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Words Without Borders is an inaugural Whiting Literary Magazine Prize winner!
from the October 2015 issue

Mice in the Wind

Victor didn’t throw out the empty bottle, but did the proper thing and left it beside the banister, so that the housekeeper or the first early riser rushing out to work would get it. Afterward he was overcome by a sense of peace that lasted a while, like a person who has come to a realization, who is no longer a mystery to himself. Carefree, he strolled homeward. So what then? Every experience is an experience! A man of letters has to be in contact with life, he reasoned to himself with a wicked pleasure, an argument that would excuse all his actions. Later he would dash off a feature on it. Up until now he’d never left anything undone. Whatever the quality, however last-minute, he always completed his work. In that sense Victor was superstitious. He clearly imagined that a single occasion would be enough, even if it was an unpleasant precedent, to tempt him to do the same over and over again. It made no difference whether you let someone down once or ten times—you were stuck with a label, you were branded unfaithful.   

He still had a long way to go. There was no hope of a taxi. Around here they were like umbrellas. When you really needed one, there usually wasn’t one to be had. The streets were empty, so that Victor’s footsteps echoed back at him with a slapping sound. A couple of blocks off to the right lay the town center and the latest urban housing project between the center and the suburbs. Although it was past three o’clock, lights were still burning in a couple of the windows of the huge block of flats. It was always like that. Victor hadn’t yet seen a prefabricated block with all the windows dark. There was always something going on in some of the two hundred and ninety flats, even in the dead of night. And if nothing else, at that hour someone would wake up and turn on a light for a moment, having decided to leave quietly.  

Suddenly Victor spotted someone ahead of him. He flinched. Who could it be? Now he would rather have been writing the feature. The eyes of fear in his heart saw how the line of telephone poles, the gaps between them narrowing in perspective, began to move, creating an impression of a chain of men. But having seen on closer inspection that there was only one person coming, Victor calmed down and his hesitantly raised leg, ready at any moment to change direction and flee to the other side of the street, descended firmly to the pavement. The night walker was walking slowly, his hands behind his back, his neck craned, apparently enjoying the towering sky, which at that moment was as dark as a velvet robe, awe-inspiringly beautiful and spectacularly starry. The man seemed absolutely sober. A drunken person would definitely have swayed a little if he had walked so slowly. “Another one who can’t sleep,” thought Victor. “Another one who can’t wait till morning! Some sleepwalker or someone in love.” He would have walked past the man without turning his head—just in case, you never know—when suddenly he caught sight of something familiar in the lanky figure, especially in the loose gait. He peered at the face that was clearly visible in the starlight and recognized the walker. It was that young poet and freethinker Kontenson.

Victor remembered Kontenson from a long time back. He got more closely acquainted with him three or four years ago, during the final season of his membership in the Young Writers’ Assembly. At the time they were taking in new members, and Kontenson started attending their events as well. He also came to the editorial office several times after Victor had started working there. He mostly came to show his poems to Victor, who had made contact with the literary world earlier than Kontenson and whose word carried some weight. On those occasions Victor also heard a few things about the man himself. Kontenson was roughly the same age as him. He hadn’t had much education and had left school in eighth grade. But he researched and read a lot, and he was an open-minded fellow who was free of the obligation to bone up on those compulsory subjects which his peers who had chosen formal education had to waste their time on, so Kontenson ended up having a pretty broad outlook on things. He was not a bohemian. He drank little and kept himself clean. After a while, in Victor’s opinion, he would have made a decent poet, but unfortunately no cleverer person had the time to bother with him for long, and going with the flow, he associated too much with his own kind, and in some circles he even had something of a leadership role. Kontenson went chasing after false values, and became a figure of fun. Among the many episodes, Victor remembered one to this day.

