The tower

Issue 4/1987 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from the collection Torni (‘The tower’, 1987). Introduction by Erkka Lehtola

The dog came through the door first, a big, long-haired brute. He hadn’t said anything about it on the phone, but from the look on his face you could tell it was his and that he meant to take it with him into the forest.

He shuffled across the yard with his rubber boots on and a rucksack on his back. In one hand he held a camera tripod.

I rolled down the window.

‘Wait a minute,’ he said.

He walked behind the cars standing in the parking lot, over to his own car and opened the trunk. The dog twisted around his legs whining softly. He took something out and slammed the trunk shut.

I opened the shotgun side door for them. Instead of jumping in, the dog slipped under the car and started to whine and whimper more noisily.

‘Well, well,’ he said.

He reached over calmly to arrange his rucksack and tripod on the back seat. Then he let go of the door and dropped down out of sight. He pulled the yelping dog out from under the car, lifting it by the throat like you would a man. He lifted the dog high up above his head and pitched it down suddenly onto the asphalt. A shrill yelp rang back off the walls of the apartment buildings.

His face remained entirely expressionless. On the lowest balcony of the nearest building stood an old man with his hands in his pockets. It was his father. He didn’t react at all.

When he opened the door again, the dog, with its backbone hunched down low in front, got up obediently on to the floor of the car and lay down.

He sat down next to me, slammed the door shut, and started to peer out the window towards the yard.

‘We’re off,’ he said.

We drove through the little town without speaking. It was hard for me to relate to him now anyway. His and Marjut’s divorce had become official just a few weeks ago. Erkki, however, had said that in spite of everything, it would be decent of me to ask him to come along as a photographer. It would do Topi nothing but good, he had said. Take his mind off that whole business.

He petted the dog, which licked his hands with its wet tongue. He turned and squeezed its head, and the dog let him do it like a lamb.

‘Did you crack your noodle?’ he said fondly.

The dog looked at him, blinking.

‘He’s always got to try his luck. He’s got such a damn hard head.’

I tried to laugh a little.

‘What breed is it?’

‘It’s a Ranua setter or something. From Lapland. Some crossbred reindeer hound. Summer before last, I brought him down to Helsinki.’

‘As a pup?’

‘Yeah. The court decided he was mine.’

I looked at him. He wasn’t smiling.

‘Yeah,’ I said.

The weather was just right. Slightly cloudy with a cool breeze. Even so, we’d have to deal with the mosquitos.

I drove at a stiff speed down the paved road. I wanted to get out of the car quickly and into the forest.

‘Was it yesterday you came?’ I asked.

‘Around midnight. Hell of a lot of trucks.’

I hadn’t seen him for a year and a half. He’d put on some weight, but hardly from drinking. He wasn’t that sort.

I turned onto the road leading into the national park. Its territory began almost immediately. At the side of the road, attached to a thick post, there was a sign on which someone had hung a dirty plastic bag.

The ridge dropped off steeply on both sides of the narrow gravel road. We drove slowly along it and looked around us.

‘What are you after?’ he asked.

I waited.

‘What pictures, what kind?’ His voice was tense.

‘Big and small. Panoramas and something fragile and delicate, little sprigs of something. All the elements together: forest, lake, marsh.’

He scrunched up his mouth.

‘Clichés, that’s what the magazine readers want, don’t they?’

‘You got it.’

Between the pine trunks on both sides of the road, you could see water, little ponds. Although the dog kept down the whole time, it was starting to get restless.

‘You been here?’

‘Once.’ He tapped on the window with his forefinger. ‘Let’s get a map from that ranger station.’

We drove on for another few kilometers. There were ponds sprinkled all along the roadside. Two cars were standing in the parking lot. The dog got out and jumped around excitedly, until he put it on the leash. I kept hold of it while he fixed up the camera.

It was some old forest homestead or crofter’s place. The garden had been let go wild. There were a lot of gnarled apple trees which had dried standing, and white rosebushes bloomed in the yard. An enormous birch stood in the middle.

We read the national park regulations off the wall of an outbuilding and studied the hiking paths, which were marked out on a big map. The dog pulled in every direction and tried to sniff at the foundations of the outbuilding.

‘Pictures?’ he asked pointing at the long main building.

‘Yeah, why not?’ I said.

He went and stood about twenty meters from the house and started to set up the tripod. Then he screwed the camera down on to it. He aimed for a long time, lifting his head now and then, then bent down again to squint through the lens.

I moved closer. The dog was impatiently throwing its head from one side to the other and letting out little whines.

He pulled some lever and the camera began to buzz. It took pictures all by itself.

In the big main room of the farmhouse, we took some interior shots and bought a map.

‘We’re not going off on a real wilderness trek, are we?’ he said on our way to the car.

‘Don’t think so.’

Back at the car, we looked over the map and picked out about a three­-kilometer nature trail which wound through the park’s famous, age-old forest.

The head of the trail was a few kilometers away. This time the dog got right into the car and didn’t even whimper during the drive.

