In these two stories by Estonian author Urmas Vadi, Roman declares war on Putin and Gérard Depardieu, and Margo receives a peculiar order from the king of Ground Beef Land.
Roman wanted, unconditionally, to be present during the delivery; he wanted to deliver the child himself so no stranger’s hands would come between him and the baby. There had already been too many other people ahead of him in life, preventing him from reaching something of importance. Now, Roman wanted to be the first; he wanted to be the one to cut the child’s umbilical cord. Roman wasn’t sure if Sigrid even wanted him to come along to the hospital. Seeing how distant Sigrid could sometimes be, Roman reckoned she probably didn’t want him there at all. But he also supposed that when the time was at hand, Sigrid would certainly need him, and would call. Roman kept his phone on 24/7.
The first thing Roman did in the morning was check his phone. Nothing. It was a disappointment that swelled into trepidation and anger. But his face showed no expression; was seemingly frozen up—that happened. After a certain family gathering, Roman discovered that his facial muscles no longer flexed well, that he lacked facial expressions, and was thus unable to convey his emotions. He might, for example, feel joy, and laugh, but a moment later he stiffened up and only an odd, painful grimace lingered on his countenance. Because of this, he frequently checked his cheeks, jaw, forehead, and lips. Roman was deeply bothered by the fact that he had a defective physiognomy, because now it was even harder for him to connect with others and make himself understood. Would he ever connect with Sigrid? Would Roman be capable of manifesting in the way that he personally feels and sees himself?
Maybe this immobility will even be to my advantage sometime in the future, Roman considers, because that’s how things are these days. I could use it in poker, but also anywhere else you need to either bluff or refrain from betraying secrets, like in war or espionage. I don’t know what the future will bring. What’ll become of Sigrid, and what’ll become of Estonia’s national security? Could he promise his child that the Republic of Estonia would still exist in a year? There were absolutely no guarantees: Russia was making a show of might; the war machine had been put into motion. Roman felt he couldn’t just sit around and witness it anymore! Crimea was gone, Ukraine’s military was simply watching it happen, all of Europe, the entire world was just watching a country be steamrolled.
Online, Roman alternated between reading child-rearing forums and foreign policy. Syria and everything else, but primarily Ukraine, of course. Every day, even frequently at night, he would look up conflict maps on news sites and watch the front line in Eastern Ukraine ooze outward like a bloodstain. After Crimea, there was Donetsk, Sverdlovsk, Lugansk . . . Soon, they’ll be all the way to Kiev. Europe, with its feeble sanctions against Russia, is just as powerless as my face.
Roman felt he needed to take action before it was already too late—before we’re gambled off to the Germans or the Russians again! Much as he didn’t like Putin, he also wasn’t fond of Merkel, who was against the formation of new and bigger NATO military bases in Estonia. Europe as a whole with Merkel at the lead is either dumb or blind, but definitely too polite. You don’t need to play the diplomat here anymore: once Putin is wielding his battle ax, he won’t just stop with Ukraine—he wants to restore the Soviet Union in its entirety! Will it really turn out that we can’t manage to stay independent for longer than the first Estonian Republic, just twenty years?
The more Roman followed the news, the more rage and desperation he felt, and he asked himself: what can I do from here? He was also at war and no longer bought anything produced in Russia: not beer, vodka, nor even dairy products with Russian-language labels. Neither did he read Russian literature anymore, or watch films that starred Russian actors or were made in coproductions with Russia. Roman likewise boycotted Western films that featured defectors. He pulled all the films with Putin-sympathizers Steven Seagal and Gérard Depardieu from his collection. Some of the movies were on videocassette, others on DVD.
He went into the garage and, one after another, he crushed the tapes and discs in a vise. It gave him childish joy and momentary satisfaction. But he had to start somewhere. And he started with Depardieu. He spun the vise on The Man in the Iron Mask to the point where it started to crack. Then he took an electric planer, regulated the blade to cut at a quarter inch, as deep as it possibly went, and simply planed the cassette to shavings. He did the same with the Asterix DVD. Roman was, for some reason, especially repulsed by Napoleon, which he had once thoroughly enjoyed: Napoleon, Depardieu, Putin; they all fused together. This in both the figurative and the literal sense. Roman lit a blowtorch and heated the DVD until the plastic crinkled. Finally, it ignited. Roman let it incinerate completely. Next was Seagal’s turn. Roman didn’t even bother to open the vise, because as an actor, Seagal was considerably more monotonous than Depardieu; a mere mountain of meat. Disc by disc, cassette by cassette, Roman stacked the films on an anvil and bashed Seagal with a sledgehammer. Marked for Death. “You got that right,” Roman commented, and the shards flew. Hard to Kill. “Well, not that hard!” The hammer fell, the plastic screeched and crunched. Above the Law, A Dangerous Man, Against the Dark. They all got what was coming to them: you had to confront the darkness somehow! On top of that, Roman had always liked Stallone and Schwarzenegger more—and even Van Damme; not Seagal, whose fragments were now scattered across the iron work bench and the cold concrete floor with the remains of another traitor. Such is the betrayer’s fate! Still, Roman felt this wasn’t enough.
