singing canary

ASTRID WORKS at the hotel reception. She is on duty most of the week. She is polite, cleanly, well-dressed, informative, resourceful, peaceful, and, in general, an industrious, competent worker. Her hair is plain, either pulled back in a neat ponytail, or loose. She has a fine manicure and is restrained with her cosmetics. She looks and plays the part so well, it’s hard to believe this is her first hotel job. For the majority of her adult life, she has been employed as nothing. She met a wealthy older Catalan art dealer called Pablo as a youth and they eloped, his hot blood mingling with hers. She lived the well-coiffed life of a housewife with a strong, dominant man who limited her contact with her girlfriends, not to mention any other men. Her twin sons grew up to admire and idolize their patrician father Pablo, so that when this singing canary decided, at the age of 40, that she had enough of the caged-in life, and departed Barcelona ahead of the quarantine, they took their father’s side in the fight and relations are strayed. But she answers the phone dutifully and does not fear the night watch in an old Estonian hotel, widely rumored to be haunted. “The people you have to really fear in this life are the living,” says Astrid. “I’ve no trouble with the spirits. They can come and go as they like.” Sometimes I stop in and chat with Astrid. I order an espresso at the front desk when there is no one around and we talk. I am pleased to know a woman as fine as she is, as forthcoming as she is. She still has some will power left. My will is broken. I am sad inside, because I know the truth. Other people ignore the truth, or take different pieces of it, construct new narratives, apparatuses, but somehow, it doesn’t hang well, the material is limp, dead. How could it be? It was all stitched together from the truth, yet it’s not the real truth. That’s how it is then, my will, my heart, my soul — these are all broken. I’m a canary in a different kind of cage. I can no longer sing, I cannot muster a whistle. I wet my beak and all that comes out is silence. I rock back and forth, but I can’t even bother to find my way out. So this is what I ask Astrid about the next time we chat. How do you find your way out of a golden cage when you’ve been locked in there to sing? How to cease being somebody else’s singing canary? “I went to sleep with all kinds of awful thoughts,” she tells me. “Many nights I went to bed hoping that I wouldn’t wake up in the morning. Then one day, I just decided, this is going to end terribly one way or the other. I told him I was leaving. Then I packed my bags and left. Of course, it’s not over,” she says. “It’s still not over yet. I’m still getting all kinds of death threats. But Pablo can’t touch me here in this fine hotel,” she adds. “He’s far away, and he can’t come here and get me here. In the hotel I’m safe. And besides, we have cameras.” “Don’t worry,” I tell her. “Sooner or  later, he will give up. It takes time, but sooner or later we all give up. When our wills are at last broken.” “Well, as they say in Spain, reality is more disturbing than fantasy. All of these disturbing films and books are like fairy tales compared to what we must endure in life.” Maybe really, I think. Võibolla tõesti.

farther south

KATA DOESN’T KNOW who her father is. Whenever she asks her mother, she gets silence as an answer. She gets this answer in the third floor of an apartment house in a dusty southern town where the sand lies white beneath the dark pines. She gets this answer down the way from the old village, the old church, the old graveyard, and the old grocery store. On the second floor of the building lives Mati. He has a father but he’s in prison, but only for stealing cars, “not too bad.” This is how they talk about Mati’s father. He may be in jail, but at least he didn’t kill anybody. Across the way, there is a playground and a park. Here can be found on most days an older gentleman who never speaks, but derives pleasure in watching the children play though none of them are his own. He is not from the village though — he’s a drifter who has drifted into town. Across the street, a young woman in tight shorts goes about the business of mopping out the stairs to the apartment. She looks happy as she works. Nearby, the old buildings of the collective farm rot in the heat. The head of the local museum is a witch, I’m told, and denies anything to do with Christ. On certain days, she meets with other witches and they eat porridge cooked in a smoke sauna cauldron, then go out and take advantage of the local men. Outside the houses, the old and young men gather and smoke. When my car arrives, all the heads turn, because they’ve never seen this make and model before in these parts. “Who is that over there?” one gestures with a cigarette. “It looks like Saareküla Kusta’s old car?” “No, that’s not Saareküla Kusta,” another man says. “It’s got to be someone else. Maybe Uustalu Mats?” “That’s not Uustalu Mats,” says a third. “Doesn’t even look local. Must be a foreigner. Yes, a foreigner, I reckon.”

