Kristiina Ehin's quirky voice takes each story directly from the dream state, at times stubborn and resistant, at other times masochistically compliant. Ehin offers up modern folktales in which the very nature of our human identity is at stake-rampant with images and archetypes both new and old, and mediated by the abrupt changes we can only experience in dreams

Kristiina Ehin, Walker on Water, Trans. by Ilmar Lehtpere, Unnamed Press, 2015.
story Patterns

A woman cultivates a knack for walking on water, but is undermined by her husband's brain, which he removes each night when he returns home from work; a couple overcomes the irksome mischief of the gods; a skeptical dragon wonders what sex is all about: this is the world of Kristiina Ehin. From the 2007 British Poetry Society Popescu prize winner for European poetry in translation: a series of comic, surreal adventures. Kristiina Ehin's quirky voice takes each story directly from the dream state, at times stubborn and resistant, at other times masochistically compliant. Ehin offers up modern folktales in which the very nature of our human identity is at stake-rampant with images and archetypes both new and old, and mediated by the abrupt changes we can only experience in dreams. KRISTIINA EHIN is a highly acclaimed performer of her poetry, prose and drama in Estonian as well as English. This is her first book of stories to be published in the U.S. In her native Estonia, she has published six volumes of poetry, three books of short stories and a retelling of South-Estonian folk tales. She has written plays, as well as poetic radio broadcasts. She has won Estonia's most prestigious poetry prize for Kaitseala-a book of poems and journal entries written during a year spent living as a nature reserve warden on an otherwise uninhabited island off Estonia's north coast. In the UK, she has published six translated books of poetry and three of prose.

"The pages drip in rich images and complex emotions in Kristiina Ehin's wildly imaginative and surrealistic collection WALKER ON WATER. It's Etgar Keret meets Aimee Bender meets Michael Cisco meets Aesop. It's three-headed twins, a woman who inadvertently bites the arms off her husbands, and a Life Story who has a pesky Brain's Monkey. It's a wholly original and revolutionary read."—Paul Tremblay

