An excerpt translated by Adam Cullen


At the age of five, I was given my very first lesson in the fact that wherever there is love, death is always lurking.


Grandma and Grandpa lived in a lush little garden suburb where I spent the happiest days of my childhood. There, I became acquainted with the flavors of life; with the scents, sounds, and colors of Grandpa’s endless estate: moist peat; ripe tomatoes; orderly lines of yellow and white narcissus; amber honey dripping from a honey extractor into a large jar; the soft bubbling of wine fermenting in the corner, measuring the length of autumn evenings. Then, winter: snowdrifts up to the windows outside, the smell of morning pancakes indoors… That’s how we lived. That’s how they lived, and I shared in it.


My great-grandfather Johannes, a stonecutter and a tombstone craftsman, had built the house. He’d left behind ten tombstones in the corner of his workshop. Had Johannes senior perhaps set them aside for his descendants? Could one of them be meant for me, for instance?

One thing was for sure: I wasn’t afraid of them, nor was my friend Hendrik. There, between the tombstones, we tried kissing for the first time, and even though our noses got in the way at first and it made us giggle, it was so sweet that we tried it several times more. It was by those tombstones that we also determined, once and for all, our anatomical dissimilarities. Henrik said he thought mine were the most beautiful of all. I didn’t say anything. Partly because I agreed (but how can you say that when the other person has just been so nice); partly because I was burning up from head to toe and my breath was stuck in my chest – the words just wouldn’t have come out.


Innocence and its loss have so many levels – it can be lost several times. The first time I lost my innocence was at the age of five, with Hendrik, when he barely touched me among the tombstones in the workshop.

The second time I lost it was about a year later when Hendrik’s mother came to order white lilies from Grandma. She was dressed all in black and began sobbing loudly when she saw me.


My Grandfather, a gardener and an undertaker, sent Hendrik on his final journey. They ultimately agreed to take me with them. I overheard them discussing it in private and Grandma was the one who said the girl has the right – everyone must have a chance to at least say goodbye. In the end, Grandpa just grunted, “Yes, indeed,” and continued writing his speech.

I knew Hendrik had had some disease. He told me that summer, six months earlier, in an old locomotive back behind the station, where we’d spy on drunks and collect the bottles they left behind for pocket change. I’d noticed Hendrik changing. He was bloated and at first, I studied myself anxiously, wondering whether we all must bloat as we grow, and worrying about whether it was contagious. But then, I found out it was due to medication and immediately felt relief. It was a solid fact that medication helped. It was a solid fact that children get better.

Even so, I should have been worried.

Or should I have?

Then, we wouldn’t have had that summer; then, we wouldn’t have clambered through the ruins so recklessly; wouldn’t have walked through the graveyard holding hands so tightly. In August, Hendrik wove me a ring made of tall grass and asked what I thought about us maybe being husband and wife someday – he didn’t want any other girl. Sure we could, I reckoned, and he slid the ring onto my finger and it fit perfectly. Later, we went to gorge on plums by the graveyard, resulting in diarrhea for both of us that night.


I last saw Hendrik in late September. He was at home, I went to visit him. The bloating had subsided, and to me, it seemed like Hendrik had grown. Taller, older. He had a lot of books in his room; he said there wasn’t much else he could do than to read and look at the pictures. Hendrik had made me a present. A sculpture. He’d sculpted an atrociously ugly fat woman – the Venus of Willendorf with a big belly and big breasts. He said he’d found a picture of it in a book and made me an identical amulet, telling me it would bring me luck and fertility and safety and success. I asked Hendrik what an amulet was, and he said: “A luck sculpture.” I asked what fertility was, and Hendrik said: “When you have a lot of children.” And finally, I asked what security was. He thought for a little while, then said: “When you feel sure.” It all made sense. Hendrik was so good with words.

Afterwards, we played war and durak, because we didn’t know any other card games. Then, we also played dominos, but the pieces kept tipping over on the blanket. I didn’t really know how to play checkers, he didn’t know how to play chess. But in the end, we played checkers all the same, and I lost every time until Hendrik’s mom came to tell us he needed to take his medicine and rest and that Grandma was certainly expecting me back home already. When his mom left the room, Hendrik gave me a peck on the cheek and squeezed my hand, and I told him I would keep his Venus forever, because luck and fertility and safety and success will come in handy for the both of us.


Kai Aareleid is a writer, poet and translator.

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