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from the October 2015 issue

Death among the Icebergs

Conchita Suárez had come to Tartu from Chile to study Estonian language and history. Her arrival here was not entirely a matter of chance. In point of fact, her grandfather had been forced to flee Estonia for Germany with his parents while still a small boy in 1944, and from there to South America, which meant that Conchita’s blood was one quarter Estonian. She had been in Estonia for over two years now. Having mastered the local language surprisingly quickly (testament to her obvious gift for languages), tracked down her distant relatives, and made friends with many wonderful people her own age, Conchita finally ended up on the island of Hiiumaa—“the Land of the Giant.” The reason being that she had been offered a couple of months’ work over the summer at the history museum in Kassari.

Conchita took to the windswept island immediately and observed with slight surprise that the islanders were completely different from the mainland Estonians, and not only in their manner. Many of their physical features reminded her of the Spanish, yet their way of thinking and the blue of their eyes were decidedly Northern. The islanders would make odd remarks and Conchita understood their humor even less, but she liked them anyway. One born-and-bred Kassarian, Aale Häggblom, piqued her interest more than the others. He was a giant of a man, slightly balding, but with fair frizzy hair, a large nose, and sky-blue eyes. Conchita saw Aale every day, as he was responsible for the upkeep of the museum, taking care of everything from the wiring to the stuffed animals in need of repair.

This oversized and slow-witted man greatly amused the petite and temperamental Conchita. She would secretly watch as Aale, swearing under his breath, mended the wiring in the ceiling, dusted the wolf and the pine martens, swept the road around the yellow building with a broom, muttering all the while. Finally, however, to Conchita’s great consternation, her furtive, derisive spying grew into something else—something that she couldn’t have imagined in her worst nightmare.

What happened was that one warm and windless night an unbearable feeling of happiness struck her out of the blue, and the feeling was directed—O cruel gods!—at Aale Häggblom, that aging man of forty.

At first Conchita had no idea what was happening to her. She woke up in the middle of the night, a scream lodged in her throat. She took her temperature, adjusted her pillow this way and that, piled more blankets onto her burning body, suspecting that a cold was to blame, but nothing worked. Only the next day did she realize, aghast, that she had actually fallen in love with Aale. Conchita was horrified at the thought! The poor little Chilean’s life became hell! Only a few days earlier, the funny old bachelor had merely been a source of amusement, but all of a sudden she saw him as some mythical giant whose gaze and clumsy form concealed a strange power. In awe, she gazed upon him from afar, lips trembling. But when Aale Häggblom came to ask her something in his booming voice, Conchita, unable to venture any reply, ran to cry behind the white cedars. Poor girl . . .

Conchita had fallen in love. It was a sensation like sudden monsoon rains, the demons of passion swirling around her loins and fragile arms, her small breasts and her neck, the din of a thousand birds cawing in her head and in her heart, a warm rain soaking her soul and her womb that left her clutching her belly as though suffering from menstrual cramps. It was a sultry, dark, horrible jungle of a place where jaguars, bird spiders, and venomous snakes prowled. It made her afraid of herself. She couldn’t go back home and she couldn’t run away.

As if deranged, Conchita would tramp around Aale Häggblom’s seaside house at night, sit under his window until dawn, and cry while listening angrily to his peaceful snoring, a sound which eventually infuriated her so much that she would start kicking the wall of the old man’s house.

“¡Chancho de mierda! ¡Es la cosa más estúpida que jamás me ha pasado!” she would howl in sorrow and fury.

A week went by, and nothing had changed. One July morning Aale showed up at the museum earlier than usual, and as fate would have it, he did not get down to work but approached Conchita for a chat about something or other. Suddenly in mid-conversation, without any reason or forewarning, she screamed. It was the very scream that had become lodged in her throat on the night she had fallen in love. The shriek burst from her breast like a screeching falcon, and although she pressed her hands over her mouth, it was too late. Under Aale’s dumbfounded gaze she sank to the ground at his feet, wailing like a small child. All the confused giant could think to do was to awkwardly stroke the young woman’s head.

“Are you in pain, shall I call a doctor or something?” he asked, worried, which set Conchita howling even more loudly.

“¡Nooooooooo!” screamed Conchita through her tears. “Eres un disecado, viejo y apolillado como ese tonto lobo allí en el rincón. No entiendes nada, ¡nunca entiendes nada!”