"Sharp, jarring, and darkly funny, the stories in WALKER ON WATER move seamlessly and defiantly between the real and the surreal, reinventing folklore, redefining fiction, and daringly reexamining relationships."—Susan Steinberg
 There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither a criticism, nor the identification of a flaw is that Walker on Water is an unusual book that pushes boundaries, and the readers it would most appeal to are vastly different. This book is for those who like their stories very brief, abstracted, non-linear, without traditional character or plot, and for those to whom fabulism appeals, those who want stories to be strange and magical, something resembling, but far from, fairy tales.
When you look underneath a woman who walks on water, whose husband comes home and takes his brain out of his head, or a woman who collects her husband’s “big juicy apricots,” look past character names like Teacher of Joy, Surrealist’s Daughter, Stone Chunk, and Beautiful Question, Ehin’s stories are predominantly about relationships, mostly that between lovers. Her characters fall in and out of love, back in and out again, ever changing, ever keeping secrets. At times, the connections to tangible, and recognizable aspects of relationships are visible, though even then there is no certain, specific comparison—as in “Cushions,” where the narrator and her husband are literally deaf to each other, and only each other: “I realized that whenever I related my tales to my husband, he was relating his to me at the same time.” But mostly, when the people come into conflict with one another, the parallels to our lives are indistinct.
The repetition with variation of conflict is not necessarily man versus woman, but man and woman struggling within themselves, and it is the outward expression of that struggle that erupts their relationships. Many of the stories open quickly, directly into their odd world, as in the first sentence of “Patterns,” when the narrator tells us “The three men I’ve bitten arms off of are doing well.” These men, all named Jaan, did nothing to deserve her violence—this impossible, animalistic violence. Each of them simply woke her, but in the wakings, no matter the love, or the peacefulness of the situation, there is a suggestion of control, such as when one has made her breakfast and wants to eat it with her before it gets cold. The women of Walker on Water are tensed, so aware of a culture in which men are violent, are cruel and controlling, that they live on the taut edge of fight or flight. So the arm-chewing woman, when her husband came to her, “felt his gigantic, rapidly twitching muscle” and “Rage struck [her] like a thunderbolt.” She did not want to bite his arm off, but taken from sleep, the instinct, the reaction to the dark potentials of intertwined lives, could not be helped.
The characters of these stories bring their pasts, and their secrets, to their relationships. The woman of the story “Walker on Water” only goes on her walks when her husband is not there, just as he only reveals his skull-emptying evenings after they begin living together. In “Gold Key,” another in the apricot collector’s cycle of stories, she admits, “my husband isn’t a particularly curious person and he hasn’t stumbled upon my collection yet. He has his own collections too that are hidden behind all sorts of passwords.” The preservation of secrets is not only to maintain relations, but to stabilize a self, an attempt that often fails. In Walker on Water, the connections between lovers are made and broken, and often again and again, because identities are constantly transforming.
There are a couple sets of story cycles that feature the same character or characters in shifting forms, in new situations. These help along the sense that Ehin’s very brief stories are fairy tales, just glimpses of a legend. Ilmar Lehtpere’s translation is consistent in its odd, casual tone, making the strangeness feel natural, ensuring the tales feel like they’re from from the same collection of legends. “The Surrealist’s Daughter” begins one of these cycles. Throughout it the daughter not only manifests physical transformations—into a black stork or her job as a cabaret dancer where she “was a woman of many faces and many bodies”—but in identity, as when she “adopted another father” and became the Beekeeper’s stepdaughter. Altered identities necessarily alter the relationships those identities are part of. Before the Surrealist’s daughter becomes the Beekeeper’s stepdaughter, the narrator of this cycle drifted from her, attempting to return when she has made her change, only to find that impossible, to find her interested in another—one who suits her new identity.
As the shifts in shade of—or complete changes in—identities begin and end relationships, one of the core themes of Walker on Water, melancholy celebrations, comes into clarity. It is a sad, strange articulation of a part of life sometimes looked over. There are countless books and movies that idealize the single love of one’s life, but Ehin acknowledges that most of us will have multiple loves throughout our lives. Some will end peacefully; others will end in pain. Our partners too will have those many loves, and the weight of secrets that comes with them, so “In the end we all have to swallow the collections of our husbands and wives.” This is the clearest, most over-arching way the fairy tale, the magical, the bizarre, is made relatable in Walker on Water. The majority of the time, the connection is not so distinct. The stories, in their vagueness, and departure from realism, are open-ended, the breadth of interpretation wide. For some readers, this could be unsatisfying, for others, exactly what is desired. Ehin’s method works better in some stories than others, where the stories are too vague, don’t have any of their own ground to stand on. The most wonderful moments are passages where it is as if language fails Ehin, as if realism could not express these lives, so Ehin is only writing as she must, and our job is to translate them into something familiar, relatable: “A sticky silence flowed into my ears. I poured music into my ears, the voices of friends, the rumble of cars, the ringing of phones and more friend’s voices, but nothing helped. The sticky hot silence wrapped itself around my heart.” In the end, it is a light collection, playful even in its darkness—a short book that manages to be both loveable, and forgettable. - P. T. Smith

