Really existing?

30 March 2007 | Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Mehiläispaviljonki. Kertomus parvista (‘The Bee Pavilion. A story about swarms’, Teos, 2006)

There are few old buildings in this town. Most are demolished to make way for new ones long before they reach the end of their first century.

Nevertheless, one brick building in our part of town, built at the beginning of the last century, was spared demolition for a long time. The two-storey building functioned as a Support Centre for the Psychically Ill and later on, for a couple of winters, as a shelter for alcoholics. The board fence that had surrounded the building for decades was taken down long before the building itself, but the maples on the sidewalk cast their shadows on its windows to the very end. When the lilacs and dogwoods in the back garden were in bloom, their heavy racemes shed purple and white on the sand.

Few townspeople remember that building and its past. All the psychically ill persons who were treated there are now dead, even those exceptional cases who managed to get well again before their demise. Gone, too, are their nurses, gone the alcoholics who spent the worst freezing nights there. None of them ever sobered up.

These days there are no psychically ill persons or alcoholics. Instead, we only have mental health and addiction clients, and some with a double diagnosis.
The building fell into a long period of decay but was nevertheless more attractive than the new ones, especially in the evening, when the setting sun lit up the patina of its brick walls. You would not see two identical bricks; each one was its own landscape, and their hues, rough spots and holes looked their best in the slanted evening light. Then, too, the maple leaves cast shadow hands onto walls and ground, wandering across the yard’s cooling sand as if looking for a lost key.

After the alcoholics’ shelter was closed down, the building was renamed: now it was the House of Associations. Its owner, the city, collected modest rents from clubs and associations which held their meetings there. In addition, the amateur theatre company Heart & Liver rented the basement, and the street level was occupied by Hecuba’s Porno Shop.

The basement also contained a small apartment, really just a room with a cooker, formerly inhabited by the caretaker of the Support Centre for the Psychically Ill. Later on it was the dwelling of Siegbert, the former deacon, and his hybrot.

I may well be the only one who referred to the building as The Bee Pavilion. Why? One summer I took a walk on another town’s promenade. I stopped at a white wooden gate to look across it at a garden I had never seen before. I was intrigued by a tall, narrow log structure, shingle-roofed and faded to a silvery grey, the likes of which I had never seen. On two of its floors there were small, close-set windows with no window panes.

I admired the building. I enquired after its purpose and was told that it was a bee pavilion. The swarms were able to enter through those little windows, and the beekeeper could collect the honey from the inside. Now, however, there was no sign of any kind of motion around it, and it had been uninhabited for years. The beekeeper had died, and those clean, industrious, devout winged creatures no longer deposited their nectar there.

The old brick building looked nothing like the bee pavilion on the small town promenade. Nevertheless, the clubs and associations that held their gatherings in it could be understood as swarms, not as industrious and devout but swarms nevertheless.

Some of these were officially registered, others not. Even though most of them had list-serves and chat rooms on the web, their members also wanted to meet each other in physical space. This was the case with the Herpetological Society and the Dahlgren’s Syndrome Association, and also with the Throat Singers, the Promoters of Municipal Science, and the Storm Chasers. In the rooms where electric shock treatment had been administered, without anaesthesia, the Society for Water Jet Ski Competition and the Steinwurzel Family Foundation held their meetings. In the upstairs rooms, where the restless ones had been put in restraints, the Lipographs, Friends of Vanished Languages, Palladists, and Nasal Twang Speakers met on working days, with Saturdays reserved for the Benevolent Association for Victims of the Scientific Worldview. The Kill Your Television Club, The Voluntary Poor, and Those Living in Their Automobiles met once a month in the small assembly hall on the second floor. The latest newcomers in the building were The Prophets, The Mothers of Resinated Children, The Luddite Club, The Breathers, and the Fluctuating Reality Club.

The members of most of these were natural and human persons, but on Friday nights the former staffroom for nurses tending the insane, now converted into a small cafe, hosted The Club of Non-Human Persons. It catered to persons who considered themselves druids, vampires, changelings, demons, werewolves or other kinds of different species, such as Amazons descended from Venus.

I joined the Fluctuating Reality Club and so did Selma, my old classmate. I have been asked why I wanted to join an association with such a strange name. I used to reply that it was just a momentary whim, but it really was not that simple.

Nowadays, the Bee Pavilion’s plot is vacant and dreary, but in a year or two it will be occupied by a brand-new building. It will be an intelligent house development, offering expensive apartments to senior citizens (we no longer have any Old People in our town), or, according to an alternative plan, a collaborative community for methodological development.

