Man and boy

Issue 4/2006 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Kansallismaisema (‘National landscape’ Tammi, 2006). Introduction by Tuomas Juntunen

Plans were afoot to establish boys’ camps across the country. This was an experiment, a chance to test the water, to be a pioneer. Here was the opportunity to be the first in line to conquer the Wild West, just as many a brave cowboy had done in years gone by. The Ministry of General Affairs planned to put all 15-year-olds to work for the duration of the summer holidays. Casual labourers were often even younger. Our task was to ascertain a suitable minimum age. In addition, special camps were planned for those not suited to normal work camps. In the summers to come the youth of Finland would be fully employed. Weren’t we in fact driven by the same desire, Tikka had wondered. We both cared about the next generation. We wanted to root out their deficiencies so that they would be able to face life’s challenges to the full.

‘People’s view of the world is like a circle of light. For a child, this is created by the light of a fir torch, his view of the world is faltering and dark. And small. Full of dark corners. Our task is to widen and illuminate that circle, and not only for ourselves. To make it shine as brightly as an electric light bulb. When you climb up your rock this evening, look down at the coves and hills below and think about how the national landscape has changed over the last twenty years. It’s no longer a lake and a forest and a cottage painted with red ochre. In years to come, instead of blue shimmering hillsides, the national landscape will consist of educated young men applying themselves to their work without a moment’s hesitation. They shall have a new worldview; their thousand watt circle of light shall shine far and wide. The national landscape is born of us people. The first step is learning to work hard and to obey orders. Our country needs good students.’

Black logs

Eighteen boys marched in single file. The foliage hid most of them from view as we trekked through the bug-green birch forest. I cleared a path using a bill-hook. It was the height of the growing season; overnight the trees produced twice the volume of branches I lopped off every morning.

I walked at the front, Viialainen held up the rear, his rifle held level across his stomach. Both the barrel and the stock caught at the branches either side. Viialainen had suggested we march round the thickest undergrowth. I defended my decision with the one and only excuse valid in the Congo: unnecessary detours mean less working time.

It was Monday; our third week of work had started at five-thirty.

Those at the front let soft, pliable branches catapult back into the faces of those floundering behind. This soon became the alarm clock for any boys still yawning. These flexible branches whistled through the air, slashing through the foliage on their way. The boys began competing to see who could slap the boy behind the most unexpectedly. The more cunning amongst them let a few decoy branches flap back first, and unleashed the final whip only once the boy behind had sighed with relief that the previous branches hadn’t cracked him in the jaw. The cursing at the back gradually increased, and Viialainen growled that Finnish was a language of sophistication.

‘Agricola would turn in his grave if he heard you.’

‘But bloody Bützow hit me in the face,’ they responded. ‘My bloody tooth’s loose now.’

‘I can’t do anything about the trees,’ declared Viialainen.

Such branch-thwacking did however have its advantages. The boys jostled to be at the front, so that they wouldn’t have to endure the constant swipes of bare branches in their faces. With a large group like this, the journey through the scrub goes quicker than across open land. On the plains, groups larger than ten will spread out more than a flock of starlings, even if they are being shepherded into line by a mounted patrol. An abundance of pliable branches means speed. The hilliness of the terrain doesn’t have nearly the same effect.

Those at the back walked with their hands covering their faces, red stripes running down their forearms.

Every now and then I glanced back at my boys. The air swirled thick with pollen from the trees and clung to our sweaty skin. The backs of our hands were dyed with it; green light filtered through the foliage. At a glance the boys all looked as though their faces were mouldy and their hands jaundiced.

Viialainen yanked the barrel of his rifle free from a tangle of birch twigs and began angrily humming a summer hymn. (‘This is the Finnish language at its most beautiful,’ he enlightened us.) As a civilian he had been a Finnish teacher. Behind me one of the boys stuffed his ears with long catkins.

I smoked a cigarette and smelled the forest.

We arrived at the lake shore. The sun lit only part of its surface, the rest rippled as black as oil. The tops of the spruce trees cast a dark saw blade halfway across the lake.

I gave my watch a shake; it had filled with water the previous week. There was a bubble between five and six causing the long hand to become stuck twenty-four times a day.

