Well, you’ve got to have one or two.
IN THE SUMMER, there were two men living in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. One of the men would keep watch while the other slept. I noticed one of the sleeping men one day and presumed him to be dead. The police were summoned to rouse the sleeping man, but he refused to budge from his bed of dirt and grass beside the hedge. At some point though, the two men disappeared from the park. I don’t know if they moved to another park in Viljandi. Possibly they left town. They were quickly replaced by two or three fellow alcoholics, who commandeered the wood bench like Serengeti vultures overtaking the branch of a dead tree.
On occasion, I would see the trio on my way home from visiting a local drinking establishment called Romaan. On one evening, they stood beside one another urinating in the bushes. I didn’t know what to say to them, so I cried out, “Jõudu tööle,” (‘strength to work’) which is the Estonian custom for greeting strangers engaged in activities, to which they replied merrily back, “Tarvis, tarvis” (‘needed, needed’). This is what life was like in the park at the corner of Posti and Koidu Streets. Then Joala showed up.
Jaak Joala, by all accounts a handsome and beloved fellow, known for his Estonian-language covers of American and British pop songs. He was born in Viljandi 70 years ago, and some felt he deserved his own monument in town. The resulting design, which shows his head and hands protruding from a metal column, crowned by blinking, multicolor lights, infuriated locals to levels of fire and passion that were unknown to me. The Estonians are a tolerant race if there ever was one, and not one of them had ever passed judgment on the drinking men who occupied their park, a rather prime patch of real estate in the center of town, no less. Yet when presented with this monument, petitions were circulated, opinions published, fists and voices were raised.
The people were angry.
Once again, it had taken something as innocent as a monument to lure the Estonians out of their homes and into the public arena to do combat. Famously indifferent to their own suffering and the suffering of others, they burst into a rage when a commemorative statue is not done right. I do not believe these are my prejudices in saying so. It wasn’t so long ago that a statue erected in Pärnu to those who fought the Red Army was removed to Lihula in West Estonia, remember.
Then when the government decided to move the statue to a war museum in Lagedi, riot police had to be sent into Lihula, a small town. They were met by angry protestors throwing bottles at them. Two years later, the removal of another statue, the Bronze Soldier in Tallinn, resulted in several nights of looting and rioting, more than a thousand arrests, more than 170 injuries, and one death. Walking through the now lush and fragrant park at Tõnismägi still gives me chills.
These have been my experiences with Estonians and monuments.
Fortunately, the installation of the Jaak Joala monument has gone a little more peacefully in Viljandi. No riot police have been called in yet, and the monument has been visited by droves of sober visitors since its unveiling. They stand and take photos, while the monument plays Joala classics like “Suvi,” (‘Summer’), which is a remake of the 1969 hit “Sugar, Sugar,” by the Archies. It also plays “Enne ööd sõida linna,” (‘Head to town before nightfall’) which is a version of the Monkees’ “Last Train to Clarksville.” They take photos, light a candle, and then go to their homes, where they don’t hear his music.
I live right next to the statue and it is therefore always close to me. It is a strange and surreal sight. At night it glows like a UFO and one gets the sense that aliens have just landed in the park. Whenever I go to bring in firewood or to clean the ice off my car now, I am serenaded by Joala. He is singing “Besame Mucho” or “Suvi.” I keep wondering when the practical joke will stop and they will turn the music off. It seems difficult to imagine that this will never go away. Even when I no longer live in this house, Jaak Joala will still be there in the park, singing and singing.
I’m not sure how my neighbors feel. It is hard to imagine them opening their windows in the summer, perhaps wishing to hear the songs of the birds as they lie dreamily in their lovers’ arms, only to be constantly regaled by Jaak Joala’s ghost. Imagine every day of your life henceforth having to listen to Jaak Joala’s music, whether you like it or not? It almost seems like torture.