ulrika eleonora

IN THE MOSSY verdant Botanical Garden along the river, so lush-humid and choked with greenery and mist, the land in the middle rises up in rings with a crater set at its center like a Roman theater. At the foot of a wooden staircase, a sign informs the most curious of passersby that this was once a Swedish bastion called Ulrika Eleonora, after the younger sister of Charles XII, and the future monarch of the empire. There’s a mysterious charm to these gilded relics of the Imperial Swedish age in Estonia, as if they were all gold-covered pieces of chocolate. I related the story to my editor over wine at a restaurant a night later, and she too, in her blossoming, billowing yellow dress, was surprised to learn the garden was built on the back of the bastion Ulrika Eleonora, and that on the back of this Swedish royal now grow many fragrant flowers hosting many foot soldier butterflies of the Great Power Era, the stormaktstiden. “It is amazing how little we know,” she admitted, “even about those things closest to us.” The wine was summer white, and there was light off the candles and the perfume of happiness. My belly was full of the butterflies too, for the first time in a long time, and my how they fluttered. This is how I forgot all about the little white owls and Icelandic girls at faraway pools. This is how I forgot everything and was reborn into time. I must thank that dead princess one day for reviving the life in me. Tack så mycket, Ulrika Eleonora. Tusen tack.

east indies

IN THE CELLAR LIBRARY, my psychologist dusts off dusty volumes and reads her favorite lines aloud to me. The area is dimly but warmly lit, the air as cool as a saint’s tomb. She wears a long skirt and a white blouse with neat buttons and her movements are wise and deliberate and this is why I cannot restrain myself from at last kissing her. “Oh my,” she says as if stunned and drops the book. “My, what have you done?” Then comes the surrender and relinquishing to the energetic biological flow, and the two warm bodies find themselves joined on the cellar library floor with old prewar volumes piled up all around, stacks and stacks of them. I know she is far too old for me, but she is also so wise and I just cannot help it. There is hair and garments everywhere, and it’s quite a satisfying experience the love making, mõnus, as the Estonians say, nice, sweet. Then it’s over and we have to leave for the East Indies. Our hotel is in a shopping center on some upper floor, the lower floor is devoted to restaurants and electronics stores, and you can get a good discount on some new devices if you want some. I go out to buy a few items, but there’s no grocery store in sight and I am wandering and wandering through the corridors of the shopping center, and then duck into some thatched bungalows next door where hundreds of East Indians live in cramped rooms and the air is thick with humidity and Covid-19. Doors lead to hallways that lead past other crowded bungalow rooms and on to other doors. At last I emerge into the sunshine and palm trees, into the distant roar of the surf, the spicy smell of the East Indies, and make my way back to the hotel, but there has been some kind of great flood and the first floor is brimming with clear salty ocean water, and giant starfish have attached themselves to window glass, baby sharks cut by, as do dolphins which surface and dive, surface and dive. Half soaked, I return to the hotel room weary, but all is well. The psychologist is there by the table with a book, reading in peace. She yawns a bit and turns the pages by candle light. She didn’t even know I went away.

heidi and klaus

HEIDI AND KLAUS were children of the Brezhnev era. They came one after another to a young couple at the peak of the great stagnation. Beautiful northern children with light hair, chubby faces, and rosy cheeks. Heidi, the older child, was a free spirit who liked to play with her dolls and pick berries in the forest. Klaus was passionate, industrious, and at times argumentative with the other little boys. He won all the arm wrestling matches at the local community center.

This all happened in the deep Soviet time, as the Estonians call the end of Brezhnev’s rule, as if the whole of the country was frozen beneath pancaked layers of blue Antarctic ice. There were cold winters and hot summers that lingered, and the amenities of their country house still looked new. In winter, the foyer was engulfed in tiny mittens and boots, which Heidi and Klaus’s young mother Agnes set out to dry before the hearth. In the mornings, she pulled them to preschool on a sled. In autumn, Agnes would take her children mushrooming. That’s how it was. Then one day their mother disappeared.

The reason she left is still a guarded family secret, but it was rooted in some kind of Soviet bureaucratic inconvenience that got too quickly out of hand. It wasn’t until Heidi’s grandfather Sass was admitted to a hospital in Tallinn for a routine procedure three decades later that he discovered that one of the nurses was his runaway daughter-in-law Agnes. They did not discuss the situation, though the information was relayed to her adult children. From the hospital, Heidi and Klaus managed to get their mother’s number and one evening gathered together to call. She didn’t pick up though and they didn’t try again.

