Northern exposure

Issue 3/2005 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Valon reunalla (‘At the edge of light’, Teos, 2005). Introduction by Kristina Carlson

Kari

The village despised all those who left. They hated us too, though we were still only planning our final escape.

We used to escape the village. We would hide from its gaze in the forest or the cemetery where the gravestones were so close together that there was no room for the trees to grow. We knew why the freight train brought the village so many dead and so few living. It was the village’s fault. It had a wicked soul. The grown-ups didn’t know it. We knew it, but no one asked us. Death was within us; it was alive. Asking would have been too dangerous….

On the backs of the headstones we carved our own marks with the end of a knife. We blew out the candles laid at the graves of suicide victims. We worshipped them in the dark and no new candles were ever brought to their graves. The parents of those who died so young drove south. They were looking for stations with real waiting rooms and staff that made announcements. They sat on the hard benches waiting, waiting for the trains to come, at the right time; hoping the years wouldn’t wreak havoc after all, hoping they’d roll slowly back along the tracks, to brighten as they approached the village, giving life once again to their children. And everything could start over.

At the village station stood piles of logs and a small, flat-roofed cottage where the railway workers brewed coffee and liquor. Its doors were always locked fast. No one made announcements. The freight train arrived twice a day. It stopped in the village, unloaded or took on more cargo, and continued north to Kolari. The tracks didn’t go any further than that. That’s where the world ended and the passenger train was still far away, months away from the village.

Kari took out his knife and pressed its blunt edge against my neck.

‘Don’t be afraid of me,’ he whispered.

I swallowed my fear and listened to the thinning hiss as Kari drew the edge of the knife along my skin. He cured me the way the ancient Lapps have done for centuries. He didn’t tear the skin; he merely scratched the points which felt ill. There was not a single point within me which would not have cared for Kari’s touch. A rusty knife was better than him leaving me. He didn’t leave me. I took off my shoes and showed him my bare feet. He didn’t ask me anything, didn’t look me in the eyes, but he knew nerves reaching to the heart lie in the soles of our feet. He spat out a glot of chewing tobacco, followed its black trajectory through the air and thrust deep inside.

I couldn’t escape him any longer. He found me, followed my blood trail, even once the wound had healed. Once he had caught the scent, he couldn’t forget, so he said….

The knife was real. Its blade was rusted, but it was real. No sooner had its tip brushed against those tender islands of pain than I was cured. I was cured when I saw Kari’s mischievous smile, compelling me to take off my jacket and jumper, to reveal my skin and what lies beneath my skin; what made goosebumps appear on the surface, so clamorous that I have to stuff my ears with moss. The noise was coming from within. Nobody heard it but me. Not even Kari, though I told him to press his ear against my skin. All he heard was my heartbeat, and he counted them out loud. He counted them until they slowed, leaving space for something new, and the noise no longer fitted inside me….

Jungle

The river flowed quietly by, its surface a mixture of all the most beautiful colours of the sky, colours which in Pirta’s eyes found the shape and order of a rainbow. Pirta was walking in front of me, Aslak’s love bites on her neck, throwing twigs and stones into the waves – even rubbish sometimes, if I didn’t stop her in time.

‘Get a life,’ she exclaimed.

Pirta’s narrow hips swung from side to side. Her hair glowed red in the sunlight. Her small breasts bounced gently beneath her thin shirt. I hunched my shoulders forward, trying to loosen the fabric of my jumper so that my breasts wouldn’t look so full. If Kari had the choice, he would choose Pirta. Pirta wasn’t big and dark like me. But Aslak had got there first. Perhaps the river would reward Aslak, if I asked nicely; perhaps it would offer him a gentle way to die. Or even many different ways.

The walk back to the village felt quicker when we thought up ways to die. Pirta wanted to slit her wrists open, eat poisonous mushrooms or blow her brains out with a shotgun. I wanted to drown myself. Pirta wanted to slip a noose around her neck, jump in front of a lorry or overdose on sleeping pills. I wanted to drown myself. Pirta wanted to cover her head with a plastic bag, pass out in a snow drift or rip her stomach open with a knife. I wanted to drown myself. Pirta wanted to starve to death, swallow razor blades or choke on vomit. I wanted to drown myself. Pirta was bored and wanted me to say something else, but the river was too close and forbade me. Only once we reached the village, far beyond the pull of the river, did I dare say:

‘I’d drink a bottle of vodka and drive my dad’s car into a tree.’

‘You’d only be paralysed and Kari would leave you.’

‘I don’t fucking care.’

We walked hand in hand past the town hall. In Dad’s office the curtains were shut.

‘Is that the car?’ Pirta asked and pointed at a taxi parked outside the town hall.

‘Give me a break,’ I said, but by the time we reached the bingo hall I had regained my strength.

‘Your mum’s over there in the front row,’ I pointed out as Pirta quickened her step.

‘I don’t fucking care,’ she mumbled without so much as glancing through the open doors at the monotonous mass of colours and numbers flooding from inside.

