Authors: Sofi Oksanen
“The most obvious Bolshevik cells have already been cleaned up, but I’m sure you know how important a thorough disinfection is when it comes to stubborn vermin. And you, Mr. Fürst, have an excellent understanding of vermin.”
Then Mentzel turned on his heel and went back into his office, leaving Edgar standing in the hallway. He had succeeded after all.
AS HE STEPPED
inside the prison walls of Patarei, Edgar felt dizzy. He was alive when many others weren’t. He would begin familiarizing himself with the Jewish question that very evening. These walls, meters thick, had silenced the screams of thousands of executions. They breathed death, death past and death to come, death that didn’t distinguish between nationalities or leaders or centuries. But his steps rang through the hallways, advancing purposefully toward life. He was well received at the B4 bureau, where he filled out the forms with Eggert’s information, in Eggert’s handwriting, and didn’t see any familiar faces. He felt like he was in the right place. He even got permission to visit Auntie Anna before he started his job in the Haapsalu office. He was told to be prepared for long hours, and that suited him, though he didn’t know yet how to explain the situation to Roland. It would be good to have his cousin along, because his background was so trustworthy, and because Edgar needed to keep an eye on him. What better way to do that than to keep him as close as possible? Besides, you should never go into a fight without a wingman. Roland was a closemouthed, reliable type. Edgar knew that Roland wouldn’t blow his cover. Roland didn’t ask a lot of questions. Like when Edgar showed up at his place after he left the Commissariat for Internal Affairs. Getting caught in that bribe had been amateurish. Edgar knew that, and it upset him. But Roland hadn’t pried, he just brought Edgar with him to Finland. He’d had that same weary look on his face that he had when Edgar got caught selling border passes at the Estonian border guard post, where they were both fulfilling their military service requirement. Roland had lied for him, said they’d been told that you had to pay for the pass, and Edgar had avoided going to jail. Roland had felt that Edgar’s discharge from the army would be punishment enough, and he was right. All in all, the risks he’d taken for Roland had proved useful.
Without Roland, without his recommendations, without the time in Finland, Edgar wouldn’t have such a trustworthy background, and he would never have met Mentzel. He knew he could count on the family. Rosalie’s mother obeyed Rosalie, Rosalie obeyed Roland, Roland obeyed Auntie Anna—and Anna obeyed Edgar. Auntie Anna had learned his new name so quickly, without asking any questions. It was enough for her to look into Edgar’s eyes and see that he was serious. She was just happy that her nephew, her favorite boy, had returned home alive from the gates of death. All he had to do was assure her that everything was fine and he had a job. Life was good for Eggert Fürst. He would think of a way to get Roland on board. If Roland wouldn’t listen, Anna would find the right words, or she could talk with Rosalie. After all, she wanted a bright future for Roland, too.
Taara Village, Estland General Region, Reichskommissariat Ostland
Y COUSIN EDGAR WAS
standing in the cabin doorway and his mouth was moving. He was saying something about Rosalie, his hands gesticulating, but I didn’t understand why he was talking about my beloved. The wind blew in through the open door. My shirt flapped. The floor was dark with rain.
“Are you listening? Do you understand what I said?”
His shouting seemed to come from far away. The glass jar on the table crashed to the floor; there were buttercups in it. The wind whirled the flowers against the wall next to the mousetrap. I stared at them. Rosalie had picked them, with fingers that had just recently clasped mine. I was trembling like a tobacco leaf hung to dry, hot as tobacco in a sweating barrel. After the heat, a coldness started to spread from my chest down to my stomach. I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. Edgar’s mouth kept clapping open and shut.
“Did you hear what I said? She’s already been buried.”
“Shut the door now, Wurst.”
“Roland, you have to accept Leonida and Anna’s decision. The burial had to be done at night. There was a mark on her neck.”
“Be quiet, Wurst.”
I looked at the mousetrap. It was empty.
“What do you mean, a mark?” I shouted.
“There was a mark! Women have fragile minds. There’s no way of knowing what drove her to such a sin.”
I was already on my way to harness the gelding.
I DIDN’T GET
any answers, but it was true: Rosalie was gone. Mother and Leonida treated me like a stranger; Leonida knotted her scarf tighter like she was trying to squeeze her face to nothingness and continued mixing the mash. I wasn’t wanted. Mother’s mouth hung open like a stuck door, without any words. I tried to pry some hint out of them about what had happened and why, who had been there and when, the names of the soldiers who’d come for lard and eggs. I didn’t believe my cousin’s filthy innuendos, didn’t believe she would have done herself harm. Mother’s eyes danced away from my shouts, told me to leave. I wanted to shake her. My hands were twitching. I would have hit her, but I remembered my father. He’d taken a worthless woman as his wife and it was a cross he bore without complaint, without argument. I’d become my father, in the sense that love had made me weak, but I didn’t want him to come home to a place where his son had raised a hand against his mother, not even if it was for love. I lowered my fist.
“The girl has brought shame on this house with her sin,” my mother whispered.
“Shame? What do you mean, shame? What exactly are you saying?” I yelled.
Aksel came in from the pantry and sat down to take off his muck boot—his other leg was a wooden one he’d gotten in the War of Independence. He didn’t look in my direction, didn’t say anything. How could these people carry on as if nothing had happened?
“Why didn’t you let me see her? What are you hiding?”
