Childhood revisited

Issue 1/2006 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Tämän maailman tärkeimmät asiat (‘The most important things of this world’, Tammi, 2005). Introduction by Jarmo Papinniemi

I was supposed to meet my mother at a café by the sea. She would be dressed in the same jacket that I had picked out for her five years ago. She would have on a high-crowned hat, but I wasn’t sure about the shoes. She loved shoes and she always had new ones when she came to visit. She liked leather ankle boots. She might be wearing some when she stepped off the train, looking out for puddles. She didn’t wear much make-up. I don’t remember her ever using powder, although I’m sure she did. I could describe her eye make-up more precisely: a little eye shadow, a little mascara, and that’s all.

That’s all? I don’t know my mother. As a child, I lived too much in my own world and it was only after I left home that I was able to look at her from far enough away to learn to know her. She had been so near that I hadn’t noticed her.

I ground some coffee, spooned the grounds into the pot, and put it on the stove. My apartment was clean, just in case. I hadn’t asked my mother if she planned to stay over or wanted to go home in the evening. We never talked about that ahead of time. The cat rubbed up against my ankle. I gave him some kibble, poured water into his cup, and sat down to wait. I looked out into the yard. It was going to be a beautiful day. I watched the cat. He was beautiful, too. When I’d moved from the halls of residence into my studio apartment, I had called Meleena and asked if she still needed a home for her nameless cat. The cat had moved in that same day, but I didn’t give him a name either. I gave him a litter box, a blanket, and a piece of padding. He sniffed every corner, circled the room, and leapt into closets to see how the place looked from the shadows. Then he sat down in the middle of the floor and licked himself. After the washing, he turned his head, stared at me, and miaowed. He knew this was home.

When the coffee was done I went to my desk. The cat jumped up and marched with his tail in the air to stand under my hand on the windowsill and look out at the sparrows. I watched them, too. Me and the cat, watching the sparrows as they fluttered their wings on the balcony. He liked the smell of coffee, and so did I. The sun dawdled behind a brick house. Chubby kids from poor families were scuffling on the lawn. The heaviest one laid down in defeat, and one of the others bit his foot, another pulled his hair. On the asphalt, a girl was kissing a boy. The girl’s mother threw a pair of panties from the balcony and hit the boy in the head. The girl yelled at her. She laughed and the sparrows took off towards the clouds. She went inside and fell down onto the sofa, still laughing and kicking with her feet, seemingly unable to stop. I saw all this clearly; a gleaming, wondrously beautiful April moment.

The cat wanted me to play. When I didn’t pay him any attention, he climbed up my leg and pressed his whiskers against my neck. The game was simple: I tugged on a piece of string and he followed it. Sometimes he stalked, sometimes he ran so that his claws clicked against the floor. He ran until he was panting, and I heard his little lungs puffing. He looked happy. Nine lives and one death. I watched the cat, and I loved him. He was easy to love.

You’re dead, so you’re lighter, I thought, and the pastor must have thought the same thing. The pastor said, ‘You’re dead now, so you’re lighter, and we’ve come to bury you. Your body is in its coffin and you are heavier than the casket. He who has ears, let him hear.’ I was sitting on a sloping pew. A hymn was sung. After the hymn we prayed with our hands clasped. Then bright flowers were spread over the coffin. White handkerchiefs, clean white handkerchiefs, a long carpet up the aisle, dark corners where the white thread was indistinguishable from the black, hiding places, secret chambers where only the pastor could go, and even he only surreptitiously. The babies didn’t cry. The man in the back row stopped coughing. The trembling old man next to the cougher fell quiet. The coffin swung along the carpet. Six men in black suits carried the light body, but they were panting, because the coffin was heavy. Their faces shone palely. Pale until they reddened and then turned as black as their black suits. We walked behind the coffin out of the church, the church doors gave way and the clobbering whiteness of the churchyard burned our eyes.

The pallbearers arrived at the grave first. They lowered the coffin onto the boards and waited. I could hear them panting. The birds heard it, too, and sang more loudly, but not too loudly, because then their throats would have become sore. ‘That happens sometimes in the summer,’ said the grey-haired old man who had been sitting next to the cougher. ‘But only rarely. The last time was before the wars. Back then the birds became too hoarse to sing. They couldn’t compete with the noise of the human machines.’ The mourners gathered at the edge of the pit. Men and women with faces and men and women without faces, who were carefree because their brains weren’t there.

