Daughter of Cain

Issue 2/1985 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Kainin tytär (‘Daughter of Cain’, 1984). In the following extract Anna and Risku spend a single night recalling the early days of their relationship; Anna is in the country, Risku is in the city. Introduction by Soila Lehtonen


The moon hangs before the bosom of the sky, a slender crescent, but giving light all the same.

On the horizon a black, glimmering line emerges from the water. It is the skerry, a low, lone rock.

I shut off the motor. The sea laps minutely against the side of the boat. This far out there are no longer any birds.

The silence here is deeper than even that of an empty room.

The skerry is as black and glistening as the back of a pike.

Light is matter, it’s never steady.

Whatever is understood in life is understood in a sudden blue illumination, like lightning cleaving the night to expose the landscape – shadows, hollows and all.

My skerry.

I fled here seven years ago from an unreal city that was to me a silhouette cut from paper, flat. Away, always away.

I’d dragged the cello case through the streets like a coffin, colliding with snowbanks and traffic signs, ashamed of myself, my cello, the whole town, which had sent its child prodigy out into the world imagining I’d be one there as well.

It was the return of the prodigal daughter: not a ragged, starving penitent, but a bright-eyed country cousin with a gaping inward emptiness no one could see.

And the trip to this skerry: farewell, shore; farewell, birds; farewell, life.

And the unfamiliar skerry: wet, slimy.

And the water: piercing cold, arresting the breath.

And so; standing thigh-deep in the water, I saw my own grave. And the grave was empty. I wasn’t in it. There is no death, for there is no me.

I steered for home, crying all the way. I stepped ashore and saw that there were no trees. There they’ve grown and there they will rot away. New trees will come, new roots. There will be new parsonages, houses, bridges, people, roads. And through people you can see those who have been and those who are to come.

I laughed all the way inside, until I entered the parlor and saw Risku there.

She sat by the grandfather clock, with a bag full of presents, her eyes dimmed with emotion.

The following day I took Risku to the skerry. It was a foggy day. The fog and the silence deluded me into running off at the mouth: expressed in words, the experiences turned banal and flopped to earth like winged ducks.

I was ashamed.

Risku sat in the boat in her life jacket like a tourist and stared straight into my soul.

I was ashamed for the both of us.

It was only much later that I realised Risku didn’t share my mortal anguish. Risku was offended because she wasn’t the source.

Silly, vain Risku.

Tonight there is a dark light to the moon.

The skerry looks narrower than before, tamer. It’s older than I am. But I too am growing older. It shows in my greater ease.

I’m tired and cold. I ought to get back to the city yet tonight. Where can Risku be?

The night is clear and filled with people who are alone in the world.


That winter Baba fell ill.

A fever wrung her body dry; with each passing day it came more and more to resemble a blade of grass, the one the wind passeth over.

At last it felt as if Mother were waking from her perennial daze: my former room was tidied up for Baba. I took a carload of teddybears, dolls, building blocks, old Advent calendars and train tracks, Peter Cottontail, Famous Five and Tarzan books to my apartment. In recent years I’ve often found Mother sitting among them, bleary-eyed and distracted.

Mother looked after Baba as if she were a little baby.

The room filled with old-woman smells: decaying flesh, beeswax candles, lamp oil, camphor and naphthalene.

Baba lay in bed under a layer of newspapers – she claimed they held heat best – palsied and capricious:

‘You take candles for all the departeds and for Father Sergei separate.’

I went alone to the church. I hadn’t been there in fifteen years.

Everything was the same, and yet shabby, unfamiliar and intimidating.

I lit a candle for Father Sergei, Baba’s pet saint. Father Sergei’s eyes, once pious and stern, now regarded me lifelessly.

I’m an intruder here, but beside me, almost within reach, stands a little girl in ticklish damask, filled with curiosity and impertinence.

‘Where you find that?’

I’m five years old and stand beneath Father Sergei’s stern gaze, hiding behind my back a treasure, a white pigeon feather.

‘It’s an angel’s feather.’

‘What talk is that?’

‘God sent it.’

‘What you talking?’

‘It fell out of an icon.’

The church is dim, a choir of angels dressed as people sings, and Baba eyes me sceptically:

‘What icon?’


