The Storm • September

Issue 3/1982 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Bo Carpelan. Photo: Charlotta Boucht

Bo Carpelan. Photo: Charlotta Boucht

Extracts from Jag minns att jag drömde (‘I remember dreaming’, 1979)

The Storm

I remember dreaming about the great storm which one October evening over forty years ago shook our old schoolhouse by the park. My dream is filled with racing clouds and plaintive cries, of roaring echoes and strange meetings, a witch’s brew still bubbling and hissing in the memory of those great yellow clouds.

Our maths teacher – a small sinewy woman who seemed to have swallowed a question mark and was always wondering where the dot had gone, so she directed us in a low voice and with downcast eyes as if we didn’t exist – and yet her little black eyes saw everything that happened in the class, and weasel-like, were there if anyone disobeyed her – was writing the seven times table on the blackboard, when a peculiar light filled our classroom. We looked across at the window; the whole schoolhouse seemed to have been suddenly transformed into a railway station, shaking and trembling, a whistling sound penetrating the cold thick stone walls, and at raging speed, streaky clouds of smoke were sliding past the window, hurtling our classroom forward as if we were in an aeroplane. Our teacher stopped writing and raised her narrow dark head. Without a word, she went over to the window and stood looking out at the racing clouds.

We could hear doors opening and shrill cries out in the corridor. Our desks shook slightly, and as if at a common signal, we rushed over to the window and climbed up into the deep window niches to watch the progress of the wind. It had one deep dark voice, and another, higher and shriller, both interwoven like rope, and they were beating against the trunks of the old maple trees, tearing at the last leaves and making the park look like a gathering of black smoking brooms bowing like arches to the mighty block rolling in from the sea.

“Back to your places!” our teacher called sharply, but we clung on. The racing clouds vanished, a roaring darkness now reigning outside, and the six white lights in the ceiling went on, again to be extinguished. “Back to your places!” our teacher cried, and reluctantly we made our way back to our desks. “Write!” cried a voice from the corridor. Suddenly the light flared to full strength and then door flew open. We rushed over to it and were sucked out into the dark corridor, where we pushed and shoved our way to the exit. Suddenly we heard a tremendous roar, drowning the tinkle of glass, the rumble of a thousand voices from the great yellow wind. Through the windows on the stairs, we saw the glistening metal roof of the school tear itself free from the beams, and with a shriek fly away out to sea like a billowing sheet. On its way, it decapitated the treetops in the avenue of maples, then vanished with a roar over the observatory up on the dark wobbling hill rising out of the rocking park.

Immediately behind the roof followed a cloud of white school record-cards and essays which had accumulated over a hundred years in the school attic. Like feathers from an immense eiderdown – that’s what it looked like, this whirlwind of white flakes of paper as it rose over the school and blew out to sea, or was swept inland at furious speed. How strange nature is! Later on, it turned out that these free compositions – “My summer cottage”, “A Sunrise”, “What I Think of the Sea”, “My Favourite Author”, “Flowers Inside and Out”, and others with relevant titles – blew out to sea, where for several generations of fishermen, they became cherished reading by the lamp light in the autumn. For a long time – or so my mother told me – they carefully dried out the wet blue exercise books which had suddenly come floating down from the clouds over skerries and isles, and had then tried to decipher the beautiful calligraphy, while hunters and farmers in the north in their turn could read about “Karl the Twelfth the Hero King”, “European Influence on the Culture of America”, “Mussolini, a Leader”, and “Electricity as a Source of Energy”.

Then the loud of our essays ad school records – no one was really interested in the latter, which simply disappeared for ever, perhaps used as fuel – was seen rising above our shamelessly naked school, the headmaster, a tall thin man who could contort himself into the most peculiar positions, rushed up the stairs to the attic, the whole school loyally following behind him. In vain did the school’s old caretaker try to stop us; like a river, we streamed past him and stormed up to the attic, where It suddenly fell absolutely quiet. The school had been in the very centre of the cyclone, and a terrible silence settled on the meagre remains of the archives. But ranged along the walls was cupboard after cupboard full of the pride and joy of the school the previous headmaster’s gift of stuffed birds. Climbing on to a table, the headmaster shouted to us that we should carry the birds to safety. “The storm will soon be back!” he cried, his white hair standing on end, like on an altarpiece I had once seen in a church. The old man on that had had a sword in his hand, but the headmaster held a wooden pointer.

How right he was! We’d hardly had time to open the doors of the cupboards full of small birds, of ducks and tits, swans and razorbills, ibises and storks, crows and long-eared owls, herring gulls and eagles, before the wind struck again. In a sky radiant before us, another fiery light now flared, and with a howl, the roaring, flapping whirlwind raced through the gigantic open room, ripping the birds out of our hands.

