All aboard

30 December 2005 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Nooakan parkki (‘Noahannah’s barque’, Tammi, 2005)

A Royal Navy Three-funnel Brig

The crew:
Matilda, an overeating cat
Five geese
20 hens
A fat narcoleptic cock
A couple of ducks
A goat
Three dogs
48 bats
Six woodpeckers
104 titmice
There’s a north-westerly blowing.

Djibouti 253

Three feet long from the east and five from the west, plus two hat-heights above the earth’s surface; standing on the sauna bench I scan the horizon for any omens – a raven, a woodpecker or a flock of waxwings. A crow would do.

Sailing a stationary ship is fascinating, for passing time forms the sea swell, the hours, minutes and seconds are the waves, and your assignment is the cycle of the year. The same tasks and maintenance jobs are required as on a moving vessel, such as reefing and repairing the sails. There’s the same pulling in to harbours, setting off for the high seas, and crossing of time zones. The boiler has to be stoked up on the hour to maintain a steady speed.

The time goes by more or less evenly. The weather brings variety to one’s seascape. Two time zones are crossed daily: I cross them as I pass between the kitchen and the living room, according to my mood, and I’ve a choice of progress or regress. If I choose the kitchen I get an extra hour, for the kitchen clock, wound by a key, shows me precisely one hour younger than the living-room wall clock.

The crew’s exhausted after the morning’s deck scrubbing and sprawls with outstretched paws in the cabin, snoring. Loudest of all is the fat ship’s cat Matilda, whose snoring recalls the springtime croaking of male frogs.

Although the uninitiated might claim that the view from the ship’s bridge is always the same – asserting that it consists of a certain number of rocks and trees, including six birches and seven pines – they’d nevertheless be wrong. The trees and rocks may remain numerically the same but not qualitatively, or visibly. They’re in constant transformation under the climate – not to mention sudden wind shifts, frosts and rains – as well as the clothes line stretched under the roof beams, creating endless modulations of tone and rhythm.

What’s a trifle over the top is to go shopping no more than once a month, use no toilet paper or a WC, warm one’s cabin with branches and sticks chopped by oneself, wash in a mere two decilitres of water a day, wear the same clothes for two weeks on end and yet be as fresh as an Italian cucumber.

There’s scarcely any water, but it’s enough for the crew throughout the whole long and exhausting year.

HUOMENTA! (‘Good morning!’)

The stress on the letter H comes with all the puff-power the human lungs can muster; the U and O emerge as a part-shout, even though the rest is whispered as softly as softly brewing herbal tea.

Good morning, good morning – the good mornings are nodded right and left towards the icons, like obeisances to the Holy Mother. If you weren’t seeing with your own eyes you might suppose there was a white-clad sister performing her morning rounds in the wounded ward. No ‘good morning’ comes in reply. The indeterminate rustling might sound like the bedclothes of restlessly turning patients.

The ‘good mornings’ are scattered as if signs of the cross from a sower’s basket, or ‘Lord-have-mercy’ from the devout scarved heads of old ladies in the church.

The crowd presses itself against the wire-netted entrance to its large pen, like starving prisoners in a prison camp, while the warder’s collecting the feeders and pans before making the roll call. The whole crowd is a single trembling heap, like a jelly with feathers. As the door opens the gang crammed in the entrance take long eager paces towards the food troughs.

The ‘good morning’ call acts as an aperitif, raising the crowds’ appetite to a peak. The empty feeders are collected up, new ones filled, and fresh water and bedding straw provided.

A flick of the light-switch and the ‘good mornings’ brace up the whole crowd. There’s a hustle and a bustle and a chatter round the bunks, with orderly cleaning of teeth, shaving in front of mirrors, and a crunching, gurgling and clatter. The sergeant major takes charge of his battalion: Rayada-Geniza-Girasol-Barley-Autumn-Dorada-Peachy-Pressy-September 11-Brahma-Rain-Mrs Svärd-Hosanna, and Whitey.

‘All present on parade!’

