The Vatican

Issue 3/1986 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Maan ja veden välillä (‘Between land and water’, 1955). Introduction by Pirkko Alhoniemi

At the top of the hill there was a cow barn with all kinds of trash scattered along its walls: rusty pails, pottery shards, old shoes, all the stuff country people toss onto rubbish heaps. The clucking of chickens and bleating of sheep filled the air. As I was running across the barnyard I had an idea that a chicken had probably just laid an egg on the grass or was looking for some place to lay an egg, because it was letting out such sharp scolding cries.

Many of us were running across the yard and in back of the cow barn. If I hadn’t been on my way to the Vatican I would have stayed to pat a calf that was rubbing its side against a wall of the cow barn in the glow of the rising sun. But I was in a hurry. I didn’t dare let the women out of my sight because I couldn’t find the way by myself, I couldn’t even remember exactly where I had joined the crowd. I had just seen them running by and while I hadn’t intended to start off for the Vatican just that day, I went along with them anyway.

This was no solemn procession, I knew that much. It wasn’t right and proper for pilgrims to tear along like that. Most of the women were in tattered clothes. They had taken off right in the middle of their laundry or baking chores. One woman’s arms were still covered with dough, you could see dried-up dough all the way to her elbows. What shocked me more than anything were their dirty aprons, but I didn’t dare criticize them, I could already feel their resentment coming at me.

All the time I was running with them it bothered me that I’d happened to join that sort of crowd. To go to the Vatican with aprons on! We should have had flowers in our hands and been wearing the right kind of clothes for pilgrims. I tried to get some dignity into my steps. I hoped to set an example for the others, to make them slow down a little. As if we were on our way to put out a fire or chase cows out of a wheat field. I even tried to sing a pilgrim song but I cut it short because the women began to get upset, their faces darkening and anger flashing from their eyes. But they didn’t say anything, not to me or to each other. That was the strangest thing about this procession – no one spoke at all.

One woman was especially irritating and tactless. Whatever was in her way she kicked aside with a furious swing of her foot. Nothing slowed her down, she just kept on kicking. When the pack of women whizzed past the rear of the cow barn with their apron strings flapping and their skirts snapping, what did that woman do? She took a step to one side and kicked the calf right over! The poor creature was left on its back, its legs twitching, then it jumped up, stuck out its tongue and began to moo mournfully. If I hadn’t been in the middle of that wild crowd, I would have stayed back, had a good laugh and patted the animal, that’s how surprised it looked after us. But I didn’t feel like laughing. I even managed to wonder why I didn’t feel like laughing although that whole bunch tearing along would have made me double over in any other situation.

We were dashing along, down a hill. I thought someone might have fallen down but no one turned to see. At the bottom of the hill there was a broad stream. When the women saw it they began to hurry even more. I could hear the calf mooing in back of us and I was afraid the woman’s kick had even punctured its side. But there was no more time to think about it because we had already reached a river bank. There were no boats on shore, all you could see were little boats that looked like sleds speeding along the water. The women started ripping strong branches from the bushes and twisting them to make ropes. They kept tossing them towards the boats and managed to pull them to shore. The women were in such a hurry that they threw themselves into them, some landing on their backs, others on their stomachs, and the current began to carry them along with it. But instead of going with the current, the women set their course straight across the stream. They were slapping the water with the branches they had twisted together, and as strong as the current was, it didn’t take them long to get across to the other shore. I didn’t manage to get a boat for myself, I couldn’t even tear the branches off those bushes. The last boat was just about to leave shore when I flung myself into it, straight on top of a fat woman. She twisted a little so that I was squeezed against the edge of the boat. As soon as the women reached the other shore, they got out of the little boats as swiftly as they had gotten into them. They tossed aside the branches, sent them floating off with the current, just like the boats. My legs, which had been squeezed under the fat woman, would scarcely hold me up but I tried as hard as I could and managed to catch up with the others when the last of them was just about to disappear beyond the hill that rose from the bank.

We went on our way through rolling countryside until we came to a high hill. Everyone stopped. The Vatican had come into view. I expected the women would finally say or do something, at least get cleaned up, brush back or tie up their hair the way country women did when, after covering long distances, they came near a church, a place where people lived. But no one said or did anything. One of them just suddenly pinched her mouth shut so that you couldn’t see her lips. When the others noticed it, they all pinched their mouths shut. I could understand the strange things they had done up until then, they could have come from not being used to pilgrimages or from sheer simplemindedness. But to hold your mouth in such a ridiculous pose – and to do it just when you saw the Vatican. Right then it came to me in a flash, the strange silence during the whole trip: there had to be some bit of magic, some belief that they were following. Getting there and being admitted depended on that. So then I pinched my mouth shut too and just stood there staring straight ahead without a glance in any other direction, although I yearned to fall onto my knees on that hill, kiss the ground and cry. Because I did see the Vatican.

