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.
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
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