Metamorphoses

Issue 2/1992 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Tummien perhosten koti (‘Home of the dark butterflies’, Kirjayhtymä, 1991). Introduction by Soila Lehtonen

The girl is on the rock every evening.

By the side of the sheltered bay, she knits or reads a book. Sometimes she simply lies, motionless, under a large towel, her closed face towards the sun as it sinks into the sea.

She has undone her thick plait. Sometimes her hair lies against the reddish boulder like a fan. As if it had been placed there deliberately.

She does not notice the boy, who can move soundlessly.

The boy watches the girl from behind the nut hedge, and envies her repose, which is not disturbed even by the repeated calls from the hill. The girl has chosen a spot where her mother will not think of looking for her. The girl is able to shut the whole world out.

What makes her stay so still? What is she waiting for?

Once, accidentally, her towel slips to one side, and the boy catches sight of one of her breasts.

It is small and prominent, very white.

And it is so close, almost within reach.

Just at that moment there is a breath of wind; sleepily, the girl raises her slender hand and lets it fall on her bare breast.

Juhani Johansson did not set out to see the girl; but after surprising her on the rock, he is compelled to take the shore route to the butterfly house.

Every night after bedtime, the boy puts his work clothes on again and opens the first-floor bedroom’s window. It is easy to slip out unnoticed, thanks to a zealous fire­ inspector who, last autumn, ordered fire escapes to be built under the window of each dormitory.

‘What about a hammer to smash the window? Or a well-sharpened axe?’ the director had mockingly suggested, but the fire-inspector had judged that fire escapes would be enough.

On the first suitable autumn evening, Sulkava and Fart-Simula had put on their number ones: white-collared shirts and newly polished rat-catchers. Hanging from the window-ledge, they had bragged loudly about their bravery:

‘Just you carry on wanking in there, boys, us men are off to get some of the real stuff!’

The inspector and the night watchmen had been waiting for them below, and the boys had had the choice of three days in detention or ten strokes of the birch.

Simola had chosen isolation, Sulkava the lash. Neither had shown much inclination to repeat the prank. Their decision was reinforced by the director’s order to confiscate all the boys’ Sunday clothes. Who would go womanising in work overalls!

By the time Juhani Johansson began to use the same route the following spring, the night watchman had long abandoned his unsuccessful patrols, preferring to spend his time inside, dozing or playing patience.

The boys in the dormitory do not pay any attention to Juhani Johansson’s comings and goings; they probably do not even notice them. They are used to the fact that he lives mostly in a world of his own.

Soon these trips become the fixed point of his day. It is an intoxicating moment when he is able to leave behind him the stuffy dormitory, full of sighs and the grinding of teeth.

As he reaches the steps, the boy is surrounded by swallows swooping anxiously from the safety of their nests they have built in the eaves.

The world looks heart-rendingly clean and beautiful from the top step: the pale sky presses the glowing sphere of the sun on to the rounded, dark green surface of the sea.

The boy descends slowly to the ground, enjoying the quiet trembling of the Virginia creeper and the touch of the gentle south-westerly sea breeze, and refusing to give a thought to the night watchman and possible capture.

The boy decided long ago that he has right on his side.

When the butterflies’ eggs were first taken out of the cool winter nest and carried into the warmth of the butterfly room, he decided that he would be there when the first grubs crawled forth.

He sits in the dusky room and leans on his palms to examine the curved bodies and small black heads that can be seen through the eggs, which have become transparent.

Sometimes he falls asleep, his head against the shelf, and awakes when the room is pitch-dark.

The boy knows that the skins will burst at any minute, and the grubs will crawl out. If it happens during the daytime, he cannot do anything about it. But if it happens at night, he will not forgive himself if he is not there to see it.

From time to time he amuses himself by feeling between his fingers a leaf reminiscent of a heart-shaped mulberry leaf, traces the veins, presses the tiny leaves against his cheeks and lips, tickles the backs of his hands and his stomach.

The boy tries passionately to imagine how the leaves feel to the grubs, what it is that causes those quiet creatures to spin them into silk.

Will the miracle really happen?

The grubs lie motionless inside their transparent eggs. As if dead. What if the cool air, slipping through the door with him, has chilled them?

The boy stands, heart beating, in front of the shelf, pokes one of the eggs cautiously with a forefinger, and jumps.

Behind the door he can hear something moving!

The boy retreats, stumbling, into a corner and creeps under the shelf beside the leaf cupboard.

He waits.

