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Monday, Apr. 07, 2008 - 9:52 p.m.

The judge accidentally burnt down his own courthouse on that one night in Slovenia, when a crow flew backwards across the capital Ljubljana, and when a girl exited her mother's womb into the midwife's hands, which were calloused by the passage of newborns.

The crow landed on the curved neck of a lamppost in front of the courthouse, and watched the judge run hurriedly down the stone steps of the hundred year old building onto the street. A telephone call had just informed him that his wife had given birth to a girl. On the third floor, in a wastepaper bin, the end of a cigarette touches a crumpled piece of paper.

When he returns the next afternoon, firemen and municipal workers are picking through the smouldering remains for evidence of arson. The night watchman says the fire started on the third floor, and the judge suddenly remembers his cigarette. The minister, talking to reporters nearby, is livid. But the judge smiles and says nothing. On a blank piece of paper (which subsequently became crumpled, thrown and then touched by a cigarette), the judge had written 'divorce' three times on it. He heard that was how it was done in the past, in Islamic societies (but on the other side of the paper he had written a single word, 'love'). What happens to the validity of burnt words? he thinks.

The judge looks around at the ruins. The basement, which keeps the archives of cases, has caved in. The true (and untrue) histories of guilt and innocence have been turned to ash, which float up into the air and become scattered across the city. The smell of burning smoke follows the judge home that day, and stays with him for the rest of his life, to the point that his wife (she never realizes her divorce)eventually makes him sleep in a separate room. And every time he bathes, he would wash an inexplicable layer of ash off his skin.

An old man (he used to be a policeman) sits outside on his cramped balcony reading the newspapers. He can smell the recent fire. His wife sets down his coffee cup on the small wrought iron stool beside him. Speckles of ash from the courthouse basement drift over him, circle him, and fall into his cup of coffee. Some float on the surface of the thick black liquid. Others become dissolved in it.

They used to be from the same piece of paper - a false confession extracted by the old man from a student activist thirty years ago. She had the misfortune of being both a university student and in the flat of a protest organizer, when the police broke down his front door. She took the stand in one of Tito's first show trials (held at the courthouse), and was sentenced to jail. Without putting down the paper, the old man holds the cup to his lips, and swallows the extract of her confession.

She loved that young man who organized protests, though she did not care for his politics (what would a waving placard change?). While other lovers penned letters and poems, she helped him paint anti-Tito slogans on scavenged panels of wood in his flat (which became banners of her love).

The solitary confinement broke her. The guards thought she became mad, with her drawings of birds flying backwards, that she slid under the door to them. They confiscated her paper and turned off the solitary light bulb, but she continued to draw on the walls, in the faultless dark. After she was finally let out years later, a cleaner turned on the light in her cell, illuminating for the first time, the four walls which were filled with birds. He scrubbed at them for a day, but the birds could not be erased. They had been burned into smooth cement walls by years of absent light. He could not explain it, but when he looked at the cell full of birds, he dropped the sponge in his hand and started to cry.

Back on the streets of Ljubljana for the first time, she passed by a shop selling television sets, and she caught her reflection in the window. She was shocked by the television sets in the shop window because they all now had colour. Colour had been added to the world. Another thing - from her reflection she seemed to appear younger than she was a few years ago. In fact, everyone around her appeared to become more youthful. She looked at the people around her, her parents, her neighbours, the old man who sold the smuggled Russian vodka near her flat.

The aberration continued to accelerate day by day, until a year after her release, each person appeared as the five or six year old version of himself or herself. She continued to observe how people around her mishandled their lives, gave into jealousies, spurned logic, disintegrated their marriages into half-divorces until she realized that she had not become insane. Her years of confiscated light now let her see thing with greater clarity. The edges and veils overlying things were purged. Everything was in focus. Adults were merely children in disguise.

One can only imagine the what she saw during the Ten Day war with Yugoslavia, after Slovenia declared its independence. There were two tribes of children driving tanks and armoured personnel carriers through forests, shooting machineguns at each other, launching mortars, firing missiles at helicopters flown by other children, while their leaders (also children) met in parliaments and wood-paneled rooms and argued, as young children do.

She brought her aged parents to the bird park one day and saw that no matter which exhibit she brought them to, every bird was actually a crow. In front of an indoor exhibit of Alpine Swifts, she stands next to the judge, his eight-year old daughter and his wife. A small amounts of ash leaks from his body, and he had left a thin silver trail around the bird park.

The judge had not retired from his work, from his daily considerations of society's appropriate response to men who had violated an abstract code of law and morality. He was the tip of the scale that swung between right and wrong. But he was incapable of applying this rationality to his own life and to his wife's infidelity. In his own life, he did not guide his feelings; rather his feelings guided him - to smash plates against walls, to drive around Ljubljana aimlessly for hours at night until the streets reeked of his ash or until he ran out of petrol, to sit down in front of a piece of paper and attempt divorce. When he watches his growing daughter, he feels that he should impart some lessons about life to her, but he does not feel qualified to do so. He can give her his infinite devotion, but how does one child know how to be a father to another? There are some days when he looks at her, and feels that she is older than he will ever be.

In a world full of children, the six human bodies stand in silence in front of the exhibit, watching the birds behind the glass enclosure. The birds flit from one artificially-placed branch to another, watch the six humans, and then look for a new perch. They are an animated incarnation, a puzzling echo of the paintings found in another room elsewhere in Ljubljana, one that is full of birds in mid-flight.


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