Issue 2/2006 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

(Landskap, 1919). Introduction by Juha Virkkunen

12 March

To begin with, there’s a great white field. The field is criss-crossed with low slender fences and little patches of yellow-green stubble peering up through the snow, and hare-tracks slanting away towards the stubble. But we won’t notice the fences and the stubble and the hare tracks. Because we’re going to take a wider, more sort of decorative view.

So we see the great white field. And where the field ends a dark green screen has been drawn. The screen has been cut short rather amusingly in the middle, so one can see yet another white held. This belongs to another village. And this other village itself has crept up timidly to the forest-clad hill and lies close to it, so we don’t notice this other village. Because we want to take a wider view of things.

So there we have these two fields and the screen that has been cut short. And both the fields are white, identical in colour, but even so, somehow the eye knows that one of the fields is further away than the other and that there’s something between the field and the screen. But we don’t see that, because it’s lying so low in a hollow. Oh yes, there’s a glade which should really be called a marsh, where you’ll find cloudberries and lingonberries in autumn. And slender white birches which already look red and morbid with longing even in March. And there’s a persistent mist there too that will not creep away until the sun of high summer shines. And under that mist lies frost.

There’s also cheap finery in this picture. Sand Ida’s cottage. It lies vain and bumptious in the middle of the opening to the green forest. The cottage and the forest look so funny together. It’s the sort of tall narrow cottage that has broad white corners and a blue porch and two cement chimneys on the roof. And the whole cottage is sort of struggling forward and trying to get up low bushes – like a rope round a stone foot.

A rope. Oh yes. Now smoke’s beginning to puff out of the chimney, that everyday chimney that is as black as the muzzle of a gun from constant smoke. Now it’s as if the cottage has been transformed into a tough little tugboat doggedly hauling large rafts of felled treetrunks and barges so the towropes creak. But it inches forward, and the cottage with it, hauled by the forest. Of course it’s me that’s moving, but I pretend it’s the cottage. Now the gap is closing. The next village and the forest-clad hillside and the field that belongs to it are disappearing behind the screen, the dark green forest.

But something else is coming forward. Norrgård’s brand-new barn for drying grain in. It sails lazily out on to the field, then stops there and speaks:

‘I’m brand-new. Just look at my colour, yellow as butter. I cost three thousand marks and I even have a device for transferring pulling power from horses to machinery too.’

Yes, and now the pulling machine is thrusting itself forward, too. It’s really fine, with a large wheel and pulleys and a gravel path for the horses to walk on as they pull.

When it has finished its speech the drying-barn saunters away again – it’s actually me that’s walking, but I pretend it’s the barn – with the calm grandeur of someone who knows his performance has been a huge success.

When you think of colour you immediately think of the sticky porridge a painter mixes in his pots and smears on our cottage walls and gateposts. The sort of heavy, sticky, lifeless colour you get all over your clothes if you rub up against it.

But the colour I’m talking about now is different. It’s alive. It swims and sort of floats over everything and in everything. It’s moonlight. Snow is white but not really white. Buildings and trees are dark but not black. And the sky hangs heavy with drizzle like a faded grey-green bedcover, most faded down by the floor where it’s been spattered with the dirty water used to wash the floor and has been swept against by the broom.

And higher up on this grey-green bedcover sits the moon, but I won’t talk about that now, because it’s so high that if I lookup I’ll be in danger of breaking my neck, and I don’t want to do that.

First comes the evening star – no, first comes the tip of my nose. I’ll start there. Because that’s what I see first of all, and it’s shining as bright and hard in the moonlight as if it was made of metal, the sort of copper you can see hammer-blows on. I must touch the tip of my nose. The moonlight stays there for it and shines.

This is my landscape, my picture.

Kullabacken is the slope the road climbs over. Bordered along its west side with dark junipers and mutilated firs where the womenfolk have broken off twigs for their porches on Saturday evenings. The junipers and firs are standing hand in hand like children playing a game:

Now we’ve caught a fine fish,
now our perch is in the net;
but if the blighter has his wish
he’ll find a hole and out he’ll get.

