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‘You’re 97 today! Your wakeup call service today congratulates!’
As if she wouldn’t have remembered. Ninety-seven was almost a hundred. She and Irma had decided that they would refuse to turn one hundred. It would only make trouble. One lady, in the bottom apartment of the A staircase, had received an invitation to the health centre on her birthday. Apparently all five-year-olds were called in for monitoring of their motor and psychological development, and when this lady turned 105, the computer system thought she was a toddler. The computer didn’t recognise numbers over one hundred. Siiri thought the lady should have kept the appointment; she would have done, for the tests were fun. You had to draw a triangle and walk along a straight line. Not that easy for someone of 105. But the lady didn’t go, she just made a terrible fuss about it and complained to everyone, until she died before her complaints reached the right official.
‘Heartfelt thanks,’ Siiri said to the smartwall, which pressed an image of a bunch of glowing, bright red roses upon her in honour of her birthday.
Siiri poked the smartwall randomly, as it hadn’t dawned on her where the gizmo was actually located or how you were supposed to control it. But everything was like that these days at Twilight Grove: you touched and jabbed at surfaces. There was intelligence everywhere, masses of it, just a hiccup and something terribly intelligent would happen. Siiri’s little two-roomed flat was full of sensors, probes, chips, transmitters and cameras, which monitored her life. Somewhere in the depths of her mattress there was even a vigilant contraption that, for want of anything better to do, observed her incessantly while she slept and recorded every movement as if it had nothing better to do. If she were to fall and to fail to get up sufficiently quickly, the smartnodes on the floor would send a message to the alarm centre, and an ambulance and its paramedics would rush to help her to get up. This would ensure that old people did not die on the floor. In Finland, there was unanimity on the subject that dying was more tragic if it took place on the floor at home than in a health-centre bed. There had been an emotional debate in a full session of parliament, which she often watched together with Anna-Liisa and Irma.
Life in the smartflat was really quite amusing, if you were able to cope with the surprises arranged by the computers. For example, a visit to the refrigerator was always a big adventure. You never knew what the refrigerator would tell you this time.
‘Remove. Half. Litre. Of. Sour. Milk. Sell-by. Date. Today.’
Siiri’s refrigerator was a young woman, quite cheerful but a little bit full of herself. Irma had absolutely wanted hers to have the voice of an older man, and it was really funny when her refrigerator turned out to be the former main announcer from Finnish Radio, who was familiar to all of them from the exchange rates and shipping forecasts of years gone by. Irma had immediately begun to call the fridge her admirer and she had desperately tried to teach him to say ‘butty’ instead of ‘sandwich’.
‘Even a parrot would have a bit more brain,’ she had huffed angrily, when her industrious teaching brought no result.
At first, the talking fridge had just seemed like a bit of fun, something that got you into a good mood since you didn’t have a cat or a husband, but in fact it saved the old folk from bouts of food poisoning and diarrhoea. Many of them ate spoiled food, as they didn’t look at the sell-by date. Or they might forget a piece of salmon at the bottom of the fridge for two weeks until it turned into green slime. Something like that smelled so bad that one lady’s smell alarm had begun to make such a din that they thought they must be in the middle of an air-raid.
To begin her breakfast and to appease her fridge, Siiri drank the half-litre of milk whose best-by date was today. If you tried to shove in something that should have been eaten the day before yesterday, it would start to nag annoyingly, and she didn’t know what to do to calm it down. She was always having problems with liver casserole.
‘You did not follow the instructions. You did not follow the instructions. You did not follow the instructions,’ the fridge sometimes repeated for hours on end, always in the same tone, with too much emphasis on the beginning of each word. It was enough to send an old person to their death, to make them lose their will to live and shrivel up, tortured, at the dining room table, felled by the fridge’s sermon, with an only slightly spoiled liver casserole in the frying pan.
‘I’d rather listen to my admirer sermonising than to those volunteer workers,’ Irma would have said, if she hadn’t been online in real time during this conversation. Those were the kinds of words the daisies of Twilight Grove used as they helped its residents adjust to their new living environment. There was no real staff any more. No exercise or crafts coaches, no kitchen staff, social workers, wardens, no carers or even trainees in the theoretical care of the elderly or immigrants temporarily employed in the name of social integration, just computers and an indefinite number of volunteer helpers who trained the residence to enjoy the machines.
Twilight Grove, in the Munkkiniemi district of Helsinki, was no longer your run-of-the-mill terminal care centre for the elderly. A renovation, which had taken more than a year to complete, had proved to be much more extensive than supposed. Everything had been made new and the result had been sold to an international quoted company. Now the assisted living building was a pilot project for the monitored care for the elderly, whose founding and activities were funded by three different ministries. The politicians and businessmen believed that the transformation of old people into laboratory animals was the salvation of society and the future global solution to the world’s most explosive problem, old age. Finland would rise from its economic predicament when its diverse health and care technology conquered the world and demonstrated once again the miracles Finnish engineers were capable of.
‘This is our last service to society,’ Siiri said to herself, wiping the table clean after breakfast with the leg of her old pyjamas. She had eaten one hard-boiled egg and a piece of crispbread, by force of will, as she no longer felt hungry and ate merely out of a sense of duty.
At the same time Irma’s head appeared, huge, on her smartwall, just as if she had heard Siiri babbling to herself amid the sensors and the gadgets. Irma’s white, curly hair stuck out untidily in all directions, and she had butty crumbs on her lips and big sparkles in her ears.
‘Damned contraption!’ Irma shouted, not looking at Siiri, but staring angrily somewhere to the side. ‘Drat and bother! Say your name and press enter… my foot…”
There was a peculiar clunk and Irma disappeared from Siiri’s wall. Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro thundered away in the background. Siiri listened for a moment and understood that it was the first act. Count Almaviva had found the page Cherubino on a chair under a blanket in the maidservant Susanna’s room. Then Irma came back and looked piercingly at the centre of the screen, as if she were very angry with Siiri.
‘Ir-ma. Län-nen-lei-mu. Enter! How in tarnation does this wall work? Eeny meeny, I want to get out of here. I can’t leave my own home! Help, for God’s sake. Are there still any of the staff members we used to call janitors? Can anyone hear me?’
Irma had wandered out of range of the camera, but Siiri could hear clearly her squawking and the general confusion caused by Cherubino’s discovery in the wrong room at the Almaviva court. At the top bleated the gossiping singing teacher with his tenor. Irma became more and more panicky, she let out some screams and cursed, sighed and whimpered, from time to time flashing past the camera, hair flying. All of a sudden the music stopped, as if cut with a knife. It was quiet, horribly soundless, until Irma began to sing, high and hard, Alessandro Stradella’s ‘Pietá, signore’. Siiri pulled on her dressing gown and rushed to rescue her friend.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
The sun shone on the Arctic Ocean night and day, and the voyage went amazingly well, as did all the tasks and jobs that Huurna particularly feared beforehand.
Ships lay in Archangel harbour like objects on a collector’s shelf. They were waiting for timber cargo from the local sawmills where work was at a standstill because the mills lacked the machines and machine parts that they were now bringing them. When their cargo had been unloaded and the machines installed, timber began arriving from the sawmills. They found themselves at the end of the queue, and after the other ships had departed, one by one, they were still waiting in Archangel. That suited Huurna; in the first few days of his stay he had become acquainted with two English merchants and, through them, had received invitations to parties. He had stood in salons drinking toasts to the honour of this or that and made the acquaintance of some charming ladies into whose eyes he wished to gaze another time. He was quite moved by the whirl of this unexpected social life, and brightened at the thought that there was really nothing to complain about in his life apart from the fact that he happened still to be a bachelor.
He had always considered himself to have a poor memory, but he remembered everything about all the women who had ever rejected him, including the weather and the light conditions, and he remembered the roads along which he had walked afterwards, recalling his failure and his clumsiness.
On those lonely roads he always realised how little he had been able to say and how abruptly he had said the little he did utter, and it annoyed and amused him so much that he grimaced, and he experienced a sudden need to talk to someone.
In Archangel, he remembered the expressions and the poses and the weather of Viipuri. He hadn’t been rejected in Viipuri, but he had been bidden farewell: it was in Viipuri that he had met the charming young lady with whom he had exchanged smiles and a single kiss and to whom he had written friendly letters all spring. They had bumped into each other in the Tervaniemi park, and he had been delighted to see her again, and the young lady, too, had greeted him happily, and when he cheerfully asked for her news, the lady exclaimed that she had got married and proudly held out her hand to show her ring. He had congratulated her. They had wished each other all the best.
He did not speak of the matter in Viipuri, and he did not speak of it in Valencia or in Hull or in the Arctic Sea either, but the captain’s mate may have sensed something, for he was still enquiring as they arrived in the harbour at Archangel whether the girls of Viipuri had treated him badly, since his countenance was so grave; did the boss have unfinished business in Viipuri?
At cadet school they, the future captains and mates, had been forbidden to make friends with their crew and with each other, but the mate of the Brave II, a giant from Kokkola, a metre and a half of solid wood, had not heard this instruction. He made friends with everyone and asked after all their news and talked about it as if it was common knowledge.
Of the mate’s own business, Huurna knew only that he longed for the forests, to wander in the woodlands and kick the moose-droppings on the game trails. The mate considered the sea dull, more boring than a Liminka meadow; you could tramp across a field, but at sea blue waves rolled from one side of the world to the other and a man was trapped between them. The mate said that he had gone to sea for the simple reason that he believed what the priests said: he would end up in hell, and that place sounded so boring to him that he decided to sin in all the harbours of this world.
The mate had a foul mouth. That amused Huurna, but since he himself didn’t have the same gift for language every official-sounding sentence he uttered sounded as if he were criticising the mate. This conversational inequality didn’t bother the mate in the least: straight-talking people have an amazing capacity not to mind about such things. That is, of course, what makes them straight-talking.
Huurna remembered particularly the mate’s answer to all the men who complained about some misfortune or hurt that had befallen them: ‘A man always has something, if his tooth doesn’t hurt, he has a hard dick.’
The town of Archangel was so far from the world that their own familiar ship appeared, in its quiet harbour, quite especially familiar. His crew, too, seemed to Huurna his own, and familiar, and many times he found himself wishing to talk to his men about their lives and about his own, but his attempts flagged at the first formal greeting. Among themselves, the men appeared to talk about everything, home-sickness and pubs and liquor and cunt; there is no bashfulness aboard ship, and when you reach harbour you don’t go ashore to listen to a piano concerto with a bunch of roses in your hand.
Just as eating salted herring for days on end gives you a thirst, Huurna developed a strong desire to talk as if to a close friend, and in one of these moments of uncontrollable loneliness he went and revealed everything to the mate from Kokkola, his longing and his despair and his disappointment in Viipuri. The mate listened to him in silence and then rushed to his cabin, returning soon, with a conspiratorial air, to offer him his collection of pornographic postcards. The mate said he could borrow them for as long as he wanted to.
When, later, alone and unhurried, he leafed through the mate’s collection, Huurna was forced to admit that in some sense these pictures really did connect with his misery, and lightened it, even if only for a moment.
On the eighth of October the English came into harbour and warned that no one who intended to set sail for the open sea had ever lingered in Archangel so long into the autumn.
Huurna began to hurry the gathering of cargo, but no so much that he didn’t leave himself time to stand in salons drinking toasts, and after one of these parties he proposed.
The woman was from a Karelian family; under her colourful skirt Huurna could glimpse her light, slim calves, and he grasped the opportunity to do so as they walked along the peculiar wooden pavements of the town. One one of these walks, by happy coincidence, they spotted a bride and groom, and Huurna was prompted to try a spot of repartee. He pointed to the pair and said that they could also, perhaps, do something like it.
The following day, on a rising tide, Huurna ordered the lines to be released. His cough had become bad, and he drank liquor for his illness.
The snowstorm began as soon as they left Archangel harbour and their tug-boat. They were on the Arctic Sea on a voyage across the North Sea, but first they should have navigated the reefs of the White Sea.
In the narrow channel, the wind turned against them. All they could see of the world was the length of the ship. Snow and damp turned to ice on the decks. On the outward journey it had been light even at night on the great northern seas, but now it was dark even in the daytime. You could see the snowstorm against the sky, but toward the prow all you could make out was your own fear.
The ship, slowly becoming blanketed in snow, the dark sea below, the grim sky above and far in front the gloom of the Arctic Sea; how cold was it possible for a person to be, at sea. But when you have set out on a journey, you must take what you can from the wind, wrestle it on board and hope that after you have survived this moment you will survive the next one too.
At the mouth of the Arctic Ocean the storm eased and the sky opened up with stars. The wind, on the other hand, intensified, and the swell surged and the ship was tossed on the waves like a child’s bark-boat. The entire crew stood on deck, holding on to whatever they could.
During his years as a deck hand, Huurna had glanced in distress in the direction of the captain, hoping that the bearded father-figure would lad them to safety, but as captain all he was able to do was glance at his ship and seek in its creaking essence some sort of guarantees of the future. When they did not seem to be forthcoming, he began merely to breathe and accepted the moment, and then the next one, and thought how fitting it was that he should disappear from the world, since nothing so extraordinary awaited him that he should not be lost in this storm.
The only valuable thing that, in his distress, that he could express in words was spring, that he should see another spring. The word held within it everything that he had no time, now, to think about, the balmy days of early April, the barn wall and the sunshine, the sky in which the clouds had space to wander, the bright air which lasted well into the evening and the free, open shores.
It was spring he thought of in the storm on the Arctic Sea. He went to his cabin and thanked his ship and the heavens and something that he quietly in his mind called spring, and slept.
At the age of fifteen he realised he was lucky: things would always go well for him. Later, he forgot the feeling, just as the body forgets youth, and he concluded coldly that there were no lucky people, it was just that life felt easy if you hadn’t yet left the shelter of your childhood home and had not experienced very much. Then the world noticed him, too, and he began to experience the same troubles as everyone else.
In place of his lost luck he chose superstition; he began to protect himself with charms. It was lonely work. You don’t even find safety in God if you shape your prayers only in accordance with your own desires, and he did not even have a God; he had to conjure everything, make it all good, all on his own.
In moments of the most severe exhaustion he was able, for a second, to give up his superstitions and his wishes and blissfully believe that it is as it is, but as soon as his strength returned he began once again to coax luck on to his side and hope that it would once again come rippling around him. Sometimes luck accepted his wishes, sometimes it didn’t; luck is a matter of luck.
He woke to a shout from the lookout and struggled through layers of dreams, dragging on a sweater and oilcloths, and went on deck. All the men were now shouting. He, too, could see that they were being approached by an unlit vessel, its pale sails looming in the darkness. The helmsman had changed course and the lookout ran to check the lamps and the men were bellowing, mouths gaping, until they all fell silent, one by one, and absolute silence reigned.
All of them stared at the iceberg, unspeaking, rooted to the spot. It seemed unnatural for something so big to be so close. Mute and noble, the iceberg drifted first towards them and then past them and disappeared, without making a single sound, back into the same darkness from which it had emerged. Huurna felt a hollow stupefaction in the pit of his stomach, as when, as a little boy, he saw from a rowing boat the bottom of the sea, another world in which you could imagine whatever you liked, your father’s body. The iceberg, too, was its own kingdom, something too big to look at, and he realised now that not everyone wanted to look at it, but hung their heads as if in exhaustion.
