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.