I WAS CURLED UP in a loft bed when she marched in wearing a red dress. I didn’t even know she had a red dress. There was something very courtly about her arrival, and she began to pepper me with questions, most of which I had some answers to. I began to enjoy the question and answer, and slowly came down from my perch and lied beside her on the wood floor, with her dress engulfing the two of us, like rays of sunburst. “It’s okay if you hold me,” she said. “Yes, you can hold me there. And there.” I saw in her eyes that brief flicker of arousal and surrender and was very still and accommodating to my own impulses. We lied together just like that enmeshed on the floor until she turned with a start, one elbow up, her golden hair tumbling all around and said, “You were supposed to tell me about the dock.” I mumbled something, but it was barely an answer. “The dock, the dock. You were supposed to tell me about the dock!” I couldn’t bring myself to tell her about that day though, and she picked herself up and stormed out of the house where her happy entourage awaited. The dock, the dock. One day in the spring I had gone down to the bay and lied alone on the dock. It was a warm day, the fragrance of the blossoms was in the air, birds were crying and soaring, and the sun awakened my skin. The move of the waves below the wood of the dock began to arouse me, and at once, I was overwhelmed by thoughts of her, so that I felt hot both inside and out. The heat of that moment was upon me for a while and then faded away slowly, leaving me feeling as if I had just made love. I walked back through the forest thinking of her, until more mundane things distracted my attention, but I had told no one about the dock incident. I didn’t even have the courage now. Maybe she would get scared, run away, never talk to me again. But she was actually in a fine mood. I walked out the door and into a beach-side terrace where dozens of stripped people lazed in the sun. She waved to me and said, “Justin, come quick and lie down! Mr. Teet is giving everyone massages!” Who was this Mr. Teet? Apparently someone of mark and global renown. Then I took my place beside her and waited my turn.
FOR ME, THERE HAS ALWAYS BEEN an intriguing disconnect between the town of Viljandi and the countryside that rings it. The two seem to exist in different dimensions. The town is bohemian, rambling, quaint. It’s a refuge for painters, musicians, actors, and writers. The land beyond the city is farm country, with rolling green hills and patches of pine and birch forest, cut by almost silent streams. It reminds me of the old Dutch settlements that line the Hudson River north of New York.
Quiet country people live in these villages outside of Viljandi, smoking their pipes at night and tinkering with their tractors during the day. Sometimes you can see them out walking with a fishing rod in hand, or catch a glimpse of an old lady cycling by with a bucket full of mushrooms. The villages have pretty, poetic names. Saarepeedi. Tobraselja. Savikoti. There is one quiet village though that has always captured my imagination. The village is called Verilaske.
I discovered the place when I wound up selling my car to a local do-it-yourself type who lives out in an adjacent village with a less interesting name. He arrived in his work overalls and we went out to his farm to complete the transaction. I remember how I drove quickly through the village and saw its sign. Verilaske? Veri (blood). Laske (‘to let’). A village for bloodletting? There was a stream there too. The Verilaske oja. Set back along the deeper part of the stream were some fine country houses.
Verilaske seemed like a quiet, unassuming place, and I couldn’t figure out why it would have such a name. Immediately, I drew up some theories. Perhaps there was a battle there at some point? Or maybe some quack doctor once lived in the village in the days when they used to bleed patients to cure them? The most believable theory was that this was a place once used for slaughtering pigs.
BACK IN TOWN, I asked around. What surprised me was that even old-timers in Viljandi barely knew the name Verilaske. They had lived in and around Viljandi their whole lives, but its villages were still a mystery. Sulev, the old school master who lives in Viiratsi, subscribed to the animal theory. “You know, when they kill a pig, they cut its throat and let it bleed,” Sulev said and scratched his white beard. “I mean, you can’t honestly believe there was a battle out there? That just can’t be.”
Urmas, a sort of Viljandi hippie king who from time to time can be seen walking with a wizardly walking stick and partaking in pagan ceremonies, knew even less about the place. “I have lived here all my life, and I’ve never been to Verilaske,” said Urmas one afternoon at Restoran Ormisson. “But maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe people who go to Verilaske never return. I wouldn’t go back out there if I were you.”
A FEW DAYS LATER, I drove out to the village to give it another look over. I wanted to see if someone in Verilaske could tell me about its strange name. I stopped my car by the bridge and stared for a while in the slow-moving stream, which had a dark purple, nearly black color, like currant juice. Then I headed down a gravel road, hoping to find Verilaske’s main street.
At the end of the road though there was just a cluster of buildings, some old barns and a main house. Suddenly, a woman in an old-fashioned dress came out of one of the barns and sprinted to the main house. She ran in her dress with her head covered by a shawl, and one hand held the shawl tightly. There was an urgency, even terror, to her pace that bothered me. What was she running from?
