EDITOR’S NOTE BY OLIVIA TAYLOR SMITH
When we first decided to publish Walker on Water by Estonian author Kristiina Ehin, it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I had no idea what Estonia was like. Our other books were set in Cape Town and Dhaka, places that inspire very specific and media-saturated imagery. But Estonia? The name conjures up enchanted forests and abandoned castles by the sea, the air thick with salt, and long grassy fields populated with a single cow. I thought of pictures but no sounds and certainly no people, because who really knows what Estonian sounds like. From this silence comes the singular, uncanny voice of Kristiina Ehin, whose brand of reinvented, surreal folk-tales furthers the mythology of Estonia while being decidedly modern.
In this story, “Patterns,” the main character clearly needs her sleep. Her life is dictated by the unfortunate pattern of marrying men called “Jaan,” and then biting their arms off when they wake her up. Obviously, the relationships don’t last. And yet the Jaans of Estonia continue to marry the infamous limb-biter, just as she, man after man, struggles to suppress her primal impulse. Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, “Patterns” reaffirms that we are all doomed to repetition. Such is the human condition. And yet, by the end, Ehin manages to turn fate on its ear.
She navigates dreamscapes and alternating states of consciousness using a self-aware surrealism that is both escapist and poignant. The story transports the reader to fictional places that are just ever so slightly real enough to be true, and perhaps could be, in Estonia.
The collection Walker on Water is populated with three-headed twins, dragons, giants, emotional refrigerators, and the dangerous children of Surrealists. Ehin’s true talent lies in her ability to make the fantastical relatable, through alternating elements of horror and humor. This is also the goal of the Unnamed Press as we seek out international literature that could have been written by your neighbor. That is, if your neighbor happened to be an award-winning poet who once spent a year living alone on an abandoned nature reserve in Estonia.
I am honored to introduce Kristiina Ehin’s work to the American audience, and especially to recommend her new collection of stories, Walker on Water.
Olivia Taylor Smith
Editor and Marketing Director, The Unnamed Press
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The three men I’ve bitten arms off of are doing well. I felt guilty for many years. I was afraid I had completely ruined their lives. Of course it must have been difficult for them. But a physical disability doesn’t have to make anyone unhappy. If a person has a great will to live, he’ll recover from the very greatest traumas.
At times I was quite wild when I was young. I generally managed to keep myself under control in the daytime, but at night I could be a real ferocious beast. My first husband was a very gentle, sensitive man. In the mornings he made thin pancakes fried golden brown in butter and poured coffee mixed with frothed milk into my blue earthenware mug. One morning he just couldn’t wait for me to get up. The pancakes were ready and the coffee getting cold. He sat down softly on the edge of my bed and slid his left hand caressingly over my long, soft hair, shoulders, and back. I woke with a start. A wild rage came over me. I pounced on to his upper arm and before I understood what I was doing, I had bitten his whole arm off.
When we filed the divorce papers, I cried bitterly. “You could at least have snarled… ” he said as he was leaving. “That you suddenly, just like that… ”
Jaan is now married to a frail actress. She certainly won’t ever bite him. Jaan works at the automobile museum. At open-air events he earns good money with his artificial arm. He sits next to the driver in open Benzes and De Dion Boutons and points the way, controlling his arm by means of a control panel. In the evening a little light flashes in his arm as well.
Tourists photograph him like mad and Jaan is a made man all over town.
I had therapy for two years and then had the courage to get married again. My second husband’s name was also Jaan. We joked that he must be a hard man indeed to take me to be his wife. And himself a discus thrower and the great Olympic hope of the entire nation. It happened already on our wedding night.
