Lest your shadow fade

Issue 1/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

An extract from the novel Jottei varjos haalistu (‘Lest your shadow fade’, 1987). Interview by Erkka Lehtola

‘… learn, then, to like yourself.
Dancing beside your shadow, laugh and play.
Dance always in the sunlight, lest your shadow fade.’

J. Fr. Erlander, 1876 (Erika Kuovinoja’s grandfather)

‘Tis in life’s hardness that its splendour lies.’

J. Fr. E., 1890

Three days before the date fixed for the funeral, the minister directed his steps towards the home of the deceased, trying, as he walked, to compose his thoughts, which were full of righteous Lutheran anger. There were many good reasons for this. On the other hand, nothing that had happened in the past ought to make any difference, now that he was on his way to visit a house of mourning. A visit that called for the exercise of understanding, and even, if possible, kindness. It was a lot for anyone to expect, even of a clergyman. It was not by his own desire that he was paying this call: it was a matter of duty. And this time he was the protagonist. Petulantly, his shoes crunched the gravel.

Ah yes, of course: the house was being cleaned and tidied. Outwardly at least, decency must be preserved. It was his task as a priest to make sure that the spiritual side of life, if any rags of it remained, was paid an equal share of respect. Shyness, that besetting sin of his, was already battering at his gate, but he bade it begone. Why was he still so shy sometimes, why did the Lord not truly strengthen him? Why did the Lord not endow him with real firmness and confidence? Why did he so often feel unhappy – unhappy and very lonely?

The woman, wearing a headscarf and an apron, was beating a carpet in the yard in front of the house. She went on beating as he approached, so that he had to make a detour to avoid the cloud of dust. His irritation re­ turned. Making his way over to the rickety steps by which the deceased had entered and left the house, he stood there and waited. Yes, she had dropped the carpet-beater and was coming across to him. They went inside.

‘The place is in the sort of state you might expect,’ she said. In spite of all his prayers, he still bore her a grudge, and regarded her with a dislike that bordered on fear. Another woman was standing on a chair, washing the domed top of the heating-stove, while a third had begun to wash the kitchen walls, starting in the far corner. ‘We have to get the kitchen cleaned up, there’s a woman coming in to bake tomorrow.’

‘So you have decided to have the service here, even though you are taking the body to another parish.’

‘It’s not far. It won’t take long, there and back, by car.’

‘The floral tributes will be deposited there, I take it?’

‘That was the idea.’

‘Presumably there will be a clergyman there, and a sexton? Or am I expected to go there as well?’

‘No, that’s all been seen to.’ Erika raised her eyes. They, too, spoke of a grudge, but less distinctly: more than anything else, they revealed her tiredness. She would have to hold back the words she had been on the point of uttering. That other clergyman was content to be the humble pastor of a poor country parish. When he visited a farm, even if it was to conduct a prayer meeting, he was not above doing some other job while he was there, like spraying the peas or helping with the saw, if it appeared that these tasks had not been completed. Not one of those ‘fine-gentleman’ clergymen: just a clergyman, that was all.

‘We’d better go in here:’ Erika showed the minister into Julius’ room, which had already been tidied. Something about this simple room, which despite through cleaning still smelt of disinfectant (and possibly, to a stranger, of other things as well), was clearly repugnant to the visitor. The evening before, Erika had sat here with the boy and talked to him, telling him not to worry. Death had come to Julius, his father, before life had fully lost its magic for him: he had still had plans for the future. And she had shown the boy a paper she had been keeping in her handbag, with the inscription she had copied a month or two earlier from a bedroom door in the Kuovinoja farmhouse, while Julius was out working in the pigsty. The boy had not understood a word of it, how could he, at his age? Erika had never got round to showing it to Julius. The time had never seemed to be right; and in the event the right time had never come. She had put the paper down just as it was, without refolding it, on top of a pile of Julius’ diaries, where it still lay.

‘It is my custom to pay a pastoral call when there has been a bereavement,’ said the minister, seating himself in Julius’ chair. ‘To say a few words of comfort and encouragement, to pray with the bereaved, and also to ask a question or two about the person who has passed away, so as to have an idea of what should be said by way of commemoration. Though I do, in fact, in this instance, know a great deal already, a very great deal.’ Erika remained silent, and the minister studied her, this woman whom the Rural Dean, in his senility, always insisted on defending.

‘Could you perhaps tell me of any text from the Bible, for example, of which this Julius Aleksander Kuovinoja was particularly fond? Some passage in which he sought refuge when this earthly life laid its snares in his path?’

Erika still said nothing. She searched her memory for something that might satisfy the minister, but could think of nothing.

‘No? I can hardly believe that his library contained no copy of the Holy Scriptures.’

‘Of course he had a Bible. But – look, he was a busy man. He was always working, always. When would he have found the time to–?’

