The last melody

Issue 3/1995 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kadotettu puutarha (‘The lost garden’, WSOY, 1995). Introduction by Riina Katajavuori

Their sojourn at the villa extended into the autumn of 1944; the schools did not go back as usual on the first of September. Repair of the university buildings progressed rapidly; the work had begun immediately after the bombing. The Doctor went to town from time to time, but nothing bound the family to it, and he returned to his desk in the attic room and to his solitary walks by the lake. His heart troubled him from time to time. It did not like these walks, did not like exertion; but he had succeeded in concealing the matter from Elisabet. After one particular attack, he had secretly seen a doctor in town, and now, instead of camphor tablets, he always had those little buttons in his pocket, the breast pocket of his waistcoat. He swallowed one from time to time on these expeditions, a pain in his wrists and his eyes staring dimly at a clump of ferns that seemed to have become hazy, or a tree-top that seemed to be falling toward him. He did not wish Elisabet to know. Not this, in Elisabet’s world, not this, in air that was suffused with grief for their dead son Leo, with well controlled and beautifully expressed emotion, with concern for the remaining boy, who was there, on the frontier, with the burdensome and universal tragedy that filled the air as light filled it in daytime. He was not mortally ill, and he wished to keep this knowledge to himself; he was not mortally ill, but sometimes he felt himself hovering on the edge of the void. In truth, in these days he was happy that he had in mind this proximity of death, that from time to time it was as if something was tearing him apart from life, making him stagger on the road. A goblet, surrounded by black herbs, was within reach; within it death glimmered. On no account did he wish to acknowledge that his attitude to it might bear the stamp of tragic emotion, that the black, fine-leaved herbs that surrounded death in his mind, making it cool, sweet, peaceful and alluring, might have sprouted, almost imperceptibly, from the days when they had lived the Second World War. He sometimes remembered himself, with a start, as he had been on the morning when the Winter War began. It was as if a bluish, shimmering shadow, as if a shadow like that of crusted snow in spring, had spread into his mind, and he saw there, glittering like objects, certain convictions, a certain emotion – his patriotism, then, had not been sterile. And more sorely than any of the universal events that had subsequently come and passed over him, also, and crushingly changed his life, also, he felt the memory of that lost feeling. He was no longer capable of such a thing, and he felt the transformation of his patriotic feeling into sterility as a moral disaster that gnawed at him. Of course, he was not really guilty, he had merely felt cold exhaustion, disappointment, spreading through his innards like the great grey petals of a flower, bigger from one year to the next. Disappointment, torpor. Nothing bore onward the feeling that had once so wonderfully filled his brain. All those words and actions had become gilded knick-knacks; truth no longer radiated from them, they were painted with the cheap, mendacious gold of propaganda.

The forest glinted with gold and green patches, the leaves of the lingonberries looked jet-black in their greenness; he noticed these little details on his walks, analysing the damage to his patriotic feelings that had taken place within himself and tasting the consciousness of the possibility of sudden death in the unpredictable, acute pain in his chest or the sensation of suffocation.

Elisabet had succeeded in making the last heartsease flower: they came forth from the earth as blue-black and brown pieces of velvet, and the soil of Elisabet’s garden also turned into marigolds, still brown, and pink porcelain-like dahlias, it too a symbol of the events of beauty in a life carefully arranged by Elisabet.

And order was preserved in their family life, despite the fact that public events were now very dramatic. – Everything that is now happening in Germany and France, said Elisabet gently, shaking her head gravely, – she could not think about it. She meant the battles that followed the Allied landings, which were being fought through the most sacred ancient landscapes of Europe. She made a gesture with her hands as if she were setting something down, an object that was uncomfortable or dangerous.

One moonlit evening Elisabet had just come in from outside and said: ‘The landscape is moon-dappled tonight’, just as she used the expression: we visited the tulip this morning when the tulip had flowered and had been inspected. On Elisabet’s moon­dappled night, public tragedy was to wind itself around their home, too, for a second. The peace conditions were read out on the radio, and into this moon-dappled night, in which Elisabet had attempted, as always, to sustain her ideal of the graceful life, there flooded, like a heavy, red stream of lava, the news that the Porkkala area was to be leased, and that the transfer was to take place so quickly that residents had only a couple of days. Their villa was on the edge of the ceded area, close to its inland border.

