And he left the road

Issue 2/1983 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Three short stories from Maantieltä hän lähti (‘And he left the road’). Introduction by Eila Pennanen

And he left the road

And he left the road, walking straight ahead across fields and ditches, past barns and through bushes growing in the ditch. From the fields he went on to the forest, climbed a fence, walked past spruce and pine, juniper bushes and rocks, and came to the edge of a forest and to the swamp. He crossed the swamp, going through small groves of trees if they happened to be in his way. He went on walking rapidly across rivers, through forests, over seas and lakes, and through villages, and finally he came back to the very spot from which he had started walking straight ahead.

In the same way he walked at a right angle to the direction he had first taken and after that, a few times between those two directions. Every time he would start from the road and in the end would always come back to the road in the same direction as when he’d started off. On his rounds, after walking a bit, he would stop and look up every now and then, and each time he looked he would see the sky and sun or the moon and stars.

He stood on the road and started to become smaller. The gravel on the road began to turn into a pile of rocks and the rocks grew until they became as big as he, and the dust particles which move with the air grew as big as he and then bigger still. He became even smaller and finally saw all around him windmills whirling about and around each other. In between them there was a lot of space for him. He grew smaller and tried to stay right next to the parts of the mills in order to see them well. When the parts grew still bigger, they started to grow dusky and transparent and when they grew even more they vanished altogether. Finally, he was left alone and he kept moving his arms and legs and he didn’t fall anywhere since there wasn’t anything.

He began to grow back again past the parts of the mills and the mills themselves, past the dust particles and the grains of sand. He grew past the gravel on the road and soon was back on the road in his right size.

He was on the road and began to grow bigger. He grew taller than the big trees along the roadside, and soon his head reached above the clouds. He soon saw his home in the shape of a ball, and he grew towards the sun and the stars. He lifted his feet off the earth, and he grew past the sun towards the stars. He noticed that he wouldn’t reach the stars since his legs, which were closer to the earth, were growing big while the upper half of his body stayed much smaller. But he remembered the theory of relativity and began to grow again in the right proportions. He reached the stars, which were hot and cold points whirling around. He left the stars beneath him and as he kept growing everything finally disappeared. He was alone and kept moving his arms and legs and didn’t fall anywhere.

He went on growing and soon began to see the parts of the mills and the mills themselves. He grew past the mills and the dust particles, past the grains of sand and the gravel of the road. Soon he was back on the road in his right size.

He left the road and almost cried. He walked to his house and took a grapefruit from the table and cut it in half and took a spoon and began to eat it. He was aware of the taste of the grapefruit, which reminded him of fresh willow bark and pine needles. This had been turned into a fruit. And as he ate, there came to his mind a clear autumn day when the frost has cleansed the water in the river and boys catch burbot with hooks, and when the frost has ripened the lingonberries in the forest and the cranberries in the bogs and when the air is such that when you breathe it, a part of it all goes inside you and makes you uneasy.


It was summer.

Valde, the son at the farmhouse, was lying all alone on the daybed in the big living room, thinking about things.

You couldn’t say about Valde, as you could about many, that if a man can’t get a wife he doesn’t need one. Vaide was well into his twenties. He was tall and thin and he talked and moved hurriedly, restlessly. He had made a cabinet for dishes, had painted it dark green and decorated it with red stripes. The cabinet was on the wall next to the stove.

Valde could be playful. Just like when he’d been in carpentry school and happened to see that someone making a cabinet had joined two pieces of wood badly: he would stick his fingers in his mouth, touch the spot on the wood, and quickly leave.

It was June, the kind of afternoon when everything was like a color photograph: mosquitoes flying, white clouds in the sky, sparrows chasing each other in the currant bushes, and weeds growing around the shrubs where the sparrows were playing.

Valde was lying around, restless. He was waiting for a young man, Ville, who was supposed to go fishing with him and two girls, Anja and Helli, at a lake far off in the woods. Vaide was thinking about Helli as if he had been breathing sweet air.

Ville had planned the trip. Just for fun he wanted to get Valde and Helli together. Ville and Anja would always take walks together in the evening. Ville had talked to Valde about Helli and the trip, and he’d taken to the idea right away. Anja had talked to Helli. But when Helli heard it meant going with Valde she wasn’t going to go. Only when Anja said Ville really wanted Helli to go, and anyway, they’d just be going together as a bunch, did Helli give in.

As a child, Helli had been tall and skinny for her age. Her home was further away from the main road on the other side of the woods. While the children along the road would talk about their mothers and fathers, Helli and her brothers and sisters would say to their mother, “Elma, pass the bread,” and to their father, “Arttu, dinner’s ready.” Elma was short, fat, and talkative; she liked to go visiting a lot. Arttu was very tall. When Helli was little she had once gone to take slops to the pig. She had reached in carelessly and that’s when the pig had taken a bite out of her lower lip. It had left a scar on the lip, a small bump right in the middle of it. Ever after that they had called Helli the Pig-bitten. She was now close to twenty.

