The dog-man’s daughter

30 December 2001 | Fiction

Extracts from the radio play Porkkalansaari (‘The island of Porkkala’, the Finnish Broadcasting Company, 1993)

The surface of the earth is the first to freeze; then the still waters. The sea freezes at the shore often at the same time, on the same night, as the slow-flowing brooks. I have watched them for many years. When you live in the same place for a long time, you notice this much: that almost everything just repeats and repeats.

It flows into a plastic tube. I suppose water flows inside it. You could drop matchsticks in on the other side of the road and wait on this side for them to swim through the drum. You’d only have to find one; that would be enough to prove it.

Luckily the road turns away. You don’t have to explain what you’re doing, charging through the undergrowth. Sometimes your progress is so slow that it’s as if you’re creeping secretly. If someone were to stop and ask me why I’m walking along the sides of the ditches even though there’s an asphalted road beside me, I would have to say that I’m making an archaeological surface study of the terrain.

Not many would ask more, but if they did, I would say that I was charting recent history from the time of parentheses. The questions would end there. When you give a difficult enough answer, no one has the temerity to ask any more questions….

An island is an area of land surrounded by water. Only when I have seen from Espoonlahti to Tavastfjärden that water continues the whole way in an unbroken ribbon will I have proved that what is called a peninsula is no peninsula, but an island, surrounded by water on every side.

I will not tell anyone about my journey, but I will write an article for the local newspaper, a letter to the editor if the features department isn’t interested. I’ve already written the headline:

‘Sunday walk decides the argument:
Porkkala peninsula is an island.’

Let my work colleagues see it in the paper. Read it first there. If they ask more, I can tell them.

The sea is already frozen by the shore. As the river has been the entire way, from the watershed to the halfway point, as far as Tolsa. Sometimes the river has narrowed to a stream and sometimes swollen almost to a pond.

The ice is still marked with green and grey patches to the extent that you do not dare step from firm ground on to a surface that is worn away by running water. How can you see from above how hollow it is beneath? Along the sides, then, however thick they are with bushes and creepers.

For a time my father worked for the Espoo police, all through the 1950s and into the 1960s, up to the divorce. It may be that was why I came to leave Espoonlahti bay, and not the other way round. And that I left at all. Perhaps one’s tasks in life are already laid down in childhood.

When father came back from Porkkala that first time, it must have been fifty-six, winter of. Father came home snowy and bashed his cap against the radiator in the hall and tried to brush the snow from his ski-pants with a broom.

An island is what it is, the Porkkala peninsula. It is as if it is cut off, the whole place, father said, nothing else to begin with.

I was told to put the brush in the cleaning cupboard. Sometimes I had to break a twig off it for mother to use to test whether a cake was done.

That time, father’s snow was on the broom. I must only have been four. The Russians left in the new year, and immediately afterward the Espoo police were ordered into Porkkala.

When father said it was an island, I thought he would have to ski there again and again every morning across the ice and that it must be dangerous, because mother was serious all day and waited for the half past twelve weather forecast and news on the radio.

It was by accident that I first heard about the dogs. In the bedroom, father began to explain to mother, but the door was ajar. Father said he had shot at least eight of them; seven had died and one had managed to crawl into the bushes to hide, but from the bloody marks in the snow father had thought it would die of its wounds during the night at the latest. Father just sounded pleased, and even said that it wasn’t at all bad, so many of them gone already.

Hidden on the other side of the door, my legs began to shake. I made some noise so they would notice that I was almost in tears, but I did not consent to go in until father asked me too as well as mother. Both of them asked what could be wrong. I suppose I said you shouldn’t shoot dogs.

Father began to explain about rabies. That it was because of rabies. And that they didn’t even look like Finnish dogs.

Rabies is a disease that means that if you’re at the dentist’s, for example, and hear water gurgling out of the tap into the porcelain basin, you think you’re going to suffocate and you can be so frightened that youÕll try to escape even if it means you have to jump out of a fifth-floor window.

Better then for the Russian dogs to bed shot and gathered into piles on the back of a truck, I thought after father had explained rabies, than that the dogs should wander around spreading it and lurking by the roadside and at house corners so that they could bite you and infect you.

As well as the ice breaking, I began to be afraid that a dog would bite my father and spray him with rabies in its spit before father could shoot it.