Elisabet had sat down by the radio with her husband, emphasising the historic importance of moment by laying down her knitting, and although they had long lived in a world in which the words that came through newspapers or the radio became events that intruded like unwelcome guests into their private life and changed it, they could not immediately grasp the event as personal, something that meant, for them, the loss of the villa and Elisabet’s carefully cultivated garden.

The Doctor wrinkled his eyebrows and took a couple of small tablets, without Elisabet noticing. He did not like this dramatic event coming from outside and affecting him, and for that reason he rose unhurriedly, controlledly, and went to the map that lay on the table. Elisa bet followed him, she, too, stifling an exclamation, and stepping, with a cautious tread, up to the map. The Doctor placed his little finger on the map and drew the border of the ceded territory with his nail. His expression was aloof as Elisabet exclaimed: ‘But that affects us, too”

‘Yes,’ said the Doctor, as a strangely derisive expression appeared on his face; he wanted to shake off the drama that had suddenly fallen from the situation on to them.

‘Yes, we must pack our things, this is only a summer villa. We must make ourselves go quietly.’

The words came from the Doctor’s lips hard as coins that he was sacrificing to the great drama. Its dramatics were too raw, sudden; his sense of propriety could not approve it, he felt a revulsion toward events of this kind, which came from outside and were forced to become part of his personal life. Only half an hour ago Elisabet had come in and spoken of a moon-dappled landscape, and now this moon-dappled landscape was to be rolled up as if it had turned into paper and been taken away from them; yes, what did it matter, from them, villa-residents. An old area of habitation, a farming area, simply rolled up like paper like this and taken away.

‘We have been given a great drama,’ he said, and looked out. ‘The harvest has not been gathered, has it, the root crops, the oats. The army has been detailed to help in the move.’ His voice dried in his throat.

And all this, this too, he thought, because individuals, their feelings, their lives, do not mean anything… How repugnant.

He bore his upset with extreme modesty, control. The event that was coming into their lives would nonetheless take on the form they gave it, however violent it was. They took part in the public drama that happened to come to them into their hands. For the last time, Elisabet carefully watered a particular bed of perennial flowers and raked the weeds from the path in the moon-dappled landscape.

Maaret had a fever; Elisabet had given her some warm juice to drink and the child had already begun to perspire. Elisabet said this gently and with false girlishness, as always. The servant carried vegetables in a bucket, from all around, in the night, there could be heard movement, shouts, the rumbling of the wheels of ploughs and carts.

Those words on the radio had called forth this hurried activity, which was taking place under shelter of darkness, this restlessness, and the Doctor bit the edge of his little finger-nail, for him a mark of the most unusual state of nerves. Those words, those words spoken on the radio had called forth a tragedy, a tragedy that was unfolding in this heavy night and would continue long after everything here had grown silent. He listened: black darkness covered passionate sorrow, death; a couple of times, he thought he heard a shot. It could have been, of course it was, someone who had owned something here for a long time. Old manors, with their great old trees that soughed in the night, their fields where creatures moved in the dark, they had become paper. And tragedy, hearts that were breaking, emotions that could not be borne, love, faithful love for the countryside, the home, had turned to paper. Everything could turn to paper in the hands of this barbaric era. Paper soaked in tears and blood, paper that whimpered, panicked, suffering, paper that rustled in the fields, in the crowns of the trees, in the earth – paper.

Elisabet came into the room. ‘I wonder if we should go and help the people,’ she said. She was, after all, living through the event in the consecration of her patriotic feelings, with welcome ceremony she brought out its features, acted in accordance with the laws of that drama. For her, all had not primarily been turned into bloody paper, cruelly trampled human life, emotions that grew to giant proportions in the night, dimensions which, for some, had death as their limit.

