Friday, October 22, 2010

Journey to Latvia—Part 10 (Jūrkalne)

by Zinta Aistars

The tower of stones teetered, nearly collapsed, but held. I started another, then another, until several towers stood aside me on the Jūrkalne’s seashore, guarding me against … but I needed no guard. I sat in the sand on the shore of the Baltic Sea, open to all. Andris was a few yards behind me, drowsing in the sun, feet bare and damp shoes set to dry on the piece of driftwood on which he was resting his head.

That kind of evening.

And was it already? Evening approaching … the sun taking a lower position in the blue sky. Aside from that, I had no idea what time it was. I was remotely aware that this day would have to end, like all days, but at this moment in time, I was washed with peace. My mind was a clean slate.

Was it even possible that this day had begun, wrapped in the thick and wispy fog of Kolkas Rags, some 120 kilometers north of here? Was it possible that time had been somehow compressed, that we had indeed lived a lifetime in a day, perhaps even several lifetimes, reached far into the past, circled onto this day, wiping it clean, and pure, and white, and ready for another tomorrow, whatever tomorrow might bring?

I wasn’t going to argue possibility. All things were possible. Never say never. Even as I knew that it was also possible that, after today, I may never see Andris again. I had come to Latvia with the thought that this would be my farewell tour. My longed for reunion with family and friends and country, yes, but also my fork in the road to choose which dream to pursue, and then to doggedly do so.

My financial advisor back in the States had strongly advised me—no more travel. Not if I wanted to retire in ten or a dozen years to that cabin in the northern woods to write fulltime. That sack of gold in my back room was mighty tiny. One dream per Z. That’s it. I would have to make choices, and some of them hard.

Hard as stone. I picked another smooth one from the white Baltic sand, a small and pale gray one, held it in my fingers to feel its warmth, give it mine, then set it precariously atop one of my stone towers. The tower trembled, shifted to one side, then resolved to remain standing.

“Taisi tortes?”

Baking tortes? Who, me? I looked up into the sun to see Andris’ silhouette circling around me, taking photos again. Let there be witness: I was here. This day happened. The universe has shifted by just this miniscule degree, and I am a better person for this day than I was in the first light of morning.

Andris photographed my stone towers, or tortes, as if they were works of art. Why I have always appreciated this man in my life, near or far… he has always treated my creative output as if it matters in the scheme of things. He shows respect even for a silly pile of stones. I shade my eyes, look up at him, and smile.

Time to go. Yes. Time. The sun is spilling gold across the sea.

We walk slowly, slowly, along the shore for a while yet, and the sharp cliff of Jūrkalne shelters us from the world away from this line in the sand, washed by foam, scattered with tiny shells, dotted with smooth, sea-tumbled stones.

I could be sad, that this day is coming to a conclusion, soon, but I am not. I feel tumbled as smooth as these stones, one still warm in my hand, another slipped into my pocket. This day might never have been, but it has been, it has settled onto my shoulders, where I carried weight, and instead has draped them with feather-light blessing. I feel rich. I feel shot through with sunlight, and mist, and mystery that needs not be solved, surely not now.

“You realize we haven’t eaten all day?” Andris says. And we stop at the bottom of the wooden stairs leading up from the seashore back to topside of the Jūrkalne cliffs and stand gaping at each other. I consider. Breakfast of a slice of dark rye bread with cottage cheese on it and a cup of coffee. That was back around 7 a.m. I tend to tell time by my insides, a lightness in my head if I don’t eat a little something every few hours … skip a meal and I get a thumping headache. No such thing today. We blink eyes at each other, Andris lifts at his belt buckle to show how loose it’s become, and I burst into laughter.

Who needs food when this day has fed me in all the ways that I have long hungered. A spirit fed, a heart nourished, and I am fine for the day.

We make a quick stop at a tiny Jūrkalne grocery store nonetheless. I have enough food in the trunk to feed the nonexistent troops for my two days at my cousin’s house, but I still want milk, and eggs, and when I ponder a chunk of mild white cheese, homemade, Andris recommends it, saying, “You’ll enjoy it. I do. And we have similar tastes.”

True. I purchase all three, shelling out my lati and a few santimi, and I we drive back to the nearly invisible dirt road that leads to my cousin’s summer home. I lean forward in my seat as Andris turns in. There it is. A house that is as bright yellow as sunshine, with a turquoise roof, and one can’t help but think only good things happen, happy things, in such a brightly-colored house.

