Last month we got the news that Kaija Straumanis—our editor and graduate of the University of Rochester’s MA in literary translation program—had won the AATSEEL1 Award for the Best Literary Translation into English for her translation of Inga Ābele’s High Tide.
As part of their annual conference, ATSEEL held their award ceremony just this past Friday in Austin, TX at the AT&T Conference Center on the University of Texas Campus. (Which was a pretty swanky building. Maybe ALTA will end up having their conference there someday . . .)
Anyway, here’s a picture of Kaija after she won:
And here’s an image of the citation for the award:
This year’s AATSEEL Award for Best Literary Translation into English goes to Kaija Straumanis for High Tide, her translation of Inga Ābele’s Latvian novel Paisums. The judges—Ellen Elias-Bursac, Vitaly Chernetsky, and Joanna Trzeciak Huss—read and reviewed 38 books published in 2013 and 2014. After careful deliberation High Tide rose to the top. Spanning nearly four decades and told in reverse chronological order, Ābele’s High Tide is a bracing, honest, existentialist exploration of the protagonist Ieva’s psyche and the constellation of emotional presences in her life. The novel takes us backward in time from post-Communist Latvia through the time of the Awakening and ultimately to the Communist period. What impressed the judges about Kaija Straumanis’s translation is the lyrical quality of the lines. This is a novel that reads like poetry. Logic is given a long leash in a prose that is evocative and electric. Ābele’s is a performative prose in which words call for one another, and Straumanis succeeds in finding the words that both issue and answer that call. But just as resonant as the language of the novel, is the depth of the emotions it portrays and elicits. In one of High Tide’s most powerful and moving passages, we are given access to the thoughts of Ieva’s grandmother, deprived of her voice by Alzheimer’s. Her deepest desire is simply to feel the warmth of a human body. In “The Attack”—the chronologically, thematically, and structurally central part of the book—a western journalist issues a verdict on Eastern and Central Europe, that when the Iron Curtain fell there was nothing behind it, no literary masterpieces hidden in drawers, no sacred resources. This novel is one long counter to this verdict. The sacred resources of Eastern Europe are lives deeply lived, felt, and shared, a set of which crisscross in these pages, and are brought to us through two women, the writer and the translator. Indeed, there are moments in this book when one feels completely connected, when it is as if “in a brief flash, you realize that you understand the author, the main character, and the life of the translator. For a second all three of these persons unite in you.”
Congrats to Kaija for winning this award. It’s especially cool that this was her thesis project at the U of R. I’m sure that for years and years she will continue to introduce English readers to more excellent books from Latvia.
To celebrate this award (which isn’t really Kaija’s first, but is the first for one of Open Letter’s books!) from now until Sunday, January 17 at midnight, we’re offering High Tide for 30% off. Just click that link and use HIGH TIDE at checkout.
1 AATSEEL is the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages.
Kaija Straumanis (our editor!) has won the 2015 AATSEEL award for the Best Translation into English for her translation from the Latvian of High Tide by Inga Ābele!
This isn’t on the AATSEEL website yet, but it was shared on the listserv, so I’m deciding that it’s public knowledge.
I’ll say more about the book in a minute, but first, I encourage you to click on that link above and see the competition that Kaija was up against. In terms of translators, Ellen Elias-Bursac, Marian Schwartz, Sean Cotter, Bill Johnston, Ross Ufberg, Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Eugene Ostashevsky, and many more were finalists. Basically the cream of the crop when it comes to Eastern European and Slavic translators!
And the other authors! Books by Dostoevsky, Marek Hlasko, Vasily Grossman, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Tolstoy, are all on the list.
To be honest, I have no idea how this award is judged—based on the translation alone, or a combination of book and translation like the BTBAs. Either way, it’s amazing that Kaija and Inga won!
In terms of the book, here’s our jacket copy:
Told more or less in reverse chronological order, High Tideis the story of Ieva, her dead lover, her imprisoned husband, and the way their youthful decisions dramatically impacted the rest of their lives. Taking place over three decades, High Tide functions as a sort of psychological mystery, with the full scope of Ieva’s personal situation—and the relationship between the three main characters—only becoming clear at the end of the novel.
One of Latvia’s most notable young writers, Ābele is a fresh voice in European fiction—her prose is direct, evocative, and exceptionally beautiful. The combination of strikingly lush descriptive writing with the precision with which she depicts the minds of her characters elevates this novel from a simple story of a love triangle into a fascinating, philosophical, haunting book.
It’s also worth noting that this was Kaija’s MA thesis here at the University of Rochester, which makes this all that more special, I think.
Everyone should send Kaija a congratulatory email, and purchase a copy of the book. If you buy it through out website, use the code “BookSeason” at check out and you’ll receive 40% off!
This is turning into a great week for Open Letter, our books, and our staff!
The new issue of World Literature Today is now available, and filled with great stuff (an interview with Anne Carson, feature on Naomi Shihab Nye, profile of 2014 Neustadt International Prize for Literature winner Mia Couto, a feature on Arabic books for teens), but in addition to the magazine, WLT has an outstanding blog and just today ran a feature on Open Letter author Inga Ābele:
Inga Ābele, born in 1972 in Riga, has written plays and screenplays, collections of poetry, stories and novels. Her play Dark Deer was staged in Latvia, at the Stuttgart State Theatre, the Bonner Biennale, and in Greece, being made a feature film in 2006. Iron Weed was staged in Latvia, Denmark, and Finland; Jasmine premiered in Latvia and was staged in Lucerne. Her poetry collections include Night Pragmatist and a collection of prose poems, The Horses of Atgazene Station. Her 2001 novel, Fire Will Not Wake You, was published in Lithuanian in 2007. Her story collection Notes During the Time of Snow won the Annual Award for Literature in 2004, and another collection, Still Life with Pomegranate, was published in French translation in 2005. Ābele’s 2008 novel High Tide was published in in Swedish translation in 2009 and in English translation in 2013.
I’m going to interrupt here to remind you that Open Letter was the press that published High Tide, and it was translated by our editor, Kaija Straumanis.
In other words: You should really buy this book. (You can even get the ebook directly from our site for a mere $9.99.)
This interview is as much about Inga’s life out in the country as it is about Lativan literature, but, and I’m sure Kaija can back this up, Inga’s living arrangement sounds pretty ideal:
Seven years ago Ābele left Riga to live in deep in the forest near Sigulde, site of an ancient castle, with her hot-air balloonist partner, Gunars Dukste. [. . .] They live on a smallholding that belonged to a baron in the 1800s: wild boars come at night to dig up the lush grass with their snouts and eat it. A tower is set up for a neighboring hunter who hasn’t had any luck yet. They’ve built a perfect, snug house on the foundations of what was once the cattle shed, with the weathered old outbuildings still standing about, a great stack of wood ready for winter. Gunars takes haunting photos of the countryside of Latvia while floating over it.
Another interruption: Gunars’s book of hot air balloon photos will be available in English in the not-too-distant future. (Kaija also translated this.) More info on that in a future post.
And finally, about Inga’s forthcoming books:
She is finishing up a novel titled The Wicker Monk, which has been three years in the writing. The “wicker” in the title comes from the way in Latgale, where the protagonist lives a life of celibacy, everything is woven together for strength, large families hold together. After that she has a contract to write a historical novel about collectivism in the 1950s in Latvia, due to be finished in 2015.
Maybe Open Letter will bring out one-both of these in the future . . . But for now—check out High Tide: it’s a stunning book that combines lush, provocative prose with a gripping plot about a love triangle and a killing. (Although this plot is told in semi-reverse chronological order . . . so the killing only makes sense at the end of the book. It’s like an anti-mystery novel, I suppose.)
The book itself—which is amazing, more on that below—officially releases on September 26th. So, this week the ebook is $3.99, next week it’ll be $5.99, then $7.99, reaching it’s normal full $9.99 list price on the day that the print version comes out.
In other words, you should buy yours now.
Translated by Kaija Straumanis, our editor and one of the first graduates of the University of Rochester MA in literary translation program, High Tide is one of the first Latvian novels to be published in America. Ābele, a contemporary playwright, poet, and novelist, was featured in Dalkey’s Best European Fiction anthology, where Aleksandar Hemon referred to her as a “sharp realist.”
Here’s the jacket copy:
Told more or less in reverse chronological order, High Tide is the story of Ieva, her dead lover, her imprisoned husband, and the way their youthful decisions dramatically impacted the rest of their lives. Taking place over three decades, High Tide functions as a sort of psychological mystery, with the full scope of Ieva’s personal situation—and the relationship between the three main characters—only becoming clear at the end of the novel.
One of Latvia’s most notable young writers, Ābele is a fresh voice in European fiction—her prose is direct, evocative, and exceptionally beautiful. The combination of strikingly lush descriptive writing with the precision with which she depicts the minds of her characters elevates this novel from a simple story of a love triangle into a fascinating, philosophical, haunting book.
On a more personal note, our local international book club read and discussed this last week, and everyone unanimously loved it. In fact, one participate read it all the day of the book club and wept—on several occasions. This book is powerful, beautiful, and provides a sense of Latvia without being too wedded to the history or politics of the country.
Casey O’Neil at Elliott Bay Book Company is a huge fan of the book as well, and even wrote up this blurb:
Starting with the end and moving back toward the beginning, we follow Ieva as experience washes over her, as love transforms over time, as traumatic events wreak havoc forever even as they’re over in an instant. The book’s reverse trajectory both accentuates and softens the trauma, as our knowledge of what’s about to happen interacts with our experience of each moment. Ābele’s rendering of Ieva’s endurance is both matter of fact and transcendent, making this a novel that brings real light to real darkness. Its moving finale actually brought me to tears.
Point being, this book baller and you should buy it for $3.99. Right now.
I’ve been wanting to do monthly highlights of books coming out for a while, but thought to myself that, well, Flavorwire already does stuff like this, so why bother. Then I remembered that Flavorwire is the worst, so here we are.
High Tide by Inga Ābele. Translated from the Latvian by Kaija Straumanis. ($15.95, Open Letter Books)
Yep, I’m leading it off with one of our books. A book by a former student of the University of Rochester’s Literary Translation Program and our current editor. (Flavorwire would never do something like this.) Anyway, aside from the selfish plug for Open Letter and Kaija, I want to say three things:
1) This is a beautifully written book that relates a woman’s life more-or-less in reverse chronological order, demonstrating, in consistently surprising ways, the choices that led to her current state and feeling that “life is a prison” and that everything for her keeps restarting and restarting. We talked about this at our Book Clüb yesterday and people admitted that it made them cry. So that;
This is the first Latvian novel to be published in the U.S. in English translation; (NOT TRUE! This book existed at some point.)
3) This comes out on September 26th, and to promote it ahead of time, we’re selling the ebook version for $3.99 this week, $5.99 next week, $7.99 the week after, and $9.99 when the book launches. So get yours now! (Amazon, iTunes, Nook, Kobo.)
Open Door by Iosi Havilio. Translated from the Spanish by Beth Fowler. ($15.95, And Other Stories)
All Dogs Are Blue by Rodrigo de Souza Leão. Translated from the Portuguese by Zoë Perry and Stefan Tobler. ($15.95, And Other Stories)
After winning just about every award possible in the UK, And Other Stories—the indie press with the most interesting editorial selection process I know of—is finally branching out into the United States. Consortium will be distributing their books, and within six months, every major book news outlet will have reviewed their titles and be singing their praises. This is some high quality shit.
Open Door includes two of my favorite subjects in literature: Argentina and insane asylums. I read this a while back, but plan to reread it in advance of Havilio’s Paradises, which comes out next month. (I actually mentioned this book back in 2008 during my editorial trip to Buenos Aires.)
I read All Dogs Are Blue while I was in Brazil, not too far away from the asylum (THIS IS AN AND OTHER STORIES THEME) where Rodrigo de Souza Leão spent much of his life. It’s an amazing book, samples from which you can see here.
The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante. Translated from the Italian by Ann Goldstein. ($18.00, Europa Editions)
One of the most recommended non-crime writers that Europa publishes and whom I haven’t read. Her books have been on my shelves forever, and one of these days . . .
All of the fans of The Days of Abandonment, or, more apropos, My Brilliant Friend, will rush out to get this, but for anyone not familiar with her, here’s a bit from the Shelf Awareness review that ran today:
With The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante picks up where she left off in My Brilliant Friend, following her two protagonists, Lila and Elena, from adolescence into their 20s. The novel, the second volume in a trilogy, is a treatise on life in Naples, a part of Italy that has nothing in common with Rome, Florence or Milan.
The two girls have a complex, intense relationship, with Lila leading the way and Elena trying to accommodate—at least at first. Lila has pulled herself out of poverty with an early marriage to a grocer’s son, whom she hates. Elena has continued studying, graduating from high school and going to university in Pisa.
The Mystery of Rio by Alberto Mussa. Translated from the Portuguese by Alex Ladd. ($16.00, Europa Editions)
There are only five works of fiction from Brazil coming out in the U.S. this year. (Three are on this list.) After visiting Rio and Paraty this summer, I MUST READ THEM ALL.
The Eternal Son by Cristovao Tezza. Translated from the Portuguese by Alison Entrekin. ($19.95, Tagus Press)
Sticking with the Brazilian theme, here’s the latest from Tagus Press, a new outfit publishing only Lusophone writers. This book—about a father whose son is born with Down syndrome—sounds a bit like Kenzaburo Oe’s A Personal Matter.
“Between Friends by Amos Oz. Translated from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston. ($14.95, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Since the day we launched Three Percent, I’ve been making fun of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s website. Not that any of the Big Five websites were spectacular, but for years it seemed like Houghton Mifflin was playing some kind of demented game with readers trying to find out information about their books. You had to click through 6 or 20 links to find a list of new releases, which then, just to make things interesting, were never quite in alphabetical order. The search engine ran on AltaVista or Ask Jeeves!, and for a while Jose Saramago was a digital persona non gratis.
Well. Things are now better. This website doesn’t look like vomit. It makes a certain amount of intuitive sense. I typed in Amos Oz, and actually received results about Amos Oz. The fact that these are grand improvements is depressing at best, but still, way to go HMH!
Except maybe for the fact that this is all the info on the HMH site about Between Friends:
A provocative new story collection from the internationally celebrated author of A Tale of Love and Darkness.
Really? Christ. At least I can still rely on HMH for providing good comedic fodder. Keep up the bumbling!
Gods of the Steppe by Andrei Gelasimov. Translated from the Russian by Marian Schwartz. ($14.95, AmazonCrossing)
This is the third Gelasimov book that AmazonCrossing has published, the other two being Thirst and The Lying Year. The fact that Marian Schwartz translated this is enough to make me want to read it. She is the best.
Sudden Disappearance of the Worker Bees by Serge Quadruppani.& Translated from the Italian by Delia Casa. ($23.95, Arcade)
Over the past month I’ve read Generation A by Douglas Coupland, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood, and And Still the Earth by Ignacio de Loyola Brandão, fairly different books, but all of which are set in the future and involve a world in which no one reads, and there are no more bees. Sure, I’d heard mention of colony collapse disorder before, but, like America, I didn’t really care all that much. But reading these books, I realized that with no bees, we have no apples. And no apple crisp. According to Wikipedia, one-third of the crop species in the United States involve bee pollination, including: almonds, peaches, soybeans, apples, pears, cherries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, watermelons, cantaloupes, cucumbers, and strawberries. This is not good. Of course, as soon as I read these books and starting thinking about how fucked it is that one-third of the U.S. honeybee colonies died or disappeared last winter, my neighbor’s Time Magazine arrived with this beepocalyptic cover:
What the shit, Universe? I did not need this.
