Solitude growing

Issue 2/1995 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extract from Häiriö maisemassa (‘A disturbance in the landscape’, Otava, 1994). In this, her first novel, Raija Siekkinen – well-known for the fragile prose fof her short stories – continues her dissection of the soul with an account of the experience of a womanwho finds that many lives are being lived through her own

She was pregnant. After all these years, the woman finally found she was pregnant: it was as if the man had made a last attack to retain his hold on a country he had once conquered.

She let the days go by, the days of autumn, which night by night edged more shadow across the damp lawn. She looked at the man from a distance, not seeing him; her mind rehearsed what she knew about him. The man had two children from a previous marriage. The woman had not wanted the children to come here, and neither did their mother; that was, indeed, the only subject on which they agreed. The man went to visit his children; they never spoke about what happened on those occasions.

The man was cleaning his hands with a piece of flannel moistened with turpentine when she went into the studio. The painting was turned to face the wall, but there was green and yellow on the man’s fingers, and from that she could tell that he was painting the same subject again. The man cleaned each nail carefully, separately; the woman averted her eyes from his hands and their green and yellow stains, as if she were ashamed.

Don’t worry about them, the man said of his children the first time the woman brought up the subject; we never had to talk about them before. Once more, the painting would not be what he had intended, and soon it would be his birthday; the man’s voice was irritable. This morning, he remembered, he had inspected his bald patch with the help of two mirrors, and noticed that it had grown larger. Leave them to me, I’ll look after them, he said.

The woman looked at the brushes; she was standing with her back to the man, and from her shoulders hung a loose shawl of knitted silk. There were dozens of brushes; they were arranged in glass jars, fine ones here, thick ones there. The pencils were in a row, in order of softness, sharpened, and drawing pens were arranged in rows in the same way. She stretched out her hand, took a pen, turned it over in her fingers and put it back very exactly where she had taken it from. When the man came and moved the pen a fraction, the woman smiled to herself.

If I were to have a child, she said, I would want a girl, she said. I only do boys, the man said. He gave a half-smile: and those two are quite enough for me.

The door of the studio had been left ajar when the woman came in, and now there was a cold draught. The woman wrapped her shawl more tightly around her, and went to the door. Yes, that’s true, she said, meaning the children; really. With her hand on the door-handle she looked at the man, who was now rubbing cream into his newly washed hands. Yes, absolutely, the woman said, and: come and eat. Dinner’s ready.

She went out of the door, and closed it after her.

Perhaps that is how it happened, I thought.

The woman’s body became more unfamiliar each day, her breasts were heavy, there was a weight in her belly: the man’s will was growing within her, a boy, absorbing nourishment from her. She read books, looked at pictures, and the books said that even a woman dying of hunger could give birth to a child that was healthy, did well, survived. It had happened in the concentration camps, she read.

The hospital she went to was an expensive private one. It was not the kind I was in. I lay in a room with five other people, full of the smell of sweat and blood and disinfectant. I lay in bed between thick, stiff sheets, looking at the ceiling, at the white blotches where the paint had been touched up, and the window, through which I could see the empty sky. In the next bed was a woman whose foetus had died in her womb; it was her fifth miscarriage. When she asked me why I was in hospital, I closed my eyes and pretended I was sleeping: but at night I lay awake and was afraid of her.

I met a woman whose child had grown in her womb along with her cancer. The child was born healthy; the woman was given a couple of months to live. She was visited by a thin man with four thin children; all four went to special schools, and the man and his wife really believed the cancer would be cured: that’s what doctors were for. I paced the hospital corridors, traced out a circle; one day a bald doctor took me by the elbow: Let’s have a little chat.

I had gone to the library, a long time ago, past the park, where a stone bear stood with frost on its back, past a stone wall where a blind man’s white stick tapped. I had opened a book, looked at a picture. There was a dim-eyed something the size of a fist on a black background, like someone at the bottom of the sea, thrown there, who no longer looks like anyone. I had thought of the deeps of the sea-inlet from which I had once been pulled by the hair to live my life on earth.

I had gone to my apartment, gone under the blankets and lain there. I had thought how little time there was left until it would be pulled by the hair from the deeps of the sea, thumped on the back to expel the water from the lungs, and then on the ears and cheeks, since it would cry and cry and would not stop, and how it would stumble, crying, after its parents on the path, the path on which roots rise hard and worn out of the ground, like bones, and how it would be told it would never be a decent human being.

I had lain for a long time, remembered the bad dreams of the dark nights, and the solitary games in the cold snow, in the dark, under the small stars. And I had remembered the later times, the nights as long as hatred.

I had remembered that as soon as it was lifted out of there, people would take it and make it normal so that it could get on in the world: and, like an animal that eats its young when danger threatens them, I had got up one day and left, it is a long time since all that.