They had left their dogs behind them. Some of them wandered, wild and hungry, in the forests. The Espoo police had been ordered to clear the area before the inhabitants were allowed back into their houses. Father was then, I suppose, a constable.

The Russians were here a long time. Eleven summers, twelve autumns, thirteen summers. It must have felt it. The distance to Helsinki along the trunk road was nineteen kilometres and four hundred metres.

Some people call the occupation the time of parentheses. It is a bracket and a small, insignificant side-remark amid something bigger. They say it as if that period were merely a kind of clearing of the throat at which point the shorthand-writer has marked in the minutes a pair of empty brackets.

Everything that has once existed remains. Whatever has happened in a place remains there as an echo.

If snow and ice are leather and wool, the earth’s newest layer is skin. Immediately beneath the skin, in the flesh, lie the fragments of what went before. There are no clay pipes or bronze buckles to be found in these regions, at least not near the surface, but when I was little I saw in the Estby fields pieces of tank treads and some other flat, rusty iron.

In Estby lived the Danielssons, whose house had been left here in forty-four when the Russians came. Mother and father used to visit the Danielssons, and I went with them after the land had been returned. Tanks had been kept at Estby.

The whole area was full of traces, and still is. Concrete doesn’t decay completely in forty years, and the triumphal arches made of iron in the midst of the forests have not yet all rusted away. There are caves dug out of the rock and the paving of the Kabanov ordnance road in the ground.

The Danielssons showed us places. I don’t remember much from then apart from the iron and pieces of tank treads in the ground, and then the fact that the graves of children in the Russian cemetery were decorated with toys and skis.

Father talked about his orders long into the 1960s. Our visits to Estby stopped completely for some reason, but father told other people about everything, including the Danielssons’ return.

Father had managed to go with them when Danielsson had received permission to go and look at his house, before he was allowed to take anything back there. They had both set out from the station on skis; both had had to make their own tracks in the snow, one after another. Danielsson had found the way and tried to remember the easiest approach, but the former fields and vegetable patches had, in eleven summers, grown together into dense thickets.

When they had finally, via the ditches between fields, reached the edge of the garden, Danielsson had wanted to stop for a cigarette. Father said Danielsson’s hand shook like an old man’s when he tried to give him a light.

From the outside, the house looked almost as it always had done. One of the walls had been painted a strange shade of green. From afar, the windows had looked black and bigger, but when father and Danielsson had skied closer, they had seen that there were no windows at all, just black holes; the panes had been removed or broken, along with the putty.

The lock had been completely sawn off the front door, so that the door itself hung open on its hinges. Danielsson had gone silently ahead, through the hall, and stopped at the parlour door. It had been empty, and smelled a little of mould. Snow had piled up along the wall by the windows, and in the shallower drift in the middle of the snow there had been undulations like waves.

The wind had blown through the empty holes. Apart from the snow, nothing else was to be seen in the room apart from torn-up newspapers. Danielsson had stood where he was and wept. An adult man, he had wept, just stood and wept; father had wondered at it many times.

On the way back, they had stopped at a neighbouring house, because Danielsson had promised his former neighbour he would. There, the windows had been in place and almost unbroken. From the rooms, it could bed seen that they had been lived in right up to the Russians’ departure from the base.

On the floor of the back parlour there had been a rough-edged hole in the floorboards, like a hole in the ice for winter fishing. Father and Danielsson had first wondered what it was from the doorway, but had then gone to look, and had been struck by the smell on the way. It had been made into a lavatory hole, and the laundry that had been located beneath the kitchen in the cellar had been half full of human shit.

From some other visit to Porkkala, father brought home a small, palely coloured wooden cow which he said he had found behind a heating stove as he inspected the inside of one of the buildings. It was pale, but its sides and back were brown. Mother scrubbed it clean before I was even allowed to touch it. Coloured with ochre, mother said….

[The sound of the wind and the soughing of the rushes gradually grow louder.]

There’s too much undergrowth and thickets; and there are beginning to be rushes. I’m making much slower progress than I thought. From time to time I have to step off the bank with one foot and on to the ice, and to make way for myself. It doesn’t crack if you don’t put your whole weight on it.

In the middle of the river, the ice is whiter. From time to time there is a howling noise. Thick ice doesn’t make the same kind of sound, except in a really hard frost. Ice is like skin stretched into a membrane. At some points it is marked with ugly liver spots.