The fish, that’s me, or at least my eye. And the hole’s above a juniper bush between two firs. And what do I see?

Well, a square white field. Perfectly square. With dead straight fences on both sides; Korkviken bay slashes across the end of it and continues the white. Then comes the black. Not black but something dark: the hill on the promontory of Ollas Öjen. And the birches. And Ollas Öjen walks stiff and proud, not the slightest curve can bend its line. And all the ditches in the fields. They’re lying there like the lines on lined paper. And between the lines the hare’s been writing with long paws, shaky and uncertain like a small child who wants to write but isn’t quite sure how to manoeuvre his slate-pencil to distinguish an a from a b. Not to mention x; that’s quite unthinkable. But then the fox comes. He knows how to write between the lines. Both over and under. With flourishes and loops. Refined and ingenious like a lawyer who can produce writing that can be interpreted in a hundred ways.

And the lines on the white field rush off in competition with each other and at the same time moving obliquely towards one another. All heading resolutely for the same place. I let my eyes follow them. Ah. They’re pointing at the evening star. At the great shining twinkling evening star that’s hanging up there on the bedspread just above the highest point reached by the splatter of dirty water.

Suddenly I know why Ollas Öjen is lying so straight and stiff. And why the ditches in the fields are rushing forward in competition with each other. Why the junipers and firs are competing to shut out my gaze. It’s because of the evening star.

I hold up my finger to hide the star in just the same way as you put your hand over a torn trouser-knee you don’t want people to see, and the picture loses its whole meaning. Ollas Öjen asks: ‘Why am I lying here trying to be stiff?’ And the ditches in the fields say. ‘Why are we competing against each other?’ And the junipers and firs say, ‘Why are we shutting out the view?’

Then I take my finger off the star and suddenly, snap, it begins to spin and whirl round. It revolves several times and throws out long sharp beams to right and left. Then it, or rather she is still. She looks me straight in the eye, bold and firm like the lantern on a steamship that has found its exact course and is clearing miserable little oarsmen and yachtsmen out of its way.

Then she turns into the star on a Christmas tree with five pointed tongues and long sharp spikes between the tongues. Then she winks and goes round a few more times.

13 March

The sun has gone down behind the blue ring in the west and waves goodbye by leaving behind a little red flame. And the whole sky is as if divided into two halves. One white and the other green. In the white half the sun is waving and in the middle of the green half the moon is standing stiffly to attention.

Not long before, the blinds were pulled up for the night. I know people talk about pulling down blinds for the night. But look at nature: nature pulls them up. When the sun begins eating at the blue ring, well, then it suddenly gets dark and the sadness in the deep hollows and in the wet marsh and the steep waterside banks with their reeds and fences that continue down into the water increases too. And no sooner has the sun set than the darkness creeps up. It’s as if someone is slowly and gently spreading a mourning-cloth. A cloth spread over the face of the dead when the lid must be screwed down and the body carried out for the last time. That is when the cloth is spread so slowly, to gain just the tiniest moment more to look on the person one loves. But the bells are tolling and book in hand the pastor and the parish clerk are standing waiting in the sacristy.

The shadows come creeping higher and higher. Bringing ideal colours to the things they are creeping over. Like in the bay where the snow is white. There the shadows become blue. And on the strips of ploughed land where the ridges between the furrows, having tried so hard to look red, give in to the shadows and turn black. And the firs darken like angry faces on the verge of a quarrel. And all the bright houses which were burning red and white and blue – the shadows creep over them and the colours fall asleep and slumber like children tired after happy play.

But long, long after the whole countryside has pulled on its dark night-shirt, the weathercock on the church is still standing up and crowing: ‘I’m yellow. I’m the nastiest yellow you can think of. And the sun’s still shining on me, good people.’

