ONCE UPON A TIME, IN TALLINN
All in white snowdrifts
ONCE UPON A TIME, IN TALLINN
There was once a man with a red umbrella. And every time he opened this umbrella the rain would stop. There was once a girl with shoes made of glass. And when she had them on she could walk on the water. And the man with the umbrella kept it open the whole time so that it stopped raining altogether and there wasn't any water anymore and the girl couldn't walk on it. And they all went by bus from Viru Square to the beach itself.
And the beach was there windy and wide and I could see the sea.
In the summer, after school, she often went to the railway track to collect pebbles. In the winter she walked on the snowdrifts by the big wooden fence. And in the spring, when the grass was becoming green in Hirve Park and the birds began to fly, she climbed right to the very top where High Hermann Tower stood and ran all the way down the steep winding path. And in the autumn Grandfather died.
It was one Sunday morning in September when the sky was blue and the sun was in the sky. Skinny and me had finished our homework and were walking over to Skinny's place. Bet you can't run as fast as me, says Skin. Bet I can - bet I can run faster than you, says me. And we race to his place - me round the building site and him down Vabriku Street. And here I am standing on his doorstep when he comes panting round the corner. What happened to you then, Skin? says me. You cheated, Foureyes, says Skin, girls always cheat. And how, Skin - I flew!
When she heard this, Auntie made a funny face. `Well, personally I don't think I do,' she said. `But I know many people much brighter than me who believe.' `I think God's more like a head than a body,' I said, and she laughed and ran to tell Mum.
So years pass, and we no longer feel the wind as it sweeps across the coast shifting the clear sand; nor can we walk the surprising wideness of the beach early in the morning; we can no longer see the sea.
And the dream we once had with Grandfather's face fading in the photograph we have forgotten.
He wasn't really our grandfather at all, but we called him Grandfather. He came every Sunday for lunch, and we all giggled when he said `Good it was' after finishing his stewed fruit. And then we saw him off to the tram stop in Vabriku Street. He lived alone with his son who loved him not.
In the picture she was standing on his right. His face looked straight ahead with its moustache eagerly surging forward, as if in expectation of some encounter. And then his face began to pale, and his features one by one slowly began to disappear. His side of the picture became as grey as ashes, and all the outlines blurred, and the paper began to disintegrate. But her face remained intact - only it became much older, the face from a photograph taken much later.
And now she is walking towards the glass door in the passage, and she sees a strange woman approaching her from the other side of the door. But coming closer she recognises her own reflection.
`If you don't look both ways before crossing the road you'll be run over by a car,' she said.
`And what will happen then?' she asked.
`Then you'll die,' she said.
`What does it mean, `I'll die'?' she asked.
`It means - you'll no longer live,' she said.
`What does it mean, `I'll no longer live'?' she asked.
`It means - it means you won't be alive any more,' she said.
`Does it mean I won't be here any more?' she asked.
`Yes, that's what it means,' she said.
`Does it mean I won't be anywhere any more?' she asked.
`Never mind that - you should always look both ways before crossing the road,' she said.
In this way the gusts of wind and the rain do not die down throughout an entire twenty four hours. In the middle of the road I saw a grey and seemingly inanimate lump. I touched it with the toe of my shoe - it drew itself in, became perfectly round and stuck out all its needles. A large moon appeared from behind the storm-clouds and lit up the wet trees. I shook one branch, and a whole deluge came pouring down on my head. The tree suddenly became alarmed, flapped its arms, beat its wings, and a dark silhouette tore itself out of its thickness and hurtled away.
Once upon a time, in Tallinn.
Translated from the Russian by Chris Newman and the author
Published in full in:
New Contrast 144,
old version in:
Black Warrior Review 31-2,
parts also appeared in Rampike and The North
The city hall clock struck eight. He stepped closer to the kiosk and said, “Ütle palun mis kell on.”
The Estonian (he knew he was Estonian since he was buying an Estonian newspaper) took a close look at him, then at the clock tower, and finally at his own wristwatch and answered, “Kaheksa.”
He said it unhurriedly and smiled. Then, he lifted his hat and bowed.
Heartened, Yura ran over to Willem, who was waiting for him on the other corner of the City Hall Square, near Pikk Street.
