About mother’s arms. An excerpt from the book “Fire Will Not Wake You”. Translated by Margita Gailītis.
-About mother’s arms. An excerpt from the book “Fire Will Not Wake You”. Translated by Margita Gailītis. Latvian Literature Centre (2003)
The news swept over everyone near and far – Florence had not been to school now for over a week. The autumn-touched highway that winds its way through the valley’s pine forests and is smothered in the track hooks of the railway crossing and the loops in front of village doorways, has for five misty mornings remained lonely and silent in that early hour, when Florence’s brother usually drives her to work in the tiny bug of ever-changing colour and shade.
Even Agnes was somewhat surprised. Sifting a cow-chain from one hand to the other, she paused at the milk-can stand at the side of the road and thought of Florence, proud Florence, by whom you could set your watch every morning at seven a.m.
The one to blame was Mareuss, Florence’s crazy, irresponsible brother Mareuss. Florence herself was also to blame. Yes, and Agnes, shameless Agnes. That’s what people thought, but it didn’t matter a bit to Agnes, what people thought. She simply wondered. And that was the end of it.
Hi dear Agnes!
I’ve just arrived home and instantly sat down to write you this letter. It’s really terrible the way things have turned out. For a moment I wanted to hit her. What loving things can I write to you, everything has totally gone to pot. Or else I myself have gone insane. Thank you for the visit, it was lovely to see you so sweet and so much fun, and above all to hear such loving words from you. Truly it felt like a stone rolled off my heart. Everything is quite crazy here. I had a major argument with Florence. About life, work, money etc. My nerves gave out so I left home for almost a week, and besides that, didn’t wish to come here any more. Right now I can’t understand why I’ve come back and what I’m doing here after all that’s been said. You may be wondering where I was, so I have to say I was nowhere, I just wandered around the neighbourhood. Stayed with all friends who would have me. Now I’m back home for the third day already, but I won’t be able to stand it for long.
From morning till night I sit in my room. She doesn’t ask anything, and I, of course, won’ t be the first to speak. To tell the truth, I’m waiting for the day when I can move away, which I will do. You, Agnes, were not even mentioned in the disagreement. I can’t tell you how it all started. Everything all at once went topsy-turvy. I’ll even admit I had been drinking. But not so much that I wasn’t aware of what was happening. And Florence used improper words. Even her tone of voice was odd. I was made to understand that I only sleep and eat here. Ignoring that I’ve gone and worked, wherever she wished – in the woods, the house and the garden. How much more can one do? I’m sick of it. I don’t need a roof over my head and be fed that badly. As it is, these past two years have been a nightmare for me, and I don’t want to put up with it anymore. I’ve suffered so much, Agnes, because of her whims. You can say what you want, but that’s how it is. How many tears have I not shed lying in this bed! How many nights spent without sleep! Oh, I can’t even count them and maybe that’s also the cross I bear. We even talked about that stupid set of china that I gave to a pawnbroker so that I could buy you something for your birthday and go to the pub so I wouldn’t be ashamed in front of you. And she had the gall to tell me that I had thrown money down the drain, etc. I saw red and screamed back at her – which felt really good. Or is it better that she for the umpteenth time spends money to load a table full with books, only to digest them in one night, or goes to a stupid theatre in the city? I don’t know Agnes, what else I should write you. In what she says she knows well enough how to turn everything to her advantage, what suits her the best at any given moment. And her tears, I know them too, and they don’t mean anything to me. She also made a request that she very much would like to talk to the two of us. What do the two of us want – more precisely, how do we want to live. I, of course, said – in the end we won’t do anything to please her. And why do I need to suffer because of her crazy ideas and be the one to blame for all her troubles. I don’t even know how to write all this to you, I could explain it so much better in person. I still don’t know how to live my life from now on, if I’ll have the patience to sit by myself in this room, eating virtually nothing and if she doesn’t say something else that’s inappropriate, then I’ll still be here for a while.
Whatever has or hasn’t happened here, I’m not totally upset by it. I’m even willing to hazard a guess as to what the outcome will be and who’ll be able to hold out longer. Up to this very day my greatest experiences have been with you, Agnes. It’s so important for me that everything be loving and fine between you and me. And what more can I wish for, what right do I have to force on another, what they don’t want. I, of course, don’t force what I want on anyone. I just want to be together with you, I’m tired of this life. Even if life continues like this, if only I could be sure that even the slightest hope exists for us. My energy is not needed by anyone here, because there are many like me who fragmented litter the streets and highways. All the best. I love you very much, no matter what. Only you, forever.
Many sweet kisses to you and gently spank the bottom of all the little ones for me. Ha, ha!
Behind the window in the bright sunlight two white butterflies, clinging together, flutter into view. Through the windowpane a golden square of light falls across the end of the couch. Autumn flies, whose bite is so painful, buzzing, land on the square of light. Florence is buttoning up a red dress. The gold buttons catch fire in the sun.
Outside a rooster starts to sing. Somewhere in the distance dogs are barking.
Florence inhales the fragrance of the sun.
She hides Mareuss’ letter once more in her brother’s jacket pocket. Mother Millija would say – it’s not nice to look for letters in other people’s pockets and read them. Even if the letter was written about me? – Florence objects. Yes, even if the letter was about you.
Of course, Florence knows the ABC’s of good behavior from cover to cover, but she would still rummage through her brother’s pockets again and again, what the hell, she repeats, what the hell!
She opens the door a small crack – Mareuss is sleeping as if on his deathbed, clutching a blanket with stiff fingers. So the two years here have been a nightmare for you, Florence thinks to herself, and silently closes the door.