The walls of the grave were yellow and slippery. It was a good place to lie down. No one would want out of that earth, except for certain bones, little disobedient bones like the radius, the hammer and anvil. The children in the area collected them and held dark markets in root-cellars. The pastor began again. I knew he would. I even guessed that the pastor wanted to say a few more words about the deceased. ‘I’d like to say a few more words about the deceased,’ the pastor said, and looked at us sternly. No one would take it into their head to shut him up. ‘As a young man, you went voluntarily to war,’ the pastor began. ‘Your platoon was in the middle of a forest. You heard groans and the rumble of weapons farther off. At the foot of a tree, you found a Russian sentry hiding. His machine gun had frozen. You thought about what to do. You couldn’t shoot him, because it would have revealed your position to the enemy. They had superior force and you needed the element of surprise. So you had to think of a quiet method. You decided to take an axe and sneak up behind him. You were the only one in your platoon soulless enough to do that kind of thing. When you’d made up your mind, you raised your weapon and struck. The man’s pointed cap fell off. And so did his hair, and his head. The man tumbled sideways, his head splattered. That was that. You stood staring at the sight, very pleased. They cheered you afterward. You had saved the platoon. Because of your work, they succeeded in surrounding the enemy and mowing them all down. They gave you an extra bread ration. They gave you wool socks, a drink of vodka, a medal. A tight-lipped colonel pinned a medal on your chest. ‘We need men like you,’ he said.

That winter it was so cold that the birds fell frozen from the trees and left holes in the shape of birds in the crust of snow. Among the holes were criss-crossing cat tracks that were broad, the way cat’s paws are when they’re plumped up for a hard freeze. Then spring shoved the cold through to the next winter. Summer arrived, another war came, and it, too, ended. There were no acts of heroism. On the contrary, Marshal Mannerheim marched back to his spartan home straight as a stick.

When you got home, you fathered so many children that you couldn’t keep them fed. While your wife got thinner, you became a heavy man. You couldn’t fit through the front door. You decided to stay on the sofa. You lay on it until it sat at a slant. Your nose sank into your face. Your wife washed your folds. Your children climbed on your belly like it was a woodpile. You told your children violent stories of the war till they crapped themselves. You told them how the colonel had said that they needed men like you, but you didn’t know who needed them or what they needed them for. You didn’t want to think about that, insofar as you managed to think at all. You reminded one of dough more than a person. You may have put some of your boys in the orphanage when there got to be too many of them. Your wife languished and turned into a string. She died and was buried. You took another. You lived with her till the end of your life. Three days before you died the doorbell rang. That alone was a wonder, you never had visitors. Your wife ran to the door. A handsome man stood there. A boy and a girl cowered behind him.

‘I’m your son, but you’re not my father,’ the man blurted, peering at the slanting sofa over your wife’s shoulder. The girl and the boy didn’t say anything. They were afraid of the grandfather that they had never seen.

‘We aren’t here to pass judgement for your deeds; God alone can do that. God sees what’s right and what’s wrong. He is ever watchful, and his ten fingers extend over all the land. He loves not the tree, but its fruit, unlike man, who loves the tree and hates the fruit. He who has ears, let him hear.’

So said the pastor, and finished his sermon with a furious prayer. We sang a hymn. The pallbearers lowered the coffin into the grave like an elevator car. That’s when I realised that my grandfather was dead. We slapped some sand down on top of him. He didn’t hear the patter on the lid of the coffin. He finally slept soundly. He hadn’t done evil in his life, except to the Russian soldier and the son that he sent away, who grew up to be my father. My grandfather had meant well in everything he did. He was disappearing under the gravel. Soon we couldn’t see his coffin at all. There were a lot of people there tossing dirt in. The mound was covered with boards and flowers. The pallbearers handed the cloths to the sexton. He rolled them up and ran off to a wedding with the pastor. I peed in my pants. My mother grabbed me by the hand. My father grabbed my sister by the hand. Copper and silver. We cut a clearing in the crowd like it was a forest. We drove through the town, reeking of brimstone. We passed the statue of Marshal Mannerheim, the playing fields, City Hall and the market. The sky wasn’t blue, so you could see that the end extended this far. The sky was one great firebrand. At home I looked into a spoon and saw my eyeball blistering like the back of an old mirror. My mother and father had gone into the bedroom and slammed the door. My sister had veered off to the backyard with Toni. Animals that were smaller than people came to me for shelter. They all had the same urgency. They had an urge to fly back and forth, but they didn’t have any wings. Some tried to run, but they couldn’t find their paws. I didn’t yell because there wasn’t any air to yell with, I just struggled for air, but it had run out.

It was terribly cold, so cold that it felt hot. I was still chilled. I pushed the blankets off, got up, and went into the bathroom to take off my wet pyjamas. I changed into dry clothes and went into the kitchen. In the kitchen the chill returned, but when I had eaten three slices of oat bread, I felt warm again. I gave my mother a fairly long hug. She asked if I had had another nightmare. My mother could see through me. I was her glass son, blabbing all my secrets. I said I’d been at my grandfather’s funeral.

