THE BIRDCAGE (A Study) by Joe Bedford

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(A Study)


Joe Bedford

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 A new study in an obscure Hebrew biological journal (Do they exist? Of course, on university shelves, largely unread): ‘The Phenomenon of Prolonged Habitation of the Birdcage on the Streets of Tel Aviv – A World Record: How, Why?’ Not known for catchy titles, nor themes, and yet it is only the matter of another language; the question remains… Haaretz, Jerusalem Post, even the Observer got a whiff of it (couched it in pseudo-political rhetoricals): how did it fit in so well? Why did it survive so long, this horror-horror secret history of the modern metropolis? The podium went first to the leaders, as you’d expect, though it more comfortably supported the skinny suits of international architects constructing celebrity around themselves. Imported Le Corbursieratti betook a certain kind of Elvish (that is, akin to the King) swagger, but spoke too many words of the Rococo-Deco-Bauhaus lexicon to be understood. The journal did better; the New Journal of the Natural Sciences (Israel) Autumn 20__ [ed. (Dr. Chaim M_____), a pseudonym] drew more readers than any previous edition. Dr. M., a brutally thorough man, is already preparing the follow-up:

…and what else is the purpose of science but to edify and illuminate according to the public   need…? [Dr. Chaim M____, unpublished]

But nobody will read it. Interest in the Birdcage controversy has already shifted focus; biology gives way to other, less dreary hermeneutics. What does it mean to be inaugurating such a nightclub into the history of Tel Aviv? What business lessons (life lessons for the non-professional) can be drawn from the Birdcage’s success? Does the Birdcage bring our region any closer to peace? This gory journalistic butchery can be found in any library in the city, and Dr. M. is furious. His wife translates his sentiments to her friends: ‘But he asked all those questions himself. They’re all so caught up with the “what does it mean?” that they’ve forgot to find out “what it is”. All the same, all the same…’ But she knows as well as her husband that nobody knew what it was; they’d been too paralyzed by the general confusion to find out in time. The NJNS (Israel) contributors had dusted for prints, essentially; the editor’s theories are as theoretical as anyone else’s.

There is a new filing cabinet in Dr. M.’s office; he has just started compiling psychiatric session notes from those affected by the incident. None of his business, but a bent psychoanalyst (a chaser of monies) has already nudged him in a lucrative direction. Ill-placed staples chomp into tell-tale sentences: ‘It wasn’t like him not to get mixed up in anything untoward…’ [Subject C, p.59], ‘…the devastation, knowing how many mothers and fathers are also…’ [Subject M, p.210], ‘…hard to believe in G-d, knowing the universe is such a cruel place.’ [Subject X, p.400]. ‘But this can teach me more about the nature of the beast than any soil sample!’: a quote of M.’s own, appealing to his financers for just a little more time. Ungrantable; it is rumoured that the good doctors work continues alone in his small, sea-view apartment.

A student in a white lab coat had drawn up the timeline for the benefit of a potential ascientific online readership, happily achieved, written base-to-belfry (i.e. in reverse order), forming little towers of Aleph-Bet against the lower margin. The names and dates have been removed:

Ground level investigations cease.

Numerous reports do not reach publication stage.

Investigation begins on the site of the missing structure.

The Birdcage is last photographed by Thiemo K_____, in the early hours of the morning.

Missing Person reports amass on Mishteret Yisrael (note: police) databases.

The Birdcage enters Time Out (Israel)’s list of Things to Do in TLV.

Several large nightclubs close in quick succession.

The Birdcage opens on Rehov G______, Tel Aviv. [Undated]

Mayor H____ decrees that nightclubs can no longer operate in residential areas.

[NJNS (Israel), Autumn 20__, p.21]

‘Structure’: our student friend had used the word in a sense nearer to the molecular than the architectural – a cheeky young man. It had to be a structure of some kind, sharing the intellectual qualities of a labyrinth, the mysterious motive of a ziggurat, the persuasion of a church, a skyscraper’s conquest of its surroundings. The Le Corbusieratti babbled in such a way, spittling over Dictaphones they spoke. The moralists (religious, political, etc.) tripped over similar abstractions at press-conference pulpits: wa-wu-ha-nur-wa – ineloquent sounds with question marks attached. The fact was simple, though they tried to squeeze as much blood as they could from it: the Birdcage could not be interpreted theologically, could not be read under the rose tint of globalisation theory, neo-Marxism or any other Grand Narratorial shade. Why? Of course, why? Because, it was, is, always will be, a nightclub.  What everyone forgets about the Birdcage, regardless of the number of good men the nation lost to it (‘good’: another point of contention…), this structure was not the al-Humbra but the Hacienda, not the Ministry of Defence but the Ministry of Sound. A difficult point; that much is understood by all. Most nightclubs are marked by a grand opening, fliered, noticed as the doors are first unlocked. Not the Birdcage. By the time it reached the desk of Lonely Planet, a disaster report had already landed in the Prime Minister’s lap (a little known story: he spilt an entire bowl of cereal onto his favourite pyjamas the morning that he heard a Tel Aviv nightclub was responsible for the disappearance of twenty-six Jews, seven Arabs and an entire squadron of the Mishteret Yisrael). Other disciplines have taken the Birdcage’s nightclub nature more seriously: Shula G., publisher of Woman, All Too Woman [19__], a phallosceptic columnist with the ability to make people of all genders curdle internally, disguised nothing:

