Punishment and delight

Issue 4/1995 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from Pimeästä maasta (‘Out of the Land of Darkness’, Kirjayhtymä, 1995). Interview by Jukka Petäjä

‘A being far more powerful and wiser than ourselves made the mould at the beginning of time and set it up for us as a model in order that we might shape ourselves correctly,’ the teachers said. ‘The Prime Mover’s form, actions and thoughts we are unable to understand. The Prime Mover gave us the mould in order that we should not remain formless. To this extent it has made itself known to us, although we do not deserve anything from it. It did not make the mould of bog-iron, which would soon have rusted in the cellar, but of a much better material of which we know nothing, and need to know nothing. Our duty is to aspire to fill the perfect mould given to us perfectly. Most of us will never be able to do so, for we are worthless, formless, unclean messes who deserve, many times over, all the pain of fitting the mould.’

Ulthyraja Tharabereghist did not dare ask anything, but there was something she would have liked to know. How the Prime Mover had made the mould, at least, and where it had found the materials, and what the Mover had gone on to do and where it had gone when the mould was ready and in the possession of the villagers. Even illicit thoughts were said to damage one’s shape: to be visible in it, if one knew how to look, and, of course, to be felt in the pains of fitting the mould…

I
In the Land of Darkness

At the age of two, Ulthyraja was released from her practice moulds, and at the same time her world became astonishingly large. No one had prepared her for what it would be like to move and eat by herself; what it would be like to do countless little things for herself. She was expected to know, because all two-year-olds had always known.

She began secretly to listen to and look at everything and everyone. There was no other way of finding out the identity of those creatures, pressed into their moulds, with whom she had to live. They did not say directly what they wanted of her; she should have known without words. There was much about which questions could not be asked. Some things were done in secret, in shame and agony, fearing betrayal, and a terrible punishment in the largest pit of the village, behind the Common Cabin, awaited those who were discovered.

Ulthyraja’s instinct for self-preservation told her that it was best not to wish for anything wrong or shameful, if only she could find out what that might be.

On the first evening of the following summer, the Carer left her alone in the yard tearing birch leaves off the branches that had been gathered that morning. The Carer wanted to believe that Ulthyraja liked her work, and she was not entirely wrong. Ulthyraja did not like the work in itself, but rather the tiny change that took place in the Carer when she looked at her as she worked. The Carer’s forms seemed to soften and to follow, ever so slightly, those of her industrious progeny. A couple of times, Ulthyraja had attempted to touch the Carer, to see whether the change was a real one, but had realised at once that she should not do so. At her touch, the Carer reverted at once to her old, inflexible form, which did not fit Ulthyraja’s – unless, with painful effort, she shaped herself to it.

The Carer refused to say where she was going and, to Ulthyraja’s surprise, the Hunter came to fetch her at the gate. Such a thing had never happened before, and Ulthyraja ran to the fence to look after them. She almost shouted out, too, but the Carer noticed her in time:

‘Get down from there, and quickly! Can’t you get on with some more work? Go and tear off those leaves, and don’t mooch around the fence!’

The Hunter looked away, and the Carer shook her fists. Ulthyraja could not understand what she had done to deserve being left alone, or why her parents had looked so strange. She tried to concentrate on her work, but soon began to look around her, hoping to see at least one living creature.

The first hunter-carer couple soon appeared on the village road, and in a short while many of them had come and gone. Ulthyraja started at each new pair when, at first, she thought she recognised her own parents. All the carers and hunters moved unusually lightly, strange in form and therefore frightening. Something had changed them, but she herself was as she had been, and feared that the others would not return to their old form.

She set off to follow one of the couples who moved so strangely. It was forbidden, but she had to find out whether the adults were leaving the village and whether they intended to leave her alone to await the winter and the wolves.

