The novel “The Romantic” 2022
This is a life story of a man, his great passion for speed, desires for love and a way to forgiveness. Symbolically, this is a psychological journey of Odyssey back to himself.
The sport for Haralds becomes not only a freedom but also a kind of a shelter, where he escapes from mistakes of life, hides from childhood traumatic experience and where he can forget about hardships in relationships; this is the area where he feels himself at ease. But one day the competition is over.
Set in Latvia between 1938 and 1993, the novel follows the fortunes of a series of characters and the ways their lives are both impacted by the occupation of their country, first by the Germans and then by the USSR, and also affected by the winds of change with Latvia’s National Awakening. Despite the author drawing inspiration from the life of her father, a passionate racing driver, technical diaries of the period in question and other historical facts, the novel remains a work of fiction.
Translated by Žanete Vēvere Pasqualini
Katrīna struggles to hide her delight at having me at home for the umpteenth evening. She almost jumps as, book in hand, she spots me lingering on the balcony among the boxes of frost-bitten begonias and piles of aluminium buckets. I just don’t remember ever reading that book.
Katrīna understands that it has been a tough decision for me to make and has been readying herself for this moment for some time. However, at this point I’m not sure if her complete directness is the most endearing aspect of her character. In the evening, as she cuts up a chicken roasted on a glass, water-filled bottle, she announces that she is experiencing an odd sense of normality, as though she were talking about some long-awaited liberation.
‘What is normality? What does normality mean?’ I ask, picking a fight in a tone of wounded peacock, irritating myself as I do so. She quickly changes subject and tactic; dashing off to coo over my last medal with almost theatrical ardour, as if she were clucking over a rag doll held out to her by a child. Just what I want! Do I really seem that needy? Hanging the medal back with the other discs of metal, Katrīna suggests wiping off my dusty Odyssey testimonials and sorting them out by degrees of achievement – diplomas, cups, pennants and medals. Do we really have nothing better to do? This fussing about scares me. It’s as if she wants to package up my past along with all its accoutrements into a box, tie it up with string and bury it away behind the glass door of the wall unit. My knees are actually shaking as she, finger to lip in a reflective pose, wonders where to stash away my last prize – a box of crystal glasses. The wall units and kitchen cupboards are already full; it takes some effort to get the door to stay shut. I suggest taking the box to a thrift store. I wish she would just shut up. Her clumsy pretence is making me sick.
Wiping a knife on a tea towel, Katrina accidentally cuts her finger. Running her bleeding finger under the tap, she then puts it in her mouth and disappears to the bathroom. I stare at my overalls lying on the floor by the bathroom door like a dry floor cloth. The thin, blue-grey cotton sack, at places showing signs of wear from my bruised elbows, knees and ribs. My wiry flesh. I never made it to a padded suit. This time, Katrīna hasn’t hurried to soak my second skin in the sink. I stare at the plaster on the wall. Water gushes forcefully in the shower; this is how Katrīna de-stresses. I acknowledge to myself that she is doing her best. But why is she making such a meal of it? I used to like the way she chatters on, not always waiting for my reply, but now it is totally out of place. My throat is dry, I feel as though I’m gasping for air. From the kitchen radio, I hear President Ulmanis saying that the Russian troops will soon be leaving Latvia. Good riddance! I turn from the bathroom door towards the balcony and back again, like a wheel coming off its axis. Finally, I sit on a stool and stare at the cement wall of the building across the street.
At my age I should know that falling in love is a sort of mishap. Seven years ago when we started meeting up, I experienced that elated sense of accord, sunk in a rose-tinted fog where all alertness dissolves and both parties strip down to such an extent that their souls are reversed. Inspired by this upheaval, appearing rather later in life, I had confided in Katrīna that the only thing that really frightened me was the prospect of having to drop my speed down to zero. She replied that the only thing she feared was death. Back then, I thought she understood me. In the early days, she used to come with me to racing, serving me coffee before and afterwards from a thermos flask, hotly debating the racing results with the lads on the buggy team, greasers and racing fans, waiting patiently for the day to finish and to then head for home after dark. She never complained about the cold rain, even when both our teeth chattered so loudly we could barely talk. She shared my pain when there were problems with the buggy’s engine and my shame when I dropped out of a race. She smeared my bloody, bandaged fingers with zinc cream when, changing gears at the speed of a sewing machine, the knob came off the top of the gear stick and I had to drive with a bare shaft. At those time, my thin gloves would disintegrated entirely, leaving no more protection on my hands than a thin shred of cobwebs. She almost fulfilled the dreams I had long cherished; namely as someone by my side who miraculously refrains from talking when all comments are pointless.
And yet, Katrīna’s bowing out didn’t come as a complete surprise to me, coming as it did after one of the cruellest battles that I myself had initiated. In 1987, during the “Staicele Paper Factory Cup” race, my seat belt blocked and I couldn’t reach the start button. When, cursing, I finally managed to press it, all the other metal crickets, roaring and bumping into each other, had torn past me and I was left in a cloud of dirt, my goggles thick with dust. Half blinded, I tore down the mountainside behind them until I came across all the other cars loitering together as if on a dance floor around an enormous muddy slick of water. Only one path was open to me, and I took it. I headed straight ahead, landing dead in the middle of the wet patch. As was usual with me, where others put on the brakes, I went full speed ahead. Everyone knew and accepted that was my way; with my impoverished status, my only chance of success was a chance exploited to the full. Shouting my apologies for smothering my mates with mud, I roared past a whole gang of them. Soaked to the skin and as filthy as if I had rolled in a mud bath, I chased after the front-runners and managed to catch them up, even slamming into one of them, but then he was twitching about like an old dear!
At the finish line, my greaser Boris threw me up into the air, kissing me on both cheeks in the Slavic style, before the second start we sulked! For one thing, the suspension was shot to bits and there was nothing to pump the fuel into the car with. We went round asking all the other drivers but no one had a spare gas cylinder to lend us. Clearly, none of them felt like helping out the leader of the race. Boris looked a bit down, wiping my muddy goggles off on his shirt. He had spent all night with me on various occasions in that cold garage. All the other lads had ducked their heads down into the collars of their jackets, all ruffled up like sparrows. ‘This is insane, insane, insane!’ my inner woodpecker chanted. I shrugged, choking the woodpecker’s beak, and jumped inside the crooked buggy which, without any suspension, was no more than a wooden cart. Sucking in my teeth, pulling my spine up with imaginary strings, I drunkenly prayed to the chassis of my buggy: ‘One more time, for me, honey! Start! Foot to the floor!
The cascade of blows pummelling at my spine made fireworks explode before my eyes and every so often I had to push my helmet back as, with all the pounding, it kept sliding down over my eyes. At a certain point I noticed the famous buggy master, Tions, amongst the spectators. He was shaking his fist at me, twisting his finger at his temple, telling me to stop acting like a fool and finally stop. Yes, yes, but how could I? Only the Estonian was ahead of me and, in his lighter weight vehicle, he managed to drive a straighter course, swerving far less on the bends, whereas I was being thrown all other the place. My trusty stead and I were twisting this way and that. My hands were stiff on the wheel, the muscles as hard as cement with the strain. As God is my witness, I couldn’t distinguish the cracking of the buggy’s chassis from that of my own bones. Just as we were driving neck-a-neck, he slammed into me with such force that my foot couldn’t keep on the pedal to change gear and I did the rest of the track in third. I didn’t overtake him but, in the final score, I came out first.
Just as I was feeling, with stiff fingers, for my goggles that I had dropped at the finish line, Katrīna came over to me.
‘You are a fool, Haralds!’ she hissed. She had turned into an icicle, her trembling fingers fiddling with the green satin scarf similar to one Raisa Gorbatchev had. While the boys were congratulating me, she wandered away to cadge a fag from a competitor. Despite the revelation that Katrīna was secretly smoking, together with her harshly served Essentuki mineral water that I gulped down, a mixture of joy and sadness bubbled calmly within me. So there I was, fidgeting on the pedestal with the numerous cups and diplomas in my still vibrating hands, my back bruised, my tail bone smashed, my heart still pounding like a drum. Finally she saw me in all my glory.
At home, Katrīna’s TV was on all day long, showing pictures but with no volume. In the morning she prepared a hearty breakfast without saying anything that might ruin my appetite. Staring at my crooked demeanour, she didn’t so much as squeak, saying that she didn’t know of any doctors capable of welding a backbone back together like tubes in a buggy chassis. Her face wore an expression I had seen before; that of someone who has realised they fell in love with a different person. It could be concluded that now we had really grown close.
From that moment on she stopped asking questions. She stopped complaining about our limited finances but made excuses, saying she had other things to do whenever I was racing in a competition. Before my next race, she stitched an image of St. Laurence inside my overalls and secretly got a priest round to splash my metal horse with holy water. I surprised the black-robed priest during his ministrations and almost chocked on my salami sandwich. Thinking that the lads were playing a joke on me, I roared with laughter, enquiring which devil I should drink to after such a good joke. In reply I got a holy splash in the face and the iciest look ever from Katrīna. And so, I found myself with the most wonderful woman in the world in many respects but, out on the track, I was on my own again.
Smiling, Katrīna emerged from the bathroom, wrapped in a cloud of apple-scented soap and spotted towelling bathrobe. Cheerfully, she asked if I fancied a cup of tea with a drop of cognac. It didn’t take her long to destress.
