from “Purge”

When the Baltic Germans were invited into Germany in the fall of 1939, one of the sisters’ German classmates from school and confirmation classes came to say good-bye, and promised to return. She was just going to make a tour of a country that she’d never seen before, and then she would come back and tell them what Germany was really like.

They waved good-bye and Aliide watched as Hans’s hands wrapped around Ingel’s waist and moved toward her rear end. Their murmurs could be heard all the way into the front yard—Aliide pressed her teeth into the palm of her hand. Images of Ingel’s swelling waist and Hans’s body wrapped around Ingel’s tortured her endlessly, day or night, asleep or awake; she couldn’t see or hear anything else. None of the three of them took any notice of the furrows that were appearing on older people’s brows, furrows that didn’t go away but rather deepened, or how the girls’ father examined the sunset, searched it every evening from the edge of the field, smoking his pipe and staring at the horizon in search of a sign, studying the leaves of the maple tree, sighing as he read the newspaper or listened to the radio, then returned to the sound of the birds.

In 1940, the baby was born—Linda—and Aliide’s head felt like it was about to explode. Hans carried his daughter around, happiness shone in Ingel’s eyes, tears in Aliide’s, and Father’s eyes disappeared under worried wrinkles as he started to hoard gasoline and exchange his paper money for silver and gold. Waiting lines appeared in the village, the first lines ever in the country, and the shops were out of sugar. Hans didn’t warm to Aliide, even though she succeeded three times in putting her blood in his food, once an entire month’s worth. She should try pee the next time. Maria Kreel said it sometimes worked better.

Hans started to have quiet, somber discussions with Father. Maybe they didn’t want to worry the women of the family, so they didn’t talk about the troubling signs when the women could hear, or maybe they did talk about it, but neither one of the sisters attached any significance to what they said. Father’s wrinkled brow didn’t worry them, because he was an old man, from the old world, afraid of war. The Free Estonia students didn’t worry about that sort of thing. They hadn’t committed any crimes—what harm could come to them? It was only after the Soviet squads had spread out around the country that they started to fear that their future might be in danger. As she rocked her baby, Ingel whispered to Aliide that Hans had started to hold her tighter, that he slept beside her holding her hand all night long, and his grip didn’t loosen even after he fell asleep, which she thought was strange; he squeezed her as if he were afraid she would disappear from his arms during the night. Aliide listened to Ingel’s worries, although every syllable was like a dagger thrust in her heart. At the same time, she felt that the thing which possessed her was loosening its grip a little, and something else was replacing it—fear for Hans.

Neither woman could avoid the truth any longer when they went to the small square in town and heard the Red Army orchestra playing Soviet marches. Hans wasn’t with them, because he no longer dared to come into town, and he didn’t want the girls to go, either. First he started sleeping in the little room behind the kitchen, then he spent his days there, too, and in the end, he went into the woods and stayed there.

Incredulous laughter raced from one town to the next, from village to village. The catchphrases—We’re fighting for Stalin’s great cause and We will liquidate illiteracy—provoked endless amusement. They couldn’t possibly be serious! The biggest joke of all was the officers’ wives, prancing around in fringed nightgowns in the villages, at the dances, in the streets. And what about those Red Army soldiers, peeling boiled potatoes with their fingernails like they didn’t know how to use a knife? Who could take a bunch like them seriously? But then people started disappearing and the laughter turned bitter. When they started loading up women, men, and children for slaughter, the stories were repeated like prayers. Aliide and Ingel’s father was snatched from the main road to the village. Their mother just disappeared; the girls came home to find the house empty, and yelled like animals. The dog wouldn’t stop waiting for its master; it sat next to the porch and howled with longing until it died. No one dared to go about their business outside, the land groaned under a flood of sorrow, and someone was added to the family of the dead in every grave dug in Estonian soil. The tumult of the front moved over every part of the country, and every part of the country cried out for help to Jesus, Germany, and the old gods.

Aliide and Ingel started to sleep in the same bed, with an ax under their pillow—their turn would come soon. Aliide wanted to go into hiding, but the only thing they hid was Ingel’s old Dollar-brand bicycle, which had a picture of an American flag on it. Ingel said an Estonian woman never abandons her house or her animals, even if they walk in with their uniforms and guns, a whole battalion of them. She would show them what the pride of an Estonian woman meant all right. So one sister stayed up while the other one slept, the Bible and a picture of Jesus keeping watch on the night table, and on those long nights Aliide stared first into the red-hot night and then at Ingel’s head, shining white, and wondered if she should run away by herself. And she might have done it if Hans hadn’t given her a task before he left: Protect Ingel—you know how. Aliide couldn’t betray Hans’s trust, she had to be worthy of him. That’s why she started to follow the news of the war from Finland with sharp eyes and keen ears, like Hans used to do.

Ingel, for her part, refused to read the papers—she relied on prayers and stanzas from Juhan Liiv: Fatherland! I am unhappy with you, and more unhappy without you!

“Why don’t we leave while we still can?” Aliide suggested cautiously.

“And go where? Linda is too little.”

“I’m not sure about Finland. Hans thinks Sweden would probably be better.”

