On All Hallows’ Eve

On All Hallows’ Eve

By Malcolm Sharps

I don’t know why it is, but so often what gets written about the world makes it seem like a worse place than it actually is. According to every book and newspaper article I’d read before I came to Livonia, Livonians hate Russians and Russians hate Livonians, but in reality when people come together they find, against all their expectations, they like each other. All the Russians at the school, teachers and students, liked Veikko, even if at some conniving, murky, political level his people were trying to take their nationality away from them and send them all ‘back home’ to Russia, and the Russians had earlier taken his whole country from him. But like the wisest of men he knew that history was no reason for bearing a long-term personal grudge. Now the Livonians had their country back, they had to make the acts of the present and not the past determine their fortune.

I was walking with Veikko towards Tullburg centre. It was only just after four in the afternoon and already the night had its grip on the skies over the capital, we could just make out the familiar outlines of the city’s towers in the gloom, the dome church, the town hall and the Russian Cathedral; for me, another day disposed of, thank God, I could now relax. Veikko was in a hurry to get to his next task, though in his serious way he never seemed any different; a double lesson awaited him at another school, a state establishment, the building itself would be virtually indistinguishable from our own vanilla ice-cream brick one; only the resistance and dull indifference of the pupils would signify a change. I didn’t envy him and I didn’t know how he survived such a workload walking a treadmill of instruction every day from early morning until well into the evening. It must have been mentally as well as physically deadening. But it supported Veikko and his recently wed Jadwiga, heavily pregnant as I had last seen her, in their newly acquired apartment. ‘Nothing special, a two-room place much like any other three stations out, quiet, but ours at least’, as he’d described it to me. It was never his way to make anything seem like a declaration of triumph, and certainly not of joy. But Veikko was a man I felt I could trust.

The dark mass of Tullberg loomed above us on the hill. Along the street ahead skirting the foot of the town candles glowed in pumpkin lanterns. Flames sputtered nervously behind jagged faces cut into the thick leathery skin of the pumpkins casting a golden light over the space around, but in the glow the paths of compressed ice and the pale walls of the old town seemed to be doing the trembling. The lanterns were very impressively made, with perfectly placed eyes and evenly gaping mouths, nothing was slapdash or haphazard, these newcomers to Tullburg already bore the stamp of Livonian thoroughness.

“All Saints’ Eve,” said Veikko, as if he were officially announcing it, “the feast all Saints known and unknown. Or as the whole world knows it, Halloween.”

“I’m just amazed at how religious everyone is in Livonia, Veikko, I mean after five decades of imposed atheism it’s fantastic that so many people still believe in God.”

The streets appeared to be entirely filled with groups of youths dressed in black or some other dark colour. Many of the kids, both boys and girls, wore white make up covering their entire faces except for deep black rings painted around the eyes and mouth. It was their aim to appear ghoulish and frightening but for the most part they came across more despondent than eerie, full of unintended pathos and regret, as if the need for reassurance that their performance did not look unconvincing and foolish outdid their will to instil fear and alarm in the onlookers. Poor kids. They stood close to one another overcoming their native reluctance and shuffled and touched and pushed into each other; sometimes one of their number stumbled on the ice and the close walls of the narrow streets seemed to push them towards us. Their white faces stared at us provocatively when they came close, they then retreated self-consciously back into their groups.

“I’m not talking about these kids in particular, it means nothing, I know, this is all a game to them. But everyone speaks about a belief in God. I don’t even have to bring the subject up. Mention of God is there all the time. And look at all the crosses that are worn.”

Veikko sounded uncelebratory.

“The year before this it was not so here. Then it comes – not I think from Livonian history, and not from Christ – all of it superstition from America.”

The parsimony of the Soviet and the post-Soviet authorities ensured the Baltic Republics were wed to their wintery states with conviction from late October to early April. There was minimum expenditure on street lighting, and snow was piled up at the roadsides in banks which remained uncleared until the March thaw. Later snow got compounded by feet into the first falls turning the streets into paths of ice.

Veikko and I walked the same white encased route every day after the main school was over.  It’s no exaggeration to say I used the fifteen or so minutes of our walk together as an opportunity to sound Veikko on the Livonian side of things and gain a kind of balance. It was a precious exchange in this almost tribally split society to hear a Livonian’s point of view. I‘d developed a feeling almost of deference towards his opinions. Perhaps I sometimes betrayed it.

