Letter to the wind

Issue 3/2002 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

A short story from Haapaperhonen (‘The butterfly’, Gummerus, 2002). Introduction by Kristina Carlson

When Father comes to visit me, he sometimes sings a hymn. I can’t ask him not to. But when he doesn’t, I wonder why not, whether there’s something up with him. I can’t ask him to sing, but something is missing, the same thing that there seems to be too much of when he sings. It’s too much, but I miss it when it’s not there. I wonder about it after Father’s gone; my thoughts curl into dreams and I sleep.

When I sleep I don’t know I’m here, in a strange place. I’m at home, sleeping at home, in my own bed. The window is the right size, not too big like it is here; here there isn’t really a window at all, half the wall is missing and instead there’s glass. Behind a glass wall it’s not safe, everything is taken through it, including me. But sleep takes me to safety; I’m at home there. I breathe it peacefully. In the cabin there are two breathings, mine and Turo’s, and in the bedroom Father’s breathing. They are in no hurry to drive time away; time can linger, sleep, the moment of night, and when sleep withdraws there is no hurry either; I can sit in peace on the window seat and gaze at the cloudy, moonlit yard. The apple tree is asleep; it’s the only one. The fieldfares ate the apples before we could pick them, but it did not bother me or Father. It was good to look at the flock of fieldfares making a meal of the apple tree. Then they went away.

The cloudy moonlight cleared the air. There was a suitable amount of snow on the ground and in the trees. I thought that was enough; I thought about it as I lay awake on the border of deep sleep. Sleep was strong in the cabin and the yard and in Father’s bedroom, and in the breathing of Turo the dog next to me; he was sleeping at the foot of my bed. That sleep was enough for me as I lay awake and thought about the depth of the snow and everything that is sufficient for people. I didn’t want to leave the world; it was not uncomfortable for me to lie awake when gentle, unhurried sleep was breathing next to me. The night could last a longtime, to darken as the moon sank, to lighten again gradually as the sun neared the horizon from below. But all that took a long time; it was the heart of winter.

Father came into the cabin in the morning twilight; it was time for him to get up and light a fire in the stove so that the cabin would not become too cold. He moved carefully; the fire started and made a cheerful sound in the stove. I fell asleep.

There was nothing wrong, and then those people came to visit, two women who had been before. They asked how our life was, was the house warm in these frosts.

‘We’re warm enough,’ Father answered. ‘People have always lived in this house in frosts too.’

Then they began to ask me all sorts of things, and said the same thing as they had said before, that I should go to an activity centre at least once a week, so that I would see other people. I tried to say that all of them would be strangers; they claimed that strangers would become familiar. Is that how it is. I didn’t promise to go, and then they asked about my sleeping, I suppose there had been talk about it before since they knew to bring the subject up.

‘I get lots of sleep,’ I claimed, but Father said:

‘I’m not sure about that perfectly well, I’ve kept an eye on you. You walk about the cabin, look out of the window.’

‘I do sleep. I get some sleep every night.’

‘I wonder if we could get help for that,’ Father said. ‘So that things don’t begin to slide since you’re awake so much.’

Father did not listen to or believe what I said; I got cross and shouted:

‘Turo sleeps for me too!’

That was not good enough for the women; they said something about medicines but I said coldly:

‘No medicines. To hell with medicines.’

‘We won’t force you, we won’t force you,’ one of the women tried to calm me down. ‘Let’s see how it goes,’ she said, giving Turo a biscuit from the table. Turo took it and wagged his tail. A dog doesn’t understand everything, even a wise one.

It didn’t feel good to stay awake any more after they had been to mess things up, to say that. The cloudy moonlit nights slipped away, the night fell into a dark gorge from which, after a week or two, a sharp new moon rose. It didn’t feel the same as the old one; it curved in the sky like a finger-nail. But I still had to go to the window to look at it and to see how it swelled, night by night. My movement disturbed Turo’s sleep; he came to the window to look with me and growled quietly at the changed moon. Then he stole away to the bedroom, to sleep at Father’s feet. It was peaceful in there; in the cabin it wasn’t.

