from “When the Doves Disappeared”

1941

Tallinn

The grain warehouses were burning, the sky grew columns of smoke. Buses, trucks and cars filled the roads, their worn tires screaming like the people were, screaming to get away. And then an explosion. Shrapnel. Shards of glass like a shower of rain. Juudit stood with her mouth open in a corner of her mother’s kitchen. Her mother had escaped to the countryside, to her sister Liia’s house, and left Juudit on her own to wait for the bombs, the bombs that would end everything. The roads from Tallinn to Narva had for some time been clogged with trucks full of evacuees’ possessions, and there were rumors about the evacuation commissariat, that they’d set up commissariats for cattle evacuation, grain evacuation, lentil evacuation – a commissariat for anything they could get their hands on. The Bolsheviks intended to take it all with them, every last crumb, down to the smallest piece of potato. They weren’t going to leave anything for the Germans—or the Estonians. The army had ordered its men to empty the fields, and all of it was headed to the border at Narva or to the harbors. Another explosion.

Juudit put her hands over her ears and pressed hard. She had already accepted that the town would be destroyed before the Germans could get there, she only hoped that her time wouldn’t come until some more ordinary day, that the last sound she heard would be the clink of a spoon on a saucer, the jangle of hairpins in a box, the hollow ring of a milk can set down on a table. Birds! Birds singing! But the Luftwaffe and the anti-aircraft guns had devoured the birds, she would never hear them again. No dogs. No cats meowing, no crows cawing, no clatter from upstairs, no sounds of children downstairs, no errand boys running, no squeak of pushcarts, no clank against the door frame as the woman downstairs bumped her bucket coming into the building. Juudit had tried it, too, balancing the washbasin on her head, secretly, in front of the mirror, and wondered why the milliners didn’t design a hat that you could balance a little washbasin or bucket on. It would be a guaranteed success. Women were so childish, so foolish. A bucket hat was just the kind of crazy idea they needed right now. But that clank of tin, that ordinary life, was a thing of the past. Those buckets had been tainted by defeat, a necessity of the Bolshevik occupation, but an ordinary thing nevertheless, with an ordinary sound.

* * *

She tried to think of a sound from the past, something to be the last thing she thought of before the end. Maybe a day in her childhood, the ordinary noises of Rosalie in the kitchen, the sounds of a morning like all the other mornings of that peaceful time, when you knew that today would be just like yesterday, a day when her mother’s Luther chair under the window scraped against the floor with that annoying sound, a day when there was nothing very important in her head, when the most insignificant irritation could make her cross. Or maybe before she died she’d like to think about a day when she was a young, unmarried woman, a time when there was nothing more exciting than a dress in a box, wrapped in tissue paper, a dress for her future suitors. Under no circumstances would she think about her husband. She bit her lip. She couldn’t keep her husband out of her mind even if she tried. If that last flash of explosion had hit the house, her marriage would have been the last thing she thought about. Another round of fire made her muscles twitch, but she couldn’t hear anything, didn’t double over.

The idea of staying behind, of going down with the rest of Tallinn had come to her the day before her mother left, and it had stuck, as if it was the only thing she’d ever wanted. She liked Tallinn, after all, and she didn’t like her husband’s Aunt Anna, and Anna was staying at the Arm’s place now. Juudit’s mother had tried to get Juudit to go there, too. Most of her family was living with Aunt Leonida, and at times like these it was good to be among loved ones.

“Thank the Lord your father isn’t here to see this. We’re just extra mouths to feed now, one sister taking me in, one taking you in. But it’s just for a little while. And Juudit, you could at least try to get along with Anna.”

