“Betula nigra” – Fiction by Avee Chaudhuri

CSIRO [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
An artist reminisces about a relationship with a problematically eccentric innkeeper in “Betula nigra,” Avee Chaudhuri‘s beautifully twisted short story from our Winter 2018 issue.

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BEFORE MY LIFE IN RADIO, I LIVED WITH THE WIDOW OF A PREEMINENT PSYCHIATRIST in Eastborough, Kansas. I slept in the carriage house where I also set up a small studio. Working mostly with acrylic, I painted about three and a half dozen versions of a Venetian noblewoman defecating into the Grand Canal after what must have been a hearty and fibrous meal. I would change her dresses and décolletage, the expressions on her face, the time of day, and the color of the dwarves in her retinue. After viewing each new iteration of La Contessa Cacare, my landlady would be kind enough to give me an injection of psychotropic drugs, as well as an exacting, vengeful handjob and a stoppered vial of champagne to be enjoyed in solitude on the roof.

We met at a farmers market in Wichita. I was working the aubergine stall. She’d just lost her husband. She noticed the splotches of paint on my shirt and the paraffin under my fingernails and when asked I told her, yes, I was a struggling artist, had no money and had not spoken to a single member of my family in five years. We locked eyes for an instant and then fell to making love under the stall, among rotting eggplants and fruit flies, just like they do in the movies. I followed her home like a stray capybara.

I lived with her for almost three years and did most of the domestic work. She was something of a gourmand, so I taught myself charcuterie and also kept a kitchen garden with living basil and Moroccan spearmint. At the time of her death, I was in the process of clearing out a root cellar.

She was an ample woman of about 50, with striking yellow irises, brown skin and a touch of gout. Sometimes she drank too much bourbon and could become violent, even once destroying the fragrant kitchen garden with a full set of Chinese throwing stars. On moonless nights she set the carriage house on fire. Either she would douse the English Laurel in gasoline, or aim a flare gun at the open window of the steeple where I kept turpentine and linseed oil. I started to sleep in flame-resistant aramid pajamas. She bought me them for Christmas.

When old friends came by for money I’d borrowed, she would brandish her husband’s ancient glass syringe, caked in her blood, and threaten to inject air into their veins.

Her husband did leave her with plenty of money, and there was no need to convert her large, drafty Victorian house into a bed and breakfast.  But two years into our friendship, she began to pursue the idea, and one day I came home to find that the house was filled with strangers admiring the framed pictures of Union soldiers on the mantle as well as the handsome decanters full of amber and green liquids. My studio had been converted into a honeymoon suite, and my Shitting Countesses, ranging from euphoric to doleful, had been unsystematically moved to the attic.

She wasn’t an ideal innkeeper. She undercooked the eggs and sausage. She asked awkward questions at the breakfast table: don’t you think age of consent laws are ruining this country? When the house was booked up, she liked to dress in a negligee, cover her body in baby powder, and pretend to be the ghost of a woman who was mutilated by Comanches. She shouted ‘godless prairie nigger’ on the front steps as the neighbors were leaving for work or to take their children to school. I thought she had finally gone insane without her husband to care for her. He treated her with a few injections a week and some lazy psychoanalysis. That and a handful of corrective rapes. The reality is he was a cruel man and it is a perfectly acceptable and palatable theory that she murdered him in his sleep, by setting fire to his flannel pajamas.

But she wasn’t going mad. The strange dialogue at the breakfast table, the food poisoning, the cultivated halitosis, playing a murdered homesteader, they were all part of a grander design. In each bedroom there was a guestbook on the nightstand. She’d taped the same note onto every single one, urging her guests to give honest feedback since she was just starting out in the business and could use their insights. Many of them left entries that are savage and heartfelt and faintly matricidal. I considered tearing these pages out to spare her feelings, but then I remembered all the times I had dislocated my shoulder, after leaping out of the carriage house in flames. Though as it turned out, had I intervened she would have likely castrated me. Those guestbooks were her prized possessions. She was after a kind of truth.

When she gave away my studio, we began to share the master bedroom. I slept in the walk-in closet, with the door cracked slightly for ventilation and to have a square of moonlight fall on my sleeping bag. But through this small crack, I would watch her postprandial movements. After all, she was a handsome, plump woman, in spite of the untreated gout and apparent madness. One night when we had no guests, she slipped as usual from her housedress, poured herself a goblet of red wine, and settled into bed. She had all the guestbooks with her and examined each entry with a magnifying glass. Her eyesight was poor. She could not stop laughing. I was terrified. When she was done with the books, she rose and stood naked at the window to take in the view of our lit-up hamlet: the church, the liquor store, the vocational school, all set against the dark country night, and as the cicadas trembled and the crop dusters flew drunkenly in the distance, she raised her arms in triumph.