I suppose you’ve heard the rumours that the place was secreting some sort of mind control hormone that the victims were ingesting via the atmosphere, or whatever? Chauvinist nonsense, I assure you. Well, isn’t it obvious? The feminine-destructive aspect, that Shiva element, when successful, has to be accompanied by some kind of contagion, some secret trickery that is the only way the female can overcome the male. Despite the fact that the men who walked into the Birdcage were probably following the same drive that leads men into every stupid misadventure they find themselves in. I swear, a map of the world would look very different indeed if men hadn’t been so dragged-along by their… well, you know…

[Shula G., interview conducted with a hidden microphone]

Our New Journal of the Natural Sciences (Israel) had, of course, jumped on these rumours. In the wake of the ‘structure’s’ current complete lack of existence, no samples have been available.

And what of the disappearances? Why not call them deaths, since curiosity must have overtaken just about everybody by now? The psychiatry-cabinet reveals nothing, except for how inarticulate the bereaved can be and what a modal expression of the victims might look like: ‘male, unmarried (though not necessarily), early twenties, a moderate drinker, sexually-active, image-conscious, spontaneous’. Only the last word had attracted Dr. M.’s attention; it was the only characteristic that separated the punters of the Birdcage from any other place. Many of the men had walked in on their way to somewhere else. Their decision, if it can be called that, was made last-minute… Too much for most, and certainly too much in the context of new information: Tel Aviv had not been the Birdcage’s first victim. That modal expression, that spontaneous nightclubber, was making a Rapture-esque exodus from the Mediterranean: three-hundred from Malaga, a hundred from Kamarina, over a thousand from each of the Greek islands, fifty from Cyprus, and finally, a double-dozen from Tel Aviv itself. La Juala, La Gabbia per Uccelli, the κλουβί, כלוב ציפורים: a library of untranslated police reports, a trail of scrambled academics all across the Sea. A problem for Interpol, then? Possibly, but then again, it was, after all, a nightclub. A description follows, transcribed on the southern Spanish coast several years ago:

Ay, Santa Maria! The women would draw them in – the men, by the flock! The men went in – they went in, but they never came out! But, they never came out!

[La Guardia, 20__, pp.21-22.]

A peasant may have said this, and in fact did, while soaked in tequila and half-insane from the midday sun, but a lack of interest is impossible. These ‘women’, if women at all, did not grab Dr. M. with the same adhesive quality as the possible chemical clues of the scene. The sticky residue apparently cleared from 20 Rehov G______, after the Birdcage had scuttled on, affirmed as much: something material had prevented its victims from leaving. But had anyone managed to escape? Had anyone been inside the Birdcage, and re-emerged? Of course, there was one.

It was the night before ‘The Phenomenon of Prolonged Habitation of the Birdcage on the Streets of Tel Aviv – A World Record: How, Why?’ went to press that Dr. M. found him. No wonder his report never made it to the papers; he was half-blind, an alcoholic car park attendant, and, fatally, an Arab. Dr. M. had conducted the interview inside his own parked car, which the witness combed for recording equipment. Apparently convinced that MOSSAD were watching him (which evidence suggests they were, and most likely still are…) but inexplicably confiding in the doctor, his description of the Birdcage was an illumination, and a testament to clinical insanity. It was the night of the raid:

I was selling drugs at the front of the club. Inside, just inside, where the smell was strongest. Smelt like pussy, sweeter though. I stood by the cloakroom. I didn’t want to go any further inside, but I had to. I had to follow this woman – this unbelievable woman… It was dark, too dark to really see anything. Fuck. There was a noise, a kind of noise. It was louder than the music, I think. A hissing sound. The girl turned a corner and I followed her. Then it was completely black – I couldn’t see anything. I fell down, slipped. The floor was all sticky. I rolled down a bit further and my shoe fell off. Fuck, I was out of my depth. I could hear people crying and screaming – it sounded like I’d fallen into one big room. And the smell! The smell was like burnt hair, rotten eggs or something… I tried to go back. I couldn’t. Then they came in…

[Dr. M.’s question, disturbed by the rush of traffic, can be surmised.]

