Barbi Marković

The extinction of the mini penguins

Mit Barbi Marković

Mit humorvollem Blick auf die skurrile Tierwelt und die uns umgebende Natur lädt die Autorin Barbi Markovic ein, sich selbst im kreativen Schreiben zu üben. Zum Abschluss liest die Autorin aus ihren Texten. Barbi Marković (* 1980 in Belgrad) verfasste zahlreiche Kurzgeschichten, Theaterstücke, Hörspiele sowie zwei Romane. 2023 erhielt sie den Kunstpreis Berlin für Literatur.
→ FR 29.9.
Workshop 15:00 – 17:30
Lesung 17:30

Miki tries not to do too much harm to the flora and fauna and to be mindful of nature whenever possible so the Earth doesn’t go to pot. Not that he’s particularly selfless. What he wants is a natural environment that’s gentle and delightful, one where his own life and the lives of the next generation of Mikis don’t turn into Hell on Earth. He knows full well that the Earth would continue to exist even if we all croaked as a result of global warming and its side effects. At any rate, he now wears a watch that tells him how many creatures he has killed. Today, it’s already been two spiders – and he hasn’t even left the house yet.

In the spirit of the times ... On the website he reads about a major nationwide change that had been implemented in other countries like Sweden a few years previously. Apparently, everyone living in Austria will now be assigned a local animal species at random, with immediate effect. It’s part of a new sustainability project aimed at halting the decline of the species; everyone will be required to assume responsibility for one animal species. The letters with personal information outlining the species in question have already been sent out.

Apparently, ‘if you do not receive your letter within the first few weeks, this is probably due to the high volume of letters being sent out or the fact that you are not actually registered as resident in Austria’. And so, as the weeks go by, people gradually find out which species they have been assigned. Most of the time, their reactions are negative; after all, there are many known species in Austria that no one finds cute. Insects make up the vast majority of them.

A work colleague of Miki’s is assigned a pig – and is livid. With the letter still in his jacket pocket, he goes out to eat and has no idea what to order. An acquaintance of Mini’s has been given the ibex, an animal she only knows about from documentaries on the Alps. Such bonds are theoretical – for the time being. The lucky ones, those who get hamsters, dogs, fish, etc., immediately went out and got specimens; but it soon became questionable whether keeping animals in this way was not precisely the opposite of cross-species closeness.

“I just hope I don’t get landed with a cockroach,” says Mini. All these new measures are the subject of heated debates and there are people out demonstrating against them on a regular basis, but on the whole it seems they are warming to the idea.

Two months after the news broke, Mini got her letter. “Penguins,” she says to Miki. “That’s lucky!” “Penguins? In Austria? Since when?” asks Miki sneeringly. “At the zoo!” says Mini. She’s in no mood to argue the toss; after all, her letter does say ‘Penguins’. Miki shakes his head: it all seems a bit odd to him. However, he’s now hoping for an armadillo. To his mind, they’re the best, most likeable animals on the face of the planet, what with their little scuttling legs and all. “Tee-hee,” thinks Miki.

Mini has always loved penguins, ever since she was a child: she feels there’s something special and mysterious about them. The zoo in Belgrade mentioned them, but their water enclosure was always empty. “Most likely they’d all died,” Mini thinks. The last time she visited Belgrade Zoo, the wolves were at each other’s throats. Their cages were too confined and too close to the visitors. There were warning signs everywhere to keep your hands away from the cages as a wolf had once bitten a boy’s finger off. Mini kept turning around, only to realise that her elbow was touching a cage. A marten was trying to claw another marten’s brains out; the victim’s head was gaping open, its skull exposed, and there were bits of marten scalp scattered all over the place. Towards the end of her visit, Mini saw a boy put his whole hand through the bars to stroke a puma. “Only the toughest could survive there, and penguins are never the toughest,” thinks Mini. She later hears rumours that genetic modifications would soon be carried out on people and their assigned species in order to bring them closer together and allow them to intermingle. In fact, she’d be more than happy for her potential offspring: they’d be able to tolerate fish reasonably well and swim in cold water.

And Miki? ... He’s very well informed, partly because his letter hasn’t arrived yet. He imagines all sorts of scenarios while waiting for it: Miki wonders if he’s even in the system. Miki considers complaining. Miki secretly hopes he won’t be assigned any animal as the good ones are probably all gone by now. Miki becomes depressed. Miki calls the hotline, but is not told anything new. And then, one day, the letter is finally there in his letterbox.

Dear Recipient, A new chapter in our country’s future is beginning. As part of the Ministry’s ‘Species Diversity 2028’ sustainable action plan, you have now been assigned your species. Every person in Austria is allocated a species at random, regardless of income, origin, gender, citizenship or age. Only by these means can we be certain that our planet will be diversely populated and habitable in the future. Blah, blah, blah. You may neither refuse nor exchange the animal assigned to you. We are pleased to inform you that you are, with immediate effect, the friend and protector of the locust. We wish you much happiness with your species; for all further information visit Your Federal Ministry for the Environment and the Future.

