Perfect thing

Issue 4/2000 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi (‘Not before sundown’, Tammi, 2000). Interview and introduction by Soila Lehtonen

A youngster is asleep on the asphalt in the backyard, near the dustbins. In the dark I can only make out a black shape among the shadows.

I creep closer and reach out my hand. The figure clearly hears me coming, weakly raises its head from the crouching position for a moment, opens its eyes, and I can finally make out what it is.

It’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

I know straight away that I want it.

It’s small, slender and curled up in a strange position, as if it were completely without joints. Its head is between its knees and its full black mane of hair is brushing the muddy asphalt.

It can’t be more than a year old. A year and a half at the most. A mere cub. By no means the huge bulk you see in illustrations of the full-grown specimens.

It’s hurt or been abandoned, or else it’s strayed away from the others. How has it got into the yard, in the middle of the town? Suddenly my heart begins thumping and I swing round, half expecting to see a large black hunched shadow slipping from the dustbins to the gate and then off into the shelter of the park.

I react instinctively. I crouch down by it and carefully bend one of its forearms behind its back. It wakes but doesn’t start resisting. Just in case, I twist the strap of my bag all round the troll, fastening its paws tightly to its side. I glance behind me and lift it up in my arms. It’s light, bird-boned, weighing far less than a child the same size. I glance quickly at the windows. There’s nothing but a reddish light glowing in the downstair neighbour’s bedroom. The foreign -looking head of a young woman pops up in the window, her hand drawing the curtain. Now.

In a moment we’re in my flat.

It’s very weak. When I lower it onto the bed it doesn’t struggle at all, just contemplates me with its reddish cat’s eyes with vertical irises. The ridge of its nose protrudes rather more than a cat’s, and its nostrils are large and expressive. The mouth is in no way like the split muzzle of a cat or a dog: it’s a narrow horizontal slit. The face as a whole is so human-looking – like the face of a silky ape or other flat-faced primate: it’s easy to understand why these black creatures have always been regarded as some sort of forest people who live in caves and holes -beings accidentally created by nature as parodies of mankind.

In the light, its cubbishness is still more evident. Its face and body are soft and round, and it has the endearing ungainliness of all young animals. I examine its front paws: they’re like a rat’s or racoon’s, with flexible, jointed fingers and long nails. I remove my bag strap from round it, and the cub makes no move to scratch or bite. It just turns on its side and curls up, drawing its tufted tail between its thighs and folding its front paws against its chest. Its black tangled mane falls over its nose, and it lets out that half-moan half -sigh of a dog falling asleep.

I stand at the bedside, looking at the troll cub, and taking in a strong smell – not unpleasant, though. It’s like crushed juniper berries with a hint of something else – musk, patchouli? The troll hasn’t moved an inch. Its bony side heaves to the fast pace of its breathing.

Hesitantly, I take a woollen blanket from the sofa, stand by the bed a while, and then spread it over the troll. One of its hind legs gives a kick, like a reflex, swift and strong as lightning, and the blanket flies straight over my face. I struggle with it, my heart pumping wildly, for I’m convinced the frightened beast will go for me, scratching and biting. But no. The troll still lies there curled up and breathing peacefully.

It’s only now that I face the fact that I’ve brought a beast into my home.

My head and neck are aching. I’ve been sleeping on the sofa. It’s damned early, still dark. And there’s nothing on the bed. So that’s what it’s all been: a fantasy that can’t survive daylight.

Except that the blanket lies crumpled on the floor by the bed, and there’s a faint little sound coming from the bathroom.

I get up and walk slowly, in the light of the streetlamps filtering through the window, creeping as quietly as I can to the bathroom door. In the dusk I can see a small black bony bottom, hind legs, a tufted twitching tail, and I realise what’s happening. It’s drinking from the lavatory bowl. The juniper-berry smell is pungent. Then I spot a yellow puddle on my mint-green tiled floor. Naturally.

It has stopped lapping up water and has sensed that I’m there. Its torso is up from the bowl so fast I can’t see the movement. Its face is dripping with water. I’m trying to convince myself that the water’s perfectly clean, drinkable. I’m trying to think when I last twirled the brush round the bowl and put lavatory cleaner in.

