On the bridge

Issue 2/1993 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

From Saksalainen sikakoira (‘Schweinehund’, WSOY, 1992). Introduction by Tuva Korsström

From somewhere beneath the bridge – I still hadn’t managed to get across it, which may sound pathetic, or even ridiculous, unless you take into account my exceptional state of mind – or, rather, to one side, I heard a dragging, ominous grinding and rumbling. It stopped for a moment; then, after a short but clearly defined pause, there was a heavy splash. A snow-plough was emptying its load into the bay from the end of the pier. The mounds of snow sank deep into the black water; the tightly packed, sticky snow rose slowly to the surface in greyish-yellow blocks and clods; loose pieces of snow boiled and foamed in the eddies and melted before my eyes. My time was melting away, too, being junked, my remaining time…

I hadn’t asked the doctor how long I had left, well aware that doctors don’t usually tell you, not any more; they’ve been instructed to avoid excessively plain speaking, and even the most direct among them start umming and erring like politicians if you ask them straight out. But if I had asked, then this one, this karateka of the spirit, this old sawbones, veteran of the battle between life and death, would probably have coughed up a time, or a length of time, margins to my estimated remaining lifespan, for no one knows that exactly but God… or the gods, if the patient happens to be a polytheist. Or the doctor. A polytheist doctor. And then of course that span would have become the most important of my life, it would become my life number two, perhaps the most important stretch of my existence, its length more important than its content. And strangely, both extremes of this stretch of time would be end-points, the first the beginning of a new life but at the same time end-point number one, the second end­ point number two, absolute. But in fact, the actual, real end would most probably come somewhere between those two end-points. Or if the doctor was wrong, as they often are – they’re only gods, after all – the end could come one rainy afternoon in the middle of the rush-hour on the back seat of a bus at some time outside those time­limits. Would you mind explaining in a little more detail? Not at all, of course.– If, for example, the doctor said, ‘You have three to six months to live’… Then the first limit is four, the second seven, that is, the beginning of the fourth and seventh months. Oddly, the first, second and third months don’t count for much here, they pass in expectation of the fourth month… Then begins a new, extra life, life number two in waiting for the seventh month, time for which one must be grateful to the doctor who in his great goodness and wisdom has granted the unhappy mortal a stay of execution. If the miserable wretch is still alive at the fourth month, his gratitude grows until midway through the fifth, then gradually turns into a bad conscience which, by the time the seventh month approaches, is festering so badly that the person concerned, an impressionable middle-aged man, begins to think of ways of ending his life… in time. So as not to hurt the doctor’s feelings.

So I hadn’t asked the doctor anything, or asked for extra time, or begged for mercy. When he began to talk about an operation, I got up, said, from the doorway, that I’d consider the matter, and went out. Here on the bridge I stood with my face in the wind, with a clean slate, light and empty as an ornamental gourd that has been dried over the winter.


Anyone who has held an ornamental gourd in their hand has no doubt wondered how such a solid-seeming fruit can be so actively weightless – it seems to draw the hand that holds it upward. The reason is that our expectations of its weight are exaggerated; we tense the muscles of our hand to bear a much heavier weight. Try it yourself. It’s not the only delusion in this life that makes us strain our muscles and our brains and our hearts, voluntarily and of course for no good reason at all. To put it with appropriate banality: the whole of life is, in the end, a hollow, weightless, dried ornamental gourd. If it is a gift, as we are told, from Someone, whoever that may be, then let us be as grateful for it as for the gift of a gourd, and no more. Particularly since no one asked Anyone for anything, a present or favour or love or mercy, because no one was there to do any asking – no one at all existed, and so no one knew they needed anything. Not until Someone had got it into his head to give everyone a dried gourd for a present, just because he’d got a particular job done in less than a week and wanted to celebrate. And because this Someone was so self-satisfied that he didn’t need anything for himself – since he already owned everything and, what’s more, could create anything that happened to come into his mind – it occurred to him to start bombarding innocent non-existent beings with gourds of life. Amen thank you.


Standing there on the bridge, I hadn’t yet encountered the ornamental gourd. I had, to my astonishment, noted that I was able to detect something, if not exactly profound, then at any rate something that I could genuinely feel, somewhere beneath and behind my midriff, and I could swear it wasn’t just a physiological state. For a brief moment, I felt something brighten inside me. That brightening made itself felt as a slight prickling of the skin and waves, sometimes cold, sometimes hot, on my cheeks and forehead. I was sure it could be seen on the outside, I must be glowing with light. I was becoming a source of light, I had already become one…


So, I was a light-source. I was emitting light-signals, in principle in all directions, in an expanding spherical surface. If I were to jump off the bridge into that icy water, would I be snuffed out? Wasn’t it the case that it would be possible to detect my extinction everywhere in the same way, not at the same time, but detect it, anyway? Might it not be that that signal of my extinction, travelling at the speed of light, could be detected only by an observer, whether close by or at a distance of light-years, who had been keeping an eye on me before I was snuffed out, when I was still pulsing with light and warmth? And goodwill? Could I be sure that anyone at all was observing me, whether or not I existed? I waved to the snowplough-men, who were putting up the tailgate of the lorry and did not notice me.

