Issue 4/1992 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From Pythonin yö (‘Night of the python’, Gummerus, 1992). Introduction by Kaija Valkonen

I feel as if the disintegration has already started. I do not want it, I am not yet ready. And I do not want to discuss it with the doctors; I know that they would not understand, and the thing I am talking about has nothing to do with my state of health. It is not an illness; it is something more insidious. It occurs under the cover of health. It is a deception.

It is hard to say when it started, but whenever I try to remember, a certain day comes into my mind. It can hardly be the beginning, how could disintegration start with joy? But it was a day that contained many elements of dissolution: a strong wind, the ice breaking, quickly moving clouds. At one point I picked up an old tub in the corner of the shed, its hoops fell off and it collapsed, ringing.

I knew the old house, but you were there for the first time and found many things to marvel at. You wanted to go up into the attic, lift up the threadbare, dusty clothes, look at the old newspapers that the mice had been at. You put on a broad-brimmed hat and looked at me from under its frayed edge.

‘I wonder who this belonged to?’

‘One of my great-aunts, perhaps.’

‘Are any of them still alive?’

‘One. There were five of them. Aunt Selena is already ninety. She says she won’t die until there’s some confirmation as to her husband’s fate. He disappeared in the war.’

‘What could that confirmation be?’

‘Someone goes to the Karelian isthmus and finds his bones, and my great-aunt identifies them.’

‘Or someone brings a letter from Russia, maybe her husband’s son or grandson. In the letter her husband says he got married, started a new family and lived a happy life without her. The letter is written on his deathbed in the hope that someone, sometime, will be able to deliver it. Your great-aunt is granted a lease of life until then.’

As you spoke, you wound a black shawl about you; it was full of holes, and for some reason I shivered. I thought of my great-aunt, whom I had not visited for a long time, and of the letter and the bones, and asked, deep in thought:

‘Which is the better alternative, the bones or the letter?’

‘The bones, surely,’ you said, and laughed. ‘As evidence that he has died faithful to his wife. A letter, on the other hand, would make a mockery of her faithful waiting. Talking of bones, I read an interesting thing recently. It was an old man’s memoirs. In the famine year of ’18, his father went to fetch grain from a relative’s house on the other side of the border, and didn’t come back. His mother waited for God knows how long, then finally set off after him. On her way she came to an island, and on the shore she found her husband’s body, still wearing his working clothes. When she got hold of his leather belt and pulled, his bones fell, tinkling, into a heap inside his clothes.’

‘What a story. Why did you tell it?’

‘It was the bones that brought it to mind. Why did we start talking about them in the first place? I suppose it was because of these old things – do you know, I’d like to throw them into the wind outside and watch them disintegrate. This shawl is breaking up like a cloud, look, like this!’

I looked, and how beautiful you were inside the disintegrating cloud, yourself still whole.

We went to the shore, where we were received by the sounds of wind and ice and water. The ice was breaking.

‘It tinkles like bones,’ you said, looked at me and burst out laughing. ‘Look, I’m jumping, listen, do my bones tinkle when I jump?’

I held you and you were whole, I pinched you and you held together. But the ice had already surrendered to the water and the wind and seemed to be enjoying its own breaking, riding the waves, like softly swaying rafts, ringing so that the sound seemed to come from inside me. And then it happened, the thing I still cannot understand: you broke away from me and stepped from the shore-stones on to the ringing ice and walked along it, further and further away, moving lightly along the crests of the ice-waves and were lost in a mist that rose, shimmering, from the melting ice as if the air were bursting. When the wind caught the mist and tore a hole in it, I saw you. You were already far away. You did not come back again.

Then, nevertheless, you were beside me; I caressed you, stroking your ribs like wave-crests and talking about the summer, how the water would be whole and warm and we would swim together, how I would whisper to you under the water and you would hear. I shall embrace you under the water, we shall be together there.

‘I shan’t,’ you said.