“Of course, I know Russians best, I live with them, my girlfriend Kysenia, her mother, she speaks of God all the time, I don’t know, it may be different for Livonians.”

Veikko didn’t reply immediately. His habit was to consider long before answering, before doing anything. I was told he taught in the same way. Kysenia had taken a couple of Livonian lessons from him recently, then dropped out. I imagined it wasn’t exciting enough for her. Without slacking in his stride, which was rapid due to his long legs and haste, I sensed Veikko was considering carefully, his entire lanky body seemed to be reflecting on the question. Then as if without a connection to anything pending, he spoke:

“It is not true”.

Veikko sounded the four words like the even tolling of one of Tullburg’s great church bells. His thick Livonian accent imbued them with…what was it the Livonian accent always suggested to me? Earnestness? Sincerity? A touching but undoubting, and therefore entirely humourless, dependability. The trouble was, the Livonian accent made everything sound flatly definitive and decided. Even if complete nonsense was being spoken. I couldn’t let Veikko get away with this without pressing the case.

“But almost every Russian I meet says there is a God. One that influences their everyday lives.”

It was possible to count to almost ten – maybe a shaved eight – before Veikko’s next reply, which was insistent on the point and as insistent in its unvarying detachment.

“They believe in a God, but what God? They are a Pagan people still, superstition rules them. They will not leave a house without waiting at the door on fortune.”

The antics of the street revellers slowed down our progress considerably and brought us to a standstill at one point, I drew up with Veikko close behind, a pair in capuchin hoods shook a bucket at us that held an encouraging couple of one Liiv notes and a few jangling coins in the bottom; we resisted following the example. Veikko’s breath came out pure white as he confided his thoughts on Russian beliefs close to my ear. I don’t think he liked raising his voice in the street, no inheritor of Soviet protocol does. He kept to a near-whisper as we walked along.

“They are not properly Christianised until sixteenth century and then the new religion and old have lived side by side, like reality and fairy tales equally trusted. Many believed touching the Czar can cure illness. They believed it until the last moment, when already were many bullets in his dead body.“

I felt there was nothing to be lost with Veikko asking more now I was already on this perhaps sensitive ground.

“And what is your own faith, Veikko?”

“I was born Livonian Lutheran as ninety percent of all Livonians. The skies of Tullburg are full of the towers of the great Hanseatic churches but our churches are empty – except for the tourists who now come. We are not an openly devout people but we hold our faith in our hearts across decades when there is no real Church. But now I find my own way to God without my Church.”

It felt no more of an act of daring than the last question to extend it to bring in Jadwiga, Veikko’s wife; he had not mentioned her himself that day, though he did so often enough.

“And does Jadwiga feel the same way as you? I mean in her beliefs.”

A tone of justification, or perhaps even of avoidance, shaded Veikko’s voice.

“Jadwiga is half-Polish, half-Russian. She doesn’t share my faith. No, not Orthodox Church, not Catholic either. But everything else she shares with me. We have the same hopes, the same aims, we see our lives together as one. Our vows are made for life.”

I felt regretful for asking, for testing Veikko’s assurance even a little. I wanted to relieve him of the burden my question had put on him. But anyway he turned it towards a positive conclusion.

“But perhaps Jadwiga has done her work for God by bringing me back to him. Before I met her I loved the Russian language, I wanted to learn it perfectly to reach out to Russian people, it was like a foretelling, you see, she speaks almost no Livonian. I thought I was a believer at first, but now I know I was un-Godly then.”

I was neither Russian nor Livonian and already I’d found that put me into a special position of trust, deserved or not. Veikko was willing to tell me more, more than I needed to hear. Admissions about God could so easily become a general confessional.

“Why do you think that?”

“Because I couldn’t accept what God had given to me and wanted more. But now I accept. I had to understand one thing first. This that I find without a Church. No Church teaches it, not clearly.“

“Which is?”

“God gives us beauty to help us understand what words cannot make clear. Yes, I’m sure it is so, it must be so. Otherwise only the most intelligent would find God. And we know that is not true. What else can help us find God but his beauty?”