My jump would, of course, be an event, an event that took place at a certain point in space at a certain time, and it could be accurately measured with four co-ordinates, of which one was time. The waves would spread in rings from the splash I made, growing wider the more time passed, until they gradually weakened and the two-dimensional water surface was calm again. But in four-dimensional space, the point in the water at which my glowing forehead had sunk and gone out would be the apex of the light-cone of future events. As well as the apex of the light-cone of past events, for they would start from the same point, but go in the opposite direction, I wasn’t sure which, I can never remember; but it was possible that the direction of the light-cone of my absolute future was straight downwards, reaching not very deep, but deep enough. In any case, news of my extinction would reach the sun only after eight minutes; that was the time it would take my darkness to get there. And, naturally, the same time to get back, if there happened to be a response from the sun. A warming word, a warm thought, even a sympathetic ray of light…

Like a response, I felt a light push at the back of my knee; something was wheezing and snorting behind me. Instinctively I pressed myself against the bridge railing and looked behind me. A dog with an enormously big head was grinning and gazing at me with bloodshot eyes. Between its narrow lips hung threads of spittle, and its nostrils, too, were streaming, although it had already wiped them on my trouser-leg. Detecting my fear, it began to growl and bare its teeth. A thin creature in a green loden coat reminiscent of a monk’s habit was pulling at the dog’s leash.

‘Here! Barbarossa! Here!’ ordered a woman’s broken voice from inside a tapering hood, so deep that I could not see her face; all I could make out was the red tip of her nose as she tried to reel the dog in. The dog resisted and pulled the leash taut; the woman had to release the brake mechanism so as not to skidaddle after it. The hem of her coat brushed the ground.

‘Don’t be afraid,’ said the woman, ‘He won’t bite, he’s just trying to frighten you. If you don’t show fear, he won’t bite…’

‘I’m not scared of dogs,’ I muttered uneasily.

‘Listen, the gentleman’s not afraid of you. It’s no use your threatening him,’ the woman cajoled her dog, but the dog growled and slobbered hungrily at my leg.

‘I’m so sorry, but Barbarossa has got it into his head that you’re scared of him,’ the woman apologised, spreading her hands to express her helplessness in the face of such a natural phenomenon. ‘He thinks it shows you have a bad conscience. Dogs have an instinct for these things. I’ve tried to explain to him that it’s none of his business what people have on their consciences as long as they let him alone, but he’s very stubborn…’

‘Why don’t you keep him on a shorter leash, or put him on a choke-lead if he won’t obey you otherwise,’ I suggested; I had regained control of my voice, but I didn’t yet want to make a move.

‘The gentleman believes animals don’t have rights, does he?’ the woman asked, offended, fumbling with the winder on the lead, but the dog did not move an inch from the vicinity of my knee.

‘I’m old, and I can’t take Barbarossa for as many walks as he needs. But when I do, I try to let him run about as freely as possible, within limits of course. Even a dog needs living-space, it has to have the freedom of the pavement. He doesn’t sniff at nearly everyone, but you’re standing there leaning against the rail, spitting into the water as if you owned the rail and the bridge and the river beneath it, and Barbarossa doesn’t like it.’

‘It’s not a river, it’s an arm of the sea.’

‘That’s what you think, and that’s what everybody thinks, but I know it’s a river,’ snapped the woman, ‘because I’ve lived by this river all my life and it’s been a long life. I live in that building over there, I’ve always lived there and I always will…’ The woman pointed to a tum-of-the-century white stucco block of flats on the opposite shore. I knew the building. I suppose I had all this time unconsciously been struggling towards it across this seemingly endless bridge. Or if I had been conscious of it, I had been conscious without knowing it.


In that block there lived a woman whom I called Vanessa because she had the colouring of a mourning cloak butterfly, a very velvety black with some yellow at the edges, particularly around the auricles. The Latin name of the mourning cloak butterfly is Vanessa Antiopa.

Vanessa could foretell the future, and some people considered her a witch. When her prophecies seemed not to be coming true, she was in the habit of intervening in order to realise them. She read palms and cards, bumps on the head, hairs, patches of colour in the eye; sometimes she just dosed her eyes and gazed inward and saw something there, which she communicated in veiled words to the enquirer after his fate who sat opposite her with bated breath.