There was dog shit behind E-Market. Hemppa’s fast-food place was shut. We climbed up onto the roof of the bank. Pirta lit a cigarette and we smoked it in turns until each of us was smeared with the other’s lipstick and we both had stomach cramps. Up there we could smoke in peace. People walked past, their faces serious, their eyes fixed on the hot asphalt. No one looked up to the sky. The sun was too close; it had warmed too soon. The sun never asked whether it was okay to put in an appearance. Summer was a short, bright dream that no one dared believe until the air chilled again.

That’s when the cursing began:

‘Fuck, another cold summer.’

And there was no end to it, even though there were many hot days and the river boiled and haystacks raised on spears soon dried out yellow in the heat.

‘It’s too dry. Won’t be any mushrooms.’

And in the dark, damp forest it grew stronger and stronger, carrying me through the winter, just as the river carried me towards the guileful spring. Pirta didn’t need the river. She carried her flesh by herself; and her skin, heavy with warmth.

‘Ristiina, do you remember?’ she asked.

‘Of course.’

There was no need to say any more. There was no need to walk against the current, though both of us knew that the hill rising up behind the rooves was not just any old hill, nor were the trees on the hillside any old trees. Beneath their bark lay a smooth skin, something we had already lost. They belonged in the jungle, a place where we had played together in the knowledge that a hairy apeman was watching our every move. We knew that in the trees there was still a hut built by our fathers so that our adventures wouldn’t be interrupted by night or a hail storm. The hut was very high up, hidden amongst the thick foliage. It was easy to climb up there along the tree’s leaning trunk, but the apeman would always climb up the lianas just as we were about to fal1 asleep. He would crawl inside the sleeping bag, offer us his hairy body, and this game refused to merge with the deep breath of sleep. He would hop along our shared skin and keep us awake until morning.

Now the apeman was alone. His sad eyes looked out across the rooves but he couldn’t see us, because our faces were hidden behind a veil of grey smoke, and his hand couldn’t break through the bark. The hut had been damaged during a storm. It needed some repairs, but our fathers didn’t know anything about this and our hands weren’t strong enough. The body refused to collect warming rays for itself. It stole heat from others and closed the smoke extractors too soon.

Tent

I swam backstroke to the shore, walked up to my towel and lay down. Pirta’s giggling could be heard from the changing hut. I pressed my tongue firmly against the top of my palate and let the sun’s hot tongue press my body against the rough earth.

I spent the whole summer there and wished that nothing would change. That my bikini top wouldn’t seem any smaller and that my trousers wouldn’t split at the seams.

I wished that a tornado would gather its strength and whirl itself away backwards. It would be summer before then, all those summers when Aslak didn’t exist and Pirta was allowed to stay at Granny’s.

We would sit on the back seat giggling, our lips covered in syrup, Dad’s face beaming in the rear view mirror. He put up a great big tent in Granny’s backyard; there was enough room in there for us to do gymnastics, and when the long zip had been done up we used to play mummies and daddies. Pirta had short hair so she got to be the boy and lie on top of my naked body. She got to kiss me with her hard lips tightly squeezed together, and I got to moan the way I imagined grown up women do.

Pirta’s bony body felt safe inside the sleeping bag. I shaped her into a nest for myself, a place where bad dreams couldn’t find me and where, in the morning when I awoke in the orange glow of the tent, I could dare to be happy about the warm day ahead which would take us to the water and back, to the water and back. I never tired of looking at my reflection in the sauna mirror. My black hair spilled down wet around my shoulders. My face was pale and in my eyes there glimmered an emerald I had borrowed from Pirta. My breasts swelled prettily as I breathed in. I was Brooke Shields at the Blue Lagoon. Pirta was my red-haired, freckled husband.

Hand in hand we wandered through this island paradise and I worshipped the sun as its caresses turned our skin brown, made fruit grow larger and juicier so that when we shook a tree hunger and fatigue disappeared in an instant. We were happy and content until the sun removed its sweet mask and stuck out its tongue, darkening the sky, slithering around the world like a translucent snake captured inside a shimmering aura.

‘I’m not your boyfriend any more,’ Pirta snapped.

Autumn appeared before she could finish that nasty sentence. Autumn appeared and knocked over the tent, tore the dresses from around the trees and commanded them to kneel before the northerly winds. They had laid their spindly limbs across the path as I walked from the primary school to the secondary school and hid in the toilet. As I took comfort by a lukewarm radiator and as a wet filter was thrust between my lips; as fear disappeared out the back door, as I dared to inhale the bitter smoke deep, deep down where my roots fumbled in search of fertile ground. As the playground assistant stepped into the toilet, as I hid behind my fringe and faded my body into invisibility.

Dad held a meeting in honour of which the sound on the television was turned off and Mum demanded that I comb my fringe to the side. They examined the list of people in my class and read out the names of those people I ought to associate myself with. Mum said that Raija, the bank manager’s daughter, would be a good friend for me, and that for a boyfriend I could have Petteri, whose father was the headmaster.

