A slow passion

30 September 2007 | Fiction, Prose

A short story from the collection of short stories Hidas intohimo (‘A slow passion’, Gummerus, 2007)

I don’t want to interfere with it. If something comes of it, then something comes of it. You can’t interfere with time, or fate, or another person. Time ripens things on its own. Fate takes a longer view of things than people do. Like the prophet says, there is a time for every purpose, for my purposes and other people’s.

This garden cottage is a good place to watch everything quietly, a ringside seat for someone who doesn’t want to flail around getting smashed up. The potatoes bloom when it’s time for them to bloom, depending on the length of the summer, the weather, and the time they were planted. Their white and purple flowers are worthy of admiration– potato flowers are flowers, after all. But when the flowers are just opening, it’s not yet time to go digging around among the roots. You have to restrain yourself and wait until the tubers form. You have to wait until they’re finished blooming and the flowers are replaced by plumping green, poisonous berries – though not all potato varieties produce them. But if your fingers are really itching for them, you can poke into the dirt and grope around a little before it’s really time, feel for tubers and remove them carefully, patiently, leaving the plant undisturbed for the smaller ones to grow. If the groping turns up something, you can slip away and savour it, but you still have to wait before you can dig up the whole plant with its rootstock, its beautiful pure tubers heaved up onto the soil, as if Life were offering itself on a silver salver. Then you can have them. They’re ready. But it takes time. Many good things are destroyed by impatience.

And anyway, there she is. There’s her cottage and garden plot. Nothing separates us but a hawthorn hedge – a dense and wellmaintained one, it’s true; I’ve pruned it diligently. Beyond it is her apple tree, her potato patch and flower bed. Roses. She’s a master at growing them. The white climbing rose is called North Star.

She’s so near, in the same world, and our shrubbery is combined; it doesn’t separate us, it unites us. I can lean out over it and look at her roses. All of this growth, greenness, fragrance of dirt and blackcurrant leaves binds us together. We breathe the same air here. She’s present in everything and I enjoy it the way I enjoy knowing that at this very moment a little, translucent-skinned potato is growing under the ground. It’s not yet ready to dig up and enjoy, but waiting for it isn’t disagreeable. It’s one of the pleasures of life.

And who wants to eat a half-ripe apple? When I pass by my lone apple tree, I know by the smell when the apples are ripe. Not yet.

Waiting is part of the wisdom of being human.

She doesn’t come to the cottage every day. I don’t fret about it or feel disappointed on days when she doesn’t come. Even those days are not without her presence. When I look at her garden, I’m looking at her. And I couldn’t look at her so openly, I’m sure it would feel disconcerting. I do exchange a word or two with her over the hedge, and I see her at the harvest party and other events, and at those times I look at her the way one person looks at another. But looking privately, intimately, is another matter. Because we haven’t reached that stage of interaction yet. We can’t, the time is not ripe. But I look at her garden like I’m looking into her eyes, into her soul. They are so beautiful that I’m embarrassed when I’m standing in front of her, and it’s a happy embarrassment. Her garden has more flowers than mine, including old heirloom varieties: deep purple columbine, sweet-smelling soapwort, and campion, which is called love-come-back. Which of them is most like her? Not the soapwort, it’s too common.

I’m in waiting mode. You could say I’m almost happy. Later it starts to rain, sprinkling the leaves of the apple tree. She’s probably not coming today. A touch of sadness creeps into my mind, but I remember that tomorrow is another day, and the day after that, and so on, all the way until the border is crossed between autumn and winter. But I don’t intend to wait that long, only until the time feels right. The day’s almost gone, it’s a little bit dark already. The hedgehog comes out from under the spirea bush and runs to its food, drinks some water and eats. I’ve saved some herring for it. If I can make a hedgehog happy, what can’t I do? I’ve built a box for it to overwinter in, in a sheltered spot next to the wall of the shed in the back garden. When it’s eaten itself plump it will be ready to safely winter over, and I want it to winter over on my plot.

But my feelings won’t winter over, you can depend on it. A person can’t change temperatures like a hedgehog. Feelings need fuel to keep going, and it would be tough to wait all winter.