That morning Victor had heard steps in his long corridor, and after a timid knock Kontenson stepped in. He stopped for a moment, looked around slightly bewildered, said hello softly, then shifted along the wall to the cupboard, from there to the desk, and lowered himself slowly into a chair. He had a beautiful face and was somewhat feminine, with long eyelashes but with an artfully wrinkled brow so as to appear older and more experienced than his years. Victor saw at once that the boy had something on his mind, but as usual he had to wait for the confession. At first, for form’s sake, Kontenson asked what was new, but didn’t actually listen, he laughed and nodded in embarrassment, dropping in the odd empty phrase, fiddling with the objects on the desk. In short, he was not interesting in himself and he was interrupting work, but Victor never had the heart to throw people like him out. So he waited patiently for Kontenson to come out with his news. And indeed, he soon did, unable to disguise a smirk:

“Well, they’ve finally taken notice of me.”

“Where?” Victor didn’t really grasp this at first and was quite taken aback. Could it be that Kontenson was mixed up in some affair, had raped or killed someone or even—better not to even think about that. But no. Kontenson showed Victor a piece of paper and Victor’s eyes immediately fell upon the word “psychoneurology.” “I’ll be going in soon.”

Kontenson could no longer conceal his joy, his face was beaming. Victor just had to smile, though perhaps he should have got angry and given the young poet a good dressing-down. Kontenson’s way of thinking was not unknown to Victor, of course. Plenty of people regarded genius as close to madness. To them, to be mad meant roughly the same as being an artist, even if you didn’t create anything. On the other hand a person might paint or write as much as they liked, but none of that counted if the creator hadn’t been committed somewhere or had treatment. Otherwise they didn’t measure up. So people were quite happy to get committed. “Going inside” was as popular as a summer excursion to Pärnu. Anyone who had been “inside” three or four times began to get respect, and their advice was valued.

“So what did they tell you?” asked Victor.

“I guess they’ll stick me in the schizophrenia section,” chuckled Kontenson. “The consultant said he wasn’t sure yet, but let’s hope so. I think it’s sure.”

“An escape,” nodded Victor benevolently, examining Kontenson intently, because he had heard that recently at one editorial office in the capital a young author whose poems had been rejected had grabbed a knife and injured a staff member of the journal. Kontenson delayed a moment. “Oh yes, Nepin had just come in before me,” he said casually as if in passing, wanting to modestly emphasize what good company he was keeping. At some time in the future it was going to be so good to say, “It happened when I was in the madhouse with Nepin.”

After this visit to the editorial office, Kontenson really had been away for a few months, but whether he was recognized for anything more than sensitivity, an excessive tendency to dwell on his own personality, and extreme shyness, it’s hard to say. What is more certain is the fact that after being released from the aforementioned place Kontenson had attended lectures at the university for a while. In the Young Writers’ Assembly he had many acquaintances who were studying at the university; they informed him about the lecture timetable of the smarter lecturers and took him along with them. Sometimes Kontenson went on his own. On those occasions he would slink in, head down, and make for the rows at the back. He would invariably be wearing a shapeless polo-necked ski sweater, carrying a torn briefcase, and writing down every word the lecturer said. At that time he had his own personal seven-year plan. First, he intended to learn languages, general and specialized history, and mathematics. This would be followed by the other humanities (certainly including semiotics), and after that, philosophy, medicine, and music. Finally he wanted to synthesize everything he had studied and arrive at true wisdom. At Knowledge with a capital ”K,” as he spelled out in letters to his friends. The plan in itself seemed reasonable to Kontenson. Never mind that it wasn’t carried out—you have to attempt the impossible to achieve anything at all in the world. But when Kontenson, after attending free lectures for three-quarters of a year, was even further from the synthesis than when he started studying, he changed his mind. Adhering to the principle that the shortest line between two points is a straight one, he resolved to achieve his aim by another means, using the Jump, as he called it in his letters. He left the university dissatisfied, shook the dust of his homeland from his feet, and, defying the convention that existence requires both a permanent address and a job, set off on the Road, a word which, like many others, carried an initial capital in the letters he sent to friends. He justified his departure with the need to gather real information about the human condition as such in this world. He also had a more distant goal, but he didn’t really talk about that. In his new “universities” he encountered a lot that was not compatible with his shyness, to such an extent that, when talking to a stranger, he would pull in his stomach, hunch his back, droop at the knees, and whisper. Over the next couple of years he experienced all sorts of exotic things, between the tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

