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Tainaron by Leena Krohn, 1998

Mail from another city

© Leena Krohn

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Tainaron - Mail from another city





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The Guardian of the Oddfellows - the twenty-fourth letter


I admire her; I call her the Queen Bee. But Longhorn has another name for him, the name of an already forgotten saint: The Guardian of the Oddfellows. And indeed that is the nature of the Queen Bee: she cares tenderly for those whom many here in Tainaron consider strange and to be avoided: street singers, beggars and ladies of joy, people who are cracked in various ways or lost in their own drug-worlds.


All sorts of people visit the Queen Bee, both by day and by night. The light is always on in her house and the door is always swinging - to and fro, for it is a double-hinged door of the kind that one sometimes finds in obscure caf´s. There is no threshold or latch, and the hubbub and singing from the Queen Bee's house can be heard distinctly a couple of blocks off.


There is room for everyone, although her house is not large. No, it is very, very medium in size and as modest in its external appearance as countless other houses outskirts of the city.


But sometimes, although the house is full of people, it is very quiet, and then the neighbours say that the Guardian of the Oddfellows is holding a Great Day of Remembrance once again.


'Whose memory are they celebrating?' I asked Longhorn, and it became clear that it was not a question of any particular dead person. The matter is as follows: the Queen Bee gathers memories; she lives off memories, and it is perhaps only on account of memories that she receives so many people of so many different kinds. But she is not satisfied with any old memory; no, she can use only happy, sweet memories that sparkle with happiness, and if anyone were to try to offer her something cold and gloomy I think she would drive them mercilessly from her house.


Longhorn said that everyone who needs it receives both a meal and a bed for the night at the Queen Bee's house, but on certain days of the month everyone must bring her at least one happy memory in payment. That is the rent she demands, and there is no haggling.


On that day the Queen Bee spreads a white cloth on the table and lights dozens of candles so that it looks as if Christmas has come. But the table is not set, for on the Great Day of Remembrance no food is offered, only memories.


'But they really do satisfy your appetite,' says the Queen Bee, and all her drunks and madmen and beggars agree, as they must in order to be able next day to partake of a proper meal.


'Can I, too, participate in the Great Day of Remembrance some time?' I asked Longhorn.


'Everyone can,' he said, 'but not everyone wants to. And remember to take a really happy memory with you.'


'Oh, I have plenty of them,' I said light-heartedly, and when the next Great Day of Remembrance dawned I was sitting in the Queen Bee's house side by side with her Oddfellows.


I had already heard a few things about my table companions, so I sat a fair distance away from the Pickpocket (as if I had something valuable with me!) and even farther (although I felt ashamed of myself) from a black and spotted creature whom all the people of Tainaron dreaded, and who was called the Disease Carrier. But as I glanced around me, the Queen Bee's Oddfellows did not look to me any stranger than the people of Tainaron in general, and it was my turn to feel embarrassed when I realised what curious and even suspicious glances were being directed at my own person. I, too, was now one of the Oddfellows, perhaps the most obvious of the entire company in my foreignness. I, who have always believed I can merge into almost any crowd, who have always believed I can examine others while myself staying in the background, was now experiencing what it was like to be the object of the Tainaronians' attention.


But the Queen Bee was sitting opposite me and, once I had recovered from the confusion, I could at least gaze at her as much as I liked, her motherly form and her tight, tiger-striped dress, and her tousled, dark face, lit by the hazy glow of her seeing tubes.


'Let us begin!' shouted the Queen Bee in her resonant bass, which brought to mind the buzzing of a sunny meadow. 'Psammotettix, you are the first.'


I turned and saw that with this handsomely reverberant name she was addressing a greying, modest and clumsy-looking gentleman who had, since the beginning of the session, been mumbling incessantly to himself. I suppose he was repeating the memory he had chosen so that he would not forget it at the decisive moment.


With extraordinary speed, Psammotettix began a long story of which I understood scarcely a word, for it was interrupted - perhaps for effect - by a remarkable smacking and croaking noise which, at points of emphasis - so I supposed - became a rough croaking. The few words I could understand, because Psammotettix repeated them a number of times, were 'foam' and 'bubble'; but that was all.


On the other hand, the other participants in the Remembrance Festival followed Psammotettix's performance with interest, and when it was over they showed their approval in an extraordinarily wide range of ways: by clicking the chitin plates of their backs together, drumming, glowing, changing their colour or clapping their limbs together.