The hen that’s taken possession of the uppermost nesting box stares horizontally ahead like the cabin driver of a forest harvester. Another hen points her half-open beak at a distant nesting box on the window sill, trying to indicate to all present that a helicopter flight would be appropriate at this point. Like a pole vaulter the hen raises and lowers her head, getting ready to soar to the entrance of the nesting box.

Her racket indicates her determination to get into the box. The rest of the crowd are in a slightly mawkish post-prandial mood. Only a threadlike gurgling reveals that today there was Hawaii Blues with garlic for breakfast.

St Pierre and Miquelon 508

HERDSWOMAN & POETRY

I’m herding my white she-goat along. The dew’s exhaled into the vastnesses of space, the foaming springtime rivers have plunged into the voracious waterfalls, and the earth’s thrusting up pale grass tufts, to form a fresh young lawn for my little particle accelerator, my little white goat, to munch. I drive her through the forest pools, full of lingonberry shoots. I lean on a rough-barked pine. I hear a wonderful crunching. The tough lingonberry shoots slip into my ruminant’s gold-cloudberry-coloured paunch.

She’s my lunch bag. My visiting card.

I drive her across a newly wakening meadow. From under the remaining snow her lips tenderly nibble wintered bits of vegetation that now look like crumple-frocked old dears after a long winter bus ride, their hairdos flattened by leaning against the headrests.

My diligent goat. My wind-monitor. Every blade of grass she eats is like an investment, growing interest; she distils the goodness of the herbs into her divine white fluid, which she milks out to me as a reward for my loving care. Interest on interest.

Undisturbed by the Nikkei index, I stand there – some might say inactively, but that’s far from the truth. I’m the substitute for a fence, an electric wire, or a collar and leash.

Only a freely grazing animal can read the meadows’ music, gather the whole orchestra’s resources, flower by flower, into her belly and deliver a symphony.

A herdswoman has the same relation to her charge as a conductor to his orchestra. I’m the orchestra’s conductor. The instrumentalists play. Nothing but seamless co-operation will bring the desired result.

My goat knows that the wolves won’t eat her. As long as I’m here she’s safe….

The goat bleats like a Fifties baby doll that cries when turned upside down. It’s a sound that would soften the heart of a hardened criminal.

With each babyish cry the goat’s sides rise and fall as if pressed by a button. Such an innocent angelic sound it is, totally different from, say, a sheep’s somewhat feeble baa – which is somehow, if you like, more hollow, mechanical, less soulful. If one were minded to be mean, one might call the sheep’s bleat ‘mindless’. With all due respect to the ovine breed the difference is actual, factual, real.

The sheep’s soul life is less subtle than the goat’s.

Could one compare it to the difference between the horse and the mule? The goat is more like a dog than the other ruminants, except that the goat is considerably longer-lived.

Far from the village outskirts, a dog’s bark curls in the wind, forming a thin shred of sound, its shrillness successfully transmitted regardless of distance.

I wait for the cud to rise into the goat’s throat. That, regardless of her paunch, will allow me to decide whether her intake of fresh vegetation is going as it should. Sometimes the animal eats too greedily, there’s no cud, and that can be dangerous.

A goatherd’s task, compared to a secretary’s, a gynaecologist’s, a civil servant’s or a municipal official’s, is no less onerous.

Vanuatu 678

Congratulate yourselves, city sisters, that there’s no need for you to sink into the mud. The streets and lanes in Chekhov’s time must have been like these. Tucked away in enclosed, coachman-driven carriages, the ladies sped off to Mrs B’s tea party, or Mr C’s dinner dance, with the wheels ploughing the mire halfway up to the axle.

Mud – mire – sludge November’s mouldering decay, the slushy mush of water, sand, soil and dung – they’re the rumbling of internal organs…. The earth mother’s greedy mud-mouth would suck in a gentleman’s galoshes like swallowing two blinis at a time.

The universe’s backside, the bare cheeks behind the sun, are revealed when the earth turns its peach-and-cream face away from the sun… and what remains are the micaceous red-granite strata left by the ice age, all the raw material of the permafrost.

From a huge ant’s egg, or a dinosaur’s tooth, I released some green silage, produced by lactic fermentation. It was for my goat. How many farm-wives and lambs have been run over by that sort of state-of-the-art Moloch! The farmer took the giant ball to the end of the yard on a tractor shovel. The grooves made by the wheels sank deep into dark brown soup of mud and outsize sheep droppings.