I know this story because Heidi shared it with me one morning over coffee at the cafe. Life post-quarantine has continued, and the warm late spring weather has renewed an almost forgotten vitality in the local people. One of our friends at the cafe tables is a woman who ran away from Australia. She will not comment on the nature of her work there, only to say that it was very dangerous and she is lucky she escaped with her life. I imagine it involved pearl diving. “You can imagine anything you want,” says the woman sipping her latte, but she will comment no further. Heidi wears sunglasses and reads the newspaper and drinks her lattes. Sometimes she gives me updates on Klaus, who has built a huge estate in the countryside and is getting a divorce. We share other thoughts. I tell her how I still dream of one Estonian woman from the north coast who ran away to Polynesia. A voluptuous, mischievous, hurricane of a woman, the kind I attract and that always attracts me. In my dreams she is there, swimming in azure waters, covered in tropical flowers, and then she makes love to her boyfriend beneath a waterfall. Then she tells me not to worry about her anymore. “I am in good hands now,” she says. “Don’t worry.” As if that is supposed to make it any better.

“But what is it about her that you miss the most?” asks Heidi.

This is a difficult question to answer. It takes me some time, and I mull over the question and move the froth of my drink around in the sun. “Something about her just felt right. You know that feeling you get when you wake up early and you can almost feel another person there with you? That’s how I feel about her. It’s as if she’s there, but when I awake, she’s already gone.”

“I understand completely,” says Heidi.

“Is that how you feel about your mother?” I ask.

“No, not at all. But I had a dream about that actor Matthew McConaughey recently and it was the same experience. I woke up and he was there beside me, holding me so tight in bed. Why him? I don’t know! I guess it was something a teenager would dream. But if you see some Estonian who looks like Matthew McConaughey, tell me. I will be there in five seconds flat.”

“It really can haunt you, can’t it?”

“Of course,” Heidi says. “I felt his embrace for days after that. It lingered and lingered. But if I were you, I wouldn’t worry about your tropical girl. That dream is revealing something.”

“What’s that?”

“It reveals that you are still capable of love.”

the survival enterprise

ON THE FRONTIER,  a woman I know has gone face first into the survival enterprise. They are planting trees along the property line to obscure the view of the farm by travelers and passersby, the fields have been turned over for crops, and a symphony of domesticated birds plays on from morning until night and again restarts at first light. Brahma, the fattest of the hens, escorts dozens of tiny black chicks around the yard. Named for the Hindu creator god, she has slow, deliberate movements, thick, voluptuous, golden-feathered thighs, and the youth gather around her wiry legs underneath, reassured by her confident mama strut. In the distance, the roosters are crowing, not only to announce the dawn, but to announce the coming of the new age. Soft yellow flowers sparkle in the sun among fat green blades of grass, and the trees are coming into full bloom. It’s a barn yard candy land. This is in the Deep South of the Estonian countryside. The Russian border is a jagged line crossing corners here and there, but on the other side of that border, there is just more forest and more countryside, more chickens and women in handkerchiefs. Few people here have the disease, but there is this idea that when, not if, but when everything crumbles, this will be the safest place. That’s why they need to plant the trees, to keep the hungry travelers away and out of their foodstuffs. This is not an isolated case. All across the countryside here, people are preparing for the apocalypse. They always have been, but now it seems palpable and they can taste it. And now they know that all of that work will pay off and mean something. That’s what they’ve been telling me. There is a brisk trade in chicks, and people circulate the latest explain-it-all theory.  Some people haven’t been to the shop in months, and a van makes deliveries of milk and cheese to the frontier survivalists. They don’t have time for shops because there is so much more farm work to be done, and they still fear the disease. Their only company are vetted visitors who have been in quarantine, and the chirping birds who serenade both day and night. “Isn’t Brahma a good hen?” the woman calls out to her young daughter. The girl stops with her watering can and eyes the bird. “Yes, emme,” she agrees. “Brahma is such a good hen. Just look at her with all of those chicks!”

barceloneta; or, quarantine dreams

BARCELONA. Just the sound and shape of the word makes my mouth water these days. Ever since I did an interview with some scientists some weeks ago, smart men who have been requisitioned by the Catalan Health Department to do disease testing, the city’s name has been stuck on me. I’m dreaming about it. I am dreaming about when I get out of Estonia. I am dreaming about when the floodgates are opened, when we are permitted to travel. When I do, the Catalan capital will be destination one. I close my eyes and I am there on La Rambla, my table full of savory seafood paella and caramel creamy orange desserts and a big glass of sweet red wine in my hands, with the buttons of my shirt open, a sultry breeze blowing in. In the mornings from a cramped apartment in Barceloneta overlooking the beach I finesse an old typewriter and there are journals strewn about full of charts and ideas. I have no time to clean, so it looks as if KAPO has ransacked my room looking for the antidote to life. I’m working on a new kind of fiction here in Barceloneta, a blend of surrealism, modernism, the new sincerity. No more time for little games. I’m tired of the dying old world. I want something new.

