How to peel an orange

30 December 2002 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Auringon asema (‘The position of the sun’, Otava, 2002)

There are times when God rules. Then logic is burned on bonfires and left to rot in damp prisons with rats. There are times when logic rules. Then God is burned in the squares and his houses are made into schools. There are times when attempts are made to demonstrate that God and logic can live in the same place and that they are, in fact, the same thing, but those times are truly strange times. And there are times when God and logic live side by side but in different places, like adult siblings who cannot live in the same place but nevertheless get on well together. When my father and my mother loved each other, they were ruled by God, and there was no logic in it, none at all.

Once I abandoned God in the name of logic . I said to my father: I do not believe in your God. My father said: God is one, God is great. I smoked a cigarette in front of him and left. My father packed his things and wandered through a strange city for many days. My mother’s growths grew to twice their size. Winter began. It lasted many years, for many years the sun did not shine into our rooms. During that winter, the light fractured, and I had to glue the pieces together myself. When now I see the sun, I turn my face toward it and say: do not go away again. An Indian man moved into my house, and he became my brother. Now it is August; I have glued the pieces together and no longer protect myself from this light.

My father met my mother in a train on the way from Luxor to Aswan. My father, who was like a lion, my father, whose eyes were creased at the edges from laughing, and from squinting them too, said to my mother: my name is Ismael, and it means that God hears all my prayers, thus it has always been and thus it will always be, and my father smiled crookedly with his eyes and with his mouth too, and my mother said: my name is Anu, and it doesn’t mean anything at all, and sometimes when my mother stood against the sky, her eyes and the sky were the same colour. Behind my father was God and behind my mother was nothing at all.

Now it is August. The sky is full of shooting stars. Sometimes we stay awake until dawn, why should we sleep? We talk about books and children and strange cities. The flowers have withered, the lingonberries will be ripe soon, and the forest smells of mushrooms. The apples are falling from their branches. We eat bilberry pie on the summer-house porch, and when our thoughts run too fast they collide with each other. Only the most important words are spoken, and generally not even those. At night it is so dark that we cannot see in front of us. We stretch out our hands to each other, and if there is wine in our glasses it perhaps splashes. The rocks are warm, and the sea. We float in the night, we are supported by the water. Only the tips of our fingers touch each other, and we are quiet, for once.

Ismael and Anu. Once they formed my entire reality, and then I used to shout at night without any sound issuing from my mouth. They were so big that they filled all the corners, all the spaces, the light was lit by them, and when it went out I could not reach to light it again, and then I knew that I had been supported by their light. They were so big that I could not fit into the world with them. Not at all. When I sat down at the table to peel an orange, I knew that I could make four cuts in the skin so that it would come away easily, that was what my mother did. But I also knew that I could cut the peel away in a long spiral which I could wind around my wrist like a jewel, that was what my father did. And when my mother said that drinking water was fresher if essence pressed from the petals of roses was not added to it, then my father said that drinking water is tastier if essence pressed form the petals of roses is added to it, my father, he wound the peel of an orange around my wrist like a jewel. An orange can be peeled in two ways, but I cannot peel it in both ways, not the same orange in any case, and so I sat at the table for a long time; outsides all sorts of things were happening and I didn’t join in, as I did not know how to be in this world with them. Not at all.

When my father saw my mother for the first time, he thought: that is not a woman, that is an angel. And my mother saw herself in my father’s eyes, for at that moment they were as brown as earth, so much scope for growth and development, and my mother had only once felt herself to be more beautiful, and it was many years since then, when it was summer and she had been walking along the side of the market and a diplomatic car had slowed down beside her, and an Arab man had looked at her for a moment through an open window. And angels do not eat, for their bodies are made of air and imagination, they have no cells which destroy other cells, and angels do not fall ill, their hair does not darken even in childbirth, for they do not give birth or cry in the pain of blood or tearing skin, and my mother said that men did not need to come to the birth, that she did not understand why they would want to, and for a long time I was of the same opinion, of course, but I am no longer. And my mother said: if only one did not have to eat at all, if one could simply take a tablet that would take away hunger and keep one alive, but when my father came to Finland his suitcases were full of food, fruit which he had packed in plastic bags and stapled shut, and sometimes when the others had already finished, I stayed at the table eating watermelon, I ate one slice after another and my father stroked my hair and approved of me entirely. Oil is thick and hot, it pours out of the ground like lava, and its scent stays in your nose for a long time, and it can be the same with perfume if there is too much of it, that indicates something, and it is the same if there is too little of it, and my mother’s perfume bottles gathered dust and their scent faded, and I have a friend who is the same, and her eyes have begun to grow closed, but my father put rose essence in the water and bought flowers for no reason, and it is certainly true that it is dangerous to fall in love with angels, it is dangerous to play with gods, and it is dangerous to imitate them. Sometimes it is difficult to carry oneself, one would like to shrink to the size of a single word, a single mouthful, so that it would be easier for men, and for some men it is enough, but men like that do not put their newspaper and bunch of keys down on the edge of the table and say: where are you today, generally you’re completely here. But sometimes it is difficult to be so big, shoots that grow in any direction, it is difficult to be so soft and without borders, so full of contacting surface, places that cannot be protected, why should they, and perfume extends me still further until I am completely endless, and I have certainly wanted to be an angel too, and then I have wanted to stop being human, and you could say that then I have wanted to die, but instead I became a crow, I flew in the rain past the yellow windows and prayed: let me in and give me food, and tell me what is wrong with me. And when my mother became an angel, she withered the human away, and I am not even angry any more. God is wise and just in his decisions, sometimes it is just so very difficult to understand his will, and he took my mother’s body, it was burned and I lowered the white urn on a thread to the ground, but my mother’s spirit he did not take anywhere, and that was just what my mother wanted, and my mother was present too on the night when we shouted and laughed and drank, for everything had at last ended.