It may be that all your tasks in life are given to you when you are small. If you cannot fulfil one of them, fulfil a second, or a third, or even something like it, but you are always dissatisfied. A person has to do something; walk, for example. Otherwise it would not have come to mind at once so clear and complete.

You can see the water-route clearly, even though there is a lid on top of it. There has not been much snow. It has been cold and dry. If it is cold and wet, the snow falls into drifts and covers the earth.

Afterwards, father was criticised as the Dog-Slayer. There was a picture of father and another Espoo policeman in the local paper. Each had been holding a matted, dead dog, and at their feet there had been more, higgledy-piggledy in a heap. Their weapons had hung from straps on their shoulders. Both men had been looking straight into the camera with a slight smile.

No one had come to father to say anything, but mother had heard innuendos in the shop. Was he planning some new hunting trips. I think I once saw a picture of your husband in the paper, some hunting article, I don’t think they were quite wolves, no, now that I remember, they were those tame Russian dogs, you husband certainly can pose, his foot handsomely on the prey.

I heard the same in the playground. Hide your dogs, they shouted, the Dog-Slayer’s daughter’s coming. I began to cry and had to go inside and swallow my tears before I went to ring the doorbell, so as not to make mother sad.

Although they did not shout for long, that spring, and mother taught me that all the shouters would fall silent as long as I didn’t look as if I cared and was good. Mother told me to take strawberry sweeties to the playground and hand them out. In the same way I took my own toys and gave them away, if mother did not notice, even the coloured wooden cow.

What’s the policeman’s daughter bringing today? I heard, I suppose by accident, a fragment; in the courtyard were two of the ladies to whom one had to curtsey every time one saw them for the first time in the day. They think other people have nothing, think too much of themselves, one of the ladies said, looking straight at me.

[The rustling of the rushes rises in the wind.]

At first the rushes are green, like grass. Now they are already greyish-yellow reed, almost dead, the lot of it.

Soon it will begin to grow dark. I must be careful on the rest of my journey, so that I do not fall and break a leg. Or twist a wrist. I’m sure I’ve lost enough calcium from my bones for that, even if my husband once asked where all the chalk was going, since a barren cow doesn’t produce milk. He shouldn’t have said it.

There is no embankment any more; the ground is flat. I must be careful I don’t slip and fall. At this point mist has risen from the water as the ice looks like needles and makes a clinking sound.

At work, they hinted for many years that if a woman hasn’t had a child by the time she is forty, maybe she hasn’t done anything worthwhile. It wasn’t malicious – just playing, really. They pretended to examine my tummy, looking at how loose new clothes were and said they saw prettier colours. And when I sometimes felt unwell during my lunch hour, so that I couldn’t eat anything, they glanced at one another, and someone always remembered to ask me whether I had felt sick recently or whether my morning coffee had begun to taste like a damp woollen mitten.

It wasn’t malicious, because everything ended as if cut with a knife two years ago. Since my fortieth birthday, no one has tried my jacket for looseness or hinted that that’s a pretty-coloured blouse.

I was able to pass my forty-first birthday without any kind of festivity or border-marks, even though one should be more than zero. If zero is nothing and the end, then one is the beginning. One is the ace in cards, and in the Bible it is God’s number.

Now no one notices any more. Everything just goes on and on. Where does all the chalk go, since a barren cow doesn’t produce milk, my husband went and said. And tried to correct himself when he saw that I was beginning to cry. Said I was beautiful. He needn’t have bothered.

I must make sure I don’t fall over. The mist is visible in the frost and the ice is beginning to form needles and makes a clinking sound.

This year there was not long to wait before leaf-fall. The trees were bare by mid October. It is always blowier by the sea, and the wind grasps.

[The sound of walking and the rushes go on for a moment.]

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

Olli Jalonen was awarded the Finlandia Prize for literature in 1990 for his novel Isäksi ja tyttäreksi (‘Becoming father and daughter’, Otava, 1990; see Books from Finland 4/1990), a sequel to Johan ja Johan (‘Johan and Johan’, 1989) The photographs are from Jan Kaila’s exhibition Porkkala 1944–1956, which was held in Helsinki in 1994, and are taken from the series 150 venäläistä esinettä (‘150 Russian objects’)

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