Going by in a flash to the kitchen, she excitedly lists the jobs we should do; cut the last of the season’s asters, pick off all the snails – the damned pests! Just think, they have no teeth but all they leave in their wake is a slimy thread and a hole. Katrīna pretends not to notice the look I give her as she flits about like a buzzing bee. It strikes me how often she mentions the garden shed that we will now have time to finish, complete our autumn gardening chores and finally make that long-awaited trip to the Latgalian lakes. It will be too late in the season to swim but the scenery will be stunning. And we should do it before I become a grandfather as my daughter will certainly need our help.
Oh wow! The fact that my daughter was expecting had somehow slipped my mind. It was like some scientific achievement report – I was to have a grandchild. Amazing, isn’t it? No need for old wives’ methods nowadays – if the needle and thread swings straight like a pendulum, it’s a boy, if it goes in circles, it’s a girl. Nodding, I have a mouthful of cognac. I don’t get tipsy. Still talking in the same tone as the radio, Katrīna clears away the dishes and then switches the radio off. She falls silent and turns on the bedside lamp. I shuffle to the bathroom, brush my teeth, wipe the splashes of toothpaste from the mirror, then get into bed, plumping up my pillows and wrapping myself in the blanket. She kisses me on the cheek and takes her sleeping pills, asking me if I want one. I don’t. Katrīna switches off the bedside lamp. It is not until the darkness has thickened around us that she asks me how I feel.
The last of the mint from the garden, cut by Katrīna, wilts tiredly on top of a newspaper on the bedside unit. Further off, my black, faux leather slippers are discarded on the floor. A moth beats its wings ceaselessly against the window pane.
My answer calms her. We are so well attuned to each other that we no longer pay attention to intonation. I lay there with my eyes open, as heavy as clay soil after rain. Staring at the black emptiness of the ceiling, I draw a pattern of light: finita la commedia.
Translated by Laura Vaļģe
Excerpt from collection of short stories “We`ll See” 2018
For “grandmother”, wherever she might be
Lately I’ve been seeing the same dream: I’m standing naked in a big, enamelled bowl where grandmother usually washes laundry. With a battered tin can she pours fresh milk on my head. Sheer streams run through my hair and pass my shoulders. It’s warm and peaceful.
Perhaps in my childhood someone subconsciously poisoned me with darkness, like people do with fear of witches and bad uncles, who will take you away if you don’t eat porridge. After receiving a name, it stayed close to me. Maybe we had met before already. However, I can’t remember myself in my mother’s stomach, neither my past life. The word “Cosmos” I read for the first time on a pack of cigarettes when I was learning to read. If someone told me that I had to remember, maybe I would, but no one did. Similarly like my parents who were never told that they have a soul when they were little. Back then many people died and disappeared, and they lived long without one. Later they didn’t deny the probability of having one, but in times of distress held to the same opinion, that it is the heart that is hurting, not the soul, and drank heart medication or vodka, preferably, in good company. They weren’t drunks. Moreover – they had a stable job. About the fundamental importance and meaning of working they were lectured as soon as they started walking. Even if a certain, not understandable gloom and worry took over, that was treated with work and communal energy. I have suspicions that they also cried, but did so in secret – in the pillow, in the dark. In the morning they quietly ate rye bread with butter and rushed to work with renewed energy and thicker skin. With times changing, it turned out that they were also people with past, perhaps, childhood traumas. Someone told them so, they thought about it and agreed, that technically it could be so. Compared their traumas with the others and left them be, what else could be done about it. Life had been lived, memory had faded, and the children had grown.
My first meeting with darkness happened when I was three or four in our Little Port of Calmness. The little room in the old house, where we lived my first childhood years, mother named Little Port of Calmness. The eight square-meter room fit a bed, a small bookshelf, a closet, a wood stove and my parents’ sofa. When it was pulled out for sleeping, between the beds two people couldn’t fit. Nevertheless, after climbing on top of a teddy bear, from my bed I tried to reach the bookshelf and fell and hit my head on the corner of the sofa.
Why I tried to do it, I can’t tell, because I couldn’t even read.
My head had hit the bed before already when I wasn’t even a year old. Having choked on a lump of snot, I started to suffocate, a blue shade appeared around my mouth and there was no time to call a doctor. Faintingly my mother started to shake me by my legs, but the space was narrow – my forehead went straight against the bed slats. But it worked, the lump fell out and I started breathing again.
The next time I hit my head was when I tried to find out if the wooden horse can move in gallops, and in the empty slip between the closet and the pot furnace, the back of my head splashed a red blot on the wall. I heard my mother wailing and running to the kitchen after zelyonka . She sounded shocked and disappointed at the same time. “She can’t even be let out on the street!” she said in a gasped yell. In her voice I heard an undertone – a fearful note I later figured only mothers have. But that was later. It weakly vibrated when, spitting over her left shoulder, she jokingly recalled these incidents to her friends. I’m sure I heard it later too.
At the beginning the darkness existed behind our overgrown garden, on the other side of the road, in a dreamy little house – a two story wooden building with a small, pointed tower. The windows were always firmly covered with white and blue striped curtains – not a peek through. The roots of my hair always nagged when I heard the shuddering screams and scary wails coming from there. My heart was jumping in my throat from the thought of there being a terrible beast, which definitely lived there and did scary things to people – tortured, sliced, tore them to pieces and then ate them. It had to be hairy, big and evil with long, black nails, a distorted face and dreadful eyes. Whoever looked in them froze on the spot and never got away. I’ve met with it in my dream. I never looked at it, just felt it – a big, heavy, hairy, grumbling darkness. When it neared me, I shut my eyes and tried to get away, but I couldn’t run, my legs got caught up and I felt how the beast was slowly getting me, tangling me with its long limbs that were drenched with cellar humidity. I heard its wheezing breath by my face and smelled the metallic taste of blood. When I tried to scream for help, my voice disappeared and at that moment, when the dark freak tried to eat me, I woke up as always. Even on days it didn’t leave me alone. For hours I lingered by the fence, trying to see inside. A hellish mass was weighing in my chest, and I almost collapsed from horror, but at the same time I was tormented by a craving I couldn’t defeat to see the beast that lived inside. It had a mysterious power which pulled me closer and destroyed my will, making me do what I didn’t want to. Sometimes I even sneaked out on the street to be completely close. Every time I heard the beast’s dragging feet nearing the door, my spine tensed up, limbs shook like a rag dolls, breath caught up, I put my hand over my mouth to stop a scream from escaping, almost vomited from the pressure on my neck and at that moment, when the door handle turned, I yelled: “Churiki, churiki ! I’m invisible!” and bolted. Every time the beast’s scorching breath burned my back, I bent forward because its sharp nails already touched my scalp. Only then, when I got back in my room and closed the door behind me, I could breathe again. At the door it always retreated. Over and over again.
I don’t remember if it was my neighbour or my father’s friend who told me that in that house spanking and the first scolding received their son or daughter. What concerned me the most was the way it was phrased, as if he grumbled about the store running out of white bread. An indifference took hold of me. Before that, there was something else – maybe anger or longing. More like emptiness. If I knew that, maybe I would say that back then I experienced the first grief. Perhaps it could be so, but no one could explain that to me. I wouldn’t even think of asking anyone – no one grieves after darkness.
When my father received a two-room apartment in a multiple story building in a factory worker district for a blat , my mother sat down at the kitchen table, disdainfully looked at the worn, waxed fabric we had with swans and relievedly said that we’d finally get rid of that nightmare. Walking to the window and looking at the unkept garden, she quietly said: “You cannot imagine what a blessing it is to have your own toilet!” I wanted to ask what nightmare we had to get rid of exactly, because I couldn’t imagine anything more beautiful than our Little Port of Calmness, but, after glancing at my father, I stalled. He looked as if he really didn’t know what it was like to have your own toilet – don’t know if he had one in the orphanage. Mother mentioned that parents had one before they were sent off in 1941 to grow welfare in the wide Russian lands – there, where many educated buds were, – but this house, where we had our little room, was divided into five apartments with a shared kitchen and restroom.
When we moved to the sunny two-room apartment on the ninth floor, where my father screwed on shelves, the same our neighbours had, and my mother scraped paint off the windows with a blade and pegged on folded curtain edges to different walls, I could grow up on the street until dinner.
I was spelled from the first moment I laid my eyes upon the gigantic vehicle, which rhythmically set foundations in a new stroyka with an iron fist, so opposite our building would be a new apartment block. Behind that was another stroyka, further – another one. When workers finished their job, construction grounds attracted the neighbourhood kids as if they were filled with all the unobtained chocolate. Secretly we conquered them and made them our gigantic sandboxes. Stroykas were fenced off with a crooked wooden barrier, where a few loose boards served as an entry into our parallel world’s labyrinth. We had to beware the druzhiniki , who looked after that no one stole the government’s property. When I tried to find out if tar burns and already opened a match box taken from home without consent, a chunky woman with a red rag around her upper arm firmly grabbed me by my braid and, threatening me with the children’s room , dragged me home half-alive to my parents to shame me. My house arrest aligned with the time my parents stopped being delighted not only with the toilet, but also with each other, and their conversations about our prosperity only went on in past-tense.
When my father left, my mother started smoking and dyed her hair a new colour. Even her voice-tone became sharper. Frantically she started working two jobs so that we had everything we needed. Back then, I spent a long time in water pipe trenches. There we carried away relatively freely, arranged headquarters, peeled off lipuchkas and glass cotton from the pipes – especially the glass cotton, because touching it was absolutely forbidden. We exchanged wrappers from different chewing gums, sent by relatives in foreign countries, and played wars. In the evenings our mothers unpassionately cursed us out of the grounds and scolded us for the dirty clothes, because workers, dogs and drunks relieved themselves there. No warnings, no pleadings worked. After kindergarten again we returned to the pits like obsessed.