The unknown hunter and carer hurried out of the village along an almost indiscernible path to the centre of a stand of birch bushes. There they began to stare around them and to make sudden movements, and at the same time their bodies became more and more contorted. Their entire beings flopped over; it was as if they had completely lost control of their bodies.

Suddenly Ulthyraja flinched with shame, for herself and for those whose movements she was following: something was even more badly amiss than she had been able to imagine. They had come to the middle of a cluster of randomly situated turf hillocks, and those frightening beings began, together, to disappear within one of them.

There were small air-holes in the turf cabins, as Ulthyraja discovered when she dared to creep toward the half-smothered sounds that emanated from them. She went up to one of the openings and pushed her head into the soft turf, her hands shielding her mouth and nose. All the time she was afraid that she would encounter a spider’s web or some other disgusting thing.

The cabin was a small one: the top of the tussock that formed its upper part was on a level with the crown of Ulthyraja’s head, and its diameter was about one and a half times her height. The cabin extended downwards as a pit to the depth of a couple of bodies, broadening slightly under the earth’s surface. In the weak light of the air-hole, it was impossible to see to the bottom, but her other senses worked all the better. Warm, stinking fumes of bog mud rose up from the bottom. Sounds also emanated from the same place – sounds that were born of the cavorting, rolling and writhing of two formless creatures in the mud.

For the greater part of the time, the creatures who caused the sound were as far away from each other as possible, but from time to time, as a result of their wild cavorting, they came so close to each other that they could not avoid making contact. Whenever this happened, two simultaneous exclamations of loathing were heard, and the writhers immediately tried to distance themselves from each other. Sometimes their desire to throw themselves into the mud was so strong that they did not go far. Their anxious whimpers and jerky movements revealed that both were trying to curl up into the smallest possible space.

Ulthyraja listened as the sounds gradually grew fainter. In the end, all that could be heard was heavy sighing and stifled sobs, and she was no longer astonished by them. The moist pit and the smell of bog-mud meant, to every young inhabitant of the Land of Darkness, a punishment after which he wanted to weep, even though it was forbidden. It was somehow natural that full-grown hunters and carers, who had no personal punisher, should descend in pairs into the pits of their own free will, to punish themselves.

The diggers clambered out of the pit-cabin silently and without looking at one another. Ulthyraja saw them following the path together, at four arms’ lengths from one another. Before the closest cabins they parted and returned, feigning indifference, to their own residences – the carer to her own and the hunter to the Hunter’s House.

Ulthyraja followed the visitors to the pit-cabins for many subsequent summers, and very gradually she found out all that was associated with the visits. It was difficult, for those who rolled inside the cabins never spoke of the shameful event, either between themselves or with others.

In their desire for the stinking mud and their wallowing in it, the adults lost their forms, and the subsequent fittings in the mould caused them extreme pain. This they naturally felt they had deserved. As the winter progressed, the hunters and carers regained their shape, pressed by the metal, and the following spring they wallowed once more.

Each turf pit – there were dozens of them – was used only once during the three­ day summer of the Land of Darkness. A couple of days after the wallowing, the carer returned stealthily to the place, and it was possible to speak about it cautiously. Everyone else knew to avoid the mud cabins in the autumn, and the carers tried to quell their curiosity by returning as late as possible. Ulthyraja’s Carer was sometimes referred to with admiration, since, in the autumn of the birth of her progeny, she had waited longer than anyone had done in decades. She herself was very proud of this.

Most of the mud cabins were empty during the winter, but in some a great deal happened during the couple of days after the wallowing. The mud, the primeval earth, took form; order had been born in the even mass. A clod the size of a creature firmed itself, separated, formed itself and began to push its way upward. Finally it – he, she – raised its head above the cool but still soft mud into the cold winter air.

If the carer was already on the spot at that moment, she had made a mistake. The newly born creature had to survive alone, it was not to be helped unnecessarily. It was permitted to throw it a rope as an aid to climbing, and it was good to show light at the door opening to indicate the right direction, but in no event was one allowed to go down to help. If the carer was prudent, she would also take with her pressing irons, to be fitted immediately.