I confronted her at the breakfast table the next day, a trough of oatmeal and poisonous berries between us, and naturally no silverware. Are you a goddamn witch or what? Her response was simply that she was not an artist but she always admired them. She reminded me then that this is why she took me in and started small fires, to inspire me. Was the destruction of the kitchen garden, the gross injustice done to the living basil and Moroccan spearmint, also part of your plan? I demanded to know. What is your plan, precisely? She dumped the guestbooks on the table, and told me she was compiling and editing all the horrible and lucid comments people left her into a supra-text. This was to be a mad opus of poetic recriminations, with racy color photographs. She hoped to get it published in the coming year.

I tried to reason with her, of course, but she would make overt threats on my new basil and spearmint, so I left her alone. Still, I kept an eye on things. If I thought she was heavy handed with the strychnine levels in the decanters or had put too much raw chicken in the salad niçoise, I would make the necessary adjustments. Thankfully, no one died, although we had guests go to the emergency room and languish in the intensive care unit. Dozens of complaints were made against us with the local Chamber of Commerce. There were regular visits from the county health inspector, and she would take him upstairs for a gentle screw and a long siesta. Later, he would waltz into the kitchen humming Strauss, not minding the live abalone in the sink, smuggled overland from California, or the smell of animal dung balled and drying in cheesecloth. She set the menu, not me. I was simply her sous-chef.

The police finally arrested her for her Comanche-victim routine, though she made it difficult for them, stripping off her negligee and climbing up the river birch in the front yard with surprising nimbleness. She remained in the tree for several hours, reciting the Koran. Using her husband’s connections, she avoided both a trial and prison time and she agreed to give up her hotelier license. By then, the guestbooks had filled up with enough vitriol for her to start working in earnest on her supra-text.

Every day from six in the morning until well after dusk, she would sit in the dining room with scissors and glue, working on different arrangements of her book. She did not stop working at meals, but when I brought in her last cup of coffee for the day, at about four in the afternoon, she would stop and show me the current state of the manuscript. As a straightforward chronology, with chapters organized by the month or week, the book became an account of her descent into something resembling madness. However, she found this approach to be trite and predictable. She then reversed the timeline but was even more disappointed because this allowed for a redemptive image of her.

Of course, there are several versions of the supra-text untethered by any kind of chronology, with chapters simply organized around a primary subject of criticism. My personal favorite begins with commentary on her various health code violations, ends with reactions to her problematic views on miscegenation and is anchored by a long middle section that details her willful, directional flatulence. Attempts to organize the text by the demographics of her guests proved arbitrary. Regardless of their gender, age, presumed religion, sexuality, or ethnic background, they all generally found her appalling.

In the latter stages of the project, she aspired to pure randomness, folding entries into paper Spitfires and aiming them at the whirling ceiling fan. When that didn’t satisfy her she sent me into the tool shed for the gasoline leaf blower. She worked only with photocopies and had purchased an expensive, well-oiled Xerox machine which she housed in the downstairs linen closet.

I focused on tending the kitchen garden, now in a state of dewy rebirth, and washing and folding and putting away all the sheets she had brought out of storage to billet our guests. While she was busy in the dining room, I moved stealthily around the house, getting rid of the articles of torture and alienation she had employed as the proprietress of the most disreputable bed and breakfast in Kansas. I emptied the decanters of strychnine, and incinerated most of her husband’s store of psychotropic drugs in a small, photogenic fire behind the carriage house. I buried the severed goat head in a public cemetery, released the eels into a local stream, flushed the animal dung down the toilet, and fried the abalone and served it on a cozy bed of fresh basil. When the house had been restored, I went back to painting in acrylic and oil, variations on the portrait of a haughty, gorgeous woman squatting naked in a tree. Sometimes she would be defecating on the constabulary below.

While she was editing, we had three months of strange, tenuous peace before she got sick. We started sleeping in the same bed and she gave me her collection of match books, but not her kerosene. An authoritative version of the supra-text was never finalized, and when she passed away, from a heart ailment, there were nine editions she liked equally. In the days leading up to her death, I would read selected passages from each of them at her bedside in the hospice. I brought other things to read as well, magazines and the Bible, but she only ever wanted her supra-text.

Her funeral was well attended. They had come to verify she was really dead, that her passing was not a hoax, that they might allow their children to once again play in the hills and meadows which adjoined her property. It was a small community. The inherent moral danger she posed, as a woman of means with no sense of decorum and no husband, did not go unnoticed. When they lowered the casket into the earth, smiles and laughter broke out among the crowd. There were handshakes and backslaps. Cigars were distributed. Champagne and whiskey were produced, and the mayor unveiled his erection and sunned himself on her headstone. And the crowd cheered.