One evening, after crawling around tar-covered pipes, my friend Sanita crushed her finger between a fixture pole and a wobbly cement block. Never had I seen so much blood. My friend’s face turned from milky white to blue. Completely limp, she stared at me with rigid eyes and said: “Am I going to die now?” At that moment my legs also turned weak, and I had no idea how much blood one had to lose for them to go to the afterlife. In the movies, when the bad guy got shot, there was always a small hole and approximately the same amount of red like on Sanita’s finger. Both of us staggered to her apartment’s door, pale and shaking. I pushed my friend inside and ran. “Churiki, churiki, I’m invisible!” I sobbed and wheezed. At that moment something familiar shifted in me. Like cellar’s humidity tangling my limbs.
Every morning afterwards I walked with Sanita to school and along the way – a new stroyka. Naturally, we had to go there and do something. More often than not we were late for Russian lessons. It wasn’t on purpose, because I was actually good at Russian. I would apologise, but then the teacher would slap me on the cheek with a diary or pinch my arm and send me to the principal’s office. When I would come back, she wouldn’t believe that I actually went there and called me a liar, afterwards slapping my other cheek. She didn’t slap Sanita though, because she kept quiet. When I got to the principal’s office again, I asked for a signed note to prove my attendance, but he, grumbling good-heartedly, shook his finger so I didn’t ask again and let me leave.
The next morning as usual we plodded along a sandy hill, and there, in front of us, was a tempting, new trench. As soon as I slipped into a ditch full of grating sand, out of nowhere a bigger boy caught me and pushed me on my back to the ground. With my heavy backpack I kicked and moved around like a tortoise on its back. He pushed up my skirt and, panting heavily, tore my tights. “Churiki, churiki!” I wanted to scream, but he pressed my neck like in pliers. The whole time I clearly saw his face, an ordinary boy’s face. At that moment Sanita, who lately had only been thinking of how to get together with Māris, was banging on the nearest nine-story building’s windows with a pine branch. Someone leaned out of the window and called: “Ну, ну, ну! Убить тебя, гада, надо! ” The boy got scared and ran away. I crawled out of the ditch, dusted myself off and we continued our way to school. And again, Russian lesson followed with a scolding from my mother for the warning note from the teacher in my diary and my ripped tights.
About the incident Sanita gave her word that she wouldn’t tell anyone. Afterwards we went the boring way. For consolation, sometimes I would buy her a bun for three kopecks in the store “Dzirkstele”. With puberty setting in, my friend’s interest for stroykas went away naturally. Only at those moments when passing an unknown boy on the street, I would freeze up at half-sentence, and she would stare and hiss at me: “What happened again? As if you saw a beast!”
That occurrence also aligned with my grandfather’s inheritance. In the photos he was handsome, only the ears looked like small trumpets. No one ever told me that my ears were strange, the opposite even – I was complimented as a particularly cute girl. In folk dances I danced the solo parts, in school-plays on the performance stage I played princesses and the good pioneers. My math teacher, who, because of her tall height even before us was baptised as The Giraffe, sometimes, feeling irritated, would cry and drink some pills in front of our class. At one of those times I was at the board and couldn’t extract the square root, and Giraffe with a pill in her shaky fingers sharply yelled: “You, with your locators !” I didn’t know what locators were, but at that moment my class woke up. In the last seat, “Kamchatka ”, someone screeched, a choir laughed and “The Eary” was born. News like measles quickly spread in the school, the neighbourhood and my podjezd . I have to say, I wasn’t at all prepared for such changes and such a peculiar star’s emergence. When I asked my mother why my ears were like locators, and why it cheered everyone up so much, she said, that, in her opinion, my ears were completely normal and that I was probably making that up because I didn’t know how to make friends. I wanted to talk about that, but she had to make dinner, do the laundry and go to sleep, so she could go to work and get everything we needed.
In sports lessons I ran very fast, and I was admitted to the athletics team. Then found out that I couldn’t go to the practices with my hair down, so I told the teacher that I can’t, in any way, defend my school’s honour, because a serious leg injury was discovered. There was nothing left other than improving my running skills myself. As the ear contagion had spread even to my yard, one day a little gang of Russians stalked me and cheering by said: “Beй yшacmuka! ” and, waving sticks like spears, chased me to the sea. Ha! In the seaside forest they couldn’t deal with my expertise. By hiding from people, I had explored and sniffed around all the dune forest mint trails. Sneaking stealthily around thicker bushes, riflemen trenches dug in the wartime, side tracks and alleys got me back home very late. Only though the sports bag with my gymnastic shorts I had lost in hurry. I came inside after my mother had called all my neighbours, classmates and even considered calling the militia. Now, this was the holy time to talk everything out. Immediately I told everything as it honestly was. I’m sure that motherly note of fear in her tone vibrated again, barely audible, when with red thighs, marked by jumping-rope whips, I sat under the table and wanted to be consumed by the darkness faster. Stubbornly I picked up the receiver and dialled my father’s number on the rotary phone.
“You’re calling him?” she seethed, passing by me. “The person who pushed you aside when leaving, whilst you begged on your knees and clung to his pants?” Perhaps it was so – can’t remember, although I’m sure that I should. Calmly I finished turning the dusty dial on the telephone. We talked. Told him that my grades were good, but I didn’t get into my school’s team. Saying goodbye, he loudly exhaled and encouragingly concluded that, obviously, it was sad, if I wouldn’t become an athlete, however, I was still the biggest joy and pride of his life and waited until I put the receiver down. I imagined him standing by the sofa in his new apartment, tightly holding the curly phone wire in his big fist, with the other hand holding the receiver closely to his ear and staring at the wall or the darkness of the hallway, elatedly saying these words with a serious face: “You’re my biggest pride and joy.” Beep, beep, beep, beep… And standing there for a moment longer. My mother wanted to talk with me afterwards – perhaps even apologise – about tiredness, fate, getting oneself together, preserving, and I soon covered my ears. At that time darkness was my friend already.
I figured I would leave the house only in absolute need. I practiced a partisan tactic seen in films: before leaving I would carefully check the surroundings through the door crack and plan my movement trajectories. I felt more peaceful staying home in the evenings and on the weekends. Sanita called me a conceited cow and became friends with Zane. The class teacher called my mother and politely asked to pay attention as to why my grades in math and other subjects had gotten bad. For some time my mother talked firmly with me in different intonations, then shouted, begged that I have pity and spare her nerves, threatened me with the jumping-rope, and perhaps even hit me. That note… Now I know when it vibrated in her voice. Then she cried and, finally, stayed quiet. Afterwards we hugged and agreed not to act that way anymore and that we should take care of each other. We always did that, so that we didn’t stay angry and see bad dreams at night. Although one time she caught me in the darkness – in my nightshirt on the balcony, staring downwards from the ninth floor. Perhaps that was right after Māris from my class, walking by and mocking me, yanked me by my ear. My mother didn’t say anything, just called someone in the morning. We packed a bag, and she took me to the countryside to spend the summer with my grandmother.
Honestly speaking, she wasn’t my real grandmother, but my mother’s friend’s grandmother, who looked after her grandchildren and my mother in childhood summers, whilst her mother was in Siberia. At that moment, when warm hands with bulging veins hugged me, and dry, bluish lips gave my forehead a loud kiss, I called her grandmother and sank in her affection as naturally as a bumblebee sinks in pollen. My mother once told me that there are people whose hearts and doors to their homes are open to all the world’s strays. Her eyes glowed saying that.
Grandmother’s yard was separated from the road by a tenuous woven wooden fence – more for looks than for cover – and behind was a lush carpet of grass and a swaying wave of crop spikelets until the top of the hill. Every morning after eating my breakfast I went along the gravel road wherever my eyes saw. And I didn’t need to hide – if I met any, on the road I encountered a tractor driver smoking “Prima” cigarettes, a smiling old lady with a loaf of bread trudging from the store or a neighbour with a scarf tied around her head coming with a bucket of fresh milk from the barn. I wanted to find out how far you could get by walking the same way. No matter how far I would go, the road never ended, and, when I was tired of wandering, I returned and never missed anything, as if time itself stood still. In the evenings we waded to the meadow to tie the horse, but there – the fog in grey layers, in front of the dark forest, as if the sky was settling on the ground. I stood with an open mouth, not feeling the coolness of the air, without movement, with no words, no thoughts, like the whole world was outside me and inside me at the same time. I was this fog, the forest and the glassy dark. I came back to my senses, and we went home, as grandmother said, to start the bedtime routine. She undressed me, showered me in a big, enamelled bowl in which she usually washed laundry, then with a spichka wrapped in cotton and dipped in zelyonka covered my itchy pimples caused by the dairy and told me to not be angry at my mother. I asked her, how she knew what my mother was like, and she repeated: “You have a good mother, just grew up like a wolf pup.” “How is that?” baffled I asked. “When a child grows up with no parents, it stays a little like a wolf pup for the rest of life.” Afterwards she blew on my pimples, so they wouldn’t burn as much, and with a loud kiss sent me away to go to sleep in the little log barn, which was the same as in the movie “Blow, Wind! ”. There, in the dusty attic, I flipped through old magazines, read books and rummaged through rag chests smelling of naphthalene. Finally, fell asleep in chill linen sheets, lulled by cricket chirps. There were no doubts – I had entered paradise. “It’s like that – you want something to stay the way it is, but you know, that it will not,” my mother once said by the mirror, cleaning off the mascara from her eyes.