‘Your vacation started?’

‘Three weeks.’

He sat next to me silently and stared indifferently at the road.

‘We got good weather,’ I said.

‘Not bad,’ he said.

I went out and had a look at the rocks and stumps before backing the car into the forest. He let the dog loose.

He started down the path ahead of me, with the tripod on his shoulder. The dog went first and stopped now and then to look back.

The trail went up and down with the ridge. It was marked with orange-­colored ribbons. Here and there, at the side of the trail, there were boards, protected by cellophane, with information about the forest’s vegetation.

Sweat rose easily and along with it came the mosquitos. Veteran pines, hundreds of years old, shaded the length of the trail. Only on a few treeless humps did the sun dazzle our eyes. The forest was full of meter-thick snags, standing and fallen. With their branches curling in every direction, they looked like grey monuments to suffering.

The tripod swung rhythmically on his shoulder. There was a kind of angry determination to this stride and we were going fast enough that the worst slopes had me puffing. The dog panted on ahead, its tongue hanging out.

He stopped all of a sudden, so that I almost ran into him. He stuck the legs of the tripod into the ground and looked up. It was a tremendously big pine trunk, against a glaring blue sky.

‘Now there’s a cliché, if anything is,’ he said.

He took a lot of pictures of it, swatting at the mosquitos around him and swearing. The dog sat next to him and waited.

The wind was blowing overhead in the tree tops, but it didn’t reach down into the forest. We went on walking, and I noticed that he too was already out of breath and sweaty.

‘Well, I’ll be fucked,’ he said, back at the car. ‘This guy’s no boy scout anymore.’

The dog needed something to drink but there wasn’t any water in sight. The car was hot and stuffy inside. For a long time after we started up, we were swatting the mosquitos which had crowded in while the doors were open.

The forest road wound through a stand of pine. Driving alone it was settling, almost tranquilizing.

He had been with Marjut for a long time, married, surely, for seven years. She was a dark-complexioned, big-breasted woman. Topi wouldn’t be squeezing them anymore.

He spread the map out on his knees and studied it. The dog poked at it from underneath with its nose.

‘Pretty soon on the right there’s a big marsh.’

‘Fine.’

We could have struggled on down that road for God knows how long. Time and place seemed to lose their meaning. They didn’t exist. There were only the pine trunks glowing in the sun and the yellowish, narrow strip of road that drew us on ahead.

The dog’s eyes were shut.

‘Here,’ he said, rising up in his seat and gazing toward the right into the forest.

The dog immediately lifted its head and perked up its ears. There, at the side of the road, was a low strip of stunted pines. The marsh opened up beyond it.

I, too, pulled on my boots. He dug into his rucksack and lifted out a second camera. The dog was already on its way.

‘Even the damn gear is starting to fall apart in my hands,’ he said.

He hitched the tripod onto his shoulder and set off quickly after the dog.

I caught up with them at the edge of the marsh. We stood there quietly and looked.

It was like a big white lake in the middle of the forest. White tufts of cotton grass covered it from edge to edge, billowing softly just like waves. Near the middle of the marsh were a few small hummocks, like an island, and on them a few twisted shrubs.

The cloudless sky was somewhere high above.

‘If a person could just come live here,’ he said fervently.

‘Right.’

The he started to set up his equipment. It was difficult on the marshy ground, so we had to back up a bit.

‘And my boot’s leaking,’ he said with a grimace.

The dog sat next to him, its head tilted to one side, all through the picture taking.

We walked back to the car.

‘And over the swamp they went, lifting their boots,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

Back in the car, a certain torpid feeling began to weigh heavily on us. I felt that both of us would like to have left already, to be alone.

I drove on slowly. He leaned his neck back onto the head rest and kept his eyes closed.

‘Have you got anything to eat?’ I asked.

‘A bit,’ he answered, as if already half asleep.

‘I’ve got coffee.’

‘To hell with that,’ he said in a way that hurt me a bit.

Then he opened his eyes and sat up.

‘Drive over there,’ he said matter-of-factly.

It was an idyllic little neck of land between two ponds. There was a wide spot marked with a ‘P’. No tables or chairs.

I changed out of my rubber boots back into my sneakers. I took my bag from under the seat and expected him to do the same. But he left his rucksack in the car. As we walked across the wooden bridge, I saw that he had two crackers squeezed together in his hand.

We sat down on the bank. I handed him a mug of coffee, and he took it without thanking. The dog slurped greedily at the black water of the pond.

We ate our lunch, looking silently at the surface of the water at the opposite shore which rose like a high wall behind it, and at the brood of goldeneyes in the middle of pond. The ducklings disappeared for a long time under the water and then came up again in an entirely different spot.

I gave the dog a piece of cake, but he sniffed it once and left it.

‘He’s damn finicky,’ he said.

He looked older, too. He didn’t really know what to do or say after he’d finished eating his crackers, and I didn’t either.