“How do you know what Hans thinks?”

“Hans can follow us later.”

“I’m not leaving my home to go anywhere. The wind will change soon, the West will come to help us. I’m sure we can bear it until then. You have so little faith, Liide.”

Ingel was right. They did bear it, the country bore it, and the liberators arrived. The Germans marched into the country, chased the smoke from the burning houses out of the sky, made it blue again, made the earth turn black, the clouds white. Hans was able to come home, and when that bad dream had ended, another one began. The Communists blanched, and since all other means of transport were halted, they escaped on foot, at a run, and Hans bridled the horse and went swaggering around taking back the Young Farmers 4-H banners, the Sower’s trophies, and the bookkeeping and other papers that had been kept in town after the Reds came and the organization was banned. He came back from town with a big grin. Everything was fine there; the Germans were polite; it was a wonderful feeling; people were playing harmonicas. The sweet brisk clacking of the women’s wooden shoes. They had established the ERÜ, too—the Mutual Aid Society—to feed and support the families whose providers had been mobilized by the Red Army. Everything was going to work out all right! Everybody would come home, Father and Mother, everybody who had disappeared, and grain would grow in the fields like before, and Ingel would win all the 4-H vegetable prizes again, they would go to the fair in the fall, and when the girls were a little older, they could join the Farm Women’s League. When their father got home, Hans would plan the layout of the fields with him. Hans was already a part of the tobacco and sugar-beet campaign, and when that was underway there would be plenty of sugar-beet syrup, and Ingel wouldn’t have to pout about having to calm her sweet tooth with saccharine—and neither would Aliide, Hans hastened to add. Ingel let out a honeyed laugh and started creating recipes for Estonia’s best sugar-beet-syrup ginger cake, and she and Hans fell into the same purring, murmuring mist they had been in before the nightmare began, and Aliide found herself back in the same torture of love. All obstacles crumbled before Ingel’s glorious future. Even the clothing shortage couldn’t wilt Ingel’s wardrobe—so what if she had to repair the elastic in her garters with a coin wrapped in paper! Hans brought his sweetheart parachute silk to make a blouse, and Ingel dyed it cornflower blue, sewed herself a smart-looking shirt with it, decorated with glass buttons, put on her German glass brooch, and was prettier than ever. Hans brought Aliide a similar pin, slightly smaller, but still lovely, and for a moment Aliide’s tormented mood lightened—he had remembered her after all, if only for a moment. But who would even see her pin, with Ingel in her new blouse with its smart shoulder pads—my little soldier, Hans called her sweetly, so sweetly.

Aliide’s head ached. She suspected that she might have a brain tumor. The pain sometimes darkened her vision and altered her hearing until she heard only a buzz. While Hans and Ingel mooned about, she had to take care of Linda, and sometimes she secretly pinched her, sometimes poked her with a pin, and the child’s sobs gave her a secret satisfaction.

 

The sugar beets were large and white at harvest, and the Germans remained. The kitchen was full of beet sugar and Ingel ran the house with renewed energy. She filled the place of the former woman of the house with ease, even surpassed her. Everything went smoothly; it went without saying that she knew how to do everything; she just doled out advice to Aliide, who obediently washed the roots, and Ingel grated them. Aliide could help with the grating later—first she had to figure out the best method for the smaller beets. She tried the meat grinder but then went back to the grater and ordered Aliide to watch the syrup kettle on the stove so that it didn’t start to boil. Sometimes Ingel worked on other chores, sometimes she craned her neck to see the stove; she didn’t trust Aliide’s syrup-making skills; Aliide might let it get too hot, and then the syrup would have a strange flavor, and how could she serve syrup like that, everyone would think that she was the stupid one, that she had let it boil. No more than 80 degrees, ever! Ingel kept sniffing the air the whole time to catch any bitter smell that came from the stove—and whenever the smell started to go in what she felt was the wrong direction, she yelled at Aliide to fix it. Aliide couldn’t tell any difference in the strength or quality of the stench, but then she wasn’t Ingel. Of course she didn’t notice. Besides, the stench of Ingel’s sweetness had stuffed up her nostrils. All she could smell was Hans’s spit on Ingel’s lips, and it made Aliide’s own chapped lips throb with pain. Day after day Aliide washed the beets, picked out the smaller roots, and cut out the black eyes. Ingel fretted over the grating and bustled around ordering Aliide to check the grated beets as they were soaking, change the water in the kettle, fetch more water from the well. Half an hour! It’s already been half an hour! The water needs to be poured over the new batch! At some point, Ingel got tired of grating and started to just chop the roots into small pieces. It’s been half an hour! Pour some fresh water over them! Aliide scratched away the skins, Ingel chopped, and sometimes they strained the brew under Ingel’s precise direction, all the while waiting for Mother and Father to come home. The beets were emptied of their sugar and water was boiled off the syrup over a proper fire, and all the while they were waiting. Skim the foam off the top! Skim it off! Otherwise it’ll be ruined! The rows of syrup jars grew, and all the while they waited. Sometimes Ingel shed a few tears into Hans’s collar.