“There was nothing to see. We never would have thought it of her, never believed she could do such a thing,” Mother said, tucking her handkerchief
into her sleeve. The corners of her eyes were dry. “Be sensible, Roland. Talk with Edgar, will you?”
I ran through the house. The threshold of the back room stopped me in my tracks. I saw Rosalie’s scarf on the chair. I rushed out of the house. The people living there had become strangers to me. I never wanted to see them again.
IN MY DESPERATION
all I could think of was to go to Lydia Bartels’s spirit session and ask for her help. Venturing into town was risky, but I needed some sign from Rosalie, a sign of where she was now, something to help me find the culprit, which no one else seemed to be interested in doing. I made my way to town on foot, taking the old cattle paths, the forest trails, ducking into the brush when a motorcycle approached or I heard the rattle of a cart or the clopping of hooves. I gave a wide berth to the manor house occupied by German headquarters and made my way to Lydia’s house through the deep shade. The village dogs were alert as soon as they noticed a stranger at the edges of their property, so I avoided the footpaths and walked in the middle of the road, ready to spring into the bushes if I heard anyone coming. From the road I could make out the outline of telegraph poles and a house, hear the clatter of dishes from the kitchen, the pounding of a hammer, a cat’s meow. The sounds of people who have a home. The sounds of people who have someone with them as they do their evening chores. All that had been taken from me. Anguish shriveled the outer reaches of my body like a piece of paper burned at the edges, but I had to let it go.
I headed for the graveyard before going to the Bartelses’ place. I could see the spot, or what I thought was the right spot. I went around the fence, stumbling into gravestones and dodging crosses. If there was any place where I might hear her voice, it would be here. This church was where our wedding would have been, where I would have seen my bride at the altar in the veil she had been so happy about, the hint of a shy smile peeping out beneath it. The night was bright with stars and when I came to a heap of dirt, I started to look for a recently dug grave. I found it easily, the only one unmarked by a cross or flowers. A dog would have been given a better place to rest in the earth. I pounded my fists against the stone wall
until the moss fell away, got on my knees, and prayed for a sign from my beloved so that I wouldn’t need to go to Lydia Bartels, a sign to tell me that she had found peace, a sign that I could turn back. I didn’t know why Rosalie had left the farm, who she had gone with, who had found her, or where. Why was she buried behind the churchyard? What priest had allowed that? Had there even been a priest? Rosalie wouldn’t have taken her own life, although that’s what they had been implying, and the way she’d been buried seemed to suggest it. But it couldn’t have happened that way. I was ashamed that I hadn’t been with her, hadn’t prevented this. How could we have been so far away from each other that I didn’t know she was in danger? It was unfathomable that all this had happened while I was sleeping or stoking the fire, going about my everyday chores.
Why didn’t your thoughts turn to me? Why couldn’t I protect you?
It was important to know what I’d been doing at the exact moment when Rosalie had departed this world. If I knew that, I would know how to search that moment for some kind of sign.
No sign came, no answer—Rosalie was resolute. I spit on the church steps and took out my pocket watch. It was striking midnight; the spirit hour was beginning. It was time to go to Lydia Bartels’s house. I didn’t know anything about the woman except that she held her séances on Thursdays, and that she had inherited the Seventh Book of Moses from her mother on her deathbed. Leonida strongly disapproved of Lydia Bartels’s un-Christian activities, her folk beliefs, but Rosalie’s girlfriends had been to see her to ask about parents who’d disappeared or been sent to Siberia. They always went in pairs, not daring to go alone. I didn’t have anyone to ask to come with me, so I just had to strengthen myself with the Lord’s Prayer, although I knew that the sign of the cross or images of God weren’t allowed in Lydia’s house. I stood in the main street and pulled my hat tighter around my ears. I hadn’t shaved off the beard I’d grown in the woods, and I looked like an old man, so I didn’t think I would be recognized. I had considered getting a German uniform. The mail girl had told me that several Jews had bought them, and some even joined the service—there was no better way to hide. She’d laughed when she said that, her laugh dripping with fear like the rim of an overflowing bucket. I knew she was also talking about her own fiancé.
THERE WAS ONE CANDLE
burning in Lydia Bartels’s room. There was a plate on the floor with a line drawn across it. A large piece of paper with the words “Yes” and “No” written on it was placed under the plate. Under the paper was some kind of shiny fabric. Lydia Bartels sat on the floor with her palms upward, her eyes closed. Mrs. Vaik, who opened the door, asked who I wanted summoned. I had taken off my hat, turning its brim in my hands, and had just begun to speak when she interrupted me: “I don’t need to know any more than that. Unless your errand concerns gold.”
“There are so many asking after gold coins, people looking for caches taken from their families, but the spirits aren’t interested in that sort of thing. Frivolous requests are tiresome to Her,” she said, nodding toward the darkened room. I went in and sat down in the circle with the others, my limbs numb, nervous sighs heavy in the air, a faint draft from the curtains, and then Lydia Bartels asked if a fair-haired man’s daughter was in the room. I heard a horrified gasp from my left. The plate moved. The circle breathed, hearts fluttered, barely contained hopes pounded, and I could smell the bitter scent of sweat, the sour smell of fear. The plate moved to the affirmative.
The woman on my left started to cry.
“She’s already left … there’s another here … Rosalie? Rosalie, are you here?”
The plate moved back and forth on the paper as if it didn’t know which way to go. It stopped at the word “Yes.”