Wolf-eye

Issue 2/2004 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Käsky (‘Command’, WSOY, 2003). Introduction by Jarmo Papinniemi

Only once he had led the woman into the boat and sat down in the rowing seat did it occur to Aaro that it might have been advisable to tie the woman’s hands throughout the journey. He dismissed the thought, as it would have seemed ridiculous to ask the prisoner to climb back up on to the shore whilst he went off to find a rope.

It was a mistake.

After sitting up all night, being constantly on his guard was difficult. Sitting in silence did not help matters either, but they had very few things to talk about.

The prisoner was unpredictable, there was no doubt about that. Her attempted escape was an indication of her deep-rooted, steely resolve. It was hard to tell whether she was gathering her strength in order to plot a new escape or whether she was as exhausted as her captor.

There was a light breeze. The sun appeared occasionally from behind the grey clouds filling the sky as they drifted towards the horizon. Aaro followed the flight of a bird swooping above the boat, as it travelled across the desolate rocks.

‘Look over there, in the distance… a seagull! You don’t see them round here very often. They much prefer it round the rocky islands in Åland.’

The prisoner remained stubbornly silent. Of course. What had he expected? Light-hearted ornithological banter about the distinguishing features of various bird species?

‘Of course, you must be afraid, after… all that,’ sighed Aaro. ‘But you’ll be all right. The worst’s over with. I promise you. I’ll take you to Ruukkijoki, to a proper field marshal. You’ll get justice. The judge over there is Emil Hallenberg. He’s a writer and a journalist. A civilised chap, who certainly won’t….’

The prisoner sneered.

Aaro decided to concentrate on the landscape, on the islands covered in spruce and pine trees, on the rocky outcrops shining in hues of grey and red, on the flocks of sheep roaming amongst the juniper bushes, on the rhythmic dancing of the waves against the boat….

He stopped rowing, began rummaging for a small cardboard box.

‘Can I have one too?’ the woman asked.

‘What?’

‘A cigarette.’

‘I don’t know about that.’

‘I’m hungry,’ she said, not imploringly, but more as if she were simply stating a fact. ‘I wouldn’t ask otherwise.’

‘You’ll be fed soon enough.’

‘How soon?’

‘We’ll see.’

Aaro considered things for a moment, then handed her a soggy cigarette and a box of matches. ‘Women shouldn’t smoke if you ask me.’

The woman crouched down to shelter herself from the wind. She had a long neck with a small indentation, filled with soft, light hairs.

‘Why not?’ she asked, her hand covering her mouth.

‘Don’t know. It doesn’t look nice.’

Her eyes, like green beads, rose from behind her bronzed hands and stared at him. They looked on but said nothing.

What a stupid thing to say. Who am I to tell working class women how to behave? I should be grateful she’s finally started talking. At least that’s something to pass the time on this hellish journey.

‘Why won’t you tell me your name?’

The woman had finally managed to light her cigarette and took a few experienced drags.

‘What’s it to you? There’s no one here but us,’ she replied. ‘If you say something, I know who you’re talking to. Is there far to go?’

Aaro turned to look at the group of islands spreading out behind them. ‘Maybe we could take a little shortcut. How about that?’

‘You’re the captain.’

Aaro nodded, vaguely satisfied. A fresh silence descended between them. It did not feel as oppressive to him as before; it was an unspoken ceasefire, a temporary peace between them. He continued rowing rhythmically, he did not want to reveal quite how fatigued he was.

As Aaro was picking out a new route between the islands, the sun suddenly appeared from behind the clouds and shone straight into his eyes, blinding him for a second.

It was enough.

Before the first kick struck him in the groin he noticed that the woman’s eyes had turned a transparent shade of yellow. The legend of the yellow-eyed tigers in the land of Amur in Siberia flashed through his mind. Hunting the animal had become a fatal obsession for many men. It belonged to an unknown and particularly cruel species. It had the ability to appear suddenly, completely unexpected, it could sail across the taiga quicker than the wind, never had a bullet been a match for it….

There are some animals which become paralysed when faced with death, and others which struggle until their very last breath. The latter are generally predators. Like humans. Caught in a whirl of freezing water Miina did not feel like something fighting for its life, rather like an outsider watching something else try to survive not for its own sake, but simply to spite its tormentor, or its fate.

Die. Die. Die. I am not the one you imprisoned two days ago. She no longer exists. And because of that you may no longer exist either. Don’t ding on to me, die like a man. Alone.

