The Onlookers

Issue 3/1978 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Naisten vuonna (‘In women’s year’, 1975). Introduction by Pekka Tarkka

The two elks came out on to the road through a gap between timber sheds. They began to cross the road, and the larger one was very nearly run into by a car. Cars stopped and horns tooted, till the elks turned and made off towards the harbour. Several cars swung round and drove along the cinder track in pursuit of the animals.

The elks headed across the rubble towards the power station; after circling some stacks of railway sleepers, they ended up on the flank of a coal­heap sixty feet high. The cars pulled up and their occupants poured out, shouting that the elks wouldn’t go that way, it was a dead end. The elder of the two elks had indeed sensed this, and they moved off to the right, skirting the coal-heap and emerging among the timber-stacks. By this time the first cyclists and pedestrians had arrived on the scene.

“They’ll break their legs,” said a pedestrian to a motorist. “There’s all kinds of junk lying about.”

“Poor things,” said the motorist. The smaller elk had already begun to limp: it had caught its foot in a pile of discarded crates. But to everyone’s relief it soon began to run normally again.

The elks ran beneath the coal conveyors, avoiding articulated vehicles and freight containers, and coming out quite close to the quayside. But they were still moving in a direction which could lead them to safety. Cars and bicycles continued to arrive. It was one of those balmy evenings we tend to get in the early summer, and people came to watch because they had nothing better to do.

By now the elks were on the railway track, blundering to and fro along a line of goods trucks. The younger one began to panic, and tried diving under one of the trucks to reach the other side, but there wasn’t room underneath to get through. They would have been cornered, if the customs men had not hurried to the rescue: their Alsatians chased the elks through a gap between the trucks. On the other side was a patch of waste land, cluttered with discarded metal parts from old rubbish skips. They ran across this, and eventually reached the shelter of the bridge, where they paused for a while to regain their breath. One of the crowd said that they were waiting for the spectators to catch up.

Moving on, the elks found themselves confronted with the fence surrounding the oil installations. Guard dogs hurled themselves at the wire fence. The younger elk lost its nerve and turned tail; the elder ran after it and headed it back in the original direction. The dogs went on barking and flinging themselves against the wire netting until the elks had passed the end of the fence. Then, one after another, they fell silent, the younger ones taking rather longer than the rest to lose interest.

By now the elks were in sight of safety. Once past the rubbish tip, all they needed to do was to run along the shore for a couple of kilometres: beyond the purification plant they would reach the reed-beds and a way back into the forest. At the critical moment some spectators’ cars pulled up between the elks and the rubbish tip. People jumped out of the cars, gesticulating and beckoning the elks to safety, but for some reason the elks failed to understand. They stopped and looked this way and that. Behind them were the dogs, alongside were these noisy human beings. Without hesitation the bigger elk made off at a run towards the shore. The smaller elk found itself stuck in a mass of white chalky mud. The bigger one turned round: with an effort, the other struggled free. The elks waded through the sludge as if it were deep snow, except that there was a squelchy sucking sound every time they lifted their feet. The smaller one got stuck again, and the crowd cried out in dismay. The two animals were now almost up to their bellies in water, but the sludge continued a long way out into the bay. Somehow the smaller elk contrived to free itself and follow its companion out into open water. They swam in the direction of the bridge, making for the woods on the shore of the island opposite.

When the motorists saw which way they were heading, they leapt into their cars and drove off. The cyclists, however, were able to take a short cut, riding straight to the foot of the causeway and then dragging their bicycles up the loose gravel of the slope, over the railing and on to the bridge.

The cars halted on the bridge, although this was prohibited, and their occupants rushed to the railing to watch the elks, who were now ploughing their way at an even speed through the soupy water of the harbour.

“Handsome beasts, aren’t they,” said a cyclist to one of the motorists.

“They are indeed. How much longer are they going to survive, though. Nature’s dying out, and it’s all because people are so stupid.”

“Mind you, if they were males they’d look even more impressive,” said a pedestrian. “They have horns, you know.”

“But why have they come right into the town like this?” asked the motorist’s wife. And many women then asked the same question.

“Why shouldn’t they? Elks often come into the town. There’s good grass here and it’s a nice quiet evening. Nobody’s going to interfere with them. They’re a good sight better off here than they are in the wilds, if you ask me.”

“Well, they seem to want to get back there, anyhow,” said the cyclist, and swung himself into the saddle, for the elks were now getting quite close to the shore. The cyclists got off to a quicker start, but the cars soon overtook them.

The larger elk was already clambering ashore when the first cars reached the spot. Seeing them, the elk retreated into the water again, before its smaller companion had even managed to set foot on firm ground.

“Oh, really, what stupid creatures! They’re not very bright, I must say.”

All over the island there were tracks or small roads going down to the water’s edge, and when it became clear that the elks were going to swim on, people hurried to the end of the next one, and then to the one after that. The elks began to swim in a wide curve which took them further out into the bay. The smaller one appeared to be tiring, its speed slackened and the big one kept finding itself a long way ahead and having to slow down. All the time more spectators were arriving: the island’s own in­ habitants had come on foot, and filled the rocky spaces between the paths. Those with houses fronting the water were the best placed: whole families of them came out on to their balconies to give their support to the elks. Disagreements arose as to what could be done to help the elks. A girl with a pony-tail, who had arrived on the carrier of her boyfriend’s bicycle, began shouting at the crowd to move back from the shore, calling them stupid idiots. Some of them supported her and moved further back, but the elks did not come. Those who had refused to move said that the elks would certainly come ashore, people or no people, if that was what they had a mind to do. Pony-tail continued to yell, with the result that a fight broke out between two men who had had more to drink than was really good for them. The boyfriend tried to quieten her, pointing out that shouting would not in any way assist the elks.

“Hear, hear!” cried the people at the water’s edge, but those who were further away replied that the people on the shore were obstinate pigs; whereupon the two drunks began fighting again. The debate having proved inconclusive, some attention could now be paid to the elks. The big one was still swimming with its head held proudly erect, but the other was sinking lower and lower into the water, as though something were pulling at its legs.

“It’s drowning, it’s drowning!” wailed Pony-tail, running from one member of the crowd to another in her distress. But all they did was to shrug their shoulders and agree that it certainly looked like it. The smaller elk’s head was bobbing up and down like a cork. “It’s drowning,” sobbed Pony-tail, as its head appeared once more above the surface and then vanished for good. The drunks turned their attention once again to each other, and were soon rolling around in the dust of the sandy track. Neither of them noticed that their scrapping had taken them further away from the shore, so that they were guiltless of the elk’s drowning. Pony-tail began to run, and the people around her boyfriend wondered where she was off to now. The boyfriend said he no longer knew what all the fuss was about anyway. Pony-tail ran up the sandy track, knowing that it led to the motorway.

When she reached the motorway she began walking, first in one direction and then in the other. She knew that it was impossible for anyone to walk on the motorway for very long without being reported to the police by a passing motorist.

Sure enough, after a couple of minutes a police car arrived. One of the policemen got out and strode towards her, all set to write her out a ticket and fine her on the spot. The other did not bother to get out, but contented himself with shouting at her through the open window, calling her a bloody fool and a blockhead.

“If I could just get a word in,” shouted Pony-tail. “There’s an elk down there swimming.”

“What of it?” said the policeman, licking the tip of his pencil.

“You must come, honestly, the little elk got drowned and the big one’ll drown in a minute. The people just won’t go away from the shore.”

The policeman began to waver, and his colleague in the car desisted from shouting. Pony-tail knew that this would not have happened if she had not been a girl.

“Come and see; anyway. I’ll come with you in the car. If there isn’t an elk, you can fine me as much as you like.”

“Elks or no elks, you can’t go traipsing all over the motorway like that.”

“Hurry, hurry, the other one’ll get drowned too,” Pony-tail whimpered.

Relaxing his severity, the policeman told her to hop into the back seat. Before he had finished speaking she was seated in the car, urging them to get going at once. With a laugh, the driver swung the car across the central reservation and on to the other carriageway.

The bigger elk was now exhausted in its turn. Its head no longer stood up proudly, but at least it was still above the surface. The people on the shore and the people who had moved back were engaged in an altercation about people’s stupidity. One of the former, tiring of the whole thing, referred to the elk as a useless bag of bones. The two who had been fighting stood some distance away from the rest, one of them wiping blood from his nose with his shirt-cuff. The policemen jumped out of the car and told the crowd to move further off. Nobody took a blind bit of notice; indeed, the people above began to press forward, towards the policemen and the shore.

“Can’t you hear, they’re telling you all to move back,” the girl said, giving her boyfriend a shove. The boyfriend tried to quieten her, whispering angrily that she would get them into trouble if she wasn’t careful.

“Now then, move back there,” one of the policemen threatened, and had to give a sharp push to one or two people who tried to slip past him and get to the shore. “Come on there, we’ve got powers we can use, you know.”

“Yeah, like the Gestapo.”

“Or the Cheka,” said a big-boned man. “Just to be fair to all parties,” he added hastily, noticing the expression on the face of the man who had mentioned the Gestapo.

“Shoving decent people around – and then staying to get a better view themselves, when it comes ashore.”

“It won’t come ashore at all unless you move back away from here.”

“It’ll be drowned, this one too,” wailed Pony-tail. The talkative man looked at her contemptuously. This was the girl who had caused all the trouble.

The elk had almost stopped moving: as though recognizing the policemen’s uniform, it had come in closer towards the shore, but was still not close enough in to touch bottom.

“Stir those stumps!” the policemen repeated. “Here, who are you shoving around?” “Finland’s a free country.”

“Wouldn’t think it, the way they go on.”

“And get down off there as well,” the older policeman shouted at the people standing on the rocks. Pony-tail glanced back at the row of villas along the shore. There were people on every balcony. On the nearest a man sitting by himself in a basket chair was taking aim with a rifle that had a telescopic sight.

“Put that gun away,” the girl screamed.

“Don’t be such an idiot,” said her boyfriend. “He’s only practising.”

“And if he fires, that’ll only be practising too, I suppose,” said the girl angrily.

When the crowd decided that they had gone back far enough, they stopped where they were and resisted any further efforts by Pony-tail and the police to budge them. There was talk of a complaint to the Chief of Police, who was somebody’s personal friend, and a married couple said they ‘would write to the Ombudsman. Ignoring these murmurs, the policemen grinned at each other and turned to watch the elk, which was now cautiously approaching the shore. Pony-tail uttered a yelp of delight when she saw that the elk had reached safety. At long last it clambered ashore and collapsed on the ground.

“Well, I’m buggered, it’s an elk,” said Bloody-nose.

Some of the crowd clapped their hands, applauding the elk for its efforts. “Do better on the wall, that’s the proper place for it,” said the other drunk, spitting on the ground.

The people on the balconies had gone back inside, including the man with the rifle. Only the children stayed to watch the elk as it lay on the shore. The elk was so exhausted that it did not get up, or even raise its head, when the cars drove off, scattering showers of little stones. In the end there was no-one left on the shore but Pony-tail and the two policemen.

The elk rose warily to its feet and lumbered off towards the forest. Pony­tail, with a smile, rejoined her boyfriend and seated herself on the carrier.

As they passed, one of the two policemen was on the point of calling out that riding on the carrier wasn’t allowed; but when the girl gave them a salute he just grinned.

Translated by David Barrett

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