The whole village was waiting for news from Narva—when would their men be returning home? Ingel made sugar-beet soup, Hans smacked his lips and said that it really was quite good, and Ingel fussed around making sugar-beet macaroni casserole and beet and berry juice, and they waited for Mother and Father. Ingel brought sugar-beet custard to the table, and they waited, and Hans savored her sugar-beet pancakes, nodded over her sugar-beet cardamom buns and busied himself making flowers and birds out of chestnuts for Linda. The sugary air of the kitchen disgusted Aliide. She envied the women of the village who had a husband they were waiting for, someone to learn to make sugar-beet cardamom buns for—all she had to wait for were her parents—and her a grown girl. She would have liked to be waiting for Hans to return from somewhere far away, to sit at the table waiting for him to come to her, but she tried to brush the thought away because it was a shameful, thankless idea. The village women sighed and said that they were so lucky, with a man in the house, and Ingel was the luckiest of women, to which Aliide easily agreed, nodding, her lips tight and dry.

Ingel made up recipes endlessly—she even made sugar-beet candies: milk, beet syrup, butter, nuts. Aliide was shooed away from the stove; simmering the milk and syrup properly was a precise task, then you add the nuts and butter, then simmer it again. She did have permission to sit at the table and keep an eye on Linda and the baking sheets that the mixture was poured onto. She had to watch because Ingel was worried about how she would get on with her own family and her own sugar-beets later on if she didn’t get some practice. Her child-care skills could also use improvement. Aliide was about to ask, what family? But she kept quiet, and it felt like Ingel was afraid her little sister would end up hanging around in some corner of Ingel’s house until she was an old woman. She had started leaving the Päewalehti newspaper at Aliide’s place, “accidentally” opened to the personals. But Aliide didn’t want a gentleman who was seeking a lady under the age of twenty, or a gentleman who preferred less slim young ladies. She didn’t want anyone but Hans.

 

A line had formed long ago at Maria Kreel’s door as women ran to ask her about their men on the other side of the border. In the end she had to bolt her door, and she wouldn’t see Aliide, either, even though she’d been bringing her honey for years. A gypsy who read tarot cards appeared in the village, and the flock of people in the Kreels’ yard migrated to the gypsy’s place. Ingel and Aliide went there once and were told that their parents were already on their journey home. Hans grinned at them when they came bustling home with the news and said he trusted the Germans’ promises more than a fortune-teller’s. The Germans had vowed that everyone who had ended up on the other side of the border would be brought back. Ingel was embarrassed and fell to examining her recipe book. Aliide didn’t bother to say that she trusted the gypsies more than the Germans.

“I invited a few Germans over to play cards tonight. Ingel can serve them her delicious candy and you two can brush up on your German. What do you say?”

Aliide was surprised. Hans had never invited any Germans over before. Did Ingel want to find her a man that desperately? Ingel didn’t even like the Germans.

“They’re terribly homesick. They need some company. They’re young men.”

The last part he said to Aliide.

Aliide looked at Ingel.

Ingel smiled.


***

They played cards for a long time. The Germans had hung their jackets on the coatrack as soon as they walked in. Ingel smiled approvingly at that and offered them some sugar-beet cardamom buns and rowanberry-sugar-beet custard. The Germans sang German  songs and entertained Aliide, although she didn’t understand everything they said. Pantomime and sign language helped; the soldiers were thrilled with the sisters’ grasp of German, however small. Ingel had withdrawn to soak the rye; in the breaks in the singing Aliide could hear her pouring milk over the grains. So you’ll remember that it always has to be skim milk, Ingel had said, teaching her how to make coffee substitute. The pan clattered into the oven, where there was still a toasty aroma of bread, and Aliide would have preferred to be with Ingel working rather than sitting at the table with the soldiers, although they were actually quite funny boys. They were coming again the next evening. Aliide was annoyed; Ingel was excited. Aliide didn’t want anyone but Hans, but Ingel insisted that Aliide be the one to serve the coffee at the next visit. First put small—and I mean small—pieces of sugar beet in water to simmer. Cook them twenty to thirty minutes, then put them through a sieve and add the substitute and the milk. Will you remember that? So I won’t have to explain it to you when the guests are here? You can show them that you know how to be a hostess. On their fifth visit the soldiers announced that they were being transferred to Tallinn. Aliide was relieved; Ingel looked anxious. Hans said consolingly that more Germans would be sure to come. Father and Mother would be coming home. Everything would be all right. Right before they left, one of the soldiers gave Aliide his address and asked her to write to him. Aliide promised to write, although she wasn’t going to. She could feel Ingel and Hans exchange a glance behind her.

Father and Mother were never heard from again.

Hans carved Ingel a pretty pair of wooden shoes, attached laces to them, and announced that he was going to follow the Germans.

The sisters’ nights turned sleepless.

One night Armin Joffe, with his child, his wife, and her parents, disappeared from the village. The rumor was that they had escaped to the Soviet Union for safety. They were Jews.

 

From Purge. Copyright © 2008 by Sofi Oksanen. Translation copyright © 2010 by Lola Rogers. Published 2010 by Black Cat, a paperback original imprint of Grove/Atlantic. By arrangement with the publishers. All rights reserved.