“I saw everything,” he said disapprovingly before Yura had time to open his mouth. “You couldn’t find anyone younger? He’s a hundred years old and you’re eight. It’s rude.”
“I turned nine, and he’s not even close to a hundred—he’s seventy, no more than eighty. But he understood! I did it! I said, ‘Ütle palun, mis kell on,’ and he smiled at me and said, ‘Kaheksa.’”
“You said ‘ütle’?” Willem asked, shocked.
“Yes, why? He understood what I said and answered.”
“That’s incredibly impolite, you should have said ‘ütelge’.”
“You should have told me when I was trying it out on you.”
“It’s fine when you say it to me, but you can’t say it to someone much older than you. I thought you were going to go up to some Estonian schoolboy - there were plenty of them around, it looks like the afternoon session just got out at that Estonian school behind Raekoja Square. You can say ‘ütle’ to another kid, even if he’s a couple of years older than you, but if you say it to a guy who’s one hundred, it’s rude.”
“He’s not a hundred! And he wasn’t upset—he even smiled and gave me a little bow.”
“He wasn’t upset because he saw you were Russian.”
“Because of your accent.”
“He could tell from one sentence? No way! Let me try it out on you.”
“You’ve already done it so many times.”
“Let me do it one more time. Can I say ütle, or are you strictly ütelge, too?”
“You can ütle me, I’m not a hundred.”
“Ütle palun, mis kell on! What did I say wrong?”
“I don’t know, everything’s there, but it’s still obvious that you’re not Estonian right away.”
Yura sank into thought.
“Maybe that’s how I earned his respect - he even raised his hat, didn't he? - because I’m not Estonian, but I’m trying to speak the language. Incidentally, why is he wearing a felt hat and not a fur one? It’s cold and snowing.”
“He probably doesn’t even notice it, just like you don’t notice having an accent.”
“That’s different,” Yura began to object, but got distracted.
The sky was coming apart in luminous petals and falling onto the sidewalk and bridge, twirling slightly to the music that had started up somewhere nearby. In the dark intervals between notes a light humid wind was wafting in the sounds of ütle-ütelge. “I am asleep, dreaming of snow,” he whispered to himself, and then tried out another version, “Snow sleeps, dreaming of me.” He liked this one better, and started trying to think what would come next. “Snow and I. Half snow, half me.”
“Let’s go, what’s gotten into you?” Willem pulled on his sleeve.
“Snow falls on me, therefore I am,” Yura concluded.
“I don’t know what you’re mumbling about under your breath. Let’s go home, or else your mother will be after me again like she was yesterday. ‘Willem, did you go straight home after school? Or did Yura stop by your house?’”
“And you…you,” Yura burst out laughing, “you went, ‘No, honestly, he didn’t stop by, we came straight home from school!’ You were so convincing that even I started to believe you!”
“She should be a detective. She tripped me up right as I was on my way out, saying goodbye. She asked, ‘Willem, did Yura stay for a long time or only a little while?’ She sounded so gentle!”
“I wanted to give you a sign, but it was too late, you were already smiling and saying, ‘No only for a little while, just a few minutes!’”
Both of them burst out laughing.
“I saw how you didn’t jump on Chop,” Willem said out of the blue. “Why didn’t you? They jumped you the day before yesterday, Chop was doing it too, I saw everything. I would have joined in myself, even though we’re friends, but I didn’t have time before someone was yelling, ‘Watch out, teacher’s coming!’ and everybody ran off. It’s an everyday scrape, you know, everybody gets beat up, and everybody takes their kick. Do you want to be different or something?”
It had stopped snowing. Yura craned his neck at the sky. “Look, just a moment ago everything up there was white and now it’s all black.”
“You’re going to run into a lamp-post walking around like that.” Willem pulled him.
“Lead me along, just to the corner—I want to keep looking.”
“What’s there to look at? You’ve never seen the sky before?”
“It’s different every time!”
“Uh-huh,” Willem grunted, full of doubt. “Fine, I’ll lead you to the corner, but after that, walk normally. People are looking at us.”
“There’s a star up there—a little blue dot in the black!” Yura pointed out to Willem. They were nearing the lamppost on the corner of Pikk Yalg, near Nadvratnaya Tower. “The star shines on me, therefore I am,” he said to himself.
