“In the 1980s, I am a girl from the Soviet Estonian provinces who has begun to develop an interest in paleontology. Studying prehistoric creatures somehow fills the black holes where my roots might otherwise be if my family hadn’t been forced to move away for fear of the Soviet authorities… Rooting around in the carrot bed I find the jawbone of a wooly rhino and in the churchyard traces of the mammoths and aurochs that once grazed there.
I have to hide my Soviet Child of October badge from my grandfather, but at school I can’t breathe a word of what is said and read at home. Between school and home I am like a duckling trying, with the ice closing in, to keep a ring of water around me from freezing over. But times suddenly change with such great momentum that if I weren’t in the habit of keeping a diary it could seem that several lifetimes have gone by. All of a sudden I find that I come from a completely different small Estonian town. As the mother of a stepfamily I look into the lake and in the reflection see a totally different time and self.“
Kristiina Ehin has published six books of poetry and four of prose in her native Estonian, as well as seven poetry and three prose books in English. Her work has received a number of prestigious prizes at home and abroad. Paleontologist’s Diary tells of the author’s childhood and youth as the child of well-known writers. The book consists of her own personal memories as well as oral family history reaching back to the time before her birth. Prehistory, the recent past and the present are all woven into a textured, variegated fabric, adding another perceptive, sensory story to the Tales from Behind the Iron Curtain series.
It is said that 11,000 years ago some of Europe’s last mammoths lived in Estonia. To be more precise, one family of them somewhere near Puurmani. Their teeth were found in a field a hundred years ago. But some woolly rhino teeth were found in the vicinity of Sulbi in Võrumaa. If they had been in Võrumaa, then why not in Rapla as well? Has anyone ever looked – for example here in our carrot bed?
I take the dustpan and go out to dig. I pull the little carrots out of the way, they’re disturbing my work of discovery. Mother and Father are already into the second week of translating some poet called Navoi. They say they are translating from the old Uzbeki language. To me that sounds like peki or bacon language. In the pantry we have a little barrel of salted bacon. Grandfather fries it with potatoes for the family almost every day. Mother and Father say that when the translation is finished, we’ll buy something new to eat, as well as some felt-tips and imitation legos.
I dig for all my life is worth, my paleontologist’s instincts can’t be wrong. And finally, not exactly in the carrot bed, more under a gooseberry bush quite close to the compost heap, not as deep as I had hoped, in fact almost on the surface, I find some teeth, actually an entire jawbone.
My son Hannes is obviously suffering from the same historical void, the same market-town child’s syndrome of no roots and history as me. In our garden in Rapla he organises excavations next to the well. He digs ever deeper with his tiny hands, layer after layer, uncovering from the soil a rusty tack, a bit of bone, the remains of some packaging, bits of silver paper and an empty tube of “Kosmos” jam, which always had a sort of metallic aftertaste when I used to suck on them as a child. I tell him about it. He carries on digging and is happy that his mother is in some way connected to his earth-caked treasures. He wants to reach his grandfather’s times and his great-grandfather’s layers as well...
We make a museum for him. We stick his finds on a big sheet of card and write the possible dates and sources of the objects underneath. I feel a weight lift.
On a hanger in my room there’s a blue school uniform which is rough against the skin and cold, and deepens my sense of fear even more. I’ve been given a balloon and the teacher has commanded it to be fastened to a stick so that it stays properly over my head. In the morning Mother breaks a branch off an apple tree and whittles away at it with a knife until it looks nice. Father blows up the balloon. When I stride out of the gate and take my first steps along Viljandi maantee footpath, which as of today becomes my daily way to school, the tip of the stick bursts the balloon. The teacher’s proud idea dangles as a flattened piece of rubber on the branch. Mother runs home and gets another balloon.
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw that her tormentors were girls from my own class, the most spirited ones at that!
That image just won’t fade from my mind. They surround their victim and pull the hem of her skirt up to her head. They hold her fast with all their might. Their victim struggles. Her tights are a bit small and during the struggle they start to slide down. There is a lookout in case a teacher comes. Marje shrieks and her face turns a fiery red. She bites and scratches with her nails.
I stand as if nailed to the classroom door, I don’t dare move. I can’t bring myself to leave. This happened before I spit into the little Russian boy’s thin hair at the edge of the sandbox in Hirvepark and didn’t realise yet what mad anxiety can make one child torment another.
This went on for weeks, months. The tormenting of Marje starts as soon as the teacher has gone down to the staffroom from our third-floor classroom. Marje roars, but after some months she begins to laugh – she lets it out submissively, in dampened tones. I don’t understand how she can laugh. At that time I still don’t know anything about how, at a tender age, borders are broken that are very hard to repair later on. No one knows. That is never spoken or written about. The girls adopt new forms of torture. They pull their victim’s skirt up and call the boys over.
I want to go home. I’m prepared to lie to the teacher, crawl or pretend to be desperately ill to get home from school earlier. Once, already in the third break, I tell the class teacher that I have to go home because I have a headache. She doesn’t believe me. Then I tell her I have stomach-ache too. She still doesn’t believe me because I’ve already said that too many times. Then I pretend that I’m about to get sick and will throw up on her table. I retch and hunch over, holding my stomach with my hands. I want to see if I can or can’t. With that, finally, I’m allowed to go home.
Such prevarications of course don’t make my relations with school any warmer and my classmates have probably understood that all is not right with me.
A few weeks later my sister comes home from school and says that they’ve had their first family life lesson. The bashful class teacher didn’t say more than a few sentences. After that the whole lesson was taken up by a visiting teacher, some esteemed marriage official from the Tallinn office of wedded bliss.
