Smilšu māte, mother of sands—how I wish I had never heard that name, that I had never learned what waits on the far shore of that river we must cross upon dying. But I have, and I did, and I must share what I witnessed with you, my closest friends.
Last September, I received a letter from the Countess of —, whom I had known as a girl. Although as children we had often played together, I had not heard from her in fifteen years, and was much amazed that she remembered me—let alone that she had thought to send me a letter.
My dearest Clara, the letter began, and went on at some length about the rigours of life amidst the landed gentry which I, in my rented room in gloomy Stepney, cared little to read. Towards the end, though, a section riveted my eyes:
In short, I find myself bereft of the friendship we shared in our youth, and should like nothing more than to renew it. It would grant my fondest hope should you accompany me to my native Riga to visit my mother, who has taken ill.
The letter was signed with my old friend’s given name of Ilze. I laughed and shook my head, certain I was the recipient of a passing aristocratic fancy, and nothing more.
A full month passed before I was surprised by a knocking at my door. I opened it, steeling myself to be set upon by some creditor, and met with Ilze’s smiling face.
“You did not return my letter,” she admonished, “but it does not matter. I have everything prepared.”
I sputtered my protests—I had work to do; my creditors would never let me rest—but they fell on deaf ears. Ilze spirited me down the stairs to a waiting carriage, where she plied me with stories of her life. Such was her enthusiasm that I could not so much as speak, let alone request that she return me to my home. Truth be told, I did not try too hard, for while I still felt my old friend would discard me so soon as she grew bored, I had resolved to enjoy the unexpected respite from my worries.
We stopped for the evening in the seaside town of Southend, where Ilze insisted on a shared room at a common inn. I considered it odd that we had not departed by boat from London, and that she had no servants with her; her insistence on sharing a room was doubly strange. But I did not speak of it.
That evening as the sun set, Ilze suddenly paled and rushed me from the inn’s dining hall to the room we were to share. I asked what was wrong, but she would say only Smilšu māte—the words croaked out from between her lips like a curse and a prayer all at once.
In our quarters, she walked all around with a candle, thrusting it here and there until the shadows danced. At last she placed the candle on the sill, locked the door, and collapsed into bed, sobbing.
I tried to get some sensible response from her, but it was futile. Growing weary myself, I reached for the candle and blew it out, thinking to sleep. But as the light guttered away into night’s inky blackness, I saw as clear as day a woman standing over my companion, her eyes pooled shadows in her pinched, drawn face.
My heart hammered in my ears; I scarcely dared breathe, so fearful was I. At length, enough moonlight filtered through the window for me to see the woman was gone. Nonetheless, I could not calm myself, and lay wakeful all through the long night, with only Ilze’s hiccoughing sobs for company.
The next morning, we found no sign of the woman, only a small heap of dull, brownish-grey sand. Ilze quaked when she saw this, and quickly scattered it, muttering something in her native tongue, though she would not say why or what.
“It is bad luck to speak of such things,” she told me.
“Smilšu māte?” I asked. “What does it mean?”
But Ilze only shook her head, and would say no more.
The rest of our trip passed uneventfully. We went by ship to Amsterdam, and from that squat, bustling port travelled again by carriage. Neither in our cabin nor in any of the inns where we stayed did I again see the woman, though on occasion we found small heaps of sand, which Ilze dealt with in the manner of the first.
We arrived in Riga, the heart of old Livonia, on the first of November. You who have never visited that place will know nothing of its cobbled streets. It will mean nothing to you if I speak of the way the stately Daugava flows past the city’s many spires, its frigid waters surprisingly strong.
Ilze’s mother lived in a narrow three-storey house painted a delicate green. Huddled amidst more expansive buildings, it seemed to cling to the edge of the cobblestones, afraid of losing its place. Ilze clapped at the door and entered without waiting for a response, and I followed her reluctantly, for the building birthed in me a nameless unease.
Inside, the walls pressed in on me. If Ilze felt anything, however, she did not show it. She strode from room to room on the ground floor, calling out in her native language, and did not seem to mind when there was no response.
“Mama must be out,” she said with a smile. “Come; I shall show you the sights of the town.”
But no sooner had we set out that her face took on its familiar melancholy cast. She became listless, and offered no commentary as we strolled from sight to sight, across age-worn bridges and along the banks of the Daugava. I saw a pleasure steamer plying the waters, festooned with flags and filled with travellers. Marvelling at its existence in this antique place, I mentioned that I should like to try it. But, as ever, Ilze would not be drawn out, and I heard no word from her until we returned to her mother’s home, the sun pinking the sky.