Its eyes are still lustreless, it doesn’t look healthy, and its pitch-black coat is sadly short of glossiness. I move aside from the bathroom door, and it slides past me into the living room, exactly as an animal does when it’s got no other route to take – pretending to be unconcerned, but vividly alert. It walks on two legs, with a soft and supple lope: not like a human being, slightly bent forwards, its front paws stretched away from its sides – ah, on tiptoe, like a ballet dancer. I follow it and watch it bounce onto my bed, effortlessly, like a cat, as though gravity didn’t exist – then curl up and go back to sleep again.

HTTP://WWW.FINNISHNATURE.FI
Troll (older forms: hobgoblin, bugbear, ogre), Felipithecus trollius. Family: Cat-apes (Felipithecidae)
A Pan-Scandinavian carnivore, found only north of the Baltic and in Western Russia. Disappeared completely from Middle Europe along with deforestation’ but according to folklore and historical sources still fairly common in medieval times. Officially discovered and scientifically classified as a mammal as late as 1907. Before that assumed to be a mythical creature of folklore and fairy-tale.

Weight of a full-grown male: 50-75 kilos. Height standing upright: 170–190 cm. A long-limbed plantigrade, whose movements nevertheless show digitigrade features. Walk: upright on two legs. Four long-nailed toes on the hindlegs, five on the forelegs, including a thumb-like gripping toe. The tail long, with a tuft. The tongue rough. The eyes reddish yellow with vertical iris. The overall colour a deep black, the coat dense, sleek. A thick black mane on the head of the males. Movement only at night. Main nourishment: small game, carrion, birds’ nests and chicks. Hibernates. Cubs probably conceived in the autumn before hibernation, the female giving birth to one or two cubs in spring or early summer. Very little confirmed knowledge available, however, concerning this extremely shy beast. Extremely rare. In Finland, estimation 400 specimens. Classified as an endangered species.

TROLLS AND GUNMEN PLAY HIDE AND SEEK AT PULESJÄRVI
Morning News, 29.3.2000

Two men were slightly injured by gun wounds at Lake Pulesjärvi near the Lehtisaari campsite yesterday in a mysterious incident. The men, who had been surprised by a wild beast, were probably struck by stray bullets from an unknown gun man attempting to defend them.

The men, who were from Pulesjärvi, had long suspected that the Lehtisaari campsite buildings were being occupied by unlicensed tenants during the winter closure. Making their inspection found traces of breaking and entry in several of the cabins. They also found primitive bedding made of moss and spruce branches.

The dwelling had also attracted animals, for when the men opened one of the cabin doors a large troll came running at them. When one of the men tried to aim a shotgun at the threatening animal, two shots were fired from the forest nearby. One shot struck him on the shoulder, the other grazed the shin of his companion. The gunman, who remained unknow, was probably wielding a large-calibre hunting or military weapon.

According to the wildlife researcher Erik S. Nyholm, it is not unusual for a hungry predator, a lynx for example, to seek shelter in a hay barn or empty storage building, especially if it is finding it difficult to stay alive in the winter.

Due to the earliness of the spring, it has proved impossible to track the gunman in the almost snowless forest. The police are investigating the affair.

He wakes up early in evening and climbs onto the windowsill to see the Christmas lights glimmering in Pirkankatu street. He seeks out the quail eggs I´ve hidden, and, when he finds them, bounces like a colt let out to pasture. He jumps onto the sofa and sits beside me as I watch the TV, so that his juniper smell wafts into my nostrils like a squirt of perfume.

The short fur under his long sleek coat of hair is so exiguous, so close to his skin, it´s almost as though it were not fur at all but shiny black skin. The mane surrounding his head has remained full, though, and so Pessi’s slim two-legged form, seen from a distance, resembles quite confusingly a slightly stylized young boy – human-looking in the way of the animal stars in film-cartoons for children. His small firm muscles function with extreme precision and charged energy.

His movements have an unconscious seductiveness.

For minutes on end, head tilted, he follows the movements of my hand as I operate the mouse of my computer.

Inside me everything shimmers and burns.

Pessi yelps, letting out small, throaty sounds, as he dances an angry little ballet around me, his tail horizontal and stiff. His nostrils widen and twitch. I try to touch him, but he bounces back like a sprung spring.

‘Pessi.’I´m speaking persuasively and soothingly, even a little apologetically. What on earth´s the matter with him? I’ve been away as long as this before.

