Listening to Birds
That’s where I heard the cuckoo the last time, in Käsmu. I haven’t heard one since.
This was in the forests of Estonia, in May of 2004. We were on a walk in the mountains, a group of writers, and we heard it right there, in the depths of that dark forest, singing its heart out.
We were taking part in a writers’ retreat in a small village called Käsmu. Käsmu, a village by the side of the Baltic, is truly small, with no more than a dozen houses and some three hundred inhabitants.
We walked through the mountains and then went to a supper in a building alongside the beach. We had to dine by daylight, since it was the end of May and, at that time of year, nighttime in Estonia lasts only three or four hours.
That building, that house by the beach, was beautiful. It was very likely the largest house in the village. Wide stretches of wood-framed windows. The doors and the window frames painted white. The walls light blue. In the front dooryard a flower garden, well kept, and on the beach the hull of an old rowing scull.
The building had been the coastguard’s during Soviet times, and before that, a school for sea captains. Now several married couples lived there. Inside, they’d set up something like a museum, with old sea gear and navigation instruments. There were old photographs, too, hung on the walls. In these photos were the captains, elegant in their uniforms. When I looked at the portraits closely, the head of the household murmured by my ear: “They’re Germans.” He went on, “In the days of the czar, most Russian naval officers were German.” A great number of state posts were in German hands at the time, and most scientists, too, came from Germany. “That, until the revolution arrived,” he explained, with a sad look.
The doors and the window frames painted white. The walls light blue. In the front dooryard a flower garden, well kept, and on the beach the hull of an old rowing scull.
The man talked about the business of the captains and the revolution as we were on our way to the village graveyard. “Outsiders think there was a socialist revolution also in our village,” he said, “ but it was actually nothing but the Russian conquest.” Dissidents had gone to take refuge in the dark forests. Some of them spent years and years living in these forests, not ever coming out. He plucked a sprig of green from the roadside then, gave it to me to taste, remarking that it was edible.
The small Käsmu graveyard is one of those graveyards that turn up on seacoasts. The church is wooden, painted white, and the gravestones are inside a wooden fence. The most tremendous discovery I made in the days I spent in Käsmu was made in that very graveyard. There I happened on something I had never seen before.
The man told us to look at the names on the gravestones, the names of married couples:
“Hasso Liive (1935-1999).
Ilvi Liive (1938-blank)”
I wrote these two down in my notebook.
It wasn’t strange that the husband and wife had been lain together. What struck me as odd was that when one spouse died and was buried, the name of the other spouse was written on the stone as well. So the one who was still alive, when she went every day to visit the cemetery, would see her own name etched into the gravestone. Alive but written down. She knew where she would end her days, and by whose side.
The Estonians believe that if people are interred together, they will be together in the next life, too. That’s how the man from the coast guard house recounted it to us. And while we were there, the Estonian poet Doris Kareva told us an old story. She’d been reminded of it by the gravestones.
It was actually the story of her friend’s grandmother. How when she was young, she had fallen in love with a boy. They did fall in love, but life didn’t want them to be together. One had to go off one way and the other another. The boy had to leave the village. And so it was that they met other people, and even married these other people, and had children. But in their secret hearts, their love for each other went on living. And that love stayed alive, year in and year out. At some point, the man returned to the village. And in that small village, they met up with each other, but each one’s life was running on a different path. It was too late to get back together again. And so they went on like that until one of them, the man, died.
They had once made a promise to each other that though they couldn’t be together in life, they would be together after death, forever. At long last, the woman managed to get her own grave site placed next to the man’s. Their people would have buried each with his or her own spouse, but instead they would get to rest alongside each other for eternity, close enough to shake hands.
The one who was still alive, when she went every day to visit the cemetery, would see her own name etched into the gravestone. Alive but written down. She knew where she would end her days.
Doris found that woman’s love story sublime. The woman was brave, it seemed to her, and love, in the end, won. But the Welsh writer Meredid Puw Davies did not agree. Meredid, a poet several years younger than Doris, didn’t want to accept that the couple could not be together in life but only in death.