The couple at the other neighboring cottage leaves. They never spend the night at the garden, so they don’t know what night in the garden is like; the snails’ trails and the rustle of hedgehogs. They’ve never seen the flight of an owl or sensed the orienting sounds of bats flitting overhead.

Then, when I’ve given up waiting, I hear her coming. Her bicycle crunches on the gravel of the path, the gate opens, and I hear her steps on the other side of the hedge. She’s come. Why has she come so late? Maybe she has houseguests. She spent the evening with them and she’s come to spend the night here, to give her guests more space. Anyway she’s come. She’s not afraid of the garden at night. Maybe she feels braver knowing that I’m sleeping in the next cottage. She feels safer when I’m nearby.

I’m near her when I fall sleep. I hear her breathing through the night. I wake often, my ears straining, and end up not wanting to go back to sleep. Sleep offers soft earplugs, but I won’t take them: why would I want to pass over the night quickly when she is near me? The darkness of the garden unites us, a dozen metres of gentle darkness tie her bed to mine. It’s a strong bond, stronger than the light. I stay awake until morning. So this is passion?

In the morning I see her in the garden and she looks like an ordinary woman, not particularly like an object of passion. I conceal the previous night, let it remain secret, wish her good morning over the hedge and look at her the way one person looks at another. But in the deepest part of myself, I look at her differently. It’s still not time to reveal myself, and her. When I reveal myself, I’ll be revealing her, too. It’s a little scary. It’s not time yet.

But the darkening evenings are a sign, and one day I go to the potato patch, gather some potato vines in my fist, and pull them up. Some of the tubers come up with the vines, the rest I gather up from the dirt. They’re big enough to eat and there are a lot of them. There are no signs of blight on the leaves, it’s been a good summer for potatoes. It has rained, but not too much. I take as many potatoes as I need now, I’ll harvest the whole crop in September. They’ll continue to grow until then, even the little button-sized ones will grow to full-sized tubers, if the voles don’t start competing with me for the harvest.

There are enough potatoes for one person for the winter. At present I think of myself as a single-person household. She has a potato patch, too, but it’s much smaller than mine. I’ve kept an eye on it and concluded that the harvest won’t be anything spectacular. She doesn’t have a knack with potatoes, but she does know how to get flowers to bloom. I concentrate on potatoes, carrots and onions; my plot has little in the way of food for the eyes. That I enjoy secretly, from the other side of the hedge, peeking at it to my heart’s content; the mysterious blue columbine, the love-come-back.

I could spare some potatoes for her. They’re as beautiful as the apples – Yellow Transparents – even though the potatoes have grown underground. They are earth apples. They seem too beautiful to be potatoes this year, almost poetic, though there’s probably nothing portentous in that. Smooth-cheeked or scabby, a potato’s a potato. And when the skin thickens and the size increases, they won’t look as tender as they do now. I decide to wait until then to give them to her. You have to know these things instinctively, and act accordingly.

I stay for the most part at the cottage, visiting my apartment only briefly to change clothes and do laundry, water the plants on the balcony, occasionally the cactuses on the windowsill. The August nights are drawing in and she doesn’t sleep at the garden. Is it possible she’s afraid of the dark? I’d like to tell her there’s no reason to be afraid, because I spend the nights there. I’d like to tell her she’s not alone. But she might take it as some kind of hint.

A blackbird appears and rummages in the garden. The stout hedgehog bustles under the shrubs. At the beginning of the summer there were two hedgehogs. The other one was smaller, a female. I watched with amusement as they occupied themselves with coupling. It seemed they would never get beyond the first stages. The male followed behind the female with his nose to her rear-end and they circled the lawn in an endless loop. I guess it was all in preparation for mating, but I didn’t see the act of coupling itself, because I tired of watching their overlong foreplay and went to bed.

One night is the August full moon and I stay up almost all night. She should be here now, I think; it would be right for us to stay up together. The moon shines brightly on the lawn but under the apple tree is an impenetrable shadow. If I sat there I would be a part of the shadow, a part of nothingness, easy, free of anxiety about what’s going to happen. Or not happen.