Why?, I almost asked, but remembered that you had gone away across the broken ice, had not looked back, had not come back. Our love had not ended, only disintegrated, and I could not really regret it. It was not your fault, you remained whole; it was only inside me that you disintegrated on that day when the ice broke.

You did not come back.

I stayed on there. In the old garden were three tombstones, belonging to former dogs of the house. There was probably not much left of them in the earth. One of my great-aunts, Aunt Inger, kept a tuft of the curly hair of a dog named Lulu in her locket. Lulu was a long-haired dachshund, suitable for a locket-dog. They said Aunt Inger had been happy and glowing, the most beautiful of the sisters, but she had never married. No one knew of her having been disappointed in love. In an old photograph, too, she glows; the picture is cracked and dim, but her radiance is there beneath the dimness and flows through the cracks in the surface. I hand the photograph to you, but you are already far away.

Aunt Inger remains radiant in the last photograph taken of her, when she was old. I ponder the reasons for her radiance: can it come from her love of dogs? Or of this house, this beautiful landscape, springs and summers, people, why not, I suppose she loved them too? All the same, I think it does not come from any of these things; such a lifelong radiance is possible only if a person is herself. Whole, unanimous, in joy and in sorrow, alone and in company; particularly when alone, when one is surrounded by space and silence and the temptation to disintegration is great.

Ice has its fate every spring. Does it wonder at its transformation into water, does it know it will be born again? It does not know; as it melts, it loses its personality, it no longer has a self, it is water. And in all this is a great beauty, and sometimes someone understands it. After that it does not matter what her fate is. She will hold together. Aunt Inger was like that. But I do not have such knowledge or understanding.

This is a big house; the trees around it are old. I walk around an old tree, thinking about it. It is whole, it is one. It does not need to know about sawmills, pulpmills, cellulose factories; it will fall where it is and become of the earth, wholly.

And the house, will it be demolished? Apparently it is not worth repairing, but perhaps it will be accorded the honour of the trees’ fate. Now I am here at the time of the ice-breaking, speaking to you who left, all sorts of nonsense, making you laugh. Love is not a tree, not an old house, not a tuft of dog’s fur in a locket. Love does not last as long, it is like ice in water, but I do not remember you with bitterness. I shall make you laugh so that something in you shatters too, so that the locket around your neck opens and unlocks its emptiness, a windy space, star-ruins.

My great aunts were not lucky in love. Irene and Selena were married, it is true, but were they any the happier? Irene’s husband fell through the ice driving his horse while drunk; the horse was saved, but he was found only when spring came. He was found by an old cabin-dweller who was trying his fish-traps in the open water by the shore and amusing himself by rowing along the edge of the melting ice. At first he mistook the corpse for a seal, and was astonished at how tame it was when it did not dive away from him. Only when he came close did he understand what it was, and pushed the body with his oar through the ice to the shore. Then he went to Aunt Irene and said:

‘Arvid’s lying there on the shore and asking whether someone will take him in.’ The grave will take him,’ Aunt Irene said, and set about arranging the funeral. She had confirmation of her husband’s death, but Aunt Selena is still waiting for confirmation, although her husband is missing, presumed dead; she does not permit herself to be called a widow.

Great-aunt Elin was disappointed early in love and never dared to trust anyone else; Aunt Aura’s fiancé died of consumption and Aunt Aura soon followed him. The only one who did not suffer disappointment or loss is, as far as I know, Aunt Inger; my thoughts circle her as if she were a shining fixed star. She never left her childhood home; perhaps she has still not left it. Perhaps it is her unflagging spirit that holds these old timbers together and gives the old trees the strength to live from one year to the next.

For those of us who are alive now it is easier to move from one place to another, so easy that the ease contains pain. You left your place beside me, you drew away from me and your steps rang out in the music of the ice and space sighed in the locket, the ice rose and fell slackly, space sighed and turned. I watched the lightness of your going from the shore and each piece of ice was pain squeezed bright. But even the breaking of the ice cannot last forever – only as long as there is something to break. After that, can there even be longing? I hope that there can.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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