It wasn’t the way I had imagined it. I knew you had to get there right as the sun was rising, you had to see it for the first time through the silvery morning air. The time was right: the mists had just begun to lift. The Vatican rose up alone on a high plateau, already within shouting distance. It was round, quite round. From the stories, I had imagined it with four corners. But its shape did not surprise me as much as its color. I first thought the morning glow had colored its walls but when the mists had dissipated in the soft winds, I could see I was not mistaken: the Vatican was made of some red material that wasn’t stone – wasn’t wood. It was human flesh. I could see the blood moving and the veins throbbing under the surface.

I was looking at the other women. I wanted to ask them whether they saw what I saw – and I still wanted to fall down on my knees in front of it and cry.

My companions did not look surprised, at least their faces betrayed no emotion. Perhaps they had, after all, been to the Vatican before and seen the one who sits on the throne. But my horror only grew. I saw ever more clearly how the veins pulsated, how blood was coursing under the surface – I wanted to scream and tear my hair, I wanted to make them turn back, but no one even glanced at me. The whole flock started running again, as if a lightning bolt had started it off. And though I couldn’t take my eyes off the building, and though my whole body twitched with terror in time with the pulsing of the veins, I still had to go, for I felt ever more clearly that I was tied to this flock, bound to its every movement.

I still tried to gather some dignity in my steps. The Vatican is the Vatican, however I saw it, I thought. I couldn’t approach it twittering senselessly along like a magpie. I had fallen behind the others, and again they stopped and stood still for a moment, but just as I caught up with them, they started running- off again.

Now we could see the gates of the Vatican. From time to time they opened, flung wide by a flame. In front of them stood a huge crowd, ready to rush in. But only those who had just arrived, who had taken the very last step of their journey, were let in when the gates opened. One second too early or too late and you’d be shut outside. Those who had not arrived at the right moment had turned and were now walking away, hanging their heads, forming many lines in all directions. You could see them traveling along the valleys and the slopes, and only now were their steps dignified.

I was watching my companions closely. Now I finally grasped that I was bound to them. I had to do as they did. And the closer to the gate we came, the more carefully the women avoided looking at each other – earlier they had at least thrown sidelong glances at each other’s hands and feet, never at the faces, that much I had noticed.

I did know some things about the Vatican. If I hadn’t been in this dirty and confused-looking flock, but with my own kind of people, I would have stopped on the hill to talk about history and art treasures, as my ancestors had done when they’d gazed upon the Vatican from the same hill. But to speak to these – with their elbows in dough, hair messy. – It was as if the woman who had kicked over the calf had read my thoughts: she turned and fixed me with her eyes for a second. If she had dared open her mouth, I knew she would have said, ‘Who do you think you are?’ I felt ever more clearly that there was some magic spell keeping that woman’s mouth shut. I thanked God for the spell; otherwise that calf-kicker – or calf-killer – that was possible, so pitiful was the poor creature’s mooing – would have incited the others against me. And God only knows what would have happened. They could have torn me to pieces right at the Vatican gates; I didn’t try to think of dignity any more as I was going along, much less remember history and art treasures.

Although I was wearing a neat red dress and was clearly more suitably dressed than the others, it still bothered me that I knew I wasn’t wearing the right kind of garb for a pilgrim. – If I had started this journey alone, a garland would have adorned my head, a gold-embroidered cape would have covered my shoulders, and how I would have sung, sung beautifully as I approached the gates in the silvery morning glow. – Suddenly darkness fell and I could feel only a thud. A cool airstream had sucked us inside the gates. The flames that had looked like fire from farther away were not fire, but red air. We had come into a dark corridor which exuded dampness and the smell of mildew. People’s feet kept getting entangled, and when one person would feel another one’s foot she would pull her own away so quickly that both would just about fall over.

Gradually you could begin to see some light pouring through the dust particles in the big arched windows. It was the rising sun, the sun was still rising although the journey had seemed so long. We had come into a large room – you couldn’t call it a hall, it was too small for a hall. I had imagined that the Pope’s throne would be in the midst of treasures but I couldn’t see a hint of treasures anywhere. The room was furnished simply, the walls of unpainted wood, the floors rough. Not a sign to testify to the holiness of the place.

There already were people in the room, and our group got lost among the others. I saw many friends and acquaintances but they pretended not to notice me. I wasn’t offended, I certainly had learned to believe there was always something for which we had come, towards which we were going.

People were beginning to move towards the Pope’s throne under the great arched windows. He was sitting behind a wooden table, on a platform which had three steps leading up to it on both sides. But there were no holy signs, not even where the Pope would be, all you could see were three dahlias cut right at the base of the stem, in a shallow bowl. Apparently they had been kept in the same water for a long time because the water was slimy and when I took a closer look at the flowers I could see they had begun to wilt. Now I was no longer surprised that the women had come as they had.

All of a sudden a quiet mumble of prayers filled the room. The Pope had begun to bestow his blessings. People moved about delicately, striving for dignity. Among them you could also see men. I had not noticed them earlier. I saw one man who had been rumored to have died. The neighbors said that one autumn night he had jumped from his bed screaming, and run into the lake. I couldn’t be mistaken, it was the same man from my home town, from the very same village as I.