When nothing happens, when he does not hear the malicious voice of the night watchman, predicting the whip or detention, he dares to get up. Really, it’s ridiculous to hide there like some forest creature: maybe ten strokes of the whip, that wouldn’t kill you, even if it hurt dreadfully…

And you can always try to explain: that you wanted to make sure the door was closed, that you had forgotten something. Where butterflies were concerned, the Lord of Sabaoth was like another man, full of patience and enthusiasm.

A rustle.

In a moment he is full of fear again. He feels the presence of another person. And it is not the night watchman.

The boy starts breathing deeply, forces himself to breathe, although he feels that he just cannot force air into his lungs. He is sure that if his next breath is not deep enough, something terrible will happen. He looks at his chest to check that it is rising and falling.

The spider’s web in the window glistens in the light of the setting sun. Cautiously, the boy raises his flushed face to it, and looks out.

He is shivering.

Through the window he sees a white figure with a strange head turning slowly from one direction to another, as if it were searching for something.

What shall I do? If it sees me? If it sees me.

But no, the slow, rustling steps draw away. The boy creeps, numb with fright, to the door, looks out. No, no, it isn’t a ghost, even though it looks like it. It is the Island woman, wearing a long, pale overcoat, and a veil over her face. On her head a strange contraption from which the veil hangs to her shoulders, and on her hunched back a large canister with a hose.

The director’s wife! That’s who it is. She is on her way to spray harmful insects.

The boy feels like laughing out loud at his fright. Of course. The Lord of Sabaoth has been talking about it all week, the control of dangerous insects: To tell the truth, it was your father who first recommended me…

Of course his wife, too, wants to protect her precious seedlings, to prevent the insects from conquering the garden she tends so carefully.

The boy thinks about the woman, thinks of her in daylight, beautiful and friendly, with her scent of vanilla. He thinks about the Lord of Sabaoth’s daughter, who lies alone on the rock with her breast bared.

No, they belong to the director. His wife, his daughter. I have no right!

The boy lies down on the floor, on his stomach, feeling the coolness of the rough concrete against his skin. He lies with his arms out, scratching at the concrete, not allowing them to slip under him.

The boy lies on the cold floor, his groin aching, fit to burst. The concrete has torn his hands. He licks one of his palms, tastes blood in his mouth.

But the desire to rebel, to sin against the Lord of Sabaoth, is still with him. He cannot wipe it away. He rises, stands in the middle of the room, sways and shivers, not knowing what to do next.

Hatching. That would save him; only hatching can save him now.

He goes back to the eggs, but nothing has happened. Slipping in through the open door, a fly buzzes through the air. Mocks him.

Not even tonight? Not ever?

I can’t bear this any more! The eggs have got to burst and the grubs have got to come out with that bloody silken thread in their mouths, or I’ll stop believing in the whole stupid business!

The boy grabs whole handfuls of transparent eggs from the shelf, flings them to the ground and crushes them under his rubber-soled boots.

You’re useless! Useless! You just want to tease me, like all the rest! Shithead bastards!

With tears of rage in his eyes, he crushes the eggs, pulverises them, until the concrete floor is covered with green-grey slime.

There is a large, repugnant blotch that cannot be hidden.

The boy bends down, full of distress and remorse; he tries to wipe the floor with his sleeve, but it is no use.

He gets up and runs out of the butterfly-house.

Not me! It wasn’t me!

He does not go towards the house, but heads for the shore. He is sure the girl will still be there. Curled up inside her big towel. With her books, her knitting, her loosened hair. With her breasts.

The boy runs, gasping, through the mulberry plantation, he runs through the ghostly glimmer of the birchwood, raising a flock of frightened small birds. At the rock, he takes off his boots and runs, barefoot, by the rushes, along sand spotted with dried algae.

The girl is still there.

She is not reading; it is already too dark. She is not lying down, but is dressing herself, her long hair falling over her face, her back to Juhani.

Her damp swimsuit is a sandy bundle next to the book. The girl has put her shirt on, but her bottom is bare. Bare and white and goose-fleshed with cold.

The boy stands still, not breathing.

As the girl turns, hurriedly pulling the towel over her bare backside, but not making a sound, the boy understands why she comes to the rock every evening.

The momentary gleam in her eye does not betoken fear.

‘What are you staring at?’, the girl asks, haughtily. She has regained her balance too rapidly. As if she has been waiting for this to happen.

‘Nothing,’ says the boy, his face reddening.