Her anger subsides, replaced by the recently learned pain. No one sees her any more – would it be the same with Mareuss? Until now Florence has done all she could so that the world would intrude less in their home, but now she feels her strength ebb away, her fingers catch on the gold buttons, not able to hold on to the seams that are disintegrating and being ripped apart.
Mareuss, my brother Mareuss with the light-coloured hair and similar eyes.
She remembers how when they were children, no matter where they went, no matter what they saw – they would always freeze when they heard the roar of a train or the shrill screech of protesting tracks, saw the hazy eyes of the signal lights in the dark distance or smelled the tar of the railway ties.
They both grew up at the far edge of the city, where an iron bridge threw shadow crosses on one’s body. Under the bridge there was a sliding iron platform, which the children had decorated with crepe ribbons. On this platform you could ride from one shore to the other – with tracks and metal slabs overhead, iron-coloured water far below, where small bits of refuse floated in the current.
They lived in a five-story house. Like a scarred face the house loomed at the very edge of the canal. In the summer the inner courtyard smelled pungently of cats. In the winters they crunched on icicles and went out on the thin ice that began only steps away from the courtyard. Occasionally you could manage to stamp your heel just right, creating waves deep down in the iron-coloured water, while the air would crack and tear right up to the sky, and a fine snow would fall from the broken clouds onto their bare foreheads. Florence did not like her dark double under the ice, the one that watched every step. It seemed as if this shadow was waiting for something. Florence played on the shore, because they were forbidden to go on the ice. The ice was strictly off-limits to the children.
The iron bridge was made of two gigantic trapeze-like structures, linked in the air by grey girders. Beyond the bridge stretched the cove of the lake used by vacationers. Over time, like a grey ear, it got more and more clogged with the detritus of garbage people left behind. Tucking her pointed chin into her neck, her thin back curved like a watch spring, Florence collected the garbage into bags, drilling her brother to do the same. Boxes, bottles, paper, bags – rain-soaked, sun-baked, the stubborn and gaudy traces of civilisation that refused to disappear. Above them a white evening, in their hands, black bags. The children laughed and called each other manure beetles. Florence shouts – move! A bag is tied up and presto! – hurled into the reeds. Such odd-looking teenagers by the canal where the water smelled so bad for so long that it came to be called iron water! Such tiny beings with dry, fragile elbows.
The windows suddenly go dark – something that only happens in the autumn. Full-blown colours take on sharp edges. A blue cloud lost in the heavens covers the sun like the shadow of a dead soul.
Grey velvet in the skies, the field without a wrinkle. Her reminiscences disturbed, Florence finds a comb and slides it through her thin, dark hair.
She gazes at herself in the large mirror – how roughly hewn her body is! As if the sculptor had lost his intent to shape from a thin child’s limbs a young woman’s arms and legs – long and awkward like a colt’s. And her backbone too obstinate. Splinters crawl out, get caught in the surrounding room, no matter where she goes. Scars and scratches, and through the tears, oozes trouble and misfortune.
The pale blood of the sun for a moment floods the veranda, but the room remains as grey as before. Florence combs her hair.
Uncle Vasya was an invalid, and moreover – liked his drink. If truth be told, he was a heavy drinker. In the darkening, wet summer night he came out into the yard, dressed in swimming trunks with a white yacht embroidered just below his navel, his only arm swinging about like the blade of a windmill. He asked the two of them to approach him. While their uncle begged Mareuss to lift the clock with the metal clip off the hook and take it to apartment 74, Florence stared at Vasya’s forehead. A semi-coagulated trail of blood stretched from it across his bald head and like the feather on a knight’s cap drooped, caressing his shoulders with fine drops of blood. Uncle Vasya had been fighting with his drinking pals, decided Florence and dragged Mareuss, who was admiring the blue tattooed rose on Vasya’s upper arm, away.
The wounded man, crying, stumbled forward. At the boat dock he fell clumsily and remained prone, sleeping like a gigantic ball of darkness. The brother and sister continued on to listen to music on the Tsar’s fortified wall, discussing and marvelling at how light-coloured human blood was – orange and bright as if from a flowmaster pen – yes, just like it.
The clock swallows another hour, licks its lips and briefly squeals. Florence gazes out of the window at the apple orchard. The black dog is there at the far end, chained up, with his nose searching for wind in his fur, chewing it up. Black cloudbanks at the horizon recall something about snow. But it’s too early.
“O, to take one snowstorm and wind it in a braid, do you hear, Mareuss!” – Florence thinks, – “You’d like that…” Whatever he is, Mareuss is not a coward. “O,”– thinks Florence, – “just tear down this miserable shack! To make peace!”
On the other side of the Tsar’s fortified wall there was a sawmill. There, night and day saws moaned and forklifts whined. Beside the canal a park trampled by dogs and people and the yellow ruins of the Tsar’s houses sat in silence. No one knew why they were called the Tsar’s houses or if, in fact, the Tsar himself had built them. The factory workers’ flats had previously been located in the houses. The factory itself now stood monstrously empty, shattered windows drawn into a sad grimace, letting the wind through at will. The fence could not protect the buildings from the stones thrown by curious small boys. But in the Tsar’s Houses humans and human children still lived. It’s true, it was difficult to be friends with them – that was forbidden. The same as walking on ice. Theirs was rough talk and a bold walk. Florence liked Demido – a boy with fine lips and dark hair. He wasn’t afraid of jumping into the water from the bridge. He once jumped in with a radiator tied to his leg. No one had seen him since. And afterward no one went to swim at that end of the bridge.
Tell me about Demido, the neighbours always asked. What happened?
Mareuss just shrugs his shoulders. How do I know!
You both were on the bridge at that time.
But Mareuss keeps silent.
I only remember the night after Demido’s funeral, he thinks.
Translated by Margita Gailītis