Ulthyraja never peered into a single pit-cabin during the time when the newly born rose from the primeval earth. She had a number of opportunities, but she gave the cabins a wide berth. Curiosity was conquered by anxiety, a nameless pressure that was much too great for a little creature to understand. It was inconceivable: that someone was waiting, quite close by, burrowed into the mud to keep warm, and did not know what else the world might contain but darkness and cold.

II
In the Fishers’ Village

Rakan invited Ultja Tharaist and a couple of dozen other acquaintances to his parents’ cabin one evening to mark the end of summer. His parents went to another cabin to celebrate the success of the whaling season, so that the entire cabin, with its food supplies, was at the disposal of the guests. This was obvious to Rakan, but Tharaist could not stop wondering at it.

She did not tell anyone that she had never before been to such a party. It was one of those occasions of which she had a very confused conception. At some parties, it was the custom to cover certain forms and allow others to remain visible. She knew that one should sometimes squeeze particular parts, and allow others to remain free. And often it was also the custom to bring mushrooms as presents. Of this, too, she had no detailed knowledge: how many and what kind of mushrooms. It seemed ridiculous to think about it, but at the same time Tharaist knew that she would have to try to guess the right thing to do.

She could not ask anyone, for she should already have known.

In the end, she gathered some mushrooms from the kitchen of Rimuza’s house. There were always leftovers there, ugly little mushrooms and pieces of stalk, which were kept in a large barrel. The mushrooms in the barrel were sometimes added to a thin soup, after first having been chopped very small, until they were unrecognisable. Rimuza did not keep count of the contents of the barrel; she had even hinted that others might help themselves and chew on the mushrooms if they felt so inclined.

Rakan laughed at Tharaist’s mushrooms when he saw what all had collected on the gift table:

‘Who brought these? Just like years and years ago, when these still had to be stolen from the edge of the kitchen table, secretly in case the servants saw!’

Tharaist pretended not to hear. Someone began to recall his own mushroom­stealing exploits, and soon the subject had moved on, but Tharaist had already shrunk a little smaller inside her enveloping clothes.

She wondered many times what she was doing at the party. She had come in good time – had been among the first to arrive – because she had imagined that being late would show bad form and suggest that the latecomer had spent so long pressing himself or herself into shape that he or she had simply not been able to make it in time. Almost everyone else, however, arrived late, and no one thought it in any way strange.

One of Rakan’s rich friends was cooking the mushrooms in the grate, and everyone declared him an excellent cook. He did not reject Tharaist’s offerings, but chopped them up small and threw them into the soup. It was, according to him, of the first importance that the stock was of exactly the right thickness and that it used just the kind of low-grade chaff that he now happened to have at his disposal.

The unknown mushroom-chef seemed well-formed and pleasing, and suddenly Tharaist realised that it was a very simple matter to go up to him and ask him something about mushrooms.

‘Hey, is cooking mushrooms your job, or is it a hobby?’ she began, so that he immediately understood that she wished to strike up an acquaintance.

Soon they were talking, sitting close together, about everything that was insignificant and immediately forgettable. It was warm in the room around them. It smelt good, and there was the sound of the buzz of conversation and the clinking of spoons against plates. The lighting was pleasantly soft, and came from candle-flames and the fire in the grate. All the time the two of them leaned closer together and shaped themselves to each other’s forms.

Tharaist felt as if she were examining herself and her unknown acquaintance from a distance: now we are shaping ourselves in this way, and in a moment we can employ other parts of the body. It was ridiculous, and once or twice she began almost to regret her experiment, but she could not tear herself away. This good opportunity made her curious, and she did her best to forget the shame of the people of the Land of Darkness and the stupid jokes of the villagers. The fishers regarded closeness and shaping as they did eating or drinking: it was unavoidable, could be made enjoyable, but there was no reason to waste an inordinate amount of time on it, and of course the fishers’ forms as such should not be allowed to change. In addition, Tharaist wanted to be fair: for she had, after all, given it to be understood that she enjoyed shaping, and the first move had also come from her.

‘Where do you think we could find a really comfortable, damp, warm, scented, muddy pool?’ the mushroom-chef asked. ‘I bet Rakan’s parents wallow in one of them every day, a really splendid one, dimly lit… With stone ornaments on the walls and roof, and ambergris burning…’

He lifted Tharaist off the ground, and their forms were so intermingled that he hardly needed to support his burden with his arm. Tharaist hardly had time to wonder whether they were being watched before they left; and indeed it was unimportant to her.

‘It may be occupied,’ said the mushroom-chef as they arrived at a large door at the bottom of a wide flight of steps.

Tharaist had no idea whereabouts in the cabin they were; she did not even remember which floor they were on. The big door was ajar, and behind it writhed an illuminated, scented line of smoke. From behind the door there could be heard uncontrolled sounds which Tharaist wondered at, for there was nothing frightened or anxious about them.

‘Do you want to look?’

The mushroom-chef set her on her feet on the warm stone floor in front of the door. She breathed in the smoke of the burning ambergris and did not want to move an inch. The other creature’s hands shaped themselves entirely to her form, and through the door there could be seen an incredibly beautiful vision.

The pool room was circular, and its size was hard to guess. The flames of torches, dimmed by the smoke, were reflected again and again in dozens of mirrors, and the roof appeared to be supported by whalebone pillars rising from the sides of the pool, decorated with carving and set with stones. Between the wall and the row of pillars ran a narrow corridor from which, at a number of points, stairs led into the pool. From the door, it was not possible to see to the bottom of the pool.

‘The person who built this had good taste,’ the mushroom-chef whispered. ‘I expect Rakan is in there with one of his new friends. Rakan is in the habit of going through all the village’s new arrivals every autumn and choosing suitable pool-company for himself. But we must seek our own pool. Are there any more anywhere else?’

‘In the Fishers’ Inn, I believe; you can rent them,’ Tharaist said.

The mushroom-chef smiled knowingly and whispered in an unpleasantly soft voice that it would be the best thing for them to go to the cabin. At that moment, Tharaist did not like him at all. There was something uncontrolled about the whole situation. What were the sounds they had heard from the big pool? Was one expected to make them? On top of everything, when the writhing already seemed complicated and demanding?!

Outside the air was cool and damp and almost still, and there was hardly any sound from the sea or the tundra. The village and the harbour bay seemed unreal in the deep twilight and the mist that was coming in from the water. Tharaist wanted to go away, into the shelter of a blanket; a safe place whence she could have looked out. But instead she had to run along the slippery path to the Fishers’ Inn, to wait at the door, until the porter came to open it, and to look at the walls while her companion whispered something to the porter and pressed into his hand a piece of struck gold.

‘You have until the morning. Your pool is the one where a fish carved from stone hangs in front of the curtain. Don’t confuse it with the lemming, as one couple once did. There was some sorting out to do, when two couples were found in the lemming pool…’

More and more it seemed to Tharaist that she was in quite the wrong place. The porter was prattling like an idiot, but the mushroom-chef only led him on by telling his own stupid stories about acquaintances who had found themselves in the wrong pools. The stairs to the cellar felt cold, damp and clayey, and there was no ambergris burning in this cabin. Down below it was cool and gloomy. Of the six pools, three were occupied, and from behind the closed curtains came the squelching of clay and subdued noises. Tharaist tried in vain to listen to them to find out what was causing them.

‘There’s the fish. Look, they have clothes cupboards, at least… and overalls. So you don’t have to walk out with your own clothes covered in clay. That would really get them going…!’

Tharaist did not feel in the least like laughing, but she managed a nervous whimper, which echoed malevolently off the stone walls.