A woman is like a fertile fiieeld and a man is like the sower of seeeeeds! the lady had announced, pushing right up under the noses of the pupils in the first rows, all the while drawing huge impassioned arcs with her hands. Later the lady also explained how the sperm cell and egg meet somewhere in the depths of the woman’s stomach, but she never got round to talking about how people meet, how they choose each other, care for each other and suffer each other. Not in this first family life lesson nor in any of the subsequent ones. The children had to work everything out for themselves from those great emotive images like field and sower and imagine that mysterious meeting somewhere in the depths of the stomach for themselves.
Later on, working as a teacher myself, I understood how essential clicking heels are in this work. Before every lesson I worked on my image: put on shoes with heels, a nice feminine dress, and I put my hair up with a Japanese hair pin that Father had given me... Put on my warpaint and felt quite ridiculous, but all-in-all it was worth it. A certain superiority and heightened self-confidence was necessary. Otherwise I would be pulled along into some mudwrestling match from my own schooldays, which would put me and the pupils on one and the same level, and discipline along with the pupils’ motivation would be lost out of hand. I only managed to endure as a teacher at school as a good-natured fruit and fury, and at difficult moments an example was set alongside clicking heels by the Russian language teacher’s cry, Bože moi, where’s my gun?
In my sixth year at school I dream that I am forced to eat through two kilometres of ice.
It is the Ice Age and I want to go home from school, but the teacher says that I can only go if I eat my way through the the ice. Otherwise I have to stay at school. I start eating and manage to get quite far. But halfway there my strength dwindles. Through the ice I can see the grey gable roof of our house, I even see our yellow Lada Zhiguli in front of the door. Mother and Father must be at home... But I just can’t gnaw on any more of this cold stuff stretching out between school and home. I wake up. I’m left with the faint hope that perhaps Mother, Father and Grandfather will realise how to come and meet me by eating their way through the ice, and in the end will stretch their hands out to me so that together we will be able to get back home. But that doesn’t happen in the dream. In the dream my strength fades like the last woolly mammoth’s that just can’t go on any more. Perhaps some dream-archeologist will one day find my young bones in a roadside ditch...
Father sometimes liked to show off with his daughters’ knowledge. When visitors came, he picked up one of his girls and under the suspenseful gaze of his guests asked her to point out Trinidad and Tobago, or something else of that ilk. And we, well-trained pure-bred doggies, retrieved the stick from the water and brought it back between our teeth, or rather pointed with our finger to the place mentioned. The visitors oohed and aahed and Father chuckled like a proud little boy.
There in the dark corner of the hall I once wanted to jump from the stairs onto Father’s back. Father took a little step away from me, he didn’t see what was going on behind him, and I landed flat on my back, unnable to breathe and full of fear – now I’m going to suffocate and will never breathe again. Father grabbed me into his arms put me down on a bed and shook me, shook me with all his might...
Awful, I could never live in the provinces! another young man, a basketball player from Tallinn, the capital, says full of contempt amid the gable-roofed market town houses while walking me home from a school party. Hearing those words, which he meant partly for me, partly for himself, I suddenly begin to feel cold.
Do you really come from Rapla? the young man continues in the same tone of voice. All at once there are five different answers on the tip of my tongue and I don’t know which one to choose. I just want to get home and go inside. I haven’t thought about things yet and I don’t know how to explain to him or myself how these houses have come to be here and where I actually come from. I don’t know how to explain to him that this isn’t the provinces, that these people living under their triangular gable roofs have undergone their own curious and complicated destinies, they have their own pride that can’t be summed up in that contemptuous epithet provincial.
And I see my grandfather in another situation, one that I didn’t witness myself, but nevertheless have a very cinematic picture of in my mind, based on his stories.
Communal work is being done at Ristemäe farm in Äniste village. Among the workers are Forest Brethren partisans. Suddenly there is a raid and men from the Soviet security forces carrying guns surround the people harvesting rye. Everyone of course panics and tries to flee. Grandfather’s youngest brother Voldemar and the owner of the neighbouring farm are shot as they jump over the fence. In the pouring rain my grandfather Johannes digs a grave for his brother in the fir grove at home, since an enemy of the people was not allowed to be buried in a cemetery.
Strange to think that everyone I know now or have ever known is in this chain, and there are even those here who I have yet to meet. Perhaps my future husband is standing somewhere in this very same chain and through millions of people I am at this moment holding his hand too.
In this chain of human hands along my daily way to school the ice-age has really ended. I no longer have to keep quiet at school about what they say at home, or in my dreams bite my way through a two-kilometre-thick ice mountain between home and school. There is jubilation in this human chain – we won’t die out here like the last woolly mammoth families, we will pull through! Time says that it is alive like a cuckoo-clock cuckoo. Cuckoo! Don’t miss this moment. Now the thread can become a rope, the rope a chain, the chain a tenacious DNA chain of three peoples that meanders even past our house from Tallinn on to Vilnius.
Later on there is a party at the song grounds. I put on a snowy-white jeans skirt and a jeans jacket my aunt brought me from Baghdad, and I use a bit of Prelest hairspray. I want to see a boy I have taken an interest in.
Don’t even look at him there in the coffin, says my elder sister emphatically. It isn’t him any more. Piret and her family have arrived before us. I feel at that moment there is a lot of sisterly love in what she says.
I look anyway. I touch my father. My son strokes him. Yes, he looks unfamiliar. But it’s still him and it is so sad to part with him.
Hannes takes a folded-up piece of paper from his pocket and puts it in under the front of his grandfather’s jacket.