Juudit had pretended to agree so her mother would leave. She wasn’t going to go to Leonida’s house. Juudit wasn’t as confident as her mother about their chances for victory, but she was grateful in a way for the pneumonia that had taken her father when everything was still going well in the country. He wouldn’t have been able to bear it, watching the Bolsheviks’ progress, Johan’s disappearance. The Soviet Union had an endless supply of men—why were things changing now? Why hadn’t they changed before the deportations in June? Why not before her brother was arrested? The din of battle rolled onward, the heavy, muddy wheels of the gun trucks that would kill them all. Juudit closed her eyes. The room lit up. The streaks of light in the air reminded her of the fireworks at Piritta Shore Club at midsummer, back when she had been married for only a year. Her ears were working then, and she’d had other things to worry about, her longing for her unresponsive husband, or rather, for the husband she’d imagined he would be. And on midsummer night in Piritta she had hoped, hoped so much. She saw herself deep in the Piritta darkness, focused on the lit cans of tar that served as torches, the forest smiling like a hedgehog just awakened to summer. She could taste a bit of lipstick on her tongue, smeared, but she didn’t care, it showed that her mouth was a mouth that had been kissed, and the musicians  were giving their all, a song like a fleeting dream of youth, about deer drinking from a stream, unafraid, and the night was full of twittering girls hunting for fern flowers, double entendres said with a hint of a smile, as Juudit’s unmarried friends giggled and shook their braids defiantly – they had everything ahead of them, and midsummer magic made anything possible. Juudit felt her marriage flowing over the flesh of her cheeks, the suppleness of her skin, the lightness of her breath—these things that were no longer objects of pursuit—and pretended to be more experienced than the other girls, a little better, a little wiser, holding her husband’s hand with the relaxed air of a married woman, trying to drive away the seed of bitter envy, envy of her friends who hadn’t yet chosen anyone, who hadn’t yet been led to the altar. And then her husband swept her onto the dance floor and sang along with the song about his little missus, small as a pocket watch, and the tenderness in his voice carried her far away from the others, and the orchestra started another song, and the carefree deer were forgotten, and Juudit remembered why she had married him. Tonight. Tonight would be the night.

Juudit’s eyes snapped open. She was thinking about her husband again. She could see the sun rising over the Gulf of Finland. But it wasn’t dawn yet; those were the flames of Soviet ships, what was left of Red Tallinn escaping over the sea, shouting like panicked birds. The sound of retreat. Juudit stumbled across the floor, made it to the other side of the room, and leaned against the wall. She couldn’t believe the Bolsheviks were leaving. Light flashed in a corner of the bedroom and she realized that the Luftwaffe’s planes weren’t interested in Tallinn, only in the fleeing ships, but the knowledge didn’t feel like anything. Her twitching legs remembered too well what the sound of a plane meant: run for the bushes, for shelter, run anywhere, like the time in the country helping Rosalie and her aunt with the distilling when the enemy appeared in the sky without any warning and made her aunt kick the kettle over and they bolted under the trees and stood panting and staring at the low-flying plane with its belly thankfully emptied. 

Juudit pressed her back against the wall, her feet firmly on the floor, readying herself for another explosion. Although the air was heavy with the stench of war, not all the familiar smells were gone. The wallpaper still gave off the smell of an old person’s home, of something safe – and gone. Juudit pushed her nose up against the wallpaper. The pattern was the same, old-fashioned, like the one in the room in Johan’s house where she and her husband had lived while they waited for their own house to be finished. The house was never finished. She would never furnish it. She would never see the new water-lily wallpaper she’d chosen from Fr. Martinson’s after changing her mind several times and fretting over every floral pattern one after the other with her husband and brother, and her sister-in-law, who at least understood how important it was to choose the right wallpaper. When she’d finally made her decision and walked out of the shop, it was a relief to be through with examining samples, comparing them at home, then back at Martinson’s, then at home again. She had gleefully taken a taxi to bring the good news to her husband, who was also relieved to have solved the wallpaper dilemma, and she had announced her decision to her sister-in-law at the Nõmme restaurant, and she’d got cream from her pastry up her nose, a nose silky and glowing because she scrubbed her face every night with sugar. Imagine, sugar! Had they drunk cocktails? Had they danced that evening? Had her husband joined them later, and had she thought again, this is it, tonight’s the night? Had she thought that, like she had so many times before?

