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In the Shadow of Rooster Hill, by Osvalds Zebris

Day One: Redemption

 

A stooping, thickset old man strode with wide steps from the side of the Dvinsk railway track. His somewhat oversized head bent, panting heavily and irregularly, he crossed the splendid square of the new station, then the street – the hard snow, packed down by the many passers-by, crunched under the soles of his brown boots. The man stopped, raised his tired and sunken eyes toward the windows of the Bellevue Hotel glittering in the afternoon twilight and, his head drooping down, continued his hurried walk along Maria Street. A few spiteful locks of brown hair pushed out from under the edges of his hat, swaying to the rhythm of his nervous step, his thick moustache frozen under his nose. People in groups thronged the area where Elizabeth Street and Suvorov Street met, some laughing in a carefree manner, while others were calmly leaving Wöhrmann Park; one could hear more men’s voices a bit more, as the ladies buried themselves in their furs and coat collars. The mood before Christmas could be felt in Riga this year as well, even though the gloomy thoughts still dwelled in many – a bitterness that was brought by the last days of 1906, like wine turned into vinegar, with people’s hopes replaced by a feeling of deep disillusionment. Today’s issue of the newspaper Balss[1] read: ‘There is so much hatred, misery and bleak, ominous clouds all around, that no one can ever believe in any good news. Nor do we have any ray of hope shining upon us from the future.’

 

Having crossed Alexander Boulevard, the old man stopped near a low-lying fence that encircled the impressive walls of the Orthodox cathedral and watched the bustle of the Christmas market on Esplanade Square. His clothing was too thin, and as evening approached, the cold became ever more biting. He was shivering and quickly scanning the crowds of people in the broad market square. After going through the gates that were slightly open, he looked to the right to the bell tower and, without making the sign of the cross, slid along the cathedral wall like a shadow. He wasn’t seen from the side of the brightly lit-up fair grounds – the man’s dark figure had almost vanished in one of the recesses in the cathedral wall. Several sleighs had already stopped again, the gentlemen offered their gloved hands to the ladies, and lifted out children of various ages. The children rushed off in the direction of the decorated Christmas tree and tables laden with candy. The little ones laughed cheerfully, and swarmed around the sweet-smelling waffles and huts decorated with shiny ribbons where the black eyes of teddy bears and dolls twinkled in the glow of the electric bulbs. The old man’s glance was also lit up for a moment, as it closely followed the new arrivals to a remote shop where, at a wishing well, they met a few others. His observant eyes made out a shabby wooden horse of a faded red colour and a short man in charge of the carousel who, having received his last two passengers, began to walk slowly in a circle, gradually quickening the pace. A small girl burst out laughing, her little glove beckoning. As the horses gathered speed, the old man’s felt boots broke into a light trot.

 

[1] “The Voice”, a newspaper published from 1878 to 1907 in Riga.

 

Translation: Jayde Will

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