‘Found the time?’ The minister’s eyebrows shot halfway up his forehead. The sight of him sitting there, in Julius’ chair, was almost more than Erika could bear. ‘He seems to have found time for a good many other things – some of which one might regard as uncalled-for, to say the least.’

Fear sent the minister another warning signal, but he determined to ignore it. He must be firm now, and not weaken.

‘He worked hard, all the same’, said Erika. ‘Harder than most people. If he needed to relax occasionally, and –. Well, I for one have nothing to hold against him. He was a good man, and conscientious.’

The look the minister gave her was like a blow in the face. He lifted his briefcase on to the desk and took out a hymnbook.

‘Well, at least we had better choose the hymns for the service’, he said.

‘I suppose he did sing hymns sometimes? He had a very good singing voice, I am told, although unfortunately he never saw fit to let us have the benefit of it in the church choir.’

‘When would he ever have had time to go to choir practices?’ Erika was beginning to weary of this useless chatter. ‘He never worked regular hours,’ she continued listlessly. ‘How could he have fitted it in? And if he did sing sometimes, why should he have sung funeral hymns? He was alive.’

‘Quite, quite. But now he is dead.’

Erika shook her head slowly. The minister was no longer the chatty, ingratiating young fellow who, only a year or two ago, used to be seen bustling up and down the streets, buttonholing people right and left. He had started putting on this dignified, self-important air, because he was soon going to be the vicar of a rich, important parish and was already able to throw his weight about quite a lot. The trouble was that beneath all the pomposity there was nothing at all, so that the total impression he gave was of dourness, or even of cruelty.

‘I’ll go and get them to bring some coffee.’ As Erika stood up she caught a whiff of her own perspiration. ‘And I’ll just give my hands a wash, it won’t take a minute.’

It did not, in fact, take long, but while she was out of the room she did manage to think of a cheerful hymn they sometimes had at the school where she taught, and this she decided to suggest to the minister. Now all she had to do was to steer this conversation to a reasonably amicable conclusion, in the hope that the funeral service would be conducted, if not exactly beautifully, at least in as simple and matter-of-fact a manner as possible.

But when she re-entered the room, without her headscarf and with her hair tidied, she saw at once that whatever she now said or suggested would come too late. The minister was standing behind the desk, holding up her innocent sheet of paper at arm’s length, as if it were some dangerous and corrosive object. He had simply picked it up, without waiting to ask permission, and was now looking deeply offended, not to say outraged. Now he no longer needed to make a pretence of firmness: this was the real thing.

In reverberant tones, which would not have seemed out of place in a cathedral, he thundered:

‘Before the Lord all books are open. Including even a piece of depravity like this. Are these the kind of verses your brother was reading, during the last days of his life?’

Erika was going to say no, to contradict him as she should have done, but instead said nothing, and the minister, in tones of mounting indignation, read the whole poem aloud.

‘What language! What a truly shocking composition!’

‘No’, Erika said, reflecting that she at least, of the two of them, ought to make some effort to keep her head. ‘It’s just something our grandfather scribbled, a stray thought perhaps: anyway, it was a long time ago. He was still a young man then, in all the vigour of life. Later he came to learn that ’tis in life’s hardness that its splendour lies. He was a bit of a philosopher, you might say.’

‘I see. So that’s how you look at it.’ The minister held the paper in his fine, delicate fingers, which for a moment seemed about to crush it into a tight ball and throw it away. He put it down. ‘And you can still talk about life’s splendour!’

‘It was something my brother understood, at any rate. Better, perhaps, than either you or I. What harm is there in those words? The Bible says love thy neighbour as thyself. So first you have to love yourself.’

But it was no good: anything she had said would have been equally wrong. The helper, arriving with a tray of coffee, stood in the doorway and watched as the minister returned the hymnbook to his briefcase and did up the clasp.

‘So that is the kind of creed you have been living by, in this household.’

‘I still can’t see that there’s anything wrong in it. It’s my, it’s our –.’

The minister was no longer listening. He seized his briefcase by the handle and came out from behind the desk. They made room for him to pass. In the doorway he stopped, turned round, and held up his briefcase.

‘And you talk about the splendour of life. But what I have to say to you is this; if you must boast, then boast about Jesus.’

And off he went, presumably to boast about Jesus and feel, for a short while, not unpleased with himself. Erika sat down; the helper put down the tray and waited. Erika tried to remember what she had been doing before the interruption, and what still had to be done.