This landscape was no entrance hall to the underworld, but it lay before us like a sheer field of death: there were the skeletons of a muddy ditch and a meadow, showing no sign of life or any greenness. Every living being beats with its own pulse, in the circulation of its bilge waters, in the safety vaults of darkness, in time’s clock-dialled virtual salon, at the royal moments of fair weather, when mosquitoes, blackflies, horseflies, bees and bumblebees measure the distance between fertilisation and the autumnal withering, when everything then, astonishingly, stops, and the summer clatter merges with the thousand sounds of decay – which, nevertheless, are not utterly unlike the medley of sounds at the height of July.

July’s whining of mosquitoes is now replaced by the whining of death’s measuring worms – the death knells of each second. Time’s waggons are speeding the summer forwards to the fields of November that lurk behind August, and beyond to the advent of Christmas. A clack and flutter of wings is the time-thrush signalling death.

Wearing galosh-black bed socks the new moon arrays herself in scarfskin. Rosy dawnlight keeps us waiting, then her red petticoat hems are glimpsed in the porch of dawn as she steps out in her full red, and nothing but gravity prevents her changing at once from red dawnlight to red twilight.

THE ABILITY TO FEEL COLD

There’s an art in bearing cold. I don’t listen to my skin: I’m immune to its little whimpering. I concentrate my thought elsewhere, and the feeling of cold’s forgotten. Situations do exist where the skin’s whimpering and grumbling become shuddering. Then it’s necessary to do something to stop feeling cold.

Two different people experience the same low temperature in entirely different ways. An experienced coldbearer can go about half-naked where an inexperienced one will shiver in her woollen underwear. Also, a professional coldbearer knows how to protect her strategic points – warming her feet with slippers, and muffling her upper neck and head. The other parts of the body can take an airing without suffering cold.

Coldness is sensing the air currents. There’s no special mystique there. Why should the frost be more of a problem than the summer? The body’s adaptable and obeys the psyche’s commands without demur. Hardening the body drills the whimpering skin and stops its whinging about every little discomfort.

February 4. The world’s a large melting snow castle. There’s a smell of thaw in the air. Thawing snow smells breezy with oxygenated air. You get a hint of spring from the smell of clothes hung out to dry.

It’s bath day for the geese. For months on end the temperature’s been below zero. Their daily ration of water was just enough to dampen their beaks and heads. But a proper indoors bath wasn’t allowed, because damp was dangerous.

I stamp down the path to the cowshed, to make it even: in too deep snow their webbed feet can get hurt. The geese insert their heads in the bucket and their beaks tap the bottom briefly. The flock’s oldest madam is the most devout bather. She’s too fragile to bathe standing up but lies in the snow in front of the bucket, pouring water on her neck with her beak. Her feathers look like a big white lump of dough whose flour not yet absorbed, with cracks and furrows holing in her feathery covering.

A gander stands on guard, neck outstretched, and listening to the fluttering of the tits’ and bullfinches’ wings. Soil-blackened webs get a bright cleansing with snow, and the bird opens and closes his beak, producing lubricant for his feathers. After this oxygen-and-water treatment the geese tuck their beaks into a nook inside their clean back feathers and take a snooze.

Lithuania 370

The tree-trunks reflect the strength of the world’s foundations.

I try to grasp at any old trumped-up reason for staying in bed. With my soul in discord I study the landscape as it flashes by. As soon as my eyes are open, conditioned anxiety strikes; I’m like a hare at the sound of a hunting horn.

The birch trunks, where the sun gilds them, have something feminine about them, and at the same time something a trifle hard. The sun brings out the bone-whiteness of the birch trees; their trunks glow like bones gnawed clean on the prairie. The landscape is bathed in a glorious light, every seam and bump of it. The Lutheran dawn is accusatory about any free, idle moments: that’s why the summons to diligence is indeed one of angelical anxiety’s basic causes.