They had started to call her a witch after she had foretold that her husband, a lawyer in the civil service, would die of a stroke in the embrace of another woman. And that is exactly what happened. After prolonged wrangles, her husband had moved out and gone to live with a younger woman, and had immediately started to blossom and grow younger and progress in his career. This hurt Vanessa deeply because – this is how she put it – her husband had done all he could to prevent her, Vanessa, from living a decent human life and making her own career. So, one morning at five, coupled with his new woman in the grip of a strong passion, the man suffered a stroke and stiffened on top of the woman’s warm, sweaty body. He didn’t die, though, but slipped off her and lay there on his back, the left side of his face and the limbs on the left side of his body paralysed. It looked as if only half of Vanessa’s prophecy had come true. If that.

For, contrary to Vanessa’s expectations, her husband began to make a determined recovery. With the help of physiotherapy and the unexpectedly firm and selfless support of his new woman, he recovered in a relatively short time to such an extent that he was able to return to his work as a lawyer.

Then, by a very indirect route, he heard of his first wife’s prophecy. This made him so embittered that he decided to raise a lawsuit against her for witchcraft. Efforts were made to calm him, his colleagues talked sense to him, his new wife – they had meanwhile got married – begged him to give up, but the man insisted. He had decided to take his witch-wife to court. He drafted an indictment and reports and sent them to everyone, right up to the highest authorities. In the end it became necessary to dismiss him from his job, and he was forced to take a disability pension. This made him even more embittered. He began to drink immoderately and died of pancreatitis five years later. By that time his young wife had already left him.

About ten years ago, there was a lot of fuss over the matter; the newspapers carried articles about the ‘witch’s dart’ for a fortnight. Vanessa was shocked by her husband’s death, but the press reports didn’t bother her. She refused to make any public comment about the affair, but to her friends she defended herself by saying that it had only been a prophecy, not a curse. To her mind, there was an enormous difference. She had only foretold what would happen to her husband. And besides, he hadn’t died of a stroke, but of alcohol. Neatly put. To me, Vanessa confessed that she’d known that in advance too, but hadn’t wanted to include it in her prophecy. Complicated prophecies tend not to come true. A prophecy has to be simple and direct.

‘If, on the other hand, I’d said he’d simply die of alcohol, it wouldn’t have come true.

Even a child knows that,’ Vanessa explained solemnly.

If she had lived three hundred years ago, she would have been burnt at the stake without further ado. She knew it herself, which was another reason why she was so much at home in the present.

Ten years ago I had been head over heels in love with this woman. Then passion had waned, gradually, as often happens, and it wasn’t because of her spells. That, too, she’d been able to prophesy. I hadn’t. I’d thought, once again, that it would be forever. And of course it hadn’t completely disappeared. I was on my way to see her. It was this woman I was on my way to see…


I glanced at the face of the woman in the monk’s habit, which she had turned towards me – veined cheeks, sharp nose and pale blue eyes gazing from deep in their sockets – and they seemed somehow familiar.

The woman’s eyes came to life. ‘Of course, you’re the man who used to stand in the street and put your fingers in your mouth to whistle to Mrs Maahinen up on the attic floor. Before we got the entryphone. I live below Mrs Maahinen; Karén, do you remember, first right out of the lift – so I’ve certainly seen you and heard you.’

The widow Karén had been a ballet dancer, and now she lived with her sister in a small two-roomed flat on the fourth floor. Each day she went often to tidy the cellar; everyone knew she had wine bottles hidden there, which she went down there to drink because her sister wouldn’t allow her to do it in the flat.

‘I remember,’ I said. ‘We bumped into each other once in a comer of the cellar. I hit my head on the drainpipe and you broke a bottle of home-made wine.’

‘But I never complained, even though those wolf-whistles of yours sometimes bothered me,’ Mrs Karen assured me quickly.

‘Quite the opposite, I told Mrs Maahinen it doesn’t matter, let him whistle, since he’s so keen, I won’t make a song and dance about it, even though some people on my stair have complained, I’m not that small-minded… Does the gentleman have a few spare marks, I’m a bit short? I’ll pay them back of course, perhaps to Mrs Maahinen, if that’s convenient…’

‘Don’t give it to her. You can pay me back sometime,’ I said, and took thirty marks from my wallet. The woman slipped the notes into her coat pocket and made an elaborate bow. The dog immediately moved away from me to stand next to the Karen woman; it wagged its tail enthusiastically and blew a bubble of mucus from its nostril. I began to feel nauseous; I took a couple of steps toward the white building, but the widow caught at my sleeve.

