The faraway island

Issue 1/2007 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Kaukainen saari, a short story from the collection Elämän ja kuoleman pidot (‘The feast of life and death’, 1945). Introduction by Juhani Niemi

For as long as they could remember, Hannes and Pekka had felt a great fascination for the lonely little island out in the open sea, clearly visible from the shore at home. Thickly overgrown with unusually tall pines, the island was like a wondrous bouquet in a great vase of sea. It was in sunshine from morning till night. At the very instant that the tip of the sun peeped up over the horizon, its rays were already caressing the tops of the little island’s tallest trees, and when the sun set behind the blackness of the islands to the west, those same treetops were tinged with a bright, hot glow. The winds and storms touched it more vehemently than any other place. No matter which direction the wind came from, the island was always defenseless, but, happily, ready for anything. In stormy weather the waves flung themselves against its stony shore and sometimes nearly as high as the treetops. The wind roared in the dense branches of its trees more wildly and violently than anywhere else. When it rained, it was as if the island were hiding among the grey curtains of mist, looming dimly and secretly. In the autumn, when all the other woods were splashed along their flanks with yellow and russet, and gradually undressed until they were half-naked, the little island’s tall pine trees rose up from the grim autumn surf as lush and green as always. And in the winter, when the sea froze and snow covered everything in a mantle of white, the island dressed itself in ice and rimy frost like royal robes covered in millions of sparkling diamonds.

‘I wonder what it looks like up close,’ the boys asked themselves again and again. How could they find a way to step onto the island’s soil, enjoy its sunshine from morning to night, lie under the deep shadows of its dense pines, hear the powerful rush of the wind on its open shores, and experience a raging storm, safely sheltered by its thick forest?

When they asked their father what it was like on the island, he offered only indifferent answers. The island was too insignificant to interest him. He had stopped off there a few times on his fishing trips and hadn’t even been able to find a place on the shore to shelter from the wind. The island was surrounded by so many hidden rocks and bars that there was no place to tie up the boat, and it was so thickly overgrown with trees and brush that it was impossible to go inland without an axe in your hand. There was really nothing to tell about the place.

But looking at the island with their own eyes, the boys couldn’t believe that it was as uninteresting as their father claimed. They had noticed before that there were a lot of wondrous things that their father didn’t understand. Often when they were sitting and fishing from the boulders of their own shore, in the warmth of the summer evenings when the fish were biting best, they could see the water around the island ignite as if it had caught fire, and blaze with all the colours of the burnished sunset. As the sun sank lower, the russet glow would float gradually upward and light up the trees on the island; first entirely, then only the upper branches, until the light finally slipped away into space, silently and imperceptibly, to make way for the deep shadows of night. And on hazy days the island could sometimes seem to rise suddenly into the air and hover in the emptiness between the sea and the sky. It was just plain different from all the other islands. You just had to look at it to be filled with a longing to go there. It had the ability to set your imagination in motion every moment of the day, every moment of the year. And when you looked at it on a misty day, or in that burnished moment of evening, or in the tempest of an autumn storm, or on a cold, bright winter day, you couldn’t keep from dreaming of it that night when you went to sleep.

It was no wonder that the island stayed tenaciously and continuously in the boys’ minds, or that one day they felt a certainty that they had to go there.

But how? It was a long trip, and their father had strictly forbidden them to take the boat. There was no disobeying when their father had forbidden a thing, and the only other way to get there would be to wait until winter. So they had to be content to wait.

Everyone knows how slowly time passes when you’re waiting for something. The first thing the boys did when they woke every morning was to run to the shore and see what the day looked like. Summer lost all its pleasure in their eyes. They forgot their summer games and instead searched impatiently for signs that it would be over soon. The wonderful, warm days aroused only discontent and gloom. Instead they greeted storms and cold winds with joy because they were the first heralds of autumn. They could no longer enjoy fishing, or treks through the woods and over the great rocks, or days out rowing with their father, or birds’ nests with their growing chicks, or berries, or anything else that summer had to offer. Their minds were filled with but one thought: the lonely faraway island in the middle of the sea. Day by day their imaginations attached to it all the wonders that they could possibly invent. Night by night their dreams were filled with nothing but trips to the island and events and adventures in its enchanted thickets.