The moonlit nights pass and the apples ripen. One of her apple trees reaches a limb over the hedge into my garden. It’s a Red Cinnamon, and it is as if it wants to touch my Yellow Transparent tree. It holds out its apples and I take hold of one of them, I just want to feel it in my hand. I bend the branch far enough to be able to smell the apple; it smells ready, and I press my lips to its surface, but I restrain myself from biting into it. I close my hand over it. And it comes loose.

I’m startled, I let go of the branch. The apple remains in my grasp. I stand there bewildered and feel how the apple, cool from the evening, warms in my hand. It feels as if it enjoys being there, as if it must be meant for me. But I resolve to return it to her tomorrow when she comes to the garden.

I keep my resolve: she’s pottering around somewhere nearby when I accost her over the hedge and show her the apple.

‘Your apple tree dropped this on my side of the hedge,’ I say. It’s not strictly true, but I can’t tell her that the apple came off in my hand.

She laughs and comes over to the hedge. ‘You can have it, of course,’ she says. ‘What’s one apple? Keep all the apples that fall into your yard, and pick that fugitive branch clean. There sure are a lot of apples. Pretty soon there won’t be much time for anything but making juice and jam.’

She’s talking over the hedge, and I suddenly have the idea that the hedge might be gone quite soon, that the two little garden plots will soon be joined together into one large plot. I clutch the apple in my hand, thank her, and take a bite.

The day to dig potatoes has arrived: cool, crisp, with a brisk wind. The kind of day when it’s easy to make decisions. I hoe and hum; the potatoes are abundant and of good quality. They don’t have any green on them, I’ve been careful to keep them well mulched. In the apple tree next to the potato patch the apples shout out their ripeness. I’ve been eating them and making jelly for several days, because Yellow Transparents are only at their best for a short time. Autumn is a time to be strong, and to make wishes. I know what I wish for. I hear my wish in the soughing of the wind, but I’m alone. It’s one of those days again when she isn’t coming to the cottage.

On the other hand, that’s a good thing. It’s rare to feel so pleasantly clear. I’ll devote the day entirely to the potatoes. There are many different sides to solitude, and one is that you don’t have another person around when you don’t want them there. Right now I don’t particularly want anyone. It’s best to spend these kinds of days alone; full, enjoyable days. Better that she not come until tomorrow, so I’ll have until tomorrow to fulfill my resolution. Because I intend to. I think that this evening my longing will start to grow and grow, even in my sleep, until, in the morning, it’s strong enough, and tomorrow, she’ll walk right into it, just like she should. Then I’ll ask her in for a harvest coffee. And I’ll give her a bag of potatoes to make up for her poor potato harvest. That’s what I’ve resolved, and that’s what I’ll do.

The next morning I dig up the rest of the potatoes. The weather’s no longer clear, but it isn’t raining. I work quietly, all the while listening, until finally I hear the crunch of her bike on the gravel path. She’s coming, but I don’t burst right out with greetings. Instead I bend lower over my work. Here’s a handsome earthworm, long and thick, like a little snake. I pick it up and toss it to the side to keep it safe from the hoe. The earth needs worms.

She rattles around in the shed, probably intending to dig up her own potatoes. I’ve guessed correctly; she soon comes to the potato patch and starts to hoe. I go over to where she is and greet her from behind the hedge. She answers happily. Why shouldn’t she, even though her potatoes are little nubbly things like I thought they would be. Watching her, I feel almost tender toward them.

She’s little, too, but not nubbly, by any means. She hoes quickly, she’s had lots of practice. There’s no reason to feel sorry for her. And she did get more apples than I did. When I’ve finished with my work, I’ll suggest some coffee. I bought pastries; I’ve thought of everything. The last row is full of potatoes. Why be stingy? I’ll give her a bucket of potatoes instead of a bag. When I finish my work, I set aside a bucketful of lovely, good-sized potatoes and go to peer over the hedge and see how her work is coming along. The clouds are starting to darken and the wind is damp with a coming rain. I don’t stop to think, I just pick up my hoe and go over to her side.

