The way to heaven

Issue 2/1996 | Archives online, Fiction

Extracts from the novel Pyhiesi yhteyteen (‘Numbered among your saints’, WSOY, 1995). Interview with Jari Tervo by Jari Tervo

The wind sighs. The sound comes about when a cloud drives through a tree. I hear birds, as a young girl I could identify the species from the song; now I can no longer see them properly, and hear only distant song. Whether sparrow, titmouse or lark. Exact names, too, tend to disappear. Sometimes, in the old people’s home, I find myself staring at my food, what it is served on, and can’t get the name into my head. The sun came to my grandson’s funeral. It rose from the grave into which my little Marzipan will be lowered. I don’t remember what the weather did when my husband was buried.

A plate. Food is served on a plate. There are deep plates and shallow plates; soups are ladled into the deep ones.

I have to wipe my eyes and spectacles again. I’m not crying, grief is so familiar that you don’t greet it with tears any more at this age. The wind makes me drip even through my glasses, it’s the wind that’s making me cry, Marzipan comforts me. He is lying in a coffin in the church; soon he will go past me for the last time and have peace in the earth.

That’s what the pastor says, but the earth is not a dwelling-place for happiness. I dreamed that when a person leaves here, he goes to the land of hell. Marzipan will be put into the ground, and when the hymns have been sung and the coffin covered with earth and the first cold night comes, the maggots and the earth-spirits will also come and open the coffin and take my little Marzipan to caves where the sounds of moaning and wailing are heard. Marzipan will walk with his eyes open and see people being punished, a dog coupling with an adulterous woman, a pig, growling, eating the entrails of a murderer, a child-abuser being sat again and again on a sharp post and left there all day, for all of the following day, for all eternity, which is so big that when an eternity has passed, not even a fleeting moment of it has passed.

Marzipan walks beneath the ground with his eyes open and the sand rasps at his blue eyes. The sand rasps, the mourners accompany Marzipan’s body on the bier. The young men have hung cloths on their shoulders and walk on either side of the bier. I recognise my granddaughter’s husband and silly Lermassi, who became just as silly as his name predicted. Sepasti, my beloved son-in-law Sepasti made the prophecy to us, at the christening, in his cups, he burst out into prophecy and he was right, my lovely son-in-law, that boy’s name could not have been anything but Lermassi. The pastor didn’t want to christen the boy Lermassi, but he changed his mind when I told him do it or he would be dipped in the icy whirlpools of the Kemijoki river, he believed me then and christened him, pastors tend to be solemn about christenings.

Earth-spirits and small, white, wriggling animals… I take a familiar-looking young man by the sleeve and ask him which animals move with the dead in the underground rooms and light the way from one chamber to the next. The young man squats beside me and takes me by the hand. He explains there’s nothing for gran to be frightened of, it’s not worth bothering oneself about the maggots, they need oxygen to live and the coffin will be lowered so deep inside the earth that maggots cannot live there. He is sorry that the church and the church’s functionaries do not enlighten relatives as to this simple matter, which would doubtless comfort many a mourner. The young man gets up, but holds me by the hand.

Maggots and earth-spirits, maggots and earth-spirits.

Maggots are small, wriggling lamps on the walls of the underground corridors and it is them my Marzipan will follow, he will be taken from one chamber to the next and they are torture chambers in which nails and confessions are wrenched from people and the poor wretches want to confess, they will confess to anything, not understanding that there is no confession that can spare them from pain. I have seen it all in my dreams. True things are shown in them. In the hell of the underground chambers, my Marzipan will be forced to relive all the evil he did on Earth, evil he did; as his gran I know it and grieve for it, but at heart he was not rotten.

After the chambers begins desolation, with fog and smoke. Here and there a tree steams, burnt standing, its branches like scorched hands that continue to embrace their death when they are dead, but have not burned beautifully as love burns. The earth squelches wetly and when Marzipan looks at his feet he sees it is flesh dripping with blood. Marzipan is breathless, he leans against a stone which he sees as a statue, but then realises that it is a burnt person, crouched and petrified, and the underground world or hell is built in such a way that the poor crouched wretch lives on as a stone, lives with his eyes moving, a person he has known, dead, dead, dead.