Grandmother had a brother. After eating he would blow his nose in the living room curtains, and after doing tasks at the barn, he lingered at the end of the road, where, in dilapidated, old woollen socks, galoshes, and a greased jacket, tampering with a worn cap with a text “Юрмала 80” in his hands, he would beckon passing women to come to the bushes to frisk with him. Once when I happened to be on the way, he, not even blinking, beckoned me. Grandmother, seeing that, shamed him, but in a kind way. Before guests came over, she gave him candies and locked him in a room for a while.
To not encounter grandmother’s brother, often I spent time on her side, where my attention was caught by a picture of a long-haired man in an oval frame over an oak-tree bed with carvings. Stuck behind it was a withered, little rose. When I asked if that was her husband, grandmother clapped her hands and cried out, that that is God! Well, in history lessons we were told that Gagarin, flying to space, saw no God sitting on the edge of the clouds. Everyone laughed back then, but grandmother had it completely serious – had Him on the wall. My mother also said: if God actually existed, then he would be reasonable enough to not allow people to deal with us the way they did. Tired of answering my irritating questions, grandmother made me wash my hands and, with a headscarf carefully cleaning off invisible dust from the cover of a big, heavy book, solemnly handed it to me. The book reminded me of “One Thousand and One Nights”, only without the pictures of naked women and in old print. Quickly I broke into the text and read about the Garden of Eden. Grandmother revealed that that is the real paradise and then, when we’d die, we’d all be resurrected from the grave and end up there and live by rivers of milk and dance in lush gardens. That’s why you pray and trust God’s son, Jesus – the one in the picture. Every evening, kneeling by her bed, she, having crossed her gnarly fingers under her chin, muttered something. I heard her mention her daughters, grandchildren, my mother – for her heart to soften, and me – to show me the right path; asked for forgiveness for her own sins and thanked for her dear little brother. Ah! – I thought. There had to be some trick or magic in those words, that’s why I asked her to teach them to me, so once and for all everything was clear.
Reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I worried the most at the part where we forgive our debtors, and the more I read the thick book, the deeper I fell into an abyss of unclarity. On the day I had to leave, with a heave I clung to grandmother’s neck and asked if she was actually sure that after death we would enter paradise. I was ready to believe every word, as she taught herself that lies are sin and hell. She inhaled deeply, as if listening to ripe crop spikelet whispers in the meadow by the house, and replied that she didn’t know. Shedding happy tears, she made the sign of the cross over me, pushed a bag containing a honey jar, a dairy bundle and homemade rye bread in my hands, and with the words “we’ll see” sent me home.
Hopes for getting answers at least the next summer to the million questions I had about the strange God, about whom I couldn’t stop thinking about, died along with grandmother. She had hired musicians for her funeral, composed a list of her favourite songs, in which most were jolly pieces, and sternly declared for there to be no mourning and crying, because she’s going to the afterlife fulfilled and happy. Whilst guests at the funeral meal swirled around in crazy dances and tore the chandelier from the ceiling and smashed it with all the lampshades, I collapsed on her bed and played with a candy in my hands, which, squinting spitefully, in my hand pressed her brother. I didn’t want to take it, but I noticed he had the same nails as grandmother, and, when I touched his hands, the skin turned out to be warm, even silky soft. When I accidentally looked into his eyes, they were light grey, a little cloudy, and seemed to stare through me. Making sure I was tightly holding the “Bārbele” candy – in a dull and worn looking wrapper – he pulled his hand away. Forcing out a wry smile, he wiped his nose in the curtains and went off to linger at the end of the road. Lucky him! He never went further than the end. I didn’t even have a road. Only restlessness, which didn’t seem at all similar to the craziness of a maternity hospital or stroykas. It was completely different – invisible, untouchable. Like the fog on the meadow. Indescribable. And it wasn’t darkness.
Yesterday again I came to a dream: I’m standing naked in a big, enamelled bowl in which grandmother usually washes laundry. With a battered tin can she pours fresh milk on my head. In the bowl another small girl joins me – it’s my mother. Sheer streams run through our hair and pass our shoulders. We’re both giggling and asking grandmother to tell us what it’s like there, in the pretty gardens by the milk rivers! Smiling, grandmother dries us in a thin linen towel and whispers: “We’ll see.”
Translated by Ieva Melgalve
The Knot (collection of short stories “The Knot”2020). Excerpt
We all came from tiny towns and didn’t really know what we were looking for at this school. The diploma guaranteed long working hours at the factory, equipped with noise-muffling earphones: without them, after the long day in the monotonous cacophony of needles scratching the multitudinous patterns, we wouldn’t be able to tell music apart from tyre screeching on the streets. None of us were an offspring of a dynasty of famous machine knitters, and neither we wanted to become the founding mothers of such. However, it was soothing to have met.
I the dorm room, there were three of us. Energetic Amanda was from Rēzekne, she had deep voice and her hair, when she let it down, reminded of rye field in sunshine. Her large, reddish palms, always burned by the winter cold, looked as if they had been borrowed from a much larger person and attached to her too fragile body by mistake. She preferred action to thought, and she could do anything, whether to carry a fridge into the kitchen, work through the night shift during practice or take up a wrestler’s position between Lelde and some overzealous pursuer of hers.
Lelde came from Alsunga, named by her mother, because of a crush she had on Harijs Liepiņš, the actor who was then playing the minstrel Thoth. At the first glance, one could imagine that Lelde’s gentle features could be seen on a shy baby angel of Rundāle castle’s painted ceiling, or maybe you’d think of a season’s greetings card sent from across the border, depicting an sentimental Christmas scene. However, it would take only a single day together with this heavenly being to change this impression. Our Lelde rushed through life as a tiny motor boat in a swarming sea of passion, always getting into storms and rows. It was as if the creator had accidentally given a single person the amount of trials meant for tens. Lelde embodied the Hollywoodian saying of “live fast and die young” per excellence, except for the star-spangled glory and racecars. Thus, she always forced us to consider the fragility of life, or even its meaning.
If a plate broke, it was Lelde’s; if a knife slipped from her hands and feel, it didn’t chink on linoleum but pierced her foot; when picking mushrooms in the forest it was Lelde who stepped on a viper that bit her ankle; and if somebody was free-riding on the tram, then instead of them, the militia took Lelde, as she would have been berating the conductor as a heartless bloodsucker and advancing in an abordage, initiating a minor brawl. That’s not even mentioning her love life. At every disco, she met the love of her life, which changed every time; and sometimes the passionate lover was entirely too ready to enjoy the heavenly blessings bestowed on him right in the cleaning lady’s mop closet. Amanda and me, we usually evacuated Lelde from the road to the stars, even though it was not at all easy to carry her body succumbing in the throes of love, while listening to curses and wails about her life, broken and bliss, denied.
I myself come from Talsi. I mostly prefer to eat Vecrīga cakes, drink milkshakes, dance, love, sometimes draw–and have some peace in the world. However, for love, I wanted something slightly more defined and longer running than what Lelde had.
Our tightest bond was the by the fact that now, as inhabitants of Riga, we were almost urbanites. Even though we lived in the dorms with peeling walls where the showers often lacked hot water and always smelled of wet washing rags, the beautiful sound of “Rigan” left that hard-to-define feeling like the mysterious veil cast by the perfume of the same name. We at least partly belonged to the city. It was our greatest achievement then, which let us crumble the doubt that sometimes cast shadow over the rightness of the decisions that had been made in our too-short lives. Especially in the moments when we squatted, our backs warped, over the knitwork seaming machine, putting hundreds of stitches on the needles to form gray sweaters’ neck joins.
Once per month, we returned to our real homes, where our parents greeted us with pride and hope, having overspent their means for a celebratory table laid with all the best they had–just as one would, for a special guest. Sometimes they, thinking this would cheer us up ad remind us of our luck, reminisced on their own miserable existence at our age. The relatives kissed us and congratulated us on getting so far ahead, without noticing the shiver of disgust that ran under our skin. Discussions about what will happen then, when the big life starts, was the least thing we wanted. Neighbours we met on the streets, the corner-shop assistants, even our old classmates greeted us with the question of how is our Rigan doing, and, no matter what we replied, they said “that’s right, that’s right” or “oh right, you’re so fancy now”. Then we made jokes as usual, to prove that nothing has changed, and felt slightly disappointed in ourselves if our own voices sounded theatrical and fake. As if indeed we didn’t belong to this place any more.
Even though we could not complain of lack of excitement, thanks to the Lelde’s life that swept us away in its waves and torrents, still over the course of the year some routine crept into our everyday lives. With the appearance of Emily, everything changed drastically.
When she moved into the dorms, she got a room of her own. That was the only free space left, the smallest of all rooms resembling a large cupboard, but still: her own. We, the more experienced ones, couldn’t fathom that, and so we secretly envied her.