She would remember the sting of the Jäger’s grip. And the water dyed red.

But nothing about the swim back.

Finally the shore, earth beneath her hands.

Ice-cold water splashed against the rocks. The bitter cold stopped seeming real, the pain faded surprisingly quickly with fatigue, heavy as stone.

Where does the water end and the shore begin? Can’t go on. The person that used to be me left a lot unfinished. From now on I’m staying on land. I’ll embrace the earth and turn into a tree, a willow, perhaps. Maybe I’ll end up crying in the wind, but you will turn into mud at the bottom of the sea, the fish will eat your eyes and your tongue and your dick. You will never cry in the wind, you will never blossom in the summer. But I will blossom, I have reached land and air. No, I must get up. Fight. Find shelter.

Miina tried to crawl on to the shore, time after time, but her hands could not support her. She rested her head against a rock, as if it were merely a strange, heavy object on her shoulders….

The flue did not work very well, so they had to open the door every now and then because of the smoke. There was nothing Aaro could do but climb up on to the roof and prod about at the pipe in the dusk. He found a bundle of twigs, a crow’s nest perhaps, and threw it away. When he returned indoors he noticed that the woman lying beneath a pile of sacks and dirty old grey newspapers had finally opened her eyes.

‘There weren’t any other covers,’ he said as he added some wood to the fire and warmed his hands above the stove. All he was wearing was a pair of woollen trousers held up by a set of braces. His boots, shirt, overcoat and the woman’s clothes were all hanging as close to the fire as possible.

‘They’d left stuff to start a fire,’ he said. ‘That was thoughtful.’ Talking felt awkward but unavoidable. The smoke made his eyes water, his lips were still blue and there was a long cut beneath his ear. A clump of hair had become caught in the dried blood. He dipped a tin cup into the battered saucepan and tasted.

‘There’s warm water here, if you want it. Do you fancy a cup?’

The watchful eyes staring out from beneath a sopping wet head of hair expressed no emotion whatsoever.

‘I’ve decided to call you Sassa,’ Aaro declared. ‘We had a goat called Sassa back in the countryside. A fine animal, that one, a coat like silk but so bad-tempered you’d scarcely believe it.’

He sat down on the edge of the bed, trying to hide his limp, and offered her the cup. When the woman did not react he lifted his head and raised the cup to his lips.

‘Drink something, Sassa. It’ll warm you up,’ he said. ‘I think its real name was Aleksanteri. But you won’t have time to say that when it’s running horns first at someone’s backside. I used to tease it when it was tethered up, so it couldn’t snap at me. It never gave up without a fight. Goats can be as stubborn as humans. More stubborn even.’

He fell silent. He placed the woman’s cold hands around the cup. His head was full of worn-out conversation openers that were nonetheless still effective, words to lighten the atmosphere.

‘Mind you, I still think it grew to like me, in its own peevish way. There’s not many a goat has managed to resist my charms for long.’

Hmmm, maybe that wasn’t particularly funny after all. But someone’s got to make an effort.

‘You really ought to drink something,’ he said. ‘So you can warm up, then you’ll have the energy to fight with me again.’

He looked for the woman’s eyes through the dusky evening light inside the fishing hut. ‘But there’s one thing you’d better realise. I’m damn well going to take you to Ruukkijoki. That’s the only reason I bothered saving your life, dragging you on to the shore and bringing you here. And no plan you hatch is going to stop me. Just so you know that.’

He hobbled back to the fireplace and turned the damp clothes. Just think, in the space of one day he had twice saved the life of a murderous Red Guardist, yet he still felt like he owed her an explanation. The woman’s ungrateful hostility suddenly began to irritate him immensely….

Snatching a spawning pike from the lake with one’s bare hands is not particularly difficult, but it made a deep impression on the Jäger. Everything happened in an instant. Once she had seen the fish in between the rushes Miina quickly removed her shoes, slipped gently into the water and grabbed it.

‘Take it,’ she shouted and hurled the fish on to the shore.

Aaro Harjula, who had just given her a lecture on the marks of a skilled huntsman, stood stunned by the rock, until he realised he should jump on top of the pike, which was gradually floundering back towards the water.

Miina waded back to the shore, shaking from the cold. This however was nothing compared to the hunger, which battered her stomach like a hammer.