You know I’m not alone. We were all frustrated with it. We’ve been frustrated with it for ages. The panic, the disease has only laid bare our frustrations. It is a giant glimmering mirror reflecting back to us what we had suspected all along. We knew everything was broken, yet we were content to step over it, like a fissure in the street. We talk about waiting to go back to what was before, but do we really want to go back? Not in our hearts. Let time then run its course. Let’s see where this goes. Maybe on the other side of this, there is something far more fulfilling. Maybe on the other side of this there is a small table waiting with wine, women, and desserts.

Of course it’s all just a mad springtime quarantine dream. For weeks I have actually been pacing back and forth here in Viljandi, very far from my dream of Barceloneta, exploring every trail, every nook, opening up new worlds and universes I had once been indifferent to or ignored. One day in town, I happened upon a mass grave to Estonians executed for their role in the 1905 uprisings. Around the old walls of the fortifications, I have encountered strange stone staircases that seem to emerge from the grass and lead to nowhere. A local hotel has allowed clients to order food or drink to take away, and there is a bottle of disinfectant to use both before and after.

Last night, I saw a man standing on top of the diving platform at the beach, just staring off into the distance. He was just up there in the evening wind, staring away. That’s when I knew he had it too, the same thing I had. Just as I was dreaming of Barcelona, he had his own delusions and fantasies. One of my American friends has even acted on this impulse. He was visiting Indonesia and just decided to stay. Now he is setting up a new life on some remote island. He’s invited me to come and says they have spare bedrooms. I told him I would, as soon as my raft is ready. I’m reading Kon-Tiki to prepare for the eventual voyage. This is what it has come to. We are not going mad in the traditional sense, no, but there is a weird energy to this new quarantined existence. Something, quite honestly, I had never experienced before but that I also enjoy immensely.

Through the forest there is a path that leads to a dock on the lake. It is here that I come almost every day now and meditate. I lie on my back and feel the rhythm of the water, face the sun, breathe, and sun myself like a seal. I turn over and jot down thoughts in my notebook, the same notebook I’ll take with me to Barceloneta. Today I was there and a young woman dressed in blue arrived through the reeds by the lake. “Do you mind if I go for a swim?” she asked me. “Be my guest,” I said, and tried not to look as she disrobed and plunged into the water. She floated there a while in the lake waters and I wrote about my dream of Barcelona in my book. Then she sat beside me on the dock and dried herself in the sun and I set my journal down and we talked a while about writing. I was so tired of thinking, of searching, of striving, I thought. I didn’t need to go anywhere. Not just yet. Even Barcelona could wait. Everything I needed was here.

otto e mezzo

AFTER THE LITTLE WHITE OWL ceremony there was a euphoric calm for a day or two and I felt the energy of her subside. I took long walks into the forests, photographed dreamy sunsets, concerned myself only with beautiful things while lounging on my secret kai or dock on the lake. Then the radio signals started up again, furious in their intensity. Half the day she prickled all over me like electricity, and then at night the signals only grew stronger. It was like a pounding psychic headache. She, or it, was not happy.  She, or it, was displeased. She did not want to be released. She wanted to stay. At night, I crawled into my bed beneath a plump, luxurious feather blanket and she somehow became three-dimensional, even real. She was sitting there at the Sundhöllin public baths in Reykjavik. She was seated at a table near the entrance and she was waiting for someone as she sat. My body came alive (I had never been so aroused), my lips and ears were red and hot with blood. I could feel her energy all over me again, just as it had been the first night we were together, that thick, deep-cut passion. “Tell me,” she whispered to me with those lips of hers. “Tell me now that you are devoted to me.” “No,” I said. “I won’t.” She was more persuasive then and I gave in to the tide of it. “Tell me,” she said. “Tell me. Tell me.” “ALL RIGHT!” I cried. “Yes, yes, yes. I’m yours! Take me.” Like that, her energy flooded into me and found its home within me again. There was no shaking her then, and this is how it would have to be. Devoted to her forever. Pühendunud. You know, I was kind of sad about it, to tell you the truth. I didn’t want to feel her love. But I did. I just did. At night, to take my mind off things, I watched 8 1/2 again. I watched the boys run off to the beach in their capes and beckon Saraghina. “Saraghina — La Rumba!”  The dark-haired woman emerges and begins to dance.  The boys watch, thunderstruck. Then the monks discover the youths, chase them down, and drag the boy Guido before his mother and before god. How shameful! Utterly shameful! His mother wipes at her eyes. He must seek repentance! Kiss the feet of the Virgin Mary! “Don’t you understand,” the priest tells the boy in confession. “Saraghina is the devil.” “Catholic conscience,” says the director’s confidant in the next scene. Coscienza cattolico. I decided to make peace with her spirit. Her love. Let it be.