He picked up a little stick and shoved it into the soft ground. Erkki had said that Marjut had found some collar-and-tie type. That’s all he knew or, at any rate, was prepared to say.

‘Could we get some water shots here?’ I suggested.

‘Why not?’ he said unenthusiastically.

I waited on the bank while they went to get the camera gear. The dog walked as lazily as he did. He swung the lens around along the shore a few times and then bolted the camera down. He took pictures from three or four different positions.

‘And the journey, it continued, and the sound, it still rang out,’ he said. When he looked at the map again, he livened up a bit. He insisted that we go by an old logging camp which was a couple of kilometres off the road.

‘We could get there by car,’ he said.

It was a big log building, built sometime before the war. There was orange peel strewn around the yard. He looked at it for a long time from many different angles and then went, with all his equipment, right up to the edge of the cabin. Now, for the first time, he was really interested in what he was photographing. With a concentrated look, he changed and focused his camera again and again on the round heads of the end logs of the cabin.

‘Give me a hand. That doesn’t fit in with the composition.’

Together, we hauled the heavy wooden ladder farther away from the wall of the building.

He scoped in again on the ends of the logs and let the camera take pictures of them.

‘Small and delicate,’ he said.

He looked pleased. We lifted the ladder back into place. He looked at the building again for a moment before getting into the car. The dog looked confused.

‘Have you finished your roll?’ I asked as we took off.

‘A few frames left. I’ll take some shots at the lookout tower on the way.’ When we got onto the wider road, I drove a little faster. Approaching the highway, the ridge again became narrower and steeper, as it had been on our way coming.

He folded up the map, put it away in its plastic cover and into the rucksack. He patted the dog and talked to it, as to a child.

I saw the tower from a long way off. It was about twenty-five meters high, a wooden structure, grey as a moth. It was higher than the tallest pines.

I parked the car on the hard heath. The dog jumped out of the car and looked up, making high-pitched squeaks in its throat.

It was blowing hard on the ridge. The trees bent from one side to another, and the platform of the tower was clearly in motion. We stood there and looked at the tower. He had only the camera in his hand.

‘Jesus, you’re not thinking of climbing up there?’

‘You said something about a panorama.’

He drew the zipper of his combat jacket all the way up to this throat. He tucked the camera into the right side pocket of his jacket. He didn’t say anything else. He went and stood by the ladder, which was nailed onto the structure, and, with both hands, grabbed hold of the rung at eye level. He looked fixedly upward.

‘Be careful.’

On the right-hand side there was some kind of railing or handhold; otherwise, it was straight climbing all the way to the top.

The dog began to whine louder as he started climbing. He climbed two or three meters at a time and then waited a bit. The dry wood creaked. I stood at the foot of the tower with the back of my head pasted against my neck.

The wind just seemed to keep rising. Midway, he looked down at the ground. He already looked quite small. He had a concentrated, inward expression. His eyes looked as if they belonged to someone else, to another man.

The dog sat back on its haunches, its tail against the ground, now and then letting out a sad howl. Now he was climbing only a few steps at a time.

Gusts of wind had ruffled his hair. They hit the tower and the tops of the trees like huge, invisible hands which tried to grab hold of the top of the ridge.

The whole tower swayed and creaked. Suddenly, I felt that it might collapse on top of me. I pulled back a few meters and leaned against a tree. The dog gave me a quick glance but immediately continued its horrible wailing.

He was almost at the top, already so high that it looked as though he could have punched a hole in the sky and crawled inside just by reaching out his arm.

He lay down on the platform. Bits of wood from the trees dropped onto the ground and flew around in the wind.

I took a step or two towards the car. I saw him laying sideways on the edge of the platform. He had the camera in front of him. With his left hand, he held on to the platform. He was probably taking pictures, somewhere towards the west where water and the far-off forests gleamed.

Then he rose hesitantly to his knees and from there stood up, holding onto the railing. There was a loud crack and a whole board flew far down into the ravine.

‘Quit,’ I yelled as hard as I could, but the wind carried my voice away.

The dog yelled and howled and barked like it was ready to attack something.

He straightened up to his full height and, with the full weight of his body, started to rock the platform. The wind ripped at his hair and at the hood of his jacket, so that he looked like some insect struggling in a web or like a ghost.

‘Fucking hell, fucking hell, fucking hell,’ he screamed to the rhythm of his swaying.

I didn’t know him anymore. The dog’s frenzy grew. Bits of dried branches rained into the ground the whole time as he went on yelling and swearing on top of the tower.

I looked around. Panic threatened to overwhelm me, but I knew not to yell for help. The back of my neck ached.

‘… hell…’ floated down over the wide woodland. Then, high above, everything became quiet.

I sat, powerless, on the ground. The dog went on barking. I didn’t follow his descent. I don’t even know how long it lasted.

Suddenly, his black boots were in front of me. The dog jumped up against him. He petted it for a long time and spoke to it in soothing words.

Translated by John Acher

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