Sunday, April 13, 2008


April 8, 2008 Pirita

In New Hampshire, where I lived until seven days ago, we looked them up in our bird books and called them herons--the secretive gray birds that slide among tall grasses in our pond’s shallow edges and look for small perch and bass. It’s easy to believe that forever the herons have hunched over dark water, somehow seeing beyond the surface, even if only to imagine fish. When Aarne and I are lucky enough to notice a heron, we stalk it through our binoculars. Once, last year, while I was kayaking through tall grass, a heron and I surprised each other; he took off just in front of the kayak, leaving me wondering if I’d ever again be so close to elegance.

This morning I sit at a small glass table in the kitchen of my husband’s family house in Estonia. To my back are ruins of the Brigitta Cloister, the entire front and side stone walls rising above any treetops, and the entire silver-gray structure still glowing in spotlights left on all night. Even in the middle of the night, I can walk around the house by this light reflected from cloister walls.

On the opposite side of our house and straight ahead of me now, the yard slopes down to the Pirita River. Even in a cold early April, fishermen come on foot in the dark, at least as early as 5:00 AM—who really knows how early? They line the opposite riverbank, directly across from me. When the morning fog from the Baltic Sea finally slides away, I go to our front window to make sure that the fishermen are there each morning. And I look for them last thing at night. Strangely, this has become my first habit in Estonia, one thing to count on.

Dressed in heavy black winter jackets, high rubber boots, and layers of hats, they appear out of the hillside and walk slowly, heavily through a row of bare black trees to their spots along the riverbank. They arrive without cars or chairs or flashlights, each one carrying two or three long fishing poles, a bucket, and brown paper sacks—exactly enough.

So far I know these men only by shape and by their deliberate postures. They stand for hours, barely moving from one position except to shift their weight from one foot to the other. Sometimes they plant the handles of their fishing poles in the riverbank, stuff their hands into their pockets, and stare at the water. If they didn’t move at all, they would seem to be part of the landscape, so faceless are they to me from my distance across the river.

About 9:30 Bill and Amelia arrive to see how we are doing. Amelia is now fifteen months old, a perfect age for play, so she and I stay in the house while Bill and Aarne walk down to inspect work being done on the boathouse.

Half an hour later, as I hold Amelia on my lap by the front window, something across the river catches my eye. An orange van drives through the trees and close to the riverbank. Six or seven fishermen gather around. As I try to understand this intrusion, suddenly I notice a human body lying just above the water’s edge. What catches my attention is the white plastic sheet covering the head and chest. The trousers and boots suggest a fisherman.

Amelia wants down to explore the house, its kitchen drawers and long window shades. I lift her up; she’s still in the overalls of her snowsuit—warm and cuddly. “Apfel! Yummy!” She's already figured out to use English with me. I know enough to make a little party for us out of a sliced apple. When Amelia is delighted, her eyes sparkle.

Part of me has to look again out the window. Down in the yard, Aarne and Bill and two workmen stand still, also watching. Across the river, more official vehicles of different colors arrive. Men get out, conduct interviews, write notes on pads. The body lies on the riverbank. Nobody gets too close to it, not even the officials. But each fisherman slowly approaches within ten feet or so, hunches over, and then retreats from the officials and from the body—some to their fishing and others to small groups gathered stoically under the trees.

I pick up Amelia and dance with her in the kitchen. She grins. I can’t tell if my English surprises her or not. Her parents Anni and Bill speak both English and Estonian to her, so she is still sorting out the mystery of language. Her word “yummy” seems to work in both languages. I think how lucky she is to be growing up bilingual in a country with so much promise; I try to imagine her future.

What Aarne and Bill learn from the workers is that early yesterday this drowned body was spotted as it floated down toward the sea, past all the fishermen standing where they always stand. What must these fishermen have thought as they watched the poor thing drift past their lines? When the body drifted close enough to the riverbank, just opposite our house, somebody waded in, caught on to it, and pulled it up onto the bank.

Bill takes Amelia home, and Aarne and I go shopping for enough food for supper. When we return, the officials and cars and the body are gone. The fishermen have moved a little farther upstream, and the place across from us is empty.

Now, a day later, at 7:00 AM the cloister bells ring as always. I can picture the few Swedish nuns gliding to their prayers, kneeling, probably bending forward slightly in awe of what they can imagine about life after death or whatever else nuns can see that I can not.

I go to the window and look across the river at the spot where the body lay yesterday. A woman in a bright, shiny pink raincoat walks through the trees to the very spot, as if she knows more than I do. Pink. She bends over the grass, touches a large rock, searches the small area, then stands alone right where the body lay yesterday.

The temperature has fallen overnight to just above freezing. It begins to rain, and wind blows up the river. Crows scream into the trees. The woman, no longer searching the ground, has now stood in her place for more than an hour. She’s pulled the pink raincoat hood over her hair and has stuffed her hands in her pockets. Not even her head moves as she stares straight ahead into the river and perhaps across the river and beyond me to the cloister.

In the afternoon Aarne and I call out to our neighbor who’s working in her garden. Helgi tells us that the victim was a young woman who was seen walking into deep water upstream several weeks ago, apparently a suicide. Many people have been searching for her, and now she is found. Two days ago I did not know to look for her, but now I look for her even when I know she could not be there. As darkness falls, Bill turns on all the spotlights down by the river, just to push away the eerie feeling we all have.

Later in the evening, Estonian relatives arrive to welcome us for our stay here. Little Liisu, about two years old, plays and laughs as we all gather around our big window and stare across the river at the place where the young woman was pulled out. “Did you see anything?” We all retell our stories, putting together pieces of information, sharing sadness, and trying to make sense out of what happened. I imagine the fishermen across the river are doing the same thing. But we have Liisu with us, and her irresistible energy somehow buoys us. And we have purpose: we go out to dinner to celebrate the very energy of being again with Estonian family.


Chris said...

Chris, my mother, and I are wondering who rings the cloister bells. Ghosts of Swedish nuns?--Cora

CeilingGazer said...

Such an interesting story, Libby. Just caught up to it. Kiss Amelia for me!

rima said...

Wow! What a story, Libby. You are an excellent writer and shared a gripping story. I'm in California for a conference and visiting Emili and Jeremy. Emili shared the blog with me. I wasn't aware of it before. Now I'll be an avid reader!
Love, Rima