When the iceberg lay behind them and they were sailing southward in a steady wind, he began to think that, just as children’s innocent eyes are protected from the horrors of the world, it might be better for adults, too, not to see some of the things in this world. The Arctic Sea, all of it, seemed one of those oversized things, and more particularly, the iceberg, whose threatening form he was unable to banish from his mind. Things of a suitable size for seeing included, for him, a barrel and a horse; among smaller objects, perhaps grains of wheat and the individual snowflakes which he could now make out against the dark cloth of his coat.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Spring had come to the forest homeland. The wood anemones were raising their heads shyly from under the moss, large tears of joy were flowing down the spruce trees’ beards of lichen, and sky-ploughs of cranes were coming from the south. They bugled mightily on their trumpets and then landed in the Great Marsh to sample the cranberries.
The springtime elves danced every day on the sunny slopes and swept the last remnants of snow into the melting brooks. Birch leaves were opening their little ears, the grass began to grow green, and already the swallows were coming; but the great tits that had been wintering in the corners of the house escaped to the shadowy pine forests.
But I was supposed to be describing the forest folk and their trip to Helsinki…
During those days Reynard the Fox was hard at work. He was wearing greasy overalls, his pockets were stuffed with nuts, bolts and spanners, and his paws and whiskers were thick with engine grease. He was fixing up his old Ford, which had been tucked away under a fir tree for the winter. For last summer, at auction, Reynard had bought a Ford, with which he’d then been running a taxi-service up and down the forest paths.
Now, in the evening, after working away at his car all day, in, out, underneath and on top of it, he’d finally got it going. He switched on the engine, sat at the wheel, tooted his horn with the pride of a proper motorist and lauded the car:
‘Just like new it is, now…’
Well, there was a little truth in what he was saying: he’d painted his car till it was spick, span and shiny, and he’d patched up the tyres. But from its model you could see it was at least five years old, and everyone knows that cars that age are already over the top.
On the edge of a sunny forest-clearing there was also quite a bit going on. Mr and M rs Chaffinch had just become domiciled after their travels abroad and had been building a nest in the fork of a bird-cherry tree. When the nest was ready and Mrs Chaffinch had laid her eggs and settled down to hatch them out, the hares, Crosslip and Bobtail, turned up, wanting news of the great world. So did Samuel Squirrel, waving his bushy tail. And Mr Chaffinch, who now had lots of time on his claws, began to talk about the foreign lands he’d seen on his travels. He told them about the sea with the ships sailing across it, and the great cities where people swarmed like ants.
The pals sat with pricked ears, their eyes shining as they listened to Chaffinch’s chatter, and little by little they were overcome by a strange restlessness – travel fever.
‘I’d very much like to see a city,’ Crosslip said.
‘Me too,’ sighed Bobtail.
‘Listen, Chaffinch’ Samuel said. ‘We can’t go on long trips, because we haven’t got wings, but don’t you know of any city somewhere he ÷reabouts that we too could go and see?’
‘It’s not all that far from here to the country’s capital, Helsinki,’ Chaffinch pointed out. ‘If Reynard the Fox would give you a lift in his Ford, you’d be there in half a day. It’s certainly worth the trip, for it’s one of the loveliest cities I’ve ever seen. And then you ought to get him to drive you down to the harbour and have a look at the sea and the fountain in the marketplace, and then off to the Esplanade to look at the statue of Runeberg.’
The pals went dashing off to Reynard and told him their plan for travel.
‘Mjuh,’ said the fox, smoothing his whiskers thoughtfully. ‘Very long way it is, petrol’s expensive, and could be my licence’s not quite legal.’
The fox was uneasy about leaving the forest paths for the main road, since a few visits to hen runs were weighing on his conscience, and he was afraid they might get him into bother. But when the others had half pestered him to death and said they’d pay him handsom eely, the love of money brought him round, and he promised to take them. They decided they’d go the next day, and then they all went their own ways.
At dawn the next day the sun was shining particularly beautifully. The two bunnies had put together a big bundle of supplies for the journey, but Samuel had breakfasted so well he thought he’d be all right the whole way. The hares sat at the back, but Samuel hopped onto the tip of the radiator, as there’d be the best view from there. Reynard started the engine, tooted his horn, and they were off.
In a flash they were out of the forest paths and onto the highway and then they began to press on to Helsinki. The villages dropped behind them, the houses went by like the wind, and a lot of hens were in danger of being run over.
Not many hours went by before the travellers were whizzing in through the old customs gatehouse of Töölö. First they did a quick tour of the town, and then Reynard drove the car to the market place.
It happened to be Sunday and the market place was empty, but anyway there were lots of new and wonderful sights for the forest folk to see. For the first time they were looking at the sea glittering in the sunlight, the ships in the harbour, and white terns and seagulls sporting about over the water.
Then Reynard drove to the Esplanade and stopped near the statue of Runeberg. The travellers got out to stretch their legs and have a closer look at the statue.
‘Look at those lovely flowers growing over there!’ Crosslip said, pointing admiringly at the flower beds round the statue.
‘I bet they smell lovely,’ Bobtail cried, going closer.
‘And taste jolly good too,’ Crosslip said, unable to stop himself picking a tulip.
‘Hey, you chaps’ Samuel warned.’You mustn’t touch the flowers!’ But the hares were already into the beds, smacking their lips over the tulips.
But immediately something terrible happened. A huge policeman came running up, waving his arms and shouting:
‘What do you think you’re doing, you devils, spoiling the flowers! I’ll show you! Off to the clink, the two of you!’
The forest folk got a bad scare and all took to their paws. Samuel hopped onto Runeberg’s shoulder and then off to a lime tree. Reynard hid under his car. But the hares began leaping along the Esplanade.
It so happened that just now was the time for the annual spring races. The Helsinki Marathon was on. A long line of runners were bashing down the street, and the hares happened to find themselves just in the lead. They thought a whole gang were after them in major force. They speeded up till their ears lay flat on their fur. Now and again they took a look back but went bounding on, because there they were, the pursuers, still obstinately at their heels.
But finally, when their hearts were just about to burst, the hares arrived at Töölö. That was where the race ended, and the hares st ared wide-eyed when the crowd near the finishing post welcomed them with joy.
‘Bunnies, bunnies, bunnies! Hip hip hurray,’ cheered the crowd.
Crosslip and Bobtail realised they’d done a deed of prowess: they’d won the Helsinki Marathon.
The Judge who gave the prizes was just beginning his speech when Samuel Squirrel arrived. Samuel had in fact leaped along the Esplanade from lime tree to lime tree, and then climbed onto a roof and leaped from roof to roof. In this way he’d arrived at the finishing post almost at the same time as the hares.
Crosslip and Bobtail were rewarded with a big box of biscuits and rusks, and Samuel was awarded a bag of nut chocolates.
Finally Reynard, having recovered from his panic, turned up. The travellers climbed into the car amid loud applause and set off out of all this hubbub, back to their dear forest homeland.
Eli Zebbah’s small but well-stocked grocery store is located on Amsterdam Avenue in New York, between two enormous florist’s shops. The shop is only a block and a half from the apartment that I had rented for the summer to write there.
The store is literally the breadth of its front door and it is not particularly easy to make out between the two-storey flower stands. The shop space is narrow but long, or maybe I should say deep. It recalls a tunnel or gullet whose walls are lined from floor to ceiling. In addition, hanging from the ceiling using a system of winches, is everything that hasn’t yet found a space on the shelves. In the shop movement is equally possible in a vertical and a horizontal direction. Rails run along both walls, two of them in fact, carrying ladders attached with rings up which the shop assistant scurries with astonishing agility, up and down. Before I have time to mention which particular kind of pasta I wanted, he climbs up, stuffs three packets in to his apron pocket, presents me with them and asks: ‘Will you take the eight-minute or the ten-minute penne?’ I never hear the brusque ‘we’re out of them’ response I’m used to at home. If I’m feeling nostalgic for home food, for example Balkan sausage, it is found for me, always of course under a couple of boxes. You can challenge the shop assistant with something you think is impossible, but I have never heard of anyone being successful. If I don’t fancy Ukrainian pickled cucumbers, I’m bound to find the Belorussian ones I prefer.
In the doorway stands another shop assistant. He is, if possible, even busier than his colleague. Clamping the telephone receiver between his shoulder and his chin, he uses his pencil to make frantic scratches on little slips of paper of different colours which he threads on to a spike which already holds dozens of them. He seems to know only two words: of and course. Sometimes he adds the customer’s name: ‘Of course, Miss Reynolds!’
There’s a third person in the shop. You don’t notice him immediately; he seems somehow transparent, as if he had taken on the colours, images and typography of the cardboard boxes behind him. He moves very little, if at all. He examines things, seems to be pondering something, looks at his shoes and smiles to himself. He doesn’t leap back and forth or really even notice the customers. A useless bottom-feeder, you could say. He is Eli Zebbah.
It is hard to guess his age, he bears such a close resemblance in manner and appearance to his cardboard boxes. Eyebrows thick but of colour unknown. Eyes brown or grey-green, indeterminate. And as already noted, he seems always to be somewhere else. With his crepe-soled shoes the colour of milky coffee he continues the long story of his kin.
He does not wear an apron, but a garment which would probably be called a store-coat. It is a front-buttoning garment of no particular colour whose long sleeves nevertheless reveal Eli Zebbah’s hirsute arms. In the breast of the coat is a pocket stuffed with about a dozen pencils of different kinds. The coat is always clean, folded or pressed so that it recalls some geometric thesis. As you pass him on your way to the deeper recesses of the store, he may nod and smile. If someone makes the mistake of asking him about the location or availability of some item, he raises his thumb, points it at the shop assistant and for some reason congratulates the questioner: ‘Mazel tov!’
I often wonder what he is really doing in his store. Why does he tire himself out by standing around among his busy customers as they rush here and there without paying them any attention? Does he believe that there should be some idler to smile in every food shop? He could spend the same time more comfortably elsewhere, playing chess in some park with other old men. Or dash off to rehearse new pieces with his male-voice choir. But the mysteries of entrepreneurship are closed to me.
I visited Zebbah’s store every day. I have always hated the complexities of home delivery and the different methods of calculating tips. I am also always suspicious of products that I haven’t been able to touch for myself. But in addition to lethargy, the heat of New York gives rise to other bad habits. One day I gave in, picked up the receiver and called Eli Zebbah’s grocery store.
As I picked up the phone I leafed through the store’s free catalogue, thinking idly about what I might eat. Cold cucumber soup or something more substantial – maybe cold cuts; something cold, anyway. I thought out my order, but when the familiar shop assistant answered, all the phrases I had prepared were washed away somewhere and I just stammered: ‘I wish, I would, or actually…’. I expected to be met with questions but in fact all I heard was the familiar word-pair: ‘Of course…’. I realised that I was still far from being the genuine city consumer who grandly stabs at the pictures in the catalogue with his finger, simultaneously shouting his order into the receiver. I felt like a toothless beaver.
My order was accepted, however, whatever it may have consisted of. I was toldit would be at my door in about a quarter of an hour. Great, I thought, that went all right. Despite my inhibitions, I had succeeded in ordering my dinner by phone, just like that. I whistled and snapped my fingers in the American way, putting on my dressing gown in order to look relaxed when the doorbell rang.
But the doorbell did not ring. Not after a quarter of an hour, or even three-quarters. I went out to the corridor, sniffed at the neighbours’ doors, checked that my own doorbell was working, went downstairs to ask the doorman whether he had seen a delivery man. No one had been seen and no one had come.
In the end I phoned the store. No one answered. See, I said to myself. You imagined you were clever enough to order your dinner by yourself, as if you didn’t know it was impossible. Get your trainers on and go to a shop, some quite ordinary shop, pick up a basket, pick up the ingredients for your dinner and then join the queue for the till, just like you ought to.
Just as I had reached the front door, my temples beating because I could not find my keys, the phone rang. I answered, but at first I could hear nothing but fizzing and rustling, a kind of enormous sound that you would imagine you would hear only in the stomach of a whale. Then I could make out a few gentle words: ‘Sorry for the Diegos.’ It was Eli Zebbah himself.
‘Both the Diegos are on the wing,’ he said, uttering the words strangely, referring to his Spanish assistants who, no doubt for reasons of convenience, had the same first name. Not understanding anything, I answered, parrot-like, ‘Of course.’
‘Yes, in these heat waves we sell a lot of drinks,’ Eli Zebbah continued. ‘And I have to keep my staff on the run to get even some of them delivered. There is no two-footed being here any more who could bring them to you and so on. So is it OK if I make the delivery myself, as soon as I can,’ asked Zebbah, and I said again, obediently, ‘Of course,’ even though it felt a bit conceited to be pressing the store owner into action on account of such a small order. I managed to utter some involved objection – ‘but of course you don’t have to’ – which Zebbah quashed:
‘I have to make a delivery to your building anyway. Miss Reynolds, you know, and her lame dog…’.
And soon, really very soon indeed, my doorbell rang, perhaps more cheerfully than it ever had before. I went to open the door, and there was Eli Zebbah. He seemed somehow more vivid than in his store. Was it because of the two large plastic bags he was carrying? Or because of his billowing summer shirt, or the smile which had conquered half of his face? On either side of his smile I saw two red discs. Before that broad smile I had to retreat and make way. Without asking where the kitchen was, Eli Zebbah stepped into it as if he knew all the kitchens in the building, which indeed he probably did. But he did ask whether he should sort the things and put them in the fridge, or whether I wanted to do it myself.
I probably replied, ‘Of course.’ I no longer remember, for at the same moment I heard an enormously long yelp, the kind of thing you can hear from the mouth of a terrier left tethered outside a shop. Eli Zebbah had dropped his plastic bags on the floor; he was holding his temples and howling. At the same time he spun round. I did not know what to do. I would have liked to run away. Why was he howling? What had he seen? Was he suffering a migraine attack?
‘That soup tureen,’ he said tearfully, having at last gained control of his voice and pointing at a porcelain dish on the shelf of my rented one-bedroom apartment. ‘That soup tureen! It is from 1941!’
I had rented my apartment furnished and equipped without paying much attention to the plump soup tureen that lived between books and cassettes. When I looked more closely, it appeared tasteless and deliberately old-fashioned. Along its sides ran a slightly abstract swarm of ants carrying on their necks round objects or onions, ingredients for who knows what soup. The tureen’s four feet recalled some animal that liked to live in water. Why had it caused Eli Zebbah to become so distraught?
‘But it’s… it is the Pfaltzgraff Soup Tureen, the 1941 model!’ Eli Zebbah seemed about to fall over under the weight of his words.
‘I’m sure it is, if you say so. So what?’
‘Sell it to me, sell it at once,’ begged Eli Zebbah.
‘It’s not mine. I can’t sell it. You see, nothing here belongs to me. Everything here belongs to Miss Forrest,’ I assured him. ‘I’m living here temporarily. Just temporarily, do you understand?’
‘That’s what I thought,’ said Eli Zebbah, and seemed already to be calming down. ‘No one can get back that which is lost. I broke that soup tureen. Mother died and can never forgive me. Soup Tureen 1941,’ he continued. His voice sank to a whisper, his movements slowed. He sat down on my sofa, probably not even realizing.
This is going to be a long session, I thought. I went into the kitchen, poured a galss of white wine, placed it in front of Eli Zebbah and said:
‘Here you are. Drink. It’s so damned hot, too. I think I’ll pour a glass for myself too.’