My father sucked the marrow out of bones and ate the brains too, and so he will live a long life.

My father chose water over oil. He told me that it was an ethical choice. Tens of millions of people live in Egypt, their number grows and grows, but only a few per cent of the total area of Egypt is in use, and with the help of ground-water the amount of habitable land could be increased. The habitation of the desert, watering the dead and the withered, that is a fine aim, and it is then not fitting to think about one’s own livelihood. And nevertheless my father added rose essence to drinking water and bought flowers for no reason and fell in love with an angel. When my father chose water over oil, he was not merely choosing what was right. He was choosing what was beautiful. For my father was one of those who are made of fire. When they come into a room, everything turns into light; when they come too close, everything becomes ash, and when they leave, nothing is left. My father was made of fire and my mother was made of water and that was why in the beginning everything was so beautiful and great, and I understand that fire does not yearn for more heat, but something cooling, something quite different, but on the other hand it is clear that in fire water evaporates and in water fire goes out and myself and my sister, we stay on dry ground. We look for scents and tastes and give them names. We eat food that burns our mouths in order to know our mouths, to remember our mouths. Long ago we tasted green leaves in oil, and both of us sought them for many years without knowing what they were. And once, much later, I tasted them again. They were mangolds, and it was as if I had met an old friend or mended a tear or found a missing piece. And there was another taste, too, at our friends’ house when we were quite small, and in Indian restaurants, and it was fresh coriander. We had learned to inspect the cooker before we went out, and the windows, too, that they were definitely closed, and even then you can be afraid that if something was left on or open, and it is all quite natural, for we build around us a home, and all sorts of things can happen, all sorts of bad things, which would change everything to ash, from which nothing at all will grow. And when my doorbell rings, I may not answer it. Myself and my sister, we are the same.

My mother threw all old things away. She hated inherited and worn furniture, and in the end she could not afford anything else. She wanted an apartment with just black and white and lots of glass, lots of windows and doors, and most of all she hated it when it was too hot, when the air did not move, and in hospital it was always too hot, and the air did not move, but in her handbag she kept an old hymn book, it was worn and full of different handwritings, and some paradoxes are never resolved and change into sorrow, and isn’t it true that a discord which cannot be resolved goes on troubling the listener, and many composers know this and do not compose happy endings, because happy endings do not really exist, for if something ends, you go on yearning for it, and yearning always includes sorrow too. My mother hated the smell of food, the way it clings even to the curtains, and the black-and-white apartment would not have had curtains at all, or electric leads or carpets or little wooden animals on the piano, gathering dust and memories. My mother did not want anything excessive around her bones, stuff that might attract all sorts of things. She cut my hair quite short, for she knew that hair gathers more than anything else, she wanted to see my neck and head clean. My mother did not mend holes or tears, she threw everything old away. Our living room in Cairo was the colour of lemons, the furniture was so light that we could lift it and hide under it; from time to time my mother washed everything and hung it out in the sun to dry, and even the table was glass, which had to be polished every day, for when my father was a child there had only been sand where our house was, and even now the desert was so close that everything was covered in sand in a moment, and on the balcony the leaves of the plants turned grey and heavy if we did not remember to wash then, my mother did not want anything curlicued or shiny in our homes, nothing gilded or copied, our homes looked like her, at the windows were just thin white curtains and the walls were painted white, and white is the most frightening colour of all, it is the colour of death. White, no words, no laughter or tears, white, shrill and high, our walls were white as a child on whose skin nothing has yet been drawn, they were as white as a demanding god, a god who does not smile to himself, our walls, as white as death.

In my father’s childhood home the windows were protected by heavy, turquoise-blue silk curtains with gold patterns and tassels, lots of tassels in strange places, and the cupboard was of dark wood and on it was carved a happy story, of a prince and a princess, and the bath had lions’ feet, and the stairs curved and their banisters, and my father’s sister lived there behind seven locks and would not let even us in.

My mother made our homes look like her, but when she fell ill, when we moved the television beside her bed and watched the Olympics, the dust settled on the pages of her books and damaged her records and the living room the colour of lemons darkened like her own hair, and my father’s things piled up in all the corners. Our home no longer looked like our mother, our home had never looked like our father. Our home did not look like anyone. In my doll’s house all the furniture and even the dolls were in their places; my sister was never allowed to touch it. Our kitten fell ill and died. Our birds fell ill and died. When the sun set, the call to prayer, night close, most terrifying of all, terrifying. The end near, the white bird of death, fluttering its wings.
But at the beginning, at the very beginning, when my father saw my mother for the first time, he believed that soon everything would change, the old would become new, the heavy light, and there would no longer be anything weighty, and perhaps the rain would begin, which would damp his hot face and even cover the sun.

