Transformation

Alicia Slaughter
WHAT THE CROW PROMISED


Mikelis Pankoks was a fisherman and sculptor, wood-carver, by God’s will, as he never studied. He fought for Latvia’s freedom from 1919 to 1921 and received military training. He had only an elementary school education. He was also a philosopher. He had a hard time conforming to his society. His deep attachment to the earth and his homeland made it hard for him to leave. When he was 30 years old, he accepted the challenge of his destiny and asked only one thing.

Men in a rowboat, pitched against the waves; girls in midsummer wreaths; Mikelis Pankoks sat on the shore and asked, setting his rifle aside, what is my destiny? The wind blew sand into the weave of his wool trousers, making the green wool gleam, heavy with jeweled white dust. He could go back to sea himself, draw the herring up in nets, his hands would swell from salt water and the frozen ropes. He recalled the textbook from school, Sloviy Russkoye, the alien Russian words, sea, wood, wind. What was his destiny? “To enjoy happiness, sweet and fermented, which you must cut from your soul, and that can only be done in an artistic place.”

The place of happiness. Mikelis Pankoks, having left his rifle on the sand, walked down the street in his free city. The villas of the Germans looked empty, but not all of them could be. A hooded crow hopped to the top of a pale-blue pavilion. This neighborhood, Mikelis Pankoks, is not for the likes of you, a policeman will stop you soon to ask your business, hero of the new republic or not. Every country inherits its policemen from the old rulers.

Where in a man’s soul dwells happiness, and how can it be carved free? Mikelis Pankoks felt the old laughter in his chest, the exaltation he couldn’t trust. Be careful, his mother would say, you know how you will end up crying after this. A girl garlanded in roses, a mother looking with pity at the face of her son, they dwelt in the place of happiness which only he could carve free. Now, disoriented by the curving streets of the neighborhood, he faced the sea again, the splintered wreck of a bathing cabin at his feet. A mile up the shore, he’d find the fishing boat Lilit, his mate Janis. He could set out, pull the herring from the sea, thicken his hands until they were too stiff to carve anything besides crude dolls for children. Mikelis Pankoks held his hands beneath the whispering sand as one holds them under water.

The room which he rented was more spacious, with a higher sooty ceiling, than in his father’s house.

His father’s hut, its low sooty ceiling, his mother and sisters bare legs red in spring from the cold water, taking the cows out to pasture, his brothers laughing with their father, pouring out the winter’s last vodka. The milk here tastes salty, the cheese and butter taste of seagrass and charcoal. Winter nights begin almost as soon as the sun rises, the snow and ice stained brown with mud and manure right up to the window, the door changed on its hinges depending on the season, to open in or out. His father calm on a stump in the autumn wind, under an early-autumn moon, smoke from his pipe streaming sideways in the moonlit breeze, leaves rattling the last music of the warm months, mosquitoes stilled by the first frost. Soot choking him, Mikelis Pankoks, not knowing what the trouble was, the low sooty ceiling, his mother’s linen dowry the only white thing in the midsummer dawn, a mug of porter, the low ceiling, a man who carves needs light and air, room to make mistakes, some spaciousness to knock bits loose as if from his own flesh. A sensitive child among people who had no words to describe a sensitive child, no words to ask, is it possible to drive a man mad by beating him when he is a boy, and how many times must one beat him to drive him mad? Art by Mikelis Pankoks is both active and exciting. His art is defiant, tangible, searching, and doubtful.

The times suggested – and here we are in the time, the European reality of epochs and fashions – that the wood should contain symbolic women, garlanded, eyes lifted to the sky, the Eleusinian mysteries purified. If there is a boat on the ocean, the ocean is an obstacle or crucible, the bird the spirit, not of the church, which he doubted, nor of the cities of square cobblestones and finials diffused along the radial arms of a garden plan, not vitality in a basic sense but something wrought like his own carvings. This is how we are to remake man, take him from the hut and its sooty ceiling, Mothers, piety, salt-thickened fingers, policemen suspiciously watching the man with the wide eyes of a boy and the cloth cap of a worker. All wood has its burls, its knots and grains, but Mikelis Pankoks felt his way along and found a deeper pattern, a way for the wood to overcome its own twisted nature. A father and son, one protecting and tending his living nets, growing like an alien species in the wrack, one looking out to sea for the next thing, for the matter or the pattern of his own living, pebbles of phosphorous, false amber that flames up at the touch of a match.

