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Behind Decaying Walls

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“Of course you think it’s sad. You rich Americans always come to these
places and think they’re sad, poor little nations who need help.”
“Come on, I didn’t mean it like that. Everything is just so... gray.”
“That’s because Estonia is poor, but that doesn’t mean you get to come
here and start judging.”
“Oona, we came here on a big fancy cruise ship from Finland, your
country, which, incidentally, has a higher quality of life than the United
State. Why am I the bad guy?”
“That ‘quality of life’ stuff doesn’t mean anything. I think it’s time
for you to be quiet.”
“Oh, sure, I’ll shut up, no worries.”
Oona and I crossed our arms in tandem, shifting away from each other.
Oona’s brother and his friend, as well as Oona’s mother and her fiancé all
chattered on in trilling Finnish. I leaned my head against the window and
watched as the hills of Estonia crept along the highway. They settled
against the earth like olive-colored linen, threads of farmland and meadow
stuttering into the occasional slub. As the fissures and dimples in the
road became more frequent, houses began to nestle themselves on either
side. They hid behind rows of tangled trees and piles of overturned oil
drums and rusting flotsam. Their walls were fusions of twisted woods and
stained metals that leaned with the groaning wind as it snagged against
the ragged birchbark.
Eventually we found ourselves on a smaller road that rolled into a dusty
driveway. We parked our car at the end of the lane and opened our doors
to billows of grit. The billows hung in the air as we slammed the heavy
doors and strode through a rotting wooden gate. To the left was what
seemed to be a barn with high walls made of swelled, contorted branches.
Stones lay crumbling around its base, and hens tumbled from a wide gap in
the wall. On the right was a long shed made of the same black wood as the
barn. Slate shingles clung to the roof, the occasional chipped shard
hissing as it slid to the ground. We didn’t hear them shatter. Instead,
the thick, tearing bark of a dog drilled into our ears. The creature
bounded in a half-circle, straining against the chain that kept it latched
to the shed. It had held fast for years by the looks of the beaten soil
crescent the dog had worn into the grass around it.
Oona’s mother, ignoring the dog, took her fiancé’s hand and marched past
as it snarled. Oona’s brother and his friend sauntered away with the
adults, the dust in the air clinging to their skinny jeans and leather
jackets. Before us was the main house. It was made of the same twisted
woods and stained metals as the houses on the road, though some of the
wood was younger. A few panels of the façade were painted a minty green
as though someone were testing color swatches, though no tarps, ladders,
or brushes were laid out.
We strolled across a mossy blanket toward a white, plastic table that
stood beside the house. The branches of gnarled trees crawled through the
air around us, and the grass beneath the table faded to a weary sepia.
Waiting for us on that sepia grass was a stout woman with a pitcher of
water. She had already prepared six cups for us, and her tanned face was
molded into a smile. What teeth she had were yellowing, and her wiry gray
hair fell to her shoulders to meet a purple cardigan with stains on the
sleeves. We all picked up our cups as the woman began to speak with
Oona’s mother. The water I held was almost as yellow as the woman’s
teeth, and a few black speckles floated lazily near the surface. The
words “quality of life” surfaced in my mind as I watched those speckles
sink to the bottom. I put the cup back on the table without taking a
sip, and the woman began to lead us away.
We plodded toward another wooden gate. The rusty hinges screeched in
pain as the old woman opened it for us. She eagerly ushered us through,
that wrinkled smile still on her face. The field that lay before us was
awash in sunlight. The grass glittered as though it were candy, and now
and then a chocolaty tree sprouted from the earth. Tucked into a corner of
the field was a path shaded by arching trees. The burbling of a brook was
soon met with the clopping of hooves as three Shetland ponies trotted from
the shaded path to meet us. They followed us as we continued toward
another wooden gate, but the old woman made sure to keep them in the
candied field.
The next stretch of land was tucked into a mass of shaggy bushes and
trees. A greenhouse shimmered next to the brook we heard before, and
before me were rows and rows of burgeoning flowers. They stood in
kaleidoscopic bands of vermilion, indigo, and amethyst. Vines caked with
tangerine petals curled around trellises, and alabaster blossoms danced
with fuschia buds in the dappled shade of birch trees. With this scene
stretching out before me, I turned to look back at what we had walked
through. I peered past the field of sugary grass and the grazing ponies
and through the gate with the screeching hinges. My eyes fell upon the
white table and the sepia grass. I took in the crooked barn, the
crumbling shed, and the unfinished home. No sunlight washed over the
lupine dog. Finally, I returned to the white table. Though the distance
made it difficult to see, I knew my cup of rusty water was still there.
I turned back to the garden. The delicate perfumes that wafted through
the vibrant columns of flora coaxed me further into the maze of petals.
Oona meandered with me, her hair now kissed by the sun, while her brother
and his friend sat on a mossy knell. Her mother and her fiancé were
wading through the flowers with the old woman close behind.
“What are we doing here, exactly?” I asked.
“They’re picking out the flowers for their wedding,” said Oona.
For a moment I watched Oona’s mother. She fondled orchids and lilies
under the caramel, Estonian sun while ponies whinnied nearby. In this
secluded hollow behind decaying walls and a candy meadow she held her
fiancé’s hand. Once more, the words “quality of life” drifted through my
mind.





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