Estonia, Out in the Country
During that week of September 2000 that Tanya and I spent in Tallinn and Tartu, I was called upon several times to write something about Estonia. In every case I explained that while I was honored by such requests, writing a short story is not a matter of choosing a country and a topic and simply taking off from there. I knew nothing about Estonia, and our experiences of regime change were scarcely comparable. But I was talking to a brick wall. After all, I had written thirty-three stories about St. Petersburg, so surely I could come up with one about Estonia.
For a story set in a foreign country, I said, one needs to sense a certain affinity, a kinship of soul with how things developed there. But the more emphatic my arguments, the more I rubbed my hosts the wrong way. They were too polite to tell me straight-out that they regarded such arguments as mere evasion.
I was a guest of the Writers Union and had been invited to Käsmu, where the union has a guesthouse on the Baltic. Käsmu, as my hosts never wearied of assuring me, was a very special place. It was not only a spot for total relaxation, but it also inspired one to work as never before. What we needed was a trip to Käsmu.
I hope this introduction has not left the impression that we were treated inhospitably. On the contrary, ours was a royal reception. Never before had one of my readings been moderated by the chairman of a writers’ union. He greeted us like old friends and invited us to a café where we could make plans for the reading. On our way there, every few steps someone would block our path to shake the chairman’s hand, a steady stream of people rapped on the café window or stepped inside, until we could hardly exchange two connected sentences. When I inquired about the profession of a tall, handsome man who gave me a most cordial handshake and apologized for having to miss the reading that evening, the chairman said: That was the minister of culture. The minister’s wife—beautiful, young, clever, amiable—interviewed me for television. It was just that they had all studied in Tartu, she said, and were now all working in Tallinn. They couldn’t help knowing one another, right?
Tanya and I took our lunch and dinner in restaurants that were both upscale and empty, and despite a good number of beers we seldom paid more than twenty marks.
When we and a small group went looking for a restaurant after the reading, it was Tanya and I who could offer suggestions. My translator, on the other hand—who told us how she and the people of Tallinn, of the entire Baltic, had for so many years gathered to sing anthems in hope of independence—couldn’t recall the last time she’d been in a restaurant. She couldn’t imagine buying a book as expensive as mine—which converted at just short of seventeen marks.
Before I tell about our days in Käsmu I want to mention another episode that has nothing to do with my story, really. Between a reading for students in the German Department of Tartu University and the public reading that same evening of the translated version of my book, some students invited Tanya and me for a walk through town. Toward the end of our little tour we passed a kiosk that offered the same beverages we have at home. There were two wooden benches out in front, and we invited the students to join us for a drink. Tanya said she was amazed at how everyone here roundly cursed the Russians but almost revered the Germans. Was that simply a matter of hospitality?
That had nothing to do with hospitality, it was simply how they felt, after all they were German majors. I was about to ask a question myself, when the youngest and loveliest of the female students, who until this point had only listened, exclaimed, “Why are you amazed? Germans have never harmed Estonians.”
“Well maybe not Estonians—” Tanya said.
“I know what you’re getting at,” the student interrupted.
“But surely you know that we Estonians had our own SS, and you only have to consider how many Estonians, how many people
from the Baltic in general, the Russians killed and deported even after the war. Only bad things have come from Russia, and mostly good things from the Germans—people can’t help noticing that.”
Tanya said that one cannot limit memory to a particular span of years or to a single nationality, and that after all it had been the Hitler-Stalin pact that had robbed them of their sovereignty.
“That’s true, of course it’s true,” the student said. “But why are you amazed?”
“Why aren’t you
amazed!” Tanya blurted out. After that we returned to the university and exchanged addresses.
On the drive to Käsmu in our rental car, Tanya asked me if she had come off as self-righteous. No, I said, just the opposite, but unfortunately I hadn’t been able to come up with anything better to say. Tanya said she couldn’t help being reminded of certain turns of phrase in those Estonian fairy tales we had been reading aloud to each other of an evening. Certain idioms kept popping up, like “She adorned herself in beautiful raiment, as if she were the proudest German child,” or “as happy as a pampered German child.”