In fact, this is exactly how the Americans torture Islamist prisoners at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Play it once and it’s enjoyable. Play it three times, and it’s tolerable. Play it a thousand times, and you will have a mental breakdown. One might suggest that those who live adjacent to the monument find out where its makers live. Then they can pull up to their homes and loudly play old Joala hits at all hours. Just think, at 9 pm, it’s “Suvi.” At 9 am, “Suvi.” Give them a taste of their own medicine. Which is rather a sad outcome for a statue meant to commemorate someone almost universally adored, including by me. Now I almost never want to hear Joala’s music again.
I have to remind myself that this is not really happening. It’s just something I made up. Just another surrealistic vignette in wild Viljandi. There is no glowing alien monument to the singer Joala at the corner of Koidu and Posti Streets. There are no old retro songs playing at all hours of the day. It was all just a dream, I tell you. Just a weird dream! The two men are still there living in the park as they always have. The park is vacant and silent now. All is very calm and silent.
IN THE SPRING OF ’14, my wife asked me for a divorce. Somehow I managed to delay it nearly two years. I read a lot about midlife crises, and thought this crisis would pass. She met all the criteria: a) just turned 40; b) obsessively exercising and investing in her appearance; c) embarking on strange new hobbies. In one of our fleeting moments of still togetherness, we bought tickets to Iceland for Christmas. I thought it would allow us to reunite in the Blue Lagoon. Instead, she announced to the children that her decision was final and I swam away to the other side of the steaming waters. Most days, she didn’t bother to go anywhere with me (or us). Instead she hid in the back room on the phone with some Kashmiri dealer in esoterica named Mohammed. One day we did go for a walk by the Tjörnin during a snowstorm. She said that she would now try to find a new partner, and that I should too. I said that I did not want nor need a new partner. I was happy with the way things were. She was not. My mindset hasn’t changed much since that cold day, nor has hers. In the evenings, I was out and about in Reykjavik, eating lamb soup and relaxing at the Vesturbæjarlaug swimming pool on Hofsvallagata. It was here that I met the girl with the Icelandic map tattoo. She had curly golden hair, witchy blue eyes, and the outline of the map of Iceland inked on her right bicep. For whatever reason, desperate, half-married men with needy children clinging at their sides are incredibly attractive to a certain breed of young female. During several encounters, she gave me a come hither look, or more of a, “Don’t you want to go in the back of the changing rooms with me?” kind of look. So it had come to this, I thought. I had been a devoted married family man for years. Here before me awaited my fate in the form of a twentyish Icelandic youth with a patriotic tattoo. Five years later, I am still wondering if she was the one for me. I have found no one to partner with. There doesn’t really seem to be any reason to even have a partner, beyond sex and companionship. So I return to the girl from Vesturbæjarlaug. Maybe she is still there? Or has she finished her graduate studies in Icelandic literature? Might we sit together and talk about Halldór Laxness or Sjón? Then some time in the hot baths, followed by a thorough and satisfying lovemaking session in a cheap rented room downtown as I suckle her pink young breasts for dear life, glory, and god. Is that the best I can hope for now? Maybe so. Then, when it’s over and her golden mane lies draped across my chest, and I trace the map of Iceland on her arm, I can tell myself, this is what it was all for, and all that is now is much better than was then, and this is how it was meant to be. Maybe I will even tell her that I love her. “Fate!” I’ll declare. “Destiny!” Örlög, as the Icelanders say.
IT WAS A REAL CALIFORNIA day, full of that sultry and sweet autumn weather you get out in LA and the smell of the trees was in the air. The weather forecast had promised rain but not a drop had fallen. Sheilah Graham felt the humidity and tugged at her white dress as she made her way back from enjoying cocktails with Mr. West and his wife at the Garden of Allah. The Hollywood columnist was in finer form than she had been for days, and the alcohol and good company had given her spirits a lift, along with a jaunty jazz number playing from a nearby radio. She was feeling good, I would dare say, even better with a few Gin Rickeys swirling around inside of her until she saw that strange postcard protruding from the mailbox outside her West Hollywood apartment.
