An end and a beginning

Issue 1/1982 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from Det har aldrig hänt (‘It never happened’, 1977). Translated and introduced by W. Glyn Jones

There they are!

Over the ice they ride. The hoofs in rhythmical movement kick up the snow. The trail points north west. The sound of the hoofs is absorbed in the blue twilight of a March evening. The two horsemen push on, close together, passing one tiny island after another. Their eyes are fixed on a trail which has lain before them throughout the day. They are hunting like wolves. Yes, like wolves they are.

Or are they?

The twilight gives way to darkness and the black of night. The riders lean low over their horses in an attempt to follow the trail, but at last one of them raises his hand. The hunt is called off. The horses snort and toss their heads so their manes dance. Clouds of steam rise from them, enveloping the men as they dismount and lead their horses to an islet where the dark and deserted profile of a fisherman’s cabin can be glimpsed. Heaven knows who the hut belongs to, but it is a good thing that it is there with its walls and a roof, a shelter against the night.

But who the devil has been there before: Just look what a filthy mess the wretches have left everything in: So that’s how our distinguished gentlemen behave on their travels! Or is it the refugees who have left it like this? Hell, what people.

Here and there the floor has been broken up, and the fireplace is overflowing with ashes.

“I’ll go out and try to find something to light a fire with,” says Aarre, the taller and leaner of the two riders. Edward puts down his rifle, takes off his gloves, extracts his tobacco pouch and fills his pipe. In the light from the match his face is expressionless. He sucks in his cheeks as he draws.

He stands motionless in the light from the tobacco glowing in the pipe bowl; then he goes out for their packs, struggles for a long time to get the horses in through the low doorway, sets about rubbing them down, talks gently to them, in Russian.

With a more than modest bunch of long-dead twigs in his arms, and with snow far up over his knees, Aarre returns; in silence he starts snapping the twigs and tries to brush the ashes aside. He manages to kindle a small flame, at which the horses stir uneasily. Edward speaks to them and quietens them down.

The fire refuses to burn. Aarre swears; then he tears up a floorboard, takes out his knife and produces a shower of wood shavings. It takes a great deal of effort, but finally the fire takes; the floor has been reduced in size, and the cold draught is finding new means of access. But gradually the warmth establishes its supremacy, and the men sit down on their saddles, melt some snow, warm the water from it, and gaze into the fire. Their eyes grow calm as weary thoughts pass through their minds.

The events of the day have forced them on. Now they are here. They are in the midst of a great drama. Their own drama is unfolding itself within the greater one.

They have a loaf to cut, and there is a little for the horses to munch as well. A Finnish farmhand and a Russian soldier are sitting in silence, chewing cold bread. The timber in the hut is heard to creak now and then. It is dark, and it is cold. There is not much to be said.

“We’ll get Tammelin tomorrow. They won’t escape,” says Aarre.

“The animals need fodder. We must find a farm tomorrow. Otherwise they will not be able to go on.” Edward’s Finnish is a little stilted and artificial, new to him and soft, so soft that he laughs at it himself. Then he falls silent, like a man surrendering himself to his own thoughts, thoughts from which he cannot escape. Why am I here? Where am I going? Does it matter whether we catch up with Tammelin tomorrow? “I’ll sleep first,” says Aarre, spreading out his blanket and curling up on it. Edward spreads his blanket over him, breaks up some more floorboards, puts them on the fire, sits and keeps watch. He strokes his red armband. The world shall be changed. That’s how it is.

He digs out his wallet. His cold, stiff fingers grope for a photograph and take it out. He kisses them all, his wife and his two children. He talks to them in silence for a long time. I’m on my way home. I’ll soon be with you. I’ve got to be here for your sakes for the moment. That’s simple enough. That’s how it is. By being here I’ll be able to come home to you with something we need. I’ve got a warm feeling deep down inside me; I’m missing you. I haven’t had to kill anyone. I want a different life. That’s why I had to be in this, for our sakes. Good night Katarina, good night Aljosa, and good night Katja, my dear.

He buttons up his cloak, puts on his gloves, takes them off again, fills his pipe, smokes, sits silently watching the fire. The horses scrape their feet against the icy floor and stand huddled together. It is night, a cold night in the midst of a great drama. It would have been better if we had managed to catch Tammelin today. As it is, we are getting too far from our own people. We’ll soon be on Åland, and there we’ll lose the trail.

But we can still have another try tomorrow. And then we’ll turn back and save what can be saved. I don’t like this night. It’s long. Tomorrow will come all right, but no good is going to come of all this.

That is how it feels.

You are right, Edward Kleiman. No good is going to come of it. I know. Tomorrow will come and once more you will melt some snow, try to get enough for the horses to have a drink. The ice is all around, vast and white, and the trail is still visible. You ride on.

It is the same silent chase as yesterday. But the islands’ embrace is closer, and suddenly there you are standing in front of a farm on Brandö. Aarre sees Tammelin. Tammelin recognizes his farmhand.

Aarre rides forward, and their eyes meet on a bridge of ice.

Next moment a group of German soldiers rushes forward. They drag you from your saddles and seize your weapons. You stand motionless in your surprise, with your legs bent and stiff.

Tammelin laughs, a tired laugh. He knows how close it has been. The outcome could have been different. But it wasn’t.