When I turned around, I noticed an old cat staring at me. A dirty cat covered in white fur. The look in its eyes was not fearful. It was evil, malevolent. The beast hissed at me. The sights of the running woman and the hissing cat unnerved me, and I turned and ran down the road to my car, jumped into the driver’s seat, started it up, and sped away. The speed limit was 50 kilometers per hour, but I easily doubled that. Verilaske did seem like the kind of place where a man could just disappear.
OF COURSE, I WENT BACK. One last time, I told myself. I had to push this Verilaske experience as far as it could go. On another sunny autumn day, I headed back into Verilaske. I wanted another taste of the village. I parked a ways down from the stream this time and began to walk toward it. There are some young birch trees on one side of the road, emerging from a forest, and I watched the trees as I walked toward the stream. Just then, I heard people talking. The talking was distant, but I could make out words, a woman’s voice and a child’s voice. Some men’s voices. I looked around but could see no one, and even at the houses in the distance not a soul stirred.
When I stopped, the voices halted. Yet when I started to walk again, I could hear the soft whispering. It was coming from the direction of the trees. Those thin white birch trees that lined the pine forest. That’s when I knew I had to leave the village. That was when I knew that Verilaske was haunted.
At home, I decided to do some final research. According to the Estonian Dictionary of Place Names, the origins of the village’s name are unclear. There is a legend connected with the place. Long ago, there was a battle between the Swedes and Russians in Viljandi County. Two high-ranking Estonians also lost their lives. “When Estonia was still spinning in the vortex of the Great Northern War, the two forces collided at the place known as Verilaske. The fighting was very fierce,” the book reported, “and many people were killed.” Due to this blood loss, the village has kept its name to this very day.
THE WANT you get for someone, the recurring want, like a warm and fragrant spring, that primitive and delicious want, and ever more want (and ever wanting more want), the want that sweeps and lingers in the flesh, overwhelms senses, and in a blink fades like the aftertaste of something sweet, a spoonful of honey, a face full of honeysuckle. That’s the kind of want I have.
WEIRD DREAMS, JERSEY DREAMS. I returned to the United States and acquired a home on a hill in New Jersey, not far from a major thoroughfare, but far enough to give off the impression of being in the woods. It was a dark house, inside and out, with some German architectural influences. But I just couldn’t stand to sleep in the house for whatever reason. I tried sleeping there, but no good sleep ever came. Instead I hit the road, to Florida, South Carolina. I was on the road because the house was bothering me. At some point, I wound up in Riverhead on Long Island, on the shore of the Peconic Bay. It was all frozen over, like the Arctic, with huge mounds of ice and an apocalyptic feel in the chill air, and there were buses going this way and that. I had no money, but I decided to ride the bus without paying just to get out to the Hamptons, for whatever reason. Then I returned to Jersey, where I inspected the house. There was a room that was full of old toys and dolls, and another that I just didn’t feel like going into, where all the windows were covered in thick red curtains. I tried to sleep in that side room, but rest wouldn’t come, so instead I decided to go for a walk to the store. I didn’t know how long I would have to stay stranded in New Jersey. I thought of the Lenape as I walked sullenly with my hands in my pockets past vast oceans of parking lots and convenience stores. This was their land and they or we turned it into this? Sure, the bagels were excellent, but where did the Lenape go? To Oklahoma? And would the Lenape ever come back? I felt restless and kept on walking. There had to be some way out of Jersey.
I WAS PARKED at an Olerex gas station with a new red jeep when a jolly woman showed up out of nowhere with lots of freckles and wavy hair. She then demonstrated to me how the back of the jeep could be converted into beds, and it wasn’t too long after that I found myself in her warm lush embrace with lips locked and souls blending into rainbow oblivion. That’s right, the good stuff, all in the back of a jeep at an Olerex in Tartu. That was at least satisfying to my soul. Then somehow I wound up on the bridge from Narva to Ivangorod with Raivo H., whereupon we encountered Noam Chomsky crossing the bridge. “Mr. Chomsky, Mr. Chomsky, I have read many of your books!” He was not impressed and rather a dick in person. He just wanted to go to some Russian bistro on the other side and load up on their greasy Slavic dishes. I eventually lost Raivo too, who felt too comfortable speaking Russian to the Russians, and decided I had had my fill of Russia and had to go back to Estonia. In Russia, it was night, and there was a lot of graffiti and garbage and sad-eyed people seated around cafes and restaurants drinking. In Estonia, it was daytime and painfully clean and painfully quiet. Even the Estonian Russians of Narva were silent as they went about gardening and cycling.
