What We Have Lost Because We Did Not Know To Ask

by Inara Verzemnieks

No writer of nonfiction can truly know the inner consciousness of those we are writing about, and this is where the art of speculation becomes inextricable from research, from careful, in-depth reporting.  

Harijs positions himself by the kitchen window and tests whether it is true that after nine decades, he now sees what no one else can. Outside, the last of the summer storks plow corkscrew paths through the sky and in the distance, the neighbor’s dog rises on two legs and begs the mailman to polka.  It’s the absence of what he once thought he knew that he now tracks, like the sun’s corona, visible only during an eclipse. Is the sky really still the sky if all the clouds are gone? Why can’t a dead birch leaf also be a fallen apple? If I am 16, then why are my hands withered and spotted, like fruit left too long in the sun? If I am 16, then who are these people who have come to visit, who say they are my children, my grandchildren, my relatives, not yet born?  

A stroke last May left half Harijs’ world shrouded in shadow, the line between what belongs in the past and what exists in the present blurring, too. It is the summer of his 91st year, and he is sitting at the window of the house he summoned from wood and brick with own two hands, and here is his wife—for whom he built this house and who has shared it with him since their wedding day sixty years ago and where together they raised four children—returning from the garden, carrots where her fingers should be.

Where have you put your old hands? he says.

She waves the orange nubs, seamed with soil, beneath the faucet. But where there should be water there is only a sad hiss, like the sound the storks make when happy.

Oh, no, she says. Electricity’s gone.

Electricity, he says, tonguing the syllables. But I put it in these walls myself, it should still be there.

No, no, father—they are fixing it somewhere. Not here.

He knows what it is to be not here, even as he is here, sitting at the kitchen window as his wife considers how to finish cooking their lunch. It is how he can find himself in this moment suddenly twenty years in the past, lying in a hospital bed in Riga, waiting for the cancer to leave him, sick with radiation. Will his teeth fall out and come back in soft like the boy born in the months after the news of what happened at Chernobyl, when it all still seemed so far away, and everyone placed their babies on blankets with their toys to feel the sun and the wind on their bare skin that summer, while their mothers sang to themselves and weeded potato beds?

Out, he says, without speaking, shaking a pan of oats, signal to the mare she should follow.  Now he is 40 years old, recently assigned the care of all eighteen of the kolkhoz’s draft horses, and he has trained them to plow and to pull with the barest of commands, a whisper of air, a tongue’s click. He attends the birth of each foal, helps skin them from the linen-colored membranes of afterbirth that caul the foals’ eyes.  

I can’t see, he says.

What do you mean, you can’t see, she says.

I can’t see the clouds, he says.

That’s because there are no more clouds in the sky today, she says.  That’s good eyesight, not poor.

Oh, he says.

His wife, Ausma.

She remains the one thing he can’t or won’t see in terms of what is gone or what has never been, the last piece of the present that remains fixed, absolute.

Not long after the stroke, when they knew his body would survive, if not his mind, when he still required constant care, and did not seem to know where he was or who was around him, the nurses found him one night wandering the hospital hallway with a pained certainty, trying each door.

What are you doing, they asked?  

Looking for my wife, Harijs said.

And now she is looking for something with which to light the old wood-fired cook stove that he built and that she used for nearly forty years before her daughter bought an electric model from the West, not long after Latvia declared its independence.  

If the electricity is off, then we will go back in time, she says. Do this the old way.

She crinkles old newspapers, pulls from the pile of paper wrappers she keeps neatly folded on top of the tinder—catalogs promising fifty percent off electric blenders and foam memory pillows and home manicure kits that they study but never order, empty sugar packages. At the very bottom, she finds a secret nest of candy wrappers.

Ah, a little mouse has been eating, she says.

Harijs smiles and winks.

Listen, father, she says. Stay here. I’m going to go draw some water from the lower well for our soup.

What kind of horse is that, he says aloud, watching a four-wheeler race down the main road.  It is not a question.