As I was expecting a child, I suddenly felt a great tiredness in the midst of all the wedding hubbub. Suddenly I just couldn’t dance anymore or sit at the table either. I staggered through the rooms of the hunting lodge we had hired for our wedding reception and climbed the stairs. Jaan was still busy with our guests and an hour later he followed me up to our bedroom. He pushed aside the heavy, white brocade curtains of the canopy bed, kissed me passionately on my half-open lips, opened the hooks on the front of my wedding dress, lay down beside me on the bed and put his right arm under my neck. I felt his gigantic, rapidly twitching muscle. Rage struck me like a thunderbolt. Just as lightning rends a tree with one blow, I had, in a fraction of a second, shattered our people’s Olympic hopes. Blood spurted onto the white brocade curtains. Everything all around was suddenly red-white, the approaching ambulance siren rose and fell, the ambulance crew in red overalls stormed in and tried to stop the spurting flow of blood from Jaan’s upper arm, lunatic-asylum nurses in white coats wrenched my arms behind my back and led me, with the hooks of my wedding dress open, to the madhouse. Seven months later I gave birth to a dear little girl and got out of the locked ward. For years I lived in the countryside at my grandmother’s and helped the old girl with the farmwork. I still took very strong medication. My daughter Maarja was four when we moved back to town. The newspapers didn’t write about us anymore.
Jaan married his former beloved just after the accident. Soon after that triplet sons were born to them. Jaan worked at the chocolate factory as a mascot. This job made his family downright wealthy. You see, Jaan had a chocolate arm and was the factory’s most expensive attraction. Every evening, when the tour group children had eaten Jaan’s arm, a new one was moulded for him. Jaan’s sons worshipped their father.
Some years later I met my third husband. For months I tried to convince him that he should find himself a less dangerous woman. But he tried to make me believe that I was completely well. Against my will my daughter Maarja had been waking me in the morning for years and I hadn’t attacked her a single time.
We got married in 1998 on St John’s day in a close family circle. Maarja was our bridesmaid. My husband — his name was Jaan, too — carried me in his arms to a tiny altar bordered with blossoming lilacs and bird cherry trees at the edge of the forest. Framed by tall fir trees we were joined together under the slanting rays of the evening sun. We pressed wedding rings of genuine raw gold onto each other’s finger. They glittered like mad with a wild, dazzling sparkle. Jaan had made the rings himself, he was, after all, a world-famous goldsmith. You would have to look far and wide for a stronger, broader-shouldered man.
I was happy and content. Jaan constantly gave me the most unusual jewelry as presents. I worked as a model for his masterworks. We were always travelling around the world’s most special places.
It happened at the Istanbul World Smithing tournament. Jaan had been hammering day and night without a break. Barely had the gold been able to cool a bit when it was put jingling around my wrists, ankles and hips. We reached the final.
Jaan’s opponent was a little old man whose origins were unknown to everyone. He was able to hammer out jewelry as fine as mist, but his special trump card was supple and beautifully glimmering golden hair. Copper snakes crafted by the old man twisted their way out of gold chests and coiled round the models’ waists and arms. The flute played ever more beautifully and passionately, the drum rumbled some wild and elusive rhythm. Watching this from between the curtains backstage, I suddenly fell into a heavy, restless sleep on my snail sofa. Then Jaan touched my cheek. “Wake up, my dear,” he said, pressing onto my head a gold crown on which a hundred seven-metre-long candles were burning. “Our turn!”
I don’t remember how it happened, but suddenly Jaan’s two strong arms were lying at our feet. The old man smiled sinisterly.
I gave everything else back to Jaan, but I’m holding on to those candles and my wedding ring like some great treasure. I’m not able to forget Jaan. He swore before everyone that it was an accident and his own fault. I escaped a years-long prison sentence and committal to a psychiatric hospital.
Maarja still writes to Jaan to this day. She says he lives in the Kham region of Tibet and has made wings for himself. With the aid of huge shoulder and upper-back muscles he flies around the Himalayas. He’s married to a Tibetan beauty and they have a bevy of children. Jaan is the only person in the world who really knows how to fly. Maarja wants us to visit them some time.
When my candles have finally burnt down and my wedding ring no longer sparkles with such a wild dazzle, then perhaps we’ll really go.