‘Just to avoid any misunderstandings, young man,’ she cackled quickly, ‘I hope you will bear it in mind that this waterway is a river and that there are several of these rivers, although not everyone realises it. There are five of them, and they all join up at some point, which keeps shifting, join up and flow into this larger river, which is the River of Hatred … They flow underground, under the buildings and the stones; one of them flows under my house, the River of Sorrows – the stone steps of the cellar lead down to it, but no one knows it but me. And Mrs Maahinen. The River of Fire flows from the south and hooks under the liquor store and continues under the Big House, where it joins the River of Oblivion… One branch flows from the west, from under the cliff where the Gallows Hill and the Place of Execution once stood; it is the River of Tears and its waters are reddish… I am sure we shall meet again, Mr Whistler, sir; go now, since you seem suddenly to be in such a hurry, but between ourselves I don’t think anyone is expecting you …’


The old woman walked away with an uncertain gait to drown her memories in wine in some third-rate bar; her slobbering beast padded after her, its purple tongue fluttering in the breeze. I walked in the opposite direction to the end of the bridge and avoided looking at the water that that woman had called the River of Hatred. My light­ cones of past and future events sank into the icy black water, all my radiance had been extinguished, and no one knew or cared, not close by or a million light-years away…


A light was burning in Vanessa Maahinen’s attic room. All I wanted was to climb up to Vanessa on her sleeping-balcony and press my face to her neck, into her long, black hair, and to feel the absent-minded touch of her cool hand on my neck as, lying on her back, she read The Cuneiform Monthly, an academic publication. Her fields were comparative philology, social philology and, to some extent, semiotics. Prophecy and witchcraft were only hobbies.

What did she think of the fact that under the cellar of her house flowed the River of Sorrows, one of the rivers of Hades? Did she know that the shades of the dead wandered beneath her Jugend house in the labyrinthine passages of the cellars, went astray among the crates, got mixed up with the asbestos-insulated pipes and tried to conceal themselves in the cellar closets in vain, for the hound of Hades smelled out their hiding places and drove them back to the river? Did Vanessa know that the drunken warder of Hades and her Cerberos lived in the flat below? Of course she did. How wouldn’t she? Who knows but that she hadn’t stood in for the Karén woman at the steps beside the water and held on to Cerberos while the old woman attended to her secret bottles? Well, maybe not; she didn’t like dogs.

What had the old woman meant by saying that she didn’t think I was expected? It was certainly true that Vanessa couldn’t be expecting me that day or at that time, or at all; it had been weeks since I had last paid her a visit. But the Karén woman couldn’t have known that unless, as well as the dead, she watched the movements of those who were still alive on the flats’ stairs and in the lifts. Surely she couldn’t spread herself in all directions. Was Vanessa entertaining someone new on her balcony? Is that what old Persephone had meant?

I stood in the recess by the outer door with my finger on the button of Vanessa’s entryphone. It was a simple matter. If there was someone with her on the balcony, she wouldn’t bother answering. Otherwise, she would climb down the ladder growling to herself, since she would have preferred to spend the whole day on her bunk. She had gathered together there her television, radio, telephone and library of reference books; she had asked me to move her entryphone up there, too, within easy reach, but I hadn’t got round to it.

So, if she was alone, she would climb down, answer the entryphone and open the outer door and the door to her flat, clamber back up into the upper atmosphere and wait for me there. I would come in, take off my coat and boots, shut the door, go into the room and glance upwards. She would raise her eyes from her book, turn slowly to look at me, and appraise in a second my mood and state of mind and what I had come to say.

Her velvety black eyes would have an interrogative and at the same time ironic expression; the message of her gaze would be: tell me what you’ve come to say and what you want and what you have been doing for the past few days, and then we’ll see if I believe you.

The whole thing might get screwed up by that gaze. If she saw that I was annoyed by her scrutiny, which might easily happen, if I betrayed impatience, for example, she would draw away, close up, and I wouldn’t be able to tell her what was happening to me. I knew that if I reached the balcony without losing my temper, it would be easier to speak: I would close my eyes, inhale her scent, take a deep breath and begin, completely calmly, matter-of-factly. I’d say: ‘I went to the doctor’s today to get the results. It looks as if…’

Of course, it was possible that she would know from my face without my saying anything. Know, at any rate, that something had happened to confound her irony. How would she then hold herself, her mouth, her eyes? She firmly believed that most illnesses are psychosomatic which, the way she put it, sounded like ’caused by a weakness of character’. Would she think differently now? Was there any reason? Just because the illness had happened to strike at me?


I stood, frozen, in front of the entryphone, my finger outstretched. I felt my indecisiveness to be somehow offensive. I turned up my collar and walked away. I hadn’t struggled here across the bridge just to be mocked.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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