The end Juudit was expecting didn’t come. The town shook, burned, smoked, but it was still standing, and she was still alive, and the Red Army was gone. Happy shouts from outside made her crawl to the window, its panes crisscrossed with tape to keep them from shattering, and open it, not caring about the broken glass. The Wehrmacht filled the street with their helmets and bicycles like locusts, a multitude without number, gas mask canisters waving, the soldiers covered in a downpour of flowers. Juudit stretched her arm out. Smiles sparkled in the air like bubbles in fresh soda, arms waved and sent a breeze sweet with the scent of girls toward the liberators, girls with their hands fluttering like leaves on summer trees, shifting and shimmering. Some of the hands were tearing down the communist party posters, the photos honoring communist leaders, tearing their mouths in two, ripping their heads in half, cutting them off at the neck, heels grinding into the leaders’ eyes, rubbing them into the ground, cramming the dust of rage into their paper mouths, the shreds of paper floating into the wind like confetti, the broken glass crunching underfoot like new-fallen snow. The wind slammed the window shut, and Juudit winced.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen. Where was the end she’d been expecting? She was disappointed. The solution hadn’t arrived. She breathed in the air of a free Tallinn from the window. Doubtful. Wary. As if the wrong kind of breath could take the peace away again, or cause a woman who didn’t believe in the German victory and the Soviet retreat to be punished. She didn’t dare run into the street—her restlessly squirming legs were hiding inappropriate thoughts, thoughts that rushed in when the neighbor’s little girl ran into the yard and yelled that Daddy was coming home. The little girl’s words made her remember her situation and she had to hold onto the chair for support, like an old woman.

Soon the shops, stripped bare by the Red Army, would be full and open their doors again, with sales girls behind the counters to wrap your purchases in paper. The water treatment plant would be repaired, the bridges would rise again, everything that had been plundered, destroyed, and butchered would wind back to how it was before, like a film played backward. Tallinn was still wounded, sucked bare, the streets groaning under horse carcasses and the corpses of Red soldiers swarming with beetles, but soon that would all be gone. The wharves would be rebuilt. The train tracks would be mended. The gashes torn from the roads by the bombs would be patched. Peace would rise from the ruins, plaster would cover the pitted bullet holes in the buildings. Journeys would no longer be halted by broken roads. The candles could be taken off the tables and put back in their boxes, the electric lights would come on behind the blackout curtains, maybe the ones who’d been deported would come back, Johan could come home, no one would be taken away anymore, no one would disappear, the knocks at the door in the night wouldn’t come, and the Germans would win the war. Could there be anything better? Things would be ordinary again. But even though that is what Juudit had just been hoping for, the idea of it had changed, in the blink of an eye, to something unbearable, and the indifference she’d felt a moment before changed to panic about the future. The ordinary life she would get wasn’t the ordinary life she wanted. Outside the window a Tallinn emptied of Bolsheviks was waiting, the first Estonians were already returning home, their boots already turning the roads to dust. Soon the town would be filled with an assortment of Estonian, Russian, and Latvian uniform jackets new and old, and the girls would swirl around them – maidens, fiancées, widows, daughters, mothers, sisters, an endless horde of clucking, sniffling, dancing females.

Juudit didn’t want to face those women, talking about their husbands coming home, or the women whose fiancés, fathers, and brothers had already come out of the woods or wandered home from fighting in the Red Army in Estonia or on the Gulf of Finland. She wouldn’t have anything to say to them. She hadn’t sent her husband a single letter. She had certainly tried, got out paper and ink, sat down at the table, but her hand couldn’t form any words. Just writing the first letter of his name had been too difficult, thinking what to say in the first sentence impossible. She couldn’t write her husband a letter from a wife who missed him, and that was the only kind of letter to send to the front. All the nights she’d tried and failed, and the nights when she didn’t even try, ate into her memory. All the times she’d tried to open her collar a little more, to make him take some notice of her breasts. She remembered vividly how embarrassed she would feel afterward, remembered how it felt when she realized that everything she had imagined about him, everything that had charmed her about him, had been wrong. The memory of how her newly wed husband would push away the breasts she offered him, push her to the other side of the bed like spoiled food shoved away at the table.

