Nearly three years ago, I squeezed into Silvia’s boarded-up house for the first time during a January thaw. My winter boot sought solid purchase as it dangled in the dark uncertainty of a house that held a story I couldn’t yet fathom.
I entered to look for the manuscripts suspected to be in the house, and I only intended to document them in photographs. But moving through the dismal rooms, filled with the chaotic discards of Silvia’s life, I realized I couldn’t leave the papers behind. Covered in grime, I squeezed back through the boards with relief to breathe fresh air. Books, manuscripts, photographs, letters, anything I could carry of significance from the upheaval scattered across the floor came through the narrow gap in the boards with me.
I had become a thief in the name of literature.
Then came the fear that something of importance had been left behind. So, I gathered the courage and returned to that closet or that drawer. Or was I careful enough as I combed the upstairs bedrooms?
Only the mildewed walls festooned with cobwebs heard my mutterings and cursings, usually at Silvia for keeping chickens in the house, but also at the critters for chewing through papers or some damp something I had touched accidentally.
So, when I walked through the front door last week, I thought I would be prepared for the complete ruin now open to me with the estate’s permission. To my surprise, I discovered that I was less prepared than the first time I entered.
After three years, the chaotic debris had taken on new meaning. As I sifted once again through the remnants of Silvia’s life, I knew the story I was sifting through. Every corner of every dark and mildewed closet, every shelf of decaying books, the bags of receipts and bills from her final years of extreme poverty, all had meaning. How to weigh importance? How not to weep?
Of the things I take from the house, I make a list to send to Silvia’s estate executor.
- Underwood typemaster (with umlauts).
- Records from the publishing company, Eesti Kirjanike Kooperatiiv.
- One letter from Herk Visnapuu, in Estonian, dated 1957.
- A ledger of personal expenses 2013/14, the year before her death.
- A sketch by her nephew, Heiti, in poor condition.
- A plastic compact that reflected Silvia’s face before it reflected mine.
- A pair of mended eyeglasses with one lens missing.
- A facsimile copy of Kalevipoeg, nicely bound.
- Paperback copies of Henrik Visnapuu’s work.
- A signed and numbered copy, 49 of 200, of Esimene Osa, by Toomas Gailit
Nothing is particularly important. It’s possible the typewriter was used to transcribe Visnappuu’s poems and manuscripts in New York. Maybe someone will want to study the Estonian diaspora in the United States through the lens of the literature purchased. What do I know about the future? Diasporas are happening as I write, and the darker parts of Silvia’s story have been haunting the headlines for years. What can possibly be learned from this ephemera? But my thoughts of a landfill keep me steady.
I finagle one last drawer open, and with my halt and tug, a small lapel pin in the shape of a feather tumbles to the front. Held in the palm of my hand, it is without discernable value aside from the quote from George Sand that I attach to it in my mind, “Give me a feather from your wing, so that I may have proof of your passage.”
I slip the little feather into my pocket, gather up my boxes, and close the front door behind me.
It doesn’t want to shut completely.
Today, September 10, 2020, Silvia’s house will be auctioned. All the papers of literary value and one small feather have been removed from the house. Meanwhile, I continue to work on my own manuscript with the proof of Silvia’s passage.