In fact, he almost always felt like something wasn’t enough; that he had been left out of everything important throughout his life. It had started in childhood and only intensified with time. Roman’s older brother was a great deal bigger than him, was capable of and accomplished more of everything, received more attention, and on top of that, he ate more. Not that Roman was ever left feeling hungry, but that’s what it felt like—a sense of being deprived. That he was merely bypassed and dealt only the crumbs, his brother’s hand-me-downs. Mom and Dad justified it by saying Aleks was bigger: “If you were older, then your clothes would have gone to him.” Roman knew that would never have happened. And all the clothes Roman would have wanted from his brother, such as the acid-washed jeans and the denim jacket with the big Iron Maiden patch on the back, were so tattered by the time he’d have gotten them that only the buttons remained. Aleks had ripped the Iron Maiden patch off and stitched it onto a new jacket.
By now, Roman’s interaction with his brother was nearly nonexistent. They never called each other just to talk or met up or had a couple beers. They saw each other only when obligated, such as on their parents’ birthdays. And on those occasions, Roman once again felt like his brother ate more and talked more and was generally dealt much more attention. When Roman spoke, he was certainly listened to a little, but was soon interrupted because Aleks had something much more interesting to say. In general, Roman had a hunch that the most important topics were discussed only after he left the room. Or else they talked about him behind his back and laughed.
Roman swept the fragments of Seagal and Depardieu into a dustpan, locked the garage door, and went inside. Sigrid had told Roman she wasn’t coming over today; that she wanted to sleep. Roman accepted Sigrid’s wishes unconditionally. So, what to do? Roman’s heart was pounding, a blood vessel throbbed at his temple. He decided to take an important step and join the Elva Unit of the Estonian Defense League. Many people had joined the voluntary Defense League recently. Roman was prepared to do so, also. He took a shower, stepped out of the tub, toweled off, and felt the floor was cold. Summer was ending. Before leaving, Roman ducked into the utility room and switched on the gas boiler.
Ground Beef Land
After Margo left his mother’s apartment and had gotten back from the cemetery, he stood in the kitchen of his summer cabin and tried to soothe his nerves. He’d sweated through his shirt and even his pullover, was slouching in front of the window, staring off into space, and slid into a state of lethargy. The whole world drifted further and further away, he was bothered less and less by the apples thudding onto the lawn, by the overgrown grass; everything was so distant, so alien and meaningless. The only things Margo had left were his appetite and ground beef. Every morning, he took a packet from the deep freezer and set it on the counter to thaw. Ground beef couldn’t betray or abandon you, nor could it kick you in the balls. When thawed, it’s so soft that you can do whatever you like with it: it doesn’t resist, doesn’t protest, doesn’t accuse.
Even though the deep freezer was fully stocked, he always picked up fresh ground beef whenever he was in the city. He’d gone into town today—today, he felt he was ready to try boeuf à la tartar. Margo dropped the meat into a bowl, ground salt onto it with a satisfying crunch, added a dash of pepper, and kneaded the mixture. A minced garlic clove and some chopped onion went in as well. The recipe recommended adding pickled cucumbers and capers. Margo felt those would be excessive, and would already come between him and the ground beef. He shaped the mass into a patty, set it on a plate, and made a hollow in the middle, which was where the raw egg should go. Margo wasn’t quite ready for that part yet—eggs were to be either fried or boiled—so he left it out, leaving the indent where it was in the middle of the ground beef, as if waiting for something to enter it. We all have hollows and holes in us: in our hearts; in our souls. It’s rare for us to know how and with what to fill them.
Margo set the plate on the table in front of him and sniffed at it. The smell of freshly ground pepper and garlic and onion and ground beef filled his nostrils, overwhelming every one of his senses. It looked so perfect. For whatever reason, he wanted to eat it with a spoon. He ate slowly, savoring each mouthful. Soon, he’d already finished and felt full to just the right point. The flavor he’d relished in every spoonful lasted on and on and on, so much as carrying him forth. Margo felt like he was somewhere in a film. Movies themselves are nice, downright pleasurable, and this film wasn’t cliché, but unique: his and only his; he plays himself in it and watches himself, likewise. And he’s not just some slouching, run-of-the-mill oaf who’s consigned to oblivion at his cabin, but is bound to something important and great—he realized what it’s all about!
He was no longer in the kitchen but walking across a wondrous meadow. The ground beneath him was so soft, the grass was just the right height, and there wasn’t a single rotten apple in sight. His tread was so light. In the distance, he glimpsed a city with walls and towers, flags fluttering upon them. The main gate was open, Margo walked onward, the townspeople halted, stared at him, and hushed. Margo arrived at the town square and stopped. He was guided to the king’s castle. It all pleased him—certainly—everything was so light and amazing, but he was still troubled by several questions: What city is this? What people are these? Why am I here? The king, whose face was somehow so familiar, received Margo and sat him at his side. They were silent at first, then the king greeted him:
“Welcome to Ground Beef Land!”
