The lake

Issue 2/1988 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Järvi (‘The lake’), a short story, 1915. Introductions by Kai Laitinen and Pekka Tarkka

I travel the world, not out of any desire for adventure, but because that is the way things have happened. The best of my wanderings are in obscure, tucked-away regions, where life is humdrum and pitched in a low key. There I have no need to stave off nostalgia for the past by leading a hectic life: my days go by in stolid succession from season to season, I am an ordinary unimportant individual among all the rest. For long stretches of time my life does not strike me as being either dull or bright; I derive a certain satisfaction from its very emptiness. It is as though I were, by degrees and to the best of my ability, paying off a kind of debt.

But from time to time there is a relapse, it is something I cannot help. I set out, maybe, on a long day’s journey, with clear, unsullied Nature for my only company. And then, gradually, the past begins to take over, and before long I see in front of me the lake, the expressive eye of the landscape. The wave of nostalgia sweeps over me now, returning confidently and triumphantly like a familiar sin; and deliberately I give way to it, glad in the knowledge that I am weakening again, with no-one there to see. The lake takes no part in this, it returns my gaze somewhat coolly. It is not the lake’s fault, perhaps not mine either: who can ever work out who is to blame for what? Yet we have many memories in common, the lake and I; our private meetings are never quite without significance. And that is why, now that my attack of sentiment is over, and I can again, for a while at least, contemplate even the past from a lofty and detached point of view – that is why I am now going to tell you what I know about the lake.

The lake is the landscape’s eye, the look it gives you. A lakeless landscape does, of course, communicate a mood and character of its own. By studying the face of a sleeping person one can discern quite a number of things; one can examine his soul without his knowing it. But when he opens his eyes, we can sometimes unite our own soul with his. When I love someone, it is that person’s eyes that I think of most; when I love a landscape, one to which I have confided many secrets, what stays in my mind is the gleam of the lake. The deepest sorrows, the bitterest anguish, can abide no onlooker, but must be poured out in tears to the forest, whose majestic immobility is like the gaze of God. But for more harmonious strains, whether the soul’s song be sad or merry, the best sounding-board is always the mobile surface of the lake. The lake is a sympathetic friend. It is not aloof and austere like the forest, but is always as old or as young as the beholder and is therefore the ideal confidant. Sometimes it interprets my state of mind with a calm, unwinking gaze, more often with a light whisper of ripples; at times, breaking into waves, it sings out loud and clear. I have only to say to myself the word ‘lake’, and it is present in my mind as a living being, with a soul: one whose acquaintance I made when I was eight years old; after which, for a whole period of my life, it remained a faithful friend to my eye and my soul, a staunch comrade in many a wonderful adventure – until, one clay, it coldly turned and looked away.

The house where I was born had no view of the lake, but stood in the curve of a deep and impressive gully, through which flowed a river about four metres broad. The steep slope opposite was thickly covered with pines, but the river itself emerged from a low thicket of spruce, entering our domain, as if by stealth, from beneath a fence. It then splashed its way as a series of small waterfalls into a tangle of wild bird-cherry and alder. Looking down in that direction from the bridge, one could see the roof of a mill and the sluice outlet; beyond these one sensed small patches of meadow. But through one gap there was a glimpse of a distant world: part of the sky-line of the far forest.

This far-away patch of horizon fascinated me, and I felt, in an odd way, drawn towards it. The eddies of the river, too, seemed to be hurrying in that direction, babbling loudly to each other as though of some destination to which, by some natural urge, eddy after eddy was obliged to hasten. I sat on the bank, a solitary boy, humming a tune and yearning to be – somewhere; I knew not where. The far forest was calling to me, as it called to the river: the river answered the call, I stayed where I was. Bound up with these feelings were thoughts of the groups of young men who used to pass our house on Sunday evenings, singing lustily, on their way to join their friends. They wore broad-brimmed hats and had shiny watch-chains, and my people hated them. But they were making boldly for that world beyond, whence the far forest beckoned, and which the river too was in such haste to reach.

In my imagination it was a place of dizzy excitement, quite different from my home, where I knew of only two forms of life: the old, sighing as they trod and re-trod their narrow paths, and the children, who were there to be scolded. I had overheard strange words – ‘dancing’, ‘lake’ – without knowing what they meant. But I did know that they had something to do with those singing men and that distant view. I used to hum the words to myself – ‘dancing, dancing. By the lake’ – and a thrill of excitement would pulse through me.

As long as I live, I shall never forget the day when I saw both the lake and the dancing for the first time.

It was a Sunday afternoon in early summer, and I was skipping about among the white anemones in the wooded paddock. Through the birches I saw two men coming along the path, with big scoop-nets over their shoulders. I stood and watched them. Then one of them (he had a very nice voice, I remember) called out to me ‘Come along, Emil, let’s go and net some fish, shall we?’ They didn’t stop, and I was left to struggle inwardly. Now I could go there, now I should see! But from my home blew breezes of a more threatening kind: Father and Mother were there, evening was coming on….

Thinking these thoughts, I had already followed the men for some distance, trembling at what might be the outcome. Home was behind me, I had already done wrong, why not go through with it? The trees began to thin out, a cottage came into view, and beyond it another, a red one. The thought of home shrank into the past and faded. They don’t know there what I can see. There it is!