We were looking forward to Käsmu. We had read in our guidebook that Lahemaa, Land of Bays, lies about twenty-five miles to the east of Tallinn, is bounded by the Gulf of Finland and the Tallinn-Narva highway, encompasses an area of 250 square miles, and was declared a national park in 1971. The guidebook also noted several endangered species to be found there: brown bears, lynx, mink, sea eagles, cranes, Arctic loons, mute swans, and even black storks.
We reported in to Arne, a gangly man with medium long hair and a beret, who runs a kind of marine museum. He greeted Tanya and me with a handshake: a signal, he said, to his two dogs—setters—that we now belonged to the village. Before handing over the keys, he gave a brief lecture about the especially favorable magnetic field of Käsmu. On the way to the guesthouse, however, Arne fell silent, as if to allow us to take in the view of tidy frame houses without any distraction and appreciate the peaceful setting to the full. The two setters bounded ahead of us, came back, circled us, and nudged against our knees.
When I think back on that week now, six years later, the first thing that comes to mind—quite apart from the incredible events I am about to recount—is the way the light turned every color brighter and paler at the same time.
The house had once belonged to Captain Christian Steen, who had been deported to Siberia in 1947 and has since been listed as missing. The entryway opened on a large, centrally located dining room, where, with one exception, we took all our meals alone at the huge table. At opposite ends of this space were the two guest rooms, and a third door led to the kitchen, which adjoined a winter garden. The dining room’s high windows looked directly out onto the sauna cabin and a mosscovered erratic deposited by the last ice age.
The finest quarters, the Epos Room, had been reserved for Tanya and me. The smaller Novel Room was unoccupied at first, while the two Novella Chambers under the roof were home to a married couple, both lyric poets. We, however, caught sight only of the wife, who, no sooner had she announced in English, “Käsmu is good for work and good for holiday,” scurried off again as if not to waste one second of her precious Käsmu sojourn.
Käsmu has a narrow beach. You walk through the woods, and suddenly there is the sea. Or you stroll out on the pier in the little harbor to watch children fishing and let your fantasy run free as you gaze at derelict cutters scraping garlands of car tires strung along on the sides of the pier. The town is nothing spectacular, but lovely for that very reason. Somewhere there must be a depot for wooden pallets, because pallets lie about everywhere, and once they have been chopped into firewood by the villagers, are stacked along the sides of their houses. The one thing we had a knack for in Käsmu was sleeping.
Käsmu is worth a trip simply for its silence. As we sat in the winter garden in the evening—sipping tea, eating the wildberry marmalade we’d bought from an old local woman, listening to the sea and the birds—time seemed to stand still.
Käsmu’s peace and quiet were only disrupted of a morning, by two or three buses that came lumbering down the village street to deposit school classes at Arne’s museum. The children stood staring in amazement at whalebones, shark teeth, ships in bottles, fishhooks, and postcards of lighthouses around the world. They would picnic on the lawn in front of the building, run out on the pier, and then be driven away again.
Tanya and I had tried to engage Arne in conversation and intended to invite him to dinner, but Arne resisted all contact with us. Even when we paid a second visit to his museum, he simply greeted us with a brief nod and then shuffled away.
On the third day—it had been drizzling since early morning—we watched from the window of our Epos Room as schoolchildren got off their buses, jiggled at Arne’s front door, circled the building, peered in from the veranda, until finally their teachers, equally perplexed and upset, rounded them up and herded them back onto the buses, where we could see them eating their picnic lunch. That evening when we returned from our excursion to the high marshy moorland, the note we had left for Arne asking him to heat the sauna was still wedged in his door. The sky was clear and promised a beautiful sunset.
The fourth day was cold and so gusty we could hear the sea even with the windows shut, and we stayed indoors. Tanya made tea and crawled back into bed with Gustav Herling’s A World Apart. Resolved at last to make use of Käsmu’s favorable aura and do some work, I turned on my laptop and was staring at the file icons on my screen—when savage barking called us to the window.
A green Barkas van was standing beside the museum. Arne’s setters were going crazy. I don’t know where they had suddenly come from, but their baying didn’t sound exactly welcoming. Although the day before yesterday these same dogs had obeyed Arne’s every word, he now had to grab each by the nape of its neck and drag it into the house. But once inside they still didn’t calm down and kept leaping up at the windows to the veranda, yelping their hearts out.
Arne on the other hand looked somehow younger—his beret cocked back on his head.
“If you can keep a secret,” he called over, “I have something to show you.” With a wide swing of his arm, he directed us to take our place behind him, inserted the key in the rear door of the Barkas, and opened it a crack. He peered into the van and then with a clownish pantomime urged us to do the same. I assumed Arne’s daily encounters with schoolchildren were to blame for his exaggerated performance.
It was dark inside the van, and I recoiled from the foul odor. Tanya took more time. Then she glanced at me and said in a
voice that sounded as if I had just asked her the time, “A bear, there’s a dead bear lying in there.”
Arne had dragged over one of those wooden pallets. Tanya opened the door till it caught in place, and Arne and I propped up the pallet to make a ramp. Arne took up his post beside it, Tanya and I retreated behind the opened door.
The bear didn’t stir.
We watched as Arne pulled a can from his jacket pocket and, after opening it with his fingernails, plunged a stick into it. He handed me the stick, nodded as if to thank me or as if we had agreed on some signal, clapped his hands three times, and cried, “Seryosha! Seryosha!” He clapped three more times, took back the stick, and held it out in front of him like a fishing pole.
I’m really not all that much of a wimp, but when, at no more than an arm’s length, the bear’s head emerged from the darkness, I had a sense of the aptness of the idiom “so scared I almost shit my pants.” “Let’s get out of here,” Tanya whispered. Arne, however, armed with just a honey-smeared stick, showed no sign of the jitters. He waited in front of the pallet with his legs astraddle, bending farther and farther forward—and given his height, it looked like some sort of gymnastics. The bear stretched its head out even farther but still refused to crawl down the pallet. Arne held the stick so close to Seryosha’s mouth that he could take a lick and bite off a piece. He crunched the stick as he dined, and growled. From childhood on we learn that bears growl. But when you actually hear that ursine rumble, without the protection of a moat or a fence, it leaves a lasting impression.
Strangely enough my confidence was boosted less by Arne’s honey-stick gambit than by the bear’s behavior. When you know how this story ends, that seems a facile observation, but from the start I had the impression that this bear had himself under control, that he knew what he was allowed and not allowed to do. He stuck out a paw and pushed the pallet away from the van, measured the distance between the edge of the van’s bed and the pallet lying below it, shifted his weight from one paw to the other, reached down farther with his right paw, and leaped out so quickly that Arne would have been knocked over if he hadn’t performed a reverse buckjump. At the same moment the Barkas bounced with a metallic squeak.
Arne made a few quick jabs at the can. The crunching sound resumed. And then it happened. At first I thought the bear was turning toward us. But then he kept going, spun around once in place, and then a second time, because Arne was applauding him. He turned and turned, swinging the rope around his neck with him. When we joined the applause, he suddenly stopped, lurched forward and backward as if dizzy, and ended with a somersault that was a little off kilter but still counted as a somersault. For his finale, the bear plopped down on his rear end and raised his paws, begging.
Whether Arne’s stick was now too short or whether he was following instructions, at any rate he pulled out a handkerchief, dipped it in the can of honey, and tossed it to Seryosha, who simultaneously tore it to shreds and stuffed it in his mouth. Smacking his lips and grunting, he lowered himself onto all fours and set off on a stroll across the lawn. Arne had removed a basket of fruit from the passenger seat. He now tossed Seryosha a couple of apples and strewed the rest over the bed of the van. Seryosha actually turned around and jumped up into the Barkas, which settled onto its rear axle with a squeak.
It wasn’t until weeks later, after we had told the story of Seryosha many times, that it struck me just how curious this little interlude outside Arne’s house actually was. Why, after all, had Arne enticed the bear out of the van? Had he wanted to play
wild-animal trainer for us? Had his vanity gotten the better of him? Was that the reason he had risked discovery?
Arne invited us to accompany him. And so, for the first time since our hitchhiking days, Tanya and I found ourselves squeezing into a Barkas—but unlike back then, Tanya climbed in first.
What I ask myself now is: Why didn’t I jot down a single note while we were in Käsmu? Driving through the woods were an Estonian and a German writer, along with his one and only love, plus a bear in the back of their van—and it never once dawned on me that all I had to do to provide my hosts with the story they wanted was to write down what I was experiencing at that moment.
It would of course be an improvement if I could reproduce Arne’s speech in the original. His German was tinged with the now-defunct East Prussian dialect, but I’m simply unable to replicate its odd syntax and broad vowels. Chugging out of the village in second gear, we at first said nothing. Arne was apparently enjoying keeping us in suspense and pretended that his slalom course to avoid potholes demanded his full attention.
“What kind of bear is it?” Tanya finally asked. In her attempt to look Arne in the eye, she bent so far forward that her forehead almost touched the windshield. “What are you doing with a bear?”
Arne smiled—a pothole sent us lurching forward. Arne cursed.
“Did you hear that?” Tanya exclaimed. “He growled, he’s growling.”
A couple of slalom maneuvers later, Arne began to speak, but what he had to say apparently had nothing to do with Tanya’s question. He explained that the Writers Union was poor because its writers were poor. Except for one member, not a single writer in Estonia was able to live from his books, although of course the union also received a government subsidy. And for the quartermaster—that was in fact the term he used—for the quartermaster of a writers’ retreat there was really not much left over, and he couldn’t depend on the standard practice of tipping in their case either. Once in a while he let a few villagers use the sauna, but they paid, if at all, in produce. As far as his museum work went, all he got out of it was what he squeezed out of it himself. Even ten buses a day wouldn’t do the job. “So, chto delat
?” he asked in Russian. What was Arne to do?
But why was he taking a trained bear for a joyride through the woods?
Arne was looking for a turnoff. We drove at a snail’s pace along the rutted path. Arne talked about the revolution, as he called it. They had achieved everything they had wanted: independence, democracy, a market economy, and soon the European Union. Except that by now all the islands and coastal properties had been sold to Finns and Swedes, some to Russians and Germans too, plus the finest houses in Tallinn. There was truly nothing left that hadn’t been privatized and incorporated into the market economy. So what now?
Whenever we drove over a root or through a deep puddle, we could hear Seryosha’s growls.
The only difference from the old days, Arne said, was that from time to time some Westerner might get lost and end up in Käsmu. And that there was nobody to tell him how to run his
Arne turned on his headlights because the fir trees had closed in over the path, so that it was like driving through a tunnel. After an eternity of two or three kilometers, a heathercovered clearing opened up before us. Arne stopped, turned off his lights, pulled the key out of the ignition, and leaned back with arms folded.
A friend of his in Lahti, who also ran a museum and to whom he had sold two old German telescopes at a friendly discount, had passed on an inquiry about whether he, Arne, could perhaps act as an agent to locate a house at a good price along the coast. Although he had not agreed to this arrangement, suddenly there stood Mika, along with his wife, a stunning Argentinean, and their three children. Nothing came of the house deal, but Mika had been wildly enthusiastic about the local forest—which Arne found surprising, since Finland had plenty of forests of its own. It turned out that Mika was a hunter, and he called this forest a Russian forest and suggested that surely there were bears in a Russian forest. He, Arne, had never seen a bear in Lahemaa, but, since the house deal had fallen through, he didn’t want to dash Mika’s hopes a second time, and so had promised to inquire about bears at the local game and forestry office. There were plenty of bears, so he learned, but it was forbidden to shoot animals in the national park. Unless—here Arne raised his right hand and began to rub his thumb against his first two fingers—unless the bear presented a serious threat to the life and limb of locals and tourists.
Arne had come to an agreement with the game warden as to how many Finnish markaa it would cost Mika to obtain the ruling. Mika agreed to the sum, half in advance, the rest on the hide of the bear. In March a family of bears actually turned up in Lahemaa. But to avoid additional difficulties, the game warden had requested the hunt be postponed until autumn.
But the family of bears vanished in May, and there had been no trace of them since. The game warden had telephoned him a week ago and confessed that unfortunately he was no longer in a position to pay back the advance. In lieu of the cash, the game warden gave him a hot tip: A once highly renowned circus from Soviet days was eking out a livelihood in a St. Petersburg suburb. They were trying to unload their animals because their upkeep was too expensive. And so yesterday, for a payment of three hundred marks, Arne had taken charge of Seryosha, whom his caretaker had smuggled across the border through the forest. And so now they had a bear.
In response to Tanya’s question of whether he had informed Seryosha’s caretaker what fate awaited her charge, Arne brusquely asked in return whether she would prefer that Seryosha starve. Thanks to his good work, the animal would at least die with a full tummy and the pleasure of having enjoyed a couple of hours in the wild.