Eli Zebbah grabbed the glass and drank the wine down in one gulp. Having emptied the glass, he gazed deep into my eyes and began to speak in a calm, unusually even voice:
‘I’m not deranged, as you no doubt think. That soup tureen really is the work of Pfaltzgraff. A model from the early years of the war. It was one just like it that broke in my hands when I was trying – even though I wasn’t supposed to – to help my mother in serving lunch. Of course I dropped it. The soup spilled on to the carpet, which absorbed the liquid but left everything more solid unfortunately visible. There was my future. In that mush. I was about eleven. I remember how everyone screamed, mother most of all. I loved my mother and her scream hurt me immensely. ‘I will resurrect myself two or three times if you can make it whole,’ my mother shouted, and I promised. I promised. Although at the same time I knew that there is no glue that can mend a Pfaltzgraff that has been broken into a thousand crumbs.’
‘Would you like another glass of wine?’ I asked. At the same time I wondered where the story would lead, marvelling at how spontaneously New Yorkers sit down on other people’s sofas to complain.
‘I am sorry to bother you. But this has to come out now. I see that you are sensitive and receptive, artist that you are. A composer, isn’t it? That soup tureen did it again. It made me naked. I can’t help it. Thank you, yes, I will, it helps. Really, to speak the truth, I hated my mother.’
‘I, on the other hand, lost mine very early on. I didn’t have time to hate her or to love her,’ I said.
‘That is another road. A miserable one too. I am sorry. But my mother did not love me. Or she loved me in her own way, somehow cruelly. As some people treat their toys. Sometimes cuddling them, sometimes tearing them and spitting on them. Guess what she said when I announced that I wanted to go to Yeshiva University to read something or other. I wanted to go to Yeshiva because it wasn’t far from home. No Harvard, but.’
‘I can’t guess,’ I said, rubbing my lips in the hope of bringing forth more words.
‘This is what she said: “Eli, believe me, you will not be going to any university. We all know that you have dough where you should have a brain. I don’t mean any harm, Eli. It’s good dough. It’s dough that you can make this or that out of.” And when I asked what, she answered, with a sweep of her hand: “Those shortbread biscuits of mine. I have the recipe, you have the head. You will make shortbread biscuits and get rich. You won’t be going to any university. You have a dough head, Eli, believe your mother.” That’s exactly what she said…. But look, I don’t have any wine.’
‘Do have some, apologies for my negligence,’ I said, pouring his glass right up to the top. There went my dinner wine.
‘Of course people even get used to mothers who love gambling or betting, but all the same. When you have a mother who tears your future to pieces and offers you shortbread instead, you have to think about it. I decided to change. I had already felt for a long time’ – at this point Eli Zebbah tried to hide behind his glass – ‘don’t be shocked, but this too must come out, that I am more a woman than a man. Of course I’ve noticed these forearms, this premature stoutness, these peeling temples, all the things that don’t go to make up a fine woman. But after I had consulted a couple of quacks and a couple of competent surgeons, I became convinced that a long operation whose Latin name I have glued to the inside of my forehead would open the double doors to my independent future…. May I continue, or will you tell me to go? Can you bear the word “vaginoplasty”,’ said Eli Zebbah, almost pleadingly, pressing his white wine glass against his nose.
What was I supposed to say? In a way I’d had enough. I had had today’s share of New York idiosyncrasy and was a little tired. A sex-change operation was something I didn’t have an opinion on. At least, not now. I nodded and gazed at the two plastic bags, the food they contained.
‘Tell me, in your opinion, am I sufficiently feminine, just tell me. I’m used to it,’ said Eli Zebbah, fluttering his summer shirt and slowly massaging his forearms.
‘I’m sure you know that better yourself,’ I said, and began instinctively to massage my own forearms, as if it were part of the conversation.
‘You won’t. You can’t. OK. I’m used to it. And that’s what happened. Just when it would have been my turn to be born as a woman, just when the preparations had been made, just as I was ready to lie down on the operating table, mother came between me and the doctor. Symbolically, of course, as this happened at home. We were dining together, the two of us, and I finally dared to confess my plans to my mother. I thought she would scream and break something. But no. She sat where she was calmly, holding the cheese knife in her hand, and looked at me acidly if not frankly disparagingly. And then said, beating the air with the knife: “No you won’t, Eli. You will not have that operation. Even an operation will not make you into a woman. Look at yourself. What kind of a woman do you think you would make? A female hippopotamus. I don’t think I’d want to dine with you any more, Eli.”
‘She didn’t accuse me of being gay. Or curse the fact that she wouldn’t be having grandchildren. She just found my plan hopelessly ugly. She did not see in me the woman I wanted to be. She said: “Squeeze your own father into high-heeled shoes and a corset and see your miserable future. You are so similar. Ineffectual hippos. And if you were ever to become a woman, my boy, you would be an abomination to the human race. You would live mostly in a cupboard and would not even be able to knead dough. If, that is, you were to have the operation that you are not going to have. You will not become a woman and Goofy will not become Venus. This is an order. Go and live as a man!’ said my mother, hitting her plate with the cheese knife.
‘I moved out. I took over my uncle’s shop, which was on the skids. I put it on its feet, extended it and – my mother was right – began to be successful. The shortbread biscuits – how funny it all seems now – my mother’s shortbread biscuits and their supposedly secret recipe. Both the Diegos and all their Hispano friends know the recipe. It’s as simple as a traffic sign. Mother died without ever seeing the unbroken Soup Tureen. And now I’m too old to change sex. I weep when I see, on the television, hospitals, clinics, I weep when I see any operation equipment or the greenish hem of an anaesthetist’s coat. Even at the dentist’s I weep, and when the dentist asks, “Does it hurt?”, I say it hurts. Well, now I must go. Would you give me a piece of kitchen roll. I forgot my handkerchief. That Miss Reynolds’ lame dog…. But, all the same, won’t you sell me the Soup Tureen?’
Eli Zebbah rose to his feet and seemed extraordinarily sensible and calm.
‘You can see, that soup tureen is no longer in use. You can see from how it’s been pushed back there to keep those VHS cassettes standing up, do you understand? And who watches cassettes nowadays? And on what machine? I know Miss Forrest well. I will pay well, and you can pay her.’
‘I’d be happy to agree. But I would need Miss Forrest’s permission. Shall we call her? Why haven’t you asked her yourself, since you know her? Would she have said no? And do you really believe in resurrection?’
‘Let it be. I don’t really know whether seeing this thing has done me any good. So, shall I sort the groceries into the fridge, or will you do it yourself?’ asked Eli Zebbah, as if he had suddenly recovered from his life’s worst fever and at once forgotten it.
‘Thank you, I’ll do it myself.’ I didn’t really know what I should have done. Should I have comforted him, saying that a sex-change operation doesn’t always make a person happier? Some people regret them, in the same way as they regret their tattoos. But I remained silent. Or maybe I gazed at the soup tureen. And all at once Eli Zebbah was gone.
There was still one bag at the kitchen door. One bag. I had imagined that both bags were for me. I was mistaken. I went, took the bag and began to unpack its contents. Very quickly I realised that it was not my order. Even in error, I could not have ordered such an enormous quantity of Organic Pet canned dog food. I turned and gazed at the walls. Eli Zebbah would soon be back, I guessed.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
When I am seven I get a head.
I sit as a model for many weeks. The sculptor lives at school; I sit for my portrait at her house. Sometimes I am allowed to fetch books from the school library and leaf through them. The sculptor has a big, light-filled home. She does not have a husband or children; she has time for my head.
I sit opposite the sculptor, swinging my legs.
Three hours later my dad picks me up in our rust-red Saab 96. We sit alongside each other; we don’t talk.
Dad never locks his car.
A month later, the sculptor says the head is ready.
We go to see it, the whole family.
The concrete sculpture is exactly the size of my head.
The expression is serious but not sorrowful.
The sculptor wraps the head in towels. She says we can keep the towels.
Dad puts the head carefully into the Saab’s boot.
I am grey. I am seven.
At home, the head is placed on top of the dresser.
When I tell her I am moving to France, my mother gives the sculpture to me.
The concrete head weighs ten kilos. I am thirty-seven years old; my head is thirty.
I recline the back seat of my Saab 900 and stuff the luggage space full of clothes and dishes. I shove books and plates under the front seat. I wrap the concrete head in a towel and put it in a basket my mother has given me. I pack the Saab I have inherited from my dead father full of all the stuff that will fit into it. I fill the last spaces with knickers and socks.
I transport the concrete head across Europe. My right foot goes dead on the gas pedal, every now and then I have to wiggle it. Fields and intersections flash by. I have stockpiled nuts in the glove compartment, it is the beginning of September, schoolchildren have been kidnapped in Beslan, Europe is hot. I gulp water from a bottle. I stop at petrol stations for the toilet and to fill up. I wolf down the kilometres, push through the dark. I do not want to leave the Saab outside a -hotel. If someone were to steal the car now, I would lose all of my carefully chosen possessions.
In the dark, I cross the French border and by midnight I am in Normandy.
The streets are deserted.
My man meets me in front of a high cedar hedge.
We unload the car straight away. We laugh.
I lift the concrete head from its basket and place it in an empty space on the bookshelf.
I try to hit the shuttlecock so that the other player can’t return it. Some can’t. I have become a member of the badminton society and am permitted to play with any of its members. I know my numbers from the Eurovision Song Contest. My feet move swiftly over the hall floor, I am in rhythm. I leap high, hitting to the very left of the court. The city police chief tries to return the ball, but he can’t reach. The point is mine. I smile. We don’t need to speak.
I bump into the police chief on the town hall hill. I greet him. A chance badminton club’s opponent has given me the first person I can say hello to. I am delighted. I have come to the town hall to apply for a social security card. I need it. I am expecting a child.
I am standing among people. I have been invited to a party, even though the only guest I know is my husband. I understand nothing of the rapid talk. I try to nod in the right places.
During the night, strange words circulate in my head. I get up and write them down on a piece of paper. I go to the bathroom to drink water. I knock a cough medicine bottle off the shelf under the mirror and into the toilet. The glass bottle shatters and a brown liquid spreads on the white porcelain. I do not have the energy to clear it up; I will deal with the mess in the morning. I lie on my bed. My head weighs a ton.
In the morning I look at the words I have written down on the piece of paper. There are not many of them. I need more words, I need them badly, only then can I open my mouth.
How can I learn to pronounce the words right?
How can I learn to speak fast enough for anyone to want to listen to me?
I tidy up the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror. I pronounce words with exaggerated expression. No one hears how superbly I can speak a foreign language.
Some mornings speaking is more difficult, sometimes it is easier.
The strawberries rot in the bowl. In the morning I cycle over to the market. I tell the stall-holder that she has sold me strawberries that only lasted two hours before they rotted. I say that I am not a tourist. Maybe the woman will understand that after this it is not worth selling me old strawberries or give me the wrong change as she does to those she suspects are English, the ones who will leave the harbour by ship the same evening.
I live here.
As soon as I take the baby in my arms, my mother tongue shoots out of my mouth like a bullet. I begin to speak my own language to my child.
The child cries a lot, she is red and wrinkly and I do not know how to look after a baby. I stay awake. The concrete head gazes down from the bookshelf. With the child in my arms, I walk in the living room, beside the cedar hedge, on the sandy beach.
The toilet gets blocked. I ring the handyman. He says that the roots of the cedar hedge have penetrated the pipes and blocked them. I know the handyman. A month earlier I asked him to change the bathroom mirror. I had thrown my sneaker at the mirror. I was aiming at my husband. The fragments clinked to the floor.
The handyman suggests I claim the toilet repairs on the insurance.
The handyman says that insurance is for crises.
A month later we get the money from the insurance.
But the crisis goes on. The child speaks and walks, you can already explain a lot of things to her, but not this. I can’t explain it even to myself, not in any language.
The mirror is unbroken and the pipes unblocked.
I stand in front of the mirror.
For the first time I notice that I have some grey hairs.
I wrap the concrete head in two towels and set it -carefully in its basket. Dad’s old Saab is full to the gunwales. I stuff naked Barbies into the last spaces. The bottom of the car has rusted in the rain and the damp wind. I fear that the Saab will not make it to Finland. The man from the garage next door inspects the car, but does not promise anything.
The pear tree I received as a fortieth birthday present stays in the green fields of Normandy.
On Whitsunday I set off, driving to the north-east.
I fetch the child later, most precious of all.
I drive the same route back, but the road looks different, as if it had changed in seven years. From time to time there is fog on the road, but I only take a wrong turning once. I sleep in a motel, I don’t care any more if someone breaks into the car.
Just before the German harbour I take a turning into the forest and drive to a sandy beach. I unwrap one of the towels from the concrete head and go for a swim. The towel is soft, it wipes the salty sea water from my skin.
In the car-ferry cabin I look at my temples.
I decide to start colouring the grey away.
When I drive off the ferry at Vuosaari, a mangy fox runs along the hard shoulder.
I walk toward my former home. The linden trees of the Boulevard de France have not grown since I last saw them. They have been well disciplined, branches have been trimmed every year so that they will not block the car-drivers’ line of vision.
I have not been to the house for three years. I have not been invited.
Now I have been.
I have reached the cedar hedge.
I ring the doorbell.
The door opens.
My child stands, smiling, between her father and her grandfather.
I kiss grandfather on the cheeks. He fought in Algeria. At our last Christmas, he showed me his army cap. He still has a soldier’s bearing. He is smiling. He was smiling ten years ago when we were introduced.
Grandmother comes from the kitchen, her apron round her waist, and greets me.
She is just as beautiful as before.
The living-room rugs look the same as they did, as if no one had walked on them since the child and I left.
The painting I nailed to the wall still hangs behind the sofa.
Everything looks the same as before.
I sit next to grandmother and eagerly tuck in to scallops fried in butter. We talk about the rainy weather and the unusual cold. The scallops are excellent. Grandmother has two ways of frying scallops; today she has chosen the one I like better.
The pear tree has grown at least half a metre.
We laugh about it together.
We laugh when the child says she supports France in football and Finland in ice hockey.
Outside, the wind blows.
We talk about pleasant things. The apple cake is soft.
It is time to go. Grandfather helps me on with my coat. The child waves from the door between her father and her grandmother. She will sleep one more night in her French home and return to Finland with me tomorrow.
We have got used to travelling.
I walk. The pavement’s asphalt is completely fractured; it’s bumpier than it was. The linden trees’ roots push at the surface and break the asphalt, and a new layer of asphalt lasts no more than a moment.
It begins to rain.
The rain washes the road clean.
This is my path, this is the way I go.
Before bedtime I brush my teeth in front of the hotel mirror.
My expression is serious, but it is not sorrowful.
I am grey, I am concrete, I am forty-seven.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
I nurse a very small, perfectly formed child. It’s a girl. She smiles openly at me, even though she is so small. There is no doubt, neither about that nor anything else. The girl is the size of a nib pen, and just as exclusive. The nursing is going very well, it doesn’t hurt, and she can suckle without any problems. We are both at ease and yet awake, not introspective. The girl has intelligent eyes.
The milk keeps flowing.
Nothing runs dry.
Everything is obvious and neither of us is surprised. Just the fact that she is so small. Like a fountain pen. She is swathed in strips of bird cherry white bandages – like the ones mum had in her summer medicine cabinet – a cocoon, a chrysalis, but she’s not cramped, just secure. It smells good around us. I nurse my daughter who is perfect and the right size.
One night I give birth to puppies, a whole litter.
One night in the fourth hour, during the dog watch on a boat, I give birth to puppies and don’t think that there’s anything at all amiss here, nothing that’s gone awry. Not an iota that I wouldn’t want to acknowledge my silky smooth offspring. I am, conventionally, bursting with pride and happiness.