I am giddy with excitement. At last, a space that I can have all to myself, for all of two days, and if I could hug a house, I would. We step inside on smooth hardwood floors, and it is something I appreciate in Latvian homes—nearly all of them have wood floors, gleaming and richly grained, another testament to the Latvian’s love of nature and natural materials. The walls are white, and two paintings by my cousin’s father, my uncle and my father’s youngest brother, Jānis, bring gems of more bright color to these walls. The same turquoise as the roof, the same sun yellows, lines of vibrant reds and greens and oranges, pulse with life.

A birch limb is tied to a wall, its dried branches drooping over the entry into the kitchen. Bunches of grasses and herbs are tied to its branches, drying for tea. The house is all open space, all windows, and in the darkening light, we can just barely make out the pale blue line of the Baltic Sea on the horizon.

Around the corner is the living room, a cozy hideaway of a room, and separating it from the rest of the house is a brick fireplace. I clap my hands with childish glee. A clean white space, a fire, the sea, open land all around with tall grasses swaying in a mild evening breeze … what more can a Latvian prodigal daughter returned asked for?

I put Anita’s carefully packed groceries into the tiny refrigerator—another aspect of Latvian living that I adore are these tiny, efficient and compact appliances for all that one needs and no more—and find a pan to warm up the leftover strips of pork and golden potatoes. I’m not particularly hungry, but I switch into an irresistible nesting mode, and the woman in me reflexively moves to feed my friend a hot meal before he goes.

Andris finds plates, silverware, sets the table. “Kā aristokrāti,” he grins, like aristrocrats, we sit across from each other at the dining table and eat, if slowly, methodically. We eat, silently. Then talk again. And it is unavoidable, the realization that this day is nearly over, nearly. My eyes are suddenly heavy, in fact, even as I wish it weren’t so. Yet one more time, my eyes well with tears, and I sit holding my fork in the air, forgetting to eat. The day’s bright joy seems gone from my friend’s face, as well.

Something unbearable looms. Something unnamed.

Is it really possible I will never return again? I can’t say. I can’t. I am all heart, mindless, only raw with feeling.

“Perhaps you could yet come out to Rīga,” I burst out. “While I am still here.”

Andris looks at me. “I could.” He nods. “Yes. I could do that. I could come out to Rīga.”

And there it is, and that’s that, and my eyes are dry and dinner is finished and the plates are in the sink and I haul in my duffel bag and we move to the living room.

“Here,” I pull out a white bag, stuffed with envelopes, and hand it to Andris. “I brought this for you. These are yours, really. I found them among my things when I moved from the Keweenaw.”

He turns the bag in his hands, as if not daring to open it, and then does. The envelopes hold stamps from various countries around the world. Aside from music, Andris has always loved collecting stamps and coins. He taught me long ago to appreciate the fine art of stamps, their history, how to measure their quality and how to handle them properly. I had found these among my things after leaving the Keweenaw years ago, where we had both lived for a time. It had all been so long ago … I hadn’t checked to see if the contents of the envelopes were in good shape or not.

“Cik aizkustinoši,” he says, and drops immediately into a chair to examine them, touched by the thought, the memory, and then thinks better of it, and puts the bag aside. I hide a smile, recognizing this trait—delayed gratification. Put off the sweetness until you can hardly bear it.

Instead, we fuss over the fireplace. Evening has darkened outside the windows, the great open space of the house is tangibly cooling. We find kindling and rolled newspapers to one side of the fireplace, stacked wood beneath the stairs, and, opening the damper, Andris has a fire started in no time.

That’s all the delayed gratification he can bear. We pull our chairs closer to the already crackling fire. He reaches for his backpack, pulls out a pair of tweezers especially made for examining stamps, and a magnifying glass. (Oh my, I think. What never changes. He still carries them with him everywhere!) He puts on a pair of glasses himself, waving them first in the air between us.

“See how we complement each other,” he says, one eyebrow arched. “You wear yours to see in the distance, I see mine to see close up. Now, let’s take a look here … “

I press my lips together not to spurt giggles. What a grandpa. And aren’t I the faded old rose. I glory in this history. History in such a changeable life. With all the roller coasters of mine, the only constant being change itself, I am again soothed by this unchanging presence—a friendship that has taken us from two fresh-faced teens to this. Two midlife pals, through thick and thin, still riding the same wave.

I tuck my legs in under me, watch the rising flames, the curling white bark of a birch log turn to gray ash, into a spark, rising up the chimney, to join some star far overhead, surely, some star up there somewhere, with a thousand other stars and sparks from a thousand other fires on this quiet, still night.

(To be continued...)

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