“Hello, babes!” Emily greeted us in the morning, emerging from her bunker, and she felt too loud, too present in the orbit we had assumed: as if she somehow nudged us out. It was not only her sheer being, but also her voice that was just as large and deep, emanating from the immeasurable depths of her swaying belly. Hearing the swishing footsteps in the corridor, one could not make a mistake: it was her, our new neighbour. Her steps smooshed, like a laundry ladie’s who carries a dozen wet shirts in her basket, even if Emily had only a faded striped face towel waving in one hand while the other had casually grabbed a patchy plastic soap container, a wadded-up peppermint toothpaste tube and a toothbrush with bristles bent all over the place, looking like the back of an unkempt mutt. She didn’t move too loud, and her steps weren’t obnoxious, but somehow she was immediately noticeable. She was large, and her steps were guilliver’s, we joked if we happened to be stuck behind her. In whispers, of course. She looked more mature than us, sixteens, even if we had painted our lips in mother-of-pearl pink, or framed our eyelids with black pencil and coloured them in with blue metallic shadows that, upon closing our eyes, looked like smelt’s side. She still looked older. Maybe that was because Emily never wore makeup and treated her meaty face in a rather offhanded fashion–rubbed it with water and towel as if hoping to scratch out everything still containing pigment, while her dark, lanky hair that always fell on her face were held back by a narrow headband. Then we could glimpse her mouth line, delicately drawn, even if her hair and nose always obscured it with their impressive superiority of form and texture. Usually she hummed something, a pop piece of the time, like that Midge Ure tune: If I was, na-na-na-nah. If we took shower near her we always stole a secret glance at her breasts which, too, were impressive, slightly trembling with movement. She didn’t especially bother anyone, and didn’t particularly disturb us. It was just that she was in the same class with Renar.
Translated by Zanete Vevere Pasqualini
“THE REINDEER” (collection of short stories “Icy Orange”2016) Excerpt
I would never have plucked up the courage to host summer guests, or dacha tenants, as my neighbour Nina – the one who patiently spread newspaper out on the pee-soaked elevator floor in our building – called them. On the rare occasions that we bumped into each other on the stairs, she always returned to the same subject – how come no one ever got caught and how could anyone relieve themselves so quickly. It was the only topic we dealt with, if my shoulder shrugging can be counted as sufficient response to her remarks.
One morning, sighing heavily, she happened to open the main entrance door at exactly the moment my world was coming to an end, as I tried to unsnag my tights from where they had caught on a splinter on the door frame. I must have looked dreadful, as I replied to her query of “What happened?” by stating that I wanted to go and hang myself. Fancy saying something like that to a stranger! I must have gone into some kind of trance, not coming to my senses until after my monologue, to which Nina had obviously listened with indulgent patience. I heard my own jagged voice going on about the lack of any spare tights to change into and no time to mend the laddered ones. I voiced my doubts over my mother’s post-war golden advice about there being no shame in old but clean, after all there wasn’t a war on any longer. That on my budget, there was no allowance for snagged tights, that little Pauls was ill and I was struggling to make ends meet. And, even if I had had a bit of extra money, how would I ever make it to the shop in time, the bus was hardly going to wait for me. It would just be my tough luck. How was I meant to go out like that, with a ladder in my tights like a right slut.
I only snapped out of it when I caught sight of Nina’s wide open, staring eyes. The gold sleepers in her ears swung rhythmically as her hand, a gold ring with a decent-sized claret-coloured stone on one finger, pushed the gleaming, greenish headscarf back from her slightly damp forehead.
“You should always carry clear nail varnish with you,” she said.
“What?” I didn’t get her.
“As soon as you get a ladder – ploof! – a lick of nail varnish on top of it, and it won’t run any further,” she explained, matter-of-factly.
I ran the palms of my hands over my cheeks. Black smudges of mascara came off on my fingers. I searched frantically for a tissue and apologized for my endless stream of words – most inappropriate. Must be nerves, you know. My neighbour, putting her shopping bag on the floor, gave me a friendly hug and called me a poor mite, crushing me against her ample bosom over which her cotton housecoat, decorated with blue tulips, strained tightly and barely closed. She kissed me on both cheeks and invited me down for tea that afternoon, saying she had a proposal to make. I missed my bus that morning all the same.
It turned out that a hug from a stranger was not that unpleasant, considering that no-one, except of course for little Paulītis, had hugged me in the last four years. However, I was in no mood for a home visit that evening. Besides, I was put off by the idea of a return to the topic of that damned elevator. Drat, I should have asked for her phone number so I could have called with an excuse. I took a deep breath, shrugged and went up anyway.
The smell of Nina’ s kitchen took me back to my childhood, memories of my granny’s house – it smelt of bay leaves, onions, milk and freshly baked pies. A feeling that you were expected somehow. I let her put a plate of warm vareniki (doughnuts) in front of me, along with a square slice of rye bread topped with a generous slice of glossy, garlicky, smoked Russian lard and a cup of raspberry tea. All of a sudden, I wanted to stay there, in the warmth. While I was tucking eagerly into a pie, she asked me, all business-like, how many rooms I had. When I replied that I had two, she said that was exactly as she thought and went straight to the points – I should let the second room out to summer tenants. She told me she had connections at the local market who had promised her the relevant information. Gesticulating wildly like a TV weather forecaster, Nina let on to me that she usually hosted good, decent people from fellow Soviet republics. Sometimes relatives or friends from the Ukraine would come for a visit, and one summer she had had Armenians – the table had almost given way beneath all those southern treats, they had had brought so much authentic shashlik and kilos and kilos of sun dried basturma meat that she had even managed to make a saving on housekeeping. Every evening she had been entertained with free chamber choir concerts. The many-starred bottles of cognac on the kitchen table had been drained as if they were lemonade, she still didn’t know how her liver had survived, although she couldn’t say the same for her husband.
Last summer she had had a scientist from Moscow to stay. Not once had she walked down to the beach, she had just read all the time and tapped away on her typewriter for days and nights on end. They had had to plug their ears with cotton wool balls if they were to have any chance of sleeping. When she left, she had embraced Nina and, shedding tears of joy, thanked her for the invigorating rest, saying that thanks to the plentiful sea air she had drafted her entire dissertation.
All in all, quite normal people. In any case, she would be there to lend a guiding hand, just two floors below. When I left she winked at me, as if to say to call her if I ever wanted a chat. And just imagine, the elevator floor had been dry that morning. I thanked her and promised to think over her proposal and call her, even though I knew I wouldn’t get too chummy with her anymore. I was no good at talking, even with my own mother. She thought she knew everything about me but, in actual fact, she didn’t know a thing. She passed away quite convinced that she had been so unlucky with her daughter – having raised me to always be top of the class and instead I ended up a failed artist with a child on my hands.
On Sunday, at seven o’clock in the morning when Pauls and I were catching up on our weekly sleep deficit or, in other words, just as I had finally fallen asleep after a sleepless night, I was woken by a sharp ring at the doorbell. It was Nina. While I was clumsily tying the belt on my dressing gown and smoothing down my unruly out-of-bed hair, Nina, with a face as grave as one about to announce, at the very least, the arrival of inhabitants from another planet, trilled, “A family from Yakutia , three people for three months. Decent people” (the last utterance being added in Russian). I gave a nervous laugh. She brushed away my query as to whether she knew them herself with a wave of her hand, saying that Lyda from the market wouldn’t recommend unsavoury types. As she was leaving, she added that there would be no need for me to think about food, just remember her Armenians. Geography had never been my strong point, but I did know that Yakutia and Armenia weren’t exactly in the same region – that I knew for sure. I felt myself getting more confused.
“Nina!…” my voice croaky from sleep. Stomping heavily back down the stairs, she called over her shoulder that there was no need to thank her, she’d done it from the goodness of her heart. I stood there, barefoot on the concrete floor, trying to make head or tail of the note in my hand. The amount was nearly half a year’s salary. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Five years ago, in that other life money, didn’t mean a thing to me. Now, as a mother, a lot of things have changed. The head of tailoring – an elderly Jewish lady – had taught me this: when you get your wages, divide it up straight away – the set amount for rent and living expenses, the set amount for kindergarten, the same for housekeeping, but only ingredients, no pre-prepared stuff (as these last longer), put some aside in savings for something bigger like a TV, washing machine or an important birthday. And never, I repeat never, dip into the savings! As she told me this, she jabbed me in the chest with the pencil she used to write down the series numbers of overcoats, almost piercing me as if it were a nail. At times, when I think about my stored-away money, I actually get a physical sensation of stinging in my chest. In the autumn, Pauls will be needing things for school, stationary and so on, and I will have to violate the sanctuary and plunder some of my savings. Still, putting money aside or not – there’s never enough for everything. I patched up my old winter coat, replacing the old, worn-out pockets with colourful new ones, I cut the patches from my mother’s housecoat, a foreign import which I would never have worn anyhow. My workmates were ecstatic, you can see you’re an artist, they said. The partorg even put me in charge of making a welcome notice, honouring heroes of the communist workforce. I tried to get out of it, saying that my drawing wasn’t up to much – I hadn’t even got into art school – but I was given a clear hint that by doing so, a bonus would certainly be within my grasp.
Thinking about it, it wasn’t that long ago that I had tried to get into the School for Applied Arts. I was the first of their rejections. They had said that my drawings were better than those of most of the “protégées”, but so what. Losers always look for some sort of consolation. The language of losers. You need to dream to create art, but I no longer can – I either don’t feel like it or maybe just don’t want to. Every single day, chained down to a production line like a slave, I sew coats for the Swedish market – all of them a cold shade of grey with a double row of buttons. What a very responsible and, not forgetting, creative job. Decorative trimming in silk thread – brrr, brrr, brrr – from eight to five.