A light flickered in the ground floor window, and my earlier unease returned. I found myself looking for sand as Ilze led me inside, and my heart’s blood thrummed in my ears as it had that night when I saw the shadow-pooled woman.
Reclining in a chaise lounge was a woman I had never seen before, but who was clearly Ilze’s mother: she had the same rich brown hair, the same slightly square face, and the set of her eyes somehow spoke to me, pulling me along despite myself.
“You are late,” she said, in slightly accented English. “I had started to fear you would not arrive.”
“Oh, mother,” Ilze said. “Of course I had to come when I heard you were sick.”
“Ha! A year ago and more I sent that letter. A strange form of concern you show me, daughter, when you tarry for so long, and bring an uninvited guest.”
Even behind Ilze, I could see her skin flush. “I had pressing business to attend to,” she said. “After you sold me to the Count in marriage, my life has not been my own. And it is so remote here that travel alone is—”
“Remote! You speak this way of your native land? I should never have sent you to England, no matter the prize. You—”
Ilze snapped in her native tongue, and her mother responded in kind. Their voices grew louder as they argued, and, not wanting to intrude, I stepped into the next room, where tables were laid out with an astounding feast. Rolls, cheese, and butter by the bowlful; fine cuts of roast and fowl; delicacies I could not name. Balls of dough adorned with hemp seed filled a plate next to pastries overflowing with a thick, white cream.
Where had it all come from, I wondered. I had seen no servants in the house. I popped a pastry into my mouth. Almond paste in the cream, I thought, or something like it—sweet almost to bitterness. Still, I had not eaten in some time. I took another.
At length, the shouting in the next room subsided, and Ilze and her mother entered, their arms entwined for all the world as though they had not just been engaged in a fight of the most intimate sort.
“Your pardon, Clara, dearest,” Ilze said. “In this part of the world, we believe it better to air our emotions.”
“It is true,” her mother said, ushering me into one of the chairs, “no matter what part of the world you find yourself in. You English would be more agreeable did you not bottle up your feelings so. Now sit, and we will show you another of our customs: the feast of the dead.”
“All this is for the dead?” The pastries in my stomach heavy as rocks.
Ilze laughed. “Of course not. But it is tradition to give them the first morsel, and the first draught of mead.”
“Especially tonight,” her mother added, “for on the night after Simjudas, the dead can return to wreak justice on those who offend them.” And with a light, tinkling laughter, she poured a splash of alcohol into the fireplace, following it with one of the dough balls.
My tongue burned; I only hoped the colour did not spread to my cheeks. Neither Ilze nor her mother seemed to notice. Each piled her plate high with food and filled her cup with mead. Reluctantly, I did the same, supposing there was no harm in my inadvertent breaking of their custom so long as they did not know it.
We ate in silence for a time, until, casting around for some topic of conversation, I said to Ilze’s mother: “I am glad to see, Mrs. —, that you have regained your health.”
The older woman’s eyes darkened, and I cursed myself. Why had I brought up the very thing which had caused her and Ilze to erupt earlier?
But after a moment, the older woman smiled and said, “I will tell you how it came about.”
And with that she launched into a story that I myself would not believe, were it not for what happened after.
Last year (Ilze’s mother said), I caught a coughing sickness. The doctors were unable to cure me, and the prayers of a local priest failed as well. On the 29th of September, I began to cough blood. (“The day is Saint Michael’s,” Ilze whispered. “The start of the month of the dead.”)
Despairing, I walked to the shores of the Daugava. As I crossed one of the river’s bridges, a cold wind overtook me and I fell into a coughing fit so violent that my knees went weak. When I recovered, so much blood covered my handkerchief that I resolved to end my life there and then. I leapt into the river, which drew me down into its cold, smothering embrace.
I awoke on a shore I had never before seen: in place of the city were trees of oak and linden, flanked in the distance by rolling hills of a sandy, yellow-grey soil. I was bone wet and shivering, and next to me stood a woman with eyes the colour of shadow.
“You have forsaken the traditions,” she said to me. “You sent your only daughter to an uncaring land, and your ancestors go hungry.”
Her voice was like grit: fine and sharp and hard, impossible to shake free.
“What should I do then, Mother,” I asked, shivering from more than damp—for I knew then who she was, and where I had found myself, “to gain your forgiveness?”
“Bring her back,” she said. “I will take care of the rest.”