The moon rounded, but stayed sharp at the edges. Its light also cut sharp shadows; my eyes avoided them so as not to be hurt, but could not escape them. I saw a lynx step into the yard from the embrace of the spruces, carrying its black shadow across the yard; it was looking for rabbits, and the suet we put out for the birds. The shadow drew me on, freeing something from me, pulling it across the yard like prey. I couldn’t stop it. I screamed.

Father came out of the bedroom, and Turo with him. Turo looked on in amazement; he didn’t know what I was screaming for, but Father new. He took a thermos flask out from behind the stove, into which he had put hot water in the evening, poured it into a mug, stirred in a few drops of something and gave it to me. I drank it and the screaming in me stopped.

‘I think you might sleep better in bed,’ Father said, and I got into bed. Father stayed in the cabin, took out a hymn book, leafed through it, and then began a hymn, low and soft.

Ah give me peace tonight
And let
me slumber tight
As you stand at the door.
Dear Jesus let me be
Your eye watch over me
This night and evermore.

I closed my eyes, saw the spruces and, behind them, the bright, grave, wakeful eye of Jesus. The path of the lynx passed tamely under its gaze back into the depths of the forest. The shadows put away their dangerous blades, lapsing back into the softness of the snow. The moon sank into its own craters, the stars came out in the sky as tender as flowers. In that world it was possible to sleep.

Now I am in the hospital and I sleep more than I want too. I sleep through good and bad dreams, and the forest is far away. How much sleep there is; how dense is its shadow. I sleep, small and curled up, under it; how much must I be able to sleep. Who drew up this sleeping programme for me and chose its dreams. But here there is nothing to stay up for; that’s why I agree to sleep and take the medicine.

When Father comes, I’m more awake. I have the energy to get up; we walk outside and it’s windy. The wind brings spring, Father says; we’ve certainly had enough of winter. It’s from the south-west, this wind; it’s travelled a long way over the sea where the ice has melted. It’s the sea that gives it its smell.

Father and I smell the distant sea.

I let him speak; I don’t yet say much. My tongue needs practice, it’s slow and unwieldy. ‘Turo,’ I say. ‘How is he?’

‘I think Turo’s sickening for something,’ Father says. ‘He’s off his food, and spends his time sleeping or just lying down. I suppose I should take him to the vet.’

After my evening medicine I remember Turo. I too spend my time sleeping or just lying down, and I too am sickening for something. But I want to go home now. Is the wind still rolling over the sea. Can Father’s hymn be heard over the wind.

The next day Father visits, he tells me that Turo has been to the vet’s and is now taking medicine morning and evening.

‘Just like me.’ I’m delighted; it’s as if Turo were wagging his tail in the crack of the door.

‘He understands a lot,’ I add.

‘What does he understand?’

‘That we need to sleep and get better at the same time. A dog knows more than we think: I say, and notice that my tongue is obeying me more. The time has come to wake up and speak, my tongue knows it and moves in my mouth, tasting the words which, little by little, lose their roughness and their unwillingness. ‘We’ll get better,’ I say and smile at Father, but he finds it difficult to smile back, and bends over to take a thermos flask from his bag. The old shopping bag smells of sour milk.

Father pours me some coffee. He has even remembered the sugar and milk, and above all the buns.

‘Have some, I baked them myself,’ he urges.

‘They’re good,’ I say, my mouth full of bun. ‘Lots of raisins.’

‘I put plenty of them in since I know you like them.’

‘I do. Has the lynx come into the yard again?’

‘Hasn’t been any sign of it. But I haven’t been putting the suet out, either, as the frosts have eased. I still feed them sunflower seeds, and oats for the yellowhammers. The blackbird has already appeared; that means spring is coming. Never seen it so early before.’