I guessed I must have been about two days behind the rest of the Isthmus.

On the northern side of the lake grew a thick clump of rushes, and that’s where we were heading. Small birds darted in and out between the knife­like leaves of the yellow irises. Here too the air was thick with clouds of muck, we breathed gold dust.

There had clearly been lots of to-ing and fro-ing at the water’s edge during the night. The marks of nails and paws pierced the soft mud shore. The foliage rustled, mice scuttled along the knotted tree-trunks. Between the stones lay a puddle of thick yellow foam. The boys poked at it with sticks and wondered what animal might have laid such goo in our drinking water.

I bent down closer – it could have been anything. The entire forest was alive, spawning and reproducing, animals openly inviting one another to join in activities that humans only perform in a darkened bedroom behind three closed doors. This is what distinguishes man from animals and gives him the right to rule the fruits of the forest and the sea. I told the boys this, and ordered them to move as far away from the foam as possible. I told them they must be careful not to let the restless, early-summer forest make them lose their wits. Many an unhappy union between a young man and woman was conceived in the heady groves of early June. It all started with the innocent prodding of foam like that. Up at the top of a spruce, a creature the size of a chicken squawked and flapped its wings at my comments.

‘Shoot that so it’ll stop. It’s not right in front of young boys,’ I told Viialainen. ‘It’s in heat.’

Viialainen painstakingly took aim, the shot rang out and the cumber-some-looking bird fluttered off.

‘I was just ruffling his feathers,’ he explained to the boys.

‘You hit the next tree,’ I said.

‘These things’ll fly even with half their head blown off.’

‘You must be careful,’ I repeated. ‘It’s the same with women as it is with javelin throwing. I once knew a javelin official who wasn’t careful. He had his eye on the ladies when it should have been on the javelin. It went right through him. Took the smile off the thrower’s face too: he would have beaten the Finnish record, but the throw was disqualified because someone else had touched the javelin before it struck the sand.’

The boys nodded and we continued our journey. One of them by the name of Virranpohja stayed behind to examine the foam, I yelled at him to follow. I had just held my very first sex education class.

They boys whinged and asked to go swimming. Viialainen wiped sweat from his brow. He began removing layer upon layer of clothing. Beneath his heavy jacket he was wearing a jersey, a string vest and a shirt.

‘It’s summer, you know,’ I remarked.

‘It’s always cold in the forest,’ Viialainen puffed.

When we reached the rushes I ordered a five-minute rest. This suited Viialainen too. He lay on his back upon the damp clay, his plump belly rising up from among the reeds. The threads of his string vest had left a square red pattern on his white skin. Viialainen stared at the barrel of his rifle and regretted having shot at the bird; now he would bloody well have to clean the confounded lock again. Tikka held regular gun inspections for us guards, and on Saturday evenings he examined the length of our nails and hair too. If your hair reached below the earlobe, your wages were cut.

I chose two of the boys to come with me and told Viialainen to put the rest to work. Even as they stood on the spot they were gasping for breath. There must have been muck in their lungs too. It seemed as though these swamp cadets had been collected from the cellars of TB sanatoriums.

I didn’t know exactly how old the boys were; Tikka had said something about fifteen being the upper limit. Some looked many years younger, and a few of them couldn’t even write their own names. The nearest little toe-rag held up ten fingers when I asked his age. Tikka kept the boys’ details like a well-hidden treasure, the rest of us were only allowed to see the outside of the files, from behind the safety line.

‘Only I have the necessary authority. I’m answerable to the Ministry,’ Tikka explained.

In his file Tikka wrote a weekly assessment not only of the boys but of us workers too. Neither of these were we allowed to see. I knew some of the boys by their surname: Holopainen, Kettula, Luoma-aho, Pellikka, Virranpohja, Kero, Salminen, Bützow. I often mixed up their names and faces – identical limping weaklings the lot of them. Sometimes I realised I was calling three different boys Kero, and each of them obeyed. Virranpohja was the only one over a metre and a half tall. The use of Christian names was forbidden. If one of the boys was caught calling another by his Christian name, he was ordered to run back and forth across the swamp with a bag of rocks on his back, repeating over and over the surname of the boy in question.