Good people. The weathercock has learned that expression from the pastor who at the end of all his fire and brimstone sermons always shouts, ‘Good people!’ It’s the ultimate climax and goal of the whole thing. An amen and a blessing rolled into one.

‘You are all sinners, every one of you. You have committed murder. You have stolen, you have gone forth with lies and deceit. You will burn in the hottest flames of Hell – good people!’

And something else is coming down with the shadows from the hollows and the marshland: a snapping and crackling. Which kills the sound of rippling and purling. Trees which have felt soft and young with spring in the March sun stiffen with horror at this snapping and crackling. And the snow which was on the point of melting and the brown earth about to peep out both freeze. The crackling pulls something stiffly over the snow, and last year’s miserable blades of grass grow even more wretched.

Three tom-cats walk in line on the cowshed roof mewing their song of praise. Then everything goes quiet. You have the feeling nothing more will happen.

But then. There it is, a clattering and rattling. The lumbermen from the bay are bringing a load of planks from the circular saw. And it’s the chains linking the sledges that are rattling – no, they’re playing and singing a complete tune, brittle and fine and merry. And the horses’ hooves are beating time. The church weathercock begins to hiccup, ‘Now-now-now I’m losing the sun. Goodbye – good people.’

One of the lumbermen is whistling a lively melody and beating his boots together as though he’s freezing. But he isn’t freezing. He’s just thinking about his girl. And what’s she doing? Yes, she’s recognised the whistling and the feet and sets off for the shop to buy some yeast. But down by the slope near the water the road is empty. The music the chains are playing changes its tune. It jingles against the stones and cries urr, urr – like a table-knife on rottenstone against sand. And the horses stop, steaming, in the middle of the slope. And the men jump down and hit the horses and swear at them. But the boy who’s thinking about his girl, he can’t swear at all. Of course he says ‘damn’ and ‘to hell with you’ – but it comes out soft and tuneful. And the girl – well, she’s miscalculated and is at the corner ready to turn off to Söderby long before the lumbermen get there. What can she do now? Not only that, she’s dropped the money. She limps along the edge of the road with her back bent. She’s limping because she’s walking with one foot where the snow is soft and gives way, off the beaten track.

Here comes the load of planks. It goes down the street with singing speed. There are holes in the road here and there. When they hit the holes the ends of the planks cry, ‘Hearr, hearr!’ They clap against each other like hands and cry hearr, hearr again. And the girl is still walking and searching. The lumbermen feel sorry for her. Last in the line is her boy.

‘Bloody hell, you’ve lost the money?’

The girl looks up. ‘Nothing much. Just what was for the yeast.’

The boy wants to help her look for it. He shouts ‘Whoa!’ to the horse and pulls the reins tightly round the sledge-pole. And so they walk on side by side with their backs bent, gazing into each other’s eyes as if that’s where the money must be. And the girl is limping even worse, just so she can jostle against the boy at everystep.

Then the horse begins to bolt. The girl shrieks, ‘Oh my God!’ And then – ‘Here’s the money in my apron pocket!’

And the boy, ‘Really?’

The girl, ‘Yes, really! But the horse is running away from you!’

The girl buries her hand in her apron pocket. The boy needs to put his hand in there to feel too. But not to feel the money. Something else. The girl gives a start and lets out a sigh. Then the boy runs off after the horse, laughing.

But the girl stays standing there, red in the face and not her normal self. After a bit she goes indoors with long dragging steps. A little later she comes out again with a basin of dish-water. She throws it out, but taking care that it reaches the door and splashes the hinges, which like to screech and protest.

Later, when the whole vault of heaven has turned a greyish green, and the moon has been hauled up to the middle of the vault and the tomcats have climbed under the eaves of the stable building and other cats have crept under the door to the cowshed porch loud footsteps can be heard on the road. It’s the boy walking on tiptoe under the impression he isn’t making any noise. He doesn’t hear the frozen road crackling. There’s such a throbbing in his ears and his blood’s on fire.

