Imants Ziedonis // Imants Ziedonis. Nora Ikstena. Nenoteiktā bija [The Indefinite Was].
-Imants Ziedonis. Nora Ikstena. Nenoteiktā bija [The Indefinite Was]. Riga: Laikraksts Diena (2006)
Grandfather Eduard kept his hair shorn close to his skull. Nobody in Ragaciems walked around looking like that. Early in his youth his hair had already turned white.
Once, when the Soviet army showed up, they went ransacking and looting in the homes, confiscating everything. And looking for guns. Father had a rifle from his days in the home guard and even I knew where he'd hidden it in the barn.
While the soldiers are inside our house, I take off to hide the weapon. If they find it, they'll shoot grandfather. It’s up to me to save him. I grab the rifle in the barn and dash to the neighbor’s where two lepers live. They're half-dead already, nobody will dare look there, too scared of catching the disease. I throw the rifle into the leprously infected dwelling and rush back home.
By this time the soldiers are going like the devil himself, uprooting everything in the house and insisting grandfather give them his watches.
Grandfather had three beautiful old chain watches that he'd promised me.
Grandfather surrenders the one but they want the others, too, otherwise they'll shoot him.
And how'd he come to have three anyway? Grandfather replies that they'll have to shoot him then. They take him outdoors, stand him up and shoot. The bullets whiz past. Grandfather is home free.
Once, my mother got household help from Riga. The woman brought her son with her, a boy about my age, a city boy, a sniveling whinger. We took him to task by beating him up, kicking him under the table. We hated his guts. This house servant had brought lots of white handkerchiefs with her. She washed them all and hung them up to dry in our barn. Everyone got a handkerchief from her.
Grandfather never ever accepted a single handkerchief. He'd blow his nose through his fingers and when she finally left, he took even greater pleasure in blowing his nose in his usual manner. Maybe he'd sensed that they were stolen goods. She really was a thief from Riga but, as mother had no idea, grandfather didn't enlighten her. He always minded his own business because he was a free spirit. He never did things but for the sheer pleasure of it. The two most beautiful boats in the whole district were his but God only knows how long he took to build them. The oars were an absolute work of art, not to speak of his water ladle. The two of us were soul mates, although no one else loved him for being like that, hardly ever working and then solely for his own satisfaction and pleasure.
Only now do I understand grandfather's lonely life without a wife. His life had a tragic ending as he spent his last years understanding next to nothing anymore. He'd walk about, get lost, roam aimlessly. He'd go wandering off alone. Somewhere in the forest by Ragaciems. Drifting through the forest in a timeless, meaningless world. A lost eccentric slowly fading away. Supposedly there was something wrong with his head, no one knew exactly what, he'd felt unwell for ages. He hadn't the strength to ever really walk too far from home. The last I heard, they'd taken him to a mental institution or whatever in Jelgava. He'd started cutting blankets up into ribbons. He died there.
Mother refused to talk about it.
On the other hand, I can imagine the beauty of grandfather's fading away. Imagine the seashore. Maybe he didn't see, wasn't aware anymore of the incredible world that I'm talking about right now. Maybe he no longer recognized the splendor of the universe around him. I'm the one who's obsessing about it. He didn't necessarily realize he was walking in a beautiful countryside. Ragaciems is surrounded by a lake, a bog - he'd wandered about in the bog several times. People would see him there and then he would resurface somewhere else. His wandering was based on a misunderstanding, a false impression.
Celandine, swallow-wort. Whole fields of celandine as far as the eye can see. A mauvy pink landscape. Stretching for miles and miles. An infinitely breathtaking sight.
It was full of killdeers' nests. Of course, if he were wandering about in his own private hell, he wouldn't understand the magnificence around him as he'd have lost contact with our awe inspiring world. But what if he did understand? Maybe I'm the one who sensed that? How do we know what really happens to an individual? Where does this innate sense beauty disappear to? I find myself in his situation right now. I'm going to be disappearing and getting lost and neither my wife Ausma nor the children will be able to reach me.