The plan was to let Seryosha settle in at the edge of this clearing for a day or two. To ease the pain of separation, his caretaker had also given Arne a pair of her old shoes and a jacket. Arne pulled out a well-worn moccasin, like the ones I had worn as a child, and got out of the van.
I smiled, unable to suppress my suspicion that what Arne had told us was your basic cock-and-bear story. “You don’t believe me?” he asked. I shrugged. “Tomorrow,” Arne said, “Mika will be here. Maybe you’ll want to apologize then.” I apologized on the spot, and several times over, but to no avail. Arne had opened the van’s rear door, and now clapped three times, called Seryosha’s name, and with the shoes and jacket bundled under his arm and a sack of food thrown over his shoulder, set out across the heather.
Tanya and I stood beside the van. As he trotted alongside Arne, Seryosha was a beautiful sight to behold. It was not just his loping gait, which made it look as if he were dragging his paws behind him. Under that mass of fur moved a body no less supple than a tiger’s, except that Seryosha’s elegance was less obvious.
When we finally lost sight of them in the trees at the far side of the clearing, Tanya asked what I would do if Arne were to scream for help. “Certainly not run in his direction,” I said.
On the drive back each of us was lost in our own thoughts. Our good-byes were brief. Arne had enough to do calming down his setters—and a clutch of teachers and their students.
Tanya took it upon herself to walk over to Arne’s that evening to ask him about the sauna, but either Arne wasn’t there or he didn’t want to be disturbed.
As we drank our tea in the winter garden, we tried without success to imagine the hunt. Would Arne clap his hands three times and call out “Seryosha”? Should we or shouldn’t we hope that Seryosha had made his getaway? Did a circus bear have any chance at all in Lahemaa? Wouldn’t he seek out the company of people, so that sooner or later he’d be shot as a dangerous animal? Seryosha’s future didn’t look rosy, and there was nothing we could do about that.
The next day was warm, the sky cloudless, and we made an excursion to Palmse, once the estate of a German baron. Afterward we visited a forest chapel, which was set in the middle of an old cemetery. (I’ve rechecked my notebook. In point of fact there is not a single entry about Estonia. Although Tanya did use two pages to record the names on the wooden crosses and gravestones. I now remember how ashamed I felt that it was she who jotted down those names and not me.)
On the drive home the weather turned gloomy, it began to rain. But once we arrived home our mood immediately turned more cheerful—smoke was rising from the sauna cabin. Arne had in fact heated it and filled the basins in the entryway with
fresh birch branches.
As we entered the steam room, each of us dressed in no more than a towel over one arm, we found three men already huddled in the small room. They neither responded to our greeting nor moved closer together to make room for us. Instead they ogled Tanya. From the corner of my eye I could see the one seated behind her trace a female silhouette in the air. We couldn’t understand what they were saying, of course, but their stifled childish giggles didn’t need an interpreter. Tanya left the sauna after a few minutes and returned to the house.
I was idiotic enough to believe I ought not yield the battleground to the Finns without a fight, so I was the first to go back inside and stretch out on the upper bench, leaving them to crowd together on the lower one. In the course of the next half hour I thought I could observe the other two brownnosing the guy with a blond mustache and a back sprinkled with moles. They held the door open for him and closed it behind him, let him be the first under the shower, the first to select a seat—and everything he said was met with a twofold echo.
Returning to the Epos Room, I immediately noticed something was up. I looked at Tanya—and she was already in midexplosion.
Our arguments always follow the same pattern. They begin with my failure to notice or notice too late what should be the appropriate response. In this case, since I had chosen not to take on those three louts directly, I ought to have at least followed Tanya out. But I was a man who could never forgo his pleasures, and by my behavior I had, whether intentionally or not, sided with them.
It is truly remarkable. Although I earn my daily bread by observing and describing situations and emotions, compared with Tanya I see myself as utterly tone deaf and dull witted.
The situation escalated when shortly thereafter the guy with the blond mustache sat down at the dining-room table to disassemble and clean two guns. While he worked he loudly whistled random melodies. I had to do something.