The sight of the clear blue of the lake filled me with an ecstasy such as I never felt again till ten years later, when I first spoke to a certain girl. It hardly occurred to me that all that blue was water: rather it seemed the surface of heaven, to which I had now come so close. My eyes widened, and my accusing conscience fell silent. I could have turned back then, sated and content, for there was the lake: I had seen it, secretly, and by myself. And indeed there was a voice that said it might be luckiest to turn back now. But a fierce desire began to tug at me: to go closer, to touch… Again I felt that I was doing wrong, but I went closer, all the same.

The finest part of this whole experience was that first glimpse of the lake. The entire evening was, of course, an unusual adventure for me: it was the first time I had ever been so far from home without permission. I went to the water’s edge, I sniffed the heady tang of the reeds, I watched the light, nimble wavelets from near at hand, I heard their gentle plashing, which seemed to be telling me ‘This is what the world is like’. And not just there, but far and wide, along the shore and then even beyond those projecting headlands and somewhere behind those forests on the opposite shore. The evening softened with the approach of night, and everything became fused together: the bird-cherries on the shore, the men and women dancing on the rock – and all the time, from near and far, the same bright, immense, single-minded gaze of the lake. I walked out on to a landing stage, lay face downwards and looked over the edge at the water only a few inches below. We were alone together, the lake and I; and there and then it whispered to me that soon I would be bigger, and no longer forbidden to go out walking on a Sunday evening. When that time comes, thought I, I shall come here, and perhaps cross to that other shore, where a low-roofed dwelling is just visible in the dim evening light. This is all the same water, all the way from here to there: here it is near enough to touch, but over there it is in the far distance.

Shaking with anger, my mother came and quickly hauled me out of the crowd. Behind us the lake remained in the dewy half-light of a summer evening. I looked back, and i t seemed to be gazing at me reproachfully, as if offended, as I hurried through the woods after my scolding, threatening mother, towards a home that had suddenly become both dimmer and smaller.

The lake and my mother represented two opposing forces of nature.

Ten years later, this experience seeped back into my memory, as my eye fell on the same inlet of the lake, but this time from the other side of the water, through the greenish pane of a back-room window. I was sitting with a girl and we were looking at the moonlight, which made a straight path of bright light from that very inlet to where we were. For both of us this was the first taste of such an experience, and for that reason our thoughts were delightfully in harmony, discovering simultaneously that we were now quite different people from the two who had been so shy of each other one Sunday ago. But even now we did not talk at all, even with our eyes, for we were both gazing out over the lake, intent on that bright silvery path, along which there sped constantly to greet us a host of tiny beings, sprites perhaps, who seemed to have been charged with some urgent task concerning the two of us, which must be performed at once, without a moment’s delay. For this important purpose Time itself seemed to have stopped: we two were the centre of all that existed around us. And all the ordinariness, with which Time infects all things, fell away from us, and our real selves were able, for a short space, to look in to some inner…

The lake, as an old acquaintance, was a party to all this. Since it was itself enjoying its happiest moment, it felt no envy for us. There was a tender timelessness in the bright gleam, into which the dimmed expanse of water had concentrated its unsleeping soul.

It remains only for me to describe the occasion when the lake, that same old acquaintance, turned its back on me. I wish to do so as briefly as possible.

For some years I had been at the peak of my strength: those were the summers when even at midday I felt myself to be the centre of everything. I knew nothing of good or evil, ugly or beautiful: I was conscious only of the life within me, pulsing and powerful. With much that happened during that time the lake had little to do: there was only the heady atmosphere of that little room. And when I rowed away, I did not look to see if the lake was asleep or awake, or what it was thinking. On those hot, sunny days I looked upon it, at most, as a manifestation of power, reflecting my own strength.

But on a certain August evening, when the moon was hidden by cloud, I tapped on the familiar window-pane. Listening, I heard first of all the ticking of the bedside clock, and then the steady murmur of the waves, which seemed in an odd way to be going past me. I tapped again, but there was no response. This had happened twice before, but now, for the first time, I lost heart. For when I tapped a third time I saw someone inside sit upright, look at me, and lie down again.

I went to the shore and sat by my boat. I was drained, empty. The waves went chattering past me, but I did not notice them. Nor did they notice me, when I rowed across them.

Once again I am a wanderer in the world, a speck, a nobody, and I often see the lake. But our relationship is flawed. There is indeed a thought I sometimes have, one that might yet unite us. ‘So many human lives have sunk into your depths’, I have found myself saying.

But the waves run coldly past me. They do not forbid, they do not command. They honestly do not care what I do or what I do not do. Before me once again is the familiar expanse of the lake, but I see only water: water bounded by land. Even now its face is not totally expressionless. Somewhere far out on the water I think I can detect a look but there is no sorrow in it now, or even anger – only an immense and mortifying indifference. Out there, too, the waves cross and re-cross, but always that disembodied gaze persists unchanged, like a story carved into the rock.

I am the slave of that remorseless eye. Sometimes I run into the forest and bury my head in the moss, but soon I sense again the lake’s closeness and return to its shore. I am an eight-year-old again, being dragged home by my angry mother, Nature, to be punished for going off by myself on forbidden excursions. Am I old enough yet for repentance?

Translated by David Barrett

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