The spring winds have licked my vessel’s deck dry, in almost every hole and cranny. Just here and there, in some of the larger depressions, there are darker patches, like the scars of some giant pool. It’s a mild day of dry wind; the cries from the flocks of water-birds are mingling with the dogs’ barking and the furious twittering of the birds in the trees.

Under the sun’s beneficence the gritty roads are being released from the pressure of the frost.

As the huge spongy snowdrifts are eaten away by the meltwater, the sun expands the footprints and pawprints, broadening the edges. From underneath the snow a black patch of earth emerges, till finally a whole metre of snowdrift has entirely disappeared….

One snowdrift has fallen flat on its snout, and the rain and warmth have drilled suitably placed holes for the eyes, while soot fallen from the roof has outlined ears and made the dark cavities of nostrils.

A streamlined hen is having a peck at a stone-hard pretzel as clouds with dirty underbellies crawl across the sky, partly shutting out the sun. The hen can’t get hold of much, as she can’t manoeuvre her beak for the strike, and a piece rolls down the sloping soil like a ball. Soon the hen gets fed up with her job and hurries over to the other hens, who are fiddling with any grass-sprout that’s even the tiniest bit of green, flapping their wings every now and then.

Their bright coppery neckbands glow in the sun; here and there a chip of gravel slips into a beak, and the little go-getters appear and disappear, speeding off to the next place of business.

The earth’s still numb with the remains of the snow, but some butterfly, a brimstone or swallowtail, successfully flutters over the yard….

On the western sector a feathery formation has lost its shape. The hens are dispersing at random towards the shed-front. The goat rustles the grass as she pokes about for something eatable. The duty cat is patrolling near the warty birches. Artfully groping with her lips, the goat picks out stiff dry stalks and bites off no more than the young shoots, scarcely a millimetre long.

And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro…. And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf pluckt off. The goat has her back to me. A milk-white bird flew through the thin mist of clouds and seemed to grunt. A white raven!

THE PREGNANT WALL CLOCK

The sultriness and heat of the summer days, those gone by and those to come, are concentrated in this one moment – in the foamy flowering of the apple blossom that all hot summer days are made of: the summer days of your childhood, your youth and your age, when you withdraw into the evening cool of your cabin, to carafes of clear water and linen-covered tables, or rest your head blossomy pillow-puffs of dandelion clocks, or, at sundown, wrap your hot body in the wind. In July even the wall clock is pregnant: every hour and half-hour its womb lets fall a thread of tiny eggs, releasing larvae to penetrate the timber walls of time.

The aching whiteness of bodies invites us to forbidden acts, the sighings of naked moments….

THERE AT LAST (OPERATION CHOPPED WOOD)

… The sun sucks my chopped wood dry, taking the same liquid the sky once rained down into the trees’ birth juices. Standing on a hollow-backed stone, a cockerel crows, causing a fly to drop from the old cock’s beak – one he’d snared for his favourite old girl. Everywhere it’s the same.

If you’ve set goals for yourself, you have to stick to them. I too will have to peel the bark off the innards of every birch branch, as off a fruit, for kindling.

A person needs soil for food and soon he’ll provide food for the soil.

With my palate tasting of pollen, I circle the chopping block like a clock hand registering time. I’m there at six in the morning, back at nine, again at noon, and there once more in the evening, at the point where I began. Always with my back to the sun.

The fish pick mosquitoes from the river surface. The birds flutter their wings, the dogs pant. Last year’s reed stalks and catkins sway in the water with a full load of seed.

The silence rips a sad wail of the hen that’s just risen from her nesting box. The ash colour of the hens’ sinewy legs harmonises with the silver of their neck feathers.

Total formal harmony. The cockerel has crowed his father off the dunghill.

Cubic metre by cubic metre water has flowed from river to river, and from rivers into the sea; the dungflies glitter round the chicken shit like diamonds on a brooch, turquoise petals.

My berth has come to an end. My ark has arrived spot-on at seven o’clock, not one minute earlier, not one minute later; the clock hand has wiped the heaped measure of time down to exactly Djibouti 253, on the dot.

‘neither cold nor heat will ever cease,
nor summer, nor winter,
nor day, nor night’


Translated by Herbert Lomas

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