My suggestion that he could in fact tend to his weapons in his room was ignored with a grin. When I insisted, he cried, “Arne! Arne!” as if Arne had assigned him to his task. But when I picked up the barrel of one of the guns, he shouted in English, “Don’t touch it! Don’t touch it!” and snatched it away from me. The upshot was that we spread our evening meal over one half of the table—the lyric poetess from the Novella Chamber was impervious to our request that she join us in defending the dining room. The other half was occupied by the Finn, who was still busy oiling his weapons. For a while he kept up his mindless whistling, but much to our gratification was the first to beat a retreat.
We were already in bed when there was a knock at our door.
After apologizing for the disturbance, Arne begged for our help. “You’re from the East too, after all,” he said. One of the group, we learned from his explanation, was Mika’s boss, and Mika was in some kind of trouble. He didn’t know anything more than that himself, Arne said. He would be truly grateful if, once back in Tallinn, we wouldn’t mention the fact that the boss had been quartered in the union’s guesthouse. If everything went well, they would all be gone the day after tomorrow anyway.
“Day after tomorrow?” Tanya said, “That’s when we’re leaving too.”
“But you’ll be here tomorrow?” Arne asked. He needed us because the Finns had come from Tallinn in a taxi. Could we drive two of them to the hunt?
“Only if they sit in the backseat,” Tanya decreed.
Arne stepped closer and extended a hand to each of us. “Wake-up call at three thirty, breakfast at my place, departure at four thirty,” he said, and hurried off.
It was a long time before we fell asleep. Around three o’clock our sleep was interrupted by what we first took to be a barking seal—a sound evidently emanating from the boss Finn under the shower.
It’s a strange feeling to sit at a table with people you’ve first come to know in the buff. Their expensive outfits, which brought to mind an imminent polar expedition, looked to me like a crude attempt to conceal their true natures.
They politely offered us hard-boiled eggs and pickled herring—I bought something similar in Berlin a few days ago, where it’s marketed as “Swedish Snax.” Arne and the boss rode in the Barkas. Mika and the other fellow came with us. Both of them had small eyes and stringy hair—Mika’s was dark blond, the other guy was a towhead. They both fell asleep immediately. The alcohol on their breath was tolerable only with a window down.
After the turnoff we rolled the windows down all the way and inhaled the forest air. It was moist and piney and somehow swallowed up the exhaust of the Barkas ahead of us. Any second I expected to see Seryosha pop up in the narrow beam of our headlights. “Let’s hope, let’s hope he’s taken off!” Tanya whispered.
We halted just before the clearing and left it to the boss to shake his countrymen awake. Dawn was breaking by now, fog lay over the blanket of heather.
Arne assigned the hunters places every fifty meters. The boss was given a post on a low rise. Mika took a spot very close to us, the towhead stood farthest off. Arne passed out blankets. We could drive back home and get some sleep, he said, evidently worried about us, we didn’t need to be back here for another four or five hours. But we didn’t do Arne the favor.
How lovely it would be if I could describe what comes next in the style of a Leskov or Turgenev. But I know neither the names of the birds striking up their songs, nor of the beetles crawling under our collars or up our sleeves, nor can I make a name for myself by offering some observation that testifies to my dendrological expertise.
Freezing, we jogged up and down under the firs and dreamed of the sauna, which surely ought to await us—at a minimum—in reward for our cooperation. But we never moved too far away from the car. Once fired upon, even Seryosha might turn cranky.
Between seven and eight—the sun had now risen above the treetops—I noticed some movement. Evidently the hunters had spotted something. Everyone except us had binoculars, which is why I’m dependent here on Arne’s account. He would tell us later that it all began well enough, actually conditions were ideal, since Seryosha had been meandering along the opposite edge of the forest. For hunters who are good shots a distance of 200 to 250 meters is no problem, but Seryosha kept vanishing behind tree stumps and bushes. It makes sense that Arne advised against taking a shot, since he assumed that Seryosha could be lured closer.
In the real world, spectacular events always occur at great speed and usually almost coincidentally. And how can you be in the right place at the right time? To give truth its due, I ought to describe the finale with the brevity and speed with which in fact we experienced it.
Seryosha, then, had been spotted and was in the Finns’ crosshairs. I’m certain the argument that broke out among the hunters at that point—in which Arne somehow managed to get involved as well—would have sent any other bear packing for good and all. According to Arne’s subsequent report, the issue was who should fire first, the boss or the towhead, who was considered the better shot. The towhead had evidently lodged a protest, implying that his boss wouldn’t have much luck at that distance. At any rate the ensuing rhubarb was worthy of a soccer field—then suddenly, a shot. Followed at once by another. Silence. Tanya pressed her fists together and whispered, “Beat it, Seryosha, beat it!”