And the birds! They seemed to have been waiting for all those years of dust and silence just for this signal to depart. With a collective cry, as if from a multi-voiced harp, they flew along the familiar walls and rose calling and twittering, bellowing and bawling, hullooing and hooting, squeaking and cooing out of our sight. With roaring wings, flapping wings, swishing wings, with shining eyes and extended necks and legs, claws outspread, they swooped headlong round the headmaster who stretched a long pale powerless arm towards them, and they vanished, like leaves off trees, away and out into the depths of the sky, and their cries died away in strange waves of echoes while crawling in the silent heavy wind, we managed to make our way out and down the stairs.

Suddenly we noticed that all we could hear was our own voices and thumping footsteps, that the wind had dropped just as it had once struck and outside a great milk-white silence now reigned. The doors out in the schoolyard seemed to glide open of their own accord. The lamp-posts round the yard were contorted into the strangest shapes, and our stern sports master called: “Don’t look at the lamp-posts! D’you hear!” But his cry was lonely, with no strength – why shouldn’t we look round at the destruction, the old school with its thick scratched dirty walls, the roof beams now sticking up like the ribs of an old whale against the pink sky, the trees now bare and leafless, with broken branches, the world which had gone under and resurrected itself? If I closed my eyes, I could see them all, the boys in knickerbockers and too tight jackets, the girls in checked cotton frocks and wrinkled stockings, with pigtails and jerseys – I could see them all if I closed my eyes, standing there in the schoolyard., their faces glowing after the storm, the huge yellow storm, which I heard later was only local and had not affected any other school, nor even any other part of the town.

I woke to find our maths teacher standing beside my desk with her flexible little ruler, and drunk with sleep, I rose to my feet.

“Sleeping in lessons, Carpelan? Don’t you know what happens when you sleep during lessons? Answer me.”

The class was deathly quiet, all of them looking at me.

“You dream,” I whispered.

“Louder!” cried our teacher in total despair. “Louder!”

“You dream!” I shouted.

“You dream!” shouted the whole class, jubilant and shrieking. “You dream! You dream!”

And the lesson dissolved into cries and laughter, and I was kept in.

But when I went home in the dark schoolyard I found one wet blue essay book on which was written in graceful handwriting: “The Great Yellow Storm”. I stood there below the street-light, below the upright untouched streetlight, among the flaring maples on which every leaf was waiting to fall calmly at the first hard frost. My heart was thumping, as I read: “I remember dreaming about the great storm which one October evening over forty years ago shook our old schoolhouse …” Then white unwritten pages gleamed up at me. There was no name on the cover. I took the exercise book home with me and hid it in my drawer. But I had to show the teacher’s note to my mother. “Sleeps during lessons and is insolent.”

Mother looked helpless.

“What am I supposed to do?”

“Sign it.”

“Yes, but what did you say?”

“That I dreamt.”

“Yes, but everyone does that when they’re asleep.”

I couldn’t answer that. We looked helplessly at each other.

“What did you dream about?”

“The great yellow storm.”

“The great yellow storm? Oh, that.”

And my mother nodded and wrote: “I have seen the great yellow storm myself.” Then she signed it.

But every time the wind rises and the clouds race across the sky, I remember the day when the school roof flew away and the birds vanished, when the park became a menacing darkness and everything cried and trembled under the pressure of the great wind, the same wind which still roams around waiting to change and shake everything that gets in its way.


It’s time to leave the table. The woman clears away, the children sit for a while under the bright lamp, the man stands looking out into the garden. It’s a calm September evening. The moon is shining through the trees. The old man on the living-room sofa leans forward to be able to see better the paper in front of him. It’s cool, for the door is open, but there is a fire burning in the open grate. Through the window, one sees the room with the low lamps, the flames from the fire, the people as obscure shadows.

Years go by. Again September is here, but the sofa is empty. It’s cool and the man lays a fire in the grate. The light is dusky, as if the years had darkened – with the years. The children have grown. The woman comes in through the door and says something. It’s a long time ago, and I can’t remember what she says. When she turns to the window, someone seems to be standing there in the moonlight, like pale snow on the lawn. One can only imagine how brilliantly lushly green it is, for night here turns the colours black.

Then they all gather together again, further on in the perspective of years, and there’s always someone who sees the lighted windows and hears the dog barking out at the hedge, the road and the silence. The children sit in the living-room listening, the man clears the table, carrying glasses and dishes out into the kitchen where the woman is at the sink. Where is the old man? Did he say goodbye? Perhaps it’s simple; perhaps he just stepped out into the darkness and closed the door behind him?

The man is now standing in the doorway, taking a hesitant step out. The wind rises, the stars shooting between the treetops, but that’s only what it looks like. He can see it. He’s standing by the road which shines brightly between the trees; he sees the woman and the children. He no longer sees himself.

“It’s unusually dark for September,” says the old woman. But anyone could have said it. For the one who goes into the dark from light, the darkness is heavy. Seen from the road, it’s different.


Translated by Joan Tate

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