This was the summer they learned to see how summer changes into autumn and autumn into winter. How the days shorten a little at a time, and the nights lengthen. How the warmness turns almost imperceptibly to coldness. How the sea and sky and forest change colour. How the rush of the wind gradually gains a wild, angry tone, freezes the air and the water, withers the flowers growing along the wall of the house, silences the chirping of the birds in the woods and eventually drives them away completely, forces the schools of fish away from the shore and out into the still-warm, deeper water of the open sea. Then one morning, after a night bright with stars, it’s so cold that you can’t g9 out in your bare feet any more. The deciduous trees turn yellow, the grass turns black and burnt brown and hangs its head tiredly towards the earth. A long, heavy rain lashes the ground, wetting the forest and fields, houses and people, and everything, everything. Water flows in the ditches in brimming streams, gouges the roads in pits and channels, gathers in puddles in the low places and forces itself deep into the secret wellsprings of the earth.

The island stood motionless then, still in its place, steadfast in the arms of the surging sea. Nowhere else was there such high, splashing surf as on its dreamlike shores. If you wanted to really experience the power of an autumn storm, you would have to experience it there.

One morning all the puddles were frozen. The boys tested the strength of the ice excitedly. It wouldn’t be long now.

The sky changed from one day to the next an even colder blue. Bright, cold reds burned at its edges for whole days at a time. On rainy days the heavy clouds descended almost to the level of the treetops and the whole world seemed to constrict into one heap. The island seemed to withdraw yet further away, and loomed only dimly in the grey mist. But when the weather cleared again, it shone in all its glory, its mighty pines flaunting their greenery, which even the coldest nights of frost hadn’t been able to damage.

Then the sea finally started to freeze. First the little coves covered themselves in a shiny, green-black membrane of ice. Gradually the edge of the ice moved farther out towards the open sea. Two or three times, a storm came and broke it into little rafts and tinkling slush, but when the weather became calm again it advanced bravely toward the deep waters. And one morning the bridge to the island was ready. The shining black ice stretched as far as the eye could see, gleaming in the cold December sunlight like polished steel, like a vast mirror, and the island’s shores cast their reflection into it. The lonely little island rose up from the middle of the ice like a mirage, surrounded by its reflection, with the sun burning in the tall crowns of its trees. It was like a kind of frozen fairy tale, like a great jewel, like a wonder seen in a dream.

But today still wasn’t the day. The ice wasn’t yet strong enough.

It snowed for several days after that. Everything gradually turned shimmering white. Winter had come.

And the day had come. The day of fulfilment.

With trembling hands the boys got out their skis. It was morning, the sun had just come up, and the cold blush of its rays shone like fires on the horizon. Everything radiated and gleamed purest white. But most amazing of all was the faraway little island. Every inch of it was covered in frost and a light blanket of dry, icy snow, and it glittered in the sun like an enormous diamond. The rays of the sun flashed from it like gleaming blades of light. It was so bright that it was almost unbearable to look at it, even from far away.

They set out in secret and with hearts throbbing. The freezing January breezes slashed and nipped at their cheeks like flames. The sun shining far off blinded their eyes, but didn’t warm them. But their skis glided easily and with the cool brilliance of their sparkling goal before them, they quickened their pace. They had many plans, but all of them involved the island of wonders, which was closer with every thrust of their poles. They thought of all of the adventures that they had dreamed about, many hundreds, many thousands, of bold storybook adventures. They would realise them all the moment they stepped onto the shore. Their thoughts were full of all the stories they had read and all kinds of fantastic wonders; many hundreds, many thousands, of stories and wonders. Today they would change their lives. Their mouths laughed and their eyes smiled at the sun and the breeze and the sparkling crust of snow. They had forgotten everything except this: today was the day that the ice would carry them to the faraway island.

No one saw them leave. As the day wore on, their parents wondered at their absence and gradually became very worried. Where could their children have suddenly vanished to? They looked for them all around the house and in all the usual places where they played and passed the time, but they couldn’t find them.

The boys came back on their own in the early evening, when the last blush of sunlight illuminated the faraway island and its surroundings. They came back tired and solemn, carrying the terrible secret of our existence in their young breasts. No hope or adventure survived in their thoughts. They didn’t even look at the island, though its frozen brilliance was more beautiful than ever in the burnished blush of evening. They didn’t look because they knew the truth – the naked, grim, crushing truth. The faraway island was just an ugly, storm-lashed, miserable pile of rocks. Just ordinary dirt and rocks, completely everyday dirt and rocks, just like the dirt they trampled underfoot every day, only a bit uglier, a bit poorer and more barren. And the woods that covered it were just ordinary trees, ordinary pine trees, tall brown trunks among the stones, their branches curled up and buffeted by the wind.

No, they didn’t want to look at it any more. Not today, and not any other day. Never again. Even though life had suddenly become so much greyer, so paltry and dreary. That night the boys cried secretly in their beds, hiding their tears from their parents, and from each other, and not really knowing themselves why they felt so troubled, or why sleep wouldn’t come.

Translated by Lola Rogers

Tags: ,