Sheilah tugged the curious paper free. It was yellowed around the edges and had a stamp affixed that read, “Indian Postage, 6 Rs,” and there was an image of a steamer alongside one of the British monarch George VI gazing west. She squinted at the stamp and then turned it over. The postcard was of “Chowringhee Road, Calcutta.” Little shadowy rickshaw men hustled alongside luxury automobiles down a British Raj street. Then she turned it back over again.
“Oh Sheilah. So sorry to leave you this way, but I’ve gone to the Himalayas with Pearu and Julius. If any debtors inquire about my whereabouts, kindly inform them that I am dead. Please understand that this happened quite suddenly. I will write again soon when we reach Thimpu.All my love. From Scott F. in Calcutta”
Sheilah Graham collapsed violently onto the pavement beside the mailbox and held the postcard against her soft breast. A young policeman happened by just at that moment and helped the pretty blonde in the fine dress up. She smoothed out the dress but still couldn’t say anything, couldn’t muster a word, no matter how many times the policeman asked her what had happened and if she was going to be alright. All she could do is stare into the maze of palms that lined the street and sob.
LIKE MOST TERRIBLE THINGS, it had started with Hemingway. That braggart, boozer, and baller had come blustering into town a few weeks prior with his jet set of hangers-on, sycophants, adorers, and brownnosers. Scott said there was a reason Mr. Hemingway’s work never progressed past his early achievements in minimalism — there were too many yes-men and yes-women around telling him that every sentence that dripped from his fingertips was gold.
They holed up at the Garden of Allah back apartments and soon it was like in old Parisian times. Parties that shot through the dawn into the late morning. Smoke-filled rooms. Girls of eighteen. Empty bottles of tequila strewn about the legs of chairs. This time, Hemingway had with him two European correspondents he knew from his life as a fisherman in the Caribbean. Characters from the Keys. Sullen, wiry, muscular types, both with tightly cropped yellow beards and haunting blue eyes. They wore woolen fishing caps, even in the California heat, plus clunky hiking boots. They were from a place called Esthonia, they said, a country up the Baltic that had fallen to the Bolsheviks. “And we have no way to get back,” they said. “And there is no way they would ever let us in.”
“You boys can’t go back,” Hemingway shouted at them. “Stalin will have you both shot when what you really need is another shot! Here, drink up,” he poured them both a vodka. “It will do you good.”
Scott had partaken of the Esthonian vodka, perhaps the last Esthonian vodka anyone would taste in California for some time. One of the Esthonians, the one named Pearu, called it Tulivesi, “firewater.” Hemingway wanted to take them down to Tijuana on a Mexican spree, he said, but Pearu announced he had no intention of going. Instead, he unrolled a map of the British Raj on the table in the morning sunshine. He smoothed out the folds of the map and pointed.
“There are some cargo ships still sailing from Los Angeles to Calcutta in India,” he said. “The Japanese have blockaded the Chinese ports and there are German subs in the Indian Ocean. But. But you can still get to India if you want to and I intend to see this part of the world before it’s impossible! If it’s true what they say and our old world is ending, then that’s exactly where I’m going.”
“But why?” scoffed Hemingway. “You’ve got all the tequila and lemons you need right here.”
“To see His Holiness the Dalai Lama, of course,” said Pearu. “To seek enlightenment.”
Hemingway squinted at Pearu and then at the bottle, then chuckled. “How strong is this stuff?” Julius, the quieter Esthonian, answered from the corner. “Very strong, sir.” That was all he said. Pearu squatted over the map marking his route. Scott Fitzgerald watched the Esthonian from a chair. He was hungover, weary, and soul-broken, but for the briefest moment he was quite intrigued.
Many of life’s big decisions happen in these kinds of hungover, soul-broken moments.