THIS YEAR I TOOK IT upon myself to vote in the American presidential election. It was time to end the charades, the silliness, the scandal. I was tired of rioting, death, and pornographic actress intrigues, and yearned for the hand of some sturdy, stodgy lifelong political player to right the ship of state. Take the wheel, Biden, take the wheel and steer us back into the calm seas of unfulfilled political promises and soaring rhetoric based on some vague nostalgia for the Civil Rights Movement.
For this has been the Democratic idea for what seems like my entire lifetime. They have been running on what has mostly been an empty tank, replaying the greatest hits of the Kennedys. Much is promised from year to year, but the best they can deliver seems to be peace and no civil war. Even in the now revered Obama age, the man himself appealed to America to reach for the stars, to achieve its own “Sputnik Moment.” Yet many Americans were not buying.
The inspiring rhetoric and compromised projects led mostly nowhere.
Instead, it seems the whole country is drowning in seas of heavily armed, mentally confused vigilantes. A pirate crew of them was arrested recently for planning to kidnap the Democratic governor of Michigan. White supremacy, a simmering underground fire in recent years, has burst into white flames across the landscape. Even people who are not Europeans are getting in on it. Social media is soaking in sick deluges and torrents of propaganda. Hatred — of someone and preferably someone else — is the modern American business and business as of late has been good.
This is why it makes sense to vote for a rather average older gentleman from the State of Delaware. Delaware, the miniscule Atlantic state, among the most boring places in America. For in the hellfire of 2020, the Democrats’ boring promises of peace and no civil war actually sound pretty good. We must choose a boring peace, and at least delay or calm the ongoing internal divisions and strife that explode on a daily basis. There is an immediacy to voting in this strange year, a newfound urgency to stopping a narcissistic kleptocrat out to enrich his relatives and turn America into some kind of Latin American family dictatorship while the country suffocates under a pandemic and crackpot apocalyptic militias. The Trumps are to America what the Somozas were once to Nicaragua, watching the streets burn from the comfort of gilded toilets.
So voting is the order of the day. Yet it was no easy task. First, I had to fill out a form online, print it out, sign it, date it, and mail it to my local board of elections in New York, where it apparently is still headed with an Estonian flag stamp affixed, one that I hope might arouse some wonder among the local officials. On top of that, I printed out my electronic ballot, marked the circles with a pen, and dispatched it. This process required me to resurrect some elementary school skills. The ballot was folded neatly inside a security envelope, which had to be signed and taped shut, which was then folded inside a mailing envelope, which also had to be sealed. Somehow Amazon had figured out how to confirm my order for The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou with a simple five-digit code, yet the local Board of Elections required me to undertake this curious, Japanese origami-like art project.
I was undeterred.
Sitting there in a bookstore café, surrounded by pensioners sipping coffee, I had the sense that I was crafting a paper airplane, one I would soon let fly across the room where it might strike an unsuspected café patron in the eye as he was perusing the diaries of Johannes Käbin or Nasta’s new hot astrology book. Yet even these dinosaurs of the Sputnik era could vote in Estonia with their identity cards and a click or two. All they had to do was log in with Mobiil-ID and cast their votes for their politicians of choice. Yes, I thought. Yes, I will vote for peace and no civil war this time. But there is so much more to accomplish once we achieve our long-awaited return to normalcy.
An Estonian version of this article appears in the 24 October edition of Postimees.
LOST ANOTHER FRIEND in recent weeks, not to death, but to marriage. When we are young and idealistic, we take on the costumes and pageantry of relationships without even knowing them, as if engaged in some profound dress-up party, but when you get older, when you observe the mind states of your friends as they evolve or rather transform during the course of their relationships, these occurrences leave room for worry. The woman outside the relationship is open, flowing, free, friendly, supportive, human. The man outside the relationship is bold, rough, adventurous, come-what-may, locked into achieving the whims of his own ego or life force. Yet put them together, and you get a sort of lethargic, post-coital slop bucket of guarded or changed personalities and shared dreams that are all too easily crushed or disjointed. Which is to say, congratulations on your great achievements, friends — and this happens with great frequency in life — but also, so sad to lose you. Up long lanes, they disappear, up long, guarded roads where men stand in trench coats with guns. The militarized estate of the relationship. It’s, as I said, a cosmic depression to watch, especially if your friend has undergone a thorough brainwashing in the wee hours and now can only revert to quoting his/her partner, “Ingrid thinks this,” or, well, “Thomas thinks that.” It’s like the shining of flashlights in bleak vacant windows of a once grand and busy hotel that has now been closed up for the winter season. Come back, friend, come back to me from the brink! One of these days the amnesia will wear off. One of these days you will shine free. One of these days the hotel will reopen.