I'd just love to disappear but they won't let me go.
I flee at every given opportunity. It's always been that way. I flee as often as I can.
Disappear and not know how to return. But would I recognize the splendor of it?
It's so difficult and yet so beautiful, all at the same time, remembering how he left this world. But he hadn't really done so, only gone to a sublime world I'm also constantly hanging about in. However magnificent his world once was, how boring he must have found living at the end. Drink was his only worldly pleasure. He was a loner, a recluse.
We lived together but the whole time he felt forlorn. His suffering destroyed him. And then I try to imagine how we could have helped him lead a more beautiful life. It's incredible that he had to live that way. His wife died. Maybe he did visit a woman occasionally, I have no idea, I'm just speculating. When I think of him, I'm overwhelmed by it all.
There are times when I am so happy that he did go roaming. I realized that something was wrong, that he shouldn't be at home, that he'd be better off fleeing from us. We were very cruel forcing him to stay at home. I sensed his despair then. His life as a recluse. I can't fathom it when I think about what happened to him. Where did his wandering take him? Not really very far. He simply roamed about the countryside, occasionally dashing off somewhere else. Crawling into the bushes, when need be.
When I left home to go off to that boarding school in Tukums, I kissed my grandfather good-bye. For the folks in Ragaciems that was inconceivable.
MY LITTLE DONKEY
I’ve got a small donkey all my own. An innate one. We get along quite well, but on occasion I do wonder whether my brains do me much good if I can’t gain the upper hand over that little bastard in me. What’s the point, really? But, at the same time, to be quite honest, had I ever got a handle on him, I’d have destroyed myself in the process.
I once watched a donkey climb a hill and suddenly everything became crystal clear. The path wound up the side of a hill and the donkey kept going at a leisurely pace until, half-way to the top, he just stopped. Flapping his ears, he looked about in surprise. And then, he simply turned around and slowly, calmly, without a fuss, came back down.
There was no denying it. We were truly soul mates and he deserved to be left in peace.
He’d got that far in serene tranquility, just the clip clop of his hooves, and been fairly high up the slope. Then he’d looked around to the right, to the left, in all directions, taken his measure of the world and stood there, alone, surprised, but with a sense of satisfaction. It had seemed he was about to continue his journey upwards when he’d simply changed his mind and come back down. Yes, he definitely had to be left in peace.
I once owned a small donkey. He absolutely hated water but, after tremendous effort and trouble on our part, we finally succeeded in pulling him into the Gauja River. The poor thing fought us for all he was worth, braying like crazy, but to no avail. Why did we force him in against his will? I don’t really know, just curiosity and ignorance, maybe interest in seeing what would happen.
The donkey’s name was Porfirius Picnicimproptum Pontefilando.
Caucasian tourists first made me aware of him. One Christmas Eve at the sanatorium, I’m standing at the window, looking out and there he is. Sparkling white snow and my tiny black donkey on short little white legs. I have absolutely no idea what to do with such a God-given gift. I scurry off to find a way to transport him to my Dad’s in Ragaciems. The taxi driver curses and the donkey brays the whole way but we finally do make it home.
At first, my Dad refuses to let us in. He claims he’s never laid eyes on such a monster in his life before. Eventually though, he relents and takes pity on us. It turns out that he’s still a baby and needs nurturing. We put him in the barn and a cow takes him on and weans him. Once he starts maturing, he lives in his own stall but keeps running back to her whenever he can.
Dad often goes out to sea and brings home his herring catch. I try talking him into using the donkey as his beast of burden. He turns my offer down, saying that he’s embarrassed by the whole show and that I should simply disappear along with my beast.
The silly little creature developed a terrible crush on an old mare. He once jumped over the barrier around his feeding trough and took a flying leap at her. She didn’t find that at all funny and turned on him, something awful. She frightened the little devil out of his wits and he took off down the street, the whole length of Ragaciems. On catching sight of the old mare stampeding the little fool, the villagers at the bus stop screamed their heads off.