She straightens up and looks almost frightened. Maybe I’ve approached her too suddenly. But there are some things you can’t do over a hedge, and this is one of them. Over the hedge it’s easy to refuse an offer of help, but when I come into her plot with my hoe in my hand, there’s no refusing me.

‘I came to help you, since I’ve finished digging my own potatoes.’

‘Oh! There’s no need. I’m sure I can manage it, considering.’

‘But it looks like it’s going to rain.’

‘Well, yes it does. I guess you can help, if you like.’

We dig the potatoes quickly. It doesn’t feel at all difficult to be near her; my thoughts are nimble and we exchange a few words. I’m wondering what the problem with her potatoes could be. Maybe she had bad seed potatoes. I don’t conjecture about it out loud – I don’t want to offend her. We finish the chore just before it starts to rain.

‘What a well-timed rain.’

‘Yes it is,’ she says, and laughs. ‘Thanks a lot for the help.’

‘How about a cup of coffee to celebrate the potato harvest?’

I say it naturally, suggesting it as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world. But she looks uncertain.

‘I should make some coffee, to thank you for your help,’ she says. ‘But I don’t happen to have much to offer a guest.’

‘I was thinking we could have it at my place.’

‘Well, why not!’

She says it quickly, lightly, like a butterfly taking off and flying away. But she’s still here. Right here, and on her way to my cottage. That’s the way it is now.

I’ve chosen the pastries well; they’re crisp and they don’t have too much sugar like a lot of them do. I brew some hot, strong coffee. I remembered the milk, too, and it’s a good thing I did; she pours some into her coffee. Everything goes so well that I’m almost uneasy, but I don’t think it shows. We chat quietly, mostly about gardening, and then all of a sudden she says she’s selling her cottage. At first I can’t comprehend what she means, but I’m master of the situation and ask in a businesslike way, ‘Does it look like you’ll have any takers?’

‘I’m sure there would be any number of takers, they so rarely come available. But I’ve made a deal with a couple I know. I’ll still be able to come and look at the place when the roses are blooming. They’ll take good care of everything.’

‘But still, how can you tear yourself away from the place?’

‘There are some things that you just need to learn to give up,’ she said lightly, like a butterfly again, taking off. Out of reach – no, she’s still here. What if I said that this cottage and garden could be for both of us? I pour her some more coffee, though she tries to stop me. I want to keep her here for one more cup.

Selling the cottage is her own affair, and I don’t pry. I know how absolute a person’s separateness is, people have their own lives that are no one else’s business. Her own life, and mine. Her thoughts, and mine. And feelings; especially feelings. Separateness is a defence. It’s like a high, well-tended hedge that you can’t peer over and you can’t see through to the other side. I understand. It’s sad, but clear.

I may see her again. She still hasn’t picked the apples from one of her trees, the winter apples, and there are plenty of autumn chores still to do. She’ll come many times. But this chat seems to be coming to an end and the rain is quietly subsiding. She gets up and thanks me for the coffee. I walk out with her and ask her to wait, lift the bucket of potatoes from the storage bin and give them to her.

‘A little taste of the potatoes from this patch.’

‘Oh! You really shouldn’t. I don’t know what to say. You call this a little?’

‘I had a good harvest – best ever. They’re yours, if you can use them.’

‘Why wouldn’t I? You saw how small mine are. Thanks a lot. This is really too much.’

She leaves through the gate, carrying the potatoes. In spite of everything I feel good, and hope that she’ll come into my garden some day to return the bucket. But she brings it right back to me, calling over the fence.

‘Hey, here’s your bucket, so I don’t forget. And thanks again!’

I take the empty bucket. So that’s all? She potters around the yard and then leaves. The rain has stopped completely and the sun comes out from under the clouds in cold yellow beams. I wonder what just happened. I achieved many of the things I planned to do: I helped her with her harvest, offered her some coffee, and gave her some of my potatoes. It was a lot for one day, particularly when you consider that she accepted all of it.

No need to worry. Winter’s still far away. There are still possibilities, although I don’t know what they are yet. Autumn will solve everything – a real autumn, which I can already feel in the sun’s gaze: the nights are getting cooler. The hedgehog will go off to sleep, and a white North Star will bloom in the sky.

Translated by Lola Rogers

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