The Jäger clubbed the fish to death. ‘I don’t believe it. I just don’t believe it,’ he bellowed ecstatically. He stuck his thumb down the pike’s throat, twisted its neck, then wedged a stick through its gills. With the satisfied grin of a great hunter broadening across his face he started to dance, whistling and holding the pike between his arms as if it were a woman. At some point during his fervent waltz he glanced over his shoulder at Miina. And stopped. He looked surprised.

It took a moment for Miina to realise the reason for this. Without knowing it, she had smiled. Had the Jäger thought that she could not even do that?

‘I’d better dry my clothes,’ she said sharply and picked her shoes up from the rock.

‘Of course,’ Aaro agreed as he slipped off his overcoat and handed it to her.

‘I’ve seen a lot in my time, but snatching this whopper from the sea was really….’

He could not find words to describe this unexpected feat. Neither did it appear that he felt he had in any way made a laughing stock of himself. He had been dancing with a fish, which his prisoner – a woman – had caught, and now he was glowing with satisfaction….

It was their third day on the island. Throughout the whole journey Aaro had found nothing more to eat than bark, tree roots and grubs. Miina, who had finally become so hungry she could no longer sleep – after all, they had rested quite enough – had demanded to be allowed to try her luck. The Jäger had not tried to resist, it might even have been advisable to keep the prisoner under his constant observation.

From morning onwards the sky had been so blue, that it almost looked unreal, painted. They had spent the morning creeping through the thick forest like the indigenous peoples of Australia, turning every stone. All for nothing.

Miina felt a deserved pride as the fish cooked on the stove, watched by two unblinking pairs of eyes. If Aaro had not been there, she would have torn off the flesh raw. Letting a smile slip down by the shore annoyed her. It proved that there was something missing from her anger. Lying on the floor locked up in the cabin she had taken great comfort in planning her revenge, in thinking of different ways of getting rid of her guard once and for all, before a search party or a random passer-by turned up. But whenever she saw the Jäger in front of her, everything became that bit more complicated.

Before meeting Aaro Harjula, Miina had twice issued the death penalty. Only once had she seen it through. Not by her own hand, but seen it through nonetheless.

The first one had failed due to a lack of anger. When she had picked little Selma up and taken her away and seen her father through the window with a leather belt in his hand, she had vowed that he would finally be made to pay for years of relentless cruelty. Nine-year-old Elias, quiet, wide-eyed Elias, had been lying with his upper body bent over the table. Bright autumn sunbeams shone in upon her little brother through the window. His knuckles were clenched against the sides of the table. His shirt was rolled up to reveal his slender back, along which Miina could count his ribs. His trousers were in a crumpled heap around his ankles. His bottom was bare. Elias’ fair hair lay tousled and his eyes were wide open, yet unsettlingly expressionless. Just like the stuffed animals belonging to Mr Reinberg the photographer.

On that occasion too had Miina been unable to prevent the inevitable ritual. Selma was the only one she could save. Elias would have to be left praying forgiveness from God, the father and the belt which thrashed him until he bled. Tyyne, Saimi and Oiva had said farewell to their sister with a mixture of envy and sadness. But Elias’ expression had remained with Miina, it had become indelibly locked at the back of her mind.

I’ll kill that Bible-mad beast! I swear I will. As long as…

But daughters just do not become their fathers’ murderers. They cannot and they could not. Weak mothers, unable to protect their children, will always awaken pity towards the household beast. After all, he does put bread on the table. And she, the daughter, remembered the only time, long ago in her distant childhood, when the beast serving his monster god took pity on her and was almost tender towards her. And because of this he was able to carry on torturing the defenceless in peace.

Things were different with Director Henriksson. There had been an opportunity and men to carry out the job. All Miina had had to do was tell them where the man’s hideout lay. The same cottage where members of the photographic society had once met up on their jolly summer excursions with their little cupids and cherubs, her sister Selma amongst them.

Selma had never said word about this. After the first summer excursion she simply changed. She became strange, ran away often. She even tried to return to her father and his belt.

Miina had only understood things once she had seem some secret photographs belonging to one of the society’s members. Of course, as her older sister, she should have realised when the event took place, but her mind had been elsewhere. She had been carried away in a blur of unrequited love and had done everything she could to awaken forbidden feelings in the reluctant man. Amidst such an operation, how could her patience have possibly stretched to include the trivial pursuits of her ungrateful sister?