Full of self-loathing for having fallen in love so stupidly, she began to beat Aale with her little brown fists for all she was worth. He tried to protect himself, clumsily putting his arms round Conchita and lifting her onto the counter so that he could fetch her a drink of cold water. But she would not let go of him. A force ten times greater than the girl compelled her to press her lips against the handsome old bachelor’s bearded face, against his sunburned nose and lips, and Aale, completely taken aback by what was going on, did nothing. Amid the summer calm, the dusty stuffed animals, and the old maps, the typically placid giant nonetheless felt the long dormant hunter awaken in his body and raise his head . . . a strange, wild gleam flashed in his eyes. Like a peaceful reservoir that suddenly overflows a dam in a deluge, he swept the girl up in his arms and in giant bounds carried her into the back room with its walls covered in maps depicting the origins of Hiiumaa tens of thousands of years earlier and glass cabinets full of rocks from the Silurian and Devonian eras. Conchita, hanging tightly onto his neck, allowed him to do so, her heart pounding.

 

There, tumbling onto the worn oak parquet, clumsily and fumblingly tearing each other’s clothes off, they fell upon each other with suppressed cries, feeling a hot ocean wave of exhilaration wash over their bodies and carry them rising and falling out to the open sea. When the pleasure was just about to overcome them the girl sank her sharp white teeth into the giant’s shoulder leaving four bleeding marks, causing Aale to roar—his bellow not one of pain, but rather the sound of a lone, primeval creature who at long last has happened upon another of its kind after roaming through rain-drenched bogs and giant horsetail … It was frenzied passion and the urge to melt into each other, to disappear into one another, to dissolve into elementary particles of exhilaration, so that the only people who stumbled across the museum that morning (a married Dutch couple) fled headlong back to their car upon hearing murderous screams—they had no wish whatsoever to become involved in the internal affairs of another State. The lovers had in the meantime reached their climax, collapsing on the floor in a mutual embrace, streams of hot water and pale semen flowing down along their thighs, enraptured exhaustion on their faces.

 

Conchita and Aale didn’t leave each other’s sides for a moment. They spent all the following nights and exhilarating, feverish days together, and so many shooting stars crossed the sky during those August nights that they both finally ran out of wishes or things to ask of life. Their arms around each other, they walked through trails lined with juniper trees that went in all directions around Kassari and led nowhere, ran to the end of the spit of land where waves from both sides crashed against their legs, and didn’t give a fig about what the locals or anyone around said behind their backs.

And that’s how the story might have continued forever if the little Chilean had not felt a peculiar change come over her a month later. To tell the truth, it surprised her just as much as falling in love had. She felt the force that had been ten times stronger than herself, that had so unexpectedly bound her to the giant, suddenly release her—in just one day, without even asking permission! As if she was not the person in whom all those changes were taking place, but someone else with whom she happened to share a body and soul. It scared her.

Conchita Suárez looked into the mirror of her soul and asked the face with the third eye that looked back at her, “Tell me what I really feel or felt for him? What was it? And what did I do wrong?” But the reflection did not reply; it just smiled quietly and winked.

Aale of course perceived the change in Conchita, from her withdrawal and the fact that she no longer felt natural and free in his embrace. It left him powerless. He stood before her, gazing at her with the devoted stare of a foolish dog. He gathered flowers for her from the juniper heaths morning, noon, and night: bunches of cow-wheat, barley, cornflowers and sweet peas—she ended up with so many that there was nowhere to put them anymore. Finally, unable to express his devotion in any other way, he just sat at her feet, clasping her golden brown legs so tightly to his head that it started to hurt them both. The Chilean saw a giant sitting at her feet who worshipped her as some kind of goddess and it saddened her to know that she no longer felt anything for this wonderful man. Not only that, but the Hiiumaa islander now seemed downright dull and ridiculous to her now . . . just like the island itself. Yes, she was tired of being on this island and the miserable offerings that nature had seen fit to bestow upon it. She was tired of Estonia full stop.

Suddenly Conchita felt very keenly that she had gained all that she’d expected and more from this land and these people and now she wanted to go home. She missed her mother and father, her siblings and her friends, her white local church on the mountain top, and her old, compassionate, somber father-confessor. She missed the ocean, whose roar she could hear in the westerly winds from the other side of the hills, and the rain and the forests with their sounds and smells that were just as dear to her as those here. She wanted to go home. And feeling little pangs of conscience, yet determined, she freed herself from the giant’s awkward grasp with the excuse that it was already late and she had to go to bed.

Three days later Conchita Suárez left the island. It was a warm, sunny afternoon and Aale drove her to Heltermaa. At the quay the wind blew from several directions, stirring up dust and the first yellow birch leaves. Before she boarded the ferry they hugged one last time. Conchita smiled at the man, and in a sudden rush of emotion she took hold of his head and kissed him once, hard, hotly, on the lips, then ran onto the ship without looking back.

