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 there, I’ve been advised. 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 candlelight. She didn’t even know I went away.