With that, she was gone. I staggered to my feet and walked upstream, thinking to return to Riga. When at last I came upon a town, however, it was not my home, but a clump of simple dwellings surrounded by a wall of stakes as thick as trees. The townspeople seemed unable to hear me, and would not meet my eyes…
At that, Ilze’s mother stopped talking, lost, it seemed, in reminiscence. Ilze, who had grown progressively paler throughout the recounting, showed no sign of talking.
My own throat dry as parchment, I took a swallow of mead. “What then?”
Ilze’s mother looked at me, and her face melted away, replaced by that of the woman I had seen over Ilze’s bed that first night of our journey.
“Why then, of course,” said the Mother of Sands, “she died.” Her voice was just as Ilze’s mother had described it.
Before I could react, the candles guttered out and the dark swarmed in with an inhuman shriek. The rest of that night was a blur, all shadow and terror and ash.
In the morning, Ilze and I awoke in our chairs in the banquet room, the tables empty save a patina of dust. Search as we might, the two of us could find no evidence whatsoever that anyone lived in the house. All we found was a heap of yellow-grey sand in the front waiting room, where Ilze’s mother had greeted us.
We passed some time huddled together. I was of the opinion that the night’s events had been hallucinations brought on, perhaps, by the fatigue of our journey. Ilze, contrarily, believed that we had seen her mother’s ghost—that all of it was true, and that Smilšu māte, the Mother of Sands, had granted her passage on the night of the feast to visit her absent daughter and take her to that other land by force.
“But you are here with me,” I said, “alive.”
Ilze only shook her head and sank once more into gloom.
“Come,” I said. “I will show us both the truth of life.” For I felt a need to be among people.
Ilze allowed me to drag her to the offices of the steamer I had seen the day before. Looking back, I cannot recall what moved me to think that a visit to the river—whence her mother claimed to have died—would take Ilze’s mind off the previous night’s occurrence. Perhaps it was the steamer itself, the only thing in that city which looked to the future instead of the past. Perhaps some stronger, stranger power was at work.
Whatever the reason, in short order we were aboard the little ship’s deck. The steamer was just as I had imagined it: bursting with the energy of a new era, fuelled by the powers of men turned to gods. Gliding past the banks of that provincial land suffused me with optimistic health, but all Ilze cared to do was stand and look into the waters of the river. I am afraid I must tell you I left her there, determined that I, at least, would find pleasure in the day’s outing.
But we had been out barely half an hour when the boat began to shudder and the deck pitched to one side with a crack and roaring boom. There was another jolt, the air filled with screams, and then the water hit me with a slap of icy cold.
I resigned myself to death, but just before blackness took me, a surge of strength burst through in my limbs; a sudden passion rose in my heart. I would not die here, I resolved—not today! I broke the surface and pushed to the river’s edge with surprising ease, shivering in my thin travelling clothes. The river’s surface was crowded with boats and men and ropes—a rescue, I thought, but too late, too late for poor Ilze and the rest.
I watched until evening, cold though I was, hoping they would stumble across some survivor—that they would pull my old friend from the water still pink and full of breath.
They found no one. As the rescuers returned to the shore, I asked what had happened, but none answered, lost perhaps in melancholy thoughts of their own. And though I waited by that shore until the moon came full in the sky, I never again saw any sign of Ilze.
Shuddering to think that I had nearly shared her fate, and steadfastly eschewing any thoughts of Smilšu māte or Ilze’s mother’s tale, I left Riga behind me and set off for England.
It was a long, cold journey home, my friends. Without Ilze, I could not afford a carriage or an inn; I dragged myself along the continent’s highways, snatching fitful bouts of sleep under trees, in bushes—anywhere I might lie unseen. At first I attempted to beg, but it was as though none could see me. Perhaps it was my lack of any language save English, I thought, or the misery writ in my eyes.
I do not remember what I ate, nor where or how I drank, but I crossed that whole lonely land, and the choppy seas to England. I did these things for you, my dearest friends, for I could not rest until I told you what happened. But now I can delude myself no longer—Smilšu māte calls, and I must go.
For I did not survive the steamer’s wreck, but drowned in the cold, stately waters of the Dagauva along with the Countess of —, all those many miles from home.
But do not despair.
Though I am leaving you, whom I have just rejoined, we shall meet again. All who live must cross that river’s waters, must die and live again on its distant shore. And if ever you see sand in your chambers, or the face of a woman with eyes shadow-shrouded, know that I shall see you soon.
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