It serves a purpose. I don’t think about anything, I move neatly, mechanically beneath the bulbs of daylight like a hamster on its wheel. I nibble my sandwich at lunchtime, having found a spot on the boxes surrounded by dusty, half-finished coat samples – invisible, unnoticed, occasionally contributing a comment to the conversation going on amongst the other slaves, all wearing the same striped overalls, about their mothers-in-law, children’s illnesses and back street abortions. Then a quick trip to the loo for a smoke then brr, brr, brr until the target is reached – the five-year plan fulfilled, the bonus achieved. I pick Pauls up from kindergarten every day then get to the shop just in time to buy some fresh bread. If I’m not falling over with tiredness and can endure the queue for surplus goods, we also buy some butter and a string of sausages, much to Pauls’ delight. Let’s be honest, as far as the art world goes, I’m dead. It is not mourning me, either.
When I told my son about the summer tenants, he asked if the guests would bring a yurt or a wigwam with them and, without waiting for a reply, ran out into the yard. On my way to the Housing Department, five-year-old Mārīte from my son’s kindergarten class stopped me by pulling on my bag and asked if it was true that the Chukchi people would bring a yurt and reindeer with them.
“What have you been saying, Pauls! What yurt? What reindeers?” I scolded my son. I borrowed another camp bed from Nina for the Yakuts’ room, as the yurt was unlikely to fit in there. Goodness, what yurt? I don’t know myself what I’d been thinking.
In the spare room, the beds are all made up – white and clean. The best bed linen. Too white. Should I get some flowers as well? Marguerites or lilac? Do they have any flowers at all up there in the north? I put a new sheet on the double bed for the parents. After my mother’s death, it had become a haven just for me. Now, it was to move into the public domain. Maybe it’s all for the best, it might finally get to see a bit of action.
It was Pauls’ idea – for us to sleep in the same room starting today. So we could get used to it. Me on the couch, my son on the camp bed. The springs squeak shrilly when he turns over. I don’t dream, not even in my sleep. Isn’t it said that he who drains his vat doesn’t drink another drop. The same can be said of my dreams – reduced to rubble, shattered to debris along with my memories of Ents and my other life. It’s all rubbish. Misunderstandings. A smouldering flame. Who wrote about that? Was it Ezera? So you see, I lie here and smoulder. I scatter ash on my head to bear witness to the fact that I acknowledge my insignificance, or rather my stupidity.
Only my child stood as an incontrovertible fact. You can’t scatter ash on his head. He is a very real consequence of my dreams, to feel beneath my hands and cuddle. A direct reminder, he breathes right here behind the wall – pure, fair-haired and ignorant of so many things about his mummy who is as dear to him as life itself, the only person he has since his father is dead. Dead to us. I have no idea how many sleepless nights it will take for me to pay penance for these lies.
“Don’t marry an artist! The butterflies in your stomach will freeze to death, he will go looking for a new muse, you will end up all alone, just like me!” my mother berated, knowingly. Although my father had only been a house painter, my mother always referred to him as an artist, especially after he married a cabaret dancer ten years his junior.
Nevertheless, she always reminded me of how much I resembled my father and, whenever we were elbow to elbow in our small kitchen, an exchange of sharp words was always followed by her harking back to my shameful return home carrying beneath my heart the burden of my sinful “spree” – a child. I couldn’t have cared less. What was I to say? That she just didn’t get it? That that wasn’t how it was? Maybe that was exactly what I wanted. The chance to bury myself behind my humiliation. It was easier than facing the truth. The truth was exactly what I was shielding my mother from.
Maybe she has turned in her grave by now. It is said that after dying, everything becomes much clearer. That the spirit suddenly sees everything as it truly is, then disintegrates into molecules or is led solemnly through the Gates of Heaven down to the rivers of milk, depending on what you believe. You see, Mum, you were right. There are no males in my life and neither are there going to be any, as a species. Exactly as it was for you. All my relationships are straightforward and well-defined, like the silk trimmings on the factory coats. I have neither the time nor the urge for a love affair. And I can’t stand all that in-and-out business for the sake of your health. I don’t need any of that mess. I’ve put away the rose-tinted glasses and romantic trembles. There was a folk song which went, “ I live in a kennel on a mountainside, in a mud puddle in the valley, and I have no need for a man.” They can all go to hell, to Siberia to build BAM* or to Afghanistan to shoot Mojahedins, for all I care.
Damn, tomorrow morning I will have eyes as red as an albino rabbit again. Perpetual insomnia and an endless stream of thoughts dart constantly through my mind, never finding peace. I cope somehow with them during the day, when I can hide behind my chores and obligations, but at night they torment me -sliding in front of my eyes like a movie on the big screen. And there is nobody I can talk to, I can’t afford to open up to anyone about this, least of all have a chat about it with Nina.
Early the next morning, all three of them are standing at my door as promised, loaded with suitcases. They are tired, with dull, pasty, almost translucent complexions and they reveal greyish teeth as they smile at me. The wife’s face is half-covered by glasses, the pale eyes are small and dart about like a bird’s. The husband’s eyes are almond-shaped and dark. Unable to hide his disappointment, Paul shrieks, “Where are the reindeer?”
Translated by Mārta Ziemelis
ANOTHER WOMAN (collection of short stories “Icy Orange”). Excerpt
I was in third grade when I got up and solemnly announced that I didn’t have a father. I trembled on the inside when thirty pairs of surprised eyes looked at me. There was something between sympathy and doubt on the teacher’s face. “We need to know for school statistics,” she explained. In my opinion, the fact that my father had a new wife was enough of a reason for him to have no right to really call himself my father. I knew the point of her survey question – “Father: alive, dead or unknown” – was something completely different, but that didn’t matter. I was even proud of this, because it made me different from other kids, the ones who had everything going right in their lives.
One morning, when Dad went to work early, Mom’s nose was red. I asked if she was sick. Mom said she wasn’t, but that Dad would be here less often now, because he’d be living somewhere else. That didn’t surprise me much – the same way you’re not surpised by events that happen, no matter whether you’re hoping for them or are worried that they’re coming up. I’d heard my parents’ fights before, but the previous night’s had been different. I heard Mom sobbing and saying broken sentences in a hoarse voice. Dad mostly kept quiet, unless he was whispering something calming. That’s when Mom cried even harder. When Dad came into my room I pretended to be asleep, because I was scared of what would happen after we said goodbye to each other.
That evening I eavesdropped on Mom’s conversation with Aunt Tamāra, hiding behind the kitchen door. Now I understood that everything was some stranger’s fault. Dad had gone to be with another woman.
After that, Mom often had dark blue circles under her eyes in the mornings. On those days I tried to talk less and to stay out of the way. The most innocent questions made her sad, and I often got scolded for no reason.
Mom had started smoking a lot more. I thought she had cancer, because what else would make her lose weight so fast? It had to be cancer. Probably she thought the same thing, because her friends urged her to go see a babka, something like a witch. The babka had a pretty vague idea of what the diagnosis was, but she suggested that Mom drink a tincture of celandine. A visit to the doctor proved there was no cancer; she’d lost weight because of a nervous breakdown. Mom was convinced that the tincture of celandine had helped.
She always told me the main thing was that nobody should even think of pitying her. Before leaving the house, Mom carefully powdered her face, outlined her eyes in black eye pencil, and shaded her eyelids with pearly blue eyeshadow. Those, along with a mildly pink lipstick, were kept in a toiletry case I wasn’t allowed to touch. Makeup was expensive and could only be bought on the black market. She used the lipstick and eye pencil sparingly, digging out the last precious scraps of colour with a sharpened match.
Sometimes Mom listened to records in the evenings. Eyes closed, she swayed in the gentle waves of Karel Gott’s voice, or hummed along with Joe Dassin’s warm French chansons. I stood pressed against the doorframe and wished for these moments not to end so soon. On the evenings when she read Ārija Elksne’s poetry – something about graves and cawing ravens – and the earthy smell of valerian floated through the apartment, I stayed well away from her room.
I liked it when there was a party at home. Then Mom’s cheeks glowed, her eyes got misty, and she laughed a lot. The air was thick and hot, loud with passages of fast accordion music. Vodka flowed like birch sap in the spring. In the kitchen, the women smoked, hugged each other, kissed each other with moist lips and said how much they loved each other. They sang all those popular love songs: “By the Amber Sea”, “Dark Forests”, “Chrysanthemums” and “Waterlilies”. I especially liked “The bonfire blazes bright in the dark night”– about parting and lost love. The women sang this one with their eyes closed, with a certain kind of ache in their voices, as if each of them had experienced something like that, even a little. I knew the words to every song and sang along with the choir eagerly.
The men, jackets off and ties loose, loudly explained the meaning of life to each other and remembered the old days, how well their fathers had lived. When Uncle Jānis disagreed with Uncle Valdis and had grabbed him by the collar, Mom squeezed in between them and flirtatiously asked them to pour a lady some champagne. The men reluctantly relaxed, and filled glasses briskly. The layered herring salad smelled homey; pork cutlets and boiled potatoes steamed. I ate up the pickles almost all by myself. After I’d secretly eaten the creamy frosting with little glazed nuts off the top of the cake, of course.
Mingling with the guests, I found out that my father’s wife was a “whore” , a “bitch”, and that “it will all come back to haunt her”. The main point was “you’ll see, he’ll come crawling back with his tail between his legs, like a beaten dog”. The wives seemed to be the experts. The husbands, flushed from vodka, smiled and praised Mom’s potato salad. Uncle Valdis, roaring “Hey hey, you lithe black-panther girl!”, pulled Mom onto the dance floor. I guess he was holding her too close, because Aunt Anna hurried up right away to talk some sense into her husband. That’s what she said. “Be sensible.”