The Doctor stood by the window; he had hardly helped at all. Elisabet had taken care of the packing of the foodstuffs reserved for winter last of all. The servant was looking after the kitchen crockery. ‘We must try to leave before the crush becomes too great, cattle and loads on the road, it will be very crowded, Elisabet,’ said the Doctor nervelessly. ‘There are many people there.’ There was a repugnance in him, not toward helping but toward its uselessness, toward the fact that what was saved was nothing compared to what could not be saved, compared to the tragedy that must be lived through, that must be come to terms with.

But Elisabet considered it her duty to express her patriotic feelings in actions tonight. Amid all the confusion she moved with restraint, ensured that the linen was in the right order, wiped the dust from some object before packing it.

‘No,’ the Doctor said to him, ‘Elisabet, we shall leave here as soon as possible, people are coming from town, and the soldiers will help.’

Elisabet smiled at him a little uncertainly, and the Doctor followed her as she went into the garden. The morning dawned; there were of course some little farewells, which Elisabet would take care of. The Doctor stood stiff and motionless as Elisabet touched the earth with her hand, the heartsease. She picked them and the Doctor felt a constriction in his throat as Elisabet severed the stems; Elisabet’s fingers moved slowly. She bade farewell to the earth, which she had so often, dry or moist, felt with her fingers, took her farewell of all that which had made the little clods of earth turn into heartsease. She had to clothe her emotions in these gestures, and the Doctor turned away. It was as if heaps of memories of sunny days had condensed in the air, of yellow petals where some insect buzzed and glowed, of light and shade, little moments, warm moments that he had lived in Elisabet’s garden, on the lake. The wide blue mirror, a vision of beauty, that had been inscribed on his consciousness from the summer of his escapade, the paths on which he had, in recent times, seen the ferns become suddenly misty, feeling a pain in his wrists and chest. Pieces of life that had been lived with lovely repetition every summer, even the burdensome summers of wartime.

Become paper, paper. The grey, silvery morning light began to reveal visions; the Doctor turned his head quickly for a moment as the grey light encountered removal loads, things piled up by the roadside, even piles of vegetables, as if those objects had been something that, after a shipwreck, floats on the great, silver-white, shimmering surface of the sea. The folds of his face quivered, and he placed a dry, cautious hand on Elisabet’s round shoulder as she bent over the flowerbed, over the earth whose clods she wanted, full of feeling, to touch with her fingers in farewell.

She glanced uncertainly at her husband, the grey sea of light that was in motion everywhere shone on the red-gold helmet of her hair for a moment. Elisabet said, girlishly and gracefully, aloud, as if brimming with the abundant emotions of these moments: ‘But it is important, nevertheless, to live these moments of farewell, also.’

The Doctor lifted his bluish, narrow fingertip to his upper lip. Then he went, with correct, dry movements, away from the bed of heartsease, as if he had at the same time moved away from Elisabet’s world, which lifted many sentiments from this sea of events.

He climbed up to the attic room. The familiar stairs, creaking with dryness, the pale warmth of past summers had established itself there, the golden rays of the sun; this rustle of familiar stairs was, for him in these moments, an emotional experience that he tried to bear with fortitude. In his study, he piled his papers into his briefcase and arranged his books for removal, and his face shook. These everyday details, which  belonged to life, to the minutiae of life: the creaking of the stairs when he climbed them, were able to become events in moments like these, events that shed their light broadly over the feeling that he carried inside him so cautiously, that silver, glittering, wide sea­surface of feeling that spread with such mysterious silence within him over the shipwreck of this event. Objects floated on the water-surface, feelings and various trivialities, trivial details that were able to reflect the tragedy.

Yes, yes, there was no time to lose. But within him there remained a feeling of revulsion that made him, nonetheless, act slowly; he did not accept that tragedy had been forced on his inner self from outside, a tragedy so powerful that the familiar creaking of the stairs itself became a part of it.

He flung some books into a box; they had stored within themselves some of the sun of the summer villa in the fading of their covers.

He carried the things downstairs and told Elisabet that he was climbing for a moment up to the hill; he wanted to get some kind of overall view of the events.

Elisabet tied the keys of the bureau into a bunch and followed him with her eyes. The Doctor walked slowly across the dew-damp lawn, and just as his narrow feet, moving with slow, reserved steps, avoided the dew-damp lawn and the muddy puddles of the road, he avoided the feelings that were reflected in the gestures and faces of the people he encountered or who were moving through the fields. He had a strong desire to cordon his feelings off; he cast his eyes to the ground when faces, those of ordinary people, soldiers, villagers, were driven into the silver-bright air for him to see, all of them reflecting the feeling, the tragedy, that he, too, carried within himself.