I rejoice even more over the fact that I, despite having well-manneredly and conformistly spawned this most Finland-Swedish of breeds – upper middle class, Ullanlinna, almost on the border with Eira¹, it depends how you measure it, everything depends on how you measure it – I have nonetheless also demonstrated independence and a touch of rebelliousness. My dachshunds are not wire-haired, as they should be. They are long-haired.
I, with my motherly silky softness, sit in the middle of the silken litter. Shiny eyes dark as a pond.
I do other things than have children. I’m not just a full-time mummy and pet owner. Sometimes I smuggle weapons to liberation armies. Heavy automatic weapons. That’s exciting too.
Dreams reveal things, and it is not by any means just our own shameful secrets that come out into the light of day. Last night I found out that Astrid Lindgren² had nappies much too small for her children! Too short and stuffed too hard, hard as stone, sullenly crocheted white rolls. Knots.
What a scandal, she’s a national treasure, she’s children’s best friend!
The revelation rocks the foundations of all I hold holy and true.
It’s dangerous, and I don’t dare think about the consequences for society that this knowledge would have if it leaks out: hospitals closed, prizes and awards abolished, booksellers bankrupt, empty shelves in libraries already threatened with closure, an entirely literary genre dragged through the mud.
Of course I have to safeguard children’s literature, I’m not planning on telling anyone.
Sometimes you have to bear your share of social responsibility, keep quiet.
But shame on you Astrid!
Ear against another cushion, no initials, we’ve never been here before. We have saved, slowly approached from the north. Then a sudden decision, a trip at a few days’ notice. In the Eternal City we are just visitors, but perhaps it’s big enough to be a living room for everyone.
Universal right of domicile.
Asylum granted to all who need it.
Tourists are people too, people with dreams. Dreams aren’t just banal.
There’s an island in the Tiber, it’s called Isola Tiberina. There’s a bridge that takes you there. Bridges are good. Street musicians with sleeping dogs play on the bridge.
On the island there’s a church. There’s a maternity hospital there where the city dwellers gather around like waiting wandering doves, like approaching larks ready to soar high into the sky as soon as the first cry of a newborn is heard.
We walk around the island, the stairs down to the river banks and the generously wide quay is right next to the gate to the birthing suites. There is grass. The delicate grass has started to grow at the edges that surround the quay, young people cuddle in circles of daisies, daisies which my mother-in-law calls ‘tinies’.
We also throw ourselves down. More grown up but close.
I think of my girl. I think of my mother. I think of bridges, of ties, of bird cherry white bandages.
The first night after Rome is full of song and music. I lie in my home-bound ship, swaying, rocking in my bunk. Leonard Cohen sits leaning against a tiled wall. In front of him he has an urban meadow with all kinds of flowers, roses too. I pass on the street outside, chicken-wire with clinging vines between us, I praise his plants. Leonard isn’t sociable any more, but like all gardeners he softens when the topic of his flowers comes up.
I ask him to sing something, just like that. Leonard says that he doesn’t want to sing, but he can play so I can sing.
I don’t know what he’s playing, he has so many strings on his lute, but I know that I can’t sing. I can’t even sing in the dream, I who can otherwise do everything, I who gives birth to children and puppies one after the other, I who nurse and understand physics, I can’t sing.
Leonard grows fascinated by my lack of ability, he changes into the ladies’ man he is, and now gives me all of his tender attention. He suggests that we swap, he’ll sing and I’ll play.
Take one of my songs, he says. Take two. But sing first, choose the simplest.
I sing Hi and ho, Deckhand Jansson, the morning wind’s already blowing, last night has rolled by, and Constantia is about to go.³
It goes well. It goes so well that I get into the Theatre School with it! It’s the one I squeeze in with in the scary but obligatory singing element. The jury like my death-defying pluck.
So does Leonard. I had almost forgotten that one, he says. I wrote pretty good stuff in my youth, thank you for reminding me! Let’s hear you play now.
I know all of Leonard’s songs, so I do so willingly. This one has, like all the others, three chords. I play Frog went a-courtin’, and he did ride, Uh-huh…and Leonard is completely smitten. You make me feel like a new man, he says.
And it’s far from Death of a Ladies’ Man.
And it’s far from my inability.
Pick a rose, says Leonard. Take two, the garden is large.
Translated by Claire Dickenson
1. Ullanlinna is a district in Helsingfors (Helsinki) with the reputation of being slightly posh, Eira even more so
2. Swedish author of works including Pippi Longstocking, the Emil books and The Brothers Lionheart
3. a sea-shanty by the Swedish poet Dan Andersson
I met the cat in a bar. And he wasn’t just any cat, the kind of cat that likes toy mice or climbing trees or feather dusters, not at all, but entirely different from any cat I’d ever met.
I noticed the cat across the dance floor, somewhere between two bar counters and behind a couple of turned backs. He loped contentedly from one place to the other, chatting to acquaintances in order to maintain a smooth, balanced social life. I had never seen anything so enchanting, so alluring. He was a perfect cat with black-and-white stripes. His soft fur gleamed in the dim lights of the bar as though it had just been greased, and he was standing, firm and upright, on his two muscular back paws.
Then the cat noticed me; he started smiling at me and I started smiling at him, and then he raised his front paw to the top button of his shirt, unbuttoned it and began walking towards me.
Before long he was standing in front of me in all his handsome glory. It was as if the cat had got my tongue and at first I was unable to utter a word. The famous hits of yesteryear were playing in the background, and the cat clearly felt an affinity with the lyrics, as he was singing along to songs by Cher and Tina Turner with such gusto that I thought he might burst with the force of his own memories.
Give me a lifetime of promises and a world of dreams / Speak the language of love like you know what it means / You’re simply the best, better than all the rest / Better than anyone, anyone I’ve ever met.
What am I supposed to do? / Sit around and wait for you? / Do you believe in life after love? / I can feel something inside me say / I really don’t think you’re strong enough.
The cat leaned his head back and grinned so widely that his chin formed three different chins. The expression on his face was as dramatic and fateful as that of an opera singer arriving at a climax: his eyes had creased shut, his mouth was wide open as though he were about to sneeze and his knees bobbed in time with the chorus from Believe. One paw was clenched to his heart and the other reached out as if to take a lost lover by the hand.
After praising his extraordinary rendition, I looked him in the eyes and smiled.
‘I know,’ he began. ‘Nothing short of astonishing, isn’t it?’
The cat’s white stripes shone in the dark, and the flashing strobe lighting sometimes made him disappear altogether, as though he weren’t there at all. The cat was such a wonderful, beautiful, gifted interpreter that I took him in my arms without waiting for any indication that he might be interested, and straight away I noticed that his silky smooth fur smelt good and that his body was muscular from top to tail. The mere sensation of touching it was so magical that, goodness me, I needn’t have touched anything else ever again.
During one flash of the strobethe cat bounded back on to the dance floor, leaving my arms momentarily embracing nothing but thin air.
I prowled round the bar a few times and started to get agitated. I realised I wanted the cat so much that I’d already decided I would have him. My upper lip tensed, my head was pounding and my focus sharpened. And just then his magnificent, arched back appeared from behind a corner, his long black tail wagged up and down and he crept forward as though he were stalking fresh prey.
The cat stopped a short way away. He peered discreetly – even seductively – over his shoulder and looked me right in the eyes. With his front paw, he gestured for me to follow him, winked at me the way the other men in the bar winked at meand disappeared once again round the corner.
I began following at his command, and before long I was standing right behind him, and I felt like saying what a beautiful cat he was, a truly lovely kitty-cat. After walking across the corridor, the cat found a free table. It was one-thirty in the morning, the music was blaring and the dance floors were crammed with party animals. The cat leapt on to the sofa and settled himself by the table with a look of pride: his eyes were closed and his stately face slanted up towards the ceiling in a truly aristocratic pose. When I sat down on the sofa beside him, he made room for me but still didn’t look at me directly.
‘Well, well,’ he quipped, nonchalantly scratching his chin. Suddenly he was wearing a pair of glasses. ‘And who have we here?’
I mumbled something indistinct, stumbled over my words and stammered. Eventually I managed to spit it out, told him we’d just met, over there, on the dance floor, you hugged me and I hugged you, do you remember?
‘You look terrible,’ he exclaimed in a grandiose tone. ‘I don’t know you and I certainly wouldn’t hug you, ugh,’ he said as though spitting in the other direction. ‘A brute like you.’
I was so shocked by the cat’s judgemental tone that all I could do was sit quietly next to him.
‘Right, hah hah – that was a joke, you wally! We do not know one another, so don’t talk as if we did,’ the cat reprimanded me. ‘But we can get to know one another, hah hah, I’m open to suggestions. Do you want to get to know me or not?’
The moment I said yes, the cat wanted to know things. Everyday things, my name, my date of birth. And I told him my name, and he said he’d never heard such a funny name, such a frightful name, he continued, utterly dreadful, hah hah, laughed the cat. Bekim. It’s such a dreadful name that I’m not sure I want to hear it ever again!
Only now did the cat turn his head towards me, peer through his narrowed cat’s eyes and find a face for the name he found so disagreeable, ears and eyes, a mouth and body. He brazenly crossed his legs, all the while gawping at me, and started guffawing, his mouth set in a grimace.
‘Nomen est omen,’ he said. ‘Did you know that? The name is an omen, hah hah.’
And I told him of course I’d heard that and that it’s just a collection of letters and that, by the way, my name means ‘blessing’. But before I could continue, the cat burst into a volley of such raucous laughter that I could no longer think anything at all, and he rolled and writhed on the spot without trying to control himself in the slightest.
‘Well, in that case it’s the worst possible name for you!’ shouted the cat through the roar of his laughter.
‘Okay, it might well be quite a bad name, but isn’t that a little impolite?’ I said, trying to effect a mature, adult tone of voice.
‘Well, now!’ the cat shouted and sat up straight. ‘Sourpuss. It wasn’t the least bit impolite,’ he said, trying to imitate my tone of voice and continued laughing as though he didn’t care how uncomfortable he was making me feel.
‘Oh, do forgive me, monsieur,’ he began, raised both front paws into the air, and with a pout he began stroking his whiskers at both sides. ‘Or should I say, mademoiselle, hah hah,’ he continued. ‘I didn’t realise I wasn’t allowed to joke about your name. This all seems deadly serious now, doesn’t it, meow!’
I gulped. ‘Do you fancy a drink?’
‘Of course I fancy a drink,’ he replied. ‘And only now you ask me – how rude!’
I stood up and fetched us both a gin and cranberry juice, and when I placed the long drink in front of him, the cat muttered something to the effect of how bloody long it had taken to bring the fucking drinks.
‘There was a bit of a queue,’ I said in my defence. ‘Sorry.’
‘Ooh, what beautiful eyes you’ve got, what beautiful dark-brown hair,’ said the cat once he had relented and unexpectedly leapt on to my shoulder and began stroking my hair.
The tender, soft touch of his paws made my skin tighten into goosebumps, but after only a short moment the cat jumped away again.
‘So, what do you do for a living?’ the cat asked, now serious, and pressed his fingers against his lower lip.
And so I began to tell him this and that, talked about my studies and my lowly job as a postman, my apartment and all the various courses I’d taken at all the various faculties, my hobbies, my likes and dislikes, my free time.
The cat didn’t seem to think my story sufficiently interesting, as his attention drifted and now he was looking at other men in the bar and their behinds. His eyes were half shut and drool trickled from the corner of his mouth.
‘Ugh,’ he said as though he were about to vomit.
‘Gays. I don’t much like gays.’
I was astounded. People don’t come to a place like this if they don’t like gays. When I asked the cat why he didn’t like gays, he explained that he had nothing against homosexuality per se, just gays. Before I could ask him another question and point out that people usually liked gays but not homosexuality, the cat clarified his answer.
‘Naturally, I like all kinds of toms, but I can’t abide bitches!’ he said abruptly and crossed his paws on the table. ‘You have to decide whether you’re a man or a woman,’ he continued and leapt suddenly on to the table, raised his backside in the air and stretched his front paws on the table.
‘Look, just look at that,’ he said quickly, fixed his eyes on the men on the dance floor and wagged his tail. ‘How disgusting. Men’s hands don’t move through the air like that, and men don’t talk the way women talk. And men don’t wear such tight tops or wiggle their bottoms like that – like a prostitute, a whore!’ the cat snapped so loudly that the dancers turned to look at us.
The cat wound his way between the pints of cider and jumped back on to the sofa. Christ alive, and sex between men is even more disgusting! Unnatural through and through. Horrific, absolutely! he declared. Wouldn’t it be easier just to leave people in peace, I asked, and let them be themselves?
‘Hippie,’ said the cat pointedly. ‘It so happens that the world works rather differently. People have expectations and opinions, there’s no getting away from it.’
‘Yes, I think you’re right,’ I said.
‘That would hardly be a surprise,’ he said, wallowing in self-satisfaction as he smugly stretched out his paws and gave a brazen smile.
The cat assured me that his opinion of gays wasn’t based on mere hearsay but on personal experience, for he had once met two gays. He had been backcombing his luxuriant fur in the bathroom of a local restaurant when two gay men had cornered him. According to the cat, the men marched up to him, stood on either side of him and began pointing at his handsome flanks and gleaming tail as they might a piece of meat, and the cat had felt so objectified that he had been forced to stop his preening and cover up his sweet curvature.
A moment later the cat said I should tell him something that would make me special, someone worth getting to know, because otherwise he would go straight home. He thought everything I had told him was meaningless nonsense, as boring and predictable as the government’s budget proposals, ugh, again he almost spat. Good grief, you certainly know how to bore a person so completely and utterly!
‘Now tell me something you’ve never told anyone else!’
At this, as if by accident, I began telling the cat about my past, the country I had come from, about the situations in which people moving from one country to another find themselves, and about the small Finnish town in which I had grown up. The cat sensed that I don’t normally talk about my past, because now he was listening more intently, narrowed his eyes and cupped his paw at the edge of his chin the better to hear through the music.
I told the cat about people for whom my name was always something I had to explain, people who, when I answered their questions and told them where my name came from, were always disappointed. That’s why I’m so wary of it; surely you appreciate that a name can cause more bad than good.
I told the cat about how it always feels as though people are scrutinising my behaviour at school, at work, everywhere, watching how much food I take for lunch and checking to see whether I remember to thank the people working in the canteen, to see whether I write my essays in flawless Finnish and how often I change my clothes.
Whenever we talked about Islam, dictatorships or foreign languages at school, I always lowered my head, as I could feel the way they all turned to look at me. And when they asked me to say something in my mother tongue, some of them even said out loud what a shame it was that speaking such a language was useless here. And whenever I was late, I often heard that it was high time I learned this isn’t a third-world country. Living and going to school in Finland is like winning the lottery. Remember that.
The cat sent me a text message. He told me he was homeless and needed somewhere to sleep. I was writing him a response asking him to come and live at my place when my phone beeped again.
I’m moving in. That’s all it said.
By all means. Welcome! I answered.
I followed this immediately with another message explaining that I have a pet, a boa constrictor. You don’t mind, do you?
Not at all! the cat replied and moved his things in a week later.
Our shared life began promisingly enough, though until then I hadn’t lived with anything except the snake. We shared all our expenses, and gradually the cat got used to the presence of the snake, even dared to touch it, and I thought that perhaps our love could be just like in the cinema: strong and powerful love that needed no questions and wasted no time.
We walked through parks hand in hand, we read the morning paper together, we told one another the things you only tell your lover. The cat asked about my previous relationships, and I told him I had been with both men and women but that nothing had ever come of it and now I was more than content to be with a cat.
