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Authors: Johanna Sinisalo

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Birdbrain

BOOK: Birdbrain
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‘Sinisalo takes us on a brilliant and sometimes horrifying multidisciplinary adventure through biology and. belief, ecology, morality, myth and metaphysics, in a quest for a wild place where trolls can run free.’ —
Creative Loafing

 

‘Simsalo uses the relationship between man and troll to examine the hidden motivations in human-human interactions ... Sinisalo sets up thematic connections between nearly every event in the book, but she handles them with a light touch .. . this would be Ibsen s
The Wild Duck
— if the duck were the main love interest. Granted, Ibsen’s doomed waterfowl never ended up in a pair of designer jeans, but both creatures highlight the uneasy role of feral nature trapped within civilized humanity.’ —
Village Voice

 

‘While trolls in legends and stories often resemble werewolves, changelings and demons, in Sinisalo’s book it’s the humans whose beastly qualities are familiar and threatening. Her in-translation language is marvelous, sexy, enticing ...

Blood and bone mixes with unique humor and wit.’ —
San Diego Union Tribune

 

‘Johanna Sinisalo has created a strange, beautiful tale, expertly translated, and cinematic enough for movie scenes .. . Thought-provoking, uniquely imaginative, and brimming with circus-sideshow details... Sinisalo’s story ascends to more than just a freakish attraction by being intellectual and darkly comic all at once. The result is simply brilliant.’ —
San Francisco Bay Reporter

 

‘Told as a modern-day fairy tale ... it haunted me long after I finished. It has all the elements, including some of the disturbing ones, found in so many of Grimm’s stories, but is nonetheless a truly original novel.’ —
Powells.com

 

‘Offers an ingenious dramatization of the nightmare of blurred boundaries between species and a disturbing dystopian vision reminiscent of Karel Capek’s classic
War with the Newts.
A fascinating black comedy, from a writer who has made the transition to literary fiction with a giant’s stride.’ —
Kirkus Reviews
(starred review)

 

‘A sexually charged contemporary folk tale . .. Sinisalo’s elastic prose is at once lyrical and matter-of-fact... The troll brings out Angel’s animal instincts, representing all the seduction and violence of the natural world.’ —
Publishers Weekly

 

‘The comedy is irresistible, the pages turn themselves, carried along by the quicksilver of an unbelievably imaginative pen ... Run to this book .. . An entertaining variation on the eternal confrontation between man and beast, the light and dark angels that live in all of us.’ —
Télérama
(Paris)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johanna Sinisalo
was born in Finnish Lapland in
1958.
She studied theatre and drama and worked in advertising for a number of years before becoming a full-time author, at first writing science fiction and fantasy short stories. Her acclaimed first novel
Not Before Sundown
(2000) — also published by Peter Owen — won the prestigious Finlandia Award and the James Tiptree Jr Award for works of science fiction or fantasy that expand or explore our understanding of gender. Also known in Finland for her television and comic-strip writing, she has won the Atorox Prize for best Finnish science fiction or fantasy story seven times and has been the winner of the Kemi National Comic Strip Contest twice. In addition to her four novels she has written reviews, articles, comic strips, film and television scripts and edited anthologies, including
The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy.
Her short story ‘Baby Doll’ was a Nebula nominee and Grand Prix de
1
’Imaginaire nominee in France, and it was published in the
Year’s Best SF
/j anthology in the USA. Her work has been translated into twenty languages, including twelve translations of
Not Before Sundown.

 

 

Also by Johanna Sinisalo and published by Peter Owen

NOT BEFORE SUNDOW

 

 

 

 

 

 

BIRDBRAIN

 

 

 

 

 

Johanna Sinisalo

 

 

 

 

Translated from the Finnish

by David Hackston

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Peter Owen

London and Chicago

 

 

 

 

PETER OWEN PUBLISHERS

73 Kenway Road, London SW5 ORE

 

English language edition first published in Great Britain 2010

by Peter Owen Publishers

 

Translated from the Finnish
Linnunaivot

© Johanna Sinisalo 2008

 

English translation © David Hackston 2010

 

Cover artwork Hannu Manttari

 

All Rights Reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form

or by any means without the written permission of the publishers.

 

ISBN 978-0-7206-1343-8

 

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

Printed in the UK by CPI Bookmarque Ltd, Croydon, CRo 4TD

 

 

 

This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.

Culture Programme

 

 

 

 

‘Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!’ I shrieked, upstarting — ‘Get thee back into the tempest and the Night’s Plutonian shore!

Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!

Leave my loneliness unbroken! — quit the bust above my door!

Take thy beak from out my heart, and take diy form from off my door!’

Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’

—            Edgar Allen Poe,
The Raven
(1845)

 

 

SOUTH COAST TRACK, TASMANIA
Cockle Creek to South Cape Rivulet
Monday, March 2007

 

 

 

 

Heidi

Hanging around a modest distance from the Tassielink minibus terminus is a group of guys, their shorts boasting rips and tears, their T-shirts with stains, their armpits and backs with patches of sweat, their hiking boots with layers of dried mud. Jyrki gets out of the bus first, looks around, his brow furrowed, but as soon as he sees the row of trekkers his face brightens. He raises his hand in a gesture of calculated nonchalance, as if to say ‘Hi, we’re cut from the same cloth’, and the group manages a few mumbled greetings.

They’re standing in the shade at the edge of the dust track, a group of six young men, their bags a collection of bundles and straps, their beards scruffy and unkempt, as I step out into the sunshine and stretch my arms and legs.The drive from Hobart has taken over three hours. We’re the only passengers to travel all the way to the end of the line. The driver lifts the tarpaulin covering the trailer and dumps our rucksacks on the dusty verge.

The midday sky is like a bright-blue dome. Cockle Creek is full of gentle grassy slopes, tidy bushes, footbridges across narrow, sandy channels of sea, families enjoying a picnic. Toddlers squealing with excitement and fear of the cool water are splashing about in the wash with their brightly coloured floats. My eyes automatically start scanning around for a
café,
a restaurant, an icecream stand, a souvenir shop. The only sign of civilization is an outdoor toilet cubicle hidden in the thicket.

         I can’t help wondering what it must be like to be one of those grime-covered guys, the smell of sweat lingering in the air metres around them, to arrive here from South Coast Track only to discover that you’ve missed the only minibus of the day by a few minutes. From Cockle Creek it must be a good thirty kilometres to the nearest place offering any kind of facilities. You’ll have to wait a day for the next bus, sometimes two days, enjoying the pleasures of the non-existent local infrastructure. There is no through-traffic here, so even hitch-hiking would be limited to the cars of the families out on a day trip.

Still, I know exactly what Jyrki would say in a situation like that. We’ll walk, he’d say.

 

Jyrki

OK, now you can open your eyes. Three guesses where we are.

Beep! Wrong answer.

This was supposed, to be the edge of the Southwest National Park. This was supposed to be almost in the Great Outback.

Correct answer: this is a nothing but a spruced-up, sanitized, middle-class playground.

Take that campsite over there, the one we just passed. Enormous caravans parked on the grassy parkland; giant awnings with multiple rooms and plastic windows hoisted up alongside them, tents bigger that your average downtown flat, crammed full of functional furniture fashioned in the best traditions of cheap plastic design. Wheezing outdoor barbeques, guzzling gas from cylinders, turning the air glassy and shimmering. On the camping table the antennae of a travel television points up towards the sky like a victory sign.

These people leave their concrete suburban hell behind them, billowing litre upon litre of petrol into the atmosphere in the process, and for a brief moment set up a plastic hell here at the edge of the bush. All this so that they can tell their friends about how great it was roughing it for a couple of nights — standing there taking their GM-soya-fattened pork chops out of their polystyrene packaging and throwing them on the barbie to sizzle; fetching a six-pack of Fosters from the Winnebago fridge, chilled by keeping the car’s engine idling all day. It’s wild out there and oh so liberating. A real tale of survival.

If we put up our Hilleberg tent out here, it would look like a kennel on Millionaires’ Row. Someone might accidentally step on it, crush it like an ant.

At Overland Track the scent of untouched nature was much more distinct. Although there was a large guide centre, a cafe and even a hotel at the start of the track, everything about the place said that you only needed to walk a hundred metres and the sense of being in the outback would whistle in your ears like a bone flute.

The driver, a friendly man with a freckled bald patch, is already lugging the returning hikers’ rucksacks into the trailer at the back of the minibus. I exchange a few words with our fellow trekkers. The words ‘mud’ and ‘Iron-bound’ come up again and again. The weather has apparently been all right.
It's rained a bit, but there’s been no flooding. At Cox Bight a wombat had spent all evening grazing right next to the campsite.

The guys’ chilled-out, relaxed, indirect way of bragging is an unspoken indication that we’re not quite in the same league. Picking up on their carefully suppressed blokish chest-beating makes the bottom of my stomach tingle, that same sense of expectation as when I was younger, going out on the pull after an evening shift. Without saying a word, the group’s body language makes it clear that they had served their time while we were just arriving at the barracks.

She’s standing next to me, listening solemnly to our colleagues’ stories. They’ve reached that ecstatic phase, raving on about the first things they want once they reach Hobart: a cold beer, a hot shower, a bed with crisp linen and fresh food seem to be at the top of everyone’s list.