‘What’s bitten him, then?’ The helper was young and vivacious. ‘It was a nice poem. I couldn’t help hearing, when he read it out in that churchy voice. My little boy, we were down in the market one day, such a lovely bright day, early in the spring it must have been, all of he sudden he began howling like a pig in a slaughterhouse, I said what are you howling for, but he just went on and on screaming, and then that nice lady at the fish stall, you know, the fat one from Inkoo, she says oh, he’s looking at his shadow. And that’s what it was, she was quite right, he’d never noticed it before and he was really frightened, seeing this thing following him all the time. Oh well, we soon calmed him down.’

‘Well, we might as well drink the coffee. We’ll have it in here.’ Erika called the other helper to join them. ‘What was he so upset about, you were asking. If it hadn’t been that, it would have been something else. He just wanted an excuse. But it’s quite true, everyone has to learn to know his own shadow. And it doesn’t fade, so long as the sun remembers to shine. And it needn’t even be the real sun: to have someone thinking of you is enough.’

‘That’s right. Did you want the curtains starched?’

‘Yes.’

‘And all the sheets put through the mangle?’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Then we’d better stop sitting around here, and get on with it.’

‘Is it all right to sing?’ asked the second helper, who was even younger then the other. ‘Songs, I mean? Or must it be only hymns?’

‘Sing what you like. You can have the radio on if you like. Julius wouldn’t have minded, he wasn’t a saint. Just an ordinary wretched human being. And thank goodness for that.’

The tray was removed, but Erika sat on for a while. She was upset on behalf of all her family, the ones who were now dead. But then it came to her that the minister’s outburst had had no meaning at all. He had simply worked himself up into the state a hysterical person needs to get into, so as to have an excuse to explode, and afterwards be able at least to breathe freely. Or maybe he just needed to demonstrate who it was that had the whip-hand now. Or else that silly old rhyme had been completely beyond his comprehension. Perhaps that was it. How could he be expected to understand why an unknown farmer should have wanted to scratch anything on his door except ‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom?’

When Asko returned from school, which she had decided to let him attend as usual, having once begun, the three women were all busy and there was music on the radio. Erika looked at the boy, and then went to have a talk with him.

Although there had been no announcement of Julius’ death in the paper, the church was full. There were relatives and friends, of course, but also farmers and cottagers from all over the parish and even from outside it – people who had got to know him not only as a helper but also as a person. Many of them were unknown to Erika, even by sight. And then there were men from the sawmill and other workmen and small tradesmen whose grandfathers and great-grandfathers had been connected in some way with the original Kuovinoja estate, and who had themselves kept up the legend.

Some people had merely come as far as the churchyard and, finding no open grave, had gone away again. Also present, for some unknown reason, was an aged Karelian woman.

Even as he entered the church by the sacristy door, the minister’s expression was stern. He bowed to the altar, walked past the coffin, flung up the skirts of his cassock and sat down to wait for the first hymn to end.

He surveyed the congregation: for once the church was full. Then, if not before, he ought to have sensed something. But all he saw was a stubborn flock, which would soon be skipping about again beside its own shadow, and which needed nothing more than a touch of the rod. And he it was who was to wield that rod, to grant or deny admittance.

The lesson was the usual one about the clay and the potter. He disposed of it quickly and prepared to begin his address. He stood at the head of the coffin, as prescribed, and his face was flushed with pain, as if he, he personally, had taken upon himself the sins of the deceased, to wallow in them, but also, according to his faith, to be purified of them. It would require strength, he must be strong. There must be no hesitation. The people must be shaken from their slumber, every one of them made conscious of his sins.

‘What do we know of this man who has died, this piece of clay? The potter had intended to make of him a vessel, perhaps a beautiful one. But time after time he broke away, fell to the ground, down into the mud and the mire. The potter did not cease his efforts, again and again he took hold of him, kneading and moulding him. The Lord gave him many fresh chances, very many indeed. But what did he do with these chances? Here, in God’s temple, he was never to be seen. His time was spent on worldly pursuits, in the hubbub of Vanity Fair. Even at the moment of death he was not at home. We can only hope that at least he was sober. However, it may be that through his drinking, through that terrible sin itself, he can serve as an example to our young people, now on the threshold of adulthood: to his own son, who has learned too early the meaning of sin and depravity. We remember, too, how even the secular powers of this land were moved to take a hand in curbing his activities, by taking away his driving licence. And it can only be with horror that we recall his desecration of the sanctified soil of our churchyard, by using it for the concealment of weapons, weapons capable of killing. This was not only sacrilege in the eyes of God, but an offence against the law of the land, and for many a long week he had to lie in prison as a result. Yet not even this heavy lesson was sufficient to turn him from his evil ways, and make him humble. No, he continued his wild roistering in every corner of the parish. Instead of –.’

A flicker of surprise crossed the minister’s face, as he heard the church door creak. People in the back pews were leaving. He quickly got back into his stride, however, the distraction serving merely to add another droplet to the anger already raging within him. He took a deep breath, rose on tiptoe, and carried on. His words still rang out as strongly as he meant them to. The pale faces of the figures in the wall-paintings looked on unmoved. The painted vines, trailing their tendrils along the ribs of the arches, seemed unconcerned: not a grape fell.