He finally sought refuge in a house that turned out to be the home in which the Baptists were holding a church service. At that particular moment two sisters were in the middle of leading a prayer. The donkey dashed into the tiny veranda with the old mare right behind him. They sure turned everything topsy-turvy, including the improvised altar. For the sisters, the little donkey’s sudden and unexpected appearance became a saintly apparition, a benediction. They went to considerable trouble and put in a lot of effort trying to convert him to their Baptist fold.
The little donkey lived in Murjani for quite some time. There he discovered a budding taste for synthetics. He fed on cellulose, cigarettes, nylon pantyhose and various plastic containers. In the garden he only ever favored one rose – he concentrated on exclusively consuming the hybrid White Kennedy. No doubt about it, he was indeed very refined and choosy!
He ended his days at the horse breeding farm in Allazi. An old gelding caught his fancy there and he lived to a ripe old age. I went to visit him once and sorely regretted it. He revenged himself on me for my breaking faith with him. Once I’d climbed into the saddle, he reared up so high and threw me so mightily that my landing almost killed me. I took to my bed for ever and a day and continued to be plagued by health problems for ages afterwards.
He was truly one stubborn little bastard, let me tell you. Like, he’d sit down beside a lady, who’d caught his eye, and then he’d relentlessly spend hours freeing her of her nylons by removing them with his lips! Absolutely no way of stopping him, once he’d set his mind to it.
That cute little devil just loved wandering about in the dark. And all because he was small and black with a white muzzle and legs. Since we were on the same wavelength, true soul mates, we knew better than to ever disturb the peace between us.
I´ve never taken to the sea. Although we lived off it and made our living from it. It certainly supplied us with our daily bread but I never came to love it. To me it simply meant drudgery and constant, never ending, hard work.
My Dad didn´t particularly care for the sea either. He, too, preferred the countryside with its rich fields and verdant forests.
Spending time at the seaside on occasion, now that would have been a completely different story. My Dad and I often took time off to go visit friends in the countryside. Friends and acquaintances who were farmers. Life on the homesteads was particularly awesome at Jani, the eve of St John´s, also called Midsummer Night´s Eve, at the summer solstice.
How their fairytale like world overwhelmed me then. Compared to the one in my seaside village, Ragaciems, theirs was a world of sublime and overpowering beauty.
I marvelled at the glorious scenes before me, the forests, the lakes, the sprouting lushness of the cultivated fields. And the homestead gardens, the orchards in full bloom! Or in the autumn, the sight of the apple trees heavily laden with their colourful, fragrant fruit. This wondrous world mesmerized me and held me enraptured. I was simply enchanted by it all. What bursting abundance, what tasty indulgence it all promised.
Clover fields in bloom. How the fields shimmer, how breathtaking beautiful in their direct appeal to the senses! Here is where I became aware of the presence of God for the first time ever. Tiny insects and buzzing bees everywhere and most definitely, beyond a doubt for me, God was there, too.
Dad was constantly longing for that way of life. When the soviet front was advancing, we sought refuge by moving from the seaside at Ragaciems inland, to the village of Engure. An empty, abandoned farmhouse was turned over to us. It was abundantly clear that the owners had fled. As the new tenant of the homestead `Gunas´, Dad requested and got an additional thirty hectares of land to farm. What a lot of hard work that brought with it - ploughing and cultivating fields, sowing and planting crops, mowing and harvesting.
Dad had barely begun to till some of the land when they came and took him away. The full responsibility for the homestead came to rest squarely on my young shoulders. How impossible it was to get grandfather to do any farm work! It was difficult enough to make him go fishing. He even hated doing that and, time after time, he´d claim he couldn´t go out to sea that day as the wind wasn´t quite right, or whatever. The truth of the matter was that he wanted to head off on a binge. Mother´d have to keep an eye out to make sure he didn´t make off with a chunk of meat from the smokehouse and disappear with it to the pub.