Finding God through beauty. What else? He challenged me with this offering of an apparently self-evident truth. I had no answer. In any case, I was defeated once again by the flat assurance of his Livonian cadences. It is always unfathomable to me, the impenetrable principles on which the faith of the believer rests, little mantras of obscure reasoning that hardly bear analysis, tritenesses or truisms or a definition masquerading as a synthetic statement. It’s always the same. Faith is the opposite of logic, it is what we can’t find words to express. I guessed what he meant by beauty in this case.

“You mean Jadwiga?”

He was confused by my interpreting his words in such a narrow way.

“No, I mean, yes, no, I mean more, not only Jadwiga, I mean everything. It is everywhere. There is beauty not only in women, it is in the languages we share too, beauty when we understand one another. But in any case, how close languages are to women, to all people, everyone is the same and yet there is something special about each one?”

He was as close to excited and animated as he ever got. It was rare to hear the inspiring teacher speaking out of the mouth of this cautious pedagogue.

“You should teach me what is special about Livonian some time, Veikko.”

His reply came quickly this time.

“That is easy. We have fourteen cases, twenty-eight noun endings to learn, some irregular, it keeps my students busy.”

“My God, fourteen, I’m taxed with just six in Russian.”

Veikko was quick to assuage my horror of his beloved language.

“But it is not as bad as it sounds. Russian has only six cases and Polish seven but they make the six more difficult as our fourteen. I speak three languages and I learn three cultures. So few from so many; I wish I had learnt more languages, Stephen. I love languages.”

“Like I wish I’d loved more women.” I laughed but I found I was the only one laughing. Veikko remained serious. Ideas were a sacrament to him that should not be divested of its sanctity with too much lightness.

“Steve, how do you feel being in our school?”

“I’m at home.”

“Does it seem strange to you that a man can feel more at home amongst another nation than with his own?”

This time I agreed without a suggestion of irony.

“It seems like the most natural thing in the world.”

Perhaps he was doing the same thing with his questions to me as I did with him, trying to get another point of view to provide balance.

”When I first felt this I thought I must be mad. Memories of the Russian occupation were fresh. Most of all there was still so much anger in the country after the deportations, we lost a generation even before the war started, many of our finest, most of those people never returned. This is still difficult for us now when it isn’t recognised by everyone as our history.

“English and Livonian have the same expression ‘Love is blind’. But I do not think it is so. Real love sees everything. I see how terrible is Russia for our history and still love the Russian people. Can I tell you about the craziest thing from the Soviet period? Maybe you know Livonia produced the first Soviet chewing gum in 1968? And it was banned for spreading the decadent capitalist way of life! When we re-started production ten years later, we are the same like the free world, we are western too and now our beautiful Town Hall Square is ruined with a thousand pieces of gum wherever we walk. But it is not the point.”

A procession of young people were approaching. Veikko allowed himself to be cut off. The youths passed by made boisterous and excited with the novelty of being some other personality than themselves for a brief period, and all at the meagre outlay in time and effort of the application of a little paint, the donning of a strange hat, the disorganising of the hair, the wearing of a colour that made their presence in the night a daringly ambiguous act. Who could deny them? They were all but invisible before they announced themselves, emerging out of the darkness talking with a wild lack of constraint, the remarkably noisy progeny of an extended birth stretching back into the years of perestroika. Veikko and I remained silent as they passed. When the group had gone he resumed.

“Chewing gum is a small thing, unnecessary to life. It is not my point. We were a colony and the worst thing about being in a colony is being held back like children who are never trusted with responsibility; they kept us like a child wearing the wrong size clothes suited to a younger age, until we were bursting out of them, but they would rather we died of strangulation than proved our way was possible. This is what it means to be a colony, not always terror, not always brutality, yet to be the child who is not allowed to grow in his own way”.

Veikko grew reflective and silent after this but I could sense he was forming questions in his mind all the time.

“You are the only member of staff from your country, I the only Livonian, but I speak their language too. Don’t you feel sometimes alone missing other English people?”

“If I ever want to go home it isn’t because of the people. It’s the endless cold season here. Livonia is paradise with thirty degrees of frost. I’ve never once in my life wanted to go home – from anywhere.” At that moment I felt we had something stronger in common besides being the two foreign language teachers in a single-culture school.