I told my cat about my hopes and fears, and the cat told me about his dreams and family. It’s a perfectly normal story. I’m a perfectly normal cat from a normal home and everything about me is normal, normal friends, normal job, yada yada. Not worth worrying about. I never asked the cat why he was homeless, because I sensed that he didn’t want to talk about his financial situation or social position. He would tell me everything when he was ready.
We took baths together and I would read him extracts from my favourite novels. We went rambling and visited spa hotels; we tried our hand at bowling and mountaineering and squash. And every evening we returned to our shared home, both of us convinced that this time it was different, this was fate, these two beings have finally appeared in one another’s lives to make them more worth living.
Then our life began to turn routine, and suddenly we knew one another so well that we had run out of questions to ask. The cat knew not to talk to me for half an hour after I walked in the door, he let me read in peace and kept the sound on the television turned down whenever I went to bed before him, while I knew to lay out the clothes he needed for the next morning, as the cat was terrible at mornings, whereas I was excellent.
One perfectly normal June day, the cat came to the decision that he wasn’t cut out for such a life. It’s the same every day, he said. I have to leave you. I want to leave you. I don’t want to do this any more. A cat, in a world like this, a relationship like this.
At that moment the old Kosovan proverb popped into my mind whereby too many good things can spoil a person. We can achieve good things and they can occur in a variety of ways. If someone has more possessions than he needs, if he is used to being treated too well or becomes too adept at something, he starts to believe that he deserves only the best. He refuses to associate with people other than those who are the same as him. He becomes accustomed to good food and drink, and wonders how it was once possible to drink lemonade with added sugar or smoke the cheapest tobacco. And all the while he thinks other people’s pity is nothing but envy.
Did you really think that we would be together forever, just the two of us? How can you believe something like that? Surely you realise that you are like that and I am like this, and that together we’re not like anything? People should be fined for such abject stupidity.
I got out of bed and walked into the living room. Sami was looking out of the window at the weighty snowflakes falling to the ground, at the light that never ended. He said he’d been thinking about things all night, turned his head and looked me in the eyes.
I wasn’t angry about my father’s death. I was relieved, relieved that he had finally found a way to turn to the only option still open to him. The only thing that made me angry was Sami’s tone when he had asked me, because my father hadn’t been a father to me, not the same way as his had been a father to him.
‘I think it’s high time you told me,’ he began and glanced at his clothes, neatly folded on the sofa.
When I didn’t answer immediately, he shot out a volley of questions, as if it would be easier for me to start from a single detail. What was he like? What did he look like? When was the last time you saw him? Tell me, please, say something, trust me.
I picked up the pile of clothes and said that my father had left this country long ago. As I walked into the bedroom, I told him it had taken months before I even heard he had left. I placed his clothes in the wardrobe, and once I returned to the living room I said it had taken even longer before I heard he had died.
I put a hand on my hip, shifted my weight from one leg to the other and hoped that Sami had more clothes than I did. Then I pressed my hands to my face, as I realised I had never told anyone about my father’s death; I had always said we weren’t on good terms or that he’d left us when I was young.
Sami gripped my shoulder and turned back to face the window, and the snowfall was lighter now, more drifting. He was silent, but his questions weren’t over; they were there in the way he moved his head, in the trajectory of his coffee cup as he drew it closer, in the grip with which he tried to hold me still, and they were in his mouth, in the delicate rhythm in which his lips tried to form words.
For a long time I hadn’t understood my father, because he didn’t view life the same way as others. Whereas other people asked one another what they wished for in life, my father asked people what the wished for in death. He couldn’t understand why people didn’t spend time wondering about the way in which their lives would one day come to an end. It would happen to every one of us; it was the only thing that united us. How on earth can they bring themselves not to think about it, not to discuss it? he would ask, roll his head and eventually burst into laughter.
Then he would start to list ways of dying: cancer, a car accident, suffocation, falling to the pavement, drowning, burning, being shot. Do me a favour, he said. Close your eyes and imagine what it would be like if you accidentally leant against a circular saw and your arm was sliced off and you’d never be able to get it back again. Instead of fingers, there would be nothingness. Or what would it be like to fall from the deck of a ship into the freezing water? The motors would swallow you up in a millisecond no matter how strongly you tried to swim away.
I wasn’t sure whether he really wanted to die or whether all he wanted from death was what it would mean for his nearest and dearest.
A heart attack, a plane crash, a stroke, tuberculosis, cirrhosis, being crushed, being starved, freezing to death. What would you choose? If you could?
Then he would start battering his fists against his head, go into the bathroom, fill the bath and lower himself to the bottom of the tub, as though he imagined he could end his life through the force of sheer will power, or he would tighten a belt around his neck, press a sharp knife against his throat and threaten to cut himself. Then he ran into the bedroom, fetched a pile of blankets from the cupboard and buried himself beneath them and said sorry, Daddy’s very scared now.
And I listened and watched, I listened to his stifled voice and I watched as the blankets shuddered to the rhythm of his flinches, I watched until he began to gasp for breath, and I went to him and stroked his damp back and said I was sorry, and when he vomited at the side of the bed I mopped everything away even before he stood up, and as I stroked him, as I cleaned up the mess he had made, I felt nothing for him but disgust, his viscid sweat oozing between my fingers like egg white.
‘That’s what my father did,’ I said.
I stepped behind Sami to see him more closely, to watch his reaction. Then he turned to look at me, took my arm and wrapped it around him.
‘Thank you,’ he said and slid his fingers between my own.
His hand was warm and strong and squeezed my hand, and I thought of the warmth that existed between our hands, the rustle that occurs as he pulls on an item of clothing I have washed for him, the soft hiss from his nostrils as he breathes against my forehead. Did my father ever experience anything like this?
All those years I wished for him to die, though I didn’t understand what death truly meant. And as I wished for his death, I didn’t realise that one day my wish would come true, nor did I realise that, when it finally happened, I would think of him so often: what clothes he had worn or what pieces of furniture he had acquired, who had cooked for him every day and what kind of crockery he ate from, who tidied his apartment, did he have anyone to change the sheets or simply to check that he didn’t lose too much weight?
And I wonder what my father thought about when he woke up in the morning and remembered he was alone, or on the morning he died. What was my father thinking about when he fetched his revolver from the glass cabinet on that cold, early morning when ice crystals had frozen in the air? Had he had enough of searching for answers or asking questions as he slipped the bullets into the cylinder and cocked the gun? Was he thinking of what he had left behind, I wonder as I picture him placing the barrel into his mouth, his dry lips closing around the barrel, as I catch the taste of metal when my tongue runs along my teeth, as I hear the faint sound of the trigger or imagine how hard he must have had to pull it, and the ice-cold metal stings my limbs, makes my bones ache, pinches them.
A light bursting from the window splits his head in two as I see him there, sitting at the table, and he looks at me, askew, over his shoulder and I wonder, was he thinking about me, was my father thinking about me at that moment as he finally refused to carry on living, in such violent fashion?
I never got an answer, but I’m sure that’s what my father was thinking.
And from time to time, when I hear his voice, I go for a long walk in the forest or down by the shore, and when I come back I take my man by the arm, he is a beautiful, decent man, and I embrace him and ask what he would like to eat, because I know how happy this makes him – and I go shopping with him and sit in the passenger seat of his car and he grips the upper half of the steering wheel with his bare hand, the skin taut with the cold, and he is wearing a pair of sunglasses and I look at his hand, his concave knuckles and his fingers, straight as bullets, and his white skin where the frosted light thickens like brilliant ice.
Translated by David Hackston
I am here now, at this funeral; I’m sitting on a puffy rococo chair which stands in the corner of this large living room – hall – on a Berber rug, one of a series of four pieces of furniture. The fourth is a curly-legged table, painted matt white. I wriggle like anything, trying to rid myself of my too-tight shoes. Fish thrash their tails in the same way. The lady in the dry cleaner’s told me she hates fish. She said that clothes that smell of fish and are brought into her shop make her shake with loathing but also bring her satisfaction because she can wash the awful stench away.
My shoes are impossibly small. They pinch my feet worse every moment. My back aches, too, despite the painkillers. You can’t swallow pills forever, so I just try to find a better position and put up with it. Finally my shoes leave my feet. I kick them underneath the table so that they can’t be seen. I can breathe again. In my shoes I felt as if I were sinking under the ground.
My father once showed me the Stephansdom catacombs. Thousands of people were buried here, before that, too, was forbidden by someone, he said.
Dad’s second greatest passion was the cathedral in the centre of Vienna, its history and legends. Dad took us there whenever he could, no argument. He knew countless details about the church, its forty master builders, the stone it was built of, the roof’s fire and renovation and significance. You can ask me whatever you want about the history of the Stephansdom, I will definitely get full marks.
Despite the coffee, I am very sleepy, and I must stay awake. Painkillers have that effect – as soon as the pain goes out through the door, sleep comes in through the windows. The doctor laughed, good morning! Good cheerful morning to you too, the doctor laughed, because my blood pressure was so low. And said, at least that’s not a problem. Your blood pressure is not a problem. Better low than high, good morning to you! You should drink water. You have to drink a lot of water and take up endurance training, any movement at all, walking, going to the shops, walking up stairs, tending flowers, even house cleaning, but every day. Good morning!
I take a gulp of water.
I have learned: I must drink a lot, little sips throughout the day, because I don’t absorb water. It bypasses my cells and my veins, rinses my bones lightly without actually washing them, leaving my skin dry, like a downpour on stony loam. The water runs through the soil rinsing even the roots on to the plate and over the edge of the plate, the water runs in streams along the side of the cabinet and on to the floor, drips off the edge of the cabinet into the cracks in the floor, as a result of which the floor may begin to swell, mould may appear, an expensive catastrophe. Keep water inside yourself, lie in bed on your back with your mouth shut and do not move. I have read: 80 per cent of people is made up of water. Water is made up of oxygen and hydrogen. In addition, people contain minerals, such as calcium and magnesium, and trace elements, such as iron, zinc, copper and iodine. There are also poisons, such as lead and mercury.
Yesterday I had thought: the funeral is tomorrow. Tomorrow they are burying Kerstin, and it is wrong. Most of the things in the world are wrong, most things are this kind of struggle.
When I was twenty-four I stopped off on a whim on the way home at a toy shop, because there was a noticed taped to its window about a teddy-bear maker’s apprenticeship. I thought, why not, why shouldn’t I do some useful work. The toy shop was full of toys carved from wood and teddy bears of different sizes, dressed in various ways. I was immediately drawn to a bear standing there in a yellow rain suit, with a yellow rain-hat. Its black nose gleamed. I touched the bear’s paw and said hello to it. The toy-shop owner was a grey-haired woman who said Good afternoon from behind the counter in a tired voice. I was the only customer in the shop and the woman was naturally sad because her clearly winning and pedagogically valuable products did not attract the demand that she believed should have been theirs. She did not know how to market her products more effectively. How to get people to want her gifts. She was not certain of the toy shop’s future. I said I had read the notice in the window and asked whether it was still current. The toy-shop women only listened to half of what I had to say. I had thought I would bring her happiness by responding to her notice, but it turned out that the opposite was the case. The woman asked my age and said I was much too old.
I thanked her for the information and left the shop in astonishment. For the first time in my life I realised what it means for someone to really say ‘no’. What it means for something to be too late. And I had the uncomfortable feeling that this should not have been news to me, but something I should have realized a log time ago. It was awful. That inflexible no. It gave me the creeps. I said thank you, yes of course, stepped out of the toy-shop door and walked along the familiar road home at the same pace as I had walked from my work to the toy shop. No slower or faster, but at exactly the same pace, as if I were not ashamed at all, as if nothing had happened.
The living room smells of sandwiches left out at room temperature, of continually flowing coffee, of black, damp clothes, of restrained sweat and the salt of tears. Just then I feel like some cucumber. I take a big pile of it on to my plate, and cheese, and withdraw into a corner with them. It’s out of the question that I should buy anything as terribly expensive as cucumber and cheese myself.
But then I can’t eat them after all. The sheer quantity suddenly makes me feel sick. I don’t know anyone here. I try to put the cucumber and the cheese back on the serving platters so that they still look new and untouched. They are new and untouched. I don’t want any food to be thrown away just because of me. I don’t put anything back that I’ve touched with my hand, just the ones that I’ve moved with a clean fork.
You can’t eat standing up. You just can’t. I try to sit down, but I fall between two chairs, luckily I don’t fall down on to the floor. Someone comes up again. Says something. My condolences. I’m not sure whether he means this embarrassing slip or Kerstin, presumably both. He helps me on to a chair. I say thank you, but nothing else. The person goes on standing there for some time. I don’t know who he is, either. I’d like to know. I’d like him to tell me a story, it could have animals in it, animals and children, I’d like him to ask me any questions at all, I’d like him to ask me to tell stories, stories in which I remember Kerstin. I would tell him how I often went to the zoo with Kerstin and sometimes on a boat.
Any old boat was good enough, as long as it was in the water. Kerstin liked it, she liked water. Love is knowing what the other person likes and what she wants and hopes for, isn’t it? Love is listening. And taking seriously. I’d like to talk about it. But the person doesn’t say anything. He stands there for another moment. Then he says he’ll take this glass away. I don’t say anything. I think: just as well.
I’ve always done all the organising in this household simply to please others. And ever since I was a child I’ve been told: don’t try to please others. Dad said: it’s not worth being a stereotype, otherwise you will never think of anything of your own and your life will not go forward. Ilse said: you don’t have to please other people all the time. And all that same that’s exactly how things had to be. Kaspar Hauser became an animal when he was with the animals. Nothing in a human being comes from himself or herself, without other people you dry up like a prune, talk like a chicken, eat like a horse.
I begin to collect the plates. I’m so feeble that I can only carry two cups at a time. I notice that people are giving me pitying looks. I raise my hand as a sign, no, this saying no works perfectly well, I see, if someone is about to rise and ask me to sit down. I don’t want to sit down or to be helped, I want to walk, I want to walk from one room to the next, to try Bea’s method. I’ve decided to buy new tweezers, just like Mark said. I have decided to throw the old ones away, if ever they condescend to turn up.
Now that people are talking about remorse, I begin to think that in a way I could say that Kerstin was also more of a child than a sister to me. Bea and Leo, they are my siblings, but Kerstin was more like a child, everyone’s child. That’s exactly what Kerstin was: everybody’s child. Whenever necessary. If someone needed some creature that they could look after or educate or perhaps even discipline a little, whom they could use to put pressure on other members of the family or officials, Kerstin was always available. And Ilse? What about Ilse? Was Ilse my mother? Did the fact that I have spent nine months inside that person make her my mother? Yes, of course it did. And nevertheless I would say no. No, Ilse was my aunt. The kind of aunt you address formally. Ilse addresses me formally. That’s how she keeps her distance. Denies me. Ilse is a ball and chain. Ilse is a storm, a lurking danger, a good educational method, the kind that was used to keep gladiators alive, just the same thing: if their concentration wavered for even a second, they could lose their head.
Bea, too, comes into this guest room, now a storeroom. She says: Is this where you are, among the boxes? You’re always disappearing, where is it that you go, you were just the same as a child, ants in your pants. I’ve put a new cake on the table, you haven’t eaten anything today, or have you. Bea stands next to me, she’s standing there now, fingering the things in one of the boxes. She’s standing so close to me that I can smell her skin and her hair. She says: I’m gradually clearing and sorting Kerstin’s things, I’ve put the ones that can be thrown away on the left, so I suppose that’s the ‘rubbish’. I’ve put the things we want to keep on the right. For example most of the summer clothes, since summer’s coming. It’s quite difficult to work out what belongs with what, but on the other hand it can’t do a lot of harm. Most of it’s old and ragged.