Tikka had rounded off an evening sitting around the campfire by explaining that in ten years’ time nobody would use Christian names anymore. A new breed of humans was emerging. The world was becoming egalitarian, all that mattered was one’s professional title. Commander, professor, bricklayer, farmhand; man defines his own position in the world according to his professional title. Everyone ploughs their own field without stealing an envious glance at their neighbour’s field. Farmhands, for instance, compete amongst themselves to see who is the best farmhand, but they do not aspire to become agronomists. You do not necessarily need to be the largest cloud in the sky, you can just as well be an important small cloud.

I picked out two boys, Pellikka and Bützow, and ordered them to help me rake through the water near the rushes. Pellikka’s skin was darker than the others’, he was easy to recognise. Bützow was missing half a thumb. I often chose this same pair because I was sure of recognising them. In a way I can perfectly understand why cows are branded, I’ll be damned if I can tell them apart otherwise. Viialainen informed me that if I let them run away I would have to search the alder forest for them myself. He was not intending to raise his behind from the clay for the next hour.

‘They won’t disappear. Where would they go?’

A small brook ran through the rushes. Along this stretch of water, logs were once floated downstream towards the lake during the spring floods. Further up the hill grew a thick spruce forest where logging had taken place during the winter. On the opposite shore another clump of rushes spread out, concealing the mouth of another brook, now equally overgrown. A tributary had continued between the hills and joined a larger river, and somewhere on the riverbank along the horizon was the sawmill, the logs’ final destination where, during the brook’s heyday, they would be cut up into blocks.

That faraway sawmill was as unknown to me as the sawmills across Finland that I had trailed around ten years ago when I worked for the Forestry Commission. Nothing but the ghost of a sawmill, a will-o’-the-wisp. Commander Tikka had also mentioned the sawmill, but he had never seen it either, he had no desire to see it. Tikka said it was outside the realms of the camp.

‘Don’t go beyond the scope of your own work,’ he advised me.

We concentrated on the lake and the upper section of the brook. In addition to stray logs the banks of the brook were strewn with shards of glass over an area of several hectares, almost as though they had been deliberately planted there.

The previous evening I had asked Tikka about these shards. He recalled that, as well as the sawmill, a glass factory had operated in the area for a short time. Business had been bad, however; the glass had been warped, and it was difficult to fit properly. That which was eventually fitted into frames shattered if a passer-by so much as clapped his hands or whistled sharply close to the glass. It was a pity – the glass sand in these parts was the purest in Finland. According to Tikka, good raw materials aren’t enough if the manufacturer is inept and spends the majority of his time wallowing in the sorrows of love. Better to wallow in drunkenness. The panes of glass smashed to pieces along with their owner, who ended up bankrupt.

For a week the factory owner had smashed the warehouse of glass in the forests along the shore, and carrying the last remaining panes of glass he had walked to the bottom of the lake. There they were to this day. His moleskin trousers later floated to the surface, but he did not.

‘A nasty way of spoiling the drinking water for a while. When you’ve got nothing better to do, you can gather up the shards from the forest,’ Tikka had decided.

‘What for?’

‘Things like that always come in handy.’

Bützow, Pellikka and I made our way towards the northern end of the brook, the chatter from the shoreline gradually died away. The group of boys seemed unwilling to wade about in the water, though a moment ago they had been complaining about the heat. I was tired of constantly tripping over alder roots and waded out to the bottom of the brook where the ground was more even. I marked the logs I found on the back of my hand with a piece of charcoal.

A thin trickle of water ran along the bed of what was once the log-floating canal. At times the trickle broke off to form individual little puddles. The dry isthmuses that ran between these puddles were strewn with the half-buried skeletons of small rodents. Hundreds of them. The rushes swayed gently in the breeze and beat against the brim of my hat. I walked on through the moles’ graveyard. Suddenly, a few hundred metres upstream, my boot sunk thigh-deep through the clay.

Beneath us the current flowed quickly, the clay shell, grey as a puritan’s attire, hiding the tunnel of water from view.