He had sold roasted sunflower seeds at the foot of the monument to Slobodaas Demyan Bednyy, he had led a horse to a ford to drink at first light, he had shared a sleeping bag with an escaped recidivist prisoner, he had known several shades of women’s love, he had been a taxi-driver in Leningrad. He had seen and heard the human condition and come to the realization that man does not live properly. As an observant being, albeit an uneducated one, he surmised that the reason lay in human mortality.

And so he began his research into the Riddle of Death. At least that’s what he claimed. If anyone asked him what he was actually doing or studying, whether he was interested in what death is, whether it can be avoided, or whether the soul is mortal, Kontenson would only smile enigmatically: wait a little longer, it’s practically here! Whether he used any equipment in his research, whether he dissected corpses or, vice versa, whether he called forth spirits, no one knew. Was his work theoretical, of a philosophical bent, or did it have a practical goal—to shorten the lifespan, for example? No one could answer that, because Kontenson had bought himself an old farmhouse and was living outside town, and not a single person had managed to visit him at home. Kontenson lived an unassuming life, working by day in a bank, doing one-and-a-half jobs in a secondary post. He left in the morning and came back in the evening. Then a couple of hours’ sleep, followed by a cold shower and a liter of strong coffee, removed the last of the tiredness, and his work could begin. That was how Victor remembered him.

And now this same man stood in front of Victor, studying the sky like a farmer forecasting haymaking weather for the morrow. Victor would have liked to ask whether Kontenson was still occupied with the riddle of death, or whether he had solved it. Instead he inquired testily: “What are you tramping round here for?”

Kontenson didn’t exclaim jovially in reply, he didn’t even greet him respectfully; he gave no sign at all that he had recognized Victor.

“I’m looking at the sky,” he replied with the deep calm of a pastor and in the bland voice of a child genius.

At first Victor said nothing. There were two things that seemed to jolt his soul into a holy trembling. One was a shelf stretching from floor to ceiling in a strange apartment and full of unfamiliar books; the other was a clear starry sky in autumn. The mysterious volumes full of a jumble of alluring spirituality and the radiant little points of distant life in the vastness of space created an intolerable longing and the desire to howl. They radiated a wistfulness into the mind, sometimes granting pure catharsis. The shelf, the sky, and that woman with the slanting green eyes—Victor was powerless against these three. And even now he was mentally ready to extend his hand to Kontenson.

“I’m looking at the sky,” repeated the poet. “Sometimes such interesting things can happen in the sky,” he added, profoundly and mysteriously.

Victor was taken aback and stared at the other man apprehensively. “I know an alcoholic woman who lives near here—sometimes interesting things happen at her place,” he couldn’t resist remarking, snidely.

But Kontenson was surveying the state of the sky and paid no attention to the worldly scoffer. “Mercury seems to be positioned well at the moment, Saturn is having an effect, but it will recede soon,” he muttered authoritatively.

Victor’s shoulders shook as he clapped his hands together. “Still writing poetry?” he asked politely, for something to say before taking his leave.

“What is poetry?” came Kontenson’s rhetorical reply.

“Ah yes,” nodded Victor. “What’s so special about poetry?” He waved a good-bye, but Kontenson was pointing at the moon.

More and more of the windows were starting to light up in the gigantic walls ahead and to his right. It was the honest light of hard-working people. Soon one more lamp would have to be lit, the wicked little light of the desperate latecomer. By its light and into the pale dawn, Victor would write, write, write.

 

From Hiired tuules. © Mihkel Mutt. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2015 by Christopher Moseley. All rights reserved.

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