This other hospital was surrounded by a large park, its trees old, and every morning the gardeners came; they raked the leaves that had fallen from the trees, pruned the bushes to make them round or square. (I look at those strange trees, the black cypress whose proud crown is bent only by the strongest wind; the plane tree, its blotchy trunk, which recalls the bare skin of some jungle animal, and its large, hard leaves, which turn grey-brown as autumn comes; the transplanted spruces, with thick branches and large cones that grow in bunches; I look at them without memory, without feeling.) The name of the hospital was the Clinic for Intimate Hygiene. Cosmetic surgery was also carried out there: faces were lifted, breasts, thighs were reduced, buttocks made smaller. The patients stayed in their rooms, wore dark glasses, did not receive visitors. One day a big car came to fetch them, they left, each in turn, with dignity, reserved, like widows in mourning: they left to buy new clothes suitable for their new bodies and faces, clothes and shoes and houses suitable for their new lives.

Outside the windows leaves fell from the trees, evening came early, the woman looked out and thought: it is late. It is too late. It is too late for everything: and the pain was the same, I remember it, the pain of knowing and thinking and, later, remembering. The nurses talked across me about the wife of a top sportsman, who was to give birth that night, I remember the leaves outside the windows, the leaves of the lime trees, on the trees, a little while yet.

I do not know how decisions are made. Perhaps, after all, they are not made: perhaps they simply develop, of themselves, from all that has been; perhaps one notices one has decided something only when one has begun to put it into practice. Perhaps it is for this reason that explanations for stupid actions are so convincing.

Their last winter together in the uplands. I think about the man, who is carrying maple logs in from the shed, puts them by the fireplace. The ground is covered in white hoarfrost, it sparkles in the sunshine, and the green of the grass can be seen dimly through the white. The frost has already melted from the trees, droplets glint on the branches, the sky is high, now even the most distant mountains are visible. The man carries the furniture that is to be mended into the yard – always in my memories he is carrying something, he is strong, he should have been a joiner, a carpenter, he should have had six children by an illiterate woman who did not have time to think. This is what the woman thinks, stopping in the frame of the open door, and then withdrawing. The man examines how to mend a chair which is missing a leg; he is wearing a fur waistcoat over his sweater, and fingerless gloves on his hands; he starts work. His head is heavy with a secret which no one wants to hear, which he must carry alone; day by day it becomes heavier. Silence spreads immeasurable around him, it is full of sound, words, questions to answers, the noise of the unspoken. He hangs his head, and the bald patch shows. His unshaven stubble shows red in the light of the sun. As he glues the leg of the chair into place and sets it in a clamp, as he sands or paints or varnishes wood, his hands are full of tenderness, almost devotion. At such moments it is good to look at him, from a distance, so that he does not notice, and at the same time sorrow raises into the mind, pure as the spring rain.

Can the course of events be changed, I wonder. I see solitude growing in the woman like a child. She lets things flow through her, during these long, quiet days she gathers in her mind the images that will be her liberation. The man at work; the tenderness of his hands, his expression as if he were setting a bird’s broken wing. The man on the frosty lawn, lit by the sun, then on the damp green grass, the frost remaining only in the shadows, under the trees.

In the air, larch-needles are spinning slowly toward the ground, a finer than fine gold rain. It was that the woman remembered later, thinking about these times. When she had attained solitude, and knew what it was. When, looking out of the window, she knew she would see the courtyard empty, the courtyard building locked, the furniture inside left forever unfinished under an increasingly thick layer of dust. When at last, years later, she tried to open its door, it would no longer open; the winters’ rains had swollen the door, too, or perhaps the building had subsided, shifted from its foundations, and the door had jammed. The needle-like leaves of the larch spun every autumn in a slow dance to the ground; it lasted only a couple of days, after that the trees were bare, their rough trunks and tangled branches drawn against the sky; it was winter once more.

One spring day, the man had gone. He left with as little as he had brought with him: on his shoulder a large, black rucksack, carrying an old overnight bag. He went to a nearby hotel, drank himself senseless that night, and next day he travelled farther away, and the same the next day. The slow, fragmented journey brought him across the sea, to a country whence a woman with my name had once, a very long time ago, sent him on his way: set the direction, the pace.

I read about the top sportsman’s wife in the paper. A boy had been born, photographs showed the sportsman holding his child, the wife thanking the hospital staff. A house was built for the sportsman on the shore of a lake, it had a training ground nearby, and the child grew, it became a sturdy, blond little boy who soon ceased to be interesting to the media. The sportsman was not selected for the Olympics, interviews were no longer given, soon the newspapers began to suspect something was wrong with his marriage.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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