Miki is not best pleased. He feels it’s not going to be easy to establish a genuine relationship with an insect and, what’s more, the website does not offer any real advice. In any case, the measures do seem to kick in immediately as Miki takes a keen interest in locusts. He watches lots of nature documentaries. He reads books. He really starts to get into it and becomes a signed-up member of the Locusts Association. In a big compendium on native orthoptera, there’s even a photo of him crawling around on his bare knees in a wild meadow, trying to get a closer look at his species while a disgruntled alpine cow considers whether or not to defend her turf. Miki also appears in the group photo, surrounded by people in blue and red hi-vis vests holding a framed photo of a locust from a biology class up to the camera. So you could say Miki had managed to find a means of relating to his species.

Until he gets bitten – at a locust hotspot, towards the end of a field trip to the Iseltal valley. By then Miki was already well aware that certain species of locust are capable of perforating human skin, so he is respectful and never picks any of them up. Unfortunately, as he was propping himself up in the grass, he accidentally placed his index finger right onto a locust. It struck, causing Miki to yelp: ‘YIKES!’ The injury is not serious, but it has affected the mood and both parties are now wary of each other.

‘They have no idea we’re friends,’ Miki thinks to himself as he gets into his car, his index still throbbing. All he wants to do now is drive home. He attributes his trembling legs to the shock of the bite. He switches the radio on and drives off. Being behind the wheel immediately relaxes him. ‘I just love singing my head off in the car,’ he thinks to himself. Miki loves driving. It has become a rare treat. The sun is shining, but every few miles an insect strikes the windscreen, most of them dying in the process. Splat! Yet his watch counter fails to register the decimation. As he reaches the motorway slip road, he accelerates and finds himself driving through one of those insect clouds that have now become so rare, increasing the insect mortality rate: splat! splat! splat! Only the locusts are able to hop onto the windscreen effortlessly and hunker down. They’re not dead; on the contrary, they sit there staring at Miki. He already has a guilty conscience. ‘What should I do now?’ he thinks to himself. ‘There’s no way I can cause less havoc.’ Miki finds the state of the world as a whole terribly complicated and has no solution for any of it. The locusts glare at him accusingly. Then Miki’s heart rate begins to quicken and his breathing becomes shallow. He knows what’s coming: it’s not the first time this has happened. Overcome with a sense of claustrophobia, he starts burping heavily. Each burp brings momentary relief, but overall he is starting to lose control and has trouble focusing on driving. To avoid causing an accident, he clenches his teeth with sheer determination and, heroically, motors on to the next exit; yet the instant he pulls into a parking space, he feels horribly nauseous and his consciousness starts drifting away ...

Now unconscious, Miki views the world from an odd perspective. Centuries rush by at speed. He sees vast areas of the Earth drying out and turning into deserts. He watches on as people divide into groups according to animal species and drop bombs on one another. The sea inches ever closer, engulfing towns and cities. The heat becomes unbearable, but the earthlings have learnt a few tricks, too. The plastic content of fish begins to subside. Miki and Mini are long dead, but similar people emerge; let’s call them Mini and Miki. Winters are no longer cold; the snow disappears completely; and with it, all the species that needed the snow to survive. The mini penguins created through genetic adaptation are to be found in the databases of extinct hybrid species. Only those that can deal with the heat survive. Then come the tough days, along with a Miki plague. There is hardly anything to eat. The population density drops even further. At last, cars disappear altogether. New ways are adopted. A completely different world comes into being.

Onward … The unconscious Miki sees a meadow stretching out between several bare mountains. Bushes grow there at irregular intervals. High up on a bush, the leaves are grouped together differently, forming a solid surface that resembles a platform. On its surface a creature presents itself with the head of a normal Miki (with long antennae on its forehead) and the body of a speckled bush-cricket. Like a centaur, except that it consists of a Miki and a cricket. It’s a Miki-cricket. It begins to chirp very softly, its shortened wings and long antennae moving in different directions. More Miki-crickets begin to crawl out of the bush and gather beneath the platform. We now have a scene where the first Miki-cricket high above is moving its antennae about artfully while the others watch him spellbound from below. He chirps now and again. The assembled creatures rub their front legs together and spit something yellow out onto the grass. The Miki heads of the Miki-crickets quiver at the end of every chirp, as if giggling.

But now, back in the service station car park, Miki’s consciousness begins to stir again. His body comes back together again bit by bit. At first Miki feels light-headed and then, almost immediately, weak and miserable like any person who has just found themselves at the boundary between living and not living. After this vision, he is even less clear as to what to make of it all.

‘No idea,’ says Miki to himself – and to you, too. Yes, to you! Because in this particularly sensitive state of mind, he can sense that you are waiting for the moral of the story. You are sucking his unshielded soul out of him with your expectations. Yet, right now, all he wants is to be alone. * 1980 in Belgrade, lives and works in Vienna.

© Barbi Marković: Minihorror, Residenz Verlag 2023

In this short story, Barbi Marković tells of Mini and Miki, who try "not to harm the flora and fauna too much and to accommodate nature as much as possible so that the earth doesn't get broken." In the process, the two take responsibility for a locally living species and try to build a relationship that brings thoroughly weird visions to light.

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