The photographs only came to light many years too late. But then they thrust their way straight into Miina’s blood stream, never to leave her again.

It only took a moment to see more than what had been captured in the amateurish shots. She could see legs and hands and beads of sweat on a bald brow. She could hear a child’s whimper and the panting of an old man, and the groan as he came. She could smell the vaseline, the child’s urine – she was wetting herself in agony – and the ammoniac stench of sperm. She could see the child waiting her turn. She could hear the clink of schnapps glasses, the sweets, the good little girl’s reward on the table, and a scraping sound as the camera’s protective cover was removed.

All this and much more she had transferred into herself forever, once an unfathomable time had elapsed since those events, and all that remained was the faint comfort revenge….

‘I think it’s done now, don’t you,’ said Aaro and without waiting for an answer lifted the pike on to a newspaper on the floor. They both dug in at once. Maddened with hunger neither of them was concerned about burning their mouth.

White fish meat washed down with water in the warmth of the fire.

What bliss!

‘I still don’t know how you did it,’ said the Jäger. ‘But I can assure you, this is the best meal I’ve ever eaten. If only we had some tobacco for afters, that would really…’

He lowered his eyes and concentrated on tearing another piece of flesh from the pike’s side. When had he started leaving sentences unfinished like that? Thank God he had at least given up his embarrassing attempts at being funny.

‘Sorry about the cigarettes,’ said Miina. ‘Sorry they’re at the bottom of the sea.’

The Jäger laughed. ‘I’m sure you wouldn’t have minded me being in their place.’

‘True enough.’

Miina had hung her underclothes up to dry. All she was wearing was the overcoat. It felt bristly against her bare skin.

‘Well, we’re stuck here now anyway,’ he exclaimed.

‘Looks like it.’

Aaro gulped down a large piece of fish and managed to get a bone stuck in his throat. He began to cough and blink frantically. A bright red spread across his face. Before Miina herself understood what she was doing, she did exactly what people do when someone at the table looks as if they are about to choke: she reached over to help. Just as she was about to touch his back she stopped herself.

Damn it! What a ridiculous gesture!

Miina pulled back and quietly watched the spluttering. Eventually Aaro managed to dislodge the bone. It was covered in blood, as were his fingers which he wiped on the yellowed shreds of newspaper.

Imagine if, after all the turmoil of war, all it took to seal the fate of a brave independence fighter was a single fishbone. There would have been some irony in that….

‘You see, it’ll fall like a clay pigeon, watch,’ he said aiming his improvised bow and arrow at a tern arching across the sky.

The arrow zigzagged wildly short of its target and fell on its blade beaten from the handle of an oil lamp somewhere amongst the fir trees. Miina laughed.

‘Listen, I’m a master shooter, you know,’ he said undauntedly. ‘If I still had my revolver, I think you’d be surprised.’

‘I thought I’d already seen your weapons skills,’ said Miina.

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘No.’

‘I got a medal,’ he said with pride. ‘The best shooter in my division in Lockstedt. The only discipline where I wasn’t an utter fool.’

‘Yes, I can imagine.’

The Jäger raked about beneath the trees with his bow strung with sack cloth. ‘You’ll see,’ he said over his shoulder. ‘And you’ll be amazed.’

‘When?’

‘I don’t know, but prepare yourself for a surprise.’

‘What kind of surprise is that, if you have to prepare yourself for it?’

‘That’s just it. Because you don’t believe me.’

Miina wished that there might be some truth in Aaro’s boasting, that he would prove it by catching something they could eat. The hunger was becoming ever more unbearable, it overshadowed everything else and made the war, the world beyond their island, seem unreal.

She listened to the green sigh of the forest, examining the grass, turning stones.

Something. Anything at all.

He found his arrow and began waving it victoriously. Nothing seemed to dent his endless joviality.

‘Can I have a go?’ Miina asked.

The Jäger shook his head with a chuckle and did not bother to explain his reasons.

‘My old school mate Henkka Laaksonen used to say that the most pleasure he ever got out of a bow and arrow was when he shot his brother in the arse,’ said Aaro. ‘But I haven’t got a brother. Or a sister, for that matter. What about you?’

Miina shook her head, she was more interested in the flight of an eagle above the rocks.

‘Then you’ll know what it’s like being an only child too. Not half as desirable as most people imagine. Or what do you think?’

