Adam, Eve and vegetarianism
Short prose from En god Havanna. Besläktad (‘A good Havana. Kith and kin’, Söderströms, 2006). Introduction by Bror Rönnholm
My alter ego has relatives who have bad teeth and the names of Greek gods. They live in ramshackle houses in suburbs which the taxi drivers can’t find, dangerous ex-no man’s lands in a rapid metastasis into concrete. They are wild and threatened with extinction, they are Finland-Swedish working class. Disorganised, of course they’re disorganised, my alter ego’s relatives never organise themselves. They don’t form part of any community other than their own. They go to sea and they breed, they buy shuteye dolls in whore ports and return home in grand style, always at night, always one surprising night when no one is expecting them. The women raise a cry of joy, the children go leaping barefoot, and the dog, which is called Zeus-Håkan, is quite beside himself. There’s a party. There’s no school that day. At twilight the women travel to their jobs in key factories and warehouses. When they come home the party continues and in the outside toilet there are new pictures of new places. My alter ego’s relatives have dyed hair and prominent busts in tight-fitting silver nylon jumpers. They pay for my alter ego’s father’s education so he can become middle class. They are proud of him. When we go to visit them they dress up. They clap their hands and the nail varnish peels as they loudly, just a shade too loudly, shout OH, oh splendid, such fine guests! My alter ego’s father is grateful and confused. He has long ago paid it back, paid the money back, and now what’s left is only what cannot be repaid.
With the passage of the years my alter ego’s working-class relatives are disappearing from my alter ego’s life. I miss them.
Take your plastic bag and go
The fact that you don’t happen to have a birch-bark basket skilfully woven by selected Karelians to hand is not a problem. Take your plastic bag and go!
That is the motto of second cousin Siv. The mushroom forests are there for everyone: they are not reserved for aesthetes with special equipment, these strange autumnal snobs who walk down the leafy catwalk in their precisely adjusted accessories. Nor are they there exclusively for mycologists with special insights and a special sort of knife. Don’t let yourself be cowed! A plastic bag and fingers are all you need, eyes, legs. If chanterelles are all you can recognise, just pick chanterelles. There’s no shame in that. The shame is to stay sitting at home thinking I can’t do that. What if someone were to see me and my disreputable plastic bag? What if someone were to see me and my shabby jacket – old in the wrong sort of way – my shoes unsuitable for the forest, my eyes unaccustomed to the forest, looking in the wrong grove, under the wrong tree, in silly terrain. Don’t pay any attention to it, the apple – cheeked open – air hogwash! If you are scared of snakes and ants (elks bears wolves) take rubber boots. If you’re scared of the howling green confusion, the branches, the thickets and the twigs, take the paths. Or if you’re just scared, take a bottle of schnapps in your pocket. Have a packet of mushroom soup ready at home in the cupboard, preferably Knorr rather than Pirkka, but it doesn’t really matter. Go. Enjoy. If all you can see is yellow leaves, then all you can see is yellow leaves. They are soggy, stickily attractive. Perhaps you’ll spot a mourning cloak, a late butterfly. Even if you don’t know that the mourning cloak is a mourning cloak, you can rejoice in it. Naming things isn’t everything. Take your plastic bag and go. That is the motto of second cousin Siv.
Mother sits on the jetty. She is reading. She is dressed in khaki shorts with a little slit at the thighs and a sleeveless tie – front shirt – blouse in cheerful 1950s colours. Mother splashes her feet in the water absent-mindedly. The three vaccination spots gleam white in the sun on her upper arm. Sometimes she lifts her gaze from the book and lets it slide over the waves, the sails, the summer. Now she can swim. Mother feels neither too hot nor too cold. She isn’t thirsty, but just for fun, almost without thought, takes a sip of the lemonade in the tumbler beside her. A drowsy fly on sleep-thick wings lands shimmering blue on the words. Anne of Green Gables brushes it away with an elastic thong on her wrist. Mother smiles, but grows absorbed again at once. She is swallowed up, and now no one calls for her, no one takes her away from the story. She doesn’t put her hand to her chest and doesn’t hawk up viscous phlegm. She has no feelings in her lungs, heart, feet, ear. Mother isn’t worried about anyone or anything, she is altogether present, light and reading. The breeze is warm, and Mother is real and pretty.
She is well at last, for she is dead.
The Number 6
The godparents Lyra and Anselm work on the trams. Anselm drives, Lyra is a conductress, the Number 6 is their line. Always in the same car, Lyra at the back there in her elevated seat with a view of the passengers. Anselm right at the front with the levers and the gears. In the breaks Anselm smokes and Lyra inspects her nails, they are on public display after all and are her trademark every day. In winter, too, then Lyra wears grey knitted finger gloves with cutaway tops so as to be able deftly to handle small change and clip tickets. Anselm wears a fur cap on his bald head when the cold bites.