The next sound we heard was a screeching female voice. Which is to say, at first I took it to be the wail of an animal so accustomed to the company of humans that it mimics them in its pain. So it was with real relief that we saw a woman rise up amid the heather, a woman in a black headscarf, throwing her arms into the air and spinning in place. She evidently didn’t know what direction the shots had come from. We were standing next to Mika on the low rise, the towhead and the boss were a few steps to our right, with Arne behind them. Rooted to the spot, they stared through their binoculars. But even with the naked eye it was obvious the woman, whose screams now rose to savage yowls, was pointing to the far edge of the forest.
I have never used the following phrase, and will presumably never use it again, but in this case there is no avoiding it: I didn’t believe my eyes. No, not even when I saw what was happening right before them. It was Seryosha. But he wasn’t jumping or dancing or doing somersaults. Seryosha, if not with great skill, was riding a woman’s bicycle. It looked as if his paws kept slipping off the pedals, and every few yards I expected him to upend, or go flying over the handlebars. But that was more a matter of the uneven forest floor. Seryosha was perched on the seat, pumping for all he was worth. Unfortunately, given the situation, I was paying no attention to the people around me. It wasn’t until I heard a shot that I noticed an ashen-faced Arne, and saw the boss raise his gun and fire—followed by a second shot from the towhead, and finally one from Mika.
Now it was Arne who was screaming as he pushed the barrel of the boss’s gun down. Any shot was irresponsible, even though the wailing woman was not in the direct line of fire and had in the meantime dived into the heather—at the sight of her commandeered bicycle, as we would soon learn, she had fainted. I took advantage of the brief skirmish that followed to borrow Mika’s binoculars. Which is why I was presumably the last person to see Seryosha. He fled into the forest, soon breaking into an easy trot on all fours, and vanished among the fir trees.
I probably don’t need to describe what was taking place among the hunters. Fortunately their shouting match was less about the bear’s agility than about Arne’s interference and their own failure to maintain an established hierarchy. They even forgot about the woman. Only after she reemerged from the heather, still nervously prepared to duck and cover, did someone come to her aid.
She was younger than I had guessed. At the sight of her bicycle—an old Wanderer model—she raised a howl to curdle your blood. The front wheel was a figure eight with extruding spokes. One shot had shattered the bearings in the rear wheel. But there were no traces of blood to be found anywhere.
The woman had come to gather blueberries, and while she held out her hand one bill of Finnish currency after the other was thumbed out until she fell silent. Arne carried the heavy bicycle to the Barkas and drove her home. Without sliding her own seat forward so much as an inch, Tanya watched in the mirror on her sun visor as the boss was forced to squeeze into the backseat between Mika and his chief rival, the towheaded sharpshooter.
By the time we handed over the keys to the Epos Room to Arne the next morning, thanking him and saying our goodbyes, the Finns had already departed—in two taxis, Mika riding with his boss, whereas the towhead had to pay for his own taxi. Arne considered this a victory for Mika. Because, according to Arne, the open hostility that had erupted as a result of the hunting rivalry between the boss and his former right-hand man offered Mika a second chance, so that the bear hunt had paid off for him after all, if in unexpected ways. The woman gathering berries, Arne hoped, had received enough hush money. But if she still couldn’t keep her mouth shut, which he feared would be the case, her punishment would be that no one would believe her story.
Arne promised to let us know as soon as he learned anything about Seryosha’s fate. Sad to say, I’ve never heard another word
Of course I ask myself why, after six years, I’m now writing about that memorable hunt. I’ve forgotten so many details in the meantime—from the names of the lyric poets at the writers’ retreat to the make of our rental car, from exact prices to the route we took, and so on and so on. Besides which it’s quite possible that things have changed drastically in Estonia over the last few years, so that my story has in some sense become past history. In any case, the fact is that not only my own life has changed. All our lives have taken a different course over the last few years. And that may perhaps—perhaps—be the reason I finally found myself in a position to venture a story about Estonia.
Excerpted from One More Story by Ingo Schulze. Copyright © 2010 by Ingo Schulze. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.