Aale stood and watched her, motionless, as the ferry drew away from the port. He was still standing on the same spot an hour later; he stood there until the ferry, shrinking until it was a tiny dot, melted into the milky whiteness. And only then when there was nothing left to see did he feel pure, true, love spring up inside him for the young woman who had come here from somewhere very far away and who had now gone from this place for ever.

 

From that day on, Aale Häggblom bore the true, demonic pain of love within him. A pain that is hard to bear even when love is requited and two lovers are entwined in each other’s embrace. But when a man is condemned to bear that burning flower in his heart alone, then even an island that has been his lifelong home becomes an alien place and he a refugee.

Sleepless and wide-eyed, like some graven image half awakened to life, Aale roamed his house and the Kassari shore lined with Juniper trees—the only remedy for his heartache and insomnia was walking. He walked until he could walk no more, completely spent, collapsing when exhaustion broke him. And just as flies find rotting flesh, so the demons’ infallible instinct found Aale Häggblom’s soul, feverish with yearning, and set about their daily work in businesslike fashion.

"What are you doing to me and where are you going to take me?” the semi-conscious man asked the demons. “Are you going to take me to the ends of the earth or beyond? And can anyone live and breathe in the beyond? If they can, then go ahead and take me there because there is no longer a life for me here.”

But the demons did not reveal their plans. They scorched the man’s already torturously fevered soul until it was forced by lack of air to rise up in the middle of the night and escape from Aale’s body. They drove it out and onto a great journey, prodding it with boathooks from behind until eventually, after fleeing across sea and forest and tundra, it reached the endless ice fields where there was nothing but glittering silence. There Aale’s soul spied an ice-bound ship. It was a two-masted frigate, wedged at an angle between the ice cliffs, the word “love” painted in red on the side planks. It was onto this ship that the soul, now in its own flimsy garb, ran and finally came to a stop on the captain’s bridge, its teeth chattering. Hands thrust inside its jacket, it scanned the horizon, shivering; in truth, there was nothing to see but freezing fog and icebergs gleaming in the polar sun. Never again would it be possible to sail to any sea in that vessel, for it was a cursed and useless ship in its gigantic bygone beauty.

The demons did not follow him onto the ship, as they could not bear the cold for long. Delighted by a job well done, belting out a song, they flew back to warm land.

           

Early that same autumn, Aale Häggblom’s sister hosted a family reunion at her farmstead in Käina. Far-flung beloved relatives from different corners of Estonia who had not seen each other for decades gathered together, greeted each other, and among other things chatted with Aale. Given the warm Indian summer they were surprised by his palely bluish complexion and spiritless, cold gaze, but soon directed their attention to other matters because there was so much to talk to everyone about. The relatives discussed the births and deaths and other interesting developments that had taken place since they last saw each other, all the while eating and drinking, and—with strong beer to hand—singing the good old songs they’d sung on previous similar occasions.

Aale Häggblom alone did not sing. Sitting at a table under the apple trees he stared somewhere into the distance with a frozen expression on his face, which was growing whiter and whiter. Little by little his cheeks, eyebrows, and eyelashes were covered with ice crystals, his hair with hoarfrost. Suddenly his expression cleared. A gleam appeared in the giant’s eyes, as if he’d seen something beautiful and inviting on the horizon, beyond the endless icebergs. Yes, some sort of flag, a flame-colored flag, caught his eye . . . . Might he be reaching his destination at last? Might he finally find peace? And smiling for the first time in ages, the giant stood up to head toward it, but stumbled into the edge of the table and fell face down into the dish of jellied meat.

The beloved far-flung relatives jumped up in alarm. Only now did they notice the ice-bound man in their midst, his frost-covered hair, his ice-encrusted suit. And this in the middle of a warm sunny day, at a table piled high with herring and potatoes, coffee and vodka! There was a rush to fetch hot water, lay him out on the grass, rub his blue hands and feet and massage his heart, but all to no avail. Aale Häggblom was dead and nothing more could be done.

Three days later a diagnosis was received from Kärdla hospital: cardiac arrest as a result of varicose glaciation. Even the eminent doctors summoned from the capital were baffled and at a loss. Never in their lives had they come across a case like this! And in order to put an end to a situation that augured such uncomfortable and endless debate, Aale Häggblom’s file was shut away under seven locks after his burial, and never spoken of again.

© Mehis Heinsaar. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Susan Wilson. All rights reserved. 

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