* * *

When Juudit finally dared to leave her apartment, she stopped at the front door first, to listen. The sounds of war had vanished, they really had. She lifted her head and bent her arm at a right angle to hold her purse, her glove hiding the tension in her clenched fist. Her first steps over the cobblestones were tentative, broken glass still crunched underfoot. She couldn’t seem to find the right way to walk down the streets of the capital, as if she’d left it behind in the world that had vanished. The town rushed toward her at the first street corner in a flood of baby carriages, stray dogs that seemed to have appeared from nowhere, laughing ladies, German soldiers playing harmonicas and winking at her. She caught her breath and blushed, but she’d hardly had a chance to recover from the embarrassment when the hum from the post office spilled over her, the bank doors opening, delivery boys running down the street, and as she was stopped in her tracks with astonishment, a young scamp selling pictures of the Führer grabbed her by the sleeve and she couldn’t see any way to get rid of him because the proceeds went to people whose houses had burned down and of course the young lady wanted to help homeless families and she stuffed the picture into her purse and bent her arm again as she walked past the movie theater. Suddenly she heard a bang, a truck going by carrying a load of bricks, and she jumped, bent over double, but it was the sound of rebuilding, not war. An urchin at the corner laughed at the lady who was frightened by a truck, and Juudit straightened her hat, red-faced. Tallinn was blooming with Estonian and German flags mixed together. They were hurrying to rebuild the Palace Theater, a crowd of kids already gathered to marvel at the movie posters, even the adults stopping to look at them as they passed, and Juudit got a glimpse of the little red smile of a German actress and Mari Möldre’s long eyelashes. The merriness of the crowd played around her ankles and she felt like she’d stepped into a movie herself. It wasn’t real. Still, she would have liked to join in, keep walking with no destination and never go home. Why not? Why couldn’t she? Why couldn’t she participate in the joy? You couldn’t smell the smoke from the fires anymore – at least not here, it was still coming in the windows at her apartment – and she sniffed the air, a smell like fresh cardamom buns, until she was dizzy. The town wasn’t destroyed at all. The Russians must have been so busy burning the warehouses and factories and blowing up the Kopli armored train that they didn’t get around to the homes. She kept walking, looking for new evidence of peace, and passed the Soldatenheim, where young soldiers stood casually chatting, and their eyes fastened on her lips, and she sped up, averting her eyes from a woman putting up a big poster of “Hitler, the Liberator” in the window of the button shop. She looked around for something more, greedy to see more people who seemed to have forgotten the last several years. Tallinn was suddenly flooded with young men. It annoyed her. There were too many men. She wished she was home, had a sudden, pressing desire to get back there. She quickly bought a newspaper and also snapped up a copy of Otepää Teataja that had been used as a lunch wrapper from a park bench, staring for a moment into a café where she had once known the buffet girl by name. Had they already gone back to work, or did the café have a new owner and new employees? She had sometimes gone there in the past to enjoy a pastry, meet her friends, but now her wedding ring was tight around her finger under her glove. Near the hospital, Wehrmacht soldiers were snaring pigeons. One of them noticed her and smiled, the others urged him to keep working. “Dinner’s on its way!”

From When the Doves Disappeared by Sofi Oksanen, to be published by Knopf and House of Anansi Press in February 2015 and Atlantic Books in April 2015. Copyright © 2015 by Sofi Oksanen. English translation ©  2015 by Lola M. Rogers. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC; Atlantic Books, UK; and House of Anansi Press Inc. in Canada.