“Thank you for inviting me as your guest,” Margo replied gratefully but without overdoing it.
Even in dreams, Margo was incapable of feeling at ease with himself or saying the right things at the right time. He wrote and rewrote his lectures for work several times over, memorized them—no improvisation!—and even wrote the jokes in. Yet sitting here next to the king, he suddenly felt incredibly light and pleasant:
“I feel as if I’ve arrived home after many long years of travels.”
The king nodded and waited a few moments before speaking again: there was time aplenty, nowhere to rush.
“But even now, you still have not arrived; you still must embark upon more travels and journeys. There are paths yet untread and lands yet undiscovered!”
Margo nodded, no matter that he didn’t know what to think of the fact that he still had more journeying to do. The king could tell what Margo was thinking, and added:
“Here in this world, or there in that one, each of us has our own task. And none of us has arrived before that task is complete.”
“Good King—what, then, is my task? What is the journey, to which my path leads?”
Margo’s frankness didn’t bother the king, not in the least. Rather, he nodded as a sign of goodwill.
“I am the ruler of Ground Beef Land: everything you see in this country is made of ground beef, even you and I.” This came as a surprise to Margo. “Yes, yes, even you and I—we are all made of ground beef; I have made you all of ground beef. But that’s not what is important. What’s important is the path itself, though even that is made of ground beef.”
Again, Margo wondered whether the king was just speaking in metaphor:
“Good King, is all of this just one big allegory?”
“It may be, it may not; what is true is that everything here is made of ground beef. Ground beef is best for creation. But the meat must be filled with meaning and purpose! Only then does ground beef start to live and blossom. Only then, without ulterior motives or self-interest, is it capable of being happy; of enjoying the moment; of seizing the day; of using the day. Have you felt selfless submission? Have you yourself offered it?"
The king turned to look at Margo, and Margo recognized the man as his father:
“Dad, it’s you!"
“Yes, yes, it is I—now, answer my question. Have you offered anyone selfless pleasure?”
Margo was silent for a moment, thinking.
“Suppose I haven’t,” he finally answered, and a sadness came over him.
“You see!” the king added. “You’ve been neglecting your garden!”
“That’s true.” Margo recalled his garden, the grass turning to hay, the apples.
“But what must I do then, Dad?” Margo pleaded in despair. “Should I mow first, or gather up all the apples?”
“Not one nor the other!” Still, the king seemed indifferent. “The garden you have left fallow is not of this land.”
“What’s it of, then? Where’s the garden I must tend to?” The king didn’t reply. Why doesn’t he reply? “Dad, help me, I can’t seem to understand, just tell me what I have to do! Tell me what can fill this hole in my ground-beef soul!”
“Why wouldn’t I tell you? Of course I’ll tell you. That’s why I summoned you here.”
Margo waited; waited with bated breath. The king’s old and gray ground-beef eyes, eyes that had seen everything, stared straight into Margo’s, straight through the back of them, and he spoke:
“You don’t know how to treat women!”
“Oh-ho!” Margo exclaimed, taken aback. “What do you mean?”
“Precisely that! You haven’t offered them satisfaction!"
Margo felt just miserable, unsure of what to do, and the king wasn’t helping, either—he was being downright ornery.
“Your path and your task is to return to your own land and give back all those orgasms to all those women with whom you’ve had intercourse, and whom you’ve left without satisfaction!”
Margo sagged: there was no way he could have expected something like that! The king nodded:
“Until you have completed your task, you are no more than the pack of ground beef put on the kitchen counter to thaw this morning!”
“But I went to the market today!”
“As if! You don’t see hallucinations like this with fresh ground beef, now do you?! Fine, it is what it is. You must go.”
Margo realized that everything the king had said was true, but nevertheless: where was he to begin?
“Go now, you’re awaited!”
The king’s audience had ended and his envoys, who had been standing at a polite distance throughout the whole conversation, now stepped closer. Margo rose to his feet, overcome with confusion:
“Who’s awaiting me? Where am I supposed to go?”
“Why, back to the maidens of my land, who certainly aren’t quite maidens anymore! They will instruct you.”
“I don’t know, I probably don’t need instruction.” The thought seemed so disagreeable to Margo at first.
“Come, now—of course you do! You, sir, don’t even know where the G-spot is!”
“Yes, I do!” Margo lied, and at that moment, he realized the king could see straight through him, just as he had seen everything without bothering to respond. The king’s envoys guided Margo through torchlit hallways to the maidens of Ground Beef Land, who first and foremost tore his dumb oversized band T-shirt to shreds.
From Neverland. © 2016 by Urmas Vadi. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2018 by Adam Cullen. All rights reserved.