The police. They ran in with flashlights – ran straight past me into the pit. It was a pit – the flashlights lit it up and I could see everything. It was huge, a big cave with a pool of hissing liquid in the middle. I was hanging onto one wall when the police ran past me, slipped over and fell straight into the pit. Fuck, their lights were going all over the place. They started screaming. Gas was coming out of them. Sores were coming up on their skin. They were burning in it. I could see their uniforms being digested and there were all bodies in the water. Their faces just…

. All the lights went out.

[Unnamed interviewee, secret recording.]

It rewrote Dr. M.’s article on his behalf. Criminal allusions disappeared; politics crumbled. So it’s true: the phenomenon is… carnivorous? No? At the very least, organic. This may have been useful several weeks ago, when the structure still nested there on a lonely street in Tel Aviv, but no longer. The mayor could not have known that his ban on nightclubs in the residential areas would not just move the smell of drug abuse out from under the noses of the community-families, but would move a species desperate for documentation outside the window of capture. A final photograph, taken by Thiemo K_____, a foreigner, shows the building empty, surrounded by police tape, with the light of one solitary top-corner window providing an eye onto the street. The photographer’s girlfriend stands in front of it (she had an affinity for cages): her short dress reminds us of the kind of ‘woman-entity’ the Birdcage used to lure in its victims. An invaluable artefact, considering the truth: by the next day, the Birdcage was gone.

From this point, history falls into the hands of the conspiracists. There was a fire on-site; this is the prevailing rumour, sprawled over chatrooms, fed by the bedside ruminations of bored Americans too teenage to qualify as adults. Indeed, the sky over Tel Aviv that day had been unseasonably black; Dr. M. and others had noted it in shorthand. Details of Arab superweapons (evaporation rays, etc.) found their way onto bathroom tiles in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Closer to home, prayers concerning the involvement of Zionist-extremist loved ones have been unscrupulously removed from the Western Wall. Links are compounded with Dimona, with the Ayatollah, with the travel plans of Netanyahu himself. It is an easy task, but one that makes Dr. M.’s that much harder. He is sat there somewhere now, scrolling from equation to data-sample to anti-Semite diatribe, paranoid enough not to jot down anything too conclusive. His editorial will not be published, so he thinks; he is probably correct. Anyone as truly interested as he is should not be trusted, ‘edification and illumination’ aside. It may instead tug at the back corners of his intellect for the rest of his life. Any attempt at species/genus-classification would be dangerous, even deadly. Obscurity and ambiguity will put an end to it all. Better to publish on the flight patterns of migratory birds than on an urban parasite which might lure you in the guise of a nightclub full of women, and drag you inside with loud music and pussy-scent, and devour you in its digestive juices… Here must end the paper trail, for the good doctor and everyone besides.

Still, a final thought lingers, unwaftable. It has been thought before; references would extend into infinite algorithms of page numbers. When something disappears, the responsibility for monitoring it falls to those who have already disappeared. Who better to investigate the nature of something secret than the secret men themselves? No reports will be left on bus stop benches by careless MOSSAD agents. The CIA will not be releasing a press statement. One can speculate that the Birdcage has moved out of Israel, perhaps continued its migration east, though it may struggle in its current camouflage. It can be left to the words of Dr. M., straying an uneasy distance from the biological disciplines, to conclude:

Why a creature (we finalise: insectivorous) such as the Birdcage found Tel Aviv such an accommodating environment is up for speculation. The academics provide us some clues… Architecturally, where would she find a better place to hide than amongst the hodge-podge of postwar conversions, continental chic, dated Americana, etc.? In terms of social geography, where else in the region provides the freedom her food source requires, that is, to pursue and fulfil their hetero-carnal desires? Could such a sustainable environment be found in Gaza or the West Bank, for example? The key question of course is this: how long might she have inhabited our city if it hadn’t been for the accidental legislation of Mayor H.? G-d only knows. Only one thing is certain. Vigilance cannot be undervalued.

[Dr. Chaim M., a letter to friends, p.4]

The city remains intact except for its departed few. No doubt they will be memorialised; perhaps not physically, but at the very least in obscure papers and handwritten notes. The Birdcage however may continue to scuttle, into cities and resorts oblivious as to their place in the chain of history. The New Journal of the Natural Sciences (Israel) will continue to publish on migratory birds and unusual reproductory mechanisms. Tel Aviv will continue to prosper; more nightclubs will be built, booming and busting with equal frequency under the thump of trance music and stamping feet. And the young men of all nations will continue to stumble, stomach acid-ward or otherwise, into disasters of the phallus and mind. Such is the world, alarming as it is.

nerd glasses with tape

Joe Bedford is a writer living in Brighton, UK. He is currently working on a short story cycle focusing on the diverse emotional landscapes of Israel and Palestine, and putting the finishing touches to his novel ‘Foie Gras’. Since completing his BA in English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University, he continues to draw influence from the masters of wordplay and imagination: Borges, Nabokov, Pynchon and others. He currently works as a Library Assistant in East Sussex, chipping away at the idea of a literary life and writing whenever possible.

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