He was out of breath when he reached the hill, with a stop half-way and a couple of tablets, which he held for a moment in his narrow hand. Of course Elisabet should have been with him; this would have been their last shared walk here, in this landscape. He felt a little reproach against himself. He had so many memories of the Elisabet of the summer villa, memories that melted into the honey-yellow sun, the garden, strawberry time, when one day was enough to ripen a harvest in the strawberry bed. Elisabet’s garden, the agglomerations of memories and emotions that moved him so greatly and in all of which Elisabet belonged. Including that which had been his own only odyssey. Elisabet, from whom so much had been taken, was still being taken. Elisabet, who was able to build a wax cell around each disaster and fill it with the warrn honey of her beauteous emotions and thoughts. Elisabet, whose innocent patriotism now both moved and irritated him. The Doctor let his gaze rest on the landscape, the landscape that had now turned to paper. For himself, it contained – he swallowed deeply and his face twitched-such little knots of emotion as the creak of the stairs to a certain attic, the scent wafting from the strawberry bed, the warm trickle of water from the watering can into the earth, the lake, whose shores glimmered green with shadow as a leaf, a particular patch of brown moss on a boulder, and physical joy, the goddess who had come to him for a brief moment, and Elisabet, whose love was able to sanctify life.

This ancient landscape – he allowed his gaze to rest on it – included  of course, for its inhabitants, thousands of knots of emotion, similar to his and different. Those knots of emotion were concentrated like a blue shadow or a mist around the buildings, on the roads, in the trees. They were part of the same valuable concentration of life, acquired with difficulty, that one encounters in works of art, a concentration of life that made itself felt in certain ethical and aesthetic decisions, but at its most valuable and irreplaceable in the ordinary life of ordinary people, their attitude to their homes, the unconscious sensation and living of lives of feeling and thought.

The retreating morning mist still moved over the fields, the patchy brown grass was revealed as it went, glowing dimly through it, like the dark green alder; he sensed the coldness of the morning air. Elisabet was waiting for him, of course. Perhaps Elisabet would say: ‘I am a little alarmed.’ But the Doctor lingered on, letting his gaze rest on the landscape.

Elisabet was alarmed on his return, he had lingered so long. They were to eat their last small meal here, and Elisabet had reopened the piano, which had been locked a moment before. She wanted to play some of the songs of the summer villa before they left it for the last time. The Doctor lowered his eyes as Elisabet proposed these last things, which were necessary for the preservation of her way of life, the way of life that she had, with such purity and beauty, preserved even in this great disturbance of the family’s existence.

Maaret sat wrapped in a blanket in a wicker chair, and Elisabet sat on the piano stool and gently lowered her fingers on to the keyboard. She played Schumann’s Träumerei.

The sweet music glimmered through the room; the Doctor took a bunch of heartsease from the table and lifted it to his nose; from the flowers came the smell of earth, of death. Both Träumerei and the air were, in any case, so full of what he had thought on the hummock, Elisabet and the rooms of her home had always been full of such concentrations of emotion, knots, which drifted there and were able to give it a small, light, sense of golden dust. He took his napkin and spread it on his knees; Maaret had not yet said grace, and the Doctor got up attentively, with a courteous gesture, went to Maaret’s chair and placed his own hands together over the girl’s as she stood in her blanket and quickly said the familiar words. Then Elisabet came to the table with downcast eyes and said, raising her eyes to her husband: ‘This is our last time here.’

The Doctor nodded and spread butter on his bread.

The meal was almost a little feast; Elisabet had opened some jars from the cellar. In this way, too, she had wished to underline the farewell.

After the meal, Elisabet sat at the piano once more; the doctor stood, leaning his body forward a little, a small, irritable patch of red spreading over his temples. Elisabet played and sang in her soft, thin voice: Through mist of dusk of evening flies the swan.’

