I PULLED THE CAR into the lane at Kuivastu Harbor to wait for the ferry to the mainland. It was still officially winter, and even though the Estonian islands were already warmer and sunnier, and there was the specific promise of springtime in the air, the waters around the docks were full of heavy pieces of ice, and the orange sunset on the horizon only made the place seem more like the Arctic. I love harbors, and found myself wandering the halls of the harbor building, and venturing upstairs to the café, where music was playing, but all the tables were empty, and there was no one at the bar. These places like Muhu and Saaremaa felt farther away from the war, safer. Still, at the Kuressaare Castle, there had been an exhibition about all of the battles that had been fought out in the islands, and some of the weapons that had been left behind were on display, machine guns and the like. There was also a mannequin of a man in a wooden boat that had actually been used to row across the Baltic Sea. He had an old-fashioned hat, a newsboy’s hat, as my children would say, just like the one I have. The same hat I held onto as I walked around the dock at Kuivastu, hoping for a peaceful spring.
I had been trying to keep my mind calm during the war, but this had proved impossible. For the first week of the war, all I did was check the news, from the moment I woke up until the moment I decided I could stand no more. Work completely halted for me, editors sent me assignments, but I could not do them. Who wanted to read about anything else other than the war? How could whatever it was I was supposed to do be any more important than what was going on down there? People across the ocean were bombarding me with letters, urging me to flee this dangerous part of the world. There were serious discussions about where to go, should we have to eventually escape. When would we know when it was time to go? When the government or the embassy said so?
In the castle museum, we had looked at all of those exhibits about Soviet life in Saaremaa. My children asked me questions. What was a Pioneer? What is a kolhoos? What was the komsomol? Of all people in the world, I was left with the task of explaining this complicated system, one in which I had never lived. There were images of Estonian Communists, of Estonians who collaborated with the Germans, of Forest Brothers, who stashed their belongings in milk containers in the countryside to keep them safe. To think, in some ways this conflict between them never ended. Some people are still fighting. But what was it even about? Why were Communism or fascism so important, that so many people needed to die for them? “Which side were the Estonians on?” my eldest daughter asked me. A good question. Every side. I tried to keep my calm, though the war continued to trouble me. The kids sensed this unease, but calmed themselves by wandering around through the gift shop.
I stared once again at the display with the man with the hat in the boat. Now, with the war breathing down our necks, I started to wonder how long it might be before I had to row across the sea. My neighbor back in Viljandi, a Kihnu girl, said that her great grandfather had helped take Estonians to safety by boat. If we were going to be forced to relive history, would we also be reliving this history?
The hotel in Kuressaare where we stayed had long been popular among Russian tourists, but this time, I only heard Russian spoken by a single dark-haired man outside, who was smoking and who looked like someone from the Caucuses. In the halls, there was a young woman vacuuming. When I asked her about the hotel breakfast, she just stared at me, and then said that she only spoke “vuh-nuh keel,” vene keel in Estonian, meaning Russian.
Another woman who worked in the hotel told me the girl was a Ukrainian who had fled the war. She now spent her days changing beds and sheets, washing bathrooms, and getting updates from relatives who were behind. To think, she had fled here for safety, and yet we still felt afraid too. Maybe soon enough we might all have to get on a ship together and go somewhere to get away from it. Like it or not, we were now all in the same boat.