As I was reading the annual report of The House of Associations, I came across the following message:

‘Have you ever experienced some sudden and inexplicable aberrance in your life? Have you sometimes searched in vain for objects that have then appeared in places they could not have reached in a natural manner? Have you experienced unusual and significant coincidences? Has time stopped or slowed down for you, or, on the contrary, speeded up in an unaccustomed manner? Have you travelled from one spot to another without any physical mode of transport? Have you seen animals outside of their natural habitat, or ones that do not belong to any surviving species? Report on such aberrances and unusual experiences and join The Fluctuating Reality Club.’

Those questions amused and intrigued me. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t experienced one or two things. I also thought that I could add to a short story collection I was planning a tale about The Fluctuating Reality Club and its members, assuming them to be quite gullible people.

I started reading the club’s home page and responses given to those questions. Most of them were brief and dealt with vanished objects: rings, watches, mobile phones, scissors, keys, handbags, letters. Some such object disappeared, let us say, in a tram, but was found a month later up in the loft, in the pocket of an anorak, or in a cousin’s bathroom under the bathtub. But there were some tales that were long, meandering, and replete with strange detail and coincidence.

Only seven people attended the club’s first meeting, which had been called by a young law student who introduced himself as Anatol. He seemed shy at first but gained assurance and precision over the course of the meeting.

As Selma and I walked home from that first meeting of the club, she said to me: ‘I don’t know that this club makes any sense. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t be a member of The Fluctuating Reality Club.’

‘How so?’ I asked.

‘There simply isn’t anyone whose reality doesn’t change, twist and turn, and not just once but over and over again.’

Selma was right. There are people whose reality changes slowly, imperceptibly at first, but soon accelerating in an irrevocable manner.

As I got ready to retire that evening, it occurred to me that Night, which strips away norms, habits, routines, also is another reality. Activity has ceased, the hand does not grasp, the foot is at rest, the eye sees only its own dreams, and human actions sink into darkness as if they had never happened. Come to think of it, I believe that Night is not just another but the primary reality, and that the Dream is the original state of the universe. It is the Dream that makes possible what we call the normal state of affairs, healthy and awake. No one, not even the most dreamless, the most afflicted, can endlessly resist the call of the Dream.

So sorry

At the Fluctuating Reality Club, I could have told a story about my trip to London, the very first one.

I visited London at a fairly advanced age. I was invited to stay in a friend’s guest room in a neat and prosperous part of town, its streets framed by old elms. The windows of single family houses nearby had cast iron flower boxes with white and purple cyclamens which I admire – frail, aristocratic plants with a certain birdlike, weightless quality, but not arrogant in the least. When I look at them, I feel a resemblance to them and forget my own heaviness and awkwardness. I also enjoyed looking at them because back home one can’t keep anything outdoors in November except for dry pots of heather. My brightest memory of my trip to Paris is the blue of a stained glass window in the cathedral at Chartres, but out of all my experiences in London, those cyclamens and the stranger at a bus stop near Hyde Park have left the most lasting traces in my memory.

I have tried to locate the street where I saw him on a map, but I can’t determine its name with any certainty.

This person – or rather, person-shaped figure – preoccupies my mind. He was both human and non-human.

Sometimes when I wake up at night his shape rises up in front of my fresh dream images and obliterates them. This happens despite the fact that seven years have passed since our meeting, if one can even call it that.

Time and again I have tried to conjure up a detailed memory image, but I glanced at him so briefly, out of a sense of discretion, that I can only report essentials. Thus I can’t remember his hair, its length or coloration. One reason why I didn’t look at him for long may have been that he horrified me. He was incredibly tall and incredibly thin, elongated, reminding one of the sculptor Giacometti’s human figures. One could also say that he resembled the shadow in Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, the one that separated from its master and became flesh, but only very sparingly, parsimoniously carnal. I have never, ever, seen a person as thin; not even the anorexic girl with her stick figure legs and lumpy knees who was a high school classmate looked so emaciated. How was it possible for a person so thin to remain upright, to wait for a bus, to walk among other city dwellers in the dust and bustle of the streets?

Even though the late autumn day was almost summery, he was dressed too warmly, wrapping his emaciated frame in a thick overcoat. He may have been trying – altogether in vain – to hide his horrifying emaciation. His clothing just made him stand out more. The kind of coat he wore no one had worn anywhere for three or four decades. It was a long herringbone tweed coat with a small collar and big buttons. I can’t swear to it, but I think the buttons were covered with the same cloth. The coat was tailored with a belt of the same material drawn tight. Come to think of it, his coat was very similar to one I wore as a schoolgirl. Strangely enough I have started imagining, later on, that he had somehow found and appropriated my ancient discarded coat.

This person was not waiting for a bus calmly, rooted to the spot – if indeed he was waiting for a bus: he strode back and forth on the pavement, wending his way among people. His restlessness also attracted attention – or it did mine, at least. I should also mention that I am not at all sure about his gender. I didn’t see him as a male, but not as a female either.

Furthermore, I must confess that I am not even convinced that he belonged to our species instead of one vaguely resembling ours.