Mikelis Pankoks cultivated in himself a great love of all living things. He searched and found a tragic cause in his life. He had a hard life between his first exhibition in August, 1925 in Nica, and his last in Latvia, in December 1943 in Liepaja’s museum, with 32 exhibitions in other Latvian cities. He has left many hundreds of sculptures, making them one of the biggest parts of Mikelis Pankoks art collection. All these sculptures are in Liepaja’s History and Art Museum.

Ancient bracelets pulled from the mud, inkpots from the Napoleonic time, the city’s charter with emblems and medallions hanging from waxed twine. In the hallways, men in stiff coats once talked of national renewal, the beach was closed to locals. They shot the Jews there, and the Gypsies, transforming Latvia through blood. If the Russians break through, he will go, or perhaps before; his life has been hard, he has found his tragic purpose. The woodcarver wanders the forest, as in a poem by Schiller, the material of his craft denied him by the trees’ insistence upon living, pushing out leaves and running the sap along the pulpy grain. When you most need the key, the magical bird said, it will appear; all his life he longs for the fulfillment of the vow until the day he looks down and sees the chisel in his own hands. He has paused in his work as the late-May sun sets on the horizon, he is unmindful of the time yet suddenly aware that he has in his hands everything he needs. The bird kept its word, the shadow of the chisel describes the shape of a key, the starlings and the orioles send single notes of farewell into the thickening night.

In the autumn of 1944 began Mikelis Pankoks’s life as a displaced person. Many people thought that he had died. The truth about his whereabouts was only discovered 50 years later. In the summer of 1992 news came to Latvia that Mikelis Pankoks lived for many years in exile.

In the autumn of 1944 continued humanity’s life as a displaced person. The tanks left in their path mud and bits of shattered dishes and twisted railroad tracks. The spilled fuel of all the nationalisms afire, gathered into torn hands, sustained a thousand eternal flames to the fallen. On the best days: the warmth and touch of a body nearby, a good companion in the blasted foundations, ordinary life beneath the ghosts of a sooty ceiling, defiance and help. On the worst days: the body in ether, living up to the ideal, a cast-steel hammer head on a homemade shaft, counterweight to the distant storms of the Baltic. Fragrant curls of wood fall to the sand, scatter ahead of the storm, the breaking clouds, the squeak of the swallows, terns, the cry of the kestrel. In the summer of 1992 Latvia was free of its Soviet rulers, with little idea of what form its nation would take after so many years on the edge of an empire, and at that time came word that the carver thought lost in the war, shot by enemies or felled by disease, had rusticated all those decades outside the stagnant and closed city where his friends and family were deported ahead of the Baltic fleet.

In the autumn of 1944, Mikelis Pankoks fled from Latvia. At first he fled to Germany, then to Austria. On May 17, 1951, he entered the hospital for mental diseases in Cure. He lived there for the remaining years of his life. He worked in the hospital kitchen and was a courier. A doctor who was his friend took care of him. He worked and made a few but exalted works of art.

Better to flee, old soldier. Your key will be held in trust. When you need it most, it will appear. For years, before words of friendship made the chisel safe to use, Mikelis Pankos never looked down. He stared at the horizon of his own torment, his alert vulnerable eyes fixed skyward. Some days the sky turned the watery shade of the Baltic, and under the winds rushing down the peaks of the Alps, Mikelis Pankoks could detect the whisper of blowing sand, a rock heap dispersed into particles and into the air, shore grasses and terns, the distant groan of a mechanical crane and cargo. A father and son, fishbodies heaving with uncertainty and the long string of days, beatings, unfeed breath and winter’s half-pay, sailor’s tea and moldy rusks. Walk side-by-side down the long white sand. The doctor arranged his books on the shelf. Some days, Mikelis Pankoks said, it feels as if all my fellows are mad, searching for that which never appears.

He died on January 8, 1983. His place of burial is the Cure city cemetery.

Once, long ago, in a country now lost between the great Hill of the Frogs and a bookshelf made of moss, lived a young man, the foolish younger brother of a fisherman, a woodcarver and a philosopher. One day, conscription battalions came and shaved the heads of all the young men in the town, taking the four brothers away to be soldiers. They fought the enemies of the land. The fish and the trees went unmolested, no wise ideas came to mind, and the neighbors forgot how to laugh at foolish ones. At last the commander said, “Boys, the land is now free of its enemies, by the grace of God. Take these coins and return to your home.” The fisherman, the woodcarver and the philosopher all by this time felt more like soldiers than anything else, and sat by the side of the road to consider their options. What was their destiny, why did the grass and the trees and the crow pecking at spilled grain by a hayrick seem so indifferent to them? “We’ll see what the fool has to say, fool though he is,” the philosopher said, but when they turned to find him, their brother had buried himself far beneath the sand and lay quietly, waiting for the waves to pass over him, for the trees to sink roots through his ribs.