That evening, I started waiting. Waiting for Dad to be sensible. Waiting for him to leave the strange woman.
I liked my birthdays less. Dad always brought a present and went away quickly. Mom got ready carefully every time he came. I helped her pick out a blouse, and confirmed several times that she looked slender enough. I dressed up too, and acted cheerful. This year I got a carefully wrapped box from Dad, with a huge satin ribbon tied around it.
“There’s a doll inside,” he said conspiratorially. When I opened it, I realized why the box was so light. There was no doll. I hoped the doll would show up if I closed the box and opened it again. No luck. I tried opening it from the other side. Again, no luck. I put it on the table and thought that this had to be a joke. Any minute now, the door would open and Dad would come in with the real surprise.
He came in to say goodbye. I didn’t dare ask about what had happened to the doll. What if Dad got angry and stopped coming? Later, I didn’t want to play with the other kids. I sat on the couch in the other room and stubbornly insisted that I wouldn’t blow out the candles on my cake without Dad. Mom’s curled hair shook – she was going to tell Dad not to come at all, then. That always worked on me.
Then we saw her, that other woman, by accident. Dad got out of a car, but she stayed inside. A blonde in dark sunglasses. I called out:
“Look, there’s Dad!”
Mom’s purse slid off her shoulder, and she wobbled on her high heels.
“Let’s cross the street,” she whispered. She yanked on my hood so hard that I tripped.
That’s when I understood we were leaving because of her. Because of that woman.
One evening, Mom was talking to someone on the phone. I heard short, sharp phrases: “…I still have to think about it”, “…I don’t know if that will be OK”, “it’s all very complicated”, “why don`t you ask her yourself?” Then she hung up and asked me in a hollow voice whether I wanted to visit Dad. I wondered: and that whore, too? But I didn’t ask out loud. I wanted to visit Dad.
There were windows from floor to ceiling in their apartment, like in the foyer of the Daile Theater. There were paintings hanging on the walls – I noticed several portraits of a woman among them. They also had shelves full of books, that reached the ceiling. I could see all of myself in the hallway mirror with a gilded frame.
When I came in, she was sitting at the desk. It wasn’t like mine – inherited from my cousin, with legs gnawed on by a collie and a surface that had scratches and pen marks all over it. Her desk was covered in dark lacquer, with curved legs and gilded handles. She was taller than Mom. Her blonde hair hung in stiff curls. The red knit dress she wore emphasized her figure. Mom would never wear something like that. Too provocative, she’d say. Something in a shade of beige or blue would be better.
Her name was Kristīne. The woman in the portraits was her. I thought: Why didn’t I put on my red skirt?
She joked and laughed a lot. She took a box of candy out of the desk, opened it and put it in front of me. Just opened and put down a whole box. I guess I stared at the assorted shapes too long – she said encouragingly that they were really for me. At home, if someone gave us a box of candy as a present, Mom always hid it in the closet, behind the towels – “just in case.” If we had to go visit someone and bring a host gift, we’d be saving money, she said. Candy’s very expensive.
She did the same thing with the new umbrella and the set of bedclothes we didn’t use, which were hidden away in the closet for when I got married. What if I never get married? All that stuff will rot away, I thought in horror. Still, Mom always brought me something when she came home from work. I reached out impatiently for Mom’s purse, which smelled like the bus and like stale face powder, from a jar so old the name on the lid faded away long ago. I knew that in the pocket of the purse, there would be a piece of halva, a piece of candy, a bit of Uzbek baklava or a couple of nuts, wrapped in graph paper – treats from friendly factory workers.
I sat in Kristīne’s kitchen, ate candy and stared at the calendar from overseas with black and white photos of cats. I’d never seen one like that before. We only had a tear-off calendar with namedays and the phases of the moon in it in our kitchen. Then I noticed that Dad was wearing his old slippers, the ones he wore when he lived at home with us. They didn’t fit in here, as if the slippers carried a stolen part of the warmth of our shared life. I noticed that as Dad and Kristīne passed each other they touched, just barely. I put back the piece of candy I’d just taken.
She asked me all about school and took an interest in my hobbies. She told me that she worked in some sort of ministry, and had been to Bulgaria and America twice. She gave me a present – a little picture where the image changed when you moved it. Nobody else at school would have one like that. That evening, she made my bed with a duvet. I remember a classmate told me, once, that her dad had been to Poland, and that he’d stayed at a hotel where his bed had a duvet. He’d cut off a little corner of it, to show his family and friends how civilized people sleep. I thought, Maybe I should cut a piece off my blanket too. But I didn’t know where to find scissors.
That evening, Dad sat by my bed for a long time, telling me about the book he was reading. Something about World War I. I waited for him to finish, so I could ask questions. Them Kristīne came in to say good-night, and joined in a lively conversation about that same war. I understood almost nothing. We weren’t studying history at school yet. The two of them debated intently, as if I wasn’t there at all. I can’t remember Mom and him having such enthusiastic conversations at home, let alone about war.
When Kristīne went into the bedroom, Dad stroked my head silently for a long time. The skin of his fingers was dry and rough. I didn’t say anything, even though it scratched my cheek. I knew I shouldn’t.
I was lying under a fancy blanket, but I was cold. I hadn’t thought that I’d miss the heavy quilt and Mom’s thin hand on my head before I fell asleep so much. Waking Dad up to give me something warmer felt too awkward. I put on my sweater, which I’d hung on an elegant blue velvet armchair, and wrapped myself in the lightweight down blanket.
The next morning Kristīne came into the room with a loud “Good morning, sweetie”, to open the balcony door. It was stuffy, apparently. Only Mom and Dad called me “sweetie”. I was still cold. She had a long neck, pale skin that contrasted sharply with her black lace slip, and graceful hands with blood-red fingernails.
Kristīne’s toasted sandwiches were carelessly made with two kinds of cheese, sliced dried meat and tomatoes. They smelled delicious, but I didn’t eat. “Sorry, I’m in a hurry,” she said as she ran past, surrounding me in a cloud of fancy perfume.
When she went to work, I greedily ate up all the sandwiches. I went into the bathroom to wash up. Inside, I saw Kristīne everywhere – a flowery silk robe, a cherry-red lace bra, foreign shampoos, perfume on the shelf under the mirror. I took it and gave myself a good spray behind the ears. A toothbrush and razor, sitting on top of the cabinet above the bathtub just like at home, were the only signs of Dad.
One of the little mother-of-pearl dishes had different-sized brushes, eye pencils and also scissors in it. I took the scissors without thinking and, hiding them behind my back, went out into the hall. I saw Dad in the kitchen as I passed, reading the paper and drinking coffee, one leg crossed over the other. I pulled the closet open and saw it straight away. I grabbed a red sleeve and started cutting. My heart thumped in my throat. I tore the cloth everywhere I could reach, as if my life depended on it. The metal ends of the scissor blades got stuck in seams. I saw spots. Dad could come any minute now. I shut the closet door. Scraps of thread glowed red on my hands and dark blue skirt, like veins. I ran into the bathroom, dropped the scissors, cleaned off my clothes. I couldn’t breathe. My hands were shaking.
Translated by Mārta Ziemelis
God in the Kitchen (collectionof of short stories “Icy Organge” 2016). Excerpt
“I’m standing under the big oak tree, right here in the yard by the house, and stirring cranberry mousse with a big wooden spoon. Ieva says that’s her first childhood memory. Well, I’ll be! I don’t remember that day. Still, the idea of it is hardly a surprise – I always made cranberry mousse for dessert. Not every day, of course – just on holidays and days off. It’s strange that she remembers it, though.”
Vija talks out loud, to herself and the things around her. Nobody threatens her with the psych ward. Now and then a tourist wanders by, to ask for water or directions. Otherwise her only company is the cows in the field, and Blueberry the cat. Blueberry talks more than Vija – you just have to understand her. Vija understands. Blueberry also loves Vija. She lies on the kitchen table in front of the old woman like a roast, her coat sun-warmed, a torn spiderweb picked up during her morning rounds on her ear.
The kitchen’s pretty narrow. Besides the oven, there’s just enough space for the table, a small sideboard, the sink and the bed. The bed’s still here from winter, when it got brought in so the other rooms didn’t have to be heated all day long. There’s no need to fumble around much at night, either. If you need a drink, you can get one without leaving the room; if you have to pee, there’s a tin bucket right here. When her grandson visits from Riga, he always wants to sleep in the same bed as his grandma, even in the summer. Vija likes feeling the warmth of those soft feet against her dried-out shins. She likes stroking the little back covered in fine down, and listening to her descendant breathe.
Putting the ballpoint pen on the table, she leans back in the chair. She looks at her palm, then at the table, and smiles. Her palm is just as worn as the tabletop. She caresses the notched wood, touching all the little grooves and uneven spots carefully, almost tenderly, stopping briefly at the deeper hollows. The surface is scarred all over by knife cuts and fork marks. Vija’s been calmly watching more and more new cracks appear for a while now. The older ones get darker and darker, no matter how much you scrub.