It struck Meredid as horrible that they’d had to write their names on the gravestones to be together—horrible that the friend’s grandmother had suffered without the love of her life while she was alive. Is there no way to change direction while we are alive and breathing? Do we truly have no chance to begin another life until we die?
I sat by Meredid during supper. Before the meal, each poet was supposed to read a poem, and that’s what we did, each in our own language. Doris went last:
Woman is water,
Water — clean and eternal.
Men are but salt and pepper
in this night’s soup.
After supper, Meredid returned to the subject of the gravestones yet again: Why should we always be hoeing the same row, why believe things can be done in only one way? Literature, too, should forge new paths, just as our cultures must become renewed. The ways of doing things renewed. To adapt to the times. Our mediums have changed, she said. Nowadays, it’s not just books. There are new technologies. And who is on the receiving end has changed as well—now we don’t write solely for our own community, but for the whole world. The world is smaller. The people of Tallinn would be hearing us read on Saturday. And just a few years ago, such a thing was impossible.
“I’ve been listening to birds in the forests here for forty years. And myself, though I didn’t understand your poetry word for word tonight, I know what you were meaning to tell me.”
I told Meredid I agreed with her and went on to say, I write to a reader in Basque, that’s the language I write in, but I’m writing to the world. And by the same token, it’s the only way I have, Basque, to write to the world in.
“Anyhow,” she said, “I suspect that we don’t believe in ourselves as much as we ought to. Our energies are too scattered. Let me tell you what happened during the war in the Malvinas. The Argentines took the Malvinas, and the navy of the United Kingdom went off to liberate them. It happened there were Welsh-speaking people in both navies. On one side were people who had gone out from Wales, under the Queen. And on the other side were Welshmen at the defense of the dictator of Argentina. A great many Welsh people live in Argentina; in some parts only Welsh is spoken. They fought against each other. On both sides, you heard the same language. It does seem we are still stuck in that war.”
He broke in on what Meredid was saying: an older man who’d eaten supper with us. He took up a spoon and tapped it against a drinking glass, asking for silence. He introduced himself: “Good evening. I’m Fred, and I’d like for you all to listen to something.” He put a CD in the sound system—bird songs, twitter-twitter-twitter, the birds.
“How many kinds of birds do you think are in there?” he asked us afterward. “One or two,” someone answered. “Three or four,” said someone else. “Nope,” Fred said. “There are twenty kinds of song there, twenty different birds singing simultaneously.” And he likened the birds to the reading we’d done that night. “Hearing you, it sounded as if you were birds singing. I’ve been listening to birds in the forests here for forty years. I haven’t always understood their song, but I’ve known what they were feeling. I know when they are cold or hungry, I know when they are sick with some disease, or in love. And myself, though I didn’t understand your poetry word for word tonight, I know what you were meaning to tell me. But nevertheless you yourselves, you’re incapable of distinguishing the songs of this number of birds. You heard only the ones on top, only the loudest.”
I went outside. It was the small hours of the morning, but still the sky hadn’t gone entirely dark. You could see a reddish line on the horizon, like the eye of a child who doesn’t want to go to sleep. Fred came up and he too stood and examined the sky. Without taking my eyes from the horizon, I told him that what he’d said about the birds had been beautiful. It had taught us a lesson.
“That was no lesson,” the naturalist said. “Half the world hasn’t heard one word about the other half,” he went on, looking off to the edge of the horizon. “I’ve spent forty years of my life listening to birds, I know everything there is to know about bird song. But I can’t sing myself. I’ve never in my life written a line. I wanted to be a poet, but I’ve never been able to write a word.”
With that, he turned to me, looked at me closely, and said: “Fear kept me from it.”
I heard the cuckoo the last time in the forests of Estonia. It’s our old folk belief that if you have coins in your pocket when you hear the first cuckoo, you’ll have money for the entire coming year.
I didn’t have a single coin in my pocket at the time, but I did come back from that place with my trousers full of poems.