15 March 2018
Arkamine by Rebecca Fowler

My grandpa and I weren’t close. I didn’t see him often as a kid and even less as an adult. I remember small details, like his love of apples, or the way he would sigh happily after a big meal and say, “Good country this.” His broken English was always rather charming—to this day I still say “sow-sagas” when I see a packet of sausages, and “doog-nuts” when I walk past Donut King.

His first language was Estonian.

When I was a kid I often spent summer afternoons stuffed into white stockings and a multi-coloured wool skirt to dance in the Estonian folk group. The heat was unbearable. Other children would grab my hands and we’d spin in circles across the musty hall of Eesti Maja. The vinyl recordings became so warped that I just assumed all accordion players were incredibly depressed. It made sense—the oldies were always tearing up at our dances. I stopped dancing after a year.

My grandpa Edu escaped Estonia shortly after the Soviets invaded. All my childhood friends thought Estonia was a made up thing—a place where fairies and gnomes lived in little houses. I thought it was just a country with one too many stones, and if that hadn’t been the case, it could have easily been Germany.

“Why do your grandparents talk like that?” “Dunno. They’re from Estonia.”

“That’s not a real place.”

“Okay—they’re German.”

Neither they nor I could have imagined the terror of boats landing on the peninsula—the smell of fire raging against wood and brick.

Grandpa’s ramshackle seaside house, where he lived with his parents and a dozen siblings, was torched to the ground near the coast of the Sõrve Peninsula. The family fled and splintered into groups—some stayed in the country, but most were displaced in Germany. For nearly twenty-five years of my life I had no clue about Estonia, nor my family history—and I had certainly never been. In all honesty, it had made me feel so alien that I doggedly avoided it.

It was autumn. It should have been spring. As I awoke, a pounding headache invaded every corner of my skull. The blinding northern sun was beaming through the window, stirring a collection of crisp amber leaves on the sill. I made a mental note. Estonia—first impressions: too bright to be this cold.

After a 30-plus-hour journey, I had arrived in Saaremaa, the largest and most populated island of Estonia. I had not arrived by chance. The trip was subsidised by an Estonian repatriation program. The logic of the program was this: if so many Estonians had not been displaced due to Soviet invasion, I and many others like me would have been born there. On a student’s budget, that assumption suited me just fine.

My second cousin, Siiri, had agreed to put me up for a few days, despite never having met me. This was not unusual: a family of 13 siblings separating during the war meant that we had estranged cousins all over the place. Her home was in the island’s capital Kuressaare—not too far from where our grandfathers grew up together.

I wandered down to the kitchen for breakfast and was surprised to find pans and pots filled with all manner of food: porridge, eggs, cereal, pancakes, and things of a dubious colour and consistency (which I later discovered were Estonian delicacies). Good country this.

After the frankly exhausting meal, Siiri began excitedly telling me about the day’s itinerary.

Before I had arrived, she had been working on a family project of sorts. She was seeking the knowledge of some local men to help her track down our grandfathers’ childhood home—no easy feat for something that didn’t exist anymore. Siiri assured me they had really found the land where it stood, and that she would take me there that day. I was pinching myself, but the feeling didn’t last before I was filled with pangs of sadness. How was I going to feel standing in a family’s history that I had, for so long, ignored?

I was barely given enough time to think about it before I was bundled into Siiri’s car and driven down the long, curving tail of the Sõrve Peninsula. All around me, intense autumn colours dotted the landscape of dense forest—both of us in motion. Even the wind turbines looked ancient and majestic.

We soon stopped at a large homestead and introduced ourselves to the man who could lead us to the exact coordinates. He scoffed at my thin pinafore and leggings (they’re no stockings and wool skirt, I admit) while explaining that the rest of the journey was by foot, and there were no paths, so would I still be interested in going? Less than ideal. I then thought back to being told as a child that when Grandpa
was young, if he disagreed with his elders, he was ordered to stand in the snow with no boots. I agreed to make the trek.

We set off over a makeshift bridge into the thicket. We walked single file. On our left I could see backyards of sprawling seaside properties: the kind worth a few million more than what my great-grandfather would have had. On the right was land—flat and wet, more mud than sand. I trod the earth in quiet awe.

Eventually we came across fewer and fewer houses, and the land became eerily quiet, save for the gentle motions of the sea. We arrived in a clearing.

“This is where they lived,” Siiri said, indicating to the space. “My grandpa and yours, and their family.”

We stopped to breathe in the incredible northern air, and to savour our surroundings. I circled slowly. Rhythmically. Searching for a hand. All around me were patches of blackened land and an immeasurable amount of forest. I paused and let the warm midday sun peek through the apple trees and embrace me.

Siiri, over by the shore, was beaming from ear to ear. We caught each other’s eye, and without saying anything, both made a run for the tallest apple tree.

We took turns shaking the tree and collecting bundles of wild, crunchy apples. I bit into a small yellow one and closed my eyes, allowing the sound of the sea to fill the clearing. It had to be the juiciest apple I had ever tasted. Had to be, and was. As I climbed the trunk again, all the way to the top, I felt a firm wind vibrating against my back.

I gripped the branches a little tighter.

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