He scratches cautiously at a window. A little later the front door opens without any squeaking or screeching of hinges, thanks to the dishwater. You can see a naked white arm holding the door open. The boy disappears into the dark doorway, and the arm and the door close behind him in silent welcome.

But inside the hayloft there’s plenty of life. Toms and other cats hissing. And swearing.

Men have so many different moods – just like love. One man sneaks in silently, others are like the cats in the barn. And Mickel’s mill is creaking too, though there’s no reason for it. But it does creak like that anyway from time to time. The mill is regulated in the mill-yard. When people decide it’s the right time, they go into their foodstores and measure out rye and oats into sacks, so everything’s ready to take along to the mill when the weather’s exactly right.

14 March

When I wake nothing seems to make sense. The whole air’s full of mischief. To begin with it’s broad daylight yet it’s only seven o’clock. And when I go out it’s so fresh and cool that I catch my breath. The whole sky is full of old geezers and old crones, some red, some yellow, some blue and grey. And they’re hitting each other with brooms and sticks. To the east the sun is smearing blood over the battlefield of the cloud-men. It seems we’ve come to the day of the Last Judgment.

Do you know what the Last Judgment looks like? I do. Because when I was a child and playing together with the other village boys and found a fragment of glass from a brown or blue or red bottle, it was a great find, because then you could see the Last Judgment. You had to take turns to look through the piece of glass. From the eldest to the youngest. It was done in a reasonably orderly fashion. But sometimes there’d be a running race. The track might be across a grassy forest glade, for example, and someone would count up to three. But no sooner than he’d got ‘one’ out of his mouth he’d be off, and the rest of us didn’t waste any time either.

The first to the winning post would be the first to be allowed to look at the Last Judgment. But no one ever did come first. On the way we’d trip each other and push each other over and start fighting among ourselves. The race would be forgotten. We’d all form a ring to decide the winner, and go on hitting each other till someone’s nose started to bleed. By that time we’d have forgotten that we were fighting about a piece of glass and the Last Judgment.

That’s what the sky’s like today too, with the sun crawling up the edge of the wood and trying to make its voice heard. But there’s some washing hanging out in a long line on the fence and talking. You can see blue, red and white long-johns there, and everyday shirts with patched arms and the black, white and yellowish buttons which were sewn on after the original buttons fell off. And new white Sunday shirts which still have their original buttons and a hole at the neck for your collar-button. And there are petticoats and hand-kerchiefs and even dishcloths.

The clothes were washed, wrung and hung out on the fence yesterday evening before the shadows and the crackling came creeping up from the hollows and the marsh. And now they’re stuck there as stiff and rigid as pieces of sheet metal and they don’t recognise themselves. ‘Now you’ll see; says a pair of red long-johns that have burst open at the crotch, ‘that I’m not going to let myself be pulled on to any pair of human legs at all.’ ‘What about me then?’ screams a nearby shirt, ‘D’you think I’m going to mould myself to a human body ever again? Not on your life.’ Now the handkerchiefs take up the refrain: ‘Never a nose shall we wipe again.’ And the dishcloths: ‘Never a cup, never a pot will we slave at cleaning.’

And all the washed clothes shout ‘never. never!’ so that the hens, following the cock out of the cowshed, lay their heads on one side, screw up one eye and wonder, ‘What are those clothes screaming “never” at?’ ‘Huh – never, my foot!’ clucks the cock contemptuously, hopping up on to the porch steps. The hens follow him. But what now? Their feet begin smarting and burning. They just have to rest one foot at a time by holding it up as they creep into the porch. The wooden floor there doesn’t make your feet smart and burn. But when humans come out of the barn the hens leave. They know what’ll happen to them if they stay and shit in the porch.

But the humans are in such a hurry. They aren’t being like themselves. They throw the milk pail aside on the porch floor and pun a better coat over their cowshed workclothes. They’re off to the village taking a cow who’s ready for the bull. She’s riding on one of the partitions from the cowshed, making the whole wall shake.