THE SECOND POSTCARD arrived two weeks later. Sheilah Graham was making herself a Gin Rickey in the kitchen and listening to the radio when she heard the flap of the mailbox and went out to check. This latest dispatch from her love also had a stamp of King George VI’s face on it looking west. This time it was postmarked “Bhutan” and had a photograph of a temple inscribed Rinpung Dzong.
Her hands shook as she turned it over and began to read the message. It was written in small characters so that Scott could relate as much of the terrible tale as he could on the back of the card. The Esthonian Julius was dead, Scott reported. A severe fight had broken out with some Sherpas in the foothills of the mountains, one that Scott in part had admittedly instigated after they refused to return the men to their lodgings at the Royal Hotel in Thimpu for what he thought was a fair amount of rupees, and Julius had his head split open with an ax. As such, he and Pearu were no longer on speaking terms much, but they agreed they would press on as far as Lhasa with the hope that the Dalai Lama could resolve their differences. It ended, “All my love. From Scott F. in Bhutan.”
This time Ms. Graham did not collapse on the ground. She sipped her gin and made plans to send word to Scott’s agent, Mr. Perkins in New York. Max would know what to do about this. The new material was just too good really. Why, it could save his career and make them both very, very rich.
MAYBE, IN SOME OTHER REALITY where Scott came crawling back to LA as the old Scott, with his drink and cigarettes and Hollywood hack jobs. But what Scott hadn’t relayed in his latest message to Sheilah was that he could no longer actually send all of his love to her or to Zelda in Alabama for that matter. There was a new woman in his life, a different woman who had evaporated all his dying elements. This new woman’s name was Sonam. She was a Tibetan wanderer who promised to take Pearu and Scott over the mountains to where they could bask in the flowing grace of His Holiness.
To Lhasa! To enlightenment!
They had met this Sonam in one of the many raucous tea houses that lined the back alleys of Thimpu, filled with mountain men and surly women and the bottommost dregs of British society, all of whom were running from something. Scott fit in splendidly. He had quite enjoyed the comforts of the British in the hotels and on the trains the trio had used to get up into the mountains. He had enjoyed the tea and the local brands of cigarettes, which he puffed at while reading the paper, watching the valley landscapes roll by. He had savored the taste of the spicy samosas the porters sold along the way. Scott liked the East in the same way that he had once enjoyed the perks of Paris or the Riviera. He was still a world class writer and expected to travel world class. Yet one look from the dark deep eyes of Sonam had put an end to that life. He was stricken by Sonam, not only by her looks, but by her illimitable soul. He yearned to be closer to her and as close to the core of her soul as any man could get.
“This woman, this strange woman just like a ghost,” he wrote in his journal at night. “She appears as if out of nowhere and yet at all times is everywhere with me.” “But I am always here,” Sonam had said to him in her charming soft way. “And even after I am gone from this earth, I will still be here.” She had volunteered this thought. Or maybe she was trying to teach the white men something?
Pearu also liked Sonam. He liked her name especially, which he said sounded like “message” in his lyrical Esthonian tongue. Yet Pearu was a loyal man. He carried with him a photo of a young university student named Iiris, whom he hadn’t heard from since the Soviets seized possession of his sacred homeland. It was of Iiris whom he dreamed, not the Tibetan. Pearu noted a strange but distant kinship between the Esthonians and Tibetans, an unconscious congruence that held them along the same celestial path or underground lines of belief. He felt as if Sonam was his lost sister, he said. He proclaimed the Tibetans and the Esthonians were once the same nation. “Don’t you get it, don’t you see, you idiot American!” he said. “Sonam is the messenger from His Holiness himself!”
Pearu was no longer upset about the loss of Julius at the hands of the ax-wielding Sherpas either. He was just as invigorated by the mountain air, this life. He was changing. Besides, Esthonians didn’t lose much sleep over such things. Noh, sitt ikka juhtub, he grumbled to Scott. “Shit does happen.”