‘Haven’t you ever seen a bare bottom before?’

‘No. I mean, yes. Lots of times.’

‘Well, piss off then!’

The boy says nothing. The girl gathers her belongings, keeping tight hold on the towel. Their eyes meet.

‘Got any fags?’

‘No,’ says the boy, hopelessly. ‘Shit, I forgot them.’

‘Bollocks.’

The girl’s voice is no longer so brusque.

She’s got a pretty mouth, even though it’s practically blue with cold!

‘I’ve seen you lying here before.’

‘So what? Go away, so I can get dressed. I’m bloody freezing, I’ve just been swimming. Guess how cold it is.’

‘Eighteen.’

‘Eighteen! Thirteen, for fucking Christ’s sake.’

‘You’ve got a really foul mouth, even if you go to Sunday school,’ says the boy, genuinely amazed. He has never heard any of the Lord of Sabaoth’s daughters speak like that.

‘I don’t. Only sometimes, for the sake of the Friends.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘Dad says that the Friends won’t like it if their teaching isn’t good enough for the director’s own children. I go there, but I think about other things.’

‘What other things?’

The girl sits down on the rock, wrapped in her towel. Her teeth chatter a little. The boy is sure that it is not from cold, but excitement.

‘All sorts of things. Do you really not have any cigarettes?’

‘No. Why shouldn’t I give you one if I had them?’

‘How should I know, people have their reasons.’

‘True.’

The boy senses her scent. The girl smells good, like the earth after spring rain. This conversation would not be possible in daytime. The other boys would prevent it. The Lord of Sabaoth would prevent it. The director’s girls have no contact with the Island boys. That is the law.

A trickle of water runs off the girl’s hair. It is absorbed by her shin-collar.

Countless times, Juhani Johansson has seen this girl going to school with her sisters; he has seen them playing and dancing and teasing each others. He has seen them pressing their faces against the windows of the director’s house, sticking their tongues out at the boys as they shamble by in their work clothes.

Never has he dreamed that he could be sitting next to one of them, speaking to one of them in ordinary human language.

‘I saw your mother. She was off to poison something.’

‘Did she ask after me?’

‘No.’

‘Uh-huh. She doesn’t usually like me going swimming so late. But what do I care?’

The boy is silent: those are the words of someone whose mother is always there. Someone who doesn’t know what it is to need your mother. Worse than needing the toilet, when it happens.

You should come into the dorm at night sometimes, and hear the lads shouting. For their mothers.

‘We have lights-out at nine.’

‘That’s really awful. Who can sleep at that time?’

‘No one,’ the boy says, to please the girl.

Except those who have to get up at half past five, and who work hard all day.

The setting sun drips redly over them. Among the rushes, the melancholy fluttering of the mallards can be heard.

‘Lie down,’ says the boy, in a voice so rough that he startles himself.

‘What?’ The girl is shocked.

‘On that rock. On your stomach. I want to see your backside.’

‘I won’t,’ says the girl, twisting her towel between her hands.

The boy does not know where his courage comes from. Suddenly he is simply sure that the girl will do as he asks.

‘I saw it once already. It was beautiful. I want to see it again. Just a quick look’

‘What for?’

‘Just because.’

‘I don’t want to.’

‘Then it’ll be the worse for you.’

‘What do you mean, worse?’

‘Really bad.’

The girl watches him, pale, weighing up the alternatives.

You want to show me it, don’t you? I’m certain that you’re burning with desire to show it to me.

‘Okay,’ says the girl finally, ‘but not for long, a second at the most’

‘Five seconds,’ the boy says. ‘I’ll look at my watch.’

What bloody watch?

The girl doesn’t try to bargain any more. Trembling, she turns over on to her stomach and presses herself against the rock

‘Take the towel away,’ the boy says, mercilessly.

The girl raises her hand and draws the wine-red towel aside.

There it is: a white, round, bottom. Downy hairs erect.

‘One, two, three…’ the boy counts.

The skin of her backside looks so soft. Her body is too thin, bony, somehow feeble and wounded-looking. But the girl’s backside, it is unbearably lovely.

The boy stretches out his hand, and sets it down on one of her buttocks as gently as possible.

‘Touching wasn’t part of the deal,’ the girl says, choking, her mouth against the cold rock.

‘Four,’ Juhani Johansson counts.

He strokes her backside, sees the dark cavity looming beyond the buttocks.

‘Five!’ the girl says, and tries to get up.