Then children come out wearing nothing but shirts, holding sandwiches in their hands. The chickens get ready, and the sparrows too. They fly down from the thatched roof over the driveway and from the woodpile, where they’ve been sitting frozen nearly solid with their little yellow feet on the curved alder branches. The sparrows mix in with the chickens because they think they can fool the children into believing they too are big useful egg-laying hens. And they fight and peck at the sandwiches the children are chewing and throwing away.

Time passes. The sun breaks through the great crowd of cloud-men, who give way and flee to right and left leaving long white streaks behind them across the whole sky. It looks like milk. Now I know what the cloud rabble were fighting about. It was about the morning milk, which you can now see running in thin rills down to the horizon.

And the sun rises higher, throwing a shovelful of burning coal on to the rear end of the bull who’s mounting the cow. And someone is leaning against the cow to stop her slipping away from under the bull. And someone else is keeping clear of the cow’s rump. And a third’s just taking a peep.

Something remarkable happens to the clothes on the fence when the sun touches them. Their backs all become remarkably soft. ‘Are we nothing more than ordinary clothes after all?’ they sigh. And tears begin to fall from their lowest hems. And then the morning wind comes and wants to peep inside the long-johns and petticoats as cheekily and shamelessly as some coarse people do with each other.

But these are respectable clothes that belong to respectable people, and they begin to kick and hit out at the wind. That’s the long-johns. And the shirts clap and seem to be screaming, ‘Damn you! Keep away, or you’ll be sorry!’ And the handkerchiefs wrap themselves round the fence-poles at the very point where the binding of black fir twigs is holding them together. They think the black bunches of fir twigs must be moustaches. Most of them are in the mood for blowing noses. But one light handkerchief of fine quality, that has never had to cope with a gob of snot, waves goodbye in the customary way as it has been taught. It’s a magpie it’s waving to. The magpie flaps its wings a few times, then laughs and flaps its wings again.

When the sun begins warming the backs of the sparrows they suddenly feel they’ve had enough to eat, and that spring is in the air. They’ve had enough of pretending they’re stupid chickens. They want to get up and sing. They go to the woodpile. There they let out a trill. Then they listen to themselves. We did that rather well, they tell each other. People say we’re just sparrows. But we are nonetheless birds for all that, just as good as crows and jackdaws. We’re spring birds.

Now they’re leading the cow home and calculating when she’s likely to calve. Will it be in the middle of June or early in July? Two people are arguing. The one insisting on the middle of June narrows his eyes and looks up at the sun. He sneezes: ‘The cow will calve in the middle of June. Atishoo! I’ve sneezed and that’s all there is to it.’ Then one who’s been arguing it won’t happen till July gives way. Sneezing on something makes it is as true as the tablets of Moses and the Ten Commandments. ‘Atishoo!’

Everything in my little world is sort of resting and relaxing. There’s no excitement or tension. The wind is still and the sun’s shining gently, neither too hot nor too cold. And all the lines are lying slack. And the hills and slopes are lying low. And none of the colours is much interested in blazing. Mickel’s flagstaff leaps up brightly into the pale, colourless sky and the weathervane reaches out its three tongues to the sun and wonders which wind it will dance to next.

The chickens have paraded to the sunny side of a fence, and the cock has flown up to perch on it and crow for a bit, but becoming aware of the great calm in nature, he snaps his beak shut, makes a cooing sound deep in his throat and hops down to tread one of the hens. But he can’t manage that either. They’re all standing there so glumly with their feathers hanging loose that he loses his appetite for that as well.

Out on the flat brown pasture by the cowshed, where there are still a few streaks of white snow here and there, you can see the shining white skull of a ram with a bone beside it. It looks as if the bone would like to scratch the skull. But not really. There’s nothing left on the skull that can itch any more. It’s all been packed up long ago, passed through a human being and come out into a box.

And all the village windmills are spreading their sails, and daubing gold on their new sweeps and silver on their old ones to fool those watching them into believing that this is the first time they’ve ever rotated their sails. We were only ever built to be pretty decorations for the farms, is what they’re saying now.