Baba glances at Father Sergei. Father Sergei stares calmly into the distance.

‘I tell your father you lie to old peoples.’

‘I’ll tell Father Baba’s been taking me to the Russki church again.’

Baba bites her lip:

‘Let me look the angel feather.’

I let her. Baba sniffs the feather and crushes it in her palm.

‘It smelled shit. No angel smell that way.’

Time does not pass chronologically, nor do people grow out of themselves.

The column was the same, glossy and stout; and just as before, it held in place the entire firmament.

And I was the same as well. People are just made of another substance, one that tires faster.

Beyond the column, wreathed in hallowed smoke, coughed an ever-diminishing choir, the angelic host of my childhood.

I lit candles for the dead, whom I had never in my life seen: Grandpa, Cousin Dima, Aunts Anja and Sonja, Big Natalia, Shurik, Uncle Jacov, Gulya, Little Bobik, Nikolenka and, just to make sure, five others whom Baba no longer remembered but who may have been praying in heaven for us all.

I stood beneath the blue vault.

It was a small celestial canopy filled with uniform gold stars.

I felt just as I used to as a child: time flowed through me; and the dead, already forgotten, bore me along in their arms.

Behind the column hid a girl whose white hair glowed in the holy-day light.

The girl looked straight at me unsmilingly.

I was embarrassed: I had been caught in an encounter with my most secret self.

I knelt then before Christ, before him who in dying had triumphed over death, and went out.

Anna left at the same time.

Without exchanging a word we walked through the park to the waterfront, to the marketplace. It was a Sunday. There was an indolent, grey light. For some reason flags were flying.

‘Don’t you just hate all that bible-banging?’

I was as offended as I’d been as a child when Mother’s and Baba’s peculiar speech and manners provoked laughter.

‘That whole holier-than-thou cult… don your silks, we’re having human flesh. And the blood we drink from a cup encrusted with rubies. That’s what I call sick.’

Anna stood on the edge of the harbor basin and spat into the water. The frozen sea glowed a dull red.

‘And the Lutheran ceremony, I suppose, is any better?’ I asked. ‘Your church’s long, winded hymn-singing… and the sermons… one hell of a garbled philosophy.’

‘That’s not what I was talking about,’ Anna interrupted.

‘What was it then?’

Instead of answering, Anna gave me a look of cold astonishment.

‘A person needs silence.’

‘It’s not silent in our church,’ I said. ‘The entire liturgy is, after all, based on music.’

‘It’s the same thing. Or should be.’

And Anna walked away, without warning or explanation. I spent the whole day wandering the city.

Monday throws its long shadow over Sunday. I try not to notice it, the way I try not to see the first blue tinges of autumn which always appear in the middle of a sultry day in August.

I ended up that evening at Stenbacka’s.

Stenbacka wandered among his ponderous plush furnishings in a glossy smoking jacket and seemed even more absent-minded than usual.

I sank into a deep armchair and drank coffee from a tiny demitasse.

‘”His body is as a soul and his soul of heavenly kind,”‘ Stenbacka said, stopping before me.


‘”His body is as a soul and his soul of heavenly kind,”‘ Stenbacka repeated. ‘I’ve been pondering this line all day long.’


Stenbacka settled onto the sofa. Gilt-framed mirrors reflected his neck as a suffused gleam.

‘Just think if each person’s head were replaced by a little globe. It would make a good painting. People would walk around in the streets and sit in concerts and on trains… and the spheres would spin.’

I was worn out, my thoughts strayed.

Stenbacka watered his flowers, padded around on the soft carpet and went on talking, to me or to the flowers:

‘A teacher is like an escort seeing his student off on a journey… supplying provisions. The provisions are important… what would you provide for, say, church musicians?’

Stenbacka closed his eyes, the watering can shook in his hand:

‘For conductors, smoked ham and buttermilk. Cold cuts for the winds… for the brass instruments, beer and bratwurst. And for flautists… blackberries and whipped cream… and liqueur. For pianists… you’ll forgive me… meatballs … no… fowl, chicken… Chicken Bonne Femme… and for cembalists, quail… and homemade rolls for the teachers, right?’