Faction by Juan Filloy. Translated from the Spanish by Rhett McNeil. ($16.95, Dalkey Archive Press)
Click on that link above to see just how “in process” Dalkey’s website is right now. Nevertheless, this book was announced with a September pub date, and man do I hope it comes out soon. I actually signed this on—along with Op Oloop way back in the early 2000s. (Writing “early 2000s” and realizing that is an accurate statement makes me feel old.) I forget how we first came across Filloy—who is mentioned in passing in Cortázar’s Hopscotch, lived in three centuries, and used seven-letter titles for all of his books—but all of his books sounded really interesting. Especially this one, which is about “seven erudite, homeless, and semi-incompetent radicals traveling from city to city in an attempt to foment a revolution.” SOLD.
This week’s podcast is a special feature on Kaija Straumanis, who recently received her MA in literary translation from the University of Rochester. Although our conversation is a bit rangy (and if you think this is random, you should visit Plüb sometime), we focus mainly on Kaija’s translation of Latvian author Inga Ābele’s Paisums (High Tide).
High Tide is a somewhat fractured novel that tells the story of three main characters: Ieva, a deeply depressed screenwriter; Aksels, her former lover; and Andrejs, her husband, who was imprisoned for murdering Aksels. Structurally, this novel is pretty interesting as well. It opens with a dream, then inhabits the minds of the main characters in a series of “present day” chapters. After we see where these characters are post-jail, post-murder, etc., the book starts counting backwards, with sections about the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, to fill in certain aspects of the plot and characterization.
To help make this podcast make more sense, I’d highly recommend reading this fairly long sample that covers a lot of the bits that we talk about.
For more information about the University of Rochester’s Translation Programs, just click here.
And in terms of Kaija, in addition to translating from Latvian and German (on occasion), she’s a very good photographer. Oh, and she’s obsessed with Moby-Dick (in a way), which maybe explains the title of this podcast, and the reason why we’re using Yellow Ostrich’s Whale as this week’s intro/outro music.
The sample below is from Kaija Straumanis’s translation of Latvian author Inga Ābele’s Paisums (High Tide) which we discuss in this week’s podcast. Even if you don’t listen to the podcast (and if you don’t, why not?), you should take a look at this—it’s a really interesting book.
In the Beginning
God didn’t create words.
In the beginning there was a dream.
And at the end there was again nothing but a dream.
God appeared to a woman in a dream that was like death.
God found the woman within the dream and said to her:
“If you agree to live your life in reverse, you’ll have the power to give life back to your lover, who died young. Just don’t get your hopes up—your meeting at that crossroads will last about twenty minutes, no more. Then he’ll continue on toward old age, but you, back to childhood.”
The woman agreed immediately.
“How strange. Do you really value your own life and experiences so little that you’re willing to undo it all without a second thought?”
The woman said nothing.
She remembered this dream when she awoke.
Turns Out—We’ve Lived
She doesn’t need any more advice—patterns, examples. Maybe it’s just a whole new level, but right now she doesn’t need it. She doesn’t read books, newspapers or magazines, doesn’t use the Internet or watch TV, doesn’t go—God forbid—to the theater. It’s like being wrapped in a blanket up to your chin: you see and hear everything, but can’t move a muscle. Everything is right there around you, within arms’ reach. She wanders the house and now and then picks up something, grabs onto something, touches on something. A sentence from a newspaper, a phrase from a Mexican soap opera, an idea from Proust. They’re all always going to be right.
On her walks, Ieva goes around the forest in circles. Then on her birthday she asks herself a question—why do I walk in circles, like a dog chained to a post? Because of my fears? Only because of my harsh, bitter fears? I can walk in a straight line, she tells herself—and whenever I want. So when she does finally walk straight she only feels like she’s actually getting anywhere. Her surroundings change, but the content doesn’t. Big cities are all essentially the same, and every country has farmers wearing plaid, made-in-China shirts. Any new place that she ends up, she eventually has a close group of friends a lot like the last. The group will always have a mentor, a lover, someone she’ll betray, someone who’ll betray her, an enemy, and friends she can talk to and find spiritual healing with, saving money on therapy.
Once in a while she breaks from the campaigns, the marathons, the expeditions, and returns to the doghouse and sits next to her chain. Sits absolutely still, like a Bedouin gazing into the distance, and then writes. Script writing is usually complicated, but all of her scripts are about the same thing. All very clichéd, and when she tries to make excuses to the director he tells her: I need you precisely for the clichés. Because the ending needs to be something predictable.
Her scripts are about how nothing happens because nothing can ever happen. Not a single molecule is lost in the eternal cycle between the earth and the heavens. Only a pure soul can hope to break free from the carousel of life and death, into the cosmos through the tunnel of light and at a speed that makes everything down to the smallest particle feel simultaneously heavy and weightless. Everything shrinks until it disappears, until it’s erased from the memory of the world along with its time. But to live your life until your soul is pure—don’t laugh, it’s not that easy—you have to become a Buddha, a Christ or a Mohammed. You have to become light itself, a pure soul. Then you can be on your way. But it’s a long way and you’ll be scrubbed, doused, and wrung clean until then. Those few mistakes that will haunt you, jolt you awake at night, and force you to keep going on, these mistakes that you carry with you your entire life—in the end they’ll destroy you. But keep thinking about them, keep thinking. It’s gratifying to keep picking away at them. It will heal you.
Eventually she doesn’t even write the scripts herself anymore, just touches up those written by others and sends them in. She takes the finished product and objectively embellishes them. She’s done work like that before—adding details to bulletin posters in her school days, a pioneer in the last generation of an aggressive Soviet empire. Her homeroom teacher called it “giving life” to something. “Take it to Ieva,” the teacher often said, “she’ll give it some life.” And Ieva would take her black marker and give the dull pencil sketches some life, be it Lenin or the Easter Bunny. A wavering shadow in the distance, a gleam in Lenin’s eye, and the tense muscles in his jaw, something she’d seen in her father’s face when he shaved in the morning. And Lenin would come to life. The Easter Bunny would, too.
Everything is proof of it—this forced gift of existence—even the tired face of a small-town bus driver in the early morning; it speaks of longing, the endless patience you have when scrutinizing good fortune that has unexpectedly dropped into your lap. And what does life offer in return…the quiet hum inside the bus where you can warm up, a change from the frozen and bleak winter landscape… What does it offer in return? A kiss goodbye from your wife before you head out, and the mildly bitter taste of coffee with cream? The early morning fog and a dead moose on the side of a road? Like an Indian who gets glass beads in return for gold, you trade the suffering of existence in return for the smell of baking bread. The feel of a dog’s wet nose against your hand. The look in your children’s eyes. A bird feeder. May it all bring you joy, says this opposing, unwanted, huge opportunity—Life. Truth everywhere, like rows and rows of weeds that need only a bit of rain to grow: a handful of TV shows, a handful of philosophical essays, a handful of tight-lipped snobs, a handful of bartering vendors.
