My cousin Renata and I were walking along the Daugava River in Riga, Latvia, last July, keeping our eyes to the ground as we approached the four-lane bridge. (Latvia has a long history of painful domination by Russia. Even the Latvian river, Daugava, is better known by the Russian name Dvina.)
Construction was going on at the junction of the boulevard and the bridge: It would have been very easy to trip over the debris. The workers had also barricaded the ripped up sidewalk to the bridge with sawhorses, which required squeezing through and climbing over, none of which would have been difficult had we not been carrying wine, a large chocolate torte, a bag of piragi (crescent-shaped rolls filled with chopped ham and onions), dried gray peas, and a bag of peanuts.
The bridge separated Old Riga, the medieval section founded in 1205 A.D. from the "Beyond Daugava" section on the other side of the river where we had taken a hotel for the night on the assumption that it would be closer to the airport, for we were to leave very early the following morning for the U.S.
We were hurrying along since we had to meet Renata's sister Revita at the hotel. Their cousin Valters and his wife Leontine had planned a grand salmon grill and Latvian style barbecue (sashlicks) for us out at the "farm," so we didn't want to be late.
For July, even in Latvia where temperatures normally don't exceed 80 in the summer, it was a chilly 58 degrees. A strong wind whipped white caps on the river, the wind blew yet another cloud in front of the sun and I hunched my shoulders up around my neck.
It was a long bridge, and there was a lot of car traffic, too much traffic for us to cross over to the sidewalk that traversed the north side of the bridge. There was no signal light, either, and the cars and buses zoomed along, oblivious of the few pedestrians venturing forth. The bridge apparently did not get much foot traffic.
We hadn't walked more than 20 feet when Renata touched my elbow, stopped, pointed her chin at the sidewalk on the other side of the bridge and asked, "What IS that?"
I stopped and looked. A girl, a young girl (maybe 17 or 20), was running barefooted. I looked back at Renata, "Is she ...?"
I thought she was, but it didn't seem possible.
Renata looked at me, white as a sheet, and said, "What can we DO?"
The girl was running back and forth now, as if she couldn't decide whether to cross the bridge or go back the way she had come. Her hair was a light brown, chin length, maybe, and flying every which way in the wind. She has to be cold, I thought mindlessly, much colder than I am because she is naked.
"I could give her my jacket," I said to Renata, "if only we could get across the road." The jacket won't do much good, I thought, she'll still be naked from the waist down and where can she go like that?
"There are too many cars," Renata said, agitated. "Why didn't we cross over to begin with?"
"We didn't know," I answered automatically, still fixated on why, why is she naked? "Do you think she's running away from someone?"
A man, a fellow pedestrian, who was on the girl's side of the bridge caught up to her and said something. The girl whirled around and ran in the opposite direction.
"He wanted to help her," Renata groaned.
"Maybe she's afraid," I said the obvious. "Maybe she wouldn't be afraid of us, though?"
"Because we're women," Renata agreed.
We both stood there.
Why, I wondered, don't any of the cars stop? Or one of the buses? Don't they SEE?
The girl ran back the way she had come, her upper arms pressed over her breasts, her hands crossed low in front of her, trying to shield her most private self from view.
She hasn't seen the sun all summer, I thought. Why hasn't she been out? And her bare feet - her feet had to be cold as ice.
I don't know how long we stood there, staring at the empty sidewalk, at the cars.
We had failed to help her. She had not seemed to want help, but we had failed her anyway.
The girl - was she Latvian or Russian? It didn't matter which. Had she escaped from a mental hospital? Was that why she was naked? Was she on drugs? Is that why she refused help from the man who caught up to her? Why didn't any car or bus stop? Was this a common scene that only we were ignorant of?
We must have told one of our relatives about the girl, but we have no memory of anyone enlightening us.
We've never read stories about drugs, AIDS, or the homeless in Latvian newspapers or magazines, or hear anything about troubling social problems on Latvian television. We do know from our own experience, however, that Latvians are stoic, that they believe you must sleep in the bed you've made for yourself no matter how thorny. It's a hard way to live. And a hard-hearted way to bear witness.
• Ursula Carlson, Ph.D., teaches writing and literature at Western Nevada College.