One night, the forest spilled into the city. At first, people didn’t know what was going on – on Pērnavas, Ļeņina, Lubānas Street, gas fumes fled down all the streets into the centre of Rīga – breathless and shouting for help. „We’re choking!” the fumes cried. „We can’t breathe anymore!” They said a green mist was seeping into the city from all sides, smelling of pine needles, flowers, of real forest – and it left the city smells queasy, smothering them…
„Save us!” the gas fumes cried, stinking, and sped on.
At midnight, trolley cars rumbling back to sleep in their depot reported the Daugavmala bus station had been taken and all buses were stalled: green moss had crept into their tail pipes, and buses, starting up, sputtered, spluttered, and went dead. The forest wasn’t after the trolley buses, only stopping vehicles that polluted the air, harming human air. Right now, it was picking up taxis and other gas guzzlers. And cross – examining dump trucks: what they’d dumped – tin cans, trash, rags – in the forest? The interrogators were juniper bushes, prickly little fellows. They remembered everything – people who yanked out berry bushes, the stalks and all; people who gouged hearts and names into tree trunks; or stripped birch bark off the trees; tore the bark from other trees, or broke bottles. The junipers forgot nothing. Particularly the licence-plates of cars spinning their wheels in the forest, mangling roots, fouling the air.
Swarms of swollen smells in the town centre. Fled from all ends of the city, there was nowhere else to hide. The forest was advancing on all fronts into the city. Only now could people understand how many smells had permeated the city: smells of gasoline and coal smoke, the rest of the smoke smells, all factory smells, garbage smells, cat smells, mold smells, glue smells, liquor smells. Smells hung in the air – scrambling over each other, blathering, blustering, shoving each other – and you could hang an axe in the air it was so thick. Yes, hefting an axe, you could hang it on nothing, the axe suspended in mid-air. The air was already thick as water, so it was hard to walk. You know how hard it is, wading through water when it’s up to your belly or breastbone, let alone over your head! The air was thick as water, and over your head. A few boys with inflatable dinghies tried going through the streets in their boats, and succeeded here and there. In the park, frogs leapt into the airs but never came back down – staving airborne, leaping from smell to smell. Some people tried jumping from second-floor windows, and nothing happened to them – they landed as if it were water or a mattress, the air a real feather-bed, a mattress of smells – so thick and dense.
Noises, too, fled from the forest to the centre of town. The roar of cars, rattle of trams, pounding of steel hammers, all kinds of clatter and hissing. Clatter is clatter, it never stands still without clattering, it was after a place to clatter. So it plunked down between two utility poles and clattered, so hard everyone’s ears shut down. Hissing wheezed through every pipe it could find, like drainpipes down the corners of houses. In a word, noises had been given the heave-ho, and now, fled from their jobs, they didn’t know what to do. Banging stomped all over the tin roofs, but clanging hauled a tin tub brimming with empty bottles down the street. Unbereable.
And the dust! The city’s dust, afraid of the forest, fled into the centre of town. Penetrated everything. The next morning, the radio’s voice was so clogged with dust it hacked and hacked before it spoke. People couldn’t hear each other, their ears were clotted with dust, they couldn’t wash them anymore, and instead had to use vacuum cleaners. Houses were so evenly blanketed with dust they all looked alike, colourless; the house numbers, layered in dust, were unreadable. People, too, were so evenly covered in dust they all seemed the same, so everyone was amazed that they’d never noticed there was so much dust in the city. A smudge or two on your shoes, in your trouser cuffs, yes – but not such clouds as these!
But the forest pushed closer and closer. A green mist flooded before it. Scent of pine needles and a recent thunderstorm. It slipped into houses through open windows, keyholes, chimneys and air vents, and people began to breathe more easily. It aired the scent of moss and mushroom, though people still slept unaware of what was happening. But those struggling with insomnia slept sounder than ever before.
The first up was the concierge – to sweep the street – and wonderstruck, she didn’t know what to do: the broomstick was sprouting small branches! And the broom itself had leaves! The front door paint had peeled off, the door was thick with evergreen needles.
On the inner doors, too – wherever there were delving wisps of green mist – tiny evergreen needles, buds and branches sprouted and squirmed. The armoire looked like an outsized jungle bush, the chair legs were sending little roots into the floor. Some furniture was overgrown with birch leaves, some with ash, and new shoots were pushing through the floor. In the knitting basket, green vines entwined all the yarn, and the television set was so bushy the concierge took a pair of shears and snipped out a square for the screen, since tonight there was another episode of “At Mrs Toadstool’s”. But when she looked out her window, she was dumbstruck: pine trees were shuffling down the street!