‘Let us see this through to the end,’ she thought. ‘That’s why I’m here, after all. This is what I want to find out about.’

They changed into the overalls and went down into the pool. The mushroom-chef kept tight hold all the while of Tharaist, who began to feel that their forms did not fit one another as well as in Rakan’s parents’ cabin. She would have liked to have sunk into the day alone, on the opposite side of the pool. Then she would have begun to wallow, and from time to time have encountered him… that was how it was done, wasn’t it?

She was wrong, of course, and knew it already. Something entirely different was expected of her.

They sank into the cool sludge, and the mushroom-chef cursed the lazy heating attendants. Tharaist glanced anxiously behind her to see whether the curtain had accidentally been left open. It had not, but there was a small crack, and there was no smoke in the pool to conceal them. She returned to close the curtain, and the mushroom-chef laughed openly at her. When they came close to one another, Tharaist realised with every touch that their forms did not fit each other at all any longer.

She tried to withdraw to wriggle by herself for a moment. The mushroom-chef did the same, but then began purposefully to approach her. Tharaist imitated his movements, and all went well until they touched one another once more.

‘Don’t stiffen,’ the mushroom-chef said.

It was the most unhelpful encouragement Tharaist could have been given. All her life she had stiffened herself in order to fit into moulds and survive. If she was told, ‘don’t stiffen’, she naturally tried to obey that command, too, by fitting herself into a certain mould. She stiffened herself in order not to stiffen herself.

It was a moment before her unknown companion understood how it was with her, but after that she was left in peace. Each of them wallowed at their owm side of the pool until the mushroom-chef suggested that they could simply float gently on the spot. Tharaist agreed. The sole torch that illuminated the pool burned down, and the sounds of the cellar had faded; there was no reason, any longer, to move.

After a moment they began to shiver with cold: the cabin’s pools were meant for movement, not for staying still. Tharaist would have endured the cold for longer, but the mushroom-chef got up, trembling, and could hardly wait for his companion. With few words, they rinsed themselves and their overalls in an artificial stream that ran, in a stony channel, along the wall of the cellar.

Tharaist knew her companion was disappointed; it was somehow so obvious that it was not even necessary to think about it a great deal. The mushroom-chef had expected something of her that he was accustomed to expect, on the basis of the same starting signals, from everyone.

When they parted, outside, where the paths met, Tharaist was very calm. She had satisfied her curiosity. There was no need to regret or feel ashamed of anything: one fairly important matter was over, dealt with and clarified.

III
The City of Light

After a long and stormy sea journey, the City of Light came into view slowly during the course of a long, almost windless day.

Ula Thara had learned the previous evening that Gemriel had always been Raston Gemriel, and happy with it. Then she had realised that Ulthyraja Tharabereghist and Ultja Tharaist were not merely words. They were herself, but not the self she was when speaking with Gemriel, but the self she had been when she had received those names or the self the giver of the names had wished her to be. First the Carer had wished her to obey humbly and quickly in her cabin, and then she herself had wanted to be a better than average fisher, whose name, too, was beautiful.

Her new name had been born naturally at the moment of greatest darkness of the night as she had gazed out at the barely visible silhouette of the land, on the deck under the canopy, wrapped in reindeer hides. There had been no need to make the name up. It had changed gradually, as she had changed, and she had simply dared to find it.

‘Is it really me?!’

Thara saw the reflection in the great stone slab on the wall of the ceremonial house and did not recognise herself at first. The creature that was reflected in the stone was draped in beautifully folded linen clothes and was, in its forms, as if made to walk the tundra and sunlit streets. It did not strain at any of its forms, did not curl up into a ball, did not stretch or bow, but stood straight, naturally and unforcedly.

The party was one of those to which she was invited from time to time, and to which she liked best to go when she had just returned from the tundra. They were beautiful and rare and did not last long, but for that very reason they contained the heart of the City of Light.

