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Susan Neville


Understand me. I'm not like an ordinary world. I have my madness, I live in another dimension and I do not have time for things that have no soul.  —Charles Bukowski

My mother, my children, and I walk down a narrow brick-clad street in Riga, and we stop in front of a white cathedral. It's almost night, the air sepia-toned, like a tinted postcard. We seem to be the only people in the streets. Look up! My mother says. High above the cathedral are four Byzantine crosses on top of four lead-colored onion domes, and despite the approaching night, the sky is still quite blue. It feels to me as though we're looking up at a sky made of ancient cloisonne while standing in a place the color of murky tea. The air smells like lake water, quite brackish. My mother says it's the marshy wind blowing inland from the Baltic.
     The crosses are the Russian Orthodox type, with three horizontal planes: the crown of thorns, the plank of nails for the hands, the slanting plank for the feet to indicate that the Suffering One leans slightly toward the penitent thief and away from the unrepentant one. This is a more symbolic world than the one I'm used to. Where I'm from most things simply remind me of something I need to buy. What form did the thief's repentance take? I ask my mother. I myself can't remember, if I ever knew. Was it a simple apology, an 'I'm sorry,' a je regrette that got the thief a golden ticket? I ask her. It was quite simple, my mother says, a bon voyage for the journey and (since you're speaking French, she said) an innocent request for a souvenir. 'Remember me when you reach the kingdom' is what the thief said. She said. So it was faith and not remorse that was rewarded, I say.  
     My mother has led us here. She'd been looking for a church that feels like home. Until she finds it, she has said, she can't rest. She's been looking for a place like this as long as I can remember and, though deceased for several years now, is doing it still. I thought we would have been over all this by now, I say as we follow her up the steps. I didn't expect the life sentence that was our relationship to extend beyond her death, but c'est la vie.
     When I was a child and my mother was still alive, she'd moved from church to church and dragged me with her. We'd gone to every denomination of Protestant church, a few Catholic ones, a Unitarian church, several synagogues, a Buddhist temple, a mosque, and several fortune tellers. She is still dragging me uncomfortably along, and this time has brought her grandchildren. They're too young for this, I tell her. I've wanted to protect them a bit longer. She doesn't seem to listen.
     Apparently she's been to this Russian Orthodox Cathedral before and is beginning to feel at home here, though it's halfway across the world, in a place the rest of us have never been. She wants our approval, like it's a real estate purchase. And so my little family and I follow her into the bejeweled interior.
     My husband, the father of the children, is not with us of course. He's perfectly happy living in one world, has never experienced the slippage as my mother experiences it, or as I at times experience it. In my mother's world, in particular, the tornado is always on its way, roaring across the plains, ready to whoosh her up into its whirling funnel and out the other side. My mother's journeys have usually been more terrifying, more chaotic than mine have ever been. While I feel the lift, eventually the sediment settles and I begin to see shapes inside the dark. For her, it's all about the whirling.
     The interior of the cathedral looks like a scene constructed inside an eggshell. Quite lovely, really. My mother nods to several bearded men she seems to know. A young man, apparently the priest or maybe an acolyte, stands at the front of the cathedral, passing time. He holds a long gold chain in his hands, like an extremely thick watch chain with nothing attached at the ends. Is it a type of rosary? He lets the chain fall from one hand to another, more like he's playing with a Slinky than praying over beads. He's dressed in a beautiful green robe, that color of green you want to sink your teeth into, like icing on an Easter cake or the green velvet on a couch I once had. It's all very Eastery in fact, with candle flames glittering behind green glass sconces. It's hypnotic, and I look back at my children and the way they're taking it all in, their eyes the same green, flecked with amber. I worry about them, would return them to their bedrooms if I could, or to the room where there father is sitting, watching television or reading. You have to know how to return from these trips, and I'm not sure they're old enough to receive instruction. My mother couldn't teach them, God knows. I'm not sure they have the strength or that I have the strength required for all of us.
     The choir assembles, dressed in Latvian street clothes, which is to say like street clothes anywhere, although the women all wear head coverings. I notice my mother is wearing one as well, and I look inside my purse for some tissue or scarves or even a headband for me and for my daughter. I have nothing. To hell with it, I think. Really. My mother could have warned us we were going someplace there was a dress code.
     The choir warms up, and I can tell they're going to be satisfied with singing amateurishly, with little to no precision. They won't all rise and then be seated together as though they were one instrument, and they might even sing off-key. They must be the scrub choir, made of walk-ons. I'm afraid my mother with her powerful vibrato might join them and embarrass me again by not blending into her surroundings.
     I'm standing close to her and notice her familiar mother smell is different. She had a moist sweet smell when she was alive, like sugary uncooked biscuits. It's funny the things that you remember. At any rate, the choir had always been a major selling point as she shopped for churches, and I would expect, from an Orthodox choir in Riga, something that sounds more like chanting, with those open fifth chords that are so medieval, as though the space between the do and so had been left purposefully hollow, the mi forcibly removed to let something very old and quite invisible rattle and then echo in the empty chamber. It's imperative that all the voices blend or rather that they hit the notes at the same volume, to let the chord resonate. Perhaps the first-string choir or resident monks are warming up elsewhere, or perhaps my mother's priorities have changed.
     The congregation is quite sparse, having not yet officially congregated. A few people are at prayer. Several people mill around comfortably, chatting across the empty pews. They seem like a friendly people I suppose, and my children and I look enough like Latvians that we could have been related in some previous generation. The branches of our family tree are thick in countries of northeastern Europe—Poland, Germany, Lithuania—though my branch has lived in the middle of the North American continent for generations. Too, there is a familiar kind of sixties hippie culture vibe about some of these particular Latvians—that serious Jesus-period-Dylan hippie culture. If we were back home I would have wagered they were vegan and ate lots of grains and kept sheep for their wool, which they dyed and spun and knitted into the sweaters these men and women were wearing, which seemed quite warm and utterly beautiful. Oh, and they probably had pot luck dinners with tables of homemade rye bread and beets, cabbage soup and potatoes; and drinks made of raspberries and birch buds, bitterwort and peppermint, ginger, valerian, nutmeg and perhaps some artemisia stalks and leaves with their bitter taste of absinthe.
     Because of my ancestry, I am not unaware of eastern European culture. I have a taste for the sweet sauerkraut and gingerbread that appear during the holidays, and I put horseradish sauce on everything.
     And this leads me to recall that there are drums of mustard gas and nuclear waste degrading on the floor of the Baltic Sea, and that fact makes me uncomfortable to be here even though I know there is equal toxicity everywhere. This particular chemical and radioactive waste is left over from the two world wars like excess party favors. What do you do with those things after the party? Northern Europe asked this question after the fever of the cold war broke, and the sky cleared. Just throw them in the trash, they decided. These are the type of facts you pick up in a life, facts that haunt you when you least expect it. I think about the number of nuclear weapons poised to fly from Germany and the Netherlands to Russia, if called upon by some madman, and there are madmen everywhere. Let me tell you.
     When I was a child I imagined the weapons loaded on something like enormous metal slingshots, arranged in a row along the borders in eastern Europe, from Riga in fact, through Belarus to Baba Yar, aimed at a cold industrial Soviet Union peopled by statues of Stalin. I have that picture in my head and have tried to reconcile it with the other picture: of babushkas and sleigh bells and princesses dancing in the pink winter nights of St. Petersburg. They are two separate places for me, though they occupy the same space geographically. I can conjure one without the other, and the residue of one stays clearly where it belongs, no residue of ash appearing suddenly in a fairy tale. When I was a child, my mother would see the mushroom clouds and some kind of glittering death outside the window of our house, and she would hide us underneath the grand piano for protection while my father waited for the ambulance to arrive and take her to the hospital.
     I want to say that it has been a difficult couple of years for me, living between the end of my mother's life and the beginning of my children's. I have never been so exhausted. The dead and one's children demand such very different things, as does one's husband and one's friends. And sometimes I feel there are other unseen demands that float around in the air and don't announce themselves. They just feel like I've left the stove or water on and have left the house, that I've forgotten to close the garage door, or perhaps the sump pump needs to be connected to the electricity on a night we're expecting a heavy rain.
     The interior walls of the church are whitewashed, so the deep carpet and the jewel-toned reds and blues and greens and purples of the stained glass and the icons are more vibrant than you might expect. My previous experience with churches of this sort were gloomier, the lighting consisting of candles and their reflections on gold leaf and centuries of yellowed varnish. The figures in the icons here are less harsh than I'm used to seeing, their backs more the shape of flower petals, their sad eyes not looking directly at you as icon eyes often do. They don't feel as though they're sitting in judgment.
     I recognize a copy of a Rubliev icon with its slashes of lapis blue and the round gold-leaf halos that you want to touch because they look so soft. The softness of gold leaf is much like a baby's skin, as though it's made of ether. I can't take my eyes off the Rubliev, I must admit. It's a rendering of the Trinity, and I can feel my knees wanting to buckle in worship of it, of the thing itself, knowing full well that that feeling could be considered a temptation, if you believed in such things, which I half do and half don't. Perhaps that's been my salvation. The icon is meant to serve as a window or telescope into something, like a rectangle of glass inserted in a house or, more mysteriously, cut out of the fabric of reality like it (reality) is nothing more than tissue, which it may well be, I suppose.
     Over the years, I've learned a thing or two from my strange mother, I'll admit.I fluctuate between feeling awe and creeped out by our similarities. I wanted my babies to stay grounded, like their father, who spends his leisure hours watching Westerns on television and listening to sports radio while he mows the lawn. He loves me but can't follow me when I'm gone like this. I love him and am grateful for the ballast he provides. The world can be dangerous and so, sometimes, can I.
     I find myself longing for water or a hard candy lozenge of some sort. Something sweet or sour, it doesn't matter.
     I scrounge in my coat pocket for a forgotten cough drop or candy and discover something moving in the lining. It seems a tiny beetle has somehow smuggled himself along on this trip, despite international precautions against flora and fauna making such journeys. I'm not sure how he got there, but I let him ride my hand out of the pocket and watch him meander to a spot on my forearm, where he could be a full participant. He could fly, as I believe there are wings under the scarlet shell of his back. My daughter is happy to see him, as though they were previously acquainted, so I transfer the insect to her care, though she is only five years old and the bug is small and very fragile.
     The green glass sconces are really quite lovely, I say, trying to keep things more in the world of princesses for her. They're like lights you might see lighting a path in a pine forest I say, and she nods.
     As you're on your way to see a witch, my mother adds, and my daughter shivers in anticipation of a scary story. I pull her close and try to remember the name of the Russian witch who lives in a house on stilts and breaks her sugary fingers off for children to munch on. They're like those lights I say again, feeling that it's important she understand the difference between the literal and figurative. This too has been my salvation.
     I feel as though the church is an odd choice for my mother. Orthodox Catholicism was too heavy on magic for her earlier tastes, and the smell of incense was stronger than the lilies at her funeral. We had been to an Eastern Orthodox church before, and I knew the services could last for hours, with the priest disappearing behind screens now and then like a magician and people going outside to the front steps for a smoke when they felt like it. Baptisms were particularly long, the baby's head emerging from the water, glistening with the oil that floated on top of the water in the sacristy. I remember when my children were infants, how soft their skin was, like they were made of air. Oh yes, I realize I'm obsessed today with the softness and fragility of the human container, the water balloon that holds everything that's precious in the universe only to pop and bleed. There are days I can't bear this knowledge.
     My mother sits down next to a couple of women about the age she was the last time I saw her, which was about the age I am now. This disturbs me a little, since I was always so much younger than she was. I don't think there's room on the pew next to her for me and for the children, so I take a seat behind her, a little to the right. My children sit beside me. Fragile, trusting.
     Once we sit down, my daughter elaborating the witch story to the beetle on her hand, my son deep in his own thoughts, I become almost reconciled to the fact that my mother had brought us here. I want very much for my children to find a religion that helps them express, or at least feel okay about, whatever strange and secret thoughts they have about this world I've brought them into. I myself certainly don't have anything enlightening to tell them. I just want them to be happy in spite of the fact I hadn't thought enough about the actual ramifications of giving birth to them. What had I been thinking when I dreamed of baby skin and eyelashes, of mobiles and satin blankets?
     My son, in particular, at times feels tentatively grounded. I remembered being his age. You need something to hold on to as you work your way through this odd existence with all its twists and turns and waking and sleeping and its pain and suffering and suddenly overpowering joys. He was always very anti-religion, or rather, apathetic about it all, and I didn't know where else to tell him to look for companions who might at least share his belief that there's something more to the world than what you can see and who might at least come to the conclusion that whatever that other thing is, it has his best interests at heart. Because it's quite possible that if that other thing exists, it doesn't have anyone's best interests at heart other than its own entertainment. Did you know, for instance, that the Luna moth, that gorgeous celadon creature, is born without any digestive system whatsoever? It is born with only eight hours worth of energy in its cells and within that time it has to fly and mate before it dies. Who or what power thought this was a good idea? Hey, let's make one of the most hauntingly beautiful and papery things in the world, I can hear The Maker saying to his angels, and let it loose without any way to survive other than making more beautiful things just like it. Why didn't anyone stop him or at least get him to make an adjustment so the moth didn't suffer at the end? Just turn off the lightswitch. That would have been enough.
     Anyway, once, in middle school, my son listened to a religious rock album accidentally—it was disguised with an artfully designed German expressionist-type cover, and the lyrics weren't awful. He listened to it for a week, digging it, he said, before he realized it was a Christian band. It made me feel oddly better about myself, he told me.
     My mother was also a seeker, and had followed some demons, both corporeal and hallucinatory, into several religious systems. Fortunately and sadly I suppose, she had enough decency and human kindness and wonky neurotransmitters that she would end up, when on this path, in a mental hospital instead of goosestepping her way into a cultural Nazi-type mass delusion or suicidal cult. She was a confused and scrambled human being, but she never caused the type of harm whole groups of people can cause when they lose their collective minds. And she was too flighty to stay with any kind of cult leader; though with more confidence, she could have been one herself. She had a bit of Joan of Arc about her, a Theresa of Avila thing, and like them, she could have feasted on pure air for months. Humility saved her from that I think. She was a polite Midwestern woman more than anything, though at times she believed she was the one true bride of the Suffering One.
     Anyway, my son seems interested and comfortable with the place my mother has brought us, but not too interested. I am relieved to see that. A nice balance, I think. A community, a bit of ritual, a mix of young and old, a touch of mystery. Not close enough to the fire to get burned. My daughter sits between us chattering to the beetle, a baby still in all the ways that matter.
     Outside the church, to the east of Latvia, is all of Russia. It presses against the windows. I feel oddly comforted by the lingering presence of Chekhov, the crystals in Dr. Zhivago's beard, the music of Stravinsky. Unfortunately, I can also sense the murdered royal children watching, Stalin looming, the gulags, the cold wind over the Siberian steppes. And to the west, that demon Hitler.
     My mother had come back from the dead to lead her sweet family into this place of safety to try to comfort us perhaps. I'm sure she feels something dangerous once again brewing in the air. The incense here is spice-like, the congregants are kind and welcoming. My dark-haired daughter is wearing a princess dress. When we'd entered the church, she twirled up and down the aisles in her tulle and satin. I thought of the Romanovs, and my arms ached to hold her close to me. Don't ever leave this place, I want to say to her, now that you've arrived. You have no idea what lies outside of it.
     Perhaps my mother aches to hold me still? I would hardly let her when she was alive. Oh, how hard it is to breathe sometimes when love enters you like this.
     After the service, which is so informal that it's quite impossible to know when it began or when it ended, we mill around some more. Oh my mother, how I want to tell her how sorry I am that I didn't let her know I loved her when she was still alive. She only knew how much I feared her. Her hair was silver then and her skin had a kind of moist glow to it and her eyes were a kind of blue that never occurs in anything but eyes. When she was alive, I had to stay a certain distance away from her. I thought that what she had, mortality in fact, was catching, that I would end up in a hospital for consumptives and mad women with wild silver hair and clouded lungs.
     And still she has come into my dreams in all her generosity, has brought us all the way to Riga to a church with green glass lanterns and spiced smoke to say that we could find a refuge if we needed it. And oh, it sounds odd and probably discordant, bringing it up so late in the story like this, but my children and I are so conscious of that small insect we seemed to have brought with us into the dream world. It's a humble insect but we are very fond of him. The white walled sanctuary has pine floors and the floors have the tiniest cracks between each board. As the children and I shake hands with the other congregants after the service is over, as everyone begins to leave, and the place begins to feel—how can I explain this—perhaps more Greek than Russian Orthodox, more minimal, with the after taste of honey and lamb, of olive oil, of sunlight instead of the bitter cold, the beetle—now our beloved one—walks from my daughter's arm to the pew and then along the backs and makes his way to the floor. At this point each of us loves that creature so much it hurts, and we watch him as he stutters along the floor boards. He looks happy, but I know his life is tenuous. I want to sweep him back up into whatever we'd brought him in with, but he hadn't been there in our consciousness when we came in from the street. We hadn't known he existed until he was here in the middle of this story, with no prologue or introduction or former relationship to any one of us, just deep unearned and inexplicable affection.
     And at that point my mother disappeared again, as she always had, and my children circled the room in a kind of bliss and our pet, our dear pet, slid between two floorboards. Who knows what waited for him underneath the floor of the sanctuary, outside in the streets of Riga? He disappeared as suddenly and unexpectedly as he'd come, our sweet sweet boy.
     It is my daughter who will return, years later and much older than when her grandmother led her here. She will have children of her own then and suddenly, in the middle of a happy marriage she will remember something she'd lost. She will be swept up in the middle of something, an overpowering love affair, perhaps, to a man she thought the universe had prepared for her before her birth. She will believe this so strongly, as will the man, that she feels no one could have possibly felt this way before. She catches a glimpse of someone with hair like his, or eyes, or something like his scent and she will disappear into a kind of never-before-felt bliss, both spiritual and profoundly physical. She will consider leaving the sweet safe life that she has made for something not quite real. If she is the Luna moth at that moment, so be it, she will think. She will return to Riga, feeling as though she'd been there but not quite remembering, and she will spend her time looking for something very small but necessary, the size perhaps of a mustard seed, that she once had loved and then somehow misplaced. Or maybe it's me, her mother, who will take her there in a dream, to tell her the madness will be over soon, and that she, like I had, will survive it.





"In Riga" had its genesis in a trip my daughter took, while in college, to study the Orthodox Church in Latvia and Lithuania. Her photos of Riga merged with my own fascination with Russian language, history, and literature, and made their way into my dreams. I began and finished the story before the invasion of Ukraine.