We entered the city’s West Gate and just inside the old town walls we came upon a little knot of youths that immediately struck us as different from the rest, like crack troops selected from a battalion whose discipline and coordination identified them. They were taking the game more seriously than the others, going to far greater lengths to make the ghastly performance convincingly spooky and right. Two wore white face make-up and hair dyed white with red streaks to imitate blood. Two had ghoulish masks that replaced their facial expressions with anguished screams. Another pair were hooded like monks presiding at an auto-de-fé, using the menace of concealment to full macabre effect. The most remarkable one of all was a boy in a black body stocking with the white bones of a skeleton covering it, in the light emitted by the pumpkin lamps the bones stood out against the deep black material so that the wearer was invisible and the skeleton followed the movements of his body, becoming a creature with its own will and purpose.

Rich kids, I thought, a considerable rarity in Livonia, their behaviour appeared uninhibited and confident to match. It seemed like they had rehearsed all the moves already many times, discovered the fortunate motions of the body and had them well blocked. The boy skeleton silently mimed a dance of pain and torment touched also by impudence and daring, making provocative gestures from time to time towards the passersby. He was a master, able to suggest mockery and malice though he practiced great economy with his bodily expressions. The troupe spoke quietly and said little. When I tried to catch the language they used, it could not be resolved with certainty as Livonian or Russian and not as any other language I knew.

A brisk flutter of wind set the lights wavering in their pumpkins. The boy skeleton in his costume stretched so thinly over his body showed no sign of feeling the cold, the performance was visceral, it was hard to discover his real depth of feeling, he appeared invulnerable. Something I had noticed living for the first time in a place as cold as this on the edge of the Baltic Sea, the cold makes the older people move more ponderously and it makes the younger ones seem lighter and step as though on springs. The rush of cold filled the Baltic air with a tautness that made me expect the kids to suddenly spring away if by accident one of them made contact with us. I imagined invisible chords attached to them that could pull them back in the manner of a stage Peter Pan flying through the air.

No sooner did the idea come to me than the skeleton boy sprang out from his group, turning up with soundless agility behind Veikko, and touching him on the shoulder. It was only the slightest of taps, but Veikko let out a cry wholly out of proportion, he gave vent to an inexplicably loud and tortured cry, the skeleton’s mimed agony sounded through him. Then as quickly and unexpectedly as the young man’s spring had occurred, he bounded back and was lost again amongst the others. The front figures from the group together with unconnected drifting strangers closed like a fan shading him from the direct light from the pumpkin lamps and his skeleton was extinguished, it became as invisible as his black sheathing.

Veikko was still making for his next class, he could not afford to expend time on pointless searches. No actual physical harm had been done him. It must have been the shock alone that made him cry out like that. We scanned the crowd tacitly acknowledging the skeleton was now lost to us forever and wasted no time lingering further.

I had never seen Tullburg like this before and never saw it in that way again. It had something to do with the rapid onset of pre-winter darkness, it had something to do with the flickering light on the snow, it was also connected with the presence of so many youths, and the fact that the no longer young had resigned the streets to the vitality of a fantasy world not their own, a mishmash of Christian and Pagan beliefs, a dumbshow making light of our horror of death, a celebration of the dead by those seeming furthest from death. Did anyone actually believe any of it? The question seemed beside the point. Halloween was a colourful event where once there had been a grey blank, it was part of post-Soviet Livonia joining in with the wider world again. To divide the tenets of faith from those of mere superstition, only a believer like Veikko needed to attempt that.

 

When we were out of the old town Veikko spoke of the experience that had shaken him and caused him to cry out as though in agony. He had remained silent since that moment, though no great disturbance ever seemed to affect him long. As always, he spoke slowly and deliberately, his English was more than adequate but well-marinated with the double and triple-length vowels of his native Livonian that lent it a special veracity.

“You know, I think some of those De-veels tonight was ree-al De-veels. Yes, I am sure it is so.”

One Response to On All Hallows’ Eve

  1. Steve O'Connor says:

    A fascinating glimpse into a corner of the world about which I know very little…okay…nothing. It takes a rambling English expatriate to pull back the curtain, revealing the subtle cross-cultural currents, the weight of the local history, the complexities of language and religion. Sharp observations and writing from Mr. Sharps.

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