The morning was cold, freshly damp. The light that filled the room was like cold silver. Elisabet sang there for the last time, accompanying herself at the piano. She held fast to this moment, this last time, not to give charm, the glow of a beauteous feeling, to this last moment, but to express, in her farewell, her regret for all that would remain here and was like a part of herself, like a period of one’s life which one can understand only when it is over. From Elisabet’s lips, like small, bright peas, rolled the words: ‘They floated like the lilies of waves, when the sun arose in its youth, and the nights of the north glowed red.’

It was a song sung round the pianos of many summer villas. The Doctor listened to it correctly, observing Elisabet, who directed a glance at him from time to time. And the Doctor felt, as he listened, as if he were upholding this atmosphere, which must be built, at this moment of departure, over everything and whose construction was for him, in its naïve homeliness, difficult.

Elisabet let the words form on her lips with tenderness: they were the last that would ever let fall this melody into the air of the room. And it was as if those words had contained the dark blue mist that shrouds the forest on hot days, a condensed memory of the juniper bush in which there had been a bird’s nest one summer. She had found it with her husband, the fledgling’s open yellow mouths and the mother bird, who came so anxiously, her eldest son running, his hair flashing gold, up the lane, twelve years old. The little blue flowers they had found one spring in a place where the snow had melted, the atmosphere that had surrounded the discovery. Leo holding a snail in his hand somewhere beneath that shady birch whose trunk was covered in moss, like splashes of cast tin. All over, as in death, gone for ever. And Elisabet lingered over that moment with her little concert in this room, which they were soon to leave for the last time, and her heart felt as if it was breaking with the lovely weight of tender, sunny memories.

The last melody of the summer villa moved through the air of the room for that last time, understood by them all with emotion, with restraint. The Doctor accepted it, like all that had gone before, as an irritating circumstance that had to be borne, but his face suddenly twitched when the servant brought them their overcoats, the sound of a lorry was heard driving into the courtyard, two sturdy men appeared in the doorway, soldiers arrived. They all listened to the last note of Elisabet’s little concert, the last word was still ringing in the air, when they stepped forward to lift the piano into the lorry; and Elisabet stood for a moment hanging her head, motionless, and then stretched out her hand, with a significant gesture, to lock the piano.

‘So we really have to leave this place,’ said Elisabet to her husband, and the tears sprang forth from her eyes, which were as if touched with a blue paintbrush, as she tucked the blanket around Maaret in the cabin of the car. She sat with her husband on the car’s platform, girlish and youthful in her windcheater and the beret that concealed the red helmet of her hair. The Doctor felt the cold shake his body and formed his hands into fists to stop Elisabet noticing that his raincoat was very thin. It seemed to carry the smell of faded sunlight; he had worn it often on long trips on the lake, and that small, thin contact with those lost days caused in him the same tragic, spasmodic emotional experience as the creak of the stairs when he climbed up to his study to fetch the books and papers.

When the lorry set off, Elisabet closed her eyes, and from under their thin lids flowed tears, as if something in her had broken. She let her head sink on to her breast, and the Doctor sighed, bent over toward her, pressed her hand with his thin, cold hand and forced his mouth to murmur the careful words, as if crumbling from his cold lips: ‘Elisabet, our home is always with you, only the outer forms change. We shall find a new summer villa.’

Elisabet had sometimes wished for more emotion expressed in words from him; the Doctor preferred to write. There had been letters that he had written to his wife when he sat in the library at home and she was busy in the dining room. Elisabet had sometimes received letters as she sat in the white rocking-chair of her living room or as she watered the flowers, after some intimate event of their married life. The Doctor had wished to sublimate the event, but was not capable of words except on paper, or he had wished to explain something that was too emotional for him to allow the flesh of his lips to form it into words. Elisabet knew with fair certainty that she would receive a letter from her husband concerning the departure from the summer villa, a comforting letter that would reveal his own feelings.

Elisabet looked at him with her blue eyes, and in them, too, was that concentration of feeling which was so difficult to bear in these circumstances. The Doctor sighed, lowered his own eyes and pressed Elisabet’s hand once more with his papery hand, as a mark of shared feeling.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

The Porkkala peninsula was returned to Finland in 1956.


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