Translated from the Russian by Bela Shayevich with the author
Published in GREEN MOUNTAINS REVIEW XXIII-2
All in white snowdrifts
A Russian teacher in an Estonian school and an Estonian one in a Russian one. All very strange somehow, the boy thought, as he fell into snowdrifts. He walked on them deliberately on the way home from school because he enjoyed sinking into them. He’d arrive home dry from the waist up but all wet below it (his parents would be telling him off), would change his clothes and sit by the warm stove. At home the new issue of the Pioneers’ Gazette awaited him, full of the young pioneers’ adventures in space. At the approaches to the Lembitu cinema the drifts happened to be especially deep. Having relished them, he made his way towards Tornide Park, on the other side of the railway station. At home they’d warned him not to go beyond the station. In the park, both in winter and summer, the iron Kalinin’s arm reached forward, pointing the way back to the station and home, but the boy didn’t feel any pangs of conscience. He knew the outstretched arm of the monument to the Great Man hid something much more significant than a reproach for primary school pupils hanging around here at the end of their afternoon school shift. How interesting, he thought, that the little wedge of Kalinin’s beard should point downwards, but the spire of the Oleviste church at his back (not actually at Kalinin’s back – some ten minutes’ walk away from it – but with the trees bare and everything visible, the spire seemed right nearby), that spire made you look up. Contradictory movements, as it were. But the Great Man’s horizontal arm balanced these movements – you could even say reconciled them. The boy glanced upwards. There, ice-blue gems stood against the velvety blackness. They would tremble a little, every now and then, even rise and fall ever so slightly, to the rhythm of his breath. One star was simply huge, more white and more blue than the snow, he’d never seen anything like that before. Throwing back his head, he opened his mouth wide to savour the sky. The taste was fresh and crisp as an apple. Grateful for his interest in it, the sky received his condensing breath. The blades of the frosty wind were moving slowly, rhythmically.
“Kuidas sa elad!” he shouted into the sky, sending it the gift of the singing Estonian syllables. What an interesting life people must have, he thought, living in such a language with such unusual vowels and syllables.
Unwillingly, he turned back home. Passing the Lembitu again, he noticed two tempting drifts in an alley branching off the main street and decided to round off the day by falling through them.
The street was quite dark. He first heard, then could only just make out the young fellows on the other side of the drifts. The sounds and the outlines looked like fights among the older boys in school. He forgot about the drifts and went to have a look.
Two fellows had a third one in their firm grip, and a fourth kept punching him in the face. The victim was sobbing and piteously mumbling something. His face was covered in blood.
“Don’t beat him,” said the boy, coming up close to the one who was hitting. The latter turned round. One of those holding the bloodied man swore in Estonian under his breath. The boy knew they were swearwords and shouldn’t be uttered.
“Don’t beat him, let him go,” he said.
“Clear off, none of your business,” said the torturer in Russian with a thick Estonian accent. He grabbed him by the shoulder, dragged him to the street corner and shoved him back into the main thoroughfare.
“Mister, please, over there behind the snowdrifts, they’re beating somebody up, there’s blood, a lot of blood, they need help there,” the boy pulled a passer-by by his sleeve. The man tore himself free and quickened his step. The boy had better luck with a couple, husband and wife most likely. He led them round the corner, they had a look, exchanged hasty whispering remarks between them and began stopping other passers-by. The woman went to the cinema entrance – empty of people – and stood there, while the man, together with two more fellows, one about his own age, the other younger, advanced into the alley. The boy watched from afar, from the security of the main street, its passers-by, street-lamps and cars. When the two groups met, a blade glistened in the weak light, tumbled into the snow. From the first group – the one farther from him – two shadows detached themselves and ran away into the distance. The second group, on the other hand, came nearer him, leading – gently, an arm around the shoulders and hands under the arms - the lad covered in blood.
“Go back home, boy,” said the one he’d stopped.
“And what’ll happen to him?”
“We’re going to call an ambulance, he’ll be taken to hospital. All will be well, go home, young man, you’ve done a good deed.”
The stars gave a silvery cry and vanished; snow began to fall from the damp sky – more and more thick flakes, white on white, swept up by the wind. On the corner of Käsperti and Valgevase it was especially windy. The boy opened the dark cavity of his mouth and again asked how are things, this time of the wind. But the wind had lost the rhythm, lost its symmetry, and with a challenge tore the phrase into shreds – into words, the words into vowels and consonants, the vowels and the consonants into sounds, the sounds into their tiny particles.