Lyra and Anselm are a well-adapted couple, he is king of the journey between the different parts of town, Hietaniemi and the Arabia, she is queen of order and well-being in the car, nothing must disturb Anselm in his important duty. The Number 6 is their kingdom. A yellow and green kingdom with red leather seats and a red signal lamp, with a black bell-wire at ceiling height, a wire to pull for those who want to dismount. Children, the children can’t reach up to the wire, instead they tell conductress Lyra, and she sees to it that they’re able to get off when it’s time. Lyra helps and admonishes, she organises and blusters, she informs and shouts ‘Move right along the car, please!’ If it can’t be heard, she roars. Everyone obeys Lyra. She learns Finnish while performing her duties and can give a healthy cry of Eteenpäin käytävällä! though her tongue gets tangled in the lengthened vowels and peculiar diphthongs. Anselm knows only Swedish, he doesn’t talk to anyone, he drives, he just drives, that is his task.
Such is the division of labour, and no one is unhappy with it.
Lyra is secretly a little proud of her proficiency in Finnish, but she never lets Anselm see. It would not be good for the balance. And yet, and yet – Finnish is a feather in her Pernå cap. That is where they are from, both of them. Now they are city folk. He is tall and she is short, they have no children, they have each other. They have the Number 6.
All the way to their pension they have the 6, then they have a tiny little house in a field in a suburb and the house is crammed full of fine objects. Porcelain figures and figurines, gypsy women, negroes and bullfighters. From far away.
Far away, like the familiar street names in Arabia.
A good Havana
The sisters Daddi and Uddi are curly-white and light as leaves. They smoke their short Klubi cigarettes and have a brother and take satisfaction in their tall brother. He is as tall as Daddi and Uddi put together, plus five matchboxes on the head of the one on top. They’ve measured it, it’s fun. Uddi usually stands on top during the procedure, then she flies like a bird and the laughter twitters in Daddi’s or Uddi’s bedsit with sleeping alcove and kitchenette where they now happen to be. Later in life seven matchboxes are needed in order to bring the sisters level with their brother’s charming mane of thick, wavy hair. This is certainly due in part to the fact that Daddi and Uddi have shrunk, but is also because the matchboxes have become flatter in shape. Their brother doesn’t shrink at all, his name is Torolf and he never gets flatter. His hair doesn’t turn grey and his grip around Daddi’s and Uddi’s waists doesn’t slacken. Torolf has an army veteran’s house containing Biedermeier furniture, and a dog with a pedigree, and he also has a wife in the house, and a son with report cards that have to be signed. A guardian, that’s what Torolf is. Actually, he is not there all that much. Daddi and Uddi don’t live together, even though it would be more economical. Money isn’t everything – one must have one’s freedom, the freedom to be able to be together. Neither sister is interested in housekeeping. Coffee and Klubi cigarettes are good enough. And the Havana, of course. Torolf is the Havana, a good cigar that lasts for a long time. For both Daddi and Uddi he lasts their whole life through.
Can you see them blowing smoke at him in small, pleasurable puffs?
A resolute lady
Cousin Viola had so been looking forward to the exhibition! It had come to her little coastal town the week before, but at the time Viola had had so much to do, what with the sewing circle and the church choir and the socks that must be knitted for the mission bazaar at the weekend. There were also all the books that must be read. Viola loved reading, mostly she read religious literature but also occasionally a short novel in the small hours. Then her long, greyed pigtail stuck straight out against the head of the bed and the excitement hugged her body. Otherwise there weren’t so many who hugged it, but Viola was happy all the same. She tended her flowers and she tended her duties, she had her friend and consoler and helper.
The exhibition was held in the town hall on the square, it was a travelling exhibition which had already been all over Europe, its theme was From the Treasures of the Church. When Viola got there late on the Sunday afternoon, slightly sweaty and out of breath, she was met by a piece of paper on the box office window:
Closed due to Christ’s blood poisoning
Cousin Viola thought quickly, clearly and concisely, and then she died right there on the town hall steps. She wanted to go home to her friend while he still existed. Blood poisoning is no laughing matter, after all, it might carry him off.
Vendela opens the door of the cottage and looks out across the garden. I wonder where the cat is? She has just listened to the evening prayers on the radio, and takes a different view: Eve was no more wicked than Adam. She was just more quick-thinking and more interested. After all, Adam was all right as he was. He didn’t need the fruit. Didn’t need anything new. Meat would do just fine.
Puss, puss, Vendela calls.
After all, it’s a well-known fact even in our own day that men are less interested in fruit and vegetables than women are.
Vendela goes indoors. The wretched cat will probably come in when she’s ready.
There is a luxuriant decline. There is a decline that does not sow the heart with sorrow and depression, but rather liberates the soul from the tyranny of primness. At close quarters there is a different one, set in blue window frames. There creatures doze in a sun that does not care about loss. Tobacco flowers puff defensively and unpainted planks make the sign of the cross over themselves and over neighbourhoods filled with spruce trees and graves. You travel home when you go there, you travel to the untrodden room that meets you with a welcoming indifference. If you are not too particular about hardening yourself, your clothes will darken against the refreshing green of the watermelons as monks and memories pass on their endless way towards shimmering domes. Your foot meets the birches’ water as your hand lets go its grasp on immutability. At nightfall a dog barks in your tangled longing. You have a right to it, like the right the watchdog has to its bark. Share a bottle of vodka with your irreconcilabilities, pour out the measures so that each one gets theirs. Suddenly remember that you are a human being. Honour the extentiveness of your longing, for a while, for a short while you are here and bear its name.
Translated by David McDuff
Tags: short story
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