And I still haven’t described the feature that was definitely the most striking: the lower part of his narrow face was covered with a scarf or piece of fabric. His mouth could not be seen. But as soon as one glanced at him, the scarf did not prevent one from realising with a start: that person does not have a mouth! No mouth, and no chin, and that was exactly what he was trying to hide by wearing that rag whose colour and pattern I no longer remember. It was obvious that the piece of fabric was an attempt to hide emptiness and absence.

He passed by me quite closely. I did not dare look at him, and thus I don’t know if he looked at me.

But I heard, quite clearly, this sentence: ‘I am so sorry about that.’ That was what I heard him say, in a voice that was uncommonly toneless, almost a mere whisper. ‘So sorry, so sorry, so sorry.’ No telling whether his words were addressed specifically to me. And how was he speaking? How can a person speak without a mouth?

I entertain this faint hope that I may meet this person again, that he will walk towards me on some street or road or woodland path. Shall I see him approach on Kyoto’s Philosophers’ Lane or some prosperous shopping street crowded with people looking for new clothes, or on this narrow sandy road on the coast of the Gulf of Finland where I now live, a road that leads to a forgotten harbour and an abandoned sawmill? Half-decayed birches line this road, caterpillar writings on their bark.

It was autumn again, and I received a message from far away: ‘The slopes are already protected by rustling leaves that shrink and disintegrate into sandy dust.’

I am waiting to see that same thin figure again on my evening walk; I’m waiting for him to stop in front of me this time. Then I would like to ask him what it was he felt so sorry about. I would ask him. Is he grieving over his own fate, or mine, or is he sorry for us all, all of humanity?

The Three Buddhas

While I attended The Fluctuating Reality Club meetings, I finally decided to talk about the three buddhas.

There are events, singular incidents and coincidences that seem to be very significant and strike one as personal messages addressed to oneself. But could they be messages if they don’t have a sender? Such phenomena arise out of nowhere, then submerge back into the unnameable.

Some refer to these as synchronicities. After my visit to Kyoto, I started calling them buddha messages. And it could be that such buddha messages were what originally tempted me to join the Fluctuating Reality Club.

Hiroko had written: ‘What is best about travel on the bullet train is that we buy cube-shaped goodies wrapped in many-coloured paper, called obento, at the railway station, and then eat them in the speeding train.’

Which was exactly what we had done, and it had been the best thing. Now we had almost finished our first day in Kyoto.

‘Guess how many temples we have here in Kyoto?’ the cab driver asked. I, of course, didn’t understand his question, didn’t even know it was a question until Hiroko translated it into Finnish for me.

‘Maybe – fifty?’ I said, my hesitation followed by instant embarrassment when the cabbie laughed as soon as Hiroko had translated my reply to him. His response was quick and brief.

‘More than two thousand!’ Hiroko said, apologetically. Sensitive as she was, she felt sorry for me and my seriously flawed estimate.

Hiroko had written: ‘Our eyes would be delighted and caressed by the appearance of the temples and Kyoto’s quiet paved streets merging into the transparent autumn light.’

On that day we had visited only two temples, the Kodai and the Silver Temple. We had also seen the Nijo-jo Palace, famous for its singing nightingale floor. No one, neither in the old days nor now, was able to sneak into the palace, not even barefoot, without alerting the guards – because the floorboards twittered like birds. The singing floor allowed the samurai to hear the assassin’s approach in time, and thus anyone with designs on another life met with a terrible end in the Nijo-jo Palace.

The low pine trees in the Silver Temple’s garden reminded me of pines on the storm-lashed islands of my homeland. Trees on those islands don’t grow tall either, they just twist their trunks and bow down humbly to the wind. Their wood is dense and tough, their annual rings remain as narrow as engagement rings.

Along the road to the temple mountain, booths had been erected for the sale of translucent candy tasting like cherry blossoms, cases for mirrors and handkerchiefs made out of kimono fabrics, and shopping bags made out of black silk and embroidered with images of fans and cranes. Looking through a screen of bamboo trunks I saw a maple on the slope of another mountain, its leaves still golden.

As we stopped to look at it, Hiroko told me that her father had come every fall from distant Kyushu island to Kyoto in order to see the temple gardens in their autumnal glory. Now Typhoon Number 18 had ripped the roof off her father’s garage.

As we descended the stone steps on the steep slope, Hiroko held my elbow as if afraid that I could stumble and fall at any moment. It made me aware of my age.

‘Should we look in there?’ I asked. It was a shop that sold antique kimonos and fabrics and some slippery-smooth scraps of silk that I browsed with delight. Even though we were the only customers, the shopkeeper did not greet us, didn’t even look at us. As we returned to the street empty-handed, we saw a blowfish. It swam about in an aquarium in the display window of an adjacent restaurant, unaware that it would soon be butchered and eaten by a patron able to pay a steep price for it.