My mother said it was just a dream, both of my grandfathers were still alive. I went into the living room and hugged my father. Hug your dad more, that’s what he’s for, I said, and laughed along with him. The floor rumbled. The crystal beads on the wall sconces trembled, although my mother had forbidden us to rattle them.

I was remembering my grandmother and the pins that used to fall out of her hair. As a child, I didn’t even understand that they were coming from my grandmother’s head, because her hair was brown and the pins didn’t show. I found them everywhere, under the sofa and chair, in the kitchen pantry, on the carpet and under the red bookshelf. Those were exciting times. The pins kept showing up, but only until Grandma’s hair turned grey and they could be seen clearly. She started to forget little things, then bigger things, but never the really big things. She remembered names – my father’s, my mother’s, Aliina’s and lastly mine. Sometimes she remembered her two brothers who had died before 1920. The older one died in a Red camp, and the younger one died with the Whites. But when I was a child, I didn’t know who the Reds and the Whites were. I thought they were tin soldiers, and they were, smiling men who were soon to die in a field or somewhere outside of Tampere. I collected the pins in a tin can. I took them out of the tin can and put them in my pocket. They measured out the time. They were parts from my grandmother that kept her alive, although she would eventually die. And she did die. I sat next to her. I listened to what she said. We all listened; Mum, Dad, Aliina and I; everyone that she remembered, or kept unforgotten. Grandma looked at us and said that our children would have a reason to hear the truth. What truth? Aliina and I asked. That I’m not your grandmother and you’re not my grandchildren. That’s what Grandma said. Aliina and I were sent into the other room, not because of the revelation but because Grandma needed to pee. Apparently my mother and father thought it wouldn’t be good for us to see an old woman pee. The next night, Grandma died. She had barked all night like a dog and we hadn’t been able to sleep, although we slept downstairs – we hadn’t been sleeping, we’d been listening. Even then I had the pins in my pocket. They were in the breast pocket of my pyjamas. There were a lot of them, they would last for the rest of my life – I knew that as I squeezed them in my fist. And when I grew up, bigger than ever, I was going to twist them open and form exotic letters with them to use in my immortal works, straw men, novel-length arguments about the most important things of this world.

My father was adopted. I was told after Grandma died. My biological grandfather, as my father called him, was a fat man from Hämeenlinna. He was a war hero and many other things. What other things, I asked, war and noise interested me – I loved guns, cannons, swords, and tanks – what other things was he? He was your grandfather and my father, Dad answered. He was and he wasn’t. I might have needed him, he continued, but he didn’t need me. He gave me away, and here I am. I hugged my father. It was a sad story. You won’t give me away, will you? I asked, like a child in a black-and-white movie. No, I won’t give either of you away, Dad said, and held me more tightly than I remembered.

I’m born with an umbilical cord around my neck one March day in nineteen hundred seventy-three. I let out a yell, not in disappointment, but in the joy of escape. My mother and father have moved away from the spoon factory, first to Helsinki, and then to a neighbourhood where they can’t stand the pace. They’re going to move to a small town. On the edge of town, Mannerheim keeps walking purposelessly. The city-dwellers call themselves water people. One of them says one thing, the other says another. They love gossip, backbiting, and life. Aliina is two years old, a jealous older sister. She pulls my ears in secret, but she can’t get me to open my eyes, they’re hidden beneath my eyelids, which are flushed with blood. I don’t have any control over the movement of my limbs, I have a greedy mouth and I curl my toes when you tickle the bottom of my feet. I don’t open my eyes. I don’t want to see my sister. I want to see my mother. I am the darkness, I am the light that makes my mother shine. I am spring. I am the promise of summer, the promise that autumn won’t come. And I have a large head, but my thoughts are hidden, and they can’t get out because I have to wait until consciousness starts to clear away space in my mind. From that moment on I’ll be able to remember everything; nothing I see, hear, or feel will ever be forgotten. I am the light, I am a smiling child, my mother gave birth to me so I would beg, the sun loves me. I babble to the moon, everyone loves me, and I reward everyone for that love; I smile, laugh, sing, try not to cry so that I won’t make my lovers angry. I begin to fear sleep, and death. I begin to fear the thing whose name no living language knows, hapax legomenon. I give it the name Onopriyenko. I don’t dare say this god’s name out loud because that would mean death. I’m afraid of death, I’m afraid of sleep, because that’s when God will come and take me to a place that doesn’t exist, where there’s no one, and when I come back a hundred years will have passed, my family’s name will be forgotten, my home will be gone, and everyone will have disappeared like in the story of the devil I draw a mandala with big black ten-fingered men inside it, being careful not to colour in outside the circle. I don’t go over the white edges of the paper because that would mean disaster, madness, derangement. I sketch my fear in a circumscribed space that is bigger than the palm of my hand, but not bigger than me. And then my grandmother dies and kills Onopriyenko. Before that my grandfather dies but he didn’t kill, he just marched through the iron gate of the cellulose factory and carved a lamp of curly-grained wood. The grandfather who was alive was a logger and made of frozen wood. The grandfather that died killed the Russian boy and begot my father, who would marry my mother, and they would make love in secret places.

