Walking in the Warming Fields

Stephen Kuusisto

Um cego no escuro - Guilherme Kramer
Um cego no escuro - Guilherme Kramer

It’s easy to listen in childhood when all the songs are new. The first birds demand nothing from us.

Later we find that sounds can call us to grow.

I went to Tallinn when the Russians were still occupying that beautiful place. I was twenty-seven but immature for my age. I’d gone to Estonia for a dishonorable purpose: I was on a drunkard’s tour. In those days people from Helsinki—men mostly—would ride the Soviet ferries across the Baltic and spend the weekend drinking cheap vodka in hotels that had been erected just for them. I was curious. I wanted to witness “fear and loathing in Tallinn.”

I remember the following sounds:

Four hundred smashed Finns swarmed through the Soviet passport control. I was in the back of the throng because I was an American and would have to go through a special inspection. I had to wait. I can attest that the noise of four hundred drunken men pushing and cursing their way through a gate is unlike the sound of a Hollywood stampede. Their boots made the noise of dried blood. Those boots made the metaphysical noise called “the edge of night”—there really is no other way to describe it.

When it was my turn to enter, the Soviet guard looked me up and down, then examined my papers. He pressed a button and a buzzer buzzed and another officer appeared—a woman who spoke English.

“Why do you not look like you?” she asked.

“Is that a metaphysical question?” I asked.

“You have a passport and a visa,” she said, “and neither photograph looks like you.”

“Sometimes I am depressed and sometimes I’m happy,” I said. Then, because I was immature, I performed a little dance with windmill gestures and many facial expressions.

“I see,” said the Russian woman. “You are stupid.”

“Yes,” I said, “I am stupid.”

I was feeling a tapering faintness around my ears.

The woman did something with a ring of keys. This was not going well.

“Come this way,” she said.

“I am blind,” I said, “you will have to assist me.”

“You are blind?” She paused.

I heard the straggling drunks laughing off in the distance. One of them had dropped a bottle. Apparently the bottle hadn’t broken. “Oh my baby, my baby,” a man said.

“Here, I will adopt your baby,” another man said.

“No, no,” said the first man, “you will not give my baby the right education.” They laughed that roving laugh of big men, a laugh I’ve never been able to master. That’s what I was thinking as the woman from the Red Army was reexamining me.

“You are blind and you have come here by yourself?” she said after a moment.

“Yes, I’ve come to Tallinn to hear music,” I said.

“We will have to search you,” she said.

I was wishing that I could speak Russian. I wanted to say that I was nauseated and pleased at the same time. Almost certainly there would be a Russian word for this. Evidently the Soviet Union thought I was such a good listener that I would have to be searched.

“Come with me,” she said. She grabbed my arm. She took me to a small room.

“You are to take off your clothes,” she said.

It occurred to me that if they had my clothing they could plant listening devices somewhere and then accuse me of being a spy. Why had I said I’d come to hear music? How foolish! Why hadn’t I said I was here to get drunk?

As I began taking off my shirt the woman talked steadily to a man who had appeared without a sound.

They spoke back and forth like two severed wings.

My hands were shaking and I was having trouble with my buttons.

They were looking through my bag.

Suddenly the man said in English: “Don’t bother with your clothes. Have a nice time in the Soviet Union.”

Had he put a listening device in my bag? Had he decided that I was merely brainless?

I was suitably frightened and headed directly to the hotel, where I stayed and drank vodka for the next twelve hours. I knew some students in that dedicated collection of drinkers. I talked openly about my fear that the Russians wouldn’t let me out of the country. As I downed vodka and nattered away I convinced myself that I would be arrested as soon as I tried to depart.

The next day I followed a student group from Finland as they walked the old town in the center of Tallinn. I was badly hungover. Sand shifted and spread out inside me. My body blundered ahead. The cobblestones made walking very hard.

Around this time our little group decided to attend church.

Oh God, I thought, I’m too ill to attend church.

But I went along. I knew I was unable to get back to the hotel without assistance. And I thought of how pleasant it would be to sit. There would be music. Yes. And if the border guards asked me what I’d done in Estonia I could say I’d been listening to music.

To this day I can’t describe the church. Upon entering I was separated from my group and therefore I had no one to paint a word picture for me. I sat alone among the indistinct many. I had no idea what house of worship we had entered.

Then the organ poured out its red and black sound—the pipe organ that has always made me think about milk and iodine—that huffed-up and scared instrument. Its very mechanism floods the fields and freezes them in the same instant—that organ was now over us.

The hidden organist was playing Bach.

It was the “Little” Prelude and Fugue in E minor. Or I thought it was. The notes began to move from one side of my brain to the other as they were meant to. And how green and sick I was feeling. And Bach, who wrote on the far side of midnight, and this organist, who was also on the far side—they were expanding the circle of light, the “nimbus,” if you will, of Christian humility. This was how Bach was going to find me just there in that dark church. Numbers and midnight and fear in a young life . . . A boy’s life really . . . What did he know anyway? The silken shape of Bach’s hat fell onto him, as it always does for all who will listen.

A priest began to speak. He was reciting in Latin. We had come to the old Estonian Catholic Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. The priest’s voice had a prying quality but it was warm: the man had tenderness about him.

Without warning a woman cried out. “Jesu!” Her voice had a kernel of darkness—her voice took on weight as it rose. It was a twining, gathering call. Other women were crying then. The church was very dim. I could see only the blackness or greens of a forest and thin openings of light that must have been from candles. “Jesu, Jesu,” came the call.

It was the first time I’d ever heard communitarian weeping: it was a dedicated, pilgrimming song.

It didn’t have a single Puritan note. It came from too far back.

Someone, perhaps it was the priest, rang a small bell.

A bell defines you when you’re not expecting it. The sound of a bell marks your life. It says you will make your part of the road whether you will it or you don’t. The priest rang the bell again. It gave up a sound of curiosity and of early summer.

The bell was in the key of A. At least I thought it was.

That bell said we should walk in the warming fields.

Then I was back in the streets of Tallinn. I was alone and walking a narrow lane. I heard bells from six churches, each sounding its beckoning refrain from a corner of the city. I knew I could travel solely for the music and the music would always be unpredictable and it would never fade away.



Walking in the warming fields or “Little” Prelude and Fugue in E minor
excerpt (Epilogue) in
by Stephen Kuusisto




Maria José Alegre