Victor had five fingers. All told.
On both hands.
He surrendered the other five to a half bottle of vodka and a nap on an icy walk home from the post office cum liquor store, one exceptionally cold winter evening. Or so the story went, according to the post office ladies (about a mile from our cabin). He also had one mean reputation in the nearby village …
I Vant To Be Alone … Oh Wait, No I Don’t
In 1996, in the throes of an existential crisis—convinced that, as a single mother, once my two young daughters were grown, I would enjoy a life with no electricity, no running water and no heat source—I bought a log cabin on 10 acres of land, in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia. At the time of my purchase, I was living, in the quaint university town of Tartu, Estonia, which I loved. But I envisioned, spending my post child-rearing life in absolute seclusion in my rural homestead: lighting a lot of candles, firing up a wood stove and writing, longhand, until the cows came home …
In 1998, I met a Latvian man who took my breath away.
In fairly short order, my daughters and I moved down to Riga, Latvia, and bought the upper half of a Tsar Russian mansion, as a restoration project. Goodbye solitary life in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia; hello exciting new relationship in the hopping metropolis of Riga, Latvia! It was a far cry from the changes I’d envisioned for myself, but I was over the moon with discovering a new city and a new love, at this stage of my life.
A year later, in the midst of gutting our kitchen, in Riga—which coincided with the beginning of the Baltic region’s very short summer—I remembered my log house nostalgically and decided that it would be a great summer retreat for the girls and me, with my partner visiting when his work schedule allowed. We could live free of noise, dust, navigating-debris-on-our-way-to-the-bathroom, and all of the other inconveniences of construction. Besides, we wouldn’t need heat in the summer, just some sleeping bags; the white nights of summer would furnish more than enough light; and all we needed was a decent bucket and rope, for the well, to have water. We were set for our log cabin adventure.
Well, I was anyway.
Ignoring the moans and groans from my tween and teenage daughters, Jessica and Erin, I packed our minimal earthly needs, for an entire summer, into our 15 year-old BMW: clothing, towels, wash cloths, sleeping bags, a tent (just in case the mosquitoes got too bad inside the house), silverware, dishes and some limited personal items, most of which were packed into a large Rubbermaid tub which I planned to use for bathing. We hoped for an adventure that would not include snakes, venomous spiders or criminals roving around the countryside (as an American I had deep-rooted fears of bad guys with guns behind trees and in bushes).
So with a prayer, for our old car, on my lips, we headed north to our tiny log cabin, the all-night sun and—unbeknownst to us at the time—some gentle shifts in perception.
What we were not expecting this adventure to include was Old Victor.
Life In the Grass Lane
The narrow, mile long, meandering dirt lane that led to our cabin, began just past the village post office, and was barely distinguishable from the wild land that it slightly interrupted. Completely impassable, by car, from late autumn through spring, it took all of my driving experience to negotiate, even in summer. A few ruts and some barely visible rocks were the only reminders that there may have once been a road to our house.
Several meters past our cabin, on the opposite side of the lane, was a dilapidated shack that had been almost entirely reclaimed by nature.
Initially I’d thought this neighbouring shack was abandoned and asked the sellers of my property if I might buy it; more for the property than the building. I was informed that it wasn’t for sale and that a fiercely private hermit lived in the shack. I was further told not to bother him and he’d show me the same courtesy; he was unfriendly and pretty much lived in a bottle of vodka. I was assured that I probably wouldn’t hear from him. Ever. And certainly shouldn’t count on him for anything. I remembered, however, at the settlement table, almost as a footnote, the seller had said, with a chuckle: “Your well is the only access Victor has to clean water, so you might see him occasionally scurrying across your property.”
So the hermit had a name: Victor.
A Side Note
When my parents visited me in Estonia in 1996, my mother’s most shocking observation, on day one of her visit, was the complete absence of laughter and smiles on the streets of Tartu. I attempted to explain to her that this was a cultural norm; it was not indicative of unhappiness with their lack of material possessions or depression and she had no need to feel sorry for them. I told her that if she watched carefully, she’d see subtle smiles and expressions of enjoyment everywhere in Estonia. My mother, however, ignoring me and determined to let her little American light shine walked through the streets smiling broadly at everyone, for the remainder of her stay. She said she was giving them permission to smile and be happy as they worked their way out of their poverty. She was letting them know that the USSR was gone and they could leave their depression behind because life would improve … When I told my Estonian friend, Peeter, what my mother was doing, he replied, quite seriously: “Did you explain, to her, that they only think that she’s mentally unstable?”
I had not.
It was challenging for Americans to understand the facial expressions of Estonian culture, as well as, how a country in the midst of reinventing itself and living in relative poverty, could actually be happy. I was not prepared to spend hours attempting to enlighten my seventy-three year-old mother on her two-week holiday. I understood the belief that her worldview was correct: people need lots of material things to be happy and a broad smile is a universally accepted sign of happiness. With an underlying belief being: Once they see the light all people eventually come around to experiencing and expressing joy in the way that my mother expected them to.
Life in The Grass Lane
My daughters and I moved into our log cabin, for the summer, in late spring.
We cooked over a camp stove and bathed in our Rubbermaid tub beneath blue skies and the midnight sun, on the side of our hill. We didn’t need a bucket or rope for our well; Victor had that covered, although the knot needed an occasional tug to keep it tight. I imagined this was a difficult task to undertake with so few fingers …
The mosquitoes were delighted with the infusion of new human blood in the neighbourhood; so much so that we quickly assembled our tent in the cabin’s main room and slept tucked safely inside our sleeping bags, behind our tent’s mosquito netting. We played Uno, harvested and cooked down rhubarb, told stories and drove to a nearby town to check email from time to time. Life was quiet, slow and good.