Stenbacka put his hand on my knee.

‘And for the most beloved of students, champagne and caviar. Occasionally a few meringues and kisses… candy kisses, mind you. And black bread for all… you understand? Black bread is a must… otherwise life goes all flibbertigibbet. And then, off to the harbor… with the bundle of provisions over one’s shoulder. No tears… some fond farewells. It’s always the student who leaves. The teacher stays. The teacher looks on, but the student looks ahead and forgets the teacher. Do you understand?’

Stenbacka poured more coffee from the long-spouted silver pot:

‘When young you imagine that someone will stay on. But no one stays. The student has to see the world… and there has to be black bread in his pack. And champagne. If either is lacking, it’ll all come to naught. You are a young teacher… assuming you ever actually get down to teaching… you imagine that someone will stay on…. ‘

‘No,’ I said. ‘There’s no one, not even there…’

‘The good teacher,’ Stenbacka interrupted, ‘is one who discovers the god in everyone… “his body is as a soul”… no, listen, search as you may, you won’t find it… but there is always one… you always find one… “and his soul of heavenly kind”….’

When I got outside, the grey of the day had turned to deep blue. The city lay as if in the petals of a violet. It was getting bitter cold, spangling the sky with tiny fierce stars.

I didn’t feel like going home.

I went to a restaurant with red-checked tablecloths and a bunch of despondent-looking bronze composers on the wall.

The place was full. The talk turned excited and trite: each had his theme and only rarely managed to work variations on it.

I heard from someone from the Academy that Anna was no longer attending classes.

No one knew anything about Anna.

It was a starlit night.

It was so cold the moon trembled within its caul.

I stood in the street beneath Anna’s window. The window was just below the roof, under the eaves. It was semicircular in shape and dim.

It was so cold I wept. I was drunk.

By the time I got in on the stairway, my fingers and toes were numb.

I slowly climbed the stairs to the top floor. I stood a long time outside the glowing glass-panelled door. Through the door came the faint sound of music.

I looked for the doorbell. There wasn’t any. I knocked, and it came out a signal: dum-da-da-dum-dum, dum-dum.

The light on the landing went out. Somewhere down below a dog barked. There was a creaking in the attic, an inside door opened somewhere, and through it came the voice of a crying child: ‘No waving, my good friend…’

The door opened.

In the doorway, against intense light, stood Anna. From behind her, music rippled out onto the landing: a rapturous striving of violin and viola.

Anna stepped aside and let me in.

A lantern burned in the middle of the room. The room was large and bare. Next to one wall was a mattress, a loaf of bread and an open milk carton; against another wall, a stereo and a cardboard box filled with records.

A deep window sill was covered with sea shells, stones, fossils and bits of sea-polished glass. Before the window stood a simple wooden chair and a music stand.

The atmosphere in the room was of such brightness and solitude that now, seven years later, with the walls already covered with mementos of our mutual journey, I still encounter it in brief flashes.

I stood in the middle of the room without knowing what to say. Anna leaned on the door, and suddenly she smiled.

I had never seen Anna smile.

‘I hear,’ I stumbled over my words, ‘that you… that you’re not attending classes…’

‘Let’s not talk about it,’ Anna said quickly.

We fell silent.

The instruments vied with, lost and found each other, finally striking a balance, the viola in resigned accompaniment.

I didn’t know whether Anna expected me to stay or leave.

‘Where’s your cello?’ I asked.

Anna cleared a space on the window sill and sat down.

‘Music is a place to escape to,’ she said. ‘Outside of it it’s easy to wind up in a vacuum.’

The instruments died away; silence descended over the room.

Anna was younger than I, almost a child. What made me so shy before her?

‘The neck of a cello is only a few centimeters wide,’ Anna said. ‘The whole of life should fit there, and all the feelings. Where do you get them if there aren’t any?’

Anna leaned her head against the window and for a long while sat motionless.

She picked up a shell, her hand trembling. It was a strange shell, a spiral coiled in on itself: fragile, firm and whole. It cast a gleam of introverted light on Anna’s face.

My feet went dead and I could no longer move.

Beyond the window the moon waxed full. Then, slowly, it sank toward the horizon.

Translated by Tim Steffa


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