I punctured more of the shell with the heel of my boot, I wanted to see where the water was flowing. The reason for the old stream drying up soon became apparent. Now the water ran through a network of mole warrens, flushing and cleaning their underground chambers. The colony had spread out and dug more living quarters nearer the brook, but in its greed had been washed away by the floodwaters.

At various points I stuck a sharp branch through the clay around the rushes; water gushed from each of the holes. On every side I found tunnels engulfed with water. Because of these underground corridors the width of a sausage, the logs could no longer be floated downstream, not even at the height of the spring flooding. Eventually log-floating had been stopped here altogether because of the moles that had dug themselves to their deaths. The moles had committed mass suicide, and in doing so had put an end to the loggers’ nice little earner.

‘You will not go to Heaven,’ I told the skeletons.

One of the boys was shouting from the shore to the east of the lake. I clambered up on to the verge pushing the rushes aside with a branch. I could feel the patter of small beetles on my neck. The boy was pointing at a spot in between two distant boulders. In a hole in the ground there was a broken axe and a wooden raft with a square hole sawed out in the middle. An old rusted saw was found a few metres away, half-buried in the soil. Shards of glass glimmered all around us, most of them in the vicinity of the raft. Some were even half a metre long and pointed. The factory owner had certainly had his work cut out.

‘Well done, Pellikka,’ I said after inspecting the raft. ‘We’ll use this to make another vessel. The hole doesn’t matter.’

Together the three of us dragged the remains of the raft down to the shore. The boys had to stop and catch their breath every ten metres or so; I waited until their coughing had subsided. Tikka’s regime of early morning swimming in the first few weeks hadn’t done the boys any good at all. Most of them now suffered from a sore throat, and those who were already spluttering when they arrived now coughed with the force of a machine gun, so much so that a fox that Tikka had almost tamed had run off back to the spruce groves. Over the last few days he had brooded about this, stared at his papers and upped our daily targets.

‘This is supposed to be a secret expedition,’ Viialainen commented as we arrived back at the shore with the raft.

‘A rasping cough is the best weapon of the unarmed.’

Viialainen had sent the boys out into the water. The boat we had mended earlier fitted three boys at a time, one rowing while the other two prodded the bottom of the lake with pike poles. We came across the rowing boat on the first day: it had sunk in amongst the rushes. The plug had been pulled out and there was a hole in one of the sides. Attached to the back end of the boat was now a drag with ten spikes, and the boys were to hoist up the catch each time it caught on something. If that didn’t work, one of the pole boys would dive down and examine what was there by groping around in the darkness.

There wasn’t exactly a rush of volunteers wanting to be pole boys. I checked my watch and rotated them at regular intervals. Due to the long hand becoming stuck on the bubble, some shifts were longer than others.

Viialainen had split the waders into two groups. Half of them had stripped to their underpants and were making their way through the rushes, feeling around using sticks and their feet. You stayed dry above the waist until the first time you slipped on the bottom, slippery with mud. Most of them went under the surface in less than a minute.

The other group waited on the shore. The two groups were rotated in half-hour shifts. After that their lips were blue and their legs were numb and couldn’t feel a thing. In locating sunken logs the soles of your feet are an important tool, as important a sensory aid as a hare’s whiskers. The muddy water clouded quickly and you couldn’t see more than thumb’s width ahead. You could not trust your eyes.

This job might just as well have been done in the pitch dark. The sun provided only warmth for the waders, not light.

Today the wind blew in gusts, cutting out the little warmth there was. The resting group built a wind-shade out of spruce branches and huddled behind it against the rocks, trying to remain as low as their own shadows.

‘Found any?’ I asked.

‘Three,’ replied Viialainen.

‘There are another three on the right-hand shore, Pellikka can take the carriers up there,’ I said.

Tikka had instructed us to gather up any sunken logs along the old log-floating route. He had set us a goal of a hundred logs a week. ‘That’s your minimum target,’ he added. ‘You’ll only get bonuses for anything above that.’ Because the working week was six days long, that meant we needed around sixteen to seventeen logs a day to achieve our target. As soon as we had filled our daily quota we could go back to the camp, but it meant that the boys were often working until eight in the evening.

The logs were first dried out on the shore, then later carried the three kilometres back to the camp. Tikka had not explained quite how this was to be done, nor what the logs would be used for.

‘First-class building material,’ was all he had said.

Tikka himself led a larger group fishing stones and stumps out of the swamp near the camp.

It was already abundantly clear that a hundred logs a week was an impossible target. The logs were too deep, too stuck and too heavy….

‘You have all that young blood,’ Tikka said.

‘Not a chance.’

‘Yrjö, in the Congo that kind of attitude is forbidden. In the Congo things succeed. It’s all about wanting to succeed.’

I had asked Tikka whether he had any idea how much a sodden log weighed. Tikka had replied that there were almost twenty of us, and that the point of this camp was to learn how to cooperate. Dirt is more than just the sum of its parts. Ten boys together can lift far more than twenty boys individually. And building mechanical devices was not forbidden….

‘Over here,’ shouted one of the boys.

The boys gathered up to their armpits in water, stuck their spikes into the log and began tugging at the wire, which one of them dived down and wound around the log. Viialainen and I were not allowed to take part in any physical labour: the boys had to learn to do things under the guidance of adults but without their immediate help. If an adolescent becomes used to receiving external help in tricky situations, later in life he will automatically give in when he encounters unexpected difficulties. He will always be waiting for the deus ex machina.

Man is the master of his own destiny – as long as he obeys the rules. This was one of Tikka’s fundamental tenets.

After dragging it for half an hour the boys finally hauled the blackened log up on to the shore. Despite their continuous exertion, their cheeks were blue.

Tongue

After our morning exercise Tikka announced that he would be organising the Swamp Olympics. To me he barely said a word, merely nodding abruptly. He had once thrown up into a pool in the swamp, said he had stomach trouble. All Sunday morning the cadets hurled stones throw the air and practised the long jump, landing with a splash into the moss. Tikka had brought a plank of wood down to the training ground to provide a hard surface for the boys to spring off. To one side was a high jump arena, where Tikka himself acted as official.

‘For once, a soft landing,’ he promised them.

Finally he split the boys into teams of five. Each team was to build a set of stretchers. Using the plank and a block of wood Tikka built a ramshackle seesaw which he used to measure the difference in weight between the members of the various teams. ‘Heavyweight,’ he commented on some of the boys. We trudged across to the other side of the swamp, to the starting line that curved its way along the edge of the trees. Tikka explained that the finishing line was at the forum on the other side of the swamp, at the main camp square. He would stand over there and act as the line judge, while Pihlava and the other teachers would make sure the competitors followed the rules of fair play. The rules were simple. One. The heaviest man in each team must be carried by the others. Two. The man being carried cannot take a step by himself. If the team drops him, they must lift him up again. He must not move at all Treat him like a heavy sack. Three. Losing is not allowed.

‘I thought that perhaps cross-country running would have been a good way to round things off, but this is far more character-building,’ said Tikka. ‘Good luck to all teams.’

Tikka bounded back across the swamp and fired the starting shot from his rifle up into the top of a pine tree. I squelched in between the stretchers. Deep, muddy parts of the swamp lay ahead, each of the teams lost their grip on the stretchers at least once. The swamp was different from the bottom of the lake: it wasn’t slippery, but it sucked you down, forming a layer of heavy mud around your boots; any attempt to scrape this off between steps was utterly futile. Surprisingly, however, it seemed that being carried was a more difficult job than doing the carrying. The one being carried often rolled over the edge of the stretchers and fell into the swamp. ‘Don’t move, just be a sack!’ Tikka hollered in the distance. The stretchers swayed as if they were floating on a rough sea. Often the sack was left lying in the swamp for moments at a time, his nostrils pointing up towards the sky, as those at the front had sunk up to their hips into the soft swampy ground and were left struggling against the brown gurgling rising from beneath.

‘On your feet, you heroes of the Kalevala,’ bellowed Tikka from the finishing line.

He had no more encouraging words as with club moss dangling from their shoulders the teams finally trundled back to the forum. Aftera moment’s frowning, he said that he was not at all satisfied with the performance of any of the teams, and commented that it resembled the standard of a village sports tournament. Correction, it wasn’t even that good. People in many notorious places in Finland ran world records, even places like Kouvola. At parish games, nervous milers could even make it to the top of their league, the kind of people that under normal circumstances get diarrhoea just from listening to the roar of the crowd and who are left two hundred metres behind the rest of the pack after the first lap.

‘The time of the winning team: seventeen minutes and forty-three seconds,’ Tikka sighed. ‘Let’s do it again. Come on lads, you ought to be able to cross the swamp.’

Tikka walked with us back to the uneven starting line and gave the teams tips on how to improve their performance. Put the taller boys at the front, then the handles of the stretcher won’t catch on clumps of marsh tea. Put the map reader at the front right-hand corner and the one counting time at the back left-hand side, from there the cadet can check that the four of you move in time, like the cox in a rowing boat. Long shallow steps are more effective than high steps. Swallow up the ground, but don’t swallow the swamp water. The one being carried should spread his weight evenly, don’t lie there like a drunk in a ditch. We can make ourselves lighter by thinking about elevated things. Think of the blue and white flag high up on a flagpole, President Kallio and his mother Beata. We’ll get our very own flag here at the camp soon enough. It’s been ordered, but there are problems with the post.

‘Carry your man head-first if he’s still alive, not feet-first,’ Tikka rounded off his lesson. ‘Hands up all those still alive.’

One hand rose up.

According to our calculations it was Wednesday; a fallen birch branch floated in the lake, stray leaves drifted off like miniature rafts. Viialainen had stayed at the camp. On his last weekend off the doctor in town had ordered him to stay put if his belly continued to behave abnormally whenever he was out in the forest.

‘No exceptions.’

‘It’s abnormally big,’ I hissed as I left the room. I still hadn’t had a single weekend off.

The boys had pulled in two dragfuls, one log then another two, and we had a cigarette break. I smoked a hand-rolled cigarette while the boys gnawed on lengths of hay and sniffed longingly at the cigarette smoke.

‘When you’re old and prosperous, like me,’ I comforted them.

Eventually I threw the two-centimetre stub over my shoulder and watched four or five boys jostle for it. Zero appeared to win, he climbed up into a nearby birch tree, out of the other boys’ reach, and sprinkled ash down upon them.

‘Whoever works the hardest today will get a whole cigarette,’ I said.

The foliage between us rustled and an ugly head appeared, covered in hair. Viialainen’s catarrhal belly was only a tiny bump compared to this head. A black eye measured the depths of my soul. The stub fell from Zero’s mouth, none of the boys noticed or tried to snatch it up.

The head turned towards the group of boys and a spiked crown of bones pushed its way through the leaves.

‘The Devil’s come to get us,’ came a shrill voice and at that Zero fell out of the tree.

Next to the head there appeared another head of the same kin.

‘Pretend to be dead,’ I uttered. ‘Then they won’t maul you.’

The rowan leaves quivered, long strands of beard hung from the monster’s neck, then the hoof of Beelzebub appeared in front of us, then more hooves, a new devil’s head with eyes as black as tar. Zero was lying on his stomach holding his head which had taken quite a knock. Next to him Virranpohja was squeezing his hands together in a cross and muttering.

‘It’s an elk,’ Kettula identified the creature.

I immediately doubted this, as I had never before encountered an elk though I had travelled through forests in every part of the country. I had seen a two-headed calf. Kikero said he had shot an elk when he was younger, but back during the Great War the forests had been all but emptied of them, as during the years of famine anything bigger than a field mouse was cut up and eaten. Rats were a delicacy. Elks belonged to the same category as mammoths and sabre-toothed tigers; during the Stone Age they still ran wild across the fields, but no longer.

‘We have them down our way in Parkano,’ Kettula explained to the others.

‘I’ve been to Parkano,’ I said. ‘There’s a savings bank there and an isolation hospital. Dying rich people coughing their way down the high street.’

‘There are elks too. A healthy population. And a strict gamekeeper, trained in Nikkarila. He’ll hang poachers up by their feet.’