And Julius, in his white coffin, did not care either.

‘It is with sorrow, too, that we must contemplate his failings as a family man. As far as he was concerned, the sixth commandment did not exist. There was a day when he stood here, before this very altar, beside a chaste and innocent bride. On the very spot, almost, where he is lying now. But he chose, alas, to ignore his obligations, until his wife was forced to seek escape from who knows what kind of ill-treatment. These are things for which he will be called to account, and face a dreadful judgment on the Last Day.’

People were now leaving the front pews as well. Erika glanced round: someone must have been holding the door open, it had not creaked again. The church was now almost completely empty. Hunched up against the wall, a human bundle peered this way and that.

The boy at Erika’s side began to fidget: he was frightened. He looked with scared eyes at Erika, and then again around and behind him. Erika put a hand on his knee.

‘We’ll have to wait,’ she whispered, bending close. ‘It won’t be long now. We’ll just sit here quietly. Don’t listen. Your father doesn’t know about all this, it’s nothing to him.’

The boy began to study the painting of Paradise: birds, fishes and unicorns, all in the same fenced enclosure. Erika fiddled with a carnation in her bunch of flowers. The stem had a stiff piece of wire twisted around it. Now even the bearers had left: the cousins, Lahtinen, the magistrate, the doctor. She shuddered. Shouldn’t she have gone out too? Did she have to sit and listen while her beloved younger brother was slandered in a funeral sermon? Wasn’t every word of it cutting her to the quick? Yes, but she would stick it out, she would not abandon Julius now, just as she had never abandoned him in the past. Priest or no priest, the minister was no more than an ordinary human being.

Something must have dawned upon the minister at last, for he now began to speed up his oration. His glance swept the church from wall to wall. He no longer looked at his script. He contented himself with a mere passing hint at the dead man’s affairs with women, and at the fact that he had considered his pigs more important than the hours of Divine Service. Finally, in obvious desperation, he raked up a story from the Book of Joshua, about the harlot in a doomed city who hung a red cord from her window, so as to save herself and her kinsmen. Abandoning his script altogether, he concluded with a few incoherent words about the fall of Jericho. Let all the silver and the gold, the vessels of brass and of iron, be consecrated to the Lord and placed in His treasury.

‘And just as this harlot saved her kinsmen, so we too would like to believe that even the life of such a man as this Julius Aleksander Kuovinoja had its purpose: namely that his relatives too, who now rebel against the Lord’s will, should at last learn to humble themselves and give to God what is rightly His – the kingdom, the power and the glory. And let us hope that the waters of Jordan will once again dry up, when this unfortunate child of God attempts the crossing. And now in the name of God the Father…’

‘Soon be over now,’ Erika whispered. All through the concluding prayer Erika, looking back over her shoulder, kept an eye fixed on the door. As the Amen died away, the bearers, to her relief, re-entered the church, their faces grimly expressionless. The organ pealed, the bearers lifted the coffin-straps, put on their hats and, treading slowly and solemnly, carried Julius away. Solemnly, too, but with slightly flushed cheeks, the minister walked behind the coffin, followed by Erika and the boy.

From somewhere beneath the organ-loft an aged man stumbled out and tottered across to the aisle, holding on to the back of the front pew for support.

People were standing around the hearse: one woman was in tears. Hands were shaken. Then Erika caught sight of the old man, the last person to leave the church. Old Paavo Mäki hobbled towards them, his knees a yard apart, the very incarnation of decrepitude. He was wearing a black suit, perhaps the one he had worn at his own confirmation, the trousers rumpled into a criss-cross of creases. Erika had forgotten his very existence, had not even thought of him for many months. How had he even managed to get there? Erika told him there would be plenty of room for him on the front seat of the hearse, with herself and the boy. They would just have to squash up a bit. She insisted.

‘I couldn’t come out when the others did, I weren’t able’, he moaned. ‘I had to listen to all that.’

‘It doesn’t matter now,’ said Erika as she watched the coffin being lifted into the hearse, with the minister still standing beside it. ‘Julius never set himself up as a paragon of virtue, after all.’

‘But not even a word of comfort to his folks. Like there ought to be, it’s the custom.’

‘Never mind, that doesn’t matter either.’

She helped the old man into the car, and the boy scrambled in after him. And then the minister was beside her, his hand outstretched, she still had this to go through. Somehow she found the strength to accept the handshake. The minister said something, but she was looking at the cars in front of the church. It seemed as if everything on four wheels that would move had been called into service. And there were taxis, too.

‘Yes, he was a sinner,’ she said, freeing her hand.

Translated by David Barrett

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