In 1977, his works were exhibited in Switzerland in the H.G. Gredinger Art Gallery in Cure. In 1988, his works were exhibited in Zidomma Art Center in Pfefinona, in 1991 in the Bindner Art Museum in Cure, and as a “Collection des Art Brut” in Lausanne. Mikelis Pankoks’s works are kept in two museums in Switzerland as well as in private collections.

For your protection, the crow said to the three brothers, all of them surprised at the departure of the fool, who never before had strayed from their side, I will give you a talisman. You must choose between three tools: a chisel that will never lose its sharp edge, break or be lost, a fishhook that will always catch the best and most valuable creatures of the sea, or the key that will unlock your destiny. Give us the chisel, the philosopher said. Are you sure, asked the crow, it is a very ordinary chisel, otherwise. The fishhook will make you rich men, and the key will make you wise; with your catch and your great influence you may buy all the chisels you like and sit outside your manor carving in the summer twilight as your wealth is increased by other hands. The day may come when you wish you had chosen the key, the crow said. When we need it, the fisherman said, pouring out another glass of vodka, you’ll bring it to us, or else. Beneath the sand their brother sighed, a great breath of sadness and the birch trees trembled along the fringe of the horizon.

When he was young, he wrote in his diary: “I see victory when I leave myself and become a non-existent strength in my work. I become lost in thought and time has no power over me.

The discharged soldiers, itching in their green wool uniforms, bitten by the lice of countless atrocities, sat under the wheeling carrion crows of sunset. The woodcarver at last picked up a piece of cured linden and began to fashion a chain with his new tool, which cut and cut and never became dull. The other two got bored and walked on, and he sat, carving and lost in his work. Time had no power over him. The spring night grew cold, but his hands stayed warm, and even seemed to gain in warmth from the tool and the slowly growing chain that curled around his waist. He felt the strength of his hands transform into a vibration, and intelligence without strain. The terrible power of time drifted with the sand, over the pebbles and the flaming bits of resin, it shivered in the watery moonlight. His fisherman brother brooded over a glass of sailor’s tea; his philosopher brother ran mad and lamented his country’s decadence. One day they would meet, the fisherman, the woodcarver and the philosopher, and murder a family of gypsies on the sand.

In his face, you could not see conceit, he was a very simple man. Behind this simple face he was impulsive. His voice was not pretentious. When his voice carried far, you could hear the rich sound of his soul.

Mikelis Pankoks sat in the workroom, in his madhouse, and listened for the sound of guns in the distance. Despite the danger, he would flee tonight, across fields, hidden by the early-spring mist floating above the rye shoots, a few remaining cows lying flat like sphinxes, hip-bones jutting with hunger. Four harvests now, the farmers were afraid of the guns and the mines and hadn’t brought in enough hay to feed their stock through the winter. Some of the farmers were taken as hostages and shot, by the Germans, by the partisans of both sides. The Russians were in Bialystok, they were advancing on Talsi. Go, brother, while you can, his friends said, pitying him his confusion and inability to carve or even sit for many minutes at a time.

Mikelis Pankoks crouched by a ditch, watching the wagtails flirt and scatter. With his workman’s clothes and hard hands slashed and scarred by years of handling wood and sharp tools, he avoided the kinds of questions that would send the blood to his face, reveal his vulnerability. The man’s nearly an idiot, the Russian troops in white coats concluded at one roadblock after another, releasing him with a couple of blows, handing him a small glass of medicine and locking the door behind him. One of them impounded his chisel and the smaller knives and awls he had hidden behind his workbench, and after that the beauty of the apple orchards seemed like an insult, the white blossoms. His family reappeared in the form of hooded crows, fat with carrion. Let’s go find our lost fool, to the lands of mountains and misery, they said, we will join you, brother, in the lands of stone. At their back, fringed horizons, tiny winter-starved birch trees, white sand that murmured his sickness and a million others, unheeded.

 

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LITQUAKE

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