I tell them that in Finland the first thing men coming back from the front wanted was sex; only after that did they take their skis off. The lads give an uncertain chuckle.

I hoick my rucksack from the sand and up over my shoulder. You have to do this quickly, without any obvious effort, without catching your breath. The driver says his compulsory farewells and wishes us luck. The doors of
th
e minibus slam shut.

In a cloud of dust and exhaust fumes, our umbilical cord is severed.

I ask her if we’re ready. She nods, almost imperceptibly.

At the start of the track there is a wooden shelter with three walls featuring laminated guides to the national park and a couple of information notices. Also, on a small shelf, there is a registration book with a pen on the end of a piece of string.

She flicks through the book and asks whether we ought to write our names
d
own.

Standing there, holding that book, she’s holding on to Cockle Creek with both hands, delaying our departure like a small child on her way to the dentist. When you leave something difficult alone, avoid it and procrastinate long enough, eventually it will go away.

 

Heidi

I hesitate, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, because I want the group of three energetic-looking guys that arrived shortly after us in a car to go first so they’ll get enough of a head start on us. Then I might be spared the inevitable embarrassment of people trekking behind us first overtaking us, then hanging around taking photographs or stopping for a piss, then, before you know it, breathing down your neck again. Excuse me, but would the lady mind letting us past? It’s obvious they’ll be faster than us — faster than
me,
that is. We’ll meet them in South Cape Bay later that evening anyway — and why shouldn’t we meet them? It’s already half past twelve, and I doubt even a herd of testosterone-fuelled bulls like them could make it any further by nightfall.

Jyrki comes and stands beside me, rests a heavy, purposeful arm on my shoulder and looks around. In the battered old ring-binder someone has taken a ruler and a biro and drawn columns where people fill in their names, the date and an estimate of how long they think they’re going to be out on the trail.

Shattering the whiteness of the registration book and drawing a pen across the paper feels almost like taking an oath, a deed that would have repercussions far beyond the act of simply writing down my name.

But isn’t it precisely those kind of deeds I’ve come here to take on?

Jyrki’s fingers brush across the columns as casually as a tornado might whip through the American Midwest.

‘Nobody knows at this stage how long they’re going to be on the trail. They might have a fair idea, but the weather could play up, or you could sprain your ankle. Some people might even move faster than they’d planned,’ he says.

‘But if something happens ... they’ll know to come and search for us.’

‘Think about it. We write down the day we expect to arrive at Melaleuca. Then we don’t turn up because the river’s burst its banks, leaving us stranded on the other side for a day. Before you know it there’ll be rescue helicopters chattering their way out here looking for people that are in no trouble whatsoever.’

‘So there actually will be such things, right?’

Jyrki squeezes my shoulder.

‘Of course. We’ll be crossing rivers and creeks, even a stretch of the sea. There could be strong winds or a freak high tide. You’ve just got to stay put and stick it out.’

‘I meant rescue helicopters.’

Jyrki gives a snort.

We’ll be covering our backs, I say.

We’ll be smothering our freedom, says Jyrki.

Neither of us says it out loud.

Jyrki leans down towards me; his lips gently touch mine.

‘Time to go, babe.’

Babe.

A word that has never once passed his lips before now. Not love, not sweetheart. Nothing.

I look at him and his smile, a smile that exudes a steely inner resolve, a great, burning enthusiasm, penetrating and deliberate.

At some point I started to know that Joseph Conrad book off by heart. It whispers to me.

I wondered whether the stillness on the face of the immensity looking at us two were meant as an appeal or as a menace. What were we who had strayed in here? Could we handle that dumb thing, or would it handle us? I felt how big, how confoundedly big, was that thing that couldn’t talk and perhaps was deaf as well. What was in there?

 

Jyrki

At first the track is the ultimate piece of cake, all duckboards and steps — we’d be lucky to encounter as much as a tree root once every kilometre. I know that the beginning of the trail gives us the wrong impression. The leg from Cockle Creek to the campsite at Lion Rock is clearly cut for people out on a Sunday-afternoon stroll. On the trail we pass plodding retired couples dressed in everyday clothes and shoes and families out on holiday. We even see a couple pushing their kids in a pram, which almost makes me want to cover my head with a paper bag for fear of ending up in a photograph with them.

I take a deep breath. I know this isn’t the start of the concert; this isn’t even the overture. This is just the murmur of the audience taking their places. That’s not the reason we’ve come all this way.This is just a necessary step we have to take, a stage that has little to do with what’s still in store for us. That’s when the real show begins.

BOOK: Birdbrain
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