Ausma totters back into the kitchen, listing under the weight of a metal pail. As she strains to pour some water off into the soup pan, the kitchen faucet, which she has forgotten she has left on, sputters, spits, then streams all over the kitchen floor.

What is this new excitement, says Harijs.

Oh no, says Ausma, running for a mop.

They have not known the thrill of this much unexpected agitation in a very long time. And then yesterday, it started with the shriek of sirens—the first sirens they’d heard in maybe a year (the modern tragedies of the remote countryside being those that are borne largely in private, in grim isolation, rarely rising to the level of collective intervention). Immediately, they’d tried to imagine the cause. Tanks, suggested Harijs, who had been a teenager during World War II, and who had watched his childhood home cinder and smoke when Russian troops torched it in retreat. He had only been half wrong. While there were no tanks, there was in fact fire, this blaze stoked by a man who had taken a match to his own apartment, but only after he had hurled all his furniture from the balcony, watched the couch, then the television bounce and splinter.

These are my things, he told the police. I own them. Don’t we all have the right to do with our things as we please?

Ausma scoops pooling water from the floor with a dustpan, as if baling a leaky rowboat. Once Harijs tried to cross a frozen river on horseback and the horse’s hooves punched through the ice. He is thinking about holes now, his mind working associationally, poetically.

Where is my pail, he asks.  

What do you need a pail for?

To fill it with apples.

It has been an unseasonably hot summer, the trees giving few apples. Those that fall are meagre, already hollowed by the work of worms and yellow jackets. But this is something to do, a hole that can be filled.  So she finds him a bucket and he trundles outside and sets to work, scooping fallen fruit with his two hands. The air smells of sweet flesh turning, yeasty, sugared.

Yesterday, a man who serves as the historian of a town not twenty kilometers away—a  place where many of the worst secrets of the war are buried, the bodies of all those who were taken there to die; first, when the Russians invaded, all the Latvian military’s officers and soldiers; then when the Germans invaded, all the area’s Jewish residents—said that he tells people they must start preserving their memories this very instant, that by the time anyone thinks to try, it is already too late.

All the things we have lost, he said, because we do not even possess enough understanding to know what we should ask.

Where are you, Ausma calls. She cannot see where he has gone.

Harijs does not answer, and yet he does.  He has made his way to the front of the house, in view of the window where he likes to sit.  She does not know that he has planted himself in the spot where they held their wedding celebration. Back then it was all grass and sky.  Now the place is thick with trees, gnarled branches. He has found a limb downed by the wind, laden with fruit, and it was as if the apples are growing upside down, from the ground, like potatoes. He has never seen so many apples in all his life. And so, he digs, with the joy of a man who has lived long enough to know that such things are possible in this world, how much of what we think is hidden from us, is just waiting for the asking.

I have been travelling to Latvia for close to eight years now, spending summers in the countryside with my grandmother’s younger sister, Ausma and her husband Harijs. They have taught me so much about how to live in the present, and how to do so with incredible grace and strength and love and humor. Their generation has lived through multiple occupations, mass exiles and violence of a level that few of us who have not seen war first hand can even begin to fathom. Now in their 90s, with Latvia fully independent and finding its way as a newly embraced free European nation, they have been witnesses to the full arc of the country’s complex history, its joys and secrets. This trip was the first time I had spent time with Harijs after his stroke, and could truly feel the ways in which his memory now functioned differently. No writer of nonfiction can truly know the inner consciousness of those we are writing about, and this is where the art of speculation becomes inextricable from research, from careful, in-depth reporting.  Even as the very notion of trying to capture reality became complicated by his loss of memory, I had the benefit of all those trips to Latvia over the years, all my notes, and all our many previous interviews, which I could combine with careful present-day observation and conversation to create a portrait of Harijs right now, at this moment and time in his life.


Inara Verzemnieks’ critically acclaimed memoir, “Among the Living and the Dead,” was published by W.W. Norton.  A Pushcart Prize winner and the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award, as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing, she teaches in the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program.