“This isn’t looking good,” said the boy out loud. “The sky’s gone sick. The wind’s given it a chill.”
He pulled his coat more tightly round himself, but it was too late for that, something in his chest seemed to have gone blind. Once more he summoned up and repeated the Estonian greeting in a whisper, several times, till it had become meaningless and turned into an absurd cacophony of alien sounds.
It was warm by the stove, and the children in space spoke Russian. All of them, boys and girls, got along with one another.
He dreamt of the sky, all in white snowdrifts. They were solid, because – it had dawned on him – they had all frozen over. A spaceship flew among them, trying to navigate its way. But, escaping the drifts, it still crashed – into an ice--blue star that had turned red.
Translated from the Russian by Justin Lumley with the author
Published in THE ALEMBIC (Spring 2012)
“Oh,” said the letting agent, “just as well I’ve remembered. There’s a wandering tomcat too. Do you like cats?”
“Yes I do,” I said straightaway.
“Good, because the whore begged me to find somebody well-disposed. She was even prepared to give me a bit of money for that, but as an honest man I said I’d do it for free – and didn’t even ask her to service me, ha-ha! It seems this stray appears and disappears but when he does show up he behaves like a domestic cat, so you should be nice to him, feed him, welcome him and make him feel at home.”
“I’m always nice to animals.”
“He comes and goes,” said the girl. “I called him Vasya.”
She was a call girl, baby-faced and giggly. She went on and on about the cat: how gentle he was and how, when he came, he stayed for weeks – licked your hands like a dog - and then one day would just leave, again for weeks.
“Why did you become a call girl?” I asked.
She showed me photographs of her ex-husband – a young man, quite dashing (I also saw an emptiness in his eyes) and of her son, a boy of about six, with a pudgy face and an infant’s expression.
“My son’s with my parents in our home town in the Urals,” she said. “I’m a call girl because I fell in love and married an alcoholic.”
“Was he already one when you married him?”
“Getting that way.”
“Why did you marry him, then?”
“He was so handsome, so dishy. Even now when I look at his picture my heart misses a beat.”
“Looks can be deceptive,” I said. “You fall for a cute guy and end up being a call girl.”
I had been very lucky: the couple who owned the flat (off Arbat, downtown Moscow!) were just about to leave - the husband had been posted long-term to South America - when the neighbours complained about more and more men coming to their flat and the staircase being like a Metro escalator in the rush hour: some going in, others coming out. (And in fact, for quite a while after I’d moved in, men went on phoning and ringing the door bell asking for Lyuda and Larisa: not that prostitution was legal in Moscow, but the police seemed to turn a blind eye, perhaps themselves being on the take.) So the husband and wife had instructed the agent to lower the price in order to find somebody suitable they could have a look at before leaving. They did interview me, very briefly, for only three or four minutes – and apparently liked the way I looked and sounded. At least, that’s what the agent told me afterwards: both the husband and the wife said, “He’s nice, he’ll do”.
“I bet after the call girls, anybody would look nice to them who had no lofty pretensions in that line of work,” I said, a little embarrassed.
I had never met Lyuda: it was Larisa who came to talk to me about the cat, on the morning I moved in.
The flat was on the ground floor. About two weeks after I’d taken up residence a cat, medium-sized and short-haired, jumped onto the kitchen window ledge. It had black rings on its tail and legs and was surely meant to be pure silver, but it was dirty and looked haggard and sick. It wheezed and brought up blood. I gave it a sausage to sniff at, then put the sausage on the floor. The cat jumped down and devoured the sausage. I saw it was male.
“You must be Vasya,” I said. The tomcat didn’t react.
“That name’s all wrong,” I said, “I’ll call you Odysseus, because you’ve wandered so far and wide and must have endured so many misfortunes. Odysseus!”
The cat pricked up his ears.
“Yes,” I said, “that’s your real name. We must get you a vet. ”
“He’s got some kind of a URI – upper respiratory infection,” said the vet. It looks to me like a case of Bartonella Henselae.”
“I know nothing about these things,” I said. “Can you cure him?”
“I’m sure I can. Let me give him a shot – a sort of multi-purpose one – and see how it goes. If he stays sick give me a ring.”