And so I bade farewell to them, I bade farewell to their love, of course it was not my love, I bade farewell to their gods, of course they were not my gods, I bade farewell to their hate, of course it was not my hate, I bade farewell to their memories, of course they were not my memories, I bade farewell to their love, for it was not my love. And I no longer wept.

But all the same. When my father bought live doves, we did not let him kill them. We gave them names, and when they were still small, my father fed them with a pipette. My father built them a nest out of cardboard boxes, and when we left Libya, they were still alive. And the tortoise always followed my mother through the garden, and the grapes ripened in the canopy, and the ants never changed their path, and a white lily grew on the site of our cat’s grave, and in Rome we ran out of the rain and into the restaurant, and the musicians played at our table and I did not know that my father had paid them for it, and when my father came to Finland, his suitcase was full of presents and he had not bought himself anything, and I thought it was normal, like the long letters which we never answered, which we could scarcely be bothered to read, and the newspaper cuttings which, sitting in his Indian bamboo chair, he had cut out for us, squinting through his thick glasses, in his worn pyjamas, his brow furrowed, with a small pair of scissors, just for us. All those years, and I thought it was normal, at most a bit boring, and I shall never forgive myself, never.

Once in Hungary a young man who knew the stars and the comets too, a rucksack on his back, narrow fingers and a pale face, and I too, and a panoramic spot, and when the Americans continued on their way, only we were left, and so the musicians stopped playing and began to smoke cigarettes, and then, finally, I understood that my father had paid the musicians long ago in Rome, so that they would play only for us, so that they would grace our evening, and beside me the pale young man smiled with his grey eyes, and was so far away from me, so far away. And so I looked at the Danube and saw only dirty water and the sky hung on my shoulders and did not curve at all.

My father the water-seeker, I hope he seeks water no longer. I hope that now someone soft and round and scented and glimmering, sweet words only seldom, so that he does not have to be alone at least. So that he does not have to eat alone at least. My father, I love him above all else. And when I next eat an orange, I shall cut the peel away in a long spiral that I shall wind round my wrist for a moment, like a jewel.

When my father saw my mother in a train on the way from Luxor to Aswan, it was as if he had never been able to speak, as if the world had never fitted into words, as if it could not be described in concepts, as if it were not possible to sing about it, for what are songs if not composed words, and in songs a woman’s face is like the moon, her eyes black as night. And notes, too, did not seem suitable, meandering and soft, for it was not necessary to entice my mother, or her smile, and her gaze was open and present, she did not glance, my mother was not a glancer, and sometimes the scents of the bazaar begin but do not end, how to explain something that has no form, and they simply escape, and one is left longing for them, and my father thought: this cannot be a woman, there is powder on a woman’s face, powder and skin that does not breathe, and gold that weighs down the ear-lobes, and velvet and oil always before, and now this is quite clearly an angel, here and over there, nothing hidden but nevertheless a thousand promises and colours, pale light colours, like the highest notes of a piano and the spring light which shatters everywhere, and colours when there is too much light, light in the eyes and ears, so that there is not room for even a single word more, so that warmth and irritation tickle under the eyes, like a befuddled wasp, perhaps a little angry too, one’s own space, but there is no own any more, and that is irritating, but one must run in order to be in time, and if one has not remembered to drink, one can drop from the train door on to the platform and wake up much later, and the earth can still be damp if it is morning, and everything is transparent, there are sparkles and spots which were not there before, and now there is no more whispering, but shouting, announcing, proclaiming, why whisper when everything is clear, when everything is written, thus thought my father, when everything was written in letters of fire long, long ago, or not until tomorrow. Once the light shattered and went into fragments and I could no longer find all the pieces, but I did find most of them and got them glued together, and of course I can see the lines under my eyes, why should I not also see the places where there is glue, it is the work of my own hands, after all. My father sought the word and did not find it, and this had never happened before, it was easier to speak the dialects of the Bedouins, to listen and imitate, it was easier to look at a woman through a song, to seek the song in the woman, to sing words to a woman and say to her: this is our song, these words are you, you are these words, and then one can fall asleep easily for nothing has broken or even been damaged, and that is a good thing is it not, why break and damage, that is pointless, and there is too much of that in the world anyway, the marks of the cluster bomb on the wall years after, and when one colours in a map, the colour must stay inside the borders or outside them, otherwise of course it would not be worth drawing it, and when the door is locked for the night, much remains outside it, and one can take what one wants indoors, but my father had not met my mother earlier, and so it is easier to understand him.

My father, he was not afraid of anything. And my mother, she too, soon. My father and my mother, they were covered in light. There was no longer anything else in the whole world. And when I close my eyes, there is perhaps even more light.

Translated by Hildi Hawkins


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