He and Scott were friends again, of a sort. Tomorrow, they agreed, would be another day.
WHEN THEY AT LAST beheld Lhasa, they were newborn men. Pearu had been stronger and more prepared for the arduous journey over the mountains when they set out, those daily bowls of rice and dal, or dried yak meat and fermented milk. Scott had taken along his complete works in his knapsack and traded copies of This Side of Paradise and The Beautiful and Damned for a meal or lodging along the long way. The Tibetan did not feel it necessary to inform the proud American that the locals would most likely use his novels for toilet paper. Along the way, without cigarettes or alcohol in his life though, Scott magnificently regenerated. He had more air in his lungs, more vigor than ever. His libido also became stronger, fiercer, terrific. By the time the rooftops of Lhasa were visible, Sonam was already pregnant with his child. Sonam looked at Scott and rubbed her belly.
The child Lama received the strange bearded mountain men — for by now, Scott had a beard — with the grace of which they had expected and dreamed. Pearu soon became a respected monk in Lhasa and would meditate daily for the death of Stalin and the restoration of the Republic of Esthonia.
Scott F. meantime became the editor of the regional English-language newspaper called The Daily Om and began to publish a variety of fiction under various pseudonyms, never wishing to again capitalize on his old fame. That was the old Scott, he told Sonam, the dead Scott, a man who used to be a drunk, a Hollywood hack, a deeply lost and troubled soul, but who at 44 was reincarnated.
For not all deaths are so final in this life. Each life offers us many smaller deaths to prepare our souls for the one big death, just as it offers us smaller births to remind us of the first.
As for poor Sheilah Graham, she never received another postcard from her beloved Scott F. again and presumed him to be deceased for real. Max the agent decided that a fake death might renew interest and lead to a spike in pre-Christmas sales. A lookalike Irish hobo named Willie was discovered dead one morning and passed off to the coroner as the corpse of the great Fitzgerald. He was mourned by few and interred in Baltimore as we all know, or believe we know. A classic case of misspent talent, they said. His books were revered and still are. Today, he is respected, not pitied.
Nobody knows how the new Scott, the real Scott died, though he surely is no longer among the living. It is rumored that he continued to work in Lhasa until the Chinese invaded and then escaped with the exile government to India. Anecdotal evidence holds these rumors to be true. Various Western mountaineers seem to recall an aging American writer living in the Himalayas for decades, raising a brood of mixed-blooded children, sturdy of build and sacrosanct of mind, devoted to his sacred craft.
It is also said that if you read enough of some of the more impressive works of fiction published by various expatriate regional authors into the 1960s, you can detect here and there that telltale turn of phrase, that startling ring of poetry, that could only have come from his talented hand.
Scott never regretted his decision, you know. He said the time had simply come for him to develop greater perseverance in his practice, as is written in The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And yet thanks to that singular opportunity, he was able at last to attain what had eluded him for so many years, the beatific state that many call nirvana, which means an everlasting bliss.
Dedicated to the memory of the great F. Scott Fitzgerald, who died 80 years ago at the young age of 44, and missed too many opportunities for rebirth.
The Icelandic novelist Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, better known to the world as Sjón, has been one of my favorite discoveries in recent years. I picked up his 2003 novel, The Blue Fox, in a library in New York, and was intrigued by his spare style, but it was his next novel The Whispering Muse (2005) that made me a fan. I bought an autographed copy of this book, as well as Moonstone (2013) in bookstores in Reykjavik a few years ago. Happily enough, I also discovered a discarded copy of From the Mouth of the Whale (2008) in a Viljandi second-hand shop called Sahtel recently. Sjón’s work is simple, elegant, intricate, and thought provoking. He is capable of writing historical fiction — the story of a gay hustler set in 1918 (Moonstone) or an exiled healer set in 1635 (From the Mouth of the Whale) — but with depths of emotion and understanding. The ideas and images in his novels linger for some time and perhaps forever.