For me, ‘these rags’ are the loveliest of treasures. Toys, tent-like dresses, tights, ankle-socks, gloves, t-shirts, sleeveless tops, scarves and belts. I pause for a moment in my examination of the things, because I’m trying to remember the words to that Easter hymn, how annoying, since of course I’ve known them. Then happily I get the words in the right places, just by singing, the same segments many times once after another, and I try not to think pointlessly, first one word at a time and then in little rushes, sentences, the lines I once learned by heart begin to come back in the right order. I haven’t found any tweezers or any hats, but I can still find these words. My head is so full of the same thoughts, always the same thoughts. I have read: Each of us thinks thousands of thoughts a day, of which more than half are old, familiar repetitions. Have they became a mad spider’s web? Almost nothing I look for can be found. Not people’s names, not years, not place-names, not foreign words. But now I did find the words of this song. Christmas, Easter. Johann Sebastian. Vom Himmel hoch. O sacred head sore wounded.
Who can say whether bronze is more expensive than copper, on what basis it’s better to receive a golden gift than a silver one?
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
When I was seventeen, I yearned to leave behind the small town where I grew up. I heard the owl hooting in the forest: go to Europe.
I heard the dirt-track gravel crunching beneath my shoes: run, lad, run.
The birch in the yard rustled and whispered: if you spend one more summer hanging around the garden of your childhood, you’ll stay here forever.
A frog in the ditch gave a stern croak: look at your father; if you don’t escape you’ll end up an old codger just like him.
Even the smoke twirling up from the sauna chimney spoke to me in billows: I’ll show you the right direction, head south, and don’t stop until you see the first camel.
I spent the month of June digging graves to scrape together enough money for an Interrail ticket. Grave digging was a painfully slow pursuit. The only person allowed to use the Bobcat was the full-time employee, Anttonen. He drove the thing up and down the lanes, its forklift in the air, while a guy called Jussi and I shovelled earth, sweat running down our spine. The earth was still frozen at the beginning of June, and Jussi and I spent hours battering the ground with iron spades to hew out even the smallest of pits. To round off the afternoon, Anttonen would pull up beside the pit in his Bobcat and shake his head. No, boys, no, he said. Kids these days can’t do a thing. Then he and the Bobcat would finish off the pit in five minutes. It was our job to clear up all the sand and mud and clay that Anttonen had scattered around him, gather it into a pile and hide any exposed bones so as not to scare the relatives. All this as unpaid overtime. Anttonen careered out of the gates in his Bobcat.
On one occasion, in a pile of mud left by Anttonen’s Bobcat I found the skull of a woman with only a few blond hairs left in its scalp. The skull spoke to me: why haven’t you left already, lad? If you don’t leave soon, you’ll rot in this place just like me. First the flesh, then the hair.
I quit the very next day. I had less money than I’d hoped for. I managed to buy my Interrail ticket and had a bit left over. I packed a few hunks of salami and a head of cabbage. My travelling companion ended up being a punk girl from my home town whom I barely knew and who said she wanted get the hell out of Europe and head for Africa. The girl’s name was Donald. First we ate the head of cabbage; that kept us full for four days. It made us fart a lot, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to fart in a six-person carriage because we didn’t really know one another, so instead we took turns going out into the corridor. We got as far as Avignon. Women didn’t dance along Avignon Bridge, as I’d been taught to sing at school. On the bridge we ate the remains of the cabbage and started on the salami. It made us thirsty, we had to drink from a nearby fountain. In the south, water is pumped into fountains straight from pure mountain springs, and people drink the water.
They didn’t drink from this fountain though. I ended up with terrible stomach cramps, it felt as though the muscles were wrenching themselves free from my ribcage, and I was forced to lie in a bug-infested hostel bed for three days. Donald drank from the same fountain every day but didn’t get ill. Bloody duck. Eventually they moved me from the ten-person room into a single room, because my groans were apparently scaring off all the guests. Our host tried to explain that his hundred-year-old grandmother was dying. He asked me for an extra payment; I said I couldn’t give him anything because someone had pinched my wallet while I’d been lying there ill. He kicked me out; you could hear the curses two blocks away.
Of course nobody had taken my wallet. All my money was in a stomach pouch, which I had kept in my underpants. The pouch had changed colour with the progression of my stomach bug, as had the money inside it. Down at the riverside I soaked the banknotes until they were clean, above me the curve of Avignon Bridge, where there were still no women dancing. They must have moved to the local discos.
Eventually the banknotes turned from brown to green. I dried them on the embankment of the River Avignon, and placed small pebbles on top of them so that they wouldn’t be blown away. I watched the people fishing. Two dark-skinned men came up to me, their faces like the surface of a shrivelled raisin. They had noticed my money and had come to rob me. I hastily gathered up the notes and decided to jump into the river. The waves gushed at me: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. I never managed to wade out into the current; the men were already right next to me.
I decided to kick the one closest to me in the nuts before he could ask me anything. My thighs were so stiff from all the crouching that I couldn’t raise my leg more than five centimetres. The men asked me to look after their things while they went swimming. They piled up their clothes and wallets and glasses and jute shoulder bags and a pocket camera right there in front of me and went splashing into the water. I could easily have made off with their possessions and they wouldn’t have had time to run after me.
I waited for them to climb back up the embankment. I didn’t have the energy to run. The men thanked me and offered me some food from their bag. One of them took a photograph of me with the pocket camera. He asked for an address so he could send me the picture. I’d been warned against giving my address to strangers. As a precaution I gave them my grandmother’s address. If they turned up in Finland with the intention of robbing me, let them rob Grandma’s place, let them take all the hideous ornamental glass vases and the cuckoo clock that startled guests twenty-four times a day.
Later that autumn Grandma received a letter containing a photograph of me standing on the river embankment. Grandma said that I looked like a prisoner released from the Bergen–Belsen concentration camp. After my stomach bug I was nothing but skin and bones, and as I’d lain there ill the hostel owner had cropped my hair short because he’d thought I might have lice. Donald thought my shorn hair made me look like Johnny Rotten; it seemed a stomach bug suited me.
On the back of the photograph was a text. I had been certain that the men were after my money, that they would threaten to come to Finland all the way from Avignon and kill me if I didn’t give them anything. I gave the text to Tuija, a girl at school who studied French, and asked her to translate it. She told me it read: Heartfelt greetings to the boy from the North. Ahmed & Abdul.
When I look at that photograph I still hear the waves whispering: swim, lad, swim, we’ll carry you to the first palm tree. We’ll take you to Paradise.
Translated by David Hackston
He’s there in the living room. We’ve gotta be very quiet. I left the computer on, and the reading lamp. I’ll go in and turn them off, quietly. Or the computer at least. I can watch Emmerdale on the little tv in the kitchen. You wait here. OK, I turned off the computer but I left the lamp on so I wouldn’t wake him up. I put his nap blanket over him. He’s laying on his left side now. That’s good. Whenever he wakes up on his right side he gets awfully grumpy. Let’s go in the kitchen so we don’t disturb him. The poor guy. It’s been hours since he’s had a good sleep. You know, I think it’s the depression again. It started on Monday when he was supposed to go to his guide’s job.He didn’t taste his breakfast, even though I brought it to him in bed. I had to go to the hospital, my shift was starting, and he just laid there in the bedroom with his eyes open… I don’t know how long it’s gonna last this time. Last month he was depressed for three days. I think it’ll pass more quickly this time because he’s napping a little bit, and licking his paw now and again.
I decided to have a perfect summer wedding, kind of like Jemina’s was last summer, but different. Jemina started doing her wedding arrangements a year and a half beforehand. It wasn’t enough time. Her schedule was so crammed for the last couple of months that she had a nervous breakdown and was sent to a mental hospital. I decided I wasn’t going to get caught in that trap, so I started planning my wedding three years before the deadline. A Midsummer wedding was a must – otherwise what’s the point – and it had to be in a big church – the cathedral, of course. They have the best decor.
The minute I told my friends there was a wedding in the works I immediately had five volunteers: Kelly, Ann, Jenna, Melina, Sara and Tiia. I chose Kelly, Sara and Melina to be bridesmaids because they’re uglier than me. The show was on the road. I called Dad in Brussels and he promised me ten grand right away, but that’ll hardly pay for anything. So I called my grandpa in Madeira and he was totally excited and said he would send me twelve grand. He always tries to show Dad up. The rest of the money came from Mom (who whined about always being the moneybags), and my godmother, who’s a make-up artist, and loves a party, plus my aunt, who sent me five thousand. She thinks Mom, who’s her sister, is a stingy, deadly bore. So – excellent! I had forty thousand in the wedding kitty.
I spent a few weeks browsing the web, looking at a gazillion wedding planning sites, and I found a US company that’ll handle all the little details and the swag – napkins, origami, bows, that sort of thing…. All that little stuff was ten thousand for two hundred guests. Then there was the wedding gown. I checked out every bridal shop in town but they were all truly horrible. So me and the girls took three trips to Stockholm, then I found exactly what I wanted in Paris. And it was as cheap as the average price here in Helsinki, just five thou. Plus the shoes, bag, gloves, underwear and stockings of course. I got all those on the Champs Èlysèes for less than seven thousand.
So I had the dress, the swag, and the church. Dad helped me get into Halikko Manor for the reception. All this took two years. Then I had to put together a menu, and a program, and a guest list. And the gift registry, of course. I planned the menu with the chef at Halikko. He was super cool from the very first moment we met. I spent five wonderful weekends with him.
So on Midsummer Eve eve Dad arrived from Brussels and I showed him everything me and the girls had put together. He just sighed, he was so proud of me. That evening while he was tasting the wine and admiring me, he asked who the groom was. I was like, the groom? And Dad was like, didn’t Jemina have some hairy dude at the altar to say I do? And I was like, yeah. So I called the girls and I was like, what’re we going to do? Sara said I should ask Jasu to be the groom. He goes to Tech. Just the sort of thing a techie’s good at. I told her I can’t ask Jasu, he’s a head shorter than me. Then I thought of something. I called the chef at Halikko and asked if he would walk down the aisle with me and do all the stuff a groom does at a wedding. He said he didn’t see why not, except that he was already married. I told him that was no problem, and he showed up and handled all the groom’s choreography very professionally. He was perfect.
Before I left for work I told Rosie I wanted the floors spic and span before I got home. Mack’s job was to wash and dry a week’s worth of laundry. I didn’t have to say anything to Betsy. Just a glance and Betsy knows the bread should be baked and ready by five o’clock.
I got home about five minutes to five. Rosie was sitting in the middle of the living room floor, hardly even started before she got stuck on the fringe of the rug. A quick kick and a squeal and she was on the job again. All that was waiting for me in the kitchen was a guilty silence. I said what now. Betsy was sitting helpless, full of flour and yeast, and nothing to show for it. I looked at the plug. She was plugged in like she should be. Oh for God’s sake. I forgot to turn her on when I left. I apologized and she gave a cheerful whistle and got to work. I went to the laundry room. Mack had all his chores done. His bright eye shining cheered me up and I started ironing the undies. Before I knew it Betsy gave a shout from the kitchen to let me know there was oat bread with flax seeds ready to eat.
My girl came to see me from Bucharest on my ninety-first birthday and she threw me a party and invited everybody in town. Five of us altogether. Drinking good coffee, sopping it up with some nice sweetrolls, shooting the breeze. Then when everybody’d left my daughter looked at me with her head cocked for a minute and then she says, how about we make you a ‘profile’ on Facebook. I said those skypes we been doing once a week was plenty enough for me. But she wouldn’t give it up. She ordered me to sit down at the machine. I said there aint nothing in my life I want to write about on there. So she thinks for a long time and then she fairly jumps in her chair and gets an idea and says let’s not make a page for you, let’s make one for Pekka, and she takes a close-up of Pekka’s face and then a full-length one with him sitting there in his lazyboy, all ears.
So then she goes back out to Europe and I’m here looking at Pekka’s page. There were two messages. One was from her in Bucharest and the other one was from Laura in Kallio, down in Helsinki. So I write a message to this Laura saying Pekka’s outside right now looking at the birds. And Laura answers that she just finished eating and now she’s going to go loaf around. That’s how it started. Three years ago. Now Pekka’s got three thousand two hundred and three followers, all over the world, from Brisbane to Petsamo. The ones he’s friended the deepest are this hairless fellow named Petro in Brazil and this one Cantonese guy named Shuin. That Shuin is awful smart, always thinking up all kinds of stuff to do. Seems like half the world is amazed at the stuff Shuin thinks up. Now I’m a monolingual person, I only speak the normal language. Cause when I was little there was just the two-week traveling school. Rest of the time I was working in the barn with the cows. But Mr Google’s there for us linguistically challenged people. I copy the messages and posts that Pekka gets in that chopstick Chinese and paste them in for Mr Google to translate and just like that I’ve got the thing back in my normal language. Then I write Pekka’s posts in my own language and there’s Mr Google to translate it into any language I like.
Used to be I felt so lonely was afraid I might turn into an artist. Now any time I have a hankering for company I just go to Pekka’s Facebook and there’s somebody there wanting to chew the fat. I tell them how the hunting went in the shed this morning and how I got myself a nice fat mouse under the old bread table again.
Translated by Lola Rogers
Poems from Helise, taivas! Valitut runot (‘Ring out, sky! Selected poems’, Siltala, 2014). Introduction by Marja-Leena Mikkola
Who will tell me why white butterflies
strew the velvet skin of the night?
Who will tell me?
While people walk, mute and strange
and they have snowy, armoured faces,
such snowy faces!
and the eyes of a stuffed bird.
Who will tell me why in the morning, on the grass,
the thrushes begin their secret game?
Who will tell me?
While black soldiers stand at the gate
in their hands withered roses
such withered roses!
and broken tiger lilies.
Who will tell me, quietly in the sun’s shadow
how to bare my heart?
Who will tell me?
Come to me over the fields
Come close and softly
Open the clothes of my heart.
Speak to me of love
but not until tomorrow
for if you speak today, you will be speaking to a dark river.
Its water does not stop
no merry lantern in the boat
no weird, happy choir of the fish.
Look at me tenderly
but not until tomorrow
for if you look at me today, you will be looking at a pale moon.
Its light does not warm
no swallow’s feather circulates in its blood
never does it taste of May lilies.
Come closer to me
this very day
for if you leave today, you will leave me forever.
And I will not find you
I will never learn to know you
never listen to the voice of your heart.
Come closer to me
this very day
come and talk to me, touch me, look inside me.
My sorrow will not go out
if you leave without touching my hand
my sorrow will not go out, if you turn away from me.
You, you do I love.
The night presses a dark garland to my brow
so I may not see you.
How do the birds fold their wings!
How do the waters rush beneath the rocks!
How do the forests rise with the winds!
And the clouds’ rains turn to stone.
You, you do I love.
The night presses a dark garland to my brow
so I may not see you.
How the universe calls to me!
How the stars scream through my temples!
How the children weep on the world’s shores!
And above the sea rises the smoke of hearts!
You, you do I love.
Like a boat on an early morning river
moves your soft hand.
No my friend, love is not born into the world
as you wait for mercy from heaven, the pity of the powerful.
No my friend, as long
as all that is left of bread are crumbs in the baker’s palm
let speaking of love remain the ravings of priests.
Let the Lions keep their sweet-baskets!
The non-aligned humanists their fine phrases!
This wrong cannot be fought with flowers.
This blood cannot be staunched with soft sympathy.
The bellies of the hungry cannot be filled with kisses.
Whose side are you on?