Vaide heard a racket in the vestibule and Ville came in.

“Hop to it!”

“What kind of lure have you got? Is it ‘the Professor’?” Valde asked as he pulled on boots and jacket.

“‘The Professor’, and the one with the red tail,” Ville said.

Ville always kept his mouth half shut when he talked; his voice seemed to come from in back of something but you could make it out. Ville was tall and blond and his eyes were blue-grey. “I’ll take this one,” said Valde.

They went out across the yard to the road. At the gate, Valde drove away some calves that were getting into the yard. Anja was waiting at the road.

“Hi!” she said.

“Have you got the coffee pot?” asked Ville.

“Sure, and sandwiches too,” said Anja, and swung her backpack. Now and then Valde glanced at Anja and Ville, but most of the time he looked somewhere else. They walked along the open road and soon turned onto a smaller road that went through the woods.

“I recall the park most lovely
moonlit night most heavenly … ”

Anja sang. She wasn’t really too heavy, her hair was short and greyish brown, and she had had a permanent wave. Her face was sort of round and her eyes were a shade of blue. She was wearing pants and since she wasn’t too thin she looked a little peculiar. She had on a green blouse and carried a small backpack with the coffee and the sandwiches.

“moonlit night most heavenly
under the linden trees we often … ”

“Put on some mosquito oil,” said Valde. He rubbed pitch oil behind his ear, on his neck, and on a few other places. As soon as they got into the woods there were mosquitoes. They especially loved to attack Anja’s bare arms. Ville and Anja held out their palms and Valde poured oil for each of them from his bottle; soon they all reeked of pitch oil. The stretch of forest came to an end; then willows and fields appeared, followed by a forest of tall pines. There the road was dry with worn light-colored stones, black earth, fine sand, and the rutted tracks of cartwheels. They walked along, sometimes far apart, sometimes close together; they snapped off branches from the birch trees so they could whoosh off the mosquitoes. Then came fields, and a forest where there were spruce and pine and leafy trees, mountain ash and juniper bushes, and unripe blueberries. After the forest there came a wider expanse of fields. Across the fields, to the left, you could see the house where Helli lived.

“You go get Helli,” Ville said to Anja.

Anja started off, jumping over the ditches and at times running along the banks. In the middle of the field there was the main ditch which you could easily cross at a dry time like this.

The men walked over to the edge of the main ditch and sat down. Willows were growing along the ditch.

“Helli sleeps in that shed,” said Ville.

“It’s not going to rain,” Valde said.

A wind was blowing over the field and there were white clouds in the sky, but not near the sun. You could hear bird songs in the bushes and in the air.

“Sure is good weather. The hay should be growing well now. Does she sleep in the shed?” said Valde.

“She sleeps alone, all right. If we get some rain soon it’ll be a good year for hay,” said Ville.

They sat down on the bank of the ditch and waited. Then they stepped across the bottom of the ditch, a couple of meters wide, and sat down on the other side. After a while the girls came. Helli was reluctant.

“Hi,” said Helli, and jumped on to the road.

“Nice weather,” said Valde.

“How are things?” Ville asked.

Right away the four of them started walking along the road, Valde bringing up the rear. Helli was wearing a cretonne dress with small flowers, and she carried a windbreaker. Where the road was damp the heels of her rubber boots left their prints. Her hair was blond, uncurled, fixed somehow behind the ears. She had a kerchief on her head, tied up at the back. Her walk was a bit pigeon-toed. On her lower lip you could see the faint scar from the pig bite, which seemed to make her prettier.

As they were walking, the field ended and the road led into the forest.

“You should put on some mosquito oil too,” Anja said to Helli.

Valde poured a brown speck into Helli’s palm, and she smeared it on herself. The others put on some more too.

“Put it on your legs as well,” Anja told Helli.

Before long they reached the swamp. There the road consisted of dried-up mud. The wind was blowing from the left and the swamp stretched on and on in that direction, as it did to the right. The girls walked ahead, side by side. Yalde was looking at Helli, at her hair and skirt. Helli’s eyes were looking at Anja and the swamp, but not for very long at either one. Valde tried to think of how everything was going to happen.

“Has Helli ever gone fishing?” asked Valde.

“Is Helli quick at mi-ilking?” asked Ville.

“Mi-ilking,” echoed Helli.

The swamp ended and then there were birches. Soon they came to another wide swamp. They were walking close to each other. Valde felt like touching Helli. He bumped into her when they had to jump over a muddy place in the path. They were in the middle of the swamp and sat down to rest a bit since Anja felt tired. Valde’s thoughts were racing everywhere, and his chin was shaking. The sun was shining from the right side of the road.

“I’ll sleep right here,” said Anja as she lay on her back on a hummock.

The sun was pleasantly warm.

“Tickle her,” Valde said quietly to Ville.

“Your mare must be pretty good. Have you been training her recently?” asked Ville.