His nostrils: his nostrils are twitching, his ears are flattened against his skull. The smell.

Ecke’s smell is on me.

The smell of a strange male.

Still steaming from the shower, I sit down on the sofa, smelling of pine soap, and when Pessi finally comes over to me and pushes his dark muzzle against my shoulder my heart spreads a sweet warmth throughout my whole body.

Opening the door, I notice a smell. It’s metallic and pungent mingled with a smell of fresh excrement.

I pass through the open door into the hall and on into the living room. And I want to throw up. But I can’t: every muscle in my body is totally paralysed. Ecke. Ecke. Beside his hand, on the floor, is my set of keys. Ecke is flat on the floor and just about everything is covered with blood.

The white leather sofa has become a lurid death cup toadstool, spattered with red. Another large – and oh how red – mouth has opened in Ecke’s throat. Ecke’s bowels have emptied themselves into his jeans.

When I’m able to throw up it’s some sort of relief.

I crouch down vomiting and vomiting on the parquet.

Ecke Ecke Ecke oh, Ecke, what have you done?

Why did you come here – you, so clever, so sharp-tongued and more than a trifle blase, and yet such a laughter-loving little boy, a little bit at sea in life – all at once.

So inventive in bed, ready for anything, and frisky as a fish.

You whose male smell of sweat and sperm has sometimes flickered around me and wafted to those black, sensitive nostrils like a blow, a threat, a signal from a strange pack.

Pessi is bouncing about restlessly, but a little stiffly as if his legs were on springs. He looks at the body and me, over and over again. He’s proud as hell but at the same time slightly worried. He doesn’t know what he should do  – eat, or give the prey over to me to me, the only pack he’s got left now.

The blood’s roaring in my ears, and some wordless and denant march is going through my head, pacing a rhythm to my panic. It’s sounding as hollow and heavy and fateful as my heartbeats, as I turn off my mobile phone and throw it into the lavatory bowl. I put on my forest-green Goretex , the light and durable waterproof outfit I bought for Lapland when I went there for a week with Pauli but haven’t worn since. I lace up the thick-soled waterproof ankle-supporting trekking boots I bought to impress Jens.

So equipped. I might be able to cope in the forest for a longtime. but time is in short supply. I throw together a small rucksack. a Swiss army knife, water dashed from the tap into an empty bottle. a plastic cigarette lighter, a woollen sweater, and a spare pair of socks. There’s nothing much in the fridge except some vacuum-packed salami. I can’t take lots of clothes, but the spring’s been amazingly warm, about twenty degrees centigrade since mid-April. Pessi bounces about impatiently: he smells my cold bitter sweat, my fear and panic.

It’s night but not dark – damn April! I grab a blanket off the sofa and wrap it round Pessi and lift him up in my arms. Oh how bird-boned my little troll still is, how light and slender! He’s grown a lot but is still much the same as six months ago when my life was changed, and I let a changeling into my home.

Nobody pays any attention to me. I suppose people in trekking gear, with large mohair bundles in their arms, are constantly leaping into taxis. The driver’s eyebrows are raised, but thank God he asks no questions. Pessi is perfectly still in my lap, listening to the strange sounds through the thin woollen fabric and smelling strange smells.

The taxi-drive to Kauppi takes just a few minutes. The driver doesn’t say much. Occasionally he looks at me in the mirror, wondering at my sweaty brow. I dig a banknote out of my pocket and push it into his hand. He doesn’t even look to check it. but evidently it must be enough, and I start to stumble from the roadside to the forest. I’m deep in the thicket before I hear the taxi accelerating irritably off. Now. if my memory serves me, I should be able. by keeping the setting sun behind me, to get through the Kauppi forest and reach the outskirts of the Halimajärvi nature reserve. It’s the only route for avoiding too much habitation and getting into the Teisko forests.

I’ve almost fallen over several times. and Pessi is annoyed. He struggles and frets under the blanket. I decide we’re far enough from the road, put him down and unwrap the bundle. His eyes are bright with excitement, his ears trembling and his nostrils twitching in the riot of forest smells, his tail a whip-antenna, eagerly registering it all.