Across the street from the restaurant was another antique shop offering Kabuki dolls from the previous century, chopsticks, paperweights shaped like elephants and tigers, and classic tea sets. On a shelf, surrounded by rice bowls, I found a bronze sculpture covered in verdigris, about a foot long. It was a buddha, either sleeping or dwelling on the border between sleep and waking, resting his head on an oblong pillow. His right hand lay between his head and the pillow, his left arm stretched out straight on his thigh. His hair style was familiar: a top-knot in the middle of the top of his head, and those small curls that resemble waves of the ocean, spirals, birds’s nests. His plump eyelids parted slightly: maybe he was observing events around him, maybe he saw and heard things in his sleep. All of his toes peeked out from under the hem of his robe.

I wanted to buy the reclining buddha as a present for Joonas whose birthday was coming up in two days, or for my sister, who collects buddha sculptures.

‘Find out how much it is,’ I told Hiroko.

The price was twenty thousand yen.

‘That’s trifling,’ Hiroko said.

The shopkeeper wrapped the small but weighty buddha in tissue paper, and I stuffed him into my bag. I was tired from the temple visits, tired from the delight and overabundance of things to see that Hiroko had predicted, when we returned to meet Joonas who had given his lecture on the taxation of currency transactions at the university.

We dined at a restaurant that served only buckwheat noodles – Hiroko’s recommendation. The air in the place was quite stuffy, but a blossoming rosemary bush grew in the back garden, and every time someone opened the door to the garden, its scent wafted in to join the hot odour of the buckwheat.

We spent our two nights in Kyoto in a painter’s studio. We walked there on Philosopher’s Lane, alongside a canal, in the deep shade of great big trees. I don’t know what kind they were, but they still had leaves on them even that late in the autumn.

When I showed the buddha to our hostess, her face lit up. She turned the sculpture this way and that and stroked the folds of its bronze robe. ‘In Japan, buddhas either sit or stand, they never lie down,’ she said. ‘This one must come from Thailand.’

‘How old do you think it is?’

‘Early nineteenth century, I’m pretty sure,’ she said, her gaze still fixed on the sculpture. ‘I wouldn’t mind having one of these myself.’

By the time I got ready for bed I realised that I could not take the buddha home with me: he had to be left to continue his repose in this house.

That night I woke up to a sensation that was not entirely unfamiliar: a tremor I had sometimes felt in my youth, in my home town, in school and university classrooms. Back then I was never sure if it was caused by my own heart or if the table I leaned on or the entire city was vibrating. It was a kind of silent song, not just heard but perceived by every organ in the body. I would glance around me surreptitiously, looking for a reflection of my experience in my classmates’ faces, but all I saw were absentminded eyes and tired lips. I did not have the courage to ask, and no one ever told me about having had that experience.

But now I saw that Joonas, too, was awake. He had raised himself up on one elbow and was listening.

When the tremor stopped, he squeezed my hand, but we did not say anything. It was not my heart. It was the earth itself that trembled and vibrated, the earth that bore and fed people and animals only to finally digest them for its own nourishment. Here the earth sang like the nightingale floor, but no samurai would be able to stop the approaching footsteps. They would come when they would, and their ever louder rumbling would deafen our ears.

The next morning, Hiroko and I went back to the antique shop. I assumed that I would be able to find something interesting for a homecoming present, even if it probably wouldn’t be as perfect as that patina’ed bronze buddha.

The shopkeeper greeted us like old acquaintances as soon as we entered. Hiroko exchanged a few words with him, and he smiled, nodded, and went into the back room.

‘What did you say?’ I asked Hiroko.

‘I wanted to know if a similar buddha to the one you bought yesterday might put in an appearance,’ she said. Then she, too, smiled.

The shopkeeper returned, carrying a sleeping buddha in each hand. I cried out with delight. The sculptures were almost identical to yesterday’s buddha, except that I found their facial features a little more severe, their expression a little more solemn.

‘The shopkeeper received them this very morning,’ Hiroko explained. ‘I am amazed that three sleeping buddhas have appeared to us. The Buddha himself rewarded you for giving him away.’

At the end of November, after we had returned home, Hiroko wrote: ‘The evergreen camellias already budding. Their leafiness is timelessly shiny, and thus they are committed to the sun summer and winter.’

When I had finished, I noticed that my fellow club members were still looking at me as if still waiting for more and somewhat puzzled. I understood that my story had not met their expectations.

‘Was that all, then?’ Anatol asked, a little timidly.

No one knows how to manufacture the blue glass in the cathedral at Chartres.

The sun’s core is ice.

Colder regions are inhabited by lonelier bees.

Under this town lies another town.

Inside this earth is another sun.

Translated by Anselm Hollo

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