Valde moved over and sat down near Helli.

“I think there’s an unripe berry over there,” said Helli and took off, moving farther away. Soon she shouted, “A frog! A little frog!” Helli picked up the frog, held it in the middle of her palm, and then dangled it by one leg. She looked at it intently with her dark eyes. Anja got up, shuddering.

“That would be just the right size for a pike. Let’s take it along,” said Valde. But Helli let the frog jump away.

They went on. It was still a long way to the lake. They walked to the other side of the swamp, then through a forest of tall birches, then a moor, then a marshy forest, then a swamp, and they finally came to the lake shore. Each of the boys cut down a sapling and lopped off the branches to make angling rods; the girls sat down by the shore. The boys brought the rods over. Ville was tying a string onto one of the rods. Secretly, he winked at Anja and said, “I guess they’ll really bite now.”

“They should take to a bright lure in this kind of weather,” said Valde.

“Anja and I will go fish on that shore. You two go along the other one. When we meet on the other shore it’ll be just the right time to make some coffee and have something to eat. There’s a good spot over there, where I cooked last summer. There’s a big smooth slab of stone. Let’s grill some pike. I think Anja’s got some salt along. It’s a good place to catch a bit of sleep, too,” said Ville as he was fixing the spinning tackle onto the rod.

But Helli gave a start. The lake was small, surrounded by swamp on left and right, and by forest. The sun was already low. They had walked at least eight kilometers. Ville cast his lure out into the water. Helli had walked a little distance away. Suddenly she started running and disappeared without a word.

Helli had been reluctant when they had come. Just as if a red rubber band had been fixed to her and had stretched all this time, pulling her towards home. She ran back the same way they had taken hours to come. Valde started running after her.

Helli knew how to get through the forest. She ran or walked fast through bushes and undergrowth, across forests and swamps and made it home in the middle of the night. Valde came after her. First he tried to catch up with her, and he might well have been able to, but then he stopped trying. From the edge of a wide field he glanced at the shed where he knew Helli slept; he continued on his way and soon got home.

Ville and Anja stayed fishing at the lake, and came back the next morning, Sunday. Later that summer they got married.

On Sunday morning Helli came into the house from the shed.

“You thinking of becoming the daughter-in-law on a big farm?” Arttu, her father, asked as he was drinking coffee at the table.

Helli didn’t answer. She took the milking pail and stood on the front steps in the morning air. She went across the yard to milk the cows, and as she went she stepped off the path on to the camomile and wild grasses.

On that Sunday, Valde felt as if he had been ailing for a long time and was still a bit sick. He felt as if he were out in public, in clothes too small for him. You couldn’t talk to him about that trip all summer long; otherwise, he was soon just as he’d been before.

When he was fixing the barn roof in July, when the sun was shining as it did just before a thunderstorm, he once again felt like a human being.

A rock in the sunshine

One summer morning a boy stepped out the door of a farmhouse a knife in his hand. He had on a short-sleeved shirt and knee pants. The boy’s hair was brushed to one side, back off his forehead; his eyes were dark brown and his eyelashes were long. A pretty-eyed boy, as the gypsy woman had said to the farmer’s wife. The boy sat down on a stack of boards. He was going to make a new arrow for his bow.

The boy sat on the stack of boards and whittled. One end of a long thin piece of wood lay against his chest and the sharp knife scraped along the wood. White shavings were flying all around, everywhere on his pants and bare legs. Hair kept falling over his eyes and the boy always had to brush it away.

There was something above his knee. The boy put aside the knife and scratched his skin; the hem of his pant-leg slid up. Then he put the arrow down on the boards and looked; his leg was bare up to above the knee and his foot was right next to the rock on top of the grasses bending them in every direction and against the rock in the war sunshine. The rock, heated by the sun, was warming him.

Something went through the boy, making him shiver, and he looked and wondered: is all of that mine, the whole leg from bottom to top all of it. And the boy stood up. Slowly he circled the stack of boards and walked to the rear of the house, taking his steps one at a time. Slowly he went around the farmhouse and entered the living room. He sat down on a bench and looked at the ceiling and the corners of the room. A thought was moving, burning under the knee pants and the short-sleeved shirt, all the way to his hands and head.

And it made him restless, drove him to walk along meadows and carried him to the bank of a rocky rapids and to a quiet pool. And he saw all of the, the smooth reeds whose black tops were swaying, and the wild orchids under the embankment by the rapids, but they reminded him of something that was burning. He walked along taking his knife with him, and he did everything he had to do but whenever he did something he looked at himself and his hands as if they were a knife that made shavings. And he was like the wings of a hawk that comes in spring, wings that are light and strong but which have been clipped and don’t know where to go.

But then he sank into where he would have a wife and children and would peacefully drink coffee by the window in the evening.

And one day his son would notice his leg next to a rock in the sunshine, and other things too.


Translated by Aili and Austin Flint


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