As a stone. The young man leans toward me and says the grave-stone will be organised later, today grave-stones are never erected on a grave right after the funeral. Marzipan will become stone, we will all become stone. The young man whispers that in a way gran is right, what will be left of us in a hundred years, with a bit of luck a stone in Rovaniemi cemetery. The young man says comfortingly that it is the law of life, and he is sure I know it, I’m a wise woman.

The coffin is lowered. The men let the cloth out carefully, peeping at one another. Men’s work at funerals is to carry and to peep. I have been at hundreds of interments and men just peep. The coffin has never slipped, banged or the lid opened, but always over coffee afterwards someone says he carried a coffin at some terrible disastrous funeral.

The coffin is lowered quietly. The sun is now shining straight into my eyes. Surely it means something.

Such a painful sadness comes into my heart when I think that my little Marzipan will soon be shown the terrors that an old woman has been vouchsafed to see in her dreams. I would so like to take my little boy by the hand when he is shown the world’s bloody entrails, is shown what the world had for supper before it grew up. I held him by the hand when I took him to the sandpit, and I only realised that it was a strange sandpit and the boys strangers when Marzipan whispered, his breath catching, gran hold my hand, gran hold my hand.

Oh my boy, my little boy. You won’t have your gran to hold your hand on this sandpit journey where nightmarish creatures dismember and maul, it is the worst thing there is and worst of all is that it is all there is. The underground dead have no oblivion, people can bear everything that has an end, everything the clock knows, but in eternity clock faces are made into torture-wheels that constantly spin and crush. Into that den of Satan walks my daughter’s son, in his shorts, a sticking-plaster on his leg, and a bat snatches his blue-and-red cap from his head. He would like to weep the evil away, but the tears will not come, the tears will not come to sever the horror. And the voice, the voice moans. The young man bends over me.

The coffin has been lowered. The men throw the cloths into the grave. I remember that, before, the cloths were pulled up. Sarlotta says something, throws a wreath into the grave, and bursts into tears. I’m sorry, I’m sorry, the poor girl moans. What evil have you done to Marzipan, nothing. You merely tried to harden yourself against your brother, but because you are a good girl, you committed a crime against yourself, that’s what’s making you cry, cry away, that’s your way of remembering your brother. You can’t go against your blood. If you do, you kill yourself.

Of the mourners, some throw flowers, individual flowers, into the grave. If Marzipan could take them with him on his nocturnal journey, if he could press the soft flowers to his ears so that he would not hear the terrible voice of judgement as he walked through the field of desolation, which rages incessantly, the voice of judgement turns into little arrows that pierce the ears so that the cheeks are red with ear-blood. The nose is blocked by the burning scent of mutilating flesh, which is pushed into the nose like a doctor’s long tube.

A bird sings, the young man says he does not know birds, there the birds are songless, there winged wounds fly, just pierced, throbbing wounds that pause to drip blood on the branch of the burned tree, which is slippery as a petrified snake. From the underground sky rains boiling liquid sprayed by lizards that couple in the air, their activity is terrible to behold, because they do not make a sound, they are the size of a large town and they all look the same, so they are all lit from inside, but dark and horrible nonetheless. They fly with their stomachs open. They turn on their backs in the air, push their long, sharp snouts into their stomachs and eat themselves. The pastor is about to begin, the young man says.

My daughter goes up to the edge of the grave.

My daughter, an old woman.

She walks with a strange gait right up to the edge of the grave, she stops, says something, and turns away. In her arms she has a cat whose name I do not remember. I’m not too bothered about good manners and polite upbringings, because when you are old you can do what you like and it’s considered forgivable senility. But it seems strange to me to come to your son’s funeral with a pet. I never cared for that cat. How I laughed when Marzipan came to the old people’s home and told me how he fed it liquor. The young man is looking at me, and I can see that other people, too, are looking at me. Perhaps I laughed out loud.

