don’t know, you’re not a meteorologist. You’re not even a biologist, but rather a banker, a bird lover, an amateur ornithologist. You came to enjoy yourself, but how do you enjoy yourself with only your own company?
Five minutes become an eternity. You stand and wait, the hands on your watch not moving. You hear a cuckoo again, loud, like it’s flying past your head. It sails over the property, but what’s not clear is how that birdsong is managing to reach your pricked ears, given that the wind is blowing the opposite way. When the voice stops, you obediently head in the direction it came from. But it’s a direction not shown on the map. You’re moving away from your vantage point. Diverging from the path. You walk slowly. Your legs are not yours. To encourage yourself, you recite Trakl in your head: How long, Elis, you have been dead. // Your body is a hyacinth, / The monk dips his waxen fingers into it. Suddenly you understand: the voice that recites the verses in your head is not yours. You are forced to pronounce them. You keep walking. You’re sweating. You come to the edge of a forest. One more step and you’ve entered it. You don’t want to be, but you’re inside. The cuckoo’s there too. You can hear it. It’s panting loudly like an aroused man. You’re dead, Elis, dead. You ask yourself, without any sentimentality, who will dip their fingers into you when you die? Your father? Sister? Brother-in-law?
If you were walking up the stairs to your apartment, you’d count each step. You’ve always done that, but now such obsessive behavior doesn’t make sense. There’s no ascent here. Walking on a flat surface poses no challenge. If you were climbing the clouds to reach the sky, you would count them, Elis, just as you count money at the bank every day. Millions, billions. Instead of kuna, verses have now accompanied you, frightened, into the forest. It’s your father’s fault, of course. What a stupid name he gave you. You sound like a victim, not a banker.
Iva, the young woman who used to hold the job of Monitor of Common Species of Birds (MCSB) here, abruptly withdrew from the project. She left Mala Mlaka and even the nearby Botinec neighborhood to you. She gave no explanation. You remember her once complaining that she’d met an intrusive villager in the field who’d wanted to introduce her to his only son. Their house was on the other side of the forest (her words lodged in your memory), hemmed in by trees and a field of grain. As you walk, you remember what Iva said: their whole yard was overgrown with weeds, and for every stalk of wheat there was a shoot of corncockle. Despite having died off elsewhere, the plant had thrived at the home of the father and son. You immediately want to see that corncockle. You want to see that bachelor she mentioned. Actually you don’t want to see him. Where did that idea come from? You’ve clearly plotted the house’s coordinates on the map so you can avoid it more easily. The desire to go there has come out of nowhere. It’s imposed itself on you, just like the cuckoo’s voice. Planted itself. You’re confused. You’re thinking about a man you’ve never seen. The cuckoo’s voice follows you right to his door. When the blackbird calls in the black wood, / Elis, this is your descent. You can’t hear the blackbird. Only the beating of your own heart. Excitement, like the cloud cover, exceeds 90 percent.
Sometimes thoughts have a life of their own. Yours are roaming on unnavigable paths, jumping nimbly like chamois. They climb to places no one else can reach. Now that you’ve come out of the forest and seen the house Iva was talking about, there are millions of these chamois. You can’t count them all: they multiply like the dirty pictures you’ve accumulated on your computer. Among those images is a family photo of your brother-in-law standing shirtless. He’s hugging your sister with his right arm, and you with his left. That left arm is dearer to you. You would cut off the other one.
You knock on the door. An old man opens it. “My son,” he tells you as if you’re already acquainted, “is sitting in his room. Go to him.” You resist his command.
“Who are you?” you ask. “What is this house?” You know he won’t answer. You stand there, rooted. The old man pushes and pulls you like you’re a stubborn mule. Your feet slide on the linoleum.
You almost tell him, I’m an influential man—I’m rich! But the old man is not interested in your money. You can feel it. For him and his son, the body is the only currency. He keeps pushing you. He opens the door wide with his foot. You see the bed. Your brother-in-law is sitting on it. He’s no longer naked only to the waist. You know you’re dreaming, but you don’t care. You’d give all the money in the bank to make this come true. You extend your right hand, which embraced him in the family photo.
The creature rises from the bed and hugs you. You know, Elis, that it’s not your sister’s husband. You know it, but you can’t help yourself. The creature slowly passes its palm over your eyes as if lulling you to sleep, but you’re already asleep. You don’t need to be persuaded. You didn’t get lost. You’re convinced you came of your own free will. Periodically the image of your brother-in-law flickers to the image of the creature: It is monstrous. It looks half bird, half man. Its beak is huge like a raven’s. Its face is covered with gray feathers. Its chest is a man’s. The stripes that line its thighs are a cuckoo’s. Strong legs end with claws. Your father cursed you with your name, but nature was much crueler to this creature. His desire feeds off yours. You can’t imagine a worse punishment.
You lie on the bed (which could more accurately be described as a “nest”). The bells sound softly in Elis’ breast / In the evening, / When his head sinks into the black cushion. You are, of course, that Elis, but you don’t know exactly what that black cushion is. You don’t know if the creature is penetrating you or vomiting in your mouth. Something is happening to your body. The spasms won’t stop. You’re nauseous. Numb, as if you’ve eaten all the corncockle around the house. Your body is paralyzed. You don’t control it anymore. You’ve had uncontrollable longings before, but this is much more terrifying. Your eyes are closed the entire time. When you open them, you stand frozen in the field. You’re sweating. You look at the cultivated terrain and the field-research forms you’re holding in your hands. How many minutes have you been standing still? Five or more? Ten? You need to call Iva immediately. You don’t want the monitor job anymore. MCSB is not for you. You feel weak. A stabbing sensation within your abdomen. If you didn’t know better, you’d say that what you feel under your skin is a large bird’s egg.
From Sweetlust by Asja Bakic (trans. Jennifer Zoble). Used with permission of the publisher, Feminist Press. Copyright © 2023 Asja Bakic/Jennifer Zoble. Poems: George Trakl, “Elis,” trans. Mirza Purić (unpublished, 2022); George Trakl, “To the Boy Elis,” trans. Bob Herz, Nine Mile Magazine; “Elis,” trans. Bob Herz, Nine Mile Magazine.