Just as we´d started butchering our pig, Dad got hauled off to a filtration camp. There was no way of getting around the dilemma. We simply had to finish the job we´d taken on. Since there were no men left around to help, Mother and I were forced to deal with it all alone. That was really something, what I accomplished with that pork carcass. It was absolutely phenomenal, if I do say so myself. We had to work incredibly hard and flat out. As it was summer, getting the job done at top speed, in the shortest possible time, was crucial to our success. The enormous sense of satisfaction that filled me, once we´d successfully completed the job, is hard to imagine.
Nobody turned life at that time into a tragedy. It didn´t seem to be anything special. We took life as it came. We reconciled ourselves to accommodating the cloud that was passing over. Such were the times that befell us. What else was one to do? Live from day to day. What will be will be. Look life straight in the eye and take it all as it comes.
While Dad was gone, I learned to do the farm work all alone, on my own. How to plough with a horse. How I suffered in my battles to learn to control that animal. How torturous my journeys back and forth, back and forth, across those fields. How crooked and erratic my ploughing at first. But, in due course, I turned a straight furrow. I even learned to milk a cow.
But the work took a heavy toll on me. While I went through my school of hard knocks, I stretched myself beyond my limits. I lost weight, began to lose confidence in myself and my health turned into a major stumbling block. I refused to give in and, like my ancestors, taught myself the hard way how to deal with all the heavy farm labour. I mowed with a scythe, pitched hay onto a wagon, ploughed our land with a horse and, taking the seeds of grain from a hand-made wooden dish that I carried around with me on the fields, sowed our crops by hand.
The seeds of grain that I scattered to the ground fell amongst dark and roughly hued chunks of amber. The land around Lake Engure was rich with it.
The hard work was backbreaking but the feeling of joy, the almost intimate sense of unity with the land that overcame me at times was overwhelming. How did I manage all that on my own? The folks from Ragaciems came on occasion to help harvest the rye, plough a field.
While we lived at the village of Engure, I had my own vegetable garden. Small plots of cucumbers, tomatoes, salad greens. Everyone looked askance and I was the only one to eat them. But I knew intuitively what was good for me. Even though I was still ignorant of the damage done to my health. I just didn´t have the strength to stand upright at times. I kept collapsing without warning. We only had bacon to eat. Actually, white pork fat. I couldn´t take it anymore. I´d had it up to my eyebrows and couldn´t keep it down anymore.
In the spring and summer I had to earn some money for school. We started digging up seashells and molluscs in Lake Engure. There were huge deposits of them in the muddy depths, layer upon layer. We could sell them to the forester. Unbeknown to me, I was already ill with tuberculosis. It was a hot summer but I absolutely lacked the strength to do much digging in those cool depths. That´s how the whole summer season passed.
Whenever my Mom and I went out selling fish, we´d stay the night at different homesteads. We traded our catch for their plums and cherries. I was fascinated. I came to understand why my Dad had lost all interest in going to sea, why he wanted to till the land. I made up my mind that I´d follow in his footsteps. I´d become a gardener. But, they wouldn´t have me at the technical school of agriculture in Bulduri.
So now you know the reasons why I feel so close to the land. My intimate sense of identity with the land is ingrained in my bone marrow, imbedded in my soul. The land is a part of me.
I´ve always known, for example, that I´d have a good, sound house of my own with lots of land. I knew that most definitely even way back then, in the Ulmanis era. And I gloried in the thought that plum and apple trees would fill my orchard!
I love to be near the sea, sense its presence. But I´ve never wanted to live at the seaside. Maybe what appeals to me is essentially the idea of the sea itself.
I didn´t see God at the seaside but I discovered his existence in a field of clover.
SMELLS AND FRAGRANCES
Smells and fragrances are essential elements in my life. I can recall them very precisely – it’s my unique way of identifying a person or a place. Like the smells and aromas, the fragrances I absorbed and made my own during our sojourns in the forest. My grandfather and I’d go there days on end to collect firewood. These amazing and unusual experiences I closely associate and identify with him. How well I can imagine his later wandering about on his own, preparing himself for his meeting with the Grim Reaper, getting lost there in the forest, disappearing in its vapours and smells and fragrances.