Then one summer evening, as the three of us sat outside singing (was it Amazing Grace?), Victor came around the corner of our cabin and sat down.
My first inclination was to approach him as I would a feral cat; slowly and with caution, or maybe not at all. But almost immediately I noticed, to my astonishment, how presentable he was—his hair carefully combed and clothes wrinkled but clean. I even sensed a slight twinkle in his eye, much like my Grandpa Joe …
My oldest daughter, Jessica, forever the extrovert of the family, has yet to meet a stranger who’s not a friend just waiting to happen. “May I speak with you in Russian language?” she asked, in Russian. We knew Victor was Estonian, but none of us had been able to master the extremely difficult Estonian language. These language barriers—speaking Russian, the language of their oppressors, with Estonians—were frequently awkward.
“Yes, certainly you can,” he replied, And then continued in somewhat broken Russian, “But I’m afraid my Russian language is rusty.” And, suddenly, there it was, most definitely: Grandpa Joe’s twinkle in the eye along with that Estonian smile … so sweet yet so subtle, that a few years back I would have missed it.
Victor spent the better part of that evening with us, chatting and chuckling softly. Jessica and Erin interpreted for Victor and me (my Russian language skills were even worse than his) as we asked and responded to each other’s questions. He seemed amused much of the time; but completely at ease and happy to be with us. I was impressed by his soft gentle manner and acceptance of life.
Victor joined us for evening chats or sometimes just sharing space. At times there were great gaps of silence between us but, oddly, they were never awkward.
I didn’t ask about his missing fingers. I’d already heard the story. He didn’t ask me how an American woman ended up in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia, in a beat up BMW and two daughters. It was a silent understanding.
One evening, as the chill of autumn was clearly moving in, Victor said, “I pick mushrooms and preserve them. I’ll bring you a jar.”
“That’s such a generous offer; but I can’t possibly accept,” I said, meaning it from the bottom of my heart.
I’d watched, from afar, as Victor navigated through his life: struggling through the woods and fields with his old bones; slowly pulling the water bucket up from the deep well with so few fingers; mushroom hunting … I’ve always had reservations about the safety of eating wild mushrooms but I couldn’t imagine any canning process, in the absence of a pressure cooker, let alone running water, that wouldn’t kill me within days (yep, one more of those American sensibilities rearing its head). Most importantly, however, I couldn’t bear the thought of those painstakingly collected mushrooms going to anyone but Old Victor.
“But thank you so much for the offer!” I said.
Victor smiled, very slightly, nodded and walked off towards his home.
The following morning there was a jar of mushrooms on our doorstep. I imagined a twinkle in his eye, as he slipped over, in the early morning hours, and left us his gift.
Summer was nearing its end as we packed up our old car, prayed it would get us back to Riga, and headed south for the winter. I wanted to say goodbye to Old Victor but he’d, once again, disappeared behind the thicket, trees, shrubs and miscellaneous weeds. His home was just like his life: almost invisible, insulated from all things that interrupted his almost imperceptible smile.
Initially I’d hoped that Old Victor would cut back on the vodka and find a companion: a woman? Maybe a dog? Or cat? Over the summer I decided his life was precisely as he’d designed it and within that life he was happy. I also knew that making my way through the brush to his door, even to say goodbye, would have been intrusive.
I locked up my cabin, but before leaving, I walked down the dirt path to the well. I pulled up a full bucket of water, gave an extra tug to the knot (maybe it would hold all winter?) and left it sitting on the side of the well, for Victor. One last bucketful of water and a tight knot was my goodbye. I knew it would bring one of those imperceptible smiles to his lips.
Upon Our Return …
Baltic winters are long and cold; frequently hitting -30 or lower. I looked forward to a spring thaw in April; I continued looking forward in May. When winter finally lost its grip in early June, I packed up my daughters, and car, and we headed north.
At the end of the three and a half hour drive, our old BMW chugged and meandered down the narrow lane towards our cabin. Every icy spot I slipped on was a reminder that, although the winters in Riga were hard, they were even more severe in The-middle-of-nowhere, Estonia.
As we pulled up to the cabin, I noticed that the pathway to the well looked almost unused.
My heart sank.
Jessica shared my observation: “Huh, I wonder if Old Victor got his own well?” she asked.
“Let’s go back to the post office and ask,” I said, trying to sound casual, as I turned the car around and headed back down the road to the post office.
“Oh he finally died! He froze to death, outside in an ice storm last winter; they say that’s a painless way to go once you get past the first bit…” the woman behind the counter said matter-of-factly. “It wasn’t much of a life he had anyway: waiting for his next pension money, walking here to collect it and buy supplies … particularly vodka. Poor old soul (she flicked her throat with her middle finger and thumb: an Estonian indication of a drunk person). Then he’d go back to that wreck he called a home, all by himself … He had a family once, you know: a daughter, a wife… an actual proper house, he did.” She shook her head in disapproval.
If I’d had the courage I’d have defended Old Victor. I’d have said, “Hey, he was at peace with his simple life; he was actually happy. Did you know that he could collect mushrooms with only five fingers? He could also fill and lift a bucket full of water up a 30 foot well without spilling more than a drop.
“Oh yeah! And he wasn’t totally alone: for at least one summer he was … Old Victor was my friend.” If I’d only had the courage, I’d have done just that …
Instead, I silently got in my car and with my eyes full of tears, and drove back down the dirt lane, remembering Old Victor, as I knew him, with his almost imperceptible smile and twinkle in his eye.