Her mother’s mother, Gran, used to say: you’ll never know where you’ll lose something or where you’ll find it, and, if you knew where you’d fall, you’d put a pillow down first. In many ways Gran hadn’t outgrown childhood, had never experienced passion, never been disillusioned. She remained an innocent; that was her destiny. Her cheerful daily greetings were proof she had never discovered herself, her own anger, or her deeply hidden doubts. Doing so would mean being sent into freedom, out of the Garden of Eden. She had stayed in Eden, playing in rows of sun ripened, wild strawberries. And among the bustle were all life’s sentences—her parents’ deaths, her husband and children, the people she loved. But she never said “love” because she didn’t know the word, hadn’t evolved to words. Gran had been her parents’ pride and joy, a helper at the dairy farm with her white apron and silky ash-blonde hair, someone who never grew to know hatred. More precisely, she was oblivious to any daggers of hatred aimed at her. Instead, they went through her like she was nothing because she didn’t believe in bad people—just people. Her only sins were her pride and self-reliance. She always had tickets for sugar and bread, but also always had more for extra things. A kind word and a helping hand, the sense to put others before herself; she believed it was her choice and responsibility. She didn’t need anything from the Lord God, just some nice Lutheran Christmas songs and spiritual peace. She hadn’t unlocked that little door in her heart that led to spite. She stayed in her bud; her entire life spent in it and as a child. God and humanity attack these kinds of people more than anyone else because there’s something obnoxious about them. But neither God, nor humanity can use their endless recipes for disaster on these people because these people lack any trace of hate—and God can take a vacation since there’s no one to peddle vices to. Having fulfilled her duty to everyone she loved, Gran quickly retreated to her inner child, back into that bud. A small, polite girl who always walked on the sunny side of the street. And that’s how she ended her journey. She was stuck in her bud, in her helpless innocence, and then all the world’s charges were piled on top of her. Stay helpless as a baby, an animal, a prisoner, a fool, an alcoholic, a one-legged bum in a tunnel—and the world will quickly chafe you until you bleed, and you’ll understand why you’ve always needed God. You put Heaven on a pedestal while you still have the strength. And when you grow weak you see the devil. Not the one with horns and a tail, but the devil in the hurried compassion of the fast-paced world, the one that will kill you with kindness. [. . .]
Mother tries to remember where she’s seen it before.
Faces peering at her from a glaring brightness.
Big eyes. Lips that are saying something, smiling, cooing, scolding. Faces that pull her from the comforting darkness and into the light.
For a moment she sees her father; he points out the leaves overhead. She is a child in her stroller, a child absorbing every single detail. She sees the leaves and becomes them, submerges herself in them and their silky movement.
The faces in this narrow room are like the leaves. They form a canopy high overhead, full of rustling movement and a teasing wind. The faces look at her as she lies there like a dried-up worm, wedged between the body pillow and the wall. A pair of hands throw open the curtains—a window fills with light.
“Good morning! Time to get up,” a light voice says.
The face leans in very close—it’s a woman’s face.
Mother opens an eye. The other is crusted over with pus. She looks at the faces and her toothless mouth whispers a few syllables in greeting. Mother is afraid of the daytime, afraid of the daily routine. She’ll be rolled over, picked up, moved, washed—it hurts and it makes her uneasy. Mother wants to tell them she doesn’t understand why she needs to get up anymore. She’s tired, but they won’t leave her alone.
“And the worst is she somehow gets in there with her left hand. She grabs and tears at the diaper and then smears shit all over the place. She’s out of her mind. I’ve got to change the bedding twice a day—all of it.”
Mother closes the one eye and pretends this talk isn’t about her. For several years now her good eye has been covered by a film, a rapidly swirling fog with tiny black spots.
“You have to figure something out. I’m sure you can do something like tie a shirt over her chest,” says a second voice that’s lower, infused with darkness.
Mother likes that voice better.
“She doesn’t get in from the top, but from the bottom along her thigh. The entire bed is flooded by morning. She pees so, so much. And if there’s shit I can’t even come in here without gagging. You wouldn’t believe the smell,” the first voice complains, white and clear as a ray of light.
You can’t hide from that voice, so Mother just shuts her eye tighter.
“Maybe like something for a baby. A onesie that buttons up the sides.”
“Won’t work. Since the last treatment she’s completely lost it. Look at how small she is—but she’s heavy, as heavy as a rock. She’s dead weight, ten times heavier than me. I make her stand up so her legs won’t totally atrophy. A few minutes a day. When I come home from work I have her sit up. You can’t believe how hard it is. I’ve sprained my back—it hurts. No, no, no. No onesies, no pants. She can’t even lift her legs. It would just mean extra clothes for me to wash. No, no, no. I had an idea yesterday—I’ll secure the diaper with electrical tape. Or a wide strip of duct tape. What do you think?”
“You can’t do that, Mom. Her skin will get infected.”
“You think so? Well, then I don’t know.”