My grandmother put her heart and soul into tending her flower garden. No one came even close to growing flowers like hers. Simply gorgeous - no other word does them justice. Even Mum, with all her heavy workload, took the time to plant and grow a few flowers. Flowers flourished at our house. Lilies, Reseda, Matthiolas.
At dusk, flower fragrances would gently waft over in the summer air and encompass our house. Maybe it was a secret triumph over the otherwise constant pungency of tar and fish that enveloped our fishing village. The wind and birds helped spread the Marigold seeds, turning the flowers into hardy perennials.
Old Brunavs, my grandfather, even though he was a fisherman, kept his own bees. He’d even build the hives himself in order to have his own constant supply of honey. Nobody else in Ragaciems bothered to do that, as they hadn’t the slightest interest in keeping bees. But, alas, the poor little bees couldn’t bear the stench of fishermen and tar. He wanted to keep bees but they, to his great dismay, detested him for the sharp odours that emanated from him. Black pitch was deeply embedded in his life and work. His entire house, all his worldly possessions and belongings, especially his quilted coat. The cutting odour of black tar had penetrated every nook and cranny, every pore and surface and couldn’t be budged. To survive, he and his bees had to suffer each other’s smells.
One of my Mum’s brothers, when he wasn’t at sea, loved to go roaming in the forest as well. He thoroughly enjoyed the smells and fragrances he was confronted with during his hiking tours in the woods. The villagers didn’t do things like that. They thought it more than odd that someone would spend time wandering about in the forest. My grandmother stood guard over her son and would get upset just imagining that he could fall for some sexy broad on the make. He died of pneumonia, like most seamen before him, and at his funeral the entire grave was covered with a sea of red roses – from all those poor dears he hadn’t fallen for.
When my wife and I moved to Murjani, I took the old ropes and fishing nets from Ragaciems along with me. I wanted the smells they still gave off all around me. We ended up unravelling the ropes and had a good weaver turn them into rugs for us. The fishing nets became cushions. My way of conserving and preserving smells – by turning them into useful reminders of our past.
The fishermen’s huts, where they used to store their fishing nets and equipment, were steeped in these smells. Now these huts along the seashore are long gone. At one time, you could stay there overnight. They sure held their charm for young couples, I must say. During a heat wave, you could even seek refuge there to take a quick, cool catnap.
At times, I’m suddenly overwhelmed by the peculiar smell of some ointment or other that my grandfather used to smear on his bald dome. I can’t think of anything in this world that comes even close to that smell.
Now, let’s consider the smells and aromas of hard work that filled the shed where my grandfather and I stacked firewood. Each of the different tasks and jobs we did there I can identify and call to mind by its distinct smell or aroma.
The stripping of bark off a felled tree using a hand-axe produces its own signature smell and so does planing down boards to build a boat. And of course, fresh lumber as such has its own unmistakeable fragrance.
And the smell of a horse! For me, there is nothing comparable to the incredible smell emanating from a horse just after it’s been swimming in the sea! Dad used to take our horse far out across the sand-bars to swim in the open sea and I’d ride the horse bareback. Occasionally, I’d grab the horse’s tail and slip-slide on the water behind him. Dad would put a cork life vest around me and off I’d go, holding on to the horse’s tail for dear life!
How immanent those smells of horse and water still seem to me! Once, Dad forgot to bring the life vest along. The horse suddenly twitched his tail, bucked and threw me off. I disappeared in the deep. Dad was leading at the horse’s head and didn’t immediately realize what had happened, that I’d gone under. All I saw was thrashing horse hooves sparkling and winking in the blinding sun. Were they ever huge and how they twinkled as the sun and sea surged and merged above me. A hopeless goner, for sure. Then my Dad came to, raced around, desperately searching the seabed. As you see, he found me. I was still alive, a tough little bird.
Those horsy water adventures were my greatest joy and I couldn’t wait until the next time we’d take the horse swimming in the sea.
Translated by Ilze Gulens
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