‘No boys for you yet,’ Dad growled.

A star appeared by the names of acceptable friends. Neutral names were marked with only a line, while those with whom I should never be seen were marked with skulls. Kari wasn’t in my class, but on this list he had a column all of his own, full of skulls.

‘Don’t you put a foot inside that slum,’ Mum reminded me.

Dad cleared his throat. I gave my head a shake and let my fringe darken the world, whilst Dad turned the sound back up on the television.

House arrest

I stiffened when I saw their new seating arrangement.

They were intertwined.

Dad’s hand was resting on Mum’s shoulder. Mum’s leg was on top of Dad’s thigh. When they saw me they put down their shot glasses and burst into tears.

‘Mum, has someone died?’

‘Yes, yes,’ she spluttered.

‘Our trust has died,’ Dad informed me.

‘You’ve been seen.’

‘Behind the tracks.’

‘Smooching.’

‘And that good-for-nothing.’

‘He’s a bastard child.’

‘A cleaner’s brat.’

‘The shame.’

‘The terrible, terrible shame.’

Their voices overlapped. They became one. Then Mum broke away screaming. She had clenched her glass so hard it had smashed. Blood was running from her fingers.

‘Hang around with him again and I’ll kill you.’

‘She will, you know,’ Dad said.

I was grounded for a week. I lay under a pile of thick blankets and took my temperature until it had finally risen. The nights were already below freezing. I grieved for Kari who thought I’d abandoned him. When the train approached I got out of bed and opened the window. Uncontrolled movements froze on my face. My mouth was unable to pout, my nose did not twitch, but my body still writhed. I removed my flannel nightie, climbed out of the window and rested on the roof ladder. There I lay in the pale moonlight, listening to the crackling as my limbs froze stiff.

I would die as the train swept across the rail bridge up towards the darkening sky. I would die there, my lungs full of Kari’s warm breath. I wouldn’t die now, not just yet, even though the church bells clanged and that pale moonlight became hot and searing and heavy eyelids slowly darkened the world. Their inner surface was a sweltering forest where cigarettes lit up by themselves and spring water boiled in whirlpools. Kari placed his fingers on my neck, brushed my spine into view and hid away the fat, and I was happy and thin; he would never again say:

‘Fuck, Ristiina, you’ve got big thighs.’

On the other side of my eyes was morning, creeping in through Granny’s windows and beckoning me outside to smell the awakening forest, to measure the earth’s steady pulse with my feet. I walked through a small woodland and came to a field with hay growing, quietly reaching up towards the sky; slender stalks yielding food for the female reindeer and their small calves standing staring, their antlers bold and proud upon their heads.

I bravely carried on towards the shore, even though at the edge of the woods stood a reindeer stag, as dignified as a statue, its nostrils wide and quivering. It was autumn and the reindeer were afflicted by a madness. I walked, drawn towards it, keeping my eyes fixed on the lake where I was about to take a dip. The reindeer’s velvety antlers rattled. Thick hair grew on my palms. A white calf nudged me with its antlers. I fell on my hands and knees and let my head droop beneath me, my lips touching the ground.

‘I won’t kill you. It’s myself I’m going to kill.’

I listened to his voice. Words didn’t mean anything. He asked me why I hadn’t told him my secrets. Why hadn’t I reached out my hand as we were walking along the village road? Why had I locked my bedroom door and refused to open up, even after he asked me nicely? Why hadn’t I opened the door even though he had cried and begged me?

Between those words ran a quiet path; I crept along it into his arms.

I was inside him. He enveloped me like a grey mist, a blend of colours, dim blue, golden yellow. Granny walked in, Mum stirred and the grey dispersed. Mum’s lips rounded into a smile. Inside Granny she calmly breathed in. Inside Mum I calmly breathed out. When Granny disappeared I fell once again into the dampness of the bed.

‘It’s because of your father, you know, not because of you,’ Mum whispered.

I touched my face, ran my fingers along the bony rims of my eye sockets. The body lost its shape. Bones dissolved into dust. I was great, immense. Mum’s gaunt face, her mouth repeating words. Small and tepid. In a gentle stream she flowed through the house’s fragile walls.

Light

The conductor blew his whistle.

All that was left was the light.

Mum was made redundant and no longer had access to the hospital’s medicine stores. Her own medicine cabinet became steadily emptier. The light became brighter. Mum pulled the blinds up. No one gave her new medication. She recovered.

Dad washed the windows and light filled the house. As the train sped through my head he was standing in the hallway giving Mum a kiss.

Whilst they were kissing I emptied Dad’s wallet of its banknotes. I packed a bag with a few changes of clothes and the book Urho had given me the last time I went to the library.

I waited behind a pile of logs for the train and read, my fingers numb. I read about a man who stopped eating and who was cured from all his complaints. Like a plant he lived on only water and light. The train pulled into the station. I climbed aboard and began walking south.

Translated by David Hackston

Tags: ,