To me too this stillness and peace in nature brings rest and relief. I sit down. I’ve been busy splitting wood for the fence. It’s been like slicing cheese. The grey and reddish-grey fir trunks have opened without resistance to reveal their timber and their grain. It’s exactly the same with us. Maybe the long thin fir trunks can sense the huge repose and indifference of nature.

The work has warmed my body. And the sun has crept through my clothes. Sun combines with body-heat to concoct a strangely fragrant vapour. It rises along the neckline of your vest and shirt. It creeps into your nose. It’s the fragrance of power and life. And it makes me long for someone else to put my arms round and hug hard, really hard.

Beyond the fields there’s a lime-tree with several twigless branches whose tops are tight and rounded as the brooms we use for sweeping. These stems are standing tall and lazy now, all their tops leaning together to make one. And the barrow for carrying wood is propped against the wall of the shed, laughing at the woodpile. It has decided it will never bring firewood in again. The ladder, half-leaning against the roof, is throwing its shadow on the wall. A long loose-limbed shadow that humbly supports the cause of logs and justice. And over the window the shadow moves off one of the ladder’s legs. Then of course it has no option but to fall into the interior and spread itself over the bag of flour on the table in the window; bags of flour are not permitted to brag and bluster and shine yellow in the sunlight. After this the shadow creeps out again, down over the metal strip on the outside windowledge, and mixes by the stone foundations with a drop of frozen water from the roof and some crushed boiled potatoes that have been thrown out for the chickens’ dinner.

And on the cottage wall a poor lost fly is making a faint clicking noise against the logs and singing buzz, buzz between clicks. Now the fly hasn’t the least intention of disturbing nature’s lazy repose. Not at all. It’s just that it had been sleeping so near the attic window that it was woken too soon by the sun and come out on to the wall entirely by mistake. And now there it is singing and clicking and begging to be excused for its mistake.

But one thing doesn’t fit in with this atmosphere at all. Several magpies are trying to outlaugh each other at the sight of a baby lamb that has suffocated and been thrown out of Sörgård’s barn. The magpies are sure the lamb’s alive and just pretending to be dead to trick them. They think they’re very clever – but they are careful to be on their guard. They’re rocking themselves up in the cherry tree and their laughter resounds among the sheds and barns.

So the day draws to a close.

A funny little cloud pops up in the west just at the point where the sun has decided to set. The cloud has five sections, like an open hand with its fingers apart ready to grasp something. The sun is shining. The cloud shoots up and gets bigger. Neatly and gently it closes over the sun and pulls it down. And the sun glitters and glimmers between the fingers of the cloud-hand like the light between the pastor’s fingers on Christmas morning, when the pulpit’s full of candles and he gesticulates in front of them with his hand and talks benevolently of the Christ-child. The cloud-hand pulls the sun down because it thinks the sun won’t be strong enough to hit the sack without assistance this evening. It’s been looking so tired all day.

Then a grey wall of cloud comes sailing up from the northeast and shuts out the misshapen rounded moon which had climbed up to mock the earth lose in broad daylight. And this wall of cloud shuts out the hand with the sun in it. A cold breeze sweeps in bringing sharp little white icicles. And everything becomes so grey and pointless. The snow turns grey; only the patches of earth go black. It’s all so dreary and sad. I can’t bear looking at all this greyness and blackness. I shall go into the cottage and make myself some hot strong foaming coffee, or walk to the village for a bit of idle chat and a good laugh.

Translated by Silvester Mazzarella

The first complete version of ‘Landskap’ was published on the internet pages of the Mariehamn City Library in 1997, edited by Ralf Svenblad. It appeared in printed form in Till alla, alla, alla (‘To all, all, all’; 2002, PQR-kultur). ‘Landskap’ was translated into Finnish by Antero Tiusanen and published in Poika joka muuttui karbidilampuksi (‘The boy who turned into a carbide lamp’; Pequod, 2005, edited by Ralf Svenblad)


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