The three men I’ve bitten arms off of are doing well.
It is impossible for me to jump into the Baltic lake of Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (translated from the original Estonian) without submerging you, for a minute, in her imagery, freezing and eerie and delightful. Why introduce a book that introduces itself?
 You see, Jaan had a chocolate arm and was the factory’s most expensive attraction.
Eighty pages, twenty-four prose poems*, grouped together in sequences. I counted seven sections, organized loosely by theme. There are shifts in speaker, and in degree of analogy, and in heavy-handedness, and of course in story. But even in translation (deftly, dryly handled by Ilmar Lehtpere), Ehin’s voice is consistent: it is so strong I think I’d be able to pick her out in an airport. (Disclaimer: I just google image searched this poet and she looks like a damn princess. I think I might have been expecting a little more crazy eyes.)
I had, in a fraction of a second, shattered our people’s Olympic hopes.
There is something—forgive the pun—charmingly disarming about this kind of technique. Immediately we are plunged into a universe where anything rolls. I like that in a book. If you are giving me this kind of magic I don’t care so much about the realism part.
 Yes, her shoulder had truly blossomed and was pollinating tantalisingly.
Bite-sized chapters, stories which are all surface. Where it is successful, the book is a lake. Reading it is a little like walking on water: you are doing something impossible and it is thrilling.
Where Walker on Water falters is the sections which are more serious, more directly allegorical. Maybe that’s me and my automatic balk against obvious symbols, but sections like this one don’t do as much for me:
Life Story turned round and looked angrily into Happiness Formula’s wantonly flashing eyes. …A Life Story has to concentrate on something else, certainly not on happiness and certainly not on a formula.
Even Ehin must admit that this is lacks the strength of sentences like:
Now that I have completely mastered bird language and the grammar I authored is already in its fifteenth printing, I’ve nearly forgotten my apricot collection.
So here’s the thing about this book. Where it works, it works great, and where it doesn’t, it tanks: skippable allegorical sections like the one about Life Story and Happiness Formula; confusing unparseable sections that maybe made more sense in Estonian (They were all one another’s grand-aunts and at the same time fathers-in-law as well). Here’s the other thing about this book: the sections, although many of them tie into each other, do not all require each other. There is no obligation to read Walker on Water in order. That’s the freeing thing about poems, or short stories, or what have you! You can skip the weaker ones! It’s easy to tell which ones they are: you’ll stall in the very first paragraph. And if you decide to grit your teeth and not skip them, you’ve only lost a couple pages worth of time anyway.
To be fair, there is something interesting in these more grandly philosophical chapters Ehin has included. They’re not entirely unsuccessful. They just drag in comparison to the wry energy that fills most of this book.
Sex is when I once lost my tail under the blanket and he helped me to find it.
Several armless husbands named Jaan; surrealist’s daughters turned beekeeper’s stepdaughters; dragons and giants; birds and apricot collections. It’s a wild ride.
And a uniquely feminist one. Ehin’s angle on sex, marriage, commitment is refreshingly unromantic. Lovers are interchangeable, easily replaced, all with the same name. This book exists in a culture which feels, amazingly, outside of the patriarchy, outside of heteronormativity. This is the most exciting thing about Ehin: she doesn’t play by the rules. Walker on Water does not feel like a response, a statement, a backlash against something. It is its own game and it does not care what you think a marriage is supposed to look like.
We kept pressing more and yet more cushions into each other’s mouth and again and again swallowed them down. It was a maddening situation. Although neither of us could hear the other, at the end of the day one of us should have shut up and concentrated on the other’s stories for appearance’s sake, if for nothing else.
This little tale could be trying to make some larger point about gender roles and relationship communication. Only it ends with the couple being repurposed as pillows:
The young dragon bride rested her head on me and the giant rested his on my husband. We lay side by side at the head of their bed and felt with our entire bodies the enamoured breathing of those two primeval beings.
I could probably analyze this metaphor as social commentary if I tried hard enough. But I don’t want to! The couple turns each other into pillows and then they become pillows for the next couple. The next couple has broken the mold: instead of being parallel deaf ramblers they are a dragon and a giant.
Do not try and make this an allegory: it defies allegories! Allegories are the enemy in this book! The passage about Stone Chunk and Beautiful Question would be great if it wasn’t for the darn allegories! And one evening Stone Chunk told Beautiful Question right to her face, “You’re not really Beautiful Question, you’re a Piece of Flesh.”
Stay concrete, Kristiina Ehin, you psychotic princess, and I will follow you straight across lakes, allow myself to be buoyed by your brains, splash around in pure joy at your insanity. Abstractions, allegories, heavy-handedness weighs you down. Cut about fifteen pages out of this book and it will become one of my top five public-transit reads. Leave it as is, and it’s a little more uneven but it’s still damn fun.
I kept the Teacher of Joy’s red currants well frozen and his containers of milk properly chilled.
It’s absolutely worth a read. - Maya Lowy

Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water (88 pages; Unnamed Press), translated by Ilmar Lehtpere, marries magical realism with oral tradition to create modern folklore about the complexity of romantic relationships. Ehin is an award-winning Estonian poet, having authored six volumes of poetry as well as three story collections and a book retelling Estonian folk tales—all of which noticeably influence Walker on Water.
Primarily, these stories remain in the realm of the magical: In the title story, the protagonist practices walking atop the sea while her husband is at work. He is the director of the Climate Change Monitoring Department at the Academy of Sciences. He also, she discovers, has a hatch on the back of his head from which he removes his brain each night. The protagonist is jealous of her husband’s admirers at work, and decides only she is deserving of his brain. So, in a fit of jealousy, she decides to drown his brains. “I wanted an intelligent and educated man, but what I got was a brainless oaf.” This line stands in stark contrast with the fantastical image of the man casually removing his brains at night, as so many husbands metaphorically do, nestling into a couch with a beer, while their intelligent minds, their desirable qualities, are left back at work.
Ehin explores contemporary problems through surrealistic means. A woman bites off the arms of her many husbands—subsequently they sullenly forgive her; another collects her former husbands’ “apricots” which she keeps in the attic (that tale uses language that is constantly a “razor’s breadth” away from using “castration”). “Lena of the Drifting Isle” is an immortal skeleton that is paid not in currency, but in time, and who tells the protagonist a story of lost love. The story is then carried on by the protagonist’s talking bird, which is teaching her its complex and invented grammar. Sometimes Walker on Water suffers from oversimplification, such as in “Evening Rendezvous,” where the characters Happiness Formula and Life Story debate in order to come to a conclusion about each other. This same method is handled much more deftly in “Stone Chunk and Beautiful Question,” which explores the issue of projection, false judgment, and expectation in relationships.
Kristiina Ehin wrote her fourth work, Kaitseala (Huma, 2005), which won Estonia’s most prestigious poetry award, on an uninhabited island in the Gulf of Finland during her time as a warden at a nature reserve. The natural world shines through again, years later, in Walker on Water, as Ehin conjures frozen rivers upon which grand-aunts and father-in-laws skate—barely and indiscernibly—through what the reader perceives as a snowy atmosphere. In the title story, a freezing sea threatens to swallow the protagonist, who walks out upon it from a coastal farm. While strikingly boreal, Walker on Water is also punctuated by immortal beings who live in a seemingly tropical “coral country” featuring an ancient, dilapidated castle at its center; it is a strange and effective work to behold. -

Author Kristiina Ehin is also a poet, and the compact, image-rich stories of Walker on Water have a similarly tightly composed feel, turning quickly and often surprisingly, as poems often do from line to line. There's a neat and clean precision to the language in Ilmar Lehtpere's translation, too -- and the overall feel is of appealing nuggets or neat morsels, rather than larger fleshed-out fictions.
       Ehin's invention can be dazzling -- beginning with the water-walking narrator of the title story. The mix of surreal and prosaic is especially effective, as in this section from 'Walker on Water':
Lately I've discovered that my husband's head opens at the back. I hadn't noticed that before. There's a hatch there. When Jaan comes home after a tiring day at work, he opens the hatch and takes his brains out. They steam on the table, but Jaan stretches his legs out on the sofa and looks at me with his happy, drwosy eyes. 3
I wanted an intelligent and educated man, but what I got was a brainless oaf.
These are stories of multiple husbands -- some who lose their arms, the memory of others maintained in a collection of dried apricots --, three-headed daughters, and attention-seeking refrigerators -- all treated as if they were the most natural things in the world. There are some recurring characters, and types, and names -- the Surrealist's daughter, men named Jaan -- while the final story, for example, describes an exchange between Happiness Formula and Life Story.
       Short, with an agreeably bizarre edge to many of them, but also a crisp, clear presentation, the stories collected in Walker on Water are enjoyable treats, Ehin is a talented writer, and they're finely crafted little pieces -- a collection that's fun to dip into. - M.A.Orthofer