Whose flag do you carry?
Love cannot be born without justice,
justice cannot be born without struggle,
struggle without a united front.
From Maallisia lauluja (‘Earthly songs’, 1974)
The children run away.
But the mothers
walk silently in their back gardens.
My mother, too, eternally carries
an ash-bucket to the roots of the berry bush.
The children run, they run away.
But the mothers
still sit somewhere on a porch.
My mother, too, eternally peels
earthy potatoes in a corner of the porch.
The earth cracks, the sky freezes.
I cannot find the way to the end of the universe.
But mother, she is in the garden,
she walks across the August evening
to cover my pumpkin-head with a tea-towel.
From Seitsemän rapua, seitsemän skorpionia (‘Seven crabs, seven scorpions’, 1979)
From the hustle of Patras
I came to old Corinth.
On a horse’s torso I rode
in to the ruins
to listen to the space of time.
I did not seek the footsteps of the apostles,
not Paul’s reproaches,
but words of love,
that which is never lost.
And so shadows ran
on the ancient steps,
and so feet hurried on the marble,
and arms, like ivy,
embraced the existent without which
life cannot be lived,
and in the museum case the doll quivered,
the translucent statue staggered
and hailed its companion,
for the gods’ flights
left us this giddiness
which is called love,
and in its glowing sun
the whole of the Peloponnese glowed.
From Kolmas sisar (‘The third sister’, 2011)
In November Päijänne blackens.
But under the water gleams
the starry sky of vendace galaxies.
The reindeer moss sleeps. The porch grows cold.
The twinflower’s path becomes invisible.
By the sauna a timid gnome
sniffs the dry trace of smoke.
Gloomy, bleak snaps Päijänne.
The darkness fluffs the island’s mane.
And the wind rises, the silver birch’s
In the morning dusk the first frost of winter
sticks to the fox’s paws.
In November Päijänne blackens.
But under the water waits
the blind, unborn summer night.
Free, massive splashes Päijänne.
you who fly and lift,
splash the soul like water,
do not ever disappear.
Take me with you, detach me from the earth
as a mist lifts,
as steam rises from horses on a frosty morning
and a folk song runs towards me
in a red-hued dress,
take me with you, dazzle me and throw me
over the edge,
over everything pallid and anaemic,
over the murky and the mean,
over the narrow and the haughty,
to where the night sun
rises onto the roof and pisses gold.
you elf’s cap,
you lily of the valley’s doorbell,
you swallow’s sledge, you holy giddiness,
you blessed leap into the lilac’s fire.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
The red sphere of the sun plopped into the sea.
At 23.09 official summertime Köpi announced the reading from his wind-up pocket-watch.
‘There she goes,’ commented Aimo, gazing at the sunken red of the horizon, ‘but don’t you think it’ll pop back up again in another quarter of an hour, unless something absolutely amazing and new happens in the universe and the solar system tonight!’
Aimo pulled long, accelerating sweeps with his oars, slurped the phlegm in his throat, spat a gob overboard, smacked his lips and adjusted his tongue on its marks behind his teeth. There’s a respectable amount of talk about to come out of there, thought Köpi about his old friend’s gestures, and he was right.
‘Sure thing,’ was Aimo’s opening move, ‘darkness. Darkness, that’s the thing. I want to talk about it and on its behalf just now, now in particular, while we’re rowing on the shimmering sea at the lightest point of the summer.
‘A good 4.5 billion years ago there was a massive jolt in the Milky Way in roughly these regions. A lump of space-matter about the size of Mars – an asteroid – had strayed into the orbit of a planet-in-formation called Earth, driving towards it full speed ahead, slap-bang-wallop. The collision was so huge that the cores of both participants melted together in the heat it generated, after which they gradually cooled down and solidified into the core of the Earth, upon which, some considerable time later, the pyramids, the Uusimaa Bonk Centre and the Isokari lighthouse were built.
‘Fragments and other loose stuff was thrown into space to orbit the Earth in a disc. Gradually they came together as a result of the laws of gravity and formed a little ball, the Moon.
‘It’s this cosmic shock we have to thank for both our existence and the length of our days and our months.
‘The collision also slanted our revised planet’s axis of rotation to a slant of 23.5 degrees. And it’s like this, individually rotating on our tilted axis, that we still roll our orbit around the Sun, and the Moon does its own trustworthy work around us. And our speed has remained constant for billions of years: a full orbit takes exactly a year.
‘The seasons are the result of the fact that the Earth’s axis was permanently stuck in a slant, however much we orbit the nuclear power station of the Sun along our beautiful elliptical spatial track. So at different points on the track the rays from this hydrogen generating plant hit the surface of our globe at different angles. A large angle means long days and heat waves, a small one long nights, darkness and cold.
‘In what relation and what intervals these occur depends on what part of the globe you happen to live on. For us, living near the north pole, the radiation of the Sun’s nuclear reactor reaches us, on average, at a small angle. And just as well!
‘It is the climates generated by the annual variation in this radiation angle that have offered the possibility for the development of life on our planet. We must be grateful for light and heat, but just as grateful for darkness and the essential cooling it allows.
‘More than once, in the process of evolution, darkness and cold have turned out to be saviours of our developing species. The dinosaurs celebrated tens of millions fo years as autocrats of our spherical plot in entirely tropical conditions, until, 65 million years ago, Mexico was hit by a sufficiently large object from space to raise a cloud of dust that obscured the Sun. Plants died and the food-chain of the gluttonousdinosaurs was severed at the stem. So they, too, kicked the bucket, in hunger and cold.
‘Rat-like small mammals, our grandparents, coped better with these cold, dark conditions, feasting on the carcasses of the dinosaurs, multiplying and covering the Earth. In 50 million years, evolution rattled on, making apes from primal rats.
‘The present day began five million years ago, when humankind got up on its back feet near the Great Rift Valley of Africa. The cooler climates played tricks, bringing about every now and then – at least once in a hundred thousand years – ice ages an other irritations. We big-brained, dexterous swots had a good chance of doing well in the savannah’s battle for survival in these varying, difficult surroundings, these chilly, dim mists.
‘And after many exciting and sometimes hairy adventures, we conquered all our competitors and invented fire, the combustion engine, industry, the pocket computer, reality TV and insatiable markets. This gave the dinosaurs the opportunity for revenge from beyond the grave.
‘In our factories and in our cars, we’ve burned so many of the hydrocarbons that condensed out their carcasses in the bowels of the earth that the carbon cycle of our space garden, rotating on its tilted axis, has been disturbed. The carbon that was locked away in the earth has been sprinkled on the winds to clog the system’s natural ventilation. The thermostat is broken and the greenhouse is getting hotter.
‘We shall have to see what happens.
‘As we wait for the thrilling finale, it’s worth enjoying the cold, dark season whenever we have it. Nothing is more refreshing than horizontal hail on a slippery road on the way to work in the pitch dark! You really feel you’re alive – la condition humaine!’
‘And what about dark literature,’ interjected Köpi at the helm, refreshed by the mental image of late autumn. ‘Who do you think is the world’s darkest writer?’
Aimo rested his oars and thought for a moment before answering. ‘The American Ambrose Bierce. He is such a dark writer that he sheds a clear light from more than one hundred years ago. Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary is a colourful smear campaign of civilisation, one of a kind. This work has even been translated into Finnish, but so messily and modestly that I have left it be and translated it from the original as much as I’ve been able. It has a great definition of November: NOVEMBER (noun) The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.’
‘I remember those too,’ said Köpi delightedly. ‘That book is one of my favourites.’
The oarsman and the helmsman began to remember Bierce’s dictionary entries and definitions. A considerable hullaballoo and tumult of laughter spread over the calm waters of Hamskerinaukko, but never mind – the nearest human habitation was kilometres away. The following Bierce definitions, at least, were recalled through two-headed collaboration and collective fraternal effort:
MARRIAGE (noun): the state or condition of a community consisting of a master, a mistress, and two slaves, making, in all, two.
LIFE (noun): a spiritual pickle preserving the body from decay.
PHILOSOPHY (noun): a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.
TRUTHFUL (adjective): dumb and illiterate.
‘To read a good book is a work of art,’ said Köpi, ‘A good book turns its reader into an artist. If you can’t read well, enthusiastically and fearlessly even when the text happens to be strange, you will never learn to write, in other words to live. Without readers there would be no literary texts. The text itself is a bunch of clues offered to the reader, enticing him or her to form a chain of black marks into meaning.
‘Modern physics shows us that the world is empty.
‘Modern aesthetics shows us that literature consists of gaps.
‘The masterworks of world literature are really strange, shapeless, uneven, scabby and feral: Don Quijote, Oblomov, Huckleberry Finn, Pride and Prejudice! A good reader and citizen trains over the course of his lifetime in the capacity to encounter strangeness fearlessly.
‘In Finnish, the root of the most important doing word of our lives, tietää, to know, is tie, road. The word entered the Finnish language at a time when the road was not a four-lane asphalt canyon dug out of the ground, signposted and lit, but a route through virgin forest and swamp that you had to know in order to follow. True knowledge, tietäminen, is independent wandering, route-finding, rambling, continual travelling to new, often unknown destinations.
‘Everyone is a traveller, a writer, an eternal student, an eternal writer, an eternal sceptic.
‘The terrain is difficult.
‘We live in a cultural space in which anything can be anything. Things only have exchange value. Whatever is on top at a given moment is true. Our production institutions do not produce things that are good to use, but things that generate the most profit.
‘The artist, in other words the poet, in other words the human being, makes cracks in this mass delusion, cracks through which the world flows into our lives. True knowledge flows. Unknowedge, the lack of true knowledge, is the root of all evil. Wise laughter is the source of all good.
‘The funniest Finnish plays, Nummisuutarit [Heath Cobblers] and its little sister, Kihlaus [The engagement], are made up of tragic materials, unsuccessful love and final loneliness. Aleksis Kivi’s laughter, however, is not mocking but comforting. The first laughter in the universe came from a cavewoman who laughed at her self-important caveman, the tribe’s Great Hunter; she taught him to laugh, even at himself.
‘In the beginning was Error. Life is a matter of stumbling and wandering. The world isn’t complete until the day we die. Until then all we can do is row bravely on. The destination, however, is fixed: our own grave. It is comforting to think that we will find our way there and that even the weaker oarsman will find it and have the energy to reach it. Everyone will get there! The reindeer herder of Lake Sevettijärvi, Sofi Oksanen and the former Communist Björn ‘Nalle’ Wahlroos are all on their way to the same place.
‘In America there are apparently some rich materialists who do not consent to this, but have instead given instructions for their bodies to be frozen at the moment of death, in order that future science should bring them back to life. There is the risk that the world will end first. If I were God, in other words the Greatest Humorist, I would, wilfully, bring everyone back to life, the most drunken Sevetti reindeer herdsman and the most sinful person ever, but I would let the frozen ones stay frozen forever, as a monument to the greatest stupidity and selfishness, the denial of death. In a word: capitalism.’
The prow of the boat bumped against the jetty terrace of the Wild Rose restaurant. Aimo moored the boat to a stake and the oarsmen climbed onto the terrace and ordered some beers.
Köpi woke up on the morning of 17 July and, unusually, remembered his dream. He had dreamed an angel had appeared to him and given him a lecture on the sausage, the long jump and the work of art. Thus spake the angel:
‘In the case of the sausage you can cut a slice, weigh it, wrap it up, estimate the price per kilo as defined by the conjunctures of the market forces and laws of supply and demand, and sell it. In the same way, the long jump is a clear case, governed by agreed rules. You measure the distance between the front edge of the plank and the rear edge of the mark in the sand and obtain result measured in centimetres. The sausage becomes problematic when you begin to talk about what it tastes like. What is good, what is better, what is unacceptable. The long-jump debate rapidly becomes chaotic if you start to award points for style – whose performance was the most daring, the springiest, the most complete, the most organic leap from plank to sand?
‘A work of art has neither weight nor length. There is nothing measurable about it. It is a human creation, a cultural tool, an artefact like the sausage or the long jump, but it differs in one essential respect. The work of art is a shout. It is the opening of a conversation. It is the first term in a dialogue. After that, the conversation is continued by experiencers and experiencers’ experiencers. This conversation is articulated in many different ways and may continue for thousands of years. It is both in invisible and visible, conscious and unconscious. It takes the form of thought, speech, writing, criticism, scholarship, parody, interpretation, interpretation of interpretation and even interpretation of interpretation, which will eventually be examined by some future PhD student. The shout of a work of art brings echoes from other artists, who begin their own fields of conversation and echoes.
‘The role of the human being is to eat tofu sausage, do the long jump and participate in the unending conversation about art, which will never be complete. Time’s judgement is merciless. Ben Jonson was the cash cow of Shakespeare’s London. The poet V.A. Koskenniemi was feted in the 1930s; no one noticed Volter Kilpi. The ultimate truth is still unrecognised. It is known only by God the Mother.’
At this point Köpi woke up, happy. He awarded his dream, and his unconscious, an excellent grade. The transformation of sausage into tofu and God’s femininity were particularly charming details. The angel was also unforgettable: a sixtyish, stout, very short-sighted transvestite with thick glasses. He had wings on his back, and on his bottom was a long tail.
Progress was darkling. The nights had drawn in and summer had turned to autumn. Aimo’s nightlight glimmered in the prow as the boat progressed stroke by stroke, metre by metre, towards Raahe. A big tanker came towards them and they circled it humbly from a distance on the landward side. The harbour waters of Raahe concealed treacherous rocks, which they avoided and circled successfully. Aimo tricked the night wind into blowing a little, much needed help into the sail; Köpi put all the strength of his body into long, forward-moving strokes of the oars.
At three o’clock in the morning of 20 July the boat was moored in the centre of Raahe, at the Naval Museum’s jetty. Raahe was dreaming. The oarsmen had mattresses and sleeping bags in the boat and made their beds on the jetty, beneath the sky of space. Aimo fell asleep in a second; it took Köpi a minute….
The oarsmen were now ready for the last lap of the voyage…. Set-off at 1pm. They had noticed from the map, and confirmed through observation, that a short-cut canal had been dug from the city basin that would save them many a sweaty kilometre: it ran from the Pikkulahti swimming beach via an angle bend directly northwards. That’s the way they pointed their prow. Aimo rowed, Köpi steered.
‘It can’t be true,’ said Köpi. From the tone of his voice, Aimo understood immediately. A glance over the shoulder and the matter was clear. No words were needed. Köpi steered them to the swimming beach. Clothes off, swimming trunks on. A climb up the ten-metre diving platform. Aimo in front, Köpi behind. Dizziness, dive, flight, splash. Wild joy at daring to do it once more. The body and the body’s strangest part, the brain, refreshed, they continued on the last lap.
Popping through the canal and Kylmälahti bay, they found themselves on the open sea, and took a northerly course. A light following breeze helped them enough that they hoisted a sail, which gave the oarsman some background support. They had to circle Tauvonneimi peninsula, hooking a long way to the west to avoid fishing nets and shallows. Small disagreements as to course. Aimo thought he could see a sandbank ahead. Köpi thought Aimo was blind and lilylivered. The conflict was resolved tactfully and a compromise, which proved useful, made about direction….
They were already just a couple of kilometres away. Triumphant strokes with the oars, knowing exactly where they were going, heading there. Hailuoto was known territory for both of them. They had been hiking in this unique spot together and separately at all seasons. The only tree, a rowan, was a certain landmark. Nevertheless they came ashore on a sandbank when they tried enthusiastically to take a short cut. Never mind, they pushed the boat off into deeper waters, threading their way back into the channel demarcated by the buoys and whizzed into the lee of Pöllänlahti bay. And that is how, with celebratory strokes of the oar, they made land at Pöllä at 21.56 according to Köpi’s pocket watch. A recount gave the result of 20 days and 26 minutes. They reflected that no one could have rowed the distance between Kustavi and Hailuoto faster since the Vikings and Väinämöinen, and were satisfied.