The best and most innovative bands are always the sums of their equal parts. Think, of course, of The Beatles, who thrived as a whole, but produced rather less inspiring records as solo artists. Black Bread Gone Mad is one of these bands that benefits from across-the-board excellent musicianship. They have a stellar violinist (Lee Taul), whose diminutive size conceals a striking, all-powerful vocal range; a fluid bagpiper, flutist, and vocalist (Merike Paberits) who also packs incredible conceptual artistic talent; a hell of a guitar player (Peeter Priks), who brings rock theatrics into the mix; an accomplished and funky bass guitarist, one of a handful to fully understand the nature of instrument (Mati Tubli); and a drummer (Martin Aulis) who is a goddamn animal. They have a gift for blending pop sensibilities, world music influences, and the better aspects of jazz improvisation. And unlike many folk groups to come out of Viljandi, who prefer an understated, almost shoe-gazing aesthetic, they put on a fantastic live show. At the moment, they are headed into the studio, but watch out for them when they come back on tour.
While the world waits for the theatrical release of Wes Anderson‘s latest film, The French Dispatch, which has been delayed multiple times due to the ongoing COVID-19 Pandemic, I think it’s worth revisiting some of his earlier films. One that had a major impact on me as a college student was 1998’s Rushmore, which is always a joy to visit, and again The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), which I watched obsessively during a period of great change in my own life, so much that I began to feel that I lived more in the film than reality. Yet the real treasure is Moonrise Kingdom (2012), which tells the story of two young lovers who run away into the woods in the summer of 1965, and is magnificent from beginning to end. I know that during the winter I will be watching this film again and again, not only because it is so much fun to watch, but because it demonstrates Anderson’s genius — and it can only be called that — as a filmmaker.
When people hear that I am from New York, they often assume that I am some big city boy, but I actually grew up in a sleepy village on the Atlantic coast called Setauket. I refer to it, among Estonian friends, as the Saaremaa of America. The name comes from an Algonquian word that means where the waters meet. This is also the setting for an excellent show called TURN: Washington’s Spies (2014-2017), which details the true story of an American spy ring during the American Revolution. What I love about this show is that it does justice to the violence and intrigue of the Revolution. There is one scene where the protagonist, a farmer turned spy named Woodhull, is assaulted by British soldiers on a country road at night. The silhouettes of the soldiers with their tri-cornered hats laughing as they kick him in the dirt continues to haunt me. This is a period — the late 18th century — that Estonians tend to ignore, with their focus on the prewar era and again on the cultural awakenings and Singing Revolution of the 1980s. But watching it might inspire them to become more curious about other obscured parts of their past.
An Estonian-language version of these recommendations appears in the winter edition of the magazine Edasi.
DON’T ASK ME why I keep returning to Portland in my sleep. Yes, that one in Oregon where all the hipsters dwell. A different kind of people out there, or rahvas, the Asian influence for sure, but the base, the foundation, is proselytizing, starry eyed milk-white Northern Europeans, the radical cousins of the Utah Mormons, who long ago arrived wearing bonnets and beaver-skin hats and bearing soon-after discarded Bibles, wagon after wagon they arrived in droves and then turned the place into a sink pot of radical politics, rusty bridges, vegan bistros, and such. The Oregonians again, and there I am again, lost in the downtown, hands in my pockets strolling past tea houses and book shops. Hmm. And my parents came this time too, and are up a long driveway at some secluded home with her parents? Yet I don’t feel like taking a car back to the house, I would rather walk around, you know, get a good soak of the place, use my legs. I come out of the downtown and then suddenly there is wilderness all around, the ground barely visible for the ferns that crowd it, lush green, but also unfamiliar, maybe even dangerous. I see colors underfoot, but it turns out these are wild gourds growing in the underbrush, speckled in orange, black, and white, like poisonous snakes but tame. Finally, I arrive back to the neighborhood, built high on sand dunes, like the old writers’ cottages of the dunes outside of Provincetown, and there is even an ocean wind in the sand toying with the dunes. This is the neighborhood called Quito, I remember now. After the capital of Ecuador. And there’s the house. That old gray house. Time to go in.