LARB AV interviews Kristiina Ehin:               

Native Estonian Kristiina Ehin is an internationally renowned poet, whose collection The Drums of Silence was awarded the British Poetry Society Popescu Prize for European Poetry in Translation in 2007. Ehin has published six volumes of poetry, three books of short stories and a retelling of South-Estonian folk tales. She has also written plays and radio broadcasts, and has won Estonia’s most prestigious poetry prize for Kaitseala—a book of poems and journal entries written during a year spent living as a nature reserve warden on an otherwise uninhabited island off Estonia’s north coast.   
Her latest is Walker on Water from the Unnamed Press, translated from Estonian by Ilmar Lehtpere. LARB A.V. spoke with her at a reading at Skylight Books, where she was also joined by her partner, well-known Estonian musician Silver Sepp, who enchanted the crowd with his mix of traditional Estonian music and found-object instruments.
LARB AV: To start, can you describe your new collection of stories, Walker on Water?
Kristiina Ehin: I wrote them in a very specific state of mind, and though I can say that I created these characters, actually they really came to meI saw them in this room, in this air. They came as very frightened and very silent creatures. I just felt that I had to give a voice to them, like for example, to this woman, who’s been married at least eight times and whose husbands have always been called Jaan. It’s the most common name in Estonia. And this woman, she kind of confesses—the tone is confessing. Why did she get married so many times? She never wanted that, it wasn’t her dream, but it went as it went and there are several reasons she talks about. And several unconscious patterns that also show themselves in the stories. It’s a very playfully tragic experience for me to write.
What more can you tell us about the main character?
She is a very contemporary woman, but at the same time really ancient things happen to her. She has a strange hobby, one of the strangest you can find. She thinks it’s fine to keep this hobby alive and not to give up, but everybody thinks it’s strange and impossible. But she feels that the moment she gives up her hobby, that she will forget how to love. So these things are deeply connected. Her self-expression and her ability to love.
And that hobby is walking on water?
Yes! (laughs). Her special talent is walking on water, and she discovered that it is a thing that she can get better at, and so that is what she does. Defining her balance on the stormy sea, it is a symbol, an image of finding a balance in love and in life in general. And maybe loving somebody until the end of their life in all of this world is almost as impossible as walking on waterbut still possible. So there is plenty of hope in this story, the way I see it.
We know little about Estonia, can you describe it?
Well that is like asking me to describe the taste of a potato without mentioning a potato. The most important thing for me, however, is the languagefor me as a poet, the language that is my tune, my colors, my world.
And it has very few speakers?
Yes, just one million native speakers. And it's not an Indo-European language, it's a Finnic language. We have fourteen cases, for example. We have a lot of words to describe nature.
Have you always been interested in folklore?
For several years I was studying literature at Tartu University and I read a lot, but I didn't feel inspired enough to write myself. And then I found this department at Tartu University called the Comparative Folkloristics Department. It was a very cozy place with a lot of sofas and tea pots. And I just felt so good there. I started to read a lot folk tales, a lot of fairy tales, a lot of legends and most of all folk songs. I found the oral tradition to be so fresh, surprisingly fresh. And I found it to be so modern.
I also felt some pain because of what had been done to these fairly tales and folk songs during the Soviet years. And not only in the Soviet Union, really, I think it’s everywhere, these sweet Hollywood endings, where everything is written just for children. And not even for children, I don’t think children really care! For me, as a child I wanted something totally different. I wanted something deep, fresh and surprising, and I found all of that in Estonian folk tales that had never been published. I dug myself into the archives there, actually among the biggest in the world together with the Finnish and Irish, and I found stories that really intrigued me. Maybe some of this comes from my father, who was a surrealist author. He made us write surrealist poems for Santa Claus, for example. We have this tradition in Estonia that you have to read poems to Santa Claus, and my mother and father were not conservative at all, and they didn’t want to hear Jingle Bells or any of that. So we read classic poems; Turkish poetry, Russian poetry, English poetry and our own poetry. That was my childhood’s mystery, so I don’t know if I was tricked into literature but it gave me a taste.
You spent a year on uninhabited island as a nature-preserve warden and it resulted in a book of stories. It seems like it was a very primitive kind of existence there, so I wonder: What were your most valued possessions? What was the one thing you relied on most during that very lonely time?
Basically I was a garbage cleaner on this island. One of my jobs was to keep this island clean and in order. The storms were quite big and all the world's garbage would just blow onto the shores, so especially after the big storms, it was a lot of work to do. And in the first place, I had just been living in Estonia’s big city, small for you but big for us. At first I didn’t know how to feel, going around in big boots and a garbage sack, but then I felt that it’s one of the most honorable jobs in the world to doto keep one beautiful paradise beautiful. It's a cold and magical island. The nature is covered with moss, this very tender moss. If you step on it once, your footprint will remain for fifteen years at least. So, it was a very tender piece of the world to protect. The poetry collection I wrote there is called Protected Territory. It’s the image of how to keep it clean on the outside, yet meanwhile a part of your soul might not be so civilized.
But what was that thing? What did you rely on the most?!
I had been fighting against becoming a writer because my mother and father both were writers and I thought I would never want to have such a difficult job. The island was a place where I actually needed to write. I was thirsty for the evenings, to have my pen and paper and my diary and to write down my experiences. -