Translated by Hildi Hawkins
Strange and truly wondrous
in the mirror you look at me.
All I really know is
that you I cannot be.
With my eyes you survey me,
with my lips you smile, too,
what I see in the mirror
is not me, but you, just you.
Whoever you are – astral morning,
eternal night – in the frame
like a wraith, a ghostly phantom,
invisible I remain.
I heard the words my dreams spoke with their soul:
Who views his life with hatred, mad is he,
like one who whips and tears at his own flesh.
Life is a soil, from it your dreams break free,
and beauty grows from under weights of pain,
and when you rise to throw off matter’s reign
your dreams, too, meet their end within that mesh,
and darkness floods in all, devours it whole.
You must, must love your life,
for that is why your father fathered you,
and that is why, through all the shame and strife,
your mother carried you and brought you through,
was grateful to her life because of yours
which she could place outside the open doors.
My life, I want to praise and thank you now:
Thank you for bearing me from emptiness,
a member of the beauteous human race,
for giving them to me, these human eyes
that many generations made
for seeing beauty under vaulted skies,
thank you for filling them with dreams that flow
until the number of my days shall end you, life,
and I am harvest for the reaper’s scythe.
Power of life, I want to love you still,
because I wandered long in mazes, made
to feel despair and fear without a will,
because you early took and caused to fade
what was for me the finest of your gifts,
love you because you took my strength to kill
and let it lie in chains that weakness laid,
because your wine could also change and be
the vinegar of pain and death for me,
because when I will long for shadows tall
and give you back your gifts, and dying fall,
then it will turn, my soul, and take from you
another day, another morning, new.
Did I love you?
That I do not know.
In my soul I trembled
when you turned to go.
I know that you left it
with reason to flee.
No way to deny it,
From my soul was lifted
the innermost veil.
You could not bear it,
butterfly, you set sail,
fled from the gloomy
enigma in fright:
in front of you opened
a pitch-black night,
deeper than leagues, you saw the dark pit,
– and then you fled
the cruel sight of it.
Did I love you?
That I do not know –
in my soul I trembled
when you turned to go.
Don’t be afraid of life,
don’t shut out its beauty.
Invite it to sit by your fire,
or should your hearth expire,
to meet it outside is your duty.
Don’t turn your back on its strife.
Don’t go away to the graveyard to hide
for death’s door will stay opened wide.
Like a bird you should fly,
not dwelling on past life’s ruins.
Turn your attention to now,
let what has been take a bow.
Let them lie in the grave, your doings,
then face the future, and try.
Be free as the wind, unfettered, unbroken,
the gate of death is always open.
Do not ever say:
this is mine alone.
Drink from life’s cup
and once again give its pain up.
If you never beg to own,
the world’s riches are yours today.
Be bold, stake all on one card:
ahead you will always see death’s gate unbarred.
Translated by David McDuff
‘Emmi, hey, get up, don’t you hear the bell, the lady wants you! Emmi! Bless the girl, will nothing wake her? Emmi, Emmi!’
At last, Silja got her to show some signs of life. Emmi sat up, mumbled something, and rubbed her eyes. She still felt dreadfully sleepy.
‘What time is it?’
‘Getting on for five.’
Five? She had had three hours in bed. It had been half-past one before she finished the washing-up: there had been visitors that evening, as usual, and for two nights before that she had had to stay up because of the child; the lady had gone off to a wedding, and baby Lilli had refused to content herself with her sugar-dummy. Was it any wonder that Emmi wanted to sleep?
She was only thirteen. And in the mornings her legs always ached so badly that for a while it was very hard to stand up. Silja, who slept in the same bed, said it was because she was growing. She ought to have them bled, in Silja’s opinion, but Emmi was afraid it might hurt. They were thin enough already, without having blood taken from them. They never ached while she was asleep, but the moment she woke up they started again. If she managed to get to sleep again, the aching stopped at once.
Now, as she sat up in bed, they were painful all over, from her knees right down to her heels. She felt the weight of her head pulling her down towards the bed again: try as she might, she could not lift it. Would she ever, in this life, be granted a single morning when she could sleep happily as long as she needed?
Emmi rubbed her legs. Her head had fallen forward, her chin touching her chest; her eyes would not stay open. In next to no time, she was asleep again.
The bell rang a second time. Silja dug her in the ribs with her elbow.
‘For pity’s sake, why can’t the little hussy do as she’s told? Up with you!’
She gave Emmi another shove with her sharp elbow, and it hurt so much that the girl cried out.
‘How many more times do you have to be chivvied, before you’ll get up?’
Emmi clambered out of bed. She felt dizzy, and almost fell.
‘Splash some cold water over your eyes, it’ll help to clear your head’, was Silja’s advice.
But Emmi had no time to do this, for the bell was ringing yet again. She quickly pulled on her petticoat and skirt, smoothed back her hair with both hands, and hurried in.
‘I have rung three times’, said the lady.
Emmi said nothing, but simply lifted Lilli from the lady’s side and held her in her arms.
‘Change her wet things and then put her in the cradle. She won’t go to sleep again anyway, if she comes back beside me.’
The lady turned on to her other side and closed her eyes. The cradle was in the adjoining room, into which Emmi now carried the baby. She changed its napkin, and then began to rock the cradle and sing. Every now and then some thought or other would come to her. Not a very big or complicated thought, but it was enough to interrupt her singing.
‘Sh, sh, sh. Ah, ah, ah. Sleep little one sleep. Rock-a-bye-baby, on the tree top. When the wind blows, the cradle will rock. Oh, lord, how sleepy I feel. Bye, baby bunting, daddy’s gone a-hunting. Silja’s still in bed, asleep, lucky devil. Daddy’s gone a-hunting. Sh, sh, ah, ah…’
Lilli dozed off. Emmi lay down on the floor beside the cradle, put one arm under her head, and was soon fast asleep. Unknown to her, Lilli had woken again almost at once, and was now rubbing her nose and gazing round her in puzzlement, as there seemed to be no-one with her. The child tried to sit up, but could not manage it; instead, she turned over on her side and got her head over the edge of the cradle. Seeing Emmi, she chuckled delightedly and reached out to touch her. Over went the cradle, and out tumbled Lilli, striking her forehead on the base of the cradle as she fell.
A piercing yell had everyone awake in seconds.
‘Jesus bless us!’
Emmi, finding the baby on the floor beside her, went as white as a sheet. She snatched her up, cuddled her, showed her the fire, and rocked her in her arms, all the time horrified by the thought that the lady must have heard. And in her panic she did not think of looking to see whether the child had been injured, or was just crying from shock.
The lady opened the door. Emmi felt faint, the whole world went black before her eyes.
‘What’s happened to her?’
Emmi did not know what answer she was giving. Instinctively she stammered out words, any words that might save her.
‘Why is she crying like that, then? There must be some reason.’
Emmi made desperate attempts to quieten the baby.
‘Give her to me’, said the lady. ‘Oh, my poor baby, my darling one, what’s the matter? Good heavens, there’s a great bruise on her forehead.’
She looked at Emmi, who just stood there helplessly.
‘How did that bruise get there? Tell me, I want to know. Are you dumb?’
‘I don’t know…’
‘You dropped her, that’s obvious. Out of the cradle, was it?’
Emmi said nothing, and stared down at the floor.
‘You see, you can’t deny it any longer. What a useless, careless creature you are. First you drop the baby and then you lie to me. I’m sorry I ever took you on. Well, I’m telling you now, you’re not staying on here next year. Get yourself another job, if anyone will have you. I’ve had enough of you, I’d rather do without a nursemaid altogether… Sh, sh, my darling, mamma’s own sweet one, yes… Mamma will get you a better nurse next year, don’t cry, don’t cry.’
Lilli stopped crying, as she found the nipple and began to suck; and after a little while she was smiling contentedly, though teardrops still sparkled in her eyes.
‘There, there, my precious, are you giving Mamma a lovely smile, then? My own dear child, how sweet she is. What a nasty horrid bruise on her forehead!’
Lilli did not cry again that day; she was just as happy as before, perhaps even a little happier: smiled at Emmi, put her finger into Emmi’s mouth and pulled at her hair. Emmi let the child’s delicate little hand wipe her own wet cheeks, down which teardrops as big as cranberries kept trickling all day long. And when she thought that in six weeks’ time she would no longer be able to hold this soft, delightful child in her arms, or even to see her, except perhaps for an occasional glimpse through the window as she passed down the street, a rejected outcast – when she had these thoughts, or rather these feelings, the tears flowed so fast that they became a stream, and made a little puddle on the table.
‘Oh dear, just look at that’, she said to Lilli, who at once began to mop it up with the palm of her hand.
Later that morning the lady had visitors. Fru Vinter the doctor’s wife and Fru Siven, whose husband was the headmaster: very grand and elegant, both of them, though not nearly so grand as our own lady, said Silja, and Emmi was inclined to agree.
When Silja took in the coffee, the lady sent her with a message to Emmi, to bring Lilli in to be shown to the visitors. Emmi dressed her in her prettiest bonnet, and a brand-new hand-embroidered bib. The child looked so beautiful in these that Emmi had to call Silja to have a look, before she carried her in.
How those ladies cooed with admiration, the moment they appeared at the door!
‘O, så söt!’ 1
And eagerly they took turns to hold Lilli in their arms, kissing her and squeezing her, and laughing delightedly.
‘Så söt, så söt!’
Emmi stood in the background, smiling quietly. She did not really know the meaning of all this ‘så söt, så söt’, but evidently it was high praise indeed.
But suddenly they became very serious. The lady was telling the visitors about something, Emmi did not know what, as it was all in Swedish. But she guessed what it was when she saw the horror on their faces.
‘Herre gud, herre gud, nej, men tänk, stackars barn.’2
Three pairs of eyes, full of pity and concern, turned simultaneously to look at the bruise on Lilli’s forehead, and then, with shocked disapproval, at Emmi.
‘Ett sadant stycke!’3
Emmi stared at the carpet on the floor, and wished that something would fall from the ceiling on to her head, crushing her to pieces and at the same time burying her deep beneath the earth. Surely she was the wickedest, wretchedest person who had ever lived. She did not dare to look up, but she knew, and felt in every toe and fingertip, that their eyes were still upon her. Those grand, elegant ladies, who never, never, did anything wrong themselves. How could they, when they were so wise and clever, and so far above other, ordinary people?
‘You may take Lilli away,’ she heard her employer say.
Emmi’s arms had suddenly become so limp that she feared she might drop the child if she picked her up.
‘Did you hear?’
‘Där ser ni nu, hurudan hon är.’4
Emmi lurched forward and somehow managed the few steps to where the lady was sitting. The desire to get out of sight and back into the nursery gave her just sufficient strength to go through with her task. Or was it just out of long habit that her arms now obeyed her and fulfilled their function as before?
She lowered Lilli into the cradle and sat down on a stool close by to show her a toy. But Lilli had raised both legs in the air and was holding on to them with her hands. This game she found so amusing that she laughed out loud. Emmi would have laughed too, but for the distress that gripped her throat and made laughter impossible.
Sitting there, she thought with surprise that she had not, that morning, remembered the trick she had so often used in the past to combat sleepiness: pricking and scraping herself with a needle. And just because of that, all this had happened; this great, irremediable calamity, that had now ruined her life.
Late in the evening, when everyone else had gone to bed, Emmi went out into the yard. All was grey in the fading light, but overhead the stars were shining. She sat down on the bottom step to think about her present and future situation. Not that thinking about it made it any clearer: it remained as dim and grey as the evening itself.
Casting her own cares to one side for the moment, she looked up into the blue-grey sky, where heaven’s candles were burning so brightly. What happy souls, she wondered, were up there with the stars? And of the people now living, who would go there? Would there be any nursemaids there? she asked herself doubtfully. But the gentry – they would be there, of course, all of them. Obviously, since they were so immeasurably better, even here. She wondered, too, who had to light those candles each evening, the angels or the people? Or did the people all turn into angels when they got there? And what about little children who died young? Who nursed them and looked after them? But perhaps they didn’t need looking after any longer, once they were in heaven.
Silja opened the door and hustled her inside.
‘What the devil are you sitting out here for, in the cold?’
As she undressed, Emmi turned to Silja and said: ‘Why is it we’re so wicked, we servant-girls?’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘I’ll tell you, then: it’s because we have to stay awake so much of the time. We have time to commit more sins, half as many again as other folk. Look, the gentry can sleep on in the morning, till nine or ten o’clock; there’s not so much time left for them to do bad things in.’
Well, perhaps that was it. If she had been able to sleep a little longer that morning, Lilli would have not fallen out of her cradle, all because of her.
The following Sunday was the third Hiring Day. Emmi was given her employment book and sent down to the church.
Outside the church there were lots of people: would-be employers and would-be employees. They stood about in large groups; all of them seemed to have friends and acquaintances everywhere, and to be in league with each other.
Emmi felt forlorn and lonely. Who would want to employ a frail little creature like herself?
She stood by the churchyard wall with her employment-book, and waited. Ladies and gentlemen walked past her, to and fro, but none of them ever glanced at her.
There was a group of youths sitting by the church steps.
‘Come over here, girl,’ one of them called. The others laughed and whispered together.
‘Come on, come on, what are you waiting for? Come and sit here with us.’
Emmi blushed and moved further off. Just then a lady and gentleman came up to where she was. Well, not exactly gentlefolk, perhaps: the lady was wearing a headscarf and the gentleman’s clothes were very shabby.
‘What about this one?’ said the gentleman, pointing at Emmi with his stick. ‘At least she doesn’t look as if she’ll demand much in the way of wages. Eh?’
‘Whatever you like to pay me’, said Emmi quietly. ‘I’d be content with that.’
A shy hope sprang up within her.
‘What good would she be? She could hardly manage to carry a tubful of water.’
‘Oh, I could.’
‘And could you do the washing?’
‘I’ve done that too.’
‘Let’s have her, she seems quiet and clean,’ said the gentleman.
But the lady still had her doubts.
‘She looks sickly to me. See how thin she is.’
Emmi thought of her legs, but dared not mention them. If she did, they would certainly turn her down.
‘Are you sickly?’ enquired the gentleman, glancing through Emmi’s employment book, which he had snatched from her hand.
‘No’, Emmi whispered.
She made up her mind that, however much her legs ached, she would never complain.
Putting the book in his pocket, the gentleman gave her two marks as hiring-money, and the matter was settled.
‘Come to the Karvonen farm on All Saints’ Day, in the evening, and ask for Mr and Mrs Hartonen’, said the lady. ‘On All Saints’ Day, remember.’
Emmi went home.
‘That’s a bad place you’re going to’, said Silja, who knew the Hartonens: living conditions mean and squalid, and the lady such a shrew that no servant ever stayed a full year. And the food, she had heard, strictly rationed and pretty small rations at that.
Emmi flushed, but quickly recovered and replied: ‘Well, those good jobs are hard to come by, there aren’t enough of them for everybody to have one. Some people have to be content with the worse ones, and thank their good fortune that they’re not out on the street.’
She took Lilli into her arms and pressed her face against the child’s warm body. Lilli seized hold of her hair with both hands and chuckled ‘Ta, ta, ta.’
Translated by David Barrett