After the funeral, as I was walking up the steps to the house, my old friends ambushed me with knives and chains and had me unlock the place. Then they pillaged. They took the decanters, the linens, and the antique photographs. They took up the wooden floors and removed the brass door knobs. Too few in number to lift and carry out the claw foot tub, they simply smashed it to bits. My debt was finally serviced.

Days later, the lawyers showed up and told me she left me the house and all her money.  We agreed that the lawyers would settle her estate, including the repair and sale of the house, take their fee and leave me the rest in the form of a cashier’s check. Impulse brought me to the Oregon High Desert to build a radio telescope. I am self-taught as both a painter and a physicist, and reached the following conclusion (which has since been challenged by a foreign expert). Radio waves travel in perpetuity through the known universe. They may ricochet off planets and other celestial bodies, but generally move outward from their point of origin. I base all of this on an incident which I now admit could be apocryphal. At the edge of our solar system the Voyager probe picked up the Titanic’s original SOS, Hirohito’s surrender, and news of the first McDonald’s opening in East Berlin to record crowds. Alongside these somber historical events, why not include for the listening space probes and fugitive gods a pathos-driven farce about an ageless beauty? I knew she wanted her work published in print, but I’m not certain whether she foresaw the legal disputes and matters of both authorship and privacy that would have to be decided. This way seemed better.

With my inheritance, I could afford engineering consultants and workers. An interior decorator helped me to liven the control room with wood-paneled walls, cast nets, and antique fishing rods. The station has been finished for a month now and I spend twelve hours a day broadcasting these tomes of beguiling anger, carefully parsing each word on my tongue and keeping my palette refreshed with a jug of water infused with Persian cucumbers. The rest of my time I spend in a deck chair under the great glowing main dish, sipping rum drinks and staring out past the horizon, which is dotted with stars and clouds and sometimes a full silver moon, arguably the summit of creation.

My chief engineer is the former head of the Iranian space program, and because he is on the run from the Ayatollah, I got him on the cheap. One day he countered my ideas about radio waves, as we were eating lunch under the main dish and arguing about the origins of chess. I said China, he said Persia. I mocked his kinky-haired daughter and hysterical wife. Then he revealed the possible, demoralizing truth about radio waves and I went back to the control room for a bottle of whiskey to chase him with.

As they move further away from the Earth, radio waves grow weaker and less stable. At a certain point they become, in theory, indistinguishable from the background noise of the universe. In deep space, the loveliness of the Metropolitan Opera is lost and unrecoverable amid the mindless vibrating of so many hydrogen atoms. A trained and alert musicologist, listening on the most pristine equipment, in a padded room in a country house full of dead servants, cannot possibly tell the difference between the two. All transmissions are doomed by a natural inverse-square law to fade into unreliable, moronic facsimiles of their originals.

There is a common coda to each of the nine manuscripts, from a widower in Saratoga who was on his way to visit a daughter in Tempe, and it reads, “I won’t pretend to understand you, you miserable, disastrous, vile harlot. I won’t pretend to understand the racist, unwholesome pantomime you did this morning out on the landing and in the street. It was enticing, yes, and you may have caught my admiring eye on your fulvous, calamitous breasts and your Salome hips, but that doesn’t give you the right to sneak into my room late at night as you did, and avail yourself of my genitals and empty the larders of paradise. I won’t pretend to understand you. However, I must admit this much: you made me feel youthful again, like a young man who enters a strange Arabian city at twilight.”

But according to our Iranian friend, this finale would be imperceptible against the louder, infallible humming of a noble gas.

“What’s next for you? Will you stay in the desert forever?” the Iranian asked me one day. We have resumed our chess playing.

I do not know and tell him as much. I could afford to stay in the desert indefinitely, in theory. I live like a monk, except for the lavish cocktails. But I think this would sadden her. The truth is I have never been to Venice. Perhaps once I see the Grand Canal I can stop painting its desecration. I’ll leave this place when I’m ready. That’s all I can say about the matter.

I at least hope she knows I am trying to give the world her supra-text. Someone must be listening, if not in Belize then in Alpha Centauri, and be astounded by her temerity and violence, and the way she danced naked and unafraid in the brazen and objective light of a new morning. It was important to her, I think, to be remembered as more than a country doctor’s wife who survived thirty years of chilling domesticity. What we all want in the Middle-West of small towns and crumbling gasworks is agency and allure, even if we have to poison families on their way to Disney World or the Texas Riviera to get it.

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AVEE CHAUDHURI is from Wichita, Kansas. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fluland, Gemini Magazine, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature and ACM. He holds an MFA and MA from McNeese State University, as well as a doctorate from the North Korean School of Telemetry.

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