MY ON-THE-SIDE reading these days has been Carolyn Cassady’s Off the Road, her harrowing account of a life spent with madman Neal Cassady, the worldly inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s Off the Road, as well as Cody Pomeray in Visions of Cody. Neal Cassady, the “archetypal American male,” whose honey on the East Coast calls his wife Carolyn on the West Coast to inform of her pregnancy (and the accompanying shock, for only she, Carolyn, should have been the one to carry his potent seed). This street urchin of skid row slums, pool houses, bus stations and bus station toilets, penning pretentious letters, skulking around bedding teenage girls and hunting for used cars while knocking up multiple women and plundering poet Allen Ginsberg on the side (and listening to the ball game on the radio — dirty Neal was obsessed). Neal Cassady apparently had sex with anything that moved, making him a wise choice of material for the sagacious Kerouac, himself then just an upstart wannabe Thomas Wolfe trying to break into a heavily gay literary establishment where you had to sleep around to get anywhere (Capote, Vidal), and here come the beatniks roaring in with their Mexican prostitutes, zen, yab-yum, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Somewhere along the lines there is a schism though as Kerouac turns to the Buddha (“the root of suffering is desire”) which overlaps with his French Canadian Catholic upbringing to cast away sin, and the Cassadys are deep into Hinduism and, well, they just can’t see eye to eye. I am reminded too much of my high school days, all these would-be men and women of the world sitting at diners at the edge of the universe contemplating such big things over steaming cups of black coffee with no particular place to go. I feel as if I went to school with Neal, that maybe he was a year or two older, maybe class of ’96 or ’97, and maybe he was in my chemistry class too, and never showed up for class except to take the final exam (which he miraculously aced), or if he did show up, he had his hoodie pulled up and was listening to The Bends on his Walkman. Such are the Neal Cassadys of the world. They are always there alongside you for the wild ride. Until one day they are not.
GUSTAF IS AN EXILE Estonian. He was born in Sweden and went to sea as a teenager. He worked a line from New Orleans to Calcutta, but also more local work, transporting lumber from Finland to West Germany. He worked all up and down the coast, and in his own words, had two girlfriends waiting for him in every harbor. Some would turn up by coincidence when he arrived, with others he maintained a fleeting correspondence of letters or postcards. These literary courtships might last six months or so. In this way he learned to understand the flow of the water of life. He still remembers one of these port honeys though, a local youth by the name of … the name of? He puts his palm to his forehead and the words thus escape his lips like a long-forgotten prayer. B I R G I T T A L I N D S T R Ö M. That was her name. “Birgitta Lindström! She was the most beautiful being I have seen. And all we did was hold hands and kiss. We walked through the twilight of summer in Vaasa holding hands, and reclining beneath the trees in the parks. It never became dark there, never fully dark.” Gustaf pauses and I am amazed that after nearly 60 years, he still remembers her name. You would think she would be long erased, but she still managed to flutter out of his memory and land on the ground, like an old photograph. I imagine she had curly hair and was quite voluptuous and gentle. But that is just my Birgitta Lindström. Maybe she was tall and lean and a firecracker. His Birgitta. Then we wonder. We wonder together what has become of Birgitta. I imagine she must be a grandmother now, if she is still alive. I hope that she is alive with a large brood of grandchildren gathered about her apron and that her Vaasa kitchen smells of fire, timber, pine and gingerbread. Then I realize that I will never forget my own Miss Lindström. You think she would fade from mind, but no, she is still there in the morning hours. You can feel the weight of her beside you. Then, with the first gray light of a December day, she’s vanished to the past. Those kinds of memories never leave. They linger.
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.