There’s a sheet of paper covered in writing in front of Vija. She tore it out of the graph-paper notebook where she writes down expenses and daily chores. She prepares to fold it, then carefully reads over every word again; she fixes a conjugation here, crosses out a word there. Then she folds the sheet, sharpens the crease with her fingernail and puts it in a pink envelope with a dwarf on the front: squinting, red-nosed, carrying a fir tree on his back. There weren’t any others in the table drawer. She turns something over in her mind, takes the envelope and writes a couple of words on it. She thinks a bit, then writes down a few more. Then she takes her worn-out purse and puts the envelope inside. She looks again, pulls out a half-empty bottle of perfume and lifts it to her nose.
Ieva brought that from Riga, Vija remembers. The last time she visited me, she was really tired, overworked. She was the manager of a marketing company. She talked about some sort of “brien-storms” and plans on the phone all evening. We drank peppermint tea and the wine she brought along in turns. In between phone calls, we talked in broken sentences, like people passing each other on the street. But if that’s what a person needs…
The next morning, my daughter asked if we could carry the table out into the meadow. We did. She sat there for hours, drinking coffee, looking at the neighbours’ cows, wild-eyed. The cows were wandering in alder bushes, calmly flicking their tails. I asked if she wanted pancakes with cottage cheese or jam. She looks at me and asks whether I can imagine how blissful it is just to sit in a meadow and look at cows for hours. I answered that there’s no shortage of bliss here; she could come and stare every day if she wanted. She hasn’t been here for a month now. I don’t ask why she works so hard. If she doesn’t tell me herself, what’s the point in asking? It means she needs to, then.
Vija takes the perfume and pushes it onto a sideboard shelf, next to the glasses and the egg liqueur. Then she goes to the window, carrying her purse, and studies the glass carefully for a moment, squinting.
“Well, I’ll be! A dung fly – fat as a grafted hybrid. I washed the window just yesterday!” She quickly unhooks the window. The fly flies out, buzzing angrily. Vija’s gaze wanders deep into the meadow.
“Look, how beautiful!” The whole world is holding its breath in reverence. The light’s so bright it hurts your eyes. The grass is doing well too.
My daughter doesn’t like this kind of countryside jungle. Someone should mow the grass, so it looks prettier, she says. Then you could sit elegantly on a lawn by a bed of roses. Well, I didn’t grow that grass, and I’m not going to mow it. I tell her I don’t want everything to look the same. There’s nothing wrong with grass, anyway. Especially in the evenings, when the sun’s setting and the blades of grass whisper to each other, disturbed by the touch of a hand. How can you not like something so lovely?
Vija looks beyond the blackcurrant bushes, at the neighbours’ cows, who are lazily munching pink clover. What milky bliss!
Vija puts down her purse by the front door, takes off her slippers and goes out into the yard barefoot. Tiny little stones stick to the soles of her feet like thistles, and tickle pleasantly between her toes. Blueberry’s there right away. Her coat’s gleaming like sun-melted tar. Vija gently brushes bits of straw off her warm back. The cat twists under her mistress’s hand like a snake, bites Vija’s fingertip, then starts licking the spot with her pink sandpaper tongue.
“Why are you so generous today? You even brought me a dead sparrow, silly. It would’ve been better if you’d killed mice. Let’s go and see if Ruta from next door is coming.”
When Ruta comes, she spends half the day in the yard, clucking like a chicken. She tells me all about her life several times and starts over again from the beginning. Why not humour her? I listen, if that’s what a person needs. She tells me everything – about her children and neighbours, her youth, her chickens. My radio broke, so why shouldn’t I listen, while I drink coffee with a shot of egg liqueur?
She always mentions Valdis the milkman, too. Apparently I was his first love. Now he fidgets at the end of the path from the road to the house every three days, busy as a government minister, with his milk. He says he doesn’t have time to drive into the yard. I tell him to leave the milk can there in the grass, but no. He waits, then looks me right in the eyes and goes on and on about how punctual he is and how slow-moving I am. As if I should stand on the path before dawn, impatiently waving a white kerchief.
When we were both children, Valdis and I met at the end of the path every morning and went to school together. My Leons was a classmate of his. First love – what a joke! I didn’t notice anything like it. Valdis just always talked about his father’s tractor. He invited me over and showed me that iron thingamajig all the time – what kind of motor it had, what kind of steering wheel it had… How long can you go on about a machine? We were fools. Who even remembers that anymore? Valdis was kind of edgy at our wedding. My father-in-law even gave him a black eye, because he’d said ugly things while he was drunk. There was something they couldn’t sort out. Leons didn’t explain; he and Valdis stayed good friends until Leons died. He’s been in the graveyard for ten years now, under that pine. When I manage to get there, with a friend who has a car, Leons and I have a good chat. I tell him how things are going, what the kids are up to. Otherwise he’s quiet. He doesn’t come and torment me in my dreams, like some ghosts do. Ruta, for example – her husband showed up in her dreams and asked for his gold teeth. Those had to be buried. Nonsense! As if he really needs those gold teeth! You’d think he’d rise from his coffin and stuff them in his mouth. Ruta probably just did it so relatives wouldn’t fight over who got two teeth and who got five.
Leons and I didn’t fight. We just talked – about the children, about whether to buy them a winter coat or boots. It was obvious that he had his thoughts and I had mine. We talked things through and that was that. He had enough noise at the office – why smash plates at home? We muddled along somehow. We didn’t walk down the street holding hands, kissing by every display window, so everyone could see how happy we were. Why make fools of ourselves? We ate together in the evenings, we went to the theatre, we watched TV. We weren’t troubled by sleeplessness.
What is love, anyway? I read those romance novels sometimes; I cry too, if they’re well written. Only those are about unfulfilled dreams. Love turns out different in real life. I met a decent man. We caught each other’s eye at the local outdoor dance. It beats me what we talked about. He might even have been telling me about tractors.
That one time, in the hospital, Leons held on to me and wouldn’t let go. He probably sensed that we were seeing each other for the last time. Ieva was surprised to see me in tears. Why should I upset my kids? They’ll take their share of blows in life. I don’t need to make them cry on purpose.
Vija bends down and pokes at a good-sized orange crown imperial that’s standing by the wall of the house.
“Look how big this has grown!” That same Valdis the milkman brought me this bulb for my birthday. What’s this flower called?…Oh yes, “my heart’s flame”. It’s blooming like crazy. Just like the tumour that showed up in my son’s brain way back when. We didn’t tell anyone he was sick. Even Ieva didn’t know why Aldis was in the hospital; we told her he had an infection. She had to study, prepare for exams. What good would it do her if she knew that her brother might die or become a cripple? Why scare people?
Ruta goes to church regularly. She always tells me I should go to church to pray too; things supposedly get easier, miracles even happen. As if I’d set foot in one! After the Communist Party deported my father and he died of starvation in Siberia, my mother never went to church. My husband worked for the same party that slaughtered my father. I don’t remember God ever being mentioned in our home. And if He even exists, doesn’t He have enough trouble with the people who believe in Him? They’re all a mess. They squabble with each other over who has the greater faith, or over the right way to cross yourself. You can cross yourself upside down if you want, but it won’t make you any holier. They act like silly children!
I tell Ruta: Why would I go to church to stand hanging my head, so everyone can stare at me? I’d rather go to my kitchen. I have silence and bread there, maybe even God. I don’t know.
I close the kitchen door and get to work, maybe for a long time. Everybody in the house knew that I liked being alone. I hammered cutlets flat, ground up meat for patties, sometimes baked “pīrāgi”. I set this very kitchen table for every meal. Those deeper hollows are from when Aldis was sick. I almost beat holes straight through my cutlets. He had good doctors; he got better. My daughter took her exams and finished school with good grades.
Now they’re both all grown up, and sensible. They don’t steal, cheat or murder – at least, I haven’t heard of them doing anything like that. Aldis has an important job in England now. He sends me photos and a bit of money. He comes to visit once a year – that’s good. He leaves and that’s good too. That means he has things to do. Why should I interfere with my children’s lives? I sent them out into the world. Let them walk their own paths! If they need something, they’ll tell me.
Vija gazes into the distance for a moment.
Maybe I should’ve done something when Ieva was going to marry that drunk, stopped her somehow. I could see that nothing would come of it. Maybe she was expecting me to say something. It’s a good thing Ieva regained consciousness that night and called the police. A concussion. They got divorced. Look what a wonderful grandchild I have, though. That means some good came from that drunk after all.
Vija takes the broom and carefully sweeps the doorstep. She shakes out the straw doormat, then sinks into a chair by the window and slides her feet into the poppies blazing in the sunset light.
Closing her eyes, she listens to the silence. This is her favourite time of day.
Grasshoppers start chirping faintly. Then they get louder and more enthusiastic, after longing for dew all day. A cowbell tinkles in the distance. The grass sighs calmly in the evening wind, like a river. In the pond, a frog starts up a creaky solo; a minute later, he’s singing at the top of his voice, so loudly you can hear him all the way to the horizon. A tiny spider falls onto Vija’s cheek. She doesn’t move. She sits for a while, until the sun sinks into the grass. A little longer. Until the fir trees in the distance have turned dark blue, until mosquitoes and the evening chill start creeping along her shins. Then she sighs, gets up tiredly, pours water into the metal bowl from the barrel and washes her feet. How good the coolness feels on her ankles! Vija dries her feet on a yellow towel with faded purple roses, hanging right there on a nail, and puts on her soft slippers. She picks up the purse that she put down by the front door and goes to the kitchen. She pauses on the doorstep for a moment, lines her slippers up next to each other, takes off her cardigan and hangs it on the back of the door before quietly pulling it shut.