Odysseus clearly held me responsible for the jab: he took offence, went into the farthest corner and sulked. However, over the next twenty four hours he gradually got better, put on a little weight and stopped wheezing. After another day or two I noticed a change in his coat: it began to look healthy, and from looking dirty and rough to the touch it turned sleek, smooth, glistening.
And then, just as I was becoming increasingly fond of him, Odysseus disappeared. One fine morning, having partaken of his morning meal, in one graceful leap he got himself up onto the window sill, had a good look around, and, with no leave taking, no goodbye, no we’ll-meet-again, jumped off and was gone.
I missed him terribly.
He came back three weeks later, this time with bald patches on his head and neck. He kept scratching them till they bled; he was mewing piteously. I rang the vet.
“A contagious skin disease, they get them from one another in no time. From what you’re describing it sounds like scabies. I’ll come and give him another shot. I’d spay him if I were you, by the way. If you want him to have a chance that is. Average life span of a stray is two or three years. A spayed cat usually becomes domestic – a pet - and lives its full nine lives.”
“Don’t you think it’s wrong to deprive an animal of his natural endowments?”
“Not when you weigh it against survival. Tomcats especially – they’re always getting into fights over females.”
“I heard they become docile, lose all their aggressiveness.”
“It’s all right, Odysseus, it’s for your own good,” I kept reassuring him as he swayed to and fro, bumping into the cage bars.
“He can’t hear anything, he’s under anaesthesia,” said the vet.
My girlfriend Vera came over. “I can’t make love with this horrible cat perched on our feet,” she said.
“He’s curled up, and not on our feet but next to them, really, Vera, he’s so gentle.”
“I could never understand your passion for cats, they’re so dirty!”
“That’s not true: they’re among the cleanest animals.”
“They rummage in dustbins!”
“But they clean themselves afterwards. Anyway, this one’s completely domesticated, he doesn’t rummage anywhere.”
“He goes or I do.”
I sighed. “I’ll have to think about it,” I said. In fact, I didn’t, I’d already thought. He was staying. Anyway, I’d recently been having doubts about Vera, with her deep-rooted aversion to all animals – dogs, cats, pigeons.
Like a little dog, Odysseus would follow me when I went out for an evening walk around the block. “Here’s our young friend doing his daily constitutional with his cat,” the neighbours would say. On Sundays I’d take him to the park across the road; although there wasn’t much traffic, still I’d take him in my arms before crossing and release him on the other side. In the park he made the acquaintance of local felines and seemed happy to exchange sniffs with them, but he never resented going home. I’d call to him: “Odysseus, time to go,” and he’d immediately rejoin me and follow me to the curb where I’d pick him up again.
He had an uncanny way of knowing whether I was leaving to go far or near – for a walk or to the café two blocks away: in the latter case he’d beg to be taken along. So I started taking him with me every time I went to the café. He always lay quietly by my feet, like a dog. Once, however, a real dog happened to be on the scene – a huge German Shepherd.It was also lying placidly beside its owner, a pretty young girl, in her mid twenties by the look of her. I was also about her age, in my late twenties – though far less attractive.
All of a sudden Odysseus leaped at the dog – about ten times his size - eyes blazing, paws stretched out menacingly. The dog recoiled, terrified, and cowered behind the legs (very shapely legs, I must say) of her owner. This seemed to satisfy Odysseus, who came back and lay down again by my chair. So much for the theory that tomcats lose their aggressiveness when spayed, I thought, and began to stroke him. He purred happily and licked my hand from time to time.
The whole café watched this scene in amazement. People started discussing the events – the fearless and fearsome cat who behaved like the most docile of pets at my feet.
The funniest thing was that upon their second meeting the dog and the cat became great friends and would lick one another.
And thus it was that the girl and I began to date.
In no time we fell in love. Her name was Tanya. She lived nearby, actually. “I did see you on a couple of your walks with him,” she said, “the two of you looked so incredible together that I even wanted to speak to you – but I felt too shy. We should call him Cupid, by the way, he’s brought us together.”
“No,” said I, “he’s Odysseus, the itinerant, the wanderer, and he’s now come back for good.”
Translated from the Russian by Justin Lumley with the author
Published in THE ALEMBIC (Spring 2012)