‘Do they eat meat?’ asked Virranpohja.

‘Yes. And corpses.’

There were three animals in total. The largest bore a great crown of antlers, its head defying gravity. It moved its jaws from side to side, and according to Virranpohja it was munching on the thighbones of a fox or a bear he could see them in its throat. The second one, presumably a female, snorted, blowing through her plump lips, lips that were used to playing the trumpet of the apocalypse. Just like the male, a beard dangled beneath her chin too. My stomach convulsed at the thought of the boys watching this deviant being. Bearded women were the stuff of nightmares; this was a mixed forest.

The monsters’ calf was much smaller than the others, but its eyes still gleamed with malice. The three of them watched us closely, examined the pile of logs, the boat hauled on to the shore, the raft, and charted their route. The bull gave a snort and led the group into the lake. The female swam alongside the calf.

‘Shoot them.’ Bützow had awoken from his stupor. ‘For once we’ll have something decent to eat.’

‘And what good would it do to shoot them now?’ I replied. ‘They’ll sink to the bottom.’

‘God gave man the use of all antlered creatures,’ Bützow whined. ‘Even the Devil. We can decide for ourselves which animals we use, and what we do with them.’

‘Is break over?’ asked Zero, his eyes blurred, still out for the count.

The calf got into difficulty about ten metres away from the shore. Its legs floundered in the water but it wasn’t moving forwards. The bull reached the thicket on the opposite shore before the others had swum even a third of the distance. He yanked lilies from the water into his jaws and crunched on them as he stared back at us. With his antlers he dug holes in the mud and let out a hollow blare. Finally he disappeared into the aspen grove in search of larger game.

‘Is he going to sneak back round behind us?’ Virranpohja asked nervously.

‘I want two cadets on watch,’ I said. ‘You and you. Take those pike poles.’

The calf was lagging further and further behind the cow elk. She would then turn and swim alongside him, prodding him with her muzzle.

‘That one’ll sink to the bottom,’ said Bützow, looking at me accusingly. ‘And without a rifle.’

‘Kero, in the boat. Salminen, I want you rowing,’ I said.

I jumped in the boat too. The mother was pushing the calf from behind. Its head was ploughing through the water, mostly underwater.

‘Release the rope at the back,’ I instructed Kero. ‘We’re not dragging the fishing nets out there.’

I indicated to the others to remain on the shore. Salminen steered the rowing boat towards the drowning calf. Some of the boys ran back and forth along the shoreline. I couldn’t decide what to do. What kind of teeth did these animals have? Was their bite poisonous? Perhaps it would have been wise to take the net with us after all. Salminen and Kero stared at me agog, their eyes like question marks, eager for more instructions. What? What? How? Like a scourge God put children on the earth to plague adults on a low heat. It was children that had originally plagued the Egyptian civilisation, and only in the translation was this changed to locusts and abscesses at the behest of the Marshal Mannerheim League for Child Welfare. Mannerheim, what a sissy, pandering to these little brats.

‘It’s drowning!’ the boys shouted from the shore. ‘No, it’s come up again. Now it’s drowning.’

‘Well which one is it?’ I craned over Salminen’s shoulders, but the elks remained in my blind spot.

‘It’s not drowning. Yes it is!’

I realised Salminen was suddenly backing the oars. One of the boys was swimming up to the boat against the swell.

‘Get in,’ I ordered. I yanked Zero up over the rear of the boat.

‘Did you fall in?’ I asked in bewilderment.

‘No. I swam up to join you.’

‘Why? You should be resting, you’ve just fallen out of a tree. Your head’s still spinning. How many fingers am I holding up?’

I raised my index finger.

‘Five, of course.’

‘It’s drowning again,’ came a voice from the shore like an edict from the pulpit. ‘It really is this time.’

Behind the prow I could make out the calf’s muzzle as it sunk beneath the surface. The cow elk reached her head down after it and managed to drag her child up again by the scruff of the neck. This perked the calf up for a moment and it paddled about ten metres ahead, but instead of heading to the shore it swam out towards the open water. Then it suddenly stopped altogether, only the cow’s teeth were keeping its head above water. Every now and then one of its nostrils sniffed at the air.

