Tarzier Memoirs

Part I   Old Latvia



This story was originally written by my father Peteris and retold by his brother Robert. The scene takes place at the end of 1918. As they put it so well, evil floated about the land even in the season of love and hope. Scarcely a month before, little Latvia had dared to proclaim its independence from the Russian bear. Across wooden fences, in chance meetings on their way back from town, over cups of sweet hot tea, peasants whispered of freedom tainted by impending reprisals by the Communist Revolutionary Youth. Rumors mentioned hit lists—but could the young ruffians be so organized as to make a list of their elders to be dispatched in the name of Lenin? While some went into hiding, it was a relief to discount the possibility. It was Christmas, after all, and the family deliberately set politics aside in order to celebrate the holiday—MT

The whole of Christmas eve was spent in preparation for the big day. Everybody took a bath, whether they needed it or not. Father brought out razor and strop and shaved his ten-day-old stubble over a small pan of steaming water. Mother, meanwhile, had already filled the house with good smells of baking and cooking. The day before we had slaughtered a pig, an event in itself, for magpies as well as people. As we cleaned the pig, a flock of magpies sat around in a circle, craning heads to watch our every move. We emptied out the pig’s intestines, turned them inside out using a dowel, and scraped and washed them to be used later as casings for sausage. The magpies got to eat what had been the pig’s last meal.

The sky turned to lead in late afternoon. As flakes began to drift down to earth, we harnessed two horses to the sleds, now fitted with side and back supports to make them into sleighs. Filled with hay and covered with blankets, a sleigh made for a comfortable ride in the snow. Since the horses had not been worked yet on that day, they were ready for a real run. We had one black horse called Derbis, probably part Arabian. We knew when he was ready for a run—his belly would begin to rumble. He loved to gallop, especially downhill. Robert scurried to grab a seat in the lighter sleigh pulled by Derbis. I got to ride Maris, the brown horse, who pulled the large, slower sled, because I was lowest in the pecking order.

Our freshly scrubbed noses red from the cold, we set off in the twilight through the logging trail, our shortcut to the Assembly Tent. The forest was mysterious, damp and silent. Pine trees stood like sentinels watching us swish by, their limbs reaching down with the weight of new snow. Out of the corner of my eye, if I didn’t try too hard, I could faintly see elves hiding behind the young spruces to wait out our passage. The only noise came from the bells we had attached to the sleighs.

Soon we emerged from the forest and into farmland, close to the meeting hall. Lights from all sides converged on the the Assembly, coming from scores of sleighs bringing the faithful to our Christmas service. Soon two hundred people had arrived and hitched their horses to a fence or tree. On that night, there were no lanterns to light the Tent, because this was a special occasion, the Christmas candlelight service. Each worshipper brought a candle, which they lighted and placed in a holder on the wall, now lined with row upon row of light. Father had brought two larger candles, which he placed on the speakers’ (Tellers) table. The Tent, really a wooden building, was unheated. After a while, our bodies and the candlelight would warm up the place somewhat, but in the beginning you could see people’s breath coming out like fog from their noses.

Father stood by the door until the last minute, herding in those who had lingered outside to chat with their neighbors. When everybody was inside he retreated into the vestry. The congregation, meanwhile, arranged themselves on the wooden benches, men to the left of the Tellers’ table, women and children to the right. We waited in silent expectation. At last, the little vestry door opened, and the old Kante, the first speaker, walked in, followed by the Tellers in single file. He began the service with a prayer on that day, and then gave testimony for a few minutes. Speakers remained seated at all times, whether leading a hymn, praying, or speaking to the congregation. When Kante was finished, all Tellers walked back to the vestry. Within a minute or so, they all filed back into the hall, Father leading the way this time. The others, including Kante, took seats to the right and left of the Tellers’ table. Now we got to sing. Since we had no printed hymn books, Father read a stanza and the congregation sang after him. The flicker of candles filled the hall with the mystery of Christmas.

Father never wrote down a prayer or a sermon. He was widely known as a good speaker, partly because he looked straight at the people instead of reading off a page. His speech on that last Christmas was especially moving, as if his spiritual vision had been honed by danger. His eyes shone as he told the old story of baby Jesus, born in a horse stall, and yet surrounded by the glory of angels. The total silence in the Tent carried me from my hard wooden bench into a numinous other world. On that evening so long ago, I had strange and glorious visions of angels and shepherds, the Bethlehem miracle my own story, I the babe on the straw. Inner certainty took the place of rote repetitions of the catechism. That evening in the old Herrnhuter Tent, so long ago, marked the beginning of a spiritual journey which would lead me to the service of God two decades later.

The service lasted only as long as the candles, a welcome rule to keep the speakers from yammering away. When one by one the candles went out, it was time to climb back up on our sleighs for the drive home. Even the horses caught the holiday mood, especially Derbis, or perhaps he was just cold. I stared open mouthed as he took off at a gallop, without so much as a crack of the whip. He went so fast that he promptly hit a pothole and overturned the sleigh. He didn’t run off, though. He stopped and waited, looking back with a satisfied look at us as we all climbed out of the snowbank, brushing snow off our clothes. But nobody got hurt. Derbis, having got his bit of satisfaction, trotted more carefully now. We hurried home to our special Christmas eve meal—fresh buttermilk, barley bread, sausage, and sweet home-brewed ale.

This was the last Christmas with Father. He would be arrested a week later, but sometimes we are better off not knowing. After the meal, we dragged our full bellies to our straw beds and did not wake up until the roosters signaled the dawn of Christmas day.

Picking up the Pieces

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