Mother pretends she is dead. Pretends this stupid conversation isn’t about her. People only talk like that about children who misbehave. She’s not a bad child, never has been. No, no, no. [. . .]
Andrejs very carefully took two fragile champagne flutes in his calloused hands and handed them to the woman. Then he took the card leaning against the wall behind the glasses and sat on a stool next to the small table. He studied the yellowed paper as intensely as a war refugee who’s been pulled from the water and given a passport, and who can’t believe this thing could save his life.
The card was drawn with lead pencil on regular notebook paper and then glued to cardboard. Its edges were decorated with barbed wire, which connected at the top in a knot around a red rose. The lettering For Ludmila—Ruslans was separated by a date, in which the number two looked like a swan with a proudly curving neck. The drawing also had the North Star and the aurora borealis. Small lettering at the bottom read: She dreamt that in the Caucasus steppe…
So she wasn’t an accountant! So that’s where he’d seen that handwriting and date before! How could he forget?
She sat on the opposite stool at the table and twirled a strand of hair around her finger. Like she was flustered, clueless. When she lifted her eyes to meet his, they were bright with tears.
“That’s the last card my husband sent me.”
She wanted to tell him more, but he silenced her with an impatient gesture. He still couldn’t decide if he should go home right away or later. If he started to talk now, it would mean he wouldn’t go home until later.
But he started to talk. He hadn’t become a heartless monster yet.
“You don’t need to tell me. I drew this.”
The expressions on the woman’s face changed as quick as the wind, chasing after one another like the shadows of falling leaves—while she sat very stiff and straight, her eyes searching his face to figure out what his words could mean.
“Ruslans and I met at the Central Prison Hospital. He was already admitted when I was brought in. We were together for a week, or less, I don’t remember. In any case no more than a week. I was there when he died.”
The woman let out a weak scream, and the tears finally overflowed. She wiped the wetness across her cheeks with the back of her hand. Andrejs handed her a towel, which she immediately bundled up into a kind of squirrel’s nest and hid her face in it. He waited patiently for her to look up again.
“You could say I was the prison artist. I framed photographs by sewing plastic wires around the edges, drew on materials using safety pins and colored thread, etched wood, sketched. Ruslans found out and showed me your handwriting. Asked me to draw a card and write the words like you did. He really liked your handwriting. I recognized it right away, but thought that you worked at the prison as an accountant.”
The woman nodded feebly. She rummaged in a drawer without looking away from him and placed a candle on the table. She burned her fingers with the first match.
“Tell me how he died,” she said, her voice somber.
“He died at night. I was writing a letter to my wife, he was lying down. I thought he’d fallen sleep. Then he suddenly started coughing, ran to the door and banged on it like crazy. All at once, about a bucket of blood spewed from his mouth. And then he fell over. I lifted him a bit and held him, but he had already started with the death shakes. The guards came and took him away.”
There was a moment of silence.
“Don’t worry, it happened quickly. He didn’t suffer. It was over the second he ran to the door. Later the nurses said one of his pulmonary veins had burst.”
“But he managed to send the card out. When’s your birthday? Sometime in May, right?”
“And what’s this about the Caucasus, if it’s not a secret?”
“He was a really good person,” she finally said.
“I know. So what about the Caucasus?”
The woman thought for a bit.
“She dreamt that in the Caucasus steppe—
He lay still, a bullet in his breast . . .
And yet, I am Ruslan’s now,
And will be faithful to my vow.”
Andrejs propped the card against the windowpane so its edges were surrounded by the reflection of the candlelight.
The woman said:
“We liked poetry, like Pushkin’s ‘Ruslan and Ludmila.’ I’d read it to him when our kids were still little. Before he got mixed up in that damn gang and robbed that gas station… He was so surprised that there was a poem like that—about us, he said—just imagine! About us!”
The woman stood and opened the refrigerator. She pushed the champagne toward Andrejs, having suddenly grown very calm. He opened the bottle just as calmly and poured the chilled liquid into the glasses. In the reflection of the flame, the bubbles dancing in the sparkling wine seemed like lonely planets.
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