I told Salminen to row nearer the elks. He didn’t grumble, he couldn’t see what was happening behind him. By now the calf had dragged its mother under the water too.

Salminen steered the boat right up against the elks’ fur. Kero, Zero and I leaned over the side, grabbed the calf round the waist and managed to haul its body up against the bulwark. The creature weighed less than a sunken log. Nevertheless, the boat rocked violently and water spilled over the edge. The cadets and I heaved a second time and the calf rolled on to the bottom of the boat and lay there on its back, its legs kicking at the sky.

‘The witch is coming,’ someone shouted from the willows by the shore.

Salminen was rowing frantically towards the shore. I told him to aim for the fallen tree behind which the bull had disappeared. We rowed on in a zig-zag, Salminen trying to avoid the cow elk. Zero and I held the calf’s head still, while Kero squeezed its hind legs in a full Nelson. The calf was whimpering through its long mouth and its mother was ramming the bottom of the boat. We swayed. The calf’s front legs kept hitting the oars.

‘It’ll break your wrist if it hits you,’ said Salminen.

‘I’ll tell you if it does,’ I puffed and grabbed hold of the calf’s floundering legs.

We continued wrestling until we reached the clay by the shore. We got out of the boat like lightning and waded to one side, the mother sped towards the boat. The hairs on her head stood up like thick spikes, her nostrils flared. Salminen didn’t have time to get out and remained in the boat behind the oars, which had become stuck in their locks. He pressed himself up against the thwart. The cow elk struck one of her hooves between Salminen’s arm and his body, and nuzzled the calf. The oars were in the way and she cast them into the water. She licked the calf’s wet fur and straightened its hind leg that had become stuck beneath the middle thwart. All we could see of Salminen was a tuft of hair.

The elk tore pondweed and lilies from the water and took them to the calf.

‘Salad before the main course,’ Kero hissed.

The boys had gathered in a row at the end of the bay. Some of them were brandishing pike poles, some heavy chunks of stones. The elk gave a grunt and the group of boys on the left ran into the rushes.

She lowered her muzzle next to Salminen’s face, and turned her head so that she could see him properly with one of her coal-black eyes. She ground her jaws together and puffed.

‘Puss puss,’ Salminen whispered. ‘I’ll give you cream.’

The elk slowly licked Salminen’s cheeks, her tongue was long enough to reach halfway down his arm, then returned to the calf. Prodding with her muzzle she managed to lever the calf on to its hooves.

‘Shoot them,’ suggested Bützow behind me.

‘Why?’

‘Now they won’t sink.’

The calf staggered a few steps, a lily dangling from its mouth, and the mother guided it into the thicket. Salminen tried to row the boat without the oars. ‘Hands, damn it,’ he muttered to himself. A perch leapt out of the water and gulped a piece of bark blowing in the breeze.

‘Salminen’s got a sweetheart,’ mocked Virranpohja, who had now dared to move closer with the group of boys. ‘Salminen got a tongue kiss.’

‘You look the same too,’ said Luoma-aho, stroking Salminen’s forehead.

‘Quick, run after her before she finds her husband,’ sneered Pellikka. ‘She’s very moved. Promise her you’ll protect her from the ills of the world. She will believe it now.’

We returned to the fishing net following the inlets along the shore. Salminen wrestled the boys cooing love poems at him into the water. This did nothing to dampen their spirits, as they were already wet. The sun beat down, the water glimmered like powder, a strange blue bird was fluttering amongst the alders. My ears rang with the hiss of beetles, it was as though some of them had tunnelled their way into my ear cavity and lay there purring like a cat by a fireplace. As a continuation of my guide to Makslahti I planned another guide, a guide to the Congo. Perhaps I could become a travel writer and present the hidden treasure of our fatherland for all to see. This could be a greater tourist attraction than Suursaari or Koli, not to mention Punkaharju. It was in places like this that the great health spas of the world were opened: mud treatment, peat treatment, light treatment, oxygen treatment, seaweed baths and birch leaf tea. There was good reason to make selected notes on this place.

The Congo could be so beautiful.

Translated by David Hackston

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