My daughter walks sulkily and unwaveringly, true to herself, back into line. The cat yawns so wide it lets out a sound. Marzipan didn’t like the cat, or high places. If only gran could take little Marzipan by the hand when, a sticking-plaster on his leg, he walks along the narrow path on the side of the mountain, at the edge of an unfathomable gulf. How gran used a ladder to rescue Marzipan from a tree he had climbed with the big boys. He begged gran not to touch him, dear gran, couldn’t he just spend the rest of his life lying on the thick branch, it was the most dangerous place in the world, but it was also the safest place in the world because only it separated him from the fall to the stones and the earth, did he already, as a little boy, know to be frightened of what is on offer to a little boy under the ground, where he would find himself if he were to fall off the branch. The path is slippery, the stones slide under his feet. Marzipan knows that he must climb because he must climb. He is not going anywhere, but he must go there. If only he could stumble, hit his head and fall, as if into a dream, but it is not permitted, he is not allowed to fall, and it’s frightening, frightening, frightening…

I have to pull a little to rid my hand of the young man’s grip. When I look closely at him, I see that he is afraid that, deranged by grief, I shall now have a fit, which he will have to deal with. I smile gently at him. I take a handkerchief from my handbag and dry my eyes and my glasses. Where on earth does such a wizened old bag get all this liquid. An old bag is what I am, no more. And no less.

The mourners look indecisive to me. I clear my throat and suggest we sing a hymn. My daughter looks angrily at me and the older women, younger than me, mutter that the pastor should speak first. I suggest we sing another hymn after the pastor’s talk, a better hymn once we have been refreshed by the sermon..

I begin with A safe stronghold our God is still, because I think it has always been a beautiful and easy hymn, and solemn, too. The mourners whine along until they begin to sing properly when the pastor joins the singing. I know my daughter is wondering why I had to make myself the centre of attention on this occasion too. Let her think, she’s an adult human being. Once it gains its full strength, the singing thunders out fervently, the pastor is a fine-voiced, brisk man who must griddle hearts in his parish and heap sermons from the pulpit like avalanches.

After the hymn, the birds sing more beautifully. My hearing is so leaky that I sometimes wonder whether it is the song of living birds I hear, or that of those that died seventy years ago, still singing in my soul. If so, then how strong a little bird is against time. It captivates me to think that a little titmouse’s song has ended seventy years ago but still echoes in me, echoes as long as I live, but where will I take my birdsong, under the earth and then where. The song of dead birds is my safe stronghold in the world. But Marzipan has no safe stronghold, he was not listening. The pastor begins his talk, I hum over it so as not to hear.

‘Pardon me.’

I open my eyes. The pastor looks puzzled.

‘Pardon me.’

My daughter is speaking. The funeral guests have frozen to the spot. The pastor clears his throat to recompose his face. It has grown very quiet, the birds inside me have ceased to sing.

The cat turns its head and licks its mistress on the throat. My daughter starts.

‘Pardon me, but would it be all right to cover the grave before the pastor starts his talk.’

The mourners turn to look at the pastor, who nods slowly. He tries to look as if this is a normal matter for consideration at funerals.

Lermassi and Sarlotta’s husband look at one another. They take hold of the wooden frame and lower it on to the grave, on to Marzipan. Lermassi straightens his tie, Sarlotta’s husband seeks approval for his actions from the heavens.

Those who are holding wreaths in their hands look at one another – should they place the flowers on the frame. My daughter gazes at her own flowers.

‘Could we offer the flowers after the talk. If that’s all right.’

The pastor nods a yes.

He begins to speak, his voice resounds from deep inside him. I hum against him: A safe stronghold our God is still.

A safe stronghold that doesn’t exist in the cellar. The corridors of the cellar wind restlessly toward my Marzipan, whom Sepasti, sometimes when he became irritable, shut in the cellar to ponder the pranks he had played. How Marzipan feared being shut in the cellar, he feared the spiders’ webs on the unpainted walls, he feared the fusty smell of the earth and he feared the corridor, where the ceiling bulb had blown and logs for heating the sauna had to be fetched from the end of the corridor. That four-metre corridor reached to the other side of the earth; Marzipan told me that he was afraid because he could not see the floor, he was afraid that there was a hole in the floor into which he would fall, an endless hole. Dozens of times I walked that corridor with him, my hand in his small, moist hand, but he was afraid that in the night strange men would dig a hole in the floor, a hole open at both ends.

Open at both ends. I accidentally said it to him. I said a hole can be open at both ends, and he immediately took as gospel something that cannot be. Open at both ends, he repeated in the dark corridor as we went to the sauna log-pile. Nothing helped. I tried to make it into a game, say that everyone knows that it’s not the falling, but the sudden stop. Marzipan wants to stop, he said. He wanted to hold on to something. I last spoke to him three weeks ago in the grounds of the old people’s home, he was in a taxi and stopped when he saw me sitting on a bench. The taxi waited and Marzipan came to talk to me. We stood on the lawn. He held on to the rug-beating frame, a big strong man in the windless yard. I knew things were not well with him. They were never well with him.

‘Do you have any money, my poor boy.’

‘I do.’

I’d lend you some if I could, dear boy.’

‘I’ve got money.’

‘Enough to ride in a taxi, even though you don’t have any money on you.’

‘Gran, believe me. I’ve got so much money it’s embarrassing.’

‘Give your gran a cuddle.’

And he did. I can still smell the tobacco and sweat from his coat. He kissed me on the cheek and then on the lips, it made me shiver inside, he was so fresh and warm. The blood that had gone from me was still warm. I could still stroke his cheek. It rasped like my husband’s cheek long ago. The men in our family have lovely cheeks.

‘Behave yourself.’

‘Gran, just keep your cool .’

‘Yes, but your gran’s nobody’s fool.’

‘You don’t have to worry, gran.’

‘I won’t. But I’m not stupid.’

He waved from the taxi window. Now I remember, he was waving goodbye to life.

The pastor is speaking. I don’t have much against pastors, but I don’t need a man to show me where heaven is or what God thinks. Still less a woman. At this age I decide who I listen to.

The pastor finishes. He looks puzzled to me. The mourners stare at him, he makes a move as if to leave, but then says something I don’t hear. He takes a shovel, scoops some earth into it, but notices that the grave is covered by a wooden frame. I think funerals used to be better organised.

Lermassi and Sarlotta’s husband lift the frame aside. The priest sprinkles sand from the shovel and says Marzipan came from the earth. I don’t hear the end. The pastor falls silent once more. Lermassi and Sarlotta’s husband lift the frame back on to the grave. The funeral guests begin placing flowers on the frame, many of them mutter some­ thing, read the words on the ribbons that bind the wreaths. A few just offer the flowers and bow. Well then, my daughter says quietly and places the wreath on the grave. I do not hear it, but I see her lips move. She often says well then.

The child went the same way as his father, an older woman says in a loud, crackling voice, and hugs my daughter. It is so strangely said that the woman cannot know that Sepasti is shivering, confused, on the steps of some shop near the off licence.

The father is rambling, the boy is wandering beneath the earth and I know, I have been given to understand in a dream that he will be taken to the edge of a burnt wood and on every branch of every tree a baby has been hanged. The nurse came to see me when I got to that point of the dream. It was such a terrible vision, the smell of the babies’ skin was still hovering among the smoke. I know it was shown to me because my second child died in its cot. Juuso Akseli, the laughing baby. I have stayed healthy, but I will never become so ill that I will want to die, because I know that I will be led before that cruelty and left there, the babies sway softly in the breeze, their eyes open. The little ones are still being rocked, although sleep has already come.

The flowers have been offered. My daughter turns toward a loud-voiced woman when the pastor comes to shake her by the hand. The pastor turns his attempt at hand­ shaking into looking at the clock, although the clock is on the left.

‘The mourners are welcome to come to our house for some coffee and something to eat.’

The guests nod at my daughter’s invitation. I wonder whether to go straight back to the old people’s home. The young man bends over me and asks me if he can give me a lift. I thank him and rise, with his help, to my feet. My daughter comes to ask if I have a lift. I point to the young man, who says his name. My daughter says her name, nods, and thanks him.

I ask whether to leave the chair here. The young man says it’s not the mourners’ business to carry chairs, it’s the business of the church and lazy pastors. He is an agreeable young man, even if l don’t know who he is and what his name is. People speak so softly these days.

The young man knows how to walk with me. I don’t get anxious or short of breath.

His car is elegant because it is low and shiny. When he opens the door, I smell leather. It brings to mind the horses in the country when I was a child. He winds the seat beside the driver to make it better for me, then turns to ask me whether I’d prefer to sit on the back seat. I want to sit in the front. He turns the car round and comes to help me, but all the same I let out a small yell as I sit down; it feels as if I will fall to the ground.

I laugh at his car. I ask whether he wears out a lot of trouser bottoms as he scrapes along the road. The young man laughs, he has never thought that a sportscar owner might be known in the town because his bum shows. I take him by the wrist, I just have to, he is so warm and my Marzipan cold.

But Marzipan will not be cold for long, for he will receive mercy.

The day and the moment will come when the angel will knock on the lid of my grandchild’s coffin with his wing and ask if he is ready. The wing-blow will wipe away the entrail-eating pigs, the lizards coupling in the air and the babies hanged on burned trees, it will wipe darkness away from the kingdom. The angel will knock and Marzipan will open his eyes, he will stretch out his and lift aside the lid of Raija Pahka’s funeral parlour’s coffin and, in the same light movement, he will lift away the earth and rise with one step on to the earth’s surface, the graveyard’s, which will burst into life.

On all sides of the graveyard mud will squirt and from the earth will rise a person of brilliant gaze who knows the day of love has dawned. The people will clothe themselves in white robes that graze the ground, which will cleanse them to every corner. The people will not be of the form in which they were buried, instead they are mere essence, pure soul, but people will unerringly know their loved ones. The wife will run to her husband, the child to its mother, families will gather and friends embrace each other, it will be springtime, birds will sing fanfares to the day of joy and in the heavens a bunch of suns will shine.

Then I will rise from beside my husband, laughingly throw earth into his hair and wash it away, we shall embrace, trembling for the joy that separation will never again touch us, I shall walk the pathways of the graveyard, seeking, and when I find my grandchild, I shall embrace him and take him by the hand and never again allow him to stray. His eyes are two small heavens. He did not believe that he would be invited to this day, but mercy is for everyone, mercy is a wind that blows from God’s lungs through dark space and lights it to life. Everyone breathes the Holy Spirit, which burns as blood in us. Blood is fire and flower.

The young man asks me to let go of his wrist.

‘It makes the bends difficult.’

‘Oh, I’m sorry.’

‘Don’t worry.’

‘It smells so of leather that I thought of driving with a horse and cart.’

‘It’s such a bendy road. That’s all I meant.’

‘I used to hold on to my father’s wrist when he drove.’

‘Yes.’

‘A horse and cart.’

‘My daughter rides.’

‘You have a daughter already!’

‘Fifteen.’

‘Good heavens.’

‘Fifteen years. Fifteen years old.’

‘But that’s wonderful.’

‘And my son is six.’

I see the young man has already driven us to my daughter’s house…. The young man has to leave his car farther away, because the yard is parked full.

He helps me out of the car and supports me as we walk into the yard. The young man says it looks as if there are leaves aflutter on the trees at this time of year even as far north as this. I say the leaves play house in the birches. He says he remembers that the northern leaf doesn’t make its home in the tree for long. Although he has never felt leaves falling from trees to be a particularly sad sight. But as he has grown older the felling of old, handsome trees has begun to trouble him.

As we go up the steps I notice how tired I am. The young man helps me into the living room, to the nearest armchair. I take off my hat and plump up my thin hair. There is sweat on my forehead. My daughter peers out from the kitchen; I ask her for a glass of water.

Mourners come from the kitchen to shake my hand. I do not want to hear their names. Those who do not introduce themselves look familiar, but I do not remember many of their names. In the old days people used to speak in carrying voices, they had to be heard at the other side of the room.

The water is dishwater. I put the glass on the edge of the table. As she lays the table, Sarlotta asks if I would like some more. I want a brandy. Gran has passed out, Sarlotta smiles at me. She opens the bar cupboard in the bookshelf and pours me some brandy. She remembers to pour it into an ordinary glass, I hate to have to fish brandy out of those snouts.

The effect of the cognac is electric. Slowly I empty the glass. I relax into the armchair, see and hear, understand what is happening around me, but I feel I am not part of the events.

‘Help yourselves.’

I try to open my eyes, but realise they are open. I blink and make them sharper. My daughter invites the guests to tuck in. Sarlotta comes to ask me if I want coffee and sandwich-cake. I do, later.

Marzipan’s son comes and sits next to me. He stares at me like a rodent. What is his name, the same names repeat from one generation to the next so that soon you won’t know who his who. I ask who’s there. It’s my old trick. The boy stares dumbly, pulls a face and shows his mouth. I ask Sarlotta to give the boy some cake. The boy sticks his tongue out. Sarlotta says he isn’t angling for cake, but pretending to be dumb. It’s been going on for who knows how long. I stroke the boy’s head, poor motherless thing. Laina isn’t a motherly person. I hug the boy, he messes up the front of my dress.

Vertti’s his name, little Vertti.

The young man comes back to me, carrying coffee and a plateful of cake. He asks me if I am all right. I say I tire easily. He says he has read somewhere that the loss of a child is the most stressful experience in human life. He does not dare think how stressful the loss of a grandchild is, probably even more painful. He would be fearful for his sanity if something happened to Kimmo or Katariina. I nod. He suggests I must get comfort from religion. I nod again.

In the sky a stone boat takes us to a planet which is a palace and a park. The palace is built of pure marble which is warm beneath the feet. The trees are birches and palms and the birches never lose their leaves. The sun shines, but from no particular place, but from the palace, the trees, the grass, the water and from beloved people, who do not go away. Everything is built of light. Once a day we are taken to the roof-terrace of the palace and God’s face is revealed to us, which has not been shown to us in dreams.

I cannot imagine it. Life in paradise is small, rocking motion.

‘Do you want to go home.’

My eyes have closed, after all. I open them and look at the young man, at his concerned expression. I say the day has been tiring, perhaps it would be better to go back to the old people’s home to rest. Sarlotta comes to ask if I would like coffee or anything. I want to go home to the old people’s home.

My daughter whispers to Sarlotta, who goes into the kitchen. My daughter asks me if I feel so ill we need the doctor. I say there is a nurse at the old people’s home who knows whether I am tired or about to die. The young man considers talk of dying premature. My daughter looks at him and goes into the kitchen. Sarlotta comes out with a plastic box. She says she has packed me some sandwich cake. With salmon, prawns and mayonnaise.

Sarlotta hands the box to me. I give it to the young man and get out of the armchair. Without the brandy I would have slumped in the chair. I ask the young man if he can take me home immediately. He says he will do so with pleasure, and takes me by the elbow. He is strong.

Sarlotta and my daughter hug me in the hall. They say they will ring in the evening. In the yard Sarlotta’s children run up, and begin to shriek gran, gran, gran. They do not yet understand that my daughter is their gran. They jump around me and pull the hem of my coat. I would fall if the young man wasn’t supporting me. The nanny takes the two youngest children into her arms. I kiss them. The oldest hugs my leg and asks where gran is going. He hits my sore knee with his small fists. I don’t want to mention it. Sarlotta comes to the head of the steps to shout, the children rush to the steps, elbowing one another. My eighty-fourth spring.

In my room I notice how completely my strength has been used up. I have to sit on the edge of the bed for a long time before I have the energy to take off my coat, my hat and my shoes. The flower in my hat has wilted. Someone is singing Silver Moon in a high, cracked, old woman’s voice.

When I start to look for my photograph album, I realise I have been holding the box Sarlotta gave me in my hand all this time. I put it on the table, and move it aside when I find the album.

I find Marzipan’s picture.

He is sitting on a swing, clearly under orders, and he is looking me in the eyes. Was looking then, when I pressed the button, is looking now, across many decades. It is summer, and he is wearing shorts, bare feet, on his head a striped cap that I remember as blue and white.

There is a sticking-plaster on his right leg. It touches me, grieves me so that I feel my heart is stopping. Wild tears come, after which I go to the loo to wash my face. I look at my face in the mirror and wonder when people stop being afraid of death.

It can’t get any worse than this.

I sit in the armchair and put my hands in my lap. They look so ugly compared to the young man’s scented, strong hands.

I remember I haven’t eaten since breakfast. I open the box, fetch a spoon and glass of water and eat small pieces of the sandwich cake. It tastes good. If food tastes good, life tastes good.

The cake ends at the same time as my hunger.

I drink another glass of water and go to bed. The silver moon echoes, coughs, echoes. My name is Manta.

Who promised to ring this evening.

My grandchild always ate the almond paste first off his birthday cake.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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