 

Miina was thinking of the maple tree growing in front of the photographer’s studio where she had worked. She thought of Selma shuffling down the street in her sister’s boots, which were far too big for her – clop. clop, cloppity clop. She thought of golden leaves floating on the surface of a puddle, of the scent of the wind and the autumn soil.

Selma had received her first wage packet had decided to buy some glossy pictures to send home with the money. She had wanted to choose them with her sister.

Miina thought of the chiming of the bell on the door of the shop. The smell of books. The oak glass cabinet, from which Mrs Wikman had lifted a small box covered in Chinese tissue paper. And Selma’s damp plaits as they swung above the pictures, gold-embossed bunches of flowers and lambs with rosettes around their necks.

Miina thought of how they carefully examined each picture and how they had argued over which ones to buy, quietly and respectfully. Selma’s parting had been slightly askew at the neck, her jacket sleeves too short, her wrists as thin as birds’ bones.

And Miina thought of Selma’s expression as she walked out of the shop carrying her parcel wrapped in paper. Only grand duchesses in their splendid salons smiled as nobly as that.

 

‘We ought to build a raft,’ Miina said more to herself, though Aaro took this to signify the beginning of a new conversation.

‘Of course we should, but how are we going to cut the trees down? Or tie them together?’

Miina brought a finger to her lips and quietly began to move round the other side of the rocks. The Jäger followed her, trampling clumsily in his usual manner and brushing branches aside to clear a path for his stout body.

Miina crouched down and picked up a stone. The Jäger looked at her distrustfully, but allowed her to keep it. The stone weighed heavy in the palm of her hand as she walked on further, her body tight against the rock face.

There were two little creatures. Cubs.

They were fighting noisily and did not notice the intruders at first. Suddenly one of them startled, raised its little nose into the air and yelped as its sparring partner’s razor-sharp teeth sank into its hind leg.

The Jäger shoved his way past Miina and flung himself at the creatures. He grabbed the closer of the two cubs. The other one managed to dash to safety between the rocks.

Miina looked at the wriggling ball of black and grey fur in the man’s arms. A wild dog, perhaps. Or a wolf.

It was whining and shivering, its great ears pricked up with fear, wetting itself in Aaro’s arms. Miina reached out and gently stroked the cub’s belly. She thought she had never felt something as soft and moving. The cub gave off a strange scent, at once bitter and milky.

Tears came to her eyes.

‘Put it down,’ she whispered. ‘The mother might abandon it if she can tell that we’ve touched it.’

The Jäger looked at her in astonishment. ‘I’ll do no such thing,’ he said. ‘We’re going to use this little fellow to trap a bigger hound. This one’s not even big enough to fill the saucepan.’ He scratched the cub behind the ears and gave a broad grin.

Something snapped inside Miina. She raised her fist with the stone into the air.

‘Put it down! Now!’’

He looked at her unblinking eyes.

Now now now…’

The command echoed across the island.

‘Come on…’

They looked at one another. The sky was in place. The trees, the stones and the water were all in place. And they were in place too, they could finally see what had to be seen. She lowered her hand. The stone dropped to the ground.

‘Let it go,’ she said quietly. She leant over and touched his arm. ‘Please, let it go free.’

He crouched down. The cub jumped to the ground and retreated a little. The soft hairs on its back stood on end. A soft growling could be heard from its throat. Then it turned, dashed away and crawled to safety amongst the rocks.

 

That evening Miina developed a fever. She did not wake up once during the night. She walked through the mist beneath the spruce trees moving from shadow to shadow, wandering at times following herself, at others with a large dark animal by her side.’

Neither did she get up when the sun rose. She did not hear the fishing boat drawing closer, nor the men shouting to each other. All she could remember of the journey to the mainland was the smell of tobacco and the taste of coffee strengthened with liquor in the back of her throat.

One image had, however, imprinted itself in her mind.

 

The man standing beside a rock, his stocky figure gasping for breath in a faded overcoat against a backdrop of dark-green pine trees and a blue sky. His cheeks dimpled, his unwashed hair dangling across his forehead, with a small, helpless creature struggling in his huge fists. For the very first time Miina could see his loneliness and fear, but she could also see his goodness. His deep, determined goodness, which wiped away the dishonour and the wretchedness, all that was wrong, the ridiculous and futile that exists between them.

Miina says something. Asks for something. Words do not matter, words only drive people apart and confuse them. A touch can say a great deal more. That everything is finally as it should be.

Translated by David Hackston

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