FLYING ON A MATTRESS by raising and lowering one side in repetitive motion, like a giant wing, we arrived to nighttime twilight Tartu, where the city lights glowed in the distance like coal embers and the sky was gray with plumes of purple smoke. Autumn, cozy autumn, here at last. Cool and cold back alleys between the old buildings. Walking down the ways. There were parties letting out from everywhere, many people I knew behind the warm café window glass, the candles reflecting on mirrors and the sounds of violins and accordions. An old high school friend sat in the corner shooting himself up with syringes. “Diabetes,” he mumbled to me, as if there was nothing more to say. I looked up at the sky and saw the white moon, sun, and north star twirl around each other in some synchronized dance and then shoot off and away, leaving behind mist and tiled rooftops. And then one day, while walking on University Street, a pint-sized ferocious blonde woman with two gray, striking eyes, crossed my path and began to admonish me, but in a playful way, growling. “This couldn’t be her,” I remarked aloud to an unseen audience. “This cannot be the new love of my life.” She only smiled and growled. Ferocious wench. Yet it wasn’t her. There was a young pretty cook who was taken with me some days after that. A fine-looking girl, nothing extraordinary about her but her devotion. She kissed me kindly and told me that she loved me and I melted away into the honey rays of the morning northern sun. It took a while for me to believe that someone actually loved me, loved me just as I am. Or as I was. Or as I will be. Whenever this all took place. What a sensation though. As sweet as sweet potatoes. Unforgettable.
I’M NOT REALLY SURE how I did it, or if I did. Or if it is just another bout of self-delusion? However, the Healer says that our ego often disrupts our natural flow, so that the ego is a disagreeable friend of sorts, constantly bickering with our internal compass that always points the way, the wu wei, telling us ‘no’ while the wave waters flood ‘yes, yes.’ I had it crummy and bad for her for years, but it had to come to an end. Something had to be done to break the supernatural. In her mind’s eye, it was probably all behavior. Words. Käitumine, as they say. Things that had happened, or had been said. Physical realms of possibilities. But … but. But none of that really matters when the love wave crashes over you at 3:30 on a Wednesday morning! There’s a lot of chatter, analysis, but it’s all rather beside the point in the face of the great wave. It couldn’t go on though. It was too wretchedly painful. I had to appeal to the gods to intervene. This was, in all truth, a genuine appeal to the superhero forces of the universe. There was some heavy praying during some performance. In the end, I promised to give my heart to whomever I next saw, which seemed a ballsy move. This was just when the half-Aleut emerged after a brief rehearsal and was hot-struck. Her eyes were all filmy and foggy. It was a weird moment, among the weirder in my life. This is the silent crash of the great wave. The way it comes down, drawing you back into soupy oblivion. The momentary pinprick of celestial light from the cosmos. Later experiments and trial balloons have suggested that this was real and all happened. My ego suggests otherwise. He thinks I made up a new story to believe in. But if we are capable of such story craft, then how come we can’t control our own stories? No. There is some interplay, but the narrative is actually beyond us. We reach for it, we know it’s there, but we cannot push it one way or the other. I’m not afraid of it anymore though. That’s the difference. Once, while returning from a soiree in an English village, I was terror-stricken when I saw the swirling red mist above an Anglican cemetery. Tombstones, ghosts, and crosses. Back then, I turned and ran. I made great haste. When faced with the same spectral light today, I would stay and watch. I no longer fear the phantasmal unknown. I am of it.
I WANT TO TELL YOU about the haunted room. It was in the back of the house. Not a dismal place, actually, but cheerless, blank. White furniture, a kitchenette. It was here though, at odd times in the day, when objects would come to life. The belt, carelessly strewn on the floor, would writhe and rise up, its silver buckle turned to a hissing head. Jewelry boxes hopped happily forward, as if grazing rabbits. They meant no harm. No one believed the room was haunted, but I knew. That’s why I was so terrified to go in there. What was most frightening about the little place was not the animate objects, but the sense of dread that lurked within. There was a green couch in the corner and sometimes I would lie there and try to make sense of things. I would lie there and think of the swimming pool in Philadelphia, the sound of the wind at the glass. How had all these things happened since? Things seemed so honest and good in the swimming pool. There was love in there. And now this? This all had to be a bad dream then. Hissing serpent belts and rabbit boxes? Locked up inside a room of dread. On occasion if I lied still enough, the ghost of the little white owl woman would come and lie beside me and I would feel a fleeting comfort and peace. My soul would at last steam up from me and I would sleep wonderfully and be happy the fantasy even existed. This represented the very pinnacle of my living experience. The drooling comfort before the big sleep. The idyll of white owl woman in a Reykjavik swimming pool. It was all just a blanket, a cover. The belt slept in the corner, coiled. The boxes observed from beneath the table, nibbling. This room was haunted, sure, but there had to be a way to exorcise its demons. Someday, somehow.