The Queen Bee raised a little hammer or club which gleamed gold in the candlelight, knocked it on the table and said: 'Accepted!', at the same time turning toward the Pickpocket, motioning him to start with a gesture of her hand.


'Once I went abroad,' the Pickpocket began hurriedly in a small voice, obviously nervous. The other Oddfellows interrupted him, howling:


'Not true! Not true!'


Then the hammer fell again, the others fell silent, and the Pickpocket began: 'Once in a foreign country, in a big city, my job took me to a certain department store. It was the eve of a great festival, and the people were swarming about, announcements and music flooded from the loudspeakers and the shoppers' attention was taken up with the brilliant displays and the shouts of the product demonstrators. The conditions were perfect, one could say, and for that reason that day was perhaps the most productive of my entire career.'


At this point the Pickpocket paused; grumbling began to be heard around the table and I saw the Queen Bee purse her lips.


'I cannot accept this,' she was beginning, but the Pickpocket shouted hurriedly, 'I have not finished, that is not all. You see, just as the department store was closing and I was already leaving with my swag, a fine lady swept past me with a bag on her shoulder, decorated with pearls. My practised eye noticed immediately that its silver lock only seemed to be closed and in a second I had caught up with the lady. I did this (and he waved a sharp nail in the air), the bag opened soundlessly, and in my own pocket there was - so I thought - a fine wad of the country's currency. But (and the Pickpocket raised a limp, demanding silence, for the guests had begun to babble once more) what did I see when I examined my trophy more closely? The notes were merely thin piles of paper, quite empty all except one. On it was written, on it was written....'


And here the Pickpocket's voice fell and he began to writhe on his chair, looking beseechingly at the Queen Bee.


'Carry on,' she said, nodding approvingly, but this did not seem to calm the Pickpocket.


'No, I can't, not with all these people listening,' he managed to mutter, gesturing at the other guests.


'He has forgotten his memory!' came a shout, and another: 'That's not a happy memory at all!'


'Come here,' ordered the Queen Bee. 'Whisper it in my ear. I shall consider the matter.'


And the Pickpocket went up to the Queen Bee and whispered a couple of words into her ear. I tried to prick up my ears, but I was far too far away, and I regretted my choice of place, for I desperately wanted to know what could have been written on the paper that could turn the Pickpocket's disappointment into a happy memory.


'Accepted!' acceded the Queen Bee, and to my horror she turned to look at me, and the lenses of her seeing tubes glittered with strange colours.


Then something unexpected happened to me: my past disappeared. It sank among millions of other pasts, so that I could no longer distinguish a single one of my own memories, happy or sad, from among the swarm of countless memories.


It was as if walls and fences had fallen, as if dams - very necessary - had burst, and in the floodwater there floated long-forgotten fragments of conversations that I had happened to overhear, remarks from novels and films and a vortex of human faces and destinies which sped past me like bubbles in a surging wake.


Through it I could, however, see the unwavering face of the Queen Bee, which was still waiting in front of me, majestic and demanding, a trace of dissatisfaction already apparent in her expression. Desperately I grabbed one of the memories that spun around me and, extraordinarily enough, I knew its origin: it was a survey from a weekly magazine whose readers were asked to remember star moments from their lives. Praying mentally that it would be good enough for the Queen Bee and that my deception would not be noticed, I began:


'This happened ten years ago. My lover was massaging my face. Then, suddenly, I was seized by a sensation of lightness. Before my eyes a door opened, and behind it was a lighted room. Such I light room I have never seen, before or since. I went into the room. I have never felt as good as I did then.'


That was all. But as I set the sentences of the little interview one after another, from memory, which now worked with the accuracy of a photograph, I realised that it was no deception. What had happened had happened, all of it, to me, and I remembered the smell of my lover's fingers and the fact that it had been the first cool, high day after a long summer.


And, dumbfounded by the superabundance of my life, I fell silent, and waited for the rap of the golden gavel.


'Accepted,' the bass of the Queen Bee rang out, and I saw a veiled smile spread over her face as if something inexpressibly sweet had just dripped on to her palate. In such a way my memory, too, although stolen, was added to her collection, to the great store of honey which was the basis of her economy, to the honeycombs from which she drew her happiness and her hospitality and which no thief would ever empty.


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