Tag Archives: Betula nigra

“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.

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