Then I hear a sound, a sound too early for the time of the year, but inevitably telling the coming of spring. and I know that Pessi can now – for ever and irreversibly – leave me. The sound is melancholy and repetitive as a funeral bell.

A cuckoo is calling.

AlI of a sudden Pessi freezes. We’re quite close to the Halimajärvi district already and nobody has disturbed us. Fortunately, the sun’s rays are slanting more and more and little by little dusk is beginning to shroud us.

I’ve drunk from brooks, and I’ve been happy to know that, whenever I want, I can fall asleep under a forest spruce, tented by branches that reach the ground, and resting on a copper-coloured bedding of needles.

Pessi has been wandering along with me, visiting bushes and at times disappearing completely God, how quietly he moves in the forest! But, despite my fear, he hasn’t vanished among the spruce trees, taking paths of his own where I know I could never follow him.

But now he freezes, and his tail moves in a way I’ve never seen till now. It slashes in a semicircle, electrically tense, expressing, I think:, both excitement and slight fear and…

… great and deep love. I’ve no sooner grasped Pessi’s reaction than a black shadow darkens my field of vision.

It has materialised from behind a tree, like a ghost in a nightmare. It wasn’t there a moment ago, now it is, and my whole body goes rigid: suddenly I’m a fast-breathing prey, not a particularly delicious piece of meat wrapped in Goretex.

Pessi goes berserk with joy.

He leaps up at a huge male troll conceivably a muscular, magnif’tcently glossy big brother of the specimen I’ve seen in the museum and he’s like a puppy making up to his mother. He fawns and paws and bounces and licks the male troll – his father perhaps, but an alpha male all right, that casually sweeps him behind its back with its left forepaw.

And what this troll has in its right forepaw is cruelly clear. Somehow I did semiconsciously guess: all those stories … and the one about the guns missing from the Parola armoury... So my frozen mind whispers, as the ogre lifts its other forepaw, swings the military rifle onto its hip and clicks the safety-catch.

The sky ahead is growing lighter. It’s five a.m. We’re deep in the forest, in the midst of the sort of jungle you can’t even imagine if, all your life, you’ve been confined to the fake woods adjoining cities those so-called nature reserves that are, in reality, more like parks: embroidered with paths, cleared of undergrowth, lit up, provided with benches, and full of trees that are almost exactly the same age. But this forest is another thing. It’s gloomy and tangled, it cascades violently upwards from its mossy floor to the sky, as if the earth were thrusting it out of its breast and bursting with the effort. It’s full of struggle. Species is fighting against species, a creeper is suffocating a tree, a twig is shoving moss aside, for everything’s in short supply: light, air, food.

In the midst of all this green and brown chaos we advance quickly and almost silently. Nothing but my panting breath and the crunching of my hopelessly clumsy trekking boots trouble the dawn twilight, as Pessi and the big male take me along indistinguishable paths. They are troll paths, imperceptible by eyes, but what looks like an impenetrable-looking thicket or an unclimbable cloven rock is, seen closer, a shortcut. We go forward as if the trees, rocks and thickets were a mist we’re melting through as quiet, capable shadows.

No human being can catch us, not on foot anyway.

Shaded by a spruce tree between blocks of mossy rock, the cave looks like a narrow black mouth. The sun has risen behind the forest: its slanting rays are sifting misty golden streaks through the branches and dappling the moss with golden spots.

Two shadows emerge from the rock, so imperceptibly they seem to have precipitated themselves from darkness to light. The come quite close, nostrils twitching, and their strong animal smell is like Pessi’ s smell but wilder, more pungent, muskier; and one of them reaches out with his nailed paw, making me freeze, for those daggers could rip my stomach open with one swipe. Put the paw doesn´t maul me: it goes into my jacket pocket, and the flexible, skillful, sensitive fingers seize the lilac-coloured plastic lighter.

When the troll lights it, I see it´s not handling such for the first time.

Sunrays are beginning to flow into the cave entrance like a warm fluid. The irises of the trolls narrow almost to non-existence, and the ogres turn and disappear into the cavity. The big troll swings the barrel of his gun with the tiniest of economic gestures, and I understand.

Pessi has come to my side; his tail´s trembling and twitching, and he looks up at me expectantly.

Far off somewhere, a cuckoo calls.

I take his hand and step aside.

Translated by Herbert Lomas

Tags: ,