That same day you find yourselves sitting on the bottom of a sledge, on bare wood, hard and rough, low and long and narrow. There is a piercing wind, from which everyone suffers in equal measure. No one speaks. The horses are allowed to go at a gentle pace. There is no hurry.

A crow – perhaps the first to return – hovers expectantly on its wings and follows the sombre procession at a safe distance. Spring is still a little way off, but as you disappear from sight this tableau is at an end, and other tableaux take its place: the water is flowing freely again, and everything is opened up and changed. But once more the picture of you returns, as though to say: Keep us in the drama. Surely our drama is not over yet.

The picture becomes murky and disappears, though it still exists and can be taken out and studied. But many events have to be reviewed before the picture of you is truly established. We have to go right through a tunnel of people and voices, places and landscapes, slowly, quite gently. Yes indeed! Gently does it.

We shall be ready to return to you in good time.

Then you shall be at the centre of events; I promise you that your little drama shall once and for all find its place in the greater one.

It never happened

One of those cold days in January I am travelling by bus in the centre of Helsinki. I am going to talk to someone who can tell me something about this subject I have been working on for so long.

I arrive in a small two-room flat in the suburbs, the home of an elderly couple. He is sitting in a smoking jacket which has become an everyday jacket – for he has stopped smoking. She is busy making coffee and laying the table. His face seems to have grown, or is it his complexion that makes it look bigger. His hands are big and heavy. They, too, are pale.

I like old people; probably most of us do as long as they don’t give us any problems. Your own ageing relatives are the worst problem.

I once heard an interview with Finland’s oldest inhabitant: he was 104. At first the questions were about where he was born and what he had done, and how they went about clearing woodland for cultivation in those days. Finland’s oldest inhabitant replied in a faraway voice. The words he heard and the words he found deep down in himself seemed to meet; in some way or other words always seem to proliferate: thoughts emerge and give birth to sentences which are not even accidental, for certain tracks are so well worn that it is difficult not to stray into them time and time again. It is almost as though people have made up their minds what things are like and what they used to be like, so that they are transformed into what people have convinced themselves they are and used to be.

Finland’s oldest inhabitant had a feeble voice, but although there were long intervals between his words, he still spoke distinctly.-“I think so. When I was a boy. Once the boss was going from the house to the sauna. A capercaillie flew in between the buildings. Right into the boss’ head. He died. Then, later, the farm burned down. The mistress was kind. I was given a new pair of trousers. Ay.”

Coffee is ready. I watch the old couple’s movements and try to wait with my questions. I stir my cup. The spoon sounds hard against the porcelain.

There is an easel behind the man in the smoking jacket. There is a painting on it. “Do you still paint?” “No, I can’t any more. My hand isn’t as steady as it used to be.” But the painting on the easel behind him is still wet. He is doing a landscape, Åland houses in nature’s embrace. The colours are dark and muddied, I notice; there is not a clear colour among them. Just at that moment the old painter says that he likes to paint in clear colours. I look at the canvas for a long time. Perhaps it was painted that same morning, and now he is sitting here explaining that he likes to paint in clear colours. Good Lord, is that what happens to us? Does everything become muddied?

Perhaps it is a mercy that we don’t understand what is happening. But this is a warning to us, nevertheless.

“Well,” he begins, a little later. “I certainly took part and provided transport for Russians. I don’t remember whether I was paid, but I suppose I was. They usually do, don’t they? It was cold. The Russians had furs. They were in a hurry. I don’t know why. They were quite decent people on the whole, though they had their rifles, of course. I remember it well. I was on the box, and the horse was pretty nimble. It was just as we arrived that I saw it: the horse’s ears were wilting in the cold; they withered and collapsed, just like petals.”

He sits for a moment, holding his heavy hands outstretched before him, as though he were holding the horse’s frozen ears in them, trying to warm them, to restore them to life.

“I did hear them discussing the thing you’re asking about, but I must admit I don’t think it ever happened. I’ll tell you how I see it. I’ve thought it through quite logically, several times. If it had happened, the lads would have seen something. There’s nothing lads don’t discover. And as they never saw anything, not even a single trace, as far as I know, I have come to the conclusion that it didn’t happen.”

He talks on the same lines for quite a time. Before long I pack up my tape recorder, thank him very much and go home.

The old man’s son, who is about my own age, goes with me. We stand talking in the cold on Alexandergatan for a while. “You didn’t get much out of him, did you?” he says. – ”Oh,” I reply. “That doesn’t matter. It was worth a try. And what he said about the horse’s ears was fascinating.”

The old painter comes from Vårdö.

Aarre and Edward are on their way to Vårdö. That was where Tammelin was making for, too. He was going to join the Island Free Corps which was quartered in Vårdö preparing for action. It was to stop Tammelin from joining them that Aarre and Edward were pursuing him.

The old painter had a brother. That brother was one of three men from Vårdö who joined the Island Free Corps. And so it never happened.

Marvellous how life puts everything right.

It is the 18 March as Edward Kleiman and Aarre Tomunen, sitting with their hands bound on the bottom of a sledge, approach Vårdö.

There is a lot of cold in this drama. Sometimes the ice cracks beneath the runners, and the horses start nervously.

“Gently, gently,” say the drivers in the long procession.

Tags: