text and images by Jill Magi
Needing more time to arrive, I sit on a bench between ferry terminal and city gate, imagining that my father’s history is visible on my face. An uncertain expression. Perhaps sadness or certain Estonian features such as hair color or the eyes, though in any other context, I do not believe in this.
They watch. I open the zip-lock bag that holds my notebook, still in the right place, protected.
On the island I felt closer to fluency midagi (but) she mistook my Estonian for Finnish and when I pulled out Estonian money her face dropped, it being worth much less. Her granddaughter’s English, intervening. I bought the sweater anyway and it never stopped smelling nagu (as) sheep but valuable.
The anthropologist from China explains the emptiness of her field research as our bus hurtles through forests of dense local knowledge, the sea visible from the road. Despite relative isolation, echt-culture slips through the years, over ceremonial cliffs, between waves. This social scientist’s sullen face as she reports on the forgotten folk dances or perhaps their refusal to demonstrate a remembering.
“Who is Estonian?” Folk songs, customary striped skirts and leather knickers, prettiest girls bloused in embroidery. Of course ribbons. “You emphasize especially the fine results achieved in wrestling and shooting.”
She slices his picture from the page of the photo album and hands it to me, saying, “here is your great-grandfather” “doesn’t he look like a Jew?” “your grandmother, possibly she had some Jewish blood,” “her hair was not ever particularly light.” Curly, yes or no. The name was Bloom or Blom or Blum and “her grandfather was a tailor from Sweden so therefore.” We use German. “Jovial also, that aunt, possibly part gypsy.” “Certain professions or certain dispositions and fun-loving too.” Saying, “I am Jewish.” Or not saying. “I am not Jewish.” “I am Estonian.” “A good bit of mixed blood.”
To secure the proper papers awaiting deportation or to flee, scrambling for identities, against—
“What is your nationality, Miss?” “Really? I thought you were French.” “Because (this is because) I am from—” His accent and not myself. “This is because my nose is not or my ears are so or not as blonde as my sister” and “the Estonian’s humor is particularly dark.”
I enter the building as the daughter of one who left, slip money into the machine and press against the binding. The librarian hands over the heavy book published “to settle history.” Blom, Blum, Bloom: my finger follows columns of “deported and dead or missing.” Light crosses each page and I leave with reproductions of reproductions of arrest documents on paper longer than U. S. standard letter.
The last Estonian guerrilla fighter was chased out of the forest decades after the end of The War. Beard and fingernails long. The last of The Forest Brethren, farmers fed him. He drowned trying to cross a small pond.
German soldiers come down the road and ask my father, “which way did the Russians go?” He points. Moments later, the Russians come through and ask, “which way did the Germans go?” He points in the opposite direction.
My grandfather convinces German soldiers to let him use confiscated religious tracts for kindling. They agree, letting the charming Estonian take with him his volkgeist and bundles of publications back to the church from where they had just been seized.
Cleverness equals a national characteristic as they dream of being free, and, if under God, directly so.
In 1994 a Peace Corps volunteer finds a bronze church bell buried just under the forest surface during the last year of World War II to protect it from being melted into weapons. The president of Estonia donates one month of his salary to the people of Hiiumaa Island to restore the bell. Hearing this, the locals let it ring for Christmas then quickly take it down so that they will still get the money.
I read a fading “CCCP” across cracked walls. The red letters of Olympic uniforms. A dog snarls, pushing me back. Into safety. Into thoughts of Olga Korbut who was not so Soviet, they said, smiling. He pointed out the Estonian names among the basketball players. I pointed out the missing lines on each map and globe, the meaning of “defect.”
In the present tense rings of brown line tea cups. I collect stains and bits of leaves. Bus stop below, coming and going. Iron gates and lace over shutters. The subway shakes the windows as again you don’t arrive so I wait, rumbling, an inherited map.
Roads spread legibly out from the old city into block apartment buildings of plastic perforated shoes, Russian. Her bunions and lack of citizenship, carrying a plastic bag and a satchel made of netting, radishes inside. I divert my eyes. I notice.
One who comes.
One who washes.
One who is dying.
One who is doing.
A citizen hobbles through the medieval city gate into the re-building. Crippled, his legs swing out to the side, his shoulders hunch and propel the weight of his legs, arms firmly placed inside the cuffs of the crutches as I watch. Because of The War: the reason I now assign to all injury.
I am able-bodied though heavy with a backpack, watching the walled city from the outside. Believing there is something to find out. A view called history. Or to enter.
Jill Magi works in text, image, and textiles. LABOR will be out in September 2013 from Nightboat Books, and her other books are Threads (Futurepoem), SLOT (Ugly Duckling Presse), Cadastral Map (Shearsman), and Torchwood (Shearsman). She was a 2012-13 visiting writer in the MFA poetry program at Columbia College Chicago and an instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.