And I am born and I grow and I sit in the middle of the floor in the shadow of the Greek cactus and draw. I hold the pencil tightly in my hand. The autumn sun shines through the just-washed windows and makes sun windows on the carpet. The arrangement of the living room isn’t unfamiliar to me. I know where the sofa is, where the armchair is, and the television, and table. What’s inside me is unfamiliar. Are you sad? my mother asks as she walks past. I don’t answer. She stops. I’m drawing a twisted face on a soldier. Her face is crushed. If only she wouldn’t do things to herself, if only she wouldn’t take medicine or run under the train….

My mother took me in her arms and I got to breathe her, the way you breathe before diving deep into the water, into the foundation, the cellar. Today isn’t Friday. Friday is past. It’s Saturday, and the house is clean. I sit on the floor in the shadow of the cactus and draw a crooked face on a soldier. My mother asks me why I’m sad. I lie, and to prove my words I laugh loudly. My mother doesn’t believe me. I’m the glass boy; I can’t keep secrets. I don’t know how to lie, or how to tell the truth. She looks at me a long time, reaches out and takes hold of my face and asks what’s bothering me. I can’t answer; there’s something in my throat. I put it there myself, a plug that prevents me from upsetting my mother and father – that plug doesn’t melt; it stays in my throat for years, years, years. I don’t know what troubles my mother, I don’t know that inside my mother live two blackened babies who whimper at their wretched fate. I draw round fortresses, ghosts, and soldiers. I don’t draw them, I find them inside myself, surprised to find such wonderful pictures, a world that I’d had a vague idea of. I make the invisible visible: beautiful princesses, great gates and deep moats that I draw by the hour without knowing why, my mother crouches down beside me, takes the paper in her hand and looks at it in silence. The drawing hasn’t stayed on the paper. I tell my mother that you shouldn’t go outside the edges. She nods, looks first at the picture, then at me. If you have troubles, she says, talk about them. I nod. The sun window creeps onto my drawing like a primeval animal. My mother gets up. There are flies in my neck, they rub their legs against their wings, I get up, we both stand, I have my mother’s joints, her vertebrae and spine, I am my mother and she is me – we can’t get it said, we don’t need to say it. If I have troubles I can’t put them into words, I turn mute, I stuff the fear down into my belly, I feel sick to my stomach, I cough up bile and bite my blanket in agony.

It’s two weeks before everything is back to normal. My mother’s face becomes whole. I see my mother laugh. I don’t know what happened. No one tells me. I don’t want to tell. In the morning I run to the kitchen to hug my mother. I have a mother, I have a father. They’re married and I am their son. I have a sister who takes the bigger of the two cardamom buns. The ancient order is restored.

Soon I would see my mother. I would sit at the same table with her and listen to what she said, I would carry everything that I remembered with me: the sunny days under the maple tree, the rainy days with my nose in a book, the smell of boiled potatoes, or oat bread, copper, silver, and gold, a light blue shirt, a girl-boy mixed up and a god’s cold eyes, which are my eyes now. I really should write to my mother. I should tell my father as soon as we get a chance to talk, I should put into words the thing that’s been kept silent before. I wouldn’t know how to stop writing, or talking, the story would be heavy and light, a picture of things that happened, games that only I knew how to play, it would be an account of the garden, the apples, and the world’s most immovable unambiguity. I would talk about the cobblestones on Railway Square that clattered, moved by an unknown force, about the Latin on the frieze of the Ateneum Art Museum, the artists that saw us, the invisible crevices, I had plenty of time – my mother’s train hadn’t arrived yet – I decided to walk around the department store and see the statue of the Three Smiths and the Mannerheimintie street thundering with traffic and hear the hum of voices, the rhythmic panting. And when I’d strolled to the café through Esplanadi Park, I would realise what my mother had wanted to tell me. A circle was drawn tight around these things, and no one ever stepped out of it.

Translated by Lola Rogers

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