The boy does not permit her. He seizes the girl the shoulders and presses her down under him. He feels the jerking of her bare bottom against his legs, slips his hand along the stomach, between her legs to pull her bottom higher, against his burning groin.

What ecstasy! What a lovely body! He is suddenly mad for this extraordinary girl who allows him to hold her without crying out, without resisting.

At precisely that moment, Juhani Johansson feels a cracking pain on his shoulder. Before can turn round, another blow strikes his back, a third his head.

The boy turns round, rolls on to the sand, but blows continue to rain down on him. It is the Lord of Sabaoth’s wife. She has taken off her protective headgear, and is beating the boy with it for all she is worth.

‘Mother. Stop it, he didn’t do anything to me!’ the girl cries.

But mother is not listening. She kicks and lays about the boy like a madwoman, letting out desperate, senseless cries. When the protective helmet falls from her hands, she seizes the insecticide canister as a weapon and strikes out with it so that the nozzle fails and drips the remaining poison over the boy as he writhes on the ground.

‘I’ll teach you to attack my children!’

The girl grabs hold of her mother, and shrieks, hanging on to the canister:

‘He didn’t do anything, we were only playing!’

Her mother turns a strange look on her, and stands still.

‘We were only playing.’

The white overcoat hangs, crumpled, from the woman’s shoulders. Her hair has come out of its bun.

‘What are you saying, girl!’

‘It’s not what you think.’

The woman, the girl’s mother, shakes her head, and looks at the boy lying on the ground.

‘Is this why you didn’t come in when I called you?’

‘No. No particular reason.’

‘How long has this been going on?’

‘This is the only time. Really it is!’

‘You’ll go to the doctor. He will tell us what is what.’

‘No,’ the girl cries, ‘I don’t want to.’

The woman stands, the battered pesticide canister in her hands, and looks at Juhani Johansson, still lying on the ground.

‘Can you walk?’

The boy gets up, shading his eyes.

‘Can you walk, boy?’, the woman asks once more.

The boy nods, but stumbles at the first outcrop of rock.

‘Let’s help him,’ the woman says to her daughter. ‘You take that side, I’ll take this!’

Thus they walk up the hill, through the birch trees, all the way to the courtyard. The girl supporting him on one side, the woman on the other.

Twice the boy stops to be sick. All the time he is afraid that he is not getting enough air. And his face is burning unbearably.

‘We’ll have to leave this place. The whole family. Ola will have to understand that we cannot stay here,’ the woman babbles.

The girl no longer says anything.

‘Did you use the fire escape?’ the woman asks as they reach the boys’ building.

The boy nods.

‘Can you climb back?’

Juhani Johansson does not answer, but they lead him to the lowest step and heave him up by the backside until he gets a grip on the lowest rung.

There is a shooting pain in his side, but he does not want to complain in front of the girl and her mother.

The next morning, Juhani Johansson is unable to get out of bed. The director believes that it is a question of an argument among the boys.

The boy has a high temperature. He vomits green and yellow slime.

Small red swellings appear, close together, on his skin; their heads burst after a couple of days, and begin to ooze foul-smelling pus.

The doctor is perplexed. It is as if the boy has swum in poison. Has someone succeeded in getting hold of some pesticide?

No, the pesticides are kept carefully locked up. The inspectors, and the director himself, supervise their use.

Juhani Johansson is taken to the city. To the intensive care unit. The doctors of the big hospital are equally astonished. In addition to assault, one suggests poisoning, another a virus infection.

He is given injections every morning; blood samples are taken by the tubeful; his liver, kidneys and testicles and brain are examined.

‘If this doesn’t affect him afterwards, it will be a miracle…’

When the boy eventually begins to recover, he refuses absolutely to recall anything about what has happened. Gradually the director becomes convinced that he really remembers nothing. The doctor confirms that shock can cause a complete loss of memory of the course of events.

‘I’ll smoke the guilty party out one day,’ the Lord of Sabaoth announces to the boys in the dormitory, his voice shaking with suppressed rage.

Nothing is said of the vandalism of the butterfly-room. If it is even noticed, the tortured Juhani Johansson is not suspected by anyone.

The eggs split in their own time, as the boy is still lying in hospital, and the grubs, covered in black hair, crawl forth, secreting from their mouths the finest of fine silk thread.

When the boy is at last well enough to limp to the butterfly-house, the grubs have grown to a length of almost eight centimetres.

They eat mulberry leaves with unbelievable greed, and they are already undergoing their fourth metamorphosis.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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