All paused in turn in front of the throne, bowed down as the Pope made the sign of the cross above each each one. Drops of water kept sprinkling beyond the heads of those being blessed and I noticed how some women would stretch their legs and arms under the falling drops although they had already received their blessing. I thought that was wrong because I saw the Pope always ladle the same amount of water from the bowl at his feet. I even saw him pour water back into the bowl if it seemed to be more than he had sprinkled on the head of the one he had blessed a moment before. The Pope was just, that’s why the treachery of those being blessed disturbed me. However, I couldn’t say anything, I didn’t take it upon myself to right other people’s wrongs.

I had a lot of time to look at everything carefully while I was standing there. I had stood in front of the Pope for a long time, my red dress was so clearly different from the others that he should have noticed me by now. My turn had come and gone many times. Many others who had come after me had already received their blessings and left the room. In the mass of people I had pushed myself right against the altar and standing there brought to my mind the boat and that damned hag. At that very moment I became scared my thought was sinful. But with malignant delight I then remembered the calf-kicker – that woman sure could not stand in this room with a clear conscience, I thought. I got frightened all over again, each new thought of mine was more sinful than the one before. I tried to listen to the prayers and look at those being blessed.

Although many mumbled, ‘Holy Father, give me thy blessing,’ as they went in front of the Pope, and although they saw he had lifted his hand to bless them and even after receiving the blessing they continued to babble, I did not open my mouth. Perhaps I could have attracted the Pope’s attention if I had done as the others did, but I couldn’t say a word. I did try several times, I already had a sentence on my lips, but right then my lips would stiffen up. I began to feel that people were pushing and nudging on purpose and I was particularly irritated by the women. One woman was like a sheep pulled out of water as she bleated for a blessing she had already received. Another one was chasing the drops of water like a chicken, snapping her jaws open and shut so that her teeth clicked. Both of them were flinging about like half-wits, and I am certain that the slap on my cheek was deliberate.

People flowed by in a steady stream but my turn had not yet come. The audience seemed to be ending, the room had emptied out but I was still standing in front of the altar. My dress was so red that I began to feel embarrassed. I thought that if the Pope had no intention to bless me, I didn’t want to beg for anything not due me by grace and right, no, not even from the Pope. I became more and more irritated – what business did I have to race off with a wild flock of women like a cat in heat, to stand for hours on end behind a miserable wooden table and wait for water on my neck. And did I have any guarantee as to who that man behind the table really was? Who could prove he was really the Pope? And the floors were littered with rubbish. In my village you couldn’t find the meanest hut with a floor like this. The cardinals were standing lazily along the walls. If the Pope really was the Pope, the least he could do would be to make the cardinals sweep, at least in front of his throne, I thought.

The murmuring around me had completely died away. I stood as straight as I could, my body tired from the tension. And before I knew it, tears began to flow. I tried to hold my head bent backward. I pretended to look at the sunlight playing in front of the arched windows so that no one would see my weeping. But my tears fell on the front of my red dress and turned it black, they fell on the floor, too – I didn’t dare look at my feet – I could just hear how they rolled along the floorboards, clattering like rocks.

Cool air blew in through the doorway. A new flock came in. That’s when I understood I was standing there in vain. For all that time I had stood there to no end – I had come that long distance for nothing. All the others would be blessed, I would not, I knew. – Like a dog I will look at the Holy Father, – I was already calling him the Holy Father, for my grief and shame were as great as my terror had been when I saw the Vatican from the hill – I’ll look at him like a dog, I decided – I’ll fill my eyes with longing. When I have filled my eyes with humility, I will be blessed. – But he avoided my glance. I will never know whether he even noticed me.

I could have waited longer and placed myself under the falling drops. But I knew it would have been futile. I knew peace does not come from water alone, even if the water is holy. Peace could only come from the hand. And so I left with my face tightened up to prevent tears from flowing. Right then the new people seeking benediction had come in the doorway and approached the throne.

I walked slowly along the book-lined wall, the bookcases were of greyish-green leather. – Like the face of a dead one, I thought, my face and the Pope’s face, when we are dead.

I looked for an exit door, but I couldn’t see one anywhere. Right then one of the cardinals, whom I had already noticed leafing through the books, came up to me. In his hand he held an open volume.

‘I have opened the book for you,’ he said. ‘I saw you standing in front of the Holy Father. I do this secretly. We are not allowed to show a single line, but I saw everything when you stood in front of the Holy Father. Read here, and I will repeat to you word for word in your own language what you have read.’

I bent over the book. The cardinal stood at my shoulder and moved his finger letter by letter as I deciphered the text. The characters were strange, and at first I thought I was looking at pictures of plants because each letter was adorned with heads of grain and different flowers. But I knew the flowers from the grassy banks of my home village, I could distinguish the different heads of grain. I could tell rye from wheat and wheat from barley, I knew the chaff of oats and buckwheat. And the cardinal was patient. Stammering, I managed to make a sentence out of the words. The cardinal translated it into my tongue, like this: ‘Through flowers and heads of grain, we return to the place we came from.’

Tags: