Incident at Experience Farm

Issue 3/1998 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Pakkasyön odottaja (‘Waiting for a frosty night’, WSOY, 1997). Introduction by Jukka Petäjä

I

The round steel teapot is new. Father brought it back from Birmingham, where he went on a visit with the others from the concrete factory. In the shop, the teapot was wrapped in rustling, soft tissue paper. Pirjo was given the honour of opening the package. The pot has been used for brewing tea ever since.

At school, her sister Karoliina is proud of the fact that at home they drink only tea; they are different from other people, different in a good way, one to be proud of. They have a real teapot. Sometimes, during breaktime, a morsel of the excellence of Karoliina Kamppinen falls Pirjo’s way. ‘Yes, let’s include her, she’s Karoliina’s sister, after all.’

Drinking coffee is stupid, and besides, father says it overstimulates the nerves. Pirjo does not know what that means, but she has tasted coffee secretly at Minna’s house, and it is not good. Father is right. Coffee smells of dirt.

All through primary school Pirjo is still proud of Daddy, which is what her father is called, until they begin to call him Pagan Lassi in the village. Daddy says her parents have ‘differences in world-view’. Pirjo thinks it means that one of them would like to see the world and the other would not, and the one who would is of course Daddy. At school Pirjo is teased and called an unbeliever. (Karoliina is not.) Pirjo does not know how you can unbelieve in God any more than in the world; and seeing the world, whether it exists or not, seems to be connected with their parents’ rows, from which the girls flee to the attic. The muttering and shrieking reach them in a muffled way through the ceiling. On some autumn nights they do not dare come down, and curl up in old coats that smell of rotten timber.

Pirjo has said her evening prayer ever since Mother taught her it, and even when she is grown up if Pirjo cannot sleep she mechanically repeats Our Father and can be sure that she will begin to yawn.

When Daddy changes from Concrete Lassi to Pagan Lassi. Mother begins to legit to the bus-stop more often than before to go to the revivalist meetings in the neighbouring parish. Sometimes, in her tight over coat and white quilted boots. Mother boards the bus in which the girls go to school, and sits in the front where everyone can see, blushing at the driver’s manly talk. On those mornings Pirjo knows that she will have to spend her breaktimes hiding behind the sports equipment cupboard.

If Mother happens to be on the bus home from school too, the embarrassment is still considerable, but not as great. On those evenings Mother has a grey film over her eyes and she smiles a thin-lipped smile like an ewe (ewe = female sheep).

On his days off and in the evenings Daddy, too, starts going fishing more often, and even picking lingonberries and mushrooms, returning without a single morel or even a ruff; in winter he rushes out busily to clear his half of the village as soon as a couple of snowflakes have fallen, and stays out a long time: he is thorough. Daddy goes on trips with the concrete company, always bringing back something for the girls. After his trip to France he is called Breadstick Lassi for a couple of weeks. The most distant place Mother visits (many times a week) is the prayer-room in the next parish. When the buses do not run, Mother goes by taxi, and the driver laughs if he meets Pirjo in the village.

The teapot glitters in Mother’s hands: she has just washed up quite a pile of dishes, as Daddy’s relatives are visiting. Mother has not been to a meeting for many days. She is wiping the teapot with a teatowel when Pirjo and Minna prance out of the parlour and into the cabin. They are fine ladies and they have come to introduce themselves.

Minna is Pirjo’s best (and only) friend, and she has brought all sorts of fine things with her: ruffled scarves for skirts, her aunts’ high-heeled shoes, two hats, toiletries that smell sweetly fusty, a woven gold belt which they bicker over. At Minna’s house, in the old, rotten attic, there is a wartime pistol wrapped in a piece of cloth, but they do not dare bring that with them.

The circular movement of the teatowel around the teapot stops, and so does Mother’s gaze: Pirjo realises in a flash that the prancing and the introductions are a mistake. She is still young enough to believe that Mother will like what she likes.

‘Whores!’ the tight shriek bounces off the walls of the cabin. Minna runs into the parlour, a bony hand grabs Pirjo by the arm, and the bilberry-bruises still show after a week and are still yellow plums at the end of the month: her wide-brimmed hat falls on to the fireguard, the frowzy, wet dishcloth rubs Pirjo’s face, her fine lady’s paint comes off and spreads over her skin in a smelly paste. When Pirjo lives by herself, she never buys washing-up cloths, but always uses disposable kitchen paper. Soon after the incident Pirjo begins to learn English, and later her mother’s name sometimes turns itself in her mind into Hell-evil.

II

The hands of Hillevi, Pirjo’s mother, rubbed the round cheeks of the teapot in the towel. Mother set the teapot on a hotplate on which she had just boiled some water, dropped one teabag into the pot and poured water on top. In twenty years, the steel teapot had worn dull, as had mother and daughter. But the teapot had been well looked after.

Mother has become a grandmother, and I am approaching middle age, Pirjo thought. I am over thirty and I almost stayed barren. Then there was Bengt.

He left one of his cells in me. I am going to be a mother and Mother will be a grandmother twice over, although I had almost come to miss out on all that.

The women had breakfast. It was five in the morning. They were alone in the cabin, in the house that was Pirjo’s childhood home. In the house lived her parents, and Pirjo’s older sister Karoliina and her family.

About three weeks ago Pirjo had come back with the intention of saving living expenses and doing a month’s work for bed and board. A friend who was attending a summer course at the university had rented her studio flat.

‘It would be nice if that Bengt was here to keep us company.’ Mother hooked some sugar out of the bowl with a wet spoon. ‘Not a great talker. but clever. But no one’s forcing him if he doesn’t want to come.’

‘Karoliina’ll keep her Kalle, don’t you worry,’ she went on. ‘Yes, she will. He’s no reason to go, they’re going to build a house. Hilla’ll be able to run to her granny from there. And Hilla won’t be the only one. They should have as many as possible, to keep Granny happy.’

Always Mother remembered to speak about Karoliina and Kalle’s future, non-existent children, Pirjo noted. But she never mentioned what was growing beneath her navel.

‘Always going on about that Bengt. There are other fish in the sea!’ Pirjo had loathed the brown spots on the sugarbowl for at least thirty years. In this museum everything survived and was preserved: wiping the tables with rags to save on dishcloths, Father’s phlegmy laugh for the visitors and the old people’s trench-warfare….

Her father and her sister and her family were at a homes exhibition and would be back in the evening. Before that there were the animals to look after and the baking to do for the tourist bus that would arrive at eleven. In addition to gawping at the animals, the entrance ticket included a brunch table: salads, drinks and many kinds of cakes and pastries. The salads had been made yesterday and the root of the sourdough rye bread had been fizzing away in the traditional tub since yesterday morning.

Experience Farm was in a very good location, just five kilometres from the eastward kink in the main road. It had quickly become a popular stopping-off place for tourists, just as Karoliina’s husband had calculated it would. The animals and the generous provision of the buffet attracted visitors. Coffee was also on offer. In the process, Father and Mother’s principles had softened in places.

Mother had just added flour to the sourdough root liquid. You had to add it three times, on a plate, for everything to go well. Bread, ordinary Finnish sourdough bread, was a point of honour for Mother; making it was a complicated procedure which Pirjo had never learned. Mother had once told her to make it, without teaching her how, and had screamed at her when the batch had gone wrong.

Now that the animal and tourist business was underway, Mother always made an ovenful of bread when a busload was in the offing. Generally she sold everything, and was very uppity about it. Pirjo disparaged the tiny profit that she made on each loaf.

Mother clicked the radio on, slurped some tea and munched some cake left over from a tourist visit two days before. At the same time she read a women’s magazine, and Pirjo noticed that she had stopped at the books page. Pirjo was filled with uneasiness. She had glanced through the magazine the day before.

What is she staring at, that old woman? Stuffing herself with cake even though her heart muscle has thickened and her blood sugar is high! Pirjo tried not to look at her mother, who had lifted the magazine up and was reading it with interest. She concentrated on the local radio news. The strawberry harvest would be late, and two beekeepers were seeking compensation because state-owned bears had destroyed their private beehives.

‘Do you know anything about this Pirhonen book?’

Pirjo could not pretend she had not heard the question. Yes, of course, the prominent young woman writer’s book had been the event of the previous spring, and it would have been a wonder if she had not seen dozens of newspaper pieces about it.

‘A bit, ‘ Pirjo answered, and made sure she could not speak by stuffing her mouth with a wholewheat roll. Hopefully her mother would turn the page soon. Why was the country’s most conservative women’s magazine featuring the book? Of what interest could its subject be to Women’s Institute members? She should send the editor an angry note about the corruption of grannies!

The dog, Hilu, whined outside, and Pirjo guessed she was wondering why everyone had got up so early. I’m coming soon, Hilu, wait. ‘Have you read it,’ Mother asked.

Her mouth full of bread roll, Pirjo gestured briefly with her mouth: ‘No.’

‘I suppose it’ll be in the Ryöpänkoski library, you could borrow it for me, since you go there anyway.’ The bread stuck in Pirjo’s throat and tea sprayed out through her nostrils. ‘Borrow it yourself, for God’s sake!’ ‘Pregnant and swearing like that: Mother shouted bright-eyed, as Pirjo made off.

Pirjo was tearing hay-bales open in the pony enclosure. The silky-tongued deer peered over their fence, the ducks quacked farther off and a few interrogative belches came from the cowshed. Frisky, the spotted black boar, was thinking about waking up.

The mould from the bales went up Pirjo’s nose and made her sneeze. Damn! You could get asthma from this! She was due to return to the city next week. It was high time. Mother had begun to get up to her tricks as soon as she had arrived. Why had Bengt left? No wonder, since Pirjo was untidy and lazy, unemployed…. Go and work on the Swedish boats as a cleaner, there’s always work if you look for it, or on a taxi-driving course! The newspaper says there’s a shortage of taxi -drivers in Helsinki!

And now Mother wanted her to borrow the book! Since when did she read anything but religious stuff? It was of course an impossibility that Holy Hillevi herself would go to the library and borrow her own book from the bus-driver’s wife, a book whose subject was women’s sexual problems!

The novel irritated Pirjo. She had bought the book as soon as it had appeared (there had actually been a small queue in the bookshop), and read the book quickly through, on a train journey away from Bengt. In it a young woman, who was irritatingly reminiscent of the author (small, beautiful and dark), played around with her boyfriend, trying all sorts of tricks and treats, starting with the curtain rail, but just couldn’t reach a climax, either alone or together. The fuss made of the book and its enormous sales had shocked Pirjo. At least half the women in the country felt the book was speaking to them… but it did not offer any solution, leaving the reader as unsatisfied as its main character.

Mother was trying to set her up to borrow the book! A mean trick…. Pirjo swore as she fed the geese and the ostrich, whose solitary head was higher than Pirjo’s. The male bird ruffled its black and white fleecy feathers and pecked at the top of the fence with its beak as if it were a bit. It must be deprived too, Pirjo thought.

‘This evening Hilla will be home, she’ll bring you some worms,’ Pirjo said, softening at the big bird’s yearning, bored, soft-lashed gaze. The ostrich loved earthworms. It also appreciated frogs.

The colourful ducks waddled vigorously toward their food and ate with a squelching noise. Idiots, Pirjo thought. Is it the ducks’ fault if their ducklings did not become proper ducks, or not ducks at all? And even if it kept company with swans, a duckling just felt itself to be an unsuccessful duck. Andersen didn’t write anything about that!

Within the sturdy fence there were also some bluish Limousin cattle. They rose stupidly to their feet and trotted up to lick their cereal from the stone. Pirjo poured water from the hose into a half-barrel and remembered what always came to mind at this point of the garden.

‘The girl’s a calf! Won’t leave the pen even if the byre goes on fire! An animal doesn’t dare do anything, ’cause it’s used to darkness and lack of space!’

That was how Mother had encouraged her at thirteen or fourteen when she had to go to the town on an errand, and was frightened to go alone. She was as slow, as dirty and as lazy as a thick-browed calf. Her parents had not spared their ridicule, and her big sister had learned it fast, too.

Karoliina, who was successful in every way, repeated the abuse at breaktime at school. School had seemed easy only during the couple of years when Karoliina had gone onto the next school: first in sixth grade, and then again in the last class of secondary school.

Feeding the animals took almost an hour. Pirjo was still ruminating over the old insults as she took a shower.

Hilu was snuffling oddly outside. Didn’t I remember to give her any water, Pirjo wondered. She put moisturiser on her face and followed the smell of burnt kindling into the kitchen.

Mother was putting firewood in the oven. That Bengt was a handy man all right. I still have the wooden men and animals he carved for Hilla last summer safe in the barn. What couldn’t he do! Made bundles of birch-twigs for the sauna, whittled wooden whistles, a cart for the ram. Replaced the cellar door and tarred the boat as if it was no trouble at all.’

‘Maybe this one here will inherit Bengt’s genius!’ Pirjo pressed her stomach with her hand.

Hillevi sprinkled the brownish rye-flour of fher measuring plate and into the dough-tub. ‘No formal qualifications, that’s what he always said. But the man was like a master builder, although he didn’t have a scrap of training for it.’

‘This one’s going to inherit the best parts of both of us,’ Pirjo raised her voice. ‘Even if no formal qualifications went into its making.’

Mother wiped her menopausal moustaches with the back of her hand and gazed out at the summer morning lightening beyond the frame. ‘What if it turns out the other way, quiet and lazy….’

A bunch of napkins crumpled in Pirjo’s fist. Her hands took one napkin at a time from the pile, folded it into a triangle, and her right fist pressed the fold down against the table. The folds were sharp. Then Pirjo slipped the triangular napkins into the clay bowl with the old ones, as if she were planting rice.

Mother was measuring out ingredients for her savoury pie. ‘Kalle is pretty capable, too, but the handiest man I’ve ever seen is your Bengt. It’ll be a lucky woman gets him for her own. He’ll get someone who deserves him. So it’s no surprise really that he left.’

Hilu’s voice grew stronger and from outside came other sounds, too, strange noises. Mother listened in the direction of the sound, her knife poised above the block of margarine.

Pirjo’s blood boiled. ‘If you’d given me any encouragement at all, I would have gone to drama school and wouldn’t be an unemployed business-school graduate! A piece of shit!’

‘Listen, what’s that?’ ‘Why have you always systematically put me down? Beginning with my name! Pirjo! What kind of a name is that!’ ‘Eh?’ ‘Why was Karoliina allowed to go free but not me? Why was Karoliina allowed boyfriends but not me? Why didn’t Karoliina have to work? Why’s it always so horrible here?’

‘Karoliina had… talents.’

‘Kicked out of sixth -form college in the first year, then spent her time picking up blokes in the Pig and Whistle! Fat lot of good her gifts did her!’.

Mother’s face had turned purple, her hands waved in front of her chest looking for their places, and finally she wrenched the window open. The din was clearly audible, and from close by.

‘Go out! Go out there for God’s sake and see what’s wrong!’

Pirjo ran into the yard. The noise was hellish: there was a low growling, and from the pigsty came a hysterical screaming; Hilu was whining in a strange voice which Pirjo had never heard before. The birds were clucking, the cock was crowing, and the sheep were bleating in panic.

Pirjo went inside and clomped straight to her parents’ bedroom, where the weapons hung on the wall. The double bed, which had not seen marital duties since the unwilling begetting of the children, had already, at six in the morning, been made and covered with uncreased chenille. Pirjo took an elk-gun in her arms and picked a couple of cartridges from the box. She had sometimes gone shooting with her father in the elk-forest.

In the hallway Mother was peering out through the door, and as she passed her Pirjo punched her powdery bosom. Pirjo bawled, ‘Shall I tell you whose fault it was Bengt left?’

And as she ran toward the pig-pen she shouted over her shoulder: ‘Where did I learn to be so pathetic?’

On the back of the Ayrshire boar Frisky was a bear. It was smaller than Frisky, but, growling roughly and dully, it was trying to cling on and turn round to rip out the pig’s throat. Pirjo noticed that there was a great bloody gash in the pig’s massive behind.

‘You fucking bear, this is the end,’ bellowed Pirjo among the general screaming and growling, stuffed the cartridges into the magazine, set the gun firmly against her shoulder and fired.

The bear floundered horribly, made a couple of fumbling gestures with its thick paws and tumbled off the squalling pig’s back and onto the ground next to it. In the mud of the pig-pen were blood and fur; dark red gore flowed from the bear’s mouth, and the confused boar managed to get his black-and-white carcass through the door of the shelter. In his den, he screamed and struggled, making such a din that the roof-tiles of the shelter shook. The felled bear lay undignifiedly among the mud and pig-shit.

‘Oops,’ Pirjo said.

‘Can I come out now?’ came Mother’s broken shout.

‘Frisky is in a panic and gored; I’ll have to shoot him,’ Pirjo shouted over the din, and reprimed her gun. Mother rushed to the spot, saw the bear and the blood and the pigsty, which could hardly stay upright with the wounded boar raging inside.

‘Frisky, not Frisky! A doctor for mummy’s boy! Don’t shoot my piggy!’ Mother burst into tears.

Pirjo twitched her upper lip mockingly. Mummy’s boy! Had Mother poked Frisky’s balls with a stick, as, in some moment of openness, she had once said she used to do to her favourite boars during her girlhood?

‘Didn’t you give any thought at all to what all that anger and bitterness would do to your children?’

‘What?’ Mother stood on the gravel path, her hair, its permanent wave continually aspiring to Sixties modishness, in a mess, her son-in-law Kalle’s clogs on her feet. ‘Not Frisky, Mummy’s best boar! Our favourite animal…’

Mother’s weeping hardened into a hysterical, hiccoughing shrieking.

Pirjo glanced at her mother with loathing, took the magazine out of the rifle and snapped the cartridge out. ‘He’ll have to be shot in any case, he’s been gored and he’s suffering.’

Pirjo shouted at Hilu in the other direction: ‘Stop shouting, you miserable beast!’

‘Didn’t your father have anything to do with it? And after all it didn’t do… anything for Karoliina!’ Mother collected her unsteady gait by straightening her back and lifting her chest. ‘The bread-dough needs kneading!’

Sniffling, she made her way toward the house, and the interested gaze of the ostrich followed her progress over the fence.

‘Ryöpänkoski police, Nissinen.’

‘This is Pirjo Kamppinen; it’s an emergency.’

‘Where? You’ll have to tell me the address first.’

‘This is the Ewe Experience Farm at Ryöpänkoski, Riitaniemi.’

‘Eh?’

‘You know Lassi Kamppinen, don’t you?’

‘Pagan Lassi? Keeps turkeys, about three kilometres from Riitaniemi in the Säyneinen direction?’

‘We’ve a felled bear here,’ Pirjo said, and glanced at her mother. She was whimpering; her face was covered with purple blotches, and tears sizzled on the edge of the oven door as she pulled embers from the grate.

‘Last Christmas’s one was tasty,’ the policeman said. ‘I wonder if there’ll be any next year? I could reserve two of them, one for me and one for my brother-in-law… ‘

‘I shot a bear five minutes ago.’

‘Shot it?’ The policeman brightened. ‘Without a permit, and you a woman?’

‘There was no time to fill in a form – the bear was slaughtering the farm’s best boar.’ Pirjo drew breath. She remembered what the policeman looked like, and added: ‘Wouldn’t you have done the same, in a crisis?’

‘It’d depend on the boar,’ the policeman said.

‘They’ll auction the meat?’

‘The victim’s meat is probably spoiled. But the bear, certainly.’

‘There’d have been smaller pickings here, too. But it had to go for the big one.’

‘Experience Farm, eh? Well, it’s been an experience for the pig, right enough…. Is that what’s screaming there?’

‘The farmer’s wife. The pig’s shouting outside.’

‘Call the vet! You’ll find one on call here!’ Mother was rustling the local paper in her hands.

Pirjo went and slung the rifle on its hook. ‘Why d’you have to hate each other for thirty years? What a fine thing, to sleep in the same bed as your enemy! Why the hell didn’t you split up?’

‘Frisky is so, so ill now, he used to sit in Mummy’s lap when he was little….’

Mother mumbled, her face a mess of tears and flour. She pointed at the number of the duty vet with a shaking finger. ‘Everyone knew Daddy liked Kyllikki Hartikainen! And me, I found pen-pals among the religious brethren, but that never got me anywhere! All that happened to you was that your handwriting changed each time; whenever there was a new one you started to write just like him. But you didn’t dare get any closer!’

Pirjo snatched the baking cloth (half linen, from Hillevi’s trousseau) and shoved it in the wash-bowl. ‘Clean yourself up, you snivelling wretch, no one wants to look at you like that!’

She grabbed her mother by her flabby arm and scrubbed her face forcibly. ‘Do you know who that calf was, twenty years ago? Who was the calf who wouldn’t leave the byre even if her backside was on fire?’

‘The vet! Frisky!’

‘There’ll be an emergency slaughter, there’s a vet for you!’

Pirjo loosened her grip and threw the cloth to the ground. Hillevi grabbed the dough. Her shoulders quaked with weeping; under her palms, the grey rye mass became a thick roll.

‘I had to listen to it at school, how Lassi the Dick was running after Kyllikki! And once, when I was in the shop with the girls, Saimi Tirkkonen asked me if I had even been baptised!’

Hilu was still barking outside; the goats were bleating inconsolably. Pirjo’s arms began to tremble.

She slumped to a sitting position on the bench and bit her lip. ‘Now I’m going to get on my way. When the police arrive, I’ll get going immediately. You can take care of your tourists any way you want.’

Under Mother’s knife and hands, the roll of dough became a row of sharp, low cones, soon covered by a clean cloth softened by use. Mother switched on a hot-plate, put a kettle on the stove and took from the cupboard the Birmingham teapot and two mugs.

Her swollen eyes were wet. ‘I thought… since you… spend more time in those busy places,’ she managed to say, carefully dropping two Lady Grey teabags into the roundish teapot, ‘that maybe you’d look out a man for me.’

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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