Thara already knew herself fairly well. Often her first reaction to small attempts at shaping was to some extent accommodation, because she instinctively tried to avoid all unnecessary injury, even the smallest. If she had time to consider, she understood that it was worth resisting immediately, when she could not yet, for that reason, be injured very seriously. Then she said, ‘I don’t need to’. It was much worse if she gave in, for then she generally later encountered something much more threatening: she had to be shaped to a greater extent, or really be crushed.

Sometimes there was no time for thought, but she had to react in an instant. If, in such a situation, someone exploited her accommodation, it was extremely difficult for her ever to forgive them. She felt as if someone were exploiting her in the worst possible way: punishing her for an evil done to her by others long ago.

On the other hand, she had gradually begun to suspect that withholding forgiveness was something other than rightful anger. There was in it something of the ‘he ought to have known’ mode of thought of the Land of Darkness. From time to time she cursed the Land of Darkness to the depths of hell and wondered whether she would ever escape its forms. Would they persecute her always anew in new circumstances if she forgot for a moment to be on her guard against them?

She comforted herself with the fact that the City of Light was limited. There could not be an infinite number of the various circumstances that might tempt forth the forms of the Land of Darkness. It had been most difficult at the beginning, when she was still learning to identify them; when she crept through unknown houses and cabins for the first time and did not yet know what she might find or whom she might encounter.

Nothing had yet induced her to believe that a complete freeing of forms in the presence of another being could be safe. A couple of times she had opened up a little and enjoyed it, but it had not been enough. And she was not soft enough to allow a couple of random impressions to displace life-long marks at once. It had to happen slowly, if at all. She could not begin by sinking into the land of life with a randomly chosen companion; it was better, at first, to dive into the cool waters of the river of the tundra – alone.

She had found a delicate equilibrium to her existence: defined, approximately, where the equilibrium lay, and begun to vibrate unevenly around it.

Her opportunity lay in the fact that she made journeys to the tundra and returned from there again and again to spend some time in the City of Light. If she spent too long away or too long in the city, her equilibrium suffered. There was some borderline time after which, if she stayed in one place, she could no longer move, and some borderline distance after which the wanderer of the tundra could no longer return.

Wandering through the tundra, she was dependent on villages. She always tried to stock up so that she could survive for a long time even if she did not visit a single inhabited place, but if she had really avoided them she would have had to turn back much too soon. Gradually she had begun to become more trusting in the tundra’s villages. She lied and presented false forms as much as she had to in order to survive, but always reminded herself that it was not necessary to do any more.

On her previous journey, she had encountered people from the Land of Darkness who had asked whether she did not suffer terribly since, in the tundra, she had no opportunity to fit herself into the metal mould. Her interrogators had remarked that she was a strange shape, and she had stiffened and hated them. Then she had met some villagers, who had taken into their hands objects she had made, turned them over and over and said that their forms were in some strange way pleasing. And had she noticed, by the way, that it was an unusually bright winter’s day?

Every time she wandered a little farther toward the north along the river of the western gorge or one of its numerous branches. She was not looking for her old village, for she knew for certain that there was no river on its western side for many days’ journey. One of the tributaries might, of course, wind northward from close to it, from the east or the south, but the village might equally well be located far from all running water. It was not good to devote oneself to seeking such a place. If it were to be found, one could not avoid going there, but she thought the same of every other village, too, and of every hillock in the tundra that was a little higher than usual.

IV

Thara extends her journeys always further to the north, and each time she prepares herself for the moment when, returning through the gorge, she sees the ruins of the City of Light below.

Her own disintegration she does not fear. She hopes that it will happen on some light-filled winter’s day when she is alone in the tundra. The river that winds through the bare land can take her. It can flow through her and past her, shape her slowly and be shaped by her as they wander together toward the sea. And then the wind will pass through the heather and speak her new names until it fades away:

‘ua tha… ua tha… tha… tha… hhh….’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Tags: ,