Tall, with light brown trunks. And moss slid along the pavement like a green blanket and bilberry bushes, and – what was that? A mushroom? A mushroom! My dears! A fat brown mushroom! The concierge snatched a knife and basket and took off after the mushroom. She caught it in the next block. But then it dawned on her – why run? – mushrooms were coming and coming down the street all by themselves, and she sat on the curb, put her basket beside her, and – the moment a mushroom appeared, she grabbed it and popped it in her basket. What a bliss! Soon, the whole street was lined with mushroom pickers, but the forest kept flooding and flowing past like a green river, and the mushroom pickers on the curb looked like fishermen on a riverbank.
Hazelnut bushes came down other streets, their branches elbowing the windows, someone too lazy to go out could pick hazelnuts out his window.
Matchsticks leapt from their matchboxes, mounted each other, inched upward until they were little aspens, since matchsticks are made of aspen wood. Pencils and penholders also assembled and turned into green alders. Skis, sleds, and hockey sticks all greened and budded, but Jānis Lūsis’ javelin grew laurel leaves. A war veteran’s peg-leg became a little spruce. In the morning, school desks were such thickets that students crawled to their seats. Taller students still had their head above the bushes, but shorter students disappeared, and when the teacher called on little Jānis, it turned out he’d gotten lost in the branches around his desk and didn’t answer – he probably hadn’t done his homework. When the teacher called a second time and he still didn’t answer, the class searched and found him among the leaves under his desk – Jānis had, as the saying goes, “lit out for the woods.” The green forest kept coming, coming along the streets, shedding pine needles and leaves in people’s hair, beard, handbags and it finally reached the downtown. The fragrant green mist sped from all corners to the centre, and then the great final battle began. The city smells wouldn’t surrender. They snapped at the tender tops of pine trees, bit into flowers, withering them. Noises shot through the lingo berries, kicking and trampling, pulling spruces by the ear, whacking mushrooms on the head. Smothering dust swept across the flowers.
But the forest kept coming, coming, with so many blossoms and leaves that noises soon were overgrown with moss. Soft and velvety at first, they still scampered about, but then they got heavier and heavier, until they fell down, green and silent as knolls in the forest. Then, the forest snorted grey city dust through its green nostrils – sneezes, coughed, and the dust was gone, the air was clean and clear again. Only smells still fought on. A swarm of them, many poisonous. Inhaling was the only way the forest could destroy them. But as soon as the pines filled their lungs with gasoline fumes, their treetops wilted. When the birch got a whiff of coal smoke, its bark turned black and everyone could see the birch had breathed its last. Still the forest’s green trees fought on, courageously, selflessly.
Wild orchids kept gulping gasoline fumes, dying by the hundreds. Wild cherry trees withered, birches wilted, poisoned rowanberries and acorns fell to the ground, but the forest has got an enormous green life, forest is unconquerable, and toward evening, a juniper bush chomped the last skunky smell in the city. The forest had won.
Then, suddenly as it had come, next night the forest was gone, leaving behind, in the city streets, gateways, and courtyards, green breath. It lived there a long time, until noises and smells reconquered it, but now people know the forest comes to the city at least once a year – a green, green forest… greener than anything else in the world, purer than anything else in the world. Sometimes, when green rains has fallen on the city and green dust floats in puddles on the street, people know it’s the pine pollen, and lost in thought they peer into puddles for a long time remembering: the green forest is on its way. Green breath, green eyebrows, green pockets full of green grasshoppers. Green hands cast pocketfuls of green grasshoppers around the post office, the station stores, the streets. Grasshoppers are hoping and chirring all over the city, and people walk gingerly, avoiding them. Even the trolley stops, the conductor gets out and sweeps a grasshopper off the tracks so it won’t get run over. Every year the green forest comes to the city and kills off the stench and reek of the city, silences the noises, destroys dust.
Remember the way the forest spilled into the city last year? When it left, I felt so sad – I wanted to go with it. It’ll come again this year. But no one knows when. I was in the forest yesterday. I listened, looked – not a sign. I asked, “Won’t you come to the city? Won’t you? “ Silence. No answer. A big green forest.
Translated by Barry Callaghan, 1987