Excerpt: Dragon’s Diary
I’ve already seen one thing and another, even a third and a fourth in this world, but wherever I’ve searched, wherever I’ve crept, I haven’t found sex.
What sort of thing is this sex that everyone talks about and falls silent about? I don’t understand.
Now I’m married to this Giant here. Every evening he puts his heavy hands around me. He cuddles me and caresses me. Tenderly kisses my three mouths and three necks. I become more and more heated from this until I start spouting flames and then gradually cool down, like lava that has flowed into a cold spring. Our bed is full of smoke and in the hiss of cooling down I feel the beating of his big heart under my claws. Thump-thump-thump-thump…
But what part of all this – the beginning, the end, the middle, or all of it together – is sex, that I don’t know.
This morning I asked my husband and he answered with a laugh that sex is when I once lost my tail under our blanket and he helped me to find it.
Depressing. How is that supposed to happen again? You can’t consciously lose your tail under the blanket. That can only happen by chance. And what might also happen by chance is that I will never chance upon it again. Best to forget it altogether. The word is already getting on my nerves. Sex. Sounds like a trap being sprung. Who invented this mysterious trap anyway? Clack. And all at once it captures your most beautiful moments. It’s aggravating and intrusive. It’s a third party when you want to be alone, just the two of you. I hope I manage to forget it.
I said that to my husband’s face. He started laughing again and said he’d been joking and that losing one’s tail certainly isn’t sex.
“But what is it then?” I asked angrily.
My husband thought about it and said, “Sex is closing your mouth nicely now, not thinking about anything and simply being beautiful.”
I was desperate again. Is sex something that you do for others? That seems boring and courteous. Something like a curtsey.
I decided not to turn to my husband any more in this matter. He only makes light of it when I’m being serious.
Yet I sense that I will soon have to take up this subject again. Because lately he seems to be… somehow annoyingly patronising. There isn’t the clear, bright closeness of before between us any more. Between us there is now that curtsey, the trap springing… and… clack!… nothing is as it was before.


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