Translated by Mārta Ziemelis
Excerpt from the “Icy Orange” 2016
“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.