Father talks evenly about pleasant things and I feel good. But soon it is evening; Father goes away. Soon it is night, I’m sleeping in a different place from Father and Turo; I need to get home to sleep with them. Didn’t Father sing a hymn last time? Could I ask him, dare I, sometimes the hymn is too full of heavy words; warm, certainly, but heavy. Which words weigh heavy.

I want to make peace with the hymn business. I screw up my courage and say:

‘Sing a hymn, but not a heavy one. Not one of those with death at the end.’

Father remembers, pulls hymns out of the hymn cupboard in his mind. He doesn’t need a hymn book. The hymns in it are dark ribbons and pale ones, sometimes even bright, of different lengths; I hope he’ll chose a bright one. I say so.

Eternal brightness thou art,
O noble and divine light,
enter the room of my heart,
shine thy grace into my night.
Give me joy with thee in heaven.

Father has found a hymn and sings many verses, probably all of them. Then he looks at me and asks:

‘Well, was it bright?’

‘Yes, it was.’

I accept the hymn because Father has considered it to be bright and sung it to me. Although, to be accurate, death comes at the end of this hymn too: you don’t get to heaven without dying. But I don’t want to be so accurate as to say that to Father; joy is joy, and I suppose even more so in heaven. And a person there won’t remember what happened here, that he died. Seen from there, death is a small thing. The lynx slips back into the cover of the forest, the moon begins to shine more softly, and suddenly it’s morning.

I’m allowed back home when the night has shortened from both ends and the surface of the snow glistens. The wind skates along it, sweeps through the stand of young birch trees and, as it goes, tears off a thin strip of the bark. It falls in front of me and I lift it; it’s like tissue paper, it’s a letter. But I have to write the words myself. I put the letter in my pocket; it rustles there as if it were whispering.

Turo is better, but older than before. He walks stiffly and can no longer jump on to the end of the bed himself, but remains standing next to the bed and waits to be lifted up. I lift him; he’s quite heavy. But I lift him as often as is necessary, listen to his breathing at night and feel his warm weight with my feet, then sleep again. I sleep well; only sometimes do I get up to look out of the window. The yard is peaceful, the shadows know their place and darkness covers the flat-pressed surface of the snow. I feel no fear, and when I go back to bed sleep comes at once.

But one morning Turo is cold and heavy on my feet. I sit up, touch him. He is lying in the morning light as if he was asleep, but is cold, his fur is cold too, and his soft, slightly lop ears. His muzzle is hidden beneath a paw.

‘Father,’ I shout into the bedroom. ‘Come and see, Turo is cold.’

I don’t dare say aloud the word I know. But it hangs heavy in me, and then Father says it when he has looked at Turo and felt him.

‘Turo is dead,’ he says. ‘It’s sad for us, but he was an old dog, after all.’

Father digs a grave for Turo with a handspike and spade behind the sauna, beside a big stone.

‘There’s a fine gravestone for Turo, we’ll carve his name on it,’ he says.

‘And gild it, like Mummy’s gravestone,’ I suggest.

‘Let’s carve it first,’ Father smiles, and digs the grave deeper and deeper; it’s hard work as the ground is frosty. I try to help, pushing the handspike into the ground as hard as I can. Turo should have a proper grave, one where the foxes and lynxes will not find him.

We lower Turo into the grave in a wooden box, cover him with earth and clean snow, and on top of the snow we set spruce branches I have fetched from the forest.

After that we drink our funeral coffee. I feel sombre, but I do not cry. There went a good dog. That’s how people go, too, the dream lasts a longtime.

But there’s heaven, too.

I go into the field, to the edge of the stand of birch trees, take the birch-bark tissue out of my pocket and let it go into a gust of wind. I throw it into the wind and the light, and it is accepted. It is my letter, ready-written. It contains the word which I no longer fear, and many words about sleep, for I know sleep. But about heaven there is not a word, just its image, and joy.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins

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